The Ending of an Era

At no point in history does any body of authorities declare that an era has begun, and then the era suddenly begins. Nor does any body of authority declare an end to an era, after which said era dutifully halts. Instead, people look about and around to discover if things are pretty much the same as they used to be or if things are becoming pretty much changed from what they used to be. If things are the same, whatever era one happens to be in is continuing. If things are not the same, then that era is drawing to a close and a new one is beginning. It’s a long process, the change of an era, but it is a noticeable thing, even when one is in the middle of it.

The decline of Rome was absolutely noticeable. Authors of the day recorded how things were changing and how the world of Rome was giving way to something other than the world of Rome: they did not know what to expect. The Aztecs certainly noticed the end of their kingdom and the imposition of Spanish rule as their language and religion were suppressed over time in favor of their conquerors’ ways. The advent of industrialism became noticeable as the cities swelled in size, the factories choked up the air, and people actually began to have aspirations that their own lives would be better in some way than the lives of their parents and that their own children would have material improvements in their lives to make them better than their own.

But now we notice that such things are no longer the case. World population growth is leveling off, and predicted to go into decline before long. No diseases or famines will claim those lives: we’ve simply gotten to where we have access to enough calories per day to support the population we have. Any more is excess. Yes, this does mean that life 300 years ago was a wretched affair as far as access to proper food went, and, yes, it does mean that we can’t really improve upon what we have available today as far as food productivity. There’s still dire hunger in the world, but once addressed, providing food security to the entire world will not be boosting the population any more.

That alone is a massive change from what things used to be like. Global population stability means that global economic growth will also level off. Industrialization and computerization have brought massive increases in productivity per worker, but they have also peaked. A set number of workers times a set level of productivity means a set level of production. No change means no growth, simple as that. Should we experience another boost in productivity, it will be because of robotics providing us with the equivalent of a slave class to do work for us all. Humans themselves are not going to be making much more stuff than they already make.

As for the robotics business, I don’t see that as a panacea for growth because of the decline in availability of cheap fuels and metals. There’s a finite amount of these resources in the world, and we’ve about run out of the easily extractable stuff. I remember the pit in my stomach the first time I saw $3 per gallon gas in 2005. Now, it’s pretty much expected – low, really, when I think about it. Fossil fuels and metals are not renewable, so what we’ve used isn’t coming back. Replacement fuels are on the horizon, but replacement metals depend upon us finding a way to devour the asteroid belt with the question if such an effort will produce enough to justify the cost that went into such an effort.

But no matter if the problems of energy and metal are solved or not, couple them with the maxing-out of human population and productivity and one has a world that is not like the world of the past 250 years, that saw steadily increasing human populations and productivities coupled with access to cheap fuels and metals. There were some horribly exploitative work arrangements for the slaves and near-slaves of the world during that time, but the world built on their muscle, bone, and blood did result in what we have today. The massive jump in birthrates gave us a huge supply of cheap labor that could be exploited, come to think of it.

And where the labor could not be exploited, the jobs for that labor vanished. I remember when all the jobs were getting shipped over to China. Now China is desperately choking to death on its own lack of regulation. It’s starting to starve, as well, which means those factories simply have to stop polluting – which means they will have to go elsewhere that does not yet have laws against poisoning the air, land, and water. Once those areas are exhausted, the world will then be empty of places where labor can be exploited as cheaply as it currently is in China. That then means overall higher prices for things. And if fuel and metal also rise in cost, those finished goods will be higher still in their prices.

Which brings me to the standard of living. It’s not just recently on the decline, it’s been on the decline after a period of leveling-off. For all the innovation we have in electronic goods, we still haven’t found a way to make homes truly more affordable. For all the access to college we now provide, we still haven’t found a way to properly employ people in their chosen fields. For all of the social progress we’ve made, we still haven’t found out how to end wealth disparity and the problems that creates in a society. The standard of living for all but the very rich is in decline – globally – and this is something very different from the last 250 years.

Now, the decline itself will not proceed relentlessly. It comes to an end, and we have a new stability in that area. Should we have access to more cheap metals and fuels, then we face a relatively comfortable future, but a static one. Entertainments will dazzle us forevermore, I’m sure. Life spans could increase greatly, with great strides in health so that we enjoy those days greatly, but neither entertainment nor long, healthy life will provide a fundamental change in the way things are to bring us back to days of ever-increasing population and productivity. It’s just a different sort of stability from what existed prior to industrialization.

And what of the future in which we do not have cheap metals or fuels? What if the advances in longevity and health are for the very rich and the poor are left with what they currently have, as far as days on the earth go? Then we will see a stability, but it will be quite a bit more brutish than anyone really cares to imagine. But it’s the alternative if we do not find a way to address the issues of fuel, metal, and wealth disparity. There’s a very good chance we can master the first two tasks and fail in the third, since that always seems to be a failure of humanity.

