Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fantasy Chickens Coming Home in Wisconsin: A Rant

The fantasy chickens are coming home to roost in Wisconsin.

It's not about democracy.
Whatever one might think about democracy, Democrat party affiliated legislators who have now fled their duties in Wisconsin (and now Indiana), are clearly not interested in it.
Nor are they clear on their responsibility to represent the people of their districts who voted for them and gave them power.
Pulling this kind of stunt makes clear to all what it is really about in their own minds:
It is all about them. They have taken on the mantle of the annointed, they believe that they are right, and they believe that they therefore have the right to force their will on the demos, in violation of the mandate of the said people to balance the budget of Wisconsin.

Minority party Wisconsin have holed up in Illinois, in order to stop a change in the collective bargaining privileges of public employees in Wisconsin. Apparently, democracy--the process of majority rule with respect to voting--is fine for Egypt, but not so fine for the people of Wisconsin (and Indiana).

It is not that I promote pure democracy, which our founders rightly characterized as mob rule; rather I support our Constitutionally mandated representative republican government, in which government is accordingly a servant to the protection of the individual rights of the people, and in which the Rule of Law covers everyone equally, from the President of the United States to the day laborer. (That our current POTUS believes he is above the law, and is allowing his adminstration to act in contempt of court in a number of cases, does not obviate the Constitution, it only makes it clear that the executive branch is in rebellion against it). Democracy is not a form of government, but it is a process that, with certain limits, is useful to the workings of said government.

But what we are seeing in Wisconsin is not even democracy. For those legislators who have used "the nuclear option" as they are calling it, are denying a quorum to their respective legislators, and are refusing to do their jobs because in these cases, the vote will likely go against them.

Certainly there are time-honored ways to slow down a bill, but the spectacle of legislators picking up their marbles and going AWOL in order to stop bills that has widespread popular support among the people who are taxed to pay for public services is nothing so much as it is childish behavior, a kind of "my way or the highway" thinking that will neither solve the budget woes of the states nor endear these legislators to their constituents. In Wisconsin, those who actually work to pay for public services are now not only told that public servants who live off of their dime, have a "right" to free health insurance and pensions to which they need make no contribution--privileges that the ordinary taxpayer does not have--but they are burdened with paying for legislative sessions that accomplish nothing toward balancing the budgets of their states, now burdened with debt and close to bankruptcy. Since the states cannot print money and inflate their way to a temporary fix as the federal government can, these states--and many others--are now poised at the brink of insolvency.

To add further insult to injury, the people of Wisconsin are also treated to the spectacle of teachers walking out on their contracts, politicizing their students and lying about the reason that they are not in the classroom in order to receive sick pay for their antics. Imagine how this must go over in the minds of Wisconsin's working poor, who are little more than day laborers without contract--often having no sick pay, no collective bargaining privileges, and who must now scramble to pay someone to watch their children so that they can keep the wolves from the door for a little while longer. For such people, an extra expense such as this can mean the difference between eating and going hungry, or between having a home and taking to the streets in a different way, as homeless families with no place to lay their heads at night.

The fantasy chickens are now coming home to roost in Wisconsin, where a relatively privileged group of public servants believe that others owe them more than a living, that the taxpaying people who have no such privileges also owe them support for the rest of their lives, and that they need not lift a finger to save for that future. Even more fantastic, they further argue that if these privileges are not provided at the level of their wishes, they can walk out on the contracts they have signed with no consequences, and lie on national television by receiving fake doctors' excuses given out at their temper tantrum parties. . .err, rallies. And they say with a straight face that this is all about teaching the children of Wisconsin. There are no adequate words in the English language that can be used in a family blog to describe such Chutzpah.

The Democrat party legislators encourage such fantasy, and partake in it themselves, when they walk away from the responsibilities that they were elected to accomplish, and which in Wisconsin includes a mandate to balance the budget.

Reality bites. There is no free lunch, and the universe does not owe anyone a living or a life. Money does not grow on trees, and when we choose to have public schools, they have to be paid for with money that is taken by force from some workers to support others.

