Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Living In Interesting Times


This post will ramble a bit, but I hope to arrive somewhere in the end.  It's prompted by several recent events and the general state of the world as I find it, approximately a week into my first quarter in over twenty years as an adjunct instructor.

My quasi retirement came about abruptly, due to my having been made an offer I couldn't well refuse to voluntarily "separate" from the company in exchange for a lump sum of cash based on my years of service.  Since last quarter had stimulated thoughts of my retiring sooner rather than later, I jumped (pole-vaulted?) at the chance, especially since I'd be able to apply immediately for an adjunct position. What this meant was that I could take the money, run, and come back part-time, teaching a couple of courses a quarter. And although it meant getting a background check and peeing in a cup (neither of which happened when I initially joined the Institution), I went for it. The drug test was a pain because they wanted more out of me than I was prepared to supply, and it took two tries; but the residue of numerous heart disease related medications didn't disqualify me, and I was indeed hired back. I'm actually teaching three courses this quarter due to a special need, but beginning in the Fall--if the planets align properly--I'll teach two on a single day and thus be able to accomplish many of the tasks I've been putting off.

This new situation has quite naturally awakened fantasies of an actual retirement involving both me and the Beloved Spouse, and dreams of big sky, off-the-grid living in someplace not Texas.  House-porn has taken a new direction (northwest, to Montana), although the Owens Valley is still in contention.  But if anything is to come of the property lust, it means that I have to devote a healthy chunk of time to clearing out the detritus of a lifetime.  

In stage one of the process, I filled up three boxes of books to take to Half Price, and managed to bring home rather fewer (I only got enough from the sale to pay for what I picked up). But this was a start, and as long as the resident super-mice don't destroy the entire library, I will be sorting through, culling, and choosing what to move eventually. Actually, the mice might do me a favor if they keep devouring things.  One seems to have an especial fondness for the Greek Anthology, and has eaten most of the covers off all four volumes of the Loeb edition.

What has really made this month interesting, though (in addition to the political circus that I keep trying to ignore), is Pluto. After waiting for nearly ten years, NASA's New Horizons people have pulled it off and are currently processing the photos sent back from the outer reaches of the solar system.  Since I well remember how incredible the Viking shots of Mars seemed in 1976, the early images of Pluto and Charon are bringing it all back. Thirty nine years ago today, this is what the Viking 1 spacecraft saw:

Viking 1 lander site, July 21, 1976

To a youngish (early thirties; my first child--who grew up to design spaceships--had been born only a few months earlier) devotee of science and science fiction, these pictures were utterly astonishing. Of course, they would later be surpassed by those sent by the Mars Global Surveyor (1996-2001), including this one that showed clear evidence of surface water in the distant past:

Gorgonum Chaos, a set of canyons in the Phaethontis Quandrangel of Mars

 Since then, of course the cute little robots Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity have contributed their share of information, and many future missions of varying complexity are planned, including one involving actual humans.  As the Beloved Spouse knows well, I'd go in a cold minute, even if it meant never getting back here; but unless they want to test the stamina of aging heart patients, I don't think he needs to worry.

The best news I've heard lately comes from none other than the venerable Stephen Hawking. He's teaming up with Yuri Milner (a Russian Internet magnate and serious science groupie) to search for aliens and spend a hundred million smackeroonies doing it: a project called Breakthrough Listen. This will involve using real telescopes and getting real time to do it; it will also involve SETI@home, which (now that I'm sort-of retired and can get involved even minimally) I've just signed up for. I even downloaded the BOINC software, but managed to do it on a Tuesday, when they do maintenance. My computer will have more downtime now, and it will no longer go to waste. 

Do I want there to be folks out there?  Dunno.  They can't be much worse than we are, so it would at least be interesting.  When Carl Sagan talked about all this back in 1980 (I bought our first color TV, a little 13-inch job, so I could watch Cosmos in color),  the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft were already on their way, carrying the iconic "golden record" with sounds and images from earth (see opening photo).  Both of them are still "alive," sending data from beyond the solar system.  

Perhaps I've been reading too much Jack McDevitt, but I don't expect that we'll run into anyone before I die; I'm beginning to accept his basic notion (at least as expressed in his books) that even if life frequently occurs out there, civilizations are short-lived.  I can't really imagine that ours (such as it is) will survive too awfully much longer because we seem hell-bent on doing ourselves in.  Perhaps an alien invasion really is what we need to keep us from a cultural implosion.  But if ET really does visit, and doesn't much like us much, I hope they're nice to animals. Like Randy Newman, I don't want to hurt no kangaroos.

