Thursday, December 15, 2016

It's The Oikonomos, Stupid!

Organic harvest sample, 2016

Although I’ve already addressed this issue at least once previously, I’m getting really tired of seeing organic farming practices and preferences for organic food beaten up as misguided or even as a kind of pseudoscience.

A question on Quora, for example, that showed up on my feed recently, asks “What are some examples of pseudoscience in day to day life that even educated people aren’t aware of?” One of the two answers includes a list of “all kinds of nonsense that highly educated people believe,” the first of which is “Organic food is healthier.” The question is an old one, I think, and the answer was updated a year ago, so (admittedly) this isn’t exactly news. I pretty much agree with most of the other examples (claims that gluten is bad, vaccines are bad, etc.), but this and the “GMOs are bad” example are based on a shallow understanding of both the principles of organic farming and the nature of objections about GMOs (see the above-linked essay, "It's Not the Science, It's the Ethics").

Then, from the normally quite sane New Scientist  comes a snarky article by Michael  Le Page, “Care about Earth? Ditch Organic Food”  (Dec. 3, p. 21). In fact, the article is about the idea of labeling food for climate impact (like carbon footprint), which doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me, nor would it to most organic “foodies.” But Le Page’s complaint is about how organic farming doesn’t help wildlife, because of lower yields which require more land to produce—and in the tropics this means cutting down more rain forests. He also states that “organic food also results in higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional farming.” Boy would I like to see the evidence for this, considering the fact that conventional farming relies on petrochemicals for fertilizers, and organic farming uses existing manures (green and animal-based) rather than manufactured ones. But the premise that in the tropics, organic farming is less productive than conventional can be argued against (see the results of a long-term study by the Swiss research institute FiBL) and my primary objection is that he just doesn’t "get" the basic reasons for organic practices in the first place.

Even if organic food were “healthier” (whatever that entails; he seems to think that it isn’t, but the jury seems still to be out on the general question ), that’s not even the main point. The real reasons for choosing organic foods over conventionally grown, or organic milk over conventionally processed milk (etc.) lie in an ethical concern for the basic economics of human life. In order to support my own claim, however, I have to provide a bit of an etymology lesson.

The word, “economics” comes from the Greek oikos (home) and nomos (usage, custom). The old high school course for girls, “home economics,” is thus something of a pleonasm, but never mind. Economy is fundamentally about much more than finances, hedge funds, and the GDP; it’s about how we live in the world. Eco-poets like Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Wood Krutch, William Morris, and Wendell Berry have all written about the relationship between human beings and the planet, and their influence can be seen in the growing interest in living in such a way as to ensure a viable future for our descendants.

Modern human beings don’t have a great track record for home-keeping (hence my skepticism about our ability to safely modify genes). We’ve plundered the planet seeking metals and fossil fuels to create the industrial societies that have radically changed our impact on climate, land use, and water in the geological microsecond of the last two hundred years.  It shouldn’t be surprising that an increasing number of thoughtful people (especially those with children and grandchildren) are trying to find ways to create a sustainable future against mounting odds (and obstructionist politics).

So, when folks suggest caution in adopting genetically modified organisms, asking that products containing them be labeled, they’re not necessarily tossing science out the window in favor of scary predictions by Luddites and Saboteurs. Some GMO seeds, like Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant corn, allow more significant use of pesticides on corn crops, and I would genuinely like to know if a corn product I’m buying has had a close encounter with glyphosate pesticides like Roundup. Of course, I think there are other reasons to be suspicious about our ability to safely and effectively mess with plant and animal genes in the first place, so I’d just as soon know. All labeling does is to alert me as to whether or not a product has been modified, and if so to allow me to decide whether or not to buy it. I’d be even happier if labels could tell me why the company thought genetic manipulation was necessary in the first place: higher crop yields, higher nutrient values? Maybe. Better pesticide resistance? No.

Calling this kind of suspicion (or skepticism, actually) “pseudoscience” suggests that all GMOs are fine, pose no potential threat, and that we should just sit back and let Monsanto do what it wants. Associating people who choose organically produced food with people who believe that psychic powers exist or that Intelligent Design is actual science tars legitimate researchers in food ecology  with the brush of the anti-intellectual fringe that’s already gaining more and more political power.

I’m painfully aware that there does exist a kind of war on science being promulgated by those with religious and political beliefs that enable them to ignore the data and the evidence for evolution, climate change, vaccine safety, and other such issues. The anti-intellectual climate in this country is what made me retire when I did, and what makes me so pessimistic about our future. But those who pooh-pooh organic practices or GMO skepticism, dismissing those who question received doctrine as “anti-science,” are committing the same logical errors as the climate change deniers. All we ask is that people look at the evidence. In many cases (as with the FiBL study named above), legitimate scientific data are out there. The notion that we should “ditch organic food” if we “care about the planet” is both smug and ludicrous.

Being pro-science would seem to require an open-minded approach to explanation and experiment. Unless there are substantial data to suggest that organic practices are harmful to the well-being of the planet (to the planetary oikonomos), we should probably embrace anything that feeds us without destroying the ecosystems that provide our sustenance. The kinds of farming and gardening invented in the neolithic (and are thus thousands of years old) may not be able to efficiently feed vast urban populations—but the principles that are embodied in organic food production and other sustainable agricultural systems may help us to avoid the collateral damage inflicted by fossil fuel-based industrial agriculture (and unthinking use of chemicals in home gardens)—some of which (such as endocrine disruption in children) is only now being discovered and studied. Lowering our carbon footprint (both individual and cultural) is an important part of the equation, but so are reducing our reliance on chemicals that kill pollinators and may have long-term, as-yet-undiscovered health consequences.

I'm not asking for political correctness or for tiptoeing around the tender feelings of tree huggers like myself. Tell it like it is, by all means; but be willing to accept the healthy skepticism embodied in sustainability movements so that the damage done by the real anti-science goblins likely to exert their influence in the next four years won’t be irreparable.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"I'd like to eat with you and gaze into your eyes while we talk of UFOs"

As anyone who reads this blog already knows, it doesn't take much for me to make obscure connections and go off on a tangent. This week it's the juxtaposition of my reading Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto while re-reading Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" after having seen Denis Villeneuve's film, Arrival (based on Chiang's short story).

Iyer and Chiang are often mentioned by the same people (mainly writers), although I've been I've only recently managed to remember to look for Iyer during my forays into Half Price Books. I came across The Lady and the Monk twice, as it happens, not remembering the second time that I already owned an unread copy. The second was, fortunately, a nice hardcover edition and thus much easier to read out of doors, in the garden, during cat-watching time.

Many of us SF fans have only recently discovered Ted Chiang, most likely because he publishes so seldom, and because he doesn't write blockbuster trilogies that run to thousands of pages. Rather, he pens carefully crafted short works. When I found out that his story was the inspiration for Arrival (with its haunting and intriguing trailer), I looked him up online and found a rather wonderful story that reminded me of something out of Arabian Nights, called "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," which I read while I awaited the copy of his collection, Stories of Your Life and Others.

I'm not sure I'd have thought of recommending "Story of Your Life" to my daughter, despite resonances with our life together that emerged after I'd seen the film with her and re-read the story, but she saw the film before I did and "got" it before I did.  I was more intrigued by the connections between linguistics and physics explored in the story, and actually missed the "twist" that everyone's making a fuss about. Now that I do "get" it, however, and because I'm also reading Iyer's book, I'm somewhat overwhelmed with notions about language and time.