The minority of teachers* who walked out of their classrooms, politicized their students and in general threw a temper tantrum on the streets of Wisconsin have broken their contracts and ought to be fired. The people of the various districts of Wisconsin ought to recall, impeach or otherwise censure their errant and AWOL legislators, and if these remedies are not available to them, at the very least, refuse to pay for this irrresponsibility. And as always, they ought to "remember, remember" on the 6th of November.

The "Democrats" have vividly demonstrated that they do not really respect democracy as the process that makes government work in Wisconsin. Apparently, democracy works for them only when they win the vote, but when they believe they will lose, well, then any action is acceptable. "Nelly, bar the door!"

*DISCLAIMER: I am a licensed teacher, and I have taught in both public and private school classrooms. I do not dislike teachers, and on the whole I believe that most labor diligently at an important, and often thankless task, but one that they took on willingly and for which they are compensated with a salary and benefits. However, I believe that walking out of the classroom without notice is a breach of contract written or implied, and it is a disgrace to the profession. Further, politicizing the classroom and influencing the students politically goes beyond the educational mandate of the teacher, and encroaches upon the rights and responsibilities of the parents. Lying shamelessly on national television by accepting fake doctors' excuses indicates that these "teachers" have no concern for the values or morals of their students. This is all about them, not about the kids that they are using so cynically.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bread, Circuses and the Danger of Reading Science Fiction

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be
like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty
-first century will be like. I don't recommend that you turn to
thewriters of fiction for such information. It's none of their
business. All they're trying to do is tell you what they're
like, and what you are like -- what's going on --
what the

weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight,
look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists
say. But they don't tell you what what you will see and hear.
All they can tell you is what they have seen and
heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent

in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent telling lies.
--Ursula K. LeGuin, Introduction to
The Left Hand of Darkness

I have been engaging in the dangerous and subversive activity of reading science fiction.
As Ursula K. LeGuin tells us above, Science Fiction is never about the future, and it makes no predictions. Science Fiction is, she says--though far more poetically--always about us, now.
This is why when reading a particularly good Sci-Fi novel, one is apt to see truth within the lies so convincingly spun by a master in genre. And this is why one walks away from reading a well-crafted Sci-Fi story or novel with new insight into who we are at this moment in time.

An awareness of this can a little scary--when it's not downright terrifying.

I have been reading the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. The story, for young adults, is the tale of Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who grows up in the country of Panem, which exist(s)(ed) in what used to be North America. In this alternate future/world-- the people of12 districts are enslaved by a city known only as the Capitol, and in order to maintain their slave status of crafty obedience, the Capitol forces them each to send a boy and a girl to compete in the "Hunger Games", a fight to the death on national television. The people are told that these Games--and the need to send their children to almost certain death--is in punishment for a rebellion that took place almost a century before, so that the children are sacrifices--called "Tributes"--and their deaths are punishment for a crime that happened before any of them had ever been born.

There are many realities about us, now, that are reflected in these books: the sacrafice of innocent lives to sustain political power and the cynical use of the real aspirations of individuals for life and freedom to consolidate that power; the blurring of television and reality to the point where the misery of others becomes entertainment for the some and a cruel reminder of servility to others; the acquiescence of many to servitude for the sake, not of great riches and power, but merely for enough to (barely) survive another day; the spark of freedom and rebellion that dwells within the hearts of even the meekest of slaves.

In this story there is also the theme of the disconnect between the privileged Capitol Dwellers--one can certainly not call them free!-- and those born to the Districts, whose lot in life is to toil and to starve; and the work of their hands is taken from them, tribute to a class of political royalty who party and play in the Capitol, while the people of the Districts learn subtle disobedience to their masters in order to survive. Thus, while the people in the Districts understand that they are slaves, that the government owns everything, the support staff of that government do not. Rather, they primp and party and bet on the deaths of children in the Hunger Games each year, and within them there is no thought, only the constant distraction.

