Thursday, February 24, 2011

Winter Weirding

Deep winter now feels like spring, and our recent spate of very cold weather makes the current respite all the more pleasurable. It's 64 F now, with a light rain, and the weekend temperature is expected to reach the high 70s. The cold-weather cleanup has begun in earnest.

Our eight-year-old chest freezer went to its eternal rest (it was in an unheated shed), so we went shopping last Sunday for a small (12.1 cu. ft.) upright that's now in the laundry room on the back porch. We want to be able to stock up on pastured meat when the farmers markets reopen, and this one's half again as big as the old one. It does block part of a window, but we moved a bookshelf in front of another window--which will allow me to spy less obtrusively on birds bathing just outside. Yesterday I caught a flock of cedar waxwings having a grand old time splashing out all the water, but had to shoot through the window and the screen in front of my desk.

Waxwings apr├Ęs le bain

I can't refill the birdbath with the hose yet, because the cold also did a number on the water line. Beloved Spouse came home one day to a spraying fountain behind the washer, and had to spend a fair amount of time cleaning up the wet after he'd shut off the valve. Fortunately, the broken pipe seems to be just the one leading out, so we haven't had to stop doing laundry. Our favorite plumber will be called in soon to check out the lines under the house and to effect repairs as necessary. I'm particularly fond of these folks because they do one of the dirtiest jobs there is, but they do it efficiently and with good humor. I've never understood why people complain about how much it costs to have that sort of work done, when none of them would be willing to do it themselves, even if they knew how.

The plumbing issue is rather timely, actually, because we're about to start talking about poop in my utopia class. I was inspired to include the discussion by an article in the Penn Gazette last month about this year's summer reading project for incoming freshmen, Rose George's The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters (Metropolitan Books, 2008).

Utopians, after all, seldom talk about the nasty bits associated with human life, so I made sure to include composting toilets in More News From Nowhere. But discussing these matters gets to the heart of issues that need to be addressed in the real world: use of water, treatment of waste, who has to take care of it all, etc. Excrement is also a dandy metaphor for all manner of human excess, as Ursula LeGuin uses it in her "ambiguous utopia," The Dispossessed.

The discussion in a couple of weeks should be interesting, and I'll probably have more to spout on the subject then. For now, however, I've sorted through the various winter sky shots I've managed to take over the last couple of weeks. These could be the last of the leafless-tree-against-the-sky photos I get until next winter, because the elm next door is already budding. Pear blossoms, pecan catkins, and wisteria blooms can't be far behind.

The opening shot gets the moon just before full. The other two are evening and morning images carefully framed to miss the ubiquitous power lines. Happy Skywatch Friday, all.

Friday, February 11, 2011

How to Make a Revolution

A night time view of the roundabout on Tahrir Square in 2007

I know it's way too early to be completely rejoicing about today's events in Egypt, but I'm finding it difficult to keep my enthusiasm down. The unrest in Cairo during the last couple of weeks has presented opportunities for both optimism and disappointment, and has carried with it an undercurrent of fear that things could go terribly wrong. It looks now as if the optimists have prevailed-- along with the demonstrators--and that Egypt is on its way toward constructing its first truly democratic government ever.

The best assessment I've seen of Hosni Mubarak's situation and Egypt's response appeared yesterday Thomas Friedman's column for the New York Times, "Out of Touch, Out of Time." I was especially moved by his account of the group of students and other demonstrators who were cleaning up around Tahrir Square, and the sense of real ownership expressed by the participants. People who are ready to clean up the inevitable detritus that accumulates around large crowds, regardless of whether or not they're personally responsible for the mess, are ready to take on the hard work of governing themselves. They're making it clear in this single gesture that they're not looking for somebody else to do the dirty work.

Comparisons with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989 are inevitable. People had been showing all over Eastern Europe at the time that they were tired of autocrats, dictators, and statism, and by November 9 the wall began to tumble down--having stood since 1961 as an emblem of oppression.

When the photos and film footage of the crowds happily hammering away at the structure began to fill the world's newspapers and television screens, I yanked my children out of their rooms to watch. I blubbered like a fool as strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" chorale began to serve as a sound track for the demonstrating and dancing that went on around and atop the wall.

Watching ululating women, grinning children, and ecstatic students and young professionals in Tahrir Square today has engendered a similar tearful response--and an e-mail to my kids to pay attention, to which they quickly responded and assured me that they were.

My students don't seem to have been all that aware of this week's events. They tend to focus on their own lives, and that's understandable during midterm week. But I hope that at least a few will take note of this moment. Egypt has made its own revolution, and will probably undergo some rough moments in the weeks and months to come. But I'm becoming much less jaded about the impact of social networks and digital technologies as they become instruments of positive change, and rather more hopeful about the possibility of eventual peace in the region.

