Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I'd like to wish you a Happy New Year, but...

Everyone reading this is probably aware of the precarious position we're in. Global warming is proceeding faster than the worst projections, and it's not just a question of everyone feeling a little warmer. Small changes in climate can have dramatic effects on the worlds ecosystems that have already been fragilized to the breaking point by human use. Changes in weather patterns can change storm patterns, destroying not only human habitations (such as New Orleans), but also potentially devastating shallow-water ecosystems such as coral reefs that form a key component of the ocean life systems that we humans rely on for food. Similarly, as if the lungs of the Earth (the tropical rainforests) weren't already in enough peril from direct destruction by humans, human-induced climate change may well finish the job.

But we can solve this, right? If you look around at our modern marvels, it would appear that we humans can create anything that we can possibly imagine. Unfortunately, these miracles are built on more than just human ingenuity and the shoulders of giants -- they're also built on a gigantic trust fund of free energy that we happened to find buried in the Earth's crust. And at the rate we're going, we'll have it spent within a generation or so. World peak oil production is right around the corner (if we haven't already passed it), and worldwide demand for energy is going nowhere but up. We're nowhere near getting ourselves weaned off of fossil fuels, and -- given our society's dependence on energy-intensive activities such as agriculture and transportation of food and people -- it's not clear the Earth minus its oil reserves will be able to support our population of six billion (and growing).

Part of the problem is increased energy consumption in the "developing world." Naturally people want to emulate the (currently) rich countries, and unfortunately they're doing it by making the same mistakes. Developing countries will be in a better position in the long run if they can manage to skip the dead-end step of refitting their cities to be more "car-friendly." But moving towards sustainability will probably require widespread literacy and education, goals that can't be accomplished simply or overnight.

Even apparently sustainable activities like agriculture and drinking fresh water aren't as sustainable as you might hope. Irrigation-based farming can lower the (fresh) water table and affect the quality of the soil in just a few seasons. Overgrazing can harm plant life beyond its ability to recover, and the resulting erosion does the rest. Sure, with effort humans can make the desert bloom, but for how long? And what will it look like afterward? The deserts have spread and expanded over the past few millennia of human use, even without the current global warming catastrophe to speed things up. It's true that modern industrial farming techniques have changed all the rules about how much food humans can produce per acre, but unfortunately this technological miracle (not only in terms of machinery but also in terms of chemical fertilizers and pesticides) is largely based on inexpensive petroleum. (This is why I'm wary of "biofuels" as a solution to our energy problems -- a moment's reflection should make it clear that "biofuels" are nothing more than an incredibly inefficient and environmentally costly type of solar power.)

So are we capable of re-orienting our society towards something reasonably sustainable? I think we could if every human on the planet were to make sustainability a life-or-death priority. Yet -- while we humans are capable of surviving and adapting to amazing hardships when we have to -- it seems we're incapable of making even minor lifestyle changes for an intangible like "future generations."

Even if we see that investments in energy efficiency today can save us a lot in the long run, it's not clear we have the capacity to make any kind of real investments. People keep saying that Obama will have difficulties if the economy gets worse. I ask what do they mean "if"? Energy will become a lot more expensive, and we have no particular reason to project any respite. Meanwhile U.S.-style sprawl means that U.S. cities require several times as much energy per capita to run than their Asian and European counterparts. Then there's the economic crisis. The U.S. economy today is largely based on debt-fueled consumer spending, with an enormous trade deficit. I don't see how this can be viewed as a viable long-term economic strategy, yet the common wisdom still says that as long as we can keep "consumer confidence" (hence consumer spending) up, then everything will go back to normal, and the U.S. will continue to be an economic powerhouse indefinitely.

Your Libertarian friends will tell you that one of the mechanisms of the market is the fact that those who make bad investments go under, but the U.S. government has been cheating by habitually insuring the banking and financial industries. So investments are allowed to grow, but with a safety net that gets hoisted up higher as it goes, since it would be unthinkable for any wealth to disappear once it has been created, no matter how dubiously. But rather than escaping the discipline of the market, it looks like we've merely moved the risk up a level. The U.S. government (hence the American people) are now the ones who have made too many bad investments, and we're getting to the point where it's no longer realistic to suppose that the national debt can ever be paid off. The "almighty dollar" is barely holding its own against other foreign currencies, and (since the Saudi princes will no longer be motivated by helping their friend Mr. Bush) the dollar could take another hit if OPEC starts demanding payment in another currency. We could easily get to the point where the U.S. can no longer even "service" the debt (i.e. pay the interest). American common wisdom says that debt is not a problem because we can always grow the economy to dwarf it. I ask: grow it on what? More debt? Air? This is the economic strategy I like to call "patching Reagan's balloon" (a.k.a. "Voodoo economics"). We've just bought another 700 billion dollar patch that we can't afford -- do you think it will hold? Looking at this from the perspective of someone living outside the U.S., I'd say this bailout will provide the liquidity so that foreign interests can disentangle themselves from the U.S. financial industry as much as possible without losing their shirts. The shirt-losing will come later, to someone closer to your home.

