I ended my 2017 roughly as I started it: On an ancient tractor, moving snow. But, at this end of the year, the tractor is mine, and I’ve worked on it enough that it’s running quite a bit better! And I can take pictures of it from above!
Another year, another trip around the sun, and time for more reflections and resolutions. Since I have more interesting projects going on in my life now, I’ve decided to break the end of year into two posts - an “end of year reflection” and a “resolutions and plans going forward” post. This week is the reflections, and next week, to start 2018 off, is resolutions and plans.
Politics, Trump, News Media, and Dying Empires
Obvious to anyone who has been on the internet or watched the news even briefly in 2017, we have President Donald Trump. A guy who, near as I can tell, ran for the lulz and cheers, and then discovered that the media could not stop talking about him. No matter what he did. No matter what he Tweeted. And if it was a 3AM Tweet, so much the better - more time to cover it for those early morning Social Viral Shares that are a vital part of your balanced breakfast.
Trump was catnip to the news. Love him or hate him, people wanted to keep up with all things Trumpy. And, from the perspective of a news company, “Wow, can you believe how awesome this guy is for saying this?” and “I cannot believe this drooling moron is allowed to say this, can you?” are identical. They’re clicks. They’re unique eyeballs. They’re Social Shares. And the news media, sometime between 2008 and 2016, became addicted to those things. They’re driven by it. Even if they hate themselves for it, they can’t help but write the articles - and you’d better beat the next guy to publish, facts or context be damned, because publishing the first article on some new bit of breaking news is great (of which @realDonaldTrump was an endless supply). Publishing a well researched article that’s 10th? Well, I mean, you’ll probably get a few views…
Plus, Trump ran a nearly perfect “None of the Above” or “The Outsiders” campaign. I recognized it very early on, because I ran very nearly the same campaign when I ran for Student Body President at my university - and lost. Badly. But still surprised people. More on that later, but his campaign looked very, very familiar to me.
This whole perfect storm of click addicted media, “outrage sharing” (people sharing just how much they hate this with a link to the article), and a rather different political environment than 2008 (people being fed up with Washington, and a candidate that more or less represented the status quo versus one that represented, “Step right up, Roll the dice, Who knows what you’ll get!”) led to Trump riding the phrase, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity!” into the Oval Office.
And, so, we have President Trump.
Again, this didn’t surprise me at all. Dying or declining empires tend to make some especially… interesting… choices in terms of political leaders, and my model of the United States is that it’s a dying empire. I’m aware it’s an unpopular view, but consider it, and try fitting it with things we see - the infrastructure decay, the political dysfunction, the extreme political polarization. Glubb’s Fate of Empires is well worth the read, for a quick overview of what we can expect going forward. Nothing good, of course, and historically, at this point, there is no “right group of people” to vote in to fix the problems. Politicians, political systems, and solutions to problems that worked on the way up don’t work on the way down - and generally make things worse, because you can’t generally grow your way out of problems created by growth. Nobody wants to recognize this, so we go on about the gamed financial statistics and listen to increasingly strident assertions that everything is fine, everything is great, and nothing can go wrong. Well, at least, after replacing Trump with their preferred politician.
Articles about how Trump is causing the American Empire to collapse have started to show up, and they’re amusing, but they reliably have the causation direction wrong. The American Empire collapsing caused Trump to show up. Not the other way around. Or, alternately, less than a year of power from someone who has exhibited almost zero understanding of the levers of government has toppled a country over. That only happens if a country isn’t on very solid ground to start with - which is also a reasonably fair assessment.
The Outsiders Campaign
I think the statute of limitations is up on this (it was well over a decade ago), so it’s probably worth finally sharing how I ran for Student Body President back in the day, with by far the most blatant violations of campaign policy, and never got called on it.
In college, I spent several years as a bus driver, and quite enjoyed driving the free Friday and Saturday night transportation - the “drunk bus,” as it was commonly called, much to the annoyance of university staff and bus company managers. I drove it a lot, and ran a tighter ship than some drivers with regards to the PA system. I didn’t let random passengers sing on it, though I did, at one point, let someone belt out an amazing rendition of The Scotsman on it after he’d proved he had a good set of pipes. The PA was my method for mocking, shaming, and generally harassing passengers into compliance with my wishes, and I got pretty good at it. My passengers enjoyed it as well, liked me as a driver, and I began wondering if this was something I could pivot into some free tuition. Student Body President gets free tuition, you see - and so a plan hatched.
