Earth Hour: the Dogged Drive of Inane Intentions

We in the West are drowning in a cornucopia of ill-conceived special celebrations.

From National Bike to Work Day (May 19) to Global Forgiveness Day (Aug. 27) to International Peace Day (Sept. 21), there are a rash of events that the self-righteous have concocted in order to make themselves feel good, if not morally superior, to those around them.

These events are largely limited to the Western world because the rest of the globe is too busy trying to stay alive to be bothered with such claptrap.

This Saturday (8:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. for those of you keeping score at home),  the annual self-congratulatory activity known as Earth Hour will be held under the guise of “United People to Save the Planet.”

Rather than list my many objections to this bit of imbecility, I’ll let you read the words of Canadian economist Ross McKitrick, who, in 2009, was asked by a journalist for his thoughts on the importance of Earth Hour:

I abhor Earth Hour. Abundant, cheap electricity has been the greatest source of human liberation in the 20th century. Every material social advance in the 20th century depended on the proliferation of inexpensive and reliable electricity.

Giving women the freedom to work outside the home depended on the availability of electrical appliances that free up time from domestic chores. Getting children out of menial labor and into schools depended on the same thing, as well as the ability to provide safe indoor lighting for reading.

Development and provision of modern health care without electricity is absolutely impossible. The expansion of our food supply, and the promotion of hygiene and nutrition, depended on being able to irrigate fields, cook and refrigerate foods, and have a steady indoor supply of hot water.

Many of the world’s poor suffer brutal environmental conditions in their own homes because of the necessity of cooking over indoor fires that burn twigs and dung. This causes local deforestation and the proliferation of smoke- and parasite-related lung diseases. Anyone who wants to see local conditions improve in the third world should realize the importance of access to cheap electricity from fossil-fuel based power generating stations. After all, that’s how the west developed.

The whole mentality around Earth Hour demonizes electricity. I cannot do that, instead I celebrate it and all that it has provided for humanity. Earth Hour celebrates ignorance, poverty and backwardness. By repudiating the greatest engine of liberation it becomes an hour devoted to anti-humanism. It encourages the sanctimonious gesture of turning off trivial appliances for a trivial amount of time, in deference to some ill-defined abstraction called “the Earth,” all the while hypocritically retaining the real benefits of continuous, reliable electricity.

People who see virtue in doing without electricity should shut off their refrigerator, stove, microwave, computer, water heater, lights, TV and all other appliances for a month, not an hour. And pop down to the cardiac unit at the hospital and shut the power off there too.

I don’t want to go back to nature. Travel to a zone hit by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes to see what it’s like to go back to nature. For humans, living in “nature” meant a short life span marked by violence, disease and ignorance. People who work for the end of poverty and relief from disease are fighting against nature. I hope they leave their lights on.

Here in Ontario, through the use of pollution control technology and advanced engineering, our air quality has dramatically improved since the 1960s, despite the expansion of industry and the power supply.

If, after all this, we are going to take the view that the remaining air emissions outweigh all the benefits of electricity, and that we ought to be shamed into sitting in darkness for an hour, like naughty children who have been caught doing something bad, then we are setting up unspoiled nature as an absolute, transcendent ideal that obliterates all other ethical and humane obligations.

No thanks. I like visiting nature but I don’t want to live there, and I refuse to accept the idea that civilization with all its tradeoffs is something to be ashamed of.

If I possessed that eloquence, I’d probably have more than half a dozen readers and wouldn’t be living in a van down by the river a much larger bank account.

No word on whether Earth Hour is just a giant charade cooked up by Big Candle to boost profits, but come Saturday evening I’ll be happily burning every old-fashioned 100-watt incandescent light bulb I can find.

(Top: One can only hope that the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital, which saves hundreds of newborns each year, won’t turn off its life-saving equipment this coming Saturday night for Earth Hour.)

Family finds gold in piano; government looks to muscle in

The recent discovery of a UK gold cache raises the specter of every-hungry leviathan ruthlessly employing the law to gobble up assets for its own benefit.

Late last year a hoard of gold coins, English sovereigns minted between 1847 and 1915, was found in old upright piano in Shropshire, in the United Kingdom, after the piano’s new owners had it retuned and repaired.

