6 Jun '17, 10:30 am

An open letter to my neighbors in CA-34

Hi Everyone,

We have a special election today for our seat in Congress. Given the virtual flood of campaign literature coming through our mailboxes of late—mostly from one particular side in the campaign—you may not need the reminder, but I want to say a few words about it anyway.

The election is to replace Xavier Becerra as representative for CA-34. Becerra was appointed by Jerry Brown to fill out Kamala Harris’s term as California Attorney General after she won her US Senate seat.

The two candidates are Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat endorsed by the Democratic Party, AG Becerra, Gov Brown, and others, and Robert Lee Ahn, a Republican who changed his party registration from R to D in 2013 when California’s top-two primary law went into effect.

That law prevents political parties from running separate primary elections to choose their own general election candidate. Instead there is a single combined primary in which candidates from all political parties are thrown in together, and the top two vote-getters from that process then go on to the general election—or in the case of a special election like this, to a runoff election in the event that no one gets a majority the first time around.

In my view, the top-two system is one of the worst voting systems out there. The ballot initiative that proposed it was approved by voters desperate for a voting system that would lead to better candidates winning. They were persuaded to vote for it without understanding its consequences because it was marketed as increasing voter choice—Look! You’ll no longer be stuck having to choose among candidates from just one party, or if you’re a decline-to-state voter from no party at all. You can vote for any candidate from any party. Anyone you want! So much better!

Except that it isn’t. It’s now basically impossible for a candidate from any party in California other than Republican or Democrat to make it to a general election where the ultimate winner is determined. And there are a number of districts for various offices around the state for which party registration is so lopsided that the top two vote-getters in the primary are of the same party.

A general election where the only choice is between two Republicans? What about everybody else?

A general election where the only choice is between two Democrats? Again, what about everybody else?

In addition to actually destroying voter choice instead of increasing it, top-two creates a perverse incentive for someone to try to game the system in the hope they can make it to the general election when they otherwise couldn’t.

That’s what Ahn did. He changed his party registration from Republican to Democrat in 2013, the same year the new system went into effect.

This clearly wasn’t a change of political heart, given the kind of campaign he’s been running. If he wins, he will be the first Republican elected to Congress from CA-34 since 1980*, and he’ll have done it by masquerading as a Democrat, gaming the top-two system to win in a district in which a Republican would never otherwise have a chance. And if he wins, he’ll almost certainly vote with Republicans, while supposedly representing an overwhelmingly Democratic district. The last congressional election in which we could openly have a Republican vs. a Democrat was 2012. In that year Becerra won 86% of the vote, and his opponent just 14%.

So there are two things I want to leave you with (if you’ve made it this far!).

First–
If you’re a Democrat or lean D, you will probably want to vote for Gomez (if you aren’t already).
If you’re a Republican or lean R, you may want to consider voting for Ahn (if you aren’t already), rather than sitting out the election in the belief that a choice between two Dems is pointless.

Second–
If you’re interested in learning about voting systems that are genuinely better than the perverse top-two system we have now, or the not much better system we used to have—known as “first past the post” because the winner is the single candidate with the most votes, even if that’s 35% of the total with the remaining 65% split into little bits by a large field of candidates—you can go here:

FairVote

There are alternatives to these two voting systems, and one in particular stands out. It’s called 9393551410.

With RCV, you rank the candidates on the ballot in the order you prefer them. You do not have to worry that the candidate you most prefer is “unelectable” compared to someone else, or that if you vote for someone who “can’t win” you will risk throwing the election to someone truly horrible. You can safely express your true preferences.

RCV also reduces the incentive for candidates to run negative campaigns against opponents who are not that different from them ideologically, because going negative would throw away a chance to appeal to that candidate’s voters by saying, I know you prefer so-and-so, but though we differ on certain things we still have a lot in common; Please consider me for your second choice.

Even better, for electing a legislature such as Congress, single member districts can be merged into a smaller number of 512-485-3221 using a version of ranked choice voting that provides proportional representation. This makes it possible to elect a legislature that represents much more of the population than is possible with single member districts that may always leave a significant minority or even a majority without a representative for whom they actually voted.