Many years ago, when I was wallowing in what was then a hotbed of controversy over Whorfian linguistics at Penn, I attended a small conference, the focus of which I can't even remember. Since it was job-related, it might have had to do with computers in university administration, but I'm not really sure. At any rate, during a break, after I'd given a short presentation on something or other, a fellow came up to me and asked me, "How old were you when you learned Japanese?" Now, truth be told, I never learned anything more than "baby" Japanese, the language of children I picked up during my year at a classical Japanese dancing school next door to our little shack in Kunitachi--when I was five or six years old. But apparently the combination of having been introduced to basic Japanese language structure along with the pattern-recognition inherent in the dance moves did something to my brain that caused me to bring unlikely topics into odd juxtapositions.

This is apparently what happened at the conference that made that guy ask me that question.  I guess I did tell him a brief history of my acquisition of what little Japanese I had, and would imagine that the dance training may have enhanced what ever brain changing that went on.  My use of the language actually got a boost in Taiwan when I was about ten and could use what I had to get around because all the old guys who drove pedicabs, sold noodles on the street, or conducted buses spoke leftover wartime Japanese. I could well have been a walking advertisement for linguistic relativity and the idea that language (at least in part) structures our cognitive engines.

In "Story of Your Life," the linguist learns the aliens' language, which in turn restructures her experience of time.  And while I'm not sure my baby Japanese has influenced my concept of temporal movement, it most certainly has provided me some insight into how Japanese translate English, especially as Pico Iyer has recorded it in his book--as well as some understanding of why that guy made the connection between quirky associations or metaphors and early experience with Japanese language.

So when I announce (as I often do after watching a Miyazaki film) that the Japanese are quite simply nuts, I mean it lovingly.  They well and truly are--but only if one sees the particular brand of "sanity" that comes out of America as the norm. The title of this post comes from a passage in the "Spring" section of Iyer's book; it's a sign in the window of a coffee shop where he goes to enjoy some melon sorbet. The book, which is an account of four seasons spent in Kyoto where he went to learn about Zen Buddhism (among other things), is stuffed to the covers with the peculiar admixture of East and West he experienced.

As a student of intellectual history and the role language plays in telling the human story, I often find the unexpected in books.  And because my own rather peculiar understanding of time seems to require that I layer my reading so that anywhere from two to ten books overlap at any given moment, I shouldn't be too awfully surprised that the connections between books frequently burrow through those layers.

Although I do think that Denis Villeneuve made a bit of a hash of Chiang's story--especially with all the military bullshit that seems to be part of the Language Of Science Fiction according to movie makers--it's still moving and beautiful and innovative and may do a lot to stir interest in linguistics and (to a much lesser extent) physics. In a nation where citizens seem to be getting less and less knowledgeable about maths, science, and even language, it really is a pleasure to see a smart movie about smart people who solve problems without blowing stuff up.

Perhaps the fact that WWII did so much mutual damage to both countries is both the cause and the effect of the oddity we perceive about their understanding of the world. Anybody who wonders at the mania for anime and manga and Hello Kitty over here should read Pico Iyer's book for a thoughtful account of the Japanese fascination for Western--and particularly American--culture. Ambitious Japanese children learn English almost as a matter of course. If American kids who are learning Japanese today manage to reshape their brains as a result of their engagement with a radically different world view, I can only see the result as positive.

Image credit: A 1930s-era travel poster, "Come to Tokyo," from the Library of Congress's Online Prints and Photographs collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Slouching Toward Dystopia

 Anselm Kiefer, Von den Verlorenen gerührt, die der Glaube nicht trug, erwachen die Trommeln im Fluss

Where to start?

There I was, still basking in the glow of the Cubs having won the World Series, enjoying the moment and the metaphor: baseball as life. Work hard, play well, do the right thing and eventually (even after 108 years) the reward comes.

A week later, the world has changed and the future looks less than promising, at least in the short term.

For my entire academic career I have lived by and taught the principle that we are what we do: that in a moral world, the ends do not justify the means, and that ends and means must be identical. If we try to accomplish good by acting badly, we betray our humanity. To do good, we must be good.

I was also born into a family with a long tradition of respect for the life of the mind. My grandmother and  her sister both went to college when it was rare for women to do so. Their own mother had moved her family from the Nevada frontier to eastern California at the turn of the twentieth century so that her children could be better educated, and the intellectual cultivation she encouraged has fueled my own desire to keep learning.

But education in this country seems to have devolved into a political buzzword, and children are  taught in factories controlled by political agendas within an increasingly anti-intellectual environment. The products of elementary and secondary schools find their way into colleges without having developed the means to learn how to think, how to write, how to be good citizens. For twenty years I watched the intellectual skill levels of my first-year college students decline to the point where by the time I retired, few could read any of the books I had read in college, or write a basic essay, or produce a simple argument. Their ability to conduct research, especially in light of new technological demands (and perhaps because of the new tools), were negligible. And as earnest as some of them were, and as creative and talented as they seemed, they were no longer able to accomplish what I asked them to do. And so I essentially stopped trying, and called it quits.

In the last year, however, I've focused on my own intellectual needs, and have spent a great deal of time reading and writing and enlarging my universe. The same digital technologies that made it difficult for my students to learn to think (it's so much easier to Google something for an instantaneous "answer" than it is to look deeply into a subject) have allowed me to take online courses in astronomy, philosophy of science, Japanese books, and (most recently) sustainability. I've  been using the internet to fill in gaps in the various branches of my family tree, as well as digging into the trove of primary sources left behind by my grandmother to add to the database. I've spent more time on The Farm than I had been able to while teaching, and am grateful for the blogging program that allows me to get ideas out there for the two or three people who still spend time here.

Although I have tried not to be too overtly political, not wanting to offend the many members of my family who disagree with me on party politics, I can't let this particular moment go by without comment. And it's not because I was particularly surprised, having been warned by Michael Moore back in July that this could happen: This country has just elected a president who seems to violate the most fundamental principals of civil society and to espouse such abhorrent beliefs that we may be in actual peril.

What I can only hope is that he is not, in fact, prepared to act as he speaks: that he has only been pandering to the racists and bigots whose views he claims to support. That he is somehow not quite the blathering narcissist he plays on TV. But his disdain for education or intellectual endeavor,  his ignorance of science, his lack of respect for women and people of color, for Jews and Muslims, and his apparent lack of knowledge about the rest of the world--all of these "qualities" provide little evidence that things are any better than they seem.

If the President Elect is what he does, then we're all in  trouble.

Over the last three days T. S. Eliot keeps coming to mind. I remember discouraging one of my colleagues (about ten years ago) from trying to teach Eliot in her writing classes because it would be so difficult to explain all of the allusions. Even then students entered humanities classes with no idea of what the humanities were or why they should have to learn "that stuff." I now regret my advice and hope that she paid me no mind, because hers may have been the lucky students who might now recognize the refrain at the end of "The Hollow Men": This is the way the world ends . . . not with a bang but a whimper.

Although I can still envision the kind of apocalypse we used to imagine, as baby boomers in the fifties, embodied by a mushroom cloud on the horizon (especially since the PE has not ruled out use of nukes, even though he professes to abhor them), what I truly fear is the entropic death of human intellect and the consequent failure of democracy. An uneducated public cannot help but be swayed by deception, sleight of hand, and empty promises because it lacks the interpretive skills that reading literature and doing science teach us.

As long as the American approach to education focuses on careers at the expense of understanding (in the broadest intellectual sense), and denies students the basic skills (reading, writing, logic, maths, science) that make real learning possible, democracy will be held hostage to anger, ignorance, frustration, and greed. If what our kids learn to strive for is celebrity, the newest phones, the hottest games, the flashiest clothes, the fanciest cars, or the most ostentatious houses, we're doomed to a future filled with a trashed environment, bad air, crappy weather, more poverty, and a crumbling infrastructure.  Fixing things requires intelligent, committed people who understand that what they do will determine their own future.

