Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Life in the Day

                                      Remember me?
                                      Remember me.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Clouds of Unknowing

Cloud computing, sold to a tech-drunk citizenry as the latest heavenly benefit of the corporate gods of cyberspace, is perhaps the biggest environmental blind spot left. Because, as this NPR report points out, these clouds aren't puffy white spirits smiling from the sky.  They're acres of machines on earth, needing and ravenously eating power in rapidly increasing quantities.

Right now, Greenpeace estimates that if the cloud were a country it would rank sixth in the world in power consumption, just before the actual country of Germany.  The New York Times figures it would take 30 nuclear power plants to supply it.  It also needs constant air conditioning and enormous amounts of water to keep all those fevered machines cool.

And the cloud is getting bigger all the time.  For now, most of the electricity is generated by clean energy methods, mostly wind and water power.  But how long can that last?  It may even be that so much clean energy is being soaked up by servers that a lot less is being used for the normal grid than otherwise might be the case.

Apart from the ramifications for the environment and the climate crisis, there's the issue of vulnerability.  Consumers are only too eager to cede control to corporations that store an increasing proportion of what we've learned to call information.   So photos, music and reading material as well as important documents are increasingly being stored nowhere but in some cloud somewhere.  And it takes electricity all along the way from there to you in order for it to, well, exist.

So what happens when the cloud blows up or the power goes off long enough to erase everything in the cloud? Or you lose your electricity and therefore your access for part or all of the time?  And you look around to find no photo albums, no recorded music, not even CDs or DVDs, let alone magazines or books.  Just your multiple "platforms" now connecting you to nothing.

But even without an electric Armageddon, none of this stuff (which is no longer "stuff" but digits) is actually yours anymore.  It belongs to the company that holds the cloud.  You're only renting access to it, if you accept the terms and conditions and how the hell could you not?

Though several people in my life have tried to buy me a Kindle or similar device, I've resisted.  At first it was until the devices were improved and more versatile.  And maybe until prices of books etc. came down (which is never going to happen now that so many people are hooked on the devices.)

Then this weekend I saw at TPM that subscribers (i.e. paid subscribers) were going to be discussing "the transformation from reading paper books to digital books," and proprietor Josh Marshall admitted that he switched to digital three years ago, and is now unable to read paper books anymore.  

That scared me straight.  No digital drugs for me.  When I buy a book, or borrow one from a library, it's mine.  I can hold it, carry it wherever, but most of all, it's mine.  It doesn't sit in some cloud where Amazon is always watching, and sending me emails asking me how I like it.  Or more to the point, where Amazon can always take it away from me.  Amazon, the cloud, or the grid.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Maestro

                               Marquez on his 87th birthday earlier this year

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the greatest writer who began publishing in my lifetime, died on Thursday. He was singular in his ability to delight readers of every class and country.  For years when anyone asked me to recommend a book to read, I gave them A Hundred Years of Solitude. It didn't matter if the reader was a PhD in Cambridge or a waitress in western Pennsylvania.  It never missed.

He wrote inimitable fiction and insisted on journalism as a literary form. His Nobel Prize lecture was mostly about Latin America rather than literature. It gives human and historical dimension to a book that appeared long after, The Shock Doctrine.  It ended:

"On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, "I decline to accept the end of man". I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possibility. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth."

Yet at other times he talked wisely, compassionately and valiantly about literature and the work of writing. One of my favorites, from an interview:

"You write better with all your problems resolved. You write better in good health. You write better without preoccupations. You write better when you have love in your life. There is a romantic idea that suffering and adversity are very good, very useful for the writer. I don't agree at all."

But my favorite, that in some sense serves as an epitaph, is this:
"Some say the novel is dead. But it is not the novel. It is they who are dead."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Moving Climate

There was a lot of news  bearing on climate crisis matters in the past week or so. The second part of the UN report was issued, characterized every which way in media headlines. Climate Change Adjustments Must Be Fast And Major, U.N. Panel Says, according to NPR. IPCC climate change report: averting catastrophe is eminently affordable says the Guardian.  The points stressed in the latter are that clean energy conversion is pretty cheap, plus it has other benefits (ultimately economic) besides reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Another new thing on the climate block is a television series about the climate crisis, Years of Living Dangerously, which began on the Showtime pay cable channel Sunday but also is viewable for free here on the Internet.  It has Hollywood stars interviewing and investigating pertinent events and issues.  There's a kind of paid advertising blog on it at TPM, starting with this one.

 I haven't had a chance to watch it yet, but I will note that I proposed something like this in probably the first thing I wrote specifically for a web site more than a decade ago, and reposted at Kowincidence: "Use Hollywood faces and voices, send them places where something can be shown that indicates the effects of global heating. Send Julia Roberts to interview an Inuit elder on camera about the change in Arctic ice and weather patterns, and the effects on the animals and plants. Take an action hero to high altitudes, take Mariel Hemingway up to Mt. Kilimanjaro and measure the snow, and some swimsuit models to an island that will disappear under the water because of global heating."

A TV broadcast network--NBC News-- also reportedly did a decent special report.)

I also pleaded for making the climate crisis a moral issue, and another step was taken in this direction by one of my favorite writers writing, Rebecca Solnit, in  her Guardian piece "Call climate change what it is: violence."

That wasn't the only tell-it-like-it-is pronouncement.  A Boston Globe column came right out and said that climate crisis skeptics don't deserve a veto.  Probably one of the more positive moves this week in the media was the full-throated cry in what must be the definition of a middle American newspaper, USA Today: On climate change, expect the worst.

A very public gauntlet was thrown down by a U.S. Senator (Sheldon Whitehead) and prominent senior House member (Henry Waxman)--both Democrats--who made a very strong case that the Obama administration has all the facts it needs to deny the Keystone pipeline because of how much worse it could make the climate crisis.  And they made it in a very public place, on the CNN site. Update 4/18: The State Department postponed final decisions until after a Nebraska court case settles the route the pipeline can take, which affects environmental impact.


