The Glass Half Full

 

“And yet it moves.” Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

In an idiotic stunt on her Fox News television program on September 6, right wing commentator Laura Ingraham thought it would be good fun to upset liberals by sticking plastic straws and incandescent light bulbs into a slab of cooked meat and then sucking on one of the straws. The stunt revealed more about her emotional immaturity and that of her viewers who might have enjoyed the bizarre demonstration than it did about the ultimate worth of the causes she was mocking. That wasn’t her point, of course; the point for people like Ms. Ingraham and her fans is provoking liberals merely for the dubious enjoyment of provoking liberals, an attitude that displays all the maturity of a seventh grader shooting spitballs from the back of a classroom.


Оптимист и пессимист
An Optimist and a Pessimist, an 1893 painting by Vladimir Makovsky (1846-1920).

The unwillingness of bad faith media figures like Laura Ingraham to honestly and substantively discuss issues such as the environment generally, and the Green New Deal in particular, reveals their worries about how environmental initiatives like the Global Climate Strike may disrupt their lives and worldviews, and how because of their fears they resent the people backing the initiatives. They see it all as an infringement on their liberty rather than as a concession to sharing limited resources and playing nice with those unlike themselves. To them, it is not a matter of viewing the relative fullness or emptiness of a glass as it is a matter of resenting the people telling them that for the health of the planet and all its inhabitants, flora as well as fauna, all of us had better accept the situation of a glass not entirely full because constant demands by a relative few for an always full glass are causing environmental degradation and eventually, perhaps sooner rather then later, the glass will be empty for everyone.

But that’s what environmental science is telling us. Getting upset about it or denying it and hiding one’s head in the sand is not going to change it, any more than immature and unhelpful behaviors have ever changed other scientific realities. Worse yet is attacking the messengers in a bad faith attempt to disregard the messages. Why disregard clear, coherent messages? Because they disrupt the status quo for powerful people with vested interests in keeping things as they are, in continuing the business as usual of corporate profiteering at the expense of the long term habitability of the commons. Right wing pundits may not always consciously carry water for corporate exploiters of the environment and of workers, but since their interests often align with them the result is the same. The pundits know their audience is uniquely susceptible to fear and hate mongering, and they peddle those wares regularly to enrich themselves.


In this talk Noam Chomsky gave in April 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts, he looked back at the original New Deal to examine how the Green New Deal promises to change economic relationships while enacting energy and environmental initiatives.

 

The Green New Deal is felt as a threat by right wingers and by entrenched corporate interests because its environmental initiatives will reach into and change the entire economy, and that’s something they cannot help but see any other way than as a negative, a glass half empty. The privileges of white people generally, and of rich people in particular, will be eroded during these economic changes, and that’s a good thing for everyone else and for the planet, because the over extension and abuse of those privileges has been largely responsible for getting all of us into this mess in the first place. No matter how the over privileged feel about the changes, they will have to accept them and get used to them, because the alternative for them is grimmer still, as well as for everyone on our lifeboat Earth as it continues moving around the Sun.
— Izzy

 

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It’s the Journey That Matters

 

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
— from President John F. Kennedy’s “Race for Space” speech delivered before students and faculty of Rice University in Houston, Texas, on September 12, 1962.

 

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the walk on the moon by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, an event witnessed on television by people around the world. The achievement after a decade of hard work and dedication by NASA personnel was enormous, of course, and as a prestigious accomplishment in science and engineering it has not been topped in the 50 years since July 20, 1969.

 

The feature that stands out after a half century is how little the actual landings on the moon, by Apollo 11 and by subsequent missions, has mattered in the lives of people on Earth. It was all the technological and scientific discoveries and advancements made along the way to landing astronauts on the moon which have made the most impact on the lives of many people. Giving astronauts prominence before the public and making them integral to the Apollo program garnered public support while increasing the expense and difficulty of the missions. Having the Apollo astronauts bound around the surface of the moon for a few hours and gather up some rocks made a comparatively small impact on the wealth of scientific and technical knowledge NASA reaped from the program, while keeping up public interest and support.

