Year 2, Month 2, Day 1: Stupidity Rhymes With Cupidity

Ban Ki-moon is going to change his focus to “green economics” in the wake of repeated failures to get the world’s biggest contributors to the greenhouse effect to behave responsibly toward their neighbors.

The Guardian (UK):

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general who made global warming his personal mission, is ending his hands-on involvement with international climate change negotiations, the Guardian has learned.

In a strategic shift, Ban will redirect his efforts from trying to encourage movement in the international climate change negotiations to a broader agenda of promoting clean energy and sustainable development, senior UN officials said.

The officials said the change in focus reflected Ban’s realisation, after his deep involvement with the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009, that world leaders are not prepared to come together in a sweeping agreement on global warming – at least not for the next few years.

My letter to the Guardian:

One can only imagine Ban Ki-moon’s deep disappointment at the failure of the world’s nations to make any meaningful progress on combating climate change over the past several years. The climatological evidence for anthropogenic global warming has accumulated at dizzying rates; scientific consensus on the threat humanity confronts is essentially universal, if you subtract a few petroleum-funded naysayers from the mix. And yet some of the world’s largest countries seem politically paralyzed, unable to do anything in the face of this slow-motion disaster (although there is ample indication that its pace is quickening faster than most experts ever imagined possible).

Perhaps the new focus on “green growth” will succeed where a plea for human survival has failed; perhaps an appeal to our economic motivations will motivate our leaders to do the right thing, albeit for the wrong reasons. And our descendants, if descendants there be, will remember that our generation knew — but chose to ignore.

Warren Senders

Some Thoughts on Rhythmic Cycles and Form

In late 1994 I was invited to give a lecture-demonstration on “world music” to a local cultural society in Pune. I talked about the similarities and differences in structure, conception and aesthetic values between, principally, Hindustani music, Ghanaian music and Jazz (since these are the musics I know best and love most); Vijaya and I demonstrated some ideas and patterns from these idioms, and I played a lot of examples from our collection.

For instance, I wanted to demonstrate how a jazz standard is used as the starting point for improvisation — so Vijaya sang “Body and Soul,” accompanying herself on guitar, and then played Coleman Hawkins’ version, which seemed to go over big.

Lecture-demonstrations are hard to predict, and the fellow who’d arranged this one had invited quite a few of his Hindustani rasika friends. For the most part they listened carefully, nodding appreciatively and making sage remarks sotto voce during our singing. Toward the end of the two-hour program, I started taking questions, and P______ B_______, an elderly vocalist, stood up. His question went more or less like this:

“All of these examples you have played us, they are all in medium or fast speed. Isn’t it true that only in Hindustani music do we have the vilambit tempo?”

This was another manifestation of the “only in India” concept, and as with all such, an answer requires considerable care in order to avoid either error or offense.

I asked him: “When you listen to a khyal in vilambit ektaal, do you actually count beats so slowly? One every five seconds?”

Immediately there was a corrective tumult. Nobody, it seemed, wanted me to believe that they really felt a pulse that glacial; several people fell over themselves in their eagerness to disabuse me of my misunderstanding, and began reciting the rhythm syllables of a vilambit cycle, showing me its internal subdivisions.:

Audience members: “No, no! Of course not — each beat has divisions, like te — re — ke — ta —…”

Warren: “So in vilambit ektaal, each beat is actually a larger unit, not a pulse you actually feel?”

Everybody agreed that this was so.

Warren: “So, a vilambit ektaal cycle is basically a kind of framework that forces the singer to organize his ideas in time, and fit his improvisation to the structure?”

Audience members: “Yes, yes, exactly!”

Warren: “But somebody who knew nothing of Indian music could listen to a vilambit ektaal piece, hearing only the subdivisions, and might not understand how the larger structure is outlined?”

Also yes.

Warren: “This is exactly what happens when you listen to our jazz pieces. In much music of the jazz tradition, there is a basic laya, which moves at a comfortable tempo and is maintained by the drums — and there is another rhythm, which moves much more slowly, and is maintained by the piano by changing harmonies according to a preset structure. Because you are used to hearing the large structure played by the tabla, you find it difficult to understand a large structure outlined by a totally different instrument.”

