Thursday, March 31, 2011

Walking in the other guy's moccasins

One thing I really like about my local PBS television station is that I'm able to get not only BBC World News, but Deutsche-Welle News (in English), and just recently they've started running an English-language news program from Japan (with incredibly detailed descriptions of the various problems at the stricken power plant). I like hearing about what's happening in the world from a perspective other than American. For that matter, I like hearing about what's happening in the rest of the world! Except for disasters like major earthquakes and tsunamis, we hear very little about the rest of the world on our network news.

For example, I've been learning a lot about the German economy during the recent economic crisis. They're doing much better than we are, in terms of recovery, mainly because their economy still depends so much on exports, and the things they export -- especially cars -- have continued to sell. On the other hand, I have become familiar with how desparate the economic situation is in Spain, in Portugal, and in Ireland.

And I've been learning about German politics. Of course I knew before that Angela Merkel was Chancellor (well, actually no. I knew she headed the government, but I think I thought she was, maybe, the Prime Minister. Which she essentially is, but in Germany the position is called the Chancellor); but I doubt I would ever have known that her very popular Defense Minister, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, was forced to resign when it came out that he had plagiarized much of his doctoral thesis. I was somewhat surprised, but pleased, to see that so many people thought that was important enough to merit his leaving office. ("It calls into doubt his integrity," one person said). I couldn't help wondering if the same thing would happen in this country. Would people think it was that important?

The one thing I continue to have trouble with, though, is the German language. When German speakers start talking their voices are quickly muted to make way for the English translator's voice, but you still hear a few snippets. And I'm sorry, but that is just the most incredibly ugly language. Here are all these reasonable, well-meaning people espousing perfectly reasonable ideas and opinions, and they all sound like angry Nazis.

It was interesting, seeing how all the various political leaders took a real bashing from their own people as the result of the economic crisis; 'twern't just Mr. Obama. In England they actually got rid of the head guy (Gordon Brown), people have been very unhappy with Sarcozy in France, especially after his government raised the retirement age, to save money; and in Germany, Merkel's popularity has steadily slipped. People have to have someone to blame, and it's easier to zero in on the country's very visible political leaders, than on the invisible people who really caused the problems.

So anyway, I'm having my horizons expanded. Thank you, public television.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Where's it coming from?

The winds have been raging for three days now. I was just lying on my sofa, resting the aching neck and shoulder that are apparently never going to stop hurting, and watching out my front window the great tall trees across the street bending and swaying in the wind. An impressive show of force (as if we needed any more displays of Nature's strength, after the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan); but the wind wreaks havoc with my T.V. (could hardly watch Fringe on Friday evening, the cuts in and out were so bad), and makes it feel much colder than the mid-30s temps we've been having. This is nobody's idea of spring, and Mainers are reading for some spring.

There's also the fact that the wind is blowing around all that sand left over from snowy days when the public works guys would be out making the roads safer. Now they're safe, but dirty; driving through the airborne sheets of dirt you feel like you're in a sand storm out west.

Still, the Kennebec is a river once more, rather than a snow-covered sheet of ice. We did not have an ice jam like we did last year (see Note of Jan. 31, 2010); I guess the melting was more gradual all up and down the river this year. They've pulled in the smelt-fishing huts that line the river across the way in Randolph all winter. They appear as soon as the river is frozen enough to do ice-fishing, disap-pear when the ice ceases to be safe.

There are still patches of dirty snow on the ground here and there -- indeed, we had a dusting of snow last week -- but we cling to the hope that, as every year, it will get warm, and beautiful, soon.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Something I hate

The way products are forever being "discontinued." My first experience of this happened way back in the early 70s, when "Seven Winds," the cologne I had been using since about 1965, was discontinued by its maker, Dubarry. That stuff was so in sympatico with my body's chemistry that strangers on the street would compliment me on how nice I smelled. Then the same thing happened with the fragrance I replaced "Seven Winds" with, whose name now escapes me. More recently in the fragrance department the scent I've been using for many years -- "Youth Dew" by Estee Lauder -- has not been discontinued ('though the space it takes up at the Estee Lauder counter has gotten smaller and smaller, as they've introduced other fragrances), but the perfume has been, including the lovely little cameo-topped boxes in which it came, in solid form, at Christmas. Perfume is much longer lasting than cologne, but I am reduced to the latter (which is housed in a much tackier-looking bottle than the perfume was), and the dusting powder.

