Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Dreaming Up Holidays Quote

"From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things
are everywhere."

Doctor Seuss
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Friday, December 24, 2010

Legacy for the Future

This is a newer TED talk by Wade Davis--from 2008-- with new and updated travels and a more finely honed message. It is a message to the present about the future:

"... if you have the heart to feel and the eyes to see, you discover that the world is not flat. The world remains a rich tapestry. It remains a rich topography of the spirit. These myriad voices of humanity are not failed attempts at being new, failed attempts at being modern. They're unique facets of the human imagination. They're unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? And when asked that question, they respond with 6,000 different voices. And collectively, those voices become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us in the ensuing millennia.

Our industrial society is scarcely 300 years old. That shallow history shouldn't suggest to anyone that we have all of the answers for all of the questions that will confront us in the ensuing millennia.
The myriad voices of humanity are not failed attempts at being us. They are unique answers to that fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? And there is indeed a fire burning over the earth, taking with it not only plants and animals, but the legacy of humanity's brilliance.

Right now, as we sit here in this room, of those 6,000 languages spoken the day that you were born, fully half aren't being taught to children. So you're living through a time when virtually half of humanity's intellectual, social and spiritual legacy is being allowed to slip away. This does not have to happen. These peoples are not failed attempts at being modern -- quaint and colorful and destined to fade away as if by natural law.

In every case, these are dynamic, living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces. That's actually an optimistic observation, because it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be, and must be, the facilitators of cultural survival."

So watch this video with that in mind. And maybe number this among your New Year's Resolutions: multiple cultural survival for survival of the future.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Humankind Dreams Up: Adventures in the Ethnosphere

This is a 2003 TED talk by Wade Davis of the National Geographic. With visits to unfamiliar cultures he illustrates: "All of these peoples teach us that there are other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of orienting yourself in the Earth. And this is an idea, if you think about it, can only fill you with hope. Now, together the myriad cultures of the world make up a web of spiritual life and cultural life that envelops the planet, and is as important to the well-being of the planet as indeed is the biological web of life that you know as a biosphere. And you might think of this cultural web of life as being an ethnosphere and you might define the ethnosphere as being the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity's great legacy. It's the symbol of all that we are and all that we can be as an astonishingly inquisitive species." But in focusing on endangered cultures and especially languages, he is equally apocalyptic as hopeful. This is a mind-opening and perhaps even heart-opening presentation.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It Was A Very Good Day

It was a very good day in Washington, as President Obama said as--eloquent and obviously moved--he signed the law which will ensure that every American who chooses to do so can serve in the armed forces, regardless of sexual orientation. But that was only the beginning: today the Senate ratified the treaty with Russia that President Obama negotiated and signed, that will reduce nuclear arms and increase safeguards. The treaty passed with 71 votes.

The Senate also: "passed (by unanimous consent) the defense authorization bill that Republicans held up over objections to repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell just two short weeks ago; they passed by a voice vote the 9/11 First Responders Health bill that had been the subject of so much drama and debate; and they passed by a 71-26 vote the START nuclear treaty with Russia despite Republican objections to that as well." And they even approved an Obama appointee to the federal bench. Earlier a new food safety bill was also passed.

And so President Obama has presided over the most productive Congress since at least the 1960s (according to the Washington Post.) Then just a half hour or so ago, he held a press conference in which he crisply and even fervently outlined his priorities and intentions for 2011, as well as noting these and other 2010 accomplishments "I am persistent.") Then he prepared to join his family (seen here from earlier this month at the ceremonial lighting of the White House Christmas tree) in Hawaii for the holidays. As for me, I am confirmed in my feeling that this is my President, in a way I haven't felt since JFK.

Here are some excerpts from President Obama's press conference:

First of all, I’m glad that Democrats and Republicans came together to approve my top national security priority for this session of Congress – the new START Treaty. This is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades, and it will make us safer and reduce our nuclear arsenals along with Russia. With this treaty, our inspectors will also be back on the ground at Russian nuclear bases. So we will be able to trust but verify; and to continue to advance our relationship with Russia, which is essential to making progress on a host of challenges – from enforcing strong sanctions on Iran, to preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. This treaty will enhance our leadership to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek the peace of a world without them.

In the last few weeks, we also came together across party lines to pass a package of tax cuts and unemployment insurance that will spur jobs, businesses, and growth. This package includes a payroll tax cut that means nearly every American family will get an average tax cut next year of about $1,000 delivered in their paychecks. It will make a difference for millions of students, and parents, and workers, and people still looking for work. It’s has led economists across the political spectrum to predict that the economy will grow faster than they originally thought next year.

In our ongoing struggle to perfect our Union, we also overturned a 17-year old law and a longstanding injustice by finally ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As I said earlier today, this is the right thing to do for our security. And it is the right thing to do, period.

