.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Conquest of a Sister Planet

What's the best way in which to live? In a teeming urban environment, in apartments pancaked in high towers, as shown most vividly and horribly by Shanghai though also in many other cities? But Thomas Jefferson had a vision in which he saw the ideal society as consisting instead of people living on small farmsteads. This it is a good idea, though, as with so much else concerning him, he was badly inconsistent, when one notes that all his life he lived on huge plots of land with all the labor supplied by you-know-who -- acreage that the so-called "settlers" from Europe were still far from finished wrestling by force, guile, and any other questionable means at their disposal, from the tribes who had already inhabited those territories for so many thousands of years and who, as things were to turn out, had also taken infinitely better care of those properties than the colonists and their successors were to do. The Chippewa and the other tribes managed this simply by letting that be the job purely of Mother Nature.

This snow-festooned winter I have been reading science fiction books that had been amassed years ago by me and my son, and I may have finished as many as eight or nine of the novels and short stories. And I noticed a definite leitmotif that ran through many of them -- the desire to relieve humankind's population explosions and also to spread the good word, mainly civilization rather than religion, by colonizing places beyond Earth and even beyond the Solar System and on to the far reaches of the Universe, if the huge distances could somehow be managed.

In my earliest reading and writing days I read a lot of science fiction, but I wrote very little in that genre, mostly a novella that I eventually abandoned, maybe because of having felt that it too closely resembled Brian Aldiss's 1958 classic, "Starship." Actually I had been thinking much more about the drugs of the 1960's, but is it possible to write anything , in science fiction or in any other genre that can't be seen as being modeled on something that has already been written? Already in Biblical times, the author of Ecclesiastes was complaining that "Of the writing of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

But now, in all the eager talk, mainly by those in the space business, or racket, about the prospects of going not merely back to the Moon but even onward to Mars, a scenario for a novel has kept drifting through my mind lately, though this post is the first thing that I have written down that could serve as the beginning of notes about my project. And even this idea has been anticipated, to a certain extent, by Ursula LeGuin, an author that I can't remember ever having read, till just last week, when I finally tackled her "The Dispossessed," which is turning out to be a quite interesting book.

In this novel, which is thickly textured with ideas more than with events, she imagines two planets of nearly the same size and in clear sight of each other, roughly like the Earth and the Moon, though the inhabitants of both worlds dismiss the other planet as being only their Moon. Though it doesn't seem to hve been terraformed, one of them is far less fortunately endowed than is the other, geographically speaking, being covered only by water and a desert, with only one species of tree and absolutely nothing in the way of fauna but fish, worms, and 20 million people. And those people have been there for only a few generations, being a colony of idealists who fled there from the other planet, which is much more alive, fruitful, and beautiful, like Earth.

LeGuin's emphasis is on contrasting the idealism of that colony on that nearly barren planet -- for instance money and profit are big no-nos --with the world that its inhabitants have so happily left behind, a dream that has been indulged in by many groups in Earth's history but never this successfully, because in "The Dispossessed" the idealists are almost completely shielded from the Old World's pernicious influence by space and the inhospitality of their new home's geography.

My idea, however, has nothing to do with an ideal colony or a barren world. Instead my scheme transports Mars back to its state millions of years ago, before its atmosphere was all cooked away and its waters were reduced to ice sunk into the soil. Mars in my story is very much like the Earth is today, including hosting an advanced civilization. But the question is, how advanced? in my story that is not known, and in fact the presence of possibly other human-like beings living there has only been detected for sure in recent years.

Mainly, then, I would be looking at Mars from the viewpoint of modern geopolitics, i.e. stupidity and greed, and meanwhile I would be keeping in mind those hateful scenes that one sees in films about the European cxplorers, especially the ones about Columbus, showing him and his cohorts striding ashore from their ships and taking no account of the possibility that those lands have already been discovered and claimed, and instead they immediately thrust a flag deep into the sands and declare everything in sight and way beyond to be henceforth and forever the property of their kind, their king, and their god.

