Saturday, March 22, 2014


Today marks the 40th anniversary of my mother's death.  It's hard to believe it's been that long.

I'm posting two photos in commemoration.  One was probably taken in a New York City hotel in the late 40s or early 50s, her second time there (her first was for the World's Fair, probably in 1940) and the last time.

The other is my favorite.  It's in the tiny kitchen at my grandparents' house in Youngwood.  My mother, my sister Kathy and my grandfather are visible.  That's my sister Debbie's hair in the foreground.  They're reacting to something in their card game.  I had squeezed myself between Debbie and the kitchen sink to take the photo.  I thought I was pretty daring to take a candid "action" photo.  I salvaged this from the only print I had.  But that expression on my mother's face is familiar, characteristic.

She was 54 when she died of cancer.  She died on March 22 at 2:22 a.m.  I missed a lot of years with her, including the more recent years when I got more interested in who my parents were, how they experienced the events in their lives that became more real to me. And my late-found ability to appreciate them as people.  I missed her experience and support more than once.  Now that time is a daily mystery, it's hard to say more.


Friday, March 21, 2014

(In Praise of ) The Gouldberg Variations

On the occasion of J.S. Bach's birthday, I share the opening--the Aria-- for what has become my favorite piece of music, the Goldberg Variations, in my favorite version, the 1981 recording by Glenn Gould.

A local classical music station played some of the variations today to mark Bach's birthday.  The announcer repeated the standard story (sometimes disputed) that Bach wrote it as a commission by a nobleman who couldn't sleep--it was to be played by his private keyboardist, a 14 year old boy named Goldberg, who was also Bach's pupil.  It was supposed to promote sleep yet be lively enough to offer solace if sleep didn't come.

Though I was first inspired to listen to it by Richard Powers' description of it in his novel The Goldbug Variations, I too attempted to use it in this legendary way, and listened to it so many nights in succession that it was no longer necessary for me to turn on my mp3 player, I could just play it in my head.  Since then I've scaled back, but I still listen to it in part or all of it pretty often.  And still find new moments in it.

Some years back the NY Times or somebody asked a bunch of classical music people their opinion on the best classical recording.  Several named Gould's Goldberg's Variations, though they were split on which version--his first recording in 1955 or his second in 1981 (they were his first and last recordings of anything.)

Both are somewhat controversial, but the 1981 probably more so.  The most obvious difference is the Aria--it is slower in 1981, but that only begins to describe the difference.  The difference is a revelation, and speaks to me of time, melancholy and acceptance, and savoring the moments of life's beauty.

I know a pianist who disdains both Gould versions.  On the other hand there are people like me, not classically educated or employed, who are devoted to Gould's piano performances, and specifically to one or the other of the Goldberg Variations he recorded.

I knew the radio station was going to play the Goldberg Variations so I made sure to tune in, hoping they would play a version I hadn't heard.  It's said that before Gould it didn't seem possible for one pianist to play the Variations (it is astonishing to try to follow what two hands are doing--it sounds impossible) but since then, many pianists have recorded them.

But the version the station chose wasn't a piano (or a harpsichord, the keyboard for which it was written) but a transcription for strings.  There are several of these--I have two--and they seem to emphasize the lyrical quality of the 1981 Aria.

But Gould's playing--especially on parts of the Goldberg--has also always reminded me of jazz.  Gould apparently thought of some of his playing as approaching jazz, and it seems that way to me.  So I also have a jazz version of the Goldberg by the Jacques Loussier Trio.  And like it a lot too.  I could well be wrong, but I don't think either the string version or the jazz version would exist
without Gould.

The above clip is from a video recording of Gould playing the 1981 version in the recording studio.  The whole performance is also on YouTube, but I have it on disk.  It's a remarkable thing to watch.  Gould was a handsome young man in 1955 but in 1981 he was just a few years from the end.  In this video he looks apish, not at all capable of making the sounds he is in fact making.  Add to his appearance his eccentricities--strange posture and approach of his hands to the keyboard--and it is not really easy to watch.  Until the camera lingers on his hands as he plays, and then it's mesmerizing.  

The Aria has become somewhat familiar from movies and television shows, but in total it is for me a great 3 minute piece in itself, and I offer it to cyberspace in the hope of introducing it to enhance someone else's life.  Paying it forward.

Data and Parents: Two New Weapons to Address the Climate Crisis

Two positive endeavors in addressing the climate crisis: one very new, the other still growing.