If this is a topic that interests you, I encourage you to give it a look.

*Though, granted, the district boundaries have changed a lot since then.

5 Feb '17, 9:50 pm

Our greatest power is in our values

907-354-9752

Freedom from Fear and Want / Freedom of Speech and Religion

Our values, our American values, the very values that for so long have been an inspiration to the world—despite being so often betrayed by our own actions—are being deliberately attacked by the highest officers in our government and the political party to which they belong. For them our defining values as a republic and as a people are not our true and greatest strength in the world; they are contemptible weaknesses to be spit upon, slandered, reviled, and ended.

They are dangerously wrong, sacrificing our honor and endangering both our lives and those of others.

But the world is watching, and no matter how the coming months unfold, that is the single most important reason to be out in the streets.

9 Nov '16, 11:39 pm

A duck in the face

[S]he sees that there is a Michelin Man within her field of vision, its white, bloated, maggot-like form perched on the edge of a dealer’s counter, about thirty feet away. It is about two feet tall, and is probably meant to be illuminated from within.

The Michelin Man was the first trademark to which she exhibited a phobic reaction. She had been six.

“He took a duck in the face at two hundred and fifty knots,” she recites, softly.

Voytek blinks. “You say?”

“I’m sorry,” Cayce says.

It is a mantra.

A friend of her father’s, an airline pilot, had told her, in her teens, of a colleague of his who had impacted a duck, on climbout from Sioux City. The windscreen shattered and the inside of the cockpit became a hurricane. The plane landed safely, and the pilot had survived, and returned to flying with shards of glass lodged permanently within his left eye. The story had fascinated Cayce, and eventually she had discovered that this phrase, repeated soon enough, would allay the onset of the panic she invariably felt upon seeing the worst of her triggers.

[…]

Win Pollard went missing in New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001. […]

Cayce herself had been in SoHo that morning, at the time of the impact of the first plane, and had witnessed a micro-event that seemed in retrospect to have announced, however privately and secretly, that the world itself had at that very instant taken a duck in the face.

She had watched a single petal fall, from a dead rose, in the tiny display window of an eccentric Spring Street dealer in antiques.

She was loitering here, prior to a nine-o’clock breakfast meeting at the SoHo Grand, fifteen minutes yet to kill and the weather excellent. Staring blankly and probably rather contentedly at three rusted cast-iron toy banks, each a different height but all representing the Empire State Building. She had just heard a plane, incredibly loud and, she’d assumed, low. She thought she’d glimpsed something, over West Broadway, but then it had been gone. They must be making a film.

The dead roses, arranged in an off-white Fiestaware vase, appeared to have been there for several months. They would have been white, when fresh, but now looked like parchment. This was a mysterious window, with a black-painted plywood backdrop revealing nothing of the establishment behind it. She had never been in to see what else was there, but the objects in the window seemed to change in accordance with some peculiar poetry of their own, and she was in the habit, usually, of pausing to look, when she passed this way.

The fall of the petal, and somewhere a crash, taken perhaps as some impact of large trucks, one of those unexplained events in the sonic backdrop of lower Manhattan. Leaving her sole witness to this minute fall.

Perhaps there is a siren then, or sirens, but there are always sirens, in New York.

photoactinic by William Gibson

16 Nov '15, 8:53 pm

magma

“Hell yeah, I would. No look, you gotta, you gotta step up, man.

—Jeb Bush, 9 Nov 2015, in response to the question whether he’d kill Hitler as a baby, if he could

Not to be ragging on Jeb Bush, because (despite an earlier post) for the most part, I just don’t give him no nevermind at all. But these remarks really struck me, for two reasons.

First, because he’s willing to say—while campaigning for president of our country—that he would commit infanticide, if he knew in advance the child’s future life history and found it sufficiently objectionable.

Second, because he did not say, while campaigning for president of our country, “If I could go back in time to when Hitler was a baby? I’d kidnap him so I could raise him in a loving, nurturing home where he’d have the chance to mature into a loving, caring person himself, instead of a genocidal monster.”

