Saturday, May 23, 2015

pillowcase talk

I may be alone in this but I have a particular fondness for old sheets, ones that have been washed so many times that their touch is like an instant return to the security of childhood. In those days sheets were washed, hung out on a line to dry, and often ironed before being put away in a cupboard to air. In fact, I learned to iron by practicing on pillowcases and my father's handkerchiefs. I'm not even sure anyone irons anything anymore, or at least not often and even then, probably not sheets and handkerchiefs. Not even me. But I do have some old sheets that I like a lot. A few days ago when I was making the bed I must have tugged a little too hard on the top sheet as I pulled it into place because, before I knew it, a large part of the top band had separated from the rest. Oh dear. While trying to imagine how I might fix that one I got another set of sheets from the cupboard. All went well until I shook one of the pillows into its case and the pillow bounded across the bed while I was left holding the band. Oops. Dammit. I hate it when that happens.

So it turned out to be time to go to the department store, one of those activities that hasn't been that much fun for me these past few/many years, but occasionally necessary. Happily, sheet buying hasn't become any more complicated than I remember - at least not at a still old-fashioned place like Sears. Of course, I could have purchased my sheets online and had them delivered too, but I'd rather see them first. Speaking of online purchasing, did you ever foresee the day you'd be asked to give the book, dvd, or widget you'd ordered a starred and/or written review? It seems this has become such an entertaining activity for bored (or broke) shoppers that there are number of people who have taken up reviewing as a hobby. Sometimes I wonder if the reason for this is that we like to have some input and, since we're more used to being known as consumers these days rather than citizens, it gives us a place to express our frustrations with the system.

Anyway, it's time I begin training two new sets of sheets. Maybe I'll iron them - if I can remember where I stored the iron.

ps: Some very good news I read yesterday is that the government of France has made it a law that all grocery stores must donate unsold food to charity. It's a start.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

dream stream

This is another of those pictures of mine that has no story attached - at least none that I'm able (or willing) to tell. While there are earlier pictures it still seems to me there there are some missing, ones that would add more depth to what's turning out to be a strictly visual narrative. I'm liking the dog more and more and make no bones of the fact they are my favorite species (naturally, Crow doesn't count). Over the years I've had two canine friends of my own, but none now and none for a long time. Full-time jobs and apartment living don't combine to make a happy environment for a being that needs both love and regular outdoor exercise.

German shepherd or poodle, it's funny to think that all dogs are closely related to wolves. How they came to appear so diverse makes a fascinating exercise in considering just how long they have been close to us and one could make a somewhat reasonable argument that dogs and people began evolving together some thirty thousand years ago. Just as most dogs don't look like wolves neither do we (again, most of us) resemble Cro-Magnons, the people who first welcomed dogs to their caves and camps.

There are lots of theories, but one among them written by Donald A. Mackenzie, (1873-1936) in a book called 'Ancient Man In Britain' caught my attention:

The introduction of the domesticated dog may have influenced the development of religious beliefs. Cro-Magnon hunters appear to have performed ceremonies in the depths of caverns where they painted and carved wild animals, with purpose to obtain power over them. Their masked dances, in which men and women represented wild animals, chiefly beasts of prey, may have had a similar significance. The fact that, during the Transition Period, a cult art passed out of existence, and the caves were no longer centres of culture and political power, may have been directly or indirectly due to the domestication of the dog and the supremacy achieved by the intruders who possessed it.  There can be no doubt that the dog played its part in the development of civilization. As much is suggested by the lore attaching to this animal. It occupies a prominent place in mythology. The dog which guided and protected the hunter in his wanderings was supposed to guide his soul to the other world.

It was Will Rogers who said, “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went”.

and Woodrow Wilson suggested that, “If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience.”

