March 2006

One thing that strikes me every time I read historical fiction is the myriad difficulties those in past eras faced which are all insignificant to us now. Take for example, travel. In the Sparrowhawk series I’m reading, there is often a mention of preparing for the arduous journey from Caxton, VA (a ficticious town) to Williamsburg, VA. Judging from the described locale of Caxton, I’d say it couldn’t be more than an hour or two from Williamsburg by today’s standards. Yet in the colonial era, and actually right up until about a century ago, such a journey took the better part of a day either in the saddle or in a wagon or carriage. It was the equivalent of riding from Boston to Columbus, OH in the back of a pickup truck. Doable, but exhausting, dangerous, and very uncomfortable. And people died from easily curable maladies. Breaking a bone most often meant the loss of that limb, especially if the injury was severe enough to break the skin. Infection was rampant, as the folks then had little knowledge of sanitation.This train of thought continues into my own lifetime. I remember having just one black-and-white TV which got maybe a dozen channels. When was the last time you had to fine tune a UHF station on your TV? Do you even know the difference between UHF and VHF? When I was a kid, an Apple was something you ate or threw at a passing car. Windows were for looking through. Computers were all on Star Trek. We had no video games, no chat rooms, no email, and our parents weren’t the least bit worried about us looking at pornography or being stalked by a child molester. We HATED being stuck indoors. We were always out playing baseball, or football, or street hockey, or “war” in the woods behind our neighborhood. This isn’t to say we didn’t find a way to get ourselves in trouble. Far from it. But that trouble was also outside. There was simply nothing to do indoors and even if you did find something to do, everyone’s mother was home, so you were constantly under surveillance. If you screwed up in front of your friend’s mom, your mom knew about it before you got home.

Strangely enough, despite the fact that our folks weren’t pumping us full of drugs or monitoring everything we ate, we were all very, very healthy. I had all the usual childhood maladies; chicken pox, mumps, measels, etc. But I recovered completely from them all. I rarely had colds, and if I did, I got to stay home from school. You simply did not see sick kids in school. I never knew anyone with asthma and I never heard of a peanut allergy until about 10 years ago. No one I went to school with had ADD and certainly no one was on legal mind-altering drugs. In high school, however, a great many folks were on the not so legal kind. I started flying commercial airlines in the days when you could smoke on a plane and they served you peanuts and sandwiches even on short flights. Security was a quick walk through a metal detector if that. How times have changed.

So what’s in store for the future? Where will we be a hundred years from now? Will all kids be on some drug to alter moods or guard against a myriad of allergies? Will they look back and laugh at computers and iPods and such? Will our every move be monitored and recorded by the government? I’d like to think we’d be well into space travel, but the complete lack of progress on that front in the last 50 years has me doubting it. When we landed on the moon in 1969, I shared a common belief that we would be traveling back and forth to the moon and Mars regularly within my lifetime. Fat chance of that happening now.

I’d say overall our “progress” in the last hundred years has made our lives more complicated and faster paced. We are much better connected now. I can talk with someone on the other side of the globe and get a reply immediately. Hell, I can call that person on a cell phone and hear them as well as I can hear someone down the street. But that ability to instantly communicate has done nothing to stop misunderstandings and may have even increased the likelihood of such. We’re still fighting amongst ourselves over the most idiotic issues. So I hold little hope for the future betterment of humanity. I think we are entering a dark era where our very existence as a species will be in constant jeopardy, from disease as well as from war. I think the technological advances we’ve seen have only allowed us to act on impulse rather than taking time to really think things out. And we’ve removed the past barriers to the spread of disease and raised the resistence of viruses, infections, and bacteria to a point where the ability to control those problems is running up against the ability of our bodies to tolerate new drugs. It’s a sobering thought.

Maybe those in the past didn’t have it so bad after all.

Our current director is stepping down this August to resume full-time teaching. He’s been in his office 12 years, so I guess he’s paid his dues. Kudos and good luck to him. So our department is currently seeking a new director. We’re lucky to have three excellent candidates, all of whom are well qualified for the position. One of the candidates I had met last year when she came to speak here. I was quite impressed by her and until today, she was my leading choice for the position. But today we met with one of the other candidates. He was also quite impressive, so now I have no clear choice; and there’s still the candidate I’ve met and one more to speak with. This is not going to be easy. But it does exemplify the utter importance of making a good first impression. The gentleman we met today was easy going, attentive, knowledgeable, and had a great grasp of what he was getting in to, at least as far as the job is concerned. He’s coming from MIT in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, so I’ve been wondering if he’s truly prepared for the culture shock of living amid the corn, but I guess he’ll learn the hard way like everyone else.

