Sunday, August 20, 2017

Shamanic Techniques for a Solar Eclipse

On Monday, a rare total solar eclipse will briefly darken much of the United States. A solar eclipse can be a frightening experience, but the only real danger is that someone may suffer eye damage by looking directly at the sun. A major event like an eclipse is a good opportunity to get in touch with nature, and one thing you’ll discover quickly is that human nature protects us by providing an inhibition against looking directly at the sun. This inhibition is so powerful and so useful I would argue that you should heed this inhibition even if you have eclipse-quality sunglasses or the appropriate grade of welder’s glass (obviously, not ordinary sunglasses or tinted glass) to look through. Using your will power or curiosity to overpower inhibitions is generally a bad business and the inner struggle involved can detract from the experience of an eclipse. Instead, look at the sun only indirectly. Far better than looking through a glass is looking at the sun in a very dark reflective surface. For example, if you are improvising, that would not be the windshield of a car, because that would be too bright, but perhaps the glossy paint of a car might provide a dark enough reflection. Be guided by inhibition; if the reflection seems too bright, don’t look at it. I would rather you see the eclipse on television than try to look at the sun directly.

Fortunately, there is no need to look at the sun at all to experience an eclipse. All you will see anyway is the crescent shape of the sun with the moon covering part of it, a geometric shape you have seen in photographs already. If you are in the zone of totality you can then briefly see the sun virtually disappear. That is a moment astronomers wouldn’t miss, a valuable chance to see the sun’s corona separate from the solar disk. The rest of us, though, learn more by looking at our own world as it goes dark.

The first change you notice is the shadows. By the time the moon has blocked 5 percent of the sun, you can see the change in the shape of every shadow. This is the freakiest thing about an eclipse. Even if you haven’t given a shadow a second glance all year, you’ll look at a shadow, any shadow, and say, “Wow, that looks weird.”

Everything is obviously darker by the time the sun is 10 percent covered. This is the otherworldly part of a solar eclipse. We know how bright the sun should be, and if it is a little dimmer, it is alarming or at least unsettling. When the moon is blocking one third of the sun, you see a quality of sunlight that is more like what you would see on Mars than on Earth. When the sun is mostly covered, you are free to imagine that you are on Ganymede. In fact, take this moment to imagine a world, not one that exists, but one that you might create. What kind of world would you like to see? The eclipse is a powerful time to imagine this. A prepared shaman can set aside all practical knowledge of cosmology long enough to experience the total eclipse as the death and rebirth of the entire universe. In this view, your ideas of what kind of world you want to see when the world comes back help shape the new world that is born, so hold those thoughts of the world of your choosing in your attention for a few moments. People around you might be meditating, chanting, or drumming to strengthen their thoughts of the new world.

You can easily find live commentary online or on broadcast media to explain the significance of the stages of the eclipse, but if you want a non-commercial point of view all you need to do is listen to the birds around you, especially songbirds. Birds do not know what a solar eclipse is — they have not lived long enough to remember a previous one — so they discuss it among themselves, and you are free to listen in. Even if you had your eyes closed the whole time, you would know what was happening just from what the birds are telling you.

A solar eclipse is like a touch of night as far as the weather is concerned. You might notice the breezes changing direction the way they do at nightfall. The experience of an eclipse can help you notice how strongly the human sense of time is tied to the regularity of the cycle of days. Day and night is such an ingrained assumption that you might catch yourself afterward thinking of the things that happened before the eclipse as “yesterday.” I remember this happening to me in a previous solar eclipse that darkened the world where I was by only about one fourth. The lesson here is that day and night are not intrinsic parts of the nature of time, but rather are part of our world, an effect of our natural surroundings.

Treat the eclipse as an appointment with nature. Be guided by inhibition and do not look directly at the sun. Notice the shadows and the breezes. Listen to the birds. Imagine a new world. Happy eclipsing!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hauling Lee Away on a Flatbed Truck

Maryland had mused for years about what to do with its Confederate statues. Surely they didn’t quite belong in a state that believed in equality, had long since abolished slavery, and could claim only the weakest historical ties to the Confederate side in the Civil War. Then last weekend a Nazi army descended on Charlottesville in the neighboring state of Virginia, beating and killing local people, threatening to destroy the town, and doing enough harm to ultimately affect everyone in the local area. It was a Confederate monument that drew the Nazis and their allies to Charlottesville. The Nazis intended to argue against its proposed removal, and though they had their say, they made their point a self-defeating way.