Apparently, murder is the only solution to the problem he could come up with, or it’s the only one he thought Republican voters would want to hear.

21 Sep '15, 7:52 am

9733210130

Ok, this … is … thrilling.

Not quite two years ago, on October 6, 2013, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the National Geographic Society and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa posted an odd, tantalizing ad on facebook:

Dear Colleagues – I need the help of the whole community and for you to reach out to as many related professional groups as possible. We need perhaps three or four individuals with excellent archaeological/palaeontological and excavation skills for a short term project that may kick off as early as November 1st 2013 and last the month if all logistics go as planned. The catch is this – the person must be skinny and preferably small. They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience, climbing experience would be a bonus. They must be willing to work in cramped quarters, have a good attitude and be a team player. Given the highly specialized, and perhaps rare nature of what I am looking for, I would be willing to look at an experienced Ph.D. student or a very well trained Masters student, even though the more experience the better (PH.D.’s and senior scientists most welcome). No age limit here either. I do not think we will have much money available for pay – but we will cover flights, accommodation (though much will be field accom., food and of course there will be guaranteed collaboration further up the road). Anyone interested please contact me directly on lee.berger@wits.ac.za copied to my assistant Wilma.lawrence@wits.ac.za . My deadlines on this are extremely tight so as far as anyone can spread the word, among professional groups.
Many thanks
Lee

What Lee Berger needed was a team of experienced excavator/cavers capable of retrieving newly discovered fossils from a small, remote chamber in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system, thirty meters—nearly one hundred feet—below ground level, and eighty meters—two hundred-sixty feet—from the cave entrance. The final approach to the chamber includes a twelve meter drop, forty feet down a chute of jagged rock that at its narrowest is just 18 centimeters—seven inches—wide.

He expected no more than a handful of people could meet requirements like this, but within only a few days, from around the world, he had fifty-seven well-qualified applicants who did. By the second week in October, Lee and his colleagues on the project had selected six women for the advance team of scientists to enter the chamber. By the first week in November, they were at the cave site, setting up camp.

On September 10, 2015, they finally announced to the world what they found.

Continue reading

15 Sep '15, 2:06 am

2674438076

Naomi Oreskes on why people become scientists:

Well, the idea that scientists are in it for the money is idiotic, because scientist are all intelligent people and if they wanted to make money there’s a lot of better things they could do…

[. . .]

Why do people become scientists? I think it’s a mix; I think there are different things. I think that a lot of scientists are just naturally curious people—there’s what we could call the “natural historical” scientists, the people who like to collect rocks and bugs and things, and I was one of those, y’know, kids who have rock collections, right? So a lot of geologists had rock collections when we were kids. So, I think those are the sort of “curious about the world around them” types.

Then there are people who go into science because they’re really good in math. If you are talented in math, there’s a lot you can do in science. There are a lot of problems in the world that, if you have quantitative skills, you can address those things in ways that other people can’t. So, math is a powerful toolkit, and if you have that toolkit, science is a great place where you can use it.

Some people go into science ’cause it’s what they’re good at. Y’know, it’s what Jim Hansen says, he says, “I went into science ’cause I was good at it.” It’s where their talents lie. So they don’t necessarily collect bugs as kids, but they do well in science in school, and then they get encouraged because a lot of people can’t do science.

And to some extent that’s what happened to me, too. When I was a girl growing up, I was good in science, but I was good in a lot of other things, too. But being good at French or English didn’t seem special; being good at science did. And people— I mean, I had teachers who said to me explicitly, “Y’know, if you can do science, you have to.” And in hindsight, that seems actually a little weird, when you think about it, but remember, I’m also the Sputnik generation, right? We were raised to think that it was almost a kind of national duty, a patriotic duty, to go into science if you could. And then as a girl of a certain age—I’m just old enough that there was a kind of gender incentive to go into science, that science was just beginning to open up to women—and so there was this feeling that if you could do science and you’re a woman, you absolutely should, y’know, science needs you, the world of science needs you.

