Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Yummy

Discovered by being in a hurry:
A scoop of baked butternut squash, drizzled with eggnog, tastes like pumpkin pie.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve

The street bright with
glow after glowing
string of lights
and warm windows with
glittering trees within.

High above
almost beyond notice
the thin clouds flicker
into and out of view
against a crescent moon.

The church beckoning
away up there
past the school
and around the corner
out of the wind

as we hurry
anxious with plans
eager with hopes
and just a little later
than we wanted to be

but it feels good to hurry
pressing onward
until our path joins others' paths
and the voices ring out
and we are gathered there

in the glow of candles
and sparkling garlands
and children's eyes
and friendly faces
from last week and last year.

The harp is playing
so soft and sweet
beneath it all
that it is almost beneath notice
until you breathe it in.

And then bright horns
and carols rising
and the story
of the decree
and the journey

and the wondrous moment
in a stable
so unlike
this warm bright place
and yet so full of the same

peace and love
after pain and tears
new hope
and joy
all over again

as the bright eyes shine
in the weathered faces
and the cry of a child
is holy
and welcome.

Silent Night
a hundred voices soft -
no silence here
and yet
the stillness comes -

the hush of joy
within the heart
as candles light
from hand to hand
and voices blend:

Silent night; holy night
all is calm; all is bright
round yon virgin mother and child
holy infant so tender and mild
sleep in heavenly peace

sleep in heavenly peace
all you who leave this place
with your warm bright smiles
and your children
nodding in your arms

while I gather
musician's clutter
and snuff candles
and turn out lights
and walk alone

since the others went ahead
down the block
and around the corner
the wind at my back now
past the school

and glow after glowing
string of lights
until our own warm window
beckons
into the sheltered yard

where I pause
hand on doorknob
my gaze held for just a moment
by the golden glow
of the setting crescent moon.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Adaptation

I may have said this before.

If we humans are so adaptable, why don't we adapt our own lifestyles, now, instead of waiting until adaptation is forced on us and on all those other living things that aren't so adaptable?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Yonge Street, Rocks and Trees, Alberta

Yahoo! Canada News: "TORONTO (CP) - It's beginning to look a lot like a green Christmas for most of the country east of Alberta."

Wow. I should have known it was too early to hibernate.

I wake up mid-winter and find I must have missed some sort of referendum.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Viral Bits

Kate (smalldeadanimals) has a post up about the media and blog buzz over Liberal Leader St├ęphane Dion's French citizenship. I was intrigued, not by the political topic, but by the illustration of the way bits of news (or not-news) "go viral" in the blogosphere.

This phenomenon has nagged at me for a couple of years now, as I watch little dust devils of commentary swirl up whenever Kate mentions anything to do with climate. I just sneeze and move along, but many people who breathe that stuff in seem totally lacking in immunity to the infectious bits.

Kate quotes Ezra Levant discussing the virus-spreading quality of the Internet as a good thing: whatever is interesting catches on. I would agree - if only the infection caused those infected to pursue their new-caught interest with vigour, openness, and balance. Instead, infection seems to produce a sort of reverse immunity, with greater susceptibility to future infection if newly encountered viral bits resemble the old. Such familiar-looking bits will produce a new round of inflammation and vigorous replication of viral bits from previous infections. Meanwhile the generic rejection response for totally unrecognized foreign bits goes into overdrive, preventing any infection by novel bits that might serve to balance the system.

If people actually responded to something "interesting" by exploring further, finding deeper and wider information that allowed them to view the interesting bit from very different angles, then an infection would be a good thing. It would strengthen and invigorate the mind.

There is, of course, a problem with this viral infection analogy: we associate immunity with health, but a mind that rejects any foreign matter is unhealthy indeed. It is liable to be hurt by all those things that it refuses to know.