As the UN report notes and the Guardian emphasized, the economy of change is positive, and basically unreported progress is being rapidly made on efficiency and cost of clean energy. A big step was taken last week in legitimizing the business future of clean energy when IKEA made a big investment in an Illinois wind farm, its first in the U.S. and second in North America.

 But there's even a cheaper way to cut emissions, though it seldom gets mentioned: conservation and energy efficiency.  This Think Progress piece  uses the information that when Japan closed its nuclear power plants after the catastrophe of Fukushima, half of the energy those plants produced was saved in the next several years by conservation, mostly by ordinary people.  Energy efficiency helped maintain that savings over 3 years now.  Studies show that the U.S. could cut 20% of its energy use by these means.  It would take a deliberate commitment so that the savings wouldn't disappear with new uses, but it's not something that has been tried.

All of this happened as other scientists made their case that the previously mysterious First Extinction--the worst known--some 250 million years ago, was caused by microbes that over a very long time excreted enough methane into the atmosphere to heat the planet and change the climate. "I would say that the end-Permian extinction is the closest animal life has ever come to being totally wiped out, and it may have come pretty close," said Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Greg Fournier, one of the researchers.

What it took tens of thousands of years for these microbes to do, humans are well on the way to doing in a comparative split second.  In the first week of April 2014, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Earth hit the highest level in at least 800,000 years.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote

                 April White #1 by BK  click to see complete photo

"The only glimmer of hope is that their newly developing sciences are quickly proving...the interrelatedness of all life. If they can develop enough scientific evidence to bring their knowledge back up to the level of natural peoples, they may cease their war against the world. We must hope that one day they will realize that Indian beliefs are backed by thousands of years of close observation.”

Carter Camp (Ponca)

R.I.P. Amos Tripp

The North Coast and the California Indian community lost a valued leader in Amos Tripp, who died at the age of 70.  An obit is posted here at Lost Coast Outpost.  I worked with him when he was on the Humboldt Area Foundation Board of Directors, and I was writing the grant for what became the Native Cultures Fund.  He was warm and funny in conversation, and invited me to attend a particular ceremony that remains special in my memory.  We will all miss him.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Mourning

4/12:An Update from the LA Times.

Here at Humboldt State University we are mourning the deaths and injuries of those caught in a bus and truck collison who were on their way to campus.  The bus was one of three carrying high school students from southern California for a college visit.  The crash happened late afternoon Friday on U.S. highway 5 some 200 miles away. A Federal Express tractor trailer truck crossed the median and collided head-on with the chartered bus.  There were several explosions and both vehicles burned completely. Ten people were killed and 40 or so injured, some with serious burns, others with minor injuries.

Among the ten who died were 5 high school students and the drivers of the bus and the FedEx truck.  Also killed were HSU alum Michael Myvett and his fiancee, Mattison Haywood.  Myvett was a therapist at an autism treatment facility.  They were chaperoning the trip.

Also killed was Arthur Arzola, an HSU Admissions Office staff member who worked primarily with low-income and first-generation students in the Los Angeles area.  Arzola and Myvett were known for their dedication to young people often overlooked or abandoned because of their economic status or health challenges.

That the students on this bus (and the two that made it safely to campus) were low-income students who would have been the first in their families to attend college naturally figured in follow-up news stories, though this approach led to some headlines in questionable taste. Because of that, I'm not linking to any of those stories.

 University and California State University officials however have acted with sensitivity and restraint, but proactively, visiting the injured and looking after the students on the other buses who had arrived before the accident.

A Nation's Thanks

The resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was handled by most media outlets with headlines that almost uniformly linked it with the initial failure of the heathcare.gov website--even though this is May and that was October, and in the end the ACA signups exceeded the predictions made before the website problems, which lasted less than a month.

Almost totally ignored was the dogged determination that Kathleen Sebelius exhibited in bringing to fruition the largest, most comprehensive new social program since the 1960s.  She endured hours of ugly, mean-spirited and politically motivated interrogation by Republicans in Congress--hours amounting to days she could have spent in the real work of administering this complex and unprecedented program, in addition to the many other responsibilities of her office.

For this she has been tarred and feathered by Republicans with the continuing connivance of the media.  Here at least is a fair-minded story, which includes the ultimate successes as well as the failures along the way, which in any case were not only her responsibility. (Update: And here's another.)

This nation owes Kathleen Sebelius more than it can repay for her sacrifices as well as her determined good work.  When this epic change in healthcare insurance has more miles on it, perhaps then the extent and importance of her work as HHS Secretary will be honored, and her name remembered with Frances Perkins and  Hallie Flanagan as forces for good at a crucial time, even in the otherwise thankless and always temporary job of federal administrator.  The nation owes her thanks.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Medicine

Yes, as Obamacare participation numbers go higher with each new study, it's time for GOPers to take their medicine.  But in the states they can still kill people with their obstructions, as in Florida where the failure to take advantage of free support from the federal level for Medicaid expansion has cost this woman her life--and is on track to kill thousands more.  Said the friend of Christine Dill, 32 year old mother of three who was working 3 jobs but couldn't make enough to pay for her heart medicine: “I am burying my best friend because of the policies of the Republican Party. I am burying my best friend because had Medicaid expanded, her needs would have been met.”

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Hunger Games Here and To Come

According to a blistering column by E.J. Dionne, recent Supreme Court cases could all be grouped under the title Rich v Poor, and you can guess who's been winning.  Others have also noted that the current Court is handing over the electoral system to the wealthy, though some of the richest aren't too happy about the attention it's bringing them.  One of the Kochs complained in the Wall Street Journal, which pretty much exists for complaints by the wealthy.  Josh Marshall has an ongoing series about the uber- rich who are amazingly sensitive to criticism if not to the suffering of others or their ongoing destruction of the planet.