NASA Earthrise AS08-14-2383 Apollo 8 1968-12-24
“Earthrise”, a photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders aboard Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968.

Of all the insights common people gained from the Apollo program, perhaps none made a greater impression overall than the famous “Earthrise” photograph taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on December 24, 1968. In the foreground is what astronaut Buzz Aldrin would seven months later call the “magnificent desolation” of the moon, and viewed from a distance of about 240,000 miles, in a perspective never before seen by anyone on Earth, is the partially sunlit Earth, our home, appearing fragile and jewel-like in the black emptiness of space.

That picture and the emotions it stirred gave impetus and urgency to the environmental movement, and before the end of 1970 people around the world recognized the first Earth Day and in the United States the Environmental Protection Agency began operations. To strive for a decade to land astronauts on the moon, increasing knowledge and spurring progress all along the way, and then to have those astronauts turn around and look back toward the earth, sharing that view with everyone, that was perhaps the greatest legacy of the Apollo space program.
— Techly


The opening sequence of the 1982 meditative documentary Koyaanisqatsi depicts the Holy Ghosts portion of the Great Gallery pictograph in Horseshoe Canyon in Utah, followed by the liftoff of Apollo 11 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969. Godfrey Reggio directed the film, Ron Fricke was the cinematographer, and Philip Glass wrote the music. The title comes from the Hopi language and the film makes oblique and direct references to Hopi prophecies, or warnings; and while the Great Gallery pictograph did not originate with the Hopi, they believe it and other pictographs in the Four Corners region are the work of their ancestors and they hold them sacred.

 

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The Generation Gap

 

“Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”
— Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Some sociologists have disproved the widely held notion that people become more conservative as they get older, and while that may be the case, and therefore old does not necessarily equal conservative, statistics verify there is still a generation gap between the percentages of older and younger people who vote. Old people turn out to vote in a higher percentage for their age group than young people do in their age group. Old for our purpose here is over 50, which encompasses Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation, and the Greatest Generation. Young is under 50, which includes Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z.

 

The two largest demographic groups of voting age are Baby Boomers and Millennials. In this year, Millennials will surpass Baby Boomers in numbers as Baby Boomers continue dying out. For all that, the voice of Baby Boomers at voting time remains louder than that of Millennials, because the percentage of Baby Boomers who vote remains higher than the percentage of Millennials who vote. Baby Boomers remain in control of the leadership and apparatus of both major political parties, and that led to the debacle of the 2016 presidential election.

March for Our Lives Fox News
The March for Our Lives protest took place on 24 March 2018 in Washington, D.C., and other cities, when hundreds of thousands of students and others marched to demand common sense gun control in the wake of deadly school shootings in the United States. Photo by Mobilus In Mobili.

In the Democratic Party, leadership foisted Hillary Clinton on everyone, and she turned out to be a candidate with little appeal to voters outside of the Coasts and the big cities, a fact that polling consistently pointed out heading into the election, but which the Democratic leadership chose to ignore. For the Republican Party, the crowded field of candidates in the early primaries allowed the demagogue who eventually overtook the field to win with vote percentages only in the teens and twenties, and with that he was able to pick off his rivals one by one, aided by high amounts of free media coverage for his outrageous comments and behavior.

In the end, we got the president we deserved, we meaning all of us, voters and non-voters alike. A dismal statement, but one we need to come to terms with by election day in November 2020. It seems we have all overestimated the liberal leanings of Baby Boomers as a group, and perhaps popular culture is responsible. News coverage of Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and ’70s, the enormous changes in fashion and entertainment, the weekly confrontations on television’s All in the Family between Baby Boomer Mike “Meathead” Stivic and his Greatest Generation father-in-law, Archie Bunker, all may have contributed to a perception of Baby Boomers as liberal overall.

