Terence Yorks
presents a slower blog


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 found within my current blog page. More finished work may be found through the formal publications pages.

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

Not so tangent topics:

Background for this blog


Military deaths abroad


Mercury Poisoning



13 October 2010

Completed a great test of audio differences this morning. I’ve been a serious fan of Richard Thompson ever since first hearing his work within Fairport Convention, some 42 years ago. Bill Boyd played a couple of cuts from his latest, Dream Attic, on Internet Utah FM a bit more than a month ago. “The Money Shuffle”, which opens the live-recorded album, at the MP3 quality of the broadcast stream (passing along less than 20% of the data available from a CD), seemed dubious in tuning and overall quality, either through my highest-quality headphones or the downstairs Dynaco/Erath quad system. It was interesting enough, especially given how much his music had meant to me through the years, but hardly overwhelming.

Last week, we heard Thompson with the same band live in Salt Lake City run through the new album, at the State Room. That is a 300 capacity auditorium, with general admission stadium seating on reclaimed, but comfortable church pews for about 200, and a dance floor for the rest. We arrived an hour early, but had to take a place on the front row pews that are reserved for the handicapped, since the better seats were already filled, and I cannot stand for long. These were much appreciated, but have somewhat obstructed views because of the dancer/standees and the in/out traffic from the higher seats. The sound that close-up was overblown, to the extent that we had to use earplugs to avoid pain, as well as to be able to pick out the lyrics, with its bass tones muddy in the extreme, to the point that what the bass guitar was doing was just about lost in the murk, although the body vibrations from all those decibels added to the practical entertainment. The next night, we were back for James McMurtry, who instead of playing both sets had a wretched opening act, so we were able to sit higher and further back, where the sound was much more useful, albeit still somewhat muddy, with detail obscured further by the curious choice of such venues to rely on a monophonic presentation. On the other hand, from being live, both the additional information about the songs from the performers’ patter, and just being able to see what was being done added both depth and interest, along with the simple excitement of physical sharing. It made for a delightful set of evenings.

This morning, I put the Dream Attic CD, which had arrived yesterday, on the upstairs Carver/Klipsch sound system. What a revelation! It has astonishing clarity and separation. A couple of the songs still seem a bit weak, but it’s as close to a 5 star rating as anything I’ve heard in a good long while, with plenty to be gained yet from it. That isn’t just from the superb playing and recording, but also the flow in and among the individual cuts. This is an exquisitely thoughtful performance, with all the years of experience shining. Uncovering, and paying attention to, at least most of what is put into it assuredly does make a useful difference.

Knowing the background, musically, situationally, and linguistically, admittedly helps, too, as with the “Burning Man” song, which melds his longstanding Sufi interest with that fantasy place, about which a good photographer friend has shared his experiences since its beginnings. Thompson gets so much so well, weaving fun stories among fascinating weirdness, tradition with experimentation, a gorgeous tear-jerker about lost friends to be followed after just the right pause with a much funnier ditty about not being able to get relationships right, and ending with a perfectly bittersweet promise to keep trying for love. Throughout, the ensemble instrumental and harmony vocal work is as close to perfect as one is ever likely to find.


27 September 2010

Listening to more of the ancient Buffalo Springfield, I realized that most of the separation effects previously were electronically generated, reverb and such. Then, the difference between these and what is being done now is that the initial sounds being worked with were made by a human action, and even more importantly, their rhythmic placement and frequency dimensions were both very carefully controlled by humans, for specific benefit to human ears. The quick and dirty generation by a machine with little or no further programming effort (and most likely without decent enough equipment to hear differences, even if they did bother to try) of most contemporary performers (not to distinguish them by calling them musicians), without careful studio help, has quite a different result.

That is not to say that half-done efforts didn’t occur in the past. The interesting parallel, though, comes with lighting, where what the generalized meters (and consequent assumptions) say is too universally thought to be enough (e.g., overhead fluorescents or metal halides), instead of making choices by what actually most benefits users’ eyes, in very individual situations.


26 September 2010

Another way to address the issue of subtlety in sound and visual quality is to note its parallel with homegrown or local, organic produce versus the chemically treated, long distance shipped stuff in larger stores. We had strawberries from that first dimension on pancakes this morning, and they were every bit as different, and in the same kinds of ways, as what I was trying to express about music. However, the same need to pay attention, and the value of a less intrusive surrounding environment, apply to food. Far too many have either never experienced, or forgotten, just how good fruit and other food can taste, even though the ability to taste is probably less often damaged than the ability to hear has been.

For those who use gasoline-driven lawnmowers, ATVs, poorly muffled trucks, power tools, or similar devices even close to regularly, what I define as poor sound quality isn’t likely to matter as much. The ability to pick up subtlety is so easily, and essentially permanently, destroyed by the same intruding noise that covers it up or wholly overwhelms it for others nearby.


“All that is real and can be sensed is in constant contact with magic and mystery; one loses the consciousness of reality.” Sergey Diaghilev, quoted by Sjeng Scheijen in a new biography, and in turn, by Joan Acocella in the 20 September New Yorker, p 113.

That is not indirectly related to my own growing realization of the distance between the assumption of uniqueness while growing up to the reality of at best a blurry fringiness. My target for years was not the purest leading edge, but for the neat 98th percentile. This afternoon on the deck, on an amazingly warm afternoon for a time of changing leaves, I calculated that in a world with 6 billion humans, that puts me with 120 million others, if achieved as a goal (as first typed, that came out, perhaps appropriately, as gaol). Not so unique, eh, but with a lot more potential to reach across to than I have ever assumed, or even guessed? “Hello out there”, the cry rings more strongly.


25 September 2010

That elusive quality question for sound reproduction has some more pervasive relationships than most folks realize. This morning, I was listening in the background to a radio broadcast version of the old Buffalo Springfield song “Kind Woman”, from a station that has first class equipment and still has a live volunteer DJ, playing from CDs at this particular time. What I noticed was the resonances, the subtle stuff that record producers did back then, cross fades, slow decays of the guitar sounds, echoes reminiscent of what happens in cathedrals, across the fullest spectrum of frequencies. Yes, FM does cut off some of the highest end (>18 khz), but by comparison with compressed satellite or Intenet broadcasts, the differences for those with good hearing tools are palpable. Those same differences are involved in what is missing from most more recent attempts at recorded music. With electronic generation of sounds, such subtleties are generally not there in the first place, with notable exceptions among those putting in a lot of extra effort, such as the Danish group Sorten Muld.

Of course, these aspects will be revealed fully only by careful listening, in less noisy environments, and through higher end equipment, all of which I selectively have bother to acquire. Further, their importance parallels what is found in better wine, food, cars, visual displays, and so much more. The key is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be all that much more expensive, just requires parallel care to their origination and transfer, seeking out the best possibilities, understanding how it all works. Saying this may sound arrogant, but is being presented intending to pass on the results of a very extended and detailed experiment, one that might be useful for its conclusions.

Until this morning, some of the ways that compression routines function have not before been appreciated sufficiently. Necessarily, something must be removed to shrink the files. These will be in the softer, more usally hidden parts, exactly those subtle, less obvious portions that won’t be noticed in most circumstances by most people. But what is life worth without depth in color and sound? It is exactly these margins that true artists celebrate, and for such good reason. Mastery of these is rightfully rewarded by respect and remuneration, albeit not necessarily during the artists’ lifetimes. It is part of what make the music of the sixties work, because groups like the Grateful Dead and their peers understood the sonic quality differences mattered, and were able to take advantage of what had been done for classical and pop up until then. Since, society has sadly regressed, and continues to do so, from lacking their understanding and appreciation.

By defining the differences a little better, perhaps I can do something towards bringing better back, or forward. Visuals may make differentiating more easily accessible. Taking Leonardo as an example, what has made his art so revered? Mastery of composition comes first, as that involved representing three-dimensional space through shading and perspective, just a little more effectively. Then look at the associated detail, and the more careful use of color. The separation from his contemporaries, and most of those who followed, comes directly through the subtlest portions of each aspect.

Because movies brought out visual potential in ways more obvious to most than high fidelity sound (which, of course, also came to the movies, enhancing their experience, at the same time as Technicolor, though multi-channels must have been noticed), the recent progress in digital television has been embraced quite widely, despite its cost to individuals. Although the differences from past displays are obvious to almost anyone, there is still a fall-off in appreciation of potential there. Of the millions of flat-screen purchases, very few are ever fine-tuned to express their inherent possibilities, while the next steps are held back by overcharging for their small relative difference in cost, which is pennies, at most, per disk in the case of Blu-ray. 3D is a different issue, with the notable exception of James Cameron, only tangentially related to subtlety. For still photography, the differences among film, 16 bit uncompressed digital, and the more commonly traded, highly compressed 8 bit JPEGs almost exactly parallel what is going on in sound. Is life with just part of what it could be as good, especially if it can be accessed without trampling on others’ rights?


24 September 2010

On the issue of quality of sound transfer, I did a three part test once again yesterday, this time using my top-of-the-line Beyerdynamic headphones simply plugged into my refurbished MacBook Pro, using iTunes. I had previously loaded three versions of a favorite song, Steve Young’s “Angel of Lyon”, from the 1989 CD in my collection. One was a WAV uncompressed (1411 kbps indicated), the second “Apple Lossless” (875 kbps), and the third AAC at 256 kbps, which is iTunes supposedly high-end format, and should be equivalent to the best ‘Internet radio’ streams. I did not bother with MP3, which has always been quite obviously inadequate. From these, I found a notable difference between the last two when listening carefully, which can be best described as clarity or airiness. Highs and lows were quite apparently reduced in their detail and power. The first two alternatives were less obviously different, but I suspect that for less spare recordings, more might emerge.

The point remains that for long, loud, and/or focused listening, the folks who defined the original CD standard knew what they were doing. It is the absolute minimum of information needed to reproduce good music effectively. Even the iTunes upgraded single or album downloads do not match what is needed to pass along careful recording efforts by musicians and engineers.

For really good recordings, the value of top quality all the way was proven once again last night. Waking at 4 AM with various aches and worries, I put on Giovanni Gabrieli, “Music for San Rocco”, with the Gabrieli Consort under Paul McCreesh, a 1996 DGG/Archiv recording that had been recommended by The New Yorker at the time, and which I had only casually listened to before. On the 4-dimensional Pioneer Elite/Dynaco/Erath system, it could only be described as magnificent. Flushed the dragons nicely, at least for a while, and provided an answer for why J.R.R. Tolkien regularly attended Mass, even though a dubious believer in some of the church’s key concepts. They did bring out some nice harmonies at their best, even though that is even more rare in recent centuries.

We did see a nice exception to that in San Francisco last month. The thirty-odd year old cathedral in that city is architecturally quite nice, even in comparison with the great things the Roman church has built in the past, added to by spare, but wonderful, internal sculptural furnishings.

Actually, more than some of the wakefulness last night was occasioned by having our Internet connection crash while in the midst of a communication exchange. I called Comcast, our only available provider, on their supposedly direct support line for “high-speed Intenet”, and had to wade through a full five minutes of loud, stupid commercials for other stuff, and down various irrelevant byways, before getting to a person to talk about the issue, even though their calling load was less than usual. The poor souls who have to eventually answer must have a lot of unnecessary anger to deal with. Too bad that annoyance can’t be communicated to those who are genuinely responsible for it. The problem went away on its own after another half-hour, at least temporarily, but did remind me of the fragility of our high-tech conveniences, even when we try to do them in the best possible way. Finding what the recurring problem actually is remains less than trivial. It will be interesting to see what someone discovers they finally make it out here will be interesting; I’ll bet on nothing readily fixable. There too many difficult to test effectively links.

[Update from 13 October: when a technician finally arrived, a week and half later, he found an unnecessary, way out of date line filter and a bit of corrosion on the link at the top of the pole where our coax link connects to their bulk line. Since then, in two weeks there have been no extended outages. On the other hand, what he told me about their ability to monitor connections does raise another eyebrow over one’s privacy in using them, should any illusions remain.]


22 September 2010

Kevin Kelly and Stephen Johnson in “Where Ideas Come From” in Wired (18.10.120) argue that the most significant and useful advances in technology and society come from closely focused, incremental cooperative efforts. They take precisely the same tack that my once-rich uncle did, to ride just ahead of a curve. The problem with their approach is personified by Stewart Brand. He cooperatively brought forth the Whole Earth Catalog in just that way, went on in part to the 10,000-year clock, but currently uses his clout to espouse nuclear power as a solution for carbon dioxide buildup. He ought to know better, but the very intensity that has carried him forward so far above most of us has closed his eyes to the high likelihood of eventually far worse consequences from what he advocates, and to the guaranteed at least equivalence for the sum of overall problems from any power-generation alternative, with the sole exception of using less energy overall.

Kelly and Johnson of course are correct in their argument that an individual visionary is even more likely to be a failure. Even the most revered ones are ignored when they needed to be heard, or killed for it, or both. Look at those in the Bible, or in history since, let alone the overwhelming majority, who never get heard in any meaningful way at all. Meanwhile, in any eventuality, if humans don’t act stupidly enough, nature is going to send a meteor, volcanoes, or if they are not enough and it all carries on long enough, a nova, including our own sun. Fate guarantees eventual collapse at the species, and wider, levels. Given that cheery note, the underlying Norse philosophy remains the most valid, to do the best possible thing regardless of apparent outcome. Thereby come our hero depictions.

On the most practical basis, doing what seems best from the deepest of integrative studies has led to an unusually satisfying life for me, as was predicted from them. I’ve got Bach harpsichord music playing on the best computer yet made as I work on it, with a view as good as anyone has anywhere, with the understanding to operate and appreciate the beauty among all of these. It’s being done in more physical comfort, with a better companion nearby, than most have, too, but all with far less negative impact upon others, and thereby a much better chance that it could be shared more widely and for longer than alternative approaches to living. Yes, all this is not being accomplished without pain or effort, and things are not always this cheerful hereabouts, but is there any other honest path? At least I know, from the associated work, more about what the choices entail, to be able to continue to choose effectively among them.