Katniss sees this stark contrast after she has won the Hunger Games through an act of rebellion. As she is being dressed and fussed over by her "prep" team for a televised appearance, she thinks:

"It's funny, because even though they are rattling on about the Games, it's all about where they were or what they were doing or how they felt when a specific event occurred. "I was in bed!" "I had just had my eyebrows dyed!" "I swear I nearly fainted!" Everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena." (The Hunger Games, p. 354).

For the people of the Capitol, the Games are a gruesome reality show through which they live a life and death adventure vicariously, and without thought, whereas for the people of the districts it is a grim reality to be endured, like all of the other privations forced upon them because of their status as the children and grandchildren of traitors:

"We don't wallow around the Games this way in District 12. We grit our teeth and watch because we must, and try to get back to business as soon as possible when they're over." (ibid.)

Thus, any child of the Districts of Panem learns that he or she is a slave, whose life and work belong to the government in the Capitol, whereas the people who do the mundane work of the government are adults in name only, acting like thoughtless children, their lives governed by the latest fashion, their heads full of the latest gossip about others. Not the power brokers, these people live silly, second hand lives.

The children who are forced into the arena each year come to understand that they are pawns, pampered and fed for a little while before their almost certain deaths in the arena; they are game pieces for the entertainment of the Capitol citizens, used to distract the privileged from the reality of serfdom. For the children, 'winning' means surviving by killing other innocent children, and their pampered future back in their districts is a life of nightmares and deceit, a damaged life sustained only by finding ways to evade the terrible knowledge that their lives are not their own, ever. Those "winners" who do not have a talent for that evasion live out their lives in madness. As another "winner", Peeta, says in a televised interview to a glittering talk-show host called Ceasar:

" 'Once you're in the arena,the rest of the world becomes very distant,' he continues. 'All of the people, the things you really cared about almost cease to exist. The pink sky and the monsters in the jungle and the tributes who want your blood become your final reality, the only one that ever mattered. As bad as it makes you feel, you know you're going to have to do some killing because in the arena you only get one wish. And it's very costly.'
'It costs your life,' says Ceasar.
'Oh, no. It costs a lot more than your life. To murder innocent people?' says Peeta. 'It costs everything you are.' " (Mockinjay , p. 23).

And so, within such a reality, there are those like the heroine, Katniss, who survive the Games through an irrepressible act of rebellion, a free act that may indeed cost her life, an act that demonstrates to those in power that physical chains cannot entirely supress the memory of freedom. Such an act is not consciously contemplated but arises out of the knowledge of the nature of human freedom that burns, unquenchable in the soul. And once such an action is taken, the person is changed, and one such act leads to another and another, until the reality of freedom bubbles into consciousness thought:

"As I drift off, I try to imagine that world, somewhere in the future, with no Games, no Capitol. A place like the meadow in the song I sang to Rue as she died. Where Peeta's child could be safe." (Catching Fire, p. 354).

Thus, reading a good Sci-Fi novel is dangerous. For as Ursula K. LeGuin says:

"In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we're done with it, we may find -- if it's a good novel -- that we're a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it's very hard to _say_ just what we learned, how we were changed. " (Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness).

Oh, yes, reading Sci-Fi can be a subversive act. Sometimes, if it is good Sci-Fi, we see a truth that the author is telling us about our world, about our selves. And we cannot unsee it . Good Sci-Fi it is not about geeking out on the future or vegging out on technology. Good Sci-Fi is about us. Now. And once we have seen the particular truth about our condition, we cannot unsee it.

Reading science fiction is a dangerous thing. For a good science fiction novel strips away the evasions and the confusions, making stark the reality of our own lives within the text. In our real lives we often go about like Katniss's prep team, wrapped in the mundane and necessary routines that make up daily life. But in the dialogue between the reader and the text, the reader's reality is stripped of the little things, and the meaning of it, illuminated. We are made uncomfortable. Are we really like the citizens of the Capitol, living vicariously through others? Do we see revolution as a Google-made game, created for our entertainment, returning to our own fleshpots, making a pun of the crack-down that we ignore afterwards? Are we more like the people of the Districts, afraid to step out of line for fear of losing what little they have? Is there perhaps, something of Katniss hidden deep within us, something that drives us to act--albeit uncounsciously--in defiance of our own slavery?

