Putting the life back in science fiction

The Future Looks Like Hawai’i?

Haven’t posted for a month, because (among other things) I’ve been out marching with posters and everything (Marches for Science and Climate), and then I went on vacation for two weeks to the Big Island of Hawai’i.  And in honor of the vacation, I’d like to post about one of the more misleading thoughts I’ve had for years: the future looks like Hawai’i.

I’m sure you’re now thinking of girls in grass skirts and coconut bras dancing to the ukelele under the coconut trees by the beach while you eat mahi mahi, avoid the bowl of poi,  and drink mai tais  while you wait to be entertained, and that’s the image I don’t want to promulgate.  That’s the Hawaiian fantasy of cruise ships and expensive luaus, and that’s not at all what I’m talking about here.

No, I’m thinking of the real Hawai’i.  We stayed a week each in two vacation rentals, one on the southeast Puna side (the rainforest where, it is said, the government likes to relocate its witnesses) and one in the Kailua-Kona area on the touristy west coast, near where the chiefs used to seat their royal rumps when they weren’t out playing their version of the game of thrones.

So what do I mean by the future looks Hawaiian?

–The people are ethnic, often indeterminately so.  They’re really hard working (the work traffic on the Kona side started before 6 AM), but mostly not paid so well.  Meanwhile, a lot of the land is bound up in big ranches (like the Parker Ranch), resorts, and other such things.  So a few rich people, and a lot of people working hard to get by.  Sound familiar?

–It’s kinda hot and humid all the time, unless you go up in altitude, which means you go somewhere into the island’s interior, which isn’t flat to speak of.  The Big Island at 4,000 square miles is a bit smaller than LA County (or Connecticut), but when you realize that it’s basically all one big volcano with a bunch of subsidiary cones, you understand that it’s literally oozing topography (from Kilauea).  And geography too, with a desert in the center and the tallest mountain on Earth.  Indeed, much of the island (including the high ranch areas on the northwest and Hilo) remind me more of Oregon than of a tropical paradise.  At least if you don’t look at the plants too hard.

–Speaking of the plants, that’s the eyecatching thing for a botanist: it’s mostly weeds, unless you’re really high up, in which case it’s just fairly weedy.  There are great rolling grasslands composed primarily of introduced pennisetum grass, with eucalyptus for shade (or Mexican mesquite down lower, or Brazilian peppertrees).  Parts of the Kohala range look for all the world like Oregon, and the saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea looks like eastern Oregon, unless you know your plants.  On the Puna side, there were native Ohi’a trees, but they were interspersed with all sorts of things, including the Schefflera actinophylla, the octopus tree, which is a close relative of the Scheffleras we neglect as house plants.    Most of the birds are non-native, as are almost all the mammals, the lizards, the coqui frogs, the…you get the picture.  When climate change takes off and everything’s migrating, I’d expect California and many other places to be more like weedy ol’ Hawai’i.

–Oh, and the Ohi’a trees are being taken out by Rapid Ohi’a Death, caused by the fungus (probably a species complex) Ceratocystis fimbriata This is another one of them difficult problems, and there were shoe cleaning stations at the entrances to many parks.

–If you read Hawaiian history, you’ll find out that King Kamehameha I, who was born on the northwestern tip of the island on one of the windiest areas I’ve ever seen a small airport in (did you know a Cessna could hover?  Neither did I.  That’s headwind it dealt with right after it took off, and I’m only slightly exaggerating), presided over a population crash from somewhere north of half a million people when Captain Cook arrived (extrapolating from their estimates of 400,000-500,000), to somewhere around 130,000 people when the first missionaries ran a census fifty years later.  That’s the effect of the virgin ground pandemics that hit the chain, starting with Cook.  While the social system did break down (the tapu system was abandoned, Christianity was promulgated, the Parker Ranch was founded on what used to be densely populated farmland…), the monarchy did not break down for another hundred years or so, and that’s an important hint for how radical depopulation could play out.  Total anarchy is not guaranteed, and indeed, some people may use the disruption to grow wealthy and/or powerful.

I could and probably should go on and discuss the chaos that will happen when the islands are cut off from the mainland, but I’ll leave it there.  As Gibson noted, the future is already here, but it’s just not very evenly distributed.  I’d suggest that Hawai’i shows many aspects of that future.  Unfortunately, and especially on the Kona side, the place is getting over-run with California-style gated communities and planned developments, with malls of multinationals, tract housing, the whole nine yards.  The irony here is that a somewhat hopeful view of our possibly dystopian future is getting over-written by the greed of the present.  But that’s the kind of stuff I go on vacation to see, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Syria, Part II

Confession time: I can’t stand to watch the videos of Syrian people suffering and dying from the latest Sarin attack.  Since I have asthma, I may very well die gasping for breath, and this particular horror strikes too close to home for me to watch.  Here’s Charity Navigator listing their best charities for the Syrian conflict.  Or you can give to the UNHCR for Syria.

