Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The importance of being earnest

The talking heads have been all over the airwaves with renewed zeal since Hollywood decided it’s getting warmer. (Never mind that those who actually understand and advance the natural sciences have been talking about this for years.) Now that the issue of climate change has once again entered the public awareness, the media have facilitated a wave of debate, primarily among people who are not scientists.
I’ve heard those who believe the weight of current scientific opinion declare victory and describe any further discussion as "beating a dead horse." I’ve heard those antagonistic to the research on climate say, "this is just what I believe and nothing you say can change my mind." There remain other skeptics, as there should in our system of science, who tout a litany of statistics and factoids, which range from flat-Earth science to perfectly valid concerns.
To address the argumentative skeptic, New Scientist published a special report, Climate change: A guide for the perplexed. The report, arranged into 26 sections dealing with popular climate science myths, is on the whole well researched and well written. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the climate debate, regardless of your opinion on the subject. However, among my favorite bones of contention, I ran across this in the page on modeling:

Finally, the claim is sometimes made that if computer models were any good, people would be using them to predict the stock market. Well, they are!
A lot of trading in the financial markets is already carried out by computers. Many base their decisions on fairly simple algorithms designed to exploit tiny profit margins, but others rely on more sophisticated long-term models.
Major financial institutions are investing huge amounts in automated trading systems, the proportion of trading carried out by computers is growing rapidly and some individuals have made a fortune from them. The smart money is being bet on computer models.

This statement is misleading. While government and industry do use increasingly robust computational tools to model markets and economies, New Scientist fails to make that connection. Electronic trading systems are not analogous to climate models, rather they process transactions in a similar fashion to the checkout system at an online retailer. Simple algorithms that make trades based upon small price fluctuations are also cool, but they do not attempt to model or predict anything, any more than a mousetrap predicts the number and frequency of mice attracted to bait. This evasive language on the subject of models may lead readers to question the veracity of other statements made throughout the site.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that many people don’t understand how professional science works. Many recall having solved for velocity in high school physics, or followed that epic poem that ends in "to make ATP" in college biology. At the professional level science does not fit neatly into half-page problems and essay questions, and requires judgment, years of hard work, and collaboration to reach meaningful conclusions. Many confuse debate over technique or corollary details as an attack on broad conclusions.
The contention of so many fields of science that humans are changing the global climate is a grave concern. The general public only now seems to be waking up to what scientists have been cautioning for years. And, as with any contentious debate in the United States, there are many who are digging their heels in because their party or their community leaders say so.
In a culture that lives on opposing dogmas and often struggles with developments in science, we can’t afford to confuse matters. As we work toward parlaying a hard-won mass-realization into changes in mindset and behavior, we must be honest.

Friday, May 25, 2007

It was a very good year

I deviate today from my normal train of thought to observe a small anniversary. The Influence Machine has now been delivering its signature brand of analysis, polemics, and looted-art for a year. Beginning under the name "Phrenology" with the idea of exploring perceptions and the connection between people and ideas, this blog has kept me busy writing about our world, politics, and art.
I’d like to express my gratitude to all of those readers who have taken the time to visit and read what I have to say. For those who add their own insights and questions, this little anniversary is as much yours as it is mine.
I’d especially like to thank the blogger formerly known as Revolutionary Poetics for that last nudge out of the nest on the subject of poetry. Charise, Jez, and the vanished Windwhisperer, it’s always great to read what you think.
I think that’s quite enough self-congratulation for one year. Now back to our erratically scheduled blog, already in progress.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Don't act so surprised

There's quite a brouhaha about the Bush administration and the National Museum of Natural History’s exhibit on climate change. Several news sources are reporting that the Whitehouse and the then-Republican Congress pressured the museum to dilute the science presented in its exhibit, Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely. Critics and former Institution staff, as well as consulting scientists, allege that there was a threat to the museum’s funding if the exhibit diverged too much from the party-line.
"I remember them telling me there was an attempt to make sure there was nothing in there that would be upsetting to any politicians," said John Calder, a lead climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who consulted on the project. "They're not stupid. They don't want to upset the people who pay them."
Of course there was pressure. It is a hard and regrettable truth of science in the US government that political pressure will affect research and educational priorities and the manner in which conclusions are presented.

A quick primer in how it works: Each agency or sub agency in the executive branch (of which all of those departments and independent agencies, like the Smithsonian are a part) requests a certain amount of money to run its programs for a fiscal year. The Office of Management and Budget, part of the Whitehouse reviews these budgets, throws out some fluff, throws out some very important stuff, adds-in some politically-motivated dollars, and pitches a giant budget for the entire executive branch to Congress. Congress takes it all in committees, argues, throws out more fluff, throws out more very important stuff, adds-in more politically-motivated dollars, and sets the operating budget. The end-product is a fiscal Frankenstein’s monster that has a great deal to do with lobbyists and the personal feelings of politicians.