The latter is why I want to continue to build that game (one outlined to educate a wider audience through making energy reduction strategies more entertaining, but whose details I cannot yet make public), and complete the history of how I got here. Perhaps these can reach a few others, so less damage and more satisfaction can be gained from them. There surely are not enough even close to rational, inclusive guides getting through, at least widely enough!


12 September 2010

Here's a new high, or low really, in the negative wonder at the way most humans seem not to want to know what is going on around them during their lives, even when it might often be wonderful. Dick Karl wrote in the July 2010 Flying about experiencing the advertising-touted long-haul commercial aircraft business class cubicles, “The [plastic] cocoon makes it almost impossible to talk with anyone else or to look out the window, because all the sarcophagi along the sides of the airplane point in a slanted phalanx toward the midline of the airplane. To watch our takeoff, I had to squirm around in my seat and look backward, eliciting a scowl over reading eyeglasses from the businesswoman seated behind me…”

My wife commented that she’d seen that from the first, and that it made it convenient for the denizens of such things to be served their food and drink.

Admittedly, the upper bunk of the Amtrak sleeping car compartments has no window, but it could, readily. Again, the assumption has been that no one cares. Sadly, all those effectively and intentionally blind designers are generally correct, remembering flight experiences where the clouds and scenery below were gorgeous, but being forced by other passengers to lower my window shade so they could watch their low-fidelity TV movie undisturbed by reality. If so many are not even willing, let alone desirous, of looking at the world around, no one it gets so messed up! As I did in those times, at worst I will try to compromise by lowering the better view only partially.

Of course, only a few on wide-body aircraft have ever had the option of looking out. On the other hand, that situation only came about from lacking of caring by the travelling herds. I flew in the middle of one only once, rushing to get to my original home when my father died suddenly. It was every bit as awful as I expected, but not made better by the "in-flight entertainment". Books, or even closed eyes, were still better for escape. However, under more normal situations, if I can't see out, I don't want to be there.


11 September 2010

This morning, I encountered in an article in the online Grist under the rubric of, “disaster fatigue”, “People don't need hectoring told-you-so's.  They need to see a vision of a sustainable future that actually looks appealing.” Jonathan Hiskes.

Nice thought, but the problem is that such a future requires unpleasant work and reorientation for most folks, including me. The fossil present has offered a promise of ease and increasing comfort, occasionally fulfilled, always without thought, especially about consequences. There are a lot of people whom I like and respect for other reasons, and have some idea that there is a need for change, but are utterly unwilling to change even simple habits, like not bothering to turn off lights in empty rooms, or turning excessively bright ones on regardless of whether they, or their intensity, makes any useful difference, let alone more serious contemplation or effort about their energy use patterns. Like most of the rest of the contemporary population, just getting by is hard enough, and what they have had is too satisfying. As Newton said, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. That far, they obey natural law.

I promise to continue to try to provide more appealing examples, but it isn’t easy to communicate with them when most people don’t even bother to look around themselves.


9 September 2010

All the meditation on the serious changes in human behavior that need to be made, and my ineffectiveness in conveying those messages, often has me feeling more than a bit depressed. The track record for religions is even worse than my own. However, on the fifth, in my written journal, I wrote,

So where can satisfaction come, where can something worthwhile be done, with the themes of living so repetitive, limited, and fixed? Some words come to mind:






Differential focus

Rhythm (as in rhythm guitar)

Variation (e.g., J. S. Bach)



3 September 2010

A longstanding mystery was partially solved a couple of days ago. I had remembered the name of the NASA presenter whose observations at the 1972 International Solar Energy Society meeting so struck me as Don Cherry. That name turned up mainly a Canadian radio broadcaster during Internet searches, while the Society’s current secretary had no records of the meeting when I contacted them directly a while ago.

Instead, in the original program I found when cleaning out some damaged file drawers in our garage, the correct version of the name was W. R. Cherry. In my associated report to Texas A&M University, which had funded my trip as an observer, about the meeting, I wrote, “Bill Cherry is Executive Secretary of the Solar Energy Panel, and is from NASA’s Goddard Facility. He also happens to be President of the U.S. Section of the Solar Energy Society. His report is now at the printers, and should be of great interest.” The title of his talk, as one of three under that heading, was “The Place of Solar Energy in the Total Energy Program”.

However, if that report was ever published, it sure sank without an obvious trace. W. R. Cherry is currently nearly as invisible on the web, with just a 1977 publication about an obscure aspect of photochemistry turning up as a likely hit, amidst, among others using that name, an Elvis impersonator and a Texas real estate salesman. The latter, ironically has a website with a featured connection to George Mitchell, the funder of the Woodlands and the Mitchell Prize for alternative environmental solutions that was begun in cooperation with the Club of Rome.

I had been waiting for Cherry’s report before commenting on his neatly supported conclusion to his presentation that total fossil energy use was passing that of photosynthetic harvest from the sun in the United States, which indicated humans needed to reduce artificial flows by ninety percent if we, and most other species, wished to survive for the longer term. He noted that consequences of that overuse were already becoming visible, particularly as heat islands in and around major cities. Finding a source for either scientific or public distribution of those ideas has become little easier since that time, but was obviously not possible for that mid-level bureaucrat then, whose demeanor was one of quiet caution. James Hansen of NASA was certainly flamed for releasing less far reaching, but closely related, conclusions nearly twenty years later.

Also in my own limited distribution report in 1972 was a labeled image that I had made at the Gainesville meeting of the presenters as a group. Here is the part with Cherry as a brief center of attention.

W R Cherry

I still wonder what happened to him. He seemed haunted, quite understandably, by what he had found. That could not have gotten better.


27 August 2010

Alongside the passenger train run somewhere north of Paso Robles in California is a long section of disused main highway that sparkled in the low light of late afternoon as we passed by. That set of small refractions joyously rekindled additional childhood memories of something real that rather commonly made living more magical, but since has been overlooked by bean-counting engineers. I wondered then if, besides making something intrinsically ugly so much more attractive, the added mica or quartz might not have made the surface last longer, too. That would also fit the old Japanese concept of beauty of objects and quality in their function being closely related.

In retrospect, it seems amusing, as well, to be observing an abandoned highway from an active railway, instead of the sadly more common opposite.


26 August 2010

Just back from an expedition by rail to California. Our return train got in to Salt Lake City very close to on time, at 4 AM. We were appalled, heading back further north to our home in a rare use of our car on an Interstate, by the volume of mega-lemmings already streaming in to town, all too many coming from as far away as Logan, 100 miles away, for their daily polluting grind, almost all, of course, alone in their heavyweight machines. Totally nuts.

Walking out this morning for exercise on the bench above our canyon, the noise level that seemed so remarkable from all the vehicles in the cities we visited is still pervasive here, despite the much smaller population. Having once heard clearly, where it was otherwise quiet enough, a single car from 20 miles away, the sum of our insults to others and our world encouraged by apparently cheap fuel is not so surprising. The problem is the acceptance of it as inevitable, which it is not. Its irony came further out by listening to an old Junior Brown song about the highway patrol, where he emphasized how the man’s job was to make people drive slowly (if traffic alone doesn’t), and confine going fast to small circles going more clearly nowhere on a track. The juxtaposition of those practical facts to the false promises of commercials is almost always lost among vehicle users, along with the rest of their myriad problems.

Grist online has a related graph from an article titled, “Why our railways suck”, from the Federation of State Public Interest Research Groups, showing all how Federal capital spending since 1956 on public transit has been but ten percent of that for highways. That differential does not include the cumulative deterioration of the latter that needs eventually to be addressed. Above a modest use threshold, not only are railroads inherently less wasteful to build and run (per unit of freight or passengers carried), they also cost less to repair over the longer term. The less weight for conveyances upon either, the lower their eventual cost.


13 August 2010
  Re the rising more complete cost of oil, Mark Engler in Grist calculated that it has now passed $15 per gallon, even with incomplete estimates for military protection of supply lines, tax avoidance, and impacts of pollution. He did not even consider costs of borrowing for imports, increases in difficulty for replacement sources for the easier to reach stuff we keep so rapidly running through, or the decaying infrastructure of wasteful technologies created with and for artificially cheap fuel (e.g., the interstate highway system).


12 August 2010


A neat pair of sentences to encounter given all the feelings of difficulty I’ve been having with my writing, of how clear thoughts have not translated onto paper, “Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately [after] they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish.” Hermann Hesse, tr. Hilda Rosner. 1951. Siddhartha. New Directions, NY, p. 117.

These struck me for their effective universality as printed, having carried a concept across while reading through, and worth returning to. After looking at them more carefully, though, the quote became more fun from living with a copy editor wife. This version is from the book’s fifteenth printing. The bracketed addition I had to make for proper grammatical flow had gone uncorrected all that while. I’ll bet it still is.

In context, the error makes for a particularly multi-faceted look at communication with this example of filling in others’ blanks, reflecting through one explicit proof how we so often do so, not always so felicitously. The next level more subtly becomes Siddhartha’s larger point in the argument that contained the quote, of how all matter and time is part a unity, with borders among their apparent elements far less defined than we commonly assume.

Even more to the meditative point of late was Hesse’s reflection on a sense of guilt for not having made an obvious effort in exact trades for one’s food or goods. His words said it better than I can distill, but the core is to accept what one has been given, and to continue to try to give, without so much worry about a direct connection.


Another the insomniac period this time was initialized by one from a neighbor’s brood in an idling car at 3:30 AM directly across from our open windows, rattling them on a perfect temperature night, with not even the pathetic excuse of running heater or air-conditioner, and if making out, leaving the headlights on? More proof, as if any were necessary, that generating lots of children (the owners had 10 before medical issues stopped even more) and either wisdom or thoughtfulness are not correlated, especially in this day and age.

More positively, I then listened once again to the Joan Baez Farewell Angelina, which remains just about the perfect set. I’d gone through her second album a few days ago, finding that it showed its age, and hers, as not yet fully developed. This one was her peak, having learned so much from her peers, devoting her fullest attention to it as both singer and instrumentalist, before focus started drifting further into politics and a child. Not that there wasn’t more fine stuff to follow, not least her reflection on that period with her own “Diamonds and rust”. This album, though, is so beautifully blended as well as each song individually felt, with her doing amazing things technically, along with her co-conspirators, very much including the superb production sonics. It is one that clearly was improved in transition to the CD reissue, not just by the carefully chosen additional 3 songs, but also by a fuller frequency spectrum. The bitter humor in Utah Phillips’ “Rock salt and nails” adds such a fine counterpoint to the intensity of the rest. Above all, the interplay of the choices, with a lack of filler, is so different than the common approach to recording, beyond the incredible musicianship for Bob Dylan’s (and Donovan’s) burst of lasting creativity, never interpreted better, by one who knew it all so well, and shared without restraint.


10 August 2010

From an email to a friend, “Despite what some of my rhetoric might seem to indicate, the only hair shirts I've been fond of are the kind where the fiber is fur. The trick has always been to get that kind of value without leaving as large a footprint as others have in the process.”


8 August 2010

One of the background issues rustling about in my mind has been the intersection of my nearly lifelong conclusion that this planet can support only a fraction of its current numbers with any kind of maintenance of a positive relationship with the natural world that evolved before us, and has supported us to get this far. There is a possibility that the religions and the other boomers who believe that human numbers can continue to expand, somehow finding the resources necessary to continue lives packed closely together, without greenness, without fellow species, breathing foulness, the majority overwhelmed by constant din, all blinded by unnatural light, with a few living above the obvious mess within wholly artificial glories, carefully isolated from the rest.

This doesn't mean expecting to be wrong, though, about population, pollution, and resource use trends having overshot the possibility for most living beings’ survival without a serious collapse intervening, or that collapse quite possibly already having begun. Even if the boomers are right, in my eclectic reasing I just uncovered another kindred spirit, underlined by this quote, one written after an interview with Nobel winner Nagub Mahfouz in a dusty, reeking, unspeakably roaring with outside machinery, crowded café,

“I understood then what it was to love Cairo. To revel in the grit, the noise, the press of flesh and pavement. To snort and gulp the bracingly foul air. And I understood then that Cairo was a city I could never come to love.” Tony Horwitz. 1991. Baghdad Without a Map, and Other Misadventures in Arabia. Penguin, NY.

His descriptions of the Middle East, though laced with humor, are otherwise almost unremittingly depressing, of how much squalor humans can tolerate while continuing to reproduce so thoughtlessly, so wastefully, and so intensively. The situations he described are not yet as common in the U.S., but one can find them without difficulty, albeit not yet with flat out starvation. These scenes of devastation are expanding with the size of the population, as they have over there, directly reflecting the concomitant destruction of natural resources. Americans started later, and with a better resource base since past land users were more restrained, but the power of exponential growth is such that catch-up is a generation or less away, with the speed of closure magnified by the intensity of most citizens' energy intensity.

Knowing no better, humans persevere with what they have, as they and we always have. If one has never seen a western taniger, one of which brightened my afternoon by passing nearby, it can more easily be lived without. The rub comes when there is a choice to be made to allow more of such encounters, or for anyone to be able to have them at all. Beyond that is the appearance of such beauties as a marker for the capability of even the rudest continuing existence, leaving alone whether such company might be intrinsically worthwhile.


17 July 2010

“Half of a rainforest’s rain comes not from the ocean but from plants that take in moisture and release it back to the sky. ‘Before flowering plants, that recycling would not have existed, and the rainforests would be much, much less expansive.’ Modeling the modern world without angiosperm transpiration, he found that ‘the Amazon collapses by a factor of five’.” L.G., quoting C. Kevin Boyce. 2010. ‘Fungus? Fungus.’ University of Chicago Magazine 102(5):27.

