Thursday, January 12, 2023

Happy Bicentennial to Me!

I don't like to talk about it much, but my standard bio claims that I was born in 1823, which was some time ago. The exact date is Jan 27, 1823, so that's coming up in a few short weeks. I'm not planning on having tall ships sail around New York Harbor or set off any fireworks or sing that great tune by Henry Gibson, but I may treat myself to something appropriate for a man of my age. 

You're probably curious about what I remember from the old days. My extreme youth is pretty much lost as it is to many, and diaries my mother was keeping were lost in the Great Fire of 1845 along with much other property down in the warehouse. I was working over on Rector street and it was a constant sequence of blasts and falling debris. I was up in the country for the earlier fire in 1835, but definitely remember buildings that were burned down then too. Sic transit gloria mundi. Yes, lots of people dropped Latin phrases all the time.

All through the first half of the 19th century, even having decisively beaten British forces and established something of an economic presence in the world, the USA still had a cultural inferiority complex. It was up to us to prove we were as good as those governed with the divine endorsement of sovereignty. It was not enough that we started losing our accents. We needed music and art,  poetry and dance that were unmistakably American. This turned out to be the Hudson River School of painting.

The lower class American accent was not really significantly divergent from northern Irish at the time. People would take up idioms slowly, and imitate idiolects until nobody knew who they were imitating. This is the kind of stuff you can notice over a period of 80-110 years. Audio mass communication did a lot to stop accent development.

And really, the times changed rapidly with the steamboat and rail roads. The world moved at two speeds then: walking and riding horses, and the new miraculously faster and reliable engine driven transports. Running a rail line through undeveloped land shrank the distances between city centers, and junctions created centers where there were none before. Communities did not have to be self supporting anymore and could rely on imported food, clothing and building materials.  

There's a whole other thing, which has to do with memory. Once you pass 140 or so, if you don't have good documentation, memory is pretty unreliable, and tends to merge with things you've read. Things I think I know about Lewis Carroll, since I actually knew Alice Liddell and her sister Lorina, just seem unreliable and dream like, or picked up from his letters collections, which of course have an unreliable narrator. The past turns into a kind of pudding. 

Memories have their own timbres, and the older ones are quiet, thin or missing partials and more important, memories to modulate to and harmonize with. But some things are still very strong. There was a lot more sawdust around, sawdust and hay, and whale oil, and those smells are still very sharply recalled. 

Early audio recording technology was VERY impressive in its day, just as early photography was. The first impression of photography was that it had an unbiasedness which still shows up in the phrase "The camera never lies". Of course it lies, but it's very seductive. Phonograph and dictaphone recordings, though, always had a scrim of artifacts that you had to pass through to understand the sounds. I was like someone in another room in a rainstorm - nothing your ears couldn't handle. The music and speeches of home recordings showed how speaking loudly forced a kind of rhetorical dialect, which might be dropped accidentally from time to time during the recording after recovering from a cough or sneeze. 

Things broke all the time. They were mostly hand made, though, which meant someone could fix it. We would marvel at modern materials science, though. Things were heavy. Processes needed manual and animal labor. Food was unregulated and sometimes more poisonous. Housing was drafty and sooty. 

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Climate deadlock

 It is not "the Left" or "The Right" that have the actual votes. The Climate does. It does not check your vote before burning down your hillside, flooding your city, dropping a tornado or derecho just anywhere, or evaporating your reservoirs.  

It's only coordinated international work that can drive us off of carbon burning as an energy source. Nuclear has a whole other set of problems - guarding its waste for longer than recorded human history being just one of them. 

Progress in transitioning to a sustainable energy future is not something that should be hoarded by those making progress. Solutions for carbon free energy, and getting the unbalanced amount of carbon out of the atmosphere that's there is technology that must be rapidly shared without regard for profit or traditional rivalries. We have a common crisis. 

We consider acts of war justifiable - even though every act of war is a crime. As Pres. Carter remarked: we need the moral equivalent of war to attack this problem. That means we must disregard a status of protecting business and property that stand in the way of this victory, just as it is morally and civilly  justified in a war. 

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Guns Are Magic

 Guns are magic!

They turn men from cowards into mighty lone warriors defending their life, their family, their culture, their home and property.

They are ONLY wielded by good guys.