Bearing this system in mind, every agency head and budget official must keep an eye on the politics of both the Whitehouse and Congress. They all know that next year may be a year to “make some tough choices”, if the agency makes statements that are politically harmful to those who control the purse strings.
That said, voters must be cognizant of this sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit pressure from elected officials. American science runs the risk of becoming an international laughing-stock if we allow the fossil fuel lobby and Biblical literalists to assert equal weight against the best science available. Science is not exclusively the stuff of academics and school children. Science forms the basis of many sectors of the US economy. It extends and improves life and informs the way we live. Moreover, it is a fundamental avenue of human inquiry, like religion and art. Science is far too important to ignore.
Politicians must allow scientists the academic freedom to be scientists and should be held accountable to having a working grasp of trends in medicine, the environment, energy, and engineering. They must recognize that they, most of whom have a background in law, politics, or business, should be asking questions of those who have dedicated their careers to the sciences. Voters must be willing to deny continued public employment to those politicians who either cannot or will not do this.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A to B

In my brief respite between classes, I’ve been taking the train with Carl Sandburg and Gary Snyder. I am reading Turtle Island for the first time and am finding again in Snyder a kindred spirit. I was particularly struck this morning by Tomorrow’s Song.
Bearing in mind that in the company of the rest of Turtle Island, Tomorrow’s Song won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1975, I find the poem to be remarkably prescient. It is perhaps more resonant with the casual reader now than when it was first published more than three decades ago. It reads in part (forgive my cheats in trying to quickly emulate the original typeset):

The USA slowly lost its mandate
in the middle and later twentieth century
it never gave the mountains and rivers,
___trees and animals,
______a vote.
all the people turned away from it
___myths die; even continents are impermanent

We look to the future with pleasure
we need no fossil fuel
get power within
grow strong on less.

I find parallels here with Peter Barnes' idea of legal standing for common wealth. Barnes advocates the broad use of trusts to manage and to give persona to commodities and resources, like publicly-owned forests and the atmosphere. In the world that Barnes envisions, "the mountains and rivers, / trees and animals" have, if not a vote, a voice.
Skirting the Buddhist underpinnings of the second excerpt in favor of a pragmatic interpretation, I see a connection with the writings of McDonough and Braungart. These authors champion a sea change in how goods (and the built environment) are both designed and consumed. McDonough and Braungart seek to overturn the concept of waste by regarding the output of any technological process as an input for another.
In this scenario, efficient use is not an inhibitor of economic growth, but a catalyst for economic growth. The entrepreneur and the consumer both stand to "grow strong on less".
Moreover, McDonough, an architect, consistently pays heed to the aesthetic. He regards the enjoyment of the manufactured environment as a nonnegotiable requirement of proper design. Snyder seems to have foreseen so much with so few words.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


By now you’ve read about it. In fact, you may well have read about it every year for the better part of a decade. “The Great Gas-Out”, wherein by avoiding purchasing fuel on a single day, you will at once thrash the high price of fuel and end the war for oil and hubris.
Unfortunately, this action is not based on an understanding of finance, economics, or the environment. Given that most versions of the propaganda surrounding this futile exercise simply enjoin the reader to buy before or after this single day, there will be no effect. If consumers purchase the same amount of goods during the same accounting cycle, they accomplish nothing more than an oddity in the books. At the end of the month, the fuel retailers have earned exactly the same amount of money. Moreover, the refiners and extraction companies, insulated by layers of supply chain, never see any difference.
In truth, the equation for spending less on gas is simple. Many would call it painfully simple: to save on fuel, save on fuel. By combining and otherwise minimizing trips, using public transportation when feasible, walking or cycling, favoring locally-produced goods, and driving a fuel-efficient vehicle, anyone can reduce the amount of money they spend on fuel. Moreover, if consumers would adopt these practices en masse, they would actually impact the price of fuel.
To again quote Tolstoy, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” This token protest will accomplish nothing, because it is an empty effort that expects someone else to make the real changes. Changing the world starts with changing oneself.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Drawing on

Monday afternoon, I skipped lunch in favor of browsing a new exhibition at the National Gallery. This collection of prints and sketches, Fabulous Journeys and Faraway Places: Travels on Paper 1450–1700, explores the ideas of landscape and time.
The collection brings to light an earlier concept of geography that predates our contemporary idea of literalism. The maps here display information synoptically (as do modern maps), but do so in a humanistic fashion that may seem strange to the reader accustomed to charts designed to display all features within x meters of their true horizontal location, with 95% confidence. In the exhibit, place, space, and time are in the mind of the beholder.
These depictions embody an aesthetic sensibility and a willingness to combine the observable and the metaphysical that have become lost. Images of pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem contain biblical imagery, recognizing that travel to these places is as much a spiritual as physical journey. Prints of folktales recognize that traveling is more about movement of the individual’s mind than of the body.
The observer is left with the realization that geography has paradoxically become increasingly collectivist in an increasingly individualistic world. We delude ourselves into believing that there is nothing left to explore, because satellites above, and geographers, anthropologists, ecologists, and geologists among us have left no blank spots on the map.

