Archive for March, 2012

Separating things into categories so that proper labels can be applied may be the mark of a subtle and careful thinker, but at the same time, it’s unclear to me what value such distinctions may actually grant. Yet it was with some chagrin that I witnessed in the comments at a blog I follow someone yet again trotting out a familiar canard asserting that because mankind (or humanity) is both product and part of nature, everything we do on the planet is no less “natural” than that of, say, an ant colony, troop of monkeys, or other animal social group. Under such as view, the entirety of activity on Earth is a “natural” outgrowth of processes already underway for eons. I haven’t researched what others have to say about the issue, which I’m certain has been addressed before, but at the risk of reinforcing valueless categories, I would suggest that to collapse everything into one category — natural — is to make a mistake of metonymy, where nothing can ever be “unnatural.”

In a relatively mild example, we distinguish between natural and artificial light readily and uncontroversially. There are numerous light-emitting organisms, but to my knowledge, most possess bioluminescence to attract prey and for rudimentary communication rather than for illumination the way mankind deploys artificial light through synthetic means. Composite pictures of the Earth at night (from space) depict “unnatural” light in the respect that it arises not out of biology but from human artifice, which is several steps removed from the machinations of Nature (capital N). Similarly, numerous other features visible from space result from human interventions and impacts, such as the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, soil erosion off the coast of Madagascar, or more humorously, the Univ. of Michigan football stadium. (That the Great Wall of China is visible from space is only an urban legend.) There are also many examples of synthetic plants (and some animals) created through scientific (read: man-made) intervention, not out of blind, evolutionary processes.

A worthwhile debate might ensue if the argument were simply about the degree of impact a species has on its environment. A keystone species is recognized for being an architect or engineer of its own environment, typically through its patterns of consumption and predation or its passive contributions to the persistence and disappearance of others species in an ecosystem. Examples include sea urchins, mussels, weevils, sharks, prairie dogs, mule deer, beavers, grizzly bears, and elephants. Humans are notably absent from the Wikipedia entry on keystone species, but there can be little doubt that from among the panoply of known species, the degree of our impact on the ecosystem as top predator and worst polluter/destroyer is well beyond that of any other. Also, to say that abandoned radioactive zones around Chernobyl and now Fukushima are natural would be an unnecessary stretch. Curiously, wildlife around Chernobyl is teeming with the top predator gone. The significance of plants, insects, and microorganisms lie beyond my expertise, but I find their omission from the Wikipedia entry similarly problematical. For instance, marine algae and plankton (algae blooms also being visible from space) are both the basis of the food chain and produce 70 to 80% of atmospheric oxygen.

Where the waters get really murky, however, is consideration of human behaviors and cultures. The debate is whether they arise out of nature (human nature or more generally Nature) or are purely abstract — products of human ideation. And it is here that useful categorical distinctions may break down. We are both shapers of and shaped by our environment. Teasing out distinctions between purely mental phenomena (e.g., fiat money and artistic creation) and behaviors observable throughout the animal kingdom (e.g., predation and survival instinct) doesn’t exempt humans from nature but also doesn’t account for the complexity of human institutions as something fundamentally apart from the wildness of nature as we typically understand it.

I followed a link provided on someone’s blog recently and ended up lost down the rabbit hole watching a series of TED talks. Two are embedded below, each about 19 min. in duration, which isn’t especially long. The experience reminded me how the hyperlinked nature of the WorldWideWeb invites users to just keep clicking and keep linking and keep going, not so unlike an afternoon or evening spent watching TV without ever seeing anything worthwhile. Television programming is mostly a wasteland. I stopped watching more than a decade ago and don’t miss it at all. When I do come into contact with it now — not infrequently since TV is everywhere, like wallpaper — it looks positively insane to me. However, that judgment simply won’t make any logical sense to someone who hasn’t also established a period away from the boob tube and cleansed the mind of noise. Content found online is often just as inane as TV, though better quality stuff is not hard to find, either.

TED talks clearly aren’t noise, but after watching even a few, it surprises me how similar they have become. Science and technology used to be the primary focus, but subjects have strayed farther afield now that the organization has been around for a while. Speakers are uniformly excellent in front of audiences and speak extemporaneously, which is a superior way to present information if one can avoid losing one’s train of thought or forgetting what point comes next in sequence. (In the eight speeches I’ve given over the past decade or so, only my first was spoken from notes; each subsequent speech was read from a script I wrote so specific turns of phrase I wanted wouldn’t be lost.) TED talkers also pepper their presentations with jokes and asides, to which audiences respond more vociferously than to content. But what strikes me most is that the basic structure of TED talks is reporting on a discovery/new idea/endeavor that offers an opportunity for wholesale reevaluation of how one thinks the world (read: human culture) works and offers this newly ground lens for audiences to adopt, who may laugh through the jokes and asides and give a standing O at the conclusion but are nonetheless wholly unprepared after a mere 19 min. to embrace new paradigms.

Audiences appreciate the reportage, no doubt, and there seems to be no failure of innovative lenses through which to filter perceptions and activities. But there is something too cute to me about a stream of profound realizations from TED talkers that suggest a trend toward perfecting things if only we adjust our filters. My experience is that we have enough trouble just making modest, incremental improvements because adjustments turn into gaming for gain and profit once an idea reaches critical mass. Still, below the fold are two of the TED talks that captured my imagination, albeit briefly. (more…)

Mayan Calendar Miscount

Posted: March 15, 2012 in Debate, Education, History

This image has been making the rounds:

I admit to being initially taken in by the apparent discrepancy in counting methodologies, but as with so many things, I lack the expertise to fully evaluate the accuracy of the claims. It was no surprise that someone else did, however, as can be appreciated with this YouTube video:

Of course, I never believed in the first place that the Mayan prophesy meant the end of the world. Rather, it was merely the equivalent of the odometer on the car turning over 100,000 back when there was no display for the hundred thousands place, meaning it would reset to 00,000.0.