Looking at national Democratic Party leadership since Baby Boomers took over with the election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992, it’s difficult to deny they are in most ways more conservative than their predecessors of the Greatest Generation and particularly going back to Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) a generation earlier. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were certainly more liberal than Bill Clinton. FDR’s policies would be considered dangerous socialism today, which is why candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whose policy proposals are in line with what FDR might have done, are considered too far left by Democratic Party leadership, and therefore unelectable.

Enumerating goals can be difficult, as demonstrated here in a television skit by Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

In the Republican Party, attitudes have shifted so far right since Baby Boomers took over with leaders like Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney that even Richard Nixon, in whose administration Mr. Cheney first took part, might not have a chance to be elected president these days as a Republican. Too liberal! Dwight Eisenhower, in whose administration Mr. Nixon served as Vice President in the 1950s, would be considered by today’s Republican Party leadership, and assuredly by the MAGA (Make America Great Again) crowd, as a RINO (Republican In Name Only), despite the era he presided over being the one they pine for.

There is no evidence to suggest Millennials are overall more liberal than Baby Boomers, but unlike Baby Boomers they do appear willing to act on the most pressing concerns for humanity, starting with climate change. Unless we take action on climate change now, nothing else matters. Next is growing wealth inequity, because that leads to many other problems, among them being affordability of health care for all. Population growth also needs to be addressed, because Earth’s resources are not infinite, much as delusional capitalist economic modelers like to pretend otherwise.



A satirical public service announcement from the Knock the Vote project. Warning: foul language.

 

Down the list but hanging over every creature on Earth is the bugaboo of all generations alive since 1945 – nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are down the list because while they are obviously capable of ending everything quickly, they may be the hardest nut to crack on account of their continued proliferation being due to human nature. Addressing these problems requires becoming informed, and voting as well as activism, and it is up to Millennials to rise to the challenges their forebears have been reluctant to grasp. It’s time for Baby Boomers to let go of power if they cannot or will not contribute to battling the world’s most pressing problems, though we know it’s human nature to cling to power, and usually the grave provides the only means of separation.
— Ed.

 

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Only the Best People

 

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
— Maya Angelou

In a recent poll conducted by Civic Science, 56% of Americans responded “No” when asked if Arabic numerals should be taught in the nation’s schools. Such breathtaking ignorance, as well as presumed bigotry, is enough to make the other 44% of Americans take to alcohol. Algebra would be more difficult without using Arabic numerals, even if there are a lot of letters mixed into the formulas. Substituting Roman numerals would only make the subject more confusing.


Civic Science also asked if the “creation theory of Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre” should be taught in science classes, and 53% said “No”, and of that percentage 73% were Democrats. That theory is actually the basis of the Big Bang theory. While the responses of the majority to both questions point up biases, the two questions do not do it in exactly the same way and therefore the responses are not entirely equivalent.

Arabic Numerals origin
The evolution of Arabic numerals, from top to bottom. Rendering by Vispec.

The key word in the first question is “Arabic”, a term for people living predominantly in North Africa and the Middle East, most of whom are Muslim. By itself, the term describes only an ethnic group. Loading “Arabic” with negative bias is entirely the work of those responding to the term. The wording of the poll question does a good job of not giving anything away to tilt respondents’ attitudes toward the term.

The wording of the other question does not do as good a job since it includes the loaded phrase “creation theory”. It is most likely the case that most respondents had never heard of Georges Lemaitre and his “creation theory”. It is also most likely the case, however, that they had heard the phrase “creation theory” before, a phrase freighted with associations to fundamentalist Christian pseudo-science, even if it was more widely known as “Creationism”.

In as much as the respondents to both questions were reacting with knee jerk tribalism to a word or phrase embedded in each question without really understanding the question, then they are equivalent in their wrong-headedness. In both cases, a more truthful response would have been “Don’t know”, although apparently the poll takers offered only “No opinion” as a third option, a slightly different idea in logic, and not in mere semantics. In that way, both questions tease out the victory of tribalism over knowledge, but it is only the majority responses to the question about “Arabic numerals” that betray bigotry as well as ignorance, much as some might say they are part of the same continuum.