Under the UK’s Treasure Act of 1996, such discoveries are legally obligated to be reported to the local coroner within 14 days, which was done.

The piano was made by a London firm and initially sold in Essex, near London, in 1906. But its ownership from then until 1983 – when it was purchased by a family in the area who later moved to Shropshire – is unknown, according to the BBC. The new owners were recently given the instrument.

The Shrewsbury Coroner’s Court is currently seeking information about the piano’s whereabouts between 1906 and 1983.

There is a great deal at stake as the objects will qualify as “treasure” and be the property of the Crown if the coroner finds they have been hidden with the intent of future recovery, according to the BBC.

However, if the original owner or their heirs can establish their title to the find, the Crown’s claim will be void.

Under the Treasure Act of 1996, ‘Treasure’ is defined as:

  • All coins from the same hoard, with a hoard is defined as two or more coins, as long as they are at least 300 years old when found;
  • Two or more prehistoric base metal objects in association with one another;
  • Any individual (non-coin) find that is at least 300 years old and contains at least 10% gold or silver;
  • Associated finds: any object of any material found in the same place as (or which had previously been together with) another object which is deemed treasure; and
  • Objects substantially made from gold or silver but are less than 300 years old, that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown.

The government has not detailed just how many coins were uncovered in the piano or their value, but Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison Officer for the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme at Shropshire Museums said, “It is a lifetime of savings and it’s beyond most people.”

I’d be curious to hear what British citizens think about this law. I understand the government’s interest in unique treasures such as the Irish Crown Jewels, spectacular Viking hoards or Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork, when and if they are uncovered.

But what we have here are simple gold coins – even if in a very substantial quantity.

It would be nice to find the individuals or their heirs who secreted the money away inside the piano; the government, meanwhile is threatening, per usual, to overstep its original purpose and strong-arm the family who, through a bit of blind luck, managed to come into possession of the coins.

Government, which already pockets a considerable sum of the average individual’s wages, has no business confiscating a collection of gold coins simply because it’s forever on the lookout for additional ways to line its coffers.

(Top: Some of the gold coins found inside an old upright piano in the United Kingdom late last year.)

Protecting monopolies under the guise of reducing risk

tucson-homeless

To paraphrase English playwright William Congreve, hell hath no fury like an occupational licensing board catching wind of an “nonprofessional” practicing said profession.

In Arizona, for example, the state board of cosmetology is investigating Juan Carlos Montesdeoca after receiving a complaint that he gave free haircuts to the homeless.

Montesdeoca committed the deeds on Jan. 28 at a downtown Tucson library, after organizing the event through a Facebook group and soliciting help from volunteers. He did it “out of the kindness of my heart,” and in memory of his mother, who loved her hair, he told Tucson News Now.

That didn’t set well with the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, which began an investigation after it received an anonymous complaint alleging that Montesdeoca was “requesting local businesses and local stylists to help out with free haircuts (unlicensed individuals) to the homeless.”

What one man views as charity another sees as unwanted competition, apparently.

The Arizona board is pulling out its big bag of disjoined logic in an effort to keep Montesdeoca and other “do-gooders” like him from helping those unable to afford haircuts.

Those getting their hair cut outside a licensed salon by an unlicensed person run a real risk, according to Donna Aune, the board’s executive director, adding that state law prohibits a person from practicing cosmetology without a license.

Remember, we’re talking about haircuts, not letting back-alley butchers remove gall bladders.

It wasn’t too long ago that those who wanted to braid hair legally in South Carolina had to demonstrate 300 hours of training. If one decided to use hair extensions as part of said braiding, regulations required a full cosmetologist curriculum, some 1,500 hours of class.

I’ve seen youngsters learn to braid hair in 15 minutes. What possible reason could there be to have required 300 hours of training, or to force someone who wants to apply extensions to take a 1,500-hour cosmetologist curriculum except to winnow out competition?

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the costs of occupational licenses outweigh the benefits. For hair braiding, as for many other occupations, licensing appears to do little more than prevent some people from earning an honest living in the occupation of their choice.

