Terence Yorks
presents more of a blog variant


The Ruffled Grouse looks at life

   These are additional dated drafts, with their inherent errors in both content and details of execution. The latest rough rants and commentaries are at current blog. More finished work may be found on my formal publications page.

  De enjoy the following despite its flaws. The essay's goals are shared entertainment and improved quality of living.

27 July 2008

  Took off by myself last evening, with the Alfa running especially well, to go a local concert while my wife stayed behind, continuing to work on her editing. This performer was Terri Hendrix, folksinger (in the best sense of the word) from Texas, touring with Lloyd Maines, father of one of the A-list Dixie Chicks, record producer, and long-time session steel guitar man, this time just having fun playing dobro, guitar, and mandolin, singing accompaniment. Turnout was modest, which it made for a nice change to be alone in front row center, without chatting or fidgety audience interruptions, giving the feeling of a command performance, just for me.

  Her first piece, currently featured on her website, “Life’s a song”, was a pretty summary of the cyclical view of one generation flowing ever nicely on to the next. It made for another fitting juxtaposition with the following quote a from a book loaned by a friend in Colorado, which I began shortly after going through an account of my own grandfather’s life on my cousin’s website:

 “In Flagler, Colorado, you are too far east to see the mountains, and there are no trees because there is no water. In 1934, it was all dryland faming in what the first Europeans who saw I called a desert. It was the kind of place where you’d think only the poorest most desperate sonofabitch with an overactive imagination and a zealous trust in benevolent powers of a high nature would even sit down to rest, let alone live…” James Galvin. 1992. The Meadow. Henry Holt, NY, p. 19.

  The problem with a poetic vision of cyclical flow, although that is perfectly natural, that with time should indeed go the way the songs do (and in a lot of ways has for me), becomes how it is only viable now by closing one's eyes to the overwhelming shadow of human population overgrowth, further combined with grossly excessive energy and material waste. Having an adult’s Santa Claus or Wizard of Oz figure to believe in makes ignoring these various corresponding realities easier, as it always has--despite how the more careful students of religion will find strong arguments within their texts for paying attention and gaining wisdom beyond the simplistic scriptures. I’d love to see those intergenerational flows become the peaceful, gentle passages that Hendrix and others’ songs and poems envision.

   Unfortunately, for it to become possible requires restraint to allow lives, in general and in particular, fit the necessary parameters, even more than for so many years in the past. These ever so clearly do not include heavy vehicles dominating, widely disbursed chemicals, huge houses, and, especially, more than two children per family. Our species has overstepped the bounds of natural possibility. If there are higher powers, they remain indifferent, not benevolent, beyond having given us a fine starting point.

   This may be tough to accept, but we are on our own, needing desperately to realize that cyclic flows do have very specific limits, or we will be continuing to take the planet down with us, in increasingly spectacular flames, finally winding up pathetically flickering over yet another lifeless ball of rock, like the others that circle around so many suns. Our future is a matter of collective choice, for which every individual is actively responsible. The spiral of cycles can contract, and thereby offer the chance to rise, or it can go further off its supports, descending, as it has for too long, paralleling a grossly overloaded airplane with increasingly damaged wings.


26 March 2008

  Aircraft have a DO NOT EXCEED speed, as an utterly vital factor that pilots must pay attention to, a calculated rate at which important things like wings become too likely to come off. Automobile engines have red lines from rotational rates, which similarly have evolved as engineers have found the point where the possibilities start to get grim, especially if sustained. While nature and planetary energy flows are vastly more complex, they surely have limits, too. Given its importance, it seems weird how little serious attention has been paid to what these might be, by either science or the public. This big question should be more easily accessible because the amount of energy that four billion years of experiments has utilized appears to have a pretty consistent upper limit, of around one percent of the incoming solar energy, when measured across seasonal variations and temperatures are above freezing. Whether the limits behind the limit are mineral nutrients, water, or something else, that overall limit always seems to appear. Should we not be wondering more seriously why it has been, and remains, so consistent?

   That vastly long period for evolution to try out patterns for energy utilization has allowed for far more variants than humans could possibly even imagine. When we have hubristically tried, we’ve done no better, at least not for very long, even with attempts propped up by dramatic inputs from stored energy sources. Speaking of those, in the United States it has taken little more than 100 years to use up the preponderance of oil, which had taken hundreds of millions of years to lay down. Fantasies about theoretically harmless alternatives, among them harnessing nuclear energy, continue to arise from time to time, but, without exception, prove to have serious limits of their own for widespread use, limits that become ever smaller the more carefully they are examined.

   Meanwhile, from that one percent of available solar input harvested by plant systems, another consistent pattern emerges. About ten percent of that collection can be passed to the next trophic level, the consumers. Human attempts to extract more have also consistently failed, producing on the largest scale practical deserts after trying for at most a few thousand years, which then have drastically lowered throughput than they did before humans messed with them. Eden was indeed all around us, historically humans have reduced it by more than half, and we continue to cut its remnants down, ever so carelessly and thoughtlessly. No system, natural or artificial, can support six billion humans for long, but nature would have supported more than any alternative system humans could design, and might still if we readjusted our ways to her possibilities and limits. All we need to do is start working with her, instead of assuming we can somehow do better. [see my projects page for a bit more info on this issue]

   As a not wholly irrelevant aside, the news yesterday had a fascinating admission by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowland, about her depression that had driven her to seriously consider suicide. How she beat it came by daydreaming on a commuter train, where the ideas for that immensely entertaining and profitable series arose. She could not have done that waking dreaming in an automobile; thousands die from trying each year, from attempt to life themselves above the boring deadliness of heavy traffic. Mass transit pays someone to do the repetitive attentiveness.

