Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Life on Mars

Phoenix has landed safely on Mars, to great exaltation. Now we're going to find out if there ever was life on Mars.

Why do we care so much?

Mind you, I don't object to scientific exploration for its own sake; we know a number of very useful and interesting things that we found out while just looking to see what was there. But we sent men to the Moon, and we've sent a number of exploring space craft to Mars, and we've landed three craft on Mars now, and the justification seems to be not, what does the place look like? but, is anybody else there?

So far, nobody else is there. I'll go farther and make a prediction, which the Phoenix team at JPL will be spending the next 10 years or so trying to disprove: nobody else ever was there. There has never been life on Mars. There certainly has never been our variety of life on Mars, the kind that's based on liquid water. And not on any of the other planets in this system either.

All our science fiction is based on the assumption that we're not alone. Writers have peopled "space" with a delightful and amazing population of "aliens", from Andre Norton's Zacathans to Larry Niven's K'zin to Anne McCaffrey's telepathic species and beyond (and I haven't read nearly as much sci-fi as some people), with one specification for all these unlikely creatures: we can talk to them.

Apparently, talking among ourselves isn't enough for us, despite the fact that we spend more time fighting each other than talking. Why would we think we'd do anything with "aliens" except fight them, given how we treat each other?

Based on the evidence I've seen, reading all the astronomy articles in Scientific American and other lay journals for 30 years, Ockham's Razor seems to imply that there isn't anyone else out there. We're asking these questions because of a long sequence of coincidences that produced a planet with enough water, and the right temperature range (most of the time), and the right chemicals, and so on, that over millions of years a mammalian species evolved which developed the ability to - ask questions.
(And before you bring it up, no, I don't buy the argument that God created all this in 4004 B.C.) Most of the planets we've been able to observe so far are prima facie unable to support life - wrong temperature range, not enough carbon or oxygen, etc. Most of the stars we've been able to observe are prima facie unable to support life - too big, too hot, too small, too cool. Stars like our sun are a minority. They aren't rare, there are just a lot of other types.

In other words, we are unique, and we are alone, and we'd better learn how to get along with each other, because there isn't anybody else out there to get along with. As the "mindfulness" people say, wherever you go, there you are.

But it fascinates me that we're so convinced that we aren't alone, that we spend really large amounts of money and time trying to find "them." Even if, in the case of Phoenix, the definition of "them" would be some evidence the Mars may have supported liquid water in which some kind of single-celled life form may have lived long enough to reproduce for awhile.

Whatever it was, if it was, I guarantee we wouldn't have been able to talk to it.

Why are we so desperate to find "them"?? Do we think they have Answers that we don't have? Or do we just think that if "they" can survive on a planet, then we could move in and take it over from them? (An unfortunate but likely supposition; and in the case of the current Mars, patently absurd.)

If you really want to contemplate "life on Mars," go read Edgar Rice Burroughs' wonderful Mars series: John Carter, Warlord of Mars. They're great.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Roast Swan

Not long ago, the Oakland Symphony Chorus performed Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. For those of you who don't know about the 13th century manuscript collection this is based on, there's a Wikipedia article. Carl Orff wrote the modern piece, based on the manuscripts, in Germany in the middle 1930s, and that's what we did. Three times, which is a lot. And under two different conductors, which was interesting, as they didn't interpret it the same way at all.

Whenever you spend 5 months rehearsing something and then most of a solid week doing concert prep, after the concert the music doesn't necessarily stop running through your head right away. Or for a while. But there's one part of it that's stuck in my head for nothing directly to do with the music. Of the 5 parts of Carmina Burana, the long middle section is about drinking and taverns, sung by the men; and it contains an extremely weird little solo piece called, alternatively, Cignus ustus cantat or Olim lacus colueram (the first line) - which is usually referred to as "The Roast Swan."

It's significant for 2 reasons: musically it's one of the higher tenor pieces in the repertoire, the tenor has to hit a high D; and textually it's the story of a roast swan being served up for dinner, from the swan's point of view. Unless the text is published in the program or they've looked it up, the audience usually misses this, because it's sung in medieval Latin, which is less common than it once was. Here is the text, in the excellent translation provided by
Olim lacus colueram,        Once I lived on lakes,
olim pulcher extiteram, once I looked beautiful
dum cignus ego fueram. when I was a swan.

