Guidelines for insane times

I’ve written a post, which I won’t publish, about how insane the United States has become. Being publicly bitter isn’t the way I want to use this blog, however I may feel. Instead, here are some semi-organized thoughts on how to stay sane in insane times. This is largely advice to myself, reinforced by saying it publicly, but perhaps others will find something worth taking out of it.

  • Trust in individuals who’ve shown their worth, not groups. People’s group affiliations and labels prove nothing. People join groups and movements for any number of reasons, including just finding a place to belong. This isn’t a sufficient reason to trust them — or, unless it’s a really outrageous group, to condemn them out of hand.
  • Integrity is more important than agreement. People who say things you like may turn around and say the opposite when it becomes more convenient. People who disagree with you and base their disagreement on reasons which they stick by are more trustworthy. At least they’re being honest with you.
  • Moral courage is integrity exercised in practice. It’s easy to say or do something when the crowd agrees with it. Sticking to what’s right when it’s unpopular measures what a person’s worth.
  • Without good will, the rest is joyless. People who exercise their integrity only to criticize aren’t pleasant to be around. Friends provide encouragement and support, and that makes their criticisms worth hearing. Karma is just a metaphor, not a physical reality, but having a positive karma balance contributes to a positive sense of personal value.
  • Remember Albert Schweitzer’s advice: “Es gibt zwei Möglichkeiten, vor dem Elend des Lebens zu flüchten: Musik und Katzen.” (There are two ways to escape the miseries of life: music and cats.)
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PNE reverses itself on Fairpoint transfer

It’s not fun to have to search the news to find out what’s happening with my electrical power delivery. The Nashua Telegraph now reports:

Customers who bought power from PNE through Resident Power, an “aggregator” that gathers customers for suppliers such as PNE, received an email Thursday telling them that the previously announced transfer to FairPoint Energy “has not gone through.” They have been switched back to being customers of Public Service of New Hampshire, at higher rates.

I didn’t get this notice. I still have electricity at home, but I don’t know who will be billing me for it.

The electrical power situation in New Hampshire is a case of fake “deregulation,” the kind which seems to be set up so some people can say “See, we’re promoting competition,” and others can later say “See, free markets don’t work.” The article explains:

Levesque [a customer] wasn’t in danger of having his power cut off because actual electricity generation and transmission aren’t affected by competitive markets; the local utility is always required to keep the lights on.

To a large extent, all that happens in a competitive power market when a customer changes providers is that his financial account is moved from one company’s system to another company’s system, usually after the next monthly reading of his electric meter.

This week’s confusion brought attention to the relatively new field of deregulated residential electricity competition, in which companies other than utilities such as PSNH can also sell power, at rates up to 25 percent lower than the regulated rates charged by utilities.

The competition is in some sort of accounting procedure, not in the delivery of electrical power, and I don’t pretend to understand it. (But PNE claims to have cleaner power sources than PSNH… I really don’t get it.) Actual competition in delivery of electricity would be a lot more complicated to implement; the only actual competing power sources that I can think of are private generators.

Still, the competition in billing results in two things: Better rates for those who can figure out the system and more potential for trouble if you pick the wrong seller. I don’t object to that, but the next time I venture into it I’ll do my homework better.

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More on PNE and Fairpoint

I’m not the only one disturbed by the jump from PNE to Fairpoint and the lack of explanations. It’s become a concern for the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission. According to WMUR news, PNE was “suspended from the grid” in mid-February and customers were switched back to PSNH, the default provider. If this happened to me, I was never notified. I wrote to Resident Power that I wanted to switch permanently back to PSNH and got an informal email telling me this would happen; this makes me feel a little better but not much, since the response didn’t look anything like a business notification of a transfer of account.

It turns out that Resident Power isn’t a power company but “an aggregate company the pools together customers to get lower rates.” Its site does say so, but not in a way that makes the arrangement clear to people like me who weren’t already familiar with the concept.

Customers can call the PUC at 1-800-852-3793 to find out exactly what their options are, but finding out what their status is may take more work.

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Resident Power / PNE / Fairpoint Energy

This is off the usual themes of my blog, but I think it’s important to get the word out.

A while back I signed up with Resident Power for my electrical power in Nashua, NH. It seemed like a good deal, with lower rates, until the first time I had a question. It was only then that I realized that Resident Power’s website has hardly any support information, just a generic “info” address to contact.

Yesterday I received a notice from Power New England (PNE), which is another name for Resident Power, stating that my service is being reassigned to FairPoint energy. It says that I can opt out of this and revert to PSNH, but doesn’t give any information on how to do this. Fairpoint currently provides my Internet connectivity, and I’m constantly getting dropouts. (The only high-speed alternative is Comcast, with which I have other problems.) I can accept that level of service for Internet but it doesn’t make me trust them for electrical service, which is more critical. Correction: Resident Power is an aggregator and isn’t the same company as PNE.

