Saturday, June 05, 2010

There are many photos around now of birds saturated in heavy oil, dead, dying or helpless, as a result of the BP oil gusher in the Gulf. At a certain point reproducing them seems indecent, but they must be seen. This one is tragic enough. The more graphic images perhaps must be seen to understand the consequences to other beings, although the images themselves are apparently not sufficient. Even progressive writers and talkers have no vocabulary to recognize other beings--they are "wildlife" or "the environment," just abstractions in the political noise, as they have been in the so-called scientific noise. Governor Bobby Jindal was so intent on making political points that he watched one oiled bird flop around in front of him without trying to help. These beings deserve some dignity as well as recognition. More on this point in the post below.

Bird Brain

I'm fascinated with this interview with a neurobiologist who studies the neurobiology of music. First of all, this is the first instance I've run across of a key scientific finding that started with a viral YouTube video (which I referenced on this site at the time, of Snowball the dancing cockatoo.)

Then there's this suggestive statement: "What do humans have in common with parrots? Both species are vocal learners, with the ability to imitate sounds. We share that rare skill with parrots. In that one respect, our brains are more like those of parrots than chimpanzees." I suspect there is more than this one respect, but it does emphasize the importance of the auditory in humans, especially when visual primacy is so heavily promoted.

I note once again that like too many other human endeavors, science is a prisoner of fashion. Studying the neurobiology involved in making and responding to music is a relatively new field, even though humans have been making and responding to music since probably before they were human. But fashion dictated that music wasn't scientific enough. "One of the founders of this field, Dr. Robert Zatorre, before 2000, he never used the word music in a grant application. He knew it would get turned down automatically because people thought this was not scientific. Instead, he used terms like “complex nonlinguistic auditory processing.”

Finally, the reason that this finding is so earth-shattering is not that it is a new phenomenon, nor one that would especially surprise people who have been around birds a lot. It's the latest in a growing line of corrections to human (scientific) arrogance. Man, the only tool maker and tool user? Not really. Man, the only maker and user of language? Hardly. Now add to that, man, the only musical creature. Not so much. Seriously. That a bird--moreover, a bird that can imitate virtually any sound, including melodies--can dance to a beat has astounded modern science.

It is only because of scientific arrogance--serving the worst of human arrogance--as our species has separated itself from all others. And is now the agent for ridding the planet of other species--thousands of them every year, from plants to our closest genetic relatives.

Indigenous peoples who lived in the same context as other animals learned music from bird song. Their stories and traditions--surviving into the 20th century, as chronicled by Richard Nelson among others--profess the notion, so apparently odd to our official knowledge, that we are not the only beings on the planet. But we are so far away from those other beings that it takes the pomposity of neuroscience to square the circle. We will lose so many of those beings before we figure out once again how to relate to them, or even how to talk about them except as objects and abstractions.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Dreaming Up the Future Daily Quote

"It’s our job as a nation to advocate on behalf of the America that we hope for -- to make decisions that will benefit the next generation -- even if it’s not always popular; even if we can’t always see those benefits in the short-term. We make decisions like this on behalf of our own children every single day. And while it’s harder to do with an entire country as large and diverse as ours, it’s no less important.

The role of government has never been to plan every detail or dictate every outcome. At its best, government has simply knocked away barriers to opportunity and laid the foundation for a better future. Our people -- with all their drive and ingenuity -- always end up building the rest. And if we can do that again -- if we can continue building that foundation and making those hard decisions on behalf of the next generation -- I have no doubt that we will leave our children the America that we all hope for."

President Barack Obama
Pittsburgh, PA
June 2, 2010

Technology and the Politics of Hope

Can technology save the future? There are a lot of answers to that question, such as "Maybe, if we use it right," "If it doesn't, what will?" or "Sure, if we can afford to buy it from China."

Technology can't prevent a lot of what may happen, not anymore. But it can help us deal with it. And it can make everyone's future better than it might otherwise be, while it may still be able to save the farther future. The future is an adventure, and technology should be part of it.

