A statement was recently made by the guy who currently occupies the governor's mansion, a statement on a subject near and dear to my heart, and it made me wonder "Alright, who does this cat represent? Because it sure ain't Texas."
The topic of the governor's misinformation was barbecue. In his comments, our esteemed head of state government said that the most important thing about barbecue is the sauce. While there are some mighty tasty sauces out there to accompany the various meats coming out of wood smoke-fueled pits across this great land, the subject of barbecue is one of seminal importance to all Texans and should be taught in public schools.
Just like good music, barbecue brings people together. One of our true poets of song, Mr. Robert Earl Keen sang, "barbecue makes old ones feel young, barbecue makes everybody someone." One of my fondest memories of childhood involved the sacred cow (pardon my punniness there) of Texas Barbecue: succulent, slow-smoked brisket. When I was seven or eight, I would go with my grandfather to pick up brisket at Wilbert T.'s Barbecue in Woodville. At the time, Tyler County's greatest pitmaster operated out of a small building in front of the sawmill. Sadly, his place is gone to the sands of time and the sawmill site is now the home of the prosaically named fire hazard German Pellets Plant. However, on the rare occasions where Wilbert T. fires up his massive pit for the public, you can bet there will be a crowd. He still cooks up godlike brisket, ribs and chicken for Western and Dogwood weekends, as well as for random fundraisers.
Since childhood days of eating some of the world's best barbecue, I have eaten barbecue all over the country and nothing compares to Texas Barbecue. It is simply a culinary artform that is unparalleled throughout the world. Chili is the official state dish of Texas and has been since our legislature proclaimed it as such in 1977. Although my good friend Kent Finlay (God rest his soul) would disagree with me, I think that proclamation should be overturned: barbecue should rightfully be the official state dish. Nothing says Texas more than a hearty serving of tender brisket (preferably smoked with post oak, the mighty champion among barbecue woods).
Of course barbecue culture varies in whatever crick of whichever neck of the woods you find yourself. Go further east and you'll encounter more pork and sweet sauces, with hungry folks piling their coleslaw atop their meat. Even within Texas barbecue culture, lines are sharply drawn geographically with the East, Central, South and Western regions of Texas each putting a unique thumbprint on our culinary masterstroke. Differences like our tendency in East Texas to enjoy our 'cue sloppy and falling off the bone or the South Texas style of utilizing thick, molasses-based sauces to keep the meat moist underscore the diversity within the wonderful world of Texas Barbecue.
The types of woods used in cooking the meat also play a big role in creating the regional distinctions. Around here, hickory is king, whereas mesquite is widely used in the northern part of the state. In central Texas, you encounter meat cooked with pecan and oak woods primarily. Most folks I know in these parts tend to fetishize mesquite, which don't get me wrong, is a fine wood (especially for chicken or pork) but post oak is such a superior wood for cooking (and far more widely available out this way, I might add).
Speaking of which, the art of cooking barbecue is a Zen, nearly transcendent experience that matches patience with skill, attention to detail and trial-and-error learning. Never confuse barbecuing with grilling. To say you're going to barbecue only to fire up a bunch of Kingsford-doused charcoal briquettes to cook burgers and steaks is like saying you enjoy great literature, but only read Nicholas Sparks novels. Getting a fire going in a pit and cooking brisket, ribs or pork butt s-l-o-w-l-y at low temperatures is barbecuing. Sure, it takes hours upon hours of tending to the pit and waiting, but the end result is always something that'll make you (and others) happy if done right.
Real Texas Barbecue is a thing of beauty, and I love looking at it, I love cooking it, I love smelling of it and I really enjoy eating it. Whether it's picked from the pit at Cooper's in Llano or a rare treat from Wilbert T. with his brisket wizardry, the most important thing about barbecue might not even be the meat itself, or the amazing pinto beans served on the side, or the sauce, or how great the cold Big Red (or Shiner Bock) tastes with it, but the feeling of satisfaction you get from such a great meal.