Resident Power never explained the billing procedure properly; I got another bill from PSNH with no notification of termination, made a flurry of phone calls and emails (finding the right address to contact with some difficulty) to try to get things straightened out, and finally was told I’d continue to be billed through PSNH.

Resident Power’s website is still asking people to sign up and doesn’t mention that the whole operation has been sold! This looks like deceptive advertising to me.

Sometimes there’s a reason for paying more. PSNH is a known quantity and doesn’t put the same kind of barriers between its customers and support. I’m getting away from Resident Power, PNE, and FairPoint Energy as fast as I can.

Update, June 7, 2013: I’ve re-titled this post to clarify that it’s about FairPoint Energy, whose only connection with FairPoint Communications is that they paid to use the name.

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The strange duality of people

This morning, trying to squeeze past a truck in a shopping center’s parking lot, I got stuck in a snowbank, and my wheels spun freely both forward and backward, digging me in deeper. After trying for a while to dig myself out with a scraper, I went to the supermarket to ask if they had any snow shovels. They didn’t, but a guy nearby overheard my request and explanation and offered to help me. When pushing didn’t work, he used his snowplow truck and tow chain to extricate me. I gave him a business card and offered help with Mac stuff if he ever needs it, and I’ll give a free plug here to the business name on his truck, Alliance Landscaping in New Hampshire.

As individuals, people can be very helpful and generous, yet when they engage their group loyalties, they can approve of horrible things. Most of the population is indifferent to, or actively approves of, increasingly barbaric actions by the US government. People whom I once considered reasonable, even if I disagreed on them on important issues, now accept outrageous acts authorized from Washington; yet I’m perfectly safe alone with them, even if they know what I think of their views.

When people are directly interacting with each other, face to face in a non-threatening situation, their best tends to come out. When they’re following a leader and don’t feel personally responsible for what’s happening, they’re often at their worst. I realize there’s nothing new about this observation, but some of my recent experiences have really driven it home. The people who cheered Hitler and went home to be kind to their (non-Jewish) neighbors were just a more extreme case of that duality.

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Raff’s symphonies

Joachim Raff was a famous composer in his own time, but we don’t hear much of his music today. His best-known work is his Fifth Symphony, based on the spooky German poem “Lenore.” Classics Online has been promoting Raff lately, so I bought and downloaded an MP3 album with his Ninth (“In Summer”) and Eleventh (“In Winter”) Symphonies. Going by these, I hope Classics Online’s efforts get his works some more notice. I’ll want to try some more of them.

Some nineteenth-century composers with relatively conservative styles, like Spohr and Raff, didn’t keep their place in the repertoire unless they were top-rank masters like Brahms. There are a lot of treasures to be found if you know where to look.

The “Lenore” symphony is most memorable for its third movement, a military march with an interlude representing parting, and the fourth, a wild ride. His last four symphonies have seasonal titles, but for the most part they’re better considered just as music. The first movement of the Ninth is titled “A Hot Day,” and the first movement of the Eleventh is “The First Snow,” but you could swap them and I wouldn’t have known the difference. The exception is the second movement of the Ninth, “The Elves’ Hunt.” This is clearly modeled on Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and evokes the same kind of feeling, with solo cello and violin parts for Oberon and Titania.

Raff’s orchestration and use of motifs make both of these symphonies lively fun. Generally I prefer the Ninth, but I like the last movement of the Eleventh, titled “Carnival.” There’s a well-written website on Raff with information on his life and works.

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The persistence of race-based thinking

Scientists have established that the division of humanity into races has no biological justification. There is a certain amount of variation in people’s appearance, and the variations are sometimes correlated with other characteristics such as food tolerances and resistance to diseases, but there’s as much variation or more within the classic “races” as there is between them.

Still, minor differences in appearance often loom large in people’s minds, and the notion of race is hard to eradicate. Certainly racism exists; the fact that it’s based on an illusion doesn’t make it any less harmful, just more stupid. There are people who try to keep the idea of race alive out of misplaced good will, though it looks more like condescension. Aware that the idea of race has been discredited on biological grounds, they try to keep it alive on social grounds. Social groups often are based on ancestry and appearance, but they aren’t races. When someone talks about “people of color” and tries to claim that that’s a social characterization and not a physiological one, that’s doubletalk.

These people get extremely self-righteous about their efforts to prop up artificial racial distinctions. A certain professor mentioned a student who wouldn’t accept the idea of social races; she said that her reaction was that her mouth was working but words wouldn’t come out. I wish she’d realized that this was because her better sense was keeping her from speaking nonsense, but she claimed the student was being “unscientific.”

