Life on Earth, Supervolcanos, NASA, and Tom Petty

“I must have started drinking again, because the woman who tried to activate a supervolcano with a giant fork is standing here, and you’re all acting like it’s a potluck.” – Warehouse 13

DSC04285A picture of Abraham Lincoln as he was fighting against both the Confederacy and German engineers.

“The world was a web.”

This wasn’t the quote from a Tom Petty song.  These were words that would echo through my head for two decades.

I started to write a novel back a long time ago.  It started with those words.

I still have it somewhere, buried in a backlog of data on one of my computers, right next to a resume that I first entered into a computer on . . . WordPerfect© (yes, that was a word processor before Corel® ate it).  I’m sure they still sell dozens of copies of it a year.

And the novel itself?  Oh my.  I’m sure that if it ever saw the light of day someone would name an award in its honor for the worst novel of the year.

But . . . “The world was a web.”

There are words that haunt you through your life, and this sentence haunts mine, just like wondering how it felt while the Roman Empire was ending (LINK).  I have been, since as long as I can remember, really fascinated by the unravelling of society.  Once I went to the Wikipedia entry for “Apocalyptic Novels” and just nodded.  I’d read nearly all of them.  (I just revisited the page, and it’s all filled with editorial stuff, so, much less useful.  I won’t link it.)

But the late author James P. Hogan (I read most of his stuff) wrote a novel called “Voyage to Yesteryear.”  It’s a good one, though out of print, but to me, it had a fairly stunning philosophical analogy.

We as humans think a lot (and live with) more or less reversible processes.  I put ice in the freezer, it freezes.  And then it melts.  Though once upon a time, I don’t think that there was anything at all in physics that would have predicted that the ice would have floated on the water (most frozen liquids sink – if you freeze gasoline, the frozen stuff drops to the bottom), but it turns out it’s pretty important, especially if you’re a fish.  You can stay in the nice liquid water while the ice freezes above you, which, I imagine is important to a fish.

But the second discussion from the novel is that some changes are irreversible – if you burn your laptop in your charcoal grill, there is simply no thawing it out afterwards to get your keyboard to not look like a bunch of charred Doritos®, or get back all of those downloaded pictures of Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones® or all of your Tom Petty MP3s.  Those are gone, dude.

The fire (presumably from a dragon?) goes beyond the phase change represented by freezing and thawing.  The physical structure has been changed to the point that it’s not remotely recognizable.  And you can’t go back.  There’s no way to find all the carbon atoms that baked off your display and combined with oxygen and put them back in the screen, let alone the same place in the screen that previously held them.

It’s gone, dude.  And even the Roman Stoics (LINK) knew this prior to Rudolf Clausius coining the term “entropy,” which led indirectly to the U.S. Civil War through a series of humorous translation errors that made Abraham Lincoln think that Clausius was making fun of his big hat.

But let’s go back four score years (that’s 80 years, for those who are used to the metric system) from that hatastrophe.  What happened then?  Besides Ben Franklin being in the prime of chasing every young lady who could spell “yes” there seemed to be this revolutionary event.  Pardon.  Revolutionary event.  Like the American Revolution.

If a president being elected every four years is a phase change from ice to water and back again, the American Revolution was burning King George’s laptop and then going after the glowing hard drive with a sledgehammer.  In a real and literal fashion there was no way to go back.  Instead of a political phase change, you had political chemical reaction – there was simply no way to go back from what the Founding Fathers had done.  They changed the way the entire world viewed government with the result that today almost every nation in the world where you can order a Big Mac® has emulated to the greatest extent possible the precepts of the American Revolution.  McDonalds® and Thomas Jefferson© changed it all.

And you just can’t go back.  You can morph into something different, but you can’t go back.  There are some ideas that are so radical, so amazingly simple that once they pop out – they hold the attention of almost everyone who hears them.  The American Revolution was one such thing – you could never turn back after that.

Unless you hit reset.  I was leafing through the Internet as The Boy piloted our car up the road for a short road trip – I alternated between reading and a light nap.  The light naps were ended with (small) bursts of adrenaline when our cars trajectory was different than my half-snoozing mind expected.  It’s like Dad radar.  Even asleep I was looking for that change we could never recover from.

On article popped up during the ride about the Yellowstone Volcano, and how NASA was developing a plan to stop it.

Reread the sentence above.  I’ll wait.

NASA has become convinced that a massive volcano is of greater threat to humanity than asteroids.  I mean, both would ruin your day, but Yellowstone seems to pop off a continent cleansing burst every 600,000 years or so (last one 630,000 years ago) and some folks with a LOT of time on their hands at NASA are convinced that they should be the ones that handle it.

bond volcano

What NASA thinks might be in the volcano.

They’ve even advanced plans on how to stop it.  And, I’ll admit that saving the lives of upwards of two billion people might even be considered a laudable goal in some circles.  But not me.

It’s not the saving all of those people that I object to.  I’m probably neutral on that, unless one of them is me.  Then I become a raving supporter.

I don’t give NASA any slack.  If it doesn’t involve activities that directly get humanity to Mars, I’m thinking that they should just close up shop and give the money to Elon Musk (LINK), who actually seems to be interested in space exploration.

But even worse, it appears that NASA is letting people write stuff that have NO understanding of math:  the NASA plan involves pumping water (which is not exactly in huge supply in the Rocky Mountains) into the magma chamber and to extract the heat.  Which has how much to do with NASA’s mission?  Zero.  Maybe less.

Here’s the latest mission I could find:

To pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research.

So, if this involves trying to cool hot coffee so you can drink it faster by adding an ice cube or two, I’m on board. Takes a few minutes, doesn’t distract NASA from their actual day job.

But in this case the coffee is 11,500 cubic miles of coffee.  At 1300˚F to 2400˚F.  And NASA wants to cool that.  With water.

Okay, I’m pretty sure that drug testing isn’t required to work at NASA.  But the amount of heat we’re talking about is simply staggering.  At a depth of five miles (that’s 8km to the “people who use money that looks like Christmas paper, and also happen to use metric”) to the top of it, keep in mind that this magma pocket sends pockets of superheated boiling water five miles through rock.  The amount of energy is stunning – almost as much energy as a D.C. NASA bureaucrat with a liberal arts degree uses to avoid doing work on a typical Tuesday.

First, the good news!

I won’t bore you with all the mathy stuff, since The Boy and I figured it out.  It’s not hard, it’s just thermodynamics done in hotel room on three sheets of hotel room note paper.

Let’s say you had to cool the Yellowstone magma chamber.  Latest number that I had on how big it was?  11,500 cubic miles.

Cubic miles.  Drive from Seattle to Los Angeles.  That’s 1137 miles.  Do it 10 times. Next to a mile high wall of magma.  Or just once.  Next to a ten mile high wall of magma.  That’s a mile thick.

Hmmm.

But, let’s pretend we can cool that 52,800 foot high wall with water.  Where do we get it?

Well, the Colorado River is a big one.  Let’s pump all of that to Yellowstone to cool it down.  I’m not going to bore you with even more thermodynamics, but you have to heat the water, and then add even more heat so it boils.  (I actually saw one billion dollar business venture implode because they didn’t know you had to add the extra heat to make it boil).

At the current flowrate of the Colorado River, it would take 435,843 years to cool the lava.

I know that NASA seems to not math very well anymore, but, given past rates, Yellowstone would have exploded at least one more time, if not two.  And the people in Los Angeles would have to go nearly a half of a million years between bottled-water drinks.

And that’s the good news – that only half a million years of concerted effort beyond anything the world has ever seen will maybe stop one human extinction.

But some scientists worry that the addition of the cooling water might turn the magma chamber brittle – increasing the likelihood that Yellowstone would explode in a big catastrophe.  And that’s the good news!

Second – the bad news.

But that’s really not the point.  There are a whole host of things that are much more likely (given the last 100 years or so) than a 600,000 year periodicity (like Yellowstone has) volcano to mess with our world.

