Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Air in China Continues to Kill Millions

The thickness of smog in many Chinese cities is deadly.
Current GOP front-runner Donald Trump declared last week that climate change is "no big problem at all.  If you look at China they are doing nothing about it."  Well, that isn't exactly true as I will show.  But, even if it were true Mr. Trump seems to be oblivious to the fact that by "doing nothing" China is killing 4,400 of its citizens every day.  That comes to an incredible 1.6 million deaths every year.

Hence the wisdom of doing nothing, I suppose.  I have previously written about China's air pollution / climate change problems here and here.  It is an ongoing concern in my reading.  If recent studies are correct, the rate of total Chinese deaths due to air pollution is rising at about 200,000 more deaths per year.  Which means that if China continues to "do nothing" then by 2017 some 2 million people will die each year from some of the worst smog conditions on the planet.

This highlights one my primary issues with those who contest climate change.  Even if they are right (which they aren't) what is their point? Do they seriously think belching CO2 and a multitude of industrial pollutants into the atmosphere should not be addressed? We should not "burden" industry at all with the incontestable fact that the current industrial practices worldwide are killing large numbers of human beings? Forget climate change for a moment. We still have a global crisis.

Al Gore rightly helped raise awareness to these grave issues with his film An Inconvenient Truth. Earlier this year the Chinese watched their own version of this  type of documentary, depicting the terrible conditions in major metropolitan areas of China where you literally cannot see the tops of buildings nor more than a few blocks down any given street because of harmful industrial smog. The film went viral and was seen by almost 200 million viewers in just the first few days of its release.  It actually forced the Chinese government to respond.

Certain urban areas of China are now deserted due to the extent of the pollution.  Tall buildings sit unfinished due to the inhabitable air engulfing them. Which is rather ironic, China being somewhat of a Marxist country, given the fact that Marx wrote extensively about how capitalism degrades the environment.  In reality there may be no greater environmental threat in human history than the system of communism.

Now, China has cut its coal imports in half, a reflection of a new policy toward dealing with their rampant pollution. Just last week, Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping met with President Obama and pledged to do more to address this grave issue. Will it be enough?

Meanwhile, many other areas of Asia are experiencing the same air quality issues.  Singapore is a prime example.  This powerful video shows what the average citizen has to breathe in Indonesia thanks to massive burning to feed the timber industry there.  Portions of India are dangerous to live in simply because to the air quality alone.

So, while Mr. Trump seems to think "doing nothing" is fine with respect to global warming and air pollution, the facts speak very clearly for themselves.  Millions of human beings across this planet are dying every year from air conditions created by unregulated industrial expansion.

I have said it before but the point bears repeating. Ample historical evidence exists that human beings will always push the limits of their environment to dangerous levels where industrialization is concerned.  In the absence of stringent environmental regulations human beings historically have denuded the land of trees, belched emissions from industry and transportation into the air, and pumped hazardous waste into the water.

Whether you choose to side with Mr. "Much ado about nothing" Trump or with the Pope on climate change, time will tell.  Either the present debate about the future will be relevant in the face of rising global temperatures or the whole issue has been misinterpreted by a lot of intelligent people. The Earth will settle this issue in the not too distant future regardless of what humans think today.  My personal opinion is that Mr. Trump won't care for the results of his inaction. As the multitudes in Asia continue to suffer and die. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Shelby Miller and All Our Hopes

The two worst teams in major league baseball played a meaningless series in Atlanta this weekend.  By overall record, the Philadelphia Phillies (56-94) are the worst team over the course of this season.  But the 2015 Atlanta Braves (60-90) started the season in the thick of the NL East race, winning consistently in April and May. A 27-24 start was not spectacular but it showed promise for a team that was now a shocking shell of its former self.

Jason Heyward is gone. Justin Upton is gone. Evan Gattis is gone.  Craig Kimbrel, possibly the best closer in all of baseball, is gone.  Everything the Braves were working toward with trades and internal talent has been slashed and burned. Plus, we no longer have Chipper Jones in the lineup either.  Chipper retired three seasons ago and we still haven't found a way to make up for the loss of his bat. Chris Johnson had one great season with the bat but it was not indicative of his average talent so we traded him.  We traded our starters away for a lot of minor league talent. But we also got some proven talent. We got Shelby Miller for Jason Heyward. Heyward was sort of the foundation on which the Braves organization had been building.  So Miller for Heyward symbolizes the reboot of the Atlanta Braves.