More recently, a much less respectable person said I was “hiding behind science” in not accepting the social redefinition of race, and threatened that I would be accused of “racism” for saying basically the things I’m saying here. How can it be both? How can the refusal to accept the new definition of race be both “unscientific” and “hiding behind science”? Don’t expect an answer. Both of these people, incidentally, have typically European appearance and a light skin.

The goal of this linguistic maneuver is to treat people as having a “racial identity.” In other words, it’s collectivist thinking, regarding people’s identity as being not their own personal, unique characteristics, but an arbitrary combination of physical and social characteristics. The groupings are ridiculous. “Asian” is typically a single “racial identity,” even though it includes people from Japan, Siberia, Tibet, and Iraq. It has its own stereotype, which looks like the typical person from Japan and forgets that all the others are equally Asian.

Several years ago a small Boston-area college ran subway ads showing a young dark-skinned woman with the text, “My major: Identity” and listing a couple of contentless course titles. Until I started to understand the jargon of racial identity I couldn’t fully believe that the ad was intentionally conveying a racial message. It’s hard to grasp just how condescending — in this case, downright insulting — some “liberal” people can be.

How do people feel about being treated as “racial identities”? Recently I visited a college library and saw an exhibit of comments by students. I didn’t get a chance to look at them carefully, but was struck by the comments of a couple of students who said they are black and were at least a little annoyed at being the “source on all things black” or always being the first one the professor called on when discussing civil rights. This sounds to me as if they’d rather be treated as individuals than be told to major in “identity.”

Certainly people’s origins and heritage are an aspect of their identity. The deadly mistakes are making them be anyone’s identity, and reducing them to a small number of pigeonholes in which everyone is assumed to fit. For some people, these mistakes are innocent, an attempt to bend over backwards and be fair. But when anyone tells you you’re “racist” or “hiding behind science” by challenging their notions, you’re dealing with someone who’s dishonest at the root.

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Guerrilla archiving

The torching of the Ahmed Baba Institute by religious fanatics has an echo in the story of the man it was named for. Timbuktu was once a significant center of learning in the Songhai Empire, fueled in part by the expulsion of Muslims from Spain in the 15th century and by the ascension of a tolerant ruler. Ahmed Baba is often called its greatest scholar. In 1591 Morocco captured the city, and many scholars were arrested, killed, or exiled. Ahmed Baba was among those forcibly removed, and he was imprisoned for a period of time before being released in Marrakesh. His own private library was sacked.

A great many manuscripts from this period and earlier remained in the city, often hidden away in lots of small collections. The climate is dry most of the year, but in August the weather turns rainy and humid, and the average temperature for the year is a grim 29° C. That’s not good for the long-term survival of paper or parchment if it isn’t kept under controlled conditions. Nonetheless, many manuscripts have survived for centuries in many different hands, and lately, with the help of grant money, some people have been trying to gather them again. The Ahmed Baba Center (later the Ahmed Baba Institute) was established in 1973, and a new building for it was opened in 2009. The Institute had a collection of about 30,000 manuscripts before the fanatics occupied the city.

As they were driven out, they torched the building. At first it was reported that most of its collection had been destroyed, but recent accounts say that wasn’t the case. A large number of manuscripts were in the old building, and many others were transported to safe places, in some cases entirely outside the city. The question remains of how much damage occurred moving these fragile items, but it appears that the actions of some people with foresight and initiative saved major cultural resources.

Most of the focus in the news has been on the Ahmed Baba Institute’s collection of Islamic manuscripts, but it wasn’t a mere storehouse of religious texts. New Scientist reports that “[t]he texts include documents on astronomy, medicine, botany, mathematics and biology, evidence that science was under way in Africa before European settlers arrived.” Smithsonian Magazine reports:

At a time when Europe was emerging from the Middle Ages, African historians were chronicling the rise and fall of Saharan and Sudanese kings, replete with great battles and invasions. Astronomers charted the movement of the stars, physicians provided instructions on nutrition and the therapeutic properties of desert plants, and ethicists debated such issues as polygamy and the smoking of tobacco.

What does a city that serves as a synonym for remoteness have to do with “building my world”? Well, having just finished the first draft of Files that Last, I’m fascinated by the efforts by which many people acted to preserve the historic manuscripts of Timbuktu. This isn’t the only example of that kind of action; recently I came across the story of the Warsaw Ghetto’s secret archive. There may be enough such stories to put together into a book. I’m making no promises now, but the idea intrigues me, since it would appeal to my interests in both preservation and freedom. If anyone can point me at more stories of this kind, it might help push me along.

Update: Here’s an article with more details on the rescue of the manuscripts.