Even when humans rise up to smash the rich and distribute their goods to one and all, a new class of rich emerges from that supposed utopia and the reality of wealth disparity returns. Barring some massive event that wipes out every evil-minded person, we are stuck with economic apex predators – sociopaths that gladly create exploitative arrangements in order to enrich themselves. Murder to get gain, if you want the blunter version.

A static population with a set level of productivity and a ruling elite that maintains a style of living far greater than the mass of human peasantry seems to me like the next era of humanity, possibly with or without cheap fuels and metals. Such an era has been gradually arriving, and may be fully invested by the middle of this century, certainly by this century’s end.

And should we manage to find a cure for evil, then we’re still faced with the stable population with a stable level of productivity. We may be more equal in what we have, but we will have what we have, and that will be that. No more growth, really, with or without the fat-cat bankers. So what, then?

We’re heading for an era where we no longer consider material growth to be a good thing, or even a thing. The materialism of this age will give way. Generational expectations of something better cannot exist when generations repeat the experiences of previous generations. With materialism no longer offering itself as an answer for what ails a person, spiritualism and traditions will have more meaning in peoples’ lives.

I say that China may be the future of the world, but I don’t mean it the way stock traders or manufacturers mean it. I mean it in a historical sense, with an imperial dynasty served by technocrats, watching over a large, stable population that pretty much does what it’s always done, year in, year out. I don’t mean that the ruling class will be made up of Chinese people. I mean that whatever rulers we have will have more in common with the mandarins than they will with the top men of the West during the past 250 years.

The goodness or badness of such a system will depend largely upon the people running it. It would likely be mostly bad, given the track record of extremely wealthy rulers. But, such is our coming lot. Freedom to choose one’s course in life is vanishing for anyone not in the very wealthiest of families. The replacement is a fork in the road: either choose to do something that the wealthy find to be of value, in order to enjoy some of the benefits of the lives of the wealthy, or be part of an urban mob that toils away at supporting itself after paying out, one way or another, to support the parasites at the top.

That last part I see as being already firmly in place. This has enormous implications for one and all. The world of the past 250 years may not yet be entirely gone, but it’s fading fast. Kids can still grow up to do whatever they want to do, but there’s no guarantee they can make a living at it anymore. Better to realize that they need a valuable skill to be a valued person so that they can enjoy a life that affords them the free time they’d like to have in order to pursue a dream. Those valuable skills are not attained easily, so those that want to do the hard work will enjoy a measure of reward. Those that shy away from the difficult things – math, memorization, languages, science – will later on envy the lives of those that embrace them. As Vaclav Havel said, “We must be tough in the interest of a good thing.”

No Change, Then

When I go to restaurants, I like to leave cash tips. That carries a few implications for me, one of which is that I like to have small bills in my wallet so I can dial in the right tip for the right meal without taking up too much time at the restaurant. I was about to go eat somewhere when I remembered all I had was a $20 bill. I needed some ones and fives for this place, so I pulled into a convenience store to break that $20.

I walked in, found where they sold some gum, picked up a pack that looked appealing, and proceeded to the counter.

The young lady at the cash register looked like she had a real sad life story, even at this early age, but I didn’t want to pry. I just said, “Nice weather today, ain’t it?” and put the gum on the counter.

She ran it over her scanner and after her register beeped, she said, “That’ll be a dollar thirty-six.”

I produced my $20 and her expression went from bored coping to a hateful sneer. “Don’t you got anything smaller than that?”

“That’s the only bill I got.”

“Well, don’t you got a credit card or somethin’?”

“I’d like to pay in cash, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, I *do* mind.” She looked at me with some kind of deep malevolence in her eyes.

Pretty strong emotions over a $20, I figured. I had to ask why it made such a big deal to her. “Why?”

“I don’t like makin’ change.”

“The register tells you the amount, don’t it?”

“All the same, I don’t like it. I ain’t makin’ no change.”

“What do you do with other people that pay in cash?”

“Well, it ain’t no problem if they’s close to the right amount. I don’t mind that none. *You*, though… you ain’t got even close to what this costs. Besides, you’re just buyin’ it to make me give you change, and that’s against store policy. We don’t break no large bills.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, I *do* want this here gum. I’m not just buyin’ it, as you say.”

“If you want it so bad, then pay with a credit card.”

“I want to pay cash, please.”

“Then take it for free. I don’t care.”

“But I want the change, as well!”

“Then buy some more stuff. Get it up over $10 and then I’ll break your $20.”

“I’m not doing that! I need more than ten bucks in change.”

“Well, I ain’t no ATM.”

“I’d like to speak to the manager on duty, please.”

She smiled, which I took immediately as an ill omen. “We got the owner here, if you’d like.”

“OK, please have him up here.”

“Sure thing.” She turned to yell at the back room. “Honey! We got us an idjit here!”

Honey? Well, honey turned out to be a big ol’ feller, about twice the age of the cashier, and in no kinda mood. “What seems to be the problem, sir?”

“I’d like to buy this pack of gum and she won’t accept my $20 for it. I’d like the change, all the same.”

“If she don’t wanna have to do no math, that’s her business. Did she offer it to you for free?”

