presents more of a blog variant
These are more dated drafts, without full polishing, so expect errors in both content and details of execution. For more finished work, please refer to my formal publications page. The latest rough rants are at current blog.
Enjoy the following despite its flaws. Its goal is shared entertainment, and to improve the quality of lives.
24 June 2007
I’ve not entered much in the set lately, being hung up in learning a new, i.e. slightly different computer setup, and a bunch of similar distractions around the house. I did, out on the warm deck this evening, realize that I, of all people, had been too sanguine about one of my key presentations, the relationship of natural biomass to human energy use. I have presented, in yorksite.com, on the active projects page, the biomass as constant. As I looked upward as the sun set, I was reminded of how much the canopy of trees has declined in the 14 years we’ve lived here. This isn’t from our own capabilities, because these trees have plenty of water available from the stream they border. Instead, it’s from stresses of pollution (including intentionally applied herbicides by neighbors), climate change, and human carried diseases/insect pests that affect the trees even more than the guilty parties.
The key overlooked principle here is that constancy in agriculture, and thus on other systems, is based on experiments at Rothamsted, a place familiar in detail to me because I spent a month there in 1972. There the longest ongoing experiments in the world have indicated the one can successfully replace native nutrient supplies with artificial fertilizers. Unfortunately, the experiment set has been done in an almost uniquely benign general environment, of gentle climate and deep soils, and relatively even gentler cultural practices. What applies there cannot be rightfully extrapolated to Iowa, where base nitrogen levels in the soils continue to decline in a neatly linear fashion, no matter how much artificial fertilizer is applied, and other less easily measured nutrients are falling with them. Iowa is the good case compared to here, especially when other factors are included as they need to be. Stresses on plant growth are both cumulative and additive, in more than linear ways. The vegetative world, basically, is getting shorter, thinner, and rougher, the very opposites of what either humans or the rest of species need. That net biomass is not just more variable than I’ve plotted, where I’ve intentionally fuzzed the line to represent unknown and unknowable variations, the sum is almost certainly declining.
3 June 2007
Sitting out on the deck, temperature more than a bit warm at 85° F (right at my 30° C limit), but a breeze and birds to make it more tempting to tie together concepts than a cooler indoors, at least yet. Noticing that our alders haven’t been hit by the year’s outbreak, some form of caterpillar that absolutely denudes the things, and realizing that ours do not yet make solid grouping, while the ones up and down the road that have been hit do. Once again, it’s how dense the population, how dominant, that makes it easiest for predators, micro- and macroscopic.
Another fascinating quote set: “Hofstadter’s explanation of human consciousness is disarmingly simple…our feeling of a conscious ‘I’ is but an illusion created by our neuronal circuitry: an illusion that is only apparent at the level of symbols and thoughts, in much the same way as the concepts of pressure and temperature are only apparent at the level of 1023 molecules but not the level of single molecules…the Gödelian construction suggests a tantalizing hypothesis, namely that a level of consciousness could exist far beyond human consciousness, on a level once removed from our level of symbols and ideas (which themselves are once removed from the level of neuronal firing patterns). Christoph C. Adami. 2007. ‘Who watches the watcher?’ Science 316:1125. [a review of Douglas Hofstadter. 2007. I am a strange loop. Basic Books, NY] Gaia with consciousness, eh? Working a bit slowly to keep the human disease from killing her. But then, maybe its entertainment, or the big guy/gal makes mistakes, too, like the Greeks suspected.
Along those lines, a New Yorker article in the 14 May issue speculated that the Greeks may have had a much more technically advanced society than we have assumed, from the finding of a metal geared mechanism from a shipwreck, found c. 1900, antedating the most likely humbuggery, and whose use, as a complex astronomical movement predictor, has just recently been deciphered. Both the above and this one make for some ripe possibilities for sci-fi extrapolations. Great cover image of Plato with a laptop pops to mind, which fits neatly with his shadow reality.
29 May 2007
The latest Wired has a couple of articles about going into space, the first about private companies doing it. ‘Tis funny because in rooting through a couple of old trunks full of second run prints, I ran across a childishly printed drawing of a simple logo I’d done for the “Onondaga Rocket Company”. That made me wonder again why I didn’t go into graphic design, but nobody went further than my 7th grade art teacher in trying to teach me to draw. I wonder if I ever could have loosened up enough to do that? Tightness was the primary problem, not lack of vision.
The second part of the ruminations was with problems they’ve had with reentry. I’ve always wondered, and more explicitly sitting out for one of those few machine free moments out on our deck, able to listen to the stream. Skipper would be the name, working like a thrown stone angling slowly into water, taking the energy out in lots of small increments instead of one big one. Going further, since the energy cost of getting into orbit is so great, collect that braking energy, recycle it, use it, instead of fear it. Saves having to throw away the big power units, too. Fill ‘em back up on the way down. Put that energy to use. Beam it down as microwaves, if nothing else. Radiate it to somewhere that can handle it, and recycle from there. Much easier if done in segments, slowly. Impatience is not helpful. Probably improbable for some reason, but a lot of things have been thought impossible until thought about correctly.
But that was a subcase of the expectation that space is so energy intensive. I’ve done the calculations somewhere in this machine before, about going to the moon, that yes, a lot of energy is consumed getting it going, but after that, the coasting goes on a very long way, for nothing more invested. Same applies to orbiting. The net load miles traveled per unit of fuel expended can work out to be quite efficient indeed. The Apollo guys used less energy per mile traveled than the same number of folks traveling on earth in an RV.
25 May 2007
Definite “this crazy world” department this morning. One newspaper report was of an evacuation of an elementary school from a smoke smell following a power outage caused by an owl intersecting with an as usual uninsulated transmission line. The smoke was traced to an overheated air-conditioner motor. The unmentioned problem, beyond expensive to all (but their executives) cheapness by transmission companies? The temperature was less than 10° C outside. Following that incomplete revelation was an article about problems with insect infestations in forests from “campers” transporting firewood more than 100 miles. Good grief! Anyone who carries firewood that far has waaaay, as Dave Barry would write, too much room in their vehicle! Not to mention too little sense in the owner. Of course, the only letter to the editor was then one decrying the “global warming hoax”, quoting Michael Crichton as his authority. The irony for that is that Crichton is more right than even that writer expects about genetic engineering. I wonder where my massive mistake lies (with my religious childhood immediately painting pictures of a smiling devil).
More seriously, “Unless our world society starts serious discussions to change the entire economic system and associated social attitudes about population, our children and grandchildren are unlikely to thank us for their inheritance.” [Charles R. Clement. 2007. “The most inconvenient truth.” BioScience 57:389.] This Brazilian author suggests, rightly, that Jimmy Carter was the last major national politician who told voters that “might not be able to maintain their standard of dream” and “he lost his reelection bid”. The interesting thing to me, who has long campaigned for the $4/gallon gas that is finally being sold, is to think how much different things could be if the difference in price in the interim, or even at present from the possibly still low cost of production alone, had gone to the government, instead of oil company executives and so many kinds of long-term debt. We certainly could have had better land protection, universal health care, useful research, and so much more, although we probably just would have gotten more financially-driven waste of different sorts. Still, a lot more vital progress could have made at least against energy frivolity and its manifold consequences.
The idea that things as small as transmission of insect pests are among them ought to be meaningfully obvious, and is to me, but sadly is not enough to others. Ditto with the air-conditioning, because one can absolutely guarantee that one needing to use it at that temperature is not just insanely wasteful, the architecture and operation conditions (without doubt including the grossest forms of over-lighting) will make it a surpassingly noisy and uncomfortable place to spend time. Every form of energy waste does not just add up directly or globally, it brings with it a host of very personal problems, for everyone, if they just would bother to look. The list is nearly endless.
Meanwhile, chemicals, especially those like pesticides, are just concentrated forms of energy, and more powerful in their effects from wastage therefore. Following the same logical and functional pathways, genetic engineering brings the next dimension of power into place, with energy concentration to the level of intrinsic activity, capable of reproducing itself and thereby spreading its effects. To get to that point of activity, a vast amount of energy had to be focused previously. This backload may not be apparent at the moment, but required by more honest scientific accounting.
In nuclear weaponry, the connection might become more obvious, with a lot of energetic input in mining, refining, and designing making for a brief lot out. However, as powerful as that immediate output may be, I suspect it remains a quite negative sum from a net energetics equation, if one includes all of the energy required to get to the initial explosion, as one should. Subsequent ones may reduce the overall disparity, but releasing them does create problems of their own, immediately as well as over the longer term.
For the living organisms, evolution provided, through immense energy inputs spread over exceedingly long periods of time, an efficiency lever that makes what the biochemists are now doing possible. Nature at work has created a set of remarkable organization and processes, but one unfortunately with sensitivities to rejiggering by overgrown, selectively ignorant, unwittingly (or worse, intentionally) destructive boys. This was first true at the ecosystem level, where our ancestors and some contemporaries cut forests, plowed up grasslands, and otherwise killed native species in wholesale lots. Now it is extending to the cellular level, with assuredly even worse, and more quickly appearing, consequences.
Once again I’ve lost a reference that went off at a delay within my head, but someone recently published a piece that included an interview with a Monsanto flack about natural insecticide incorporation into plants that did not previously have it, in which they admitted they had not considered consequences 30 years down the pike, and basically did not care. The article was about potatoes, on which vast amounts of chemicals are lavished now, making them bad enough. But naturally, the insecticides have been released naturally only selectively, by certain plant parts, briefly, and only in response to active stresses. They have worked and lasted for at least thousands years that way.
The Monsanto fools are clipping insecticide production into genes so they appear not just where needed and when, but throughout and always, which especially when dispersed into the energy intensive monocultures, will with absolute certainty result in rather quick development of resistance. Even without proper consideration of immediate toxic side effects on desirable creatures, like Monarch butterflies and bees, when that inevitable resistance by unwanted critters spreads its effects to natural systems that have relied upon that form of defense, the results do not need a seer to anticipate becoming catastrophic. Good old business, where as long as something is profitable in the next couple of years, to hell with the future, no matter how widely problematical, or the wider world, as long as the consequences won’t be traced back to them, at least easily or soon, or especially if financial responsibility is unlikely to follow.
Nobel prize winner Norman Borlaug once spoke at length to me, personally, about his concern with that kind of plant breeding, but his worry was for consequences to the human food supply, with the sprayed-on chemicals being bad enough, but the ones bred in being pervasive. Unfortunately that concern was only the classical tip of the iceberg, which I suppose partly answers my question about turning energy money to the government, since it was government research dollars that have largely funded the coming disasters from biotechnology. Good old humanity, if the present ways of messing up the world aren’t enough, we will search out yet more effective ways. Restraint and deeper thought are just too much effort.
17 May 2007
Because I so often seem to dwell on the negative, even if as a place to get a grip on what needs to be done and why, an extended quote worthy of reencountering:
“I'm not blindly optimistic -- looking at the big picture can lead to despair and pessimism. For me, though, it just feels like a better choice to put my energy, and for anyone to put their energy, into projects that create hope. And I think that there's nothing more hopeful that somebody can do than get involved in local food production.
“I'm very inspired by Wendell Berry, who talks about how thinking [small] solves half the problem. All the problems of globalized commodity agriculture and foods traveling thousands of miles from farm to the plate, those are the result of people sort of thinking bigger and bigger, and I think the solutions come from people thinking smaller. And that's why community gardens and community-supported agriculture and community kitchens and things like that are all part of the solution, because they enable people to focus on their needs and their community's needs and satisfying those needs. I really think we need to just focus on small things within our realm that we can actually do.” God of Small Things, An interview with underground foodie hero Sandor Katz, by Tom Philpott.