The targets are well established non-persons, or the gun turns them into non-persons very quickly and conveniently. That's part of the magic. Non-persons don't have families, culture, or their own property.

It's much easier to kill the second non-person after killing the first. That wasn't so hard, was it? Automatic weapons mean you don't even have to aim so well. 

Let's get back to the coward. Where does that fear come from? How is that fear concentrated and directed? Why is there a feeling of injustice when others share the same rights you do? And why is a violent solution the preferred, even cultivated, "solution" to these fears? 

Why is a solution for security involving community support and connection, and reality checking, not the first place to go, rather than, say, a militarized police force, or self appointed individual.

That's where the real transformational magic is.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Blame Assignment

And as I point out, it's the major parties that are "stealing the votes" from the Greens. The Green agenda is the only one that truly aims to mitigate the Climate Crisis at its core, which will also have many other positive side effects in order to actually be put into place. The time to have started that work and to treat it seriously was way more than 30 years ago.

A party or faction doesn't have to win to be influential in politics - see the Republicans for an example - but having the ideas vigorously brought up in every debate is important. 

The Climate crisis is basically "whataboutism" turned inside out: literally everything else is "whataboutism". 
I like to point out Brecht's take on the Buddha's Parable of the Burning House.

It will change civilized human life patterns, and not for some far off generation either. It will also take down functioning ecosystems, and to some extent, even change geography through shifting shorelines, receding glaciers and melting permafrost. The buck has already been passed to us, and we're left holding the bag (block that metaphor). There is no natural process - which is the only thing that can treat the crisis at scale - in place or planned to be in place that can deal with the enormity of our environmental sin. 

Good luck being, say, pro or anti choice as your house is swept away in a flood or derecho, your hospitals burn to the ground in wildfires, and you and your family and friends become sudden climate refugees in places where municipalities and their governments cannot handle the massive influx. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Time zones

Time zones are determined politically. Keeping track of what time it is everywhere is subject to the whims of sovereigns and legislatures. 

Let's step back a little and ask, what to we want out of a clock? For instance, what time should solar noon be? What time should dawn be? What time should sunset be? 

In the tropics, this is not a big deal. However as you leave the tropics, the length of the extent of useful sunlight varies until a day (or night) lasts half a year at the poles. Approaching the poles, "the time" and "the date" are about somewhere else, especially after sundown.

The idea of standardized times and time zones only really dates from the age of railroads. Prior to that, you couldn't get anywhere fast enough to make a difference, and time was very local, based on the loudest clock tower. 

The continental US (sorry, Alaska) is about 3 hrs and 48 minutes wide. This is currently fit into 4 time zones. These zones have borders based on political boundaries, so parts of each zone may be astronomically separated by more than 1 hour. Furthermore, the length of the day in the southern parts of the country varies less than in the northern parts throughout the year. Summer daylight in Brunswick, ME is about 7 hours longer than winter daylight, whereas in Corpus Christi, TX the difference is only 4 hours. Therefore, it's less disruptive in the South to make no accommodations to the official local time than in the North.

Nevertheless, it'd be nice to get daylight aligned to a working day: so as to be able to be used during whatever passes for a commute on both ends. The easiest way to do that is to make the working day vary with the light available, or to eliminate the commute, period. Agriculture has always needed to align with natural cycles, why not everything else? 

That said, rather than linking everything to Universal Coordinated Time (UTC), which makes a lot of sense for any inter-temporal transactions, we'd like to have local times that give you an idea of how much light and heat there will be from the number alone. 

Right now, the time zones we have are not particularly accurate everywhere locally within them, but it's not that impractical. We could move to a system of finer grained zones, say, 8 of them roughly 1/2 hour wide each, and split up north to south so that southern ones don't need to compensate through the year whereas northern ones do, possibly more than twice a year. This would be much improved in terms of daylight alignment, but people would be even more angry about clock changes than they are now. Fortunately, they'd only be a half hour early or late if they missed the time zone change.

There already are a number of zones aligned on the half hour relative to UTC. All of India, and Iran, for example. Nepal Time is 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of UTC, showing it can be even more fine-grained.

China, which also spans about 4 hours in width, is all on one time zone, and the day length difference is about 14 hours longer in the summer than in winter in the far north, whereas the difference in Hong Kong is only 3 hours. Clearly, China is not fiddling with the number on the clock to make it correspond to any nation-wide concept of how a named hour is experienced!

