My neologism

A ‘neologism’ (Greek: ‘neo’ = new; ‘logos’ = word) is a newly-minted word. I like words so much I invented a new one. My neologism is a Greek-Latin hybrid: eumentics. The prefix ‘eu’ is the Greek part and means ‘good’ or ‘well.’ We see this in ‘eulogy,’ for example. The ‘ment’ is the Latin part and means ‘mind.’ Think of our English word ‘mental.’ So eumentics is ‘well-mind.’

In case any lexicographers are reading I’ve prepared a dictionary entry:

eu·ment·ics  (yoo·ment′ iks) n.   1. The art and practice of developing and maintaining a healthy mind.     2. A body of writing associated with and in support of behaviors that improve mental well-being.     [<Gk eu– well  <L mens, mentis– mind]     —eu·ment′ical  adj.  —eu·ment′ical·ly  adv.

Note that ‘television’ is a Greek-Latin hybrid as are ‘automobile’ and ‘biodiversity’ so I’ve some good precedents. There was a time that scholars and other pedants squawked like hell over such perceived violations of good order and sense in the language; if they had prevailed we’d be watching ‘telerama’ and driving ‘autokinetas’ or some such. English is a wonderfully forgiving language and an astonishingly acquisitive one as well. We make up new words all the time and steal them from other languages with impunity. We mash words together, shorten them, turn nouns into verbs, and all sort of other things to enrich our ability to communicate.

What I’m interested in is the modern world. Things are changing rapidly. In fact the pace of change itself is increasing. In physics that’s called ‘acceleration.’ If I’m going 55 mph and add 1 mph each minute I’ll be going 65 mph in ten minutes. I’m accelerating, but the pace is constant: 1 mph per minute. But our world is not changing at a constant rate. In my analogy it would be like adding an additional 1 mph for each minute elapsed. So we start at 55 mph, we’ll be at 56 mph (55+1) after one minute, 56+2 or 58 mph after two minutes, 58+3 or 61 mph after three minutes, 61+4 or 65 mph after four minutes, and so on. After ten minutes we’ll be racing along at 110 mph!

That’s the world we find ourselves in today. Human physiology hasn’t changed much in ten thousand years but our societies have undergone dramatic upheavals and our technology is racing ahead of our ability to understand it. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Our science generates new knowledge on the order of 2.5 million published articles annually and that is growing at 4-5% per year. This is a staggering amount of information! If we do indeed see a 4% increase every year that would mean we should expect to double the 2.5 million papers to 5 million per annum by 2035.

It’s overload, man. We are in a state of constant sensory bombardment from our media and our devices. Like I said, we aren’t much different from our ancestors. Same brains, same wiring, same plumbing. We have upgraded the software but not the hardware. I think perhaps we ought to work on those hardware upgrades, and by our hardware I mean the tissues and other structures that make up the brain. That organ is the seat of our mind and clearly our mind has new and rapidly changing demands being put on it by the modern world.

Thus, eumentics. There are things we can do to keep our minds strong and healthy. Go into any bookstore and you will find dozens of tomes on how to eat, work out, and stay fit. These are of course focused on things like our heart, our liver, our lungs, and our muscles. But what about the brain? It’s an organ, like I said, and ought to respond to similar approaches. There are, indeed, shelves upon shelves of self-help books designed to make us smarter or tougher or otherwise improve our personality. They are mostly psychology-based and have all sorts of schemes for unlocking our latent talents or breaking our bad habits or firming up our characters.

I’m not going there with eumentics. I like to think my approach is entirely empirical and does not rely on the assumptions of any discipline. I walk everyday and that is very healthy for me. It’s a big part of my physical fitness. What’s the mental equivalent? How about reading? I read everyday and I think that is an ideal eumentical starting point. What else can I do to keep my brain healthy? How about writing? Or another form of creative expression? That’s eumentically solid as well. So my goal is to talk about all the things we can do to improve our mental fitness. You have some idea already if you have been reading this blog. You know I like to emphasize looking for solutions instead of focusing on problems, for example. That I think we ought to embrace uncertainty and be suspicious of certainty. That humility is necessary for an open mind. That being wrong is a good thing. That opinions matter little; that perhaps listening to contrary ones rather than spouting our own would be of help. That sort of stuff.

