The new normal

Hindenburg burning“Oh, the humanity,” cried Herbert Morrison, as he watched in horror as the giant airship, the Hindenburg, burst into flames at its mooring. The year was 1937, and Morrison’s words still echo down the decades. As the disaster unfolded in front of him, Morrison exclaimed, “…it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it, watch it, folks! Get out of the way, get out of the way! … Oh, the humanity… This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

Eighty-three years later, uttering those words of anguish and disbelief wouldn’t be out of place in an eyewitness account of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. They’d be particularly apt when standing in front of a Talibangelist megachurch packed with worshippers while the sane world is in lockdown. Or commenting on the armed proto-fascists protesting lockdown in states that Donald Trump wants to win next November. Or the crowds of self-absorbed and immature people in Florida and California breaking social-distancing rules to demand state governments open beaches so they can party.

In the aftermath of the Hindenburg, travel by airship virtually ceased and the industry died. Air travel never returned to a pre-Hindenburg “normal.”

But as COVID-19 spreads and continues to wreak havoc on communities, businesses, and economies, many of our leaders and indeed citizens believe that it will simply pass, after which we will return to a pre-coronavirus “normal.” Things, they tell us, will go back to the way they were and we will continue on as we did before the pandemic. Things will be “normal” again.

Not only will that not happen, it should not. Normal is what got us into the mess. Normal caused the problems and if we go backward, we will only repeat them in the very near future.

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Dandelions and civilization

Whenever I see a lawn with dandelions, I think, “This is the home of civilized people. This is the home of people who care about the environment and their community. This is where bees are welcome.”

When I see a monoculture lawn, bereft of weeds or dandelions, I think, “Here is the home of an anti-social family; a place where life is restricted, wildlife discouraged; where community and the environment don’t matter.”

I feel the same when I see a lawn sign advertising that an anti-“weed” toxin has been applied: “Here is the house of someone who dislikes their neighbours, the local wildlife, and pets.” It’s the home of someone who doesn’t care about their and their neighbours’ drinking water, either, because everyone knows that those poisons drain off into our local water supplies and eventually poison everyone.

Bland lawns bereft of texture and colour, bereft of even a single dandelion just seem so artificial, so hostile, so arrogant. So anti-bee, so anti-life, so impoverished.

Dandelions, on the other hand, are a bright icon of civilization and conscience. After all, who doesn’t know that bees and other pollinators are in trouble, are suffering from the excesses of toxins sprayed egregiously on lawns and fields? Who really believes a drab, one-colour lawn is more attractive, let alone beneficial than a flower garden?

Dandelions have a long, storied history in human company: brought over from Europe in the 17th century for their healing properties, they have spread across the continent. 

Weeds get a bad rap, says Dan Kraus, national conservation biologist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada:

Weed is a very subjective term. There is no scientific definition that says: this is a weed, this is not a weed. They’re basically plants that are in a place where people don’t want them. People consider dandelions to be a weed, but if you just change your mind about dandelions, and you don’t mind them on your lawn, then they’re no longer a weed.

Just google lawns and weeds and up pop a horde of commercial sites offering to cleanse your lawn of weeds, mostly by spraying some toxic concoction on them that will also poison wildlife and your drinking water. And they do it for money, of course.  But that’s modern life and the culture of me-me-me: as long as your lawn is perfect, who cares the consequences?

Lawns have a long history, mostly as status symbols rather than anything useful. The word itself comes to us from the Old Enligh launde, meaning a communal grazing space. It devolved into laune by 1540. Back in Henry III ‘s time it meant a private area exquisitely and laboriously manicured (first by livestock, then by peasants’ hands, and later by paid workers) to show off your wealth and status. Nothing communal about them.

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Hegseth, hand washing and social media

Fox News host Pete Hegseth has said on air that he has not washed his hands for 10 years because “germs are not a real thing”.

