Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Science before breakfast, law before lunch

Monday I got up at 5:30 to calibrate instruments for river testing. I got to the river shortly after 7, collected the samples and data, handed off the instruments to Claire, this year's river goddess, and walked back home through the woods to eat some breakfast.

After eating I had to sprint over to the town offices for a conservation commission work session. We're updating the town's wetland ordinance. It doesn't need much, but it's a critical part of environmental protection. Since a clean environment is a special interest in this country, we have to be ready to answer all sorts of challenges from the developers who want to view the world as a gridded flat surface they can sell by the square yard.

Talk about political interference in science! The legal people just want a number, a reasonable, moderate distance they can justify as uniformly applied and enforced. The developers want it small. The environmentalists want it big. Everybody wants it simple.

As I suspected it would, my initial research indicates it ain't that simple. Many factors affect how wide a wetland buffer zone needs to be. One study out of Georgia stated that in one case the buffer should be more than 250 meters. In another case, 25 feet would be sufficient. So the standard 100 feet would be woefully inadequate in one case and massive overkill in the other.

Set that number too big to begin with and you'll end up hauled into court or rubber stamping all kinds of variances and exceptions. Set it too small and you might as well not have it at all.

Put it on the pile with all my other reading...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Life is simple. Civilization is complicated

Two Marine reservists were discussing their Iraq experiences the other day. One works in the bike shop. The other rides with the local group.

Days before, I had said to the first one, "I wish I could feel there was some kind of guiding intelligence, some well-thought-out plan for what we're doing."

"There isn't," he assured me. He shook his head.

The second one always has a positive attitude. He does not seem to be someone who considers things too deeply.

As they chatted, the first Marine said that he'd go back to Iraq if he wasn't married.

"But then you get there and you go, 'why the fuck did I do this to myself?'" he said.

The second Marine said he'd had a good time on his fairly short tour.

"I kept saying to myself, I'm living the dream," he said.

Living the dream?

Combatant types enjoy the combat itself. Maybe some of them prefer to dress up and patrol around without a lot of hostile action, while others like to mix it up more. Neither of these guys goes around picking fights when they're at home. They're both people I would want on my side if something did break out. But how are you supposed to feel about people sent by their government into a dangerous situation when they seem to be having fun in it? The fate of nations and the vast sweep of political and philosophical forces means nothing to the fighters in the fight. Some don't care as long as they can get a job fighting. Others are just too busy trying to survive the challenges of each day to give any thought to a bigger picture.

We present this black-and-white notion of what we're doing and the people we're using to do it, but they don't react as uniformly as they are dressed and told to march. Some discover the experience traumatizes them. They come back recounting the horrors. At the other end of the scale, some people, even some who have been blown up, shot and mangled, accept it, even praise it.

As a civilization, we get selected groups to do things in the name of all of us, but each sub group is made up of smaller units all the way down to the individual. No leader can say with perfect confidence that every follower represents the same values at all. This is true of all participants in a conflict. Life itself may be a simple matter of finding food, shelter and whatever companionship one desires. Mix all those simple lives into something called a nation or an ideology and you get fundamentally insane activities like wars or political parties. It's hard to wave the flag when you don't know how the person looking at it will interpret it. It's hard to know how to treat a veteran when you don't know how they view themselves. You can't even say they all did it because they thought it was a great and noble thing to do. Some of them just like the line of work.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Nielsen Family

Out of the blue, Nielsen Media Research called to ask if I would like to fill out a week-long survey questionnaire reporting my viewing.

"I don't mind doing it at all, but I really don't watch much TV," I said.

"That's okay," the woman from Nielsen told me. "We ask several households so we get a cross-section."

Good deal. I don't mind being the 2% margin of error.

In winter I will drool in front of the box a bit more, but in summer I watch the morning news and the evening Simpsons reruns and that's about it.

The survey started last Thursday. I duly reported the morning news and the evening Simpsons. We've also been spot-checking the various summer talent shows and Top Chef.