I originally wanted to register a trademark for my neologism (you can’t copyright a word) and I had planned to call this post Eumentics™ (it becomes Eumentics® when the trademark is approved by the Patent Office) but decided that was bullshit. I invented a new word and you can (and should) use it as often as possible! Let’s get it in the OED before I die! Maybe someday some bored and lonely etymologist will stumble upon my website and credit me with this neologism and my name will be praised far and wide.

What do you think?

ROY G BIV

When I was a kid we learned about a boy named Roy. Roy G. Biv—or rather ROY G BIV—was a way to remember the colors of the spectrum: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. We see these in the rainbow. It’s been a good season for rainbows here in Siskiyou County as we’ve had a lot of days of mixed sun and rain. Summer’s onslaught is underway; the spring conditions favorable to rainbows will be gone soon.

The white light we perceive is a mixture of all these other colors of light. That’s not intuitive, our sense of color mixing usually comes from paint and pigments, and mixing that stuff all together just makes variations of turd brown. But that’s not why I’m thinking about a boy named Roy, that is, ROY G BIV. Red is something we perceive and we can measure electromagnetic phenomena of particular wavelengths and frequencies that we can assign to this experience we call ‘red.’ Same up the chart all the way to violet. Anything below a wavelength of 390 nanometers (10^−9 or one-billionth of a meter) or above a wavelength of 700 nm is not normally visible to the human eye. Red frequencies are on the low end, around 430 Terahertz (10^12 or one trillion cycles per second) and violet at the upper, around 770 THz. Thus we have the terms ultra-violet (UV) for frequencies above the violet range and infra-red (IR) for those below.

We know these kinds of light exist even though we can’t see them. Sunburns are a painful reminder of UV, and IR radiation keeps us from getting too close to the woodstove. Even a science-hostile person knows that these phenomena are ‘real.’ And once we’ve slipped past the boundary of ROY G BIV we get all the other electromagnetic waves that we can’t see, like AM/FM radio waves, TV signals, microwaves, X-rays, and whatnot. Our instruments can detect these things and we can ‘prove’ they exist, that is, demonstrate them to our intellectual satisfaction, but we don’t perceive them with our senses.

What’s interesting to me is that ROY G BIV is only a tiny part of this thing we call the electromagnetic spectrum. A very tiny part. So there is all this stuff out there that is part of the universe and we don’t directly experience it. That to me is a serious statement. People talk all the time about invisible things and argue passionately about them. God and ghosts come to mind. But here we have ACTUAL PHYSICAL EVIDENCE of fantastic invisible things! We don’t have to make up stories. We don’t have to speculate. We already have ‘proof’ of bizarre, amazing stuff like gamma rays and cosmic rays. And that’s stuff we know a lot about. There’s all kinds of crazy electromagnetic nonsense going on out there that we hardly know anything about and it warps my mind.

It warps my mind because it reminds me how limited my perceptual apparatus is. I can ‘tune in’ and get ROY G BIV but not the rest. Those require modern technology. The universe is a much bigger and a much stranger place than we realize. And I’m only talking about the stuff we can detect with our devices. People have conjured up all sorts of nutty notions over the millenia and to me IT ALL PALES IN COMPARISON to the nutty stuff we’ve come to discover with our new, enhanced sensory schemes. The biological equipment we started with plus our inventions allow us to perceive a world far more exciting and terrifying than anything we thought of before.

That’s pretty cool, don’t you think? But it’s not the groovy tech I’m stoked about. I think knowing how feeble our perceptions really are is the heart of things. I think we need daily reminders of what clumsy and ignorant beings we are. I think it will make us more humble, and thus open to learning. We say “I was there, I saw it with my own two eyes!” all the time and affirm our visual power. But it’s nonsense. We hardly see shit! If we remember how much of the universe that we know about is freaky and mysterious, maybe we’ll chill out about the stuff we think we are so certain about. Certainty, my friends, is boring. And the ones who are the most certain are the worst conversationalists!

 

Hot Water

I think about water a lot. I live in a place not much wetter than most deserts so I think about water a lot. I was thinking about the energy we use to heat water. I have to think that a hot shower is the only thing that gets most people out of bed and off to work. Coffee perhaps a second, and that takes hot water, too. It takes one BTU to raise a pound of water one degree on the Fahrenheit scale. That’s about a pint of water, and even at a mild two-gallons-per-minute a modest five-minute shower takes ten gallons which is 80 pints. If it comes out of the tap at 55 ºF and I want to shower at 105 ºF that’s an increase of 60 degrees. Eighty times sixty is 4800. That’s how many BTUs it takes for what for most of us would consider a “quick rinse.” My quick-and-dirty calculation actually undershoots* the value a bit, it’s closer to 5000 BTU, and that seems like an easy number to work with.

