Friday, September 18, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Reflected Sky

I'm not seein' much sky these days--nothing but gray (I think I feel a song coming on . . .). Rain, which is (in the end) welcome, has fallen almost continuously for a week. I'm learning enough about different kinds of rain to start cataloging different words to describe them--sort of like the nine different words for snow the Inuit are supposed to have.

The shot above is of the sky reflected in my grandmother's metate, which serves as dog bowl, bird bath, and repository for dead pecans. The reflected image is the previously lightning-struck pecan tree; the metate is surrounded by blooming liriope, on which my dogs love to snooze. The photo was taken just before the rains began.

But at least the picture has something to do with the sky, and that's what counts. Happy Friday, happy Skywatch, happy weekend, everybody.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Power to the People

It seems to me that there are a number of ways in which to address community energy needs, so I’ve been thinking about local power sources for some time (see my earlier post, Not-So-Bad News from Nowhere) and was pleased to read about Hawaii’s efforts to do just that in yesterday's New York Times.

Of course, “local” in this sense is easy to identify, since we’re talking individual islands in a small archipelago. But the state's program to reduce its dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels is laudable, since there are so many ways to generate power in this particular venue.

Wind, geothermal, wave, sun, algae: all provide potentially useful ways to run the fridge, without inflicting damage on our lungs, genes, or the environment, and they’re wonderfully diverse. One of the major stumbling blocks to alternative energy on the mainland seems to be a lack of imagination. It always seems to come down to one or the other, or maybe a couple of things. But fossil fuels are still big in the mix; nobody appears to be interested in completely phasing out the use of coal or oil or natural gas. Not when there are millions and billions to be made in fostering dependence on these sources. And don't forget nukes--the only "clean" alternative, as long as you don't count the problem of waste disposal.

Several things occur to me that might help solve our collective problems. One is to reduce our population, and thus our future power needs. Folks who are understandably worried about the debt we’re leaving to our grandchildren might want to consider reducing the number of people who will potentially suffer from our current profligacy (and this isn't just about energy, or even The Deficit). Some people like having lots of kids, and I can understand that. But having a couple of kids instead may be a much more sensible option these days, given not only the cost of providing a passel of young’ns with a decent education and standard of living, but uncertainties about the future as well. I guess it's a sign of optimism that I see so many three- or four-kid families these days, and that was probably okay in the past, when a parent (read: Mom) could stay home with the little ones during their early years. But having big families in problematic economies, when steady jobs with a future are still in question, seems at the very least unwise.

In most developed countries, populations are staying fairly steady, or even dropping (causing problems with maintaining ways of life that have been supported in the past by large numbers of offspring, and requiring influxes of foreign workers). This, of course, opens a huge can of lumbricids, and requires its own set of solutions. But one of these solutions leads to the second of my recommendations for the power problem.

We really need to re-think consumption patterns: not only our use of power for electricity, heating, transportation, and the like, but also our expectations about stuff. How much stuff (plastics come to mind immediately, but all other consumer goods should be under the microscope, too) do we really need?

Now, I’m an avowed materialist. I’m also a packrat, a family historian, a passionate recycler, and a lapsed archaeologist. I tend to keep stuff. Which means that I shouldn’t keep getting more stuff, but I do. Books and notebooks are stacked on either side of this laptop as I type, and I show few signs of beginning to manage my addiction. But if I were, according to my own advice, to think carefully about how much I really need that new book on marine algae formation and climate change, I might be able to reduce my related needs, such as more bookshelves to hold the books and magazines (which I’m really reluctant even to pitch in the recycle bin) that keep ending up on my desk .

Happily, I’m not also addicted to buying clothes or tchotchkes, and have long been able to resist buying stuff just because it’s cute, even though I sometimes rue not having picked up the funky bird bath at Tuesday Morning that would have looked great in my silly garden.

Cheap stuff is, in the end, no bargain. We should all be following William Morris’s rule about having nothing in our houses that we don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. That might not exclude the birdbath (it does, after all, bathe birds), but maybe it would keep us from buying some piece of useless crap just because it’s cheap. It also costs energy and resources to produce, and if it isn’t useful or beautiful, it probably shouldn’t have been made in the first place. After all, I can always make a birdbath out of the bent-up copper fire pit the neighbor’s tree fell on, or an old bowl and a tree stump.