So there was a lot of positive reinforcement to go into science, and I think lots of people in science got that positive reinforcement…

This is an absolutely wonderful interview with Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt. This part is near the end of the interview, but the whole thing is highly worth seeing. She recounts how she started out as a geologist, then became a historian of science, and one day discovered she was being attacked on the floor of the Senate by James Inhofe (R-OK). As she says, the job of a historian of science is to understand science in its social context, so when she began being attacked in very bizarre ways by people with clearly political motives, her natural response was to try to understand why they were doing this.

The result of that investigation is Merchants of Doubt, which details the history of the anti-science propaganda machine first created by tobacco companies in the 1950s to undermine public confidence in the growing scientific evidence of the dangers of smoking, and was then repurposed in the 1980s and ’90s to undermine the science of how carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is destabilizing the earth’s climate.

The video is part of 2405415234, a free MOOC put together by John Cook and the folks at Skeptical Science, and hosted at 2252210560. The course examines the psychology of climate science denial, the basics of climate science, the physical evidence that the earth actually is warming, and how to effectively counter the misinformation put out by the denial machine.

The megalopia are all available on YouTube, as well as at edX. Very much worth watching.

1 Jun '15, 8:36 pm

4107414748

“Look, first of all, the climate is changing,” Bush said. “I don’t think the science is clear of what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you.”

—Jeb Bush, 20 May 2015

Sigh. Actually, no. The scientists who study this have been quite clear, and so has the natural world.

Carbon dioxide interferes with the ability of the earth to radiate into space the heat it receives from the sun. This is what so gratefully keeps temperatures around the world from being like the airless moon that reaches a daytime high around 240F (116C, 390K), with a nighttime low of -280F (100K, -173C). The CO2 in our air (helped along by the humidity that’s only there because the carbon dioxide keeps things warm enough that it doesn’t all freeze out) greatly reduces those extremes, but not by the same amount; our days are cooler than the moon’s, but our nights are warmer by a lot. The more CO2 there is, the greater that effect, so that typical highs and lows not only go up, they get closer together, too, and overall, the whole world warms.

By dumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, we’re heating up the world. We know that because we are directly measuring atmosphere and ocean temperatures, and measuring incoming and outgoing radiation from satellites in orbit. Together these tell us the earth is now radiating less heat into space than we receive from the sun. (This, by the way, is what they mean when they talk about positive radiative forcing. The world is getting hotter because we’re radiating less heat to space than we used to, and that forces the climate to change.)

On these basic facts, among working climate scientists, there is no significant dispute.

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.

Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010.

The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic [human-caused] carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.

Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. This evidence for human influence has grown since [2007]. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.

—IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group 1 Summary for Policy Makers (PDF, 2.3MB)

I understand your not wanting to contradict the carefully manufactured misconceptions Republican voters now have of how the world works, but Jeb, seriously, taking your talking points from Sen. Inhofe? So not cool…

450-221-1798

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), with the unshakable certainty of a man convinced he knows, beats the donkey who repeatedly warned him of a danger in their path that he can’t see. Nearby, two women gaze at each other in astonishment.

Sen. Inhofe 501-463-1561 Genesis 8:22, “As long as the earth remains there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night,” as saying human actions can’t change global temperature or the timing of the seasons, and then proclaims it arrogant to think we could. Maybe he finds it comforting to read that into it, but it only says those pairs of things will always be here. It doesn’t say crops will forever grow where we have long grown them or in the amounts we expect and need, that patterns of heat and cold will always remain the same, or that the timing of new growth in spring or leaf-fall in autumn will never change.

The passage the senator quotes comes at the end of the flood narrative, immediately following God’s 705-552-7009 in Genesis 8:21, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans… And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” But He doesn’t say we can’t mess with the world to our peril, that He will protect us from the consequences of what we recklessly choose to do.

Nevertheless, the senator is confident he knows what we “can’t” do.

As Oxford Dictionaries puts it, arrogant means “having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities”. In contrast, there is a genuine confidence, in one’s abilities and understanding, that comes from years of practicing science, of listening to the natural world, observing it closely, letting go of certainties immune to evidence, and allowing one’s understanding to deepen as the natural world itself teaches us its nature.