(Male chorus)
Miser, miser! Misery me!
modo niger Now black
et ustus fortiter! and roasting fiercely!

Girat, regirat garcifer; The servant is turning me on the spit;
me rogus urit fortiter; I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
propinat me nunc dapifer, the steward now serves me up.

(Male Chorus)
Miser, miser! Misery me!
modo niger Now black
et ustus fortiter! and roasting fiercely!

Nunc in scutella iaceo, Now I lie on a plate,
et volitare nequeo and cannot fly anymore,
dentes frendentes video: I see bared teeth:

(Male Chorus)
Miser, miser! Misery me!
modo niger Now black
et ustus fortiter! and roasting fiercely!
You can see where they might not always print the translation. The chorus, sung by the basses and tenors, is one of the best known parts of Carmina, it's very exciting.

In the first two concerts, the tenor stood in the usual stiff concert pose. He had a beautiful if rather light voice and hit all the notes correctly, but he didn't try to do any physical interpretation.
The soloist in the third concert (under the second conductor) chose to act out the story. (He's an opera singer; in fact, his name is Brian Staufenbiel, and he's the head of the opera program at U.C. Santa Cruz.) As he sang the first verse, he waved his arms as if flying, and looked around. As he sang the second verse, he stood with his hands locked behind his back, as if trussed up. As he sang the last verse, he stood straight and stiff with his hands at his side.

It made the swan quite uncomfortably real, and I can't get it out of my head.

It didn't help that, at the dress rehearsal, the soprano and bass soloists were sitting over to the side during the solo, making synchronized cranking motions, as if turning a spit. It was funny in a very black way. From what I know about the middle ages, all of this would have been hilarious to them; so maybe this is just a measure of how much we've changed in 700 years.

But I still can't get it out of my head.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I Take It Back

I've occasionally expressed my admiration for Nancy Pelosi in this blog; she seemed to me to be doing a good job, although I didn't and don't agree with all her decisions. I officially take it back with the most recent mess over the farm bill. (And when I say "most recent": the AP article is datelined about an hour and a half ago.) She may not be personally responsible for this snafu, but she's in charge, and it happened on her watch.

To begin with, I
didn't and don't support the farm bill Congress finally passed; I supported the more radical bill that Barbara Boxer introduced, which would have replaced commodity farm subsidies entirely with a disaster insurance program. (I may be hazy on the details.) I'm in the extremely unusual position of agreeing with Dubya on something: I think this bill should be vetoed.

Now to the mess. Having passed this obscene farm bill with veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress, the idiots in charge of the process sent the White House a version of the bill to sign that was ... missing 34 pages.


That's right - they didn't collate the bill properly when they printed it on parchment, and they left out a 34 page section. So Bush vetoes the bill, as he said he would. But ... what he vetoed isn't what Congress passed. Is that constitutional? Is that even rational?

Congress is now scrambling around to arrange a second round of voting on the full bill, by Thursday (the current law expires on Friday), after which they'll re-submit it to the White House for another veto. After which they'll override it again? (Why do they need to vote on it again? They voted on the full bill, they just didn't print the full bill to send to the Pres. Or am I missing something?)

Can these people find their socks in the morning? If Congress wonders why their approval ratings are even lower than Dubya's, look no farther.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


I've read a couple of different articles recently on the subject of biofuels, but I was particularly struck by this one in today's San Francisco Chronicle; Arrol Gellner regularly comments on the relationship between humans and their environment. I'm glad to see that some people are beginning to agree with me, and to speak out, on the stupidity of the whole biofuels business. It doesn't help that Congress has just passed a draft farm bill that continues to subsidize the corn farmers of the midwest beyond their wildest dreams of avarice.

We have to quit messing with biofuels. Yes, and the Europeans and everyone else have to quit it too. Our insistence that we can turn corn into fuel for cars is causing a worldwide famine, by driving up the price of food in general. I'm not sure we shouldn't just Give Up On The Whole Idea, even eliminate switchgrass as a source - because land planted for switchgrass is not land planted for edible crops.

Which is more important - driving to work, or eating? Is it more important for you to drive to work than it is for an Indian subsistance farmer's family to eat one meal?