My dad was always simplifying things when it came to math. It seems he hated to calculate, all he wanted was “a rough figure” as he liked to put it. I remember assiduously figuring the exact number of yards of concrete for some project, a walk or a driveway or a patio or something, and excitedly announcing it. I was just a kid and I liked math. Anyway it was some fractional amount like 2.4, and my dad had already quickly estimated it to be “around two-and-a-half” which meant “we’ll have to get three” which I missed entirely in my zeal to be precise. Of course the concrete place only sold it in whole-yard units, which was the lesson. Dad knew how imprecise he could be in the problem, and always rounded off numbers to ones that were easy to work with. It’s a lovely skill, I picked it up quickly, and of all the math I learned it’s the one I use the most. And the one I found most difficult to teach. Trying to get kids to approach a math problem playfully, where there’s wiggle room to guess and estimate is so contrary to traditional practice as to be almost impossible. But that’s for another post.

My point today is this hot water luxury we first-worlders indulge in daily: it takes a lot of energy. I don’t want to get into the water itself, which is drinking-water pure, something hundreds of millions of our fellow humans have a hard time getting. That’s for another post. I’m thinking just of the natural gas or coal or nuclear power or solar energy or what-have-you that goes into heating the water. 5000 BTUs per shower, 300-plus million folks in the US of A or at least 100 million households, and I’m saying two showers per household per day. I think I’m underestimating here quite a bit, but that’s OK. Multiply 5000 times 2 times 100 million and you get ONE TRILLION BTUs.

That’s a lot of anything, one trillion. That’s 10^12 or ten-to-the-twelfth-power or ten times itself twelve times. So, can we get a sense of 5000 BTUs? That’s a five-minute hot shower. That’s as basic to our middle-class existence as breathing and eating. That shower takes 5000 BTUs and all of us showering requires at least a TRILLION of those things. Each day. So in a year (365 days) that’s about 365 trillion BTUs

Looking at the bigger picture, we here in the States used 97.4 QUADRILLION BTUs in 2016. A quadrillion BTUs is called a quad. Let’s divide: 365 trillion or 3.65 E14 by 97.4 quads or 9.74 E16 (I have to bust out the slide rule for this one) and I get 3.7 E−3 or 0.0037. The Jim O’Connor method would have made 365 into 400 and 97.4 into 100 and so the answer would be “4” of something. The decimals have to get moved, a quadrillion is a thousand times bigger than trillion, so you get 4÷1000 or 4/1000 or 0.004 which is close enough. So our showers need, conservatively, 0.004 quads of energy. That’s less than 1% of our total. A poor country like Chad uses about 0.005 quads of energy in a year. It has about 13 million people.

Any kind readers out there who’ll check my math? I’d be obliged; those skills fade with retirement!

 

 

*ten gallons of water is 83.45 pounds

 

Absolutely Free

Mothers Day always gets me thinking about The Mothers, or more properly The Mothers of Invention, that Frank Zappa-led ensemble from the 1960s LA music scene. There’s a song on the album We’re Only In It For The Money called “Absolutely Free” and the lyrics encourage us to ‘discorporate’ which means ‘to leave your body’. Throughout this short but remarkable* piece the lyrics satirize hippies, flower power, the counter-culture, and other popular American phenomena of the time (1967). This was regular grist for Zappa’s mill. At the same time, the song encourages personal freedom with a heartfelt and passionate plea to ‘escape from the weight of your corporate logo’ that resonates thematically with other songs on the same record like “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” and “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?”. (FZ thinks it’s your mind.)

Like all great Zappa creations this song is both beautiful and obnoxious. He refuses to fulfill your expectations of what a pop song should be, both tantalizing you with exquisite music and annoying you with noise and interruptions. Zappa, no matter how serious the topic, could not stop being funny, and never let a matter get too weighty without inserting jokes or other goofiness. Personal freedom was probably the sum total of the man’s artistic manifesto, and meant more to him than most anything else, yet “Absolutely Free” is stuffed with snide remarks and silliness to go along with the rich aural landscape. With typical Zappa aplomb the song parodies psychedelic music while incorporating elements of that style. It’s a spacey, groovy piece about going your own way and doing your own thing. To Zappa that meant not conforming, and since it was hip to be a non-conformist then, he relished the irony.