That’s the headline you read on dozens of media sites and shared throughout social media (this one from BBC News). Instant reactions (mine included) were “ewwww…” followed by negative comments on Fox News in general. But when you stop to think about it, could it be true? Can someone actually go a decade without washing his hands?

No. Surely he bathes or showers regularly. One can’t believe a TV show host would be so unhygienic. His co-hosts would surely comment. Maybe he’s not as observant of the niceties of personal hygiene as others, but a whole decade?

And face it, it’s difficult to believe that even a Fox News host is so stupid as to not believe in germs. Alex Jones, and maybe the other fringe wingnuts like anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers could believe such piffle, but surely not a mainstream media host with a university education. Could he? OMG!!!! the tweets erupted.

Predictably, social media lit up like a pinball machine over this comment. So Hegseth tried to explain:

Mr Hegseth later told USA Today that his remarks were intended to be a joke.
“We live in a society where people walk around with bottles of Purell (a hand sanitiser) in their pockets, and they sanitise 19,000 times a day as if that’s going to save their life,” he said.
“I take care of myself and all that, but I don’t obsess over everything all the time.”
Of the public reaction, he said it was ridiculous how people took things so “literally and seriously” so that their “heads explode”.

He’s right. We react and often over-react. We are knee-jerk trained. Social media has made us into Pavlovian emotional hair-triggers. I am sometimes guilty of it, too, because I am as susceptible to confirmation bias as everyone else. No matter how hard I try to use reason, sometimes those eager little response hormones kick in first. Having our beliefs confirmed is comforting and reinforces them.

But Hegseth’s joke, if indeed it was one, didn’t get everyone laughing. It was a joke without a punchline. A lot of people believed it was true. And others found fault his later explanation, as noted in The Guardian:

On Twitter on Monday, Hegseth gave mixed messages. He claimed he had been joking and paraphrased the president in blaming the media for being so “self-righteous and angry”. He also said he supported drinking from hosepipes and riding bikes without a helmet…

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Idiot lights: aka fog lights

idiot lights
Have you noticed how many people drive with their idiot lights on all the time? These are supposed to be “fog” lights, but idiots drive with them day and night, good and bad weather. Hence the name: idiot lights.*

Not that they’re illegal (they should be…): the Ontario Highway Traffic Act allows a minimum of two and up to four headlights on the front of the vehicle, so they slip in under that provision. But fog lights are not meant to be used as headlights for daytime or clear driving at night: they’re meant for specific visibility conditions. Not for regular driving. The Act obviously doesn’t say anything about blinding other drivers, being inconsiderate of just an asshole, however.**

The term ‘Idiot lights’ refers to the extra set of headlights placed either between or below the main set (not the daytime running lights, which are low-intensity and separate). They were also known as auxiliary lights or even ‘driving lights.’ Once sold as add-on accessories, they have become standard on most pickup trucks and SUVs, and are increasingly common on everyday sedans.

These used to be called “fog lights“ but that term seems to have fallen out of favour because bad drivers use them in any weather and never turn them off. We call them idiot lights today for one, or both, reasons:

  1. They cannot be turned off (so the owner is an idiot for buying a vehicle with such a limited feature).
  2. They won’t be turned off even in good weather (so the driver is an idiot for annoying oncoming drivers and pedestrians).***

Idiot lights are often promoted as nighttime or bad weather vision enhancers. Well, that might be true, but only if they pointed down towards the road. Most seem to point out and often up, like the regular headlights. Which is right into the eyes of oncoming drivers – four headlights in your eyes instead of two. Plus they add glare on wet pavement that makes it harder to identify lanes and road markings.

Wheels.ca says of these lights and the drivers who use them:

Many motorists drive with their fog lights on at night even though there isn’t a slight hint of fog anywhere to be found. Fog lights are designed to be used when the fog is so dense the headlights reflect back off the water droplets and make vision difficult. Fog lights are mounted low to cut under the fog and light up the road surface under the mist. Driving with fog lights on during clear nights does two things. One, it blinds oncoming drivers which is very dangerous and, two, it shows everyone else you don’t understand fog lights and probably think yourself quite sporty.