The very new one is from the White House, where presidential counsellor John Podesta and White House director of Science and Technology John Holdren announced the Climate Data Initiative.  Citing the frequency and impact of climate related disasters, they described the Initiative as "an ambitious new effort bringing together extensive open government data and design competitions with commitments from the private and philanthropic sectors to develop data-driven planning and resilience tools for local communities. This effort will help give communities across America the information and tools they need to plan for current and future climate impacts."

The product is a web will collect and organize relevant information and convey it in user-friendly form.  It starts with projections on coastal flooding and sea level rise and their impacts.  So far this seems aimed at local planners, government and otherwise, but tech literate citizens can also benefit.

The other endeavor is an organization--with a web site of course--called Climate Parents.  The impetus is the sobering knowledge (expressed eloquently in the latest book by one of the founding members, Mark Hertsgaard's Hot) that today's children are going to inherit a very different world caused by the climate crisis.

The organization is involved in various action campaigns against carbon and other pollution, for clean energy and to promote education on climate crisis issues.  For example, some 50,000 parents signed on to a campaign to support a clean energy tax credit that the Koch Brothers and their ilk are trying to kill.

The initiatives don't involve just parents, but specifically children and grandparents.  One overall goal is to get decision-makers to stop prioritizing dirty energy that is poisoning water, air and the future, while shifting emphasis to clean energy.

But emphasizing parental responsibilities or just feelings for the world we're leaving to the next generations sure seems like it should be a major motivator for efforts to address the climate crisis in both its causes and effects.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Reality Without Consensus

It's more than a decade since I heard Bill McKibben on C-SPAN suggesting that what the U.S. needed to seriously confront the climate crisis was an "emotional consensus" of the American people.  It did not happen.  There are probably many reasons why not.  I suggested at the time that one might be the language that scientists use (and journalists following their lead) which failed to convey the danger of the crisis and the urgency required to address it.

That problem has been mocked but also more recently is being embraced by the American Association for the Advancement of Scientists.  A report begins:

"After years of publishing scientific reports filled with impenetrable jargon and numbering in the thousands of pages – like those released every few years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – one group of American scientists have said enough's enough.

Under the banner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the group of more than a dozen scientists on Tuesday launched "What We Know," an outreach effort that aims to encourage people to think of climate change as a risk management issue for human societies, rather than solely as something that impacts the environment.

"Our specific goal in this case is to try to help move policy forward by making science as clear and straightforward as we possibly can," said Dr. Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday."

The Association made good on this intent with an 18-page report, described by the LA Times:

The American Assn. for the Advancement of Science's blunt report contains no new scientific conclusions. But by speaking in plain, accessible terms it seeks to instill greater urgency in leaders and influence everyday Americans. Scientists said many previous assessments have been long and ponderous, and have failed to shift public opinion on global warming.

The goal "is to move policy forward by making science as clear and straightforward as we possibly can," association Chief Executive Alan Leshner said. "What we're trying to do is to move the debate from whether human-induced climate change is reality … to exactly what should you do about it."

The report is backed-up by a web site which also features videos.

The truth is that while this is a long overdue development, even clearer language and one minute videos for the twitter generation aren't enough.  There must be a dozen or more books that inspired reviewers to suggest that this would be the one that got people going, that would be this generations Silent Spring.  When her climate crisis book appeared in 2008 (Field Notes From a Catastrophe), Elizabeth Kolbert was the latest to be called the next Rachel Carson.  But even her exemplary writing did not have anything like that kind of impact.

Now her new book, The Sixth Extinction, is getting media attention, as well as a few words here.  In the debut of his own new site, Ezra Klein chose to interview Kolbert on this book.  He zeros in on the first--and worst-- of the five past mass extinctions, which scientists believe was set in motion by global heating caused by massive infusions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Exactly why carbon dioxide was released in these quantities is still unknown, but what apparently is known is summarized in one of Klein's questions:

Ezra Klein: One of the really terrifying parts of your almost nonstop-terrifying book, is that the quantity of carbon dioxide that we are emitting at the moment, every day, every year, every month, every year, is not just similar too, but potentially faster than the carbon dioxide emission that led to that extinction.

In her book Kolbert emphasizes how rare extinctions normally are, but that we are living through a blizzard of them.  And she emphasizes how slow changes normally are, but that we are seeing the end of an icy Arctic that existed that way for millions of years. She tells Klein he is likely to see an ice-free Arctic in his lifetime, just as scientists are learning how important Arctic ice is to global weather patterns as well as the climate itself.