16 May 2007
A friend wrote about the possibility of attending the 30th Stars Wars anniversary convention. It brought back a favorite story of mine, having met my wife in part by playing General Bullmoose in a high school staging of “Li’l Abner”. I did more acting in college, with Colorado State having a genuinely excellent program, and even more hanging around the theater and with its practitioners. As often has been the case, my own talents were modest, but I was able to learn a bunch about the crafts, acting and staging especially. In 1977, I was back in Fort Collins, and got to see the first Star Wars in a particularly appropriate setting, one of the old widescreen Fox Theaters, built for Panavision.
There were still lines to get in. I’d had a couple of beers beforehand to fortify myself for the wait, and as accompaniment for an early dinner. By the time the film ended, I really had to pee, but hadn’t wanted to interrupt its story. Getting it all out took so long that the second showing crowd had started flowing by the rest room door, so I looked quickly both ways, shrugged and smiled, and blended in to that inward flow.
The second time, having just seen the plot and presentation, I focused on Alec Guinness, watching with extreme care. As I had thought, his performance was bulletproof, a masterpiece of the art of acting. The rest of the cast routinely blew details, lost their presence as characters for instants, gave themselves away as something other than they were pretending to be, things like flick-checking with their eyes for stop marks, anticipating lines or movements in ways no one without prior knowledge could have, improper body language, and so many other little give-aways, breaking suspension of disbelief. Harrison Ford led others in getting better in future roles, but Guinness was dead on perfect at the time (having had more than a bit more practice, to put it mildly, not just talent), even with some of the writing being such that it needed extra credit not to have choked on the lines, or the others’ inadequacies.
It made for a particularly fun way to juxtapose twinned experiences, long before the days of DVD and movies on demand, with something overall that was an amazing creative jump, and in a place where presentation was as good as intended. A couple of years before, watching Doctor Zhivago in a theater where the projectionist was loudly watching a TV, and failing to focus each new reel, had underlined how what my filmmaking course had taught about that last step in the chain of art. Star Wars needs a good big screen for its enveloping vision, along with an appreciative group to share the experience, and I remain grateful for having it from the first. If the special effects may not have been up to current standards, both cinematography and final projection were notably better. In their midst, Sir Alec spun a master class, in one more way than the plot suggested. The later films had more polish all around, but no more at the center.
Of course, the first is the only one I've seen more than once...
Over the transom, from KRCL and Bruce Cockburn, “The best roads are the ones that are uncertain; that’s where you’ll find me when they draw the big curtain.” (from “Child of the Wind” on Nothing but a Burning Light).
And on a very different note, I finally took a picture to go with the comment about the dandelions and children, but two weeks after the poisoning, the twisted leaves came out obscured by more resistant grass. Nevertheless, I noted with sordid amusement that the poisoning process leaves great numbers of seeds for future increased regrowth, to be then spread ever so effectively by power mowing, while my digital approach to control does neither. Theirs, of course, assures a future market for the poisoners. Mine leads to even less unwanted work.
13 May 2007
What’s the connection between a picture and article in the Sunday paper about folks planting trees and shrubs (oh the horror!) in a local cemetery, which is interfering with “tidy” keeping of the landscape, and the editor telling of coming down with cancer, following his wife’s bout with another form? My only question has been, when will the penny of understanding finally drop? As background, I stopped eating trans-fats in 1973, during my graduate program in food science, which had a strong focus on chemical toxicology. What I saw made it obvious to me that the artificially manipulated fats had subtle characteristics that would eventually be proved deadly. They have been, eventually, to most doubters, including those who have profited from them, satisfaction. The connection comes that the herbicides used so freely to “tidy” lawns are so clearly so much worse, albeit even more profitable for their purveyors.
I not only became doubtful about the pesticides for a variety of reasons, not least that their long term consequences even for what they are supposed to do are so destructively foolish, I worked for the EPA and National Academy of Science’s National Resource Council in Washington for a while in the 1980’s, and saw “confidential business information”, about whose details I still cannot legally speak, but which underlined my contention that these chemicals, as a class, are poisons in order to work, and are remain so to humans, because we are closer functionally to their targets than some religions and industries wish to admit. The statistically “unusual” concentrations of breast, brain, and blood cancers among agricultural workers and suburbanities ought to be enough for the stuff to be outlawed, but the outbreaks remain subtle amidst the general flow of insults to our bodies from modern lifestyles. Profits from lawn chemicals alone are twice the EPA’s entire budget, and with all too modest resources for their regulatory needs, they have more obvious problems to deal with, so the needed careful studies have never yet been made.
Whenever they are, whatever chemical is looked at winds up being found ill. It’s like an old farmer associate once said, when I asked him why he didn’t buy into the spraying trend, even though it might make life easier for him, “I’ve been farming (10,000 acres in Eastern Washington) for 50 years, and there has been no chemical, if used widely enough or long enough, that hasn’t had to be taken off the market.” When will people learn what should be so obvious?
The thing about herbicides, though, especially in suburbia, is that they are so tragically silly. Don’t like dandelions? Remove them digitally, like I do (with fingers). If one’s neighbors’ haven’t sprayed recently, and aren’t using one of their incredibly noisy and smelly (and dangerous therefore) mowers, picking them is even pleasant exercise, something almost all Americans do not get enough of. The pristine lawns that result from the “tidiness” fetish wind up consistently unused, as too uninteresting to children and adults alike, even when the tools used to maintain them don’t make them too unpleasant to venture out onto.
Nature is a bit messy, more than a bit sometimes in the early stages of recovery from disturbance, especially if destructive to natural order chemicals were used. But think only, wouldn’t you really rather have a flowering meadow than a lawn? Mine requires a lot less work, always has flowers for the soul, and I don’t have to drive 20 miles to get to it. Yes, I came from a generation that played on lawns, which is where their friendly picture arises. But even the “better kept” one I grew up using was interesting, with violets, clover, and other kinds of plants interspersed, not just crew-cut bluegrass, and never poisonous.
My attitudes have developed not just as a consequence of being thoroughly educated in subjects most people studiously avoid (like chemistry and industrial history), nor only from taking a much longer view of time, and not just from a fairly long lifetime of unusually careful direct observation. All too personal experience kicks in, as well. I’ve watched through many tears as a very good friend died ever so painfully from cancer, and for once admittedly even by those who sold the stuff (however eventually and grudgingly), from the herbicide used so promiscuously in Vietnam. Then, came my car, in a way inherited from another friend, who had restored the classic before he got his brain cancer from suburban lawns. It serves as a regular reminder. My father died from cancer from industrial exposures that he was told were safe, but people are not allowed now to come close to, while my mother was a casualty of 1950’s heavy use of steroids for treating arthritis, which ranks among the greater failures of pharmaceutical research to protect those who used their products, but because the effects took a long time to develop, and they cut back early enough, never got the publicity it deserved. People worry now about the toxicity of mercury in the amounts in thermometers. In my youth, I worked in a chemical factory to earn money for my education, working with literally tons of the stuff, spread over the surface of a huge, poorly ventilated, intensely hot building. We were told by supervisors to worry about the chlorine, but not the mercury. The place is quite literally a superfund site now, and I live every day with the physical consequences, lucky to be alive. Should anyone wonder why I get angry when I see the story taking on yet another chapter?
Read the history of tetraethyl lead, the old octane booster for gasoline, and the tobacco industry (for local chest beaters) for great examples of cover-ups of problems, extending to the highest levels of government. Responsibility has not improved within contemporary industries, although PR continues to grow in sophistication. All the lies, theory, and experience do add up for people like me. Pesticides and herbicides do have a place, but like the powerful drugs that they are, in small quantities, treated as the poisons whose consequences we will never understand fully that they are, used only as a very last resort. Broadcast carelessly, like they continue to be, and like antibiotics, they will not even work for very long to do what is wanted for them to do, if one thinks in terms of lifetimes.
The appropriately named “Chemical Lawn”, “Logan Exterminator”, and their ilk are enemies for all rational life, as well as a lot more innocent species. Their trucks and signs should, in a more truthful world, bear the skull and crossbones, not cheerful visual lies. They are killing us all, not just those who pay for their deadly stuff. It drifts, not just when sprayed, but for weeks afterward, always, not just occasionally, and with perfect certainty gets the neighbors, too, just as the noise from the machinery associated with that phony tidiness does, making everyone’s lives and practical use of neighboring property forfeit. Using them is a very real form of trespass, as well as ignorance.
In the end, look at those twisted dandelions. That’s your wife, your children, and yourself, if something else doesn’t get you first, 20 or 50 years down the road, if you use this stuff, whether brought by a pro group of fools, or selected from the shelves of stores killing their employees with their fumes. These poisons just take longer to work on people than they do on plants.
5 May 2007
A soggy snow morning, sticking only in the evergreens, but nasty, not least for the robin nest just outside the window, where I have been watching the hatchlings been fed the past few days. The resident bunny looked pretty bedraggled too when I glimpsed it.
I thought this paragraph to be fascinating, “That oil wealth could be a curse seems counterintuitive. When an oil bonanza is discovered in a struggling African country, the instinctive assumption is that it can only be a good thing; that it will result in a rapid improvement in the lives of the people; that suddenly there will be money for hospitals and vaccines and schools and roads; and, even more than that, everyone will be rich. To the contrary, however, studies suggest that real GDP and the population's standard of living nearly always decline where oil is discovered. Between 1970 and 1993, for example, countries without oil saw their economies grow four times faster than those of countries with oil.” Andrew Leonard. 2007. ‘African oil: The real heart of darkness’, reviewing John Ghazvinian, Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil in salon.com (direct link mistakenly lost).
That one ties directly to yesterday’s annoyance at the Associated Press, who in a newspaper article about more kidnappings in Nigeria, attributed same to pirates and terrorists, when in fact it is the locals revolting against the abuses, both environmental and economic, of the oil companies and the governments that they have so thoroughly corrupted. It was quite biased editorializing disguised as news, satisfying right wing believers that there are no consequences of their wasteful ways with energy, tragically even for them eventually, at every step along the way. Dick Cheney continues to be personally involved in this deception and damage, but the greatest guilt goes to the limited liability corporate mentality, which he so ably represents. His group’s greed disables millions of people, and billions of other creatures on the planet that we all need. It doesn’t even make the greedy ones truly more comfortable or happy.
4 May 2007 More data that ought to make more people suspect broadcast herbicides as being as bad as I’ve concluded, but hasn’t, yet: “Indeed one of the main health characteristics of Arctic populations, based on long-term monitoring of cancer data of some 100,000 Inuit (in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland) appear to be the pronounced deficit of breast (1) and prostate (2) cancers when compared to populations from lower latitudes.” T.C. Erren, V.B. Meyer-Rochow, M. Erren. 2007. ‘Health clues from polar regions.’ Science 316:540. They suspected light variations, but these are more simply the furthest folks from the legions of ignorant sprayers, so pervasive elsewhere. Occam’s razor applies.
3 May 2007
The morning news has the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team “still reeling” from a “highway wreck” that killed one of their starting pitchers. The governor of New Jersey was severely injured not too long ago, also at a speed exceeding the possibility for control in large SUVs. These vehicles, and I have ridden and driven them enough to be all too fully familiar, make most users feel so isolated, safe, and comfortable, while in fact they are literally impossible to stop or swerve safely when anything serious goes wrong, at anything over about 25 mph, and less on narrow roads. This is complicated by their elevated, removed from the fray, driving position that also makes it much less likely to even notice critical oncoming problems than from lower, more efficient designs, where hazards appear at, not below, eye level. This begins with children in driveways, every one of which that dies, without exception in this state in the past 20 years, having being killed by trucks, as have all the charged multiple vehicle homicides, and ties more generally to highway death rates across the nation being purportedly from “aggressiveness”, but in fact being most closely correlated, within any given road type, to the average weight of vehicles using them. The heaviest are, of course, trucks, a category that includes SUVs and vans, as well as the more obvious pickups and even bigger rigs. Larger and heavier will always be slower and more dangerous in the aggregate.