So, here’s another passing remark from long ago in a lecture that really struck me, but was scoffed at by others, confirmed. Vegetation, and natural complexity thereof, does affect climate. Therefore, human destruction or simplification will have negative climatic effects, with these almost certainly dramatic, at least eventually, if widespread enough. They have been, and generally are not declining.


2 July 2010

Just back from an extended family reunion, in Colorado, with an associated visit to old friends. The key word for all is old. This was the first get together where none of our parents’ generation managed to attend, with the two remaining are over 90 now, finally no longer travelling. Of my own lot, only two or three of us are even close to fit. The rest, including my sister, six years younger than I, seemingly cannot or will not walk more than 100 yards, and that with difficulty. One pair of the equal vintage friends is similarly unable. The other pair of friends exercise seriously (the man averages running 7 miles a day, the lady does hardcore yoga), but are starting to define the word gaunt, strikingly changed from just two years ago. For me, the parallel was obtaining the Senior Pass to the national parks, but managing a fairly substantial hike, with both my wife and I keeping up with one of (or at least not slowly down seriously) the next generation.

The other positive flip side is that for the very first time, though still reacting negatively to the initial blasts of heat, I no longer fear it. Instead, as the solstice passed, awareness became immediate and fully of the shortening of days, with thoroughly anticipated quickness of their passing, of how the heat is to be more than slowly tolerated, to be treasured. It will not last very long.

No, I will not be moving to Arizona or Florida, but I do understand better those who have. Above all, the juxtaposition of sharper changes in people with apparent shortening of seasons underlines our transience, and appreciation of that.


21 June 2010

My middle of the night listening was the Oysterband Rise Above, such a gloriously played and recorded relative unknown.

We had a neighbor, whose husband was away, over for dinner. Both are quite decent guitarists. Years ago, she had dated one of the Byrds’ drummers, then went the way of one of Kinky Friedman’s funniest lines, and switched to non-institutional Christianity, focusing more narrowly ever since on its music. After the meal, I put on some Richard Thompson cuts, both to show off the revivified downstairs sound system and as an example of what we consider the ultimate picking. Not having heard him before, she asked how I knew so much about music.

Much did come from volunteer radio people over the years, with one of the high points being the song “Rise Above” as the opening on Bill Boyd’s long running program when he connected tunes for KRCL. As I listened in the night, I realized that more than anything else that part of music tied back to hearing Pete Seeger perform live in the winter of 1964, primed for him by the more popular Kingston Trio. Back then, segregation and once more increasingly wars were issues that were being effectively, if slowly, addressed by openly active musical statements. My own raising very much included a parallel form, religious hopefulness through song. That set was a drifty kind of internal thing, hoping to convert the world, yes, but clearly something not likely to be fully shared or very practical, given even a sketchy understanding of history, despite its available glow. Seeger, still being picketed as a “Communist”, brought the large audience in the Syracuse War Memorial to life with his activist songs, interspersed with other surprises for me, not least his introduction of Bob Dylan’s more diffuse, but perhaps most beautiful work, “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall”. Joan Baez later on noted, with a smile, that Pete was the first (after its creator) to be able to memorize all of it.

Seeger, and those who followed him, did help change the world, or at least this country to a nearly measurable extent. Not enough, perhaps, and not probably permanently, especially in our failure to demobilize the army after Vietnam, which so inevitably brought war back, or the onslaught of corporate stupidity destroying the unions with the help of Reagan stooges, then taking their jobs, and more, to China. Nevertheless, racial differences are treated with less stratification in most situations, which is a bigger positive than some remember. Music, not least Seeger’s, clearly helped many get across those barriers.

Tuneful lyrics still hold hope of getting across to some others, though seemingly ever less so with time. The Oysterband is one of those who continue to work from a similar core, with superior results from it, helped by attention to recording detail. If only more could be led to hear what they have to say, and how they are getting across.

So how did I get to know so much? A lot of time (and money) spent listening, carefully, including using the proper tools (i.e., being there live and/or first class reproduction equipment).


19 June 2010

  The short attention span of Facebook wouldn't even let me post this one whole paragraph, so here's the still brief whole,

  Last night’s 4AM listening in the electronic kiva, setting aside pain and interior noise, was Joan Baez, Farewell Angelina. How satisfying to pick out the acoustic guitar detail, now that I know a bit more about how that sounds from feeling (some of) it directly! Very impressed in the later morning by looking at the credits, and finding that it was just her playing the acoustic parts. Like many other artists, she concentrated more later on her voice, to the detriment of the overall presentation. Understandable, since complex playing is work, especially difficult to carry off live. Focussing on the interaction with the audience is easier, too, with attention primarily on the vocals. That part has always been a strength of hers. However, it does not change how wonderful the sound of the time was, when full attention was being paid to the music itself, including the accompaniment. Still gorgeous stuff, even better when played back through first class equipment, and listened to with equally full attention.


16 June 2010

Once again, I am on to something of vital importance to America that I probably won’t be able to explain as well as needed for it to be widely heard, yet seems worth trying anyway. At St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina nearly 30 years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Lynn Margulis give an extended seminar about her developing theories that mitochondria and other organelles so vital to cell function had evolved from cooperating individual entities, which were originally independent lifeforms. She made a convincing case. This morning, after I walked by a neighbor’s recently poisoned, far too extensive lawns, thinking of my previous description of that practice as a form of addiction, I realized that it additionally could be described as compromising an immune system. Margulis had mentioned white blood cells as another example of an independently evolved, cooperating entity, which contributed to allowing larger life forms to emerge. Diverse plant species (and associated animals) serve the same kinds of purposes in natural ecological systems, but are part of what is being decimated by casual application of extremely toxic (if measured honestly) materials over wide areas, not least across the grand case of misinformation, greed, and stupidity that created and continues the custom of huge American lawns.

Beyond the inadequately studied, but chemically certain carcinogenicity of lawn chemicals, the term addiction remains importance. Once sprayed, surviving lawn grasses have much shorter roots, as well as missing interacting species that previously provided nutrients, and other protection, for their survival. They become even more sensitive to drought, with less depth for roots to pursue water, and runoff increasing from soil compaction without an underground organic complex. Then, removing regular dosing of noxious chemicals makes them quickly looking ill from lack of their fix of artificial nutrients, even if the wavelengths of application are far longer than daily. Bereft of their sprays, previously poisoned lawns will literally go through an extended period of withdrawal, one made far longer by the lack of beneficial species that they evolved to work with, whose seed reserves will have been destroyed by chemicals and time, too. The withdrawal situation is made worse because the system gaps will be filled by pioneer species like dandelions, which are considered distasteful or worse.

Further, on a larger scale, I realized that the petroleum issue was very directly involved in yet another way. Not only are the deadly chemicals made apparently cheaply from it, those large expanses of monocultured grass are possible only (without sheep or other closely managed grazing animals) through too regular, too short cutting done with petroleum-fired machines. Too much work is involved to maintain them by hand. The daily amount of fuel required to do the present level of mechanized lawn work is more than being currently strewn so more obviously destructively into the Gulf of Mexico by the broken BP oil well. The pollution and other damage that has been released all along by this form of fetish may be less immediately apparent, but is likely to be at least as devastating, if we could but measure it properly.

Once again, so many pieces are available to fit together, but most people refuse to do so, goaded from even thinking about it by incessant commercials and other forms of propaganda. So many real issues are connected by a refusal to put a properly expensive price on fossil fuels, and to distribute that to those who should receive it, not rapacious corporations, their deadly foolish executives, or the politicians they have bought so cheaply. Much more pain lies ahead from this continuing national blindness.


14 June 2010

During one of those seemingly ever so brief intervals featuring a juxtaposition of pleasant weather without neighbors committing sonic trespass (or other locally as well as cumulative planetary abuse using petroleum), I was able sit outside to witness a fascinating natural confrontation. Alongside our house, we have encouraged free growth of one of the rose family shrubs, Cotoneaster, which is currently coming into bloom. Earlier, I’d noticed our resident female hummingbird working methodically along the small flowers. This afternoon, a pair of Western Tanagers showed up, and surprisingly to me, started to feed from the blooms. The lady hummingbird almost immediately appeared, dive-bombing the much larger female, who retreated to a nearby larger tree. The little hummingbird continued to harass the tanager, moving from one side to the other, darting in and out, until the bigger beauty abandoned the area, to be followed by her mate. Amazingly feisty little gal, once again. [later note: I soon afterwards found that she had made a nest nearby, in a not very well calculated location]

Not long afterwards, I was driven away myself by not just one, but two neighbors getting obnoxious with their nasty in all senses, ever so unnecessary, lawn machines. So here I sit at the computer, with Folk Alley playing on iTunes through my noise isolating Etymotic headphones, all sanity lifesavers in a too often harmonically unthoughtful world.


12 June 2010

My wife handed me on our latest visit to the university library The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin. It turned out to be not terribly profound or well assembled, but a nevertheless interesting history. It also dovetailed neatly with my thinking about changing relationships and perceptions of religion, drugs, storytelling, music, and movies. There must be a generalized desire among humans to be released from our common frustrations and pain, to be taken along with somewhere else, so that we can just flow along with a better structure, at least for a while. Taken rarely, under carefully selected circumstances, psychedelics once gave a solid seeming promise that a new direction could be found, strongly paralleling otherwise generated religious visions. Neither has effectively proven transferrable, especially across wider populations.

I am reminded more strongly of that need/desire to drift away, not just from becoming reacquainted with the joys and involvement of making music myself (by after so many years of wanting it, buying a lightly used Martin 12-string guitar), but also by hurting my previously so badly damaged ankle/foot assembly this afternoon, not even by doing anything special, just trying to stand briefly on it without wearing a shoe while letting my socks dry after finishing the weekly vacuuming. We are all so fragile, in so many ways.


27 May 2010

  A friend in Texas wrote today, “Getting calluses on my palms from the riding mower. 3.5 acres requires a few turns.”

  My response (more or less):
   I mow ours now very occasionally with a scythe, letting nature encroach from the edges, and in my wife's words "digitally removing" any nasty species (i.e., by hand, which on our half acre requires about 20 minutes a week on the average during the growing season, of useful outdoor exercise, with no sonic trespassing inflicted upon others). Many years of contemplating the ecological and aesthetic advantages of natural complexity brought out a relevant aphorism of mine, "wouldn't you rather have a meadow than a lawn?" Among the serious advantages in our near desert environment are that drought tolerance for grasses is directly related to root depth, and that to aboveground plant height. The biggest practical issue is a tendency towards a distastefully ragged appearance for a number of years after close mowing stops, since pioneer species are the ones that have become socially unacceptable, a perception powerfully encouraged by poison and power mower manufacturers through incessant advertising. I figure 20 years before stability; afterwards almost effortless constant production of positively received flowers and greenery. This was the house I owned in Colorado for a while, which had been allowed 30 years to recover. Sadly, some jerk later on tore the place down and replaced it with a monstrosity, killing everything around.

My house in Colorado 1980

  Next was our front lawn a few years ago, which had been bluegrass (an alien species to Utah, but weirdly popular) when we arrived in 1993. If it was sunny today, I'd redo the shot, because the Vinca, interspersed with two colors of native violets, now covers what was just pine needles, and the whole area is in glorious bloom at the moment. The changeover has required exactly the right amount of work on my part, i.e., none. However, I have done a number of floral perennial plantings along the road to deter upsetting neighbors. Trees all along the property boundary help, too.

our front lawn with flowers

  Grazing animals work nicely on larger areas, as nature evolved to keep things in balance, with the additional advantage of being able to ride, eat, and/or wear what they produce. In graduate school when living at Courtney, Texas, I borrowed a neighbor's horse to keep the lawn in check, even if it did eat my blackeyed peas before it touched the grass.


26 May 2010

  “To many people now, noise isn’t necessarily an aggressive or alienating element; it sounds more like nature than nature does.” [Sasha Frere-Jones. 2010. ‘Noise Control: On the border of music and sound’. The New Yorker, 24 May, p. 81.]
  Finding a place to hear natural sounds is no longer trivial, sadly enough. Yesterday was the first sunny day after several of rain, and with an errand to do, drove with my convertible top down through various supposedly quiet suburban and farm outliers into town. There was almost no place along the way where the noise from lawnmowers or other unnecessary machinery was not louder than that from my not very quiet car. For neighbors, the car passes on by, but the mowers do not. That situation applied to being able to use my own deck for contemplation upon returning, despite living much more isolated from such insults to the ear than most people do. Like not having stars in the night sky, if one is raised without silence or real music (whether made by humans or nature), one is less likely to miss them, or to find fault with far lesser alternatives. Not at all tangentially,

   “Media multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy: we are training our brains to pay attention to the crap.” [Nicholas Carr. 2010. ‘Chaos theory’. Wired 18.06.116.]
   The article cites several studies pointing to plain text being clearly the most effective means for communication, especially if one wishes deeper thought to be involved. No great surprise there, but having the commentary come from that particular source, with its youth, should make that conclusion to be of wider interest. In the same issue was an especially well-stated set of answers to some recent wondering about how people are willing to devote so much time, working for free, to that incredibly useful tool, Wikipedia, and how most parts of that have stayed so remarkably free of stupid interference. Most of the personally encountered stability can be accounted for by the kinds of things I am looking for not being of concern to intellectual thugs, so that they don’t bother to mess with them. However, Wired quotes Daniel Pink and Clay Shirky in an interview as contending that Wikipedia’s success can be tied to an operating paradigm of expecting people to behave generously, not destructively, so that they will follow suit, instead of one emphasizing punishment for transgressions from rather arbitrary norms.