That the NDP can win big in Alberta proves miracles still happen!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

climate control Crow

Here's another of those hastily made travel postcards sent by Crow after he viewed one of the proposals put forward by the Gates Foundation toward geoengineering a solution to Anthropogenic Global Warming. The device you see is a very very large vessel that will suck up ocean water and blast it into the atmosphere in an attempt to make clouds. Projects similar to this, called Albedo Modification, are proposed to reflect sunlight back into space through one or all of several methods. The wildest one is the idea of using orbiting space mirrors to deflect the sun's rays (unknown weather effects, fails to prevent acidifying oceans); another is to spray aerosols into the stratosphere (risk of ozone depletion as well as unknown weather effects and ocean acidification); cloud seeding by using atomised sea water (same possible negative consequences). 

A number of other geoengineering proposals have been suggested including fertilizing the ocean with iron filings to stimulate plankton growth or pouring tons of ground limestone into the sea to absorb CO₂. The effects on the ecosystems by these methods are also unknown.

Naturally enough, Crow had some thoughts to share about all this that he appears to have written on a number of tiny scrolls that began arriving by carrier pigeon earlier today. Here are a few I've been able to decipher so far:

First and foremost, the idea of geoengineering is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what climate is, and why it is important. Although I have the greatest respect for many climate scientists and engineers, most do not understand ecology, or have a particularly good grasp of it. I have not, for instance, found any of them flying with condors or guarding eagle nests.

The failure in thinking about geoengineering is it wrongly assumes that the only issue is temperature, and that if you simply bring the temperature back down, then the problem is solved. This is so ecologically naive that I may need a shot of brandy before I start. Ahh, there - deep breath. Even if geoengineering did manage to bring the temperature down, it is likely to fundamentally change how ecosystems experience climate, or have other serious ecological impacts - ones that are inherently unpredictable and likely to cause far more problems than they solve. Ecosystems don't just experience climate in terms of crude average temperature. There's the amount of sunlight, precipitation, wind strength, wind direction, humidity and so on. In crude terms, it would be creating another type of climate change.

Geoengineering is based on the credulous concept that the world is rather like a giant room, and you can just raise or lower the temperature, and the rest or room stays the same. In reality, ecosystems interact with the climate in very complex and circular ways. They not only are effected by climate, but they also effect the climate. The geoengineering concept is based on a fundamental failure to understand the dynamic and highly interlinked nature of the natural environment and natural ecosystems. Any whale or dolphin could tell you this.

Geoengineering is essentially a convoluted form of denial saying that humanity should carry on as usual, to the extent of taking absurd gambles to try and control the climate. Missing the 'big picture' entirely, this thinking does not take into account that the present economic model (and industrialization) is highly unsustainable, even if climate change never existed. There is ongoing massive biodiversity loss, ocean depletion, the depletion of natural resources like water, human  population growing out of control, and a 1001 other environmental problems, which geoengineering will not address, and might make worse. It is an artifact of people who reject the idea that the global system has to change to make it environmentally and ecologically sustainable. 

Anticipate my early return, dear susan, and a period of relaxed enjoyment when we can discuss these matters more fully. Meanwhile, you may feel free to share my thoughts with our friends. Please keep the brandy warm and the fruitcake moist.

Your Crow

ps: Perhaps they should try their experiments in an environment where no living beings are likely to be hurt - Mars, for instance.

On a lighter note, here's some video evidence that sometimes a regular person can make a difference. You can see it now and I'll show it to Crow when I see him:

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21 or CMP11 will be held in Paris, France in 2015. The objective of the 2015 conference is to achieve, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, a binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.

Shall we keep our fingers crossed?

Saturday, April 18, 2015


 Here is the latest in the mysterious ongoing adventure of a girl child and her not always entirely faithful canine companion. It could well be said of him: "I'm a good dog, but sometimes I do bad things." I'm still not sure where this journey is headed - time will tell.. or maybe not.

Meanwhile, I found myself reading some mystery novels by Oakley Hall about his only mildly fictionalized version of Ambrose Bierce, a writer very famous in 19th century America who lived through several battles in the Civil War. The experience left him somewhat jaded. In 1914, in his early 70s, Ambrose Bierce went to Mexico to participate in Pancho Villa's revolution, a journey from which he never returned.

