Saturday, July 4, 2015

Nomad Feet 4: Doing Disney's Animal Kingdom

Wednesday my motley crew took a break from the parks and rested at the resort. Since it was relatively early when I struck out I found a perfect piece of real estate directly underneath a tree that would have provided cooling shade all day. Top it all off there was a music speaker nearby that had relaxing African music coming from it. Adding to my sheer pleasure was a margarita I drank after the poolside waitress brought it to me. Frankly, I didn't want to leave but my wife made lunch reservations at one of the resort restaurants and made it clear there would be issues if I didn't get up and come with here and the girls. Don't ask me who that woman is to the left of the picture, she grabbed my recliner not two seconds after I had to get up.   

Darth Wiggles and Darth Gadget. Had to force both of them into the water to get this picture. Both brought various computer tablets and laptops and would have much rather stayed in the room playing.

We hit Animal Kingdom on Thursday. The huge "Tree of Life" is, of course, fake, it's mostly the bottom half of an undersea oil rig covered over with cement. If you enlarge this picture you might be able to see the animal figures molded into the sides. There is a theater at the bottom.

One of the first attractions we hit was Kali River Rapids. It's pretty typical "river ride" were the object is both to get wet and somehow stay dry as the circular raft bounces around the waterway. I've gone six straight times and not gotten wet. Truthfully that is kind of weird and a bit of a disappointment. 

Another huge ride is Expedition Everest, a roller coaster ride that has the honor of also being the highest physical point in the state of Florida. As roller coaster go, it fairly tame with the exception being short part where it goes backward through a tunnel in total darkness. I found that slightly unnerving and little kids might panic.

The Kilimanjaro Safaris is the biggest attraction at Animal Kingdom. Now Disney likes to make out that they are actually acting in a manner benefiting the conservation of many of the animals in this section and while I truly believe that is partly true I am skeptical enough to think this ride is just a more elaborate fantasy than say the Pirates of the Caribbean. All things considered with education so bad in the United States I can't fault them for a honest effort in trying to inform a public that a majority of times doesn't have the attention span of a gnat. 

An endangered White Rhino.

A small segment of the open savanna area

A male lion resting while all the women are at work.

A baby elephant nursing. I'll be honest and say that while Disney is just another corporation, with all the associated faults, most of their efforts are benign with some actually being helpful to the greater good. The Disney parks are one of the few places left in America where rich and poor literally rub elbows and get to interact on a human level. Along with basic education on such things as environmental concerns they do a good job, compared to the average American nightly news cast which can't due to time concerns and the fact the Suits running the show don't want the populace upset. I'll have one more of these travel posts before I return to my usual rants and crappy fiction, now I'm off to the pool. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Nomad Feet 3: Doing the Disney at EPCOT

Hit EPCOT bright and early Tuesday morning.

We started at the Living with the Land and Pavilion, a place designed to show the significance of agriculture to human development and existence. It also has a great indoor garden that, from what they told us, also does research in how to improve organic food production.  

They also raise various types of fish. This was really a fascinating place and I took about fifty pictures of the facility. Don't worry, I will not post them, I'm sort of getting tired of this myself.

This was taken outside the Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion. Neither one of the young Sith Lords wanted to cooperate so this was the best I could do. I personally love this pavilion but the Sith Lords and my wife wanted to move on so we didn't stay long. What pictures I took weren't very good.

An English "street" in the World Showcase of nations. For those who might not know the World Showcase is sort of like a permanent world's fair with different sections highlighting individual nations. EPCOT has a nice variety with most of the major countries represented. The one for England here had a lot of samples of English culture and history. Given the blatant ignorance most Americans show for the rest of the world this is an outstanding achievement.  

Walking towards Impressions de France.

Had lunch at Chef de France. It was an unbelievably awesome experience and the price matched it as well. 

Darth Gadgets dessert. I would have taken more pictures of the food but nothing lasted long enough.

Our waiter Gilles.
While the World Showcase is still first rate I have noticed the other section of EPCOT don't seem to be getting the same level of attention. I really hate the thought of such a wonderful place with so much potential not being fully used like Walt Disney intended. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Nomad Feet 2: Doing the Disney at the Magic Kingdom

Please excuse this paraphrasing of this infamous line but it was already a terribly bright and roasting hot day as the eager throngs rushed into the Magic Kingdom Monday morning. Everyone was there to have a great time and nothing would stop that from happening, even a little thing like man-made climate change.  

The first stop for my small group was "Be our Guest" for a hearty and rather expensive breakfast. As you can tell it had a "Beauty and the Beast" theme and despite it all the food was good.

