Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, March 24, 2008


After a long weekend of eating and drinking, it’s back to the “real world,” which climatically translated into snow, sunshine, and snow in my neck of the woods. Here are some articles to get us through the coming chilly days…happy reading.

1.) Out with the Old, In with the New. Scientists, biologists and company have recently started a grandiose project, the Encyclopedia of Life, in which they hope to document all of our current and future knowledge on living beings. While the project is just in its infancy, it’s definitely going to be an important tool in the future for scientists and non-scientists alike.

2.) Closing Doors. As I look forward to coming adventures and things I wish to do, I can’t help but regret not being able to do everything, namely I want to sometimes to do two things in spite of the fact that I must choose to do just one. These moments lead to obvious tensions and psychological hesitations. Admittedly, we are all prone to shuffling our feet instead of moving forward and letting some options close. An article on the Advantages of Closing a Few Doors talks about the need to say no, to cancel and to avoid overbooking in our lives. Without prioritizing, you get stuck spending too much time on the things that don’t matter the most. The classic example is Xiang Yu:

*a Chinese general in the third century B.C. who took his troops across the Yangtze River into enemy territory and performed an experiment in decision making. He crushed his troops’ cooking pots and burned their ships. “He explained this was to focus them on moving forward — a motivational speech that was not appreciated by many of the soldiers watching their retreat option go up in flames. *

3.) Global Warming and the Medieval Warm Period? Everyone is going green these days. Everyone believes in global warming, it would seem. But, if you’ve seen the documentary Great Global Warming Swindle, you have probably come across a few bits of information that needs to be reckoned with, namely the Medieval Warm Period, a period from about AD 800 to 1300 where:

In the 12th and 13th centuries England exported wine to France. Vineyards also flourished in improbable regions like southern Norway and eastern Prussia. A centuries-long spell of mild, predictable weather blessed Western Europe with abundant crops, healthy populations and budget surpluses sufficient to finance projects like Chartres Cathedral.

In Climate Change? Been There, Done That, William Grimes reviews Brian Fagan book on the period entitled The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. According to Fagan, there are pluses and minuses to global warming. While there were clearly examples of increased production and bountiful harvests, at the same time there were widespread drought, catastrophic rainfall, toppled dynasties, ruined civilizations. The echoing examples are the abandoned Maya temples in the Yucatan and the desolation of Angkor Wat in Southeast Asia. For Fagan,

*Drought is the great enemy, “the silent and insidious killer associated with global warming,” **he writes. Population density has placed enormous pressure on increasingly scarce water resources. As a result modern droughts, brought on by El Niño events, have taken an enormous toll in lives and wreaked measureless economic devastation. Prepare for worse. *

*“Judging from the arid cycles of a thousand years ago, the droughts of a warmer future will become more prolonged and harsher,” **Mr. Fagan writes. “Even without greenhouse gases, the effects of prolonged droughts would be far more catastrophic today than they were even a century ago.” *

For a spark of hope Mr. Fagan offers the example of Chimor, a kingdom in coastal Peru **tormented by El Niño flooding and severe droughts throughout the Medieval Warm Period. The Chimu people thrived nonetheless by diversifying their food supply and protecting their scarce water resources. In a historically arid region with uncertain food supplies, they successfully tapped their centuries of experience with irrigation, soil conservation and water management. Look no further for a global-warming role model.

4.) Race in America’s Presidential Campaign. In a recent speech entitled “A More Perfect Union” in Philadelphia, PA on March 18, 2008, Obama stopped “transcending race” and decided to talk about race. This is a landmark speech in the racial history of the United States, because while his objectives are clearly political (defending his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright), Obama talks directly about race and its tensions and inner contradictions instead of the traditional, political language about “inner-city crime” or “welfare mothers” or, as he says in his speech, about “race as a spectacle.” He says quite right that “race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now” The New York Times has an article analyzing Obama’s speech on race entitled What Politicians Say When They Talk About Race:

“It’s not an easy subject for black people or white people,” said Ira Berlin, a historian at the University of Maryland who writes on slavery. “As Obama indicated, there are lots of legitimate hurts on both sides. It is extremely easy for people to misspeak. In part because we don’t speak a lot and because we don’t speak a lot you don’t understand the language. People don’t understand where the land mines are. They sometimes use the wrong words or are condescending or seem to be condescending when they’re trying to be honest. It’s easy for people to take offense when the wrong language is used, particularly when they’ve got within them a lot of anger and are looking for someone to beat with a small stick. In those circumstances, it’s often better to say nothing.**”

But instead of saying nothing, Obama speaks (and listens!) about American history—constitutional and racial—and ultimately about “a union that could be and should be perfected over time”:

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.

Obama is spot-on when says:

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.

Equally about the roots of our historical and contemporary angers:

the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races…Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeezea corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding. This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years…But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.**

Quote of the Week:

“I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

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