The first chapters of the books I read all began with quotes from Ambrose Bierce's 'Devil's Dictionary'. I thought you might enjoy reading a few of them:

“Apologize: To lay the foundation for a future offence.”

“Bore, n.: A person who talks when you wish him to listen.”

“Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum -- "I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;" as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made.”

“Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”

“Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are not as they ought to be.”

“Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.”

“Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.”

“Inhumanity, n. One of the signal and characteristic qualities of humanity.”

“Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.”

“Ocean, n. A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man — who has no gills.”

“Patience – A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”

“Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.”

“Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.”

“Selfish, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.”

“Sweater, n. Garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly.”

Good wishes to all until next time,
and yes, not only is the snow going fast, but yesterday I saw the first stinkweed flower of spring. Although they may not be as beautiful as snowdrops and crocus, they were a welcome sight.

Monday, April 13, 2015

our singular satellite

Some years ago I read a story about a man who was trying to sell a movie idea proposing that if you wanted to meet real aliens all you had to do was to go to a part of the world where a full eclipse of the sun was about to occur and look around for odd creatures. Perhaps there'd be one or two peculiar beings wearing long coats and breathing apparatus or you might notice some strange sealed vehicles. You see the idea the man had was that solar eclipses seen from Earth may be one of the wonders of the universe and there could very well be tourists from distant places who come to witness them.

Have you ever wondered how marvelous total eclipses are?

It is a very strange quirk of fate indeed that the disc of the Moon should seem, from an Earthly perspective, to be exactly the same size as the Sun. While we take it for granted that the two main bodies seen in Earth's skies look the same size, it is actually something of a miracle. Most people are fully aware that the Moon is tiny compared to the Sun but that it is much, much closer to us causing them to appear equal in size. To be precise the Moon is 400 times smaller than the star at the center of our solar system, yet it is also just one 400th of the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

The odds against this optical illusion happening at all are simply huge - but how bizarre that both values are the same, perfectly round number. Isaac Asimov once described this perfect visual alignment as being:

"The most unlikely coincidence imaginable".

Even more amazing is the fact the Moon also manages to very precisely imitate the perceived annual movements of the Sun each month. The full Moon is at its highest and brightest at midwinter, mirroring the Sun at midsummer and at lowest and weakest at midsummer when the Sun is at its highest and brightest.

Life is strange. I'll check outside again to see if there's an alien waiting for the moon to rise. Maybe the snow will be gone.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Crow contemplates space

Mars is very far away. While Crow and I sipped brandy and nibbled on pieces of the fine antique fruitcake saved for his homecoming, our conversation turned to an enterprise that's been widely reported this past year or two, namely, the all volunteer mission planned to colonize the planet that's even further from the sun than this one - Mars One. The general idea behind the plan is that it will be a televised reality show whose ultimate goal is to see how four human beings will react during a 7-9 month flight to Mars where (all being well) they will land near some habitat buildings sent separately. Considering the fact it's to be a one way journey the televised program will then see how they get by - the ultimate Lost program.

It sounds pretty silly to us for many reasons, but we wonder just how ill informed these volunteers must be. Do you suppose they've received all their information about space travel from reading the novels of Jules Verne? Just a brief look at the Wikipedia article titled 'Effect of space flight on the human body' is enough to curl one's hair - or feathers as the case may be. Without taking into account the dangers of vacuum on the human body, there are aspects of travel inside current space vehicles that should make any sensible person realize that base jumping off Mt. Fuji or street luging are far safer activities. Here are a couple of examples starting with what their ship has to dodge on its way out of Earth orbit:

There are spent rocket stages, defunct satellites, explosion fragments and even needles, bolts and paint chips up there, reminding us that we are very good at littering. Imagine how a bolt traveling at 17k mph could ruin your travel plans.

Increased radiation levels: Without the protection of Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere astronauts are exposed to high levels of radiation. Crew living on the ISS are partially protected by the magnetosphere. Radiation can result in immune system damage, cancers, and cataracts. In 2013, NASA scientists reported that a possible manned mission to Mars may involve a great radiation risk based on the amount of energetic particle radiation outside Earth's perimeter.