Vanished Airlines

Posted: March 15, 2012 in Economics, History, Technophilia

My father, who enjoyed a long career at Trans World Airlines (TWA) and retired before it merged into American Airlines, sent me an e-mail called Vanished Airlines that features a blurb on 35 distinct American airline companies that were either lost to bankruptcy or merged out of existence with another airline. The e-mail includes a pic of a plane from each fleet. (I don’t want to reblog the entire thing because it’s not my original content, but the text can be found here and a PDF with text and pics is found here.) As an airline brat, I flew with some frequency, and from early on, I was enamored of the distinctive paint jobs and tail designs each airline used to designate its planes. I flew in and out of TWA’s hub in St. Louis a lot and felt some (unjustified) pride that my father’s airline had more planes than any other at the gates and on the tarmac.

Perusing the list of vanished airlines, it strikes me that only the strong survived merger mania and a wave of bankruptcies that swept away so many others from 1975 to 1991 when Eastern, Pan Am, and Midway all finally succumbed. The economics and logistics of operating an airline are obviously complex, and routes, gate leases, and fleets are typically absorbed by another airline rather than being abandoned outright like so many hulking buildings and boats.

Now older and perhaps wiser, my infatuation with airlines is long since over, especially considering air travel has worse environmental impacts than other means of conveyance. Similarly, nostalgia expressed in comments at the first website linked above demonstrates that people liked the experience of flying far better with some of these vanished airlines, before deregulation pushed fares low enough for nearly everyone to afford and passengers became just so much cargo to air service operators. (Not to mention passengers themselves behaving like boors and buffoons or for that matter no longer fitting within a normal adult seat.)

I’ve blogged numerous times about technophilia, notably big projects such as skyscrapers, and the aftereffect of both waste and habitat destruction. No need to repeat myself here. Although it is bad character to celebrate the demise of any endeavor, I can’t deny that I look forward to a time soon when air travel again becomes an exceptional experience, undertaken at some prohibitive cost and with an honest appraisal of its very real effects.

Ride Em Cowboy!

Posted: March 10, 2012 in Culture, Idle Nonsense

I listened to The Soldier’s Tale (French: L’Histoire du Soldat) by Igor Stravinsky recently and mused lightly over the narration where the Soldier and the Devil board a train that steams perilously out of control. It reminded me of a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called The Celestial Railroad with a similar episode: a runaway locomotive. Both are allegorical morality tales told through use of heavy and obvious metaphor, dating from the Early Modern Period when the Mechanical Age was getting into full swing. Without getting bogged down in their differences, the locomotive as a transporter of large masses of people is a curious commonality, which on reflection may be an expression of a very human desire to harness power that insightful artists warn may ironically turns on us and take us on a ride.

The desire to ride something starts early in childhood: playing horsie. It’s reinforced over and over with wagons, shopping carts, miniature trains at the zoo, carousels and Ferris wheels, water slides, and in late adolescence, really aggressive amusement park thrill rides. Cars become thrill rides for new drivers, who invariably push limits to test and develop their skills. Horsemanship and rodeos find us engaging with animals rather than machines, but the underlying symbolism of taming animal wildness or harnessing machine power are present in all these examples. Another “ride” possessed of latent power is human sexuality, and many of us have found our behaviors — even those heavily restrained — turned against us.

Connecting all these instances into a cohesive thesis is probably beyond my patience or expertise, but I sense there is something there, lurking beneath the surface. In the world we now have, most of us city dwellers have little or no experience riding animals but lots of ridership on/in machines, especially cars and airplanes. The symbolic act of taking a ride extends much further, though, e.g., casino gambling, the stock market, the course of personal relationships, accelerating technological and demographic change, and the tumults of history. Some of us with nothing left to lose, no view of an improved future, or an abiding nihilism might actually be inclined to insist, “Let’s go! Ride that bitch!” It’s not just the mechanical bull in a Western-themed bar for fun and games.

Took a long time to gather up ten awarded answers this round. I have difficulty finding reasonable questions to address so am lucky if I can locate 3–4 questions in any given day. Too often, the award goes to an answer full of confirmation bias. Ah well, that’s how it goes. It is after all a cross-section of American: our friends and neighbors.

  • Would you wear diapers for a trunk full of gold? link
  • What is Euro Zone crisis? link
  • Contractors vs. Intellectuals link
  • What is a wigger? link
  • What does “hard living” refer to? link
  • Are there any nuclear reactors in Florida, and if so[,] where? link
  • What country issued a 100 trillion dollar bill? link
  • To name a few or To name but a few? link
  • What scale has a raised 4th and a lowered 7th? link
  • What is the Alexander Technique? link

As usual, here are my previous sets of awarded answers: 01, 02, 03, and 04. My stats thus far are Questions Asked: 22; Answers Posted: 466; Awarded Answers: 107; and Award to Answer %: 23.0.

Update: Google disabled my Adsense account, so the financial incentive for participation, tiny as it was, just disappeared. So like others before me who have been cut off for a variety of reasons, I’ll just quietly go away, abandoning my profile there, since nothing on the Internet ever really disappears. So long, and thanks for all the fish.