Category: "Technology vs. Humans"

Would the Real Terrorist Please Step Forward?

January 15th, 2016

With the world under attack as it has been, we're rightly worried about stopping the terrorists. We may have different opinions on how to do that, but we're unified in that they must be stopped.

Dissent comes when we start talking about a craftier terrorist. It lives here, at home. It's been living here for ages. And the terrorist is so cunning, we've been funding its endeavor, sending it money ... regularly ... every month for most of us. This terrorist is the Energy Giant.

I'm not just speaking of the BPs, Enrons, and Exxons of the world. I'm talking about every commercial enterprise that has gotten so fat from sucking the insides out of the earth it cannot roll over and see the warning clouds in the sky. I'm talking about the perpetrators of durable pollution who can't tell a rainbow from the steam plume of nuclear reactor. I'm talking about the generators, distributors, regulators, lawyers, marketers, and spin doctors who steal from under the feet of humanity and then sells it back the loot. I'm talking about an industry that brings such things into my world as NOAA's Gulf Oil Slick Forecast or Limerick Nuclear Generating Station's community-preparedness siren that blares so loudly for so long during its six-month test that I'm sure all the birds that nest nearby are deaf.

I'm talking about court cases and backhoes and mudslides and access roads and obliterated mountaintops and wastewater pits and acid mine drainage and exploded bats and cancer clusters. The Giant that covers a desert in mirrors, a vista in turbines, and a riverbank in concrete is the same cold-blooded bully as the one with the fossil straw.

Consider that...

Isis (today's enemy number one) chops heads off in front of the camera.
The Giant hides behind an oversized veil, then administers poison slowly.

Isis radicalizes fearmongers to obtain support for its way of thinking.
The Giant deceives kind people, making them think it keeps them safe.

Isis kills those who might believe differently.
The Giant manipulates what everyone believes.

Isis launches an extremist jihad.
The Giant launches a political career.

Now, be sure, I am not making light of the evil in religious terrorism. What I am doing is poking a hole in the curtain so that we might see the dark warning clouds that the Giant has summoned for us.

Once we realize how manipulated, beaten down, held back, controlled, and walled in we are by the same people who tell us the impact of their work is worth it for the ravishing benefit of more power, how do we change anything? We can unleash our military on Isis, but what can we do about a virus that has infected every corner of our culture and way of life?

What do we do? We make it so that it doesn't matter if the lights go out. We figure out a way -- a dozen, hundred, million ways -- to make it so that it doesn't matter if the lights go out. We build, test, and use every strategy necessary to make it so that it DOESN'T MATTER. Then, we roll up our sleeves and unplug the lights; we tell the Giant to go away. It's not so absurd, you know? Just as unsettled countries have used our military aid, supplies and training against us, colleges and technical school graduates can use their education to pursue a future that deems us independent, not just from foreign oil, but also from The Giant and its Grid lock.

As for tactics the military should use against Isis, as I said, we have different opinions. Most importantly though, the enemy has been clearly identified.

Lost Without Recollection

April 17th, 2015

Here comes another attack on technology. I can't help myself; things have gotten absurd.

It's not that the tool isn't good. For the right application, it can be very useful. However, like buying a field mower to maintain a center-city plot of grass, our chase for the latest and biggest has as run us right past common sense.

GPS. Global positioning systems. The Garmin. The talking dashboard. The I-can't-tell-where-I'm-going-without-her box that, in my opinion, is the new "boob tube," a nickname once reserved for the mind-numbing television set.

Yes, if you are a salesperson who must mow a large territory or if you are a scientist who needs to document your remote location via satellite, you should have a GPS. But if you are a parent driving back and forth between local rivalry soccer fields, you do not need a GPS. You need to have a friendly conversation with a live person who can tell you how to get there. You need to look at $5 map instead of programming a $200 machine.

Still, to each his or her own. Except that stupidity frightens me. Not only do I fear for my future, I worry about people. And today's overuse of dashboard GPS products is about as stupid as firing up a 70" tractor to pass over a 36" piece of ground. I've heard of stories in which drivers, following the digital instructor, have crashed after turning onto roads that didn't exist. A good friend of mine--an otherwise intelligent and perceptive gal--allowed her GPS to get her lost inside in a very harsh neighborhood, one that was so bad a police officer saw her, came to her aid, and escorted her out of town.