We're killing people here, or we will be shortly. People who live on a dollar a day (or even two dollars a day) will be dying of starvation.

And it's all because we're hooked on automobiles. Nobody wants to hear this - especially nobody who commutes 60 miles a day to work because that was the closest house he could afford to buy - but we are all of us going to have to rethink how we live, and how we get places. We'll have to break our addiction to the automobile, and the ease in traveling that it gives us. It'll be really expensive; it'll be really hard, and we'll have to rebuild stuff; but the alternative will be to continue to drive cars, using increasingly expensive fuel, until we can't afford any more fuel at all; by which time we'll have overloaded the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Then we'll have to abandon the cars because we can't move them without fuel.

And then we really will have to do the hard stuff: walk. Take transit (if it exists). Move to some place where you CAN walk or take transit. Maybe we'll go back to horses; treat horses reasonably, and they'll produce new little horses for you every year, for free. Of course, you have to feed horses; and we're back to cropland again. Plant it in edibles, or biofuel sources??

And yes, we're driving to Wyoming and Montana on vacation this summer. I'm addicted to cars too. We've built a world where cars are how you get around, and there really aren't alternatives in a lot of places. But we have to start thinking about alternatives.

Friday, May 09, 2008


There's been a great deal of loose talk lately about who Democrats will and won't vote for. We have more new people registered to vote than we've seen in a generation, and they're Democrats almost 2 to 1; and yet, the word is that if "their candidate" isn't the eventual Democratic nominee, they won't vote at all. Or they'll vote for McCain. "Hillary's voters" can't possibly vote for Barack Obama. "Obama voters" will never vote for Clinton.

I'm sorry - this is childish. Of both groups. The goal here is to put the Presidency of the United States, and as much of the Congress as possible, in the hands of the Democratic Party, thereby removing it from the hands of the Republican Party which has done so much appalling damage over the last 7 years. And if the Democratic Party can hang together, they can do this; Democratic turnout in every primary has been more than twice the Republican vote.

The problem, of course, is that for the first time in U.S. history, a major political party has two candidates who are both minorities: a black man and a white woman. (I still find it bizarre that women, who constitute just over 50% of the population, are considered a "minority", but let's not get into that just now.) This provides endless opportunities for mud-slinging: if you vote for Obama, it's because you hate women. If you vote for Hillary, it's because you're a racist. And it's regrettably possible that both of these accusations are true in some cases: America's bigots (few of whom have only one prejudice) have been given a rare opportunity to decide out whom they dislike the most.

Both candidates have more to offer than the "first". Both candidates are intelligent, talented, and determined people. Despite Senator Clinton's insistance on her "experience", they actually have about the same amount of national experience: a few terms in the Senate. As Mrs. Clinton, she may well have been in the White House when momentous decisions were made; but I'm sorry, I don't count pillow talk with Bill as "experience in government," and the only time she actually tried a major project (health care reform), she blew it. She appears to have learned from the experience, but don't give me any guff about her foreign policy expertise. She doesn't have any more than Obama does. In both cases we are banking not on experience, but on native ability and smarts.

The symbolism of "the first" is causing the trouble. We can elect "the first woman president" or "the first black president" - but we can't elect both. The zealots on both sides are determined that their "first" shall be the one, to the point that they're demonizing the other "first" as a mortal threat. Materially assisted by Senator Clinton's strongly negative campaign, I might add; it's true that I support Senator Obama, but I believe it to be an objective fact that she has slung more mud than he has.

What really worries me is the possibility that the people who can't bring themselves to vote for the "wrong first" will end up causing the election of the first 71-year-old President. And we bloody well will be in Iraq for 100 years.


God help the unfortunate people of Burma. Their government seems completely disinclined to do so. The junta, of course, was completely unaffected by the storm; they moved themselves to a new capital, back in the hills. It's only the people they're supposed to be responsible for who are starving in the mud.

I lost a bet with myself. I bet that the military junta which runs Burma (I've decided that calling it "Myanmar" is simply pandering to them) would refuse international aid, because it would mean letting outsiders into the country. I see that not only have they allowed aid in from Thailand, they've allowed the U.S. to land a C-140 full of supplies. Amazing. If Ban Ki-Moon persuaded them, he's better than I gave him credit for.