In my novel today's national powers would hungrily stare through their telescopes at the ever-inviting blue, green, and gray lands that would be cover ing Mars, and I would try to conceive of all the maneuvering that would go on as they jostled each other, at times violently, while trying to map and claim ahead of time all that they can see and at the same time rushing to perfect spaceships that would enable their militaries to get there as quick as possible to make good their desires and what they see as their inalienable needs and rights.

And in the meantime only a few weirdos would come up with the question of whether Mars isn't already filled with human-like creatures who at the very same time are looking at Earth with exactly the same kind of desires and ambitions of conquest and rapacious exploitation in mind.

Surely a concept as obvious and simple as this has already been made into maybe more than one novel years ago. Still, if somehow -- and it is a very big somehow -- I could find it in me to set aside other things to dash this off this manuscript in mere weeks, which I could do if moved enough, it would hurt absolutely nothing, any more than have all the novels that I have already finished, just as there's no danger of anybody stealing this idea of mine from this weblog of mine. I am paradoxically safe, because this weblog, like all those other novels, has no readers, and there's no awareness except my own that those meritorious works even exist.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Anniversary of an Extra-Significant Occasion

I may forget many things, but I don't think I've ever omitted noting the date that every winter pops up at this juncture in February. Exactly 58 years ago today I, along with several other guys my age and all of a similar hue, reported to Union Station in D.C., where an Air Force recruiting sergeant met us, handed me for some reason (Why? Did I somehow look more responsible than the other guys?) a big envelope containing a sheaf of papers to be taken to our destination, and he wished us well. And we boarded a train in a cold, gray, but scenic day and took a leisurely, all-day ride up to Lake Geneva, in the Finger Lakes district of western New York, to begin our four year enlistments by undergoing basic training there. The Navy built that base on the lake, but since then had handed it over to the Air Force.

Getting off the train just at dark that evening, we were met by a bunch of snarling rascals who seemed to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed and who wore droopy-looking coveralls that had formerly been olive drab but had been bleached to a green so pale that it was almost white, along with fatigue caps of the same ghostly shade, pulled far down over their eyes and stiffened around the top to five or six peaks with wire fashioned from coat hangers, and they could hardly wait to start lining us up, together with a bunch of other new recruits of America's more dominant hue, that they had also rounded up off some trains, and they ordered us to start picking up our feet and putting them down.

This frigid reception probably fazed the other new troops but not me and most likely not the other guys from D.C. either, because I had already had military training in the high school cadets and also in ROTC in college, and so to me it was all just a part of another big game that had to be played.

In any case, thus our military careers began in earnest, and, game or not, it's hard to think of an occasion that was more significant for me than that turned out to be, even if, at only age 20, I had already seen what I believe to have been an unusual number of significant occasions.

But that year, 1952, was in the midst of a time of big transitions not only for me but also for the nation and the world. The Second World War, a far more sweeping and meaningful event than the Iraq War. Vietnam, or any other conflicts that younger people nevertheless very mistakenly see as having been somehow comparable with it, had only been over for seven years, and it hadn't even been that long since Harry S. Truman, a Democrat naturally, had desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces or since the Air Force had detached itself from the Army and become a full-fledged military arm in itself, and the Korean War had been raging for a year or two, and I guess also the so-called "Cold War."

That 15th of February started maybe the biggest adventure of my life, and the events and the topography of the subsequent four years still occupy an unduly large part of the landscape of my mind. But at the time hardly ever is a person aware of such things. I know I wasn't. I was too busy taking in the complete strangeness of it all, out on that cold rail siding in the dark.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Once More to the Snow

Last night we got just short of an inch of snow, and a little is still drifting down, now after daybreak. It is the 4th snowfall this month, and February still has more than two weeks to run. And this after I had been talking about how hopeful I was that the cold and the other winter stuff was coming to an end, now that January was over, because I have always looked on Feb as being a much milder month, with lots of warm periods. After all, I have seen -- once -- a hive of honeybees swarm in that month.

Not so this time! Because in this Feb we have already had two major snowstorms with a smaller one sandwiched between, to add to the two big ones that we had already in Jan and Dec.

Of course, I like snow, don't I? I'm excited every time it arrives. And actually, because neither of us has had anywhere to go, except to replenish our food supplies, and with no power outages, we haven't suffered at all.