In an eloquent address at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, President Obama described his efforts dealing with the economy in the political context, and as an expression of his philosophy of government. He also talked about the future, the contributions of new technologies, and specifically, the crucial role of renewable energy technologies.

"But there’s no natural lobby for the clean energy company that may start a few years from now," he said. "There’s no natural lobby for the research that may lead to a lifesaving medical breakthrough. There’s no natural lobby for the student who may not be able to afford a college education, but if they got one could end up making discoveries that would transform America and the world.

It’s our job as a nation to advocate on behalf of the America that we hope for -- to make decisions that will benefit the next generation -- even if it’s not always popular; even if we can’t always see those benefits in the short-term."

He praised Pittsburgh as an example of a community working for the future, transforming itself from the rust belt to green technologies, health care and education. "All of this came to be because as a community, you prepared and adapted and invested in a better future -- even if you weren’t always sure what that future would look like."

President Obama also said that putting a price on carbon pollution is essential to creating a new energy economy, and he pledged to support climate and energy legislation. "And, Pittsburgh, I want you to know, the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months. (Applause.) I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can. (Applause.) I will work with anyone to get this done -- and we will get it done."

The Pittsburgh speech was Obama's clearest statement yet as President of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. defined as the politics of hope--the politics that looks forward to the future.

Elements within the U.S., but also efforts elsewhere in the world with stronger government backing, are advancing clean energy technology and capabilities. But as this report shows (among others) is that clean energy is a key to the future of the U.S. economy, not just domestically but in international trade. These opportunities are forging new economic models.

But we are in danger of being left behind. China is advancing more aggressively. Apart from the Climate Crisis itself, this is the greatest challenge to our ability as a nation to safeguard our country's future, and to participate in the world's future.

In a general sense, there are lots of ideas out there for technologies that cooperate with nature rather than fight it. Some combination of them could be revolutionary beyond our imagination, in providing clean energy, in helping us deal with the effects of the Climate Crisis, and even to address its causes directly.

Though we're tempted to see massive projects as evidence of success, the technologies that will give the future the best possibilities will be small-scale, extremely efficient, easy to replicate and use locally by individual families and communities, very hardy, flexible and adaptable.

There are dangerous technologies, too, battling for attention and development money, that appeal to our arrogance. The roles and powers of technology have been themes of thought and art since the dawn of the industrial revolution, and those issues are even more pressing today. We are in many ways dominated now by powerful technologies gone wrong: our extractive energy technologies, our wasteful, destructive and cruel technologies for feeding ourselves, and the other wasteful, destructive and suicidal technologies of our society, such as our technologies of violence and war.

And there is also the apparently strong current--stronger that we might have imagined in this day and age--of opposition to science and the most settled scientific questions. A resurgence of impulses we associate with the Dark Ages. This, too, as much as powerful technologies gone wrong, threatens the future.

In this regard, I am haunted by a scene in the 1953 movie version of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, which relocated the action from England to southern California. At one point, the scientists at Cal Tech trying to study how to defeat the Martian invaders, must evacuate to a lab in the mountains. But before they can get there, a panicked mob waylays their truck, destroys their equipment and injures several of the scientists. I wonder if metaphorically this isn't what's happening now, and I fear it suggests what may happen.

Fortunately at the moment we have a President who has a vision of the future and a commitment to science and knowledge. (Also on Wednesday, while at the White House receiving a Library of Congress award for songwriting, Paul McCartney quipped that "it’s great to have a president who knows what a library is.") He is supported by enough Democratic members of Congress to at least get a bill increasing funding for science and science education passed, despite a pathetically cynical GOPer maneuver.

Technology by itself won't save us. But together with the politics of hope, maybe it can help give the future a chance.

The President says he has no doubt that we will create a better future. I have doubts. But doubts don't matter. What you believe will happen doesn't matter. What matters is believing that working towards a better future in whatever ways you can is how you want to live your life.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Gulf Disaster & the Climate Future: The Shadow Government is You

As the Climate Crisis leaches into Climate Cataclysm, we're likely to see more disasters. Some of them, like hurricanes and other storms, will spend their first fury within a relatively short period of time, with a long aftermath of coping and recovery. Others, like droughts and other climate effects, will be slow-motion catastrophes. Still others will be something in between, similar to the current BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: they will happen and keep happening over time, with effects that are both immediate and long-lasting.