The old fogeys who complain about it in their blogs now will probably have died off by the time things really get bad, and we won't even be able to say "I told you so." Unless, of course, this election really does turn out to be the beginning of the end.

There are approximately 727 days until the midterm elections in 2018.

Image credit: Von den Verlorenen gerührt, die der Glaube nicht trug, erwachen die Trommeln im Fluss, (The drums in the river came alive, beaten by the lost ones, who were not supported by faith), 2004, is permanently installed on a specially reinforced wall of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The photo was taken and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Wmpearl. When I was thinking about an illustration for this post, Kiefer came to mind because of his thematic explorations of German history and the aftermath of the Holocaust. Rhetoric that echoes what was heard in pre-WWII Germany was frequently encountered during the presidential election campaign, providing disturbing parallels. Coincidentally, we were watching the episode, "Storm Front" on Star Trek: Enterprise, when we saw this image of the White House.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Another Autumn in Exile

The former "Stump Henge," now filled in to create "Woody's Garden"

As I watch the fuzz-tailed tree rats rummaging in our newly installed raised bed (we filled up "Stump Henge" with compost and mulch, and have planted a few things therein), I realize just how not-cute squirrels really are. They eat our pears before they're anywhere near ripe, and nibble on baby pecans and spit out what they don't like, littering the ground with sticky crumbles of unripe nuts.  They bury more mature nuts and acorns all over the yard, necessitating difficult (for me) removal after the infant trees have sprouted (said squirrels having forgotten where they planted they're winter stores).

Yes, they do also dance and frolic and have amusing sex, but they're essentially a general nuisance. Not, perhaps as much as are the mice we still haven't completely eradicated, despite the elaborate treats The Beloved Spouse baits our Havahart traps with (peanut butter and bananas, or almond butter and cat kibbles). Although actually mice, these critters are the size of small Chicago rats. We've exiled quite a few, to a forested area several miles away, but some have evaded capture. Mrs. Peel, the resident mouser, seems not to frighten them in the least, and has been known to watch them scurry by without a twitch on her part. I did, however, observe her making a lame attempt at chasing a squirrel a few days ago, which accomplished nothing but did afford her a bit of exercise. What backyard wildlife advocates don't always tell you is that feeding birds often attracts other varmints, and unless you confine your feeding to specific species with diets unattractive to rodents (finches who like niger seed, for example), placing feeders near one's house is not recommended for tender-hearted folk like us who are ethically unable to poison cute, furry little mammals, no matter how annoying they are.

As I've mentioned before, our "House Clock" marks the Autumnal Equinox when the sunrise no longer sheds direct light through the east-facing dining room window (although it took a day longer than it should), and this year I noticed for the first time that for a few days around the equinox sunlight reaches all the way from the front door, through the sitting room, central hallway, and study onto my William Morris-focused bookshelf at the very back of the house--thus illuminating Morris and the Pre-raphaelites nicely.

Upon researching the answer to a question that came up at tennis practice (TBS is the assistant coach at his college, and some of the players are from the southern hemisphere), I discovered that contrary to popular belief around here, equinoxes and solstices do not necessarily mark the beginnings of seasons in the rest of the world. In fact,  Cecil Adams, in a column for The Straight Dope, notes that even in the northern hemisphere we don't all agree on when seasons begin and end.  But regardless of what measure we use, by October in North Texas, as my father would say, "fall has fell." Stuff is turning brown, hundred-degree days are gone, the Monarchs are migrating, fall flowers are blooming (attracting the Monarchs), and the quality of daylight is beginning to change. For reasons I don't quite understand daylight savings time is lasting an extra week this year, but I wish they'd just keep it year round.

The weather is also co-operating, with pleasant temperatures, occasionally crisp air, and just the right amount of rain. I mow the lawn in front to keep up appearances, but will probably let the back go until the leaves are down and ready to be mulched in. The mozzies are still around, though, which means that I have to spray down if I want to sit out with the animals, but I'll have to wait until the first freeze before I can do without the Deet. As awful as I know that stuff is, it's the only thing besides Picaridin that will keep the blood-suckers off me. Picaridin is the lesser of evils, but hard to find. I found one unscented brand that only comes in a pump spray--and is thus difficult to apply where I need it. I forgot to check the label of another brand I found recently, and bought it before I realized that it smelled like the cologne of a former colleague. The plant-oil based repellents don't work very well, and smell to high heaven of eucalyptus and other lingering odors.

But fall is filled with a kind of promise--not just of dark, frigid winter days, but of cozy fires, soup, bread-baking, and if I get my planting done, a better garden next spring. Now that I don't have my compressed academic calendar to regulate my days, I can pay closer attention to phenological information (such as the Monarch migration, which I'm not sure I've ever noticed before). And because I'm not teaching, I can enjoy the fact that the Cubs are in the playoffs without keeping MLB At Bat open on my phone during lectures. Last night's Full Hunter's Moon, and next month's Full Beaver Moon (November 14) promise celestial entertainment that even the glaring white light from the new house in back, or the so-called "soft lighting" in the trees next door will do much to diminish.

And even as I ponder the possibility of leaving for better weather, fewer trees, and fewer squirrels, the probability of permanent exile doesn't feel quite as oppressive as it once did. If the election doesn't bring on the apocalypse, a few well-planted trees along the back fence and a couple of trips to the desert might well obliterate the neighbor-instigated irritations, if not the squirrels.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Farming Owls

This is the season of dancing squirrels, cool weather, declining mosquito populations, and Getting Things Done in the garden.

But the simple indulgence of enjoying all of the above has been overshadowed a bit by lingering remnants of my former life. So, having spent far too much time in diaristic grousing, I’m embarking on a new enterprise that involves taking more seriously my original intention of producing periodic essays on life, the universe, and nearly everything else. Now, in my idle dotage, I must rethink my website, Owldroppings, which was conceived back in 1997 as a student-focused site devoted to educational materials related to the classes I taught.

So, while the site fulfilled its purpose splendidly, especially in the absence of institutional web support (that came along nearly ten years later), that purpose no longer exists. I’ve left the pages mostly intact as I feel my way around rather blindly in a student-less world, but I’m now wondering whether or not to simply abandon it, or transform it into something new. Although I’ve thought of maintaining its focus on education, providing resources for progressive home schooling and/or lifelong learning, one alternative that seems the most sensible is to simply rename it “Owl’s Farm” and move this blog to that site and proceed from there.

I’m especially reluctant to abandon the domain name (owlfarmer dot com) because it was suggested by my dear, sweet, goofy, late father. A German acquaintance once pointed out to him that “Uhlmeyer,” when pronounced properly as “OO-leh-my-er,” sounded awfully like the equivalent of “owl farmer” in German. I’m not sure how this could be, since “owl” in German (“eule”) is pronounced more like “Oil-uh.” But apparently in some dialects it can be pronounced “oo-leh,” and my dad thought the idea of owlfarmers was hilarious. Soon afterwards, I was in need of a domain name when I decided to build the website, and he suggested “Owlfarmer”—and so it went. He had also discovered that “Uhlmeyer” freaks out the dictionary in Word, and when you ask it for alternative suggestions it comes up with “Whatever.” Had I tried that one, I might have beat John Scalzi to it—but only by a little.

