Saturday, January 27, 2018

Man vs. Appliance

The other day my wife finished showering and informed me that the water heater must be malfunctioning and I would need to address the problem the next day while she was at work. This brought up all kinds of insecurities about my manhood and marital obligations, but I ultimately triumphed, thanks to the support of even more....women.

There it is, striking fear in the hearts of men!

There is an awful lot of truth behind that old adage that behind every good man is a good woman, and I might add "often several women." Siblings, other relatives, friends, social media acquaintances, they all can be encouraging in your time of need. I honestly had not anticipated the account of the water heater to take this direction, but it is absolutely where it should go, to the heart of human relationships, self-confidence, and lifelong learning.

Our first approach to the water heater problem was to solicit recommendations for a plumber via local Facebook friends. My plea was answered in part by female friends who advocated doing the repair ourselves. Ok, that would be me, then, while my spouse earns our household some income. I do not do well with the handyman thing, but in my defense I spent my teenage years without a father on a daily basis. My folks divorced when I was age eleven, and I saw my father every other weekend. He lived in apartments where repairs were done by contractors.

"Just look up how to repair a water heater on Youtube. You'll be fine" said a couple of handywomen on my "friends" list. They added that expiring heating elements were usually the source of the problem. My wife went about finding some videos and e-mailed links to two of them. I viewed them the next morning and while things always appear straightforward in those how-to short films, they *never* represent the exact model or circumstance that you will encounter with your own appliance. My nerves were still fraying.

As luck would have it, Heidi was carpooling to work this day, so I had our car at my disposal to fetch the necessary hardware and tools. Only problem was that I had not driven but once in roughly the last five months, so I was a little edgy about that prospect, too. I did find the courage to get behind the wheel, and was not as white-knuckled as I feared I would be. I even managed to find some helpful people at the hardware/lumberyard/garden supply/nursery store once I arrived. About forty minutes and forty-three dollars later, I had what I needed.

You have got to be kidding!

Our water heater is a short, squat cylinder located on a cement the crawlspace under our townhouse unit. You will notice that the panels I needed to access the heating elements are on the "dark side," not illuminated by the single bulb in the crawlspace. Also, the drain for the tank is about three inches from the floor of the crawlspace. I first attached a hose and ran it into a bucket, but the effectiveness of that strategy dried up quickly. So, I took to wedging another bucket under the spigot, filling it as far as I could without overflow, and dumping it into another bucket. About two hours or so later I decided I had probably drained the water heater pretty well.

Now to disarm this water-bomb

Note to self: Think you have drained the appliance below the level of the bottom element? You haven't. Black water blew out the opening once occupied by the withdrawn heating element. I quickly rammed the new one into the void. Success, with only mild, wet, annoyance. The upper element offered no such surprise, and the tank filled in next to no time. Heated water was available again in roughly two hours. Meanwhile, my body is still recovering from trip after trip lugging a bucket with at least four gallons of dirty water out of the crawlspace and into the parking lot to dump it. Drain, dump, repeat. Still, before I started, I had visions of Heidi finding my smoldering, electrocuted corpse under the house when she got home.

While I suspect that the true cost of this DIY exercise would have included renting a pump to properly drain the water heater, mission accomplished. Self-confidence was increased as well, though I still do not look forward to the next appliance breakdown. The real bottom line is the silver lining of learning, growing in "handymanship," and gratitude for friends who have confidence in you even if you lack it in yourself.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Faith in Technology

Last week a friend in Hawaii broadcast on Facebook the alarming....well, alarm, he received on his cell phone, informing him and everyone in the state of the impending arrival of a ballistic missile. Turns out it was indeed "not a drill," but not a military attack, either. It got me thinking about how much we take technology for granted, and how we seldom think about its weaknesses.

The false alarm this time was mostly human error. During a shift-change training exercise, an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency simply selected the wrong option on a dropdown menu on his computer monitor. Naturally, there was no option for issuing a false alarm broadcast after the alarm was triggered. That has since been added via a "cancellation template," but maybe a dropdown menu is not the best format, either.

The mistake was then compounded by the delay in rescinding the false warning. The warning went out at 8:07 AM on January 13, and was not officially retracted until 8:45, thirty-eight minutes later. Ok, we are talking about cell phone communications here. Governor David Y. Ige did manage to get a correction out seventeen minutes after the alarm via....Twitter. The Governor would have done that almost instantly, but he had forgotten his Twitter username and password.

