Friday, July 6, 2012

Small-town America isn't dead yet!

A few days ago, circumstances beyond our control (a broken water pump) forced us to spend a few days in the small town of Malta, MT.  We'd broken down July 2 (Tuesday) on highway 191, and limped into town late in the day, but the garage was booked up for July 3, and of course July 4 was Independence Day ... so it couldn't be fixed before the morning of July 5.  We had little choice but to stay, without transportation.  Fortunately, the motel where we stayed was able to give us the room for 3 nights in a row and it was close to the town center.

A short walk away was the Great Northern Hotel Restaurant and a bit farther away was the Westside Restaurant - coincidentally, we had had lunch at the Westside on our trip westward a few days earlier and had enjoyed the hospitality and good fare already.  The salad bar at the Westside was quite good, so if you're there, be sure to take advantage of it.  And the food at the GN was uniformly excellent, plus their "glass of wine" was quite generous, which naturally was an endearing characteristic for me!  Plus, the Maltana motel where we were staying gave us complimentary beverage tickets at GN!!

This mandatory time spent in a small town reinforced my feelings about small towns in the American Plains that spring from my time spent with relatives on a farm in northwestern Illinois:  the people are wonderful!  In this blog, I suppose a disproportionate fraction of my writing is negative - I'm upset about something and so I write about it.  But I'm not a fundamentally negative person, despite what some might conclude from my blog.  One aspect of storm chasing I've always enjoyed has been, and continues to be, small-town America.  I can think of only a tiny number of bad experiences in small towns - the overwhelming hospitality and friendliness of people in small towns dominates.  I could provide many, many examples from past storm chases.  Interesting local museums and parks, unexpected hospitality, great meals, and wonderful human interactions with total strangers!

Our chase trip hasn't had much in the way of storms this year, but we've definitely been enjoying our travels anyway.  In Malta, during our days of enforced leisure, we did some laundry, bought groceries, surfed the Web in the motel room, and were treated to a delightful fireworks display put on by the town a short distance from our motel.  We had a front row "seat" in the motel parking lot and the fireworks went on for about an hour!  Not the sort of elaborate display some towns (like Norman, OK) put on, but many diverse and spectacular fireworks that continued for a long time.  We enjoyed it a lot!

The USA has many challenging problems, but the one thing that constantly strikes me when I travel about our nation is the warmth and easygoing friendship shown to transient strangers.  I think Americans still have a core of goodness and decency that shows up constantly.  I may not like everything going on in America, but I think America is a great place at its core.

By the way, the work done on our car put us back on the road by about 1:30 pm on 5 July, with everything working just fine and a reasonable bill for the effort.  Pete was our mechanic and he was very apologetic about not being able to do anything until 5 July!  He was right there bright and early Thursday morning to do the work and the bill turned out to be less than I feared.  All in all, it was a good outcome to what might have been a nightmare, save for the good folks of Malta, MT.  If you're traveling through Malta and have the chance, stop in at the Great Northern or the Westside and have a meal.  It's quite likely to be excellent and you can enjoy a chat with the friendly wait staff at either place. 

They don't call it the "heartland of America" for nothing!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Absurd fear of an apocalypse in 2012

I watched a TV program about the supposed apocalypse coming in 2012.  It seems to have spawned a whole industry of folks seeking to make a profit from the absurd notion that the world will suffer some sort of horrible destruction in December of 2012.  There are all sorts of money-making schemes out there, hoping to encourage frightened people to waste their cash on survival items for a non-existent threat.

This sort of scam is particularly annoying to me because we're having so much trouble convincing people to prepare for the legitimate natural hazards associated with our world and the cosmos in which it's embedded.  No matter what cockamamie idea crops up - the end of the Mayan calendar being the end of the world, massive solar storms causing the Earth's rotation to be reversed (!?!?), rogue planets about to knock the Earth out of its orbit, and so on and on - there seem to be millions of people ready to seize upon this sort of  nonsense to feed some sort of primal paranoia.

During the show, it was darkly amusing to see a NASA scientist doing his best to dismiss these nightmares as utter balderdash.  He was having trouble keeping his composure because of the extreme stupidity of the questions being asked of him.  [I can relate to that, which is one of many reasons I don't do interviews for TV documentaries any more.]  His attempts at introducing real science into the program were swept aside in a tsunami of bullshit, to be drowned in an ocean of nonsense.  His few soundbites were the only moments of sanity in a torrent of content that either supported the insanity or at least did nothing to refute it.  Typical "balanced" media reporting!!

We have many legitimate reasons to be concerned about our future.  The world is not a benign place - nor is it malevolent.  Real natural processes on Earth are simply indifferent to humans.  Tumultuous events happen not as divine retribution for our failings, nor as the malevolent works of some sort of evil spirit.  From time to time, some of us will be devastated by natural hazards simply by being unlucky enough to be in their path.  Science tells us these things have happened in the past and they will happen again!

As a scientist, it's clear that more disasters await us in the future:  major tornado outbreaks, landfalling tropical cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mega-tsunamis caused by landslides, incoming asteroids and comets, anthropogenic global warming and so on.  The fiscal support for science to help us understand (thereby helping us to prepare for) these disasters is being eroded in our challenging economic times, even as millions are "preparing" by spending their hard-earned money for protection from disasters for which no solid evidence exists!  Where we put our money says a lot about who we are, actually.  And seeing a program describing the investment by people in preparation for a mythical disaster is discouraging.

It seems America is sliding down a path toward discrediting legitimate science and simultaneously moving toward belief in mythology, and other forms of nonsense unsupported by any historical or physical evidence.  Perhaps this trend toward disbelief in science, combined with a rising belief in pseudo-science and outright ridiculous bullshit is part of an explanation for why we can't get people to do much to prepare for the real natural hazards that threaten us.