Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, describes itself as “All-new stories in celebration of Ray Bradbury”. I’ve been a fan of Bradbury’s fiction most of my life. Friends from my high school days may remember me sitting under the bleachers during Pep Rallies reading “R is for Rocket” or wandering the hallways with a copy of “Fahrenheit 451″. I most liked his early work; stories like Frost and Fire or The City. They blended conventional science fiction with Bradbury’s unique style which approached magical realism. I felt his later writing lost a lot by abandoning the science fiction aspect and focusing exclusively on the magical realism. In any case, I heard about this book and imagined it might contain Bradbury-like stories that recaptured the feel of his early work. Alas, this is not the case.

For the most part, the stories in the book aren’t really at all like Bradbury stories. At least, I’d never confuse any of them with the real thing. Most had supernatural or horror themes and lacked the connection to science fiction. They’re simply from authors who were, in one way or another, inspired by Bradbury. They’re not bad stories. Some are enjoyable and may appeal to Bradbury fans, if only to find out how other writers were inspired by him.

There were a few exceptions, however; stories that are intended to provoke memories of Bradbury or his stories in one way or another. The best of these, at least for me, was Children of the Bedtime Machine by Robert McCammon. This story made the book worthwhile for me and was a real celebration of Bradbury in multiple ways. First, it was a story I could imagine Bradbury writing; second, it combined science fiction with a Bradburyesque magical realism, and lastly, Bradbury’s writing actually plays a part in the story’s plot. It’s the story of a woman living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland; the result of climate change and global war. There’s little plant or animal life left, and little hope for the future. The woman’s only joy in life is a trunk full of old book that she reads to herself. During a visit to a trading post in a nearby town, she’s given a useless machine from the dead past. The combination of a Ray Bradbury book and a machine designed for insomniacs leads to a new hope for a dying world.

If you can pick up the book inexpensively, it’s worth it just for that one story. Or perhaps you’ll enjoy the other stories more than I did. Authors include Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Alice Hoffman, Kelly Link, and others.

Reasoning in the Rain

School with rainwater storage tank, ca 1900. CC licensed image courtesy of Mallala Museum.

School with rainwater storage tank, ca 1900. CC licensed image courtesy of Mallala Museum.


For many thousands of years, humans have captured and stored rainwater. One of the earliest known rainwater capture systems was used in 300 BC to collect water for irrigation of crops. This process of capturing rainwater, known today as rainwater harvesting, is still frequently used but faces a growing number of threats. Rainwater and other naturally occurring sources of water such as aquifers were traditionally considered part of the commons, and the traditional view of human rights includes the concept that everyone has a natural right to access and use resources from the commons. Air and water were commonly viewed to be “unalienable rights” of the sort described by the authors of the Declaration of Independence. They were considered so fundamental and essential to life that no sane person would consider surrendering those rights.

But for people who grow too used to the availability of clean air and water, we sometimes forget how important they are and that leads to a loss of vigilance. There has been frequent talk lately of “privatizing” our water rights, that is, giving them away to big corporations who could then exercise complete control over who gets water and how much they pay for it. For example, the well known video circulating on the Internet in which the CEO of Nestlé maintains that all water should be privately owned (by Nestlé presumably) and that anyone who thinks they have a natural right to water is an “extremist”.

One of the important roles of government is to protect the commons and rights of citizens to access it. Lewis Hyde describes it this way in his excellent book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership:

“…this is a freedom that depends on the restraint of other freedoms. A commons is a stinted thing; it requires limits. If you want a viable democracy, you cannot sell your vote…If you and your neighbors live over an aquifer, none of you should be allowed to sink a well and sell the water to some thirsty distant metropolis. Each of these is a contraint on some freedoms but at the same time each is the foundation of others; the freedom to live in a democracy; … to enjoy a constant flow of potable water.

Essential resources from the commons could, of course, be very valuable to someone who could enclose (privatize) them. Many thirsty large metropolises these days have exceeded their available water supplies and rely on water bought elsewhere. Industrial processes like fracking use and contaminate massive amounts of water (millions of gallons per well). No sane citizen who lives in a drought-stricken, warming world would willingly allow water from the commons to be used that way. Thus the pressure to privatize water, to enclose the commons. As Hyde mentions in his quote, a functional democracy relies on votes not being a commodity that can be purchased. That’s not always the case today and the massive amounts of money that have been allowed into politics mean outcomes of democratic processes are no longer limited to what sane citizens would do. If an outcome is profitable enough for a corporation, regardless of its long-term sanity, it can sometimes be achieved through the influence of money.