I’ve talked and written at length about the differences between trucks and more rational types of transportation, but most people, for reasons I cannot understand, do not relate deeply enough to the importance of not killing others, which is what truck users do most often, since their size does offer some protection to those inside from their more common errors, making them only slightly more dangerous to their operators than more controllable machinery. The deaths of the pitcher and the permanent damage to the governor should provide more visible notice of what is underlined by the statistics that are kept, and seem to be the only ones important to purchasers. Beyond the added punch of excessive weight during impacts, and the even more commonly consequent daily pollution, road damage, other financial costs, and the need for fuel imports from moving unnecessary weight around, apparent comfort and convenience from trucks comes with a very big hidden price for their own operators.
With a storm known to be approaching, and depression not lifting easily, I took my own very different approach to travel, the 34 year old Alfa, out for a drive yesterday, which once again underlined the perceptual differences for the driver. One feels and knows, deeply, how fast one is going. The wind, even with the top up, makes its presence felt. More than that, one is at the level of what is truly happening, not regally assuming one is above it all, and might as well be sitting at home on a couch. This is so strange, and eventually all the deadlier to our culture, because in my car, I can deal so much better if something untoward happens, as well as being more likely to be aware of it in the first place. This comes both from a better connection to the road surface, including how slippery is so easily communicated, to the hands and from the butt, while being at the same level as things like animals, children, and other vehicles, allows evolutionary instinct to help me, but not those sitting higher. Then, at need, I can stop in quite literally half the distance a large SUV can, and turn ever so much more sharply, with the physics of much less weight and far better design for paved surfaces working for me, but against them. Meanwhile, going fast is very definitely much more noticeable when one is closer to the ground; the faster, the more so.
Freeways have become bloody scary places to me, beyond the speeds, which I know I can readily handle, though I am aware of their danger. The source for discomfort is far more from all that heavy iron weaving around one, let alone worrying about bad weather, when the spray from their inadequately covered tires is so blinding, like the glare from their far too elevated headlights at night. From my car, they are also horrendously noisy and smelly, underlining the constant notices of deadly danger from the eyes and brain. As other operators eat or blather on their cell phones, and ignore their surroundings, feeling like they are still in their living rooms as the vehicles’ designers and sales folk intended, I am generally quaking in rightful fear, since I know the difference.
They are in fact less well protected, despite being so much less aware, because while my protective cage might not be quite as strong, as long as there is any room available, I can evade errors, my own or by others, while they have so much less capability. Although with less absolute strength, my smaller vehicle’s structure does offer at least as much protection against its own driver’s errors, should they be unrecoverable, and from those by others with similar dimensions, as theirs does. Not having so much mass to deal with means things simply don’t need to be so strong, as well as being less wasteful in every way. If all vehicles weren’t so grossly overweight, everyone’s problems with traffic would dramatically lessen, and so would the deadly statistics.
Not least, at the ultimate, no matter what else happens, the heavier a personal vehicle, the less it can deal in any way safely with semi trucks, since there is no way to build adequate protection from their immense mass, with the only useful possibility being avoidance capability. That problem’s real solution is mostly political, since among other factors, semis are now receiving invisible subsidies, for the road and other damage they do, amounting to more than $100,000 per rig per year. For an incredible number of reasons, the freight now moving inside semi-trailers should be on more than three times as efficient rails, or else not being carried at all. Much would either much more rationally be manufactured or grown locally, or is worse than unnecessary in the first place. A large portion is just trash on an expensive path, in every possible way, to cluttering a dump, or making people even more obese. Because its total costs are so hidden, we all suffer, albeit with varying intensities.
Not surprisingly, another, more familiar part of the related daily story happened fueling up before the trip. A pickup pulled in close behind, to the next pump, occupying as always twice the space of mine, creating worry as they narrowed the gap, since the driver cannot see close by, only being able to guesstimate their perimeters. After watching their approach, I put in 7 gallons to replace that used while covering 200 miles in the past month, frowned momentarily as I wrote it my record book because that travel had been around town, and so the mileage was slightly down from my over 30 norm, but then looked up to see the behemoth behind still pumping, and smiled instead. I was at least a block away before they even finished. It was nice to contemplate for a moment someone paying so noticeably for at least a part of their threatening profligacy.
1 May 2007
Since I note so often the various deleterious effects of lawn chemicals and noisy machinery, what does my own front yard look like? Here's an image from this morning:
Yes, I do know that some people consider Vinca to be invasive, but others rightfully think the same about bluegrass...and it sure takes a lot less effort, of many sorts, to be attractive, especially as an element among substantial diversity. Maintenance in this 1500m elevation, limited rainfall environment, for the past 15 years has been occasional trimming and selective weed removal, digitally (i.e., with fingers) or with silent hand tools, and rare, deep watering, when obviously needed.
30 April 2007
A nutrition professor friend recently gave me a copy of Michael Pollan’s 2002 The Botany of Desire, which I have been working my way through, with considerable amusement and interest. Pollan has slyly argued that some plants have manipulated humans into vastly expanding their range and variety. Not entirely coincidentally, many years ago I had been reading some of Albert Schweitzer’s ruminations about respect for life. Schweitzer argued that even rocks, if looked at from a long enough timescale, had characteristics of living organisms, and were worthy of respect. If we took more care with them, they would have more to take care of us, in a kind of trade. Looking at an eroded area, on one very 1960's evening, I then extrapolated that rocks had evolved plants as a cover to protect themselves, sacrificing a thin veneer for their larger, longer benefit.
That part remains somewhat amusing, but not entirely crazy. I came into the arena Pollack is working around back when I was in grad school, in the early 1970’s. Our program was based on the idea that protein was the most limiting part of the food supply, especially for poorer regions, worldwide, and that enhancing it was a most needed part of efforts to reduce human suffering. I found that British research during World War II by N.W. Pirie indicated that one could increase protein production roughly tenfold by concentrating on fodder rather than seed crops, and mechanically separating the nutrients, rather than rely upon plants to do the job for us, as we have done with grains. From the fodder after the separation, animals could do the same as they always have, since most, like alfalfa, have too much protein for them to utilize anyway, and they just excrete it (including turning it into gas).
The fodder approach had the not insignificant advantage of far better protection for soils than grains, which allow drastically unsustainable soil erosion to take place wherever they are grown continuously and/or over large areas. At the same time, I was involved in energy flows, having read Limits to Growth, seen deeply supporting information, not least the “energy crisis” brought on by the foreshadowing of things to come when the Arabs created their embargo on petroleum supplies. As a part of my systems engineering evaluation of fodders for food, I included both energy and soil erosion. I found that one could completely negate the need for energy-intensive artificial fertilizers for my selected high production fodder by interplanting a legume.
Then, this led to finding that as complexity increased among species in general, it made the system increasingly self-sustaining, yet still maintained a surplus available for humans to use. The problem as the complexity increased became increased difficulty in harvesting that surplus by mechanical means. At that point, I realized animals could largely do the protein harvesting job for us, augmented by an Amish approach to intensive vegetable production. That intersected with a set of economic studies that showed that the Amish, whether measured by a per acre or by dollars invested, had a higher rate of return than did heavily mechanized agriculture, as well as far better protecting their soils and health. It also meant that we wouldn’t have to turn to eating green leaf extract, which tended to taste as bad as it looked, even if it was theoretically and nutritionally efficient.
I may prefer bison to beef now, but still enjoy a steak, roast, or stew much more than vegetarian fare. We have canine teeth for a reason. It's doubly nice when doing so protects the land and its aesthetics better. Of course, I do balance the meat input, which is kept modest, with a variety of fruits, vegetables, and interesting carbohydrates, all as chemical free and local in origin as possible.
The overall point dovetailed also with ecological observations that flows between trophic levels were most sustainable with a 10% harvest level, which neatly matched typical natural surpluses at each step, albeit at that level of complexity and local time/space variabilities that was difficult to unequivocally prove. In the United States, my calculations, from the best available historical data, strongly indicated that pre-Columbian nutrient, including meat, and fiber output, potentially harvestable by humans, was higher then, and of notably higher quality, than now produced by all of energy and poison intensive agriculture and forestry. Evolution knew what it was doing was the conclusion, and humans had been, and were being, idiots.
A favorite data bit along the way was with the argument, if nature was so productive why did native critters seem just to melt away as the frontier moved west? The answer came with a study I did of Lewis and Clark’s journals. They were almost certainly less wasteful than many of their time period, yet added up, their consumption of game was more than 33 pounds per man per day. They did not eat that much, of course, but without refrigeration or perception that supplies were not infinite, that is how much they killed to support their perceived needs. At the same rate, all meat animals in the U.S., with our current population, would disappear in less than a month.
I wrote the basics of all this up, with a lot more supporting background, at the time, and the sketch was nominated for the Mitchell Prize in 1977, but I did not win. The subsequent book-length summary was rejected, by every publisher among not a few tried. I nevertheless continued working at and around the idea, with no direct outside support, but as I resolved individual arguable issues, the central limiting problem for the paradigm became increasingly obvious.
There were already too damn many humans to sustain on this planet, no matter what the approach to feeding or shelter was. Although working with nature could do better than using massive quantities of petroleum, nuclear, or any other energy sources against it, as we have for the past few hundred years, but 6 billion humans, let alone more, is just too many. Without that limiting our numbers to fit within that primary limitation, worrying about the rest remains meaningless. We got where we are by using up the buried legacy of millions of years, mostly in the past two centuries. This artificially propped up population bulge cannot continue.
That conclusion doesn’t sit well with major religions, or others with larger families, who prefer to live in a fantasy world, where all dreams come true, if one just prays harder, in exactly their own, ever so slightly different from others, way. Unfortunately, the dreams that eventually do, without adding in population growth restraint, are called nightmares. Excessive numbers will be corrected, if not voluntarily, a lot more painfully. This is not a message, even more than the associated ones about chemicals, bioengineering, and energy, that a lot of people want to hear, even if things could be so much better from a more limited number of offspring. They just prefer to believe as they and breed until someone or something else corrects things for them, as if they were robins or bacteria. My word for that is stupid, and it doesn’t help in getting my views across. As a prophet, at least I’ve lived longer and more comfortably than many historical peers, albeit being no more effective at conversion of enough others to make a needed difference.
Later, as I walked by the twisted aftermath of a poison spray job by another neighbor last week, perhaps a picture might help them and others like them understand what they have done, with the caption, “If your dandelions look like this, so will your kids in 20 or 30 years. There is no such thing as a safe poison. Because of modest genetic and weight differences, humans just take these chemicals a while longer to kill.” But, then, I am not willing to stand close enough for long enough to make an adequate image.
After passing through the associated miasma, and rapidly by the next neighbor’s shrieking gasoline-powered 'weed wacker', I walked up the hill behind. On a gloriously blue sky day above, many flowers were in bloom along the trail, and hawks were circling towards the mountains to the east. But where the air did not smell more strongly of pesticides, it was of diesel. From the bench of the hill, 50 meters or so above our home, within a couple of kilometers in three directions were four all too clearly visible gravel pits, each illegal in some major aspect, and two new sprawl subdivisions commissioned by men who firmly believe Jesus will rescue them from these and other sins, worked by at least as many visible belly and other dump trucks, all spewing intense dust and diesel plumes around and behind, none with functional mufflers, like the associated bevy of front end loaders, bulldozers, and graders belching black smoke, each equipped with intentionally 117 db backup beepers, distorted from overuse, going nearly constantly, of course with no one on foot within those 2 kilometers who could usefully be warned, or if they had been, would not have been put on notice by the rest of the racket.