Elections were in February - and it was very clear that you were not to begin campaigning before you’d signed up, or before the official campaigning that started 4 weeks before the election. Campaigning early was a big no-no, and the cause of more than a few hefty (for students) fines in my time there. But, I had my weekend passengers, and I made the gamble that the overlap between my party passengers and the people who actually cared about campaign rulemaking was the null set. So I campaigned early, and often. General wisdom was that you’d never get “the drunks” to remember to vote, and I recall the occasional candidate sort of awkwardly jumping on a bus or two and trying to campaign. But they weren’t the well liked bus driver, were they?
My campaign slogan was very simple. “Vote for Russ, he drives the bus!” I campaigned early, and I campaigned often. I was campaigning midway through the fall semester, and by early spring semester, whole groups would get on the bus, see it was me, and start chanting, “Vote for Russ, he drives the bus!” I enjoyed it, and was busy proving that, yes, people would remember me. I’d remind passengers as they got off, “Vote early, vote often, vote Russ and Dave!”
The official campaigning season started, and nobody in student government had any idea why on earth I was running. Dave and I ran “The Outsiders” campaign, and my campaign promise was pretty simple. I’d find one of those EZ-Up tents, a comfortable recliner or couch, and spend a few hours a week out on central campus under the tent, just being out and around for students to talk to me about whatever was going on. I had no idea how to run a student body government, and if I’m honest, I didn’t really care that much. But I was going to be out there, and once I found out what people really cared about (normal students, not the people who were in student body government looking for their next political notches), I’d go from there.
The election came and went, and I most definitely did not win. But… numbers were weird. A normal election reliably got 4,000 votes. Didn’t matter the year, didn’t matter who was running, a student body president election fell in right around there. The year I ran, almost 5000 votes were cast - and I got about 1000 votes. Nobody in student government could figure out how I got nearly that many votes (the winning candidate got a hair over 2000, and the second place got a bit under).
And I got off totally clean in terms of campaign fines for violations, even though I was, by far, the worst offender. I also successfully used a Nerf Wildfire (20 round full auto Nerf gun) in a debate in a bar. It was a fun time.
I set a goal at the beginning of 2017 of “one research post a month.“ Did I accomplish that? No. Not even if you count the whole Mavic Pro Missing Handbook series. But I did write a few solid research type posts, and I have more of those coming up in 2018.
My surprise of the year in 2017 was that series. I figured I’d toss together a few posts about flying a Mavic Pro. I didn’t expect a 7 week, 40,000 word series. It took a long time to properly understand how that thing works, but I have a very solid feel for it now, and got an awful lot of page views related to it (with a good chunk of my organic search traffic being drone related now). That was my biggest blog related undertaking to date, and I’m very happy with how it turned out. Unfortunately, it’s probably out of date by now and would need updating…
I haven’t made particularly good use of the drone for blog photography, though I’m hoping to change that a bit next year. With a shift to more outdoor projects, the drone makes a bit more sense for project documentation.
On the other hand, I have written quite a bit. And that was the original goal, so I call it a success. I’ve started on a book as well - so that’s something.
The tastiest blog post this year was definitely frying an egg with a DeWalt tool battery.
Old Equipment (is fun)
I’ve had an opportunity to work with a lot of older equipment in 2017. My trash hauler trailer came from a 53 year old pickup bed, with a 40+ year old canopy that’s still in good shape.
My tractor is over 75 years old. It took some work, but I entirely expect it to live another 75, and probably longer. Ford made a good tractor back then, and there’s just not that much to go wrong. Plus, there are enough of them that parts are easy to come by, if not as good as OEM.
When the tractor was born, the 1927 Willys Knight was already a teenager - that car turned 90 this year when we went touring around.
While my Ural is only a bit over a decade old, it’s a direct evolution of a late 1930s BMW - and still has an awful lot of “old motorcycle” buried in the welded steel frame, tubed tires, and general quirks of life (recently, the brake lights weren’t working because both switches froze up, combined with a connection coming loose and sparking a few times on me).