Then there's Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper. I love this soda, and have just learned from one of the two places in the area where I've been able to get it, that it has been discon-tinued. What?! They also discontinued Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper, which I liked even more. And Coco Cola discontinued the diet versions of Coke with Lemon and Cherry Coke, both of which I liked.

And my stockings! For many years I've been buying No nonsense pantyhose at the drugstore or supermarket. Durable, reasonably pleasant to the touch (especially important back in the days when there were people touching my legs), and very cheap, they were perfect for me. If I got a run or (more likely) a hole, it was no big deal because they were so cheap. But over the last year or so I've noticed that fewer and fewer of them -- sizes, colors, just number of packages -- are available at Rite Aid or Hannaford's. They seem to be fading away, which certainly suggests that they, too, are being discontinued.

These are just a few small examples (have you got one?) Presumably such discontinuations mean that not enough people were buying these products to make it worth the producers' investment, but it is certainly no comfort to know that I have such refined tastes few other people share them. What it means for me is that I have to keep search-ing for substitutes, which is time-consuming, and can be expensive, and is generally discouraging. When I've found a good thing I want to keep it, in perpetuity, but that does not seem to be the way our world is set up.

Monday, March 14, 2011

On the other hand...

In my last posting I was urging people who hadn't read it to read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. However, I do have to mention some of the bad news the book conveys. It seems especially relevant given last Friday's earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Coming on the heals of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chili last year, as well as the eruptions of two of Indonesia's active volcanoes (Mount Karangetang erupted again a few hours after the earthquake/tsunami in Japan)...well, there's just no question that the earth beneath our feet is in turmoil. And we can't do a damn thing about it.

There are two unsettling scenarios Bryson discusses in his book. The one has to do with the "hot spot" located beneath Yellowstone National Park. That hot spot is what produces all those spouting geysers and bubbling mud cauldrons that so fascinate visitors. Alas, what it basically is is a volcano, waiting to erupt big time. In fact, it's considered a supervolcano, because the magma chamber deep below the surface is huge, about 45 miles across, or pretty much the size of the park. The park, in other words, visited by thousands of people every year, is the caldera of an active volcano.

There are other "superplumes" on earth -- about thirty -- but the one beneath Yellowstone is the only one that does not lie below the sea (a number of volcanically active, and inhabited, islands -- Hawaii, Iceland, the Azores, the Canary Islands -- do sit atop such superplumes). So when it blows, which it has done about every 600,000 years, it affects a huge area of land. And that land now has lots of people living on it, unlike 630,000 years ago, which is yes, the last time it erupted. In other words, Yellowstone is overdue.

Which makes me want to get there for a visit as fast as I can, before it goes. But which also calls into question my insistence that people who live in dangerous places should just get the heck out of there (see Note of Feb. 1, 2009). For it would seem that there is no safe place. Those ranchers out there in Wyoming and Montana, I'm sure they figure they live in a pretty safe place. Brutal winters, but no hurricanes, no drowning sea coast, no earthquakes, no volcanoes.

And even if you live nowhere near Yellowstone National Park, you could be adversely affected by an eruption as far away as eastern Nebraska. That's where the fossilized remains of a whole slew of animals were found in what is now called Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park. They were buried under ten feet of ash, and had died from breathing in air full of ash. The ash fall from the last eruption covered nearly the whole of the United States west of the Mississippi. And there's no telling how long the volcanic winter from such an eruption would last. This is not a pretty picture.