Last night, I was home alone. I was watching the Simpsons. It was the medical marijuana episode.

The phone rang at about 7:15. It was a woman from Nielsen. I thought it might be my wife phoning in. I was also thinking about several deadlines for drawings coming up, as I watched the television.

Ring, ring!


"Hi, this is (missed name) from the Nielsen company. I just wanted to see if you got your survey packet and if you had any questions."

Do you mind? I'm trying to watch TV. I didn't say it, but I thought it. Damn it, I should have said it. I should have said, "I know you're just trying to do your job here, but so am I. How am I supposed to get my TV watched if you keep calling me up asking questions?"

In my distracted state, trying to watch the cartoon and stay in contact with my other preoccupations, I sounded completely stoned. It made her laugh. That made me laugh, because I knew I sounded like an utter bake-head. I'm not, but let's just say the sensation is not entirely unfamiliar. And there was Homer, doing the usual excellent job of lampooning that state of mind.

It all had a curious unity. There's a wacky, stonerish humor to the idea of the Nielsen company keeping one of their test subjects from watching TV, especially one who draws an almost continuous line down the "TV Off" column of the survey booklet as it is.

Tonight I'm not watching at all. The Simpsons reruns go Monday through Friday and I got home too late for the evening news.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Blowing Things Up Day

The Fourth of July is a big holiday around these parts. I don't know how much people are thinking about Philadelphia in 1776 and throwing off the yoke of British rule, but they sure like to blow things up.

Test salvos start some time in June. In addition to the usual little crackles of small arms, occasionally, at any hour, something large could go up with a deep boom.

We live in the woods. There isn't really any place to have a parade. The schools don't have marching bands. You can run up a flag if you want, but the main activity is blowing stuff up. It peaks around now, but takes the rest of the month or more to wind down. With a boom boom here and a boom boom there, here a boom, there a boom, everywhere a boom boom...

On the Disney Morning News, Sam Champion was talking to Gloria Estefan. I wasn't really paying attention, waiting for my local weather forecast, when I heard Gloria say, "we're at the American Mecca."

They were at Walt Disney World. Mecca?

I wish I could disagree. But our site of pilgrimage in this country is an amusement park.

While I like to find my fun in less controlled environments, at least using Disney World as the center of our religion shows that we don't take ourselves too seriously. World War III, underway as we speak, is between people who take themselves way too seriously and those who want to be free not to. The worst part of the battle is that it has to be fought, because it can't be defused with humor. One whole side is incapable of getting most of the jokes, especially the ones on them.

Still, I feel a little uneasy putting Cinderella's castle up there next to the Ka'bah. Maybe when Cinderella's castle has been around for a few more centuries it will have soaked up more of the gravity of the older shrine. You just have to give these things time. It all starts with an idea. Like the idea Gloria Estefan so casually put forth this morning.

Yay, Mecca! Yay Mecca! Yay, Mecca Mouse Club!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Political Divide

Just when I thought how nicely we were all getting along at work, someone got a bee in their bonnet because I said I didn't think much of Mitt Romney. Since this person seems to like Mitt, they went immediately into the Bush administration stance that if you're not with them you're against them. In this philosophy, intellectual inquiry and political dissent are unpatriotic and contemptible. You're either laughable or despicable, but either way you're wrong.

This all may stem from the belief some local businesspeople have, that a Romney presidency will increase tourist traffic and business revenues in town, because of his lakefront second home. Or is it his third, fourth or fifth? Anyway, not his principal residence, and even less so if he wins the White House.

I can't wait to see how these eager profiteers react when the whole town is locked down for some terror alert, and there are anti-aircraft batteries dug in at numerous strategic points.

The anti-aircraft batteries would be cool. Whose house would they drop the bogey on? It wouldn't be Mitt's.

The fun of all that would not be worth having Romney in charge. After all, what do Mitt Romney and Barbie's left breast have in common?

They're both plastic boobs.