A better investment would have been to spend the 700 billion on rebuilding America'a rail network, and getting it up to the technology level of Europe and the far east. Train travel is by far the most efficient type of travel, and (unlike planes, trucks, and automobiles) it's already largely electric, simplifying the transition off of fossil fuels. The more energy costs increase, the more you'll wish you had that efficient train network. Unfortunately, it would appear that the U.S. government is incapable of making intelligent investments. Uncle Sam can whip out the public credit card for some types of emergencies ("Oops! The banking industry royally screwed up!" or "Oops! That war we started cost way more than we ever expected!"), but can't seem to plan ahead. American common wisdom says that any investment that benefits the whole society is tyranny (socialism!). It's this same faulty common wisdom that causes Americans to think that somebody at the top (Greenspan, perhaps?) can just tweak a few variables and turn the right knobs to "fix" the economy without people having to make even the most obvious planning-ahead-type lifestyle changes (solar panels anyone? A smaller dwelling, closer to work, perhaps? A little less meat on that sandwich? A bicycle?).

Since Obama seems to have bought into this the-bailout-will-fix-everything common wisdom, you may be wondering why I campaigned for him so hard. It's simple. From reading his books, I gather that he has the clear head and leadership skills to unite the country and guide us (hopefully in the right direction) through the coming crisis. He's the one who seemed most likely to be able to avoid that other deadly-wrong bit of American common wisdom: that the solution to economic crisis is war. A President Palin would surely have "solved" our planet's problems by finding us an enemy to nuke. And while that solution may well benefit some species on Earth (by ridding the planet of its most destructive species), it won't help us much.

So, good luck! And happy 2009...

Monday, December 22, 2008

The magic of imagination

There may well be some good reasons to tell your kids that Santa Claus is real. However, today I'd like to talk about one common argument for Santa-ism that I find unconvincing: the idea that belief in Santa encourages imagination.

I think that telling kids the Santa story -- with all its strange and amazing trappings -- definitely encourages imagination. But (imagination-wise) I don't see any added benefit in telling them that it's real.

For full disclosure, I'll admit that I'm sort of half-heartedly playing along with the Santa charade for Léo this year, mostly because I've found that hinting that Mom and Dad bought the presents causes a huge tantrum to have the presents now. At the age of five, "You can't have your train set now because Santa's not bringing it until Christmas" is a lot easier to understand than "You can't have your train set now because opening all the presents on Christmas morning is a fun tradition that we love." (I think his seven-year-old brother Nico is wavering, though, and is leaning towards figuring out that it's all a game.)

In order to analyze this question, I've been noting down some of my kids' fantasy play lately. Here are some examples:

* As I mentioned here, Nico's study of the Solar System has inspired Léo to invent a new Solar System (called the "The Invented Solar System"), which includes multiple giant Earths and -- most importantly -- it's the home of the planet "where live the pitcher poo-poots" (Léo's planet). Pitcher poo-poots, by the way, are a carnivorous plant which (I think) Léo invented when Nico was studying carnivorous plants. You can hear him mention them from offstage during Nico's nature documentary. Another interesting fact he told me about the planet where live the pitcher poo-poots is that the numbers there are finite. Where live the pitcher poo-poots you count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, "dek", "el", "doe", 100 -- then you're done. (Bonus points to anyone who can guess where "dek", "el", and "doe" come from!)

* During a recent snow storm, Nico became enamored with the idea that Snow Miser sent it, and he started drawing all sorts of diagrams of how Heat Miser and Snow Miser control the weather. I asked him "Now you know that Heat Miser and Snow Miser don't really exist, right?" (People get annoyed at me for pointing out that Santa and God aren't real, but I can't get in trouble for telling kids that Heat Miser and Snow Miser aren't real, can I?) Nico said that Of course he knows that, and explained that it's just pretend, and then went right back to his drawings of which one controls which region during which part of the year. Léo agreed, and went on to add a third Miser brother -- "Train Miser" -- who sends trains all over the world!

* Léo has invented an alternate Santa Claus, called "Pirate Santa Claus." Pirate Santa Claus is different from regular Santa Claus in that he has two bags of toys, but all the toys are scary toys (as in The Nightmare before Christmas). Pirate Santa Claus also has a sister who has a long white beard. However, Pirate Santa Clause does not have an eye patch. (I learned these facts when I was helping Léo draw Pirate Santa Claus.)