To summarize, the current twice-a-year changes, spread among the states and possessions, is a little frustrating twice a year, but again, it's less frustrating than either making it more precise or making it less precise. 

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Debating the cost of Climate Crisis Action

 What does the American West cost? It will burn until there's nothing left to burn, and dry out first, taking the hydroelectricity with it. The air will burn the fields, vineyards and orchards, the pastures and the pools, the national parks, Hollywood, Disneyland, and the oil refineries. 

What does the Gulf Coast cost? The hot, dead water will rise in oil slick waves, topping the levees, washing out the streets and the music, while the rain and wind will come and stay. 

What does a glacier cost? When its water changes the sea chemistry, who will raise the krill from the dead, weigh the continents back  down, paint the bare land a reflecting white again? What will speed the course of the Gulf Stream when it slows and stops moderating Western Europe's climate?

What does permafrost cost? What will freeze the methane back into the collapsing, burning soil?  

Costs such as those under debate are nothing compared with the debt to the earth, an earth that is now collecting its debt from all life, not just the ones responsible,  and the interest rate is climbing. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

 Message in a bottle

Aug 13, 1979

Valentine Basilevich Glass, native of Vyborg, accountant in the bureau of administration of the Leningrad Parks of Culture and Rest, lead a number of unrelated lives. Whereas most people were trapped by the web of Soviet bureaucracy, he reveled in its complexity and quirkiness, finding in the course of his work numerous loopholes which he impressed in his memory, an unconscious act much like anticipating an annoying scratch on a phonograph record. Over the years he had become sensitive to these flaws, the way a barefoot man can feel the grain of the wooden floor or the hot and cold spots in the mattress. He played the system with the knowledge and confidence of a blind pianist in recital. 

He had an upright piano in his flat, and the F# over middle C had a defective damper that was a quirk of this piano from his mothers day. Yes, an "Etude on D" would have a drone throughout, as would B minor fugues, Lieder in A, and Elegies in F# minor. A short chromatic run in an otherwise diatonic melody would send less sophisticated people running with their hands clasped tightly over their ears, the diminished fifth being too much of a reminder of the inadequacy of a seven tone scale.  

Glass, who was brought up not only with a strong atonal infusions, but with a long line of experimentally tuned instruments, improvised melodies that made use of the inadequacies of the instruments he had available. His apartment was cluttered with wolfish violas, creaking clarinets, a harp for which spare parts were unattainable,  a harmonium with a leaking bellows. Each he played with varying proficiency. He was the opposite of the perfectionist musician – who had to polish his instruments with certain cloths and varnishes, and could only play within certain temperature ranges – for he played old and new, broken unsallied Instruments as they were, always finding the voice of each, and highlighting its uniqueness. 

He could tell, even in a recording, that a the piano's linkage was sluggish in the lower registers, and that Sviatislav Richter (or whoever the soloist was) usually discovered this too late and altered their style midway through movement.  It was this kind of sensitivity which enabled him to discover all the spies in his department. 

So, what seemed to be a toleration of the insane systems of the Soviets was in fact a fascination with and exploitation of its numerous flaws. For example, he created a number of employees on paper, he obtained visas for them, identifications for them, leaked certain information to the spies that he knew to flush out more spies, and occasionally called upon his minimal acting talent to impersonate them.  A mainstay of his technique was suggestion. He'd plant an assumption months ahead of time in many peoples minds, tell anecdotes odd enough to be propagated beyond any of his known contacts, make phone calls, "wrong numbers," asking for one of these characters with qualifying adjectives and bits of information which are easily taken, by means of their accidental nature, for truth, and by writing letters to organizations that he knew were being monitored by certain people as pet projects, and by misinforming tourists, the most gullible of information sources. 

And the amazing thing was that it was all done out of his own perversity, as a hobby, and was not suspected even by the Americans, who is operations lacked in quality which they made up with quantity. 