Each of us is an individual, and the atlas behind our eyes is unique. Each of us is filled with mostly blank pages. The apparent completeness of the atlases at the bookstore and the library becomes liberating in this scenario. None of us is compelled to explore a new place on behalf of everyone. Instead we are free to follow the physical paths that will expand the landscapes of mind, spirit, and relationship. Moreover, the more we open our eyes, the more we discover that the published maps are missing details, and sometimes get it all wrong.
Explore, understand, interact.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A work in progress, likely to be titled Transit of Vulcan or Syzygy

Whispering clouds follow where I tread
betraying these hermetic tracks
sculpted by raggedy books purchased as a student
as they defeat exhaling valley after parchy hill

Eager summer sun scrambles
after worm that is already mine
this bipedal racing-snail
rising 20 minutes behind the day
lingering at not quite half of 2,175 miles

I never know her name

I am a half-hearted border collie pilgrim
she the hyena ascetic

We wag salutory tails
as duty concatenates words like
~~~snow fed
~~~~~~sandy bottom
~~~~~~~~~rock tripe
before she recalls forty cabbage whites
who settled on her bag at Big Meadows
and her tongue knits a slithy yarn on copperheads

Mercury shields my left eye from the sun
casts a shadow on the right side of her face

The holy here at last draws a secret X at our feet:
Wrought with archers' potence
limbs engage as much as resist
strain and stretch
until finally I seize
upon mulberry's most enticing branch

Indian pipe-stems evolve from slight wrists
place pinched fruit
first in their owners' maw
then on my palate

Coarse juice reacts with feral sweat
to render some berserk drug in my brain
that courses to a stone-tool drumbeat
in the periphery of the firelight of my mind

I see polychrome horizons
emerge from the battle of rain against phyllite
to bear annelids who play chess
or backgammon or go with amino acids

A third arm joins mine as Puck
adds her sinewy weight in pursuit of
always more We're
dazed and knotted among wet blades
bough having failed
in the wandering instant of distracted neurons
that disorganized bark, shins, leaves, elbows

She howls out hysterical mulberry pulp
my own laughter preemted by the impact of face against skull
a collision that strips away plaid bandana
which had since some clear old deep
conceiled peach-fuzz backpacker hair

Ropey knees and jabbing palms
climb my scattered frame
as she regains her bearing and her bearings

My inibriated form follows
like a johnboat with 1 oar
to find (we'll call her Urania)
feeding bag to devouring bag

Their combined burden embraces red raptor shoulders
and clutches hornbeam hips

A hundred domesticated pleas sling slack lariats
fail to trip right nanny goat feet
as they mete out

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
I've seen this sentiment written a hundred times, usually attributed to Leo Tolstoy. It struck me on the train this morning that this has been the central environmental problem of the United States, and possibly of the world.
I know, as likely does the reader, scores of people who lament the problems of the world in a class or over drinks, but never make the connection of actually doing something. Maybe they feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, and maybe they feel alienated by activists and zealots who feel comfortable sitting in judgment. Perhaps they are simply confused by outlandishly complicated subjects like geophysics and materials engineering. And, I was reminded this weekend, while volunteering for a local environmental group, that some people are simply red-faced cranks who prefer to complain than to act.
The time for enviro-cliques, good-guys, bad-guys, apathy, and loud-mouthed crankery are at an end. I’ll leave the lid on the climate can of worms. Instead, I’ll assert that everyone can agree that there are environmental problems, whether that’s unsafe chemicals leaching into an aquifer, or a dearth of rainbow trout to catch and eat with capers, sage, and lemon.

The first step in overturning Tolstoy’s conundrum is to stop thinking of oneself as a closed system. This is a sometimes-useful, though not altogether accurate, intellectual construct.
Every living thing we know to exist or to have existed has relied upon a roughly fixed set of resources we share. Each living thing (and a host of physical processes) enacts changes on those resources, sometimes making them appear new. However, with only tiny additions and subtractions, the amounts remain the same.

In this sense, changing the world and changing oneself are the same thing. Drawing from the same collective of inputs and outputting into the same commons means that every action one takes affects others and is at the same time influenced by others. By reducing the impact of these inputs and outputs the individual changes self and world at once.