But I want to go back to ‘discorporate’ as I’ve been thinking about the human/machine interface and other possible futures of the race. We’ve become accustomed to many advances that have replaced our body parts or functions and kept us alive. Things like insulin pumps and pacemakers and dialysis and titanium hips and whatnot. We have chemicals we can inject or ingest that help us live by regulating or improving our aging or diseased body systems. What we seem to worry about as a people is if there is a tipping point, where we become too much the cyborg and lose that indefinable humanity we find so precious.

If somehow we could indeed leave our bodies, that is discorporate, where would we go and would we still be us? Sci-fi shows are rife with disembodied consciousnesses stuck in some supercomputer somewhere hoping some unwitting humanoids stumble along and they can download themselves into fresh bodies as easy as changing clothes. Can you suck the essence of a person out of them and store them in a high-tech jar and then pump them back into flesh? And if so, does that mean our humanity is independent of our physical being?

I think that’s a lot of rot. Sure, you can give me a new heart or kidney or both, chop off and replace my limbs, and re-plumb my guts, that is, really make me over, but I’m still me. My consciousness, whatever that is, certainly has some sense of independence from my bodily self, my corpus. But can I exist outside of that? Can I dis- my corporeal realm? Seems like one of those believe-it-when-you-see-it notions to me. Whatever the mind is, at least some of it is physio-chemical and bio-physical, and those processes have to continue for me to have the sense of mental identity I have now. Some believe the mind is entirely a result of anatomy and physiology, some think it emerges from that complexity of tissues that make up the brain, others think the brain is merely a receptacle for mind, part of a larger consciousness that our organ has access to and participates in. Me, I don’t give a shit. Clearly my mind results from my brain being fed and watered; how much I’ll leave to the heavy thinkers.

As much as my mind is capable of sending me on journeys outside of my body, I can’t discorporate. Not literally. I like to think the song is not meant to be literal either. The admonishment to discorporate is about cutting loose. Our minds are products of our society and we are trained and conditioned to see reality in certain ways. Freedom is mostly mental. Sure, we all want to go wherever we want and do whatever we want but that’s only part of the idea of freedom. The key part is seeing and feeling freely and creating the world in your mind on your own without constraint. I believe that when we dream and then when we waken we are re-making the world in our heads. We do this each day and when the alarm rings or the sun streams through the window or the bladder screams for relief the real world intrudes on our creation. This feedback re-shapes our world view and we negotiate throughout the day with our vision of the world and the world’s response to it. Seems like the freer and more flexible our mind is, the better job we’ll do in this negotiation. We’ll compromise some of the time and admit defeat some of the time but the more robust our system then the more likely what we imagine will be concordant with our reality.

Does that seem like a working definition of mental health?

Anyway, I’m not sure absolutely free is attainable, and I’m suspicious of absolutes. Hey, there’s a place to start!

 

 

*You really have to listen to it if you don’t know it.

 

 

Brain Hacks

Neuroscience is all the rage. We are mapping the brain these days with all of our cool imaging technology and color-coding the spots with Sharpies so we can get back in there later and do, uh, what? Well, improve! Get better, faster, and stronger like The Six Million Dollar Man. Remember shock treatments? Or, more properly, electroconvulsive therapy? Hey, it’s back, just new and improved, and it’s more like biofeedback now, very groovy and benign. Turns out pro athletes are doing these things as a matter of routine. It’s even making it’s way into major league baseball, which means it’s become mainstream. The particular product that inspired me this morning is called Halo Sport and it doesn’t strike me as particularly radical or bizarre. Frankly, the whole thing might be the frammis in a simple con, after all ballplayers have plenty of disposable income, and if the so-called Steroid Era is any indication they are willing to do almost anything to try and improve their performance.

Even ultra-hip entrepreneur Elon Musk is interested in the cybernetic future with his Neuralink venture, hoping someday to use body-machine interfaces that connect living beings with artificial intelligence networks. The headgear the athletes are playing with is nothing close to that of course, but it’s a step on the same path. The cyborg is the future! We are already there with our smartphones, carrying around in our pockets the collective knowledge of the human race. We can also “network” and “crowdsource” and all that other sort of collective distributed problem solving so much better in today’s hyper-connected world. I suppose one way to get at, or potentially get at, the nuggets of wisdom buried in all that information is to tap into the power of the global village. But one has to think that the vast archive of human stupidity is also available! Amplifying a beautiful voice is one thing, amplifying a blackboard screech is another.