  The recurrent example of the latter, which they do not mention, is traffic flow, where the majority behaves badly, with occasionally deadly consequences and far from optimal performance of the system the rest of the time. The Dutch and the Germans have both found that where speed limits and other behavioral signage are eliminated, in many circumstances at least, flows increase and damage falls. For that to work, though, individual deviants, those who do not appreciate what their actions are or are especially likely to mean to others, have to be treated differently. Because of the widespread misunderstanding of what equality means, that is considered un-American, so even when tried successfully here, as it was in Montana a few years back, knuckle-draggers keep that form of freedom, and its practical usefulness, from being spread or continuing. Of course, where densities reach a certain point, only a mix dominated by mass transit works, while prices to operate as individuals on roads always have to reflect real social costs, as underlined by yet another well-done Wired article, this one by Felix Salmon (‘The Traffic Cop’). At present, they don’t even come close, so our roads, air, and movement capabilities are a mess.

  For Wikipedia, Pink and Shirky suggest that the motivating factor to contribute is individual desire to do something interesting, with the time blocks allowing it coming from hours that had previously been sucked into passively watching TV. They contend further that paying for results actually reduces both their quality and the willingness to put in the effort to derive them. They point to studies on puzzle solving and more generally in our workplaces. That makes for a wonderful twist on messages from Jesus and others about the utility of life focus upon giving gifts instead of wanting stuff.


20 May 2010

  Visited as a part of another errand yesterday our neighboring town's strip mall book and record store, picking up there for $6 a film I’d long had on my list to see, Contact. That first brings with it a more general point, that I have always had difficulty with pricing of plasticware, from the inflationary days of LPs on. The music industry cut its own throat with $15 CDs, doing as the railroads so sadly did when their sales started falling, raising instead of lowering prices. Yes, it costs me nearly $5 to produce a single physical CD or DVD, but that is for individual archival printed covers and other materials where economy of scale actually applies. Like Hollywood, the industry was padding executive and a few top artist incomes for way too long, at the expense of product quality and the less already popular artists, who in fact are the most important overall. I’ve generally keep my line drawn at $10 for a disk, which despite other inflation, remains already more than 10 times the material cost of the item, which I was taught in systems economics is the most viable rate of return for any product.

  Contact itself turned out to be even more fascinating than anticipated from reviews that had stuck in my mind from its 1997 release. Carl Sagan’s neat picturing of the ambivalence of evidence, the difficulty of proof, and the pairing of each between personal testimonies from science and religion was superbly done. Jodie Foster underlined her status in my mind as among the best actresses ever. Beyond that, I got a kick of Sagan’s fun little cuts at political pandering of NSF leadership and their refusal to fund SETI. The most personal connection was having been there, physically, when he presented his nuclear winter case to the National Academy of Sciences and the Congress behind them, where his grilling in all aspects paralleled that received by Foster’s character, with scathing disbelief of the adequacy of presented proofs for something vital to the future of humanity.

  Having also recently acquired at a notable discount The Complete New Yorker on DVDs, I checked Anthony Lane’s 1997 review of the film, which was amusingly cynical. More reflectively, the Wikipedia summary of Contact was particularly well done. Tangentially, it underlined one of the to me more magical aspects of our time, all the folks who are willing to derive and present such information, without pay and even without name credit for doing it.

  That thought of classically unsung heroes internally brought up hearing the Antonin Dvorak Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 with Cellist Pieter Wispelwey, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and conductor Ivan Fischer on American Public Media’s Performance Today yesterday. Utterly lovely, with every note carefully considered by the soloist, beautifully recorded, from another of so many musicians who are little or no more in the popular mind than the wiki information assemblers. Their work is perhaps even more transient, to boot. The dynamics of fame and respect remain as curious to me as anything about our lives.


19 May 2010
  “Psychologists at Tufts University gave volunteers a series of puzzles to solve under time pressure. Partway through the test, either a bare light bulb or an overhead fluorescent light was turned on in the room. The researchers found that the volunteers exposed to the light bulb were 50 to 70 percent more successful than the subjects given the fluorescent light.” [Anonymous article in The Week, 21 May 2010, p. 24] The study author was Michael Slepian. Its assumption was that the symbol prompted increased creativity, like the classic cartoon image suggests. I would raise instead the questions of light spectrum, where incandescent bulbs are so much more eye and soul friendly, and the concomitant decline of productive effectiveness in the U.S. that has paralleled the increasing dominance of the supposedly efficient, but in most uses extremely wasteful (as well ugly) fluorescent glare. Here’s a particular test dataset that supports another of my longstanding contentions, i.e., the places were creativity, or other useful virtues, are most likely found do not correlate positively with the use of ghastly strip lighting, or its distorted spectrum corollaries.


18 May 2010

  Also from the “Inventor’s Dilemma” referenced below is an Internet link for ‘wattzon.com’, which was originated by the article’s center, Saul Griffith. This site certainly overlaps with one of my own major ongoing concerns, individual energy use. The associated group has created a set of automated interview questions that connect to charts, in turn allowing crude comparisons with others. Not surprisingly, without considering quirks that the site’s simplicity cannot consider fully, my wife and I come out to be less than the average for what are surely the more careful than average folks that have signed up for their survey. This, in turn, is about one-quarter of the average American, and close to the more rational overall world average that is the originator’s personal goal, albeit more than twice my own. Our biggest relative consumer is household heating, not surprisingly, given living in a cold climate with a lot of expensive work yet to do on a larger than necessary house, one with huge windows, and poorly thought out originally for efficiency, e.g., aluminum window frames and too thin exterior walls otherwise for sufficient insulation.

  At the very least, Griffith is to be praised for becoming more visible than I have managed so far.


14 May 2010

  Just back from a quick trip to Park City, the first overnight out of town for a good many months. What used to be a small town has sure gotten urban, which made returning to where we live instantly change from annoyance at its growing traffic to back to seeing it as bucolic. This does not mean that the venture was not entertaining, since we did reach the target we had thought about for my birthday and blew off because of a significant snow storm. This was the High West Distillery and Saloon, makers of the Rendezvous Rye that I have admired from the first, and now operators also of a very fine, but laid-back restaurant. It was as good as promised; we ate at the upstairs bar because a fundraiser was going on in the main dining room. That allowed us to interact amusingly with both the tender and several locals, giving me a bit of the socialization I’d been asking for. Wandering about the town, gawking at the insanely pricey homes was fun, too.

  This was not just my first outing for a good while; it also was the rebuilt Mazda’s first (to us) long ride and freeway venture. That part got unsettling on the initial blend into the 75 mph area, where it would not keep accelerating beyond 65. This said right off, from a bitter experience years before in Vermont, clogged fuel filter. We stopped in Ogden, where the Mazda dealer is just two traffic lights off I-84, but they needed a week to get one in, which we ordered for delivery at home, but was not immediately helpful. We carefully wended on, with the symptoms of inadequate fuel with wide throttle openings slowly getting worse, but enough operability left for arrival and lunch at the branch of Squatter’s. Guidance there to a local auto parts store turned up both the correct filter (which I was pretty sure also fit presently more common vehicles as well) and a set of the clamps that I needed to cut off the lines to the filter, to keep from getting soaked with gas. I’d left my travel tool set at home, not having thought things through for proper preparation, although thankfully had available a few screwdrivers and pliers that my wife always kept in the car. We checked in to our hotel, I described my desire for a quiet place to work, and the concierge suggested an appropriate edge of a nice little park. It even had soap in its restroom, to at least partially clean up after successfully making the change. It took less time than trying to get someone else to do it would have, let alone the cost.


  “Unfortunately”, Griffith told me, “the difference between the world’s best battery and gasoline, in terms of energy storage per kilogram, is not a factor of ten, it’s more like a factor of hundreds or thousands.” David Owen. 2010. ‘The Inventor’s Dilemma’. The New Yorker. 17 May, p. 48. Both of them, the subject young genius and the writer, as usual, even though identifying a key overlooked fact, miss what its point becomes. Gasoline is pretty magic stuff, but with grotesquely undervalued social and environmental costs, so we have 10 ton RVs pulling 2 ton cars for thousands of miles, not to mention even more insane daily auto commuting in 3 ton SUVs or pickups, meanwhile wondering where the resource is vanishing to, with other fools trying desperately to make electric vehicles competitive because of all the mess than those monstrosities create. All that is required for a rational road transportation system would be to make the same effort to reduce weight of gasoline powered vehicles as is being put into electric ones. Electric ones work even conceivably only if they are light, but gasoline has been so effective, without concern for its availability in the future, or its ancillary costs in the present, that fat stuff has taken over, and destroying the last of the availability of its own resource in the process, while killing amazing numbers along the way. All bloody unnecessary. The problem all along has been less technical one than a logical, mathematical one.


10 May 2010

  Ruminating yesterday was on how my own perceptions are not likely to be the only possibility, and that others deserve respect. They do, of course, and even I try, but with a concomitant problem of so routinely being struck by confirmations of general conclusions that seem shared by too few others.

  The above the fold headline on our morning newspaper read, “Traffic light coming soon to dangerous intersection.” That ignorantly, as always, tied together three of my favorite themes. The intersection has become dangerous by the juxtaposition of thoughtless population growth, building yet another nuclear Walmart to further empty out the traditional town center, and the dominance of traffic by grossly overweight vehicles. For the latter, regardless of whose mistake started the process, an SUV or pickup did the overwhelming part of the consequent damage, in every reported case. That’s the probabilistically expected result, which seemingly only affects a few, albeit those vitally, either way.

  The new traffic light will affect nearly everyone, since there are so few alternatives to passing through that constriction. Only a minute or so at the least of delay doesn’t sound like much, but spread over the 20,000 odd passers daily, that’s an immediate loss of more than 300 potentially useful hours each day, in addition to a substantial increase in fuel waste and pollution from at least 10,000 additional deceleration/acceleration cycles. Because the average vehicles have become at least twice as heavy and voluminous as alternatives their users could have chosen, each cycle is more than twice as slowing as it could be, with much more than twice the environmental consequences for us all. Seemingly trivial things so often aren’t when summed, but I seem to be among the terribly few who notice.

  My goal has been from the first to become a prophet, to find the most important set of issues, sound a clear warning about them, and present the most likely to be effective alternatives. The old prophets worried about invasions and other consequences of moral laxness, often presenting fantasies of saviors arising if behavior changed appropriately. Because the child in us all still would like the latter to happen, they keep being read and believed, even after deeper understanding has allowed more rational possibilities for responses. They, too, require sacrifices and work, at the very least more inconvenient than ongoing practices, so sadly have little or no more likelihood of widespread adoption before the oft-predicted set of catastrophes arrive. Nevertheless, it seems worthwhile to keep preaching if there is any possibility of mitigating widespread intensity when the inevitable does occur.

  Speaking of preaching, I was amused yesterday, on a Sunday while following my father’s favorite practice of sitting outside reading on nice days, to once again give praise to one Mormon practice. They do generally restrain their use of much of their stupid, obnoxious, sonically trespassing machinery on that day, through honoring the idea of a Sabbath rest. However, this time was in the context of how they continue to ignore scientific and mathematical projections of the consequences of population growth and material wastefulness, like most world citizens. Part of their surface restraint includes retreating on these quieter Sundays to what could effectively be described as two hours of seemingly eternally repeated commercials for and by their hierarchies. The parishioners continue unnecessary trespasses against the world by getting to their services almost always by car, even though it is a shorter walk than the exercise we all need daily.

  Their group activities, not incidentally, are conducted in physical environments that isolate them from observing what they are doing to the world around them, like their preferred travel modes, being essentially windowless, artificially lit, overheated or overcooled. Not just their choices mock nature, of course, which is why the odds against such behavior being likely to continue are so increasingly low. The bitter fruit is that these selfish and thoughtless choices bring the rest of us down with them. When gasoline and electricity start become enough more difficult to obtain that sharing the flow becomes less easy, those who have been less damaging will be expected to share equally in the suffering. In fact, it will more than equally because allocation during immediate shortages always seems to be per capita, not selectively favoring or even giving breaks in access to those who have and continue to require less, so putting less strain on the problematical systems.

  I do appreciate some of the gifts from the current setups, with their easy flows of energy and materials, as I listen to music from the Internet, powered off the grid, as warm as I need to be on a cool afternoon in a modestly large house, having just had a fine lunch with some ingredients purchased from a store that required a brief car ride to obtain. Using 10% of the norm is enough, though, for all of that. If everyone did as I do, all the nice bits could be sustained for far longer, but who else cares enough to bother?

  The original Limits to Growth back in 1972 expected energy supply and related collapses right around now. Jimmy Carter and cohorts made enough changes to knock back that immediacy a bit, but his encouraging direction was undone by the Reaganites, so here we are, with oil from just one of the desperate steps to continue expansion washing unabated onshore, and a far more fragile system than most folks believe teetering, as so long expected by the few visionaries, on the related edge.


6 May 2010]

  The Earth is neither an infinite source nor an infinite sink. That ought to be a sufficiently obvious statement. Yet, from an individual view there seems to be a lot of raw material, for whatever one desires still all around, and plenty of space to dispose of the leftovers. Differential availabilities and impacts among choices of acquisition and discarding for each person start getting more complex to appreciate, but mostly ought to be at least somewhat understandable. Yet, these do not manage to become so. Extrapolations to extremes, not least for the exponential ones, are further beyond average capabilities to integrate it seems.

  One of the particularly useful parts of the intensely felt religions that I grew up among was to be constantly asking, “what would happen if everyone were to do what I am?” That phrase works on an intimately social basis, from the blunt returns of clobbering a sibling on through the considerably more subtle and widespread, from trivial to serious, usually in ways that even the densest should pretty well appreciate. My scientific training and experience merely stretched that very same concept on to materials and the planetary scale, filling in detail. Its simple basics still very much apply, with similar eventual costs and benefits.