A clip from the “Primacy of Number” section of the 2002 meditative documentary Naqoyqatsi: Life as War. Philip Glass wrote the music, Godfrey Reggio directed the film, and Jon Kane did the editing.

There are a fair amount of assumptions here in parsing the answers to these two deceptively simple polling questions, and assumptions after all play a big part in bigotry. There are also the words of wisdom from the poet Maya Angelou which led this post. We can make educated inferences based on our experience and not have them fall into the well of roiling, unreasoning emotional assumptions and inferences that is bigotry. We can wake up and smell the coffee, as it were, to what only the best people, as they would have us believe they are, are up to in their bad faith quest to subvert the best intentions and best efforts of many, many others to improve human and animal lives and conserve the gifts of the Earth.
— Ed.

 

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Hepcats Build Green

 

“A person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns esp. in music; characterized by a keen informed awareness of or interest in the newest developments.”
— definition of a Hepcat from The World of Swing, Newsletter #2, October 2000.

An 18 story building in Brumunddal, Norway, has taken over the title of world’s tallest timber building after its completion this month. The construction firm Moelven Limitre used cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glued laminated timber (Glulam) to assemble the building’s structural elements. Until the recent development of laminated wood products capable of bearing heavy loads (unlike plywood, another laminated wood product), building heights of more than four or five stories were simply not possible using a wooden structure. For constructing buildings in the middle range of story heights, wood may be a greener alternative than steel, concrete, and brick, all of which have high environmental impacts in their production.

 

The good news in green building is that there are more options than ever, certainly more than the few allotted to the three little pigs in the story for children. Some of these, like straw bale building, will likely never be more than niche choices because of building code hurdles, expense of materials or labor in installation, or maintenance difficulties. Unusual building choices also often require specialized knowledge in their implementation if they are to be successful, and that can add to cost as well as scare off those unwilling to try something with a relatively high chance of failure. Working with wood or with steel and concrete has the advantage of familiarity, even considering new contrivances like wood laminates.

Straw bale house x - Dyssekilde økolandsby ecovillage Denmark
A straw bale house in Denmark. Photo by Øyvind Holmstad.

Anyone in decent physical condition with access to a supply of timber and a hammer and saw could assemble a wooden building using balloon framing, also known as stick building. Since stick building was typically limited to two or three stories at most, it was best used for residential or small business construction. Building with brick or concrete, and especially with steel, required more knowledge and experience, but the buildings could be made much higher than wooden stick buildings, and so they were more suitable for large commercial enterprises and apartment buildings. For all of the twentieth century there existed a bifurcation in building types and uses based on the divide between materials and the expertise and expense involved in assembling them.

 


The Emlen Physick House in Cape May, New Jersey, designed in 1879 in the “Stick Style” by architect Frank Furness. Library of Congress photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

Now there is a crossing of the lines, and helpfully it is the search for green options that appears to be causing architects, builders, and the ultimate occupants of the buildings to cross them. For more people than ever before, it is important that a new way of building and living incorporate materials and methods that leave a lighter footprint on the Earth. Certainly the pricing for these novel uses will be high, at least at first, and affordable only to elites, but that’s alright since historically it has been elites who, per capita, have had the heaviest footprints. There are far more poor people than rich people, unfortunately, and in the aggregate they demand a lot of resources, but individually their requisites are relatively light. In the nineteenth century, the Plains Indians required only a few buffalo hides for their individual shelter, while a Manhattan plutocrat deemed it necessary to amass expensive materials from every corner of the Earth to plop himself and his family down in an enormous mansion on 5th Avenue.

An imaginative 1957 reframing of “The Three Little Pigs” by a wonderful ensemble of animators, musicians, and storytellers.