“Yes, but-”

“But nothing. You take it and get on outta here. We don’t need your business, if you ain’t civil enough to use the right bill for the purchase.”

“I don’t mean to cause no trouble.”

“Don’t wanna cause no trouble? You asked for a manager, didn’t you? That’s always what people do when they want to cause trouble. And you’re planning trouble for my sweetheart here? I ain’t got no allegiance to that plan. You best get on outta here while I’m yet in control of my temper.”

“Well, I’m not taking the gum, then.”

“What, it’s not good enough for you?”

I turned and walked out of there. I had gotten half-way to my car when I felt something small strike me in the back. I turned to see what it was. Honey stood in the doorway of his store. “It’s your gum, yuh moron yuh!”

I almost refused to pick it up, but then a part of me envisioned a future in which Honey charged out to grab up that gum and get it into my possession, even if it meant totalling my vehicle in order to do so. I picked it up without any further comment and walked on to my car.

Honey went back inside and I resolved never to get gas or anything there ever again.

I next decided that I had to go eat somewhere where the bill would come out to $16.67, exactly, so that $20 would cover the cost of the meal and provide a 20% gratuity and then hope and pray that the waitress wouldn’t be someone that was allergic to getting change in a tip.

Games vs. Movies

Family of four, going to the movies: do the math. The cheapest is buying everyone a ticket for $6 at a matinee show and not having anything to eat there. That’s $24 for 2-3 hours of escape. If the movie’s good, there’s a chance you’ll drop $20 on it again when it’s released on home media, just so you’ll always have access to it. That’s $44 for the movie experience, now, and if you add in popcorn and a few drinks, you’ll easily hit $60.

Contrast that with a modern board game. Not Risk or Sorry or (shudder!) Monopoly, but something like Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride. For around the same cost as all the tickets plus either popcorn or the DVD, you can get the same 2-3 hours of escape. True, there’s more storage space required for the game, but otherwise, they’re pretty much equal in cost.

Therefore, the argument about where to put down one’s money for maximum value has to be answered in the quality of the movie or game being considered. Honestly, I’m not impressed with the level of work coming out of Hollywood. I think the last movie I saw in a theater – and liked without reservation – was Despicable Me 2. Most everything else leaves me cold when I see the promos. PG-13 usually means my ears will be a toilet for a few hours and R means that I’ll probably have to watch something I don’t want to see if I want to see the rest of the movie. The worst code for me, though, is 3D. I absolutely cannot watch 3D movies, full stop. I see “3D” and I imagine myself to be the lame little boy that couldn’t keep up with the crowd that chased after the Pied Piper of Hamelin. So that leaves me with less and less of a connection to the movies.

And then there’s the whole thing about lazy studios making decisions that CGI and other effects are proper substitutes for decent plot and characters. They’re not, and I see through that junk in an instant.

Given that my movie choices are pretty much now limited to well-thought-out G and PG ventures, my pickin’s is slim at the box office. That’s why my movie dollars are now going towards highly-rated board games. I get the same great enjoyment and common experience with my family as I do at the movies, and I can know what I’m getting into with what the box promises. If we don’t want to swear or have sex scenes in our entertainment, we won’t have them. And while the box office only offers me a film I want to see once in a great while, the game companies have made a wide range of family-friendly offerings for me to choose from.

I love movies, but they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. Thankfully, the board game companies make ‘em like they do right now. Game on!

Lockhart BBQ

Giant Rib

Lockhart, Texas is the BBQ capital of Texas. It’s a town of 12,000 with four BBQ joints that are packed, even at 2PM. That’s some good BBQ, across the board. If you love BBQ, you need to go to Lockhart and sample the wares there. If you don’t know what BBQ is, then you will discover it in Lockhart.

First of all, let’s get something straight: BBQ is not merely grilling meats. It is an art form executed in meat, wood, and smoke that requires participatory involvement among its intended audience. When you see the Mona Lisa, it would be a crime to bite into it and savor its flavors. When you see a plate of Lockhart BBQ, it would be a crime to not bite into it. That is the key difference between most other art and BBQ.

Now for the breakdown: Lockhart’s barbeque restaurants number four: Chisolm Trail, Smitty’s, Black’s, and Kreuz. This past Thursday and Friday, my wife and I went to all four for a scientific research expedition that was much yummier than trying to find the North Pole, I assure you. If you want to know which one is best, my answer is, “Yes.”

By that, I mean that they all have an aspect that I found to be truly excellent. All four served up meats that made me pause to savor, even at the expense of enduring discomfort as my throat yearned for water. Taste took precedence over comfort, and that is a true mark of an excellent plate.

A few general comments before I deal with the restaurants individually: these are not polished dining establishments, nor should they be. Each has its own ritual of waiting in line and selecting one’s food. Follow the lead of the natives in front of you in each of these places. They all have strong ambient aromas of the BBQ pit: best not to expect smelling like something other than a smoke pit after paying them a visit. Plastic table covers, metal chairs, and a lack of utensils is the rule at these places, with Smitty’s and Kreuz not even offering forks: your fingers will do just fine. If the thought of your hands smelling like meat for the rest of the day makes you recoil, you are reading the wrong article and you should always give Texas wide berth, on account you won’t be pleased with what goes on here. We-all barbeque here, I tell you what.