But most folks look at this risk incorrectly – there’s a probability of occurrence, but also a severity related to the risk.  Low probability events occur everyday, but they have low severity.  I might lose yet another hair on my head, never to return.  But the impact?  Not very big.

An asteroid the size of Dallas heading towards, well, anywhere at 50 miles per second?  Bad day.  For everyone.  Yet heart disease is more likely to kill me than the kinetic impact of an asteroid.

As catastrophes go, that’s pretty bad.  But research (dating back 15 years or so) on genetics of humanity indicate that it’s likely that 70,000 years ago after the supervolcano Toba lit off, only 2,000 humans remained.  Not on Toba.  Anywhere.

We were that close to the lights going out on us forever.

These big, nonlinear events are very low probability, but they have a huge impact, and may impact the ability of the human race to appreciate Tom Petty.

Think aliens like Tom Petty?  They should.  But who can account for taste?

 

The Lighter Side of Identity Theft

“Truth is, identity theft isn’t hard. A number and an ID is all you need to drain a bank account and return some money to some very surprised retirees. But why stop there? As long as you’re stealing someone’s identity, why not use it to contact some known terrorist organizations on unsecured phone lines? Why not use it to threaten federal judges and insult the local drug cartel? Most fun I’ve had in Miami.” – Burn Notice

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Come and Take It was a Texan callback to Leonidas and his comment to the King of Persia.  Not an invitation to my bank account, weasels!

It was a Friday afternoon, and I’d just finished a business meeting about 250 miles from home.  As I got into my car for the drive home, literally as my butt hit the seat my phone rang.  It was an 800 number, so I have expected that it would be some sort of telemarketer selling off-brand Pez© knockoffs – the cheap stuff made by Elon Musk’s offplanet Martian robots (LINK).  I answered anyway.

Turns out it was my credit card company.  I only have two credit cards, pay ‘em off in full each month, and they’re issued by the same bank.  Why two credit cards?  That will become apparent shortly . . .

Bank Lady:  “Mr. Wilder, did you open an account with us on July 12?”

Since opening a credit card account is something I do, on average, every five years or so, I shook my head.

Since this isn’t the future, she just waited until I answered in actual words.  “No, I’m pretty sure I’d remember that.  Besides, I’m too busy digging in the blogging mine each night to take valuable minutes of my day to eat, or open a completely redundant credit card account.”

“Well, someone did.  And, Mr. Wilder, they have your birthdate.  And your Social Security Number.”

Great.  There’s another one of me out there – exactly like me, but with a goatee.  Oh, wait, no . . .

spockgoatee

I need a gold sash.  Does it matter if yours is on the left or right?

Name, birthdate, and Social Security Number are the trifecta for an identity thief.  Those were the Holy Grail of information.  With that information, anyone can open an account.  It wasn’t another person – it was a thief!

Me:  “How much did they charge?”

Bank Lady:  “This is weird – looks like nothing.  Only the annual fee.  We sent the card and it was returned to us.  I’ll cancel this account.”

Me:  “Where did they send the card?”

Bank Lady:  “Looks like Texas.”

Great.  Stupid hot summers, and now full of credit thieves.  Stupid Texas.

The Bank Lady (who was very nice) promised to send me information on the fraudulent account, along with an identity fraud kit.  She gave me the number for Experian©, which is one of the three credit rating agencies that lenders check with prior to issuing credit.  Experian®, she explained, would put out a fraud alert and let Transunion™ and Farkleknobber© (I forget the other stupid made up corporate name) know about the fraud.  Any new credit applications would have to be proceeded by a phone call to me prior to issuing credit.

And I wondered how I got hit?  I’ve tried very much to practice safe financial practices:

  • No online banking.
  • Shred all personal information and credit card offers before throwing away. Preferably treat like a witch and burn.  Bonus points if the credit card offers scream while burning.
  • Only share information with those that “need” it. I had to punch a Nun one time because she was too nosy.  My religion?  That’s “need to know.”
  • I wear latex gloves while in any bank. No reason.  It freaks them out, though.

I had dreaded this moment.  There is some portion of my personality that is works off of fear.  There is some part of your personality that works off of fear, too (LINK).  The oddest part of this fear coming true?

The dread was gone.  The identity theft had happened, and it was “go” time.  Let’s fix it!

cartman beard

Me meeting evil me.  Or is it me meeting nice me?  Probably me meeting nice me.

My second call was to my bank.  I verified my account balances and wasn’t missing any money, though I did tell my banker about the time that over 10% of my net worth went missing from my account (LINK).

She laughed.  (And you will too – read the story).

I also asked her about account security.  Since she wouldn’t talk to me without a special code that was texted to me, that was nice.  Additionally, she said:

“I see that you don’t online bank, and you don’t have a debit card.  You should be good.”

Let that sink in.  My banker just pointed out that online banking and debit cards are huge potential security holes.

And they are.  I did some research, and it turns out if you online bank and get hacked?  You’re screwed.  This one gentleman had nearly $1,000,000 lifted from his accounts over the course of months because his laptop was hacked.  And debit cards?  That’s like walking around a pitbull pen in porkchop panties.  Not a good idea.

My last call was to LifeLock®.  I vaguely remember the CEO put his Social Security Number (457-55-5462) on billboards, on commercials, and everywhere.  I also remember that someone opened a fraudulent line of credit on the guy.  And I seem to recall hearing that the CEO went to the thief’s house and kicked his butt – I think it was a story I heard on the radio.  I can’t find any record of this online, but I like the concept:  “If someone messes with you, our CEO will go to his house and beat him with a broken pool cue.”  That’s one way to earn a consumer dollar!

Signing up with Lifelock© was easy, if somewhat like talking to a living, breathing infomercial.  Everything was an upsell:  “Did you know that a fetus can have his identity hacked in the womb by skilled psychics who can take the baby’s Social Security Number . . . before it’s born????”

I normally hate the hard sell, but this day I was okay with it.

So, I got the double-platinum bejeweled version of LifeLock®.  Normally I like to think about financial decisions before I make them, you know, let a bit of reason kick in so I make a sound decision.

This wasn’t rational thinking.  It was total, complete reflex action.  Doctor taps my knee with rubber hammer?  Knee jerks.  Robber takes personal information?  Wallet jerks.  I want the best plan, you know, the CEO ass-kicking plan.  Can LifeLock™ waterboard?  If so, I want to add that to the plan.

Can I get the “Wet Electrodes on the Nipples” plan?  Oh, yes, I’d pay double.

In retrospect, I did some looking online about LifeLock©.  It turns out that it’s pretty highly rated, but it’s also thought to be a bit overpriced.

What the heck does LifeLock™ do for you, anyway?

What LifeLock® does is send you alerts on people messing with your credit or other accounts.  Since I don’t online bank, LifeLock© can’t see my accounts, but I’ll check those regularly.  LifeLock® also offers a pretty professional team to help you after your Social Security Number has been popped naked into the world.  And, in theory, it will replace up to $1,000,000 in losses, but I’d bet $10 that they’ve never (or rarely) ponied up that money, since they have fine print and lawyers, and also due to laws that limit your losses due to identity fraud.   Mainly, banks have to take the hit, and since they have skin in the game they’ve developed algorithms that look for fraudulent accounts and purchase patterns.  And they’re effective.

A thief took my information.  Could they get more?  Yup.

At 6:50 AM Monday morning, my bank (credit card) texted me, asking if I’d made a purchase from an online store at 5AM for $300.  They’d declined the purchase.

Did I make the purchase?  No.

If there is anything that all Wilder family members are in agreement on?  5AM is the devil’s time.  We should sleep through that.  And, my bank probably noticed that.  And also noticed I don’t live within 750 miles of the state where they asked the stuff to be delivered.