One thing, of course, led to another, and after I started blogging in 2007, Owl's Farm begat Owl's Cabinet of Wonders.  When some of my educational musings seemed a little out of tune with the Farm, I added The Owl of Athena (which later dissolved back into the Farm).  And just before students started getting tired of blogging in general (and my blogs in particular), I convened The Owls' Parliament, the shortest-lived of them all. And of course I have been given all manner of owly things from carvings made from Mt. St. Helens ash to innumerable mugs, by friends and students who think I have a "thing" about owls. I don't, but there you go; I did it to myself. And I do appreciate the thought behind the gifts.

At any rate, the owlfarmer domain thus needs to stay, and since I really don’t remember how we came up with “Owldroppings” as the page name (it was better than Owl Barf, which was another suggestion--I’m pretty sure the choice involved alcohol), that’s completely expendable. One of the early hosts of the page, Matthew LaVelle, designed a cute Flash program that featured line drawings of various stylistic interpretations of owls, dropping randomly from the top of the page and piling up on the bottom. That would have made some sense of it, at least, but I lost the file. And Matt’s gone off to Oregon to grow wine and raise a family, so I don’t imagine he even remembers it.

So here’s the plan: improve my web design chops by updating my Dreamweaver skills, talk to my server about how to convert it to a blog, and archive the best of the educational stuff so it’s still available to stray students who wander by wanting to use something they remember.

If anyone who still reads this has any suggestions, please let me know. I don’t really need any technical help, because as many who have tried to help me with redesign in the past know, I’m ferociously selfish and egocentric and determined to effing do it myself, damnit. But I would welcome directional advice.

In the meantime, I’ll write next about dancing squirrels and Autumn in Texas. And maybe baseball.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hunkering Down In Dystopia

If my last post seemed overly optimistic in view of current circumstances, this one will remedy the impression.

As summer wanes, I should be looking forward to cooler weather, fewer mosquitoes, and settling in to the retired life with its time for Getting Things Done (things long put off due to busy-ness). However, not an hour goes by when I don't get a screaming, all-caps headline in my e-mail box from the Democrats, announcing that we're DOOMED, and that ALL HOPE IS LOST if I don't contribute more and more and more to the campaign. The Daily Kos (to which I am guiltily addicted) features one inflammatory "diary" after another in language every bit as offensive as anything you'd read in a tweet from one of the twits who truly believe that the Republican candidate is not an egomaniacal fascist but someone who will save us from whatever they want saving from.

The answer, of course, is to simply not read the stuff, and instead concentrate on the real news from more reasonable sources. So I turn to the Times (which disburses bad news much less shrilly than most other papers, including the Washington Post) and New Scientist, where my weekly science fix assures me that at least the UK (despite Brexit) is not as willing to abdicate reason as we are over here.

Last week's New Scientist, in fact, featured a story on the Indus Valley civilization and the possibility that it sustained a somewhat utopian culture for several hundred years. But hope that modern Western capitalism could produce anything even vaguely similar (warless, egalitarian, decentralized, prosperous) is slim. Instead we have news of all manner of mayhem: political, environmental, economic. And as the election draws nearer, and some polls indicate the possibility that the "Republican" candidate could win, I spend more and more time trying to find a place to live, off the grid preferably, somewhere far enough away from urban centers to be able to shelter myself from the consequences. We (the Beloved Spouse and I) are actually better off than the alt-right folks who swear they'll leave the country if the Democrats win, because there are unlikely to be any places for them to go that aren't even more culturally and politically leftish than we are here.

But TBS and I will undoubtedly just withdraw as far as we can into our domestic eu-topos, inside the fence, inside the walls, building our little suburban farm and trying not to go nuts.

Oddly enough, I've started wandering the neighborhood on a regular basis, getting to know the historic district in which we live. Quite to my surprise, the place is not completely populated by oversized, opulent mansions left over from McKinney's glory days. At least half of the houses I pass in any direction are smallish bungalows with eccentric yards, providing evidence of a wide variety of income levels. Some folks are clearly trying to take advantage of the current boom and are hiring contractors to put subway tile behind their cookers, replace their tile or corian counters (left over from the last boom) with granite, and replace their "dated" appliances with stainless steel. But some very nice fences are going up to hold urban chickens with fancy coops and small food gardens, many of these behind the smaller bungalows that have held on to their big lots. I'm truly enjoying the process of working through the streets and alleys to see what's there--and to get in my daily 30-60 minutes of not sitting on my backside.

Soon I'll make it to the local library (a nice walk up the street toward the town square) to start researching this house in hopes of obtaining historic status for it. If successful, it will cut the tax burden a bit and make the place more attractive should we decide to sell and skip town for parts west. The size and park-like aspect of the back quarter acre might make up for the fact that there's no central air or dishwasher in the house. And all we really need to do if we decide to stay is to find a way of blocking the light from the new Taj Mahal behind us (a rehabbed bungalow turned into a McMansion; the historic district covenants end in the alley between them and us), and covering up the piece-of-crap addition our northern neighbor has inserted on top of her already offensive fence. But thanks to a trip through an alley a few streets away, I've now got ideas about how to deal with both.

I'm still hopeful that the country will not abandon all reason and elect a clearly unqualified candidate, but my pessimistic nature requires that I prepare for the worst. In the meantime, I'll keep working on the house, walking the dog, hanging out in the garden with the cat, and preparing to shelter in place.

Image credit: I chose this image because it reminds me of my own neighborhood--and because it shows the hub of American political life as it once was--before modernity and urbanization changed it irrevocably.

Arcadian D.C. Uploaded by AlbertHerring to Wikimedia Commons. Montgomery C. Meigs's "View from the 2nd story of the residence of Mrs. Comre. John Rodgers, Franklin Row, K Street at 12 & 13 Sts, Washington, D.C., overlooking the backyard and adjacent neighborhood, and showing children standing on balconies," 1850. Library of Congress.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

News From Out There

 Relative sizes and distances of Alpha/Proxima Centuari stars from the sun
For as long as I could, I resisted the temptation to jump on the Proxima b bandwagon and start waxing poetical about habitable planets in light of recent news. A week or so isn't really all that long, but given the alignment of heavenly bodies in my particular cosmos, that's probably long enough. I could not, however, resist at all the inclusion of the rather wonderful artist's interpretation of what the planet might look like, even though it means noting the European Southern Observatory's requirement to credit ESO/Kornmesser as the source:

One reason I felt compelled to mark this moment is that twenty years ago I discovered a terrific novel about Jesuits in space by Mary Doria Russell: The Sparrow, which takes place on a planet called Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system. (For Russell's take on the coincidence, see this article on her website.) The book, and its sequel, Children of God, was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the discovery of Proxima b.

The little red circle under the star on the left marks the location
of Proxima Centauri in relation to the other two. 

As if to punctuate this coincidence, my bi-weekly pilgrimage to Half Price Books netted a novel by Stephen Baxter called Proxima (2013), and then New Scientist featured a cover story on the discovery on 27 August. I'm still wandering around on Green Mars (I'm rereading Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy because I can't really remember much about it), so I haven't had time to get into the Baxter book. Quite frankly Baxter's been knocking novels out so quickly that I can't keep up. I've got two or three others on my shelves that I haven't even looked at. At any rate, it now goes to the top of the heap under Blue Mars. (For movies that have used the Alpha Centauri region as a remote--ahem--location see this post on the Discover magazine blog, Dbrief: Alpha Centauri, The Hollywood Star System.)

