Archive for 2011 September

Stephen Colbert knows America on global warming

"Speaking of not knowing what to do — global warming!"

Yours truly is not a big fan of the modern-day kings of irony, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but this segment on global warming, despite the slightly confusing opening, is hilarious…and, actually, quite insightful about the American public's reaction to the threat of global warming. As Colbert said:

"In the face of all the mounting evidence of climate change, America has stood with one voice and boldly proclaimed, "Eh."  

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Global Warming
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"One day our environment will get bad enough that we'll want to act on it — maybe on the day that Florida sinks under water!"

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Wangari Maathai, rest in peace

The great tree-planter and feminist, Wangari Maathai, Nobel Prize winner, died yesterday.

We were fortunate enough to see her speak a few years ago, and I was frankly awed by her ability to find simple, enduring truths in complicated, desperate situations. 

Even today, speaking about the unhappiness of development in Kenya, her words resonate with me: 

"Now the forests have come down, the land has been turned to commercial farming, the tea plantations keep everyone poor, and the economic system does not allow people to appreciate the beauty of where they live."

In these United States we need not fear tea farming, can still see forests, if we choose, and haven't seen our lives ruined by commercial farming. Yet so many of us — myself included, at times — have become wage slaves, gripped by fear, unable to see the beauty of this world all around us. 


Thank you for insisting on the goodness and power and beauty of trees, Ms. Maathai. 

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What part of that extreme was due to climate change?

Superb — and available! — story in this month's Nature on how researchers are beginning to parse the contribution of global warming to extreme events. Highly recommended. 

It's called "fractional attribution." Here's an easier way to grasp the concept:

To put it in English:

Inspired by the observation that intense rainfall in the Northern Hemisphere has worsened over the second half of the twentieth century, the group [of researchers in Canada] at compared actual precipitation data with simulations from six different climate models, both with and without greenhouse warming. They found that the extreme precipitation patterns observed did not match anything expected from natural climate cycles, but closely matched those expected from greenhouse warming.

As the story notes, it's much easier to quantify and predict temperature than precipitation, a far more complex phenomenon. This has been a stumbling block in climate science — and weather prediction, for that matter — forever, and it's a distinction the public seems unable to grasp.

Still, it's exciting to see the science going beyond the usual "it's impossible to attribute any one weather event to climate change" cliche. The public was able to grasp the idea of a percentage chance of rain on a given day; perhaps a percentage of attribution will also find its place in our thinking. 

Unlike more distant impacts of global warming such as the slowly rising sea level, the effects of local weather extremes tend to be instantly tangible and vividly remembered. Surveys suggest that people who feel they have personally experienced the effects of climate change are more likely to believe it is a real problem — and one that needs solving — than those who have not. 

Next challenge for reporters: find a "fractional attribution" expert willing to speak about this on a given extreme event. The problem (as Bill Nye recently alluded to, in a debate on Fox News) is that the analysis can take months, but even so, to talk about attribution at all is a big first step.   

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Sex, drugs, and divorce: Three trend stories from 9/2011

Despite the well-publicized woes of the media, the US press still produces some great stories. Here are three great trend stories from just this week:

Sex and Obesity: An intimate report from the front lines on NPR

Birdnesting: A way around custody battles, in the Ventura County Star

Overdose deaths from prescription drugs surpass traffic deaths in U.S. — a breakthrough this-is-the-real-news story from atop the front page on Sunday, in the LA Times. Maybe one of the most important stories of the year.  


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Edward Abbey encounters Los Angeles

Sort of.

In his classic Desert Solitaire, Abbey recounts going to Southern California with some friends from the University of New Mexico. On the way they stopped to roll an old tire into the Grand Canyon. While so engaged, Abbey happened to hear a ranger describe a little-known branch off the main canyon called Havasu. On the spur of the moment he decided to visit, and so he never did make it to L.A. But he talks about it in the Havasu chapter of his great book about the desert, first published in l968:

That was fifteen years ago. And I still have not seen the fabulous city on the Pacific shore. Perhaps I never will. There's something in the prospect southwest from Barstow which makes one hesitate. Although recently, driving my own truck, I did succeed in penetrating as close as San Bernardino. But was hurled back by what appeared to be clouds of mustard gas rolling in from the west on a very broad front. Thus failed again. It may be however that Los Angeles will come to me. Will come to all of us, as it must (they say) to all men. 