So a thief has my Social Security Number, my birthday, my name AND my credit card number.  One of those I can change (credit card).  Actually, two if I decided I was transgender.  Then I could change my name, too.  But I would be an UGLY woman.  But I could be Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Has a ring to it?

lorde

I have not been nor ever will be a geologist.  Just sayin’.

My bank politely asked me to call them.  When I did, they asked me if there were any purchases that I had to make today?

No.  I’m okay.

(THAT’S WHY I HAVE A SECOND CARD!  Two is one, and one is none.  Always have a backup on important stuff.  And I even carry emergency cash.  And a small parachute.  And a nosehair trimmer.)

The credit card number I’d had for nearly 14 years was cancelled.  A new one, with a new number, would be headed my way immediately, per my bank.

I’d gone through the data that LifeLock™ had provided.  LifeLock© also said my credit score was good, really good – 800, so any nonsense on my account had just barely started.

And it turns out this is fairly common.  11,000,000 people a year have to go through this.  So, statistically?  It’s not if, it’s when it hits you.  Sorry to be the voice of bad news.

But now I have to deal with other stuff.  Notify the IRS (there’s a number for that) and notify the Social Security Administration (there’s a number for that, too), because both of those are also conduits for fraudsters to mess with my life.  Somebody messing with my tax return, which in some years would buy a small country in South America (very small country, like an acre or so).  Somebody taking my Social Security (don’t want to get old and find out that somebody other than politicians has stolen my Social Security).

And it gets even more twisted – identity thieves are also stealing identities for getting prescription drugs.  And for having medical bills charged to other people.

And, honestly, I think that’s where my leak was.  I think an M.D. I went to hired a sticky fingered weasel that deserves to be nipple-electrocuted like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, since that’s one of the few places where I can see all the above information being in one place.

I’d pay extra if they let me be Gary Busey.  Not in the movie.  I’d pay extra just to be Gary Busey.

Note:  John Wilder has received no compensation for this post, or any of them, yet.  If LifeLock(R) offers me a big pot of money?  I’m on it.

 

 

Lonely? Ditch Facebook, Find Real People. Live Longer.

“When a man of Scotty’s years falls in love, the loneliness of his life is suddenly revealed to him. His whole heart once throbbed only to the ship’s engines.” – Star Trek

DSC02578

Why, oh, why does it not say Texas Pain RELIEF Institute?

Daniel and I were friends from second grade onward, until I moved away.

I’m not sure if it was our mutual love of Mad® magazine, parody, or wearing army fatigues that we found here and there and the unearned ranks, units, and qualifications we’d poorly sew onto the faded olive drab fabric (I’m pretty sure I was a sergeant of a unit that never existed).  We’d regularly sleep over at each other’s houses, throw up poorly breathing nylon tents in the back yard, and then go on maneuvers with our toy rifles; fording quickly flowing rivers or assaulting fortified hills.  Daniel even managed to find a Korean-era K-ration we were too scared to eat.  I mean, it smelled okay, but . . . .  And we each shared magazines we certainly didn’t want to let our parents know we had (hint: boobies).  And I still have one book he made me promise I’d return to him because it wasn’t his, this really has weighed on me, and I’m not kidding.

omni

What magazines we looked at may or may not have looked like. I plead the fifth.

During the school day we skipped lunch together, talked science fiction together, and told bad jokes together.  Our conclusion on Mel Brooks and Hogan’s Heroes?  The best things on television, ever.  Carrie Fisher and Sigourney Weaver?  Our goddesses, along with Madeline Kahn.  Especially when we saw Carrie in a bikini one night at Daniel’s house.  Wow.

It was also Daniel who taught me that in Tom and Jerry, Jerry was the evil one.

When I visited him at Easter I knelt and did the novena, even though I wasn’t Catholic.  We were brothers.  Daniel and I belonged to the same tribe, until time and distance pulled us (mainly me) away.

This week a study (really, a metastudy, or summary of other studies, which is like a summary of Game of Thrones for your friends who don’t watch Game of Thrones) was released about loneliness and how being lonely negatively impacts health.  (Hint, being lonely is worse than being obese, drinking too much, or not having enough Pez® to stick to your eyebrows on St. Johns’ Day in Nova Scotia.)

AARP commissioned a study that says that 42 million people older than 45 suffer from “chronic” loneliness.  Since there were only 120 million people older than 45 when they did the study, that means that over 35% of those people over 45 are . . . sad.  And it’s very sad when that many old people with that many wrinkles are sad.

What does chronic loneliness do to you?

Nothing good.

It increases your odds of death by . . . 50%.  That sounds like a lot, and it is.  That’s almost worse than the wrinkles.

So in the age of Facebook®, people are less connected to one another.  In fact, in another study they found that old people who relied less on email and social media for their social connections were . . . happier.  Let me write that in blazing letters across the sky:

Facebook® is no substitute for calling the people you know and love and talking to them.  Period.

I’ve watched Facebook™ grow, and I’ve viewed social media with skepticism.  I tried to get on Facebook®, but it never was able to engage me.  Facebook® seemed so much shallower than blogging.  Also, I’ve always thought that Facebook© was a tailor-made infidelity machine – putting people who used to have sex back together, while removing all of their bad qualities in a haze of boozy memories.  There is no way that I wanted to fight off all of the girls who were chasing me like I was a Roadrunner®.  Heavens, who has that energy??

Let this be a reminder, the people on Facebook™ have bad morning breath, have bad armpit smells, and leave their socks all over the place (except, of course, me).  But to a lonely spouse, or worse, and idealized memory?  Not so much.

Let’s pretend that Facebook© was really, really good at helping people really connect on a spiritual level?  They’d disable that feature in a second.

Why?

Facebook® makes money when you’re dissatisfied, and makes money upon your dopamine receptors which are always looking for novelty.  Facebook™ makes money when you hit refresh and scroll through more updates and see more ads, or look to see how many people “Liked” you.  Facebook© is free to you because your attention is the product.  And your dissatisfaction is the way to maximize their return.  Thank heavens for youtube videos of cats!!!

Why are older folks getting lonely?

Well, my parents had dinner parties.  When they were in their 50’s I was still a pup, and had to got to go to their dinner parties, at least when they were at our house.  The couples would get together, and they’d immediately split up.  The ladies would go the kitchen and drink whatever Mom made for ‘em, even though it smelled like something that would catch on fire if a stray spark veered by.

The men would retire to the dining room (nobody smoked anymore) and drink bourbon, scotch and talk about elk hunting, war (real, actual war) stories, or how the weather was, or what the crops were like.  Someone would make an off-color joke, and give me a wink and a nudge.  Really, it was always Vern that did that.  Honestly, most of the jokes were right over my head unless they were directly and obviously about boobs, but at least I was part of the game.

After drinks, there would be dinner.  Which would also include drinks.

Afterwards?  Cards and a communal gathering, until the time came that people would head home.  The game of cards itself was meaningless, merely a reason to sit around the table and talk more.  And drink more.  It was a good thing that they mainly left before Star Trek©.

The gatherings were even more wide ranging than that – on occasion we’d go spend the night, for instance, at a cabin deep in the mountains that one of the families owned.  During the course of that weekend we built a mountain road with a road grader, rode horses, and I outshot all of them with Pop Wilder’s .222.  Oh, I and won a game or three of Risk®.

We hunted together with Pop Wilder’s friends.  We went on wide-ranging 4×4 trips deep into the forest at 12,000 feet.  We rode snowmachines together.  Although I was certainly the junior member, more than anything it looked like a tribe – a group of friends that supported each other and shared in each other’s joys and sorrows as we snacked on ziplock-fresh sandwiches at 12,000 feet.

And today I don’t see that.  Although I know a zillion adults, most of them don’t get together like this.  Most of the adults I could get together with like this (there’s a pretty big implied trust) live very far away.

In our current world, we spend our time chasing our children on their adventures (wrestling, football, academics, Boy Scouts, etc.) and focusing on our spousal relationship, and finally, work.  I know that sounds like the best way to spend your time, but . . . is it, really?