Chisolm Trail had the lowest prices, the most sides, and the best sausage – nice and spicy, and I enjoyed that. The other places had great sausage – Black’s being most reminiscent of Gerik’s sausage up in West, which I am mad about – but if I go back to Lockhart in a sausagey mood, I’ll poke my nose into Chisolm Trail and get my fix there.

Smitty’s had it a great pork rib and a fine brisket. Smitty’s sauce was not entirely to my liking, but the good news there is that the pork rib tastes much better without adding sauce. My wife enjoyed their brisket best. I am more of a rib fan, so I’ll defer to her assessment of the brisket here.

Black’s has been a place I’ve gone to many times over the decades, so I really was comparing the other places to it. Its prices were highest and its sauce has an amazing dimension to it that made it the best in town and one of my favorite sauces, right up there with Corky’s in Memphis, Tennessee. The picture above is of the giant beef rib we ordered up at Black’s. That is one of the best things I have ever eaten, and I would gladly do it again. It was brilliant with or without the sauce, but I preferred it with Black’s intricate sauce that complements the meat so very well. Everything was grand at Black’s, and it remains my overall favorite, but that is now an informed judgment on my part.

Kreuz is a place I had always seen but never been inside of. I disagreed with their “no sauce at all” policy, so I took their meat to go and ate it in the car with a small bowl of Black’s sauce, just to see if the sauce made a difference. In the case of their pork rib, as at Smitty’s, the meat was better on its own. I would attribute that to the sauce that had already been applied to the rib in the smoker – there was no need to dress it any more. I consider the pork ribs there to be almost as good as the ribs I hold dearest – Corky’s – and relished my discovery therein. I really enjoyed their brisket as well, with and without sauce, and celebrated the flavors. I thought it had scored big, but my wife called a penalty on that play. Our cut of brisket had not been trimmed, so we had paid for a pretty sizable hunk of inedible stuff. Everywhere else had trimmed the brisket, but not this one.

It was great having a BBQ crawl over two days. We spent the night in Austin and had a lovely trip, all the more enjoyable with our bold research. Any fan of BBQ owes it to himself or herself to see what Lockhart has to offer. All four of these places are great eats, and will give the gourmet some memorable experiences. While I enjoyed my giant rib at Black’s the most, I don’t consider it a winner of the BBQ wars of Lockhart. The real winner is the city itself and those lucky enough to live within smelling distance of four of the finest BBQ joints on the planet.

God Is Love

God is Love. That formula equates two of the most inexplicable and difficult to understand things in the universe. And, while they are certainly in the categories I’ve assigned them, they are also two of the most powerful and wonderful things in the universe. It is on this day that I want to take some time to remember one who, to me, is the Son of God and, therefore, who is also the greatest force of Love the world has yet seen.

When I look into the eyes of my wife, I am amazed and unable to fully comprehend the love she has for me. I know it is there, and I know her love is vast and deep and wide, but I do not know the extent of it if, indeed, there is any extend to that love. I look to my parents and children and see the same issue. I know the love is there, but I do not fully understand how great it is. Even within myself, I know I am capable of love and that it influences my actions, but I do not even know what love I am capable of expressing. I have only my faith and feelings that that love exists in all of us. There is no proof of love to yet be expressed, only the proof of love that has been expressed.

So it is with God, for God is Love.

To all the people of the world, this is a joyful day for me. It is a day I celebrate love and devotion and faithfulness. It is a day I celebrate truth and light and compassion. If you share my faith, then you share that celebration today. If you do not share my faith, then I still hope this day brings to you some of that love which all our brothers and sisters deserve to have in their lives. For, to one and to all, if we choose a day out of the calendar to remember to love one another and to be good people that we might have peace on earth, then it may as well be this day, when we can capture our desire to participate in the great unknown, the delightful, adventurous unknown of Love with these simple words: Merry Christmas!

A Merry Christmas to one and all from me. May Love be part of your lives and may you never know the full extent of it. May Love in your life always be a frontier that advances as you think you approach its limit. Merry Christmas!

The Jethro Tull Christmas Album

Jethro Tull’s music reaches back to English folk and Renaissance songs for inspiration, so they have produced some amazing Christmas and winter-themed tunes over the years. For this album, they’ve provided both fresh versions of old material and some brand new songs that make for a very immersive and enjoyable holiday disc.

The first song, “Birthday Card at Christmas”, grabbed my attention and did not let go. It let me know that this album was not Ian Anderson and co. resting on any sort of laurels. I loved it, and I loved it all the more when I read Anderson’s comments about the song. He has a daughter whose birthday is near Christmas that gets completely overshadowed by the season. Likewise, Anderson noticed that there’s one birthday for a Mr. J. Christ of Bethlehem that also tends to be overshadowed by all the activities at Christmas. Well played, Ian Anderson. Well played.

