I learned earlier this week that my friend Jerry Mouton passed away. I’m quite shocked at the news. Jerry was truly a gentleman. Always gracious, always helpful. Eternally smiling. I’ve known Jerry for over fifteen years, and he never hesitated to lend a hand or good advice, especially with regard to helping me keep my old E-type Jaguar running. Jaguars are how we met and it was the core of our friendship. Jerry and his wife Kate graciously hosted Christopher and me at their home in Palo Alto during our father-son roadtrip in 2009 and I would often meet him and other Jaguar friends when I was visiting the Bay Area.
He drove his Jaguar. On tours. At autocrosses. He drove it hard… as it was meant to be driven. It inspired me to drive mine.
Jerry has also been the driving force behind the “Oil Leak Tours” that a group of E-type Jaguar enthusiasts attend every year. I’ve been on one (and part of another) but Jerry never missed one, and in fact passed away while attending the latest tour.
The “oil leak” crowd have collectively decided to change the name of the tour to the “Yearly Mouton Memorial Vacation” aka “YMMV”. I know Jerry would get a kick out of that.
Actually “hate” is not quite the correct term for my loathing and aversion for that place. Vegas is a blight on the otherwise wonderful intermountain west. I can appreciate what Las Vegas represents; a manifestation of liberty. A sort of place where the concept of “sin” is embraced as an alternative lifestyle.
I’m not at all a religious person. Philosophically I reject the claim that there exists any sort of deity that rules or judges our lives and behavior. Virtue is its own reward, not some e-ticket to a post-mortem amusement park. So it isn’t the “Sin City” aspect of Vegas that repulses me. No, it is something far more simple than that: Las Vegas is just a revenue-extraction machine on a grand scale. It steals from the people who love it.
Recently I attended an event in Vegas. It was one of those rare gatherings of far-flung folk with whom all of our interactions are online. Vegas was chosen as the location primarily due to it being a relatively cheap and easy place to get to. The organizers/hosts are from Los Angeles, but attendees came from all over North America. The SoCal contingent drove, but most folks flew in and made a long weekend of it. I’m still seeing all their photos posted on Facebook. Famous Vegas locales where they went, things they did, etc.
Me? I drove. I drove there, I attended the event and a bit of socializing afterwards, then I drove back.
It is about nine hundred miles from my home in central Oregon to Las Vegas. Why the hell did I drive it? Well, because it is some of the last remaining true wide-open driving territory left in America. That is why.
If you look at a map of the USA, the Great Basin is just sort of a big empty space. A blank part of the world that ancient cartographers would have filled with dreadful monsters and nameless fears. Terra Incognita. “There be dragon here” To the west lie the Sierras, to the east lie the Rockies. The philosophically polar opposite cities; Las Vegas and Salt Lake City lie at its edges. In between there is seemingly nothing. Interstate 15 cuts across it’s right side marking a route from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City via Las Vegas. Interstate 80 is the sole artery that dares to go directly through it east-to-west running from Salt Lake to Sacramento via Lake Tahoe. Otherwise this vast emptiness is devoid of superslab. It’s few small towns and settlements connected by a thin web of two-lane highways through giant valleys devoid of civilization. Empty blue highways.
Perfect driving country.
Before 2000, my only times spent in Nevada were an adult-league hockey tournament in Reno, and a middle of the night layover in the Las Vegas airport. It wasn’t until I drove Martin Swig’s crazy “La Carrera Nevada” car rally that I discovered the real Nevada. Not the smoky, white-trashy, sleazy Vegas or smoky, white-trashy, slightly less sleazy Reno… but the wide open and largely beautiful Basin & Range territory that makes up the rest of Nevada. It is vast. It is empty. It is awesomely scenic in its austerity.
It is also the last place you can truly “stretch your legs” in an automobile. Yes, there is the autobahn, but no, I don’t live in Europe. I do live at the very northern edge of The Great Basin however.
Safety Nannies might clutch their pearls and gasp, but… fuck ’em. Hemingway famously said:
There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.