The implications for politics suggests to Peter Bienart that mega-donors are now more important than the politicians themselves and ought to be covered by news media more assiduously.  Dionne goes further to pair the pro-wealthy Court decisions with their anti-poor (or everybody else) decisions to suggest we're becoming an oligarchy.  Update 4/18/14: And now according to a Princeton study it's official: the U.S. is an oligarchy.

But it may well be worse than that.  The enormous gap between the wealth of the wealthy and everybody else (that most recently got the full Bill Maher treatment) has been building for decades.  The disappearance of industrial jobs (closing of the steel mills etc.) in the late 70s was perhaps the first conspicuous indication.  Observers like Barbara Ehrenreich and Paul Krugman wrote about it in the 80s.  Cultural historian William Irwin Thompson took the long view, and saw that it could forecast the return of the Middle Ages.

Speaking of which, many apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic stories feature either a fairly stable feudal Middle Ages world of lords and serfs (The Hunger Games) or a Dark Ages organization of war lords and poor (from Shape of Things to Come to The Postman and the Mad Max movie series.)

There could hardly be worse societal preparation for the stresses of climate crisis effects than the current dive into oligarchy.  It might make money available for a few high profile projects in rich cities, for instance, but in general it is one of several current trends that make civilization even more vulnerable.  Food and water shortages are among the serious problems forecast by the latest UN report, as well as by many other studies.  As Elizabeth Kolbert writes of the report in the latest New Yorker: "Composed in a language that might be called High Committee, the report is nevertheless hair-raising. The I.P.C.C.’s list of potential warming-induced disasters—from ecological collapse to famine, flooding, and pestilence—reads like a riff on the ten plagues. Matching the terror is the collective shame of it. “Why should the world pay attention to this report?” the chairman of the I.P.C.C., Rajendra Pachauri, asked the day the update was released. Because “nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

Though our media doesn't much say so, we've already seen food shortages and price spikes lead to political violence and chaos in various parts of the world, and very quickly.  Already a study has linked violence to climate crisis effects.

Add the penchant of the most politically active of the uber-wealthy to insist on ideology over even common sense, plus the fundamentalist dogmatism of their unwitting army, and the move back to the Middle Ages is a shockingly short one.

What stands between a Dark Ages anarchy and/or a Middle Ages system of lords who rule over a poor population by means of hired thugs (currently arming themselves) is the civilization that resides in the souls of our citizens.  And by civilization I mean not only enlightened, rational and practical evidence-based thinking and conscious valuing of diversity, but compassion, cooperation and empathy in everyday problem solving.

That the threat of falling into a new feudal Middle Ages or a new Dark Ages exists should be a cautionary tale to the young especially.  They need to be prepared to ward it off, to see the signs, to strengthen the consciousness and the values that may overcome it before it happens.  

Monday, April 07, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote


"Such hopelessness can arise, I think, only from an inability to face the present, to live in the present, to live as responsible beings among other beings in this sacred world here and now, which is all we have, and all we need to found our hopes upon.”
Ursula LeGuin

Sunday, April 06, 2014

R.I.P.

"The absurdity of a life that may well end before one understands it does not relieve one of duty...to live through it as bravely and as generously as possible."

Peter Matthiessen
who died last week at the age of 86
      Pema 4/14  (click for full photo)

Saturday, April 05, 2014

     April Pink #1 2014 (click for full photo)

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Getting to the Heart of Obamacare

What is it--is everybody in the media just too busy to do their jobs?  Headline after headline described President Obama's remarks on Tuesday as a "victory lap" or "crowing" about the surprising 7.1 million signups for Obamacare through the health exchanges.  But President Obama wasn't crowing about a political victory.  He talked about a law that is not perfect but that is helping to fix a broken health care system and providing the opportunity for economic security, peace of mind, and a sense of value and dignity by providing the opportunity for affordable health insurance. ( See for yourself--here's the video.  I tried to embed it but for some reason couldn't.)

Yes, the success of the initial signup period beyond even supporters' expectations allowed President Obama to frame his remarks in a positive way.  But most of his 18 minutes were a robust explanation of the value of the ACA, including how it has already helped individual Americans, and the way forward.  Examples that tell the story:"that’s what the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is all about -– making sure that all of us, and all our fellow citizens, can count on the security of health care when we get sick; that the work and dignity of every person is acknowledged and affirmed."

"Change is hard," the President said.  "Fixing what’s broken is hard. Overcoming skepticism and fear of something new is hard. A lot of times folks would prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t. But this law is doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s working. It’s helping people from coast to coast, all of which makes the lengths to which critics have gone to scare people or undermine the law, or try to repeal the law without offering any plausible alternative so hard to understand."

And then he asked the key questions. "Why are folks working so hard for people not to have health insurance? Why are they so mad about the idea of folks having health insurance?"

Another question that these signups raise (and they don't include the many more who now have healthcare through Medicaid expansion) is: why were the pundits and the major media in general so sure Obamacare would fail?

The answer seems to be that they read polls which are simply responses to particular questions with results that seem to say more than they actually do.  They listened to the lavishly funded and unremittingly shrill opposition, the Washington insiders who are so inside that they believe each other instead of finding out what is really happening.  And in particular the media failed to report.

But Sarah Kliff did not fail to report.  Writing in the Wonkblog in December (hat tip to Jonathan Bernstein for linking to this article on Tuesday): "As a reporter who has covered the Affordable Care Act, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to uninsured Americans. Aside from the daily federal updates and traffic statistics, it’s been one of the more helpful ways to understand how the health-care law is working — and what its rocky rollout will mean.  And what I've learned from all those discussions is this: The people shopping on HealthCare.gov are incredibly, unwaveringly persistent in their attempts to purchase coverage."