Working with old equipment is very interesting, coming from the modern perspective. Not only is it designed to be maintained with simple tools, it lasts a very long time. An Apple 2e is 34 years old and quite useless. My tractor is 75 years old and still going strong. They’re designed from a different era, when you worked on things yourself, and they were designed to be maintained by a farmer, in a field. It shows in the design. It’s really, really hard to drop pieces in the dirt unless you try.
And using it is very different from modern equipment that’s designed to handhold you and be easy to use. If I’m running the tractor, I don’t have headphones or anything else in. I need to listen to hear changes in load, and, really, I don’t trust the tractor enough to really relax. It’s easy to use, mostly, but there’s a quiet undercurrent of, “If you stop paying attention, I just might try to kill you.” Subtle, but there. And worth listening to. The Willys is a nice driving car, but there’s the same sense of, “You’d better be paying attention.” You can relax a bit, but not too much.
I don’t expect my daughter to care about my current cell phone when I die - I don’t even expect to still have it, if I live to my expected age. The tractor? The car? I entirely expect them to outlive me.
If you get a chance to spend time with older equipment, do so. Even if you only have a chance to be near it at a museum, spend the time to listen. They have so many stories, are so incredibly patient, and have so many things to teach us in our modern, rushed life. They’ve outlived many people, and will outlive many more, with a tiny bit of care.
One of my major goals for 2017 was to reduce distraction. This worked quite well, at least if I was deliberate and didn’t let distractions creep back in. They have this annoying way of doing so. But, as a proof of concept (and proof of sanity), it was incredibly successful. Less distraction is a good way of going about life, and is a very, very productive way of going about getting things done. I’ve engineered this partly by reducing distracting and addictive input into my life (Facebook would be a good example here), and partly because my blog requires me to finish projects. Which I’m not otherwise good at. My office helps a lot here also - it’s free from the usual distractions of an office, and I can set it up to be productive for whatever I happen to be working on.
I’m going to talk about this more in the 2018 goals post, but if you’re on the fence about distraction and how it impacts your life, try reducing it substantially. If you’re old enough, you may recognize this feeling that hasn’t been around for the last decade. If you’re young enough, you may never have known it - the feeling of being bored. Which is a great reason to go find something interesting to do. Or, even if you’re not bored, the feeling of being able to focus, deeply, on one thing - and see it through
We’re really bad at this, and while I’m not usually one to point fingers, I’d offer that smartphones, “gamification,” and generally a tech industry that looks at the gambling research coming out of Vegas and says, “Yes! We need more of that in our app!” is at least partly to blame here. The new default is endless distraction, and there is no shortage of companies willing to distract you in exchange for eyeballs. It’s not helpful to anyone but them, and it’s certainly not helpful to you in your life.
Towards the end of the year, my wife & I went through the comments and likes on a particularly notable Facebook post, and realized that we simply didn’t talk to most of the people involved. It’s great that my high school friends know we’ve got another kid on the way, but do I actually care that people I literally haven’t said a word to, in person or online, since high school, know? Not really. Do they actually care, or are they just going through the required and socially acceptable motions? I don’t know, but I’d guess it’s pretty low on their care-o-meter…
More and more people are quitting or severely curtailing their Facebook use (and other social media, but Facebook is the big one), and this is incredibly exciting to me. It has some challenges for organization (for years, you could assume everyone would see Facebook events, and that’s no longer true), but I think it’s a huge win for concentration and distraction reduction.
I’ve also very successfully made my phone more boring this year. I’ve tried to reduce the little addictive “hit” I can get pulling it out, and this has been very useful. I frequently don’t even have my phone on me when I’m interacting with other people, and even if I do, I don’t have the urge to check it constantly. Do Not Disturb is a great, great feature. Use it!
I’ve got a better feel for our property now, having been here a year and a half, and there’s an awful lot that needs to happen - as is always the case with any property.
The main thing we don’t have a good handle on right now is proper firebreaks, and this matters. Our hillside burns more often than I’d really prefer, and the intervals are getting more frequent. I don’t have a good solution for cheatgrass, but I’m going to spend some effort on that next year. I know that “chopping it short” doesn’t qualify as a firebreak after some analysis, though.
However, the bulk of the “We need this stuff done soon” work is done (or will be in a month, with the installation of the carport). I’ve got storage space, I’ll have a protected space for vehicles soon, and the rest can proceed as we’ve got time and money. I’ll be talking about this more next week in 2018 plans.
Wrapping up 2017
That’s about it for 2017. Next week, plans for 2018!