Logical intelligence is being traded for gadgetry dependence.

Both those examples were hearsay. But last summer I came face-to-face with a nearly tragic example. Were it not for the kindness of a brave bystander, the outcome would have been worse.

I was camping in a wooded Pennsylvania State Park with friends. So spread out were the hiking routes that you had to drive to the trail heads if you didn't want to spend more time hiking to them than on them. My friend, Jane, and I set off in her hybrid Ford for a short, late-afternoon excursion to see some of the park's most impressive waterfalls, including one that was 94 feet high.

We climbed the steep trail and oohed and awed and snapped photos and breathed in the lovely scent. Then, we climbed back to the parking lot. The sun was falling toward dusk. Exhilarated, Jane said, "Hey, while we're out here, do you mind if I stop by the payphone to check in at home? There's no cell service out here."

(For those who don't know, a pay phone is metal box with a wired handset and buttons numbered zero to nine. You put coin money into a slot so you can place a call.)

"Absolutely not," I said. "Sounds like a good idea."

The phone hung outside the park office, which was closed since it was after 7pm. Knowing the weather bulletin was accessible in the foyer, I walked inside while she dialed. I snapped a photo of the threat of thunderstorms to report to my friends back at camp. On my way out, I met a young man. Our conversation was a little chaotic, because he was a little panicked. Did I work there? Did I know how to reach a ranger? Could I point out where we were on the map? Isn't there some sort of emergency number to call?

The severity of his dilemma came out eventually. He was completely lost and nightfall was coming. The three others with him looked tired. "I'm never going to get my family back to the car before dark," he said hopelessly.

"Where is your car parked?" I asked.

"It's in the lot where you must cross the road and then there are bridges and then a trail...." None of that sounded familiar to me. I desperately searched my mind so I could help him.

By now Jane had finished talking with her family, and she walked up to see what was happening. "They need help and there is no way to reach a ranger," I explained. He repeated his story while his family rested on a wooden bench. The young girl swung her feet, the mom remained calm, sweaty, and collected, and the teenage boy showed no emotion at all.

"Well, I can give you ride," Jane said in the same emphatically helpful way she approaches most situations. While I was still trying to picture bridges to a trail, Jane dove right into a carefree and generous solution. It seemed obvious this was not a ploy to hurt us, but it was notable that risk or inconvenience never caused Jane to hesitate. Old-fashioned humanity came first.

I wasn't sure how we were going to fit anyone else into a vehicle stuffed with camping gear. Jane quickly determined that the best thing to do was to drive him to his car so that he could come back and pick up his family.

"Oh my God; thank you." He looked as if he might cry.

"So, where are you parked?" she repeated my earlier question.

"I don't know...bridges...cross a road."

"Is it the Beech Lot?"

"I have no idea."

"Hmm. Okay; it's probably the Lakeside Lot. Let's try. We piled in, waved to his slightly worried-looking family on the wooden bench, and yelled, "We'll be right back." In the review mirror, I saw them walking toward a water fountain.

But as we drove, Dad just kept repeating his description and nothing looked familiar.

"Jane, can I have that park map?" I asked. I scoured the 8 1/2 by 11-inch photocopy for other parking lots. "I bet he's parked down on Route 118." I turned to the stranger in the back seat. "Did you come in on 487 or 118?"

"I don't know; my wife used GPS and just told me where to turn."

"Did you come in from the north or the south?"

"I have no idea."

"What towns did you pass through?

"No idea...GPS."

"We gotta' give it a shot; he must be all the way down in that lower lot."

Mind you, this was NOT around the corner. He was probably parked on the other side of 13,000 acres. The road would take us six miles down to an elevation that was more than 1,000 feet lower than where we found him.