The songs themselves invoke either the cold rush of winter or the warmth by the fire – or other appropriate seasonal evocations. It’s not a disc to spin in tropical climes, I assure you. This one is decidedly part of the experience of the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere and points northward, and it is rich in its local color. I enjoyed it all the way through and it’s yet another example of how gramps with amps can still rock hard and rock well.

Christmas with Buck Owens

When I was a kid, I loved watching “Hee Haw”. I came for the cornball jokes and skits, but I stayed for the music, especially the gospel quartet at the end. (I’m still looking for a decent version of them performing, without a load of studio overdubs, by the way.) Buck Owens and Roy Clark were the centerpieces of the show, so I’ve always had a soft spot for them in my heart. I suppose then, it was only a matter of time before my interest in collecting Christmas music would lead me to a Buck Owens Christmas platter.

I picked this one because it was his first. It did not disappoint. Released in 1965 at the start of the “Bakersfield Sound” style in country-western music, this disc has 12 great tracks, half of them upbeat holiday tunes and the other half tear-in-the-beer lonely heart songs. I loved ‘em all. It opens with “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy”, which is by now a Christmas standard – this is where it got its start. After that, Buck asks, “Pardon me, but do you have any… Bluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuue Christmas Liiiiiights…” Oh yes, we got us a cryin’ song, and it’s a good one. If you suffer from holiday depression, these are perfect songs for commiseration. Honestly, if you’re feeling the blues, you need to hear someone singing the blues to put your life in perspective, to where you can get back on the right track. As I said, about half the album is for cryin’ and the other half is for smilin’. All the songs have a stripped-down Bakersfield feel, with that ticka-tack drum line and the picked Fender guitars.

The only exception is “Jingle Bells”, which plays properly Bakersfield except for the drummer. The guy sounds like a refugee from a surf music band. I’m telling you, it’s a Stan Freberg send-up just waiting to happen. It’s a fun song, though, so what the heck, right? It doesn’t ruin the tune, and the drumming makes sense on every other track, so I’m fine with it. Overall, this is a great collection and I’m glad I got it.

A Little Historical Fiction…

THE BATTLE OF FORT STEVENS AND ITS AFTERMATH

I.

Major-General Alexander McCook barked out desperate orders to the men who were barely soldiers that made up the Washington, DC defenses. Jubal Early’s corps was just on the other side of the battlements at Fort Stevens, and threatened the nation’s capital. McCook wished he had better men, but a commander always has to order the soldiers he has, not the ones he wished he had. When McCook heard the sounds of drunken singing from some of the Confederate throats, he took heart: it sounded like they had looted a whiskey store somewhere and were in no fit condition for battle. They’d sober up soon enough, but that time would be what McCook would need to get reinforcements to the critical area. Wright’s corps was on its way to the front, and those tough veterans would do the job of defense that the invalids and rag-tag troops of the regular garrison wouldn’t be fully capable of.

McCook studied the movements of the Confederates. It was clear that Early’s men were hesitant, unsure of Union numbers behind the breastworks. McCook knew that hesitation would buy him more time and he stood a good chance of not being remembered as “The General That Lost Washington.”

Timing was everything. Wallace’s corps had fought Early’s men at Monocacy, just up the road from Washington. Though Wallace didn’t keep the field, his action bought a day for McCook’s defense, giving Wright’s corps the time it needed to move up from Virginia to the capitol. Now the combination of disorder and hesitation looked set to give McCook the time he needed. McCook said a silent prayer of thanks. There was a chance that the Rebels wouldn’t even attempt an assault. If all they did was fire a few artillery pieces and put up a skirmish line, casualties would be light and Early would have to withdraw before even more Union forces arrived to crush him. Early depended upon mobility to survive, given his limited numbers. He would have to move soon. Again, timing was everything.

McCook heard a commotion coming from the rear area: no doubt, that was the first column of Wright’s force. McCook descended from the breastworks to greet them and give them direction on where to post first. They would go to the right bastion first, where McCook’s men were least reliable. That would keep that area shored up, just in case Early lived up to his reckless reputation and chose a suicide ride into death and glory to burn the capitol at all costs.

McCook went pale when he saw that the only soldiers in the group that was causing all the fuss were part of the President’s security detail. Abraham Lincoln himself at Fort Stevens! On today, of all days!

“I came here to see the progress of the defenses of the capital.” McCook didn’t know where to begin with his laconic Commander-in-Chief. Mary Lincoln was with her husband, even. And what would become of them if Early’s boys crested those battlements and rained musket balls on the spot where McCook met his President?

And what could McCook say to Lincoln? This was the man that had moved to have McCook court-martialed after the disaster at Chickamauga. This was the man that had put events into motion that blamed McCook for the crushing Union loss. Right or wrong, this man that doubted McCook so deeply was also the one that had placed him in charge of the Washington defenses for the current crisis. McCook wanted to serve his president, but he wanted to perform that service with his president at least 10 miles away from the front lines. This was insanity, inspecting the defenses on the day of their most earnest test under fire!