My daughter and niece, Darth Wiggles and Darth Gadget.

This would have been my new Facebook profile picture if my wife hadn't cut off the lower portion of the gargoyle's head. I'm the ugly one on the right.

Even the fish at Disney are happy over the recent Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage. Suck it to all the nasty bigots. These fine fish are from "Journey Under the Sea," I think.

Mechanical young lovers. Just kiss the girl dammit!

Entrance to the Enchanted Tiki Room. I could have sat there all day and watched that waterfall. Time to move, more later.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Nomad Feet: Doing the Downtown Disney

Last Saturday morning had the wife, daughter, and myself motoring down I-95 down towards sunny Orlando, Florida. The trip down itself was easy, except for a heavy thunderstorm that spent twenty-minutes driving through with several motorists slamming on brakes a couple times scaring the Hell out of me.

For my family any trip to Disney requires an ubiquitous visit to its retail capital, naturally named "Downtown Disney." If you have a desire for some product associated with the mouse it is here and usually quite expensive.

Case in point is this painting depicting a Jedi version of Mickey Mouse. It was selling for over five-hundred dollars. Frankly I've never really cared all that much for Star Wars. I always thought of it as simplistic space opera, and after the introduction of the character of Jar-Jar I think even less of it. So this picture doesn't bother me, as compared to Star Wars purists who think Disney buying the franchise was some sort of crime. Now if Disney assimilated Star Trek, that would be a whole other thing.     
That day we had lunch at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant and got a very different show. Several little lizards living in the foliage just outside went about their daily lives unaware that we were watching. There were a couple of fights, an apparent courtship ritual, and a couple of the little reptiles seemed to being carrying on a conversation. It was all so eerily human-like that I forgot to take a picture of the food we ordered.       

As usual we are staying at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Sunday had us waiting for the arrival of my wife's niece requiring a trip to Orlando Airport. Somehow I forgot to take my camera but as with all things associated with air travel the trip there and back was a pain. Monday morning though we were part of the human tsunami entering the Magic Kingdom when it first opened. More about that part of the trip tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Best Part of Being Human

Humans have always been wanderers, even before our particular species appeared on the scene to follow our predecessors out of Africa. However, for better or worse we Homo sapiens, pulled along by some innate curiosity probably coded in our genes, eventually left Africa behind like the others. But whereas all our ancestors like Homo hablis and the Neanderthals faded away, we came to dominate the planet. Giving our overall stupidity its hard to find a reason why Homo sapiens won out over the others. We find it extremely difficult to work in large groups for any length of time and our myriad beliefs, while colorful and imaginative, are often myopic and destructive.

But after five-thousand years of what can euphemistically be called civilization we have reached a huge crossroads in our existence on this small and delicate planet. Our numbers and technology have grown so much that we now endanger all life on Earth, not an accomplishment to be proud of when you consider the fact we know of no other place in the universe like our home.

What is worse, deep down we know our destructive habits threatens the survival of our children but yet we still center our attention on those we know directly like family and friends that live close to us. Homo sapiens can't seem to realize that the plight of the starving child in Africa or Asia will eventually affect how your own children will live at some point. Especially now with the environment and resources stressed to the breaking point because there is over seven billion of us alive at this moment.

We have reached the limits of our home can stand and if we don't change our ways quickly every good thing we have built over the centuries will be lost. It is that simple, but most ignore the warnings and continue with their blind pursuits. Hate and fear are the dominate forces in all human life right now, people scared of everything from their neighbor next door to the people living on the other side of the planet.

Some of us do see something far grander for our species that could uplift us all and take us places beyond our imaginations. All we have to do is look up and dream about something greater than the conquest of some patch of soil, hording wealth while many go hungry, or fretting over tired rituals designed to appease some invisible deity.

We can become wanderers again:

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Fear and Hate Runs Deep

Most everyone has probably seen some version of the family stick figure decals adoring the back windows of SUVs and minivans. They are usually themed with the stick figures representing the parents and kids expressing their enjoyment of some family-centered activities or interests. I've seen many with the family wearing mouse ears or holding fishing poles. A couple of years ago though I saw one that quite frankly made my blood run a little cold.

These family stick figure decals, complete with dad, mom, and several offspring were represented by various models of military-grade weapons. The “dad” was represented by some heavy assault weapon I don't remember, while the “mom” was displayed as a M-16/AR-15 variant. The three children had sub-machine models all standing in for them. And yes, there are semiautomatic versions of those compact weapons that are readily sold to civilians with the makers claiming they are fantastic for home defense.