Along the way, he began to recognize things. "We were here," he almost shouted. "This is where we came out of the woods when we knew it was getting dark. We were told the trail would loop back down, but it never did. I had to get my family out of the woods. Then some guy told us to turn around. We should have kept walking."

I assured him that it was best he turned around, because we were only about a half-mile into our six-mile journey. "This is going to be a little bit of drive. The road veers away from the park for a bit."

The Ford's transmission hummed while the low gear prevented us from flying down the hill. We passed a ranger's truck with no ranger it in it as well as a runaway truck ramp (an uphill clearing onto which a truck that has lost its brakes could make an emergency landing). We passed trees and more trees until we finally got to the bottom, where we turned left in hopes that we were headed to the right parking lot. Still, since he hadn't walked all the way down the mountain, this section once again was unfamiliar.

"Let's hope you just came in from the other way," Jane said in a reassuring tone. I think she was trying to ease her own mind even more than the stranger's. People were likely wondering where the heck we were, and we were both in an unspoken thirst for that post-hike beer.

The backseat stranger said, "This is not like me. I know how to read a map. I thought this loop would be clearly marked. I've got to keep my family safe. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail soon, but I guess I'm going to have to get better at orienteering. There's no way we would have made it back to the car!"

The closer we got, the more he seemed to think this was the correct place.

"It should be coming up on the right," I said.

"Yes. Yes. This looks like it. Oh my God; I think this is it."

"Are you going to kiss your car when you find it?" I joked.

"Absolutely," he said. "There it is; that silver Jeep."

The next few moments were filled with a flood of sincere gratitude and relief. "How can I get in touch with you? I want to pay you."

There was no way Jane would have accepted it; her reward was already received. Heightened by his appreciation, the chance to make a positive difference in a stranger's day was more than enough payback for her.

"Do you know how to get back?"

"I think so."

I began describing the two turns, when Jane simply said, "Just follow us."

This time the hybrid complained, unable to exceed 35 mph. “Take your time,” I kept urging her. "You don't want to wreck your transmission over a good deed." We knew the silver Jeep behind us was anxious to get to its destination, but this was a hill that couldn't be rushed.

Once at the park office, we waved happily to the family as they climbed into the car, their ordeal finally over. I was proud of my friend. I'm not sure I'd have realized the gravity of their situation as quickly as she did or be as willing to get involved. I was still stuck on getting a ranger's help by the time Jane had clicked her seat belt.

But while it was all happiness and gratitude, I couldn't get over how an individual who clearly displayed a love for his family and a respect for his responsibilities as a father could not begin to describe where he had been beyond the scenery he witnessed when he got there. I began to understand why he, when we were looking at the map back at the ranger's office, couldn't figure out where he was. All he knew was that he was far from where he started and that he should probably head downhill.

Because Jane had a paper map and because I was familiar with that paper--my guide for the weekend--the three of us are not still driving around looking for a parking lot across the road from a trail with bridges.

In a society that continues to invent new tools to find its way, I see that we are becoming increasingly disoriented. Thankfully there are still a few map-reading humans such as Jane and me alive in this world, people who are willing to help when the way-finding computers fall out of reach.

Messing with the Time

March 6th, 2015

One great example of man's manipulative ways is standardized time. Timekeeping -- the incremental measurement of the position of the sun -- was created to support bureaucratic, religious, and social activities nearly 6,000 years ago. It partitioned day from night, morning from afternoon, and a year's shortest day from its longest.

Since America's pioneer beginnings, we have been messing with the time. Although the sun does not peak at the same moment across the continent, time was standardized in 1883 so that railroad companies could organize their schedules. Later, since the majority of us are awake longer into the evenings than we are earlier in the mornings, Benjamin Franklin determined that moving the time to accommodate our summer schedules would result in healthier, more productive lives. In 1973, when oil was scarce, Congress decided to extend this Daylight Saving Timeframe from six to eight months, reportedly saving 300,000 barrels of oil each year. And in 2007, it was moved again, with the intention of saving even more.

Our waking hour, eating hours, meeting schedules, birth records, and death records have all become dictated by man's clock, distancing our connection to the fact that time is what it is because the earth and the sun ARE. May we never forget that, like all technology, our inventions were created for societal reasons. They can measure, mimic, and adapt to natural law, but they cannot -- and shall not -- try to change it.