You can take this evidence both ways. After all, Léo is the more fervent Santa-ist, and he's the one who came up with all the off-the-wall fantasy stories on this list, starting largely from real-life facts he learned from his science-minded older brother Nico. Nico joins in on playing in Léo's imaginary universe, but (left to his own devices) he's more inclined to draw things that are real. On the other hand, in Léo's imaginary world, it doesn't seem to matter much whether the initial stories he uses as raw material are true or not.

Also note that believing a story is true can potentially constrain creativity. I recall that my own (devoutly religious) mom didn't care for Nestor the Donkey or "The Little Drummer Boy" simply because if the birth of Jesus story is true, then you can't just embellish it with lots of made-up characters and episodes as though it were a legend. Yet I remember (as a child) doing elaborate drawings of Santa's workshop -- knowing full well that it wasn't real -- with Mom's approval. That was the beauty of it: if you know it's a legend, you're at liberty to embellish it however you like.

So I'm still not entirely convinced that saying I believe in Santa Claus -- and meaning it -- is more magical than allowing Santa to live in a world of pure imagination. :D

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas™ brand

Nestor was a donkey who had ears that dragged the ground...

I think we all know this story, right?

Once upon a time a singing cowboy named Gene Autry sang Johnny Marks's song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and it became a huge hit! Autry -- perhaps feeling bad about his role in making secular Christmas celebrations so Holly Jolly -- later helped write a song that told a Christian version of the same story:

"Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey" saves Christmas by carrying the baby Jesus (inside Mary) -- instead of Santa -- through a sand storm. He alone is able to navigate the storm because of his strange deformity (long ears instead of a glowing red nose), which the other animals had mocked him for, not letting him join in any donkey games and all that.

There are differences in the two stories, of course. This story doesn't have a misfit elf dentist or an abominable snow monster. Instead it has the most annoying cliché in the grand book of standard formulas: the mom sacrifices herself (and dies) as a plot device to set up her son's grand adventure (see also Ice Age).

Christians have written a number of incredibly beautiful and moving Christmas hymns over the centuries. And I imagine that a Christian worship service is probably the emotional center of the Christmas celebration for many people. But this holiday wasn't invented by or for Christianity. It's more than just a celebration of Jesus' birth, and that's okay, or it should be.

Given that the mid-winter festival of lights (in all of its names and incarnations) tends to be a bit of a party holiday, I'd say that taking every aspect of the holiday that people like and trying to re-brand it as Christian™ is a tad ill-advised. Take this Nestor story, for example. It sure gives the impression that the Jesus story is just a pale imitation of the real Christmas story (the one about Santa...).

Now, I know that Christians in general can't be blamed for this one production by Rankin/Bass. Rankin/Bass produced a few gems and did a whole lot of recycling in between. (Note: the third film that's on the DVD with Nestor and The Year without a Santa Claus is their New Year's special about the baby New Year who also gets mocked for having freakishly big ears.) But this isn't the only example of ill-advised Christian Christmas re-branding. You can probably guess what I'm talking about: Bill O'Reilly's "War on Christmas."

The "War on Christmas" has taken a truly surreal turn this year as the forces of CHRISTmas have decided that the over-the-top consumer spending orgy must be credited to "Christmas" alone. They're distributing a list of naughty and nice stores -- naughty meaning only that the merchants failed to stamp their advertisements with the Merry Christmas™ brand.

The thing that jumps out at me about this list is the second-to-last entry in the "nice" column: Wal-Mart. Apparently creating a buying frenzy so rabid that one of your employees is trampled to death is not enough to get your "nice" status revoked. Wal-Mart wasn't even moved to some sort of provisional list or something. So Jesus is more than okay with this orgy of consumerism -- He wants to be sure He gets the credit for it...?

I just hope these "War on Chrismas" folks from the "Liberty Counsel" don't really represent most Christians. They clearly don't represent anyone sane.

Now I'd like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!! And a Happy Monkey too!!!

And remember, Christmas isn't just about presents and it isn't just about Jesus. As the Grinch learned, it's a little bit more. :D

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How'd I forget this one?

This morning's snowstorm had my kids singing "I'm Mr. White Christmas!"

It's my favorite Christmas special, and it's the one that teaches us that catchy tunes, colorful characters, and memorable scenes are far more important than trivialities such as internal consistency or a plot that makes sense. Actually, in my elaborate analysis of the fabulous world of Heat Miser and Snow Miser, I found that the crazy non-sequiturs are a part of the fun! :D

Maybe they don't like reindeer in these parts. I know what -- we'll make her a disguise!