In 2012, Mississippi, which requires zero hours of training, had more than 1,200 registered braiders. Neighboring Louisiana, which requires 500 hours, had only 32 licensed braiders – despite its larger black population, according to the Institute for Justice.

Reason.com had some pithy comments regarding the potential risks involved with having an unlicensed individual cut the hair of the homeless in Tucson:

“The risk of getting a bad haircut is certainly chilling. But these were free haircuts. Free haircuts given to people who were in no position to pay for one. I’m sure they were aware of the risk they were taking by letting the unlicensed Montesdeoca cut their hair outside of a licensed salon environment, but they were probably okay with that level of risk considering they were homeless and were getting haircuts for free,” according to the magazine.

A problem many homeless have when it comes to job hunting is presenting well when it comes time for an interview. A decent haircut can go a long way toward boosting self-esteem and making a good first impression.

But the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, whose members likely weren’t serving these individuals in the first place, is more interested in making sure absolutely no one infringes on their monopoly.

(Top: You could give this homeless man in Tucson food, money and a job, but not a free haircut – unless you’re a licensed cosmetologist – thanks to the heavy hand of the Arizona Board of Cosmetology.)

Internet diagnosis: The common cold or breakbone fever?

webquack-image

Thanks in part to spending a full hour walking the rows of Longterm Lot No. 2 at the Charlotte International Airport searching for my car at 1 am, I recently found myself under the weather. As in, sick enough to miss work, which happens about once every five years.

After several days of feeling generally awful, and having little else to do, I decided to enter my symptoms into a certain Internet site, just to make sure I didn’t have something other than the common cold. Schistosomiasis is said to be on the uptick in these regions, or so rumor has it.

Fortunately, I’m not the easily excited type as the exercise proved, yet again, the utter absurdity of how knowledge is used on the World Wide Web.

I went to a very well-known site – which I will simply call WebQuack – and entered my symptoms, none of which were unusual: Headache, hoarse voice, nasal congestion, nighttime wheezing, post-nasal drip, runny nose and sore throat.

Be forewarned: this is not an exercise for those who might lean toward hypochondria.

After I entered the relatively straightforward symptoms, I was given 97 possible diagnoses. Only a very few seemed probable, such as sinusitis, nasal congestion, hay fever and the common cold.

Others seemed to have little relation to the listed symptoms: astigmatism, nearsightedness, farsightedness, post-concussive syndrome, toxic shock syndrome, sunburn, chemical burns, thermal burn of mouth or tongue, goiter, insulin reaction, hernia and narcotics abuse.

Some were almost comical: caffeine withdrawal, excessive caffeine use, foreign object in nose, malocclusion (bite out of alignment), botox injection and constipation.

Others were dreadful: diabetes, stroke, meningitis, brain aneurysm, brain infection, brain tumor, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, throat cancer, intracranial hematoma, multiple sclerosis, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and whooping cough.

Then there was the handful of potential afflictions that seem utterly improbable: plague, radiation sickness, cyanide poisoning and ricin poisoning.

Plague? I generally keep my distance from flea-infested rodents, particularly in large Third World cities where the Black Death is still a problem.

Radiation sickness? I haven’t been to the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear power plants, and stay clear of spent nuclear fuel whenever possible.

Cyanide? I think I’d have a few more symptoms that those I listed, such as seizures, profuse vomiting and cardiac arrest.

Ricin?!? That’s what Soviet-bloc agents used to do away with enemies of the state. Unless I, in my misspent youth, angered a Stasi agent with a long memory but incredibly poor tracking skills who’s just getting around to evening the score, this seems quite unlikely. That, and the fact I’d be dead before I could have typed my symptoms in WebQuack.

So, what’s the point of this aspect of WebQuack? One supposes it’s to get people to go see doctors, ask for products advertised on WebQuack’s website and drive revenues to said advertisers. As for being helpful, it seems anything but.

Trying to recollect memories of fabled Milk Farm Restaurant

davis-1-23-2017-015For more than 50 years I’ve passed the old Milk Farm Restaurant sign near Dixon, Calif. The visits are less frequent these days, occurring on trips West when I visit family, but each time as I head along Interstate 80 south of Sacramento I see the venerable marker, all that remains of the once-famous eatery.