And I worry about my own energy consumption and other impacts, thinking I’m making a difference? Any one of those machines uses more in a week than I do in a year, and disturbs more than I can imagine doing. Nothing they are doing has a molecule of positive value, but they are being paid buckets of money, while there is little visible on the horizon for me, or my harder working spouse.
For some reason I am depressed, again.
27 April 2007
Perception is different than most think. I found that quite ironic for John Colapinto in “The Interpreter” (in The New Yorker, 16 April, pp. 118-129) about the very present oriented Amazonian tribe, “Everett also learned that the Pirahã have no fixed words for colors, and instead use descriptive phrases that change from one moment to the next.” Insinuating that such is incredibly primitive is instead a reflection of our own culture’s observational insensitivity.
Anyone who has seriously tried color matching in imagery, or observed how what we are taught are fixed colors change with different lighting over the course of a day (or even minutes), as the sun’s received radiation changes balance, and is shifted by reflections from adjacent objects, let alone alterative light sources…all of which can be confirmed quickly with film and a numerical measurement tool, as well as by a more careful eye. Human skin color gets greener in the shade of leafy trees for one, and truly sickly under fluorescent light, both of which in our culture are corrected for by our expectations, but such adjustments are neither accurate nor honest. I remember my own introduction to zen, “what color are shadows in snow”?
Beyond measurable spectral changes, effects of adjacent colors also affect perception, as a variety of pointillist and op-art type images have taken advantage of, among others. As a practical tool, descriptions that vary can be more helpful than absolutes. Associated with this is the range of “red”, for example, one can find in a paint store, along with careful attention there for consistent lighting and relationships, which will not be found in the world outside. Once again, the “primitives” turn out to be more careful observers than most people who consider themselves so much more sophisticated. The fixed terms get in the way, leading to ubiquitous strip, street, and other “efficient” lighting that is not just horrendously wasteful, mostly arriving in places where it is not remotely useful, but even when appropriately targeted whose most apparent value is to light meters, being far less so to the human eye (which does not respond well to incomplete spectral distributions), and everywhere hideously deforming of reality. Most adjust to previously fixed expectations, without awareness of how much perceptual twisting is going on, while those of us who do see the changes are held as deviant.
I had a new one this morning, also about observation, as a variant on my “I’d rather have a meadow than a lawn” theme. The wind has no visible effect on crew cut bluegrass, but makes such lovely ripples in the sunlight as it moves through taller grasses. Static is not the same as peaceful.
25 April 2007
Started out early again for me, this time going off into thoughts about the newspaper’s Dr. Gott, and his folk remedies. One he has overlooked so far is Gold Bond powder, which I’ve found to be so effective in enhancing foot comfort and fighting off athlete’s foot, especially well proven recently, after my surgery. I’m trying it out now as a cure for toenail fungus, which Gott’s recommended, and messy, Vicks failed upon, but that will take more months to see if it works. There is a strong overlap of ingredients, and the drying effect also seems logically helpful.
That led to thinking about the lady who turned us on to the stuff. Her name is (or was) Elizabeth Taylor, but her tomboy figure would leave no one mistaking her for the movie star, although if she chose to, could be quite attractive, looking, not wholly coincidentally as it turned out, like Amelia Earhart (sp?). We met her all too many years ago, when my wife took an ill-starred program director position at the Albert Schweitzer Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Ms. Taylor was on the board (along with Kurt Vonnegut, whom we sadly never did get to meet), and one day on her porch, she heard us comment about our very outdoor 11 pound Yorkshire Terrier (who was not at all the bowed, too small, too pampered breed that its reputation has mostly become), who had collected a few fleas, which had created a problem with our discomfort about using aggressive pesticides. Taylor responded with a small panegyric about the virtues of Gold Bond, all of which have proven true, not least in making fleas flee.
One of the points was with leather as shoe liners, which I was thinking about just yesterday, having made an appointment to get an orthotic made, and surprising the technician by my request for that as a covering, with him saying that synthetics were the thing, because they didn’t get to stinking. The opposite has been my experience, but then, I have been regularly using the powder for nearly 30 years now.
Ms. Taylor had another aspect of her life that I wish both then and in retrospect I’d been able to get her to talk more about. She had been a ferry pilot for bombers during World War II. Men flew them for their assigned purpose in Europe, but while many people know that women played a big role in building them, with Rosie the Riveter and all, very few realize how many women flew them across the ocean, or how dangerous that was. I expect that there were a lot of fascinating stories, and that even though the machines eventually were involved in killing, those trips were about survival under difficult circumstances, and some quite fascinating, at least to some of us, engineering and environments.
The ‘free fire zone’ KRCL program’s Shannalee, sitting in for Donna this morning, just did a thoroughly amusing, amazing segue for someone so young: a great live version of Joan Baez “Diamonds and Rust”, followed by the original, acoustic recording of Dylan’s “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”, of course from the perfect period, but with the words in juxtaposition...
The Baez came from “Diamonds and Rust in the Bullpen”, speaking of fun with phrases.
24 April 2007
“If a vehicle directly or indirectly involved had not weighed more than 2 tons, the deaths would not have happened, or the injuries would not have been so severe.” Might this say what is needed well enough? Because fault is such a loaded word, I’ve had a hard time expressing clearly the reasoning behind my argument that more than 90% of highway fatalities and serious injuries can be traced to excessive vehicle weight, if seat belts are in use. Lack of potential for control; lack of appropriate feedback about environmental conditions, speed, and other traffic; isolation from other signals, particularly sound; and the intensity carried into any contact are all increasingly severe practical problems as the weight of vehicles rises.
Funny variant on the Iroquois and cannibalism issue came in today. In the Utne that arrived was an almost quotable article (Bennett Gordon, “Our furry, feeling friends”, May-June ’07, p. 14) about how similar animals are to humans, genetically and functionally, including feelings and ability to communicate. Nothing new to me, but the conclusion was the usual misleading one from somebody just discovering the possibility, that people might think differently about eating a hamburger or building a dam if they recognized how close other species were. Given how humans have and continue to treat one another, that’s not likely to make much of a difference. Important perception, but not the right way to run with it.
Among other things, there are quite a few humans, that, if their characteristics would be passed into oneself by eating, I wouldn’t want. I’d genuinely prefer a feedlot steer.
On the other hand, it isn’t just animals that have sapient characteristics, as Schweitzer pointed out, even if their time scales differ from our own, underlining how the burger question is a red herring. The real underlying problem, beyond and complicated by overpopulation by humans, is violence, no matter where directed, without respect, moderation, and genuine need. The equivalent of whatever it is that controls robin numbers for humans would do us, and the planet, a lot of good. Bully for aliens, of the most nefarious sort, but only if they leave the rest of the at least somewhat more innocent critters alone.
Then again, think of the mating habits of preying mantises and spiders, for but two. Maybe all those nasty sci-fis aren’t so far off, and this whole bloody universe is hostile after all. To that comes back a particularly memorable story read a very long time ago, about universes created microscopically sized, for the entertainment of the next iteration larger, and wiped out as easily…with ours left wonderfully ambivalently unclear as whether a future player or present playee.
23 April 2007
“… a new chapter of misery for the universe...is the idea that humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs contrive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomical distances which are God’s quarantine regulations, must somehow be overcome.” C.S. Lewis. 1944. Perelandra. Macmillan, NY (p. 81 in 1970 paperback)
Take that Marshall Savage! Lewis goes on about that desire for expansion being fueled by fear of death, and with the desire for immortality, which also, ironically with consequences unrealized by him, drives the religion that he had come to accept. Of course, for the religion, he has the argument that it all the failings are not the concepts of the religion, but their ineffective application, of failure not to keep within all of the rules. Unfortunately, those rules tend to be obscure, self-contradictory, and incomplete. Worse, like logic, they have been created and interpreted by humans, which no matter how intelligent or noble in their intent, contain serious flaws at the core.
The concept of progress among humanity had just taken another blow for me, by after years of accepting more Native American (albeit considerably true) propaganda about their political and other positive aspects, with among others, the Onondaga having provided the basic structure for the currently so revered American Constitution, and their long-term maintenance of a more reasonable balance with their physical environment. However, just finishing reading, however slowly, Thomas B. Costain’s 1954 The White and Gold about the French settlement in North American brought back some vivid reminders of how the Iroquois, despite their good points, were anything but a gentle folk. He does a good job of balancing their use of torture and humiliation with accounts of what the Europeans were doing at home and abroad, which often wasn’t enlightened, either, and I do doubt his accusations of routine cannibalism, but while environmentally the area where Iroquois lived almost certainly was closer to Eden then, it was, when one looks hard enough, only a more of a comfortable place to live by having fewer humans to mess it and each other up. The more recent history of our species is not a happy one, for almost anyone or anything else. Given the signs of combat among older burials, that self-inflicted unhappiness goes back a long way.
I found it fascinating that a very sharp turning point for the French in moving out against and through the previously resident population (not that sheer numbers would not have eventually overcome them) came at the Long Sault, where a small group of men actively sacrificed themselves to defend the larger community. They quickly built and then defended to the death an outlying fort against overwhelming numbers of attackers, taking from them enough losses and time to convince them to give up on even trying to take out the main community of Montreal, which had bee at that point quite within the realm of possibility. It isn’t that self-sacrifice was not within the ken of the Iroquois, nor was this the same as the current fuzzily focused wave of suicide bombers and gunners, but an impressively natural response by a small group element (like bees do), that can be strikingly effective when it happens, if it can produce unacceptable main force losses or delays (as later at the Alamo).
The usefulness of sacrifice, like other gifts, comes in their timing and targeting of their application. Like the rest of life, the hard part is getting those right.
20 April 2007
Flipping through a recent Science magazine is a depressing exercise, and not just for the more general articles with their tale of ever increasing environmental woes. The equipment ads, and the want ads for employment, are overwhelmingly for and about biotech, i.e., perversion of genetics, as are the stories about government funding for “science”. This effort’s cover continues to be finding cures for cancer, much of which has arisen from past “creative solutions”, like broadcast chemical herbicides, for someone’s perceived human difficulties. Yet, despite the ever so many billions of dollars invested so far, actual treatments for cancer continue to be surgery and inorganic or naturally produced drugs, with the outcome being the same as it always has been, painful death, slightly more often avoided by sophistication in detection and those more traditional remedies, but ever more often expensively a bit delayed through vastly inflated costs that are crippling the rest of the health system. Just when is this particular chimera going to be outed? I am willing to bet that any biotech “cancer cures” will cause, if fully traced, more diseases than they cure, even if they ever manage any initially measurable reductions.
Biotech’s closest to functional place has been to produce a few crops that allow use of even more pesticides and herbicides than used in the colossally destructive past, as always with inadequate testing for subtle immediate, but devastating long term, consequences. This process has been immensely profitable for a few individuals, for a few years, not surprisingly those already having great power through related industries. It has also paid obscene salaries to another small contingent, deriving knowledge that can only be described as the loosest of cannons for the future of this planet’s flora and fauna.