True mastery comes from standing at the edge, looking into the abyss of death, and backing off just enough to truly understand where that edge lies. I’ve played two out of Hemingway’s three sports, and a failed at the basic task of herding some cattle into a pen before being branded, so I’ll take a pass on walking into a ring with an enraged bull. Suffice to say I have a good handle on my limitations. I know and trust myself behind the wheel.
What I can’t trust are the other humans on the road, who are so bored to tears that they have abandoned the act of driving so much that they yearn for self-driving cars to allow them to stare at their phones as they are shuttled from place to place.
Out here in the American Outback, the roads are empty. Those drivers-who-would-rather-be-passengers are all either west of the Sierras, East of the Rockies, or are droning across the Basin on the Interstate.
I chose my route to avoid even US highways where I could and stuck to the most remote of the paved roads, state highways and county roads. It was bliss.
Empty roads. Empty skies. Objective hazards measured largely in open range cattle and roadkill-feasting buzzards.
There were stretches of road I traveled where I never saw another vehicle for hundreds of miles. I was utterly and completely alone for most of the trip.
What this sort of driving brings to the driver is FOCUS.
Well, that is if you choose to actively participate. One could set the cruise control and pass the time the same way I did in my childhood rides across the west, watching out the windows into the sagebrush for Pronghorns and Jackalopes. (I saw plenty of the former, and none of the latter.)
Or you can DRIVE.
Due to some scheduling issues my trip to Vegas was split over two days. Friday I drove from Prineville, Oregon to Ely, Nevada, then Ely to Las Vegas Saturday morning, to attend the Saturday afternoon event. On Sunday morning I woke up and drove the entire return trip in one go, with only about an hour’s stop midway for lunch. Mapping software said the trip should be over thirteen hours long. I set out to see how many hours I could shave off that estimate.
I arrived home after about 10.5 hours of driving, alert and feeling fresh. How? I drove in a manner that many would describe as “reckless” or “dangerous” but is in reality exactly the opposite. I focused like a laser on the simple act of driving.
I played by a very simple set of rules:
1. When in or near any town, drive at or very near the speed limit.
2. When near any other vehicles, drive at or near the speed limit.
3. At all other times drive at the maximum comfortable speed I felt confident doing.
Given that well over 90% of my drive was on empty, well-paved, two-lane highways, with visibility often measured in tens of miles, it was very easy to drive the car at 80% of its true capacity. Being a modern, high-performance machine with tires rated well above my speeds, I felt very confident driving this way. I think I could have shaved more time off my trip had my car had a larger gas tank, or at least if I knew exactly where I might find gas along the route. Fuel consumption at higher speeds and “next gas in XXX miles” signs (which turned out to not be factual) forced me to slow down on two segments. It also rained on me for a short section through mountains in southern Oregon… for that I slowed down to well under the limit. Limited visibility and wet pavement is not the place to go fast.
Otherwise, I only made stops for fuel, food, and bio-breaks.
When I arrived home I felt oddly energized. Not at all tired. It was those hours of 100% focus. They don’t even allow you to become fatigued. So instead of covering ground at such a slow rate that the driver becomes bored, distracted, and fatigued, perhaps we should raise speed limits rather than keep lowering them.
I took a trip back to 2012 yesterday morning. It was a very vivid and immediate vision because how I went there was via the resurrection of an old laptop that was last used in late summer 2012. How I got there was mundane: I had purchased a bit of older technology, an Apple Airport Express base station (I use a technology called AirPlay to direct music from my laptop/iPhone/iPad to various speaker systems all around my property, and needed another one to fill in an audio gap in the basement) but this “new” old tech which I had grabbed from eBay for literally the price of two hot cocoas from a fancy coffee shop had been reset to factory defaults and could not be managed from current software. For most folks this would be a technological Kobayashi Maru scenario. But not for me, I knew I had the ability to technologically time travel, and likely could connect to the device, manage it, apply firmware updates, etc, and get it running on my home network. My old laptop, a MacBook Pro from around 2009, was sitting in a box in my garage. A couple of days ago I brought it in the house, set it on the table, plugged it in, tapped the keyboard, and watched it come back to life.
