Friday, September 23, 2011

Fire or Ice or Ecominic Turmoil?

One thing we environmentalists often get criticized for is our proclamations of a doom and gloom filled future.  We recognize some problems in the way humans do things and often conclude that we can't keep doing them without consequences, and we want to understand what those consequences are and if it's important to avoid them even and especially if avoiding them has negative consequences for us now.  If future consequences will be worse, we think it is really quite rational to take action now to lessen them.

The problem is, although models can be pretty predictive, while cause and effect rationality combined with observational data can make for good scientific papers, still, nobody has the entire biosphere and global economy worked out to the level of solvable equations--and nobody has a crystal ball, either.  And most folks just get fed up with too many downer predictions about the future:  it's far away, hard to get emotional about, and why does everybody have to be so pessimistic anyway?


Breaking News!

Okay, so I'm technically a physicist, so technically that means I can comment on this whole European-Scientists-Found-Faster-Than-Light-Neutrino thing, right?

Except I'm not much of a particle physicist, so I don't really have any idea--I'll try to find the paper and make some more intelligent comments later.*  However, anybody proposing to have found this would have to be hella sure (like, sure times 10^27) that they didn't just forget how to add somewhere along the way, because the entire scientific community is about to try it's damnest to tear everything they did to shreds.  As it should.

As for violating OMG UNBREAKABLE LAWS...there are some problems with modern physics that means it doesn't fit in with quantum physics, and vice versa, and we're still trying to sort that out.  Did that leave the possibility open for something going faster than the speed of light?  Err, no, actually, that part was pretty settled.  If this doesn't turn out to be Whoops Guys We Made A Really Embarrassing Mistake, it's actually probably the biggest deal that physics has seen since...Feynman?  That's exciting, but personally, I haven't got my fingers crossed.

*If I get around to it and if it's not behind the content wall.

Sutble Little Things About Climbing Rocks

When I mention that I'm breaking into lead climbing but I'm still uncomfortable with it, it's worth clarifying that I'm uncomfortable with it in a kind of fear-paralysis-let-me-verbalize-how-terrified-and-upset-I-am-every-second-that-I'm-on-the-rock kind of a way, not in any kind of stoic way.  I pause interminably at tough points, I still often give in to the temptation to hang on the rope as soon as I get to a point where I can clip in, I yell at myself, I curse, I cry, sometimes I even say things like "I'm gonna fall ahhhh!" even though I'm not at that moment falling, which is a really uncool thing to do to your belayer, who stands to have a pretty rough experience as well if you do actually fall while on lead.

I've gotten that down a bit, but it's still a pretty lame show of self-challenge. Improvement comes slowly: last time on real rock I merely paused at the one hard part for a minute, called myself an idiot about ten times, then pushed through without even crying.  I even lead an overhanging route on the outdoor wall at the gym without having to verbalize or pause at all, although I was shaking the whole time. 

But most significantly, I'm still uncomfortable with it enough that I never try to lead on routes anything like my actual climbing ability, I'm still uncomfortable with overhangs (even though they are actually safer for lead falls) and I'm still pretty much unwilling to lead a route that I haven't ever climbed before on toprope.  Which means I don't reach my limits, physically or mentally.  Which means I don't know if I particularly want to reach my limits or not.  I think I do--at least--I want to know what they are, and I like to think that shouting and crying Lead Me is not a real limit but just a layer of immaturity that has to fall away.  When you push your limits you find out who you really are, and I don't want that to be who I really am.


Last night at the gym I fell about 10 feet, right at the top of a bouldering problem. There's about a foot of springy padding on the gym floor, so although did feel a kind of slight head rattle, I think I was mostly shaky after that because I hadn't expected to fall and had been surprised by it.  Which highlights a problem with climbing: you're supposed to climb until you fall, meaning all falls should be more or less a surprise.  You aren't supposed to climb until you reach something you aren't sure will work so you give up and go back down--because then how will you ever get to practice the moves that challenge you?  You might be aware that in this move a fall is kinda likely, but if you don't even try because a fall is possible, or, if you try something crazy without at least some mentality of "this IS going to work," you are missing out on some crucial steps that lead to improvement.