In addition, we came together across party lines to pass a food safety bill – the biggest upgrade of America’s food safety laws since the Great Depression. And I hope the House soon joins the Senate in passing a 9/11 health bill that will help cover the health care costs of police officers, firefighters, rescue workers, and residents who inhaled toxic air near the World Trade Center on that terrible morning, and the days that followed.

So, I think it’s fair to say this has been the most productive post-election period we’ve had in decades, and it comes on the heels of the most productive two years we’ve had in generations."

I'll post more when the full transcript is available.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nice, Wasn't It?

There's a post at Climate Progress about a causal connection that Jeff Masters (Weather Underground) and others have made between Climate Crisis hurricanes and the Haiti earthquake. Though that sounds like overreaching, there's past scientific findings and theory enough to warrant looking into it. Scientists do believe there can be connections between phenomena as disparate as hurricanes (causing landslides, which if in the right spot can accumulate to trigger earthquakes) and hurricanes and volcanoes.

But as often the comments are the most interesting part of the post, as commenters note various possibilities and connections. And it's one of the comments that says it all for me. It was by "catman306" on dec. 21, 2010 at 8:21pm--the first sentence is quoted from a previous comment:

“It is interesting to see how interconnected various earth systems are.” Interconnected in ways we have yet to learn about. (unknown unknowns) That’s why a stable, self-regulating system is precious. Well, we had one. Nice, wasn’t it?

(Allow me to note that one of the frustrating features of Climate Progress is that it does not allow you to directly copy a single comment. Any attempt leads to the whole post and all the comments being copied. But I was impressed by this one enough to copy it out by hand...)

The Future of Complexity

Christmas break starts with cleanup time. Going through accumulated notes orphaned on legal pads and pocket notebooks, and trying to catch up on missed reading--it seems always this time of the year that there's a backlog of New York Reviews, partially read, to finish (or even start.)

This Old Business extends to an issue from October that contains another memorial piece on Tony Judt. There are a couple of passages I wanted to note and save, that bear on the general premise of this site, what is involved in dreaming up the future. One of the constituents, reflecting reality, is complexity. So here's the pertinent bits in what Timothy Snyder writes about Tony Judt as an historian. Judt started as a Marxist historian, but moved from that single orthodoxy: "Yet even as he distanced himself from French Marxists, Tony resisted the temptation to substitute another source of intellectual authority for Marxism. Whereas some intellectuals of his generation replaced Marxism with something that seemed like its opposite—the market, for example—he instead rejected the very idea of a single underlying explanation of historical change. "

"Tony was typical of thinkers of his generation in his attempt to escape, in the
middle of life, from the attraction and pressure of structural theories such as Marxism. But he was unusual, as a historian, in that he chose pluralism, the embrace of multiple subjects, methods, and truths, rather than fragmentation, the flight to small islands of certainty. Many historians reacted to the end of faith in overall explanations by becoming experts in a narrow or specialized subject. In the 1990s, as he prepared himself to write Postwar, Tony chose the hardest path. Like Isaiah Berlin, another influential contemporary at Oxford, he accepted the irreducible variety within history, seeking to embrace difference within an account that was harmonious, convincing, and true. Tony brought together not only Europe east and west, but also Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. He wrote with equal authority about economics, society, politics, and culture, and granted the value of specialization by mastering the huge literatures of these fields, to which he imparted grace and unity."

Marxism is both a historical account of how the present arose and a prescription of how the future must be. In
Past Imperfect, composed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tony permitted himself to be moralist and historian at the same time; during his research for and after the publication of Postwar, in the 1990s and 2000s, he allowed the two vocations of scholar and essayist to separate, to the benefit of both. As a historian he became more measured, and as an essayist he became more significant. His gift as an essayist, perfected after his move to the United States, was to be where he was and yet not to be where he was, to partake of the governing assumptions of his time and place without being governed by them. To take an example that is rarely mentioned: Tony was right, and right at the time, about the mendacity of the campaign for war in Iraq and the coming dreadful consequences for the United States. His inclination to criticize American policy, he thought, was what made him American."

After being diagnosed with ALS, Judt used the resources at his command and the collaboration of admiring writer and editor friends to write a dazzling amount of powerful prose, some of it published (and is still being published) in the New York Review, as well as in books: Ill Fares the Land, currently in bookstores, and a future publication, Thinking the Twentieth Century.

I see these approaches or attitudes as guideposts for considering the future, which inevitably involves reconsidering the past. Complexity is not only a feature of the world that science is coming to reluctantly accept and document (since western science is all about reducing reality to simple rules that can then be manipulated to make stuff happen--often enough, ways to excuse bad behavior and/or blow it all up.) But the future is a big place. And a complex one. While Marx had insights into history pertinent at least to the Industrial Age and after (if you assume we're in something else now; not sure I do) there are other causalities. History is overdetermined. Including the history of the future. Which argues for emphasizing the soul of the future, at least to me, at least in terms of what I stumble around calling my work.