  For young people, this should bring several important messages, from how her suicide would have cut off a quite thoroughly proven useful life before it was realized, with the value of a single life brought to adulthood being not just a vague religious theory, to how notably more efficient trains, even those whose designs are more than a hundred years old, are once again a more practically valuable and effective transportation source than are the more wasteful alternatives. So why in recent years has no serious, consistent attempt been made to optimize rail comfort and efficiency? Neither is the same as trying to make rail approach temporary speeds for aircraft.

   Where the two factors seem more complex is that there are too many humans already alive, and that there is a great difference between trying to improve the quality for those who are present and trying to bring even more into the drastically overcrowded field. The answer is easy, though, if one steps aside from religious scriptures relevant only to a world long since left behind, and realize instead that quality of life after six billion can only improve if fewer children are created. Effective compassion is doing more with less. Hell is inseparable from larger numbers.


20 March 2008

  Awoke with brain awhirl within a theme of impatience. I think of myself as an impatient kind of guy, but it’s an incandescent sort, quick to light off, quickly off, appearing in response to things like dropping something, becoming angry at myself for the carelessness that made that happen, bolts that won’t turn or engage, especially when located in awkward places, the thousands of thoughtless idiots whose horns blat in parking lots because they are too lazy to check whether their doors are locked, and so on through a very long list indeed. But as it officially became spring today, and I’ve started seeing the killer trucks prepared to spray poisons everywhere, the wider impatience theme started taking root inside. While eating breakfast, the sun came out after a night’s rain shading into snow, and the various lichens and moss on the tree trunks were absolutely gleaming in their various subtle shades of green and orange. All those folks with their sadly short, fluorescently green fuzz of lawn miss this, and so much else available that appears through the seasons from more natural ground cover.

   The fuzzers impatiently go berserk this time of year, when their precious crop of uniformity is more obviously ugly, being a crushed-down brown, and, perish the thought, dirty from its time beneath the road dust drifted snow. They want green, perfect by their advertiser driven standards, NOW, not to wait for it to recover, which for it is indeed harder without help from the plants it should be working with, so they spray, spray, spray, and in between scatter deadly to all other life pellets. To hell with long-term health for even that grass, let along for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. The various diseases won’t show up for years, or be obviously traceable to their true source, just like more immediate consequences of those chemicals to lungs and livers. They are, of course, just as they are to physically pluck whatever they don't like that might spring up among their precious turf, also too lazy to bother to explore the details about the dangers of those lawn chemicals, hidden as they at the behest of the few who profit so immensely from spewing such eventually devastating filth seemingly everywhere. Thus they become fatter, poorer in every sense, while making all of less notably less healthy, even us innocent bystanders, for foolishly impatient ways.

   That same kind of impatience shows up in this nation’s wider approach to health. Exercise outdoors? Too much time to get somewhere less ugly than the world most have created around themselves, and too much effort anyway. Got a sniffle? Hit it with antibiotics, and damn the inevitable loss of the utility of what were wonder drugs when they might really be needed, as resistant organisms rise in direct proportion to total use. It should be totally appalling at get-togethers of folks of my own over 60 vintage as they, even those well enough educated that they ought to know better, compare the literal hands-full of pills they are ingesting daily. Miracle cures? I think not, in almost all cases. The ever so widely abused (by doctors giving it out) Prozac has recently joined the long parade of drugs finally proven just about worthless for what it was being sold and prescribed for, though not without having an immense spectrum of very real and nasty immediate and lasting side effects, not least physical addiction. And, lo! Downstream in our water has appeared the more general result of so many parallels, after this has been going on long enough, and measurement devices have become sophisticated enough, to make obvious what was easy enough to predict. I loved the cartoon about needing a prescription to drink tap water.

   Roads have a similar problem. They are clogged and deteriorating, so the impatient fixes are made, for even more of the same, patching the rest, instead of working towards tossing out the whole polluting, utterly destructive, literally impossible to maintain mess, instead using the same funds moving towards a more rational transportation system, one not based on ill-designed suburbias and grotesquely overweight individual vehicles running dozens, if not hundreds, of miles daily. The present system is broken, deteriorating ever faster, and cannot possibly be made workable, especially with an ever-expanding population size. But, most want familiar movement, NOW, so money is thrown uselessly away, good money after bad, and most wonder why it is worth ever less.

   Businesses have no place for the serious future; their projections treat quarterly results as gospel, and two years as almost too fuzzy to project, beyond cutting still more working employees and expanding incompetent executives’ salaries.

   Not one bit of all this is new, of course. I’m currently reading Halldór Laxness (1946. Independent People: An epic), which has a long ago rural character who has more than 300 theoretically medicine bottles lined up against her wall. Contemporary medicines just have a slightly different kind of purported proof for their utility, with little, if any, more rationality applied to what their widespread use might mean. Additional problems come with there being so many more of us, able to make more powerful stuff, with so much more capability to distribute products over very wide areas, so that their consequences can be at the same time individually and in sum dramatically more profound.