Barbecue represents something real, something that's true blue and good for the soul; something that Texans should be incredibly proud of. To quote another great songster here in Texas (by way of Montana), John "Missoula Slim" Gilliam, "Better get'cher self some Texas barbecue."
While I was born in Woodville, I grew up in the 1950's and 1960's in Nederland. During those years, the industry fueling the "Golden Triangle's" (the area Beaumont, Port Author, Nederland, Port Neches and Orange was known as) economy was oil refineries and ship building. In fact, the reason we lived in Nederland was because my father worked for Texaco refinery in Port Author, a job he held for 41 years.
Nederland was a pretty good place to grow up in those days. There were lots of young families making pretty good money, and my parents built a home in an "addition" as they were called, which rapidly filled with new homes and new families.
We kids spent a lot of time playing outdoors, which was great except for the scourge of the area...mosquitoes. During the summer, swarms of mosquitoes blanketed our little piece of paradise. The kids were driven indoors, the parents weren't happy, so municipalities came up with a solution.
Up until 1982, Dupont Corporation used the advertising slogan, "Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry." And, that slogan could pretty much describe a lot of what was going on economically in the Golden Triangle back then. So the cities decided to make our life as kids better by applying some chemistry to the mosquito problem.
Twice a day, every day, during the summer months, we were thrilled to see the "mosquito spray" trucks roll through the streets. These trucks had big fogging devices on them that sprayed a cloud of mosquito killing chemistry that we would run out and play in. "Take that mosquitoes!"
And why not, the trucks had a big sign on the back that announced that what they were spraying was only dangerous to mosquitoes, not human beings or other animals. What they were spraying was DDT, an endocrine disruptor, meaning they trigger hormonal responses in animals. The EPA says that DDT exposure damages the reproductive system and reduces reproductive success. It is also suspected to be a carcinogen, and was ultimately banned in the U.S.
Another downside to living anywhere near refineries in the 1950's and 1960's was the foul smell, and clouds of particle filled smoke that poured from their stacks 24 hours a day. After living there for years, you pretty much didn't notice the smell anymore, unless you actually drove by one of the many refineries. When we would drive by Texaco refinery, we kids would start complaining about the bad smell. My dad would tell us that he didn't smell anything, and to hush. Of course, he worked there five days a week. We know now, of course, that what was coming out of those smoke stacks, covering the cars, grass and homes, and being breathed into our lungs, was a cocktail of dangerous and corrosive chemicals.
Orange, Texas, during the 1940's, 50's and 60's, was a major center of shipbuilding. There were many people employed in great paying jobs building commercial and military ships. In each ship built there was massive quantities of asbestos. The people who worked on those ships inhaled asbestos fibers every day.
Years later, a lot of those people started getting really sick. Asbestosis and mesothelioma are terrible ways to die. And once the facts came out, that the companies who made products with asbestos knew that the product was dangerous, the lawsuits begin to mount. As of 2013, over 10,000 companies were defendants in asbestos related lawsuits. Billions of dollars have been rewarded to those suffering with the consequences, or their families (because many have died). Asbestos is now banned in over 50 countries (not the United States).
The other thing we were exposed to everyday when I was a kid was tobacco smoke. My dad, along with just about every other American male at that time, smoked. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for 30 years. There was an ashtray in every room of the house. And in all of our friend's houses. And in every restaurant, doctor's office and hospital room in the country.
We know now that even second hand cigarette smoke leads to a high incidence of cancer and COPD. The tobacco industry assured us, along with a raft of experts (later shown to have been on their payrolls) that smoking tobacco was not only safe, but had heath benefits. It would be many years, and many formal denials from the tobacco industry, before they admitted that (after documents were leaked) they had known all along of the dangers.
After working in a refinery for 41 years, my dad had to retire early because of early onset Alzheimer's, a disease that doesn't run in his family. While there is no way to prove it, doctors suspect it was a result of decades of exposure to toxic chemicals long before they were regulated.
Today, we are dealing with two controversies that seem to me are a result of forgetting the revelations of the past. There is a push, especially in Texas, to relax (that's a euphemism for "remove") environmental regulations so that corporations can make bigger profits, a factor that plays into the second controversy, which is climate change. Wherever our opinion falls on either of these issues, I think it is important that we consider the past.