Well, the dialogue went on and on, and I’m not sure if I convinced anybody. After all, they sure didn’t hear any large structure in Hawk’s “Body and Soul!”

But the point I’m getting at is that all musical cultures have some way of organizing their performances in larger time-frameworks, and that we won’t find them by looking (or listening) where they’re not. Both khyal singing and traditional jazz of Hawkins’ ilk rely constantly on large-scale structures; the first articulated by tabla, and called the tala, the second articulated by piano, guitar or other harmonic instrument, and called, well, “the form.” Western musicians have adopted the generic term “form” to denote any structural constructs which guide a performance over time: “Repeat the first four bars of the A section under the sax solo, but play the bridge straight through” is a statement of form, as is “When the minuet begins, let’s remember to keep the tempo steady until we begin the decelerando at bar 37,” as is “Hey, let’s have a couple of choruses of guitar solo!”

In singing a khyal, by contrast, the form is the rhythm, writ large. Note the following example, and note it well, for it embodies a crucial principle:

Ektaal is a pattern of strokes played on the tabla; the same strokes, played in the same order, over and over and over. In fast and medium tempi, ektaal is a pleasant 6-beat or 12-beat groove, very catchy, easy to follow, each beat perhaps a third or quarter of a second; I just listened to a performance of madhya (medium) ektaal in which each complete rhythmic pattern took around four seconds to complete. When it’s performed in vilambit, however, ektaal’s drum strokes now occur once every four or five seconds — each cycle taking perhaps just under a minute!

A groove slowed down by a factor of twenty becomes an important form for improvisation in khyal. Now that’s an expansion of time!

Year 2, Month 1, Day 31: A Taxonomy of Stupid

In the Missourian, David Rosman takes on the people who hold up recent heavy snowfalls as proof that climate change is nonexistent. It’s a good piece, and triggered a somewhat longer response than usual. As far as I could make out, the paper has no length limits on LTEs, so I’m up around 200 or so. This was a fun piece to write.

Climate change deniers have many fascinating ways to avoid confronting reality. A few hew to a form of Biblical literalism in which humans can’t possibly affect our global environment because — well, because God won’t allow it. Others make the argument from personal incredulity: “global warming isn’t happening because I don’t understand how it works.” A closely related approach is the argument from apparent contradiction: if it’s snowing in your neighborhood, then global warming is disproved. While the latter two arguments may be consistent intellectual stances, ignorance, as Scott Adams’ “Dilbert” once said, is not a point of view. And then there are the truly convoluted theories — avaricious scientists forming a worldwide conspiracy headed by Al Gore (or, as Limbaugh’s minions prefer, “algore”) in which every bike path, public transport system and solar panel is a step on the road to a Socialist New World Order. Next up? Compulsory Carbon Footprint Re-Education Camps for SUV drivers!

These notions fail Occam’s Razor, of course. The simpler explanation is the correct one: industrial civilizations burn a lot of carbon, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, and it’s warming the planet. A lot.

But since doing something about it would require adjusting our habits and reducing the profit margins of big oil companies, it’s easier to stay ignorant.

Our descendants won’t have that luxury.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 1, Day 30: I’ve Got To Learn To Dance If It Takes Me All Night And Day

USA Today ran an article on Carol Browner’s departure, and the diminished hopes for meaningful climate legislation from the WH. The comments, predictably, are dumb, dumb, dumb.

The departure of Carol Browner from the Obama administration is an unfortunate testimonial to the power of moneyed interests in our nation’s governance. Because changes in energy policy would be bad for the balance sheets of the world’s most profitable industry, politicians bankrolled by big oil and big coal made sure that even the 111th Congress’ relatively weak climate change legislation had no chance of passing. Lost in the fiscal and political maneuvering are the simple facts that our current petroleum dependence is unsustainable, and our planet’s atmosphere is warming faster than even the most pessimistic climate scientists predicted; catastrophic changes are on the horizon if we fail to act. Carol Browner’s mandate was to help us bring that action to pass; her failure is our failure, and the administration’s loss is a loss for all of us — and a victory for mendacity and cupidity in America’s politics.

Warren Senders

Look Who’s Running The Country!

Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA) on Bill Maher’s show:

Year 2, Month 1, Day 29: Talk To The Scientists, Mike.