   Long ago a friend, Jerry Walsh, had the right refrain, “there is no time for haste”.

   There are some relevant issues in transportation, though, which is that alternative systems have to be able to connect to more than just a very limited number of places, and that there are very definite limits to patience in waiting for arrival of the next transport unit. For long distances, 1 to 3 hours are readily put up with in traveling by air, but very local travel needs to provide 10 minute, or less, frequencies to beat cars. No viable alternative can allow itself to be held up, or slowed, by the inevitable congestion that accompanies individually operated vehicles. These are not impossible conditions, but do require patience during their implementation, which takes a good many years most places. Positive payback is even slower, but surer than carrying on as we have ever since Eisenhower et al. decided to move government support from railroads to vastly larger, better hidden public expenditures for highways and air travel.


 8 March 2008

  Another filthy Utah late winter day, with grey skies overhead and grayer below. When I stepped out the door a few minutes ago, it reeked of stale diesel, without any vehicles within earshot or view. That connected with a classified ad this morning, selling a recent model Dodge wheezer, one of the Cummins diesel pickups that sound like 10,000 excessively amplified asthmatic moose. The thing was touted to have a “six-inch exhaust and nine inches of lift”, the latter above its factory original already unnecessarily deadly bumper and headlight heights. The further jacking is supposed to improve off-road clearance, though almost every owner also installs a reasonable height hitch, which beyond the unlifted axles, compromises any possible utility of making the things even more uncontrollable and out of touch with the real world than they already were. The kicker, though, was the conclusion of this ad, just before the $27,000 asking price (which is more than the total I’ve spent on vehicles in 40 years of driving), “68,000 highway miles”. That’s more than ten times the distance we’ve driven during the same period, with the advertised foolish construct, modified for a uses never done, which will continue to turn more than twice as much fuel into pollution per mile, occupy more than twice as much space while it does, and pound the pavement with more than 3 times the force. Meanwhile, ordinary folks still wonder why the resource situation, air, and roads are so bad.

  This in a country whose erstwhile leader is gleefully promising to veto a bill that would simply more explicitly outlaw only some of the worst kinds of torture, which he wants to free his minions to continue to use to increase the world’s supply of terror and terrorists. This makes me yet more ashamed that he is allowed to continue to represent my country, not coincidentally as it more rapidly spirals into economic chaos, as a direct and easily predictable result of his corporate buddies’ stupidly greedy strategies, which have become increasingly pervasive ever since they undermined and drove Jimmy Carter out of office.


3 March 2008

   After several days involved in finishing a bunch of complex indexing for a botanical treatise, for which my wife was responsible and gave me the appropriate guidance so that I could pretty much turn the crank, helped by knowing enough to be able to ask appropriate questions about problems, including what were, I turned to a wee dram of Talisker and settled back with headphones to listen to my "original master disk" version of the Beatles' Abbey Road. That was led to by catching DJ Gianni's outro on the radio, a Rolling Stones tune of similar vintage, "you can't always get what you want". From the combination I realized that I listen to music differently than most people do.

   Sometimes it is background, but always it ties into one of the things I like best to do, not always, but from time to time, of simply listening intensely to it, mostly concentrating on the tones and rhythms, with the words most often embroidery, trying for hearing everything that is going on, all and each of the instruments, how they are being played, how they interact, picking up the chosen sonic placements in apparent space, which are in the best like the easter eggs computer gamers do, as the voices move across the auditory stage, exemplified by the joke ending, "her majesty's a pretty nice girl", among many other less obvious placings. George Martin made that one into a literal symphony, with bits that flow through it all, and incredibly careful playing throughout. Far from the apparent casual playfulness of the boys, which grew out of a very lot of hard work together learning their chops.

   Part of me still says, but what am I doing to give back? For one, I'm among the few who have taken the time to appreciate what they did, at the level of detail that they made available. It's the old no artist has full value without an audience, and it that audience cares enough to listen carefully, a much more important and valuable connection is being made. The same works for visual and other art, of course. I've assembled the tools needed to be able to get that out, with canniness to put them together with a quite modest financial investment. Carefully selected playing equipment, from needle to headphones, which juxtaposes perfectly with my wife's need for quiet while she edits on.

   Questing for this sort of sonic detail doesn't work with equipment below a certain level, e.g., MP3, which is like Thunderbird wine, having the surface overlap, but not offering the completeness of the more fully developed experience. For some things the thinned out sound is okay, but profundity is made far less likely.

   Having the hundreds of recordings available ties closely to Ray Bradbury's brief visions of a hypothetical Martian culture, with silver spools of stories and music. They sit patiently and await a moment of focus, to pay attention to them again, offering wonder if one wishes. Balancing choosing when to do so with other parts of life is their hardest part.


11 February 2008

  Thinking this morning, as I often do, about energy consumption, and how all forms have impacts, but nuclear is especially insidious. Beyond its immediate, and very large, often hidden costs, not least its immense water consumption, just what is appropriate about drying a load of clothes and leaving an impact that will literally be measurable 100 million years into the future?

  To better calculate personal impacts, without considering inefficiency in conversion, 1 btu equals 0.3 watt-hour. Given an at best 2/3’s loss during practical conversions of fuels to electricity, this makes a neatly useful visualization of equality. But that leaves out the conversion at the other end; keeping things level, although animals do a far better job at getting energy out of fuel than machinery, makes dropping out conversions perhaps more appropriate, or at least easier.

