Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day 2010

Wikipedia gives us some Memorial Day history (I've excerpted just a bit of it below):

By 1865 the practice of decorating soldiers' graves had become widespread in the North. General John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic--the society of Union Army veterans--called for all GAR posts to celebrate a "Decoration Day" on May 30, 1868. There were events in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday; Michigan made "Decoration Day" an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890 every northern state followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women's Relief Corps, with 100,000 members.

The Civil War so dominated the day that after World War I, the new veterans pushed for their own "Armistice Day", now "Veterans Day" in November.
The preferred name gradually changed to "Memorial Day"; in 1971 the date was moved by Congress to the last Monday in May in order to ensure a three-day weekend. It marks the start of summer, just as Labor Day marks the end.
The alternative name of "Memorial Day" was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The holidays included Washington's Birthday, now celebrated as Presidents' Day; Veterans Day and Memorial Day. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.

[I took the above pictures in April at Arlington National Cemetery.  My wife attended family member Kermit's funeral in 1989.  The pictures below were taken in May at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.]

It's appropriate to remember people who died and to remember people who died protecting American liberty and freedom.  It's also important to remember that while all US wars were characterized as defending liberty,  many were waged for  more complicated and less noble  reasons.

It's also important to recognize that individual soldiers have gone to war for a variety of reasons that have been masked by the freedom and honor slogans that are used to justify all wars.  It's also true that the soldiers against whom our soldiers fought also believed they were fighting for honorable reasons.   There are situations where one could possibly justify war.  When another country attacks your country seems to be a good justification.  But I also believe that if businesses did not profit from selling weapons, uniforms, transportation, food, etc. to support war, we'd have a lot fewer wars.

As we remember soldiers today, we should recognize that having two days to recognize dead soldiers (Memorial Day and Veterans Day) helps to sanctify soldiers and war.  Soldiers are people who, for whatever reasons, have been mobilized for war.  Many actually experience battle.  Many don't.  For some military service makes them better people.  For others military service destroys them.

And we should remember we don't have equivalent holidays to recognize carpenters, teachers, janitors, social workers, engineers, doctors, waiters, architects, bus drivers, musicians, and others who make our life richer and more comfortable.  Like soldiers, every profession includes heroes and scoundrels.  Soldiers, however, are the one profession who are trained specifically to destroy and kill.  The cost of that activity both on the victims and the perpetrators is horrendous.  When we remember dead soldiers, we should also be reminded of the horrors of war, and that war should be the very last step we take to protect our freedoms when all other options have been exhausted.

Power's Out

We were eating on the deck about 7:40 pm.  It was windy, but still pleasant.  There was a loud boom.  I really thought it was a gunshot nearby.  J went inside to get something and came out to say the power was off.  It took a while to reach ML&P and I heard a neighbor telling another neighbor the power was out.  ML&P said a tree had fallen on the wires. 

When I got back from checking the tree, I noticed our chocolate lily was blooming. 

Fortunately, it is late May in Alaska so it's still light out at 11pm.  And the neighbors across the street still have power so I can post this on an unlocked wifi.  I'll schedule it for early tomorrow.  Maybe we'll have power when we get up.  My laptop only has about an hour left. 

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Epistemology, Palin, Obama, BP, Humpty Dumpty, and the King and I

[Bumper stickers sometimes sum up one's position succinctly.  But the world is complex and everything is ultimately connected.  So I don't apologize for bringing together a lot of disparate points.  But I do apologize for not doing it better.  I do hope that at the very least a few readers think about how they know what they know.]

I had just gotten into my window seat,  my seat belt buckled,, my book out, and my backpack under the seat, when the woman sitting in the aisle seat, after establishing that J has lived in Alaska over 30 years (the woman said she'd been there only ten), asked what J thought about Sarah Palin.

We'd been in Europe for almost a month and we heard that question a lot when people found out we were from Alaska.  In Europe the question almost always had a tinge of snark but also a recognition that perhaps a local could fill in missing details. Just to mess with their stereotypes, I often pointed out that Palin came into our consciousness when she resigned her oil and gas commission seat in protest over ethics (or so we thought at the time) and then went after the sitting Republican governor for closed door meetings with the oil companies and when elected rehired the Natural Resources team that had resigned in protest of Gov. Murkowski's dealings with the big oil companies.  But then I would reassure them that once she got nominated for vp, things changed and we saw a totally different view of Sarah Palin.