And then there's the new Coursera MOOC I started a month ago, "Imagining Other Earths" taught by Dr. David Spergel out of Princeton's astronomy department. This one's twenty-four weeks long and is described in its blurb thus: "Are we alone? This course introduces core concepts in astronomy, biology, and planetary science that enable the student to speculate scientifically about this profound question and invent their own solar systems" (the grammar isn't mine). I thought it would be a good idea to get better at the science if I'm going to keep working on stories about old bats in space. So far I've learned tons, and it's helping me keep my invented planets straight.

Then, as if all that weren't enough, a message comes through the SETI board to look out for media blather about a "Candidate SETI SIGNAL DETECTED by Russians from star HD 164595 by virtue of RATAN-600 radio telescope." The board moderator/SETI project scientist Eric Korpela poked a hole in that balloon, noting that "of course, it's been announced to the media" and that reporters "won't have the background to know it's not interesting." So even though folks are looking at it, it's not coming from the constellation Centaurus, and thus it's probably not worth calling up the Father General of the Society of Jesus to see if he can arrange to buy a hollowed out asteroid to use to mount an expedition.

Good thing, too, since humans would probably screw it up.

As expected, however, my science fiction feeds on Flipboard were full of announcements about "interesting" signals, and I imagine that the less skeptical among space-fans will be glued to the interwebs for a while. Meanwhile, there's more substantial fare available at The Pale Red Dot, and a nice article on EarthSky by Larry Sessions on the composition of the Alpha Centauri system.

I do so love this stuff.

The reason I enjoy this sort of thing quite as much as I do is because "outer space" is the ultimate "nowhere"--the ou (no) topos (place), with the potential to be the eu (good) topos. When Thomas More made this marvelous pun in the sixteenth century, he tapped into a human longing that goes back to ideas of Eden in the Judaeo-christian tradition, or of a golden age imagined in classical antiquity. Nowadays, of course, modern technology invites us to look for "nowheres" that at one time would have been inconceivable except as fantasy. Most of us with any science background at all know that living on other planets still belongs in the realm of fantasy, but every little frisson of hope implied by a nearby habitable planet (or even a more habitable moon or Mars) where we could do a better job of living with each other than we do now is potential nectar to the hopeful. And I think hope really is the underlying impulse among utopians.

Especially now, when we increasingly seem to be on the verge of dystopia, at the hands of the greedy, the willfully ignorant, the misguided, the bigoted, the fanatic, the atavistic--essentially all of the enemies of ideals like tolerance, wisdom, and justice that utopias are built on.

Of course, even in fictional "noplaces," things don't always turn out well. It almost seems that whenever we try to imagine something better, the reality of who we are and have been creeps in and muddles things up.

And still we dream on. I'm not sure what all that dreaming means, but it does keep me from falling on my sword, and provides me with a reason to get up every morning, take the dog for a walk, and get back to the business of wondering what it would take to actually make things work.

Image credits: "Pale Red Dot" (J. Mencisom) and Alpha Centauri region image (Guy Vandegrift) from Wikimedia Commons. "Artist's Impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri" ESO/M.Kornmesser, originally found on Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why I Believe In Dog

This is not the first time I've written an obituary for a pet on this blog. Undoubtedly it won't be the last. But it may be the hardest thing I've done in a while.

Last Friday afternoon, the Beloved Spouse and I took our well-loved mutt, Woody, to the vet for the second time in as many days. This time he didn't come home. We're not quite sure what had happened, but he hadn't been himself for several months, and xrays and blood work indicated that his obvious pain had a source. So we let him go. The doctor and crew who had cared for him for the last twelve years helped us through it all, and when we got home his brother Arlo was waiting for us.

His brother's absence seems to puzzle Arlo a little, but he's soaking up the attention. And pet care is considerably easier now without the nightly tussle of administering drugs to a dog who had forgotten all his manners.  Arlo gets along with Mrs. Peel better than Woody did, too, and she's taking advantage of the situation by lounging around in places she avoided before.

So now we settle into life without one of the "puppies" who'd been with us since before my father died (we took photos of the little guys for my Dad to see when we went out to visit him in hospice), neither of which had spent much time away from his "womb mate." We always got a kick out of explaining that they were siblings because they were two totally different dogs, both in looks and in temperament. Woody, as I was fond of saying, was the pretty one; Arlo had most of the smarts.

With the news full of the awful things human beings do to one another and to other beings, dogs remind us what pure innocence and goodness looks like.  Not long ago my stepmother sent me some very moving photos of service dogs who help the military and law enforcement do their jobs. I wept through them all because their loyalty is emblematic of the kind of virtue we want our children to practice. Recently, in a conversation about a neglected dog, the Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax noted that "People don't deserve dogs" because of the way some of us treat them.

Thanks to a thoughtful former boss, who found these guys for us, and to the Frisco Humane Society who fostered them, Woody and Arlo have had good lives with a family who appreciates them. We will all miss our sweet, goofy, gorgeous Woody--and will treasure however much time we have left with his brother.

Images: Woody in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California during his Big Adventure in December of 2014; Woody and Arlo enjoying one of their favorite pastimes. It snowed the day we got them, and they've loved romping in the white stuff ever since.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Total Recall

During my continuing efforts to repopulate the memory centers of my computer, I've started noticing how often the concept of memory itself comes up in everyday life. As I was attempting (for about the four hundredth time since I formally retired) to clear off my desk, I noticed a little 3.5" floppy disk labeled with my old airmail dot net e-mail address, "netscape mail files," and the date 07 14 01. Now this isn't exactly what I lost in The Big Dump, but using the little USB drive I mentioned last post, I discovered that there were about three years worth of correspondence between my Dad, stepmother, me, and my children on the diskette. This amounts to about 800 or so pages of text, describing the events of the moment: my grandmother's hundredth birthday, my son's twenty-first, my mother's deportation from Taiwan (and subsequent arrival in Dallas)--and I'm only up to about p. 229.

All of this fills in great gaps in my physiological memory, and in many ways brings my father back to me (he died in 2004) because his voice is so present in his letters.

At the same time, I just finished rereading Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (and some of the short stories in The Martians), in which the question of how memory works when people live to be 300 years old comes up frequently. In one story, a couple of characters who had met many years before discuss who remembers whom (one does remember the meeting, the other doesn't)--and after yesterday's romp through my own half-forgotten life, this reinforces the idea that if we do want to remember stuff, we need to work at it.

When I was teaching my introduction to the humanities course, one of the topics I explored every quarter was memory, and the role art plays in preserving it. The Annenberg Learner resources provide a lovely video on this very topic, called "History and Memory," a segment of their Art Through Time: A Global View series, and the film provided my students with a brief introduction to the importance of art as a means of preserving cultural and personal histories. The more I thought about it, the more it became clear that art is central to the whole idea, and that arts like sculpture, painting, literature, music--all the creative efforts we undertake--are means of preserving memory.

One of my favorite objects, used to illustrate discussions of both memory and the development of writing, is the Lukasa, or "memory board" developed by the Luba People of the Congo. I first learned about it on CBS Sunday Morning episode (which I remember clearly because I bought a VHS copy of the segment and showed it frequently in class) which featured an exhibit entitled Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (1996) curated by anthropologist Mary Nooter Roberts. The boards are covered by beads and/or bumps in patterns and arrangements that allow the Mbudye (a specially trained tribal historian who uses the Lukasa) to recall the past. The patterns vary widely, but on one early image search (in about 1997) I remember (!) seeing an aerial view of a Luba village which contained a number of circular houses that reminded me of the protrusions on one of the Lukasas I had seen in the film (probably this one, from the Met). The Lukasa is not, however, a physical map of a particular place, but more like a conceptual map of cultural experience. The one below is from the Brooklyn Museum, and contains both carved areas and beads. By fingering the elements, the storyteller remembers and recites stories and events.