But it does mean that I have spent an inordinate amount of time, Sisyphus-like, shoveling out our long, long driveway, which extends itself by another few yards reach time, because hardly do I get the two tracks clear when yet another storm arrives and fills them in again, and this dusting last night comes when I was counting on finally finishing my latest clearing today. And in two more days another snow, a light one (as predicted so far, though the forecasts tend to call for heavier as the time approaches) is due.

But things are worse in many other places on the East Coast, with record snow depths, including in my hometown, D.C.

I wished for snow, and it came ...generously.

Now I, and many others, are just as hopefully wishing for Spring.

How will that be? Can it bring more of something or another than I would ordinarily want?

It's something to look forward to. That's the weather for you.

Online News Services

Lately I have taken to getting my news first from the BBC News Service and only later and not nearly as enthusiastically from the former main source, Google News. This is because I came to see BBC as being much better for a person's mental health, or at least mine.

This is partly because the British are known for harboring large numbers of eccentrics, and in that kind of setting I would fit in comfortably, being a known eccentric myself, though, maybe paradoxically, I have seldom wanted to go to the U.K. for any kind of a visit, much less to live there. Among other difficulties that I would expect to face would be a big language problem. That is, if modern English movies -- and don't even mention the Scottish ones -- are any indication. I miss at least half the lines in those films all the time, and the actors rarely seem to be interested in conveying the idea that clearly spoken standard English is still used in those Isles ...if it ever was.

Another reason that BBC News is better than Google News is because it gives a much wider view of world happenings, along with the touches of the bizarre and the whimsical liberally sprinkled over everything. Google News, on the other hand, is bad for the spirit because its system for choosing news items seems committed to the idea that only what is happening in the U.S. is important. But even worse, there's a clear tendency in Google News to cast the pre-Fascist elements in American life, especially in politics, in the best and most hopeful light and the Democrats and especially President Obama in the worst.. How else to explain why the toxic rants of the supposedly former VP, D. Cheney, are regularly presented as if he was still calling the shots from the vantage point of the White House where he and his figurehead buddy held a badly befuddled American public hostage for eight long and painful years.

Just yesterday Google News carried an item declaring a face-off between Cheney and J. Biden, because they were appearing, separately, on competing news discussion shows on the same day, and the implication was that they had exactly the same status, though Cheney was, thankfully though who knows for how long (the GWBush vigil wasn't the first time that he had occupied a big chair in the U.S. Government), deposed from that office well over a year ago, while Biden is currently holding that position as the American Veep and doing it with more integrity and good will than Cheney was ever capable of summoning.

But I shouldn't object to this too much, should I? Because it just shows all over again and for the umpteenth time that the country is permanently segmented into two parts -- the decent, charitable, and well-mannered one that recently managed to allow B. Obama and J. Biden to take a turn in the Oval Office, and the pugnacious, uncharitable, and ugly part whose heroes are still badly distorted beings striped like the Cheney bird.

Friday, February 12, 2010

It's Settled -- the Elephant Gait

If you have ever had anxieties about finding yourself being chased by an angry elephant -- outside of the American political kind -- it's been decided. European scientists dropped in at an elephant conservation center that my wife visited during her trip to Thailand a few years ago, and the scientists ran some of the elephants (with their mahouts aboard) around a little circular track outfitted with force plates, high speed cameras, and all the other technological works, and they saw that elephants moving at speed can walk and run at the same time! They can do this because, unlike humans, they are still using all four legs, and their two front ones run while the back ones walk.

The scientists had all sorts of deep explanations for this, but from observing the video it seemed to me that the front legs look slightly crooked as if they're always ready to kneel and take another rest but are forced to take quicker and choppier steps because they're being pushed along by the straighter rear legs that are taking longer and, over the long run, not quite as many strides.

This got me to thinking about the bizarre sport of speed-walking, where the difference between walking and running gets much more subjective, and actually it looks to me as if the competitors are running much more than they are walking, and I wonder if that drastic overworking of their hipbones doesn't bring on bad trouble in the "walkers'" later years.