Eyewitness Eclipse

First, this isn't my photo. It was taken in Portland during the eclipse of 2008, but it gives a flavor of what I saw tonight. Because...I saw it!

With all the rain in the forecasts, it didn't seem likely the sky would be clear enough. But at the time the eclipse was supposed to start, there were clouds but the full moon was burning through them. First an edge was obscured—could be a cloud but it didn’t move.

So I bundled up and went outside when the moon was about a quarter obscured. But the moon at the top of the sky wasn’t the first thing I saw—there was a wide breathtaking ring around the moon, very big, touching the belt of Orion, with stars inside and around it, with flits of clouds going by.

As the eclipse proceeded, I could see it through the binoculars as a rounded shadow on the moon—working its way to half, to three quarters. For that period the larger ring faded, and again there was a kind of tight corona of light around the moon—dark fragments of clouds moved as if to go across it but somehow they never obscured it.

But as the moon's light softened and faded, with less than a quarter visible, something unexpected. On a clear night when the moon disappeared, the disk would be barely visible, but also more stars would appear in the darkened sky. Here tonight the opposite happened. When the moon faded, the stars disappeared—just blank, milky-dark sky, cloud cover presumably, without the brightness of the moon to shine through it. Or just a coincidence? In any case, it was eerie. When the moon went out, so did the stars. I watched the last undefined light from the moon fade out, and then everything in the sky was gone. The sky was full of nothing.

I came back in to warm up, and a bit later when I returned, a star was visible, and gradually the moon. There was a reddish scar across it but the luminous outline of the disk was clearly visible. It wasn’t like the eclipse in reverse. The sky cleared more until it was almost completely clear overhead—-and though invisible high clouds dimmed it occasionally, I could watch the full disk. At one point through the binoculars it looked weirdly like a Halloween jack’o lantern—orange cast to the disk and what seemed like those triangular slashes of eyes, but just half the mouth—a half smile. The sense in this phase –maybe because of the color—was that this was a sphere in space, not just that bright disk in the sky.

A few minutes later, serious cloudbank moved in. The eclipse cycle was about over anyway. But the bright moon has not yet returned.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Moon Above, Sea Below: Happy Solstice!

Tonight is the first total eclipse of the moon to coincide with the winter solstice in 372 years. Those who can see it may also get a better view of the ongoing Ursids meteor shower. Here on the West Coast USA it begins at 11:41 pm but it's pretty doubtful anyone will see it--more storms are arriving. Southern CA (not used to this so much) is particularly hard hit, and they're getting more, causing (among other things) some nasty mudslides. (Did you know that the mud can crash down at from 35 to 64 mph?) This story estimates that about half the US will be locked in clouds tonight, but other locations in North and South America have the best view.

Meanwhile on Earth, a satellite dedicated to tracing the movements of ocean currents is providing surprisingly detailed data. Apart from yielding this pretty neat picture, this information may turn out to be the key to knowing the larger trends resulting from climate distortion of the Climate Crisis. These currents move heat around the planet, as well as being important to the ecosystem of the ocean itself, both of which are key to the continuity or survival of human civilization. Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Obama's Civil Rights Landmark

It is so far the Civil Rights landmark of the first African American President: the end of discrimination in the armed forces on the basis of sexual preference.

"Moments ago, the Senate voted to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." President Obama said in an email."When that bill reaches my desk, I will sign it, and this discriminatory law will be repealed. Gay and lesbian service members -- brave Americans who enable our freedoms -- will no longer have to hide who they are. The fight for civil rights, a struggle that continues, will no longer include this one."

The last act of a long drama began with the breaking of the filibuster in the Senate and then passing the bill, by a vote of 65-31. Once signed into law, the armed forces will begin to implement it. It is another accomplishment for Speaker Pelosi in the House, for Senate leadership, but most of all it is due to the orchestration of what turned out to be as close to a bipartisan passage as could even be imagined in the 2008 campaign.

The President worked carefully to respect the military and get their assent, to work with political allies but also to help build public support. As TPM notes, The vote will likely be seen as a major political victory for President Obama, who pushed repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell on the campaign trail and set a year-long timetable for a legislative repeal of the policy in his State Of The Union back in January." During that time he was criticized by some for going too slow, for not pressing the matter and "letting it die." But now, because of all that preparation, there is little chance that it will ever again become a major issue. It's unlikely to be challenged the way the health care law is. There will probably be bumps, but with the breadth of support now, it is permanent.

Beyond this political lesson, it is a great day for America when yet another shameful form of discrimination has been overcome. On the long road to this moment, it took the hard work and sacrifices of brave activists and service members. America is stronger today. It is more itself. And we can be prouder to be Americans.