Tuesday, March 30, 2010

the world

Love comes from primeval eternity and goes to eternity.
In eighty thousand worlds
There is not one who drinks a sip from it
And does not go at last to God.

Rabi'a Al-Adawyya

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Crow in wonderland

Hello everyone. Crow here again and I hope you'll excuse susan's absence today but she's buried in a novel and refuses to come out until things are a little less strange in the real world. Speaking of that I fell down a rabbit hole myself this past week and thought I'd report an odd conversation I found myself involved in:

`No room! No room!' they cried out when they saw me coming. `There's plenty of room!' I said indignantly, and sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table. `

Have some health care,' the Mad Hatter said in an encouraging tone.

I looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don't see any health care,' I remarked.

`There isn't any,' said the Mad Hatter.

`Then it wasn't very civil of you to offer it,' I said angrily.

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a Crow like a writing-desk?'

You see, whether there are Mad Tea Partiers or not it seems to me the essential problem everyone should be focused on is the fact a law has been passed saying everyone must (obligatory, required, necessary, compulsory, mandatory) purchase health care insurance. This is not unlike the government passing a law to say that all children must be educated but not providing a public school system. It's also true that as soon as the new law appeared likely to be passed private equity funds began investing in and buying up American hospitals and health care institutions. They're already talking about turning these facilities into for profit ventures - a frightening concept.

Many people throughout history have taken politicians to task for actions that have not been entirely in society’s best interest. The reasons for this become clearer when one realizes that even in modern democracies, these leaders do not benefit the lives of the average person. Instead, they maintain their preferential positions in the established order. But rather than hearing that people are angry about the back room deals made with medical insurance companies and big pharma we're treated to the incoherent nonsense preferred by the major media corporations.

`Have you guessed the riddle yet?' the Hatter said, turning to me again.

`No, I give it up,' I replied: `what's the answer?'

`I haven't the slightest idea,' said the Hatter.

I sighed wearily.`I think you might do something better with the time,' I said, `than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.’

Perhaps susan had the best idea after all. I'm going to pour myself some Remy Martin and have a look through her bookshelf.

(Apologies to Lewis Carroll, John Tenniel and Johnny Depp)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

cruising with Crow

This past winter I happened to overfly the Caribbean after my annual winter visit with my condor friends in South America. After landing in Fort Lauderdale for a brief rest I couldn't help but notice the newest of the world's largest cruise liners. You see it’s always sunny in Florida unless there’s a hurricane or the world’s largest cruise ship is blocking out the light and this particular behemoth, called the Oasis of the Seas, is 16 stories tall.

Out of curiosity about this latest foible of humanity, I purchased a ticket for a week long cruise (a modest cabin that cost $5000) and beetled up the gangway into the belly of the beast. At a gross weight of more than 225,000 tonnes and a passenger carrying capacity of 6,296 the effect was somewhat unbelievable to a creature of my reserved disposition. Nevertheless, since I'd never met anyone who'd been on a Caribbean cruise and hoping I might meet Johnny Depp in order to get his autograph for susan, I soldiered (sailored?) on.

Gliding up, up, up in one of the glass elevators, it became clear how immense and strange this ship is as I stepped out onto the highest, largest pool deck in the world. Ranks of sunbeds stretched off into the distance by the hundred, on multiple levels around two large swimming pools; there is also a children’s water park and a waterpolo pool. Hanging gardens draped down four decks with flowering vines and ferns. The ship has seven 'neighborhoods' including the world's largest floating park - Central Park. Is this a giveaway as to who is expected to sail on these monsters? There are 24 restaurants as well as a huge dining room, boutiques and a 1400 seat theater. I was reminded of Wall-E where huge people who spend their lives on floating couches sail around a world that's filled with garbage.

I'd thought a ship cruise was about breathing fresh sea air, reading a good book and perhaps alighting at a port where one can meet new people and learn their views. This one hardly docks at all and besides, there's so much entertainment and extravaganza most passengers barely looked outside.

I wonder if the Oasis of the Seas is a symbol for the end of western civilization, a gargantuan ship that's really America for Americans who don’t want to travel? Amazingly enough, there's an ongoing battle among cruise lines to build bigger and bigger ships like this that don't go anywhere. You may as well offer people vacations away from it all in old warehouses with giant video screens.

I ran into my old friend Arthur Frommer who agreed: 'The sole explanation for a 6,000-passenger ship is that it is able to offer more entertainment and thus cater to more of those people who are unable to entertain themselves, those arrested personalities who rely on constant, massive, outside distractions to ward off depression. I’m talking about people who get fidgety if they have no nearby television set, who never read a magazine, let alone a book.'

After two days of searching I eventually found my way to the topmost deck where there were were towers and funnels and a real sea breeze. I spread my wings and flew home.