In addition to not having so many kids and not buying stuff we don’t need (I know, putting those two items together seems heartless and unsympathetic, not to mention somewhat crass; but I simply must maintain my reputation as a snark), we really do need to be less single-minded about energy production in the first place.

Source diversity is a really good idea in its own right. Why can’t we all have nifty wind generators or solar collectors on our rooftops, or small windmills in our yards? (Well, here's one reason why the latter might not be the answer.) Why can’t we go back to using waterwheels to grind grist where it’s practical, or steam generators in places with geothermal activity? Why can’t there be smaller, less-centralized power plants that reduce the possibility of widespread blackouts?

If the problems are complex, I see no reason why complex solutions can’t be viewed as a challenge to entrepreneurial imagination and embraced in their multiplicity. As I rail to my students every quarter (to explain why lots of people make houses that look like pueblos, and why it didn’t take aliens to inspire pyramids in so many cultures), similar problems lead to similar solutions. But those solutions don’t have to be one thing. They can be many, and regionally appropriate, and focused on the actual needs of the community.

And if we stopped thinking that the only way to reflect progress is to “grow” bigger and broader suburbs with outrageous power needs, we might already be on our way to energy independence through a practical combination of conservation and innovation.

I know I’ve left water out of this disquisition, but it’s a different (although related) problem. And right now, after more than a week of rain, I’m up to my nose in it—so I’ll save that issue for another time.

If I've piqued anyone's interest in either alternative energy sources, increased energy efficiency, or distributed power generation (a term in wide use that describes the decentralization I'm talking about), here are some sources:

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory
The New Rules Project: Designing Rules as if Community Matters, especially its article on Distributed Generation in Local Plans (also linked above)
The Survival of and Potential for Decentralized Power Generation, by Harry Valentine, at Electric Energy Online

Image source: Landscape with Windmills, by Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), via Wikimedia Commons. Check out windmills around the world on Wikimedia while you're at it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Pirate Balloon

Things are coolin' down around here, and we're comin' up on the Fall festivities, so (since I've got nothin' else at the moment) I though I'd post this.

Skies are great backdrops for what human beings do in them. Like fly airplanes and gliders and dirigibles and other technological wonders.

But balloons are big around here, and every Fall, one of the towns south of us hosts a Balloon Festival, and Beloved Spouse's tennis team has to park the folk that come by. They earn money doing this, which helps foster the Collin College tennis team's various outings on their way to occasionally winning NJCAA championships. When my kids were little, the Festival happened on open space that they eventually ended up living on for a bit. Now it's held on the grounds of the College.

This is from last fall. It's raining now, and there's not much sky action, so this'll have to do. This year's festival starts in a couple of weeks. About all the entertainment BS gets on these outings is to take pictures. I especially like this one, being a devout Pastafarian and all.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Confederacy of Nincompoops

Since the decline of Western Civilization--at least as manifested in these United States--currently shows signs of accelerating rather than abating any time soon, I thought I'd post this both on the Farm and Owl of Athena because it relates both to political economy and to education.

I have, of course, stolen the title--cheesily altered--from John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. His hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, was a fully-realized snark and I loved the book--but haven't read it in twenty years. If Toole had lived to see what happened to New Orleans a few years ago, he'd probably have written a sequel; but the world was already too much for him, and he died by his own hand over ten years before A Confederacy of Dunces was finally published.

Toole was a latter-day Jonathan Swift, critical of cultural excess and stupidity in the '80s, and he drew his title from Swift's own "Thoughts on Various Subjects": "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign: that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

Now, I'm not saying that Barack Obama is a "true genius," even though he well may be. He is, after all, a politician, and he seems poised to weasel out of a host of platform promises on some Quixotic quest of his own--bipartisanism. But for sure, the dunces and nincompoops have arisen, if not in actual hoards, at least in loud numbers that make the evening news every bloody night, and promise to make it more and more difficult for him to accomplish what he was elected to do.

Another of Swift's aphorisms (from the same source as Toole's title) speaks to the current phenomenon of loud-mouthed, ill-informed rantings that go on in the so-called "town meetings" and that may well signal the end of civil discourse in this country.