As one of the few to actually report on individual Americans, she was also one of the few who suggested that 7 million signups might be possible.  As of Tuesday there were 7.1 million and counting.

The entire key to the Obama presidency is the 70 or so letters from Americans he reads each week.  President Obama provided examples of people already helped and what that help meant to them in his remarks Tuesday, and White House.gov shows quotes from other Americans helped by ACA, with before and after numbers concerning premiums and coverage.  But even beyond individuals, how about hard aggregate numbers?  How many reporters were keeping track of those?

Apparently none, including all the well-paid reporter/pundits.  But someone was, and he was doing it for free. His name is Charles Gaba and he blogs at Daily Kos under the name Brainwrap.  According to Kos himself, he " meticulously recorded all Obamacare signup information. Then, after gaining the attention of reporters everywhere, that blogger used hard data to utterly dismantle every bogus Republican talking point."

Not everybody who signed up did so on their home computer.  Many stood in long lines all over the country to get help signing up.  They were helped, informed about the sign-ups etc. by volunteers.  They were determined to get health care coverage.  (There are many more of these photos at whitehouse.gov.)

I was part of a dialogue about all this at Jonathan Bernstein's Bloomberg blog. Here's one of the responses, from "ochospantalones":

"It has been amazing for me to watch so many people acting like there are hordes of people who are happy they don't have health insurance, and will be angered at now having access to it. When I was younger I knew plenty of people who had no health insurance or had near-useless catastrophic plans, and none of them were in that situation because they thought it was great. They didn't have health insurance because they couldn't afford a decent plan, usually because they didn't have access to employer-based plans, and almost all of them prioritized getting the sorts of jobs that would offer health insurance. Many reporters act like someone without health insurance will check the website, see it doesn't work, and just forget about the whole thing. Most people I've known without insurance will put in the effort it takes to make it happen."

Monday, March 31, 2014

Play Ball!

In some places it was a strange Opening Day to the 2014 Major League Baseball season.  The New York Mets game couldn't start on time because nobody was playing first base.  Angels coach Don Baylor broke his leg during the ceremonial first pitch.  But in Pittsburgh's PNC Park, it was all good.

Former Pirates star (and twice MVP in a Pirates uniform) Barry Bonds was there to award the 2013 NL MVP to Andrew McCutchen.  Former Pirates manager Jim Leyland was back to award the 2013 NL Manager of the Year to Clint Hurdle. He told the Post-Gazette: "I've said this many, many times, but this is the most beautiful ballpark in America. It's nice to have the fans really be able to cheer for something."

And did they.  After expanded instant replay was used for the first time (and then the second), Pirates ace Francisco Liriano (who struck out 10) and four relievers combined on a 9 inning shutout.  And in the top of the 10th, Pittsburgh boy Neil Walker parked one in the right field seats for a walk-off win, 1-0 over the Chicago Cubs.

Going to Opening Day of the Pirates was a tradition when I lived in western PA.  And I recall a similar Opening Day game in 1980 when Bill Robinson parked one right in front of me in the right field stands at the top of the tenth to win that one.  They were the World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates that day.  Fans in the burgh figure that day could come again real soon.

Additional Dialogue

In the hours since I rambled on in the post below, there are more stories about the UN report on the climate crisis.  Here are some worth checking out:

The Guardian: A United Nations report raised the threat of climate change to a whole new level on Monday, warning of sweeping consequences to life and livelihood....“We are now in an era where climate change isn't some kind of future hypothetical,” said Chris Field, one of the two main authors of the report.

New York TimesClimate change is already having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans, scientists reported on Monday, and they warned that the problem was likely to grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control.

BBCThe costs of inaction on climate change will be "catastrophic", according to US Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr Kerry was responding to a major report by the UN which described the impacts of global warming as "severe, pervasive and irreversible". He said dramatic and swift action was required to tackle the threats posed by a rapidly changing climate.

This Real Climate link itself links to the actual summary and full UN panel report.

An NPR report offers both a print and audio summary of the UN report findings. 

Another NPR piece asks if the report is "too much of a downer," which is the opinion of one of it's authors, who didn't sign the summary.

Tipping Points



Humans aren’t the first species to alter the atmosphere; that distinction belongs to early bacteria, which, some two billion years ago, invented photosynthesis. But we are the first species to be in a position to understand what we are doing. Computer models of the earth’s climate suggest that a critical threshold is approaching. Crossing over it will be easy, crossing back quite likely impossible.”

Elizabeth Kolbert in  Field Notes From a Catastrophe (2006)

That critical threshold is the tipping point, beyond which the climate begins to essentially feed on itself, changing the Earth significantly for thousands of years.  But along the way there are other tipping points, and we have quite likely passed some.  The Earth's atmosphere is getting hotter and will continue to do so for probably hundreds of years.  The climate is changing right now.  What's not known is whether it has passed the point at which human civilization will no longer be possible.

The latest UN climate report says as much.  It is about changes that can no longer be stopped, but it holds out hope that the ultimate tipping point has not yet been reached, though it probably will soon.  A changed climate cannot be changed back, not for a very long time.  We've made the world of the near future.

The CNN story on the report begins: "Your forecast for the next century: Hotter, drier and hungrier, and the chance to turn down the thermostat is slipping away. That's the latest conclusion from the United Nations, which urged governments to address the "increasingly clear" threats posed by a warming climate before some options are closed off for good.

The UN report analyzes efforts to deal with causes (mitigation) and effects (adaptation.)  There are lots of details but quite simply nobody is doing a very good job at either.

The report pleads with nations of the world to control greenhouse gases.  CNN quotes: Cutting emissions now "increases the time available for adaptation to a particular level of climate change," the report states. But it adds, "Delaying mitigation actions may reduce options for climate-resilient pathways in the future."