And that test had just begun.

McCook heard the report of cannon-fire and the whipping-by of musket balls. He turned to regard his men in the fortifications. They were returning fire, which was a comfort to McCook, who had feared that they would have broken and ran. Instead, they borrowed a little courage from the earth that rose between them and the enemy, and it did suffice them so long as they kept their heads low.

“Ah, the sound of battle! I shall see it myself!” Lincoln moved from behind McCook, through his peripheral vision, and was well on his way to the actual walls of the fort.

“Mr. President, I must advise you not to go up there!” McCook’s voice faltered slightly with fear on behalf of his president.

“Nonsense! I fear no battle!” Lincoln waved away McCook’s concerns and took to the battlements and stood upright, viewing the whole field of battle, just as soldiers did in 1861. It was 1864 now, however, and every soldier worth his pay had learned the very important lesson of securing cover in a battle.

“Mr. President, there are enemy snipers in that line! Please get down!” McCook realized he had been rooted to the spot where he stood, immobilized with the fear of what was to become of a very tall man in a highly recognizable stovepipe hat in front of a mass of armed men, eager for a choice target to train their weapons upon.

A surgeon next to Lincoln on the parapet tried to convince the president to duck low. McCook thought for the briefest of moments that the surgeon was, once again, a masterstroke of timing. Either he would prevail upon Mr. Lincoln or he would at least be there to tend to the President, if he were wounded by enemy action.

McCook hoped against hope that he would be an anonymous name, little remembered in the annals of the great war between the states. Other generals would write their memoirs: let them. McCook had already been in command of soldiers that were overwhelmed by the enemy in three other battles, so he had nothing glorifying to offer the public other than apologia, which he preferred to not write. History was written not just by the victors, but by the victors that were lucky enough to have good public relations people working for them and a few victories under their belts.

A shot rang out. Suddenly, McCook experienced every moment as if it was a revolution around the sun. With complete clarity, he saw the darkness pass inches away from the surgeon, slamming directly into the right temple of the sixteenth President of the United States.

The red told a terrible story – even as the President fell, the surgeon leaped to catch him. McCook, released from the spell of fear by the shock of reality, ran to make his way to Lincoln’s side.

By the time McCook was there, the surgeon was already in tears, shaking his head in disbelief. McCook fell to his knees and saw the awful entry wound in the President’s head. A pool of blood beneath the President’s left side indicated the severity of the exit wound.

Why couldn’t the ball had been just two inches to the right? It would have hit the surgeon’s shoulder. Why couldn’t the President have taken off his hat and lowered himself? Why couldn’t the President have inspected the defenses after the action was over? Why couldn’t the President have left for a campaign stop up in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, or – better still, further still – Bangor, Maine? Why now, of all moments, did the timing have to favor the Rebel and not the Union?

Tears broke out of McCook’s eyes, involuntarily. This fateful day, 11 July 1864, would be forever known as the day Lincoln fell to the bullet of an enemy soldier, the first and hopefully only President to die in battle. McCook no longer worried or wondered about himself. A soldier through and through, he ordered his men to continue holding the line while a few officers carried the corpse of their Captain, their Captain to the rear.

II.

Hannibal Hamlin pounded the table in the Oval Office. “No! Absolutely not! Not one more word of this talk will trouble me! Every one of them needs to be hung as a traitor to the United States of America, if possible! I want Grant removed from command for even suggesting we accept a surrender from those butchers! Put Burnside in charge, he’ll know what to do!”

The seventeenth President of the United States had no intention of going easy on the officers and generals of Slave Power. They had had their chance with the lenient-minded Lincoln, but that chance had died with Lincoln. Hamlin was of one mind with the hard-line Republicans, dead set upon destroying the Confederate Army along with any vestige of the society of enslavement.

Scorched earth is what won him the election in 1864. Grant’s bumbling around Richmond was no help. Sheridan’s razing of the Shenandoah Valley provided the boost in popularity Hamlin needed to defeat McClellan. Now, Union columns were burning all in their path. Officers had orders to re-deed plantation lands to the freed slaves that once worked those lands without hope of owning them. Those that resisted were shot, making the disposition of their lands all the easier.

Andrew Johnson railed against the despoiling of the South, but the Constitution had no bearing on lands or people that had divorced themselves from it. Johnson could say all he wanted and Hamlin would not care, for it was a trivial matter to jail any editor that dared to agree with his sentiments. Hamlin had promised blood for blood in his inaugural speech, and Jeff Davis would be swinging from a tree before any talk of peace would be entertained.

And while the Confederate field armies had dissolved after the spring of 1865, their confounded bandit gangs continued to plague the Union occupation armies. 1866 had been a bloody enough year, and 1867 had begun much in the same manner. Hamlin took some cold comfort in reports that much of the violence of this year was not connected to resistance against the Union, but were most likely the final, violent climaxes to feuds that had broken out in the course of the recent rebellion. 1867 would see a tapering to the violence and, in the peace of 1868, hopefully the last of the Confederacy’s leaders would be rounded up and hung, which would practically guarantee Hamlin’s re-election in 1868.