No wonder, then, that unfree societies take up the time of the individuals that they enslave with bread and circuses, in order to distract. But even in the real world, bread and circuses are in themselves dangerous to the regime that uses them. For while they lull the "citizens" who are fed bread they did not earn into somnolence, they eventually remind the circus "performers" that their lives are not their own, that they are living for the purposes of others. But in real life, this may take generations. In the story of the Israelites in Egypt, it took 400 years for the Israelites to realize that they had allowed themselves to become enslaved, the lives of their children at stake to prop up the power of Pharaoh.

But in Sci-Fi novels like the Hunger Games Trilogy, the story begins at the place where the reality of the consequences of second-hand lives, and of enslavement is no longer obscured; in the stripped down version of a story about us, now, we the truth of who we are now, and what we are doing now. And what it means. Really.

Oh, reading Sci-Fi can be a dangerous, dangerous act. For by paring down what is, and placing it in another place and time, it can cut through the bread and circuses, and bring the reader into an uncomfortable confrontation with reality.

And that changes a person, until with that internal dialogue, and then another and another, the unconscious understanding of what human freedom entails bubbles dangerously up, irrepressible, and the undercurrent becomes a mighty stream that wakes us up and forces us to confront the reality that all is not as we thought it was. And that understanding leads us into a confrontation with those who wish to keep us asleep and compliant to the thousands of little slaveries that keep us in bondage to their wills.

And so the subversive act of reading Sci-Fi can enventually provoke us to recognize who we are, to break our bonds, and lead us out of our second hand lives into the liberty of who knows where?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Principle of Least Astonishment: Deep Time and Human Time

"People look upon the natural world as if all motions
of the past had set the stage for us and were now frozen
. . . To imagine that turmoil is in the past and
somehow we are now in a more stable time
seems to be a psychological need. Leonardo Seeber
. . .referred to it as the principle of least astonishment.
As we have seen, the time we are in
is just as active as the past. "
--Eldrige Moores, Tectonist;
from "Assembling California",
in Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee

Years ago, before I studied biology in graduate school, I graduated with a degree in Geology with Honors from a stable university on the continental craton. Although I ended up in a different field, my knowledge of geology has made the history of North America come alive for me in my travels across the continent over the course of the past 30 years.

Photo: Unconformity between the Tertiary volcanics of the Datil-Mogollon Volcanic field and the underlying Mesaverde shales and sandstones. The lavas were extruded during Eocene-Oligocene time (beginning approximately 28 mya). This unconformity is exposed in the wall of the Zuni Plateau north of the Zuni Salt Lake, Catron County, NM.

Browsing in the trade books section of the university bookstore one day during my senior undergraduate year, a title caught my eye: In Suspect Terrain, by John McPhee. A reproduction of a painting of the Delaware Water Gap graced the cover. It was a book of essays about geology and the plate tectonics revolution from the perspective of the USGS's conondont specialist at the time, Anita Harris.

The title caught my eye, because Skip Nelson, our structural professor, had been discussing with us the concept of "suspect terranes", pieces of the geology of a region that have a different geology from the adjacent country rock, and the origins of which are suspected to be from elsewhere on earth. In those early days of the theory of Plate Tectonics, little was known about suspect terranes, and it was hard to see how such terranes fit into the theory. Much arm-waving--the speculations of scientists scratching their heads together--became stories,and then hypotheses that had a decent chance of being tested as the both the science and the technology that supported it advanced over the years. But at that time it was still arm-waving and stories.

Of course I had to buy the book. And in rooting around a bit more in the same section, I ended up buying McPhee's first book on the subject, Basin and Range, as well.