Friday, March 19, 2010

arts and spare parts

Since I've gone back to painting pictures the slow way I won't be able to post pictures of new ones very often. Oh well. In the meanwhile, here's another that lives in my portfolio and, just to keep things moderately interesting around here, a story that caught my attention this week:

A human spare parts kit may someday become a reality thanks to scientists who claim to have discovered a gene which could allow regrowing of damaged body parts. An international team, led by The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, has found that if the p21 gene is switched off in mammals they can regrow body parts just like amphibians do.

Now the idea that scientists are chopping parts off small animals after making sure they don't have a particular gene just to see if they'll grow the bits back is kind of creepy but at the same time it is interesting. I guess I just have to hope the creatures are sedated, kept comfortable, well fed and have suitable entertainment available while they recover.

Mammals in general heal wounds by forming a scar but mice with no p21 grow a blastema which is similar to a group of embryonic stem cells. The ones with damaged ears regrew them. It's probably too soon to apply this technique to people and I personally have no idea of how particular genes can be turned off or on but I'll take their word for it.

Now I'm going to send the article to my dentist so we can discuss the third set of teeth I should be growing right about now.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

fever dreams and feedback loops

I'm not sure that having a cold, even a bad one, can count as a near death experience but I suppose every little pain and inconvenience is practice for the big one and I've been having some practice since last Wednesday afternoon. I feel much better now even though I can't seem to give up this nasty habit of thinking about how we got where we are and where it might lead since none of us has direct control over anything but the way we choose to see things.

Our preconceptions shape the way we interpret our world because we find satisfaction in extracting information from noise as a way to make sense of the world. In this way our belief system can be said to project itself on the environment in a kind of feedback loop. Just like scientists who shape their research based on what they hope to find, modern technology has allowed our imaginations to invent Pentagons and Disneylands. The land itself, gouged into highways, strip malls, chemical plants and factory farms mirrors our fantasies and fears of what we can't control.

I think each of us have the fundamental responsibility as human beings to take responsibility and make judgments and act as wisely as possible to improve things one way or another. I see the general pattern of human society to be miserably sub-optimal and given all the various feedback loops that amplify stupidity and desperation, I don't see any very big opportunities for improvement. Nevertheless, the present possibilities include wonderful and delightful feedback loops of creativity, mutual enjoyment and wisdom. There's no more frontier and here we are at the edge of the greatest collapse yet. Maybe all we need is a culture that goes beyond civilization that will recover some elements of tribal life in the same way a realized master recovers some of the innocence and spontaneity of a child. Anything is possible.♡

Then again, maybe the fever hasn't finished with me yet.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

defining civilization

It's interesting to consider our definition of civilization. Looking back at our history we know there have been mighty civilizations in the past but up until the 20th century it was still possible to physically distance oneself from whatever extant belief system or empire that was the current paradigm. Whether moving to a mountain cave, a forest retreat or, in more recent history, to a distant state. 'Go West' was a mantra for personal freedom.

Now there's really no place left to go. Not only do we have the problem of global warming but there are so many more of us expected to arrive in the coming century that the human population may just about double. We're not going to gain any relief from population pressures by moving into space. The only real and proven way of reducing a population is through education and empowerment of women. Wars, poverty and chronic diseases do nothing to enhance our lives.

It's time we grew up but the problem is we don't know what a grown-up civilization looks like since we've never met one and we don't yet qualify. If civilization means having electricity, the internet, good health care, microscopes, radio telescopes and the ability to travel beyond our planet's gravity well then I suppose we're getting there. We continually discover new things and new technologies that could make the world a better place, but we seem equally likely to put them to work for destructive ends as constructive ones.

All we can hope to do is effect small changes in the way we ourselves see the world but we do at least know what a grown-up civilization would look like. It would keep on growing in wisdom and compassion. It might be one that would move quite naturally into things like space habitats and moon bases and ships that would take us exploring the neighborhood beyond Earth. If it did come to pass that in some future time we met other explorers it would seem quite likely they'd once have been people much like us, although not necessarily in appearance. My guess is that we're going through an especially dangerous time in our history whose result could go either way. Maybe there are beings out there who have civilizations far more mature than ours who are watching and have their manipulator appendages crossed for us.

I posted this painting once before so you may remember it but it's one that seemed fitting. Now I'm going to work on something else and it may just be that children's story a few of you have suggested. It will take a while since narrative art isn't my strong point :-)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

demon haunted world

Just last week I read the last book Carl Sagan wrote before his death in 1996 called 'Demon Haunted World'. The thesis of the book is that America's obsession with pseudoscience has curtailed the growth of the United States as a scientifically literate society. Science requires a painstaking trial and error system called The Scientific Method. All that pseudoscience requires is gullibility. Science is fed by hard work and intellect. Pseudoscience is fed by misguided emotion.

Touching on several examples of pseudoscience - recovered memory syndrome and Satanic abuse, so-called alien abduction and others, Sagan calmly examines the claims and finds them to be built on a desire to see things as they are not. He argues that the only true method with which to examine these claims is by adoption of a healthily skeptical scientific method.