As the officer left the Oval Office to relieve Grant of his command, Hamlin gazed out the window. He looked upon a land that would soon have the cancer of slavery completely exorcised from it. As he watched the trees swaying in the breezes of early summer, he contemplated the thought that it might be necessary, after winning election in 1868, to carry forward the fight against slavery to Cuba. That would mean a war with Spain, but Hamlin was confident his nation would be ready for the crusade. After that, Brazil needed a lesson in the rights of man.

The United States of America would stand astride the whole of the Western Hemisphere as a beacon of civilization and an eternal champion in the war against barbarism. Hamlin did not flinch from the thought of a war against not only soldiers, but ideas and practices. That was the American thing to do.

Why Choose Networking?

This was something I wrote on a forum in response to that question. Consider this to be career guidance for any young person looking to get ahead in the world.

The first time I left teaching, I got into IT. I realized that it was like the Wild West as far as careers went. See, I had a great-grandfather that got to be an engineer for the railroad because there was an opening and he learned quick how to use dynamite. He later found out the opening was created because his predecessor apparently didn’t learn the ins and outs of dynamite quickly enough. No college degree required, no certification exam, just hands-on, can-you-do-it stuff. If you said “yes”, you got a shot at proving yourself. If you were wrong, you didn’t last long. If you were passably good, your career was set.

That’s how it was in the 90′s. If you could spell “PC”, you had at least an entry-level job. As I watched my compensation packages grow from job to job and over year to year, I thought that the pay would eventually draw in millions more people to the profession, like medicine, law, and business had in theirs, and that the requirements for job qualifications would get more stringent. I thought then that, by 2005 or so, everyone would need a CS degree and post-graduate certifications on the lines of a bar exam/MCAT/CPA/brokerage license in order to be a practicing networking professional. Like engineering, the Wild West days would fade to more structured qualification procedures and regimented courses of education, just to weed out the people that wanted the money, but didn’t have the talent.

When I taught economics for 11 years after leaving IT in 2001, I kept up with what careers had good prospects and which ones were getting harder to get in to. I was always pleasantly surprised each year as IT jobs remained hard to fill. People were not flocking to them. If you were a talented person that wanted to rise quickly, relative to other jobs, IT was the way to go. There was a rough patch in the early 2000s when there was the outsourcing craze, but that has passed over and IT jobs are back on native soil. Because of the lack of talent in the field, the jobs are still Wild West jobs. Can you do it? If you don’t blow yourself up, you have the job. If not, consider your last brush with dynamite to be your exit interview.

2008′s crash changed a lot of things. It ended the days when a college degree meant an automatic job, regardless of your major. Those jobs are going, going, and gone, either because the company that did that stuff is closed permanently or because a Python script can now do that same job – which means a business can stay profitable in a recession/depression, but only if it cans the humans that are less productive than a script. Read this, especially if you have children: Oxford report on employment.

The summary is simple: computers are replacing people in low-skill and semi-skilled jobs. Pages 57-72 show a list of jobs and the probability a computer takes it over. Network admins? 3% chance of losing a job to a computer. Compare that to Cashiers at a 97% chance of getting canned in favor of a computerized system. 47% of US jobs are at high levels of risk of being lost to computers, and many of those jobs are where the middle class used to eke out a living.

I wanted to leave teaching in 2013, and because the IT world still had many jobs and few qualified persons, I returned to the Wild West. My teaching job is still there, but it’s no longer the kind of teaching I want to be doing. Although the Oxford survey I cited puts a low chance on teachers being replaced by computers, teaching itself is giving way to online content delivery, with the teacher being a sort of combination child psychologist/prison guard that follows a strict syllabus in lockstep content delivery. My job here in IT still affords me great leeway to apply my professional knowledge and I am happy to say that I am well compensated for my skill.

True, I have to put up with constant recruiter emails, but that’s a nice problem to have. I see people desperate to get minimum-wage jobs where they have to put up with all kinds of awful, picky, petty requirements in order to keep those jobs. I see people crowding into colleges because that was the rat maze path that used to deliver the cheese at the end. They graduate with massive debt, no job, and misery awaiting them as they get in line to get a minimum-wage job where the assistant manager is a guy that started there right out of high school.

Take the same guy that has a knack for thinking well and, instead of putting him into a college, get him to spend a few thousand dollars on equipment and certification materials. After a few months, he’s ready for an entry-level IT job. Salaries there are in the $40K area, well above the average starting salary for a college graduate of $30K, which is down $3K since peaking in 2008. The same guy getting $40K also has no student loans to pay off, so he’s ahead of the recent grad in that respect, as well. If you look at the time spent, college means exchanging four years of drawing a salary in the hope of getting a bigger salary with that degree. Compared to an IT career, it doesn’t add up. The guy that spends a few months getting a CCNA starts out at $40K, and earns that much or more for the next four years while his counterpart is living in a dorm at the university. After those four years, the IT guy can be a CCNP, possibly in multiple areas, and will be contemplating a CCIE and a six-figure income, if he doesn’t have that already. The guy with a BA in some liberal arts area? $30K, *if* he gets a job, and it’s a long, hard slog to the top. A BS in engineering can get a person to the $60-80K area, but that’s still with debt. Meanwhile, our CCNP is already clearing that much or more after 4 years, debt-free. It’s not a life of luxury, but it *is* a life that affords many opportunities and options because of the amount of money being earned.