If conspicuous consumption gives way to conspicuous greening then that’s a move in the right direction, and if prices and usage comes down to the level of ordinary folks, it will have become a movement. It’s definitely better for everyone if builders start looking at environmental impacts as equal to or greater than the lowest possible cost for everything, and consequently the highest possible profit for themselves. That should apply most of all to manufactured housing, typically the lowest cost option of all, but also often the most dangerous to its occupants because of the prevalence of noxious materials, heavy reliance on energy for heating and cooling, and flimsy construction. After Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, a movement started to design and build quality, humble cottages for the poor, and that movement needs rejuvenation if large gains are ever to be made in going green because the idea behind them would change whole neighborhoods and cities eventually, from the ground up rather than the top down, the way green grows naturally.
— Izzy

 

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From Small Beginnings

 

Spring is around the corner, and with it comes the urge in some people to sow seeds or buy plants. Arbor Day follows in April, on the 26th, and some folks may be tempted then to plant a tree. Or many trees. In the last 20 years the Chinese and Indians have planted millions of trees in their countries, and NASA has noted from space the greening of those places on Earth. China and India also happen to be contributing greatly to air pollution as they industrialize and their inhabitants adopt a First World lifestyle, and their planting of trees does not entirely offset that, but still the result is better than if they had done nothing.

Rose, Jean Giono, バラ, ジャン ジオノ, (15434937527)
Rosa ‘Jean Giono’, a hybrid tea rose introduced by the French hybridizer Alain Meilland in 1996. Photo by T.Kiya. The Meilland firm created the renowned ‘Peace’ hybrid tea rose in 1935. Hybrid tea roses are undeniably beautiful, but that beauty often comes at a cost in deficiencies in other areas such as disease resistance. It is tempting to resort to various nasty concoctions in order to keep them looking their best. Either find a better way, or don’t grow them at all and seek out hardier heirloom roses grown on their own roots instead.

 

Live in an apartment with no outside space at all? You can’t plant a full size tree, though there are palms and ornamental figs that fit the bill on a small scale. Growing plants indoors helps clean the air every bit as much as outdoor plants, leaf for leaf. Have a small space outside, perhaps on a sunny balcony? Consider planting one rose bush in a pot to itself that you can pamper like the Little Prince with his single rose, and then cut down to a few short canes in preparation for bringing inside for the winter. Have some outdoor space left over? Plant one or two patio variety tomato plants and add some herbs at their feet.

The point is to do something, and not to allow the scale of global problems overwhelm you into paralysis. People have similar fears about political action, even something as basic as voting. What use is my tiny contribution, they ask. Well, it’s something; it’s better than nothing. Earth Day is also coming up, on April 22, and instead of dwelling on the impossibility of one person saving the entire Earth, it would be more practical to grow at least one plant. Sow a seed, even one as insignificant as a mustard seed. You might discover after a while that in taking one small action to nurture life close to home you have saved more than you imagined possible, starting with yourself.
— Izzy


This is the entire 30 minute Canadian animated film by Frédéric Back that was released in 1987 and won the Academy Award in 1988 for Best Animated Short Film. It is based on a 1953 allegorical tale by the French author, Jean Giono, about a shepherd who sowed tens of thousands of tree seeds in a barren area in the foothills of the French Alps during the first half of the twentieth century.

 

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Buy Low, Rent High

 

“Only one in four households that is income-eligible for federal housing assistance receives any. The annual cost to taxpayers of the federal income tax deductions for home mortgage interest and property taxes, which mainly benefit relatively affluent households, is double what the government spends on all lower-income housing programs combined.”
Stockton Williams, executive director of the Terwilliger Center for Housing at the Urban Land Institute.

On February 28, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed into law a statewide rent control bill, the first of its kind in the nation. The provisions of the bill put a cap on yearly rent price increases at a percentage above inflation, and do not apply to all rental units. Tenants’ rights groups believe the bill is better than nothing and puts an end to price gouging in a tight housing market, and they will continue to push for a more comprehensive bill in the future.


The Condition of Laboring Man at Pullman 1894
Political cartoon from the Chicago Labor newspaper from July 7, 1894, showing the condition of the laboring man at the Pullman Company. The 1894 Pullman Strike was a pivotal event in redressing the imbalance between labor and capital during the first Gilded Age. In the current second Gilded Age, weakened labor unions have had difficulty increasing wages for members, and the ad hoc affiliation Fight for $15 has achieved piecemeal success.