Weightlessness:  Zero gravity has a nasty effect on the human body; over the course of a trip to Mars, it could result in a loss of 20% of muscle mass total and the loss of 1.5% bone density per month. When gravity is taken away or reduced during space exploration, the blood tends to collect in the upper body instead, resulting in facial edema and other unwelcome side effects such as increased intracranial pressure. This appears to increase pressure on the backs of the eyeballs, affecting their shape and slightly crushing the optic nerve. Great. You probably don't want to know about the toilets.

Motion sickness: 45% of astronauts suffer from this but generally for no longer than 72 hours.

Rest: Sleep patterns are badly disturbed by space travel, and more than half of astronauts on long-haul missions take sedatives to help them sleep. Fatigue and lethargy result in impaired cognitive functions and an increase in critical errors, which is why astronauts only have 6.5 “fit” work hours per day.

No human being (other than my friend, Andrew Scott) has left low-Earth orbit since the last Apollo mission in 1972, and the effect of long-term space travel is not a major topic in the annals of scientific medical literature.

Supposing our intrepid amateur astronauts arrive at their destination (there have been 43 unmanned missions to Mars so far - 21 have failed), they will learn for themselves:

Mars is freezing, minus 62 degrees Celsius on average.

It is barren, nothing much to see but reddish rocks.

Mars has almost no atmosphere, burned off over billions of years by solar winds, leaving the surface exposed to deadly amounts of radiation. Roughly every five years, the planet is blanketed in a dust storm that blocks the sun for months at a time.

Gravity on Mars is only 38% that of Earth’s. Effects on people are unknown.

Sunlight on Mars is very weak. Vitamin D deficiency can cause loss of muscle and bone density, can suppress immune strength, and at its most severe causes blindness.

A lack of energy can be exacerbated by the limited diet astronauts must subsist on. Once their initial supplies run out, Mars colonists would eat only food they could grow themselves - whatever that might be.

Depression, anxiety, listlessness, hallucinations, and chronic stress have all been reported in live missions and training simulations. As have communication breakdowns and conflict among crews and between mission command. Lastly, there is no way to know how a human mind will encounter passing the threshold of no return, when the Earth recedes from sight, and the pitch black enormity of deep space and the impossibility of ever turning back sinks in.

So I drew a picture of Crow with one of his friends standing outside a Mars colony base. Is it inhabited or did 2024 arrive and they'd all found something better to do?

All this may be moot since a young professor of Crow's acquaintance, Dr. Joseph Roche, who has PhD's in physics and astrophysics left the program after discovering Mars One is very likely a scam. Who could have guessed?

Friday, March 27, 2015

an Archdruid report

The Archdruid is a blogger whose weekly posts I've read regularly since before I took up the blogging habit myself. John Michael Greer is the author of many books on a wide range of subjects, including peak oil and the future of industrial society. In January of this year he posted a piece about intentional technical regression as a matter of public policy that has stayed in my mind ever since, one that ought to be more widely read. I hope both you and the Archdruid himself will forgive me for posting the greater part of his essay:

Imagine, for a moment, that an industrial nation were to downshift its technological infrastructure to roughly what it was in 1950. That would involve a drastic decrease in energy consumption per capita, both directly—people used a lot less energy of all kinds in 1950—and indirectly—goods and services took much less energy to produce then, too. It would involve equally sharp decreases in the per capita consumption of most resources. It would also involve a sharp increase in jobs for the working classes—a great many things currently done by robots were done by human beings in those days, and so there were a great many more paychecks going out of a Friday to pay for the goods and services that ordinary consumers buy. Since a steady flow of paychecks to the working classes is one of the major things that keep an economy stable and thriving, this has certain obvious advantages, but we can leave those alone for now.