  This means each gallon of propane, with its 105,000 btus, and thus 35,000 watt-hours of theoretical energy content, equals the energy needs for life of a human consuming 2,200 kcal/day, equally 2,500 watt-hours, for roughly 14 days. Seen that way, human life needs thus clock in at 26 gallons a year – not that much greater than a cold week’s use for heating, hot water, and cooking in our relatively efficient in terms of insulation and heating system, and kept far cooler than average, 2,400 square foot home.

  Compare that to the physician pilot who writes so well for Flying magazine, who reported this month about a trip with his wife and dog to visit his brother, flying a personally owned twin turboprop from Florida to South Dakota, and using roughly 1,000 gallons of jet fuel. That single trip burned more energy than my family’s total fuel use, for all purposes, for all of last year. This sum balances against how I was worried, as one concerned about energy consumption, using 30 gallons a week ago to make a rare, extended for us, 1,200 mile trip!

  By world standards, I still use a lot, even if I’ve ratcheted my drains far below American norms. The point is that financially better off, itchier feet folks use dramatically more, and they the least likely to be inhibited in their consumptive lifestyles by even dramatic price rises. They may openly bitch about paying $1,000 to fill their airplanes, but since they are able to justify owning a private plane that cost a million bucks or more, it will still be flying, and joining the all too many more whose still greater costs, in both dollars and energy, continue being hidden behind “business use”. The rest of us pay for their profligacy, however fascinating it may seem, in every possible way.

  This particular rumination started with encountering a letter yesterday by Robert Burruss (2008. “Putting a human face on energy usage.” Science 319:282). It was full of little mistakes, starting with equating “2000 calories” to “96.9 watts”, which is roughly correct, since I’ve also heard that the average person emits 80 watts, from a building heating perspective. For energy comparisons, the factor more effectively needs to be the daily total, which checks out again with my new calculation, above.

  Amusingly, Burruss uses the term “virtual person (VP)” for his energy standard, which works particularly well because more traditional bearers of that acronym are all too certain to be notoriously large energy hogs, not least the one almost everyone in the world wishes had been a virtual, rather than a real, person, i.e., Gunner Chaney. He and his erstwhile boss burn more fuel each time their taxpayer-financed jets run through a propaganda-generating trip than the average taxpayer will go through in a lifetime.

  As a specific alternative, for all of last year, our total propane usage was 660 gallons, which should seem a lot in the aggregate, but it was used for heating, hot water, clothes drying, and cooking combined. That puts our home at an equivalent to 25 VPs, again a lot, but just a bit more than 1/3 of Burress’ Maryland home example, which did not include the immense current American draw for air conditioning, and something which we do not require any of. Our electrical consumption for the year adds 2,400 kw/hr, for another 10 VPs.

  Meanwhile, I used 95 gallons of gasoline in my classic Alfa Romeo, mostly for entertainment, but some for legitimate errands, while my wife’s 25 year old car, running all year round, used somewhat more, all for things like weekly carefully combined shopping trips, and our longest outings, surgery follow-up runs to Salt Lake City, for a total of approximately 250 gallons. That adds 12 more VPs, given that gasoline has about 20% more energy per gallon than propane.

  All told, this makes a total of 47 VPs for us, or 24 VPs when allocated per person in our household, only 20% of the Burruss calculation for an average American. Ours is not a hair shirt lifestyle, just one more careful and aware. Whether or not anyone else listens, I'm still leading by example, and finding it worth doing for its own benefits.


10 February 2008

  While cleaning out some of the collected backlog in the magazine stand by my favorite chair, I ran across, “But let’s not underestimate the importance of what sociologists have called ‘the third place’ — an available gathering place that is neither home nor work…It’s no fluke that coffeehouses in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston fomented our famous Boston Tea Party and its private-property destroying, government-defying mischief.” David Oates. 2007. ‘Six good places.’ High Country News 39(20):18. Of course, it wasn’t as much coffeehouses as pubs, but the point remains, and such places are woefully lacking in contemporary society, especially in Utah, where church is a third place, but even more tightly controlled by the powers that be.

  When we successfully revolted here against gravel truck excesses, it took a lot of meetings in private homes, many of which, amusingly on thinking back, have meeting areas at least as large as Revolutionary era public houses. A vital factor was that we had time to build our cases among ourselves, extending over a couple of years. Important stuff doesn’t happen at the speeds that electronic media and corporations have come to expect.

  I do very much agree that regular group interactions are vital to a functional democracy, and are in short practical supply. This may well account in no small degree for lethargy in so many areas. The Internet does serve as a level of replacement forum, but is more at the level of letters and the printing press than of the more directly incendiary social exchange.


4 February 2008

   An interesting more general sidelight of a trip through Wyoming last week was an answer to a longstanding question of mine, of why Americans, not least travel recommending agencies like AAA, put up without comment or complaint typically horrendously loud heating/cooling systems in motels and hotels. The common ones, such as those made by Amana we encountered this trip, roar intermittently, more often than not thereby waking us with each cycle, and depriving us of considerable sleep, at a level far noisier than fairly bad external traffic (though not than idiots slamming doors and idling diesel pickups). Staying with friends who were also energy concerned and who had installed one of the theoretically efficient pulsed forced air furnaces provided the answer. The traveller units are only marginally noisier than what most Americans have at home. The units are like how the klieg lights in parking lots, to them are no worse than the blinding TVs and excessive indoor lighting that are also nearly universal in American homes. My dream of a quieter, less wasteful world, where one could sleep more peacefully and see the stars at night is so sadly far from “normal”.