Let’s say that our networking guy is being considered for a management position and he’d like to get into that area, but he needs a college degree. Guess what? He’s probably now at a company that will pay for his college, provided he makes good grades. Worst case, it’s on his own dime, but he’s earning his way through college the right way, with a full-time job in a career with potential.

That’s why I’m in networking. It offers an exceptionally rapid career development phase for a person with talent. If poets were similarly rewarded with a similar dearth of qualified persons in the profession, I’d be slinging rhymes and anapestic hexameters for a living. They’re not, so I’m a networker. Very early on in networking, you’ll have a job that pays better than 75% of the available jobs out there. That cutoff for that better than 75% number is an annual salary of $50K, by the way. When you hit your stride in the mid-range of IT jobs, you’ll be in the top 10%, easily. Again, it’s not cruising around the world on your yacht as you work remotely 15 minutes per day, but it *is* decent health insurance, retirement, paid time off, and flexible workplace policies for the most part. Considering the outlay and the return on investment, it’s one of the best things one can do as far as career choice goes.

Yes, I enjoy what I’m doing, but I also know there’s a lot of crap they can throw at me that’s mitigated by my compensation package. This is not a minimum-wage job that I can do no better than the next shlub waiting in line behind me. This is a field in which most employers know that if they’re not offering a good deal that their IT talent can walk out the door at any time and start somewhere else where there is a good deal. This will continue until kids decide that this is where the gold rush is and swarm the profession. That is not likely to happen for two reasons: math and smartphones. People see numbers and they panic, typically. Subnetting turns away most folks not already scared off by the 10 in 10BaseT, let alone the 100 in 100BaseT. Smartphones mean that kids that would have been tinkering with their PCs no longer have those in their hands, so there are far fewer PC/Network gurus in the making among the rising generation than there were in GenX and GenY. It’s going to be wide open for a good, long time, and while I’m not planning on becoming complacent, I’m also not worried about a Python script suddenly doing my job. This is a good field to be in, where merit and talent are proportionately rewarded with quality of work and compensation packages.

If a kid out there can learn to get over the natural human tendency to be afraid of numbers and then gets his hands on a PC and some second-hand routers and switches, he’ll be well-placed to enter a dynamic, rewarding, challenging career in networking. Given the costs and rewards of the alternatives, it’s easy for me to see why one should choose a career in networking.

That’s My Boy

When he was four and kicked a goal, I was proud of him. It was the wrong goal, but in four-year-old soccer, a goal is a goal is a goal and is always something to be proud of.

When he was thirteen and we climbed the Temple of the Sun together, I was proud of him. So it was only the third-largest pyramid in the world, beaten to second by a few lousy feet on the Pyramid of Cheops. It’s still a great pyramid in my book, and it was a great climb. I had to lean on his arm all the way down, and that didn’t diminish my pride one little bit.

When he was eighteen, he completed all his requirements to become an Eagle Scout, and I was right there on the front row of his Eagle court of honor, and I couldn’t have been more proud of him at the time. Eagle is Eagle, folks, and it’s never something to shake a stick at. Not that folks tend to shake sticks all that often, but, should one take up that dark and nefarious practice of stick-shaking, you keep it away from my son’s Eagle! He did me proud, getting that badge.

And now my son Calvin is Elder Webb. He’s heading down to Santiago, Chile tonight and will be there in the morning. He’s on a two year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santiago, and I’m even more proud of him than I was when he was four or when he was thirteen or even eighteen. He’s nineteen and he’s just started on the best two years of his life. That’s my boy with the white shirt, tie, and nametag. I love him and I’m very, very proud of him and the choices he’s made to be able to be in that position.

There’s a part of me that just wants to always hold him close. That’s the part of me that remembers he was once a little boy, a great little guy that fit on my lap. But there’s another part of me that knows those days are over. Once he was four and kicking that soccer ball, he was starting on a road to make his own choices and it was my job as his dad to be there for him, to cheer him on, and to tell everyone how proud I was of the great things he did.

Now he’s on that plane. He’s on that plane to Chile and I’m here at home, a little sad, but a lot proud. That’s my boy! Look at him go!

For those who may be wondering, yes, he did take his tiger Hobbes with him. When you read Calvin and Hobbes, you can rest assured that Calvin came out all right. He’s a young man about to do great things and his dad is very, very proud of him. He’s going to do fine, just you watch. He’s my boy, and I know he’s going to do just fine.

Best of luck, Elder Webb, may God be with you, and I’ll see you home in two years. We’ll see what else you can do to make me proud, all right? :-)