I live in Irving, Texas. We’re in an ongoing multi-year drought. Earlier this year residents were told we’d reached “stage 3″ drought conditions and we can only water our lawns once per week. There’s a long list of other water restrictions that now apply. In an urban area like Irving, a resident is unlikely to have a river or a well on their property. However, rainwater still falls on everyone. Rainwater is one of the last remaining sources of common water in which we can exercise our natural right.

In some states, such as Colorado and Utah, this right to access the commons through collection of rainwater has already been restricted. Even here in Texas, Home Owners Associations, notorious for creating bizarre and draconian rules, have tried to restrict resident’s rights to harvest rainwater but fortunately, in 2003, the Texas constitution was amended to specifically protect the right of residential home owners and forbid HOAs from passing any rule that infringes the right to collect and use rainwater. Further, the awareness of the growing population, limited water supply, and warming climate has led the Texas legislature to enact additional laws. These laws encourage both residential and commercial building owners to harvest rainwater and allow for property tax exemptions as a reward for doing so. This is because when we exercise our right to access the common water, we also reduce the demand on the municipal water supply (as a further benefit, rainwater harvesting also greatly reduces runoff pollution) benefiting every citizen, even those who choose not to harvest rainwater themselves. In 2011, they improved the law further by removing restrictions, allowing harvested rainwater to be used for any indoor or outdoor purpose including potable usage, and allowing private harvesting systems to be interconnected with municipal water supplies (in much the same way that a home solar array can be connected to the municipal electric grid to benefit the entire community).

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was directed to develop a set of recommended rules for rainwater harvesting systems. These rules became Texas law (section C-1) in June of 2013 and can be used as the basis for city governments to create residential and commercial code, defining how an individual citizen can exercise their right to harvest rainwater in a way that is safe and doesn’t interfere with or endanger their neighbors.

This brings our story around to what I’m working on right now. As a member of the Air and Water Committee of Irving’s Green Advisory Board, I’m taking a first shot at drafting some code that protects our local right to harvest rainwater. The committee’s goal is to come up with code that will add no restrictions beyond those required by other existing codes and ordinances (e.g. permitting for plumbing or electrical connections, etc). The draft code we provide is extremely unlikely to be used verbatim as it will have to filter upstream through various departments and legal approval. But our hope is that the goals and intent of the code will survive to some final draft that is incorporated eventually in official City of Irving code.

Road Trip to the Future

Ed Emshmiller cover art from the 1962 edition of Mario Zimmer Bradley’s “The Planet Savers”

Susan and I make the drive to work together at least three days a week. Lately we’ve been listening to audio books for fun. We started out with the 1973 BBC radio dramatization of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. It’s available at no-cost (not free as in free-speech, however, it’s still under a proprietary license). The audio has not held up well and we found some parts of it wholly unintelligible. Fortunately, having read it a few times, I knew it so well I could fill in the missing bits for Susan from memory.

From there we moved on to a more modern audio book, Graphic Audio’s full scale dramatization of Texas author Elizabeth Moon’s series, Vatta’s War. It’s a series of five books with a total audio running time of 57 hours, so it kept us entertained for a quite a while. The series is hard science fiction and all the more enjoyable because Elizabeth Moon has a military background and has put a good deal of thought into the strategies which might evolve when managing large space battles with the limits of light speed communications. How, for example, do you deal with multi-minute light lag that would affect not only communications but sensor data? Once a space battle is started, how do you keep track of the expanding spheres of debris that create navigational hazards as dangerous as enemy weapons?

Also, bonus points for being the first science fiction book I can recall with mention of a Shiner Bock beer. The audio quality of the Graphic Audio production was excellent and it’s a complex production with multiple actors voicing the characters as well as sound effects and music. I highly recommend either the audiobook or printed versions of the Vatta’s War series.

Our most recent audio book is a LibriVox production of The Planet Savers, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s first Darkover novel, which seems to have passed into the public domain already despite being published in 1958. This audio book is truly free (both as in “free beer” and as in “free speech”). It’s a reasonably high quality production but more primitive than the Graphic Audio productions. It’s just a simple recording of someone reading the book.

