Saturday, January 28, 2012

Each year, we plant rosemary, and sooner or later a hard frost always kills it off.  So this year I've experimented with leaving a cold frame over part of the herb garden  (essentially, a cold frame is an angled window pane on bottom-less box).

This mild winter wouldn't have killed off the rosemary yet in any case.  It's only fallen into single digits a few times and never for very long.  Still, the rosemary does look happy in its little greenhouse - as do the oregano and parsley.  Only the thyme seems indifferent.
And Haru would like a greenhouse of his own.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

I was out filming "man in the street" interviews with people on union issues.  In this case I needed to talk to people who felt negative toward unions.  The trouble is that in sub-freezing temperatures the only people loitering outside are those unfortunates banished from the warmth to smoke their cigarettes.  And apparently smokers in Rhode Island are mostly pretty union-loving.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Following up on a previous post . . . 

I used to be perplexed about why so many working and middle class conservatives could support the Republican Party.  The party was too obviously dishonest about its economic policies, which it claimed were good for regular Americans, but which were all designed to shift wealth away from them and up the socio-economic pyramid.  

I realize now that rank and file Republicans never believed that the Democratic Party was an alternate, legitimate vehicle for their economic interests, so they settled for the "cultural politics" of conservatism (rooted mainly in religious enthusiasms harnessed to anxieties about gender and white privilege), and  in lieu of true political representation, they gravitated toward cynicism and anti-government rhetoric.

I come to this insight because, as a middle class progressive, I find myself in a strikingly similar position.  Ever since Clinton's technocrats betrayed working Americans with NAFTA and other race-to-the-bottom free-trade policies, the Democratic Party has again and again preferred practices that move wealth toward the wealthy and erode socio-economic mobility.  

Despite the cronyism and the hard-to-ignore "corporatist" turn of the party, we are supposed to choose the liberal politicians over Republicanism out of a preference for the cultural politics of progressivism (rooted mainly in civil rights, diversity and common good).  So, like working class conservatives, we are supposed to delude ourselves about (or be cynical and resigned about) the party's worsening economic policies, but still give it our vote, because they offer more support to gays, minorities, women - and, when convenient, the environment and the common good.

I can't view the Republican Party as an alternate, legitimate vehicle for my politics - since they are clearly much worse than Democrats - so I have little choice but to vote against my economic interests - or as the sociologist might say, "to my least disadvantage," by supporting Obama and the Democratic Congress.

I am curious to see whether this collapsed and corrupted politics is going to continue unchallenged, however.  The Tea Party and the Occupy Movement were both about many things, but they each put forward a similar critique of politics, media, and corruption.  But that is a post for another day.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Chipping sparrow surveys the scene.

The snow began falling before dawn in a cold, sleety curtain.  The browns and grays of our view into the forest changed to white and steel.  Now the gray sky is whirling toward us as a storm of feather down.

The outdoorsy son, Porter, is wandering in it, testing the too-cold crystals for sledding and snowballability.  The indoorsy son, Nico, is on his computer.  "I'll go out after lunch," he declares.

Black-capped chickadee.
At the dangling bird feeders the squirrels have vanished into the pines, made nervous by Porter's occasional appearances.  Woodpeckers, juncos, titmice, jays, chickadees, and a lone fox sparrow take their place quickly.  The doves are waiting somewhere all puffed up -- waiting like Nico for the snow to stop falling.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

photo: Providence Journal
Up in Cranston a 16-year old atheist objected to her school posting a school prayer in a position of prominence.  After a protracted tussle, the school was forced to take it down.  She's since been continually threatened by fellow students and community members.  Talk Radio hosts have lambasted her.  Her cretinous state representative, Peter Palumbo, (a Democrat) has called her an "evil little thing" being "coerced by evil people."  Even the local florists refused to deliver flowers of support to her.

Jessica Ahlquist is giving (or at least offering) her community a much-needed lesson in civics, the Constitution and history - especially ironic in a state that was founded explicitly and emphatically as a refuge from religious intolerance.

The Christians who would shun or cast out this young woman accuse her of being intolerant.  They ask why she cannot just - not be offended - by this prayer - this plaintive request to God to "grant us" our better impulses and to "help us" be better.  After all, they insist, it's not like they are using public school grounds to insist that she or anyone else adopt particular religious beliefs.