Every dollar disbursed for this very largest scale form of suicidal hubris is taken away from scientific pursuits that could further elicit information about how our species actually could learn to live in a more harmonious relationship with a planet admirably already fully evolved to provide what we really need. This system, which has been so good to us if we let it work, does not need to be re-engineered by a species that has been nothing if not mistake prone and short-sighted. Meanwhile, biotechnology’s set of errors is new in being inherently capable of reproducing by itself, capable of moving across all imaginable boundaries, in directions inconceivable to those laboring in their fluorescent laboratories and shade-drawn offices. Nuclear energy’s horrifyingly immense set of inherent problems is quick and visible by comparison.
Those claiming we’ve got it right this time are right out of the tradition of that nuclear industry, whose wastes continue to grow, never can, let alone will, be adequately resolved, and whose bomb threat has never been greater, merely subdued by media diversions from public consciousness. They come from the same conceptual contingent who thought (or think) freeways would solve transportation woes, and that massive SUVs filling them were a useful idea, or that more of either could somehow improve the deadly mess they have created.
The problem remains that biotechnology possibilities do indeed outstrip past science, but unfortunately vastly more likely for catastrophes than panaceas. These will arrive more subtly at first, proportionately to the effort invested in them, arriving from many directions, subverting a planet whose functioning has already greatly been weakened by so many previous good-sounding human ideas.
The history of this species has been to push limits until they push back, hard enough to be believed, often too late to recover that particular aspect of previously helpful planetary function. Someday, the threshold will be just too high. This one has all the right earmarks.
16 April 2007
Was wondering Friday how so many, especially after reading an article in the latest New Yorker about auto commuters and the alienation that rises with those solitary, isolated yet crushed daily travel distances, and why even I feel drawn to congestion, at least sometimes. That was a beautiful day, with a project finished by late morning, no mechanical devices except the occasional 2 or 3 ton petroleum fired iron dragon passing on the road nearby, so why was I so restless, seeking yet more, sitting on the deck above our stream?
On Sunday, the same feelings started rising, driven further by a strong wind, thin clouds, and marginal temperatures (about 15° C). Yet, as I thought further, I remembered standing on the deck of the Nordnorge in equal or considerably more hostile conditions, enjoying it ever so thoroughly. The difference was newness and changing of imagery, the same things that drive most humans to cities and TV. So I started just looking more carefully where I was, and quickly found differences in branches among the trees, stages of leafing and survival, above them the changing cloud patterns, backed by the sound of the stream, and from that plenty to keep me amused for several hours, until the chill finally drove me in. Admittedly, too, there were snippets of reviews in my wife’s medieval studies journal to give newness that I didn’t have to ferret out, from which thoughts could further drift.
As with watching the fire in the fireplace, nature provides much more information, even in one spot, than almost any TV or other human, even though we are internally driven to need a considerable, albeit selected, supply of the latter.
6 April 2007
The “we turn recyclables into litter” county semi-automated collecting truck set a new record this lovely Good Friday morning. I counted 17 brand new pieces of trash, ranging in size from a junk mail envelope to a more than six-foot long, heavy-duty plastic garment bag, along less than half a mile of road. The drivers are stressed for time, and can’t be bothered to close the open dump top, even before speeding down extended road sections between pickup stops. More than likely the trucks, which leak hydraulic fluid in astonishing quantities, and are regularly found fully crippled, probably don’t work well enough anyway to close up between cans.
Trying to substitute machinery for individual responsibility, as in this operation is that has residents mix potential recoverables into a single huge can, then have them picked up en masse to be picked through later, may help more than doing nothing, but it will never be as effective in solving underlying problems. This one is of generating too much waste and being too lazy even sort it, let alone continue to use or reuse. Too often the easy choices just further hide the issues (for a while), or make for more work (or other suffering) for those who are trying to be responsible for the effects humans have upon our supporting world.
The latter comes from seeing a neighbor walking his dog along the road later on, bag in hand, collecting the larger bits of blowoff. The Styrofoam ‘peanuts’ remain, like permanently dirty snow.
4 April 2007
The French TGV set a new rail speed record, of more than 350 mph, (550 kph) and the AP dissed it by placing it alongside a graphic comparing with a commercial airplane at its theoretical speed of 550 mph. They, of course, don’t note how those commercial planes have a speed limit of 250 or less in approach patterns, which cover 60-100 miles out, so trains would literally be faster in semi-urban environments, even without considering their vastly quicker boarding times and station accessibilities, not to mention comfort for those inside or around them. For where we live, if the same money was spent on rails as is now being spent on either freeways or airplanes, we could get to the nearest metropolis in less than half the time, and in much more comfort. But they’ve hidden their subsidies, and their industries are better entrenched, not to mention that the public is incapable of thinking.
Even the latest Flying magazine was questioning the cost of the increments of speed, especially taken out of an overall context. Getting to appointments at the University of Utah’s med school required a trip of 110 miles for us. We averaged 50 mph, if we were careful to avoid rush hour, and were lucky with road construction, general traffic flow, and wrecks. That’s the same as been my long-term experience of practical trips on freeways, where the physical needs and other exigencies take away from the theoretical, and even more than occasionally exceeded, speed limits in place, requiring much effort, worry, and returning very little visual or other reward. Going to Denver, a trip of 500 odd miles, typically takes 10 hours therefore. By air, the same journey takes at least 7, door to door, even given that quick stretch in the middle. By rail the elapsed time could very well be less, although at present it is indeed longer. Current passenger rail travel in the US, as pathetically maintained as the system is, still averages over 40 mph, not all that different really. Were there even 200 mph stretches, and easily achievable local connections, rails would be notably quicker overall than any known alternatives for trips of less than 1,000 miles.
Road and air travel speeds are peaked now; they cannot and will not be improved. Their cost of maintenance, and their impacts on health and the environment are both already immense, and will continue to rise, even more rapidly than their rates of use. Rail’s potential for efficiency, safety, and comfort is notably greater, but thoroughly maligned and ignored by the same political forces making so many similar errors.
For efficiency, there is no real competition, should one bother to look. Travelling first class, with a complete moving bedroom, far more space than almost any other alternative, access to a complete restaurant and lounge viewing cars, and with chauffeurs up front and servants in between, even with literally antiquated and grossly overweight equipment, we averaged more than 25 miles per person gallon on our recent rail trips. A comfortable, stretch out coach, at much less cost, at least quadruples that efficiency. In comparison, with passengers crammed into a space no one would elsewise voluntarily crawl into, let alone spend extended periods of time, airplanes at their best get less than 20 miles per person gallon, and typically, adding in various fuel-sucking delays, very much less. Private jets, and the faster piston planes, are in the single digits, like road clogging motorhomes.
Later, after spending the day trying to find and fix the electrical gremlin of the moment in my car. There are so many things that could go wrong, and so many that should be kept up after in maintenance that haven’t, it’s easy to see why most folks just throw their cars away after a few years. But most are not worth driving in the first place, let alone bothering to fix, being so badly designed and built… nevertheless, I could have used a manual that gave the right sequence to get to what I needed to, and not having a stupid law that thought it could make people wear seatbelts by a technical fix (mine was made in the congressionally ill-starred year of 1974, with an interlock that supposedly kept cars from starting if seat belts weren’t fastened, but as executed kept cars from running under an unpredictable variety of other conditions).
Better for all to let the stupid die if they want; just don’t pay them through health insurance if they won’t play by reasonable rules (e.g., by smoking, having more than two pregnancies, refusing motorcycle helmets…).
The British before the war and Henry Ford’s first iteration had it right, build it simply enough that it could be fixed, and have a wide network of people who could. That got the British the Spitfire, and the Americans at least as much ingenuity, which is wholly missing now. The High Country News today has a Ray Ring article about death in the oil fields, very graphic, especially for those of us that have done something similar. If vehicles weren’t so phonily convenient, and had realistic price tags attached for costs like those, and so many others equally or better well hidden, then they would be used or treated so deadly casually. Long ago I postulated that gasoline ought to be sold in one quart glass jars, which would make people pay closer attention. I still think so, although perhaps modernizing by upping them to a liter…
2 April 2007
Another rough night, persecuted by my recovering foot and my fetid brain, but it did provide some meaning to the Saxon quote that Bernard Cornwell used regularly in that series, about fate being inexorable. The particular point of departure for the internal discourse of hopelessness was the complexity of my car and the hubris of trying to maintain it myself, given the large number of examples of things that not only could, but have, gone wrong in the manuals I have at hand (and the capabilities it takes to deal with them). The care at the moment has a recurrent electrical glitch in a complexly wired circuit, which has been messed with by amateurs even less capable than I am, along with 33 years of hostile time and use, connected in hard to follow ways to some fallible parts that are difficult to reach, diagnose, and/or repair. I had it appear once before, and got it to go away for a while by doing something I don’t remember. The middle of the night downward mental spiral from that and the pain led through the usual thoughts of incapability towards homeless agony ahead.
But the comeback with coffee was that life is like the bumblebee’s flight. If one looks at the aggregate of possibilities of stuff going wrong, of the theoretical chance of carrying off flight with the tools at hand, one can’t move at all. One best carries on and flies, until the fickle finger points directly at you, which it someday (and some days) will, enjoying both sunshine and rain. The latter washes down some of the neighbors’ lawn poisons, among other virtues, even if the wetness, like the heat of the sun, can be annoying to one’s comfort sometimes.
Later, the “we don’t need no stinking regulations (except to put people with ideas we don’t like into jail forever)” crew hit their first inevitable iceberg today, with the collapse of the biggest of the thoughtless mortgage companies, who have been giving out loans like candy, as if history and its depressions never happened. Not surprisingly, this collapse has been brought on by the very same folks who ignored what happened in Vietnam and Korea, and thought sacking Iraq to grab some more oil was a great idea. Oh we’re so much smarter now than in the 1920’s. Not. This planet does have inexorable rules, and those who break them are not the only ones to suffer.
Then, another reflection my ongoing people are like robins analogy. It keeps going further than I first thought, remembering the naturalist’s revelation that the classically busy beavers actually work only five hours a day, at most. Sure their lives are shorter, but would the species have gained by laboring more hours, with more intensity? They’d still have run into the worldwide plague of suddenly appearing lunatics who tried to turn them all into hats, and will likely have their descendents outlive their oppressor’s time on this planet, without changing laid back strategies.
For those worried most about lifespan, when finally studied carefully enough, whales have been found to apparently live(d) hundreds of years, with their ‘work’ having to be modest at best, within an exceedingly high quality of life – at least until that same exponentially reproducing bunch of time-crazed zealots tried all too successfully to convert them all into lamp oil and corset stays. Again, what would the likelihood have been that whales could have resisted that plague by working harder? With a rising sea level, and humanity bent on breeding and burning itself into oblivion, they may yet enjoy a more unpolluted sea long after we are gone. Exactly how would learning how to use petroleum, coal, or uranium have improved what they had?
Even the seemingly busy robins actually spend most of their time talking and playing (including breeding preparation and a modest form of fighting that is mostly display), just like we do. Again, what would working harder, longer benefit them? Getting fatter just means dying quicker, and not being able to pursue other joys, like flight. The likelihood of making it to a better part of heaven after death is the same for them as for us, zero, and they are able to live untroubled by that sort of fantasy, not least by not having others of their species trying to kill them because of such delusions. What did Jesus say about the lilies of the field, after all?
31 March 2007
Another article about childhood obesity made me wonder if that isn’t yet another count against lawn chemicals. Ads for subdivisions routinely feature kids playing on the artificial-looking grass, but if one looks at the reality, they simply don’t anymore. It’s the memories of folks of ours vintage, when lawns didn’t smell like chemical waste dumps, weren’t so uncannily even, and had more interesting stuff growing in them than just weirdly glowing bluegrass. I’ve been observing carefully, and see kids consistently and actively avoiding suburban lawns, to play when they do at all outside either on asphalt and concrete, or seek somewhere more natural instead. Most adults will also choose to walk on concrete over the fake carpets of sickly fluorescent green.