In this regard he devotes a chapter of his book to his now-famous 'Baloney Detection Kit' which informs the reader of the forms which pseudo-scientific arguments take - tautologies, ad hominem attacks etc. And also what you should be looking for in an argument that should be taken seriously and what kind of proofs should be needed for it to be accepted. His thoughts on these matters can equally be applied to politics and economics.

Sagan never once said anywhere in this book that science is perfect. Along with great things such as penicillin, food refrigeration, and the Internet that can be credited to science, things like nuclear weapons, Agent Orange, and DDT could be blamed on it as well. He acknowledged that but when all things were taken into consideration, science was the horse he chose to put his money on.. and with good reason.

Okay, the book review is over but I have to share a few of my favorite quotes by Carl Sagan:

All of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value.

I am often amazed at how much more capability and enthusiasm for science there is among elementary school youngsters than among college students.

If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?

We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.

Personally, I would be delighted if there were a life after death, especially if it permitted me to continue to learn about this world and others, if it gave me a chance to discover how history turns out.

Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.

The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

(the picture is from APOD - a site I visit daily)

Friday, March 5, 2010

water and space

I know not everyone would get excited about something like this but a couple of days ago when I read these words my heart leapt:

Water is regarded as a key ingredient for life - and water exists plenty in the universe. Now scientists have found the precious element in a disk around a young star, similar to our Sun. This disk, supposedly the birth place for future planets, contains a hundred times more water than all oceans on Earth.

Why we live on a planet with liquid water, and so much of it, has long been a mystery to science but now satellites and new instruments have allowed astronomers to look more deeply into space and see what's out there with much greater precision. The water is likely located in a hot layer just above the disk midplane, where most of the available oxygen is driven into water by chemical reactions and most of it enters the disk in the form of ice around dust grains from the cold collapsing cloud.

Knowing that there's water on other planets and moons is a very exciting discovery even though it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise. After all, we're mostly water and the rest of us is stardust. Sorry, I got carried away for a moment. What I mean is that it almost seems as though we're being tempted to go out there and look around.

Just yesterday I read an article on the BBC news that water-ice (lots of it) has been found in the regolith of the moon's north pole. The craters with ice range from one to nine miles in diameter and according to NASA may contain 600 million metric tonnes of water-ice held within these impact craters. To those of us not really familiar with the metric system that's 1,322,773,573,109 lb and 4.32 oz - or one trillion, three hundred and twenty-two billion, seven hundred and seventy-three million, five hundred and seventy-three thousand and one hundred and nine pounds and a small glass full. Even the national debt hasn't got to that point yet. Ooops, sorry, yes it has.

Oh I'm sure it wouldn't be all that simple to get at - no glistening, pellucid moon pools surrounded by moon fairies and unicorns waiting for us but we're clever creatures and I think we do better when we plan big projects. Yes, Earth has to be saved. Yes, people are hungry. Yes, we don't have a good record of treating other places well when we get there but we're a long way off finding a place like Pandora. Maybe we're learning, after all. Maybe by the time we do find a world with water and a climate suitable for our species we'll be better people. After all, we're learning every day and I once read somewhere that the universe expands with our ability to see.

If we do nothing but stick around here we'll keep killing each other and the planet. We need to grow up and there's nothing like travel for broadening the mind.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

so you have plans, do you?

This is what it looks like outside our living room window on a nice February day here in Portland. Our place is tucked into a section of Forest Park and what you see are scrub maple trees covered in moss, ivy and ferns. It doesn't snow much here in winter and what does come down never stays long. Spring arrived about three weeks ago and I'm reveling in it even more than usual because this time next year we're planning to be in Halifax, NS.. yes, where it gets cold early and stays that way a long time. I'm a little nervous.

After more than 30 years in the US, half on each coast, I'm more American than Canadian in spite of having spent most of the first 30 years there. I like this country and I like the people. What I don't like are the politics of war and economic devastation. We've done what we can and it's time to move on since we may, hopefully, be able to do so. It's a much more complicated process than we imagined.

The documentation required to sponsor my husband's immigration is enormous. After perusing the 60 page manual and the 20 or so multiple page questionnaires we decided to hire an attorney in Halifax to help us with the process. They're a bit laid back. Every so often I'll get an email from them with questions and requests for attachments of birth certificates, passports, citizenship papers, proof of marriage, bank records etc. They require job, address and salary histories going back to the year dot. They want to be sure we have no hidden dependents. There's an FBI background check that takes 18 weeks and only one doctor in the state qualified to do Canadian permanent resident visa physicals. There may be an interview at the nearest Canadian Consulate. Talk about taking the fun and spontaneity out of something that used to be simple.

I'm not ready to resign from my job quite yet and I don't want to think about inventorying and packing all our stuff. The process can take a year. Will we drive or ship the car? I don't want to think about that yet either. It will be nice to be near the sea and it will also be nice to be closer to our son in New England. We're taking it one step at a time.

Speaking of taking steps I did buy myself a nice pair of boots - the green ones ☺