So, I was trying to engage my book as J politely, but more heatedly than is her custom, told the lady what she thought.  The lady then defended Palin.  "I went to lunch with her during the campaign and she's wonderful."  Things seemed to be winding down and I was getting back into my book when the lady asked J about Obama.
J:  "I think he's terrific."  
Lady:  "He's not an American you know."
J:  "Of course he is."
Lady:  "He was born in Kenya."
J:  "He was born in Hawaii"
Lady:  "Hawaii was a territory when he was born so even if he was born there he isn't a citizen."  [Hawaii became a state in August 1959.  Obama was born in August 1961.  People born in territories are US citizens anyway.]

I'm usually pretty unflappable, but at the end of traveling five weeks, with lingering cold symptoms, I was planning a quiet trip reading The Future of Life by socio-biologist E. O. Wilson and I totally lost it.  As J was trying to explain that even if Obama had been born in Kenya instead of Hawaii he would still be a US citizen since his mother was an American citizen, words flew out of my mouth - something about not wanting to listen to this bullshit for the next six hours.  That got both their attentions and they agreed to drop the topic as I put in my earplugs.

I immediately thought of a lot of other ways I could have handled it - like asking how she knew everything she claimed to be true, or even agreeing with her and then pushing to see if I could get her to agree that living under a black president meant our way of life was over and other racist garbage.

Epistemology (go here for a more scholarly discussion) is basically the study of how people can determine what is true.  Is it something you just know inside your head or in your gut?  Does it require external verification? If so what sort of verification?  Do different kinds of truths require different sorts of justification?  Knowing you have a headache is different from knowing what causes headaches.  

There's a whole lot of very questionable 'truth' out there these days.  There always has been, but we think in this era of modern technology we should have a much larger proportion of the population rejecting baseless truths or at least harboring some doubts about what they know. But the spurious truths are alive and well including among the supposedly well educated.  I know this because there are so many contradictory realities being claimed as Truth.   How many people actually think about how they know what they know?  

Why does this matter?  I've done a lengthy post on why people should study philosophy before, but this blog is about how we know what we know in the broadest sense and the fact that so many people 'know' totally different truths means to me, more time should be spent on studying how we know what we know.

As I pondered this morning the woman who believed that Obama is Kenyan, the BP officials who assured Congress there was no danger in drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and our Governor demanding that off shore drilling in Alaska proceed this summer to protect jobs, I couldn't help but scratch my head and wonder how these people came to believe these things.  I randomly pulled out a record, put it on the turntable, and as I was finishing my stretches, I heard Yul Brynner singing these 60 year old lyrics:
When I was a boy
World was better spot.
What was so was so,
What was not was not.
Now I am a man;
World have changed a lot.
Some things nearly so,
Others nearly not.
There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know.
Very often find confusion
In conclusion I concluded long ago
In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure,
In my head are many facts..
Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure! [lyrics from]
(Yes, Oscar Hammerstein gave the King a questionable English, but that doesn't change meaning of the lyrics.)

It's much better put to music in the Youtube (there's no video, just the cover pic) below:
[UPDATE June 5, 2012: The original youtube had been removed so I've replaced it with this one.]
[UPDATE Jan 9, 2013:  The second video went private.  Here's a better one.]

It's a Puzzlement from Andrew MacGregor Marshall on Vimeo.

Why are so few politicians, businessmen, and other anointed experts willing to publicly question what they know?  Do they at least question themselves in private?

Some, I'm sure, really do believe what they say.  I am sure that BP would have done something different had they known their actions would lead to this catastrophic oil spill.  Minor spills are ok - we have them all the time in Alaska, including right now - but the big one in the Gulf, besides hurting BP's bottom line, causes them and other oil companies severe political damage they would rather avoid.  Surely they believed nothing like this would happen.  (I realize that companies routinely calculate the costs of accidents and take risks if they think the gains are greater than the costs, but this one seems beyond that sort of calculation.)

But what kind of person can be so certain about things they don't know?

Hubris plays a role.

Competition is another factor.  Winning is more important than truth for many.  BP officials wanted their project to get approved and so they said what they needed to say.  This overlaps with the next reason.

Self interest also plays a big role.  The 'inconvenient truths" are those that, if we believed them, would require us to change our behavior.  Global climate change threatens many people because they can't imagine how they would live at a lower level of energy consumption.  We ask  soldiers to risk their lives in wars in oil producing countries, but many people aren't willing to make much smaller sacrifices like turning down the thermostat, driving less, or giving up their motorized sports toys.  Believing stories about American superiority, our rights to be free to do whatever we want, or about scientific progress help people avoid having to make adjustments in their lives and in their heads. The consequences of consuming oil are a minor cost for the American way of life.  Large corporations pay their employees well, so they have a stake in toeing the company line. 

