Thursday, October 27, 2005

Disasters are Good Practice

Seems like the last few years there have been plenty of disasters to go around. Between earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, wars, and hurricanes we seem to be always on the recovery from one calamity or another.

If there is an upside to all this I would suggest it might be in teaching us the tolerance, cooperation, and charity that we need if we are to continue prospering as a species and as a civilization. World conquest and destruction can be attempted unilaterally, but recovery and rebuilding is a process we have to undertake as a global community.

Even locally, I feel we are stronger for having gone through a repetition of natural disasters. It's a good exercise to have to share resources with our neighbors, and to learn how to drive cooperatively instead of competitively. Amazingly enough, even major intersections with four lanes of traffic going both ways can operate pretty smoothly as four-way stops. Despite reports of the accidents that occur when dead traffic lights are ignored, the rule is actually courtesy, with most motorists cheerfully waving in acknowledgment as they are granted the right of way by turns.

Consider these times to be dry runs for really serious situations that could occur in the future. If, God forbid, the big earthquake finally hits California, or nuclear weapons are used again, or a large meteor suddenly strikes from the depths of space, we will need all our resources, both material and spiritual, to be able to cope with the aftermath.

Practice, let's hope, makes perfect.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Wilma: Hurricane No. 2

The most amazing thing about our second hurricane in less than eight weeks was that somehow we had gotten from K for Katrina to W for Wilma in that brief time--that there were another ten storms that had missed us.

In a way, Wilma was a mirror image of Katrina. It crossed the Florida peninsula in the opposite direction, as if it were completing a huge letter X that Katrina had started. And this time it was a second-hand storm, having done its worst already in Cancun, while Katrina had gone on to destroy the region around New Orleans.

Nothing to do but put up the shutters (again) and wait it out. When I went to bed on Sunday night the wind was just gradually rising and the TV weather people were telling us it wouldn't make landfall till the next morning. I woke up around 5:00 hearing strong winds, watched TV till the power went out an hour later, then went back to bed. By the time I got up again it was daylight and the worst damage had already happened, though I didn't know it yet.

Looking out the front window I could see the tops of my neighbor's mango trees lying on his lawn. Out the back I saw several of my queen palms were down, one of them having smashed the chain link fence as it uprooted, the others having snapped in half like giant soda straws. The entire yard was filled with major branches from some other trees, but they seemed to be still standing. Luckily, nothing had landed on the house this time. (And our temporary roof patch, still there from Katrina, held up with no leaks!) I wondered, if it wasn't here yet, how much worse it was going to be.

With the power out, there was nothing to do but listen to repetitions of the same information on the battery-powered radio while going stir-crazy in the dark. I decided to take advantage of the wind direction to get a first-hand experience of the storm. Our screened porch, facing east, was on the downwind side, so I could sit there perfectly safe and dry to watch the show, with a solid concrete house at my back.

Thus began my aesthetic experience of the storm. This was much better than watching it on TV. A tall palm across the street served as a weather vane. By the flapping of its few remaining fronds I could track the gradual shift in wind direction from west to southwest. Phrases better than my own came to mind as I watched: "Blow, winds! Crack your cheeks!" from King Lear. And from Patrick O'Brien's Captain Aubrey, on the deck of his tall-masted ship, this marvelous understatement in the teeth of a gale: "It's coming on to blow!" (He also said, "I love a good blow," a statement that will make us smile, but I must say I enjoyed this one.)

My own observations tended toward the technical, the details. I remembered how the day before the storm arrived I had seen low clouds scudding overhead as if the whole sky were turning. Now they were merely shades of gray with no edges. The wind was not sustained but "lumpy." Turbulent from going over so many obstacles, it sometimes seemed to blow downward, as if invisible waves were rolling overhead and breaking on us. Sometimes in the lulls I could hear the next gust coming through the trees with a roar before it landed. Occasionally a really powerful one came along, as if to show how much stronger it could get.

There was little rain, but when a squall came through it fell as a penetrating mist, fine as an aerosol spray. I didn't see any more trees come down. Once they had fallen, they lay there like casualties of war. Gravity had taken them to an equilibrium from which they could not move.

Perhaps the strangest things were the small moments of sudden calm, in which a single leaf might be seen falling from the air. Also incredible was the quick appearance of birds--the small green parrots that have gone native here, and little wrens only a few inches long, using the lulls to flit from one branch to another. It has always amazed me that these tiny creatures can survive the tremendous force of the winds.

By early afternoon the winds were falling. I could release my cats again from captivity and join them in exploring the wreckage of the yard. Time to start sawing again, and piling up the debris.

It almost seemed like normal.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Takin' the A-Train

I'm feeling the national energy shortage in my legs and arms, and especially my feet and ankles.

Recently, in response to the rising cost of gasoline and the earnest imprecations of our Commander in Chief, I've begun taking the rapid transit system to and from work at least a couple of days a week. I figure if I can skip my car two days out of five I can save 40% of my personal energy consumption and make the petroleum available for those who need it more, like people on the Gulf coast who have to drive 50 miles to, well, fill up their tanks.

It works pretty well. I'm part of a fortunate minority in our county who live and work within an easy walk of the rail system. It takes only 15 minutes to get to the train, about 15 minutes on the train, and another 10 or 15 minutes on the people mover and on foot to reach my office in downtown Miami. It takes the same 45 minutes, or longer, if I drive.