The prospect of such disasters fill us with forboding, because they cause a lot of pain, and often change things for a long time for many people and for a particular place, with some effects continuing forever. But we fear these disasters not only for what hurricanes or whatever forces do, but for what we may do to each other, or not do for each other. And in this regard, Rebecca Solnit has some reassurance, although she also finds some truth in another fear.

San Francisco-based author Rebecca Solnit explores how people responded to historical and contemporary disasters, from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake to hurricane Katrina, in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (Viking.) Her two principal findings contradict conventional expectations, and in Katrina particularly, suggest that what we think we know through media coverage is pretty close to dead wrong.

From movies and TV as well as common philosophies of human nature we expect responses to disasters that range from fearful selfishness to predatory violence. But time after time, as evidenced by reporting and scientific studies, the opposite happens: people share, help each other, and work together, Solnit finds. And despite the dire circumstances, they do so joyfully.

This happened in New Orleans, although this catastrophe wasn’t reported that way. Which follows from Solnit’s second conclusion: authorities like police and military often make matters worse by treating civilians as dangerous criminals, and the media reports from their point of view.

Think of the New Orleans Superdome, which we heard was a nest of violence, gangs, murder and rape. The truth was slower to emerge: no murders, and the "gangs" were often young men who organized to prevent rapes and to “loot” stores—for food, water and supplies, with particular attention to the needs of babies and the elderly. Meanwhile, the people there and elsewhere in New Orleans were all but abandoned by authorities, not only unable to help, but obsessed with keeping order and afraid of the people who looked to them for help. They even discouraged volunteer rescuers. That the New Orleans police and white vigilantes murdered black citizens, often rescuers, is documented and now slowly coming to trials.

Solnit’s book ends before the Haiti earthquake, but reporting from there supports these observations: authorities were often more afraid of ordinary people than they were intent on helping them stay alive.

Solnit’s general conclusion is that the existing system, built on fear, “is mitigated every day by altruism, mutual aid, and solidarity, by the acts of individuals and organizations who are motivated by hope and by love rather than fear. They are akin to a shadow government—another system ready to do more were they voted into power. Disaster votes them in, in a sense, because in an emergency these skills and ties work while fear and divisiveness do not.”

This, frankly, doesn't surprise me. It's not just that people are naturally compassionate. It's that people have capabilities they never get to use, for a purpose they know is good. They are often eager to do so.

The heartening message is the ability and willingness of ordinary people to focus on helping each other, because typically that’s all the help there is for at least the first 48 hours after a big disaster. That's a comfort for those of us in a perennial danger zone, as many of us are (here on the North Coast, a catastrophic earthquake is inevitable, probably within a generation.) But the dismaying message is the tension between authorities and people. The paranoid Rabid Right analysis of police and government has some basis in fact, though as New Orleans shows, the white middle class people promoting it have less to fear than minorities, including the objects of the Rabid Right's Arizxenophobia.

We also see perhaps a new wrinkle on this tendency in the Gulf, where it is a mega-corporation that is pushing people around--including (reportedly) preventing people from wearing protective masks when cleaning up toxic oil and chemicals from the beaches. When police are basically in the employ of corporations--or, as in the case of mercenaries like Blackwater in New Orleans--are corporations themselves, then people and their communities are in danger from the very people that finance Tea Partiers, and that they and their libertarian ideologues support.

At the very least, I hope Solnit's book is read by disaster response planners, government officials, police and the military, and it helps them focus on ways to help people instead of treating them as the enemy.

Don't Forget, Don't Neglect

The media simply isn't covering the biggest economic, cultural, social and political story going, beyond the BP oil Armaggedon: unemployment benefits have run out for an estimated one million Americans, with many more behind them as their benefits run out.