Right now, as a family, we depend upon the iron triad of children, work and spouse.  All of my adult friends (locally) come from either my children or my work, or, IS The Mrs.  What happens when work changes (this is a minority of friends we see, so not much) or the kids get older?  Two thirds of the local social network dries up.  That day.

And, I recall that the social network for my parents lived on with them after I graduated.  After Pop Wilder retired.  It was a durable network.  They may have been alone, but they were never lonely.

In some weird way, we seem to have taken the informal support networks from men and women.  We seem to have replaced them with the evanescence of work and children.

We have, when those support networks crumble over time, ignored those left over.  And they get lonely.  They don’t have Vern attempting to turn the butter into my thumb when he passed it to me (it never worked, I was young and fast, and he was older and a bit inebriated).

Where are they now?  Are they in our past, those who trust us with their very souls?

There is an endless summer.

That endless summer contains every single day young boys spent together in a world bound only by imagination, in a world where each barley field represented a chance to crawl on our bellies toward enemy lines to stop the Germans in their tracks, or to stop the Cylons® before they could hit our main base.  One last swig from the canteen before we braved the minefields and tried to take out the German 88mm gun before it savaged our boys to pieces.

We played at life, at courage, at understanding where we fit in our tribe.  We discussed love before we knew what it was.  We discussed right and wrong when we were living it.  We displayed strength because it was intertwined with our being.

I called Daniel’s number tonight for the first time in years.  I remember their house, and I know right where they were when they picked up the phone, heck, the number was familiar with me.  They remembered me through the fog of ages.

I’ll talk to Daniel soon.

Why did I wait so long?  Guilt.  I felt (and still feel) that I’m the one who killed our endless summer with the starting of my car and the loss of my virginity.  I’d left the fields of play behind.  I’d left the best friend that I’d ever had or will ever have behind.

Tonight I gathered up the courage to make the call back towards summer, the call back to the innocence of boys bound together in blood, in bad comedy, in Steve Martin, in mutual, total trust.

And we’ll go back to the summer, where we belong.  At least for a few minutes when we talk.

Did it get dusty in here?  My eyes seem to be watering.

Nobody gets to be lonely in summer . . . especially not an endless one.

The Lighter Side of The Collapse of Complex Societies

“But on this Earth, Rome never fell. A world ruled by emperors who can trace their line back two thousand years, to their own Julius and Augustus Caesars.” – Star Trek

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Wilderus, Welthius, and Wisus, the original Roman Edition.

 

When a star starts its fusion cycle, it starts off with nice, ecologically friendly hydrogen.  The star transforms this into helium, using just a bit of energy to send to nearby planets so that they can make Pez®.  Eventually, the star will start fusing helium in its core.  This causes the boundary of the star to move outward, and the star becomes a red giant.

If the star is big enough, it will continue creating heavier and heavier elements through fusion, each of them in turn making heavier elements.  Until the star starts creating iron.  Whereas the fusion reactions (including those that form iron) all produce excess energy, iron fusion actually consumes energy.  The collapse of a star that starts fusing iron is rapid – the energy required to push the mass away from the center of the star disappears.  The mass begins to (quite rapidly) fall inward back to the star.  All of it.  All at once.

And we call that a “Supernova,” which I hear is a pretty neat surf ride.   I voted to name it “Wildernova” but was overruled on the grounds I hadn’t been born yet.

Great cultures have fallen in the past – Rome is forefront among them, since, from founding until the fall of Byzantium (that’s the Eastern Roman Empire) it lasted 2200 years.  But there were others, the Mayans, the Greeks, and my next door neighbor when I lived in Alaska.  All of those cultures passed away over time.

Since you can’t be a professor and not make up theories and stuff (the job has to look like work at least some of the time) Joseph Tainter came up with his theory of The Collapse of Complex Societies, which he published in a book in 1988.  Like many people who have really good ideas, Tainter has been milking this one for quite a while, which I heartily approve of.  If they’re gonna buy the same stuff from you again and again?  Keep selling it!  Heaven knows Aerosmith hasn’t had a new song since 1985.

Tainter’s book is quite accessible, and much shorter than one would imagine with a good idea.  Most people take twenty pages of fascinating ideas and stretch them into several thousand pages of books, PowerPoints, and training sessions.  Not Tainter.  He packs his twenty pages of ideas into a Spartan 267 pages, including end notes.

A note about buying the book:  DON’T.  I spent $35 for my copy nearly a decade ago, and now a new copy is $47.  Plus tax.  So, unless you like paying $0.176 per page of book, DON’T.  Why did I spend so much?  Dunno.  I’m cheap, but this book kept being referenced EVERYWHERE, so I thought I’d buy it.

I think it’s so expensive because it’s technically a textbook, and thus normal supply and demand economics don’t work with textbook publishers.  Boy, when the Internet takes that group down, I’ll be smiling.

Anyhow . . .

Tainter suggests that societies start small, and aren’t very complex at the beginning.  As the society grows in size and scope, it begins to become more complex.  And then?  Problems start.  We have a water heater that supports four normal-human length showers, or one shower by The Boy.  Thus, a new rule.  Everyone showers BEFORE The Boy.  But that has unintended consequences.  Now I have to get up earlier to make sure I don’t have to take a shower in water colder than Shia LeBeouf’s jail cell.

Now I have to get up earlier.  Since I have to get up earlier, I’m groggy while I drive to work.  Since I’m groggy, I forget my coffee, now I’m double groggy and less sharp at work, and don’t create as much value.  Then the Cubans invade, sensing weakness, and we have to move to the Rockies to defend against the Soviets.  Go Wolverines!

You see how this works.

Actually, the above is a (slight) exaggeration of Tainter’s theory.  You start with one rule, and it has unintended consequences that require other rules.  Which . . . create more unintended consequences, requiring . . . more rules.

Pretty soon, most of society is either closely governed by the rules, or is so enmeshed in all the rules that they just want to get out – rather than society’s efforts going to create a comfortable life for the citizens, society’s efforts go into . . . supporting society’s rules.

I was reading Seneca’s (the dead Roman) Letters several years ago when one passage struck me . . . Seneca was writing to his friend and mentioned in passing boating regulations in Imperial Rome.  Boating regulations.  From that you can infer that the Romans had entire bureaucracies working on the correct size of a gladiator’s loincloth to the proper number of grapes in a bowl to be served to the Caesar.  And, eventually, people got tired of the regulation.  How bad did it get?  Bad enough that they had to make a regulation stating that if you were the first born son, you had to do what your dad did.  Farms were going unplanted because farmers’ sons were walking away to go do something less regulated, so they had to force them to be farmers.  Except they just ignored the rule and walked away, in time.

Additionally, Rome had to support the infrastructure required by the Empire.  An Empire requires food, roads, and bridges.  And slaves.  And Pez® factories.  And an Army.  And this stuff costs money.  Retard the economic progress of the productive folks through regulation and add in a bunch of stuff they have to pay for, and you’ve got trouble.

Plus, let’s say you’re a Roman dealer in granite countertops.  When your great-grandfather started business, all the granite was nearby, but the best stuff was used 20 years ago.  Now they have to bring it in by ship.  The cost of your business goes up and so does the societal energy required to get that granite.  Food and wine have to be brought from farther and farther away because, in order to feed over a million people living in Rome, you had to get the stuff here, and it wasn’t like you could walk down to Caesar-Mart to get Hot Pockets® at 2AM.  It took much more energy to feed the people of Rome.

And did you see that there were a million people living in Rome?  There were as low as 200 million on the whole planet, which would be like a modern city having 0.5% of the world’s population living there, or 350 million people living in one city.  (Tokyo is currently the biggest in the world, at only 33 million.)  While not overpopulation, this population concentration was costly in an economic sense.