So what are ya gonna do? You realize you have to "Don't worry, be happy," as the old song put it, because there is nothing you can do to prevent Yellowstone from blowing up...or a meteorite from hitting the earth, another unpleasant possibility Bryson investigates in his book. After all, meteorites have been plowing into the earth for millions of years; why shouldn't it happen again? But now the earth is full of people, and the impact of a meteorite the size of the one that hit what is now Manson, Iowa, about 75,000 years ago, would be devastating for a thousand miles in all directions. Bryson's description of "devastating" -- provided to him by geologists -- is pretty darn scary. Which starts me on another train of thought. Maybe we really need to be pumping money into space exploration, so that we can find some places for the human race to spread out, in case this little globe of ours becomes just plumb uninhabitable.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

As Merlin would say...

All my life I have been a lover of the arts. I am at my happiest looking at art, listening to all kinds of music, watching a ballet or other forms of dance, attending the opera, or a good play. And of course I'm a writer and a librarian, a lover of language, books.

But I have long been fascinated by science as well. I often have a hard time understanding scientific concepts, but I still find them fascinating. For example, in my college physics class I could not wrap my mind around the idea that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." My physics teacher used the example of a brick wall -- you lean against a brick wall, bringing the pressure of your weight against it, and at the same time it is pressing back, to the same degree. "Come on," I said, "It's not doing anything! It's just standing there!"

What all this has to do with is the book I am currently reading and enjoying enormously: Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. As with most books I finally get around to reading, most other people have long since read it (this one was published in 2003). Nonetheless, if you haven't read it I can recommend it if you're in the mood to refresh your knowledge about this or that aspect of the physical universe, from the cosmically large, to the infinitesimally small, as well as to learn one or two (or 15 or 20) completely new things, all while being entertained by Bryson's cheerfully wry way of writing.

While I've been amazed many times over by what I've been learning, or reminded of, I think the most mind-boggling has to do with the world of the teeny tiny, of particle physics. It's on a par with the concept of "deep time" that I found so challenging when reading a book on dinosaurs not long ago (See Note of Nov. 20, 2010). And by the way, Bryson also touches on those incomprehensibly long stretches of time, in his sections on fossils and evolution.

Of course we all learned about atoms in grade school: the teeny tiny particles that make up all matter, and consist of a positively-charged nucleus surrounded by swirling, negatively-charged electrons. (Apparently that image, created in 1904 by a Japanese physicist who was more or less guessing, is "completely wrong, but durable just the same.")* We learned it, but did we really grasp the significance? I can't see the individual atoms that go to make up this penny I'm looking at, but since it's very old (pre-1984) it is made up of about 28,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000 atoms of copper. Clinging to each other, to form a thing. And all of those atoms have smaller parts. The nucleus of an atom, for example, is "only one millionth of a billionth of the full volume of the atom."* How do I think about that?

Or about the idea of "all but massless neutrinos" that zoom out from the sun and bombard the earth constantly (about 10,000 trillion trillion of them a second!), most of them passing right through you, me, and the planet itself? There are these things passing through me constantly, that have some mass, even if they are "all but massless?" This is like the approximately one trillion bacteria grazing on my skin, "about a hundred thousand of them on every square centimeter of skin,"* feasting on my dry skin cells, as well as the oils my body exudes. You have to assume at some point someone has looked at a square centimeter of skin and seen -- with what kind of amazing instrument? -- all those thousands of bacteria doing their thing.

Which takes me to such statements as: "'Given an adequate supply of nutrients, a single bacterial cell can generate 280,000 billion individuals in a single day,' says biochemist Christian de Duve."* In the same period, a human cell is doing good to divide once. My goodness, can anyone doubt that bacteria will inherit the earth? Especially since they can live anywhere, in virtually any kind of environment, while we delicate-flower humans are confined to a tiny area that supplies what we need for survival.

So fascinating, learning this stuff. It brings to mind a quote from one of my all-time favorite books: The Once and Future King, by T.H. White:

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting." You bet.

*Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.