The fact that the vehicle they were adoring also sported several pro-gun rights bumper stickers all more or less saying cold and lifeless hands would be the prerequisite before anyone took their precious weapons was the typical passive-aggressive threat you could expect with such people. After seeing such absolute gun-nut sentiment my first thought was that I'd hate to be their neighbor. My second thought was that for a bunch of years, all long past now, I wallowed in a similar insanity going as far as to own an assault weapon myself.

Frankly, when I think back to those years I am embarrassed. While I never sold my soul to the idea that a weapon made me a better, more powerful person no one should mess with, I bought the insane notion that all decent people needed something to protect themselves from a world filled with bad people. What turned me away from the Dark Side was getting heavily into scuba diving, and me wanting my own equipment. Much to the chagrin of my family, I have always nursed liberal and science-centered tendencies and scuba diving brought both of them out.

For years afterward I held a laissez-faire attitude about weapons, I didn't really care if a person was massively into any type of weapons as long as they didn't bother me with their obsession. Then the shootings at Sandy Hill Elementary occurred, when I saw the pictures of those small children and thought about the fear they must have endured something inside me broke. I still own a semiautomatic pistol and small caliber rifle fit only for rabbit hunting but both are stored away and have literally not seen the light of day in years. I guess I should sell the things but after all the deaths of innocent people in this country over the last few years both those weapons remind me too much of how I flirted with a fatalistic obsession over largely imaginary boogeymen.

That is what now turns my stomach when I hear some talk-head on television touting the benefits of “gun rights” and how we would all be safe if more “good guys” had weapons. It just never seems to turn out that way, sure if you dig deep enough you'll find an instance where some civilian with a gun gets the drop on a bad guy, but they are overwhelmed with examples of evil and crazy people rushing into a public place and committing mass murder.

For the sake of staying on point I will not even begin to get into the unanswered question how barely trained civilians are supposed to readily identify the evil individual shooting up a public place, like the theater in Aurora, Colorado when several others draw their weapons in an attempt to save the day. Long story short, I see an almost exponential increase in deaths as wannabe Clint Eastwoods all pull out their favorite concealed weapons and shoot each other during the chaos.

One of the many issues with American gun culture is how it was largely owned and operated by racists who while couching their words carefully always come back to the belief that the boogeyman there are terrified might hurt them is either African-American or Hispanic. Right-wing pundits like the dinosaur Pat Buchanan and the truly bizarre Ann Coulter write entire books about how America is turning into a third-world country and how true Americans are going to be overwhelmed by a flood of illiterate savages out to rape their women. This forces the common rank and file right-winger—never a deep thinker to begin with—to believe that his, or her only recourse is to heavily arm themselves.

I's amazing really in a sick an twisted way. Here in the United States several industries make their money stroking the fears of people who often spend more time deeply discussing the implications of some washed up athlete gender transition than trying to understand why the country is literally falling apart. Action movies portray wise cracking guys—usually white--solving all sorts of problems with mean looking assault weapons. Gun makers employ teams of advertisement agencies looking for the best way to market their products to men, women, and even children emphasizing to all that their lives are always in danger. Of course you can't forget the right-wing propaganda media whose only purpose in existence is the Orwellian pursuit to create enemies and engineer justification for more conflicts for the unwashed masses. Where all this sleaze exists, politicians follow always eager to give their voters what the want, quick sound bites that will allow them to return to their tidy consumer driven lives. Sorry folks, I quit blaming politicians a long time ago, they are just reflections of the people that allow them to hold office.

All this insanity creates a bizarre paradox here in the land of the free and home of the brave. All these fears tie the United State to a past that is largely fictitious. The Second Amendment was never meant for a time where jet fighters armed with cluster bombs and attack helicopters with 20mm cannons patrol the skies. Assault weapons are designed to shred human bodies so a gravely wounded soldier would require one or two others to treat his injuries, pulling them away from combat. High capacity semiautomatics were designed for police work, a civilian home owner possessing such a weapon speaks more of a lingering paranoia of darker, more sinister forces than just the desire to deny a criminal entry.

All this leads up to the terrorist Dylann Roof who last Wednesday night entered the Emmanuel AME church and kill nine worshipers simply because they were African-American. No society can long withstand the malignant forces of hate and fear, especially when the worship of weapons makes up the backbone of the culture. Make no mistake, the only thing Americans worship more than money and their cars are guns but while the first two are bad in their own way only the last one is designed to kill.