The outward signs of Rome’s weakness were the Goths, Vandals, and Jocks sacking Rome – but Rome had to defeat itself first, just like the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

Eventually, Rome fell, but primarily because its citizens decided, quite voluntarily and rationally to shed a layer of complexity that no longer served their purpose.  It was as if they were a star, and started fusing iron.  And all the Romans ran together at once at full speed into the center of Rome and mushed into each other.  And exploded outward at the speed of light.

Ummm, metaphorically.

Maslow’s Hierarchy, Fear, and Highlander

“Honor? I’ve got seven kingdoms to rule! One king, seven kingdoms! Do you think honor keeps them in line? Do you think it’s honor that’s keeping the peace? It’s fear! Fear and blood!” – Game of Thrones

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I don’t ask for much.  I just want to die as I came into this world – screaming and covered in someone else’s blood.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow had one of the two ideas that cemented him in the public consciousness, sort of like a Johnny Depp of years’ past, but with more showers than Johnny usually takes.

This idea (the other idea was, “If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”) became known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  For obvious reasons it isn’t known as Wilder’s Hierarchy, though . . . that’s coming soon, I hear, maybe even by the end of the post! (Foreshadowing!)

Maslow’s Hierarchy is often shown as a pyramid, because Maslow only intended for his psychological work to be used for ancient Egyptians, since that greatly reduced his malpractice insurance.  Also, his patients could not sue, being dead and all.  Upon further reflection and remembering that mummies could come back from the dead if they were played onscreen by really hot people, Maslow changed his mind (and his insurance carrier) and decided that Maslow’s Hierarchy was universally applicable, even onto inanimate objects, like bankers and rocks.

I kid.  Everyone knows that rocks have feelings.

Anyhow, Maslow’s Hierarchy was really his way to describe how and why people act the way they do, and asking them is just too darn hard.  Maslow’s Hierarchy became really popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s and was used to explain absolutely everything in public education from why kids hate split pea soup to why they are attempting to knife the teacher.   But what is the pyramid?

MaslowsHierarchyOfNeedsBy FireflySixtySeven – Own work using Inkscape, based on Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36551248

At the base of the pyramid are the physiological needs – things like breathing, food, water, shelter from the cold, cold winter of your parent’s disappointment.  These were the needs that Maslow felt you couldn’t get past unless they were met.  You’re not exactly thinking about writing poetry when you’re drowning, so Maslow said you were stuck down here.  Interestingly, Maslow felt that sex belonged here, too, despite all of the bad poetry written by involuntarily celibate 15 year olds . . .

Moving right along, Maslow said if you were fed, warm, and could breathe after sex, you could worry about security needs.  Me?  I worry about staying awake.  Maslow might be the only person who locked the door to his bedroom after sex.  For the record – Maslow brought up sex first.

But, these security needs weren’t just having a loaded carbine when your Zombie Grandma (LINK) shows up at your bedside.  These security needs also include (according to Wikipedia®):

  • financial security,
  • health, and,
  • “safety net” against health problems.

If these sound familiar, this appears (to me) to be the level where almost every political argument is waged.  You don’t hear any politicians saying that they’ll get you all the air you can breathe, but they do sure fight for the “government will take care of me” vote.

weirdal

I imagine Al is normally pretty well adjusted.  But TSA?  Yeah.  They take it out of everyone.

The next step up is social belonging.  For those of you born after 1995, this is like being on Facebook®, but with actual people.  It includes the usual suspects from your Facebook™ feed – family, friends, co-workers, people you go to church with, except rarely will anyone quote Firefly© and William Shatner won’t show up on your “Doorstep” feed (LINK).  One reason I think people feel a bit more hollow today than twenty years ago is that so many depend upon Facebook© for their social relationships – it’s like a friendship if you stripped out all of the parts that make a friendship real – the person you can share with, the person that you can call in the middle of the night for help when you need it the most.

Since when do I worry more about my 401k than my family?  Since Maslow said so?  Hmmmmm.  We might be seeing some cracks in this philosophy.

Next on the list is esteem. This means people accept you and value you.  You provide worth to those around you.  You’re a ninja in a room full of evil kittens (unweaned, eyes closed, but still REALLY EVIL).  And you have those throwing star things.  And two samurai swords.

See what happens when someone harshes your esteem:

Esteem is awesome.  It’s excellent!  I love it when people worship the stuff I do.  I also love it when people hold me accountable for the things I don’t do.  It means that what I do matters.  And if it doesn’t matter?  You don’t get real esteem.

I think this is where the current world begins to diverge farther and farther from the social reality.  I love soldiers.  95% of them are awesome!  But not every single one is a hero.  Many are awful people.  Again, I generally see the uniform, and I sense pride.  But to claim that all are heroes means that none are heroes.  All have the same esteem, so they all have none.

Another interesting note (well, it was interesting to me) is that one of the leading causes of depression among men over 40 is . . . loss of esteem, usually job-related.  When I say depression, I mean (shhh) suicide.  Which if you believed Maslow, this would just send you to your friends, and not all the way to square zero.

At the top of the pyramid?  Self-actualization.  It’s like if Wolverine® could do math.  Oh, wait, that’s Tony Stark.  Self-actualization was Maslow’s fantasy of how it felt to be Albert Einstein walking around everyday, but without the autism.  This means you’re living your full potential without restraint.  It must be how Jeff Bezos feels everyday now that he’s all pumped up on testosterone and has those big guns (arms) and big guns (actual rocket ships).  Heck, it’s likely he even has large artillery somewhere.

The rich aren’t like you and me – they have cannon.  (With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

Later in life, apparently after watching the TV show Kung-Fu or maybe seeing Led Zeppelin on stage, Maslow added a capstone:

highlander

SELF-TRANSCENDENCE.  Remember how Connor McCloud of the Clan McCloud could do and be everything after he chopped all the heads off of all of those people in Highlander? (SPOILER ALERT FROM 1985)  Yeah.  Apparently this was what Maslow envisioned when he added this to his pyramid.

grigoryhighlander

I’ve been snarking at poor old Maslow this whole time, primarily because he looks like a well-meaning hippy from today’s standards.  And I’m not sure he deserves it, but, really, it sure is fun.  Ironically, my comments are tame compared to the criticisms of his fellow academicians:

  • Ethnocentric – individualistic versus communal.   Soviet Union fell, dude.
  • Peacetime Vs. Wartime – war combines the two bottom parts of the pyramid so that security takes on the same level of importance as eating. Which, except for a few hundred years in a few small places on Earth?
  • I Could Have Done It Better – Well, sure! What part of the pyramid are you on?  Sissy.

Okay, can I criticize it better than those idiots?

Absolutely.

Maslow entirely neglected the concept of time.  If hunger has been gnawing at me for weeks, it’s a very different story than if I’m worried about being hungry tomorrow.  Hunger forever gnaws at the soul.  (Not the sole – who eats feet?)

Likewise, a brave man will jump on that grenade for you in combat, whereas one who has been sitting at the bottom of a trench for a week might just want to see you gone because you snore or eat your own toenails.

The concept of time is crucial.

And, on further reflection?  Most of our motivation comes not from a clear and shining purpose – it comes from fear.  And fear is time-dependent.  The longer it goes, the more it nips at your soul.  And those we rightly call heroes are those that overcome that fear, both in the short-term and during the long game.  We used to call that character.

So, I make the following Modest Proposal:

Let’s call this . . . the Wilder Hierarchy of Fear™ – (represented by a blob, not a pyramid) starting with –

  • First Fear:   Fear of not having Pez®.  And not breathing.  And not having food.  And freezing to death.  This fear will make you do stupid things, especially in the short term.  Longer term (a week or so) it might even grow into a debilitating fear.
  • Second Fear: Family Survival.  Fear of losing your family.  Many times it will overcome the First Fear, unless you really, really like Pez® more than one of your children.
  • Third Fear: Bloodline Survival.  You like your kids.  You want them to have more kids.  Why?  It’s good.  Especially if you read this blog, because your IQ is totes above 125.  And we need more of you!  Fears of financial failure fall in here.
  • Fourth Fear: Fear of Shame.  You have people you work with.  People who look up to you.  People who admire you.  You don’t want to appear weak or incompetent or dishonorable to them – in many ways, that’s worse than death, because it puts a blight on the family name.
  • Fifth Fear: Fear of Lack of Achievement.  Me?  I have to wonder how much more I could have done if it weren’t for the Pez®.  Stupid Pez™.
  • Sixth Fear: Fear You Aren’t a Marvel® Superhero.  Name says it all.  WHY DON’T I HAVE ADAMANTIUM CLAWS???