I had gone into geology in 1979, after hearing about plate tectonics from my English professor at a small private liberal arts college. A transfer to the state university was required once my passion was ignited and my interests revealed. (That English professor saw that I was less than passionate about the liberal arts, and being somewhat of a curmudgeon, Dr. Pierson had written on one my papers: 'Does college bore you?' I was a little hurt at the time, because the truth hurts when one is trying to make the best of a bad college decision, but I was grateful to him later). The early '80's, as the revolutionary theory of Plate Tectonics was maturing in the field, was an exciting time to be thinking about geology and earth history, and I was captivated.

As I went through the spring semester of my senior year, with field trips to Missouri, Wisconsin and Ohio, I was also reading about the rise of the Basin and Range, the possible docking of micro-terranes on eastern North America, and the problem of overgeneralizing from theory without benefit of working field experience with the actual rocks. Reading McPhee and my texts in historical geology, stratigraphy, sedimentology, and structural geology became an obsession that took precedence over everything else. (I got a "C" in communications--required to "round out the degree"--which did not even upset me as it otherwise might have done).

Later, as a young mother chasing after a very energetic two-year old, I discovered McPhee's third book in the series, Rising from the Plains, about the Grand Old Man of Rocky Mountain Geology, David Love, whom I had met briefly during a field camp a few years earlier. Although my later interests and experiences, as well as the need to support my children by myself, took me in other directions, I maintained my interest in Geology. Recently, I found McPhee's Annals of the Former World, which contains the three original books about Geology,with updates and two new books, one on the geological origins of California, and one on the pre-Cambrian rocks that underly the sediments of the stable craton of North America.

Our move to the Ragamuffin Ranch, where the geology of the Colorado Plateau stands out in the Datil-Mogollon Volcanics, caused me to want to pick up Annals for a second time, and as with every really good book one re-reads, I noticed certain parts anew. In this case, I was thinking about the problem of dogmatism in science, encouraged both by scientists whose funding is politically motivated, and by non-scientists who confuse initial arm-waving with a testable hypothesis, and who take it to be the same as truth handed down from Sinai. "The science is settled," says one of the latter about one such arm-waving idea. But the science is rarely settled so early in the life of an idea.

Geology is by its nature a big-picture science, and one that depends a great deal on inference from what can be observed to how it got to be the way it is. Whereas much of science as practiced within the dominant paradigms of each scientific field today is deductive, the big-picture thinking about Geology is necessarily inductive. (Despite the turf wars about these two methods of discovery, both deductive and inductive thinking are necessary for a complete science). Further, Geology--by the nature of its subject matter--is primarily about TIME. Lots and lots of time. Or as geologists say it, "Deep Time". Time that is orders of magnitude greater than the span of a human life, or even the span of numerous human generations. The kind of time that geologists tend to discuss makes a million years appear as the blink of an eye, and the entire time of human existance on the earth is scarcely longer than that.

The disconnect between Deep Time and Human Time leads to some interesting human misconceptions about our power and place upon the planet. On the one hand, human beings are the first species upon the earth that have become self-referencing observers of the evolution of life on the planet. We are capable of thinking about and questioning the way life came to be here, and our place in that parade of "endless forms most beautiful". We can think about the meaning of our existence and we know the finite nature of our lives. All of this makes us important to ourselves, and perhaps, as an aspect of the universe that observes itself, we are important in the grand scheme of things.

But this disconnect between Deep Time and Human Time also leads to the idea that we are the culminating act of evolution: that our existence was the necessary end of a long chain of programmed events. It is rather like the paint on the Eiffel Tower believing that the tower was built for its own sake, as Mark Twain once remarked. Enter Seeber's Principle of Least Astonishment, which is the idea that all of what we see around us is the culmination, that now that human beings walk the earth, change should stop because evolution is finished. The continents are in their final place, the species that exist now shall exist forever, the climate that we have been born into shall not change. So we have written, and so shall it be done.

Evolution has no teleological direction. It is the response of organisms adapting to and failing to adapt to changing environments over time. This leads to changes in the gene frequencies within species, and that is evolution. If we were able to rewind and replay the course of the evolution of life upon the earth, there is no guarantee that the results would be the same as we now see; there are too variables along the way. Species that have the genetic wherewithal to meet and survive environmental change evolve. Those that do not become extinct.