In its typically leaden language, the report is saying two things here.  First, the reason to cut emissions is to increase the time we have to deal with the effects of the climate change that's coming.  It's no longer to stop the climate from changing, with the effects we're beginning to see.  It's changing, and it's going to keep changing, probably much faster, to a hotter world than humans have ever experienced.  We need time to adapt to this world, which means a whole lot more than getting used to hotter summers.  It means dealing with huge changes in what food grows where, with droughts, floods and superstorms, with the spread of hot-weather infectious diseases, with rising seas and acidic oceans. With the dominoes of displaced and dying species of animals and plants as they affect the food chain and a lot more.  It means dealing with conflicts and even wars caused by these effects.

The second point is that if we don't deal with the causes--with greenhouse gases--we "may reduce options for climate-resilient pathways in the future."  Translation: if it gets worse, civilization and perhaps the human species will be fighting for survival.

There's a lot more in the report, and a lot more in the news that supports the main points of the report.  If anything, the news suggests things are getting worse faster.  (And there have been cries from within the climate community that the report's summary has been watered down.)

But I want to move onto another tipping point--the one in which an emotional consensus is reached to deal with this reality, and it becomes the central issue driving our political and civic life.

Some have hoped that a particularly eloquent clarion call might do it.  (I wrote a little about this recently.)  That hasn't happened.  Some fictional stories in print and on film suggest that a big enough terrible event will do it.  Paul Gilding's nonfiction book The Great Disruption (2001) suggests that when environmental calamities combine with resource depletion the global economy will stop growing, and the ensuing catastrophes will lead swiftly to a new economic and environmental system based on new priorities and principles that will, among other things, deal with the climate crisis : a tipping point.

Gilding believes civilization will not collapse and the outcome will eventually be positive (though he mentions that we will probably lose a billion people along the way,) based on his faith in humanity's response.  The whole process will take decades.

But why?  When scientists are all but unanimous, when the effects are already happening--why is human civilization incapable of anticipating such a mortal threat and preemptively acting to prevent it?  That's the question of our age, and I've tried to suggest some possibilities in my "climate inside" posts, for example.

Whatever the reasons, it's clear that no report, no catastrophe is going to convince the hardcore of people whose worldview is religiously political (or politically religious), and who believe that the vast majority of scientists are inventing the climate crisis for political reasons. (Everybody but their scientists, who are demonstrably inventing things for political and economic reasons.)

Exactly why we listen to these people and allow them to control things is another question.  It may be partly because we naturally don't want to believe it either, at least not now that we know it's coming.

Last week this story asserts that forecasters are saying that there's a 60 to 75% chance that a new El Nino is forming, perhaps as soon as April, and that it might be a Super El Nino, which could send temperatures soaring in 2015 for sure and possibly in 2014 as well.  The considerable heat trapped in the oceans could be released quickly.

These are changes we will feel immediately (if this happens.) It will also be further evidence that "normal" no longer exists.  The extremes of 2013 will be replaced by different extremes in 2014.  Could it be a tipping point in public perception?  Anything is possible.  But I wouldn't count on it.

 When it comes to the climate itself, the tipping point is a result of physics, brought about by the accumulation and complex interaction of factors. This El Nino could be a climate tipping point, which we would eventually realize. But it's perhaps more likely that things will change noticeably in fits and starts, both gradually and suddenly.  The most important changes may well remain invisible for awhile.  Others will accumulate over time before they have noticeable effects.

The fact that we're getting El Ninos so close together is itself yet another possible indication that global heating has already tipped over into a self-reinforcing regime.  The same is true about the violence and nature of storms and extreme weather, as this post at Real Climate explains.  Extreme events are extreme because they are out of the ordinary.  But they are becoming ordinary.  Yet even this is controversial, well beyond the usual deniers.

But what are the chances that this El Nino's effects will provide a political tipping point into robust public support for aggressive efforts to deal with the climate crisis?  As noted in comments to the Think Progress post, Australia is already experiencing the kind of heat that El Nino could bring to the U.S. for example.  But that didn't stop Australia from voting out the government that made dealing with the climate crisis a priority, and voting in a government that is busily trying to roll back all sorts of environmental measures.  So it's hard to hold out much hope.

The human species has missed all kinds of opportunities to be prepared for this.  Yet some of that same preparation--moral commitments, clarity, psychological skills included--will be necessary to deal with this future.  Because one way or another, life is lived.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Springing


Last local weather report on this station was in early February, with the first rain after a scarily dry December and January (two of our normally prime rainy season months.)  February blessedly turned out to be rainy all the way.  We had rain here almost every day into the first week of March.  The result for us was replenished rivers and lakes (and water reservoir) and refreshed landscape.

So now that spring has snuck in between a locally invisible St. Patrick's day and Bach's birthday, flowers are blooming, there is less brown in the trees and other greenery, and a lot of tension is relieved.  The past two weeks of sunshine suggested the rainy season was over early, but it looks like a new series of storms are coming that keep rain in the forecast for the next 10 days, starting tonight.

Though some snowpack was renewed, not all of California got enough rain to put anything but a temporary dent in the drought.  An early and very bad fire season is predicted, and preparations are underway to meet it.  So serious is the drought that the suggestion by some long-range forecasters that there's a better than even chance that a new El Nino is forming which would return rains to the whole West Coast made headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle.

It's intriguing that even our many southern CA transplants at Humboldt State greeted the rains.  The smell and sound of rain are so integral to the environment here, especially at this time of year.  All this sunshine (even in summer) is weird, menacing even as it is glorious.

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote

“It is important to work for future generations, for our descendants. We must be proud to do something, even though people do not usually know its value.”
Shunryu Suzuki

Saturday, March 22, 2014

40th

Today marks the 40th anniversary of my mother's death.  It's hard to believe it's been that long.

I'm posting two photos in commemoration.  One was probably taken in a New York City hotel in the late 40s or early 50s, her second time there (her first was for the World's Fair, probably in 1940) and the last time.