Throw in racism, America's lingering psychosis, and you pretty much have our current society. Gun owners, who even now fret over losing their true loves, shouldn't worry, the usual suspects are all lining up to defend the God given right allowing people to possess small arsenals—as long as its the right type of people. Being slightly tongue-in-cheek I have this half-assed idea that the only way gun control legislation would stand a chance in this country is for media outlets to show African-Americans buying the same military-grade weapons as the family I first mentioned who seemed to base their existence on car window assault weapon decals.

Here is a fantastic article that nails the situation here in America:

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Time of Discontent

As much as it would surely surprise numerous family members, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and probably hundreds of other people who occasionally read my verbal detritus I actually learned something recently. This new tidbit of knowledge was pretty amazing since like most Americans I grew up believing the accepted Cold War mentality that of the protracted and shadowy struggle between the United States and Soviet Union, to paraphrase one of my favorite movies, there could ultimately, “be only one.” The source of this curious piece of information was an article written by John Feffer entitled “Did Market Leninism Win the Cold War?”

He writes that during the 1960s and 1970s there was a view among certain intellectuals, like economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who believed the competing systems of the United States and Soviet Union would eventually converge. The idea being that the forces of capitalism would be tempered by planning and that the communist system would be invigorated by the dynamic forces of the free market. If that is too abstract a concept a better way to describe this convergence theory would be to say the end result would have had the northern hemisphere become one giant warm and fuzzy Sweden-like entity.

Yeah, in hindsight the idea seems like the insane ramblings of some 1970s college professor suffering from delusions after taking one too many hits of acid. The idea that a communist country would ever allow any type of market forces to gain an advantage over central planning committees is just as crazy as thinking Western democracies would take a backseat to some force outside the governments elected by the people. Just a little hint for future reference, that's sarcasm and I'll be peppering this rant with several more just for fun.

Of course, all this was contemplated before Red China began its economic liberalization, before the United States was tied to a dizzying array of free trade agreements that help gut the middle class, and before the Supreme Court declared that corporations are people. At least Americans can still take solace in the idea that, like the great and all powerful Reagan predicted, the evil Soviet Union has for years been consigned to the dustbin of history with Russia now firmly part of the western family of nations.

Sorry, even that one small segment of Reagan's great achievement has evaporated with the authoritarian Putin playing international bully engaging in lebensraum in the former-Soviet republic of Georgia and now the Ukraine. Not only that, this new strongman has started a new arms buildup for the Russian military that should give aging Cold Warriors like myself a really bad case of deja vu.

It was one of the assumptions of the West's supposed victory in the Cold War that democracy was going to walk away from that struggle the new global standard for the nations of the world. Once the Iron Curtain fell the former nations of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union's nice name for its eastern European empire, couldn't run to the West fast enough to become both members of NATO and the European Union embracing democracy and capitalism in the process.

Now the eastern European nations of Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are all in many ways turning their backs on the hard won freedoms they had to snatch away from the Soviet Empire. Hungary's Vikor Orban has rewritten that country's electoral laws, curbed press freedoms and appointed numerous flunkies to important positions in the government. The former Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Slovakia's current PM, Robert Fico look to Orban as a role model and his illiberal policies as the way to run their own countries. Poland has a new prime minister now and it's my sincerest hope that their new leader has turned her back on the anti-democratic tendencies of her predecessor.

No, instead of waltzing into a wonderful era of convergence like Galbraith expected with everyone living in a nice and pleasant Sweden, something far darker is taking shape in the twenty-first century. The entire world appears to have backed into convergence's dystopic twin merging the worst aspects of unrestrained capitalism and authoritarian collectivism. This brave post-Cold War world is one of massive inequality between the rich and the poor, rampant corruption on all levels of government, the not so slow institution of surveillance states that I'm sure would have George Orwell telling everyone, “I told you so dammit!”

No, I'm not leaving the United States out of this trend nor excusing it recent actions since 2001 and before. First and foremost corruption has become so bad that we no longer dare call it by that name. It turns out that the “land of the free and the home of the brave” has a good bit of rot eating away inside it.

Feffer's article points out that we have revolving door politics that allows former politicians to leave office and then immediately start lobbying for any and all special interest groups, like major corporations, that freely write out huge checks for reelection campaigns. In most other organizations such behavior would be a criminal conflict of interest, but remember, our Supreme Court has declared corporations people with the First Amendment right of free speech. Let me also remind everyone that these same corporations and their elected sycophants are working hard to both destroy organized labor and prevent them from spending money on campaigns to defend their interests.

Another aspect that should send shivers down the spine of any self-aware person are the organized voter suppression movements that have curiously popped up in several American states. While supporters of these authoritarian measures like to frame their arguments that they are just trying to stop voter fraud all independent studies say that is not an issue in American elections. Lets be open here and just state the facts, certain scared people in the United States don't like the fact that minorities are making a larger percentage of the voting population every election cycle. And these people are enacting these voter suppression laws in an attempt to blunt their growing political power.