The 2015 Braves lost more games than anyone since the All-Star break. Moreover, on a grander scale of baseball time, they are playing their worst season since 1990. I remember the 1990 season very well.  Back then, it was a "normal" Braves season.  Lots of losses, lousy pitching, spotty hitting, and fielding that could sometimes make you grimace. Ironically, that otherwise forgettable season was when Jennifer first became a Braves fan.  She found an interest in following the Braves "young guns" pitching staff which consisted of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, and Pete Smith among others.  

What hooked Jennifer more than anything were the statistics. Being a former Georgia Tech chemical engineering major, the wide world of baseball statistics fascinated her.  She discovered that a .320 batting average was outstanding while a 4.51 earned run average was rather pathetic.  This understanding inspired her and motivated her to learn more about baseball in general and the Braves in particular.  After all, she married a lifelong Braves fan.

So Jennifer has rarely known the Braves to have a losing season.  Perhaps it is fitting that in their 50th season in Atlanta the 2015 Braves are turning in their worst season since their 25th anniversary.  At one point this season the Braves lost 19 out of 21 road games played, something that occurred all too frequently throughout the 1970's and 1980's. 

Nevertheless, I remain a solid Braves fan tonight. The key to being a true fan of any team in any sport is not how you handle the winning.  Rather, you show your mettle in how you stay engaged when the team is losing. Winning is easy and passionate and makes a lot of fair weather fans.  Only losing separates the genuine supporters from the casual ones. I would rather watch the Braves lose games than not have any baseball at all.  In 2015, that fact has been tested many times. 

No one better represents where the Braves are right now than starting pitcher Shelby Miller. The young Braves pitcher really shined at the start of the season.  He came within one out of pitching a no-hitter during a stretch of solid starts that ultimately earned him a place on the National League All-Star roster.

So, how has the All-Star pitcher fared since then? Well, he has not won a single game.  In fact, the last time Miller won was back in May.  Since then he has gone 22 consecutive starts without a win. Shelby Miller is 5-15 tonight.

Nevertheless, Miller is a talented pitcher and has a bright future.  The bottom line is the Braves suck at scoring runs for him.  Sure, Miller has had a couple of bad starts but his overall ERA is a solidly respectable 3.00. He has a good strikeout-to-walk ratio.  His "quality starts" outnumber is "rough starts" which means, most of the time when he is on the mound, he gives the Braves a chance to win. Somewhat appropriately perhaps, Shelby Miller was born in 1990, so the Braves have never been this bad since his birth and now he is major contributor to the team.

As I mentioned, the anemic Braves lineup rarely give Miller any run support. The team has one of the worse ratios of runs scored to runs allowed in baseball. As a team, they are batting dead last in the National League.  Their bullpen was severely weakened after they lost Kimbrell, O'Flaherty, and Venters, arguably, at the time, the best relief staff in baseball.  Jason Grilli tried to fill in and did a decent job but was lost in July due to injury. After that, everything fell apart.  Since July 7 the Braves have the absolute worst record in baseball.

In spite of all this, however, the 2015 Atlanta Braves make me feel nostalgic.  This is the losing Braves I grew up loving in my youth.  They won their division in 1969 and in 1982 but were swept in the playoffs both times.  They had a few other competitive seasons (in 1971, 1974, and 1983).  But otherwise they were abysmal.  In my lifetime they have lost 90 games or more in a season 11 times, finishing 72 - 90 as recently as 2008.  But you have to go back 25 years, before they won all those championships in the 1990's and early 2000's, to find a season comparable to this mess.

So I do not despair.  I have been here before.  I know how ugly baseball can get.  It is the only professional sport where, through a 162-game schedule, you can lose 7 times in one week.  8 if you play a doubleheader, which rarely anyone does anymore.  I remain toughened by the Braves' losing past.  I have not softened with the many wonderful years of winning and winning and winning.  The 2015 season is more representative of the Atlanta Braves than anyone cares to remember or to admit.

But I take solace in the fact that the Braves do have some great talent.  Freddie Freeman (first base) and Andrelton Simmons (shortstop) are among the best players in the their respective positions in all of baseball. Veteran off-season acquisitions Nick Markakis (right field) and A.J. Pierzynski (catcher) have turned in solid seasons.  On the rebuilding side of things, rookies Christian Bethancourt (catcher) and Hector Olivera (third base) show promising talent but neither of them has started hitting decently at the major league level.  Their defensive talents are more prominent than their bats, which is fine for now. They are getting a lot of "practice" playing basically as "September call-ups."  They will have to hit better next season if the Braves are going to keep them on the roster, their promising talent won't mean much if the continue to bat so poorly.  As of this post, Bethancourt is batting a wimpy .203 while the highly-regarded Olivera is at just .236.