The other is my favorite.  It's in the tiny kitchen at my grandparents' house in Youngwood.  My mother, my sister Kathy and my grandfather are visible.  That's my sister Debbie's hair in the foreground.  They're reacting to something in their card game.  I had squeezed myself between Debbie and the kitchen sink to take the photo.  I thought I was pretty daring to take a candid "action" photo.  I salvaged this from the only print I had.  But that expression on my mother's face is familiar, characteristic.

She was 54 when she died of cancer.  She died on March 22 at 2:22 a.m.  I missed a lot of years with her, including the more recent years when I got more interested in who my parents were, how they experienced the events in their lives that became more real to me. And my late-found ability to appreciate them as people.  I missed her experience and support more than once.  Now that time is a daily mystery, it's hard to say more.


 

Friday, March 21, 2014

(In Praise of ) The Gouldberg Variations



On the occasion of J.S. Bach's birthday, I share the opening--the Aria-- for what has become my favorite piece of music, the Goldberg Variations, in my favorite version, the 1981 recording by Glenn Gould.

A local classical music station played some of the variations today to mark Bach's birthday.  The announcer repeated the standard story (sometimes disputed) that Bach wrote it as a commission by a nobleman who couldn't sleep--it was to be played by his private keyboardist, a 14 year old boy named Goldberg, who was also Bach's pupil.  It was supposed to promote sleep yet be lively enough to offer solace if sleep didn't come.

Though I was first inspired to listen to it by Richard Powers' description of it in his novel The Goldbug Variations, I too attempted to use it in this legendary way, and listened to it so many nights in succession that it was no longer necessary for me to turn on my mp3 player, I could just play it in my head.  Since then I've scaled back, but I still listen to it in part or all of it pretty often.  And still find new moments in it.

Some years back the NY Times or somebody asked a bunch of classical music people their opinion on the best classical recording.  Several named Gould's Goldberg's Variations, though they were split on which version--his first recording in 1955 or his second in 1981 (they were his first and last recordings of anything.)

Both are somewhat controversial, but the 1981 probably more so.  The most obvious difference is the Aria--it is slower in 1981, but that only begins to describe the difference.  The difference is a revelation, and speaks to me of time, melancholy and acceptance, and savoring the moments of life's beauty.

I know a pianist who disdains both Gould versions.  On the other hand there are people like me, not classically educated or employed, who are devoted to Gould's piano performances, and specifically to one or the other of the Goldberg Variations he recorded.

I knew the radio station was going to play the Goldberg Variations so I made sure to tune in, hoping they would play a version I hadn't heard.  It's said that before Gould it didn't seem possible for one pianist to play the Variations (it is astonishing to try to follow what two hands are doing--it sounds impossible) but since then, many pianists have recorded them.

But the version the station chose wasn't a piano (or a harpsichord, the keyboard for which it was written) but a transcription for strings.  There are several of these--I have two--and they seem to emphasize the lyrical quality of the 1981 Aria.

But Gould's playing--especially on parts of the Goldberg--has also always reminded me of jazz.  Gould apparently thought of some of his playing as approaching jazz, and it seems that way to me.  So I also have a jazz version of the Goldberg by the Jacques Loussier Trio.  And like it a lot too.  I could well be wrong, but I don't think either the string version or the jazz version would exist
without Gould.

The above clip is from a video recording of Gould playing the 1981 version in the recording studio.  The whole performance is also on YouTube, but I have it on disk.  It's a remarkable thing to watch.  Gould was a handsome young man in 1955 but in 1981 he was just a few years from the end.  In this video he looks apish, not at all capable of making the sounds he is in fact making.  Add to his appearance his eccentricities--strange posture and approach of his hands to the keyboard--and it is not really easy to watch.  Until the camera lingers on his hands as he plays, and then it's mesmerizing.  

The Aria has become somewhat familiar from movies and television shows, but in total it is for me a great 3 minute piece in itself, and I offer it to cyberspace in the hope of introducing it to enhance someone else's life.  Paying it forward.

Data and Parents: Two New Weapons to Address the Climate Crisis

Two positive endeavors in addressing the climate crisis: one very new, the other still growing.

The very new one is from the White House, where presidential counsellor John Podesta and White House director of Science and Technology John Holdren announced the Climate Data Initiative.  Citing the frequency and impact of climate related disasters, they described the Initiative as "an ambitious new effort bringing together extensive open government data and design competitions with commitments from the private and philanthropic sectors to develop data-driven planning and resilience tools for local communities. This effort will help give communities across America the information and tools they need to plan for current and future climate impacts."

The product is a web site--climate.data.gov--that will collect and organize relevant information and convey it in user-friendly form.  It starts with projections on coastal flooding and sea level rise and their impacts.  So far this seems aimed at local planners, government and otherwise, but tech literate citizens can also benefit.

The other endeavor is an organization--with a web site of course--called Climate Parents.  The impetus is the sobering knowledge (expressed eloquently in the latest book by one of the founding members, Mark Hertsgaard's Hot) that today's children are going to inherit a very different world caused by the climate crisis.

The organization is involved in various action campaigns against carbon and other pollution, for clean energy and to promote education on climate crisis issues.  For example, some 50,000 parents signed on to a campaign to support a clean energy tax credit that the Koch Brothers and their ilk are trying to kill.

The initiatives don't involve just parents, but specifically children and grandparents.  One overall goal is to get decision-makers to stop prioritizing dirty energy that is poisoning water, air and the future, while shifting emphasis to clean energy.

But emphasizing parental responsibilities or just feelings for the world we're leaving to the next generations sure seems like it should be a major motivator for efforts to address the climate crisis in both its causes and effects.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Reality Without Consensus

It's more than a decade since I heard Bill McKibben on C-SPAN suggesting that what the U.S. needed to seriously confront the climate crisis was an "emotional consensus" of the American people.  It did not happen.  There are probably many reasons why not.  I suggested at the time that one might be the language that scientists use (and journalists following their lead) which failed to convey the danger of the crisis and the urgency required to address it.