  Within a familiar particular area for any repeat readers, the on-line Alfa bulletin board yesterday featured a discussion about installing three-point seat belts in the older spiders. One writer suggested that owners ought to treat them more like motorcycles, since their vintage underlying structures simply were not designed to distribute the forces of serious collisions in a way that would allow the newer devices to be a useful addition. They isolate crash forces from their operators reasonably well, but do not have particularly reinforced areas for shoulder belts.

  I have felt that these cars’ best attribute is their ability to avoid collisions in the first place. The price is that old one of freedom, enhanced vigilance. The original lap belts do assist in maintaining control, in minor bumps, and allow ducking under the dash in the case of a slow rollover, without the most dangerous situation of being thrown out. The ability to duck has saved more than one friend of mine in past years, which would not have been possible with shoulder harnesses. At the same time, there is simply no way, none, to adequately protect an aerodynamically reasonable vehicle from an errant three ton, seven foot high, pickup or SUV, other than not being in their path. One must successfully avoid them or die. Statistically, a serious issue is that they do not get blamed for as much damage as their excessive weight and its distribution differentially cause.

  Where the discussion integrates with larger world issues is through the potential positive global impacts of lighter weight and less material, with their concomitant connection to lowered energy flows. Moving in that direction greatly expands the capabilities for travel experience and daily comfort levels to be shared, in both time and space, with less pain in the process for great many senses of the word.

  On this particular yesterday, my wife and I were graciously taken to a concert 100 miles away by a friend the other night, riding in her new three-ton hybrid SUV. That vehicle provided more initially apparent comfort in dealing with interstate highway traffic, isolating one almost completely from its noise, setting occupants literally above most the visual fray, and its massiveness dampening the deterioration to road surfaces that similar weights impacting them created for everyone using them, regardless of their own guilt in creating that damage. Of course, removal of line of sight contact with smaller users, and all incoming sounds, along with what that height does when it hits, is part of why the SUV class is eight times more likely to kill someone else than are small cars. Their own occupants may be somewhat protected by all that mass from what they have done, so they look less bad from the way contemporary statistics are tabulated. To those hurt by them, that shortcut in accounting causes no less pain, but action to penalize its creators appropriately is sadly lost.

  The overall difference goes beyond statistical probabilities, which are small enough for those deaths as to become practically not worth noticing at the individual level. This immediate situation had a surgeon at the wheel, one with unusual genetic characteristics of intelligence and important ones for driving capability, outstanding peripheral vision especially. In the operating room, it becomes particularly useful, on a daily basis, to respond quickly to changes in a complex visual environment. This operator could successfully read fine print on a cell phone while weaving through heavy traffic, even picking up vehicles below line of sight, avoiding them successfully even they did something stupid, including several times on our trip. The problem for safety in the aggregate comes with most others not having as many practical physical and mental capabilities, at least as finely honed, and who allow even more distractions to intrude into what consciousness they do have.

  We argued, riding back in a state of the art performance sedan instead, about the relative advantages of the more complex, but heavier tools like that one versus the lighter ones my wife and I prefer. The doctor is really right on a daily basis that newer BMWs and such do protect one better, even responding more readily to what is happening around one, should one have made the necessary sacrifices to be able to afford one, under most circumstance. However, I personally like the inherent ability of well engineered lighter weight to more fully feel directly what is happening, and letting those responses unfurl more slowly (except for braking, which is necessarily at least as good), especially at the circumstantial limits, not least brought on by weather. These augmented sensitivities allow for better-calculated operation. Extra weight may be rewarded or concealed most of the time, but when it hurts, it can be, as it too often is, literally deadly. In my own experience, vehicle weight caught up with my ex-bomber pilot uncle, who had always driven so effectively at sometimes frightening speeds, but eventually got very damagingly surprised in his top of the line Audi.

  Meanwhile, lightness, with its enhanced perception of how dangerous and awful roads and their users have become encourages less driving in the first place. In this morning’s newspaper, our county reiterated its general observation that the average local household makes 10 vehicle trips per day. We make about three per week, by taking the miniscule extra effort required to be sure to consolidate acquisitions or other outside efforts.

  When my wife and I did work outside our home, we carpooled, walked, or used public transit. All had of these social interaction advantages, beyond their reduced costs to us and to others. Beyond our vehicle’s lighter, and therefore lower material impacts for each mile they travel, ours accumulate a lot less miles, reducing their impact on others than much further, along with our own risks and discomforts.

  When we do go out, as long as not being assaulted by those less conscious of what they are distributing, the experience of driving itself can be more fulfilling. While machines and the use of energy can indeed provide value, they are expensive in all possible senses, so I have always felt that their use ought to be appreciated as intensively when they are. By choosing more interesting and sensitive ones, they can be.

  In all honesty, I would still love to have a new or newer BMW, which through their improvements in efficiency in processing fuel in motion could be competitive in per mile impacts while operating to our much older and simpler machines. Their increased complexity makes those advantages unlikely to last as long, though, which was a deciding factor in why we didn’t acquire one when faced with a need for a change last year. The newer machines total operating cost, including depreciation for that inevitable deterioration is so much higher that the effort to have one just is out of scale with being able to focus on other forms of value for investment of one’s time. Too few owners of them successfully delve into music or meditation in natural surroundings, at least regularly; there are not enough hours left in their years.

   For heavier machines in general, it eventually comes back to that question of what happens if everyone chose them. In the US, too many for far too long have. The aggregate consequences have been as grim as I for so long have predicted, and continue to accelerate. From them, and the lack of likelihood for general acceptance of the right kinds of responsive changes, comes a notable part of my probabilistic pessimism about our species’ future.

  In our lighter cars, our level of risk continues to be enhanced by all the monsters that so physically dominate our nation’s roads, especially when we travel to even more crowded places. In the way we usually are able to operate ours, that risk can be counterbalanced through paying a whole lot more attention. The exposure would be, however, compounded the more miles that are driven, especially the kind that most people feel are necessary. Thereby, who else becomes willing to take the initially riskier and more effortful moves in the right direction? When so many have already invested large sums in the misguided choices they have already made, within a generally misunderstood context of differences between equality of opportunity and absolute equality of capability among individuals, which is even more so among machines? When tax and other economic structures heavily subsidize both larger families and vehicles, while hiding much of their costs even to individuals, let alone those spread over society and our planet?

  Within the subcategory of cost of operating vehicles, incidentally, even my surgeon friend, like most Americans, mentally counts just the gasoline, whose pump price is less than half its societal cost, as the total vehicle expense. Most of that SUV’s other ownership outlays provide a tax write-off, one whose quoted size, not so incidentally, happens to be greater than my own family combined gross income. These issues do not lead to confidence in the future for those of us who can calculate their overall effects, as well as their more complete, closer to home particulars. It all comes back around to the difference between intrinsic equality, which just about never can exist, and equality of opportunity, which very much ought to, as Jefferson et al. creatively intimated. For the latter to be most possible, there is an optimum population range, enough for cooperation to bring the best about, but not so many that there simply cannot be enough underlying resources to go around, or the waste products recycled without too much damage along their way.

  Natural flow rates of energy and material, so long tested, provide a benchmark for sustainability, with ten percent at most available for transfer for such as us. Among our species, bullies cannot be reaching too far, acting out into adulthood with, I’ll take mine, no matter how much it hurts someone else, or denies them an even potential share of what always will be quantitatively limited possibilities. Fifty million SUVs or mostly empty pickups on perceived to be free roadways, like jet air travel with most of its costs passed on to non-flyers, do just that to the rest of the world. Such will continue becoming more deadly if carried into a still more overpopulated future. They, along with concentrated chemical agriculture, can be observed as obvious symptoms and carriers of a disease that will kill, or at least seriously degrade, almost all currently known forms of life. One can measure the likelihood of eventual disasters by their pervasiveness.

  Proof for this contention does even not take the kind of sophisticated modeling that I have tried. Simply start by imagining two billion Asians in three ton Suburbans, each commuting typical American distances in them, coming home to heaping plates of feedlot raised barbeque. Continue on to any similar variant, and run quick additions about America’s own growth rate if arrogant enough to say, well, they can’t have the same, so what? If a set of behaviors so obviously can’t continue or expand, just when do enough more start following drastically different pathways, accepting the apparent sacrifices those involve? The only nice part is what I have also argued, that what seem like sacrifices, if pursued with proper though, turn out to be more satisfying than what has been going on, even en route to much better possibilities. The classically tragic part is the low likelihood that enough will hear, or then be willing to bother to even try. The difference comes that in the past, it was only angry theoretical gods to worry about bringing on the eventual punishment. In the present, it is an inexorably scientific probability, one ever so closely approaching a certainty.


4 May 2010

  Salon.com’s Joe Conason reports on the Gulf drilling blowout, starting out by reflecting Wall Street Journal, “The US Mines and Minerals Service, under the industry-friendly Bush administration, decided that rigs operating in American waters need not install those [acoustic cut off] switches because they are "very costly." At $500,000 per switch, they now look like an enormous bargain, of course.
   "What makes Norway so different from the United States -- and much more likely to install the most protective energy technology -- is that the Norwegian state can impose public values on oil producers without fighting off lobbyists and crooked politicians, because it owns and controls the resources. Rather than Halliburton-style corporate management controlling the government and blocking environmental improvement,
  "Norway's system works the other way around. It isn't perfect, as any Nordic environmentalist will ardently explain, but the results are considerably better than ours.”

  That particular avoidance of responsibility can be traced back to one Dick Cheney and his “secretive” energy task force, according to The Guardian in an article that goes on to say, “Regulatory decisions have consequences all the time, and the people who made them should be asked to justify their decisions in a democracy. It'll be very interesting to watch this week and see if other news outlets pursue this.” [as of 10 May, none seem to have]


3 May 2010

  One of human history’s worst known oil spills is currently going on, once again uncontained by the “best available technology”. Waking at 04:30, it occurred to me of one way to put the problems behind it into better perspective, possibly even simply enough for the innumerate vast majority of Americans. The calculated rate of flow, which shows signs of being enough to wreck ecosystems and human functions along the entire Gulf Coast, and then perhaps on through the Eastern seaboard, has estimated to be 120,000 gallons a day. Put that number into the context of the somewhat isolated valley where we live, one still relatively rural and small townish by comparison with most of the human settled world. This one broken well, creating all its various destructive effects, is flowing at rate that could provide just one gallon of fuel per day for residents of our rather small population, even if it could be properly brought here.   That amount is not even enough for me, one who uses but a small fraction of what most of the people in this area, or the rest of this country, think that they require. For our nation as a whole, this well’s ever so destructive output becomes but the proverbial drop in the bucket to provide the perceived ‘needs’ for energy.

  Amazingly, growth freaks continue to yammer for still more such sources, and for human population expansion behind those demands, to inflate the associated desires still further.

  The underlying point is how the profligacy of the past few hundred years has wiped out most of the readily available energy and other stored material resources, including almost all those near major population centers, having wastefully turned almost of their original content into pollution and slowly decaying trash. Because addictive demand continues to rise in spite of the decline in convenient sources, problems like the one that just happened will be, with nearly perfect certainty, be becoming ever more likely, as reaching into more difficult to reach or convert sources advances.

  Switching to other possibilities, like water, wind, or any other without concurrently reducing overall use rates will just change the kind of disasters that follow. Nuclear, for one, offers the perfect guarantee of eventually making what happened at Chernobyl fade into small change for relative effects, while at its most nearly benign, leaving radioactive messes that will last for millions of years. The more energy utilized, and the harder that is to get, the greater the probability for disasters, absolutely unavoidably, no matter how well prepared engineers claim to be. That the easy stuff has been pissed away makes those safety issues all the greater, as the current blow-out hidden under 2 kilometers of water exemplifies.

  Backing up my generalities, from childhood, I wanted to learn how the universe operated, and sought out the best available information sources. From an unusually early start, I read books on science and history deeply, going through essentially everything in local libraries before leaving high school. These recordings of the best in thought were paralleled by actively seeking out the highest available authorities to learn from them directly. These efforts continued by filling in the gaps, proving myself as a peer of the most knowledgeable, by obtaining degrees, finishing with a Ph.D. in a science from an internationally recognized university, and then two post-doctorate stints to work one-on-one with some of the world’s best resource system researchers. My goal became to identify the most important longer-term resource issues for humanity, and then to come up with possible means to deal with them, ones including a more comfortable and satisfying lifestyle for the largest fraction of the residents. This I accomplished, while working in parallel to provide an example of coming as close as possible to a more rational alternative with what I have done with hours and material in my own life.

  The problem with the outcomes was that the viably sustainable solution would only work with a human population 20% or less of what it is currently become. Overall energy and material flow rates for that lower number even then needed to be half of the per person contemporary average. This faces the common argument that unless population growth continues unabated, the old will not have enough working youth to support them. The response is, first, that contemporary average lifestyles, given their wastefulness and limits to resources that could support them cannot be sustained for long under any scenario. There just is not enough to go around, along with the damage to the planet that they their practical use creates in the aggregate. The real question becomes, how big a crash do you want to face?

  Another counterpoint was provided in the past few weeks. Someone lost among my many inputs argued correctly that if the older folks were properly integrated into the productive sphere, they could produce more than the same number of youths. They know so much more.

   Another part of the overall puzzle, if one looks deeply enough, is that most contemporary ‘work’ is targeted to increasing the likelihood of coming disasters, literally greasing their ways. This is true whether those jobs are like BP in damaging the natural supporting world, or at Walmart to ruin social structures, trading vast increases in subsidized energy consumption to move materials over long distances for trivially small savings for themselves, while drastically reducing income to those trying to turn those materials into something useful, along with the ability to ignore operational restraints for environmental care, all to provide an increased margin of profits for those at the top. To such blindly greedy conglomerates, I have always refused to contribute directly, along with as little as possible indirectly.