But I don’t worry about the Dr. Frankenstein’s of the world very much. I know we’ll destroy our food supply with GMOs and ruin our kids’ brains with video games so it’s all good. What’s a few half-baked experimental cyborgs run amok? We’ve seen it play out in Blade Runner, right? OK, seriously, I’m not the doomsday type. I’ve no doubt that the human race is capable of colossal stupidity, but most of the time we just stumble along and muck things up a bit without initiating Armageddon. Not that we can’t, but I tend to think our collective survival instinct is pretty good and that, like the army of ants we are, we’ll adjust and adapt and figure out a working solution. It probably won’t be elegant or pretty or even efficient, but it will buy us some time until we get a little better at whatever we are doing.

But the new era of brain hacks is here whether we want ’em or not. We can’t run without our training watch, drive or hike without our GPS, get a ride, book a room, reserve a table or even birdwatch without the right app on our phone. This is the new way of being in the 21st century, sort of a ‘soft’ cyber-existence, stopping just short of hardware implanted in our flesh. If we are willing to go this far, then the next step of direct brain stimulation (like these Halo Sport thingies) shouldn’t be so hard. In fact they may be useless, or even harmful; they strike me more like groping in the dark than fine tuning performance!

The desire to improve athletic performance has resulted in some remarkable technologies like reconstructive, arthroscopic, and laser eye surgeries which are now available to ordinary people. The chemical enhancements never caught on, people for some reason are bothered by pharmaceutical solutions but not mechanical ones. That is unless you can show you have a medical condition; ballplayers can get exemptions from the banned substances list and take stimulants for example to treat ADD/ADHD. Students who are otherwise healthy sometimes take such drugs to improve their memory and academic performance but that remains controversial. I wonder if they used headgear with electrical stimulation and/or feedback to achieve the same end would it be as ethically troubling? Amphetamines have a long history of use in combating fatigue and helping people perform long and arduous tasks and there is evidence of coca leaf consumption going back several millenia. Brain hacks are nothing new!

Imagine a world without technological advancement. We’d have nothing to talk about! All the things that religion and philosophy achieved without science would be the sum total of human thought. Science came along and challenged every single conception that had come before it. Think about it: everything we fight about today in our political and cultural arenas have come about because science upended traditional viewpoints. Two genders, male and female only? Factually, biologically outdated. Race? Genetically a worthless, outmoded notion. Mental illness? Not a moral failing, but a health issue just like cancer, TB, or an enlarged prostate. That’s not to say humans didn’t have good ideas, just that science required them to pass the experimental test, and lots of them failed. And now that technology has jumped the rails and started to grow all on its own without the need for its scientific underpinnings we should expect a lot more experimenting.

This neuroscience stuff has been great for people with debilitating conditions and much of what we know we learned from treating schizophrenics and other people with both physical and mental disorders. And there’s always an acceptance of such things; when a paraplegic can use his limbs because of implanted electrodes we have a hard time arguing with that or seeing the more sinister implications of the technology. But once the Pandora’s Box is opened that means anyone gets to play. Perfectly healthy ballplayers can now get “preventative” Tommy John surgery, they don’t have to wait until they trash their ulnar collateral ligament.  Perhaps we’ll all get little gizmos we can attach to ourselves so we can be smarter, cooler, and more accomplished at whatever we are doing, whether it is housework or jai alai.

What do you think? Are you ready to plug in?

 

Opinions

I used to have an opinion on everything. Even stuff I didn’t know shit about. I watched pundits on TV go on and on about things they were ignorant about, so why couldn’t I do it, too? “Pundit,” by the way, is from Sanskrit and means “learned man.” Ideally a pundit knows what he’s blithering on about, but thirty seconds of any news or sports show will quickly reveal that’s not the case. I’m amazed by the numbers of well-dressed, blow-dried, and face-pancaked assholes who jabber incessantly across our airwaves and opinion pages and yet have nothing to say. Nothing to add, that is, nothing to say that hasn’t already been said ad nauseam by some other bunch of assholes. So I got tired of opinions. In fact, I got so tired of opinions I didn’t even want to hear my own!