Here's what he found (Havasu Falls, by Bryan Chang). 

 Havasu Falls 2

Can't imagine why he changed his mind…

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Fleet Foxes flummox Santa Barbara

The lead singer and guitarist of the Fleet Foxes, Robin Pecknold, is reputed to be a perfectionist, and at the band's appearance at the Santa Barbara Bowl a week ago, he lived up to the description, spending half an hour directly before the show walking around the stage in plain view, pointing, talking to roadies, making sure the slide projector was aligned with the screen in exactly the way he wished. When at last he and the five other Foxes took the stage, to a gentle swell of excitement and emotion from a crowd of perhaps two thousand people, he picked out a couple of riffs, then stopped to note:

    "Okay now — let us earn your love." 

Though Pecknold insists he's not a hippie, he and the whole band could hardly look more granola if they had just time traveled in from l969, with the scraggly beards, the long hair, the drummer's white shirt, the bassist's wool cap — you name it.

But the real giveaway is Pecknold's unabashed sincerity. This man is, by all reasonable metrics, a rock star, and yet he doesn't write about love, or sex, or drugs, or even rock and roll. He writes about sunlight, the ocean, orchards, golden apples, aging, dying, his wandering mind, winter, the men who move in dimly-lit hallways, and most of all, most repeatedly, union with an unreachable glory. 

In the title song from the band's new record, Helplessness Blues, he sings:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

Why does this impossible, ungraspable subject work as the overarching theme for a new band? Because the band illustrates it with their glorious sound, in faultless three and four-part harmonies. We hear the theme; even if we understood not a single word, we would feel at a gut level that yearning for union.   

It's extraordinary, and yet a little frustrating too. There's something monkish about Pecknold's focus. (Fittingly, the slide show behind the band began with an image of an arched building from the Middle Ages, perhaps the Alhambra.) The music uplifts, taking us higher and higher, but without freeing us.

Near the end of the show, heading into an encore, I heard a young fan in front of me yell — a little hopefully — "rock and roll!"

Well, not exactly. It's more like choir music — but good choir music. 

[pic from the Santa Barbara Independent]

Here's the title cut, as striking a popular song as we've heard this year:  

06 Helplessness Blues 1



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“Real Science” denier site called out by real scientist

Look at this chart from researchers at the University of Bremen, via a compilation page of scientific Arctic data sources, and ask yourself: What trend do you see? 

Now look at the same basic question — how much of the Arctic is covered by ice, in recent years — from the point of Steven Goddard, who runs the climate change denier site "Real Science." 

Here's the headline: Arctic Sea Ice Continues to Recover

Here's the first sentence of the post: "Every year since 2007 has had more ice than 2007."

That's right: Goddard finds a record low in 2007, visible above, and since it hasn't gotten measurably worse since, assumes that, in the words of Voltaire, all is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds.

It's the same technique used to deny rising global world temperatures, by the likes of George Will and other climate change deniers re: rising temps. Because the high water mark was set during a epochal El Nino year (in l998), Will et al claim that the steady march of temperatures up the graph since means nothing. 

A real scientist, Julienne Stroeve, one of the leading observersof the cryosphere, when asked her opinion of the blindly optimistic Goddard, bluntly scoffed in a comment on his site:

Steve chose a graph that shows what he wants to portray while ignoring all the other institutions that show either a record low for 2011 or a “tie” with 2007. University of Bremen already announced it is a new record low. In my opinion, given the error margin of the measurement and algorithms, 2007 and 2011 basically tied in their extent this year. NSIDC will likely show 2011 as the second lowest, but again it’s within the error margin (which is about 50,000 sq-km).

Fascinating that Stoeve rose to challenge the denier. Speaking of trends, this seems to becoming one in recent months. We have Prof. John Abraham challenging notorious denier Chris Monckton,  showing not only how he misleads, but his self-contradictions; Kevin Trenberth, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who is one of the most productive atmospheric scientists of our time, who called out deniers and those who fail to confront them at this year's annual meeting of meterologists; and John Beddington, Chief Scientific Advisor to the British government, who this spring called on scientists to be as "intolerant" of deniers and others who mislead with phony science as those who make racist claims.