  Meanwhile, about daily comfort, what is so wonderful about living in a constantly noisy, overheated or excessively cooled chipboard box, or routinely spending hours in stalled traffic pollution while the bodies of those who didn’t make it through are carted away, all for when at ‘work’ doing something stultifying amidst horrendous artificial glare, in a windowless aboveground tomb? Sadly enough, that describes the lives of most humans around here. People are sensitive about religions while claiming that humans are so superior to other animals, but from most all I see are fancier nests, with concentration merely on fledging their next generation and amusing themselves even more thoughtlessly, leaving awful messes around themselves, of which they seem oblivious.

  Certainly, these observations retain probabilities for alternatives. There remains a possibility that all the greater mass of expanding humanity can come up with ways to repeal the laws of physics and ecology, at least as I have come to understand them. Realistically, that probability seems to be on a par with existence of an actively interventionist God, whose likelihood is suggested by at least two thousand years of often intensely hopeful, but always futile, waiting for clearly visible interactions. As opposed to erstwhile spokesmen, who usually bring only more violence in their wake, even if indeed a capital S savior should appear, from whichever sect, it would seem that he or she would not be best pleased with the way the overwhelming majority has been treating themselves, each other, and their planet. Those who for at least the past 40 years have ignored the numbers so clearly showing that reproduction, energy, and material use rates have needed to be drastically reduced would surely the among the first to be punished by any genuinely omnipotent god.

  Aside from cynicism about mysteriously based faith, there have been more scientifically neat alternative projections of moving outward into space, perhaps best expressed by Marshall Savage [The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps]. These would allow at least in theory an essentially infinite expansion, since out there is so much more area, power, and material out there. The problem with this, beyond the necessary group willingness that seems increasingly unlikely, is how availability numbers for the localized physical resource activation energy and materials do not look at all promising to seriously begin. There just aren’t enough readily available sources left to get started off-world in large numbers. If there were, there would not be enough absorption capability for the related heat release and other pollution loads without even more rapidly completing the devastation of this Earth.

  In the end, since energy supplies are just a small part of what humans are doing wrong as a group, there seems very little reason to hope for an improved future. Therefore, there emerges all the more reason to enjoy what’s left of our ride, albeit using less resources while doing so, to help it last a bit longer, concentrating on its musical accompaniment, both that made by attentive humans and from the surviving nature around us. Nero may not have been entirely wrong.


21 April 2010

  At the end of an unusually perceptive overview of rampant corporate thievery and its too often dominant subcategory, war profiteering, whose adherents have effectively taken over so many close to home governments, William Astore concluded:
   “Why then do we bother to feign shock when Iraqi and Afghan elites, a tiny minority, seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the majority? Shouldn’t we be flattered? Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. Isn’t it?”

  Above that conclusion one section heading had immediately been included in my quote collection, i.e.,
  “From Each According to His Gullibility -- To Each According to His Greed.”

  Both quotes are from today's ‘The Business of America is Kleptocracy’ within salon.com.


5 April 2010

  Longtime friend George Post sent a link this morning about lack of local slaughterhouses inhibiting locavore movements, which ended asking for comments about mobile units.

  I responded, more or less: Having spent several years of my life involved with slaughterhouses, including mobile ones, the latter are like the former, as safe as the carefulness of their operators. Like all foods, their products are not risk free, but could be better if we were willing to pay more for them. Those who work in them do not have fun jobs, but the bigger the outfit, the less fun is allowed on many levels, and the more corners that wind up being cut, especially as those who are responsible for and profit from quality control distance themselves from eating the specific products. Being human, too, the sometimes glaring exceptions from inevitable localized errors make good propaganda for the big guys, who can afford to cover up more of their own. Done right, mobile units can reduce many of the serious problems associated with overconcentration of inherently polluting processes. Sadly, again from experience, in practice mobile units are unlikely to be done right, not least from operator unwillingness to pay for enough appropriate expertise about their construction and operation, but that self and others destructive form of circumcision applies with absolute certainty to bigger facilities...

  Personally, in the most effective overall way of voting--with the pocketbook--I do routinely pay quite a bit extra in both time and money to consume meat that originates with small producers and through a local slaughterhouse.

  In the larger picture, my own summary from an extensive food technology education remains, “no matter what you eat, it will have something that could kill you, and I can tell you at least one reason why. However, not eating will kill you sooner. Therefore, always wash your cutting boards with detergent and hot water after cutting raw meat, then cook it respectfully, relax, and enjoy.” To which should be added, vary your diet.

  He responded, don’t waste any edible portion, and offered a blessing from Gary Snyder, “We venerate the three Treasures and are grateful for this meal, the work of many and the sacrifice of other forms of life”.

  Albert Schweitzer underlined that such respectfulness is as important for plants as animals, neatly extending to minerals through the rest of our lives.


26 March 2010

  Having a pair of cops hit me with a speeding ticket for 20 percent faster than I was actually going, followed by extensively contemplating how to defend myself in court (versus “radar is always right” and “cops are honest”, both of which I have all too clear previous experience as not necessarily correct assumptions) last night made me realize just how unusually important measuring things, and doing so accurately, has been to me. That intersected neatly with extended thought about what kinds of people I’m most comfortable interacting with. These led to how early that life-centering outlook started with the adults closest to me.

  My father was an analytical chemist, who carried his quest for defining the world in numerical terms beyond the lab to our home. We had several thermometers around the place, inside and out, which were regularly monitored and commented upon. He kept small lined notebook records in the cars for how much gas or maintenance was required, at what place, mileage, and for what cost. These were often fascinating in retrospect, so that I have done the same, expanding their use as my interest in the mechanics and impacts behind them deepened. Similarly, fuel costs for heating the house and for other utilities were kept track of on large cross-lined pads that he brought home from his job, antedating computer spreadsheets, but handled similarly, doing averages with a slide rule. He also had a variety of rather sophisticated electrical testing tools, regularly used around our house, derived from common interests with his best friend, who repaired radios and televisions for a living. Meanwhile, my mother had taught nutrition at the college level, and brought a quantitative approach into her kitchen, with all ingredients, times, and temperatures carefully calculated and measured accordingly.

  Two uncles taught me the most about driving. One had been a pilot instructor for B-25 bombers during the war, when detailed instrumentation, along with other forms of quantitative perception, were literal matters of life or death, and had obtained a master’s in mechanical engineering afterwards, designing and building lower cost housing. His affection for what instruments told, along with directly related uses of vision to calculate distances and closing speeds should be obvious, but his practical utilization of them was unusually precise even among his peers. In particular, he showed me how to judge visually when passing was possible, along with quickly evaluating how close one could get to other things out there, often measured in inches, and how these changed with speed. Included always within the related internal calculations were useable escape routes, should additional variables enter, not least from unpredictable actions by others involved. Also important were what to do when clues, including from instruments, conflicted, so as choose among them for the most accurately useful data, without hesitation when necessary. Finally among the possibilities was to differentiate how the machines would differ in their responsiveness, not least through the effects of weight, and how those reactions would vary with external environmental conditions, quite predictably, if one was sufficiently thorough in observing.

  The other critical uncle had been a horseback cowboy, who moved on to bending metal to install heating and air-conditioning systems, at which he made more than a million dollars in the 1950’s. Once again, precision measurements were critical for the careful work that was so well appreciated, reflected for me by his interacting with narrow or damaged mountain roads. There, he aptly demonstrated how knowing just where one’s wheels and fenders were located was so utterly vital, without necessarily being able to see them, and to judge that by other physical clues. One needed to carry an internal picture of the car’s underlying structure. How much traction one had available could be felt through steering wheel and seats, as a kind of additional internal instrumentation.

  A third uncle was an aeronautical engineer, who brought most clearly into the overall equation the internal mechanics of the car, since he had worked as a cooling system repairman during the depression, and maintained his own, to the level of engine overhauls. Yet another was a physicist, whose closest to me son following in this footsteps, like two other mathematically inclined engineering career cousins, along with a couple of physicians.

  Sadly, most people don’t have close relatives like these, with their attention to details important to their lives, to teach how to care appropriately about life-sustaining measurement tools and their connecting uses. More may notice things going wrong around them, or yet more widely have consequences forced upon them, but without clues or even caring why. Thereby, errors are repeated, spread widely, and get worse, with great costs, eventually impacting all others, not just themselves.

  I’ve tended to take numerical thinking for granted, because it has been so deeply ingrained in my own life, extended unconsciously to assuming others’ having as deep an interest in how the world works, especially things nearest to them. Thereby, I’ve too often failed to communicate effectively, but despair at how to reach through otherwise.

  To me, living without numerically augmented forms of paying attention would be a particularly serious form of blindness, whether the calculations rely upon instruments or have been internalized from related experience. These can greatly deepen potential and practical perception. They surely have throughout my life, and continue to deepen in their usefulness as their connections expand through the understanding they bring and allow.


16 March 2010

  Up again in the middle of the night, listening to music to calm the noise inside my head, waiting for the ibuprofen to dampen the pain in my hands. This time I chose from my more or less compete collection of the Cowboy Junkies albums Rarities, B-sides, and Slow, Sad Waltzes. Like so many others, it’s been heard a good many times, but without concentrating on the lyrics, instead drifting along with their musical gestalt. Amidst the silence of night here, through the recently more carefully arranged sound system in the electronic kiva, Margo and Michael Timmons “A Few Simple Words” got through to me this time. Michael writes most of their songs, from an appropriately bleak perspective for harmony with our contemporary world. Among Margo’s previous complimentary credits is that lovely masterpiece, “Misguided Angel” that got me started listening to them with the Trinity Session in 1988, and still usually brings tears when it arrives at my ears. Hers is the lighter and more hopeful perspective, though his is not without wry humor.

  Looking at the lyrics by themselves this morning, after thinking about quoting from them, finds them coming out rather saccharine, paralleling even the better hymns. For them to work, one needs to have all the pieces there, including a favorable surrounding context, like so much other and wider events worthwhile experiencing. The group for the most part does take care in assembling their albums, like most good musicians do for their concerts, with a thoughtful flow of available emotion.

  The danger remains exemplified by religion. If one listens focusing upon it and just within that supporting context, it becomes too easy to stick within its comforting repetitions, thereby losing track of wider connections, like falling into a TV. It’s nice and sometimes vital to be reminded that someone else cares about one, but that requires more work to reciprocate than either love songs or hymns suggest.


15 March 2010

  Watched the 1949 movie Twelve O’clock High last night, which had come in a pack with another that I specifically had wanted to see. It’s a weird piece, not surprisingly overlooking the large degree of ineffectiveness of ‘precision’ bombing, since most people still want to believe that all those deaths were useful. This has close up meaning, since my one of my own uncles was among them, as a navigator/bombardier having been killed by ground fire while parachuting down from his flak-stricken B-24. Even statistically, German war material production peaked in late 1944, after the bulk of closely targeted bombing had been completed, although fuel production and distribution had clearly been made more difficult.

  Likewise, most people do want not to face that most of the worldwide airborne bombardment efforts have been devoted to attempts to ‘break the enemy’s will’, which is more honestly described as terror attacks, primarily affecting the more or less innocent, philosophically little or no different from the jihadists. Practically, for those affected, it is not at all different. Media focus has always been conveniently upon the at least more or less strictly military targeted, somewhat successful exceptions like Pearl Harbor or Midway, rather than the far more common flattening of cities and countrysides across Japan, Germany, Korea, and Vietnam--among continuing others, right up to ‘collateral damage’ from today’s drones.

  Even within its constraints, the movie script left ambivalent, without final resolution of what happened afterwards to him, the hero/general’s panic attack being allowed to take place, and for him to abort his participation in a clearly dangerous mission after his choice on the previous one had lead directly to a more than usually immediately obvious set of deaths of acquaintances. Lower ranks were stuck with going no matter what, a procedure regularly enforced that same man previously.

  Few parts of World War II were more dangerous to European theater participants than bomber raids. Focussing again on particulars, a great many of the aviator deaths were particularly futile, since the preponderance of those in the planes were gunners, especially those carried long after fighter pursuit had for all practical purposes disappeared, whether or not they had been effective previously. Even in early runs, for all they were featured in the movie, their usefulness was arguable. Flying tight formations had the same validity as it does for unarmed birds, limiting the ability to pick out single targets by attackers, while even for armed groups, only those on the outside could safely use most of them. Throughout, to military planners with lots of experience in shooting available among recruits, gunners have always been considered expendable.


   Spent the day with by far the largest time devoted to replacing aging rubber radiator connections and associated cleanup on my aging Alfa Romeo. Still a fair piece of time left to getting the rest of the bits back in. By comparison with the 9 years ‘newer’ Mazda I spent this past fall redoing, it sure shows more signs of degradation once one gets deeply into looking, despite the immense number of hours devoted to it during the interim, and how good it still appears from a distance. Like all vehicles, there are a lot of parts to wear down, with most long since gone to junkyards. Time does those in, with its 85,000 odd miles really being a lot. It seems amazing how much literal blood, sweat (on a 45 F degree day), cursing, and effort often goes into an apparently small bit of progress, in this case several hours to get just one replacement radiator hose attached, mostly through wrestling with a recalcitrant, hard to reach or see clamp, with even that less than perfectly done (remaining slightly crooked, so therefore a potential source of a pressure leak).

   Of course, our cars have not nearly as many parts as newer rigs, and mine less than hers. On our daily walk, we chatted for a while with one of our neighbors, who has a huge pickup truck that is only 8 years old, but with over 200,000 on its odometer. I’ve ridden in it; it provides almost utter isolation from the world around. Its total operating costs are ever so much higher, but mostly hidden in their aggregate and immediate senses because they are being paid for so much more indirectly. His lifestyle choice allowed for a far high income than mine did, allowing the visible most parts to be readily covered, so that they are not seriously thought about. For a lot of folks, they have become part of overwhelming debt as the Bush recession continues.