I often thought of asking my students to create their own memory boards, but never did get around to it. I still think it would be a great personal project, especially for someone who wanted to reconnect with an African ancestral path.

Since one of my abiding interests is in museology (see Owl's Cabinet of Wonders--soon to undergo revamping and updating), the physical evidence of history as a tool of memory has been equally important, not only in my pedagogical life, but in my role as the unofficial family historian. I knew I'd taken over the mantle from my grandmother and my father when my stepmother handed over boxes of family documents during our visit in 2014. Hence my current efforts on Ancestry to tidy up the family tree, and my cataloguing projects associated with sorting through documents, photos, and memorabilia from both the paternal and maternal branches of my family.

In many ways, the human proclivity for preserving memories--and the numerous ways we find to do it--has been the focus of my academic life: archaeology, history of ideas, the role of technology in human creativity. So, despite the painful exercise I've undergone in the last couple of weeks, the loss of some documentary evidence has helped me uncover other sources, and has made me much more conscious of the necessity of backing things up.

The last two days have also taught me just how fast technological change occurs. The tiny memory and glacial speed of the machines and the internet in 1997 (when we gave my father a computer we had outgrown) seem positively archaic today. As I read the earliest of the letters (about setting up the machine and an e-mail account through Juno), I remembered sitting at my desk in our little Dallas hovel, listening to the sound of dial-up connections and experiencing the very long waiting times. Realizing that this all occurred nearly twenty years ago is even more astonishing to me, since in the intervening time span the Beloved Spouse and I have gone from debt-ridden, impoverished grad students (only one of whom had a full-time job) living in a now-demolished shack in East Dallas, to retired or nearly-retired debt-free home owners.  At the time, I could barely imagine what that might be like, or that it would ever be possible. And then I read the letters that recount how hard we worked to get here, and it somehow makes sense.

I often describe myself as an intentional pessimist, in the sense that if I expect the worst I won't be too awfully surprised or disappointed if bad stuff happens.  In truth, however, I tend to be more optimistic than I let on, and try to make the best of unhappy circumstances. So the recent loss of memory, whilst reminding me that I'll never be able to remember everything, has made me much more conscious of how important it is to curate the palace of memory rather more carefully in the future than I had been doing in the past.

Image credits: Mémoire Morte, by Michel Royon; Lukasa Memory Board, Brooklyn Museum. Both via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Memory Loss

Seldom have I chosen a more poetically appropriate image to illustrate a post. Some may have been accurate as documentation for an event or object, but in terms of metaphor, this one tops everything.

The post's title is also appropriate on several levels, because it describes both a physiological condition associated with age, and a consequence of technological malfunction. Combinations of the two, it seems, can turn into catastrophes of major import to the one who experiences them.

And so, the fog-blanketed Inyos outside of my hometown, photographed on our way out of Owens Valley in the winter of 2014, symbolize aptly the conditions perpetrated by my ageing brain and my lack of expertise in things computer-related. For most of the past twenty years, since I first purchased my web domain (in 1997) and began this blog (in 2007), I've gotten by--flying by the seat of my pants, knowing just what I needed to know to do what needed doing. For the most part, this has worked. I hadn't really had the time while I was still working to learn the skills I needed to design better websites or properly manipulate images, or even understand more about the technical side of what I was doing. I simply winged it, and stayed lucky.

Until this week.  In the process of trying to diminish my download files, I ended up wiping out most of the document files on my Mac.  After my panic had subsided enough, I bought some recovery software (probably not the best one I could have, but it gave me a free download to try it out), and I've managed to recover what seem to be the most important files (after long days of painstakingly opening, sorting, and filing over the last week).  Some are still accessible elsewhere, having been uploaded with webfiles on Owldroppings,  but the short-term stuff (some recent journal entries, budget files, and lists of which ancestors lived with whom every ten years between 1850 and 1930) is gone, like much of my own short-term memory. And so are the e-mail letters I transcribed from my father when I decided to preserve them in case my e-mail account tanked. These I will miss the most.

Only a week or so before this happened, I had mentioned to the Beloved Spouse that I really needed to get an external hard drive to back up my stuff. But, still being something of a procrastinator, I hadn't gotten around to it. Well, now I have. There's a nice, compact little 1T machine plugged into the Mac to aid my Time Machine so that I don't have to go through this again.

In the meantime, I've probably lost my P22 fonts (although I haven't tried to recover graphics and images; the scans are saved so I can do that later), along with stuff I probably don't remember I had. Which is undoubtedly a good thing. I could get the fonts back, even though they're on 3.5" floppies (I've got a USB floppy drive)--except that we recycled them earlier in the summer when we started cleaning out the garage.

I'm getting over it--probably as a side-effect of Black Heart (the ability to forget losses engendered by the frequent up-rootings of life as a military brat). I'll eventually go back over the Ancestry census files I've attached to ancestral names in order to reconstruct the Excel files I built to help sort out familial mysteries (such as which Hannah Scofield is really my grandfather's grandmother). I'll rebuild my new budget template, which will be relatively easy now that it lacks two major expenditures per month (the mortgage and the Jeep having been paid off--although my "red-letter day" account of the events is now gone from my journal), and two fewer paydays. I'll probably wake up in a cold sweat some night not long from now, upon suddenly realizing that something critical is missing and I haven't yet realized it, but I'm hopeful that I've come through the worst of it.

I did manage to recover the stories I've been working on over the years, and both Word and .pdf versions of More News From Nowhere (in case the web version disappears in the EMP). Even the most recent of my "Old Bats In Space" efforts was recovered. Its potential loss may have been my biggest fear because I'd spent a couple of weeks revising it and bringing it up to date, just before the end of July.  Nothing after July 31 seems to have survived at all.

Thus, in an effort to start fresh, I've redesigned my blog template a little--although it's only temporary. I need to work on it more, but thought that the new banner and template might help to cheer me up and get me back into the spirit of things.

That, and I will be taking advantage of Google's archiving tools.  I'm not sure what I'd do if I lost the last 9.5 years of the Farm. The image on the banner, by the way, is another shot from Winter 2014--taken at Uhlmeyer Spring.

What this experience has taught me is that the current mania for simplifying, de-cluttering, and paring down may have serious consequences for those of us who value the past. I'm certainly going to be a great deal more careful about what I toss--and how I go about "deleting.". My children don't know it yet, but they're the ones who will have to do the final sorting, because I'm going to be much more reluctant to diminish the family archives while anyone's still around who might care about them.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Independence and the Right to Read and Write: A Word from Tim Brookes

Pahauh Hmong
In a recent update to the Kickstarter campaign mentioned in my previous post, Tim Brookes wrote the following and asked me to share it; I do so gladly:

As those of us in the United States head into the long weekend that celebrates the country's independence from colonial authority (yes, as a Brit I have to accept my birth country's history!), the Endangered Alphabets' Mother Tongue initiative is especially significant.

Take a look at the attached photo, for example. The Hmong were, and to some extent still are, a disadvantaged minority in many of the countries of their native southeast Asia. The fact that they did not have their own written language was seen as a sign of how uncivilized they were. When Shong Lue Yang, an unlettered farmer, created this script for his people it gave them such a strong sense of identity that the majority cultures of the region were disturbed--so much so that soldiers were sent to assassinate him.

I'd like to suggest we think of Independence Day not just in terms of nations but in terms of people and cultures, and the right of all peoples to their own culture, history, identity and language. That's what our Mother Tongue exhibition will be all about.

