Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Luck and Global Climate Change

Even if I weren't studying luck this year, I would have found it a strange coincidence that I read Kurt Vonnegut's Hocus Pocus and Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe during the same week. I didn't think the 1990 Vonnegut novel (not one of his best; Cat's Cradle is just too excellent, but very good none-the-less) and the 2006 journalistic account of climate change had anything in common when I picked them up in our book room. In fact, I picked up the Vonnegut just because it had so little in common with Field Notes*. Then BAM! Both books are chopped full a quotes and luck and life and we are responsible for the state of the environment and WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?
Of course, I haven't figured out the latter yet. Much as I like to think that being a biology professor can help, I read the finals from last week, and if the global responsibility message stuck as well as the content facts I presented, well, I'm an abject failure. And I'm taking off for a long distance drive across the country tomorrow. So I'll ask you to help me figure out what I can do about it and what you are doing as well. We must do something. Of course China must also do something, but it is irresponsible, if not outright wrong, to do nothing to solve a problem just because others are making it worse. In the meantime, I leave you these quotes.

The 2 prime movers in the Universe are Time and Luck. (H.P. p. 21)

So what indeed! The lesson I myself learned over and over again when teaching at the college and then the prison was the uselessness of information to most people except as entertainment. If facts weren't funny or scary, or couldn't make you rich, the heck with them. (H.P. p. 67)

She said, moreover, that perpetual motion was possible, if only scientists would work harder on it. (H.P. p. 130)

Bergeron's epitaph for the planet, I remember, which he said should be carved in big letters in a wall of the Grand Canyon for the flying-saucer people to find, was this: WE COULD HAVE SAVED IT BUT WE WERE TOO DOGGONE CHEAP. (H.P. p. 143)

The earth is a twitchy system. It's clear from the record that it does things that we don't fully understand. And we're not going to understand them in the time period we have to make these decisions. We just know they're there. We may say, 'We just don't want to do this to ourselves.' If it's a problem like that, then asking where it's practical or not is really not going to help very much. Whether it's practical depends on how much we give a damn. (Robert Socolow in F.N. p. 143-144).

Q. "How worried should we be? " A. "How lucky do you feel?" (The New Scientist as reported in F.N. p. 187).

Luck and resourcefulness, are of, course, essential human qualities. (F.N. p 187).

We're going to need both to keep this mess from being a horribly bigger mess than its already going to become. And yes, I know it snowed in New Orleans this week. That does not mean that this is not a problem.
*I've read surprisingly few books about global warming. I'd like to believe it's because I've seen the evidence. With a clear cause, a demonstrated mechanism, and clear results, I've not doubted that CO2 emissions can lead to a change in global temperature. But really, it's that the bad ones offend me and the good ones depress me.
Graphs from Davies, a forestry company's website. They are based on ice core data from antarctica.

Wicked or just out of luck?

I just finished reading Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

It was much better and much less fun than I had anticipated. The book takes itself very seriously. This is a family drama and psychological case study that happens to take place in a fantasy land. Fortunately, Maguire did his homework. While it has been years since I read the Oz books, I know them beyond the Wizard, and I was impressed to find information about tiktokism, Dr. Nikidik and the geography of Oz consistent with my memory. The discussions of good and evil, family and obligation, timing and the soul can be a bit much, but some are genuinely thought-provoking and while there is plenty of preaching going on, the take home message, that there is more to situations than one person can see, is made without preaching. Altogether, a much more complex, compelling story than I expected.

As far as being less fun than I expected: well, this is a book with lime green edges to the pages. A giant fanfare of a musical is based on it. I expected light-hearted. I expected silly. It isneither. I have not seen the musical, but it is almost certainly not based on the book. The premise of the book would make an outstanding musical. The book itself is trying to be a soulless place where nobody ever ever breaks out is song. Well worth reading, but not with the expectation of a goofy romp.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Britches Update

Three weeks in I weighed in at -3.6 pounds this morning. Only one of the three weeks have I come close to my 70,000 step goal. All of the usual excuses apply: cold slippery dark weather, travel, end-of-semester craziness and a yucky cold. This week I'm going to make it despite the weather and the finals.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Knock on Wood

I've always shied away from blaming bad luck as a causal agent. I've lived with and adored black cats, have no problem with 13, and cannot see how a tails up penny could possibly hurt my fortune. Bad things obviously happen, but they just happen; good things are luck or of God.

Yet I do not like to tempt fate. I really do knock on wood when I predict something good is going to happen (and I have a very brief flashback to my dancing days with Happy Cricket and our "Knock on Wood" dance). So join me in tapping on my oak door frames as I mention that this year finals week is going to go smoothly.

My first year teaching my grandfather died during finals week. Last year I had a miscarriage and surgery. Finals begin on Monday and this year I am going to grade exams, bake cookies, shop for Christmas presents and clean my house. That's all. Knock.