I remember when there was a gray, foul smelling haze hanging over industrial areas. When the word "smog" meant something to everyone. There are several generations alive now that, unless they live in a few specific areas, have never experienced smog.
Before regulations were passed to control what came out of the smoke stacks of refineries and electricity production facilities and from the exhausts of vehicles, a lot of the U.S. air looked like it does in China today. Yes, that regulation was expensive. It drove up the cost of fuel, electricity and automobiles. But it dramatically improved our quality of life. This isn't theory for me. I lived then. I remember. I also remember when industry funded "experts" assured us that DDT, the fumes from refineries, and tobacco smoke were harmless.
Now, there are groups of "experts," as has been revealed in the last week or so, that have been funded in the millions of dollars by industrial and political special interests, to deny that climate change is real. Many of these "experts" are not scientists of any kind, while others have no expertise in climatology. The reality is that of those scientists who have real experience in climatology, 99.86 percent agree that climate change is real and happening.
I am not trying to tell you what to believe. What I am trying to convey is that the destruction of the environment, and climate change, are both existential issues. If we get it wrong, then your children and your children's children, are going to suffer the life and death consequences of our inaction.
Regardless of where you stand now on these issues, it is essential to remember the lies of the past, and take time to learn whom these people are that you are staking the lives of your children on, and who is paying them to render their opinions to you. There are many special interests in this country who are more interested in short term financial gain than in our future.
Perhaps a better slogan for all of us in the 21st century, if we hope to survive it, would be "Better Living Through...Honesty."
No, I'm not talking about the MTV series featuring a bunch of hyper-sexualized young adults thrown into an upscale house with cameras in every room that invited the world to watch what happened (big surprise, huh?). My focus is the 3D world, the one we walk around in, which still exists when we turn off our computers and smart phones, and the meaning of "reality" in the 21st century.
Modern neuroscience, through the use of very sophisticated imaging techniques, is now able to look into the brain in real time, while it is thinking, imagining and solving problems. Neuroscientists have constructed many experiments, confirmed hundreds of times, that reveal some interesting things about the brain, the nature of consciousness and the concept of self. You can find interesting reading about this on the Internet. An exhaustive account is well beyond the scope of this column.
Scientists have observed through this research that when faced with a specific task, areas of the brain register activity up to several seconds before the thought to initiate the activity appears in consciousness. When a subject was asked to tap any numbered square in a stream of numbered squares scrolling across a computer monitor, the brain registered the decision to select a particular square before the thought to select that square appeared in the subjects consciousness...before she was aware of making a decision to select that particular square. The simple take on this is that thoughts appear in our consciousness from an area of our brain that we have no direct access to. They simply appear, persist for a while, we either act on them or not, then they disappear. And while this research and these conclusions involve some very high tech tools, this knowledge has actually been around over 2,000 years. Understanding this concept is one of the primary points of meditation.
Don't worry, I'm not going all metaphysical here. Meditation, in what has become known in the West as Mindfulness Meditation, but is an outgrowth of Vipassana, or Insight Mediation, is used in business, in education, and by many individuals to increase the ability to focus on tasks. As we are barraged with an ever increasing stream of information, we are all looking for ways to manage our ability to pay attention to what needs to be done. Meditation practice has been a solution for many people.
The short explanation of Mindfulness Meditation is pretty simple. Sit in a quiet place, eyes open or closed, and concentrate on your breath. While that sounds simple, it is initially very difficult for most people, who quickly discover that their mind is very busy. It is constantly thinking. Thoughts pop into consciousness over which there seems to be no control. Many people can't get beyond one breath before they discover their mind is thinking about the grocery list, the angry words they said to someone five years ago, or thoughts that seem to make no sense to them at all. "Monkey Mind" the Buddhists call it.
The goal is that every time the mind strays from concentrating on the breath, and as soon as you notice it has strayed, you pull concentration back to the breath. Eventually, and for some people it takes a long time, you will be able to stay with the breath longer and longer, and the distracting thoughts will decrease. The side effect of this practice that most people are looking for is that their ability to focus on a specific task increases.