It still had the strange screen defect that caused me to replace it in 2012. But it also came back exactly how I had last used it. Applications were still there with windows open and documents still in the state they were when I last used it in the summer of 2012. I wasn’t there to reminisce however, I was there to do a job. Sure enough the ancient version of Airport Utility recognized the Airport Express and let me configure it. Job done, I closed the laptop and went on with my day.
But yesterday morning I sat down for breakfast at the table next to that laptop and casually opened it to have a look. I opened the web browser Safari, and to my surprise I noted the RSS feed ticker in my bookmark bar updating itself. I started with digits around 30-something, but rapidly escalated to 600-something before my eyes. I had forgotten how critical RSS was to my web browsing lifestyle. It was something very close to that old “Knowledge Navigator” thing from the infamous John Sculley-era video, but FAR LESS INTRUSIVE. It was’t some over-arching in-my-face annoyingly friendly technology… it was just a tiny little robot that collected things from the Internet I liked to read and presented them in a very unobtrusive way, right in my web browser. I had my RSS feeds arranged by subjects; cars, friends, photography, ideas, Chile (from when Christopher was an exchange student there), etc.
I eventually closed the lid after I had browsed through the entirety of my unread RSS feeds, and took off for Mt. Bachelor. As I was resting between runs on the Northwest Express Lift I thought about how Facebook had largely replaced RSS, but what had won out wasn’t quality, it was quantity. Instead of a trickle of great content it was a torrent of crap. Instead of thoughtful analysis of an old car parked on a roadside in Eugene, it was several hundred bad-quality “potato” shots of cars in V.I.S.I.T. Time is the most valuable commodity we have, and I’m starting to ponder how well I’ve been spending it…
I have no idea why Apple pulled RSS support out of Safari (ironically around the same time Google killed its RSS Reader) but it is certainly a feature I miss. Yes, I tried a dozen stand-alone RSS apps, but none of them were very good, and none of them made good browsers. Since that moment in time when that old laptop was retired my web browser has morphed from my window into the Internet, to a Facebook screen and where I pay my bills. I’m going to try to change that habit in the new year. Seek out quality content again.
Feel free to share how you find it in the comments.
“Datacenters are a boondoggle for rural America because they don’t produce more than a handful of jobs.”
In the article Don shared with me the target is Apple and its datacenter in Maiden, North Carolina. But I’ve seen the same sort of meme bandied about for Google, Amazon, Facebook, and every other player in the large-scale datacenter game. This whole line of thinking is fundamentally flawed in two major ways: It focuses on numbers without looking at value; and it is founded on an economic fallacy. It represents lazy journalism – slapping preconceived notions onto a situation without any real effort to find facts or report truth.
Rural America needs jobs. The mills and mines of yore are gone – and they are NEVER coming back. Small town America grew up around agriculture and resource industries. Farms have become industrialized and resources are gone. The timber is gone. The salmon is gone. The copper is gone. The gold is gone. The Mills and Mines are closed. The jobs associated with those industries are gone. Nothing is going to bring these jobs back. (The same can be said for manufacturing jobs in the rust belt.)
Datacenters do bring huge numbers of construction jobs. The cost of building a datacenter is often 10X more than a comparable-sized building. These are not simple warehouse-style buildings – they are specialty structures using high-value materials and extensive electrical and mechanical systems. They take far longer to build than comparable-sized structures. Datacenter projects often last for years, rather than the weeks or months required to build a an office building, store, or a warehouse. They employ hundreds of electricians, plumbers & pipe-fitters, sheet metal workers, ironworkers, concrete specialists, fiber-optic techs, and many other trades. Most of these are high-paying, Union jobs. When a Datacenter project lands in a small town the economic impacts are significant. All those construction workers have to live, eat, shop, drink, and recreate locally. They often bring families into town with them as the project has them there for at least a year, perhaps more. Very few, if any journalists ever even think about these facts, much less report them.