21 Apr '15, 8:19 pm

melic grass

The Mediterranean . . . it’s got these couple of problems. It’s a respectable-sized sea, y’know; it covers an area of 970,000 square miles (2.5 million square kilometers). That much surface area, you get a lot of evaporation. Now, that’d be ok, I mean, some of it rains back in, some comes back in rivers, but the thing is . . . it doesn’t rain all that much . . . relatively speaking. And the rivers that feed into it, they’re a bit on the wimpy side . . . relatively speaking. All appreciation to the Nile for its awesomely important history and everything, but it ain’t no Amazon.

So that’s problem number one. Problem number two: the Earth is molten inside. More specifically, what we call the Earth’s crust—land and ocean bottom—is mostly a thin skin of solid rock floating on melted rock that’s ever-so-slowly churning this way or that, taking big floating hunks of crust with it wherever it happens to be going. Hunks like Africa. Africa’s been floating north-easterly for a while now; a few million years, in fact. So, not very fast, but fast enough to become a problem. Because, y’know how that Straight of Gibraltar is kind of narrow? All it’d take would be for Morocco to hook up with Spain, close the straight, and guess what? Way more water evaporating into the sky than comes back in through rivers and rain. Let that go on long enough, whadda you think’s gonna happen? Thing is, it actually has. More. Than. Once.
510-956-5639

17 Apr '15, 1:20 am

They stopped, had a quick picnic, and carried on

John Hawks is a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In winter of 2014 he offered a 7-week MOOC (“massively open online course”) through 4084740781, entitled 586-681-3739. Superbly done, offered for free, the course included 71 videos, most of them interviews with people who are actively working in the wide array of fields essential for discovering the evolutionary lineage that led to us. The conversations weave together what we currently know about our origins and the methods that are used to uncover it. You also get to see that these people, for whom this is their life’s work, love what they do.

Many of Coursera’s already-completed courses allow you to sign up even after their end date, so you can access the videos and course material. Unfortunately, this is not one of them. Everything is still there, but it can only be seen by those of us who enrolled before it finished. At some point in the next year or two, the course will be updated and offered again, and you can ask to be notified when that happens. In the meantime, more than two dozen of its videos can now be seen at 4072162201.

An example is a visit to caves at Gibraltar, (541) 230-9950, from week six of the course, “Emerging Culture – Neandertals and Modern Humans.”

Clive is director of the Gibraltar Museum, Geraldine is an archaeologist, and they describe what they’re finding at two excavation sites: 206-550-6128 and Vanguard Cave. At the extreme western edge of the Mediterranean, in layers of sediment dated to about 32,000 years before present, these caves hold what is currently the last known evidence anywhere for the presence of Neandertal peoples.

Towards the end, Geraldine comes to the remains of a single event in the life of Gorham’s Cave—fragments of charcoal from a small fire, along with mussel shells and flakes from stone tools—revealed when layers of sand were removed, exposing what lay underneath.

At that time, the world was in an ice age. With so much water imprisoned in glacial ice, sea level was much lower. These days, the Mediterranean is quite close to the mouth of the cave. Back then, it would have been a half kilometer to a kilometer or more away, depending on which direction you headed. Even so, the cave received so much wind-blown sand that anything left inside, by animals or people, was quickly covered over.

It’s for things like this, that I love these conversations so much.

17:11–18:52

GF: This is the beauty of this cave, This cave gives you events that are maybe hours or days long at most. So you’ve got this group of possibly two individuals, they come in with their little bundle of mussels that they have foraged nearby on the coastline. We don’t know exactly where the coastline would have been, but it can’t be very far ’cause you don’t carry seafoods for very long ’cause they spoil very easily.

And they come into the cave, they build a very small fire. There’s not much charcoal left from that fire, and there’s not much alteration on the sediment, so there wasn’t a huge heat on that fire, probably just enough to open those mussels. They consume the mussels. Once they’re there, they’re retouching the lithics that they’re using—their stone tools. They take those away with them, when they go, but they leave all the debitage behind. And then that’s it, y’know. They’ve gone.