The other thing that happens is that, by watching your thoughts so intently, you come to the realization that thoughts appear in the mind, persist for a time, and disappear. If you have a thought, but do not grasp onto that thought, it will vanish as mysteriously as it appeared. Which is exactly what the high-tech tools of neuroscience appear to confirm.
This column, though, isn't an attempt to convince you to meditate. When you see directly that your days are made up of a constantly moving stream of thoughts, some of which you act on, and many which you wisely don't, you can begin to understand the real implications of the unlimited information that we are subjected to each day. We see thousands of images, and hear hundreds of messages in commercials, music, movies and TV each day.
Many of these images and messages are created by entities that are using the findings of the most cutting edge neuroscience to influence our thinking. They understand that we are a stream of thoughts constantly passing, almost unexamined, through our minds, and that if they can inject their own message into that stream, among the thousands of other messages that we have no time to process objectively, that we are likely to assume their thoughts are, in fact, our thoughts, our desires; and that we will act on them.
The result is familiar. We buy stuff we can't afford, we accept ideas that are inconsistent with our core values, we make life choices that decrease rather than increase happiness, we vote for people whose stated goals are inconsistent with our own beliefs or aspirations. This is not a new problem, of course. What is new is the overwhelming amount of information we are forced to process every day, and our resulting failure to make time to edit the good from the bad.
I believe this is one of the biggest existential threats of the 21st century: that we will get so caught up in the rhetoric that we fail to grasp reality.
Many of the good people of the City of Woodville, Texas may remember me, Cory Miller (aka 'Cory the Well Driller'), from the open letter I wrote to Obama in 2008 just before the election. The email went viral, resulting in a number of media interviews, and can still be found posted on blogs around the country 6 years later – you can google 'Cory the Well Driller' to find it. In the interest of good, honest, and open business practices, I have to bring a concern before the taxpayers of the City of Woodville.
The City of Woodville has employed an engineering firm to engineer a new water well for your city. Like all Municipal water well contracts, there is a list of requirements for contractors to be eligible to have their bids considered. This contract, however, contains unusual requirements that are far beyond the usual requirements for bidding projects of this nature. One of the engineers' requirements in this contract requires reads:
B. The contractor shall demonstrate the following: 1. At least ten (10) years' experience with water well construction of at least the same type, size and diameter, or larger, of this project and shall have constructed at least fifteen (15) such wells within the last five (5) years for public water supply within the Gulf Coast area in Texas;
The specifications for this well call for the construction of a 20" diameter cased well with 14" well screen installed in an under-reamed hole completed at a depth of about 820'. There is likely not a well drilling company in Texas who can meet the experience requirement of '15 such wells within the last 5 years' - as dictated above, but if there is, it would likely only be one company, a company known for often bidding 50% - or more - higher bid prices than the average of other bidders.
C. Miller Drilling, established in 1983, has constructed some 70 engineered Municipal and Community water wells across the State of Texas over the last 15 years, ranging all around Northeast Texas, over to almost El Paso for Fort Hancock, down to Palacios on the gulf coast, up to Tiki Island between Galveston and the mainland, just west and just north of Houston, and around the Waco and Dallas metroplexes. We have completed two projects in just the last year that were well over $1,000,000.00 each. We have completed a number of water well projects that deliver over 1,000 gallons per minute. While the City of Woodville project is estimated at 820' deep in soft drilling formations, we have completed wells in far more difficult and hard drilling conditions to depths up to 2,702', and we have completed a number of wells with 16", 185/8", 24", and 26" casings. Our licensed and supervised drillers have a cumulative of over 90 years' experience. I could go on for some time listing our qualifications, but I think most people can easily see that C. Miller Drilling is more than qualified to contract and construct a water well like the one that has been engineered for the City of Woodville. Although C. Miller Drilling has constructed a number of water wells with casings larger than that specified for this project over the last 5 years, and we have completed some 43 Municipal or Community wells over the last 5 years, we have not constructed 15 projects this size and larger over the last 5 years – so we are considered not qualified for the Woodville project by the terms of the engineers specifications. Given that C. Miller Drilling is clearly qualified to construct a well of this nature, one has to wonder why an engineer would write a list of qualifications that would exclude such a clearly qualified candidate from this project.