Want to know a few more facts about time, Daylight Saving Time in particular? Check out my most recent post at Today's Walk Outside.

Who is to Blame?

November 14th, 2014

Have you ever cursed the open overhead cabinet door for coming in contact with your head? It's funny how angry we can get at an inanimate object. Spilled milk. A locked door. The leaking roof. We ignore the fact that the object in question is really innocent. It is we who spill, lock, and fail to maintain. This "not my fault" subconscious reaction helps us deal with the frustrations of daily life. Seemingly beneficial and inconsequential, this response can also skew our better judgment.

Oil, coal, methane, carbon dioxide, and mercury are not to blame for pollution and sickness. It is we who mine, burn, and dump. The fossilized remains of ancient life hidden in the sand under a forest in Canada are not what make the Athabasca Oil Sands an environmental disaster. Should the Keystone XL Pipeline Project move forward, should we actually go ahead and increase the extraction and production of bitumen crude and send it 1,179 miles to the south through a 36-inch pipe, humanity -- not the oil -- will be the defendant on trial for all that goes wrong in court of ecological health.

Athabasca Oil Sand 1984 from NASA Earth Observatory
Athabasca Oil Sands, 1984, NASA Earth Observatory

Athabasca Oil Sands from NASA Earth Observatory
Athabasca Oil Sands, 2011, NASA Earth Observatory

We must control our actions. We must accept responsibility for our part in closing the cabinet door, moving the glass of milk out of the way, and repairing the old roof. And we must stop exploiting Earth's elements. Period.

Who is responsible for climate change? I really don't care. It doesn't matter to me. I reject that question entirely, because this decade's old call for awareness has turned into THE scapegoat for consequences that ARE entirely our fault. Instead of using every scientific mind to find alternatives to the exploitation, we waste time looking for proof that we've done something wrong. Pollution. Surface destruction. Tainted water. Wasted water. Sick children. Dead birds. I can laugh at myself for yelling at the cabinet door, but beyond that it gets just plain embarrassing.

Behind the Wheel

May 15th, 2014

We all want a good life. Yet, for many of us, our desire for happiness and satisfaction is met with anger and frustration. After a short errand this morning--a four-mile drive during rush hour--I wondered how good it would be if we all got out of our cars.

Americans drive constantly. It's not just the ridiculous daily hours spent sitting in commuter traffic, it's engrained into everything we want or have to do. Expose your kids to extracurricular activities? Gotta' drive 'em. Get food for the week? Gotta' drive. Catch a ballgame? You don't just gotta' drive; you have to cut out in the seventh inning so that you can beat the traffic home. Want to go out for a few drinks? Gotta' designate someone to drive. Go on vacation? Getting there involves the longest drive of the year, a dread-filled fact that haunts your entire holiday, because if you want to get home, you gotta' drive it again.

Rolling past one scenic view after another during a vacation to Colorado.

Public transportation, while good for many reasons, isn't much better. It still involves a lot of time that could otherwise be spent on better things.

Whenever I get to feeling low about our culture, I try to imagine what it was like back in the days when we had REAL problems. Typhoid fever. Abusive masters. And a general need to labor over every task. We tackled them through time, especially the general laboring part. Work was replaced by machines, just as walking has been replaced by cars. Now we've taken the matter so far that, instead of weaning us off our vehicular addiction, we're investing in the creation of smarter cars. No amount of technology will fix the fact that we need to stop this constant migration.

Life is really good for people like me. I have the tools to deal with the majority of hardships that come my way, and even when I don't, help is at hand. Still, it's in my nature to want things to be better, and in that vein, I prefer labor (walking) to stress (driving). Meanwhile walking--or even biking--simply isn't an option around here; the infrastructure just isn't in place. But I can still dream and hope for a trend that brings us back to community, to neighborhoods, to villages, to being happy with the amenities nearby, and to be able to spend the majority of my days without getting in the damn car.

How some spent a beautiful Sunday in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania

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