And so it becomes somewhat amusing to watch as those who believe that they understand evolution, those that make fun of the Creationists and call them "neanderthals", are also those that have turned science into a political agenda and have begun an effort to "Stop Global Climate Change" by legislation. They have about as much chance of success as they do to "Re-Unite Gondwanaland!" (Both quotes can be found on bumperstickers.The first appears to be serious, and the second is geological tongue-in-cheek).

Even geologists get pulled up short by the disconnect between Deep Time and Human Time. And even though they predict that when the two kinds of time intersect, as they did during the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and the Tsunami of 2004, turmoil becomes inevitable, we still tend to think that the earth should behave itself and stay still beneath our feet. We tend to want the species that existed when we were born to be there when we are old, and glaciers should neither retreat nor advance so long as human beings live upon the earth. We think of disasters as a nasty interruption of "normal" rather than a "normal" feature of a dynamic planet.

Never mind that we owe our big brains to the last ice age. Never mind that climate has been changing upon the earth since before the oldest rocks we can find on the continents existed. And never mind that life on the planet has had an effect on its environment since the oxygen revolution.

From the perspective of Human Time, an earthquake, a tsunami, a volcanic eruption, are all potential disasters. And it makes sense to think of them as such. Human beings are meaning-making individuals, and we view events from the perspective of their meaning to us.
And that is necessary and--dare I say it?--normal to our evolutionary niche. And if we can predict and protect ourselves from disaster, this is a good thing for us. But when put into the perspective of Deep Time, such disasters, even ones on a extinction-level scale, are more grist for the mill of evolution--the change over time of life on earth.

The Principle of Least Astonishment may indeed by a psychological necessity for going about the daily business of living. And yet now and then, the view from the perspective of Deep Time creates for us the Most Astonishment, it creates wonder at the precious nature of our existence, birthed on the edge of the creative maelstrom and able to look into it and see the circumstances of our genesis. Wonderful life, indeed!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: From the Very Edge of the Storm


It has been so long since I posted a "Nearly Wordless Wednesday" post on a regular basis that I would have to research my archives to figure out when I was last in the habit. I have been neglecting the fun side and the daily life part of my blog in the past while, but now with a new year and so many changes, it is as good a time as any to revive these homely and fun practices. No better time, really, than when one is at the western edge of an historic blizzard!

Winter Storm Warnings appeared on Sunday here, and were not in effect for Apache County, AZ just 12 miles to the west. The storm formed here, where all the weather maps showed the front forming and the Jet stream was just east of us. The first precipitation started Monday afternoon, in the form of sleet that turned to snow.

It snowed in bands interspersed with sunshine all day Tuesday. Here at the edge, we were getting blowback from the rotation of the storm cell. On Tuesday evening, the dogs and I enjoyed a spirited ball game, the Canine Super Bowl, in weather that was reminiscent of Soldier Field.

It snowed all night Tuesday to Wednesday morning, and the Cross Quarter dawned gray and cloudy, but soon turned to sunshine as the cold front finally rotated back to us. A snow day for the CIT meant that we fed the cattle in the light. Domestic cattle do not scrape off the snow to get at the grass. They must be fed when the snow is on!

The snow in this picture is deeper than it looks--about six inches fell on Ragamuffin ranch.

This snowy hillside is the view from my new office window in the house at Ragamuffin Ranch. It was taken this afternoon, when the storm had passed and the cold had come on.

Although it is quite cold outside, the sun coming through the picture window feels warm on my face.

A combination of fog created by the sublimation of the snow by the intense sunlight and windblown surface snow obscure the side vents of the Red Hill caldera to the northeast, making a kind of foggy ground blizzard in the plains north of our valley. Beautiful. And deadly cold.

I don't know if old Punxatawney Phil saw his shadow or not, but I do hope that we get an early spring this year! Last year it was quite late, and I am still shell shocked from the two-storms per week regimine that we endured last year. I like snow. And we need it. But the bitter cold, I can do without.