Archive for 2010 December

Environmental alarmists, by Tom Toles

One you might have missed this year from Toles. Can't have that. 

From May 31st. 

Full Story »

What the heck is going on with this La Niña?

Isn't it supposed to be cold and dry in SoCal during a La Niña, not wet and warm?

Craig Miller of KQED asks questions, and gets answers from the helpful Kevin Trenberth of NCAR:

"In La Niña conditions, which is what we have now, the main storms that come into North America come barreling into Washington, Oregon and British Columbia more," Trenberth told [Miller] in a phone interview.

But lately a persistent region of high pressure in the north Pacific is diverting storms south, into California. Trenberth says: "There’s a crapshoot or a random component to it, if you like, in the more northern latitudes, that’s adding some extra flavor to what’s going on, I think."

Speaking of crapshoots, in a recent interview Bill Patzert pointed out that in eighteen of the last twenty-two La Niñas, SoCal did experience drier, colder winters than normal. And Trenberth, for one, still expects us to regress to the mean.

He says this is considered a “strong” La Niña and is still likely to wield influence over the winter as a whole. One clue is ocean temperatures in the central-to-eastern Pacific, which are running 2 degrees C (3.5 F) below normal. "That only occurs—probably less than 10% of the time, so it’s a relatively rare event and certainly stronger than anything we’ve seen in recent years," said Trenberth.

Piece also included a great image of the Pinepple Express, in unexpected full bloom:


Full Story » Comment (1)

How to remember: A poet’s theory

In Patti Smith's wonderful memoir, Just Kids, she is forever referring to the constellation of objects she and her dearest friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, found and gathered and treasured together. She writes of a day early in their relationship:

One Indian summer day we dressed in our favorite things, me in my beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, and Robert with his love beads and sheepskin vest. We took the subway to West Fourth Street and spent the afternoon in Washington Square. We shared coffee from a thermos, watching the stream of tourists, stoners, and folksingers. Agitated revolutionaries distributed antiwar leaflets. Chess players drew a crowd of their own. Everyone coexisted within the continuous drone of verbal diatribes, bongos, and barking dogs. 

We were walking towards the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand. 

"Oh, take their picture," said the woman to her bemused husband. "I think they're artists."

"Oh, go on," he shrugged. "They're just kids." 

Well, they did turn out to be artists, and reading the book you can't help but wonder if Smith remembers her stories so clearly because she poured herself into her treasured artifacts…as poet Giacomo Leopardi eloquently argues: 

To function, memory requires a fixed, stable object. It can remember indeterminate things only with great difficulty, or piecemeal, or in relation to other fixed objects. Whoever wants to remember something has to fix an object in mind; we do this all day without being aware of it. Words stabilize. Lines of poetry stabilize: the material has an inherent, sharp, recognizable definition, every line marking limits and boundaries. The whole secret to enabling memory comes down to giving the sharpest possible physical shape to things or ideas. The more you can do this, the better your memory will recollect things. The more you train the memory faculty, the easier it becomes to remember things even more vaporous than those you could remember as a baby or child.

Sounds like a testable, verifiable theory… 

Full Story »

Poetry: the difference between objective and verifiable

Verifiable — which is also popularly characterized, imprecisely, as "objective" –doesn't necessarily mean numerical, as Belle Randall reminds us in a great letter to Poetry

To put it another way, judging poetry (or writing, or human beings, for that matter) is not purely a matter of opinion. Not if the points can be proven. Mathematics is not the only form of logic. 

To get every nuance of Randall's brilliance, you will have to go back to Michael Robbins explosive review of the book in question, a collection by former poet laureate Robert Haas, and the outrage that the review provoked. But it's not necessary! Randall brilliantly sums up both the review, and the book in question. Please see below.