What I’m interested in is learning new things. No, your opinion is not a new thing. Not usually, anyway. Sometimes you encounter people that have original notions. Their thoughts on things are not just re-hashed arguments but unique insights. Their minds aren’t bound by the usual strictures imposed on us by our culture and upbringing. Those sorts of people are unusual but they are the sorts of people I want to talk to. In a media-saturated world it is difficult to escape mental conditioning. We are bombarded 24/7 with information all of which contains explicit and implicit assumptions about how the world works or ought to work. You whack a puppy on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper enough times he starts to get it and stops crapping on the carpet. We are the puppies and the information networks are the rolled-up newspapers. Over time we get tired and just let the stuff wash in and mold our perceptions.

Inventors and poets have a similar ability—to see links between things most of us don’t see. The inventor sees opportunities and solutions where others see problems and roadblocks. The poet is the master of the metaphor, that is, seeing one thing in terms of another. Good poems express a familiar thing in new and unfamiliar terms, or just the opposite, make an unfamiliar thing seem ordinary. My late mother-in-law was an artist, and she could see faces and human figures in the rocks, rivers, and trees. It didn’t seem to require effort on her part. She just looked around and there they were and then she would illustrate them. My mind seemed dull and pedestrian by comparison! I was always envious of her mental freedom.

I’m paralyzed by an ability to see every opinion. When people talk to me about “both sides” of an issue I want to kick them in the face. I’m not violent, don’t worry, and I’m good at controlling my rage. But it’s how I feel when a complex, multi-faceted topic is reduced to a pro/con argument. We love to make things simple and so you gotta be “for” or “agin” or folks will think you’re an idiot. My mind doesn’t work that way. I get to looking at people’s notions and I start seeing how they come about and fit in with this or that or the other and that leads me on to more and the next thing you know I’m somewhere else and can’t remember where I started. I might start an evening arguing one thing and by the end I’ll be arguing something else. I’m not trying to be contrary, really. I can’t help myself. I have to try things on mentally, just like trying on trousers or shirts. I have to see what I look like in different hats. It’s like finding a pretty stone on the beach and turning it over and around and looking at it from all the angles and watching the light glint off it. I can’t learn anything if I don’t do that.

So what’s a fellow to do? In the States we have freedom of speech, mostly that is, certainly more than most places in the world. So that means we have to give our opinions about stuff. At least that’s what we think it means. I taught teenagers for thirty years and they have opinions about everything, and those opinions are a big part of their self-image. It’s almost as if they believe their opinions are who they are. I can forgive them for that because finding your own viewpoint and your own voice in the world is a big part of growing up. We all need self-confidence and we all need to believe in ourselves. Expressing our beliefs and feelings is one way to do that. I heard a lot of opinions in my work and mostly I had to say “isn’t that nice?” or some other platitudinous jive because my opinion about their opinion mattered not. Part of being a teacher is accepting that all the kids are different and they don’t fit neatly into boxes. And keeping my opinion to myself meant the focus was on the student, not the teacher.

Maybe that’s all we are—a bundle of goddamn opinions! I hope not. In fact, I don’t think so. We are a bundle of perceptions, and those perceptions interact with our pre-conceived ideas and we form a picture of the world. We cling to that picture because the world is ceaselessly dynamic and we need a life raft in the swirling ocean of change. Life IS change, but changing our minds is tough. We feel better when we are “right” and our notions are vindicated. Never mind that much of that vindication is just seeing what supports our ideas and rejecting what does not. All of us do this. We are selective about what we allow to be real and true. A truly free mind would be, I think, a great challenge. The possessor of such a mind would find it hard to deal with the rest of the world as they would seem to be standing still all the time. It would be a bitch on relationships as one of the things we count on from those we love is their consistency and dependability.

Educational research consistently reveals that students take the new material that teachers show them and they twist it all around and cram it into the conceptual frameworks that already exist in their minds. Rarely do they adjust their attitudes and outlooks because of new information. It’s only when students confront the limits of what they already know and see its shortcomings that they gain insight and understanding. But this is nearly impossible to do in the classroom. And it’s even harder to do over a few pints with an opinionated drunk on the next stool. But that’s what I’m interested in: the biases that limit our knowledge and the assumptions that strait-jacket our minds. How do we shake those off and see the world anew?

 

And bring hither the fatted calf . . .