There is so much wrong with this event that it is difficult to know where to begin. At least the alarm was sent through every conceivable media outlet, from radio and television to mobile devices and digital freeway signs. What if you happened to be somewhere that those technologies did not reach? Some people who did shelter as instructed found themselves in locations without a cell phone signal. So, they did not receive word directly of the error.

Consider also the fact that most of our communication systems in use today require power. Forget to charge your phone on this fateful day? Oops. Were there a power outage, how reliable are backup generators and other emergency power sources? Please tell me you have backups, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. Hello? I will assume the best scenario for now, thank you.

Not funny, but can't you see this happening?

The other troublesome aspect of this that jumps out at me is the assumption that every citizen in the state of Hawaii has the same level of technology at their disposal for receiving emergency warnings. Even if you have an iPhone or a an android smart phone, what if you draw the line at Twitter, or some other app that is crucial to the receipt of emergency information? I am assuming the state is not issuing phones and apps to all of their residents and tourists. The choices you make could conceivably get you killed. I know my father would likely not have fared well. He is not friendly to computers and related gadgets, and he is so hard of hearing that even a siren might escape his notice. Hope there are some good Samaritans out there in emergencies like this.

Technological applications can not only amplify existing vulnerabilities in the devices and materials they are applied to, but they bring with them their own special vulnerabilities to hacking and misuse and, yes, simple error. There are historical cases of pre-digital era mistakes that have almost caused the U.S. and the former Soviet Union to launch their ballistic missiles. I hardly want to contemplate what scenarios could take place given the "advances" in code that we have now.

I am not advocating that we all become Luddites, but somewhere between an outright rejection of contemporary technology and advocating that it be applied to everything, there is a happy medium. Right now we are putting the lives of those who choose, and can afford, the latest gadgets and software ahead of those who do not have hundreds or thousands of dollars to throw at the latest and greatest phones and tablets. Those who seek a life without the daily stress that social media and technology burdens us with are left in the lurch in instances like this missile warning. Good luck to us all.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Toward Better Gender Relations


I got up later than I wanted to this morning and so turned on CBS's Sunday Morning in the middle of Oprah Winfrey's discussion with an informal panel of other celebrity women talking about the "me, too" movement and related issues. Men seem to be taking a beating these days, but we tend to be dense, and it will take more blunt dialogue to get it through our thick skulls that we must modify not only our behavior towards women, but our entire mindset when it comes to gender relations reform.

Tracee Ellis Ross said something in that roundtable that really got my attention, but I fear it was lost on a lot of people listening. The crux of her comment was basically that men no longer get to define women, as individuals or a group, in any way. Men do not get to define a woman's mood ("Smile, smile!"), her purpose (catering to men?), and definitely not her place in society (quiet and demure).

We have, unwittingly, perhaps, treated women in the same manner that we have treated non-Caucasian races and ethnic groups. We have given them "permission" to fulfill certain roles and then become hostile when they resist or get "uppity" and create their own roles, the ones they truly desire and are usually the most qualified for. Blacks, for example, are embraced as long as they entertain us on the stage, screen, athletic field, court, or arena, or otherwise perform for us Whites. They cease to be human, but are products instead, though we would never frame it that way in polite conversation.

Women are right, the time for polite conversation is up. Time for some hard lessons. I know I could stand a vastly better education myself. Women are realizing they no longer have to answer to men, to be subservient, settle for less than they are worth, or settle for less than they are capable of achieving. They are not obliged to modify their bodies or emotions for the benefit of men. They have been tolerant to the point of boiling over. Many still struggle with conflicting emotions of assertiveness and "not wanting to rock the boat." That only points to how blessedly empathetic they are. God knows we could use more of that.

Women have allowed men to deny them not only opportunities for advancement in every conceivable context, but they have bent over backwards to please us. The karma chiropractor of the "me, too" movement has been long overdue. I find myself oddly relieved by it. Maybe I don't have to pretend to be macho anymore; but I also have to confront my own attitudes, impulses, and instincts and overcome them or refine them. The scientist in me understands that human beings are still animals, and we have a long history of "base" relations to the opposite gender. Those biological imperatives are not overcome overnight. However, that our species has advanced as far as it has in other aspects of the "logical" gives me hope that the "bio" will become less of a defining element in reaching a more equal and enduring pinnacle of social evolution.

So what if the "natural order" of things is toppled, or even turned on its head? It would be a small price to pay in the short run, with massive benefits in the long term. Gender relations as expressed in the "me, too" movement are very much akin to the civil rights movement. Indeed, emphasis should be on civility as extended to all human beings regardless of any other personal attributes.