The elephants' walk-run strategy also brought to my attention the fact that it's been a good many years since I've run anywhere, and right now I suppose that those cruel people. the younger majority in the world, would say that I don't even walk anymore and instead I just shuffle along, "that old man's walk," as my wife sneered long ago, speaking about a couple of other male elderly. But when you have, as I have, an extreme disinterest in falling and breaking something, not to mention the increasing difficulty involved in getting up again, and when you have to be especially careful where I live and spend my days wandering around, with rocks, exposed roots, mole tunnels, various kinds of holes in the ground, and these days ice and snow wherever you go, and not to mention the edges of the carpets in the house, taking slow, short steps always under one's close attention is not a failing but an absolute survival strategy.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Tea Party -- the Cash Cow

By this time, hopefully, the Tea Party convention in Nashville, Tenn has wound up, and the partiers have started wending their weary ways back to whence they came, and the media, as always, will turn to other gruesome events as sources of "news," while the Harridan from Alaska, S. Palin, gleefully counts her take. This BBC article says that the Tea Partiers paid her a cool $300,000 to come and spout off to the conventioneers exactly what they wanted to hear, mostly one shot after another at B. Obama and his administration.

In any reference to the Tea Party movement, you always hear the word "grassroots," and we are told that it rose a year or two ago out of dismay at all the money that was being spent by the Democrats and even by the Republicans before them. But paying somebody 300 K to speak, when you would've thought she would have been glad to perform for free just to get the attention doesn't sound at all grassroots or frugal to me. Nor does the $550 that the attendees paid to get in the door, and some people in the movement are critical of the event because of Palin's fee. But then, new though it is, the Tea Party seems to have a built-in and permanent structure of division, as those Partygoers with a purer sense of the idea of what "grassroots" means struggle with those who would use the movement as an easy way to milk a cow that with just a few tugs at the malevolent nipples readily produces copious cash.

Coming from the culture that produced me, this event interested me mainly from the point of view of its ethnic make-up, because the way I've seen things, it has always been obvious that the great majority of the country's problems stem from a cold and deceptive reluctance to let go of various supposed ethn ic superiorities that has been part and parcel of its makeup from long before even the nation's founding, despite the large numbers of decent people that also reside here. Thus the Tea Party movement is easily what the people who so widely supported the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's would be doing if they were around now, and with the same targets in mind, so that it is no accident that they are particularly so down on the current President, given his origins. The BBC article glided over this aspect, by merely saying the attendance was overwhelmingly "white." But surely there was a sprinkling of Rainbow Judas Goats present and accounted for. There are always are a few of those on the scene, opportunists eager to get their tugs on the lugs, which they are so happily permitted by the majority Nasties.

This ethnic factor is cunningly being concealed by the U.S. media, and you have to go to sources like the Orcinus website to get an idea of the direction the Tea Partiers are really trying to take, provided that they can manage to do it under cover, like the hooded night riders of old. That weblog keeps a close and steady eye on racial misdoings in America when they aren't talking about the giant creatures that cavort in the seas, and it is showing a video and many quotes from one of the initial speakers at the convention, Tom Tancredo, a certified Nasty and a former Congressman from Colorado. He wowed the Tea crowd by suggesting that people be given literacy tests on their knowledge of civics before being allowed to vote, saying that it was this lack of being so informed that got B. Obama into office. Thus Tancredo went straight back to one of the principal practices that were so widely used all through the South during the Jim Crow days to keep Rainbows from exercising the power of the ballot.

But the descendants of the slaves are not the only ultimate but slyly unspoken-of targets of the Tea Partiers -- so far. Orcinus also says that believers like Tancredo would like nothing better than to bring anti-immigation to the forefront as well, and even making it the prime focus of the movement.

I am sure Tancredo is far from alone in wishing for this, but I would think that the Tea people would have to get ahold of some extra-special smoke and mirrors to do that, because wouldn't that automatically draw the considerable enmity of the Latinos, now the largest minority in the U.S. and steadily growing in numbers?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Seriousness Sets In: More Heavy Snow Coming!

Ok, folks, as an acquaintance of long ago loved to say, it's time for seriousness to set in.

