27 November 2011


Human spaceflight seems to have entered a lull at the moment, but recently NASA launched the Curiosity rover toward Mars. Just think of the academic and technical understanding it took to construct this large robot, hurl it beyond the tug of Earth's gravity, and then arrange -- from hundreds of millions of kilometers away -- its multi-staged landing onto another world. It is easy to look at the state of the world and bemoan human frailty, but the discoveries and power of science never fail to lift my spirits...and I know of no more dramatic example of either than the exploration of the Cosmos.  I wish the likes of Carl Sagan were here to witness Curiosity make landfall next year.

From Space.com:  10 Amazing Things NASA's Huge Mars Rover Can Do

11 November 2011

Armistice Day


On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918,  one of the most destructive wars in human history finally ended.  At the time, people were so shaken by its length, horror, and cost that they simply referred to it as the Great War. We know it now as the 'First World War'. It holds a special meaning for me, effectively ending the period of human history I concentrate most on, and for me the Great War is war at its basest. It schooled me in the cost of patriotism and nationalism; it taught me the virtue of pacifism. In a war as ugly and purposeless as the Great War, the only moral option was to refuse to participate. Today we honor the millions of young men who were butchered for their government's greed, pride, and vanity. It happened then; it happened again; it will continue to happen unless we resist, and until we stop honoring propaganda's idea of the 'cause'. 

Normally on this date I post a specific song in tribute to the fallen, called "The Green Fields of France". It honors the victims of the war without honoring the war, which I like. Since last year I have heard another appropriate song, and while it may be more appropriate for ANZAC Day, I think its message serves just as well here.

When I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in 1915 my country said: Son,
It's time to stop rambling, there's work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war 

And the band played Waltzing Matilda
When the ship pulled away from the quay
And amid all the tears, flag waving and cheers
We sailed off for Gallipoli 

It well I remember that terrible day
When our blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk, he was ready, he primed himself well
He rained us with bullets, and he showered us with shell
And in five minutes flat, we were all blown to hell
He nearly blew us back home to Australia 

And the band played Waltzing Matilda
When we stopped to bury our slain
Well we buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then it started all over again 

Oh those that were living just tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
While around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I awoke in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
I never knew there was worse things than dying 

Oh no more I'll go Waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and near
For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me 

They collected the wounded, the crippled, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind and the insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And when the ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thank Christ there was no one there waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity 

And the Band played Waltzing Matilda
When they carried us down the gangway
Oh nobody cheered, they just stood there and stared
Then they turned all their faces away 

Now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Renewing their dreams of past glories
I see the old men all tired, stiff and worn
Those weary old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question 

And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But year after year, their numbers get fewer
Someday, no one will march there at all 

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong
So who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?

09 November 2011

The KunstlerCast

The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler
...the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl.
© 2011 Duncan Crary, James Howard Kunstler
300 pages

James Howard Kunstler is a journalist turned social critic and the author of numerous books, most prominently The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. These two books address the seemingly disparate topics of urban planning and the global oil economy, but to Kunstler and like-minded readers, they are troublesomely knit together, intensifying the problems that each causes. For the past three years, Kunstler has talked each week with on these and connected topics with his co-host, Duncan Crary, who has now produced a partial record of their discussions -- a collection which will no doubt please Kunstler's fans, while offering those unfamiliar with his work their first taste of it.

Although his modern work ties to his predictions for the post-oil future, most of Kunstler's nonfiction works fall within the realm of urban criticism. Americans who have never encountered his ire may be staggered by how much of their world he holds in scorn. Just what is it about the modern city and suburban sprawl that he finds so appalling?  In a word, everything. The opening sentence of The Geography of Nowhere, in which Kunstler attempts to summarize why he wrote the book, is a paragraph long.  The growth of American cities and later,  the 'edge' cities that grew out of suburbian sprawl, has centered on the automobile, and the result is the decline of public transit like rail lines in favor of highways -- infrastructure built on the promise of cheap gasoline, and frightfully ugly to behold. Its decentralization destroys the integrity of human communities and is in part responsible for the rising obesity problem in the U.S:  our automobile-fixated culture gives people few opportunities to incorporate activity like walking into their everyday life, for now every trip anywhere demands the car. The results are hideous: compare an eight-line commercial strip lined with box stores,  oceans of pavement, and offensive, neon-colored signs the size of trucks to the charm of what once was, to the tree-lined American Main Street with its cozy stores and pedestrian focus.  The good news, for Kunstler and those who sympathize, is that this horror cannot long remain: it is doomed by its dependency on oil.

The second half of Kunstler's legacy, originating in The Long Emergency and a source of constant chatter among the author and his co-host, is the idea of peak oil and its ramifications. The cancerous growth of urban sprawl has been enabled by the abundance of cheap oil, but that era is drawing to a close. The United States' oil reserves have already dwindled, and soon enough the oil wells of the middle east and Russia will dry, too. The consequences for a global economy built on oil -- oil to run the ships and trucks that connect manufacturing and distribution, oil to process food -- for food is an industrial, not an agricultural product these days -- are dire. Kunstler sees the fabric of globalization partially disintegrating, and local economies reviving. Everything, including the cities, will shrink to a smaller scale -- a human-sized scale. The unviable sprawl will die, and authentic human communities will prosper once more, while bemoaning the amount of resources that were wasted  in the "cheap oil fiesta".

KunstlerCast's conversations tend to focus more on Kunstlers' urban critiques than the peak oil scenario, though the two are connected to the point that the whole of the book flows together well, aside from some small deviations wherein Kunstler takes time to grouch about tattoos. I found these breaks more amusing than anything, and the book as a whole a positive delight, one which prompted me to begin re-reading The Geography of Nowhere.  While Kunstlers' arguments as a whole are more thoroughly presented in the two books previously mentioned, the format of KunstlerCast allows the author and his host to discuss contemporary, related, and specific issues not mentioned in the 1993 book, or only mentioned in passing, like the health consequences of an automobile-centered society or the work of other critics like Jane Jacobs. They also cover ground visited in its lesser-known books, like Home from Nowhere and The City in Mind. I especially enjoyed these sections, as I've not been able to get my hands on these books despite my interest in them. Thus, while covering familiar ground the conversations also introduce new material, making them of interest to Kunstler fans. Newcomers may appreciate a less formal introduction to these issues, especially given how easy it is to "listen" to the banter-filled conversation between these two intelligent and thoughtful men.

Given the present economics of the world, Kunstler's work has never been more relevant, and is now all the more accessible. This is a hit for old fans and the newly interested alike. The KunstlerCast may be found at KunstlerCast.com,  with archives as far back as 2008. Duncan Crary was once co-host of The Humanist Network News (now known as The Humanist Hour) and in fact interviewed him there before the start of their mutual project together.

07 November 2011

Singing History's Song

Tonight an odd video appeared in my facebook newsfeed, the tale of the Norman conquest set to a pop song from the 90s.  The same artist-historian has recorded dozens of these songs, and I'm still relishing them. Behold!

There are dozens of more!