My own sensitivity to chemicals was irretrievably heightened by working in a chlorine factory, where the ability to detect extremely low levels and respond by fleeing was instilled for simple survival. The training remains accurate, for both the compounds and the danger are similar, if slower acting. However, since children have instinctively heightened sensitivity to things that might harm them (albeit one that develops less than immediately after birth), it should be no surprise if their more subtly operating inner brains are keeping them away from their parents’ poison jobs. Their parents carry mental shields against smelling as carefully (since so much of contemporary experience has so many bad odors to deal with), are often drenched with other stinking compounds that are so profitably purveyed by perfumers, and never, ever venture onto lawns themselves unless operating even more smelly and otherwise noxious power equipment. Those machines make any other use of suburban property outside something to do briefly at most. That all hardly enhances their owners’ ability to detect any underlying issues.
I suppose in partial answer to my question, the chemicals may play a subtle direct role in keeping kids off lawns. They play a more direct one by making the grass grow quicker and thicker, so it has to be mowed more often, since it’s sole virtue is a perfectly crew cut appearance (sieg heil!). Doing so creates more painful noise, beyond the seemingly ever literally heavier traffic (the average SUV or van weighs much more than a '58 Buick), for anyone whose hearing has not been damaged or destroyed by operating those machines. Kids may not know why, but it does help with the lazy choice if the outdoors is at is in suburbias, which have become a constantly, brutally noisy and stinky place.
26 March 2007
It’s pretty interesting to compare the situation in the Arctic, where researchers are rightfully concerned about air quality (Law, KS and Stohl, A. 2007. Arctic Air Pollution: Origins and impacts. Science(315):1537-1540), including some impressive pictures of differences, and where we live. The problem is that the very worst they measured was just 1 µg/m3, with typical concentrations less than 10% of that, whereas ours today is “good” at 2 µg/m3 for PM2.5s alone, and that is unusually low; it is often more than 10 times that concentration (for several weeks this winter, when it becomes officially “unhealthy”), and has to be 5 times higher just to be considered “moderate”. No wonder I consider it hard to breathe, or see through!
It sure correlates with being in Trondheim in February 2001, and thinking at the time that it was somewhat polluted, but being surprised at how sharp the slides looked, compared with what I had gotten used to in the US, when I got them developed.
But Law and Stohl do note that what is happening in the rest of the world is increasingly wafting their way. Compare the above to one of those officially "good" winter days in our valley, November 2001...that's not fog in the distance. On worse days, there's almost nothing else to see but the smog, but most refuse to change the behavior that causes the problem.
Of course, that general stuff pales, in some ways, when one’s immediate neighbors slather poison to keep from having to pick dandelions, like mine did this morning. One difference of lawn chemicals from the air pollution is individual responsibility. They, of course, left town before their hired guns arrived to do the damage. If only the stuff would stay on the property of those who order it! The sprayers told me what they were doing was legal. I told them it was still deadly, and they were doing it to me as well as themselves. Unfortunately and unfairly, this set of fools who ordered it get the least. Legendary lemmings got nothing on humans, except dying more immediately by silly choices...
Building and storing atomic bombs in the US is legal, too, even if just for the government. Guns are fine for just about anyone, among so many other legal killing devices. The problem is that lawn chemicals are so routinely discharged, not just kept around in case they might be needed, and they very much do reach humans that they were not intended to, in eventually deadly quantities. The difference is, again, taking longer to work.
Those who do not worry about them do not know enough chemistry or medicine, and have not watched people or animals they love suffer and die in excruciating pain from exposure to herbicides. I do, and I have. Because some remain legally possible to apply does not mean that using them is either safe or right, especially when done for such truly stupid reasons. It is an absolute truth that none have remained legal when they have been studied carefully enough. The ones that remain have avoided sufficient scrutiny. Their outlawing will come, too, eventually, but many will suffer unnecessarily in the interim, not least me.
27 March 2007 I spend more than a little time condemning pickup trucks for the deadly destructiveness, on and off roads. But there is a place for them, as they were originally designed. A more rational neighbor of mine has a 30 year old Chevy 4x4, which he keeps in perfect tune, but he said drives less than 500 miles a year. We used it this morning to clean up some of the trees on my property that have died before their time from air pollution and chemicals. As a very local working vehicle, for bulky, heavy loads the thing makes quite useful sense. It was even a kind of fun to wrestle a big trunk up from where it had fallen, with a chain. But out on the highway, mostly empty, it would have much less than no utility, or possibility for fun. He doesn’t take it there, and it’s available when he needs it for what it was designed for, or to share with his neighbors.
26 March 2007
In the middle of the night, up using headphones and the radio to deal with pain and depression, heard a song played on KRCL’s “free fire zone” that spoke of life being like a train, with people getting on and off as time moves on (the dj suspects that it may have been Sufjan Stevens ‘Chicago’). From it, for a moment, I could finally accept the concept that so bothered me as a child, “we’re doing all this for you”, the passing of the buck to the next generation. It is never completed, whatever it is, with humans really not all that much different from robins, cycling generations along the same path. The trouble now is that the life train is being headed for derailment by excessive numbers trying to ride it, with its survival and comfort problems exacerbated by excessive energy use in keeping corporate-fool-inspired desires satisfied.
On the latter score, one of the big places where obvious improvements could be made is the simple moving of dirt. The idiots constructing the new pipeline to support additional suburban development near our home, during their months in process of leaving a 20 foot or wider swath of utter destruction to lay in a less than 1 foot diameter pipe, as part of their energy disdainful management process trundled enough heavy machinery back and forth so that it not only broke windows in our home, but also broke a neighbor’s deep connection to the old water main. So today, I get listen to them back again, and breathe their fumes, while they fix what they broke and could no longer ignore.
The whole process has been insanely wasteful, massive equipment running unnecessarily back and forth, routinely left idling for extended periods, cutting swaths 20 times the width of the need, if there even was a need in the first place, which there should not have been. The development being supported is out of the 1950’s, being done in every possible way wrong, levelling ground for adapted vegetation to be replaced with toxic invader lawns that will do nothing but consume immense quantities of water, building basements that will never be used, or never be comfortable, and expanding the network of excessively wide roads used by grossly excessively wasteful vehicles. For width, two people are only a bit more than a meter wide, together, and no one ever likes to ride more than two abreast. Why 3 or 4 meter wide lanes to accommodate them? In the aggregate, the energy waste for that width is immense. About basements, one only has to read what America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright said. He never designed or built a structure that had one.
Of course, roads in general remain among the least efficient and most dangerous transportation mediums available. Yet, that is where the bulk of government funding goes, along with the airlines, who are even less efficient at shorter ranges, or for cargo.
I’ve worked on several environmental impact statements for major road reconstruction efforts, with the work supposedly target to make them faster and safer. In all cases, “accident” numbers changed little, but their intensity increased because sight lines were more open, while the time lost during construction delays would never be made up by what minor increases in speed ensued after the work was completely, in the short period before weight and increasing numbers required the next round of work. They have never turned out to be honest improvements.
Today marks the fourth anniversary of the beginning of Bush’s foolish war. The money spent on it could have completely overhauled America’s rail system, and made it a more competitively viable alternative to move both freight and people, bringing it back towards its relative potential. Remember, more lives were lost in the month of September 2001 on highways in this country than to terrorists, and highway losses have continued to increase. The military and terrorism both are more spectacular ways of killing (and spending), but far less intrusive into ordinary lives.
I was looking at a map of the relative transportation networks in the US last night, and rail retains a connection advantage, if we would just choose to update it. Doing so would be far cheaper than continuing to mess with the more wasteful alternatives, and could make life better for everyone, in every possible way, not just for a few.
20 March 2007
At 4 AM, I awoke with thoughts of cycles. Yesterday, with warm clear air predicted to disappear for a bit, I took my car around a favorite loop, over some fairly good, but still little used roads, coming back along a mountain ridge fronted with mostly small dairy farms. That stretch even finished with a fellow, whose house is surrounded by rusting combines and such, using a couple of skittish Percherons to harrow a set of fields. More care required, but a better job being done, with a greater potential for a sense of peace being achieved. These are folks largely oblivious to the concerns of the larger world, not necessarily a positive thing where information comes filtered by the Mormon Church and television, but definitely also more aware of cycles of both nature and humanity than most.
Because of those dominant information connections, and despite its beauty, that area is yet another place I don’t really fit in, even though I too am more aware of the seasons than most. I haven’t yet found a way to photograph it, because it’s the sequences, the flows of images that are so satisfying, which is why it has remained unpopular for tourists. It was always good, but didn’t become great until seen from the top down Alfa. I did photograph the car while stopped for me to do a bit of walking, albeit not in the highest peak area.
Having invested another week of effort (and literal blood, remembered looking now at the back of my hands) in not easily fixing some ongoing conditions, I especially aware that the car is old, but ever so much more satisfying than newer stuff, at least whenever one can use it unencumbered by all that other weight. Feeling of space, control, and speed are very much more intense. It’s appreciated all the more for coming out of the work needed to keep it going. Feeling of the limitations and danger of this kind of transportation are appropriate, too, even with it being both safer and less damaging than most others, it remains awfully fragile and intrusive.
This morning, I am recognizing for a moment at least how much more intensely I do pay attention to what is around me than most folks do, which creates a lot of annoyance and dissatisfaction, but also awarenesses of beauty and relationships that come closer to profound, or at least depth of connection, and so reward living with something other than pain or anesthesia. I continue to circle between, among, these perceptions, in long cycles and nearly instant epicycles.
10 March 2007
It was in the newspaper again, how the largest valley city wants to buy into a new coal fired power plant “to meet future needs”, despite not just one, but several articles on adjoining pages about dire consequences from global climate change and the efforts of others to actually try to do something about it. Duh. All they have to do is look up on any cloudy night, and there alone is enough electricity to meet any reasonable amount of growth. Just stop that waste. The clouds don’t need to be lit, nor the stars violated.
I keep coming back to a neighbor, who once found a condom wrapper at the edge of her adjacent pasture. So she put on a dark sensor one of the ultimately wasteful and ugly mercury vapor “security” lights, which had been available previously with a switch for loading animals, so that the site would become too ugly for neckers. Little of the light falls where it could possibly be useful, even just to be directly ugly; more goes up to the clouds, and to being bright enough 1⁄4 mile away to project clear shadows onto our house walls, brighter from our deck than any celestial object except the sun. We had to spend several hundred dollars for blackout curtains to protect our sleep from her stupid, destructive wastefulness, which uses nearly as much electricity as we do for everything put together.
The sadly funny part is that so-called security lights are criminals’ very best friends, spotlighting for them who might be worth raping, how to get to them, where the cops are, stuff left lying out in parked cars, and whatever else might considered valuable, then conveniently lighting their way to the plunder. A basic rule for safety is that the brighter the outdoor lighting, the higher the neighborhood crime rate, and it works almost everywhere in the world. Yes, the danger may lurk in the shadows, but the brighter the light source, the more intense the shadows it will create for the human eye.
Meanwhile, beyond lies about safety spread by power companies and their ignorant allies, part of the reason the night is filled with waste outdoors is that typical indoor lighting is so grossly excessive, poorly directed, and so often of the wrong frequencies, just like what is used outdoors. Many of the bulbs have been great for light meters, and thus for theoretical efficiency, but our eyes have different needs. Concentrating on eyes’ capabilities and needs, which differ greatly (although always not needing any at all when closed or not there), not on averaging meters, can greatly increase genuine safety, satisfaction, and net efficiency all at the same time.