Once construction is complete, the number of people required to run the facility is much less, yes – BUT the assumption that all the jobs will go to “outsiders” is patently false. Most of the jobs in modern datacenters are not highly technical. The majority are usually related to facility maintenance; electricians, HVAC techs, etc. and physical security. There is rarely reason to ever have to hire these skills from outside. Yes, some percentage of the jobs require substantial high-tech experience, but the primary responsibility of datacenter technical staff in a large-scale facility is server repair, and any journalist who thinks these skills are only found in Silicon Valley or other major metros is a decade or two behind the times. In the project I’ve been involved with, only a handful of us were hired from elsewhere; the majority are local-hired. The bottom line still shows a net increase in jobs. These jobs are also far better than the old mill and mine jobs they replace. They are safe, high-wage jobs in a high-tech industry. Fifty jobs in Maiden, NC (and Quincy, WA, and Forest City, NC, and Prineville, OR, and Council Bluffs, IA, and…) are far better than zero new jobs.
Then there is just plain fallacy and flawed logic. “The jobs are gone, we have to get them back!” Every era of industrialization has seen transformations that have killed off entire categories of jobs and marketable skills. Every generation sees the death of careers: thread spinners, grain reapers, candle makers, telephone operators, punch card sorters. I’m certain that as technology moved forward a journalist wept ink over the loss of so many jobs as the need for that specialization dried up and then vanished. But as technology changes, so do the jobs. My grandfather, when he was a boy, dreamt of being an Oxcart Driver. Before he turned 20 that career was extinct. The actual fact of the matter is that jobs have been lost since the dawn of time. This is because human needs and technology are in a constant state of evolutionary change. Smart people don’t weep for lost jobs, they just move on to the next one. I work in datacenters, and I’ve often told people that “datacenters are the sawmill of the 21st century” in reference to them springing up in small-towns all over the USA. But I also know that datacenters could very well be gone in forty years – completely extinct. Maybe even twenty years, replaced by some other technology. Will the Henry Blodgetts of 2032 be crying over the lost Datacenter Sector jobs? Of course they will, because nobody recycles stale ideas better that so-called “Top-ranked Business Experts & Analysts” in the journalism trade.
Stepping gingerly over the domesticated sastrugi that makes up our deck after two weeks of winter, I unlatch the cover and open it. A moist comforting blanket of fog rises and surrounds me in the chill, dry wind. I slip in. The heat is as bracing as the cold I just left. Leaning back, the vastness of the sky unfolds above me.
Darkness that is the outlines of juniper and pine trees.
West coast air traffic coursing through the sky, navigational lights blinking.
A meteor falling north to south.
Cygnus has almost completed its flight over the western horizon, his beak almost touching the Cascades.
Jupiter shining brightly above China Hat Butte.
My brain soaks in the fact that some of the lights I’m seeing are in real-time, and others have spent billions of years traveling before landing.
Landing in my eyes here in a tub of hot water just west of the middle of nowhere Oregon after a journey across billions of years of space and time.
Bien sÃ»r, Je ne parle pas FranÃ§ais, Je suis un Americain!
I can say this phrase in near-perfect French. Like Magritte’s painting of a pipe, it has more than one layer of irony.
I took four years of French when I was a kid. Two years in grade school – 4th & 5th grades, and two years in high school. Because I had to have two years of a foreign language, and I was a lazy slacker, I took the same two years of French over again. This was pulled off because between grade school and high school my family moved from Illinois to Texas. The Texas schools had no idea I had already been through the course and gave me credit for doing it again.
I haven’t spoken a lick of French since. The ability to read it hasn’t vanished, but there are always mystery words. If I listen hard I can understand spoken French now and then. For example if there is a hockey game on Canadian radio en FranÃ§ais I can mostly follow along. But if my life depended upon saying something in French right now I’d be a goner. It would be au revoir Chuck!
Something has come up lately that has me studying French again (too early to share, as details are sketchy, but be patient!) so I’m looking for suggestions for online or offline lessons. I’ve been playing with livemocha a bit, and may just spring for their courseâ€¦ but I’m open to suggestions.
Or even direct help from any of you Francophones out there!