Women have a dream for equality in every regard and they are entitled to it. To paraphrase the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they long for the day when they, and their female descendants, will live in a nation where they will be judged not by the size of their booty, the content of their wardrobe closet, their decisions about childbirth, or whether they want to be housewives or entrepreneurs, but by the way they treat themselves and others in meaningful ways. Note the emphasis on intangible qualities, made evident through positive actions. The women I know already lead that kind of life of mutual respect and dignity and assertiveness. It is a model of true leadership that both women and men should strive to attain.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Privileged Whites

White privilege undeniably drives racism in the U.S., but reverse those two words and you have the root of what cripples us all: Privileged Whites. Are all wealthy Caucasians villains in our society? No, but it is the few who are greediest and most corrupt that have captured power. The solution is to recognize their tools and strategies and then refuse to participate in their games.

One could argue that the concept of privileged Whites could be narrowed further to privileged White men. The fraction of excessively wealthy women who lack empathy for the less fortunate are simply subscribing to the model set forth by their male counterparts. It is an unfortunate perversion of feminism that suggests that if women are to succeed in a male-dominated world, then they must act like men, stripping themselves of compassion in the ruthless pursuit of material wealth.

Misguided Aspirations

The best way to combat the wealth gap, and general divisiveness in America, is to stop aspiring to excessive material affluence. Period. Refuse to compete with others. Meet your needs, live within your means, share with others what you have in goods, services, and experiences. Reject the temptation of credit, loans, and other financial products and services designed to mask the reality that we are a debt class instead of a Middle Class. Stop consuming media that feeds impulsive purchases, erodes your self-esteem, and presents a skewed reality (if not fantasy). You are not a product yourself, so stop treating yourself that way. Stop mindlessly subscribing to the idea that it is your responsibility to fulfill the obligations of others, outside of children, the elderly, and the ill. Periodic indulgences are fine, but you may find yourself in a healthier frame of mind by downsizing the number of products you already own. It is not your responsibility to line the pockets of corporate shareholders and CEOs, but that is largely what you are doing when you patronize purely commercial companies. Shop local. Support local agriculture. Heck, grow your own vegetable garden.

Feeding the Machine

We are constantly bombarded with advertising that reminds us we are unfulfilled, and essentially worthless without [insert product or service here]. Furthermore, we should strive to be more like this celebrity, this athlete, this successful businessman or businesswoman. We should at least dress the part with the latest fashions, beauty treatments, suggested occupations, and other lifestyle upgrades. It is more important to be seen as having substance rather than actually having intangible qualities like empathy, a work ethic, and compassion.

Government regulations at every level discourage self-sufficiency, like replacing your lawn with a vegetable garden, while encouraging dependence on corporate solutions, like lawn care products and services. We claim that "charity begins at home," but the tax code will not give you a deduction for helping a relative unless they live with you. Try going off the grid and see how long it is before you get harassed by local utility interests. We are thwarted at every turn when we seek to take control of our lives in healthy ways, so that the wheels of multinational corporations can keep running us over. No conspiracy theory necessary, just turn on the television and see for yourself.

What We are "Allowed"

While the media defines for us what it means to be successful, we are constantly deprived of avenues for achieving that success. Again, I am speaking of financial success, which is of questionable value in itself, but hear me out. We are not guaranteed a living wage, having to settle for a minimum wage instead, which frequently does not keep up with the cost of living. The Federal Reserve has not made saving money possible for several decades because it refuses to raise interest rates, playing on our fears of inflation. Meanwhile, a lower interest rate encourages borrowing, which plunges us further into personal debt.

What we are allowed to do to make up personal financial deficits is paltry, risky, and unhealthy for ourselves and society. We can take a second or third job, further depriving us of lives outside of work. We can play the lottery, patronize the casino, borrow money, get yet another credit card (see borrowing money), or file lawsuits. Seriously, the proliferation of lawsuits would largely cease if people did not feel that they were already owed something. The lack of a living wage incites feelings of inadequacy that people believe can be quenched through lawsuits. "I am entitled to more, to better!" Indeed they are, but through fair pay for their work, which continues to be undervalued. We are enslaved in an economic sense, insidiously, such that we are cleverly duped. It should be no less intolerable than physical slavery, or the continuing exploitation of Native Americans through "legal" theft every time their casinos make a killing or oil or gas is discovered on their lands. We are owned by corporations, make no mistake about it, but we allow ourselves to be.