Image credits: The opening shot was taken by "Crashsystems," and the Berlin Wall Photo by an unknown photographer; both from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Coming of Age in the Multiverse

I wrote this on Friday, but didn't get around to posting it until today.

No good comes of being cooped up for days in a location not prepared for real winter. One doesn't go out of doors, except, briefly, to admire the beauty of the new snowfall or just enjoy the quiet. The former (not going out) stems from the general lack of "native" driving ability, the latter from the relative lack of actual driving going on. We're about a mile from the freeway, but can--on a normal day--hear the constant traffic buzz as a soundtrack for our lives, especially in treeless winter. But few are venturing out, and the streets are much quieter than usual in part because the fluffy lovely snowy stuff is acting as a sound baffle.

Instead of doing anything truly useful (like house-tending--hoovering and dusting mainly, since we can't wash clothes when the temperature's this low, 23 F at the moment, because the washer is out on the unheated back porch), I've been tucked up under the furry throw rug I bought for the cat (who's terrified of it) when his brothers died, thinking that it would be nice for him to snuggle into. It suits me fine, though, even though it's synthetic. I'm utterly amazed at how lifelike the "fur" is, and only need to feel guilty about the plastics that went into making it, rather than the deaths of small furry critters. It's quite warm, too, which helps mitigate the low ambient temperature in the house, despite our pumping more natural gas-heated air into the place than I'd like so the interior pipes don't freeze.

We've run out of dry firewood, but I'm still in the living room, in the comfy chair, laptop on lap, reading away (at the preview of Sunday's Times Book Review mainly, and other odd bits). What I'm reading is pretty discouraging: a review of a new book about the imminence of serious climate problems, and Mark Bittman's piece about American food. Even a review of Brian Greene's new book, The Hidden Reality (about parallel universes and such) hasn't lifted my spirits as much as it might normally, because the other two are so very discouraging.

The first of these, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, by Mark Hertsgaard (reviewed in the Times by Wen Stephenson), reminds me, once again, of why I'm glad I don't have grandchildren. The same forces that are churning up record floods and cyclones in Queensland, and record ice, snow, and sub-freezing temperatures across the Midwest in this country are evidence of the need to make significant changes in policy and practice by 2020 in order to forestall utter disaster. The prologue is available on Google Books, and what makes it so compelling is that Hertsgaard is the father of a young daughter--one who, like so many of our children and grandchildren, will have to live in this over-heated, climatically disturbed, drought-stricken, disease-infested world full of poor people who have no chance to change things either because they don't understand what's going on or they've been convinced that global warming is a political conspiracy devised by "liberal" scientists and fostered by left-wing politicians for their own nefarious reasons.

Of course, the doomsayers have been wrong before (notably Paul Erlich, whose prediction of a Population Bomb fizzled as birth rates fell in response to the fear--and to the growing number of people entering the middle class from the '70s on--but see his rejoinder at the end of the Wikipedia article on his book.), but regardless of the art of prognostication's record I'm just not particularly sanguine about the future because so many variables are now in play.

Not unrelated to the climate problem is the list of changes in food policy this country needs to make, itemized by Mark Bittman in this week's Opinionator column: A Food Manifesto for the Future. I'm already an unabashed Bittman fan, and this simple list of real solutions confirms my reasons for adulation. Unfortunately, he too is preaching to this particular choir member, and I doubt that many of those who think we ought not to interfere with parents' choices regarding their children's nutrition, or that we ought to keep government regulation to an absolute minimum, are going to be hopping fervently onto this bandwagon.

You'd think that some might, though--embracing at least a couple of the points (like ending government subsidies on processed food, potentially saving at least $16 billion, which would pay for some of his other ideas, like subsidizing small farmers instead of large ones, or establishing a "Civilian Cooking Corps" to help educate families on good nutrition and the benefits of cooking for themselves). He promises further columns to elaborate on each point, and I for one can't wait. It's too bad that many around here would see these provisions as market-meddling or nanny statist propaganda, because Texas could really use some sensible political action to help make up for the various absurdities coming out of Austin at the moment, like firing teachers and slashing Medicaid when we're already near the bottom of the educational barrel and have rejected "Obamacare" because of its "socialist" provisions.

About the only hope I have these days--and it's only a fancy, not really a hope--is that somebody will discover a key into another dimension, where (like the characters in More News From Nowhere) those of us who think it's a good idea to move toward solving problems rather than pretending they don't exist, could start afresh. It would be good to be able to create a world in which technological and economic "progress" weren't the only measure of human accomplishment--and where our ability to live rewarding lives (using measures other than the amount of stuff we can accumulate before we die) without destroying the planet in the process could be realized.