Even our governor, while the Gulf of Mexico is bespoiled, sees no reason to delay Shell's drilling in offshore Alaska.  
“The decision to suspend drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean is based on fear, not sound science. Alaskans have experienced firsthand the ravages of an oil spill with the Exxon Valdez in 1989. We never want to repeat that experience, and our hearts go out to Gulf Coast residents suffering from the effects of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. On the other hand, Shell’s proposed exploration plan in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas has been reviewed extensively.
“I simply cannot understand how the federal government could approve plans of exploration only five months ago - approvals that were upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals – but now refuse to take the final step in a long regulatory process and not authorize Shell’s permits to drill. Shell’s leases should be extended, and they should be able to continue seeking permits from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
 So, the same people that approved the Gulf drilling can be trusted to approve the Chukchi drilling.  This is different, he tells us, because it's shallower.  But it has lots of other issues like severe weather conditions that are unique.  His professed lack of understanding indicates a severe mental limitation.  He may not agree, but certainly he should be able to understand the feds' concerns.   Even the  "Shell officials said they understand the decision and welcome the additional scrutiny the delay brings." [ADN]

(There's lots more in there - the fear and science line for example - to deconstruct, but I'll leave that for others now.)

I don't know through science any more than the governor does, but I do know that the Louisiana politicians were all enthusiastic about drilling in the Gulf for similar reasons and similarly rejected environmental concerns. 

I think that Gov. Parnell, in his heart,  truly believes Chukchi and Beaufort drilling is perfectly safe.  His whole world view privileges big development projects over environmental concerns, includes the idea that conquering nature is man's duty. 

What chemistry of values and knowledge risks such a spill in Alaska waters for those temporary jobs? What brain chemistry can't imagine and create other sorts of ways of respectably supporting one's family? Can dismiss the potential environmental risks?  Can't delay for a year the drilling in light of the Gulf spill?

I too am biased by my world view, but I'm not running for office and I don't have the kind of stake a sitting governor has to his party and to what he thinks the voters want.   I'm still considering  the portrayal  I read in biologist Wilson's book on the plane of two competing realities in the world today.
The economist is focused on production and consumption.  These are what the world wants and needs, he says.  He is right, of course.  Every species lives on production and consumption.  The tree finds and consumes nutrients and sunlight;  the leopard finds and consumes the deer.  And the farmer clears both away to find space and raise corn - for consumption.  The economist's thinking is based on precise models of rational choice and near-horizon time lines.  His parameters are the gross domestic product, trade balance, and competitive index.  He sits on corporate boards, travels to Washington, occasionally appears on television shows.  The planet, he insists, is perpetually fruitful and still underutilized.

The ecologist has a different worldview  He is focused on unsustainable crop yields, overdrawn aquifers, and threatened ecosystems.  His voice is also heard, albeit faintly, in high government and corporate circles.  He sits on nonprofit foundation boards, writes for Scientific American, and is sometimes called to Washington.  The planet, he insists, is exhausted and in trouble. 

Another human inclination - blaming - is also evident in the oil spill.  Does Gov. Parnell not connect the blame going towards the BP officials and their private servants at the Minerals Management Service with himself if a similar accident should occur in Alaska?

Even Obama is getting some blame for not making the oil spill go away. But once something is broken, we can't simply fix it. Some things simply take time.  Just as we can't speed up a pregnancy, once the spill is underway it will take a certain amount of time to play out.  Even with perfect  knowledge and the capacity and  resources on hand to attack something like this, it will still take time.  We don't have anywhere near perfect knowledge, and we have various people withholding information to avoid blame (ie BP official taking the Fifth to avoid testifying), so it will take even longer.

But blaming people transfers responsibility from those who elect the politicians who do big oil's bidding.  We all share responsibility if we drive and fly.  Americans, particularly, use up a lot more resources than others.  Wilson writes:
[T]he average amount of productive land and shallow sea appropriated by each person in bits and pieces from around the world for food, water, housing, energy, transportation, commerce, and waste absorption. . . is about one hectare (2.5 acres) in developing nations but about 9.6 hectares (24 acres) in the United States.  (p. 23)  [An average city lot is about 1/4 of an acre.]
(It would be nice to find  a personal footprint calculator to help people figure out how big a footprint they leave and how to reduce it. Updated Sunday 5/31/10:  Anon offers this link to calculate your ecological footprint in the comments below - and a long discussion of McCain's citizenship questions.  Thanks!!)