In the lee of the sheltering Blue Ridge Mountains not far away, quite a few winters have gone by in the 34 years since we bought this property and started hanging out here when we were lucky to get even one snowstorm that could be called respectable. Yet this winter we've already had the monster of December 18, followed by a second nearly as major on January 30 or thereabouts, and then two days ago we had a third storm that added a couple of more inches of snow and "ice pellets" to what already still lay thickly and frozen on the ground. But now Weather Underground is going out of its way to forecast a fourth and the biggest one yet, for tomorrow and the next day, and I have absolutely no doubt that they will be right.

Still, lately I have been thinking strongly about looking around for another online weather service that is just as reliable. The reason? Underground keeps running all these right wing political ads. First it's been one urging its readers to stop health care reform or what the rightwingers derisively call "Obamacare,." and to pull the eye to this ad they show him wearing a surgeon's cap, which I guess is intended to make him look silly but really just makes them look silly, and now they keep running another thing that is disguised as a poll but is really an ad for Sarah Palin, the woman from Alaska who in the last two years has given the word "nonsense" new meaning..

I don't think that a public weather service like Underground should be running political ads of that or any other kind, and I should stir myself to write them an email or something telling them so.

Meanwhile you can tell that the Underground feels strongly about this next storm because usually when snow is coming, they just say "snow." But this time they're using the term "heavy snow," and not just once but several times.

I have a feeling that the effects of this one are going to be intensified by all the snow that is already lying not only on the ground but also on the rooftops. By the time of the January storm the white stuff of the December storm had finally all melted away, though it had taken more than a month. because of the constant sub-freezing mornings. But right now there are still five or six inches of the snowpack left wherever you look, from the January fall, at least here in our little frost pocket. Our house roof still has a thick layer, and so does the garden shed, and the only building that has completely shed the snow is the workshop, because it is so much in the sun and its roof is steeply pitched.

Of course this means that my second session of clearing our long driveway by hand with shovel though mostly with a concrete hoe (meaning it is made for concrete work) will again be obliterated, and I'll have to go through the whole exercise all over again.

Nevertheless I still look forward to this latest storm with the usual great excitement.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Weather Update

The big news for us these days, around here, is the weather, specifically the numbing cold and the storms. Currently we are clamped in the grip of the gorgeous but deep snow cover from the fall of two days ago. In that grip none of our three vehicles can move, and I am looking at most likely again having to clear our long, uphill driveway with shovel and hoe, unless some good neighborhood soul comes along in a tractor with a blade attached to its front..

Yesterday the airport at Lynchburg, about 30 miles south of here, read 2 degrees below zero F. You can get some idea of how cold it's been around here when I tell you that that broke the airport's old record of 5 above for January 31. That's a drop of seven whole degrees! Almost always the temp records are broken only in increments of 1 or 2 degrees.

I read an even 0 degrees below F here, but to my great surprise and gratification, the water in my workshop was still running. After I finally put some insulation, last year, around the pipe running up out of the ground under the workshop, I had thought my system's freeze-up point was about 7 degrees.

But alas, this morning when the temperature only got down to 8 or 9 above, the water in the workshop had stopped running. I had forgotten to leave it at a slow drip overnight, though the night before, in the zero degrees, I hadn't left it dripping then either. I am trying to figure that one out. Must be a cumulative effect of consecutive low temps.

Today the temp hopefully will rise even higher into the 40's than it did yesterday, and then maybe I'll be able to open a good deal of our driveway to our vehicles.. That's the only thing that bothers me about all this weather, though my wife claims that she has nowhere to go for several more days at least, and I seldom drive anywhere at all. But l very much like having the option. Where is a man, without his options?

Another interesting aspect of all this is the snow sliding off the slick metal roofs on several of our buildings. It's not a problem on my house, because the roofs there all have the very low pitch of 3, which I made that way so that I could safely walk on them. But the ones on the garden shed and especially on the workshop all have the steep pitches of regular gable roofs, and deep snow accumulations like this have a way of suddenly breaking loose as things warm up and sliding off the slickly painted metal in big clumps, and I wonder how much damage it could do to my head, shoulders, or neck, should I happen to be under it at just the wrong time.

Oh, well. That kind of thing is just one of the numerous hazards that go with country living, to compensate for the lack of people, who in suburbs and cities always present other kinds of dangers that are much more uncomfortable to contemplate..