The possibilities of multiverses also arose because I read Timothy Ferris's review of a new book about dimensional physics, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene. Current concepts like string theory and hyperdimensional sheets are like popcorn to me--nutritious and addictive, but I don't really know how they work. Nevertheless these ideas are fodder for the imagination, especially for those of us who have run out of ways of doing much to help out except to rant about problems on our blogs.

It's usually easier for me to be more hopeful when the byproducts of human existence are buried in several inches of snow, so that everything looks clean and fresh (as in the opening photo). The peace and quiet will, however, last only until tomorrow, when it's all expected to melt away. The region will be aflood with football fans spending absurd amounts of money, contributing significantly to local air pollution levels (increased flights in and out, traffic to and from the stadium, and considerable amounts of media hot air). The sheer excess recorded in this week's issues of the Daily Poop indicates that if all this money were put in a pool to use otherwise, we might well be able to address some of the issues reported so eloquently in Hertsgaard's book and Bittman's manifesto.

Instead, the Super Bowl becomes its own metaphor--a symbol of all that's wrong with us: bad food choices, billions spent on unneeded crap, over-paid sports stars, inane celebrities celebrated for their own excesses, a preposterous stadium, itself a monument to the vanity of a man who also symbolizes over-indulgence and questionable judgment. Some folks get rich off of this stuff, some live vicariously through it, and some of us--those who'd enjoy a good rivalry more without all the pomp and silliness--just end up feeling guilty for even wanting to watch the game.

Well, Go Steelers. Anyway.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Skywatch Friday: Deep Winter

The Daily Poop said yesterday that the winter of 1983 was colder than this one--or at least that spoiled North Texans suffered some 295 continuous hours of sub-freezing temperatures that December (we're hovering around 100 hours at the moment). That particular December has been squeezed out of my little memory cells, but I probably will remember this last week, if only because of the fuss folks have made over it. Part of the concern has to do with the impending Super Bowl game on Sunday, but mostly it's because this part of the country is full of weather sissies.

I awoke Tuesday morning to a phone call from my boss, telling me that the school had been closed down for the day. Well done, considering the fact that SUVs, pickup trucks, and 18-wheelers were sliding into one another all over the Metroplex for the next two days. So school was canceled again on Wednesday--and the Beloved Spouse's campus was closed again on Thursday (I had to meet class, with only 8 out of 30 attending). They were planning for tennis practice today (although this weekend's tournaments have been abandoned), but we'll see about that. I have my doubts about the ability of Texans, Argentinians, South Africans, Fijians, and Australians to whack balls around in freezing weather. Especially with snow all over the courts. It won't be as cold today as it was yesterday (20 was the high; it's 18 and climbing at the moment, with four inches of lovely white stuff on the ground) but things aren't expected to thaw until Saturday.

When we lived in Chicago, nobody blinked an eye during snow and ice (although this week's storm has caused the public schools to shut down for the first time in several years), and you would never see people going out in thin jumpers and jackets--they'd be bundled up appropriately. But one woman on the local news was complaining about how cold her house was (60 degrees; ours doesn't get up to 60 degrees in weather like this!), and she was sitting around in a tee shirt. Meanwhile, the BS and I are layered in fleece hoodies, sweaters, and extra socks--enjoying a morning sit in front of the fire. The puppies, deprived of long forays out of doors yesterday because of the wind chill (and Woody had already started shedding from last week's warmth), spent the day lounging on the sofa. This morning they've already been out for one romp in the snow, and will be begging for more as soon as they've slept this one off.

A couple of new suet cakes are in the feeders for the birds (an intrepid and inexhaustible brown thrasher, a pair of downy woodpeckers, assorted cardinals, chickadees, titmice, a starling, an olive sparrow, numerous English sparrows--and this morning a pair of fox sparrows), and the new hanging feeder is stocked with sunflower kernels, so the birds are happy, too.

Colleagues will undoubtedly be snarking next week about the "fallacy" of global warming, and I'll have to remind the climate-illiterate about last week's unseasonable heat, suggesting (icily, perhaps, ) that they might want to take a course in glacial processes or climatology in order to understand the relationship. I doubt, however, that it'll do much good. One thing I'm learning about modern "politics" is that folks are not going to listen to reason if they've already made up their minds--no matter how good one's argument or how solid contrary evidence is.

The photos were taken Wednesday morning (Groundhog Day, and the 90th anniversary of my late father's birth), when the temperature was at about 10 degrees F. Alas, the camera battery is busy charging at the moment, so no update featuring snow-laden trees. But here's one I took a few weeks ago after our last "blizzard."

Happy Skywatch Friday--and have a cozy weekend. Go Steelers!