It's much easier to prevent environmental disasters from happening than it is to undo them after they happen. As we were taught as children, "All the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty together again." That's why learning to think in the long term with a macro view that connects the seemingly unrelated and to understand epistemology are all important.  (Well, I'm not sure how many people can actually understand epistemology, but at least to understand the questions epistemologists raise.)

So I believe we need to think more about the many ways we endanger the world and take those potential damages seriously, before it's too late. Be more skeptical about what we think is true.  (Are you listening Governor?)  We need to be less certain, less willing to proceed despite potential dangers, more willing to live less luxuriously, and more willing to question those truths 'leaders' tell us when they assure us they know what they are doing.

But that questioning needs to disciplined and reasonable. Not the kind of challenge that claims its own certainty such as those who "know" Obama is a Kenyan Muslim. Rather, we need the kind of questioning that challenges with fact and reason those who believe in projects that support their own well being at great risk to others.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

 It was still 74˚F out at 8pm tonight according to our indoor/outdoor thermometer.  [I decided the thermometer was aesthetically boring so I fixed it up a bit in photoshop.  The outdoor temperature is the blue vertical line.]

So we ate out on the deck tonight.
I didn't do a lot today, but I did cut the dandelions before they turn to white seed puffs. 

 It's nice being home. 

Ambassador for Hugs

Back on May 1, 2007 I posted a Youtube video on the Free Hugs movement.  When we were in London, on May 2, 2010 I saw a man with a free hugs sign near the speakers' corner in Hyde Park.  It was cold and windy.  So, now that we're home, I'm trying to catch up on some of the backlogged pictures from the trip.  Here's a short video with Stuart McElwaine whose business card says he's an "Ambassador for Hugs."

You can get more information about free hugs at 
[That doesn't seem to be working now when I'm setting this up.  Try this one instead.]

[Update 5/30/2010:  I just found these other pictures I took at Hyde Park]

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Back - Chicago to Anchorage Brings Us Home

It's day 40 in my little pocket notebook of our trip and we're back in warm, sunny Anchorage. 

Wednesday was hot in Chicago according to the Fifth Third Bank.  But Thursday it was much more comfortable. 

On the way to the airport we passed the original Mars Candy factory.

And a little later the Radio Flier factory.

Coming into Anchorage on a clear day is always spectacular and today was no exception. 

Our backyard thermometer says 72˚F (22˚C) and the narcissus are blooming and everything smells sweet from cottonwood. 

I had thought that the American flight we were booked on was really partnering on the Alaska Airlines non-stop from Chicago.  It turns out there are two non-stops from Chicago leaving withing half an hour of each other.   Market efficiency isn't always that efficient I guess. 

Millennium Park - The Bean and Gehry Concert Shell

Here's a map of the park.  It's a bit confusing because they use the names of the donors for the parts and I used the names people actually used.  So Harris Theater is the Gehry Concert Shell and the Cloud Gate is the Bean.   The Crown Fountain, which is the topic of the previous post, is in the lower right.  The flowers are from the Lurie Garden.  And the long shot of the park is from the Nichols Bridgeway but off the map to the right.  From what I can tell, North is to the left. 

This is looking at the bean (Cloud) from the south (right on the map).

This is from under the bean.  I took a video of walking to and under the bean.  I haven't had a chance to see how that came out.  If it's ok, I'll put it up after we get home. 

This is the band shell by Frank Gehry.  The next picture is further back. 

From the Nichols Bridge as we walked over to the Art Institute.

Meadow Sage, peonies, and an unidentified bird.

The park is free, but if you come by car, it's not cheap. It was $19 for the first three hours, then $2 for the fourth hour.

[UPDATE:  I've corrected my inexcusable misspellings of Gehry's name.  Just suprised no one corrected me earlier.]]

Millennium Park Chicago: The Fountain

I'm going to do this park in two or three parts.  I'm still processing the idea of this in-your-face downtown park that says "Don't sell Chicago short.  We play with the big boys!"

This post is about the spectacular and outrageous fountain which combines water with an electronic entertainment center. 

 There are two blocks 'facing' each other (literally), dripping with water.  The picture above is from the side of one looking across to the other.  The Millennium Park website says (in part):

Designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa and inspired by the people of Chicago, The Crown Fountain is a major addition to the city's world-renowned public art collection.