  On a closely note, I was unusually sickened by the High Country News that arrived today, by a story about literally a million RVs getting together in Arizona each year, with many staying for extended periods, destroying almost all natural life across wide areas. All those grossly fat and ignorant of their consequences folks, always almost totally divorced from where they are, yet travelling immensely damaging to the planet distances along their way! Mostly of them are ever so nice when met on a one to one basis, like our neighbor, but oh my what a catastrophic impact, without paying much genuine attention to what is around them.

   Their TVs are more important than their windows, so why do they move around so much?

  The answer is that if they didn’t, they’d be more likely to see more of what they do. So they try to leave it behind, to be able to assume it was someone else who made the messes that they do notice. Their own is always, or shortly will be, in the rear view mirror. With sufficient space between stops, the nasty stuff that does penetrate is easier to ignore, for again it can be mentally purged as also left behind. The trouble is, with so many moving similarly, it can be no longer. Because it is somewhat diffused does not mean it simply disappears.

  In the same issue came a cry from the heart letter about massive wind farms and their effects on locals. Once again, the point I have been making for so long becomes ever so obvious, but remains even then ignored. It does not matter what the energy (or material) source is; it will have consequences, and in similar proportion to how much. When it becomes sufficiently either widespread concentrated, those will become unpleasantly obvious, and increasingly so over time. Sadly, the idea of absolute limits, especially ones that are widely already being trespassed across, seems unacceptable to common thought.

  Counterpoint then came from an issue of the Mountain Gazette, a freebie given to me by the very Mormon local outdoor outfitter, which was kind of surprising given that its dominant content extols the kind of mildly crazed lifestyle I tangently participated in during my college years. Ski bumming, physical risk taking, often fueled by various drugs and alcohol, generally deeply aware of one’s surroundings through interacting with them without much in the way of shields. Participants may not live as long as the RVers, but many, if not most, notice more while they do.


13 March 2010

Unintended acceleration

  With all the hoo-hah surrounding Toyota of late, it was amusing to encounter an entire chapter from 1998 about a runaway Nissan by Eileen Myles in her 2009 The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art. Like the more recent apparent victims, it did not occur to her to either turn the car off or even to put it into neutral. After a mechanic told her to do that if it happened again, though he thought he’d found and fixed the problem, she decided to keep the car.

  The whole flap amuses and fascinates me because of its ties to the detachment from reality and how machinery works by the contemporary majority. When new, thicker floor mats caught the accelerator of our RX-7, it was not difficult for either my wife or I to simply pull up with the edge of our feet to free the pedal, even when it happened the first time. The fall back of put in neutral as a first step, to take away any dangerous interactions with the outside world, then turn off the ignition was just as obvious to both of us. However, like all the vehicles we’ve ever owned, it has a manual transmission, so we’re used to interacting thoughtfully with it, and using neutral actively.

  My own memories of unintended acceleration from manufacturer error go a lot further back, roughly 40 years to one of the very first cruise controls. It came with my uncle’s new Lincoln Continental, one of the ones with the immensely long hoods. We were out, well away from population centers, on the then uncrowded freeway that ran north from Kansas City. He had me driving it for the experience, knowing that I by then knew something about cars and how to handle them. He’d been a pilot instructor for B-25 bombers during the war, afterwards an engineer, so knew even more himself. With a clear road ahead, he told me to set the cruise lever for 75, but watch the accelerator pedal. It immediately went to the floor, and stayed there. When the car approached 110, he told me to turn the cruise lever off, and if that wasn’t enough, the ignition, since like almost all American cars (then or now) it could reach speeds far higher than it could even close to be controlled safely. At the time, it was funny, and the memory of watching that pedal go and stay all the way down remains so. Nobody even thought about worrying about it, let alone a lawsuit, or bringing down a major corporation because they’d not done a sufficiently good job of testing their product, at least for characteristics that could readily be dealt with by anyone competent enough to use them at all.

  The understanding was that machines were designed and built by humans; that mistakes would be made; they could be dealt with; and if not fixed satisfactorily, something different would be purchased. That is not to say that some of the attention paid through legal channels has not been useful to rein in some of the more egregious and deadly bad designs or their execution. What become different now is how the machines have gotten so much more complex, while at the same time people have become more lax in their interactions with them, and expectations risen for impossibly perfect results for their operators.

  In a salon.com column yesterday [specific link lost, but probably an AP referral], the driver of a runaway Prius brought up the interesting point that even after being told to put it into neutral, he was afraid to, for if its multiple systems were malfunctioning, changing their inputs could result in something even worse than what was happening already. I agree with my wife’s point in response that such is part of the reason we stick with vintage machinery. What automation that is included in our cars, which is on the order of fuel mixtures that change with temperature and altitude, are neither likely to become actively deadly, nor so complex they can’t be dealt with should they ever start to go wrong. Being light enough overall not to require power steering, turning off the ignition at worst will make the brakes require more pressure, but even then not impossibly high. Of course, it is helpful that their acceleration capability is less than common now, and routinely used therefore at closer to its greatest potential than is true for most contemporary vehicles. Stuff, if it did go wrong would happen more slowly, and handling it at is limits more familiar, after taking longer to get there. Those limits are well within remaining control, too. Along the way, ours are not so isolated sonically, so one is more immediately aware of changes, beyond the fact that requiring shifting keeps one’s awareness closer to their operation whenever many others are nearby.

  The underlying dichotomy is between knowing in detail how the world around one works, with all the pain in gaining and having that implies, versus having that world support one’s desires as if by magic, with its costs hidden from direct awareness. The questions are whether the loss of awareness is crippling the potential for quality of experience during our brief lifetimes, and how much greater those hidden costs might be or become.


  Meanwhile, I pulled the radiator out of my 36 year old Alfa Romeo a few days ago to see if I could make enough improvements in its cooling capacity to even seriously consider essaying a 3,500 plus mile round trip in it to attend one of my few close friends’ 60th birthday celebration in Corpus Christi Texas in a couple of weeks. As I washed dishes after dinner, while my wife continued to work on her latest professional editing project, I was mulling over how much that opening of the car’s inner workings revealed so many potential problems by comparison to what I had done this fall in replacing the engine in the only 27 year old Mazda RX-7, and how courage was lacking to set out for such a long trip, given what I know all too well from accumulated experience about both the car and my own limitations. It’s one thing to putter about nearby, and quite another to hit the road more seriously, especially after once again being nailed, inappropriately but no less expensively in all senses, for “speeding” yesterday by the ubiquitous roving road bullies wearing uniforms who cannot differentiate genuinely dangerous trucks and SUVs from potentially competent vehicles, or among capabilities of drivers. On the road, neither people nor machines are even close to equal, but the laws created so as to be administered for corporate profits almost unassailably assumes that we all are. The very practical joker for this particular instance became that the reading they made was, once again for the poorly-radar reflective Mazda, many miles per hour higher than I was actually travelling. Both of our cars look faster than they actually are, and we get punished accordingly.

  Then, being such a number person, two very different ways of looking at a major impact of the prospective trip appeared. It, by itself, would be further than the total for any of the nine years I’ve owned the car. On the other hand, the fuel to drive for six days or more would require would be similar to the single hour of a test run by Flying magazine of the latest Cessna business jet, which is one of the smaller ones. Of course, the basic price for that toy is at least several times what I’ve earned in my lifetime, no matter how entertaining it might be to read about it, or think of using it in any way.

  Finally, reading the magazine was interspersed beyond ruminating about the possible trip, and how to remount and rewire the aftermarket fan that the previous owner of the Alfa had installed, with listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, so very much clearer through very high quality German headphones that I bought a few months ago so as more comfortably not to disturb my wife’s quiet labors. One of the songs therein has lyrics about how life drifts away while we are frittering away time, waiting for someone to give us appropriate guidance about what to do…


5 March 2010

  Quote of the day:

“It's a good thing this is all part of some giant conspiracy, because if I thought scientists at the University of Alaska were undertaking good-faith scientific research I'd be really worried...” Matthew Yglesias

  He was responding to Andrew Leonard in, ‘Get ready for the methane apocalypse’ about revelations by Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov, just published in the prestigious journal Science, of more imperative signs of instability and large scale leakage through permafrost from previously sealed hydrocarbon hydrates within the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.


4 March 2010

  A quite personal interaction with the Reagan administration highest level came, appropriately enough in 1984, while I was working for the National Research Council in D.C. After a meeting at the parent organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the most convenient way to get home was by catching one of the city busses that had a stop just in front of the building, on Constitution Avenue. It was immediately across the street is the Vietnam memorial wall, where I had probably gone to meditate upon that history, as I regularly did when nearby. A quiet, beautiful, and very sobering place, especially for those of us with close connections to that conflict and those who died or otherwise suffered from it.

  Before the right bus arrived, I heard a siren coming from the direction of the White House and Capitol. Of course, I turned to look, and was surprised to see not the usual ambulance or cop, but instead a black Cadillac limousine, with red and blue lights flashing in its grill. As it passed just a few feet away, I could see Casper Weinberger, then Secretary of War (not as it is wrongly called, Defense), frowning in the back seat, with a strong light trained on some paperwork. There was no emergency, but the arrogant isolation of that group was literally stopping traffic for one of their imperial progressions, underlining their out of touchness with outside realities.

  In February of that year, the Washington Post had run a series of articles beginning with the discovery that Reagan had a GS-14 federal service employee, which is a pretty high level of pay, whose only duty was cutting firewood and related minor maintenance for his California ranch. That relatively minor instance of personal corruption led to questioning about how he had come to own so much land, much of which was collected while governor of California, when he was girdling, in the forestry sense, what had been the finest university system in the world. The ‘little tin box’ of Broadway’s Fiorello came immediately to mind. However, the subtle strength of Reagan’s Washington cabal became apparent when as the presidential election approached, it, and similar investigations, just quietly disappeared, despite their conclusions being damningly obvious from the preliminary evidence.

  One is reminded of the more obvious later pillorying of a popular TV journalist who had accepted a forgery, one almost certainly produced by the campaign, which successfully diverted attention from the underlying truth of George W. Bush’s having gone (and remained) AWOL from his draft avoiding service in the Air National Guard back during the Vietnam war. The media once again subverted by those in power.

   As I reviewed the details of sins noted below, I found that no delving into expanded arms sales and surreptitious support for dubious military activities abroad. Arms shipped overseas wind up with frightful consistency killing not just innocents in the areas where they arrive, but also eventually being used on countryfolk of their original salespeople (and too rarely against the guilty). Nowhere has this been more recently apparent than Afghanistan and Iraq.

  There will be more of such nasty bubbling backs from inadequate thinking within of longer term consequences from seemingly profitable immediate acts.


3 March 2010

  “Not only do things tend to go to hell, but your own actions contribute inevitably to the process.” [Matthew B. Crawford, 2009, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Penguin Press, NY.] The quote came within commenting on the need to deal with failing, and the tendency of contemporary education to overlook that life requirement, for which hands-on making and fixing of things provides an avenue to understand.

  Thinking then about Reagan, as I have been recently, it becomes amusing among the continuing misguided deifications of that destructive charlatan to find this morning a congressional proposal to replace Ulysses Grant with his picture on the $50 bill. Their presidencies were neatly comparable as among the most obviously corrupt, but Reagan’s effects were and remain far greater worldwide, not just affecting a relative few like the general’s cronies managed. Grant, however, had the lasting advantage of actually having done something useful previously, personally had been courageous (not just illusively depicting others who were on a silver screen), and did not profit from corruption himself. Grant’s memorable failings came from trusting his subordinates to do their jobs as honestly and capably as he did.

  For Reagan, despite the smell of sulphur around him being so distinctly notable to me, even as a child, when he was shilling so sleazily for GE on TV, profiting personally from dishonesty never was a problem, as long as the groundlings could be sufficiently misled as to ignore his more than tacit participation within various forms of corporate looting. I suppose that does make him a kind of populist after all. Squawking intellectuals, no matter how correct in their assessments, could safely be ignored as long as publicists and thugs in suits were sufficiently effective, which his coterie so tragically for the rest of us seem to have been.

  Nevertheless, it continues to amaze me how many people still haven’t caught on to that quintessential flimflam man. As long as his name or image continue to appear as if they were worthy of celebration, these will remain as monuments instead to human short sightedness and gullibility. It is probably not at all coincidental that during Reagan’s years pharmaceutical companies were allowed to begin direct advertizing to the general public, and anything those companies did not profit from was persecuted especially heavily, leading so many turning to happy pills, switching from Valium (for which the inevitable problems from prescription drugs had finally become obvious) to Prozac (for its 20 year run before some of its issues could no longer be covered up). As counterpoint to chemical suppression of perception, I love this new quote, “[Gary] Greenberg thinks...in most cases...depression is not a mental illness. It’s a sane response to a crazy world.” [Louis Menaud. 2010. ‘Head Case: Can Psychiatry be a Science?’ The New Yorker, 1 March, p. 68.]

  My medievalist wife argues that history will eventually put the chicanery of the Reagan years into perspective, although this may take a very long time indeed, as it did for eventually uncovering the slanders done to Richard III by Henry VIII, underlined as they had been for so long (innocently or not) by William Shakespeare. It seems unlikely at this moment that human civilization will last for so long, undermined as it has been, very much not least, by Ronald Reagan and his chorus of powerful fools.