The only reasons I can imagine why an engineer would write specifications for this project that would exclude nearly every water well drilling company in Texas from bidding, would be: 1) The intention is innocent and the engineer simply does not know he has excluded nearly every potential bidder in Texas – leaving, perhaps, only one bidder that he would consider qualified, but since the qualifications clearly match only one specific contractor this is not imaginable, or 2) The intention is to assure that a specific contractor will get the project - at whatever price - because the decision makers in Woodville are convinced that contractor is the only contractor that they can count on to competently construct the well – an unrealistic outlook when you consider that all contractors for such jobs are screened by the requirement for performance bonds which assure competent job performance. This explanation would also demonstrate that instead of just openly and honestly trying to negotiate the contract with the contractor of their choice - the legal or political environment that exists in Woodville will not allow this - so a phony bid process for the project is set up where only their pet contractor can qualify so that it appears everything has been done in an open and competitive atmosphere, or 3) The intention is to assure that a specific contractor will get the project - at an exorbitant price -perhaps to justify an exorbitant engineering bill - and/or possibly providing for a 'kick-back' from the contractor to the engineer and/or city official - a practice commonly known as 'crony capitalism'.
The taxpayers of the City of Woodville might want to inquire with the City Council and Mayor as to why they are engaging in business practices that will likely drive up the cost of their municipal water well project by perhaps as much as 50%. This one contract may cost the taxpayers of Woodville as much as $300,000.00 more because of this contract requirement. Isn't it time for taxpayers to get responsible, open, and honest management of their interests and money? It's not that I want to bid on this project at this point – even if the way were cleared now for C. Miller Drilling to bid there is no way I would do so given the hostile environment that will exist after this letter becomes public knowledge. I am just trying to bring an end to any improper business dealings that may be at play for the future benefit of both taxpayers and businessmen.
In last month's takedown of the Boomer Apocalypse, I pointed out that attempts to assign blame for current social and economic problems are not only misguided, but a dangerous diversion from dealing with the very real issue of the unconsidered expansion of technology. This month I want to talk about noodles.
Now, most of us in the U.S. don't think of noodles when we think of fast food. Hamburgers, fries, and most any other unhealthy, over processed food comes to mind before noodles. But, noodles are big in China. And noodles are a favorite part of the China fast food experience. And in a country of almost 1.5 billion people, noodles are big business. If you own a restaurant that serves noodle dishes, someone has to make a lot of noodles each day to satisfy all of those hungry diners.
The actual work of cooking those noodles is pretty simple. The problem is that "someone" must peel noodle strips from a firm piece of dough, throw them into boiling water, and remove them after a specific time. That's what a noodle cook does all day, every day. And for that effort, noodle cooks in China make around $6,400 U.S. per year.
You would think that, with 1.5 billion people, it would not be a problem to hire enough noodle cooks. You would be right. There is no shortage of people in China who want to earn the equivalent of $6,400 a year to make noodles. Sounds like the perfect combination, a commercial need for noodle cooks, and plenty of folks who want to do it. If you own a restaurant, though, there is a downside to noodle cooks. They get tired, they get bored, they get sick; and, they get $6,400 a year. Technology has found a solution to the problem. Robot noodle cooks.
It seems that over the last couple of years, thousands of robot noodle cooks have appeared in Chinese restaurants, to the delight of many diners. They are entertaining to watch as they peel the noodles from the dough and toss them into the boiling water. They are very fast. They will work tirelessly 24/7. They don't get sick. They don't get bored. And they cost only $1,600 (which is down from $3,000 only a couple of years ago). Even when maintenance costs are considered, they are much less expensive than people. Eventually, because commercial interests are driving the development of these robots, these intelligent machines, the cost will come down even more, and they will dominate the fast food industry. Many people will lose their jobs.