Few are qualified to shine in company; but it is in most men's power to be agreeable. The reason, therefore, why conversation runs so low at present, is not the defect of understanding, but pride, vanity, ill-nature, affectation, singularity, positiveness, or some other vice, the effect of a wrong education.

Or of no education at all, perhaps. Otherwise, why would any reasonable human being yank a kid out of class in fear of being "indoctrinated" by the duly elected President of the United States? The promised topic is a pep-talk on staying in school in order to excel in life. Objections to the address on the basis of some paranoid fear of subliminal persuasion to embrace Socialism sounds to me like these parents--who really don't want their kids in public school anyway, but can't "afford" to home school them, or sacrifice anything to send them to private parochial schools--just don't want their children educated at all, in any meaningful sense of the word.

They want the Bible taught in school, but they sure as hell don't want Biblical hermeneutics taught because that might cause kids to question particular interpretations of the book itself, or perhaps to insist that it be read in context. They want Creationism or Intelligent Design taught to "balance" the godlessness of "Darwinism," and they don't "believe" in the evidence emerging from science in regard to climate change. They want their kids to read "the classics," but only the ones they approve of. History has to tell it the way it was told when they were kids, despite any evidence that's emerged during the last hundred years or so that contradicts received views. And the United States must never, ever, be portrayed in a negative light. Art history can be taught, but parents want to be assured that little Chase won't see breasts on a Greek statue, or little Britney won't see the giant phallus on a Pacific Island totem, so don't take 'em to a museum.

I know that not all parents act this way, but the furor over President Obama's speech has brought back a flood of memories about recent skirmishes in local public schools, and the constant battles that go on over Texas textbook choices. I long for a new William F. Buckley to appear to bring intelligent voices back into Conservative conversations. David Brooks and Rod Dreher can only pull so much weight, and even they're drowned out when the screamers take the podium and start out-shouting reasonable discussion.

The truth is, if we keep on this path toward willful ignorance, afraid to let our children make up their own minds about issues, they'll never learn to think critically, and there won't be anyone around in the future to solve the problems we're not addressing today.

As I discussed the Norman Conquest in my art and design history classes this week, I was once again reminded that our children don't know much about the history of the world. Medieval life is a mystery to them (except the Disney or Monty Python versions), not because it's not especially interesting, but because some nincompoop school system doesn't think "ancient history" is very important. This despite the parallels between the Middle Ages and the present that keep popping up.

Around here it's because you'd have to talk about controversial religious matters, and point out conflicting ideas about the role of religion in the formation of the modern world. But modernity and change are issues that parents don't seem to want to deal with, and they don't seem to be particularly worried about being condemned to repeat what we've forgotten about history.

The focus on education is increasingly seen as "elitism," even as we're told to send everyone to college who can breathe, whether or not he or she is really interested in doings so, or prepared to work at it. Those of us who have gone beyond college are suspect, because so many of us favor thinking carefully instead of proceeding headlong into an argument with nothing but opinions as grounds.

Among Swift's other remarks (not all of which are particularly useful) is this: "Some people take more care to hide their wisdom than their folly."

Some people seem to be reveling in their folly, at the expense of ever attaining wisdom. The old guard--the politicians and commentators who could discuss issues rationally despite their differences, like Ted Kennedy and Bill Buckley--is gone, and I for one miss the folks who could keep us honest and reasonably well-informed. Their measured assessments of current issues are swiftly being replaced by squawking and flummery, and our country is intellectually poorer as a result.

Images: William Hogarth's Chairing the Member, from The Humours of an Election series, 1755. When considering how to "illuminate" this post, I immediately thought of Hogarth's rabble-rousers in this series on popular elections. New Orleans, Mardi Gras Day, 2006: Rex Parade float commemorating A Confederacy of Dunces on Canal Street near the corner of Charters. It's good to see that Toole's book is still celebrated in his home town. Photo by Infrogmation. Jonathan Swift, portrait by Charles Jervas, 1718. All from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Skywatch Friday: North Texas Summer Evenings

After posting nothing but cranky stuff for a couple of weeks, I thought I'd celebrate Labor Day weekend and our wedding anniversary (Thursday, the 3rd) with some of the skies Beloved Spouse and I have enjoyed over the last month.

The opening image is one of those lucky shots that can happen when you're not looking for anything. It was taken August 1st at the Ballpark in Arlington; my father would have loved the schmaltz.