Dear Editor,

Regarding Michael Robbins’s criticism of Robert Hass [September 2010] and the letters that followed [November 2010]: those on both sides of the debate seem to have difficulty keeping their focus on the language of the poems. “This isn’t poetry, it’s a list of stuff in Hass’s kitchen,” Robbins declares. “The Haiku masters . . . are behind simple but elegant passages like this,” John Matthias replies. One feels caught between two small boys arguing is too, is not. The danger is that both positions—perhaps all strong opinions about poetry—begin to seem arbitrary and subjective. Yet verifiable observations about poetry can be made:

        On the oak table
   filets of sole
stewing in the juice of tangerines,
slices of green pepper
        on a bone-white dish.
              —From Song

Of this, one may say: it begins with a capital and ends with a period but is not a sentence. Lacking a predicate (the implied “are”), it isn’t a complete thought. Instead, as Robbins observes, it is a list. In a list, every item has equal weight. Because of this, a list lacks the focus of Haiku.

The passage is fairly representative of the “period style” of the seventies, with the omitted verb showing the influence of Gary Snyder, who often omits verbs and articles for the sake of compression (“Across rocks and meadows / Swarms of new flies”). Yet the fragment by Hass, compared to Snyder’s, is notably adjectival, while introducing the unwelcome but inevitable association “stewing in one’s own juices.” A peculiar weight falls on the final three syllables—“bone-white dish.” Thud, thud, thud. This sounds profound, like a gavel falling, but is it? If I were to tell you that the fragment was lifted from a restaurant review in Sunset magazine, could you believe it? Isn’t this an accurate description of the language? When Robbins says, “This isn’t poetry,” maybe he means: This is journalistic rather than poetic, descriptive rather than evocative. It’s not bad writing, but, like professional “food writing,” it ain’t poetry.

Amen. Food writing is to poetry as lyrics are to a song.  

After a week at a science conference, it's refreshing to experience precision…in articulate English. 

Full Story » Comments (3)

Ocean acidification and coral reefs

A concluding remark from a talk this morning by Ken Caldeira on ocean acidification

My personal opinion is that without emissions mitigation coral reefs on this planet will not be sustainable by mid-century. 

For the gloomer, a look at the science from the NRDC. Jeez. This may be harder to face than global warming. 

Full Story »

The Future of Polar Bears

At the AGU, the world's largest annual physical science conference, a diverse quartet of scientists set out this morning to launch a discussion about the future of polar bears, and the possibility of a refuge for them in northern Canada and Greenland, where ice experts think sea ice, which is crucial to the balance between polar bears and ringed seals, will last into the next century. 

The team, which includes a marine biologist, a climatologist, and an ice expert, stressed that this was only a first step towards preserving the polar bear. 

"This is a conversation that has to include native peoples…our intent is to begin tthat conversation," said Robert Newton, an oceanographer. 

The team of scientists added that a recent USGS study by Steven Amstrup, predicting that ice would remain in the summer in the Arctic until at least 2040, if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced in the next twenty years, meant that the best way to save the polar bear was to begin emissions reductions now.

"Our research offers a very promising, hopeful message, but it's also an incentive for mitigating greenhouse emissions," Cecilia Bitz told ScienceDaily.

At the press conference, New York Times writer Andrew Revkin asked a hard-headed question: Why should we care about the polar bear? 

Newton pointed out that as a scientist, large attention-catching species such as the polar bear were arguably less important to the environment as a whole than the tiny benthic organisms in the water — but that's not the point. 

Polar cubs

"As a citizen when you see these bears, which in fundamental ways are not that different from us, all of us have an emotional response and even for some people a spiritual response, so it’s an important question and raises issues for people that wouldn’t other wise be raised," Newton said.

Sometimes the hardest questions provoke the best answers. 



Full Story »

Obama admin: We’re “not giving up” on climate action

From a press conference today at the AGU, with the prez's chief science advisor:

Bud Ward: It seems that over the last two years the momentum on climate change has been lost. The Obama administration came in with climate as one of the adminstration's top priority, and the President is a great communicator. Two years ago it seemed that there was sympathy for the administration's point of view in Congress, and the administration has great scientific credentials, but increasingly the issue seems to have gotten confused, and it's no longer being taken seriously. it seems that things have fallen apart. How could that happen? 

John Holdren, the president's chief science advisor: "To say things are falling apart is an overstatement. This administration has faced a number of challenges, unscheduled developments you might say, including a recession which was far more serious than anyone imagined at the outset. We had the H1N1 flu epidemic, the Gulf Oil spill, which consumed a vast amount of our resources, and North Korea and nuclear proliferation. There's only so many things an administration can give priority to and get done. The choice was made to try and get comprehensive health care legislation done before energy and climate change. That struggle proved longer and more difficult than anyone thought at the outset. I think there are a lot of reasons why we didn't get as far or as fast as we wanted to on climate change, but that doesn't mean we're giving up." 