The fountain consists of two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. The towers project video images from a broad social spectrum of Chicago citizens, a reference to the traditional use of gargoyles in fountains, where faces of mythological beings were sculpted with open mouths to allow water, a symbol of life, to flow out. Plensa adapted this practice by having faces of Chicago citizens projected on LED screens and having water flow through a water outlet in the screen to give the illusion of water spouting from their mouths. The collection of faces, Plensa's tribute to Chicagoans, was taken from a cross-section of 1,000 residents.

Here's the other side.  They spit at the same time. 

In between, everyone is enjoying the cool of the water.  Where the ground was dry it was burning hot in the 90F weather. 

And the faces kept changing.

Wikipedia has extensive coverage of the park and the fountain.  It's called the Crown Fountain and here's the intro to Wikipedia's bio of Mr. Crown:

Lester Crown (born 1926) is the son of Chicago financier Henry Crown (died 1990), who created Material Service with two brothers in 1919, which merged with General Dynamics in 1959. He has been a perennial member of the Forbes 400 list since 1982. Lester controls family holdings, including large stakes in Maytag, Hilton Hotels, Alltell, Aspen Skiing Company, New York's Rockefeller Center, and pro basketball's Chicago Bulls. He also holds a stake in the New York Yankees, being a Partner since 1973. Presumably, the large stake held in Bank One at the time of the 2003 Forbes 400 listing has converted to JPMorgan Chase stock and was derived from an interest in First Chicago, which was enumerated in the 1998 Forbes 400 list as First Chicago NBD shares. Recent achievements include brokering a controversial agreement to expand O'Hare International Airport, and spearheading the funding of the new Cook County Hospital (Stroger Hospital). He is a major benefactor of Jewish charities, universities and the Aspen Institute. He is the chairman of the Commercial Club of Chicago and Chicago Council on Global Affairs. His current hometown is Wilmette, IL.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Trying to Stay Cool in Chicago

Once L&N finally got us out of bed and out of the house, they took us to Lake Michigan to cool off from the stifling heat. where we parked next to this statue of Karel Havlicek, who Wikipedia says was a Czech writer.  The bio didn't mention Chicago so it wasn't clear why the statue was here.  But at the end was this addendum:
A Monument was raised to Havlicek in Chicago by Czech residents of the city in Douglas Park. Unveiled in 1910, the statue by Joseph Strachovsky shows Havlicek in a revolutionary pose, dressed in a full military uniform and a draped cape with his outstretched arm motioning the viewer to join him. The Monument was moved to Solidarity Drive on today's Museum Campus in the vicinity of the Adler Planetarium in 1981[2]. In 1925 a biographical film was released.

The rest of these will have to pretty much speak for themselves.

This is from the spit that has the planetarium at the end.  That's the Shed Aquarium (lower left)  which our hosts are boycotting because they have "sentient beings" in captivity, including Beluga Whales.  I tried to find something about protests over the whales, and had to go through a lot of google pages until I found this 1991 Sports Illustrated article:

Recently the Shedd, a not-for-profit aquarium that first opened more than 60 years ago, has been the site of numerous protests. And as they have been doing for the past three years, animal-welfare groups throughout the world continue to file legal suits to prevent belugas from being taken into captivity. Lately the battle has escalated. In September two of the Shedd's six belugas died, prompting the governments of Canada and the U.S. to join in an investigation into what killed the seemingly healthy captive whales.

More recent articles talk about two baby belugas born at the aquarium, one of which died.  You can even go into the water and pet a beluga.  As an Alaskan who can from time to time see wild belugas, I have to remember that seeing these belugas live may do more good to protect our Cook Inlet belugas by making more people aware of these great animals.  It's a hard call and I don't have enough information to form a conclusion.  Two calves were born here in December, but only one survived (though this article focuses on the one that survived and the death of the other one is buried in the article.)  The article also says

Beluga newborns in the wild have a 50 percent survival rate and only 10 percent of calves born to first-time mothers live.
I'm not sure how they know this.  The ten percent rate sounds like  bad, if not impossible, evolutionary odds.

Did I say it was hot?

This is the bean at Millennium Park. as we drove by Tuesday afternoon.  Yesterday we spent time at the park and I'll do a post just on the park. 

These are shots from the back seat of the car as we drove through downtown on the way back to Oak Park where we're staying.

We stopped for dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant that had great food at reasonable prices.  It's called the Chickpea.  

It was full of Western ads and movie posters all in Arabic.  You don't need to know Arabic to get the messages.

And the moon played light games with the clouds when we got home.