Overnight, every town that had a Confederate monument wished it did not. Would the Nazis strike their town next? Would they carry through on their threats to burn the town down this time? In this context, Maryland’s Confederate statues became a clear and present danger, an imminent threat to public safety. How many people might the Nazis kill if they came to Baltimore? With the Nazi groups heavily armed, it was easy to imagine a pitched battle with hundreds of people dying, but even one or two deaths would be too many. Officials collected the necessary approvals. Last night, cranes picked up the statues and loaded them on flatbed trucks. By 5 a.m. the four Confederate monuments in Baltimore had been taken away. Officially, their whereabouts are unknown. It does not seem likely that they can be safely stored anywhere, so one hopes they can be melted down and converted to something constructive.

The outcome might seem paradoxical. The Nazis are arguing against the removal of Confederate statues, but the brutal violence with which they state their case makes the removal of most of the remaining Confederate statues almost inevitable. To a governor or public safety commissioner, the compelling point is that with no statue, there is no flash point that could trigger a Nazi invasion. The strategy of removing the statues will not stop in Baltimore or Maryland. At the same time that Maryland was at work on its Confederate statues, the governor of North Carolina was recording a speech calling for the removal and relocation of the much larger number of Confederate statues owned by that state. I imagine North Carolina will quickly approve the removal of the statues, but if not, that action will follow soon enough there and elsewhere. A state does not have to see Nazi flags and torches again and again before it is compelled to move. Each removal of a Confederate statue increases the pressure on those that remain, so that within a few years, thousands of Confederate statues could be melted down or hidden away out of public view.

The result makes sense if you look at the situation through the lens of game theory, the mathematical modeling of making decisions when one’s decisions affect the decisions other actors. Nazis overestimate their popular support, so they calculate that their arguments will rally a large number of people to their cause, when the actual number is quite small. They may also underestimate the fear and loathing they engender, so that they don’t plan on the degree of effort others may make to avoid them. These mistaken assumptions make a highly irrational strategy on the part of the Nazi movement appear rational to them.

Taking down statues that are symbols of repression can have a larger impact than you would expect on the psyche of a community. The most prominent historical example of this is the rapid demolition, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the Lenin statues that had littered Russia. With the statues down, there was no chance that the Soviet system could make a comeback. Last night’s work removing statues that symbolized slavery has similarly lifted a weight from Baltimore’s shoulders. It will not be surprising if this turns out to be a similar turning point in the story of the city.

Update: Also see Washington Post story

Update: Congress too is getting in on the trend:

Monday, August 14, 2017

Diesel Scandal Takes Down Motor Fuel Category

The diesel emissions scandal has had a bigger impact on transportation policy than I would have guessed. As industry analysts had told us early on, it was more than just Volkswagen cheating emissions tests. In the time since the scandal broke, the global warming problem has become more dire. 

It now looks like the phase-out of diesel will take all liquid motor fuels with it. Norway is moving quickly and has set 2025 for its transition to electric cars. The United Kingdom and France have made plans to phase out fuel-burning light road vehicles after 2040. Volvo said that by 2019 — two years from now — a fuel-burning car will be a luxury item. Volvo will be selling hybrid and electric models side by side starting in 2019, but will no longer make fuel-only drives. Today the government in Germany conceded that a phase-out of fuel-burning cars is inevitable and will probably happen sooner than 2040 in practice.

In the meantime in the United States, Tesla started shipping its mass-market electric car, for which it has taken more than half a million advance orders. For everyone who has ordered a Tesla, there are 200 drivers who, like me, are looking on with a degree of envy. Tomorrow I will put another another $33 in my car’s fuel tank. A few lucky drivers won’t be doing that. I might be too cautious to buy an electric car at this point, but I have trouble imagining the logic of buying a new fuel-burning car at this point. Most of us will become electric-car drivers as part of the vehicle replacement cycle, but the transition will certainly come sooner than the 20-year life span of a current new car. In practical terms, the whole auto industry could stop making new fuel-only cars at the end of the 2018 model year and the existing stock of vehicles would serve.

Norway with its 2025 target and California with an ambitious clean-air plan might be ahead of the curve, but the United Kingdom, France, and Germany are only following the trends with their 2040 cut-over. We tolerate fuel-burning cars now out of a sense of practicality. The battery of an electric car costs more than the engine of a fuel-burning car. When this comparison approaches parity, fuel-burning cars could fall out of favor in a period of less than a model year. Automakers and dealers need to plan for this decline so that when it hits, they aren’t stuck with an overhang of obsolete inventory.

It’s easy to see the transition to electric for the smallest vehicles, harder for the largest ones. Cargo transportation and air travel make more efficient use of motor fuel. Ships have longer useful lives, are harder to overhaul, and have nowhere to plug in on most days. Upgrading all our cars is perhaps a large enough challenge to take on right now. With what we learn from the transition in cars, we will surely be able to make a better plan for buses and trucks, and then we can go on from there.