Here I can see the value of the viral spread of ideas on the Internet. If there is unhealthy immunity at the level of news outlets (rather than at the level of an individual mind) - if news outlets are rejecting publication of stories that are foreign to established ways of thinking - then the blogosphere provides a new channel for healthy infection.

But what is a healthy infection? Are some of the infections unhealthy? Here I see the power of the viral infection analogy. Mentioning a virus brings to mind several qualities: something harmful; something that relies on encoded information; something that operates invisibly until symptoms suddenly erupt; and something so small as to seem a mere fragment.

A virus does harm by injecting a tiny snippet of misleading information into the workings of a cell. I call it misleading, because it leads the cell astray to serve the purposes of the virus. An infected cell drops its normal activities and instead produces copies of the virus - both its information code and its injection apparatus - until the entire cell self-destructs.

The healthy cell was a marvel of sophisticated harmony, with a host of interacting functions derived from an enormous store of information. Yet the injection of one tiny snippet of new information brought the whole thing to ruin.

Can the whole body of science around anthropogenic global warming be brought to ruin in a similar fashion? Some would like you to think so.

In a recent CFRA Ottawa radio interview, popular climate-fear-soothing geologist Tim Patterson talked about the way science can be totally changed by a single study. Michael Crichton makes the same point in his speeches, and uses the same example: the sudden shift in geological sciences when the idea of plate tectonics became accepted. Crichton and Patterson use this example to belittle the idea of a "scientific consensus" around anthropogenic global warming. They imply that the whole idea of global warming caused by human activity is just as vulnerable as the old idea of fixed continents. They hint that their own contrary voices are on the verge of bringing a major new enlightenment to science.

Their example has great power, and I am sure they know it. Crichton's audience can easily identify with his story about noticing the apparent fit between South American and African coastlines, and about a schoolteacher dismissing his observation. What an apt example to use when you are belittling scientific consensus! It suggests that scientists of the day were ignoring contrary evidence that was obvious even to a casual observer; and thus, it affirms the value of casual observations that seem contrary to a global warming trend.

Crichton and Patterson would like you to think that the scientific consensus about global warming is on the verge of self-destruction, as a healthy infection of new ideas works its way through the scientific community. However, I suspect that their own opinion is somewhat different. I suspect that they are well aware of the strength of the scientific consensus and do not expect it to collapse from within. Instead, they hope to spread enough infection through public opinion outside the scientific community, so that climate change research will be starved of public support, at least to a degree and for a time.

Why do I doubt their sincerity? I have spent some time following up the bits of contrary evidence that these authors and other skeptics present. I have explored the topics they raise by seeking out published research by other authors. I have seen the way the skeptics select examples and omit context. I have learned enough of the scientific background to recognize some of these deceptions immediately, rather than after plowing through reference papers.

Through all of this, I have begun to recognize not only the deceptions, but the techniques behind them. One key technique is to inject deceptive information where it is least likely to be challenged, and most likely to be repeated. For example, both in his radio interview and in a parliamentary hearing, Patterson has talked about the Ordovician period, 450 million years ago, when CO2 levels were much higher and yet there was an ice age. However, in his research papers submitted for publication, he doesn't mention this example. Presumably he doesn't mention it in the friendly discussions he claims to have with other scientists, because he knows he would be laughed out of the room. During the Ordovician, the distribution of land masses was totally different (plate tectonics again), ocean circulation was totally different, and there weren't even any land plants yet. Naturally the relationship between atmospheric composition and global temperature was a bit different back then!

But in the blogosphere, often unnoticed, Patterson's fragment of detail about the Ordovician goes viral, as do numerous other bits of disinformation. And fast-paced blogs like Kate's, where these viral bits propagate, are much more interesting than my tedious, several-days-late rebuttals. Then when the symptoms appear, in the form of public complacency about climate or even outright hostility towards reducing CO2 emissions, some people wonder how it happened.