 

Arguments over whether rent control laws really work in favor of tenants go back and forth between the usual advocates for the free market on one side and advocates for at least limited government intervention on the other. “Supply and demand” is the linchpin for argument. Points less noted are low wages and income inequality, as in too many people have too little money while the rich continue accumulating more for themselves. And with more money comes more power in equal measure.

Free market arguments ignore how over time the rich, with help from their friends in government, put their thumbs on the scales of capitalism, creating an ever more favorable environment for themselves. To conceal from the lower classes how they are being preyed upon, the rich and their enablers in academia and government concoct formulas such as “a rising tide lifts all boats”, and “trickle down economics”. The Earth is not an infinite place with infinite resources, however, and even if it were, the rich in their greed would still grab for themselves with one hand while swatting the lower orders with the other hand. In their pathology, it’s just as important that others haven’t enough as it is that they have too much.

 

The same Wall Street financiers and speculators who created the housing bubble and consequent financial crisis in 2008 are responsible for skyrocketing rental prices around the country. None of them went to jail or were even indicted and prosecuted, and they were free to take advantage of the mess they had created by using their wealth to buy up property at rock bottom prices, helping themselves to favorable government regulations they themselves had largely written. That is more than just putting a thumb on the scale, it is sitting on it like a fat cat. It’s not unusual for the rich to profit off an economic downturn because they have the money to buy when everyone else needs to sell to have any money at all. This latest example of the rich getting richer has simply been more blatant and egregious than in previous financial crises.


A World War II era sign declaring rent control rules in some localities, a program administered nationwide by the Office for Emergency Management during the war and for several years afterward to prevent price gouging.

Conservative pundits are likely to denigrate rent control laws as socialism, while praising the free market ideal of supply and demand in the housing market for setting rental prices. The problem they choose to ignore, or are possibly even ignorant of, is that the free market ideal has been a dead letter for a long time in America, if it ever actually existed outside of economics text books in the first place. What we have now is a crony capitalist system run by corporate and financial oligarchs who bend government regulations in their favor. They write the rules to benefit themselves. They ran the housing market into the ground, and then scooped up everything at bargain prices and started charging sky high rents. If renters balked at the high prices, it didn’t matter, because they had no other options. Meanwhile, the building industry limped along, maintaining the housing shortage that keeps rents high. Supply and demand economics of, by, and for the fat cats.
— Ed.

 

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A Low Profile

 

Last week there were reports in astronomy news of the detection of anomalous fast radio bursts from another galaxy for only the second time ever. That doesn’t necessarily mean the bursts have happened only two times in the history of humanity, merely that it was the second time humanity has detected them. Astronomers have no explanation for the source of the bursts, only conjectures, among them the possibility of intelligent origin.

Starr-110524-5707-Dubautia menziesii-habitat view observatories Pan Starrs-Science City-Maui (25002442771)
The Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) Observatory atop Mount Haleakala on the island of Maui, Hawaii, where astronomers first observed and then named the interstellar object, Oumuamua. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

 

Intelligent origin of unexplained phenomena can never be ruled out until it is, of course, otherwise explained. All the same, there are likely and less likely explanations based on experience. The scientific method narrows down the possibilities, and it saves time, money, and energy to investigate the most likely possibilities first, rather than looking into unusual ones. Is a tuft of hair snagged on a tree branch from a bear or from Bigfoot? Everyone already knows of bears, while the existence of Bigfoot remains the source of speculation. It makes more sense for an investigator to analyze the tuft of hair to see if it came from a bear than it does to try linking it to a being for which there is no other physical evidence, and then to move on from there.

Likewise the investigation of interstellar anomalies. For now, astronomers could attribute the fast radio bursts to an extraterrestrial intelligence, but since any evidence for the existence of such intelligence remains in dispute, astronomers will no doubt look into purely natural sources first. A case in point was the appearance in the solar system in 2017 of the interstellar object Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word meaning “first messenger”, given it because a University of Hawaii observatory discovered the object and astronomers conjectured it was the first interstellar object observed by humanity to transit the solar system.