Noting that the First through Fourth Fears are driven by a desire to save your family and your community is pretty easy.  And maybe, maybe, I should change it to a pyramid.  Why?

The Bangles!

Bill Gates, Bill Shatner, and Billionaires

“Yeah, that’s nothing. Peter would spend millions just to mildly annoy Gavin. These are billionaires, Richard. Annoying each other means more to them than we’ll make in a lifetime.” – Silicon Valley20170725_232152 (2)

So, I met William Shatner.  He wasn’t as thrilled as I was. I saw him sign this, for me.  It looked like he wanted to get to the Holiday Inn and soak his feet.

Part of great success is built by luck.

Yes, that’s a declarative sentence, and of course I know my old granddaddy Quintin Tarantino used to say, “The less a man makes declarative statements, the less apt he is to look foolish in retrospect,” but I’ll stick by this one.

One of my favorite stories is about an author who submitted his novel to about a zillion publishers, only to be turned down by all of them.  All of them.

He was working a crappy night job at a dry cleaner, and after the novel came back, in a fit of anger he threw it into the trash, right on top of last night’s dinner.  He had given up.  His wife, however, still had hope.  She picked the novel out of the trash.  She replaced the cover – the old one had gotten spaghetti sauce all over it – and she sent it in.

One more time.

The publisher loved it.  Soon a book contract.  Then a movie, “Carrie.”

Yeah, that was Stephen King.  How many Stephen Kings are there working that just never got a break?  That didn’t have Brian dePalma direct a masterful movie off of their work?  Hundreds?  Thousands?

Heck, I have my own magnum opus I wrote on construction paper about a robot that could kill all of humanity and then died.  Because . . .

Dang, that was the hard part.  Yes.  Because humanity was so strong!!!!!

But, that’s me, not Stephen King.

Stephen King can write fiction that millions want to see.  But he was lucky he married a woman who believed one more time than he did.  Unlike my Mom, who cried on the construction paper.  She told me she was happy, but I still think those weren’t happy tears.

Let’s switch gears . . . .

Pick anyone named Bill who is wildly successful, and I’ll point to the break that they had – the luck – that got them over the top.

I’m NOT saying that Bill Shatner isn’t a gift to the world, because clearly he is.  But he was the second person who sat at the helm of the Enterprise, not the first.  He had a stroke or two of luck in that one . . .  But I follow him on Twitter®, he doesn’t follow me. (Yet)

I’m NOT saying that Bill Gates isn’t brilliant as I write on Microsoft® Word™ on a Microsoft© Windows® operating system (though Microsoft® Explorer™ . . . really, Bill?) because Bill Gates is clearly brilliant.  I follow him on Twitter© – he doesn’t follow me.  (Yet)

There were thousands of people who competed with Gates.  But we should all be honest:  it took more than one lucky break for Gates to end up with enough money to buy up all of the Pez® in the world three times over:

  • Gates was born rich. Not mega-rich, but rich.  As we all know, that’s the best way to get rich (LINK).
  • Gates had access to computers at a private prep school when only NASA, MIT, and The Hair Club for Men had access to that kind of computing power.
  • He met lots of the “right people” at Harvard.
  • He was lucky enough to bring some of those “right people” to Microsoft®.
  • He had a lucky meeting with IBM®. They’d use his new DOS® software, because (laughing) WHO WANTS TO OWN SOFTWARE?  Look at this cool green screen!

Bill eventually won – he built a monolith of a cash-generating company from the ground up.  At the right moment in history, Mr. Gates either developed or found:

  • The Right Vision. As early as 1980, the vision was a computer on every desk, in every home, running Microsoft® software.  By 1998 geriatric grandfathers had them to get e-mail from distant family.  By 2002 they were getting e-mailed photos regularly.  By 2004 they were sending money to Nigerian Princes and sending out virus-encrusted email greeting cards to EVERYONE in their address book.
  • The Right Skills. Bill Gates developed a wide variety of skills beyond his programming chops – he developed team leadership skills, accounting and sales skills, and the skills to hire the best.
  • The Right Team. Windows 1.0 sucked.  So did Word 1.0.  So did Excel 1.0.  They were the WORST.  But the team did second and third versions that were so good, so strong, so well integrated that dominant products like “Lotus 1-2-3” and “WordPerfect” were smashed harder than an Amish girl at spring break in Cancun.
  • The Right Business Environment. The early vision of computers on each desk meant . . . they had to be usable.  They had to provide value.  They had to be something that people wanted to use.  By creating that software, by creating Windows 95™, Gates got rid of the old constraints of the IBM clone as a business machine, and brought it into the home, massively multiplying the user base in a single year.

Mr. Gates was always going to do well.  He had too many factors in his favor from day one, even without the family wealth and support.  That was like having a springboard.  With his intellect at that time and place?  No way Bill walks away with less than $100,000,000.  He was going to create something awesome no matter what.  But one of the largest and most profitable companies on Earth?

Nah.  That wasn’t a cinch.

Again, I’m not saying that these Captains of Industry (Gates, Musk, Jobs, Thiel, Bezos, Brin, Page) aren’t worthy.  They most clearly are.  (But do you think that Page gets mad that I put Brin first?)  Again, clearly, each of them would have been very successful without luck.  But luck has played a part in vaulting each of these men into the massive success that they now enjoy.  (I was tempted to throw “clearly” into that last sentence, but, I think you’ve gotten the point by now.  Clearly.)

So you should Get Lucky.

Good heavens!  There must have been a LOT of bad decisions in the 1980s.  Starting with this album cover.

But, you’re asking, “How, John Wilder, can I, like Loverboy®, Get Lucky©?”

Well, you’re in luck!  I have a fairly short list that I’ll expand at a future point, when the astrological signs are right:

  • Hard Work – There is no substitute for this. Okay, there is.  Massive piles of talent and luck.  And money.
  • Live in a Big City (A Rich One) – For heaven’s sake, if you’re not rich? Hang around rich people!  They have opportunity, and, most importantly, businesses you can learn to work with.  And . . . run.
  • Work In a Job Where The Money Is – There are rich cities and poor cities. And there are rich portions of the economy and poor ones.  Would you rather work at the place where they recycle used water bottles, or the place where they build underground secret bases for aspiring Bond villains?  (I’m looking at you, Elon Musk).
  • Expose Yourself At Your Best – Have you ever seen that show, Cops? It’s every person, ever, at their very worst day.  On film.  Honestly, we all have bad days.  And we all have things we’re bad at (hopefully the thing you’re bad at isn’t personal hygiene – and it wouldn’t be, since you read this blog – you must smell like roses and fresh bread, and that’s on a bad day!).   But when you get a chance and you’re with a billionaire?  Show him what you do best.  Unless what you do best is eat Pez®.  Focus on things you can do for the billionaire that make him even more money.
  • Believe You’re Lucky – Sounds crazy, right? No science behind it?  But if you believe you’re lucky you’ll see good things when others see only bad.  You’ll see opportunity when others only see stone walls.  And if you stare at the Sun long enough . . . WAIT . . . don’t do that.  But I’m not kidding – believing you’re lucky makes you lucky.  Me?  I’m the luckiest guy you’ve ever read, unless you’ve read something that Keanu Reeves wrote, because that man is golden (LINK).

In 2016, there were 540 billionaires living in the US.  If 35% of them inherited their great gobs of billionaire cash, that leaves 351 who did it themselves.  Yay, them!  That gives you a 0.000117% chance of being one.