25 February 2010

  My grad school carrelmate, unlike me, went on to work in the food industry, and has done, as expected, very well financially by that choice. This morning, he sent a link by email, with his own introduction, “For you history buffs......here's a example of ......LEADERSHIP....”. The link read, “Vintage Reagan Bemoans 'Socialized Medicine' in YouTube Sensation...On the eve of the Obama administration's most aggressive push yet to pass a national health care plan, a 50-year-old audio recording of former President Ronald Reagan speaking out against.”

   Some of us with considerable historical scholarship see Reagan a bit differently. Under the general rubric of the only factor that really counts was making the already rich richer, underlined by the greatest transfer of wealth upward, proven by the greatest widening of the gap between incomes of the upper 10% and the rest of us. Part of that theft by rich from the poorer came about through tax breaks for the top, unbalanced against the biggest official peacetime growth of military and other federal spending, including that for the debacle of Vietnam. During his administration, the total national debt more than doubled, adding more to it than under any preceding president, including Franklin Roosevelt and the entire cost of World War II. The Soviets, trying to keep up, but not having some of the lasting resources we had not yet used up, did go bankrupt, ending the obvious cold war, but some of us question whether that was such an unalloyed advantage, especially since our debt for our cost is still compounding, while theirs has been largely dealt with. Those are just the most visible parts of his legacy, including how that bloated military eventually allowed ever so easy reckless adventuring into Iraq, to create another astronomically sized set of debts.

  Still more fundamentally to the current mess in transportation and the air we must all breathe, Reagan’s leadership quietly ended the inherited progress that was being made in reducing vehicle weights. That had allowed the consequent first drop in the rate of draining America’s rapidly declining readily available oil resources (which had been the world’s greatest) and the even more rapidly increasing quantity of fuel imports. As a result this very intentional failure, those imports rose to over $100 billion per year during Reagan’s watch, almost all of which still remain unpaid for, thereafter continually accumulating even further with the fleet’s mass and the distance it travels. That rise in worse than useless consumption was encouraged by more highway building, with little or nothing allocated for existing infrastructure repair, less than nothing for mass transit, underlined with a refusal to raise taxes on fuels. Those had already, through inflation of other consumer costs, fallen to a small fraction of either the real social price of using the energy, or even what they had been 25 years before. The resulting trillions of hidden debt dollars held thereby so diffusely abroad have fueled not just pollution throughout America, but hang over our future in every possible sense. This has come not least from the growth of Islamic terrorism, and the seemingly ever rising panic that creates among the statistically ignorant, even though its dangers are a trivial fraction of their costs from profligacy with fuels.

  Among these, tens of thousands of Americans have died unnecessarily from being slammed into by the excessive weight his cronies set in motion. Adoption of serious attention to wearing seat belts, which, not incidentally, came about only after Reagan’s time, should have halved the intensity of mayhem on the highways. The annual highway death toll has, instead, remained unchanged, with its bitter fruit falling more selectively on those more responsible towards others, and their planet, in the size of what they have chosen to drive, and how often they choose to.

  More generally, fuel related international debts that began to expand so explosively during his leadership, as immense as they have become, have been more than matched by the destruction of America’s industrial and other productive capacities. Reagan cronies believed executive profits could increase by shipping jobs abroad, first to Mexico, then on in stages to even cheaper China, with their rate exacerbated by selective changes in tax policies. That shift, which has become so nearly total, began snowballing on Reagan’s watch. What it means for the longer term and the larger parts of our own and the world’s population, in so many aspects, did not matter to them. They got theirs, however ephemerally, and to hell with the rest.

  Another part of that economic shift away from the majority to the very rich came from his breaking of unions, some of which indeed had been foolishly greedy, but by no means all, leading in part to massive Hispanic immigration to fill the gaps, with meat packing the classic example. Much of that immigration issue more basically followed from actively Reagan-led axing of emphasis on population restraint, making sure a ready scientific understanding of exponential growth was buried thoroughly under anti-abortion rhetoric. The planet’s and the country’s populations have, with an unusually direct guilt pointed at Reagan’s leadership, nearly doubled since, from a point that was already ever so clearly unsustainable for anyone with quite modest mathematical understanding.

  Meanwhile, by refusing to share them more equitably, overall health related costs have doubled and redoubled, with the ability to pay for them dramatically diminished for all but the richest Americans, who generally manage to pass them on to others or the future. Relative quality of the care for ordinary individuals, by any measurement system one chooses to apply, has declined substantially in relation to that received by residents of countries that had or have achieved more socialized medicine. Even many medical practitioners, who for so long supported the misguided obstinacy, are now suffering, and leaving their field in droves from the accumulated weight of avoidance of vitally needed administrative changes away for profiteering corporations.

  Fairness in the end pays off for all, not just the few that the faux Gipper worked for. His phony smile covered a ransacking of the federal treasury, along with much of the rest of this nation’s potential resources, by a group that stands proud among the worst set of pirates this nation has ever known.

  That trend, sadly, has continued essentially unabated, exacerbated by his more obviously despicable acolyte George W. Bush and his parallel thieving, lawless cronies. No one ever has deserved the Captain Edward Smith award for leadership than Ronald Reagan. Crystal clear warnings of icebergs? Inadequately educated to understand how to control a more complex and powerful ship? Full speed ahead! What most boggles my mind about it all is how so many still hold that draft-evading (who, like his even sleazier successor, had a very interesting, carefully hidden, lacks in his military record), bad actor (in both formal and informal senses) to be an actual hero, and believe that his ever so destructive legacy somehow left this country better off.

  I do not envy, in any way, future generations, who will have to deal with the messes he left them.


22 February 2010 
  The media in its various aspects has been floundering with what to make of the return of Bode Miller to championship caliber in Olympic skiing. It all seems simple enough to me. His parents were classic free spirits like the better of the folks I ran around with in my college years (when I did enough more or less serious skiing to appreciate viscerally what he does). Some became best friends long afterwards, even though most did not generate offspring at all. Bode sailed off that start, with the mix of dedication, humor, relaxation, and experiment, augmented by that elusive vector of innate talent. Sometimes it works, but carries its dangers of not being just right in synch with the needs of competing with those more grinding in their approach, as well as the greater ones of various addictions that lurk at its margins, merging at misjudgments, as happened to him at Torino. Where it falls apart for the media is that not every champion wants also to become a hero, too. He found his own path, but what’s wrong with that being enough? Leadership is too often the guide to cliffs, anyway, even when it comes from those whose educations have included more that should bring with it the possibility of wider understanding of meanings. We should be satisfied just to enjoy the skills he has entertained himself, and us, with, reward him with some of the dollars they carried along, then let him sail off to nurse the pain they left. Enjoy the rest Bode, and thank you for the smiling ride!


12 February 2010 

  I have noted being critical of biological and other sciences from their inherent lack of rigorous experimental replication and of single testable variables, as well as often fuzzy or error-prone measurement techniques. This does not imply a consequent dearth of utility from them, but rather that their results must always be considered as probabilities, with limited accuracy, and subject to revision as inevitable refinements occur. This process, along with the limits for its interpretation, is exceedingly difficult for the general public to grasp. They want invariant facts, something they can have faith in, not to have to think about or treat as flexible. Unfortunately, unanticipated variables and variations within them are the way the world works. While unswerving faith may have its virtues, with nearly perfect certainty using it as a basis for practical choices involves even more problems than working with incomplete, changing concepts and testing from honest scientific investigations.

  Of course, like faith, science in general is not immune to active dishonesty, not least from corporations with short-term financial returns from shading (or outright misrepresentation of) results of scientific research. These are more easy to weed out than from faith based contentions, because to be considered scientific at all, they must in some way be testable, but generally the scientific trials are too complex for the ill-educated and lazy public to try to follow in sufficient detail, especially when interpretations have been diverted or reprocessed by sophisticated propaganda from corporations, biased popular commentators, and other richer entities.

  However, theoretical logic is also by its inherent nature testable, though not necessarily any more readily appreciated by the public or our governmental decision makers. Most unfortunately, lawyers, a class that has come to include most American politicians, rarely understand either science or associated formal logical strengths and limitations well enough to make good judgments from them. Their education is almost always quite literally quantitatively lacking, being not easy with what they are required to accomplish, with that not including detailed scientific or mathematical literacy. Beyond what their intellectual capabilities may lack, they are also particularly prone to being swayed by corporate blandishments, accompanied as these tend to be for them by direct and/or indirect financial incentives, often substantial at the personal level, even if not according to laws they themselves have crafted to avoid appearing as involved in those rewards at they are in fact receiving. Among these, help in being elected is no small consideration for values to individuals, one rising with the level of the office.

  Even a pretty good institutional scientific education isn’t really enough. One must get out there and do some active research to understand both strengths and limitations of the process, doing so with an open mind to each. Most people just don’t have the time, energy, or inherent capability for enough of either the education or the testing. It’s vastly easier just to believe clever words from a priest or advertisement. Thereby, the exploding press of human numbers carries us ever faster towards a variety of cliffs.

  For some strange reason, an approximation of Weir, Barlow, and Midland’s words for the Grateful Dead come to mind in practical response, “We may be going to Hell in a bucket, but sure going to enjoy the ride.” Where I differ from most is in having concluded that one can increase the pleasure while restraining the speed of the descent.


11 February 2010

  Record snowstorms on the U.S. east coast, especially around D.C., have the change deniers howling, with the Utah know-nothings actually pushing a legislative bill to remove national or local support for global research or energy use restraints. I’ve many complaints with large-scale science, from being tied to its lack of the single variable testing and consequent experimental replication that are at the very heart of classical proof. Even the requisite measurements are difficult if not impossible to make. Therefore, conclusions from complex modeling will always be assailable, even when calculation errors, intentional or not, have not been made along the way (and these are essentially inevitable).

  However, none of those issues preclude valid logical extrapolation or associated rational thinking, as with exponential human or other population growth. Some things just cannot continue without catastrophic consequences, with an associated vastly greater probability than fantasies of any kind of divine intervention. Effects of population explosions, and the quickness of their progress once physical thresholds have been approached, are as close to certainty as any understanding can be. Hypothesis testing can be done both through logical analysis and with historical observations of related data. Where those thresholds might fall can be predicted with far greater accuracy than, for one, rescues through religious faith.

  Human induced releases of energy may seem small at just a percent or so of overall natural flows, but when they exceed, as they have, the total for all of photosynthesis, that ought to raise a flag, without further proof. From historical climatic research, it should be clear to all that a key generalized assumption, that the atmosphere is stable against seemingly modest perturbations, is a deadly false one. Single volcanoes very provably have upset it quite drastically. Human energy use is now well into their scale, has been rising rapidly, and for far longer periods than such eruptions, for just one aspect of its impact. So has the deforestation and removals of other direct supporting species (like year-round grassland cover) of long evolved mechanisms for overall stability.

  The seeming counter to intuition of more snow from a warming planet quickly disappears if one only bothers to look at satellite vapor imagery for a few years. As one who has been doing so, I’ve never seen before the movement of huge streams from the western coast of Mexico up across Texas and on to the central U.S. eastern coast. That these would arise from more ocean warmth seems eminently possible, while coming down as snow in early February when they got far enough north should be no surprise. Some years, hurricanes to disperse the extra energy, others different kinds of storms, all following possibly unfamiliar patterns. Whether or not this is formally unprovable does not really matter, though the prognostication ought to lead towards trying.

  Denial of all of this is merely a larger case of the more immediate ones of refusal to appreciate that driving a pickup or SUV multiplies severalfold a vehicle operator’s likelihood of killing or injuring others, be they people or animals, than a lighter and lower choice. The dubious protection of one’s own survival while doing so ought to seem damned inadequate compensation, but apparently isn’t. Advertising, supply chain greed, and apathy make it seem better to carry on regardless, despite the obviousness of increasingly unbreathable air, toxins in our food, cumulative noise, and even simple congestion when trying to go anywhere. How big a hammer does it take to get fools to see?


18 January 2010

  After reading some of an extended debate on the Internet’s salon.com about whether or not Peter Jackson’s movie of the Lord of the Rings deserved to be among the past decades ten best, I finished last night my twenty something’s read through of the primary books behind it. Jackson skimmed the thinnest fraction of the original work, which always brings more than a little new upon going back through it.

  This time, discovery was mostly about the depth and importance of the words he used. It connected through to more of part of the author’s intent that his tales were a primarily a conduit for languages that he had constructed, within his philological basis, reflecting those of the Norse. Each of the made-up words brought into LTR has a deep resonance in his mythical history, explained in notable detail and color in their particular parts of the extensive background writing (which his son Christopher brought out for us). Without those connections, the storyline may remain fun, which is why it worked for so many as a movie, but in having the skeleton alone one loses ever so much. The links from the imagined words open much more powerful visions, always directly relevant, as the written story unfolds.

  Among the words that add depth when there usage is better understood are not just constructs. In particular is that of love, and its related interactions among the characters, male and female. Tolkien cleanly differentiated the word “love” from lust, in a way that too few moderns appreciate. Classical training meant that he grasped distinctions among agápe, philia, and eros, allowing that males (and male to females) could deeply appreciate one another, including touching or living together, without desiring sexual release from their companion or companions. Sex was little more than another bodily function, one to bring blushes if even brushed near to in conversation, whose pleasure might well be there, but quite certainly not something to build one’s life around chasing. There were more deeply satisfying concerns.

  That view doesn’t make the writing scripture or even a guidebook, but does provide a very thoroughly engaging alternative, a much longer take on those central themes of love and death, and dealing with them.

  The combination remains one very much worth investing the extra work to explore its depth, for that has been rewarding in and of itself, as well as opening up the more widely known part of his stories. All grow with repeated investigation, as they did within Tolkien's own.


then from the past, breaking the most prolific posting years into more digestible chunks at the solstice:

 Links to more commentary, from 2009. 2008, late 2007, earlier 2007, late 2006, early 2006, late 2005, early 2005, or 2004...


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