Randall Parkinson and Scott Mandia take on columnist Mike Thomas’s volleys of idiocy in the Orlando Sentinel. It is excellent to see actual scientists doing this work; Mandia and Parkinson are both smart and dedicated people.

I am informed that this letter has been published. Yay, me.

As Parkinson and Mandia point out, our media’s relentless preoccupation with short-term phenomena has made it all but impossible for the general public to become well informed about the slow-motion disaster of climate change. When broadcasters and columnists offer an anomalous snowfall as “proof” that global warming isn’t happening, they are contributing to a climate of ignorance and irresponsibility. When that same media plays the game of false equivalency, where each genuinely worried climate scientist is “balanced” by at least two spokespeople from petroleum-funded conservative think tanks, they are acting recklessly and endangering all of us. What we need is education; a population that understands a few basic principles of science won’t be so easily misled. What we get, of course, is something different and much more damaging. As our warming world makes climate change’s effects ever harder to ignore, will our media begin trying to keep pace with reality?

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 1, Day 28: Denialism Is Going To Require More And More Energy As This Goes On.

The Brisbane Times speaks sooth on the changes in our climate. So I figured I’d speak some sooth back.

Some of these newspaper sites are set up in a way that makes sending an LTE very difficult; I spent more time looking for a letter submission address than I did writing the damn letter. In the end I gave up and sent it to one of the support addresses, hoping that it will get somewhere, somehow.

The most alarming thing about the Earth’s accelerating warming is the fact that, statistically, we don’t seem to be worried about it. Has the anesthetizing effect of our mass media taken hold to such an extent that people cannot be troubled to notice what’s happening right outside their windows? It is saddening to realize that those with the most access to information are also the most prone to denial and rejection of inconvenient truths; while this is changing as the worsening climate crisis affects prosperous and industrialized countries, it’s not happening fast enough. Modern man is in a complex predicament; extricating ourselves requires admitting that we’re in trouble in the first place. If humanity survives the coming centuries, our descendants will have harsh words for the irresponsible media outlets (and the petroleum industries backing them) that have left us unprepared for the gravest threat we’ve ever faced.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 1, Day 27: How Do You Know That You Know What You Know?

The Scripps Oceanographic Institution is starting a new five-year project in carbon emissions tracking, underwritten to the tune of twenty-five million from Earth Networks.

The $25 million project in emissions tracking to be undertaken by the Scripps Institution is important for several reasons. From the perspective of the countries and organizations seeking to mitigate the impact of climate change throughout the world, accurate measurements are essential, since we cannot reduce greenhouse emissions intelligently unless we know where they’re coming from. But there’s another factor that merits consideration and appreciation: cost. Twenty-five million dollars sounds like a lot until we compare it to some America’s larger expenses; based on estimates from the American Friends Service Committee, the entire Scripps program (a full five years’ worth of global emissions monitoring) will cost less than a one hour of the war in Iraq, which exposes Republican eagerness to gut critical climate change programs in the name of deficit reduction as absurd and hypocritical. The GOP appears to think that problems will go away if they can’t be measured.

Warren Senders

A Radio Moment

My appearance on PRI’s “The World” discussing Bhimsen Joshi.

Year 2, Month 1, Day 26: Bellwethers

The Taipei Times runs a piece from the NYT’s Elizabeth Rosenthal, discussing the fate of endangered species in a climate-changed future. I have a cold and I’m sniffling constantly, which doesn’t help my mood.

The next few decades will see increasing loss of animal and plant species due to climate change. These localized tragedies, unintended consequences of humanity’s ongoing environmental transformation, are harbingers of our own future. Biodiversity is a planetary survival strategy; the greater variety of life exists, the more likely it is that something will always survive. Similarly, cultural diversity is under threat from the same forces that are wreaking havoc on our climate. Pervasive industrialization and consumerism are homogenizing our humanity, making it ever harder for indigenous cultures to sustain themselves, and making our own lives ever less integrated with the global ecosystems of which they are a part. We human beings are doing to ourselves what we are doing to animals like the Hartlaub’s turaco and Aberdare cisticola; their endangerment is saddening for its own sake, and for what it foretells about our own future.

Warren Senders