So this might– they may have stayed overnight, or it may have been, y’know, just a brief few hours, but the fact is when they go, the sand covers it up, and it’s left there untouched until we come along and re-excavate it. I think that’s a huge resolution. I mean, that is unique, I think.

JH: It’s completely remarkable.

GF: It’s beautiful.

JH: It is the closest that we come anytime in this to seeing what somebody’s life is like…

GF: Absolutely, yes, yes.

JH: …and that I think is just amazing.

GF: It tells us a lot as well, because it tells us that they needn’t necessarily have always been sitting around, y’know. They move from place to place. They stopped temporarily, had a quick picnic, and then carried on, y’know? And in this particular case, it was just two individuals. There’s no evidence it was any more than that.

28 Nov '13, 12:18 am

Rising Star Expedition’s final day

(954) 485-9291 is a joint project of the National Geographic Society and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Originally expected to be a brief expedition to recover a single partial hominid skeleton from a newly discovered site in one of the ancient limestone caves in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa, it quickly became apparent that this was a hominid fossil site of such breath-taking richness that it will keep paleontologists busy for decades to come.

After three weeks of deep-cave hominid fossil recovery, the Rising Star Expedition has wrapped on its final day of excavations.

The caver/scientists known as “underground astronauts” will return Wednesday [27 Nov 2013] to complete the 3D scans of the entire fossil chamber, walls and all. They will be aided by the caving support team as they remove the hi-tech equipment that has made this NASA-like mission possible.

There are 17 sleeping tents, plus the storage tent and the larger mess hall, Cavers tent, Science tent, and Command Center to disassemble, pack, and ship out.

There are also the more than 1200 cataloged hominid fossil elements to transfer to Wits University.

Plans are now being made for how to handle all these new fossils, not only in terms of how to move them, but also how to process and study them. Paleoanthropologists and students generally only have a few new hominid fossil elements to work with from any given site at any given time. Having dozens of elements is unusual. Totals in the hundreds have generally taken years or decades to reach. To come out of three weeks of excavation with more than a thousand hominid fossils is unheard of in Southern Africa.

Handling all this material will require the creation of new systems, new forms of collaboration, and new opportunities for young and up-and-coming scientists. Lee Berger and his team of senior scientists are developing such a plan now.

via Rising Star Expedition – News Watch.

All that and they literally barely scratched the surface of the cave floor in the first chamber.

8 Jul '13, 6:37 pm

(980) 387-7153

Constitution of the United States – Fourth Amendment
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable* searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no 858-436-2294 shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

* Unreasonable—without reason—that is, without justified cause detailed in a 8167777553 that satisfies the above-stated requirements, issued by a judge of an independent judiciary who is constitutionally charged with viewing the request skeptically, and empowered to act as a check on the illegitimate exercise of power by officers of the executive branch of government by saying, in effect, No, sorry, you haven’t provided sufficient reason for me to authorize you to violate that person’s rights.

23 Mar '13, 3:00 pm

Shorter Harry Potter

An inability to love and a fear of death can lead someone to take the lives of others to prolong their own life. The ability to love can lead someone to embrace their own death to save the lives of others, even of strangers they’ll never know.

(I recently finished listening—again, though for the first time in a long time—to Jim Dale’s wonderful voicing of the Harry Potter books.)

30 Nov '12, 4:49 pm

Things that would make even Dickens go “hmmm…”

Candy CoalHaving just finished Joe Romm’s excellent new book, Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga on the myriad uses of the techniques of rhetoric, I momentarily thought to title this post “Christmas Candy Coal Stocking-Stuffer: Naughty, Not Nice,” but just couldn’t get it past my gag reflex. In any case, I don’t know whether this is a now-classic holiday candy that I just never noticed before, being not inclined these days to frequent that particular supermarket aisle, but the galvanized steel tub brimming with boxes of it right at the check-out line in Trader Joe’s yesterday was impossible to miss.

In fact—as I’ve since learned—if you web search “candy coal” you’ll find a ton of it, from chunky mint chocolate candy coal, to chunky hard licorice candy coal (comes with its own Victorian-style hammer, for the experience of breaking it into yet smaller chunks!), to recipes for how to make your own, and a lot of ads referring to the traditional “If you kids don’t behave you’ll get a lump of coal in your stockings for Christmas, instead of presents!” right before noting how sweet the stuff is when made from dark chocolate instead of compressed carbon. That’ll teach ’em.