That problem has been mocked but also more recently is being embraced by the American Association for the Advancement of Scientists.  A weather.com report begins:

"After years of publishing scientific reports filled with impenetrable jargon and numbering in the thousands of pages – like those released every few years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – one group of American scientists have said enough's enough.

Under the banner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the group of more than a dozen scientists on Tuesday launched "What We Know," an outreach effort that aims to encourage people to think of climate change as a risk management issue for human societies, rather than solely as something that impacts the environment.

"Our specific goal in this case is to try to help move policy forward by making science as clear and straightforward as we possibly can," said Dr. Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday."

The Association made good on this intent with an 18-page report, described by the LA Times:

The American Assn. for the Advancement of Science's blunt report contains no new scientific conclusions. But by speaking in plain, accessible terms it seeks to instill greater urgency in leaders and influence everyday Americans. Scientists said many previous assessments have been long and ponderous, and have failed to shift public opinion on global warming.

The goal "is to move policy forward by making science as clear and straightforward as we possibly can," association Chief Executive Alan Leshner said. "What we're trying to do is to move the debate from whether human-induced climate change is reality … to exactly what should you do about it."

The report is backed-up by a web site which also features videos.

The truth is that while this is a long overdue development, even clearer language and one minute videos for the twitter generation aren't enough.  There must be a dozen or more books that inspired reviewers to suggest that this would be the one that got people going, that would be this generations Silent Spring.  When her climate crisis book appeared in 2008 (Field Notes From a Catastrophe), Elizabeth Kolbert was the latest to be called the next Rachel Carson.  But even her exemplary writing did not have anything like that kind of impact.

Now her new book, The Sixth Extinction, is getting media attention, as well as a few words here.  In the debut of his own new site, Ezra Klein chose to interview Kolbert on this book.  He zeros in on the first--and worst-- of the five past mass extinctions, which scientists believe was set in motion by global heating caused by massive infusions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Exactly why carbon dioxide was released in these quantities is still unknown, but what apparently is known is summarized in one of Klein's questions:

Ezra Klein: One of the really terrifying parts of your almost nonstop-terrifying book, is that the quantity of carbon dioxide that we are emitting at the moment, every day, every year, every month, every year, is not just similar too, but potentially faster than the carbon dioxide emission that led to that extinction.

In her book Kolbert emphasizes how rare extinctions normally are, but that we are living through a blizzard of them.  And she emphasizes how slow changes normally are, but that we are seeing the end of an icy Arctic that existed that way for millions of years. She tells Klein he is likely to see an ice-free Arctic in his lifetime, just as scientists are learning how important Arctic ice is to global weather patterns as well as the climate itself.

Plainer statements of urgency are hard to imagine than this interview (which I highly recommend) and the AAAS report.  But Kolbert may be on to something when she tries to get us to shift our frame of reference about the speed of change.  That's only one of the conceptual blocks that ordinary people may have to this extraordinary phenomenon--the defining challenge of human civilization and to the steady development of the human species.

Waving

On Monday--the day I posted one of my astronomical photos--there was a press conference to announce what some are calling the scientific finding of the century so far.  This illustration is it: a pattern of gravitational waves through spacetime.

The Reuters report begins:

Astronomers announced on Monday that they had discovered what many consider the holy grail of their field: ripples in the fabric of space-time that are echoes of the massive expansion of the universe that took place just after the Big Bang.

Predicted by Albert Einstein nearly a century ago, the discovery of the ripples, called gravitational waves, would be a crowning achievement in one of the greatest triumphs of the human intellect: an understanding of how the universe began and evolved into the cornucopia of galaxies and stars, nebulae and vast stretches of nearly empty space that constitute the known universe.

"This detection is cosmology's missing link," Marc Kamionkowski, a physicist of Johns Hopkins University and one of the researchers on the collaboration that made the finding, told reporters on Monday at a press conference at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts."

The BBC story is one that emphasizes how important scientists think this is, and in the New Yorker, physicist Lawrence Krauss places it in historical context and explains some of the ramifications.

I've seen some more extravagant claims as to what it may mean (confirmation of the "multiverse" of infinite branches, which would mean human life exists elsewhere as well as here) but apparently this discovery also shuts down some theories as well.  It will take scientists time to sort out the ramifications, as well as confirming this discovery.

 What a wonder the human mind is, to come up with fundamental theories and what happened in the first one-trillionth of a second, or to get all excited by maybe spotting the first liquid waves on any other world, on Saturn's moon Titan.  And meanwhile failing to act on the one bit of science that threatens everything that allows these theories and discoveries.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Monitoring the Crimea Gambit

I've had a certain cognitive dissonance as I monitor news of the past two weeks involving the Ukraine and Russia.  All diplomatic attempts failed to persuade Premier Putin (for that is how he is behaving) from continuing on the path that led most recently to Russia essentially annexing the Crimea, in defiance of Ukraine's sovereignty and the objections of the West.

For much of my lifetime this would have prompted an international crisis that dominated headlines and conversations.  There would have been prominent stories noting that the U.S. was heightening alert for nuclear forces, and a certain frenzy for and against a possible approaching war would be rife.

This week however, this hasn't even been the top story, failing to eclipse the mystery of a missing airliner or even March Madness and the latest show business gossip.  Although Republicans are screeching about national strength and honor etc. as they would have, they immediately sober up when the question of military force is suggested.

While everybody apparently seems prepared for the long game in this situation, while not neglecting political advantage for upcoming elections,  I probably should feel reassured.  But actually I don't, not yet.  Ignoring dire possibilities may well have contributed as much to both world wars as did the awful readiness and eagerness of some to wage them.