I usually do give in to the temptation of "I don't see this working so I'm going to get off the wall and think some more," but this time I didn't.  There were a lot of people watching, one guy in particular giving really good advice, and I thought hey, I'll try that move, I bet it's possible..and hello air.  (That guy really should have been spotting my head, though.) Just like that, I made a conscious decision to do something that I knew was risky but also knew was likely possible--a decision I don't normally make but somehow found the power to do this time. That the surprise made me shaky highlights how I need to take risks more often, so that safe falls are not something jarring but something I'm used to.  
Split-second hesitation is so, so easy, while the alternative requires unwavering will. These are beginner lessons--and yet they keep coming back. It's not that anything suddenly gets easier, is that you grow enough to be more equal to the challenge.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

(Not) Outward Bound (Yet)

This week my reading list has featured several classics in the theme of yearning for the outdoors:  first Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and now Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston, the guy featured in the recent movie 127 Hours.

Into the Wild is about a twenty-four year old idealist in the way of Tolstoy and Thoreau who went into Alaska in 1992 in order to live his greatest dream an in living off the land, "become lost in the wild."  This culminated a 2-year odyssey of hitchhiking and migrant working, undertaken abruptly after a stellar academic career at Emory without a word to his family about his whereabouts.  Four months after entering the wilderness, moose hunters found his remains.

This happens with some frequency in Alaska, as this country produces no shortage of those dissatisfied with modern life and yearning for simplicity, while actual knowledge in living off the land or the luck to survive the learning curve in order to succeed at doing so is pretty rare.   This story is noteworthy because the young man (my age!) did survive reasonably well for four months by hunting small game and gathering roots and berries, and ended up dead only because of two very small mistakes. He also left behind photographs, letters, and journals, giving us a glimpse into his trials and tribulations as well as the soul-searching that led him to seek the adventure that only by misfortune proved fateful.

I saw the documentary about Aron Ralston many years before the movie came out, featuring actual footage Ralston took with his video camera during the days he was stuck in the canyon, arm pinned immovably to the wall by a fallen boulder.  (In case you haven't seen the movie or don't know the story, he stayed in that cave until he ran out of water and knew there was no hope of rescue, then decided to and succeeded in sawing his arm off with his pocket knife, applying a tourniquet and hiking 5 miles back to the safety of civilization.)

The theme here is of course the call of the wild, the simple life, the rawness of adventure and hardship in the face of nature's uncaring rules and consequences.  You choose your level of risk but danger is an accepted part of the attraction, the experience isn't real if it isn't real.

I'm skipping through some of Ralston's many interludes into descriptions of his many other adventures climbing peaks about 14,000 feet in Colorado--but both books are very interesting to me, perhaps because I know just enough about the call of the wild and the harsh reality of nature without having had nor sought anything near the intensity of experience of either men.

And I don't want to go try to live off of the land in Alaska, and I sure as heck don't ever want to have to choose to cut my arm off in order to survive--but I do like to wonder if I were in such impossible situations, how would I respond?  I test myself with lead climbing and open water swimming and I barely even come close to real limits on my physical and mental ability because I still don't want to. I'm uncomfortable enough with those experiences even as comparatively mild as they are.

Maybe it's not the best theme for me to be pursuing when I'm on the cusp of turning a temporary job into a permanent affair, one full of awesome opportunity, playing to my skills, located in a place I want to stay located--but done mostly from a desk in front of a computer, far, from the quiet of the woods and the majesty of the mountains, and limits these soul-filling opportunities to weekends.

It was hard to pull myself away from my sojourn in Shenandoah to come here and start on this path.  Professional development and career opportunities and all the security that entails may in fact have nothing on the kind of less secure jobs and less secure lifestyle that allows one a richness of experience outdoors.  I wonder, when I look back on my life, will I be satisfied with the experiences I've had?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Gender Identity Okay

I'm okay with my femininity even if I'm not very feminine.

