Archive for June, 2013

A New Climate

I’ve been on vacation for the past ten days, and got back on Tuesday, June 25.  Great time.  I took an Amtrak train trip all over the western part of the US: Chicago to Spokane to Portland to Oakland and back to Chicago.  It was a chance to see a large part of the country I’ve never seen before, and I enjoyed every minute of it.  I got to speak to a lot of different and interesting people, especially during meals. (By the way, the meals on Amtrak aren’t that bad, though for a ten day trip, the selection wasn’t real great.)  But what I wanted to say about the trip for the purposes of this blog is the fact that seeing all that terrain in one trip brought home to me the seriousness of what’s happening to the environment we find ourselves in.

At first, the most unusual thing I noticed out the window of that speeding train was the amount of standing water along the tracks after the train left the southwest and went through states such as Missouri, Iowa and Illinois.  Even up into Wisconsin and Minnesota, large areas of water had accumulated along the tracks, and the Missouri and Mississippi rivers were near the tops of their banks.  Some smaller rivers had apparently flooded which in many cases accounted for the excess water.  For someone from a state (NM) set deeply in a severe drought, the presence of all that water was, at first, surprising, and later disconcerting.  Sure, the Midwest had experienced rains and tornados and lightning and thunderstorms for several weeks before I left, but I didn’t expect to see so much standing water.  As a virologist, I wondered if that water will eventually breed mosquitoes which in turn will begin to transmit some serious and even deadly virus diseases such as West Nile virus and other encephalitis viruses, as well as dengue.

I also wondered if it wouldn’t be possible to somehow pump that water down here to the southwest.  New Mexico could sure use some water.  Albuquerque has just stopped pumping water from the Rio Grande–normally the largest source of the city’s water–and is now taking all its water from wells.  Other cities are running low on water, and still others are looking for other sources.

But beyond the local problem of water, the heat and drought we are experiencing here in New Mexico point up another more serious problem, that of climate change.  We’ve gone though several years of increasing heat in this country, even around the world, and the time has come for the US to make a stand and do something about it.  I don’t usually get political in these blogs, but I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the US government’s inability to make any headway on climate change.  I don’t have room to go into details here, but President Obama, whom I voted for (twice) hasn’t been the climate champion I’d hoped he would be.  Climate change has been relegated to a lower status as the US deals with the revelations of NSA spying, which in turn has demonstrated that the US government, in particular the Defense Department and other national security agencies are operating, if not outside the law, at least close to it.  Obama won’t do anything about the Keystone XL pipeline which could turn out to be a major environmental disaster, and he won’t make any headway in trying to keep greenhouse gasses in check.  Granted, he’s up against massive opposition–Republicans, big oil, big business, etc.–but showing some leadership should be expected in a President.  As the biggest economy in the world, we should be leading the way, but we’re not, as all that water beside the railroad tracks in the Midwest just points out.

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The Computer Strikes Again

To me, the only thing more surprising about the current scandal about government spying on US citizens has been the surprise of US citizens about government spying on US citizens.  Of course the government is going to spy on us, it does that to gather information about god-only-knows-who-or-what (presumably terrorists, but others are caught up in the spy net too).  It does it because it can, because the technology exists for electronic records to be kept which can be sent around the world in a few seconds with a few keystrokes on a computer.  It’s unlikely Verizon is the only company to supply records to the NSA; almost certainly a lot of other companies are too.  We have a marvelous system for transmitting information.  Call it the web, the internet, the cloud, whatever you want, whenever you go online, what you write or access is stored somewhere, on your own computer or a server, ready to be accessed by those whom you want to see it, as well as by those you don’t.  Even this blog is a part of it.  It’s most likely stored at the WordPress server somewhere in the US.  (Based on the time difference between where I am and the time given by the WordPress clock, I assume it’s in the Eastern time zone).  I have no doubt someone somewhere could access this blog without the information showing up on the visitor’s log which tells me how many people visited the site and what stories they looked at.  Whether they really are or not, I don’t know.  (How could I?).  That might require WordPress’s complicity and approval, though.  The FBI, the NSA, the CIA, the White House, Congress, all could be reading this surreptitiously.  (Actually, I hope they do.  That would be more than the known visitors I get.)

In any event, the ability is there.  I wouldn’t be surprised if not only the US government but other governments and private companies across the globe are accessing private data of their citizens and customers which we know nothing about.  The Verizon-NSA files are likely only the tip of the iceberg.  The real problem is computer, cell phone, and internet security.  The computer is a powerful instrument.  It transmits a line of code in a millionth of a second and it’s hard to stop.   That makes it absurdly easy to collect data.  It’s also difficult for people who have a vested interest in some aspect of the global economy to ignore the vast amount of information available by mining the internet and your phone records.  Just look at all the targeted ads you’re getting.  Oh, yes, you are getting targeted ads.  I could call for better internet security, but that’s a rather naïve plea, unlikely to be taken seriously.  No one is going to stop collecting information just because it offends someone’s sensibilities.  Keep that in mind when you log on next time.  Some one is watching and/or listening.

Sorry, I don’t usually do a blog on current events, but because the topic involves a certain amount of scientific acumen–after all, the computer, the internet, etc., were developed largely by scientists–I felt justified.  What the heck, I have a vested interest in the internet too.

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The Detached Narrator

This may not be my own invention, but I’ve never seen any concept like it in all the study of writing I’ve done over the past fifteen years or so, so I may not be able to take credit for it.  What I’m talking about is the notion of a character in a story, usually a short story, though a novel could be written this way, who is the narrator of the story, but is not affected by the outcome.  That is to say, this is a person through whose eyes we see the action and hear all about the other characters, but we are taken into that narrator’s head only.  His function is merely to describe what is going on.  This “detached” narrator takes minimal if any part in the action and does not influence the outcome, and–most importantly–is not changed or influenced in any way by the events of the story.  We, as reader, watch the story unfold, brought to life by the narrator, yet our focus is on the other characters.  We root for the protagonist and boo the antagonist, yet we’re not privileged to know what they are thinking.  We discern what the characters say, see what they see, smell what they smell, hear what they hear, and so forth, but we have to infer for ourselves what they think.  Even the narrator doesn’t know what they are thinking (unless one of the characters tells him).  Sort of like the narrator in the stage play, “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder.

However, that comparison is not complete.  In fact, in any stage play, or even movie, the audience is always watching the players from “outside.”  Usually there’s no narrator at all.  Each member of the audience has to decide for himself or herself what the characters are thinking and what their motivation is for the actions they take.  In a similar manner, the concept of a detached narrator is to bring to life a story in the way we would see it on the stage or the screen but without the physical presence of either.  I’ve written a few stories this way, and stumbled on the concept by accident.  In my fumbling around for a new way to write something, I began giving an outsider the narration and allowed that person to chronicle the story.  It doesn’t always work, and I’m suspicious that it may not be a very effective way to write a story.  The limited access we have into the minds of the main characters reduces the story to one of description.  The narrator has to be damn good at revealing to the reader the motivation behind the characters, not just the actions.  In today’s fiction market, we are so used to seeing a character grow and evolve in some visible and well-defined manner that I think the presence of a narrator who doesn’t change will be looked on as unsatisfying and incomplete.  Might be hard to get such a story published.

Anybody got any comments?