Fog and Clarity

At 9:10 p.m. last night, they booted me out of a department store. As I left, I mused about making the exact gifts I want to give, instead of searching for them, but then I remembered the unfinished gift from last year. If I really worked at it, could I finish it before her birthday rolls around a second time?

Speaking of second times, last night was the second time in a week that I drove home from Regina in fog. The first time was the kids' shopping day, and yesterday was mine.

Last week, the fog was fairly continuous until around Francis, where it broke up into great skeins illuminated by the headlights and the rising moon. In some places it was still a continuous sheet, but elevated a little, and when a slight rise tilted the headlights up, that layer of fog looked like a giant tent.

Last night, the entire 200 kilometres was fogged in without a single break. The towns passed as faint glows in the periphery; often I didn't even glimpse their names on the signs. At one town - was it Osage? - I had a momentary vision of a deer, standing right in the bottom of the ditch next to the pavement, with its ears pricked towards my passing car. It reminded me of the sight from that morning, just outside Creelman, of a moose loping across the highway right in front of the car ahead of me, and then turning just beyond the ditch to jog along parallel to the highway, beard flapping, legs lifted high. With thoughts of deer and moose, and frequent false alarms from frost-crusted roadside weeds emerging out of the fog, I cruised at 80 to 85 kph (where the posted limit is 100). Several vehicles stayed behind me; I recall only three that dared to pass.

One good thing about that fog: I had Country 100 FM coming in clear to Forget. (That's FOR-zhay, around here, although when the highway sign flashed out of the fog, my mind noted the coincidence with the song I was hearing at that moment, about forgetting - something, but I forget what.) Usually I lose the Country 100 signal somewhere around Francis - one-third of the way, instead of over three-quarters. I actually got enough of that station yesterday to start to notice the repetition. For me, that benediction from Rascall Flats ("My Wish") is not holding up to frequent airplay the way Lee-Ann Womack's did a few years back ("I Hope You Dance").

But that new one from Martina McBride - "Anyway" - they can play that again. Wow. Any volunteers to sing it in church?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Tilting Time

The sun is setting. Through gaps in frosted tree tops, I can see bands of pink colour lingering on the blue-gray clouds.

According to SunriseSunset.com, we are within a day or two of our earliest sunset of the year, more than ten minutes before the hour of 5 p.m. Their calendar lists sunrise and sunset times to the nearest minute, so I can't tell exactly which day marks the turning point.

By the time the winter solstice rolls around, our sunset will be moving later again. In those last few days before the solstice, the shortening of daylight will be only on the morning side, with sunrise still moving later, right through until early January.

Why?

From a New Scientist article, Early Days, I have a shaky idea of how our days shift through this dark time of the year. The U.S. Naval Observatory offers what sounds like a more systematic explanation in The Dark Days of Winter, but my understanding still feels a bit unsteady.

The impression that stays with me is this. Solar days pulse slightly over the course of a year, making the time from one noon to the next longer and shorter. Time as measured by the sun does not march exactly to the beat of atomic vibrations. We don't correct our clocks for this pulsation. Although those 24 hours on the dial suggest that we are keeping track of solar days, we are really approximating them, and clock time wobbles around solar time without quite matching it.

Twice in the last month I've seen an "atomic clock" offered for sale. It's really just an electric clock that automatically resets itself when it detects a radio signal from an atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. You can get one at Lee Valley; you can also get a sundial. With the atomic clock, you can make detailed observations of sunrise and sunset times and then try to get your head around their movements. With the sundial, you can observe the solar day directly, and not worry about how many wobbles of an atom fit into it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Counter-Intuitive Bad News

Here's a new finding that goes the exact opposite direction from what the climate optimists have been saying. You've probably heard the argument that CO2 is plant food, so rising CO2 means more plant growth, which means more food for humans and everything else, and at the same time, controls the rise in CO2 levels. You probably already know some problems with that argument: plant growth is obviously not controlling CO2 levels, and CO2-fertilized crops may actually be less nutritious.