   Our carefully selected, radiant hot water heating system, with its high-efficiency boiler that completely shuts off at night unless the cold is extreme, are an order of magnitude quieter than more common choices, as well as otherwise a lot more comfortable, if one bothers to dress oneself and bed for the season. To choose waste and deafness seems a poor alternative. We’ll just have to be more careful to arrange for B&Bs or similar in the future.


23 January 2008

  “Planet Earth loses some 1 percent of its topsoil to erosion every year -- and that's an environmental threat on par with global warming, say some experts. "Globally, it's pretty clear we're running out of dirt," says geologist David Montgomery, who identifies agriculture as the main culprit for "soil mining." In the U.S., cropland is estimated to be eroding at least 10 times faster than it's replaced. Farmers with an interest in sustainability are trying to persuade others to adopt "no-till" and organic farming methods to address the problem, but "it's hard to get people to pay much attention to this," says soil expert John Reganold. "Frankly, most of us take soil for granted.” emailed Daily Grist, sourced from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

   This one is kind of funny to see, because I’d been thinking in the night about what people do with their lives, what my choices have been, and what they might be, even more generally than I often do. When I finished graduate school, addressing just that question was just what I intended to do, because I had become fully aware of it by 1974, and had already come up with a pretty good outline of the answer. I never found a place amenable to working full time on it, but that didn’t matter, almost certainly, because the answer requires having notably fewer people on the planet, with those acting more intelligently, vastly more respectfully of natural flows, relying far less on any form of externally derived fuel, far lighter tools, and arranging complete reorganization of the concept of land ownership, with fairer distribution of its productivity (among other considerations). As I studied them, those things appeared most unlikely to be accomplished at the individual, and unimaginably unlikely in their aggregate, level, even if the problem(s) could be taken seriously enough before they become obvious enough to a sufficient number, when it will be too late.

   That hasn’t negated continuing to try to get the message out, but that conclusion has reduced the urgency of the attempt. On the other hand, it didn’t make any more attractive getting into sales, manufacturing, distribution, or repair of the problematical future junk, or the resource extraction and transportation necessary to support the advancing decay, no matter how much money could be made from doing so.

   So I continue to hack at the edges, finding the latest article on hawks stating that “Research suggests that roughlegs retire to their perches when the wind speed climbs above thirty miles an hour.” [Chris Madsen. 2008. Wyoming Wildlife 72(1):36]. That gave me an answer to a longstanding conundrum about lightening aircraft, which causes them to have increasing trouble with control during intensive drafts. I had suggested pursuing how birds can dump lift by spreading their feathers, thereby mitigating the effects of unwanted air movement. Obviously, it has limits even for them, and could only improve things so much for constructs.

   On the other hand, the issue of excess weight, and its immense costs, remains. Conveniently, the birds still provide an answer, because so much of that excess is tied to being able to continue during difficult conditions. If we just took the lead of the birds, and stayed perched when things got difficult, so much could be saved, in so many ways. I remember an extended essay long ago put together about Fort Collins, which typically has just a couple of major snowstorms a year. When I first lived there, the city simply shut down for a couple of wonderfully quiet days with each (in those days before gas snowblowers, ATVs, or common pickups with plows), with only the worst emergencies requiring traffic movement, and even then compromising how they were dealt with. The meant year-round that cars didn’t rust away, and roadside plants were not decimated, from expensive salt, saving everyone immense amounts of reinvestments, nor did nearly as many emergencies occur, since there were so many less wrecks, nor was as much noise and waste required from cleaning up.

   The cost of keeping things going no matter what is highly exponential, not just during that condition, but all the time, exemplified more widely by the personal trucks used occasionally to tow something large (and usually stupid itself), built and bought sized for that, or to once in a while go off road, while during the overwhelming portion of their actual use time, because they are too expensive and big to just confine to their intended task, they are grossly oversized, overheight, and overweight for routine tasks, insanely dangerous for highway use with just a driver and a few pounds of cargo.

   For transportation that does continue through almost any condition, rail once again has the greatest advantage, requiring the least effort to deal with naturally imposed difficulties because it has the smallest footprint relative to its load, unless one steps further back to the adaptability of animals, including shank’s mare. The faster one tries to go, the worse the problems become, including the higher the costs, especially at the margins of natural activity. Even intelligent advocates realize this exponential relationship for airplane operating expenses, although too few have been able to resist the temptation to jack up the speed, and/or the ability to continue into difficult conditions, even when neither have rational advantages in light of overall safety, environmental impacts, out of pocket costs (even when heavily subsidized), or even time savings in comparison with alternatives that do consider more integrative totals.

   The classic example there is short haul (less than 700 miles) air travel by individuals and businesses, even when good rail alternatives exist. New York to Washington (let alone closer points), city center to city center, is notably faster by rail, on the average, and especially on bad days, with the travel potentially at least far more comfortable and productive, yet notable numbers of fools continue to suffer while they clog and pollute the skies, for the dubious benefit of moving faster for a small part of the time. Even if the occasional strike, maintenance problem, or weather does pause the rail system, the likelihood is no worse than for air or road. Costs fall dramatically for any choice if occasional total pauses are assumed to be an integral part of the operating pattern.