Drop Out, Engage, Promote Alternatives

Personally, I all but abstain from the economy. I freelance, which is a punishing way to try and earn a living, but less so than working at a job I disdain, with people I abhor, just to make money. Consequently, I have little to spend. What I earn goes to my monthly share of the groceries, meals out, my cell phone bill (a pay-as-you-go plan), my share of automobile fuel costs, clothing from thrift stores, shoes about every two or three years, and occasional travel. That is about it. I have essentially dropped out of the material world. What has increased is my level of civic and social engagement, both online and in person. It is through social interactions that I learn what about alternative consumer choices other people are making to overcome the obstacles and injustices they face, or that our society faces. This month, one friend is attempting a Plastic-Free January, going out of her way to avoid using plastics, especially disposable versions like cups, drinking straws, and packaging. Our household is on board and looking to be even more critical of how our buying and lifestyle habits affect others and the environment.

We have to demand better, not more. We are entitled to basic standards of living and decency for all before we can look to add luxuries. The very things that do make America great are under assault right now. They include our spirit of helping others, respect for each other, and unity in achieving common goals. We no longer have the luxury, as if we ever have, to discriminate, spew hate speech, and attempt to destroy the lives of others we may disagree with. We lose our sense of community, and we lose everything. Privileged Whites are banking on that.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

"Chasing" Owls, and Saying What You Mean

Social media is nothing if not a lightning rod for raging arguments and polarizing opinions. Take for example a frenzy of commentary that erupted last week when the administrator of a wildlife photography group on Facebook announced that no one would be permitted to disclose the geographic location of any image taken of any animal species posted to the group. I had intended to include quotes from some of the replies to that post, but I have always been much more interested in what remains unspoken, and the motivations behind a person's stance on any topic.

Snowy Owl, El Paso County, Colorado
© Heidi Eaton 2010

The directive from the wildlife photographer's Facebook group stemmed from the throngs of people pursuing Snowy Owls that have strayed far south of their normal range and are showing up even in Kansas this winter. Each spotting ignites the bird equivalent of what one might call Princess Diana Syndrome. Hordes of camera- and phone-wielding citizens descend upon the place the bird was reported from. Many people are protesting that crowds are endangering the owls, causing them to expend energy in fleeing instead of hunting rodents. That may be true, but what constitutes harassment of wildlife is debatable. Maybe the people complaining just don't like crowds themselves. The point is that the public conversation is always the tip of the iceberg.

I have my theories. Given what is happening in the natural range of the Snowy Owl, I can understand wildlife professionals and enthusiasts wanting to limit impacts on individual birds. Between climate change, and the U.S. actively seeking to drill for oil in what are now protected Arctic refuges, it may be a matter of decades before the Snowy Owl goes extinct and no one has the privilege of seeing one, anywhere. The interesting thing is that few, if any, advocates for the "rogue" owls in the lower forty-eight are making this point.

You may have legitimate concerns, but claiming to speak on behalf of another species is usually done to avoid speaking selfishly, though selfishness is not a crime. Dishonesty is a crime, and that is the kind of dialogue we have with each other daily, on almost every issue whether personal or public. We fail to speak frankly. That dishonesty leaves the recipient on the other end free to make wild assumptions about your motives.

Assigning the proper location to a specimen, be it the actual organism or an image of it, is standard for the scientific community. Each data point is crucial to our understanding of distribution, behavior, and other aspects of a species. Not including that information could be construed as you having no interest in science, or furthering our collective knowledge in a era when one could argue there is a war on science.

Posting an image and then not disclosing the location can be interpreted as "I got my photo, but I'm not helping you get yours." It is an attitude of smugness and snobbery that you probably never intended, but because you did not honestly explain your motivations, we are free to make assumptions about your character.

Then there is flat-out irony. By driving any distance to see a Snowy Owl, or any other organism, you burned fossil fuels directly or indirectly, and may even have killed some other animal on the road along the way (insects at the very least). One could argue that the process used to get your image is part of the problem. You have added to the demand for fuel that is driving the encroachment into Arctic habitat. Your vehicle's exhaust is adding pollutants that are hastening global warming. The people that don't chase might claim the higher moral ground in this scenario.

We may have to come to peace with not getting "our" shot, our own personal trophy. Instead, maybe we should explore closer to home. In my Bug Eric blog I talk all the time about the potential for discovery in one's own backyard, or neighborhood. You can make a big splash with little if any negative impact. You can find something never seen before in your city, county, or state. You can observe behaviors previously unknown.

Most of all, in your speech and actions, strive to be honest no matter how selfish, strange, or surprising it sounds. It will be refreshing, and maybe it will catch on. Who knows, maybe even members of Congress will have the courage to speak truthfully. No, I'm not holding my breath.