That lie is utterly exposed in the breach.  Ahlquist pointed out that this banner shows the school expects her to believe in God, though she does not believe in God, and it's illegal and unconstitutional for public institutions to elevate one religious belief over another.  The Christians of the community could have responded in a way that showed they supported this student's right to atheism as diligently as they support the right of other students to believe in God.  Instead they made it perfectly clear that her atheism was beyond the pale, that she was evil, that a true member of the school community must necessarily be a believer, and that she was exactly right and justified in her insistence that she was being made a marginalized religious dissident.

If you want to give Jessica a virtual pat on the back for standing up to religious bigotry there's a facebook page dedicated to just that, of course.  

UPDATE: or buy the T-shirt!

Sunday, January 15, 2012


13 degrees and dropping fast.  The temperature will slip into the single digits tonight -- with a good breeze to insinuate chill tendrils into the house's every crack and crevasse.  The boys are in short sleeves down in the basement where the fire is running hot - playing Minecraft on their computers.

  The down comforters are piled on the beds upstairs.  Potatoes are baking in the oven and Monica is fixing a gravy out of mushrooms and onions.

We've had our vintage 1954 furnace on once this winter -- when we came home from Christmas in Pennsylvania and the house was 50 degrees.  

The ancient furnace fumes and roars and would probably kill us all if we didn't open up the basement door and windows when we let it run.  But it will still send hot water through the cast iron baseboards.

Still, the wood stove does it's job, though tonight I really should get up in the night to load it an extra time.


Friday, January 13, 2012

The wind has stolen my energies and is using them to sing and re-arrange all the leaves.
Arthur Brisbane, the public editor at the New York Times put his foot in it.  In a post titled, Should the NYT be a Truth Vigilante? he asked "whether and when news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about."

The deluge of universally exasperated comments lasted only briefly before the comments were closed, but it also stimulated a fair amount of chatter in the blogosphere, from Joe Romm to Glenn Greenwald and James Fallows

I was happy to see that my own two cents, in the form of an irritated comment, rose to the #5 slot among the "readers picks" at the Times.  I noted:
If the purpose of the NYT is to be an inoffensive container for ad copy, then by all means continue to do nothing more than paraphrase those press releases. (Though I'll spend less and less of my time reading it.) If you have ambitions to be a newspaper that practices journalism, then practice journalism - even if that's harder. You might find there's an audience for an actual functional news organization.
Brisbane and his editors have been backpedalling frantically and trying to explain what he really meant, but I hope that they take to heart the overall tenor of the responses they got, and take seriously the intense frustration that their audience is expressing about the current state of this flagship of US journalism.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

As I pushed a wheelbarrow of mulch under the ugliest of our ugly spruce trees, a golden-crowned kinglet combed through the quills looking for insects.  Its bright yellow head-streak and it's utter disregard for me made me smile.  I think it only flitted away when it thought I might collide with it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

David Roberts, who blogs at Grist about sustainability issues is tired of being such a critically-minded downer:

What we need now, more than ever, are not critiques of the extant but models of the new -- new institutions, new social practices, new identities, new purposes, new ways of measuring and valuing what matters. If we're ever going to get off the sinking USS Fossil Growth and into lifeboats, we need to know where we're heading. A new North Star.

We need people who can make a prosperous, enjoyable, sustainable world vivid and real. That will be the work of creators and dreamers . . . It will mean acts of social and economic entrepreneurship, art and storytelling, irrational hope and optimism. It will involve lots of experiments undertaken by people unwilling to be constrained by the limits of the "realistic," people who are willing to try, to risk failure or absurdity.
Much as I don't like risking failure or absurdity, he makes a good point.  Working to get people to notice that something's gone amiss with our society is one thing.  But to actually do something about your own participations is the hard part.

Personally, I put in my 30-odd hours per week on the project of getting the public to notice some dysfunction or another - and ideally helping them understand some potential solutions, but on my own time I ought to be able to pick up D.R.'s gauntlet and flirt with irrational optimism and constructive trying.