Will it help? Too soon to tell, but Chris Mooney reports that a group of scientists going beyond the issuance of papers and speaking out as a group against mountain-top removal has had an impact…at least in the press. 

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Past and future wars, by Donald Hall

Donald Hall has a new book out, which is always an occasion for celebration around these parts.

Here's a sample poem from Poetry Daily, in which in his characteristically light, quick way, Hall brings together his future (in the past) and his past (in his present-day memory): 

Backchamber The Bone Ring

The summer when I saw the Trylon and Perisphere,
I sat on the farm porch with my great-uncle Luther,
who told me that when he was nine he watched
the soldier boys walking back home from Virginia.

Then the new war started, and always another war.

He showed me family keepsakes from the attic—
a top hat his father wore, a bugle, and remnants
that emptied the pockets of a cousin killed at Shiloh:
a button, a spoon, and a ring carved out of bone.

Donald Hall

The Back Chamber
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

[The Trylon and the Perisphere were futuristic exhibits at the l939 World's Fair, Wikipedia tells us helpfully…and so in this one quick sketch, we see the end of one war, and the spectre of one to come.]

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GOP candidate stumbles over Kurt Cobain

Having gotten attention with a contrarian admission that yes, global warming is a matter of science and fact, alleged GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman again played the rebel card at the Tea Party debate this evening with a bizarre reference to Kurt Cobain. 

"I don't think anything should be off the table except maybe some of the drama that's been on this floor today," he said, mocking the title of Mitt Romney's book "No Apology" by saying, "I don't know if that was written by Kurt Cobain or not."

In fact, the title of the song to which Huntsmen was referring was "All Apologies," a classic Cobain blend of sneer (What else could I say?/Everyone is gay) and spirituality (In the sun/in the sun/I feel as one).

Not the phrase "No Apology," the title of Romney's book. I think we can be pretty sure that book, unlike the song, doesn't conclude with a ringing denunciation of matrimony. (Married! Buried!

Don't know what Huntsmen was thinking, but his fifteen minutes are up. These Tea Party folks think of themselves as rebels, but these days it takes a lot more than whining about "entitlements" to be a rebel. 


[Pic from Fountain, Not Mountain.]

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The Tennessee Williams play about Van Gogh

True story: Early in his career, after a first try at The Fugitive Kind, Tennessee Williams set out to write a play about Vincent Van Gogh. He didn't get far: He had a writing assignment at a theater lab, and his assignments kept him so busy, he said, he hardly had time for "independent work." 

Nonetheless, inspired by Van Gogh's letters, and also possibly by the popular historical novel Lust for Life, by Irving Stone, Williams wrote some scenes for a play about the great idealist and painter.

In a letter to a theater producer and mentor named Willard Holland, (who liked Williams, and directed a number of his early scenes and plays) Williams wrote: 

I am still planning to write the "Van Gogh" for which I have chosen the title "The Holy Family," suggested by an anecdote from his life. He took a prostitute to live with him who soon gave birth to an illegitimate child by another man. V.G.'s friend, Gauguin, tried to persuade V.G. to leave the woman but V.G. remained devoted to her. In disguist, as he left, the friend exclaimed, "Ah, the Holy Family — maniac, prostitute, and bastard." Does that sound too profane? I think the real story of the relationship is rather beautiful and would make good dramatic material. 

 What exactly did Williams write?

Apparently there are "surviving fragments" of a play, in which "a drunken Van Gogh proclaims his loneliness to Margaret (Magda), a pregnant prostitute with whom he wishes to live and to treat "like a sister."

[That account comes from volume one of Williams' letters, pp107-109, and includes the excerpt above, from a letter to Holland.]

Wouldn't those scenes be fascinating to read — or see enacted? Self-Portrait

[This is the earliest known self-portrait of Van Gogh, from 1886, which was three years after the painter's relationship with his mistress Sien fell apart, strained by art, gonorrhea, family and poverty]

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