Just finished reading Sparrowhawk V by Edward Cline. This is the fifth of six books in the Sparrowhawk series. The series is an outstanding account of the years leading to the American Revolution as experienced by two British expatriots from very different backgrounds. The writing is superb and the author manages to take a sometimes dry subject (Stamp Tax) and make it interesting. Historically accurate, yet told on a personal level. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the human side of the run up to the American Revolution.

I bought a Slingbox when they first hit the stores about a year ago. It was a cinch to set up and I use it every now and then to watch TV from my office. Now they’ve released a PDA client, so I can watch my home TV from my Dell Axim X50v. It’ll be fun showing off at the next staff meeting. ;-)

I’ve been a fan of BMWs since I first laid eyes on the original 6 series. My first BMW was a 1977 633CSi which I bought while stationed in Germany in 1983. It was incredibly fast and maddeningly fickle and prone to problems. The BMW dealer even admitted it was a lemon and always would be. Still, I loved it. I left it in Germany when I came back to the US in ‘89. I wouldn’t own another BMW until I moved out here to central Illinois in 2002. I bought a 2001 530i in November 2003. It was a certified pre-owned (CPO) with 37k miles on it. 14 months later it had 90k miles and I traded it in on my current 2001 740iL. As much as I liked my 530i, it couldn’t compare with the 740. This car is also prone to mechanical gremlins and the occasional bizarre problem, though. Just this past Friday, as we were coming home from the Indianapolis airport, the left front turn signal assembly parted ways with the car. I haven’t got a clue how it worked its way loose, but it’s gone now and there’s a big hole where it should be. No other damage at all. Strange. I’ve run across folks who either look down at me because I own a BMW (must be a snob, etc), or think I’m making a ton of money (also not true). I don’t understand the reactions. My current BMW cost less than a new pickup truck. I take driving very seriously and I hate seeing people who don’t (cell phone in the ear, reading a book, putting on make-up, etc). My biggest flaw is a massive lack of patience while driving. I don’t like myself when I get impatient. It’s like a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing. I can step outside myself, look back, and think, “What a jerk.” Then I resolve to change my behavior; an oath that lasts until the next left-lane slow poke comes along. Alas, I am what I am.

My wife and I were in Boston this past week for a conference. I grew up south of Boston and while I was in school I drove a truck into Boston daily, so this trip was like coming home. It was great to be in a city and not feel like a total stranger. Still, with all the changes the Big Dig has wrought on Boston, it took me a bit to get my bearings back. It’s so weird not seeing the raised central artery. Now there is open space and sunshine where darkness once prevailed.

We had some great food, which is something we don’t often get out here in central Boonieland. We ate at a small Turkish/Greek place called Sultan’s Kitchen on Park St. Not much in the way of atmosphere, but the food was incredible. We also, of course, indulged in the seafood multiple times. I had some superb fish cakes with baked beans at Durgin Park pub in the Quincy Market area. I also had dinner at my folks’ one night and Mom made her baked haddock. Always perfect. On the same night, my wife had scallops at Grill 23. She’s still raving about that meal.

There is much to like about Boston, traffic notwithstanding. I used to hate cities, but I find more and more that leisure time in cities can be very enjoyable. It’s driving in and out for work on a daily basis that ruins the experience of living near one. Chicago is the same way. I occasionally have to drive to Chicago for work. I always hate the trip. But when we go there for a weekend or a conference, we always enjoy ourselves. The only city I’ve worked in that I enjoyed all the time was Nürnberg, Germany. Nürnberg is what every city should be.

I orginally started this blog to cover BMW-related events. Then I found that there are literally hundreds of blogs doing the same thing. Zzzzzz. So instead, I’m going to use this space for the same thing most other bloggers use their spaces for; to pontificate, rant, extol, and generally blab on about whatever enters my all-too-idle mind. Hope you enjoy it. If not, find someplace else to go.

Ain’t the Internet grand?