Wednesday, April 23, 2008

earth day late

My school assembled yesterday to watch a video about the "Agony of the Ganges". The film painted a rather grim picture of the river's future.

A main source of the Ganges, the Gangotri glacier, is melting faster than it is being replenished. Global warming is blamed for this. The glacier, they say, has been receding rapidly since about 1780, presumably the first time it was carefully surveyed. As a glacier recedes, it exposes more and more rock that heats up in the sun and melts the glacier even faster. For this reason, the recession that we witness today could be the advanced stages of a very natural melting process that has been in motion for ages. For example, 1780 falls toward the end of a period known as the Little Ice Age, which would presumably foster the growth of glaciers that were doomed to melt in the warmer weather that followed.

I am aware of a few different assessments of the glacier situation. If you read a few of the most visible sources on the web, the Gangotri glacier contributes somewhere between 25% and 75% of the water in the Ganges. The glacier is melting in an upriver direction at a rate of somewhere between 10 and 30 meters per year, and the rate is either decreasing slightly or increasing dramatically. I have no desire to join the numbers game here, since the only measurements I can access are second-hand and wildly inconsistent with one another, leaning in directions that support either of two agendas. I guess you don't get a Nobel Prize for Global Warming by being skeptical.

I am befuddled to find precise graphs of temperature dating back a thousand years. How many people have looked at this graph and never wondered how we know the average temperature of the entire earth (to the nearest hundredth of a degree or so) a full seven hundred years before the development of an accurate thermometer? Any process that leads to this graph must certainly rely on some assumptions big enough to nullify it.

To many Indians, the Ganges is not just a river, but the goddess Ganga, a giver of life and purity, possessing the ability even to wash away sins with a single drop of the holy water. Why do so many people want to worship something that washes sins away? Sadly and ironically, the water of the Ganges is hopelessly toxic and its use is linked to millions of deaths each year.

In the video, the scientists struggle to encourage a distinction between the 'symbolic purity' and the 'actual purity' of the river. Can such a distinction be? Surely a river gains human worship as a supernatural being by existing naturally as a conduit of life... might it not lose its deity by turning poisonous or by drying up? Many people who devote their lives in worship to the river are daily tainting it with their filth. The river receives the sewage of cities like Varanasi, the mortal remains of the devout, and the personal and industrial garbage of the very people who depend on it for life. They have the power to corrupt and destroy the object of their worship.

We find ourselves in a rather desperate position when once we realize that we can save or destroy our god.

Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire." From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god." -Isaiah 44:16-17

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

artificial reefs

Here is a link for an article on slashdot.org about sinking old New York City subway cars in the ocean to make artificial reefs for fish. Although it is presented as an environmental initiative straight out of a task force or subcommittee full of important people, I can't help but wonder if it was just a fortuitous misinterpretation...

Dirk - Well, that does it for all the boss's enemies and the barrels of green radioactive slime. So we're supposed to dump these old subway cars right about here?

Al - Yeah, that's what the boss said. I feel kinda bad about the environment though.

Skippy - U.S. COAST GUARD! PREPARE TO BE BOARDED!

Dirk and Al - [this quote censored]!!!!

Skippy - Hey guys, whatcha doin'?

Dirk - Um...

Skippy - Wow, were you fellas just getting ready to convert these old retired subway cars into artificial reefs? That's fantastic! The world would be a better place if more people like you would step up and take some responsibility. Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

math in real life

I am very tired to be writing this, so I don't know if it will work.

I recently taught a quick unit on probability for my Math 9 class. At one point I was explaining that Probability and its evil twin Statistics are very important to the industry of insurance. While I generally regard insurance with a bitter resentment worthy of tax-forms, customs officers, and the guy who broke into my truck to take the radio, my students are all ears when it comes to 'real life' topics. They were actually asking questions about insurance.

I was able to explain that insurance is placing a bet that you will die, or that your house will burn down or that your car will explode. The insurance company smiles and says no, we don't think you'll die. We bet you will live. And of course the odds and rates are all different if the probability changes, like if you are old and have seven kinds of cancer and enemies in the mafia. You answer a bunch of questions about how many cigarettes you smoke and how many ailing relatives you have and how often you go spelunking in volcanoes. I imagine that at some point in the analysis, a person at a computer looks at a number with a bunch of decimal digits that measure your life expectancy to the nearest minute. Of course they don't tell you what it is or you would breathe a raspy sigh of relief and schedule an extra trip down the volcano.

In one sense, it is utterly fascinating that insurance, a product with such an absurd premise, can take root and even stabilize an economy. The presence of insurance in a society gives almost everyone a substantial financial motive to burn down their own house, crash their car, or kill themselves. That is twisted.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

porcupine a zoo

video

This is my son's first music video, in which he uses his new blue guitar (made from the milk case) for an inspiring rendition of "Porcupine a Zoo", which is presumably inspired by a porcupine we saw scuttling along the road once on the way to Dehra Dun. We do not talk about porcupines very often, so it is a bit of a mystery to me. You all think our family is weird.

budding guitarist

video

This is a video of Will playing his bear like a guitar. We finally broke down and made him a guitar out of a milk box (what, your milk doesn't come in boxes?) and during the process he was jamming. Once he switched teddy bears right in the middle of "Jesus Loves Me", like some sort of guitar snob who thinks that their Clapton-esque talents demand two different guitars for a song. We never suggested that he use a bear, but we are happy that he is thus far content with a guitar that makes no sound.