Femininity as strictly defined as things women do that men don't--mostly in relation to appearance--has actually always been difficult for me, or just never worked for me.  My hair was a mess of untamed frizz, my face was a mass of pimples, I had hair in places I shouldn't that just grew back faster and thicker when I tried to shave it, I would sweat profusely and easily even without having to do too much exertion.  (Those things are all still true.)

There is makeup and hair-taming products and laser removal and intense medication to fix all of these things--but I was also unwilling or unable to spend the money, wake up the extra hour(s) early, stop the physically exerting things I enjoyed doing.  I think if achieving the correct standard of femaleness had been easier to attain, I would have bought into all of it happily.  I wanted to be pretty, and sexually desired, and accepted.  I hated how ugly I felt, how dirty, how disappointed my mother--despite her otherwise progressive tendencies--clearly was by my lack of propensity to get those details right.  But it all felt so hopelessly unattainable:  there were always new pimples, always more hair to shave, always curls sneaking back into being out of the straightness I used various irons and greases to fry into my hair.  I also quickly came to wonder why it was all so important anyway, and I hated feeling bad about myself so much that I decided not caring was so much better.

I was reminded of all of that teenage angst a few weeks ago, when I had to dress up to high femininity for a family wedding.  My mother vetted my dress--not hiding her concern that I couldn't quite be trusted to pick out something appropriately normal on my own-- she begged me to shave my legs for my aunt's sake, and not-quite-hinted that makeup would improve things dramatically, as well.   No big deal, really, I can do it for a day, but it reminded me how alien to me are some things that many, perhaps even most, women do all the time.

Yet despite my distaste for artificial appearance enhancers and many other feminine pursuits, I don't feel like I'm not a woman.  I don't want to be anything other than a woman.  Okay, yeah, I envy men their physical strength and the body types that make them such good rock climbers--but that's pretty much where it stops.  Even though I don't feel particularly feminine I am very attached to my self-identity as a "she"--whatever exactly that means.

For better or worse--and I think mostly for better--I am accustomed to the cultural implications involved in being female.  The negative ones sure do suck.  Getting cat-called or leered at by strangers is the one that really bothers me the most, but those are just social problems, not problems inherent to being female. (And culturally, it's not all rosy for men, either.) At the same time that I recognize some disadvantages in being female, I see so many things to love. I love the way I  maintain my family and my social circle, and I devote a typically female energy to my relationships. I love how I can bond very quickly with other women, I like long hair and being slender and graceful and even feeling "pretty" wearing a skirt once in a while.  I love that I am mostly rational but allow passion about things that matter to enter into my equations at appropriate times, that I am adept at seeing things from other peoples' point of view, that I can follow and understand social nuance, that I can cry if I need to without feeling like I've lost a huge piece of myself, that I can come to understand the strength in feeling and processing emotions rather than keeping them bottled up inside.

Intellectually I am very much not a fan of a cultural gender binary that says men are one way and women are another.  I and most of the people I associated with do a lot of things completely outside of it. It is a gross oversimplification of human behavior, meant to be descriptive but that ends up becoming prescriptive instead.  It is extremely destructive to the self-esteem of people who can't fit themselves into it's rules without sacrificing something crucial about their identity.

But I really I like being who I am, and who I am is inexorably wrapped, in some cultural and biological ways that I can't all sort out, with the particular set of chromosomes and genital arrangement I received at birth, and the acculturation I theretofore received telling me that I was a girl.  And I am fine, more than fine, with that.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Please Consider the Environment

At the bottom of a lot of many emails in this new professional world, I see quite a bit of that little wingdings picture of a landscape with mountains and a tree, made large and in green font, next to some variation on the words "Be Green! Consider the environment before printing this email!"