   If one can’t get across the comparison when it is this easily provable and obvious, what hope for more subtle, complex situations, with far longer payouts, even if far greater in the aggregate? We have much to learn from hawks, beyond the peace possible from simply watching them soar.

   Meantime, it’s been to -14º F (about -30º C) each of the last two nights, without much rise during the day, so I’ve been using our woodstove to supplement the radiant hot water from gas, burning cottonwoods that died from general area pollution on our property. The stove, a 30+ year old Fisher, has the disadvantage of not seeing the fire, as has been so pleasant in our fireplace, but even with the improvements I’ve made to the latter, the stove uses about half as much wood for the same or more amount of useful heat. Replacing the vintage unit with one that had a view would have a big time costs, offer no improvement in efficiency (if this one is used carefully, which I do, regulating it not just with its air intakes, but also with a damper, keeping it within an optimal range based on a thermometer on the exhaust pipe), and it remains much more real than the gas, reminding one of just how much is involved in keeping a large (even our smaller than contemporary average) house warm.

   I’ve long said that a simple solution to fuel waste, and the pollution that goes with it, would be to sell it in no larger than one-quart (or liter), returnable glass containers, like milk used to come in.


21 January 2008

  A posting, passed on by a friend, of the results of an exploding whale carcass on a Taiwan street click with an ongoing problem I’d previously isolated as one among humans. A particularly vicious cycle in American history came with pioneers expanding their range, driving destructively into native territories without adequate recompense, eliciting raids that targeted mostly innocents, and in return likewise. The guilty rarely were the ones getting the violence, from either side (my distant cousin, G. A. Custer, being an exception). The whale could more effectively have targeted the harpooner, the killer ship’s captain, or better still the financiers or the products’ detached purchasers, not some poor slob’s Vespa.

  Of course, the response was not volitional, just like the rest of the “nature bats last” effects that have come and are coming from still larger scale vandalisms of our environment. Accepting that effects like global climate instability are not fair, in the classically focused term, does not deter the possibility for injecting more intelligent justice into proceedings against panderers of energy waste and the like, which could actually make humans become different, turning consequences selectively towards those who most deserve them. Alas, that probability remains trivially small. The question remains is whether or not it is worth trying for. I was programmed in that direction, with subsequent logic underlining what was given during my education. Me and don Quixote…

  Not incidentally, I am not a knee-jerk tree hugger. The argument about harvesting whales parallels that over furs, as well as old growth forests. All involve top-level organisms, including critters that have more than a little consciousness, but whose products, if treated with sufficient respect, could mean increased value for all parties involved. I’ve eaten properly treated, if underpriced, whale meat, and it was good, both nutritionally and gustatorially. I also own and use both fur and old-growth wood. The real problems with them are the usual:  too many humans for these relatively rare commodities to be widely shared without taking them all; treating the products in accordance with their high value, as something inherently rare, and/or lasting product capabilities (in the case of old wood and furs, for many human generations); and balancing where that inherent financial value goes, so that it feeds back into the maintenance and quality of life for those organisms.

  The products should be very expensive, and sometimes are, but even then, it too rarely goes into making them sustainable. The high price has got to get back to the points of origin, as well as seeing to it that the products are respectfully treated. With whales, arguments become particularly sticky, since the possibility that their consciousness is at least as deep as our own is especially likely. Then, Schweitzer indicated that trees and rocks just think more slowly. Because none of these attack us, or each other, with weapons is not necessarily a sign of lack of intelligence. That humans have wasted so much that was handed to us is.


15 January 2008

  Somewhat depressed, having been awake in the night from a dream of defending the house with my grandfather’s .30-06, for which there was no ammunition, but at the moment of waking, realizing I did have the .243, which would be better anyway, but still couldn’t do the job for as many as were coming after me.

  We had gone to town yesterday, for the first time in nearly two weeks, on a sunny but heavily polluted day, and after walking a few blocks to not have to drive them ourselves, had our ears shattered by a series of giant, unmuffled pickoff trucks, and lungs congealed by their locally enhanced fumes, only to find another with an idling diesel and humongous snowmobile trailer having double parked and boxed in our little (if only by comparison to the far more common and more truly absurdly) car. I went ballistic, flipping them off and cursing, while my wife was courteously asking them to move the rig.

  It turned out to be a more distant and recent neighbor who wanted to talk with me about last weekend’s test of block responses to emergencies, but I didn’t recognize him until after I locked my door (my wife driving because my foot is bad again) and we pulled away, having assumed his gestures to talk were about my gestures. I wouldn’t have been willing to talk there anyway, trapped by his machine with its intense noise and fumes, but he wouldn’t have understood that either, just like all the rest who refuse to make the connection between what they are doing to the pollution, noise, and traffic delays that their choices inevitably engender. Even when they shut the damned things off, their horns, being tied to useless alarms, blast innocent bystanders. Like the rest, they can’t hear them, of course, having damaged their hearing so much with their own machines, and refusing to look beyond them.