On the upside, there is no lingering in bumper-to-bumper traffic, waiting for drawbridges, or narrowly avoiding collisions along the way. However, I do miss the luxuries of listening to the morning news on NPR while sipping coffee or tea as I wake up. Standing and hanging onto a metal stanchion (no seats available during the morning commute) is simply not the same. I'm thinking of getting one of those mini-radios you can plug into your ears to cover the NPR fix, but the coffee will just have to wait till I get to work--no food or beverages allowed on the train.

Financially, the two days of public transport cost me six dollars. Even if I save only a third of the gas I would use otherwise, which would be about twelve dollars worth (4 gallons), I still come out ahead. And that's without factoring in the wear and tear on the car, which would be another four or five dollars a day.

Then again, I wonder how much faster my shoes will wear out?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Let's All Evolve!

All right, I've had enough. I've just read one too many news stories where the Christian myth of Creation is being compared against the scientific theory of evolution as if they are two competing products vying for market share. In reality (I do believe in that) they are as different as a ghost and a machine, spirit and flesh. One requires faith and a belief system to create a subjective experience of something immaterial, while the other examines physical evidence and attempts to propose logical and demonstrable explanations for what we see around us.

The bullet points being hammered home by the "intelligent design" proponents are (1) "evolution is not a fact," (2) "life is too complex to be explained by evolution," and (3) "evolution has unexplained gaps it cannot account for."

I beg to differ. First of all, evolution is a well-documented phenomenon which can be observed in the species alive today, and inferred from studying the remains of those now long extinct. I think what they really mean, though, is not evolution the observed phenomenon but the theory of evolution by natural selection, which is the current state of understanding how evolution happens.

Basically, as Darwin proposed, populations of every species are composed of individuals with genetic variety and differing traits. When the population is subjected to stresses, such as the introduction of a new predator or parasite, loss of food supply, or a change in climate, some members of the population do better than others due to the set of traits they have. These members are the ones who survive and produce more offspring, so that their traits become prevalent in succeeding generations. The changes may be so minute they are unnoticable, or they may be sudden and dramatic. Genetic variations may be as mild as the color of eyes or as drastic as mutations that make it impossible for the individual to survive. So over hundreds of millions of years since it arose, life has taken infinitely varying forms. The forms that didn't work or couldn't adapt died out, while others survived ... and here we are, the living continuation of this endless chain of flux.

While we can agree that a theory is not a fact (theories exist to explain the observable facts), many theories demonstrate their usefulness every day as we make use of the technologies that have been based on them. We can start our cars, turn on our lights, watch TV, and detonate nuclear weapons without anyone disputing the fact that they work. This is even true when the theories have "unexplained gaps." We were already sending telegrams and using electricity long before we knew what electrons were, or how atoms were composed. Theories take us as far as they can, then allow us to proceed from there on the basis of new knowledge.

Complexity is certainly abundant in life, but there is no reason why simple fundamental processes cannot give rise to complexity. This can be demonstrated very simply through mathematical exercises like fractals and cellular automata, which can create "lifelike" forms from extremely basic rules. In fact it is the complexity of a population--its genetic diversity--that allows natural selection to operate effectively. It could be argued that the more complex life is, the better natural selection works.

I assume the "gaps" they talk about in the theory of evolution (let's make an acryonym: the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, or TENS) are (1) it doesn't explain how life began in the first place, and (2) it doesn't explain why there is a universe for us to live in, or in other words answer the question of Why Are We Here?

So in response to those issues:

(1) "TENS" is not about the origin of life. There are other hypotheses (not theories yet) about how inanimate matter may have formed the first cellular organisms, but if Natural Selection played a part in it that would really be a separate issue. However, if and when there is a working theory that demonstrates how this transition can happen, then it, too, like the theory of natural selection, should obviously be included in the science curriculum of our schools.

(2) Science is not about Why, it's about What and How. There are other forms of human inquiry that address the Why question. They are known as philosophy and religion. Far from being antagonistic to one another, all of these disciplines serve us best when they complement each other, when what we know of the world informs our speculation about what we do not know.

Personally, I believe that the universe around us is the body of the supreme, self-existent being we call God, and that our minds are tiny inklings of the vast intelligence of which we are small parts. But I don't believe that God sits on a cloud or in an office somewhere and micromanages all of creation. The divine power I imagine, glimpsed through the insights of physicists and cosmic theorists, is one that sparked a whole cosmos into being from a single point, that established from the instant of its beginning all the laws that would govern the behavior of everything from atoms to stars and galaxies, that built these laws into unimaginably small bits of energy (currently called "strings") which make up everything we see and everything we don't see. This is the power that made life in such a universe an inevitable, "natural" development. All we can do is study the details of how it has happened, and to marvel at its wonder.

For me, science supports my religion, so I'm all the more amazed when others feel their beliefs are threatened by it. Relax, I want to tell them; we're all in this together. By all means, read your Bible stories to your children, teach them how to behave in moral ways, how to live with one another in peace. But for God's sake don't deny them their right to know as much as possible about the world around them, even if--especially if--that knowledge forces them to wonder about what they know and how they know it.

Please, let's evolve beyond this petty debate.