Anyway, I decided to look back at my 2013 post on the Syrian Water War, to see where we are 3 1/2 years later.  Has anything changed?  Is there anything we can learn, especially with the current regime in the White House? Continue reading

Hot and Cold Running Evolution
April 6, 2017, 9:31 pm
Filed under: deep time, evolution, Hot Earth Dreams | Tags: , ,

I’m not following the primary journals as much as I used to, so this pop-science article in Quanta on the rate of evolution caught my attention.  It claims, apparently on the grounds of several different lines of evidence, that rates of mutation and evolution appear to run faster at short time scales than long time scales.  In other words, there’s more genetic and morphological variation over short time spans than over long ones.

Paradoxical?  Not quite. Useful?  Very. Continue reading

Tekelili! The Wilkes Land Gravitational Anomaly

Another little post, this one on a news item a few months old.  Whenever someone spots a gravity anomaly in Antarctica, people get silly, write things about how the tinfoil hat brigade think it’s a UFO, or an alien base, or NAZIs.   They’re so silly.  Of course it’s shoggoth (not sure what the singular or plural is.  Since shoggoth is sort of like concrete or nanotech, is it singular, plural, collective singular, collective plural, or what?).  Anything that close to the Transantarctic Mountains has to be.  it’s canon.

More seriously, there’s some potentially interesting science buried under the ice.   Continue reading

The Reichstag match factory?
March 14, 2017, 2:07 am
Filed under: nonviolence, Speculation, Syria | Tags:

Since spring has Sprung with a vengeance around here (See this, for example), I’m wearing my botanist duds and getting away from the computer quite a lot.  Which is a good thing.

In the meantime, here are a couple of articles on the actions of the current Republican Administration.  Someone said that was the calm way to have a discourse without empowering you-know-who, and I’m beginning to believe that True Names are those where ad companies send you revenue and eyeballs when your name is used.  But I digress too much.

The title’s in reference to the Reichstag Fire. Hopefully it will make sense by the end. Continue reading

One of Them Difficult Problems

I don’t know why Agent Orange’s First Official Joint Session made me think about parasites, but there you have it.  This is actually something I’ve been dealing with for awhile now, and since the problem is only going to get worse unless (and until) we innovate our way out of this particular pickle.

The problem is fairly simple: if you want a sustainable society, you need to recycle almost everything.  The problem with recycling stuff, especially organic materials, is that it makes controlling pests, pathogens, and parasites very, very hard, because they move very well in streams of unprocessed materials.  After all, a large majority of species on Earth are parasites (per Zimmer’s Parasite Rex), and we, erm, they, evolved over the last billion-odd years in a world where the elements of organic matter are recycled extremely well, give or take some oil and coal fields.  So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that our attempts at recycling and repurposing are spreading parasites and pathogens all over the place.  Continue reading

Non-violent conflict 101
February 21, 2017, 12:35 am
Filed under: nonviolence | Tags: ,

No, I’m not an expert on the subject, and I probably never will be.  Right now, I feel like I was a TA again, barely a week ahead of the students. Still, it’s important to get this information out.

There are a lot of reasons to do so.  If you’re anything like me, your notion of how non-violent conflict works is that it’s firmly in the Gandhi/Batman/Aikido/Star Trek phaser complex of things that would be nice to do, but which  require such supernormal morality/skill/special conditions/technology that it won’t work for us mere mortals.  If we want things to change, ultimately we might believe that change requires either huge amounts of wealth and/or violence, and we feel angry and powerless as a result.  This view happens to be false.  It’s probably a symptom of how our culture deals with violence, but it’s profoundly disempowering  in that it stops us from realizing that there are other ways to achieve the same goals.

Again, there are a bunch of reasons why this matters, but I’ll start with the one that shocked me: so  far as researchers can tell, since 1900, non-violent campaigns have been roughly twice as successful at achieving their goals (fall of the USSR, anyone?) as have violent campaigns (the sample size was over 100).  This is even when people didn’t know what they were doing at first.  Even back in 1973, there were almost 200 known and used “weapons” in the non-violent arsenal, and quite a few have been created since then.  And some of them have been used against you.  Recently.  If you’re interested in learning more, read on.

Continue reading