We usually get our beef delivery about this time of year. It used to be we bought meat in the market just like everyone else. For some time now we’ve been getting our beef directly from the ranch, a very small-town thing to do. The outfit is called Prather Ranch and their main operation is near the town of Macdoel in eastern Siskiyou County, about an hour’s drive from Yreka. When we called this week to inquire about our beef, we were told that the long, cold winter (and it was indeed a long, cold winter!) meant that the animals didn’t grow as fast as projected and were “too small.” Now that spring is here and we’ve had warm days and sunny blue skies things should pick up. “A few more days like these” they told us and the cattle would be ready for processing.

Prather Ranch is unusual in that they have a closed herd. The last breeding cow was introduced into the system in 1975. Originally they raised cattle for hides, bones, tissues, and organs for the pharmaceutical industry. The beef, in essence, was a by-product! We purchase a quarter of a steer, called “half of a half” for some reason, and split it with another couple. In good years we get about 120 pounds of meat. In the lean years maybe only 80 pounds or so. (When you place your annual order you are actually assigned a specific calf.) It’s grass-fed and dry-aged and thus tender and delicious. The animals are slaughtered on-site as the ranch has its own USDA-certified abattoir. They maintain both an “organic” herd (no hormones or antibiotics, no animal parts in the feed, raised on organic pasture) and a “natural” herd (minimally processed, no artificial ingredients, but sick animals can be treated with antibiotics and some may have eaten conventionally-raised feed).

I’ve become so used to eating this high-quality beef that I rarely eat beef anywhere else and avoid ordering beef in restaurants. It mostly doesn’t compare. Even the ground beef is exceptionally flavorful and I’m not much of a hamburger fan. The steaks, roasts, and ribs are always delectable. It’s nice to know that sustainable practices and an ecological outlook are compatible with a superior product. I appreciate that these guys are open to the public—I’ve yet to visit, though—and interested in transparency. There’s a talk by one of the family members about the relationship between food consumers and producers at TEDxRedding. You can see it here.

Growing up in the supermarket and TV-ad era makes food seem just like any other consumer product, no different than t-shirts or televisions. But food is a lot more important than stuff, don’t you think? We know much more about our stuff than we do about our food, and it’s amazing how little we know about our stuff. We are a rich country, wallowing in abundance, and we can afford to be fussy about what we eat. Places where the food supply is uncertain don’t have the luxury of demanding “natural” or “organic” products. They are fortunate if they get enough to eat! We live on the other end of that spectrum. We can turn our noses up at food that doesn’t meet our particular desires for freshness, healthfulness, or sustainable agricultural practices.

In this modern world of agribusiness and factory farms there’s a desire by many to embrace a farm-to-table approach. Buying fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets, for example, is one way to do that. It’s not always practical. One of the reasons we have massive corporate producers is economies of scale, that little bugaboo you learned about in Econ 101. To feed the millions of hungry mouths requires a huge system that can deliver safe, abundant foodstuffs across the country throughout the year. One of the results of this techno-industrial marvel is consistent supply. You can go to the store any time of year and get almost anything you want.

This delay in our beef delivery got me thinking about the old days. People had to live in the boom-and-bust cycle of nature. Lean years meant just that. You didn’t get the yield from the farm due to the vagaries of weather and thus you weren’t as well fed, didn’t make as much money, or encountered rising prices as a consequence. Even fat years could have a negative impact as over-production could cause prices to fall and the market to drop on the product you raised. In today’s world we see the prices of food go up and down but, unless we are commodities traders, we are usually disconnected from the cause-and-effect.

It’s fashionable these days to overlook the good part of our food production system. Yes, all the critiques are true, we are too energy-intensive and use too many petrochemicals for example, and we only nod in the direction of sustainability instead of embracing it. But we are well fed. We have, in comparison to poor countries, cheap, healthy food in abundance. Many of the health problems of our nation are due to our eating habits. We have obesity and heart disease in abundance as well! Having too much food is a problem, too. (But it beats not having enough, eh?)

There are about 3.2 million farmers in the States out of a population of about 320 million. One in one hundred is one percent. One percent of the people grow ALL of our food! One hundred years ago there were ten times as many farmers but only one-third as many mouths to feed. It’s not often we get reminded that our food comes from somewhere other than the store. Living up here in farm and ranch country gives me that chance.

 

. . . and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry. (Luke 15:23)