One prominent Russian voice on state media did say the N word, suggesting that Russia still had the power to turn the U.S. to radioactive dust. But I haven't seen a counter blast of dangerous bluster.  So that's good.  But it would probably be a good thing to know what is being done in terms of western nuclear forces.  There are still enough nuclear bombs to level much of civilization.

 Maybe it's just because I grew up with the Cold War and the nuclear sword dangling over the playground, but I worry that this history and the dangers it suggest are not sufficiently in the minds of those now in charge.  Based on his past statements and his knowledge of his office, I seriously doubt that includes President Obama, but otherwise I wonder.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote


             "Attention is the cardinal psychological virtue."
James Hillman

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Califractia No!

Think Progress reports:

"Thousands of environmentalists took to California’s state capitol on Saturday to demand Governor Jerry Brown ban hydraulic fracturing, in what is being called the largest anti-fracking mobilization the state has ever seen."

"The process relies heavily on groundwater by injecting a mixture of chemicals and water into rock formations to release oil and gas deposits. California’s recent drought emergency has prompted some lawmakers to push for a statewide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, as a recent Ceres report found that 96 percent of California fracking wells are located in the areas experiencing drought and high water stress."

"The protest, called Don’t Frack California, also attempts to point out that the oil and gas produced from fracking ultimately contributes to climate change, which leading climate scientists have said is the reason why California’s drought has been so bad in the first place."

Also last week a study commissioned by several environmental advocacy groups quantified the risks of earthquakes induced by fracking practices.

Friday, March 14, 2014

We Are Made of Cosmos Stuff

I saw the first episode of the new Cosmos series online this week.  Over at Soul of Star Trek I noted some of my reactions, especially with Star Trek in mind: how the new "spaceship of the imagination" interior looks like the old Enterprise D (from The Next Generation) but before the stuff got installed, and that even this series devoted to science obeys the Trek convention of space ships accompanied by that unscientific whooshing sound as they fly by.  And I note what has gotten the least attention, that the executive producer (and director of the first ep) is Brannon Braga, who was a writer and producer for three Trek series and a couple of features.

I also commented on the Giordano Bruno animated sequence. Unlike the Washington Post's James Downie, my main impression wasn't that the sequence reconciled science and religion by emphasizing Bruno's vision of a bigger universe (the earth orbiting the sun, the stars as other suns with other earths orbiting them) as the expression of a bigger God.  I saw a lot of time spent on various 16th century Christian denominations condemning and persecuting him, ending with a fully animated burning at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition.  That was my takeaway, and for good or ill, it seemed pretty provocative, especially on Fox.   Though the rating suggest not so many Fox watchers were watching.  (He also thought the animation was brilliant, but it looked 1950s to me.)

Besides, as new host Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out, Bruno didn't come to these conclusions based on science, but on a visionary experience. So what does this have to do with suppressing science or reconciling it? Sagan by contrast told a story earlier in his Cosmos about the burning of the library at Alexandria, which was deeply impressive.

Days later, my lingering feeling is that I miss Carl Sagan.  His omnipresence got wearing and his showbiz pizzazz was embarrassing at times, but he could be thrilling ("We are made of star stuff."  I can't forget how he said that line) and above all he was erudite and substantive.

Downie, like me, has Sagan's book version of Cosmos (and we both note there's next to nothing about Bruno in it.)  It's probably not fair to compare the new series to the book--in the introduction, Sagan notes the differences between his series and his book, and how much more detailed and substantive he can be in the book.  But it's a hell of a book. I'll probably watch the rest of the new series online (if I can stomach the same four commercials repeated with increasing frequency--mostly for cars and cosmetics, who do they think is watching this?) But its real gift to me so far is to send me back to Sagan's book. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Pulling An All-Nighter on the Climate Crisis


Twenty-eight Senators (26 Democrats, two Independents) will take to the U.S. Senate floor tonight for an all-night session on the climate crisis.  The talkathon begins at 10 p.m. and goes until 9 on Tuesday morning.

They'll have plenty to talk about.  For instance, the research that confirms the theory and ordinary observation: malaria spreads to higher altitudes with warmer temps, infecting more people.  Another study that shows that hotter climate has already brought deadly new diseases to the Inuit.  Evidence that climate change (Arctic melting in particular) has changed the jet stream, meaning different weather patterns for Europe and North America--perhaps more of what this year has been like.

They're likely to reference the leaked excerpts from the UN report officially out this month on effects of the climate crisis.  The AP report on the leaked draft began:

 Starvation, poverty, flooding, heat waves, droughts, war and disease already lead to human tragedies. They're likely to worsen as the world warms from man-made climate change, a leaked draft of an international scientific report forecasts.

Think Progress then reported: Stanford’s Chris Field, who co-chairs the working group drafting the report, told reporters Monday that “the impacts of climate change that have already occurred are very evident, they’re widespread, they have consequences.” One key point Field made is that we are not prepared for the kind of warming-worsened extreme weather — like floods and droughts — we’re already experiencing: “I think if you look around the world at the damages that have been sustained in a wide range of climate-related events, it’s very clear we’re not prepared for the kinds of event we’re already seeing.”

And someone will doubtlessly illustrate the recent study that found that rising sea levels will eventually destroy more than 700 designated world heritage sites, including Independence Hall, the Tower of London, all of Venice, and...the Statue of Liberty ("drifting away to sea/and I dreamed I was flying...")

Here's the list of Senators scheduled to participate in the all-nighter: Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash. Senator Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.  Senator Barbara
 Boxer, D-Calif. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla. Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md. Senator Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. Senator Mark Udall, D-Colo. 
Senator Tom Udall, D-N.M. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Senator Al Franken, D-Minn. Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn. Senator Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. Senator Angus King, I-Maine, Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va. Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Senator Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Then the Congress will return to its Great Work: voting to repeal Obamacare, squabbling over the appointments of federal judges, and generally screwing around about nothing in order to further enshrine itself, at the worst possible time, as the Worst Congress Ever.