[Holdren went on to say that there is "a myth out there" that the public has lost interest in climate change, and pointed to data from a Stanford researcher showing that's not so, that there is a climate majority supporting action.} 


Full Story »

Climate quote of the week

Henry David Thoreau, way ahead of his time, as usual…

It takes two to speak the truth, — one to speak, and another to hear. 

[from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Wednesday chapter]

Full Story »

Cancun talks do not end in failure

Newspaper headlines by their nature are expected to state what happened, not what did not happen, because what did not happen is not, after all, news. 

Unlike the headline above. 

But the truth of the modest deal that emerged between 190 nations negotiating at Cancun, under the auspices of the United Nations, is that the conference did avoid failure, unlike what happened last year in Copenhagen, in which high hopes for a major new deal went down in flames. 

In this context any victory, no matter how small, still counts. From the start of the conference, when Japan threatened to pull out of the long-standing (if ineffective) Kyoto deal, to the end, when Mexican foreign minister Patricia Espinosa had to move heaven and earth to keep the talks alive, prospects were uncertain, and failure a real possibility.  

The New York Times reports:

The agreement sets up a new fund to help poor countries adapt to climate changes, creates new mechanisms for transfer of clean energy technology, provides compensation for the preservation of tropical forests and strengthens the emissions reductions pledges that came out of the last United Nations climate change meeting in Copenhagen last year.        

Now to see if the developed nations will live up to their promises to the undeveloped nations, to help them with clean energy projects, and to adapt to a changing climate. To date: Not so much

Here's a pic of a Greenpeace "demonstration" in the water at the conference: Clever!  


Full Story »

The tea maker, thirty years later…and Yoko

About ten years ago, astonishingly, I got a call from Yoko Ono.

I happened to have written a magazine story about the time she spent with John Lennon in the little town of Ojai, in the mid-70's, after he and Yoko were driven out of Greenwich Village by FBI and NYPD surveillance and harassment. They bought a station wagon and drove across the country. 

In those blissfully analog days, even a rock star could disappear. That's what I wanted to ask her about, her time with him, living underground in Ojai. Unable to find her number, I resorted to writing a letter to beg her to call — and to my astonishment, about six months later, she did call back!  

She and Lennon stayed on the estate of an acquaintance, a citrus grower by the name of Jim Churchill. By all accounts, Lennon enjoyed his time here, and characteristically let it be known that he was in town. At an open mic night, Lennon even did an impromptu solo version of "Give Peace a Chance" and another song at seafood shack near the beach. I interviewed the proprietor, who told some stories about his funky place, with sawdust on the floor, and beer on tap, and the way Lennon enjoyed it. The star said it reminded him of places in Liverpool, growing up. 

After a year or so, he and Yoko moved on, but their fame lingered. I heard that when they visited a restaurant, the staff afterword would meet to divide up and keep the plates on which they had dined…

Speaking of dishes, here's Yoko, talking about John as a maker of tea…


In her piece in the New York TImes about John's self-reflective side, she tells a charming little story:

It was nice to be up in the middle of the night, when there was no sound in the house, and sip the tea John would make. One night, however, John said: “I was talking to Aunt Mimi this afternoon and she says you are supposed to put the hot water in first. Then the tea bag. I could swear she taught me to put the tea bag in first, but …”

Charming in part because John was still in touch with his mother's sister, still a part of her life, and she of his. And because he still told the truth about himself. Which comes up later in the piece. 

The most important gift we received from him was not words, but deeds. He believed in Truth, and had dared to speak up. We all knew that he upset certain powerful people with it. But that was John. He couldn’t have been any other way. If he were here now, I think he would still be shouting the truth.

Who would deny it? And isn't that a gentle, convincing way to make that idealistic point? 

When Yoko called, unfortunately, I was so surprised I had not the wit to ask her a lot of questions. But she chatted in a friendly way, sent a nice note back after I sent her the piece, and wished me well. 

So I've come to admire her, for her strength…and her sweetness. 

Full Story » Comments (2)