Maybe this is to be expected considering that I do work in the green building world.  Yet apart from my department of our company, the rest of what folks do has a lot more to do with selling things than with thinking about how green they are--and somebody has to sell the stuff, and I'm sure glad it ain't me.  I find it funny that the largest relic of "greenness" among the rest of my company that I can observe is a little note telling me not to print my email.  (Which also happens to help the company spend a little less green on printing costs.)

And while I don't suppose that note is "greenwashing," per say--among the people who use it, their heart is probably in the right place--it does strike me as bizarre, and utterly irrelevant toward actual environmental protection.

There are two things I don't like about it.  The first has to do with making something very small and maybe not something you were really inclined to do anyway seem like that's it, you did your part. Or maybe I just live in a subset of the world where most people don't really print their email--or maybe I just get more or less irrelevant email--but I don't know that many folks are really all that compelled to print their email anyway.  But even so, most of sustainability has more to do with widespread systematic problems than whether or not you print ten copies of an email about your friend's dog. 

The other problem is the nag factor.  It's a nice friendly little reminder, but sometimes nothing grates you more than friendly little reminders about things! Especially if it's there in your signature line on every email that you send! I've posited before that this aspect of sustainability is one of our greatest challenges:  personal responsibility is personal after all, is internally motivated, so sometimes friendly reminders just piss people off even if well-intentioned and they shouldn't get so uptight about it and you were just trying to help gosh. Adults don't like being told how they should do something, even if, when they considered it themselves, they might agree that the suggested way has more benefits.

In light of gripe number one, I suppose I'd rather not waste people's nag tolerance on something so trivial--or even bother people's nag tolerance at all.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Spark Plugs

I changed the spark plugs in my car today, with my trusty Haynes manual and a friend who had "done it once before on his car" as my guide.

I take a kind of gender-role-defying pride in doing simple work on my car myself, just the easy things like changing the oil and rotating the tires, and occasionally more tricky things like tightening the emergency brake cable and changing the transmission fluid.  Sometimes doing the labor yourself saves money and what I do pick up in understanding how my car works give me confidence in driving it if not any actual real tangible skills with cars---but I think I mostly do it out of a continuing determination to be just as self-reliant as the boys. I actually am really claustrophobic and pretty much hate every moment I spend staring up at my transmission and hoping this isn't the moment an earthquake strikes strong enough to shake my car loose from the jack stand, hand groping for the oil filter.

The spark plug thing took about three times longer than I'd planned--mostly because every time I undertake anything like this I am always surprised by how divergent are the experiences of theory and practice.  In theory, you just pull the spark plug wire out at both ends and snap the new one in.  In practice, the damn thing's screwed into some weird plastic housing whose access is frustratingly obscured by some damned other hose, so that getting a hand or a wrench in there, much less doing anything with it, takes a lot of physical forbearance.  In theory, you just screw in the new plugs to the requisite torque--in practice, the little tool extension you use to get the spark plug down into the engine stays stays stuck in when you try to take the torque-wrench out.

A physics professor of mine once cracked the joke, "I think I'll go into theory" after he picked up a transparency projector by it's thin neck only to cause the top to break off.  (you know, those big boxes with the light and the mirror that teachers used to use to project dry-erase markers written on transparent 8.5 x 11 sheets).  I don't feel that way necessarily but I sure do remember that setting the damn laser up to shine through the diffraction grating had carried it's own, unexpected frustrations, just as irksome as working out the locations of the bright parts of the interference patterns of theoretical laser beams shining through any number of different theoretical slits had been.  Manipulating the physical world in ways you don't get much constant practice with can require surprising amounts of time and concentration--which really makes me respect the work of pioneering experimentalists like Hertz and Tesla and Marie Curie even more.

My car's been put back together and is running fine--better now, with new equipment--and at the end of it all I found a huge cache of petrified acorns sequestered in a cavity perfectly inaccessible to human hands, just above my front wheel well. Maybe next time I go groping for that oil filter, I'll find I have some company.