The House has passed an extension, as well as a bill stripping tax breaks for companies that export jobs out of the U.S. But the Senate left Washington on recess without passing it, because of opposition. The arguments against it are counterfactual, as usual--for one thing, the extension is likely to create thousands of new jobs and is a proven economic stimulus. But GOPers and the resurgent Rabid Right is particularly good at the reverse equivalent of the schoolyard taunt, "That's what you are, what am I?" When they sling charges and call names, they're very often saying, That's what I am, what are you? Every time their opponents raise a social justice issue, the GOPers cry "Class War!" When class war is exactly what they are waging. It's the Rich against everybody else.

As Paul Krugman wrote, the latest self-reinforcing congressional delusion is that cutting the deficit is more important than stimulating the economy, and more to the point, helping the victims of The Rich First, Last and Always economy keep their heads above water. "More and more, conventional wisdom says that the responsible thing is to make the unemployed suffer. And while the benefits from inflicting pain are an illusion, the pain itself will be all too real."

Functionally, the deficit is this case is just a reason that the rich might someday get taxed more. This is even clearer here in California, where the poor, the helpless and the old will be abandoned in Ahnold's budget, so that the wealthy--like the Republicans spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their campaigns--won't have to pay for the consequences of their rapaciousness.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Oily News That's Fit to Print: Welcome to the Future

Welcome to the future. More than any event so far, the BP oil disaster is a preview of the near future: A future of consequences, of dreadful crises--often more than one happening at once-- with no easy solutions and maybe no solutions at all, of media panic and Internet hysteria feeding on itself, people feeling pain needing someone to blame, with unrealistic expectations and the propensity to destroy the best they can ever expect to get. A future that will call for courage, imagination and self-awareness, the ability to step back, and to step up, to do what can be done. A future of unlikely and unknown heroes, and of perseverance in the whirlwind of self-destruction.

BP's Top Kill unsurprisingly failed, and as the company gets ready to trot out an even riskier fix, BP is further alienating scientists and the White House. According to this report in the Guardian, BP is challenging scientific findings of underwater oil plumes: "BP's claim is likely only to further anger environmentalists and the White House, which has grown increasingly suspicious of the company's claims to be frank and transparent on developments. The president's environmental adviser and director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, Carol Browner, has accused BP of misstating the scale of the leak."

The Guardian also reports that "the US military has ruled out taking charge of the operation to stem the flow of oil from the blown-out BP rig. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, today said that military chiefs had looked at the available equipment and concluded that "the best technology in the world, with respect to that, exists in the oil industry".

However, the Guardian erroneously reports that "former US secretary of state, Colin Powell, said the military should step in because the crisis was now "beyond the capacity" of BP to stop." What Powell actually said was that the military might be able to help, but that current military leaders would know better if they in fact can.

Another report on the underwater oil:"researchers say the disaster in waters where light doesn't shine through could ripple across the food chain."Every fish and invertebrate contacting the oil is probably dying. I have no doubt about that," said Prosanta Chakrabarty, a Louisiana State University fish biologist.

"Recent discoveries of endangered sea turtles soaked in oil and 22 dolphins found dead in the spill zone only hint at the scope of a potential calamity that could last years and unravel the Gulf's food web."

Dispersing the oil lower into the water column protects beaches, but also keeps it in cooler waters where oil does not break down as fast. That could prolong the oil's potential to poison fish, said Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. "There's a school of thought that says we've made it worse because of the dispersants," he said."

President Obama meets Tuesday "with the leaders of a panel he created to probe the worst oil spill in U.S. history... as a giant slick from BP's blown-out Gulf of Mexico well poses a new threat to the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama."

Also today, "U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will meet with federal prosecutors and state attorneys general in New Orleans. It will be Holder's first trip to survey the damage before what legal experts believe will be a criminal investigation into the disaster."

Meanwhile, the first named storm of the season, Tropical Storm Agatha, killed more than one hundred people in Central America, with torrential rains, and a sinkhole that swallowed a city building.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: 'Too late.'"

Martin Luther King, Jr.