Those not conversant with area history have no way of knowing that the site was once one of the busiest stops between the state capital and San Francisco, where thousands were served weekly.

The 100-foot sign, topped with a cow jumping over a moon, once lit up with neon so vivid that it pierced the thick winter fog of the Sacramento Valley.

In my memory, I couldn’t recall the restaurant ever being open, and supposed that it had closed sometime in the 1960s. My parents said they had taken me there when I was around 18 months old, which would have been around the start of 1966. Yet, I would pass the site dozens of times in later years and could not remember the restaurant in operation, or even what it looked like.

So it was somewhat startling to find out that the Milk Farm, which began serving customers in 1919, remained in business until 1986.

Old Milk Farm Restaurant sign, Dixon, Calif.

Old Milk Farm Restaurant sign, Dixon, Calif.

Just down the road was another famous restaurant, the Nut Tree, in Vacaville, which operated from 1921 through 1996. I clearly recall that location and stopping there on more than one occasion. But the Milk Farm remains a void, except for driving past its iconic sign each time I headed north to such places as Davis, Sacramento or Lake Tahoe.

Fortunately, the world does not base historical judgment on what this author does or does not remember.

The Milk Farm began in 1919 as Hess Station, named for local rancher Karl Hess, who rented cabins to travelers in the days before motels.

The site was beside the old Lincoln Highway – Highway 40 – which was later expanded and renamed I-80.

Hess was apparently quite a promoter: he held milk-drinking contests, sold inexpensive chicken dinners and offered “all-you-can-drink” milk for 10 cents. He also helped make a named for the town of Dixon, where my grandfather and other family members attended high school, as the heart of the California dairy industry.

In 1938, Homer Henderson and his wife bought Hess Station and renamed it the Milk Farm. They added the cow logo which can be seen on the sign today.

“Stables, gas stations, an orange juice stand and a new restaurant all contributed to the Milk Farm being labeled ‘America’s Most Unique Highway Restaurant’ and to features on the radio and in such national publications as the Saturday Evening Post,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Celebrity visitors including crooner Bing Crosby, boxer Jack Dempsey and California Gov. and future US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

The sign still visible today was erected in 1963 at a cost of $78,000, no mean sum more than 50 years ago.

The restaurant was eventually done in by rising food prices and increased competition, particularly from fast-food chains.

It closed in 1986 following damage from a violent windstorm and never reopened. In time, vagrants began inhabiting the structure, and in 2000 what remained of the building was razed.

Only the sign remains, a witness to the pre-chain-restaurant era, when part of the fun of vacationing involved the journey itself, and eateries put more emphasis on the quality of their food than on gimmicks used to lure travelers inside.

Georgia town tries to keep one foot in past, one in present

washington-georgia-12-28-2016-038

Hundreds of US towns, cites, counties, lakes, etc. bear the name Washington – most, one would think, in honor of George Washington, although it’s possible baseball vagabond Claudell Washington may have been recognized by a locale or two in recent years.

The first town to name itself for America’s Founding Father was Washington, Ga., which definitely took a leap of faith when it opted to identify itself with the then-commander in chief of patriot forces in January 1780. At that point, the colonies’ hopes for defeating the British in the American Revolution were very much touch and go, and would be for another 18 months.

One imagines that if the war had gone the other way, British and loyalist forces would not have looked kindly on those who opted to name their town for the defeated rebel leader.

Today, Washington is a bucolic community of about 4,000, with a surprising number of antebellum mansions – more than 100 – including that of Confederate Secretary of State and later General Robert Toombs; the residence of planter John Talbot – now called the Griggs Home – where Eli Whitney spent time perfecting his cotton gin; and the Slaton Home, where Sarah Porter Hillhouse, Georgia’s first female newspaper editor, lived more than 200 years ago.

At the heart of the town is the Washington’s court square, which, more accurately, is shaped like a rectangle and is surrounded by one- and two-story brick buildings.
Many date from the late 1890s, having been built after a particularly devastating fire in June 1895 that claimed five stores, an office building, a wagon-and-machine shop and a residence. In addition, the town’s Episcopal church and two other dwellings were seriously damaged.

Window on T.C. Hogue Building, built in 1895 and located in Washington Court Square.