But here's the new problem. Satellite studies indicate that microscopic plants in the ocean grow slower when the ocean gets warmer.

That startled me. From my biology background, I know that most biological processes speed up with temperature. Heck, just from living through a cycle of the seasons here, I know that plants grow faster when it's warmer. So why do these tiny plants in the ocean grow slower? From the news release at Oregon State University:
When the ocean surface warms, it essentially becomes “lighter” than the cold, dense water below, which is loaded with nutrients. This process effectively separates phytoplankton in the surface layer - which need light for photosynthesis - from the nutrients below them, which they also need for growth.
Well, so what? Aren't trees more important than these phytoplankton that we can't even see with the naked eye? Back to the news release:
Despite their microscopic size, ocean phytoplankton are responsible for about half of the photosynthesis on Earth, a process that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into organic carbon to fuel nearly every ocean ecosystem.
Ouch.

Bad news, yes. Or is it? I'd say it's better than no news. If phytoplankton dies in the ocean, and nobody hears about it, it still dies. How about using this news as fuel to fire up your determination to walk instead of driving. Try a toboggan for the groceries, with a picnic cooler on it to keep the bananas and lettuce from freezing on the way home. Or grow some sprouts instead of buying lettuce, and check out those new garden catalogs for some fruit trees and berry bushes to plant next season. Insignificant? Consider this: a lot of people say our food in Canada travels an average of 2500 km to get to a dinner plate, and I've heard some estimates as high as double that.

And pass the word along to a climate optimist. Gently. They don't like to hear this stuff - and can you blame them?

Carols, Old and New

This Sunday, December 10th, the choir at St. Andrew's United Church in Arcola will present a carol service, with choir anthems, a solo, and lots of carols for all to join in.

Readings and reflections on the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love are taken from "Gifts of the Season," a service order written by Gretta Vosper. If that name sounds familiar, you may have read about her in the United Church Observer; she's the controversial minister of West Hill United in Scarborough, Ontario, who is bringing big theological questions out of academia and into direct conflict with the traditions of congregational worship. I don't think there's anything very controversial in this particular service, but it might give you a taste of her approach. From the U.C. Observer, December 2006: "Whether or not you agree with her, understanding who Gretta Vosper is can tell you what you hold dear in the Christian faith."

Besides, there's all the music: some treasured old carols, and some startling new songs of faith. Come early for a chance to sing even more carols, since we just couldn't fit them all into the service. It starts at 10:45 a.m., with carol singing beginning around 10:30.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Snow Wardens

As I was shoveling snow yesterday, I got wondering about the history of this task. Did a pioneer woman shovel through drifts to make an easier passage for the sleigh up to the house? Or did the sleigh just pack the snow down around the yard? I know that if you always walk the same path through the snow, you can get into trouble later in the winter, when your feet begin to slide off the sides of your packed path down into the softer and much deeper snow to the sides. I imagined a sleigh side-slipping off its runner tracks into deeper snow - not a good thing for the horses. But maybe they just drove the sleigh slightly to one side or the other each time, to pack a wider track, much like I deliberately trample the path a bit wider in the snow. Could you get the horses to do that?

I looked at some pictures in the Arcola-Kisbey history book, but I couldn't be sure what was done. I did find a picture from spring of 1903, showing the sidewalk (boardwalk?) cleared in front of the storefronts, but hemmed in by a wall of snow on the adjacent street surface, as high as a man.

A Google search for "horse-drawn snowplow" turned up just what I wanted - an essay on the history of snow removal. It turns out that I was partly right: snow was not removed from the roads at all, but rather packed down to make a good running surface for the sleighs. But it was done much more deliberately than I had imagined. Have you ever heard of a snow warden?

The Snow Pile Today

It's bigger than last year (in March!), that's for sure. I'd say about four times bigger. I can't get a perfect comparative photo, because I built it closer to the chokecherry behind it this year, to keep the melt water off the driveway and out of the porch.