Now, if I can just find that "trigger" thing I used in More News From Nowhere, maybe I can find a nice utopia in which to retire.  Or maybe a remote twenty acres or so in southwestern Montana.

Image credits: all of the photos used above come from Wikimedia Commons, and some in particular from the Wikipedia article on Exploration of Mars.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day 2015: Drought and Denial

This morning (I'm working ahead--this is Sunday, the 19th) I went out to empty the wheelbarrows I'd been using around the yard yesterday, because we had a thumper of a thunderstorm last night that dropped at least an inch of rain in less than an hour. I even went out and moved Vera to the porte-cochère to protect her from the hail that had pretty much stopped by the time I decided to brave it. So far this year, this area  has had about three times as much rainfall as we experienced by Earth Day 2014: 15 inches vs. 5 inches. When I dumped the wheelbarrows, I also tipped the rain gauge out since there's a chance we might get more this afternoon.

Despite all the recent precipitation (including a couple of snow days in February), Collin County will remain on stage 3 water rationing through the near future. 

The irony of all this is that as I type, another wildfire is roaring away near my old stomping grounds in southern California (the Highway Fire in Riverside County), and much will undoubtedly be made of current conditions, the lack of rain, and high temperatures as immediate causes.

Only recently, as most of us know by now, California has finally owned up to the fact that it needs to do do something about water over-use. Meanwhile, in north Texas, we've been watering lawns on alternate trash days for the last three years or so. Now, I don't generally think of Texas as being particularly enlightened in terms of climate knowledge and common sense, but Texans do seem to understand water a bit more than folks do further west.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, this part of north Texas is undergoing severe to extreme drought--about the same general, long-term conditions as obtain in a large part of California. One would think, therefore, that we'd all be addressing our problems in a similar fashion. Like southern California, north Texas is building a lot more houses than it should, further taxing the state's water resources--but we've got two things going for us: the recent weather, and a little more foresight.

In the CNN report on the fire (which is the first thing that popped up into the Google window in response to one search term: drought), a firefighter immediately mentions the drought (which is causing vegetation to burn that normally doesn't), and an interviewee notes the fact that there's "a lot of new housing" nearby. A related report ("California Running Out of Water") linked to the main page interviews residents of Porterville (in the San Joaquin Valley to the north, where my father was living when he died) whose wells have run dry and who have no running water. The plight of the agricultural towns in California is dire, and the reasons are complex, so I'm not going to start in on them. They don't need some cranky ex-pat grousing about agricultural practices.

But I'm not at all sympathetic to the Los Angeles area because they've depended on the kindness of others, and the political machinations of the twenties, for far too long. The inhabitants of the Owens River Valley have been dealing with drought ever since the aqueduct that siphons their water out of the valley and into reservoirs to the south was built a century ago.  The story is legend, and well documented, and I've griped enough about it over the years; there's no need to lay it all out again, but Felicity Barringer does a nice job of summarizing the story in her New York Times article in 2012: The Water Fight that Inspired Chinatown. I should mention, however, that an alternative version of the story is available in Gary Libecap's 2005 article, The Myth of Owens Valley. I knew Libecap when he was a grad student at Penn, and he was a reasonable chap then--although our views on political economy differed. But he's right that there is a mythical element to the account of Owens Valley as some sort of agricultural paradise before the aqueduct was built.

In the end, folks went on with what they were doing, and my grandfather ended up working for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power at the Cottonwood power plant--where my fondest childhood memories were formed at the edge of the aqueduct. This is the view from nearby, taken when I was home last December.

So this post is not about heroes and villains, or even about greed. It's about not being very smart for all the talking we do about being homo sapiens sapiens.  We don't plan well, we build cities without regard to the land, and then we mourn when people die as a result of our lack of foresight.  Los Angeles should be a smallish town, not a smog-spewing megalopolis. It should have been conserving water all along, not just beginning this month. And north Texas must keep rationing its water, even though we're pretty soggy at the moment and some of my neighbors are probably already complaining that all this climate change and global warming crap is a Communist plot.