   I just don’t fit into the current culture, and don’t know where, if anywhere, there are more functional alternatives. The icing was seeing while on campus several people talking with a quite attractive young child, quite obviously focusing their attention on her, as most people do. The concept typified by so many having gone through school but immediately turning to teaching or raising the next generation remains totally beyond me. Where does the living get done, with most other jobs offering at best no more in the way of returns? How does this differ from robins? The monks were trying for something foolish, too, but at least reaching for something beyond simply starting (not creating, the word I wrote first, according to the cliché!) another set of emptiness, which becomes ever more destructive as numbers and material use increases.

   The problem is that my tolerance of the foolishness gets ever thinner in the particulars, more difficult to restrain from attacking individual perpetrators. Coming in to town less than once a week is environmentally and psychically desirable, but accentuates for the latter when one does enter the maelstrom just how bad it has become. A bald eagle circling, though, seen through the window just now in the light snow reminds me of why it is worth being alive, just to see that against the mountains. But how to enhance the likelihood of continuing to encounter that, and keep what health I have left, in the face of seemingly ever-increasing encroachments by those who neither know nor care about being more than mindless consumers of the most material and energy possible?

   All this does answer a question, though, which had arisen as I have gotten into writing and illustrating my memoirs. Looking back with a lessened, though hardly non-existent drive, why did the quest for sex play such a large role? The hormones do fit in with the animal part of our lives, of course, peaking at the right time for procreation, but that focus is further driven by the relative mindlessness of ‘normal’ activity, and the profit that comes from catering to it. I am not, and certainly used to be even less, immune from that kind of suggestion, even if the rest of advertising has had remarkably little bite, other than for when well done, its graphic designs. They could sell me the sex, if not their products.

   Almost all of us are all looking, from both built in and enhanced outside drivers, for the comfort that physical contact provides, which is maximized by sexual intimacy with a willing partner, especially who is in similar or better condition. Some do sublimate that goal into machinery, especially when the consequences of sex are realized as obnoxious children, and/or one’s own body has been let fall into fat and other forms of disrepair (or, more rarely, had those forced upon it). Mechanical replacement, or its alternatives, religious fantasy and drugs, are hardly improvements, either of themselves, or for what they historically have done to others. Exceptions exist, of course, for each, but remain that, unlikely exceptions to the rule.


13 January 2008

   Yet another juxtaposition, this one having begun with picking up, from grazing the university’s new books, Kristin Thompson’s The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (2007, University of California Press, Berkeley). In it, she quotes director Peter Jackson as having denatured the character Faramir because, “we wanted to make it harder, to have a little more tension than there was in the book.” (p. 69) Then in the news this morning were pieces about youth not reading, and problems with simplification of motives in video games, their lack of compassion. These are closely related. [I first read the Trilogy in 1966, and reread it most every year since, until the movies arrived, plus filling in with virtually all the background information published by Christopher Tolkien.]

   No character had more internal tension than Faramir, as Tolkien created him, a subtle symbol of the emergence of true nobility, which very much includes compassion, by literary connection to the past. Faramir was a reader, a true scholar, unlike his older brother, although he still fought, and led others at least as well, albeit only when absolutely necessary, not out of eagerness to prove his masculinity. His was a courage that included an extended willingness to take verbal abuse from his father, and others for his quieter, more inward, respectful nature, and his willingness to take time to learn, not just rush forward bullishly. From these characteristics straightforwardly emerge, when presented with the one ring, acceptance of the bad news Frodo had brought about his brother, not least about his failure to resist temptation, and then firmly set it aside himself, thereby matching the encounters by the far longer lived and experienced heroes, Galadrial and Gandalf, as they passed through similar tests. Both of these were more effectively covered in book than movie, too, since they had a lot of subtlety and background connections.

    But without the echoes to that even more complex past, both in Tolkien’s unfinished Silmarillion and the Norse legends behind it, Jackson was correct in assuming that Faramir cannot be presented either quickly or simply. A movie of its own might be able to get close, but it would be art house stuff, appreciated most by those who already get it, and fantastically expensive. The battles are more internal, literary in the best sense. As my wife pointed out, the choice by the filmmakers made, like similar ones, did get the films made, and at least part of the underlying messages out to many who would not have reached them otherwise. The stories that were told more or less accurately did deserve celebrating.

    What the films did not manage is deserving the time that the books behind them do. Once more, one cannot get the deepest good (or best goods) without working for them. Compassion, especially for species other than one’s own, is not a simple phenomenon, nor is the related paradox of death, both of which were the central cores for Tolkien and the myths, and how they dealt with them still have a lot to say. A fine resolution for these issues are most unlikely to emerge from video games, and movies, for that matter.

    In this noisier world, reading has become all the more difficult. Reorienting libraries to be filled with videos, audio, and Internet may get a few more folks in their doors, but those will never replace the depth for the imagination of self-paced reading, nor the necessary contemplation to see below other surfaces.

    Accordingly, a fundamental disconnect remains, of how those of us who are functionally literate and deeply educated cannot fully communicate with those who are not. The language necessary is missing. Jackson did a compromise, but one heavily weighted towards the shallow, although that does not diminish that he got done more than most others could have, not least myself. I have a hard time even communicating with more than a few peers, none of whom have much impact on the wider world, either.