Plainer statements of urgency are hard to imagine than this interview (which I highly recommend) and the AAAS report.  But Kolbert may be on to something when she tries to get us to shift our frame of reference about the speed of change.  That's only one of the conceptual blocks that ordinary people may have to this extraordinary phenomenon--the defining challenge of human civilization and to the steady development of the human species.


On Monday--the day I posted one of my astronomical photos--there was a press conference to announce what some are calling the scientific finding of the century so far.  This illustration is it: a pattern of gravitational waves through spacetime.

The Reuters report begins:

Astronomers announced on Monday that they had discovered what many consider the holy grail of their field: ripples in the fabric of space-time that are echoes of the massive expansion of the universe that took place just after the Big Bang.

Predicted by Albert Einstein nearly a century ago, the discovery of the ripples, called gravitational waves, would be a crowning achievement in one of the greatest triumphs of the human intellect: an understanding of how the universe began and evolved into the cornucopia of galaxies and stars, nebulae and vast stretches of nearly empty space that constitute the known universe.

"This detection is cosmology's missing link," Marc Kamionkowski, a physicist of Johns Hopkins University and one of the researchers on the collaboration that made the finding, told reporters on Monday at a press conference at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts."

The BBC story is one that emphasizes how important scientists think this is, and in the New Yorker, physicist Lawrence Krauss places it in historical context and explains some of the ramifications.

I've seen some more extravagant claims as to what it may mean (confirmation of the "multiverse" of infinite branches, which would mean human life exists elsewhere as well as here) but apparently this discovery also shuts down some theories as well.  It will take scientists time to sort out the ramifications, as well as confirming this discovery.

 What a wonder the human mind is, to come up with fundamental theories and what happened in the first one-trillionth of a second, or to get all excited by maybe spotting the first liquid waves on any other world, on Saturn's moon Titan.  And meanwhile failing to act on the one bit of science that threatens everything that allows these theories and discoveries.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Monitoring the Crimea Gambit

I've had a certain cognitive dissonance as I monitor news of the past two weeks involving the Ukraine and Russia.  All diplomatic attempts failed to persuade Premier Putin (for that is how he is behaving) from continuing on the path that led most recently to Russia essentially annexing the Crimea, in defiance of Ukraine's sovereignty and the objections of the West.

For much of my lifetime this would have prompted an international crisis that dominated headlines and conversations.  There would have been prominent stories noting that the U.S. was heightening alert for nuclear forces, and a certain frenzy for and against a possible approaching war would be rife.

This week however, this hasn't even been the top story, failing to eclipse the mystery of a missing airliner or even March Madness and the latest show business gossip.  Although Republicans are screeching about national strength and honor etc. as they would have, they immediately sober up when the question of military force is suggested.

While everybody apparently seems prepared for the long game in this situation, while not neglecting political advantage for upcoming elections,  I probably should feel reassured.  But actually I don't, not yet.  Ignoring dire possibilities may well have contributed as much to both world wars as did the awful readiness and eagerness of some to wage them.

One prominent Russian voice on state media did say the N word, suggesting that Russia still had the power to turn the U.S. to radioactive dust. But I haven't seen a counter blast of dangerous bluster.  So that's good.  But it would probably be a good thing to know what is being done in terms of western nuclear forces.  There are still enough nuclear bombs to level much of civilization.

 Maybe it's just because I grew up with the Cold War and the nuclear sword dangling over the playground, but I worry that this history and the dangers it suggest are not sufficiently in the minds of those now in charge.  Based on his past statements and his knowledge of his office, I seriously doubt that includes President Obama, but otherwise I wonder.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote

             "Attention is the cardinal psychological virtue."
James Hillman

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Califractia No!

Think Progress reports:

"Thousands of environmentalists took to California’s state capitol on Saturday to demand Governor Jerry Brown ban hydraulic fracturing, in what is being called the largest anti-fracking mobilization the state has ever seen."

"The process relies heavily on groundwater by injecting a mixture of chemicals and water into rock formations to release oil and gas deposits. California’s recent drought emergency has prompted some lawmakers to push for a statewide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, as a recent Ceres report found that 96 percent of California fracking wells are located in the areas experiencing drought and high water stress."

"The protest, called Don’t Frack California, also attempts to point out that the oil and gas produced from fracking ultimately contributes to climate change, which leading climate scientists have said is the reason why California’s drought has been so bad in the first place."

Also last week a study commissioned by several environmental advocacy groups quantified the risks of earthquakes induced by fracking practices.