Please take a moment to back our Kickstarter this weekend--and then go back to celebrating independence.

Some many years ago (perhaps ten), when I was still asking Humanities and art history students to look up the meaning of their given names and interpret them visually--both with images and in writing systems different than ours, the son of Hmong immigrants from Viet Nam used this alphabet to write his name. It was my first encounter with this very new system (invented only in 1959), and my student (whose name, alas, I cannot remember) told me the story of the script and that its inventor had been assassinated. For a bit more on the story, and for a transcription of the alphabet, see the Omniglot page. This script is so much more lovely and appropriate than the Romanized alphabet popularly used for other dialects that it urgently needs preserving.

One of the saddest elements of my experience is that more recently I had to abandon what had been a creative and thought-provoking assignment because my students knew so little about language in general, and cared so little about their own linguistic heritage, that they couldn't complete it effectively.

To anyone who still reads this blog, I urge you to go to the Right to Read/Right to Write page and make at least a small contribution to help Tim complete this project and to further the Endangered Alphabets goals--for all of us who value languages and writing systems and who fear what their loss would mean to civilization as a whole.

An addendum: for an interesting and extensive commentary on the importance of Tim's work, see this post on Ever Widening Circles. There are also some lovely images of the carvings.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Right To Read, The Right To Write

I'm devoting this post to an ongoing concern, and one you've seen me discuss numerous times on The Farm: the importance of language, and the danger represented both by the decline of linguistic richness and the disappearance of language systems.

Some years ago I participated in Tim Brookes's Endangered Alphabets Kickstarter campaign, and later joined his advisory board. Both the original project and its sequels, Endangered Alphabets II: Saving Languages in Bangladesh, and Mother Tongues succeeded in helping to raise awareness about the disappearance of indigenous languages by creating astonishingly beautiful carvings in a wide variety of endangered scripts.

The latest effort, The Right To Read, The Right To Write has been launched this week to enable Tim to "create a major exhibition of carvings for International Mother Language Day 2017 to celebrate and support endangered cultures." The goal is larger than the previous ones, $15,000 in thirty days, but its aims are equally lofty:

My goal is to create the most ambitious and significant set of Endangered Alphabets carvings yet—20 separate carvings of the phrase “mother tongue” in the traditional written languages of those cultures, carved in woods native to those cultures. These will make up a major exhibition to open on International Mother Language Day, February 21st, 2017, the largest and most high-profile display of the Alphabets so far. My aim is to spur public discussion and awareness of the importance of inter-cultural respect, and the dangers of language loss.

Keep in mind that these carvings are hand-crafted on gorgeous wood, and have to be carefully packed and mailed to their destinations. The Kickstarter page goes into more detail--and also features the goodies that come with donations--including the newest edition of Tim's book, and an Endangered Alphabets wall clock--which I just may get for myself as a retirement present.

If you were in any doubt about how important the whole question of the disappearance of languages and alphabets actually is, consider the following:

As my students have heard me claim innumerable times, writing is the most important technology ever invented by human beings. Period. We didn't invent fire; we found it. We didn't really invent stone tools; we simply modified found objects. Even weaving (which I consider far more important than stone weapon making as a measure of human achievement) was probably suggested by observations of plants and insects. Other primates can sign, but writing is purely human. No other species does it.

If it weren't for writing,  there is no possible way we would be where we are today. We've been creating and keeping cultural records since Cuneiform, Indus Valley script, Linear B, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, and other Bronze Age inventions took us far beyond the simple mark-making we'd been doing since the Paleolithic. Without these records we would have no idea of our history on this planet, no way to record what we discover, no way to transmit ideas.

Even as human culture creates new technologies to communicate, these technologies are themselves language-based. Not all of these are natural (think HTML and other codes), but all are vital. And what's really scary to me is that some of the digital technologies we're becoming so reliant upon are actually diminishing the quality of natural language. Vocabularies are diminishing among the young, and while our visual skills may be improving, critical thinking and analytical skills (language-based) appear to be declining. I wonder if some of this stems from the fact that hand writing (and handwriting) has become less important than producing words on a keyboard. But simply recognizing the potential loss of languages and scripts is an important step toward their survival.

Just this morning the New York Times mentioned a podcast from the New York Public Library on vanishing mother tongues, From Ainu to Zaza (tonight at 6:30 pm; register at the link). The live taping is sponsored by The Endangered Language Alliance and World In Words (PRI).

It's fairly clear that concern over the loss of languages and writing systems is growing. Only recently I discovered The Rosetta Project, "a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages."  The Rosetta Disk is a palm-sized digital collection of information on over 1500 languages, and promotes the long-term preservation of world languages by building the "largest open, publicly accessible collection of resources on the world's languages."

One of the best ways we can help to preserve these languages, though, is to foster their use among the people who developed them in the first place. This is where I think the Endangered Alphabets projects are especially important. They tie the beauty of the scripts to tangible art objects that can be displayed publicly to promote their preservation.

Even a few bucks will help, Folks. And if you pony up some serious change, you could snag yourself a work of art and help save a culture. 

Related posts: Losing Languages (2011); Endangered Languages Revisited (2013); Revisiting Endangered Alphabets and Languages and International Mother Language Day (2016)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Lush Life

 Still Life with Books and Garden Stuff
The Farm is actually doing quite well these days, and this farmer--instead of grousing about how tough life is on the Populated Prairie--has decided to acknowledge the wonders and plenitude of this particular Spring season. Perhaps the proximity of retirement has something to do with my improved attitude, along with the relatively large amount of free time I can now devote to the abject pleasures of reading and thinking. The reading has involved two books I picked up at the Half Price emporium that makes this town tolerable: Michael Boulter's Darwin's Garden: Down House and The Origin of Species, and Gerard Helferich's Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See The World. (Remind me never to burden any publisher with a subtitle nearly as long as the book.)

As usual, fortunate conjunctions have occurred that make the reading all the more felicitous, and I'll get to those in a minute. But I should mention that the pleasurable moments in the garden, both reading and working, have been enhanced by lovely weather interspersed with bouts of rain (and the usual terrifying Tornado Watch events) that have turned my modest half acre into a veritable jungle.

Woody enjoys sniffing the organic fertilizer in the raised veg bed.

 The "North Meadow" with Showy Primroses and Mullein

The animals are all enjoying the garden in their various ways. Mrs. Peel has figured out that if she stays still the dogs won't chase her, so she happily joins us--usually perching herself on one of the tables. Woody is fascinated with the manure-based fertilizer in the raised bed, and I've had to put barriers up to keep him out.  Arlo just looks for the shadiest spot near a human (or as near to Emma as he can get), and adorns his tail with pecan catkins, all of which have to be removed at the back door before he can go back inside.

 Emma amidst the Lambs Ears and Catnip
 Arlo observing the pots

The Humboldt book especially has made us both (The Beloved Spouse and I--not Arlo) aware of the role the younger of the von Humboldt brothers played in our current understanding of ecological relationships. Our conversations about him (and his influence on Darwin) led us to a talk on YouTube featuring Andrea Wulf (who's written a biography of Alexander) and others--including an art historian (Eleanor Harvey) from the Smithsonian who's preparing an exhibit for 2019-20 on Humboldt's cultural impact. The talk was recorded at Washington College last year, and runs about an hour and a half, but it's enormously interesting and well worth watching--especially if you're unfamiliar with Alexander von Humboldt himself. Wulf's biography is now on the wish list, and will be ordered along with his Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent and Views of Nature--unless, of course, I can snag copies of the latter two at HPB.