   Even my wife, who has a Ph.D. in medieval literature, remains among those never brought into deeply reading Tolkien, for whom multiple passes through are essential to appreciate what he accomplished, let alone what he had yet to accomplish. Of course, she has read many more of the tales that he studied, with more direct appreciation of them than is likely for me, or most others.


11 January 2008

   Several news blurbs were oscillating around my head in the middle of the night. The quotations are paraphrases, “The NFL and major league baseball join forces to combat steroid abuse” – by donating $10 million to research confined to better detection. They are not pursuing changing why young people might do it, or health effects, just routes to punishment. Underlying assumptions are, most important to them, competitive differentiation, and less so, lasting damage to the health.

   That becomes interesting when juxtaposed against chemical company flacks in the state of Pennsylvania having legislators outlaw even posting of packages whether milk products came from cows fed artificial hormones. The difference between hormones and steroids is semantic. Not okay, in jail term spades, for humans, but fine for cows and food, and not just fine, but inappropriate for consumers even to know, so we can’t even choose?

   If steroids are provably bad, the next step, not far away, is reflected by a bit that genetically modified pigs, with parts that glow in the dark, have passed that perverse for them characteristic on to their offspring.  If bodily rearrangement by steroids is such a problem, what about manipulation via DNA and its analogues, so potentially more powerful than drugs for reorganizing bodies? Literally billions of dollars are being fed into just the technologies to get that job done. Just what is the likelihood, beyond so many abuses, intentional and otherwise, that these tools won’t be applied to giving little Susie or Steve a jump start on future competition? Is there any historical reason to believe that ways won’t also be found to apply similar developmental twists later in life, since precisely analogous tools are among the discrete goals for attacking a variety of disease and tissue damage? Tracing chemicals is but child’s play by comparison to detecting those who might be taking advantage of such tools—with the changes produced not necessarily confined to a single generation. But detection is the least of the issues of consequences from playing internally with physical development.

   If the better-paying job market for scientists, reflecting government and industrial grants, wasn’t already overwhelmingly dominated by genetic manipulation, a last news nail came with the appointment of a genetic engineer to be editor of the most prestigious journal, Science itself. For a long while, almost all of its advertising has been oriented to companies that provide equipment to life twisters, paralleling the classified ads for jobs doing that, but this choice represents the end of even hope for restraint or balance in where emphasis will go.

  The sum is more subtle than excess use of energy or toxic materials, but even more likely to be profound, hubris squared, at least. When the errors of biotech do start becoming visible at the widespread level, their reversibility is even less likely. As was so long ago pointed out, unlike the already awesomely deadly nuclear power and weapons, biotechnology’s mistakes can reproduce by themselves. Only fools and the ignorant can continue to support either one.

   Along with all the noise, fumes, and destruction following in the wake of material and energy waste, it all makes me more respectful of the goals of my minimalist ancestors. Now, if only those, and other, religions could understand consequences for exponential growth of human numbers… Technology’s mistakes are bad enough, but multiplied in increasing quantity…


1 January 2008

  Starting the official new year by making another connection that others sadly won’t. “Whenever the volunteers went into slow-wave sleep the researchers made noise — enough to disturb the sleep though not to fully awaken them. After just three days the ability of the volunteers to regulate blood sugar was reduced by 25 percent, the researchers reported. Earlier studies have indicated that lack of sleep can reduce the ability to regulate sugar, and this report adds evidence that poor sleep quality is also a diabetes risk.” http://www.salon.com/wires/ap/scitech/2007/12/31/D8TSMFGG0_sleep_diabetes/index.html This makes me wonder if the exploding rate of diabetes is not just a consequence of rampant obesity, but also of the constantly increasing noise from heavy vehicles and their incessant movement, and from the decreasing darkness by wasted light. All contribute notably to lost sleep.

   My wife was giving me grief last night about unwillingness to do shopping, as if it came from laziness. She was wrong, it is because of the increasingly, which did not seem possible, hideousness of the stores, now featuring televisions and other electronically generated noise blaring everywhere, with still brighter and uglier lights, the constant noisy stench of idling, regularly punctuated by blaring of ‘alarm’ horns in the parking lots to announce each new arrival or departure, and the insanely slow traffic one must forge through to get there. They go by our windows with ever-rising frequency.

   For my part, I am responding to the unnecessary flows of metal and petroleum by increasingly simply refusing to participate in it. I put all of 2400 miles on my car last year, which actually is and should be a lot, but is a trivial fraction of the ‘normal’; we put little, if any, more on the Mazda. Given that our cars have less than half the ‘normal’ impact when they do go out, the effect on others is that much less. We’ve not been out of the driveway for two full weeks now, and that has been a source of considerable satisfaction, except when disturbed by others so vastly less frugal.

   That impact when outside had an interesting observation, source forgotten, of an argument that gallons per mile is a more important factor than the usual expression, because it more adequately isolates how impacts become far greater as mileage declines, that a change from 15 to 20 mpg is a much greater improvement than one from 20 to 25, and so in, terms of resources consumed and pollutants dispersed.

   Even today, a holiday, with no vehicles visibly in operation, and probably none within at least a mile, their sound rises above our stream, as heard from a few minutes soaking in the sun on our deck. Closer, they are far louder still, as they are when the commercial trucks join the background fray, on any routine day.


 Links to more, from late 2007, early 2007, late 2006, early 2006, late 2005, early 2005, or 2004...


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