News reports latched onto musings by some astronomers that the object could be a scout sent ahead by an extraterrestrial civilization. Certainly it could have been that, and the object’s unusual size and behavior as it moved through space prompted the astronomers’ musings. But the conjecture was never more than an aside in otherwise sober scientific report. It was interesting speculation which was ultimately debunked by observation of Oumuamua when it came nearer the inner solar system before leaving the neighborhood in 2018.

It is still best to keep an open mind to the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence either broadcasting a signal of its existence or taking notice of the Earth and investigating. It goes without saying that the universe is a such a vast place that it would be folly to think life exists only on this one planet. The intelligence of some of the life on Earth remains open to interpretation. The Hawaiians lived on the most isolated archipelago on the planet, and yet one day in 1778 two strange ships appeared over the horizon of the vast ocean surrounding their home islands and the Englishmen aboard those ships, led by Captain James Cook, changed their lives forever, and in many ways not for the better.


People have only their own experience by which to judge how a first contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence might develop; anything else is conjecture about less likely outcomes, like guessing whether Bigfoot might prefer classical music over hip-hop. Is there anything in the human experience to suggest that first contact of a less technologically advanced civilization with a previously unknown, more powerful civilization would be anything but traumatic for the former? And considering that humanity is still taking baby steps toward the stars, it is perhaps wise to guess a first contact at this point would put Earth’s people at a disadvantage. There is no evidence on which to base the conjecture that more advanced civilizations would also be more benevolent than we ourselves have been in dealing with the less powerful. Experience of people on Earth with each other suggests otherwise.

Robinson Crusoe Wyeth 1920
An illustration of Robinson Crusoe by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) for a 1920 edition of Daniel Defoe’s classic fictional tale of a sailor marooned on an island off South America. Crusoe has the island to himself and yearns for human company, yet when he encounters the primitive man whose footprints Crusoe discovers unexpectedly in the beach sand, he abuses his greater power in order to enslave the man.

The Hawaiians living in splendid isolation in 1778 did not have the advantage of being able to see farther than their own eyes could see. It’s ironic that partly because of the isolation of the islands they make nearly ideal posts for astronomical observatories which can see light years into interstellar space. It seems nothing can stop progress, however, whether good or bad. Even if the Hawaiians had seen Cook’s ships coming from farther off than the horizon, they could not have stopped them. At most they could have prepared themselves for the inevitable, if such a thing is possible. It’s highly unlikely they would have signaled the ships since it appears the Hawaiians were generally content and had no need of strangers. Some people on Earth feel differently about the situation now after humans have fouled the nest, but still it is perhaps best not to look abroad for saviors since their good intentions are not assured, and instead limit ourselves to quiet observation and keeping a low profile while gathering evidence. In the meantime, we had best act as our own saviors here on Earth, imperfect as we are, or future generations will condemn our stargazing as a fool’s errand.
— Ed.

 

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Crossing the Threshold

 

The latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report lays out a stark timeline for how long we have to reduce our carbon emissions to avoid crossing the threshold of a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature leading to catastrophic effects for life on Earth. Paraphrasing the report, at present levels of emissions we have until 2030, or 2050 at the very latest. To avoid the worst case scenario, we will need to cut emissions in half by 2030, and cut them entirely by 2050. Given the conservative political and capitalist landscape prevalent today, meeting those targets does not seem likely.

Siberian wedding
A wedding party crosses a street in 2006 in Oulan-Oudé, Republic of Bouriatia, Siberia, Russia. Photo by Cyrille (Suleiman) Romier.