But if we want to survive long-term, beyond next month, next year, next century, we need to start thinking. We need to not grow so much (if at all), so that increasing land and water use aren't necessary. We need to conserve what we have and not use up everything there is; otherwise, those people my age who have grandchildren will condemn them to future droughts, wildfires, and endless other problems that stem from a general lack of wisdom.

Sustainability has become a buzzword, when it should be a watchword.  Only abject denial or an irrational faith in our ability to overcome future problems that result from current shortsightedness can lead people to think that constant, unrestrained growth is either possible or desirable. The anthropocene could well be the last "age" of the planet.

It's time we stopped paying lip service to Earth Day and start making sure we have more than a few of them left.

Image notes: The opening shot is from Dirty Sock, south of Owens Lake; there is currently a bit of water in the lake itself, due to the dust-mitigation programs put in place to help Los Angeles not breathe in the chemicals that used to blow off the dry lake.  Over the winter holidays the Beloved Spouse and I took the puppies to Dirty Sock, where my mother's stepfather had once built a concrete pool to hold the mineral waters that well up from underground.  The second photo, of the lake itself, was taken from Cottonwood road, across the aqueduct from the power plant, which is still in operation. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

It's Not the Science--It's the Ethics

Although I’m only tangentially trained in science (I took geology courses to help me beef up my archaeology cred), I am somewhat more than your average science groupie.  Actually, I’m not sure there are science groupies, but should there be, I am the equivalent of an avid fanboy. What academic credentials I do possess are focused on the philosophy of science and technology, both of which I comment upon frequently.

I subscribe to The New Scientist, read the science and technology articles first in the New York Times, and one of the few feeds I get through my e-mail is the one from Space Weather.  So it should come as no surprise that I’m more than a little disturbed by the current rise in what journalists are referring to as “antiscience.”

Most of time I just dismiss reports about those who still don’t believe that we’ve landed on the moon, or that the earth is flat, or who find it any kind of reasonable to believe that the Biblical account of creation is literally true.  I do live in Texas, after all.

But newer manifestations of this phenomenon are growing more and more alarming: people who refuse to vaccinate their children for fear of autism, air-born ebola threats, etc. The latest issue of National Geographic Magazine (which manifests itself spiffily on my iPad once a month, proving that some applications are actually worth owning) poses the question, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”—and begins with a reminder of Jack D. Ripper’s obsession with fluoridation (and his excuse for launching nukes at Russia in Dr. Strangelove).

So now I have to out myself as maybe one of those “reasonable people” who “doubts” science, because for one I don’t buy fluoridated toothpaste (figuring that I already get enough of it in my tap water)—and I'm skeptical about GMOs.

However, I also have to point out that my skepticism stems not from the process of genetic modification itself. As the article assures us, the scientific community has declared GMO foods to be no worse for us than those developed from the hand-selection of genetic characteristics human beings have been doing with animals and plants since the Neolithic. And while that is probably the case, my questions stem from another discipline: philosophy.

More precisely, I’m worried about ethics.  And genetic modification schemes bring on huge questions concerning the morality of some activities—like transferring genes from one species to another, or the practice of patenting genes and wreaking havoc on the farmer next door who accidentally gets his canola plants crossbred with your proprietary strain.

For some background, see these two articles: Monsanto's Harvest of Fear (Vanity Fair, May 2008), and the more recent Monsanto’s Newest GM Crops May Create More Problems Than They Solve
(Wired 02 Feburary 2015).

Many of the problems critics point to have to do with issues other than science, such as whether the science is smart, necessary, or even desirable. The same issues are frequently raised about organic gardening and farming, and dismissed on similar grounds (the science to "prove" that organic is more healthful seems to be slim). While organic crops may arguably be no more nutritious than conventionally grown crops, it’s pretty easy to argue that the former are better for us in myriad other ways, because they don’t require pesticide, they tend to be sustainably grown, and they actually do taste better.

So, while I fervently agree that this world is getting dumber and dumber about science and how it works, let’s please not throw out the proverbial baby here. Neither science nor technology are without blame in creating the state of the world as it is.  And if we want to convince the generally ill-informed populace of its validity, science as a discipline cannot ignore ethical questions and/or dismiss them out of hand. Raising questions about science is not always about denying its importance or rejecting its methods. Rather, it's about making sure we can make moral arguments to support the use of what science discovers.

Image credit: I obtained the photo from Wikimedia Commons via the keywords "genetic modification." It was uploaded by Canoe1967.