Now of course the change just proposed would involve certain changes from the way we do things. Air travel in the 1950s was extremely expensive—the well-to-do in those days were called “the jet set,” because that’s who could afford tickets—and so everyone else had to put up with fast, reliable, energy-efficient railroads when they needed to get from place to place. Computers were rare and expensive, which meant once again that more people got hired to do jobs, and also meant that when you called a utility or a business, your chance of getting a human being who could help you with whatever problem you might have was considerably higher than it is today.

Lacking the internet, people had to make do instead with their choice of scores of AM and shortwave radio stations, thousands of general and specialized print periodicals, and full-service bookstores and local libraries bursting at the seams with books—in America, at least, the 1950s were the golden age of the public library, and most small towns had collections you can’t always find in big cities these days. Oh, and the folks who like looking at pictures of people with their clothes off, and who play a large and usually unmentioned role in paying for the internet today, had to settle for naughty magazines, mail-order houses that shipped their products in plain brown wrappers, and tacky stores in the wrong end of town. (For what it’s worth, this didn’t seem to inconvenience them any.)

As previously noted, I’m quite aware that such a project is utterly unthinkable today, and we’ll get to the superstitious horror that lies behind that reaction in a bit. First, though, let’s talk about the obvious objections. Would it be possible? Of course. Much of it could be done by simple changes in the tax code. Right now, in the United States, a galaxy of perverse regulatory incentives penalize employers for hiring people and reward them for replacing employees with machines. Change those so that spending money on wages, salaries and benefits up to a certain comfortable threshold makes more financial sense for employers than using the money to automate, and you’re halfway there already.

A revision in trade policy would do most of the rest of what’s needed.  What’s jokingly called “free trade,” despite the faith-based claims of economists, benefits the rich at everyone else’s expense, and would best be replaced by sensible tariffs to support domestic production against the sort of predatory export-driven mercantilism that dominates the global economy these days. Add to that high tariffs on technology imports, and strip any technology beyond the 1950 level of the lavish subsidies that fatten the profit margins of the welfare-queen corporations in the Fortune 500, and you’re basically there.

What makes the concept of technological regression so intriguing, and so workable, is that it doesn’t require anything new to be developed. We already know how 1950 technology worked, what its energy and resource needs are, and what the upsides and downsides of adopting it would be; abundant records and a certain fraction of the population who still remember how it worked make that easy. Thus it would be an easy thing to pencil out exactly what would be needed, what the costs and benefits would be, and how to minimize the former and maximize the latter; the sort of blind guesses and arbitrary assumptions that have to go into deploying a brand new technology need not apply.

So much for the first objection. Would there be downsides to deliberate technological regression? Of course. Every technology and every set of policy options has its downsides.  A common delusion these days claims, in effect, that it’s unfair to take the downsides of new technologies or the corresponding upsides of old ones into consideration when deciding whether to replace an older technology with a newer one. An even more common delusion claims that you’re not supposed to decide at all; once a new technology shows up, you’re supposed to run bleating after it like everyone else, without asking any questions at all.

Current technology has immense downsides. Future technologies are going to have them, too—it’s only in sales brochures and science fiction stories, remember, that any technology is without them. Thus the mere fact that 1950 technology has problematic features, too, is not a valid reason to dismiss technological retrogression. The question that needs to be asked, however unthinkable it might be, is whether, all things considered, it’s wiser to accept the downsides of 1950 technology in order to have a working technological suite that can function on much smaller per capita inputs of energy and resources, and thus a much better chance to get through the age of limits ahead than today’s far more extravagant and brittle technological infrastructure.

It’s probably also necessary to talk about a particular piece of paralogic that comes up reliably any time somebody suggests technological regression: the notion that if you return to an older technology, you have to take the social practices and cultural mores of its heyday as well. I fielded a good many such comments last year when I suggested steam-powered Victorian technology powered by solar energy as a form the ecotechnics of the future might take. An astonishing number of people seemed unable to imagine that it was possible to have such a technology without also reintroducing Victorian habits such as child labor and sexual prudery. Silly as that claim is, it has deep roots in the modern imagination.