By doing the things I’ve listed above?  If you’re really smart (like 140+ IQ, PLUS read this blog)?  That means you can force those odds several orders of magnitude closer to your own private island.    Maybe even to 0.01% of a shot at the Tres Commas (A Billion has Three Commas) club.

This much, much closer than you could ever become with a lottery ticket.  And, the good news?  You will certainly become a millionaire, you know, with the shameful two commas.

All of this is better than winning the lottery.  Certainly your biggest shame?  You’re only a millionaire.

But none of this will allow you to become as cool as Bill Shatner.  Because there can be Only One True Shatner!

RV Ownership for Fun and Profit

“What? Come on! Man, you’re smart. You made poison out of beans, yo. Look, we got, we got an entire lab right here. Alright? How about you pick some of these chemicals and mix up some rocket fuel? That way you could just send up a signal flare. Or you make some kind of robot to get us help, or a homing device, or build a new battery, or wait. No. What if we just take some stuff off of the RV and build it into something completely different? You know, like a like a dune buggy?” – Breaking Bad

overview

Our camp, as viewed by the disembodied spirit of Elvis.

“I can’t believe you did this,” The Boy was flat out surprised.

“Why not?”

“This . . . this is so not like you.”

“This” was buying a Recreational Vehicle (RV), specifically a travel trailer.  You have to be specific when you describe what exactly your RV is, since (upon checking the Internet) everything from a little red wagon to the Death Star© qualifies as someone’s RV.

And, I’ll admit it, when you have a guy that drives a 12 year old car (LINK) until it gets totaled (LINK) it would seem a bit out of character for him to buy what can only be considered a luxury item.  Or at least that’s what I thought of, when I thought of RVs.

The Mrs. and I had actually discussed purchasing an RV for the last 15 or so years.  At first it was a little pop-up camper that occupied our dreams.  When we moved to Alaska, we looked at several different campers and camper types, and were pretty close to offering some money for a little integrated camper with its own engine, etc., but I couldn’t quite get comfortable driving in the bush in Alaska where there were no cell phones with a camper that had 271,000 miles on it.  That’s just asking for Hollywood to make an “Into The Wild”-type movie starring your family and a grizzly bear that stalks you for 231 miles of your trek back to civilization while you have to fight it off with marshmallow roasting forks.

I like to think that they’d get Liam Neeson to play me.  If he works out and gets some bigger biceps.

Anyway, we put the idea of an RV on the back burner living in Texas, because the last thing you want to be is a Texan with an RV.  That’s like ALL Texans, and, since The Mrs. and I have never read Harry Potter, we figured why join the crowd now?

But I like camping, and after a few camping adventures that seem more like a horror movie to The Mrs. (Just a little farther, dear – you can stop throwing up whenever you get to the top!), she decided that she liked . . . showers.  And a bed.  And not throwing up on the trail.

But, to buy a camper seemed so frivolous.  And not that I don’t buy frivolous crap – I do.  Right now I’m wearing a 2016 Campaign t-shirt for The Flight of the Conchords (Jemaine & Brett 2016 – It’s Business Time).

It’s worth the watch – 3:55 minutes of New Zealand’s second most popular comedy-folk duo.

Anyway, it seems so frivolous, something that someone with LOTS of money would do.  It’s something that . . . rich people would do?  Or old retired people who wanted to drive a house around slowly so they could have their house be in different places.  Kind of like the Tardis, but with Social Security.

I started stalking Craigslist around where we live.  And, after getting a whole lot of free Styrofoam packing peanuts, I finally found two candidates.  I’d also looked at a dealer, but the brand new one he showed me had a table that was split open due to humidity.  Not a great selling point.  The one I liked best was an R-Pod.

An R-Pod was designed to be smaller.  We have a generic pickup, and a youth-skewed 4×4 SUV that The Mrs. likes to remind me is older than Pugsley.  Pugsley is 12.  She is not exaggerating.  It doesn’t have a cassette deck, but . . . close.  Both of these vehicles could pull the R-Pod, which weighs in at a whopping 2800 pounds, with a cargo capacity of at least another half-ton.  This is important, since we’d have two vehicles capable of pulling the beast around, since our 4×4 was capable of “only” pulling 5,000 pounds.

First lesson?  If I wanted to do this cheaply (and, Internet, you know I do!) I would have to buy something light, or I’d have to buy a trailer AND a car.

Again, we’d found two of these located two hours away in River City, Lower-Northern Midwestia.  We texted and, without hearing back, turned our pickup to go buy an RV.

Now, I’m not opposed to other people buying brand-new RVs.  If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have a pool of cheap used ones to pick from.  Make no mistake – an RV isn’t an asset.  All it does is either take you to the lake for fishing (or gold panning! (LINK)) or sit in a storage space.  It creates no income.  And every second it sits on the planet it depreciates, until it turns 50 and becomes either “classic” or “constructed entirely of prohibited components like lead and asbestos.”

An RV is not an investment.

So, on our way to River City someone returned my Craigslist email, and said they’d be there when we got there.

They were.  They were a nice couple who had bought the RV to go to musical concerts, but the wife couldn’t manage to get around the trailer.  I looked the trailer over, checked what I could figure out, and then, consulting Kelley’s Blue Book for RVs® (yes, this is a thing), made an offer of $1,000 less than the asking price.  Unbeknownst to me, The Mrs. had been talking to the Mrs. of the owner’s side, and, they’d had it on the market for some time and were just getting ready to lower the price.

So, while I felt like a wheeler-dealer, I probably pegged the number that they really wanted.  I wrote out a check, they wrote out a title, and we hooked OUR RV to the truck and headed back home.  It looked strange, since most RPods have decals that make them look all pretty.  In this case, the original owner (not the one we bought from) had painted over everything to advertise his traveling patent medicine show that he ran with Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.

I know, I know, but you have to give the 70’s some slack.  They’d just discovered polyester.

The Mrs. and I talked about what to do about our generic, white RV.  In general, we decided we should either paint it like the mystery machine or like the shuttle Galileo from TOS Star Trek.  In general, we both liked the way that we imagined the shuttle . . . . and we’ve gotta paint it . . . but can we bring our phasers?

Upon getting it home and hooking it up to power, I found that everything was functional, except the refrigerator and sensors that indicate the levels in the waste tanks and battery.  RV refrigerators are mind-numbingly expensive, since they are configured to run on propane, plug-in power, batteries, and hope.  They are apparently only made in Germany by small gnomes that live in the Harz Mountains.  I resigned myself to buy a cheap college dorm fridge (there was a plug in) and move on.  I went to work (mildy) brooding on this.  Primarily I was depressed because the nice man hadn’t told me the fridge was on the fritz.  I would have still bought it.

Most RV folks say the sensors are useless, and often stop working quickly.  Not a problem.

I decided to not make our new toy a source of sadness.  I buried any disappointment in a determination to fix it.

Pugsley had spent the night in the trailer.  The Mrs. had bet he’d get in the first night it was home, but he waited until the second night to make his move.

Upon returning home from work, I decided to check out other systems.

Nothing electrical worked.  Nothing, except the air conditioning, microwave . . . . hmmm.

It was hot, I was sweating, and I began to check various components.  I suppressed the burning desire to choke Pugsley.  I really reasoned that he was only a bystander – and honestly, the fact that everything was broken was really encouraging.

I know, that sounds weird.  But when one thing breaks?  Yeah, that thing is generally broken.  When it all breaks?  That means your mind can generally fix it if you think smart enough, or have a great deal of experience really screwing things up.  Me?  I have a great running history of not giving up when I should (LINK).

After a bit of investigation, I found that two main fuses were blown.  I sent The Boy to buy new ones.  During his absence, I flipped the battery terminals on the brand new battery the previous owner had installed.  The Boy arrives.  I pop in the fuses.