I spent a lot of time in my youth hoping for the future of the Braves and now we have come to a time when all I have is hope.  If you are going to win you need great pitching.  Julio Teheran, who has managed to win 10 games for this bad ball club, is a starting pitcher of great potential, the ace of the 2015 Braves staff.  Matt Wisler has been beaten up pretty well late in the season but possesses some promising stuff. The Braves don't have tremendous talent anywhere in their bullpen so they need all the good starters they can get. After Tehran, there is no one the staff with the command of Shelby Miller. 

The right-handed Miller's record winless streak reminds me of a young left-hander in 1988 named Tom Glavine, who went 7-17 for the Braves that year, a season that saw the Braves lost 106 ball games. As you may know, Glavine is now in the Hall-of-Fame.  Shelby Miller demonstrates the same demeanor on the mound as Glavine.  He has similar talent, though he is a different type of pitcher, of course.  That gives me hope.  In 2015, Shelby Miller was an All-Star pitcher who has so far only won 5 games against 15 losses with several starts still left to make. September isn't over yet. Things could get even worse.  But, as with Glavine and the Braves in the 1988, there is potential and hope springs eternal in baseball.

The Braves swept the Phillies in Atlanta this weekend in three wins with identical 2-1 scores. So, maybe the Braves are only the second-worst team in baseball.  Time will tell.  Tehran pitched 8 and 1/3 innings of commanding baseball but (due to lack of runs scored) the Braves' ace ended up with a no-decision. Now the team heads the New York to take on the surprising Mets who have a comfortable lead in the NL East and are thinking about the playoffs. Shelby Miller is scheduled to start for Atlanta tomorrow night. Here's hoping for you kid. Come on. Win for the first time in forever.

Late Note: Miller and the Braves lost to the New York Mets 4-0 on Monday night.  Miller is now 5-16.  He did not have his best stuff but he held the Mets to 2 runs over 6 innings. Atlanta managed only five hits in support of his efforts. The Braves bullpen allowed two more runs after Miller left the game. So the winless streak continues.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

There are few things in life I hold more dear than maintaining a sense of place.  That is one reason Jennifer and I chose back in 1993 to build our home on what was once part of a large farm in my family.  I had played in the nearby fields and forests as a kid and I felt completely at peace with the view from our front porch, which (at that time) remained unchanged since I was a child.

Now things are a bit different.  Old houses and barns have long sense been bulldozed.  New homes and barns are in their place, along with nearby suburbs with hundreds of houses. But, suburbia's massive sprawl has never reached the several hundred acres around our property.  So, comparatively speaking, the land and its surroundings has not significantly changed.  

My woods have matured, my fields have been somewhat transformed by Jennifer's gardens and our tree plantings. Many pine and oak trees have volunteered and grown naturally through what was once a mulched open garden of flowers and shrubs. Those now long dead.  These trees that grew from our mulch are now at least 15-20 years old. Otherwise, for all intents and purposes, I still live surrounded by farmland (there are more cows and chickens than people), among people who appreciate agrarian values.

So, it was with this fundamental sense of place that I connected most in a recent rereading of the 1975 Pulitzer-prize winning book by Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This is a book I added to my library after I married Jennifer back in the late 1980's.  It was recommended to me by her parents and Jennifer simply couldn't believe I had not read it. In that sense it is a gift to me from my wife. 

I really have no idea what caused me to pick it up recently and wander through its glorious, Thoreau-like pages.  I took it to Destin in July but never touched it.  I began reading it a couple of weeks later at Dreamlake.  I was surprised by the ease of its prose.  In my mind I remembered it to be more difficult to read.  Instead it was like slipping on a comfortable pair of old running shoes.  It was a perfect fit and it just felt great.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is nature writing at its best, part scientific, part stream of consciousness, part poetry of the moment connecting with the small occurrences and daily rhythms of a specific natural yet trivial geographical space. In this case it is the region around Tinker Mountain in Virginia but it could be anywhere.  The magic of a great work of natural writing is not in the specific details of nature in the space, but in how it makes you feel and how well you can connect the book's space with your own experiences in your own space.