I noted dimmer switches in the next essay. The first one went into the bathroom, where our house’s previous owners had 360 watts of clear bulb light, all on one switch. When one has to remove a splinter, that blast is useful, but otherwise we use less than a third as much. At night, there is a 4 watt nightlight that provides plenty of illumination for not just the bathroom, but also for feet coming down the spiral staircase to it. Electric light can be very useful and pleasant, but too much is can be worse than not enough, especially given what it does besides blinding waste at its point of release.
7 March 2007
A friend wrote with concern about environmental tradeoffs in cooking. Like many others, he has grudgingly accepted microwaves for their theoretical efficiency. Long ago, I did a comparative study, and found that the microwave advantage only existed for small quantities of food, although somewhat more in the presence of operating air conditioning. A gas oven used anywhere near its capacity will process food with considerably less total energy than the same quantity in a microwave, while doing a notably better job in creating good tastes. In winter, for climes that have such, any “waste” energy from gas reduces room-heating loads by that same amount, so we can cook even a couple of potatoes without guilt.
By and large, grid-based AC electricity is an incredibly wasteful system, designed to hide pollution by moving it away from the user and blending it into the overall muck. Coal fired power plants are explicitly designed to release clear-appearing exhausts through tall chimneys, gasses which will change composition as they react with air and sunshine, and visibly congeal roughly 25 miles downwind, where none but the intensely watchful will notice or track their damage to their source.
At best, fully two-thirds of the energy that enters the power plant, whether from coal, gas, or petroleum, with nuclear being much worse yet, will be turned into purely wasted heat. Another significant increment will be lost as radiation along the miles of hideous, bird killing, uninsulated transmission lines.
Still more disappears from usefulness because the grid system is designed to run best continually at a constant level, while user needs vary greatly. To create base loads during the lower demand times, power companies have sold the public on worse than useless to the eye, low quality over-lighting, continually left on, inside and out, wherever it might be considered dark, whether or not anyone other than criminals could possibly use that light. The irony has become that this meant to absorb middle of the night excess generation comes on just at the biggest potentially useful demand time, sunset, and so has merely become part of a vicious cycle of ever upward spirals of excessive demand and supply. This is convenient for power company executives and other profiteers, who get a percentage of the overall return, on a per-watt distributed basis.
The first moral is that almost any use that originates by applying heat is better done by a more direct energy source. Electric stoves, water heaters, and clothes driers rank among the stupidest devices ever invented, since they use a minimum of 3 times as much energy to do a notably poorer job than the same class of tools whose power originates more locally. Electricity is difficult to control, so among others, no professional chef voluntarily uses an electric stove, nor does any other cook who cares about quality. Electric water heaters are not just gross energy hogs, but they also take far longer to recover, making for unwanted cold showers, among other rude surprises.
Much is made of the danger when a gas unit blows apart a house, because that can be so spectacular, but although such collective statistics are avoided, if ever collected, more serious damage quite certainly starts with electricity, to property and people, children or adults, wherever it is available. All forms of intense energy necessarily require respect and care in their maintenance and use, with electricity’s advantage being that it is often easier to pass on that responsibility to others. Unfortunately, selective laziness and ignorance does not reduce the net danger. On a larger scale, nuclear electric sources are touted for their convenient invisibility, but that does not reflect the nature of their threats through either time or space, to which nothing ever done by humans (other than bioengineering) is even likely to come close.
Part of the problem with electricity is shared with the rest of energy, that it is so easy to hide their dispersed, aggregated social and environmental long-term costs. Corporations assuredly will not charge for these. They are, after all, by definition limited liability. American governments are run, essentially, by corporations. Truly knowledgeable people and/or visionaries (as opposed to religious fanatics) cannot get elected, or if elected, carry through the necessary legislation in the face of corporate propaganda and public apathy/ignorance.
A fairer billing rate to reflect energy use impacts on contemporary health, other life on the planet, and the future would be at least three times greater than current rates. That difference must not going to energy companies, and especially not to their executives or other major profiteers, but to activities benefiting those affected by the negative sides of that energy use. As use rates by individuals or groups rise, so should those add-on charges, beyond those for simple extraction and distribution, since impacts are not linear sums. At present, big users get price breaks, giving exactly the wrong message to them. We are all downwinders, even those who refuse to notice.
Electricity very certainly has its place; I am using some right now to write these words. But as presently generally employed, more than 90% is purely wasted. All need to pay a fairer price for it, and use would immediately begin to be adjusted more sensibly, more widely.
Personally? Almost all the lights in our home have dimmers, and are on only when and where they will be actively used. Incandescents have gotten a lot of grief of late, but when not on they use infinitely less electricity than any left-on fluorescent. If carefully employed, incandescent or halogen bulbs can give more useful quality light with fewer watts, especially for reading or close work. My computer is a laptop, and sleeps or is completely off when not being looked at. All our appliances, and heating, are gas or wood-scrap based. When I did work in an office, the lighting came from a window, just as it does now. The biggest electricity draws at the moment are for the air cleaner, needed to clean others’ waste, for my industrially damaged lungs, and the music system to cover others’ wasteful noise, and through careful choice, these each use less than 10% the power of more typical examples, while doing a better job. Commonly constant draw equipment, like the television (which is only very rarely used), is kept completely off with an intermediate power strip switch, with the exception of a telephone answering machine and its surge protection. The result is greater comfort than most enjoy, from less than 10% of the electricity demand.
6 March 2007
VP Deadeye Dick shows up with a leg clot—from sitting too long without moving, even though riding on an immense, publicly funded ultra-luxury jet. Not only is the guy not willing to share the danger (yes, he was in a US-stressed country, but hiding behind literally thousands of guards), but also he's too damn lazy even to move a few feet under his own power, although there is space available that almost any other traveller would trade something significant to have. Actually, most of us did pay, through our taxes, for his pleasure, not ours—and he doesn't even bother to use it. Worse yet, his propagandists want us to feel sympathy for him.
Meanwhile, in just one day, nine more American soldiers died in Iraq, along with a lot more locals.
5 March 2007 Statistical significance, at the 95% level, has returned to the upward trend for American military deaths in Iraq. Unfortunately, it is not nearly the worst of the current administration's insults to humans and our planet, albeit, perhaps, the most immediately visible, with the exception of the foully polluted air outside my window at the moment. Too few, however, seem very concerned about, or even notice, that either, with still fewer interested in making the changes that are so desperately needed to stem the problematic flows.
25 February 2007
On a snowy Sunday, was honing my 18th February rant about music into a prospective email to the manager at our favorite radio station, since one of the slots we had been most likely to listen to has been given part-time to a couple of ladies who mix the very good with the utterly abysmal, in about equal proportions, following other changes in even worse directions. For it, I took the time to color up the station’s broadcast schedule to reflect my taste, having some fun discovering how to do it successfully, but eventually realizing that my criticism would go nowhere, since it had nothing positive to offer to her, or probably to other regular listeners, who will make their own decisions about tolerability.
However, it could be useful, should there happen to be anyone else out there whose taste might overlap with my own, and hasn’t yet fully discovered the station, which is available worldwide on-line. So I’ll post the coded program guide as a thin review, in the unlikely event that a) anyone reads this and b) might happen to agree [though fulfilling condition (a) probably makes condition (b) more likely]…
19 February 2007
“Among the [sentient] hrossa, anyway, it was obvious that unlimited breeding and promiscuity were as rare as the rarest perversions.”
-- C.S. Lewis. 1938. Out of the Silent Planet. (Macmillan, NY, 1965, p. 74). Fascinating that this famed Christian exponent would have linked these so readily together, so long ago, when the major religions continue to fail so disastrously to do the same, especially since humans breeding to excess has the very most serious consequences for all life.
18 February 2007
Having started the day with the purity of Claudio Monteverdi, as interpreted by John Elliot Gardner, it was amusing to see newsprint praise for James Brown’s melding of gospel, jazz, and blues as giving birth to what to me are the unlistenable horrors that followed. Some things just shouldn’t be blended; they go downhill when they do, just as mixing bright colors of paint comes out with a sickly gray, or worse.
I still find pleasure in thinking of the moment that Lightning Hopkins shook my hand after a marvelous performance, and of sitting outside the AME church in Courtney, Texas, listening to undiluted gospel, so drastically better even in rehearsal than most of the electronically manipulated schlock that has sold so well since.
From Arvo Pärt working with Paul Hilliard to Chris Smither, there is still excellent music being composed and played, including some by those younger than my own generation, since it gave me a laugh to note that the contemporary examples that first popped to mind all derived those who came of age in the 1960’s. All, however, are without doubt at their best when they quest for inherent care, simplicity and purity, even when they embroider their basics during recording or performance.
18 February 2007
For it to be enjoyable, virtually all music needs to have an interesting bass line. I grew up with classical and cowboy music, including being lucky enough to hear the real stuff done exceedingly well, intimately live (with the cowboy stuff from my Montana-born mother’s clear soprano). A key remembrance comes from the great pianist Artur Rubinstein, who once in an interview pointed his finger at this when asked why he didn’t like most younger artists. “They don’t drive what they are playing from their left hand”, is my memory of what he said. Bass is where almost all good music starts. Neither drum machines nor the boring, dragging, unimaginative beats of much of bluegrass and its ilk can get that job done.
Most computer driven ‘music’—with drum machines being just particularly stupid forms of computer—may be nice for robots, but is definitely not for still sensitive humans. In one of those academic articles I wish that I could find again, a research study found that human ears need subtle errors and intentional variances, which can be as short as 1/10,000 of a second, for life in response. This observation does allow, by understanding this principle and working carefully with it, for electronically generated music that can indeed be satisfying, as the Danish band Sorten Muld give examples, albeit rare. Few others do. Nor does it mean that the meandering approximations of beat, such as those by monotonous bluegrass bass players, are necessarily any better. The golden mean applies.
Listen to the Rolling Stones or Richard Thompson (including on acoustic guitar) for pretty consistent examples of how bass-driven lines can be done right. Their support from the bottom is not an afterthought, and, if one pays careful attention, their bass lines are almost always surprisingly complex, often involving more than one instrument. This integral detail is why, for example, purer blues as a genre are so much more intensively listenable and danceable than their seeming overlaps of bluegrass or hip-hop, and most ironically, the so-called r&b. Incidentally, more rhythmic bass doesn’t have to be fast; try Arvo Pärt or Samuel Barber. Nor is all bluegrass horrid, having just heard an example by the Seldom Scene doing “I know you rider”, with a subtly complex and syncopated bass line.
Similarly, intonation is vital. Intentional dissonance can be very useful, with J. S. Bach among famed users, in more places than casual listeners might expect. But the screeching, deadly cheap fiddles and inadequate voices of those who simply don’t know they are not nearly in tune, including not just whiney Appalachian or other bottom of the barrel “old timey” soundscapes, but also contemporaries like what another programmer called the “White Hypes”, exactly are paralleling a lack of appreciation of the subtleties of rhythm. Pain should come from thinking about the words sometimes, but not from what the music does within one’s ears.
Next, inflicting religious beliefs in English is a generally unacceptable choice for listening, especially by unsubtle, insufficiently talented people trying to do gospel or misunderstood, too often repeated scriptures (at least without humorous intent). On the other hand, if religious music or speech is carried in Latin, or other language sufficiently untranslatable to most listeners when sung or spoken, the inevitable, often destructively misleading, platitudes or zealotry can be overlooked, if the sonic aspects of the poetry are sufficiently good. I adore many early (pre-1700) masses, and much of Arabic music, for example, if competently done. The former surely does, and the latter may well have, religious content, but I thankfully remain mostly unaware of it. Commercials (or sermons, however short) for religious variants, or their commandments, when one can understand them too easily, are little or no improvement over those trying to sell overweight vehicles, appliances, or cheap soap.