One of those feral cats made the mistake of trotting into my snow push path while I was gathering another shovel load. She had to stretch up just to see over the end of it, to assess her options.

Then she came back up to the bend and hunched down, looking at me. I paused and talked to her, suggesting that she should take the chance to run forward and past me, but she just stared. Heartlessly, then, I pushed the snow load on towards her, and she hurried back to the dead end. "It's deep," I warned, but she plunged on.

Poor kitty. I wish I'd got a video. She looked like she was swimming.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Disconnect

Here on the plains south of the Moose Mountains, there are two main industries: agriculture and oil. When you need money to keep farming, you go work on the rigs.

There are some proud farmers and ranchers who get by with what they can earn from their land, and sometimes fight a losing battle to keep the oil wells off it. There are some people here only for the oilfield work, who have little or no connection to any farm in the area. But for many people, the two industries have formed interwoven strands of their lifestyle for generations.

Recently I have heard of people quitting farming to work full time in the oilfield. One said his only regret was that he didn't do it sooner. Others carry on, quite literally using their oilfield income to keep their farms going.

The problem is the rising cost of just about everything except farm produce. A farm can't be run as a stable business if the costs keep going up while the revenue stays flat. Some farmers have been coping by expanding their acreage, spreading some of their costs over a larger area of production and hoping the per-acre costs don't overwhelm the per-acre revenue. How long will that hope hold?

And why the squeeze?

I just finished reading an overview of similar problems in Montana (in Part One of Jared Diamond's book, Collapse). Diamond related a story to highlight the difficulty farmers face. At one time, if a farmer wanted to buy a truck, he would sell two cows. Now, to buy a truck, he must sell 25 cows.

To an urban person accustomed to inflation, that might not seem wrong. Prices go up. But why hasn't the price of cows gone up? Sure, the urban cost of living goes up, but so does the average wage. Back on the farm, when the cost of living and of farming goes up, what is the farmer to do? He can't just grow more cows on the same amount of land.

Reflecting on this, I realized that the problem is built into the foundations of our economy. Because our economic growth is fueled by oil (and coal and natural gas) and not by growth in biological production, there is a disconnect between the performance of the overall economy and the returns to agriculture. If the overall economy was dependent on biological production for its fuel, then the price of biological products would keep pace. Grain would be valued for the energy stored in its carbohydrates; that value would be reflected in the price of a grain-fed cow; and a farmer selling two cows could still get the same return in material goods as his father did. Instead, fossil fuels are used to squeeze more and more biological production out of less and less human labour, holding the price of those biological products low. Meanwhile all the rest of the economy is allowed to surge along on the power of fossil fuels, effectively disconnected from the reality of biological limits - for a while.

In Montana, the problem is much more acute than in this area, because land prices are rising steeply due to demand for homes and acreages in the beautiful mountain landscapes. Farmers cannot expand their operations to spread costs, because the land costs more than they can earn back by farming it, even over a lifetime. In the desirable mountain valley areas, farming is on its way out.

When I read this, I remembered Eleutheros's post, "Unlike Coin," and wondered whether a farmer who focused on direct use - growing food and fibre for his own needs rather than for the money it could earn - could persist in those Montana mountains. Rising property taxes would be a challenge. That might be overcome, but what about estate taxes? How would a direct-use homesteader pass that homestead on to a child?

How ironic that we have structured our economy to grow and grow and grow - at the expense of growing food. We are running an enormous gamble, that the unknown jackpot will contain some sort of unlimited supply of clean energy (pdf), that we will win it before the existing energy sources become inadequate or intolerable, and that energy alone will be enough of a foundation when we finally turn our attention to coping with the limits of soils, water, oceans, and climate.

UPDATE: Eleutheros has a new post about our response to limits - depressing or bracing, depending on how you want to take it.