Let it be said that his defection was a consequence of this perversity: not only did he leave, he did so in such a way that he was expected back after a few months. Part of his cover was his fluency in Finnish and his rough Finnish features, for his trip took him from Vyborg to Helsingör to Visby to Uppsala, a route logical enough for a Finnish professor on sabbatical. From Uppsala he went west to Malmö, across the Øresund to Copenhagen. He showed up in theatre orchestras, atomic protest rallies, left one of those cryptic classifieds in the International Herald Tribune, and made his way to Paris and Avenue Foch, where a huge apartment was waiting for him. The sizable Russian community in Paris provided him with much material. He traded art to support himself, some of it forged and a good amount of it under one or another of his many names.

Still, to enter any bar with a vacant piano filled him with an urge to test it, to run it through to find its flaws.  His private jokes got to the point where he would become a different character depending on the flaws he found in the piano, whose various tics and attitudes would be complementing the instrument's inadequacy.  It determined how deaf he would make himself, how short tempered, how somnambulistic, how languid, or how Polish, Finnish, Swedish, Parisian, American or Farsi his French would eventually tumble out in. 

Some days, to aggravate some Parisian paper tiger, he would feign left-handedness in a way that caused discomfort to all in a subliminal way, with a limp with an ease  that made onlookers proud to see a man who is so nonchalantly overcome his handicap. The little impressions, popularly thought to be uncountable in one's assessment of another's character, he had discovered could be enumerated and controlled, and he required at most four tics and an anecdote or two to establish a lasting reputation. He never cease to be amazed at other peoples malleability, their willingness to be exploited and manipulated. The more he thought about it, the more he realized how much time they spent fooling themselves, about the nature of their hierarchies, their habits of exchange, their definitions of power and impotence, the desirability of their goals, about the nature of inspiration and impressions, their Mana-filled Tiki's, they are unspoken taboos. They expected to hear the same things over and over again, reinforcing these illusions. Their aesthetics and politics, popular or unpopular, all were based in the system of hot and cold spots, pointers toward hollow symbols, clear and yet confusing choices. Glass played hypocrisy as he played faulty pianos. It only challenged him, never offending him. He had no contempt for other people, as he had no contempt for poor instrument. It made life interesting for him. 

Glass was uneager to express his convictions, as doing so necessarily treads on many exposed toes, and besides, it was to his advantage to keep his marks uninformed. And he was forced to acknowledge that he himself had to bow to the symbolic actions, even if they were conducted had a different level with different symbols. Yet, how much suffering could be eliminated by the simple realization that one's own values were not universal? How many lives would be saved by a demystification of money, monogamy, and policy? How much energy could be saved by realizing that one has two feet in warm blood? How much guilt could be dismissed when one realizes that reproduction is as natural as sneezing? 

His obsession, combined with his creativity, up to now only found expression in his private journals. He kept one in each of the seven or eight languages he was proficient in, translating from one to the other, to refine his thoughts through translation. This way everything he wrote got a second look, and he could guard against his own capacity. His art now juxtaposed established symbols against each other, eroded rules of composition, sought to make the picture plane dirty, to show Madonnas engaged in scenes not reported in the Gospels, he specified that his still lives be hung over windows and mirrors to drive in the point that the world of life is not still. But he found that as an artist he could not be taken seriously by enough people to cause any real change. He doubted he could cause these changes even if he had the power of the Church, for he knew how deeply rooted one's personal system of values could be. He realized that the only chance would be in early indoctrinations, but how to instruct without becoming a catechism? He had learned at the keyboard of a broken piano. But what more common means could he use to turn the masses from passive participation into critical and adaptive production? So little thinking was required by a culture which pretended to provide choices when offering only dead ends.

I will leave Glass where he is and tell you know how I have manipulated you throughout the story. I started with the name "Glass", which I selected for the numerous puns and connotations it could have, and a wholly ridiculous job in order to create interest in the character:  as a rogue, imposter, sly fellow, multilingual, and multinational.  The plural-ness of his character, shown to be a farce and a manipulation, is an attempt to show, through a process of identification, the plurality of Everyman. A long part of the story was devoted to comparing the limits of culture to the limits of flawed pianos. I regret that I could not work in the idea that even music itself, as codified in the West, was restricting and constraining  Glass's artistic forces, and that the theme of "Tema con Variazione" were themselves variations. Perhaps you recognize in Glass's art similar designs of the modern art movements of this century, and perhaps that art is clear to you now. I hope that you will realize that all symbolic transactions are based on tacit assumptions which vary from culture to culture and indeed need no culture to mother them. 

Observing the flawed glass of culture should help you respect and identify it.