Moral, like material, choices are far better made by example, including through clever story-telling ballads, than by claiming divine guidance.
Interestingly, on the subject of rhythm, most Latin American and Caribbean music has beats also too regular, and therefore painfully boring, as contrasted to that of its inspirations from Africa. The latter, though, has to be approached ever more carefully, as the mindless hip-hop beats cross back there, while older stuff is sometimes so badly recorded as to be unlistenable for that other reason. Once again, it’s not all bad, but like that from most cultures, the majority is, with its difficulties for outside ears exacerbated by construction without deep thought and care. Bad, too, is probably an inappropriate word. The same fiesta music that I thoroughly enjoyed live on the plaza in Las Vegas, New Mexico would simply not work if transported to recordings or radio. Gestalt is generally needed for simplistic composition and limited-talent execution to be effective, with my mother’s so satisfactorily singing that cowboy music to me as a child almost certainly falling into the same corner, as do most productions involving children. Broadcasting should have different standards.
A sub-category of rhythm within material that is going to be turned off is what my wife describes as “bouncy”, at its mindless worst exemplified by Lawrence Welk, most 1950’s recordings, Stevie Wonder, Steeley Dan, and the rest of what used to be called bubblegum. Some of this may be danceable live, but it does not function when transmitted over the airwaves, or otherwise simply for listening. Once again, it is inherently just too simple and too regular from the bottom, its basic support. If there is not enough imagination there, there will not likely be enough elsewhere. This does not necessarily have to come from the absolutely lowest instrument, incidentally, just be there in the overall tonal area (having just heard an acceptable piece where it was provided by the rhythm guitars).
Meanwhile, whatever the source, using horns or strings to cover rhythmic or sonic or other inadequacies at the conceptual core is like spreading jam on an asphalt shingle. So many artists (and producers) need to learn this. Nanci Griffith is a classic example, having done some still wonderful crystalline country-flavored early stuff, but more recently sunk into overladen, sludgy glop. Because one starts earning enough to pay more musicians does not necessarily mean it is wise idea. I’ve heard, for example, both Judy Collins and Bonnie Raitt do devastatingly wonderful performances with a solo guitar, some very good indeed things with a few fully versed companions, but more often simply awful stuff with full orchestras or their equivalents. Record or other media sales do not necessarily correlate with inherent quality.
A large part of that problem comes with sheet music, and its allowing insufficient direct contact and lack of rehearsals, whether in the studio or live. Imagining Willie Nelson stepping to the microphone with a music stand, or the Royal Shakespeare Company coming on stage with playbooks in hand should be a good start to appreciating this issue. If one is an artist reading, one cannot listen carefully enough, or respond as a group. If one does not know the music to play it from the heart, one does not know it well enough to play it for an audience. Classical music is saturated with this deadly to listeners predicament, while its practitioners wonder why they are losing audiences. It isn’t just inappropriately slewed pay scales or overpriced CDs, although each have their impacts. Playback can never be better than what was laid down in the first place.
Universally, poor intonation and just plain noise are bad, whether created originally or creeping in anywhere along the reproduction pathway. Not least among the too damaged for the caring ear category is anything that went through a telephone before being broadcast, whether spoken or sung. MP3 or the falsely promoted "HD" radio may not be quite as sonically degraded, but cannot bear sustained careful listening either. Subtly grating or inadequate content through lossy compression is still unacceptable for anything but the briefest exposure, if one's ears are worth using.
The irony remains that there is so much good stuff still out there, and improved methods for its transmission, which seem to be increasingly ignored. Of course, there is no real substitute, and never will be, to hearing the music without electronic intercession at all, if the voices and other noise in the area are not overwhelming it. Ideally, one should become a participant.
As a personal note, because of genetic luck and by eschewing hearing destructive power tools and small engines, I have been able to hear both proper intonation and rhythm with too often excruciating accuracy, so have more problems with incoming music quality than most contemporaries. However, I retain from experience no illusions that I can consistently reproduce either rhythms or vocal tones, especially at speed. In return, unlike what seems every more to be being played, I do not inflict these lacks in talent upon others, but try instead to support others who can do better, from trades with talents that I do have a bit more of. It remains beyond me how those who do have more practical musical capabilities cannot hear these problems in themselves and others.
29 January 2007
It seemed another of those throwaway lines in a teaser on Headwaters News from the New York Times, that ethanol to replace gasoline had another cost associated with it, because it can’t be moved in pipelines, and must be trucked. That’s a huge dent in any possible claim for its at best marginal energetic efficiency as a fuel alternative! Trucks are the second most inefficient transportation, next to high speed aircraft, extant, and the very most immediately dangerous to all others. Any choice that generates more use of them is literally deadly. Those with power over the present and the future are all clearly nuts (albeit more likely just greedy and ignorant). We could all be better of if they would just stick to drinking ethanol.
Having said that, the quote I ran across last night becomes even more apropos, “Being drunk is just about the only time a man can convince himself he’s not a fool. Stands to reason that’s when he’s the biggest fool of all.” Greg Bear. 1998. Dinosaur Summer. Warner Books, NY, p. 105.
See below for a step towards a more realistically workable solution to the energy problem, beyond the desperately needed taxes on wastrels, with the money earned to be used for the benefit of those that are most harmed by the current stupid waste of resources, i.e., children and other species.
25 January 2007
Ironic to read the Hope Health Letter after returning from a visit to the local university, where the buildings on a below freezing day were so overheated that I not only had to remove my coat, but the fairly light sweater that I had put on anticipating this public wastefulness, but still was too warm in a medium weight silk turtleneck. The letter suggested, “…set your thermostat to be above 68 degrees [F = 20 C] to be safe” from “…life threatening drop in body temperature called hypothermia”. That sort of thinking, even for the few elderly to whom it might truly apply, generates terrible choices and planetary tragedy, because few stop at 68, and most concentrate on the above part. Thanks guys. Why not say instead, first, dress appropriately for the season, and if you still feel cold, only then turn up your thermostat, and even then look around to see why it was necessary, and can that be fixed?
Around this town, one of the coldest in winter in the United States, one routinely sees people wearing short sleeves and even shorts, and accordingly making thermostatic choices necessary to maintain their destructive refusal to accommodate seasonableness. With some of the nation’s worst pollution, one also sees those same people idling their vehicles in driveways and elsewhere so that they can keep wearing their stupidly inappropriate clothing. The resulting energy waste is prodigious, and directly from it we all have to deal with energy price and import problems, killer air, and increasing global climate instability. Inappropriate dressing for seasons allowed by overheating also deters people from exercising, or even going outdoors at all, further compromising their health, including by hiding awareness of the destructive pollution created by energy wastefulness.
Anyone can buy a whole lot of fine sweaters, coats, and other seasonally more comfortable clothing, at costs not just held to sweat shop levels, for the price of the wasted fuel that turns into pollution, discomfort, bad health, and international debt. By dressing sensibly, one can go outside and enjoy weather as it is, where one is. At night indoors or out, good quality down comforters, and even synthetic alternatives, again will be both cheaper and more comfortable than cranking up the heat to ignorant levels. Dressing appropriately does, however, work better through not buying the crap Waldemart and their "discount" ilk sell, but instead looking more carefully for better quality, which will last far longer, as well as looking better and feeling still more comfortable, so will bring additional satisfaction per dollar invested.
[That principle should apply more generally, anyway. From cheaper for cheapness sake we all wind up desperately poorer, living lower quality lives, in so many ways. Owning fewer, but better, things is in all possible ways an improvement. Even Jesus approved.]
Our house is set at 64° F by day and 54 by night, with the automatic set back an hour before typical bed time, matched by an hour before rising. It is , admittedly, noticeably made more comfortable at those temperatures because we did spend more initially by installing radiant panel hot water heat instead of forced air. Radiant heat reaches directly to people, who it is after all what we want to keep warm, not air. That low temperature at night is required to be comfortable under good down, not just to save energy; any more is sweat city. Occasional getting up early on bitter outside mornings, before the heating system has caught up, may need wrapping up a bit more if one is going to sit quietly, but we bought gorgeous throws, and find that response to be more comfortable, even fun, too. It encourages snuggling, something everyone can use.
When we will be leaving the house for more than an hour or so, we flip to the lower setting. It only takes an instant, and saves dollars, without affecting comfort, and improves planetary safety and health. One almost always bustles around enough upon return to not even notice the initially lower temperatures while the heating system catches up.
More routinely, examining where one is sitting, if one is sitting, or sleeping can make a significant difference. Few homes are evenly heated. Most are excruciatingly poorly insulated and badly sealed, so have cold and drafty spots (or throughout). Finding the warm spots can make a lot of difference. Then, fixing those sources of heat loss will result in immediate improvements in comfort, and long-term reductions in costs, to the residents and everyone else. One of the silliest government programs ever instituted is the one that pays for excessive heating bills, instead of fixing the problems that make them so high.
Does it make a difference? Comfortwise, we are much better off with how we conduct our lives, except when we have to deal with others’ wastefulness in stores, homes, and offices -- even when we are not overheated by being in them, because we have to breathe their waste, and deal with the climate they are changing. We are healthier than most people our age, which is no longer young; the way we dress and the temperatures we keep helps that, because it encourages us to exercise, not vegetate. Economically, we spend less on our heat source, propane, than the average family with a house our size does for natural gas, and propane is three times as expensive per heat unit provided, even though many things about our house’s efficiency could still be improved. For the planet, this country, and our neighbors, we emit one-third the net pollutants, including carbon dioxide. If everyone did the same, the planet could begin to heal, instead of ever more rapidly deteriorate.
6 January 2007
Quite a juxtaposition this morning, with from email coming, “It's that time again... The Darwin Awards are finally out, the annual honor given to the persons who did the gene pool the biggest service by killing themselves in the most extraordinarily stupid way…” This piece of laughter at a variant of the usual collection of rightfully edited idiots, bungee jumping with too long cords and checkers of gas leaks with lighters, was followed directly in my reading by Mark Benjamin's lead Salon essay about some of the same Bush advisors who brought about the Iraq fiasco still being listened to and very much destructively at it. This time, they are claiming that “victory” can be gained by more American troops going house to house through Baghdad. It too might be funny, in a bleakly noir kind of way, if not so genuinely tragic.
Initiating the killing of thousands of others, most of whom will have been innocent of malice, and of course not being American, because others don’t mean as much to these types, within utterly hopeless quests is clearly less funny than the Darwin competitors, but sadly less likely to receive any form of punishment for its perpetrators.
It’s a blustery, lightly snowing afternoon here, just enough to be pretty without being threatening, especially when one doesn’t have to go out onto the maelstrom of contemporary roadways. Out there still more thousands are dying each month, as a direct result of continuing promotion and sales of deadly, grotesquely overweight, pollution spewers, billed not unrelatedly to the killing abroad as ‘freedom givers’. Illusions of progress and satisfaction, unnecessarily expensive, in the end downright stupid, and paid for mostly (in dollars and lives) by those not responsible for creating the problems.
All this against a background in the local newspaper of two, not just one, letter to the editor with ‘evidence’ that humans cannot, are not, affecting climate. The power of imagination, locally carried forward by serious believers in their own immortality, paralleling those in government and big business with even more power to disrupt others’ lives—in ways evolution will eventually catch up with. Happy New Year, eh?
Because of their collateral damage, instead of naming an asteroid after them, perhaps we could give the lot honorary impacting asteroid status?
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