Take your socks off!

Instant Rover!

Wait a minute -- weren't his socks striped?

Actually, once I slowed this down enough to take the screenshots, I saw that the socks were, in fact, two-sided. So, sadly, one of the random inconsistencies is resolved. *sigh*

Oh, well, there are still lots of others. ;^)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Not Exactly Schoolhouse Rock...

me: Who's Jesus?
Léo: He's a jokemeister! He's a funny guy!

That was the follow-up quiz after I used Proposition 8, the Musical to teach Léo about Jesus...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The gift of (sexual) fantasy

Writing erotica is hard.

For starters, writing a good story period is hard -- but erotica presents special challenges on top of that. An erotic story should be arousing to at least a good portion of the audience, yet different people are turned on by vastly different cues and story lines. To make matters worse, what's hot to one person is icky to another (and vice-versa). (I gather some people found my bad public sex stories arousing, even if that wasn't exactly the intention.) On top of all that, one's sexual fantasies are an incredibly personal thing to share. For myself, I usually invent my own situation and characters (with an elaborate and detailed back-story, etc.), but I'd hesitate to write them down -- because of what people would think. Hell, I even hesitate to tell you which storie(s) from The Best of Best American Erotica 2008 made me read them one-handed (so to speak), and I like writing about sex!!

Naturally, I was impressed with Susie Bright's "Best of the Best" anthology. As I explained in my top 10 erotic books post, after reading some of the more famous/popular erotic works (that didn't happen to match my particular kink), I kind of put the whole genre on the shelf. But this anthology is a better starting point than complete erotic novels if you'd like to give erotica a try -- it contains so many different types of scenarios that there's a high probability that at least one will tickle you in just the right way. And even the ones that don't have you reaching for your toys or partner are interesting enough to read just as stories.


Well, since this book is already the product of winnowing down fifteen years of erotic literature to just "the best of the best," I hate to winnow it down further. But I'll mention a few of my favorites:

Blue Light is one of the most fascinating as a story. I didn't find it arousing since (contrary to recent findings that straight women are aroused by all gender/orientation combinations), gay sex stories (of either gender) kind of leave me going "Meh, whatever." The Desires of Houses is at once beautiful and entertaining, while Tennessee is poignant and moving. Fleshlight is fun; Horny is intriguing. The well-known essay Are We Having Sex Now or What? is thought provoking as always -- so much so that it's inspired me to put up a related discussion (about Mormon sexuality) over on The Visitors' Center.

I think my favorite was probably The Casting Couch. Here's what the author says about it:

I liked writing a story that worked the way fantasy does -- switching points of view, starting and dropping story lines and scenes.

In my opinion, she succeeded at that goal. So, not only is it a fun fantasy, but the author really did capture the flow of a fantasy and make it work as a story rather than trying to squeeze a fantasy into a standard story format. I'll admit that when I mentally replayed it I recast the evil boss as a guy (which totally destroys any rainbow-friendly aspect and makes the story not-at-all P.C., but c'est la vie).

And now, the obligatory seasonal question: Should you get this book as a Christmas (or other holiday) present for all your closest friends?

It depends on how intimate you are (or want to be) with them. ;^)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

And Sedna little Sedna is the farthest planet from our Sun!

That's what the kids are singing at my house tonight. I guess they've been watching too much Schoolhouse Rock and Hubble Telescope Movies...

In unrelated news, the latest Carnival of the Godless is the "Holiday Feast Edition." Mmmm, it's beginning to look a lot like "War on Christmas" season again! (As you can see from the What Would Jesus Buy? post.)

And here's a fun local-interest item: A few years ago, I read a fascinating book about baboon behavior called In Quest of the Sacred Baboon, full of interesting analysis and discussion of baboon habits and family structure. Most of the book is about observing various species of baboons in the wild, but the initial studies took place at the zoo right here in Zürich! From the pictures, it looks like the studies (which took place fifty years ago) were actually in the same baboon enclosure where my familiy and I had viewed the local baboons ourselves -- right up until this past month when they built a new baboon habitat.

So I just wrote a new post for Rational Moms about all of the amazing science and conservation work done at the local zoo, not to mention how much fun it is!!!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Lazy postin'

A lot of bloggers try to stick to some crazy rule like post every single day, or at least try to post a few times per week. Unfortunately, I have too many blogs for that (not to mention a job and a family), so I have to spread 'em around.

So I just put up a couple of light discussions on other blogs, one mocking Chris Buttars (if you don't know who that is, don't worry -- I shouldn't, yet I do), and one about criticizing the parenting skills of random strangers. Enjoy!