So what do I want?  I want to live in a society that is sustainable in every sense.  One that enriches our earth and our ecosystems rather than despoiling them.  I want to live as part of a community that is progressing into greater wisdom and deeper living rather than what we have today - islands of faltering struggle in great, oceanine turmoil of delusion, denial and destruction.  I want to live not in rejection of something, but in affirmation of something.  And I don't want to have to invent it all myself.

So what do I do?  Something absurd?  That is what I have to figure out.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Erik Lindberg has cogent post on energy and world view, where he argues that economics (and all the vast politics that are built upon that economics) is coming to a kind of Copernican overturning.

In essence he looks forward to the current ingenuity-centered model of human progress being replaced by a more thermo-dynamic model.

In the established view it is an article of faith that the unprecedented growth of the last two hundred years is a result of human ingenuity that benefited from ever improving access to signals of supply and demand.  Add in growing, modernizing, educated, caste-less, democratic societies that use their human capital more fully and you had a recipe for an explosion of innovation and problem-solving.   Time and distance seemed to contract in the globalizing society.  We could ignore so-called natural limits:  when the soils were degraded or overwhelmed, we discovered chemical fertilizers; when we began to run low on water, we uncovered great fossil aquifers or constructed desalinization plants.  In the normal economic models, peak oil cannot be a serious problem, because we will find ways to replace the oil from our declining fields when the price incentive is great enough.

(There's another familiar critique to this model, namely that much of this apparent progress was built on -- and remains built on -- the extractions of colonialism and global inequality - but that doesn't really figure into this particular conversation.)

The thermo-dynamic critique doesn't doubt human ingenuity or the ability of supply and demand to set stakes and clarify incentives -- but it does pointedly thrust forth an elephantine caveat:  namely that oil is a exceptional case and a deal-breaker.  First, it is access to energy (more so than markets or social development) which has enabled progress.  The industrial age in particular has tracked exactly upon our ability to extract and harness fossil fuels, especially coal and oil.  Second, and more importantly, in strict thermo-dynamic terms there is no replacement for oil -- nothing so energy-dense, so easy to access and transport, or available on the vast scale necessary to keep our civilization running.  We can't just invent a replacement and the decline of this energy source requires a fundamental re-tooling of human society.  

Lindberg's view is that we're looking at a moment like Copernicus, not just because a fundamental change in world view is required, but also because the entrenched establishment has chosen faith over facts and will not perceive or anticipate the coming collision with natural limits.  We are not doing anything about Peak Oil (or climate change for that matter), because we'll solve that problem when we need to.  The idea that oil (or climate) is bound to permanently derail our civilization of growth and progress is not an idea that can be entertained by the model, and it is not an idea that gets aired in the media or policy circles.

So on the one hand, we have mainstream economic orthodoxy that more growth and dynamism (which  means using more fossil fuel) is the key to solving the problem of getting past whatever doldrums the global economy is suffering through.  Burning through our existing oil and coal is a good thing that moves us on.  On the other hand we have people in the peak oil and transition communities who see the current economic downturn as the first shudder of a true energy crisis, and are trying to figure out how to stretch our existing supplies as far as possible and invest them to create a low-energy civilization that can coast down off this century's huge, unprecedented explosion of oil and coal consumption.

I'm no expert in thermo-dynamics, but I am something of an expert in humans, their motivations and their societies, and I can recognize today's conventional wisdom as a tottering and maladapted world view.   I paid attention through the "" bust and the real estate bubble.  In both of those cases, there was all along a stench of bad math, mass hypnosis, denialism and optimism-faith that was striking.  Today that same unmistakable reek exudes from every economist that sits before a TV monitor and every politician standing confidently at the podium.

The people working on transition and peak oil may not be right about where exactly the future is headed, but today's economists and politicians are certainly, utterly wrong.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The tilted Earth shows its underbelly to the sun, and so those of us in the north make do with our long under-dose of sunlight.  But the solstitial extremity passed 10 days ago, and the light moves with astronomical slowness back up her chilly shoulders.

This thing is dressed up in a slightly mis-stiched quilt of months and days and weeks and leap days - sewn in a long, proud, often exasperated tradition of keeping the proper feasts and sowings and harvestings falling where they should without too much obvious cheating by princes and astrologers.  All that brings us to "new year's day", when we collectively notice that time not only flows past, but cycles back to us every time.

And so it does.  Cool.  Happy New Year everyone!