A front was moving along I30 while we were on our way to the game, so we weren't sure what to expect. The clouds turned out to be somewhat distracting, though, as the weather moved through and provided some interesting colors and formations when the sun began to set.

Back home, a few days later, we enjoyed more cloud layering and another sunset.

I know that most Friday Skywatchers are suckers for color, but I really like the subtleties of the layers.

Happy Skywatch Friday, folks! Thanks for making it so much fun to look up.

Bad Genes and Bad Air

One of the complexities involved in being human in the twenty-first century is that many of the ills that would have killed us in the past can now be cured, or at least ameliorated, allowing us to live longer--if, of course, we have the money to pay for treatment. I doubt if the current debate over health care reform would even be taking place if we didn't have the means to prolong our lives in spite of all manner of genetic predispositions.

The reason many of us are adamantly in favor of reforming whatever we want to call the "health care" system we use in the United States is precisely because it doesn't offer everyone access to treatment, so that the uninsured (with or without bad genes) live shorter and often more painful lives.

I was reminded of this situation when I received a text message from my daughter after her visit to our cardiologist--the one who was in charge of my care during my recent valve job. Not only has she inherited the same gawd-awful combination of genes that prevents the liver from processing cholesterol properly and led me to bypass surgery before I was fifty, but now she's got a heart murmur--an early sign of a problematic valve. Otherwise she's healthy--but even with careful monitoring, she may well end up having to undergo some kind of a repair procedure somewhere down the line.

Mind you, I really thought that by catching the cholesterol problem early and combining drug therapy with healthful eating habits and regular exercise, we'd avoid her having to go through all the surgical drama. With luck, of course, by the time her valve silts up there may be much less invasive solutions, and she may still dodge that bullet. But she also has to be extremely careful about how she lives her life, and about the choices many people simply take for granted--including providing me with grandchildren. Because she's well insured, however, she stands a good chance of living into old age (there are some good genes involved in this regard, thanks to my grandmother), as long as she stays employed.

The modern world combines wondrous medical innovations with an absolute morass of crap that can kill us in novel ways. Our distant ancestors, for example, certainly must have died from the genetic defects of all sorts. But nowadays, even though we can mitigate high cholesterol or other congenital problems, our chemically enhanced world also lays unexpected dangers at our feet.

I'm especially mindful of this at the moment, because I've spent the morning enduring the smell of paint-related solvent wafting through the house from an unknown source, and imagining myself succumbing in a few years to some weird kind of brain cancer as a result. Since I had no way to escape the odor, I moved in and out of the house and from room to room, trying not to breathe. I had planned to work in the garden, but didn't get much done because I kept having to retreat from the fumes. I'm just hoping that it was somebody's temporary project, and that an auto-body shop hasn't decided to vent toluene into the atmosphere or something.

We're constantly assaulted these days with odors we don't necessarily want to smell. "Plug-ins" and other noxious "air fresheners" are showing up all over the place--including outside the elevators in the building where I work. I'm hoping to put a stop to this as soon as I figure out who's responsible, because fake cinnamon-scented chemicals aren't any more pleasant to sensitive nostrils than the volatile organic compounds in oil-based paints, and they're probably just as dangerous.

Of course, we're not always aware of what's floating around in the troposphere, waiting to settle into our bodies' byways, affecting our own lives and those of our offspring. We've infected ourselves with petrochemicals to such a degree that we're no longer even conscious of how they pervade our lives. Just thinking about our dependence on plastics--and our inability to recycle them properly--is enough to make me want to find a cave on a deserted island. But then I'd still have to breathe the air--and even the most conscientious consumers can't do much about that. I guess that's why I'm so pissed off about the stench I've endured all day. I didn't create it--I wouldn't create it--but I don't have any way to avoid it.

This is probably one reason for my preoccupation with utopian philosophy; thinking about better ways of doing things at least offers an intellectual escape. When the modern world intrudes so inexorably, however, there doesn't seem to be much hope that we'll ever come to our senses--or what's left of them after we've fried our olfactory receptors with toxic chemical concoctions that some idiot thinks are beneficial.

Image credit: A nifty diagram of the atmosphere (in Portugese) by Marcelo Reis, via Wikimedia Commons.