No doubt, as a result of those deep roots, there will be plenty of people who respond to the proposal just made by insisting that the social practices and cultural mores of 1950 were awful, and claiming that those habits can’t be separated from the technologies I’m discussing. I could point out in response that 1950 didn’t have a single set of social practices and cultural mores; even in the United States, a drive from Greenwich Village to rural Pennsylvania in 1950 would have met with remarkable cultural diversity among people using the same technology.

The point could be made even more strongly by noting that the same technology was in use that year in Paris, Djakarta, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Tangiers, Novosibirsk, Guadalajara, and Lagos, and the social practices and cultural mores of 1950s middle America didn’t follow the technology around to these distinctly diverse settings, you know. Pointing that out, though, will likely be wasted breath. To true believers in the religion of progress, the past is the bubbling pit of eternal damnation from which the surrogate messiah of progress is perpetually saving us, and the future is the radiant heaven into whose portals the faithful hope to enter in good time. Most people these days are no more willing to question those dubious classifications than a medieval peasant would be to question the miraculous powers that supposedly emanated from the bones of St. Ethelfrith.

Nothing, but nothing, stirs up shuddering superstitious horror in the minds of the cultural mainstream these days as effectively as the thought of, heaven help us, “going back.” Even if the technology of an earlier day is better suited to a future of energy and resource scarcity than the infrastructure we’ve got now, even if the technology of an earlier day actually does a better job of many things than what we’ve got today, “we can’t go back!” is the anguished cry of the masses. They’ve been so thoroughly bamboozled by the propagandists of progress that they never stop to think that, why, yes, they can, and there are valid reasons why they might even decide that it’s the best option open to them.

There’s a very rich irony in the fact that alternative and avant-garde circles tend to be even more obsessively fixated on the dogma of linear progress than the supposedly more conformist masses. That’s one of the sneakiest features of the myth of progress; when people get dissatisfied with the status quo, the myth convinces them that the only option they’ve got is to do exactly what everyone else is doing, and just take it a little further than anyone else has gotten yet. What starts off as rebellion thus gets coopted into perfect conformity, and society continues to march mindlessly along its current trajectory, like lemmings in a Disney nature film, without ever asking the obvious questions about what might be waiting at the far end.

That’s the thing about progress; all the word means is “continued movement in the same direction.” If the direction was a bad idea to start with, or if it’s passed the point at which it still made sense, continuing to trudge blindly onward into the gathering dark may not be the best idea in the world. Break out of that mental straitjacket, and the range of possible futures broadens out immeasurably.

It may be, for example, that technological regression to the level of 1950 turns out to be impossible to maintain over the long term. If the technologies of 1920  can be supported on the modest energy supply we can count on getting from renewable sources, for example, something like a 1920 technological suite might be maintained over the long term, without further regression. It might turn out instead that something like the solar steampower I mentioned earlier, an ecotechnic equivalent of 1880 technology, might be the most complex technology that can be supported on a renewable basis. It might be the case, for that matter, that something like the technological infrastructure the United States had in 1820, with windmills and water wheels as the prime movers of industry, canalboats as the core domestic transport technology, and most of the population working on small family farms to support very modest towns and cities, is the fallback level that can be sustained indefinitely.

Does that last option seem unbearably depressing? Compare it to another very likely scenario—what will happen if the world’s industrial societies gamble their survival on a great leap forward to some unproven energy source, which doesn’t live up to its billing, and leaves billions of people twisting in the wind without any working technological infrastructure at all—and you may find that it has its good points. If you’ve driven down a dead end alley and are sitting there with the front grill hard against a brick wall, it bears remembering, shouting “We can’t go back!” isn’t exactly a useful habit. In such a situation—and I’d like to suggest that that’s a fair metaphor for the situation we’re in right now—going back, retracing the route as far back as necessary, is the one way forward.

No more than John Michael Greer do I expect this is a solution that would be actively embraced by those currently in positions of economic and military power, but it's an interesting and uplifting thought experiment.