The people of Burma have just had it clearly demonstrated to them that their rulers have no interest in their welfare. I wonder what they'll do about it, if anything. The rulers have the guns. The people have the numbers. Or will they continue to submit?

Crime in Oakland

Since one of the things I do for the Greater Rockridge NCPC is monitor 3 different Yahoo email groups relating to crime in the north Oakland area where I live, I haven't posted much about it here - I spend quite enough time dealing with it already. But although it's an undeniably useful community service, I'm finding that it's very hard on me.

I'm continually reminded that I live in a city where crime is almost completely out of control. If you call the police they may or may not come; if you don't call the police, the crime in essence never happened, since the only crimes they deal with are the ones that are reported through the 911 dispatch center. People within blocks of my house have been robbed by armed assailants within the last few weeks; and we live in one of the safer neighborhoods. It's very hard not to conclude that everyone you pass on the sidewalk is a potential criminal assailant; I regularly have to do a reality check and remind myself that I have never been mugged. (Knock wood.)

On the other hand, I take precautions. I don't walk along plugged into an iPod, or a cell phone. I watch my surroundings. I lock my car, and don't leave stuff visible inside it. We have house lights on timers. If I weren't monitoring all those Yahoo groups, I'd tell myself this is just part of living in a city; but when the city you live in is officially the 4th most dangerous city in the U.S., and there's a good deal of evidence that the city government (not just the police department) is completely unable to deal with it, it feels a little different.

We've lived here a long time; we like the neighborhood and the neighbors. We have a lovely house, that we're considering remodeling to make it more comfortable to live in. And yet I keep wondering: what will this be like in another 10 years? Is this just a blip, which will go away when the Oakland mayor and city council finally fire the police chief (which, IMHO, he fully deserves) and hire someone competent? (Assuming they're capable of finding someone competent?) Or is this the start of a slide that will leave us, as we're getting older and frailer, locked into a house that we can't sell because the neighborhood has gone to the dogs, and can't live in without bars on all the ground floor windows? I don't know. There's a lot to like about Oakland; but there's a lot that's really scary too. I just don't know.

Where Was I?

I'm beginning to think I may be overdoing this volunteer thing; I just realized I haven't blogged in 2 weeks. In case you wonder what I am doing, I'm:

- The secretary of the local Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council; since Oakland has just disbanded the Community Policing Advisory Board, it isn't clear what standing we still have, but we're currently planning our next monthly meeting. It's amazing how short a month is when you're planning meetings. I may be about to become the webmistress of the NCPC's new site, too.

- Director and webmistress of the Oakland Symphony Chorus (also an alto - I do sing in it). In the last 8 days this has involved 4 rehearsals (total duration about 15 hours) and 2 performances of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (with the California Symphony); and we'll be doing it again in 2 weeks with the Young People's Symphony Orchestra, under a different conductor. (The last rehearsal was with YPSO's conductor.) Next week I have rehearsals Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights and a concert the following Sunday.

- Web designer and technical consultant for LifeRing Press, the e-commerce site of the LifeRing recovery group; I'm rebuilding it using ZenCart, in which I have found and reported a bug. I wanted to bring the rebuild live before we went on vacation in June, but it's occurred to me that it's a bad idea to bring the thing live and then leave, so it'll have to wait until I get back to babysit it.

- The LifeRing CEO also wants me to devise and implement a nationwide structure for support groups for the partners, families, loved ones, etc. of people using LifeRing for addiction recovery. Sort of like Al-Anon. The scope of this request leaves me breathless. Also, many people involved in LifeRing agree that the main LifeRing web site,, needs to be completely redesigned and rebuilt; but since no one can yet agree on what business functions they want the web site to provide, I'm ignoring it on the grounds of lack of specs.

- Finally, in an attempt to get myself out of the house and into the company of human beings at least once a week, I recently began volunteering with an after-school program for 3rd-5th grade girls called SMART, run by Girls, Inc. This may be one too many; I'm committed through the end of this month and then I'm going to rethink it. I'm not sure that 10 year old girls were the human beings I had in mind.

At least I'm not bored: I barely have time to read the newspaper which may explain the lack of blogging. And the library card I got? Fergeddaboudit.