Annie Dillard has a wonderful way with words and wide range of knowledge to draw upon.  She possesses a command of language and botany along with a love of naturalism and instinct for finding the poetic in the fullness of the simplicity around Tinker Creek.  If you have a sense of place or at least understand it in the terms I have expressed above then Dillard speaks your language. She makes you feel and see and hear and smell the world she inhabits there.

Though she is certainly not a hermit like Thoreau, Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek contains very few passages about other people and even fewer exchanges of dialog.  Quotation marks are not a common feature of the book.  Instead, she offers the splendid inner-play of her ideas and inspirations as they spring quite naturally out of her interaction with the land, chiefly woods in the foothills around Tinker Creek. Here are some prose samples:

"I am absolutely alone.  There are no other customers.  The road is vacant, the interstate out of sight and earshot.  I have hazarded into a new cover of the world, an unknown spot, a Brigadoon. Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights.  I have never seen anything so tremulous and live." (page 78)

"The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and fleeing, and gone....No, the point is that not only does time fly and do we die, but that in these reckless conditions we live at all, and are vouchsafed, for the duration of certain inexplicable moments, to know it." (page 79)

"Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present.  It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest.  So long as I lose myself in a tree, say, I can scent its leafy breath or estimate its broad feet of lumber, I can draw its fruits or bill tea on its branches, and the tree stays tree.  But the second I become aware of myself at any of these activities - looking over my own shoulder as it were - the tree vanishes, uprooted from the spot and flung out of sight as if it had never grown.  And time, which had flowed down into the tree bearing new revelations like floating leaves at every moment, ceases.  It dams, stills, stagnates.

"Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies.  It is a glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people - the novelist's world, not the poet's." (page 81)

"There must be something wrong with a creekside person who, all things being equal, chooses to face downstream.  It's like fouling your own nest.  For this and a leather couch they pay fifty dollars and hour?...Look upstream.  Just simply turn around; have you no will?  The future is a spirit, or a distillation of the spirit, heading my way.  It is north.  The future is the light on the water, it comes, mediated, only to the skin of the real and present creek.  My eyes can stand no brighter light than this; nor can they see without it, if only the undersides of leaves." (page 101)

"Today I watched and heard a wren, a sparrow, and a mockingbird singing.  My brain started to trill why why why, what is the meaning meaning meaning?  It's not that they know something we don't; we know much more than they do, and surely they don't even know why they sing.  No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question.  It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing.  If the mockingbird were chirping to us the long-sought formulae for a unified field theory, the point would only be slightly less irrelevant.  The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?  I hesitate to use the word so baldly, but the question is there.  The question is there because I take it as a given, as I have said, that beauty is something objectively performed - the tree that falls in the forest - having being externally, stumbled across or missed, as real and present as both sides of the moon." (page 106)

"I stood in the Lucas Meadow in the middle of a barrage of grasshoppers.  There must have been something about the rising heat, the falling night, the ripeness of the grasses - something that mustered this army in the meadow where they have never been in such legions before.  I must have seen a thousand grasshoppers, alarums and excursions clicking over the clover, knee-high to me.

"I had stepped into the meadow to feel the heat and catch a glimpse of the sky, but these grasshoppers demanded my attention, and became an event in themselves.  Every step I took detonated the grass. A blast of bodies like shrapnel exploded around me; the air burst and whirred." (page 207)

"There was a little hollow in the woods, broad, like a flat soup-bowl, with grass on the ground.  This was the forest pasture of the white mare Itch. Water had collected in a small pool five feet across, in which gold leaves floated, and the water reflected the half-forgotten, cloud-whipped sky.  To the right was a stand of slender silver-barked tulip saplings with tall limbless trunks leaning together, leafless.  In the general litter and scramble of these woods, the small grazed hollow looked very old, like the site of druidical rites, or like a theatrical set, with the pool at center stage, and the stand of silver saplings the audience in thrall.  There at the pool lovers would meet in various guises, and there Bottom in his ass's head would bleat at the reflection of the moon." (page 250) 

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a journey through winter, spring, summer and autumn, a single year's march through time and nature and place by a writer of gifted prose.  The book is a rare and wonderful reading experience, one that works just fine reading intensely over morning coffee or casually picking up and skimming a few paragraphs from your bedside table. It nails my own feelings and understanding of my own countryside property and gives voice to my otherwise speechless wonder and gratefulness.  Annie Dillard opened my mind to possibilities of personal articulation that I had not considered and, to that extent, it is one of a handful of books that have most influenced my life.