I have to remind everyone that out of all the nations on this planet the United States has more people in prison than any other, even more than communist China, which naturally because of this mutated convergence is not really commie anymore. No, what we have here in the United States are dangerously overcrowded prisons “housing” a surreal number of African-American men whose worst crimes are often low-level drug dealing. While I hope exceptions exist, the entire American prison system looks to be a dangerous societal pressure cooker where inmates only learn to be meaner and better criminals once they are released.

Instead of dealing with the growing gap between the rich and the poor and failing schools Americans in large part are okay with throwing kids into prison creating a larger inmate population which in turn creates a demand for more prisons to be built. The greater mass of white suburbia and their worker class counterparts just don't give a damn about the ongoing human tragedies in American cities, so they follow the rule of out of sight, out of mind. Sooner or later we might just want to build prison walls around the borders of the entire country, in the long run that's where we are going anyway.

So with the dust now settled on the Cold War who exactly won that expensive and ultimately self-defeating conflict? It might be easier to say who didn't win, then move over to the actual victors.

First loser, of course, is the Soviet Union being that it doesn't exist anymore except in the minds of many Russians who even now hunger for a rematch, no matter the expense to their country or humanity as a whole. This desire to get even for their humiliating fall from superpower status has Putin playing a game of chicken with NATO countries, talking about building American-sized aircraft carriers, and generally being an incredible douchebag all in the name of nationalistic glory.

The second loser award goes to the United States, after hundreds of billions of dollars spent to defeat godless communism all it got us was a vastly powerful military/industrial complex that even now pulls more strings with our elected leaders than the voters. Throw in the banker and Wall Street types and to say the United States is a democracy of, by, and for the people strains the bounds of the most tenuous credibility. Another reason the United States is a Cold War loser was all the deals made with third-world tyrants over the decades to secure our addiction to cheap oil, other resources, and simple geopolitical concerns and many of those chickens have come home to roost.

Simply put, if you think a lot of the animosity the Middle Eastern peoples have towards us Americans is because they “hate our freedoms” you are an idiot. My best advice to such people would be to turn off Duck Dynasty and other shows like it, along with Fox News and read some actual journalistic publications along with history books not written by semi-fascist, right-wingers who think Jesus is coming back.

I would be remiss not to add that while being supposed winner of the Cold War has given Americans a possibly fatal case of hubris. Naturally, when someone comes to believe their shit doesn't just stink but smells like roses they think giving others some of it is a favor. In reality such people greatly overestimate the smell of their poop and are totally wrong to think anyone else wants even the smallest amount. I would be wrong not to paraphrase the character of Bane from one of the best Batman movies, and say that victory in many ways has defeated us. 

The third loser award goes to humanity as a whole. Despite it being one of the worst cliches, wars and conflicts never solves anything. All they really do is create more hate and fear that leads to more death and destruction.

Now the winners of the Cold War, and because I'm tired I'll keep the comments at a minimum.

The first winners are the multinational corporations. With some earning more money than medium-sized countries they are able to play games with the environment and people that are criminal. With the triumph of capitalism there is no opposing force that people can rally around to blunt their excesses. In many cases here in the United States to say anything negative about any business, no matter their abuses or crimes, is to be instantly labeled a Obama-loving socialist.

The second winner would have to be China. This ancient country has emerged from the debris of the Cold War and its own self-inflicted horrors to become in many ways the richest nation on the planet. What threatens its status is a whole host of internal problems that could suddenly end its winning streak and quite frankly leave it a shattered husk.

In short what the world and the West is now facing is nothing less than a good old existential crisis of what it means to be free. The ideological struggle of the twentieth century went out with a whimper instead of a bang, which given how the latter would have sterilized planet is definitely a good thing. But the absence of an “enemy” to focus our attention and energies on has left us adrift and ready to abandon our principles and turn on each other.

Corporations, the chief winners of the Cold War, promise convenience, easy living, and plenty of material goods but this says nothing of the cost that has to be paid in environmental destruction and the degradation of human liberties and dignity. Maintaining the true principles of the West takes vigilance and a desire to truly work at building something respectable that we can hand down to our children. But that takes maturity and a willingness to accept our own faults and work to fix them. Some nations of the West have that ability, others like the United States rejects any and all criticisms to the point a person can risk their reputation and even safety if they voice the truth. The question as to whether we can change and take charge of our future again is something up to debate, but I have come to doubt it.