At any rate, Humboldt's major work was called Kosmos, in five volumes and incomplete at his death in 1859. It was on my mind on Friday when I headed to the University of Dallas with TBS for this year's Heidegger Symposium. I even had a copy of Helferich's book in my bag, in case I had time to read between sessions. The second talk of the morning, by Richard Capobianco of Stonehill College, was about "Heidegger on Kosmos and the Independence of Being in Relation to the Human Being," and I found myself wondering if Heidegger had ever read Humboldt. Apparently I wasn't the only one, because Dennis Schmidt (of Western Sydney University, who would deliver the Richard Owsley Memorial Address on Saturday) asked the question. I am immensely glad that he did, because I tend not to comment or ask questions during this conference; I'm not a Heideggerian, but he's the main focus of many of the readings considered in DASEIN (Dallas Area Seminar on European Inquiry), a local philosophical discussion group that the Beloved Spouse helped to found, and I'm essentially a hanger-on. Anyway, as it turned out, nobody knew if Heidegger had read Humboldt or not, and it looks like a nice research project for new retirees.

But I'm also interested in Darwin, of course, and Ernst Haeckel (the link is to the Wikipedia article because it includes some of his prints from Kuntstformen der Natur), and William Morris (especially his travels to Iceland) and numerous other nineteenth-century intellectuals preoccupied in one way or another with natural history. So when people ask me what I'm going to do in my retirement, it hardly looks like I'll be retiring at all.

In the end, it's about curiosity--the very component of intelligence and creativity that I find so lacking in so many of my students. All of those I mentioned, and the writers whose travel narratives I've been reading over the last year, were profoundly curious.  It may well be that the absence of widespread social media fostered this curiosity, and made it necessary. After all, I can just call up a web page on any of them and find myriad links to more--along with books, photos, drawings and paintings, manuscripts, letters, and other ephemera which help bring them all alive.  And I'm not at all unaware of the fact that if I had lived in the nineteenth century and developed any of their interests, I'd have had no way of satisfying my own curiosity.  But what stumbling into Humboldt and the others has done is to generate enough questions to last me for quite some time.

And now for a glass of wine and a spell in the garden with the animals while we await the arrival of my husband.  No doubt the good weather and the relative absence of bugs (although we're usually plagued with mozzies this time of year, the cool weather and my "mosquito dunks" have kept the population down) have combined to create the several pleasant evenings we've enjoyed. I can't help but feel grateful that no matter how bad the critters get, though, my discomfort is small compared to what Humboldt and his companions suffered on the Orinoco in April of 1800. Anyone who thinks of these great quests for information were romantic romps for the rich boys who went on them needs to read some of the accounts.  No spoilt brats involved here:

But even more troublesome than the [vampire bats] were the voracious insects that appeared every night after sundown and, able to pierce through clothing and even hammocks, covered the explorers with painful bites. Every visitor to the rain forest--not to mention the Indians and missionaries who made it their home--cursed the mosquitoes, gnats, flies, ticks, fleas, ants, and myriad other insects, and Humboldt's experience would be no different. Biting, chewing, stinging, burrowing, preying on their fellow creatures, the most numerous class of animal made life hell for every other species that came into unfortunate contact with it.
--Gerard Helferich, Humboldt's Cosmos, 121-22 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day 2016

The back of the garage on the first day of Spring 2016, wisteria and burr oak in bud and bloom
Earth Day always seems like the beginning of a new year to me, tied in as it is with the promises provided by all of the phenological evidence of spring: budding, blooming, breeding, new grass, proliferating weeds (or, as some of us see them, wildflowers), more agreeable temperatures, and (this year and last) rain. Lots of rain. So much of it that I haven’t been able to plant the goodies I found down at Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg a couple of weeks ago.  It’s worth noting that I gained a much stronger appreciation of the Texas landscape as we drove back roads framed with bluebonnets and other favorites.

  Gazing across the roses to the poppies at Wildseed Farms, Fredericksburg, Texas, April 2016

I tend to treat Earth Day as a new year as well, making resolutions that usually involve increasing the number of blog posts, planning gardens and home renovations, noting books to read over any breaks I get, and cleaning house. The housecleaning hasn’t started in earnest yet, but the increased number of breaks has got me reading again. Even Emma has joined me on my comfy chair in the living room to help me with Humboldt’s Cosmos. The book has reminded me that the notion of nature’s interconnectedness isn’t a Boomer idea, and didn’t begin with hippies in the ’70s. Alexander von Humboldt (1799) and Charles Darwin (1831), through their explorations of a much larger world (in terms of how long it took to get around in it), twigged to the intricacy of relationships throughout nature, and both might be appalled at how long its taken us to own up to the damage we’ve inflicted on the life of the planet.

When I think about how far our collective consciousness has risen since my first Earth Week Celebration in 1970 (the Martin Carey poster for which holds pride of place in my kitchen), I’m frequently hopeful that the future won’t become as dismal as I often imagine it will. It seems remarkable, though, that many of us have been so slow to become aware of issues like the enormous scale of food waste. As cognizant of major problems as I’d like to think I am, I only recently seem to have realized that aside from composting our scraps we hadn’t really thought about what goes bad in the fridge, or what doesn’t get eaten before it goes off. So the last year has seen us shopping much more conscientiously, buying only what can be frozen or cooked in a timely manner. And I’ve become a Chicken Stock Fanatic, saving every bit of bone and skin for broth-making, and using that for cooking up batches of whole grains.

 Martin Carey's poster for the first Earth Week
Awakening to the problem of general waste in one’s home seems to be much more widespread than I’d have thought only a year or two ago. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” refrain has become a guiding principle among the Real Simple and Tiny House crowd. And among those of us empty nesters who will not be passing “heirlooms” on to grandchildren, downsizing is almost a new career.  As TBS and I plan for our retirement, the need to rid ourselves of all the crap we’ve accumulated in our nearly thirty years together is becoming paramount, and doing so without enlarging the landfills has meant doing everything but throwing out. Reusing, repairing, up-cycling, donating, and (if necessary) recycling are all strategies we’re using. The result has been a vast reduction in trash output (one big green bin per month instead of two; some of our neighbors do two per week) and even the recycle bin goes out at most twice per month. We used to pride ourselves on putting out only the one blue bin (recyclables) a week, but now we’re working on two no-trash-at-all days per month, when neither of the bins go out.

What some folks don’t realize, I think, is that healthful eating and reduced waste go together. Eating fresh food as much as possible, cooking at home, growing one’s own veg and herbs, and avoiding processed foods in general means less packaging and less consumer waste, as well as less wasted food. There's nothing like making everything from scratch and the time and effort involved to make one much more inclined to use it all up.

The other major change in our own lives has come from the wide availability of digital magazines. I’ve been something of a joke among my family because I hate even to recycle old shelter publications, so that I had stacks of copies of Old House Journal, Old House Interiors, Style 1900, and even a fifteen-year run of Martha Stewart Living. Add to that cookery magazines like Eating Well, and gardening journals like Organic Gardening. These are now being gone through, with saving only really useful articles the priority. They’re being replaced by subscriptions through Zinio and Apple’s Newsstand. And although I’m not terribly happy about the demise of print, digital publications often have multimedia features that enhance their usefulness. No need to hoard stacks of National Geographic, Folks. The digital version has video!

These are only a couple of changes, and from the looks of things around the neighborhood, the overall impact is pretty small. But I see in my children and some of my students a generation much more aware of the consequences of human action that we were at that age. What they do with that knowledge will determine their own future, and I’m more hopeful than I once was that we haven’t yet messed things up so badly that they won’t be able to save the world.