Their sole purpose, in an age of increasingly uncivility, is to annoy oncoming drivers and reduce their vision. And it works. You used to have to turn on your high beams to get this effect, now you can buy a vehicle with annoyance built right in. And as an added bonus for the truly ignorant, you can annoy other drivers with both your high beams and your idiot lights in tandem. The real sociopath also replaces standard bulbs with high-intensity bulbs (HIDs) to double or triple the blinding effect!
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The dogshit dilemma

No more dogshitWe have a problem with dogshit. Well, all municipalities do, of course, but ours is increasingly evident: it’s everywhere. And with the growing popularity of pets and our growing population, it’s becoming worse.* How do we deal with it?

We pick it up, of course, as we dispose of it in our own garbage bins or in those provide by the municipality downtown or in our parks. That’s not merely what the bylaw says we have to do: it’s what responsible, mature pet owners do. Sadly, we seem to be in the minority.

Way too many folk leave it for others to pick up, or step in. And get sick from it. Dog owners know all this. You really have to be a sociopath not to pick up after your own pet and let it shit wherever, with no regard for the rest of us.

Worse, it’s a deliberate affront to the community, even more so than the smokers who stub their butts out on the street and sidewalk. Leaving your dog’s shit behind is like spitting in the face of everyone else here.

But there’s another type of dog owner we find here: those who pick up, then throw the bag of dogshit on the boulevard, onto lawns, over fences into yards or into streams, parks or gardens for others to have to pick up. Sometimes they just drop it in the middle of the sidewalk. That takes a real anti-social asshole with a special form of arrogance. They know that the baggies are far more visible than the shit itself, that it won’t decay or get washed away in the rain. They know some of their bags will get caught in our stormwater system and become a problem for our water workers to contend with. They know the bylaw says that dogshit has to be picked up and properly disposed of in a suitable container. But they do it anyway.

Thiers is an even nastier assault on common decency and community than those who simply refuse to pick up because this involves intent to harm, to vandalize and to insult. It’s deliberate and malicious.
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The Postmortal

Grim reaperMortality. We all get it. It’s the one one incurable ailment all humans succumb to without a chance of succor. Mortality is always 100% fatal. No medicine, no therapy, no diet cure or magic pill. But as you read this, scientists are researching, seeking clues to unlock the mystery and, potentially, cure us of aging,of death by mortality. And they might achieve it.

Having officially reached the two-thirds mark in my life this past weekend (based on my family history, my health and my lifestyle…), mortality is more often in my own thoughts these days. Not morbidly so, but certainly more common than when I was half my age. So when I picked up Drew Magary’s novel, The Postmortal (Penguin Books, London, 2011), I was intrigued by the subject: immortality.

What if a simple, easily administered genetic treatment could stop you from aging from this day forward? Would you take it? I suspect the answer for most folk would be an immediate yes, especially if you’re under 50.

It wouldn’t reverse anything, wouldn’t protect you from disease, cancer, liver damage or falling down the stairs. It wouldn’t protect you from the increasing number of gun nuts who can easily get automatic weapons and spray night clubs, movie theatres, hospitals, clinics, schools and churches with bullets (well, in the USA, they do it, if not always in other nations where the NRA doesn’t own the politicians…). But, barring those things, it would freeze you in time at your ‘cure age.’ You would be 39, 35, 42… or 60, 75 and even 89 for the rest of time.

Assuming that civilization doesn’t fall apart and eat itself alive as a result of this new treatment. Which, Magary suggests, it’s likely to do. Very likely. But he makes the journey to that end a compelling, entertaining and very thought-provoking read. It’s not so much a fall, but a slow stumble into the dark.

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