Everything works.  Everything.  Including the German Ice Machine!  Even the sensors that tell me how much onboard poop we have!

So, in best Star Trek® fashion?  REVERSE THE POLARITY AND EVERYTHING WORKS!!!!

picard polarity

The previous owner had flopped the terminals on the battery.  Now I had a flawlessly working system.  Yay!  And, unlike constructing tire chains by hand, this didn’t take sixteen hours to noodle through.

During this time, I remembered that the previous owner had stressed I should look at the wheel bearings.  For those of you that may not be aware, a wheel spins.  But the trailer does not.  The contact part for the spinny-part to meet the non-spinny-part is the wheel bearing.  It’s essentially a bunch of greased up balls (no jokes here) that allow everything to spin around without getting hot or grinding the nice metal into a pile of hot, combusting metal dust.

vulcan stand up

On side had a great place to inject grease into the bearing, which is what we used to do when Nixon was president (or so I’m told).  Now most cars have sealed bearings that would last to Jupiter and back, but in the 1960’s (I’m told) you had to grease stuff all the time or else you’d die when the wheels flew off of your Model T at 22 miles per hour.

My crappy $500 trailer has sealed bearings.  Not this trailer.  Nope.  It has bearings that must be greased.  So I greased the ditch-side (think about it) bearing.  There’s a small dust cap that covers the grease Zerk.  The grease Zerk is the fitting that allows grease to be pumped on a one-way journey to the bearing, and is named for . . . Austrian engineer Otto U. Zerk.  I know it sounds like a joke.  It’s not.  It should be.  It’s not.  Otto.  U.  Zerk.

Anyway – one side done, new grease covering all the nice bearing parts.

Next side . . . where’s the Zerk?  Where’s the cap that holds the grease in?

I pulled the Zerk off the other side – Otto’s THREADED Zerk!!! – and put it on the other wheel.  And pumped in a LOT of grease.  And resolved on our trip to gold country that I’d pump grease into that wheel every hundred miles.  (Spoiler, that seemed to work.)

Things I never really thought about:

  1. It takes a LOT of gas to pull even a small trailer. I thought that perhaps if I had one much larger that I’d need to pull a small refinery behind me to supply me with gasoline.
  2. Even a slight uphill was devastating to our progress. Speeding?  Uphill?  Ha!  Never, never, never going to happen.
  3. What I could normally do at the Real Speed Limit (normal speed limit +5 miles per hour) I now had to do at my Maximum Thermodynamic Speed Limit – which was often normal speed limit -5 miles per hour, sometimes -20 miles per hour.
  4. It matters how you load a trailer. For the first 90 miles, whenever I approached 55 miles per hour, the trailer would start to sway from side to side like a break-dancing backup singer during a seizure.  When I stopped to fill the Wildermobile with gas the first time I looked up “Trailer Sway” on the Internets.  It turns out you simply have to put most of the weight forward so that there’s more weight on the hitch.  I moved a bunch of things forward, and it worked like to stop the sway.
  5. I’m not comfortable running a consumer engine at 5000 RPM for 12 hours. I let it back down to 3000 RPM just so I didn’t wreck the family’s hearing.  Mine is already shot.  Thank you very much, Iron Maiden.

But it worked.  We even had one offer at a gas station (while we were on our way) to buy the trailer from us for what we paid for it.  Nope.

The issue we had that concerned me the most was the trailer breaking.  Apparently all travel trailers have electric brakes.  These brakes interact with the braking system on the vehicle pulling the trailer and have the trailer brakes slow the trailer at a (similar) rate to the pulling vehicle.  Why?

Because if not, the trailer would be pushing the pulling vehicle as it tried to stop.  Worst case, it would keep going during an emergency stop (Newton’s Second Law – A fully loaded travel trailer in motion without brakes will keep going even when you’ve decided that stopping might be in your best interest.)

What concerned me were the mountain passes in gold country.  They’re steep.  And, while going up would certainly be slow, I wanted going down to be at something less than the speed of sound and not resemble CW McCall’s Wolf Creek Pass.

For these brakes to work, however, an electric controller has to be installed.  While I am pretty sure I could install one okay, I’m not going to settle for pretty sure when it comes to preserving my pretty face, unless I want them to pick my remains up off the highway with a stick and a spoon.  I farmed it out.  But halfway to the mountains, it wasn’t working – showing a code that it had short circuited.

Well, when we stopped to buy a new fuse because Pugsley had plugged a Cray2200 supercomputer into the power outlet.  While stopped, I looked a bit closer, traced the wires from the battery back, and found one of the crimped connections that the mechanic had installed had worked its way loose.  Ten seconds later?  Electric brakes back in business.

We got the camper to gold country, and then, well, camped.  In a never-before-happened event, the family decided to extend the vacation for an additional day.

Here is my personal review of the camper:

Sunday Night:  Omigosh.  We’re here after 70 hours of driving today.  And now?  We have to set it up.  In the dark.  Without waking other campers. Three occupants. Only I will pee in camper restroom, and only when no one around.  Camper cold, windows left open by Pugsley.  Found the next day.  Closed windows.

Monday Night:  Everyone now fine with peeing in the camper – bathroom walk way too long at 40˚F.  Camper way too hot.  Four of us.  I open the windows.

Tuesday Night:  Four of us.  Firefly.  The Mrs. closes the windows, causing me to have a dream that I live in Houston again.  Aaaaargh!

Wednesday Night:  Four of us.  Lots more Firefly.  Slept great all nights.  Too many stupid little dogs with stupid hot dog breath.

JayneNVera

Thursday Night:  Going to stay in it overnight at some nameless city, but we had the “great rush home” which was unanimously approved by the Family Subcommittee on Travel Hours.  Sometimes it’s better to sleep in your “other” own bed.  Plus I get to wake the neighbors by trying to back the trailer into my driveway at 3AM.

Once I bought the trailer, I now notice that there are trailers . . . everywhere.  There are trailers parked out in front of houses where the trailer would CLEARLY be a better place to live than the home it’s in front of.  I’m not sure I understand how you can afford a $20,000 or $30,000 RV when you clearly make less than $50,000; but then again, I don’t understand fashion.

I read that since they look like a home that interest a trailer loan is tax deductible?  DO NOT use me as a source, unless you’d like to spend a long time in prison for “Using Internet Blogs As Tax Advice.”

My big financial advice on campers – don’t buy one if you can’t do or pay for:

  • Maintenance: It’s like owning an additional home.  There are electrical systems, plumbing, and structural systems.  The first night I got it, it attracted ants from five counties away.
  • Tow Vehicle: No, your Prius™ (LINK) won’t pull one.  If you don’t have a good tow vehicle and need one, can you afford the trailer?
  • Gasoline: You will have to use more gasoline than you ever have, since Elon Musk hasn’t invented an electric trailer puller.  He will, I have no doubt, but it’ll be on Mars.

Economics?  Cheapest vacation we’ve taken in years (except for the whole “buying the trailer” thing).  Didn’t buy restaurant food except twice.  Didn’t spend much on attractions.  And we saw things like this:

This is a video I took.  Felt like Francis Ford Coppola shooting Apocaforest Now.  That’s our trailer at the end.

I did the economics, and it will likely pay out in four or so years, which is better than most investments do.  I may bore you with them at a future time.  But you’re not Vulcans® so you might not like math jokes.

We are planning on using it for many vacations where we’d normally use hotels, so you’ll hear more about it soon.

Dorothy said there’s nowhere like home.  And it’s not home, but it’s like home.  So, I guess there is somewhere like home, and it’s on wheels.  The Boy and Pugsley and The Mrs. rated it the best vacation except for one where we went to Alaska on spring break (yes, we really did this, and maybe I’ll post about it sometime).

So, verdict?  It was wonderful.  It was economical.  It was peaceful (LINK).  I learned about gold panning (LINK).

The Mrs. and They Boy are painting it right now to resemble a Shuttlecraft® from Original™ Star Trek©.  Will keep you posted.