Window on T.C. Hogue Building, built in 1895 and located in Washington Court Square.

Obviously, the conflagration wasn’t on par with the great Chicago Fire of 1871, but in a town that then claimed 2,000 residents, such a blaze could have proved debilitating to business and citizenry alike.

The town’s residents didn’t take long to rebound; several of the structures in the court square bear the date 1895.

Propelled by agriculture and its position on a key rail line, Washington continued to thrive despite the occasional setback.

A short distance from courthouse square sits the old Barrows House Hotel (above), built by Edward F. Barrows, an architect who assisted with construction of the Atlanta Penitentiary.

The Barrows Hotel opened in 1899, and was a two-story, Romanesque Revival-style, brick building that featured a square, two-and-a-half story corner tower, a parapet roof with elaborate cornice, round-arched windows and an arcaded first floor on the front facade.

The hotel sat across from the old Georgia Railroad depot and was built to accommodate “drummers,” or traveling salesmen.

But, like the town, and rural communities across the region, the hotel has fallen on hard times in recent decades.

The train depot was demolished in the 1970s and the hotel itself has been in disrepair for at least that long. Still, despite creeping foliage, scattered debris and the occasional broken window, the structure retains at least a sliver of its past grandeur.

In recent years Washington has embraced efforts to renovate many of its many older structures. Taking on a project the magnitude of the Barrows House Hotel would be no mean feat, but it would be a worthy compliment to the other stunningly restored edifices around the attractive Southern town.

(Top: Barrows House Hotel, located on Depot Street, Washington, Ga.)

Zzyzx, Calif.: Where a charlatan created an empire

zzyzx-road

Just off Interstate-15 in a lonely section of San Bernardino County, Calif., sits the implausibly named locale of Zzyzx.

To get there, you take 4.5-mile-long Zzyzx Road.

The name was the creation of a quack preacher/televangelist/medicine man named Curtis Howe Springer, who arrived in the Southern California area in 1944.

Looking to set up a health spa, Springer came up with the name Zzyzx. By naming his spa the Zzyzx Mineral Springs resort, he was able to claim that it would be known as “the last word in health,” according to the website Roadtrippers.com.

Springer, born in 1896 in Alabama, had already enjoyed a lively career traveling the nation preaching, promoting various endeavors, selling fraudulent cures and working to stay a step ahead of authorities by the time he arrived in California.

Among his many enterprises was founding health spas. During the 1930s and 1940s, he opened a spa in Fort Hill, Pa., and tried to open others in Maryland and Iowa. But because Springer wasn’t fond of paying taxes, he lost his Pennsylvania spa to government seizure.

By the mid-1940s Springer had headed west and, working in conjunction with an associate, filed a claim to 12,800 acres in California’s Mojave Desert.

Springer, ever the resourceful sort, hired homeless men from Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row to build the Zzyzx resort.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Springer’s resort, which ultimately included a 60-room hotel, spa, mineral baths, a radio studio, and a church, was built on a fraud. He used a boiler to heat pools around the resort.

He promoted the resort through his radio program, which was carried on more than 320 stations, according to Roadtrippers.com. It also included advertisements for his special remedies.

“Listeners would send in donations for his ‘cures,’ which he claimed could relieve constipation, hemorrhoids, hair loss and, oh yeah, cancer,” according to the website. ”However, what people were getting was, well, actually a bit better than snake oil. It was mostly celery, carrot and parsley juices.”

In the late 1960s, he was “swapping” lots in Zzyzx for large sums of money. If the Feds didn’t take notice of his quack cures, they did eventually catch on to the fact that Springer was making a lot of money and not paying much in taxes.

He was accused of squatting on the land and his claim to Zzyzx was invalidated. Springer and the other inhabitants of the community were evicted, and Springer was convicted for selling junk “cures,” although he served less than two months in jail.

He died in 1985 in Las Vegas.

For the past 30 years, the Bureau of Land Management has allowed schools in the California State University system to manage the land in and around Zzyzx.

While the remains of Springer’s charlatan empire is still evident around Zzyzx, the area is now home to a highly regarded Desert Studies Center, the handiwork of a consortium of CSU campuses.