What does this have to do with Generation Z (those who are now under age 17)? The rise of intelligent machines is pervasive in the U.S. It is not just our fast food restaurants that are rapidly becoming more automated. Intelligent machines (robots, if you like) are rapidly taking over jobs from people in every industry. This has been going on for years, of course. But, as the speed of technology increases, the pervasiveness increases. Intelligent machines are now spreading from replacing blue-collar workers, into replacing white-collar workers.
While this escalation in the spread of technology threatens all of us in some way, Gen Z faces the biggest threat. Technology, it is estimated, will eliminate 70 percent of the jobs that exist now within 25 years. Those folks born within the last few years will be looking, in 15 or 20 years, for that summer job, or entry level position as they enter the workforce. Where will they find those jobs? If the unconsidered expansion of technology continues to accelerate (as it surely will, because it is being driven by economic interests), most entry-level jobs and many other jobs, will be done by intelligent machines.
Next month we'll look at another troubling technology trend, the rise of sociable robots.
Jim Powers is Editor of the Tyler County Booster. All opinions expressed are those of the author and do no necessarily reflect those of this Newspaper or its management.
Just as you thought the Zombie Apocalypse was finally fading into well-deserved obscurity, and that it might be safe to put the shotgun back on the rack and leave the bunker, Internet pundits are sounding a new warning. The Boomer Apocalypse is here. Hidden among the millions of folks born between 1946 and 1964 is a little known secret. Immortality! Boomers, it seems, are immortal. Don't believe it? Why not? It's all over the Internet.
An important note: This monthly column will be an extended rant about technology. Specifically, it is about the future consequences of the unconsidered growth of technology.
"So, Jim, what's up with 'The Boomer Apocalypse' title?"
I was born in 1950, firmly securing my Boomer bona fides among those born between 1946 and 1964. I've lived the typical Boomer life. Started working at a little corner grocery store after school when I was 13 and have worked every day since then. Got an education. Married. Been a photographer, newspaper reporter and editor. Published a couple of newspapers. Owned my own software development company. Bought and sold a few homes along the way. I've learned on the Internet over the last few years, though, that I, and the rest of the Boomers, are the cause of all the now and future economic pain in the United States! It's got to be true, right? It's on the Internet.
It seems a large number of Gen X and Y folks believe that if the Boomers hadn't been so greedy, hadn't expected so much, hadn't organized unions and demanded living wages, that the country would be better off economically now. Boomers have been accused of "using up" the resources of the country, leaving nothing but economic bones to be picked over by those coming of age in the 21st century. Worse, those same Boomers are now getting old, retiring from jobs, and becoming a huge drain on the economy as they begin drawing from Social Security and Medicare. I've read hundreds of projections about the future consequences to the economy, to job creation and availability, and even to housing, as the country has to somehow support all of these old people.
I think all of this is a diversion, and a dangerous diversion. The reality is that Boomers are not immortal. In 25 years, the youngest of us will be 74 years old. Which means most of us will be dead. And while we may be retiring at a faster rate and making more individual demands on the system, we will also be dying at an ever accelerating rate. If we are a burden on the economy, it is a very temporary burden. If we caused all the economic woe of the last few years, an extremely odd concept to my mind, what value is there in condemnation? It is the future, not the past, with which current generations must be concerned.
The "Boomer Apocalypse" is self-limiting. And while so much angst is expended on a self-limiting concern, little is being directed to a more direct threat to future economic security, the unconsidered expansion of technology into every corner of our lives. We are not going to stop the growth of technology. Commercial interests are driving the speed at which technology grows. It is important, though, that we consider the consequences of that growth and make conscious decisions about its direction.
Industry estimates suggest that in 25 years, up to 70 percent of the jobs that exist today will not exist because they will have been replaced with intelligent robots. And the rise of so-called "sociable" robots suggests even more fundamental concerns about our future. We will take a deeper look at these issues in the August column.
Jim Powers is Editor of the Tyler County Booster. All opinions expressed are those of the author and do no necessarily reflect those of this Newspaper or its management.