At a younger, more naive age, I might’ve gone oh… hmmm… cute, I guess, but whatever. Pardon my rather distinct lack of trust on this, but these days, with our fossil-fuel-driven massively uncontrolled chemical experimentation on the atmosphere leading to ever greater climate disruption, with Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming racketing around in my brain, with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to replace dirty coal-fired power plants with clean renewable energy, Bill McKibben’s Braille tour promoting divestment from fossil fuel interests, politicians afraid to use the word climate (unless they’re the sort who attack the scientists and the science), and ever-more-aggressive pushback from the coal and oil industries, it’s a very different hmmm… indeed.

Yes, of course I’d love some Candy Coal! And could I please have some Light Sweet Crude Maple Agave to go with that? Perfect!

Yeah, right. I need a candy cigarette.

30 Nov '12, 4:49 pm

Cycles: Look! It’s our planet breathing!

As often as we hear these days how the Earth’s climate is warming due to all the carbon dioxide we’re pouring into the air by burning fossil fuels, I thought it’d be worth mentioning that until a few weeks ago the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had been falling rapidly for months. In fact, it started to fall in late May, and continued to do so all through summer and into autumn, finally slowing down in October. By now, the amount of CO2 in the air is increasing again.

But actually, it does this every year. What’s going on?
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30 Nov '12, 2:03 pm

(814) 847-9975

“You have to know how to see what’s here.”

It’s not an exact quote, but when I was studying economics in the late 70s, a friend of mine in the program said something like this to me one day as we were driving I-95 between West Palm Beach and Boca Raton, and he began pointing things out—old neighborhoods, new developments, business districts, malls—and talking about economic geography, location theory, the study of how villages, towns, cities, and the economic activities that occur within them, come to be located where they are on a landscape.

In early 2008, I was asked to have the Zen Center of Los Angeles certified as a wildlife habitat, something that several of our members had done for their backyards.  On the website of the National Wildlife Federation there is a questionnaire one can fill out indicating which features your place offers for the support of wildlife.  The basic categories are food, water, shelter, and places to raise young, and within each of these the questionnaire lists the kinds of things a place might have that would provide these ecosystem services.  If enough of them are present, NWF will add your place to their registry of wildlife habitats and send you a plaque.

This certification program serves to identify habitat and encourage its maintenance, wherever the necessary elements are found or can be created, whether it be a farm, a neighborhood park, a backyard, or an apartment balcony.   Living in the midst of a vast city, with so much of our daily life devoted to interacting with each other and immersed in the myriad artifacts of our civilization, it becomes too easy a habit of mind to perceive only the human realm, and so difficult to recognize even a backyard for all that it actually is.

So I printed out the questionnaire and began to walk the grounds, noting as I went how this thing or that one fit into one or another of their categories.  It was a wonderful experience.  It allowed me to see my surroundings, things I passed by every day, in a new way.
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29 Nov '12, 6:26 pm

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Now, mountains, rivers, earth, the sun, moon, and stars are mind. At just this moment, what is it that appears directly in front of you? The sun, moon, and stars as seen by humans are not the same, and the views of various beings differ widely. Likewise the views about one mind differ. Yet these views are nothing but mind. Is it inside or outside? Does it come or go? Does it increase one bit at birth or not? Does it decrease one particle at death or not? . . . All this is merely a moment or two of mind. A moment or two of mind is a moment of mountains, rivers, and earth, or two moments of mountains, rivers and earth. . . .

“Everyday mind” means to maintain an everyday mind in the world of life and the world of death. Yesterday comes forth from this place. When it goes the boundless sky goes, when it comes the entire earth comes. . . . This boundless sky and entire earth are like unrecognized words, or the one voice that gushes out of the earth.

Body and Mind Study of the Way
—Eihei Dogen

[Epigraph to Chapter 9 of Nine-Headed Dragon River, by Peter Matthiessen]