Since national governmental and business leaders will not take the initiative on this issue because it conflicts with the greed of the status quo, it will be up to local leaders and citizens to address the problem. There will be calls to use technology, such as geoengineering, and wholesale adoption of driverless cars and electric vehicles. Those are attempts at a fix that are best implemented by national organizations on a large scale, and cannot be relied on considering the need for national consensus and funding. Geoengineering may work to a limited degree, though it would certainly be subject to the law of unintended consequences. Tweaking the worldwide car culture would have more limited effects since improving the efficiency of how cars are driven and shifting their emissions from the tailpipe to the smokestack would ultimately amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

A scene in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, directed by John Schlesinger and starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, depicts New York City’s thriving pedestrian culture. Warning: foul language.

What’s needed is a wholesale change in the approach to daily living, particularly among the citizens of the world’s wealthier countries. Start with walking. Every day, everywhere. Build sidewalks. Get cars, driverless, electric, or otherwise, off the roads entirely. Bring back public transportation for trips that are impractical for walking. People will have to demand improvements in public transportation and pedestrian infrastructure through their votes and their dollars, rather than waiting on public officials and corporate executives to make the necessary changes. As a quote popularly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi has it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And as he did, walk if you can, for yourself and for change in the world.
— Techly

 

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Heaven Smells of Bread Baking

 

“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.”M.F.K. Fischer (1908-1992)

Supermarkets are often not the most appealing places, despite the efforts of the owners to entice buying by using attractive layouts and presentations, but the one biggest sales pitch they can offer is a byproduct of their work, and it is the alluring smells emanating from the bakery section, early in the morning especially. It is an amazing occurrence that in an otherwise stale, uninteresting place, the aroma of bread baking should catch our noses and take us to a comforting place of memory or imagination and draw us toward it, if not to buy, to at least inquire of the baker what is in the oven at the moment that is wafting toward us such heavenly smells.


Bread-Baking (Charlotte Mannheimer) - Nationalmuseum - 21782
Bread-Baking, an 1895 painting by Charlotte Mannheimer (1866-1934).

The sense of smell is more closely and directly tied to the sense of taste and of memory than are the senses of vision, hearing, or touch, and that is understandable when we consider that it is a chemical sense which cuts to the essence of things quickly. No one, after all, has suffered intestinal distress from eating something merely because it looked unappetizing. Should I eat this? It looks okay and doesn’t feel strange other than being a bit soft, and of course it doesn’t sound like anything, but it smells a little off. No, I will not eat it. Useful information to have before putting the substance in one’s mouth and possibly ingesting something sickening. It’s why smell is tied so closely to taste that people who have lost the sense of smell, as can happen in old age, also lose the sense of taste, and therefore appetite.

Why smell and memory should be linked tightly together is more of a mystery. An American who has visited France and smelled the aroma of freshly baked baguettes might have memories of that visit elicited unbidden simply by walking past an excellent bakery in this country early in the morning as various breads are baking in the shop. The nose will pick out the one particular smell and, with its direct link to memory, evoke that long ago trip anew. What evolutionary purpose could that serve? It perhaps rings back to a time when we weren’t the highly visual creatures we are now, and instead relied on smell to tell us whether something we were encountering currently had positive or negative connotations in our memory.

Bread for sale at Granville Island Markets
Freshly baked bread for sale at Granville Island Markets in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Schellack.

It’s helpful to realize that the connection of the sense of smell with the brain takes place at the core level, whereas the sense of sight was layered onto the brain later in our development. That should also help explain why the inextricable connection between smell and memory often eludes our ability to describe it in language, a much later cognitive development even than sight. Smell, it seems, bypasses our more sophisticated powers and goes directly to our emotions, the core of our animal being that we share with millions of other creatures on Earth. When we smell good bread baking, we don’t need to intellectually analyze our reactions our wax poetic about it, describing the situation in a million flowery words, because our brains, nervous systems, and our entire bodies take care of telling us what we need to know. For many of us, our involuntary reactions of mouth watering and imagining of savory yellow butter melting into warm slices of bread will lead us into the shop to make a purchase, staving off for the day the hunger of the beast within us, and rewarding us with pleasant memories for days in the future when that heaven-sent smell wafts our way again.
— Izzy

 

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