If anyone else has an audio book recommendation, comments are welcome.

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

Logicomix

Logicomix

I’m not a frequent reader of “graphic novels” or, as we called them when I was a kiddo, comic books. When I was very young, I used to look longingly at the fantastic covers of comic books and imagine the exciting stories they contained. My mother never allowed me to buy them or even pick one up and look at it, as she was convinced they were pure evil and would doom my soul to hell on contact.

But once, when my mother took me on a week-long trip to visit some of her distant relatives in Milam, Texas, something amazing happened. I was given the room of a son who had gone off to college and, as I was unpacking my suitcase into the closet, I noticed a large paper grocery bag in the back filled with Superman comic books. I never told anyone but I stayed up most of the nights while I was there, reading those comics. They were everything I imagined comic books might be. The stories were strange and intense. In my sheltered life of G-rated Disney stories, these were like viewing forbidden R-rated movies.

That week-long comic book marathon was a lone event. By the time I was old enough to buy my own comics, I had largely forgotten about the whole genre and started reading science fiction. I missed out on the resurgence of comics and the rise of graphic novels more so than others my age. Even my wife had Spiegelman’s Maus graphic novels on her book shelf when I met her. But it’s never too late. A few years ago, I picked up a copy of R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated, a detailed, literal graphic novel version of the Biblical book of Genesis. That may have piqued my interest in the more literary uses of the graphic novel format. What I’m leading up to here, as you may have guessed, is a review of another graphic novel. This one contains a story as compelling as the Book of Genesis but one I could identify with on a more personal level.

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, is the beautifully rendered story of Betrand Russell’s life-long quest to find out how we can determine what’s true; what’s really going on the Universe. It also contains a meta-story about the authors and illustrators of the book as they struggle to work with experts in the field of mathematics and philosophy to understand and accurately depict Russell’s life.

Russell’s quest starts as a young child. Bertrand is told that his parents have “gone away”, and he’s taken to live at Pembroke Lodge, his paternal grandfather’s estate. His strict grandparents provide many detailed rules to govern his life there, leading to Bertrand’s growing understanding that the Universe is likewise governed by rules. As he tries to sleep in a strange bedroom on the first night at Pembroke, his rest is interrupted by an “unearthly moaning”. As he listens, terrified, to the loud and lengthy cries, he becomes determined to know their origin.

The next day he asks everyone; maids, butlers, the groundskeeper, but they claim not to have heard it or that it “must have been the wind”. The strange howling returns nightly and presents Bertrand a problem that will define his life. Everyone around him denied something he clearly experienced. Was it possible he was mistaken? Was everyone else lying? Could it be a hallucination? Initially paralyzed by fear during the moaning, his obsession with finding the truth begins to overcome his fear. He spends countless nights sneaking around the estate and the grounds fruitlessly trying to locate the source of the moaning.

Later, tutors are sent to the estate to teach him languages and mathematics. His first encounter with geometry leads to an epiphany – mathematics provide a way of using reason to prove knowledge with certainty. He further learns that science is based on math and is, as his tutor describes it, humankind’s only hope of explaining the natural world. His childhood adventures continue when someone leaves him an anonymous note with clues to his parents disappearance.

The mysteries of the nightly moaning and his lost parents are solved and replaced with others as he grows into a mathematician, logician, and philosopher. His quest expands to nothing less than an attempt to define a set of axioms and rules that can be combined in symbolic logic to prove all mathematical truths. As the story progresses, the reader is given a whirlwind tour of the history of philosophy and logic: Descartes, Spinoza, Plato, Kant, Hegel, Euclid, Leibniz. Soon Russell is a Professor at Cambridge, actually meeting and collaborating with other notable people of the day, many of whom make cameo appearances in the story.

One day an eccentric Austrian named Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up at Cambridge, asking to be Russell’s student. Students of philosophy likely know the rest of the story. Kurt Gödel soon appears on the scene, finally proving that Russell’s goal is a logical impossibility. Wittgenstein goes on to be mostly misunderstood by everyone but seems to have shown that mathematics and logic are merely linguistic constructs and anything proven with them is just an internally-consistent language-game.

But along the way this group of thinkers pretty much invented the modern world as we know it today. They invented, proved, disproved, and debated all sorts of ideas in fields ranging from religion and philosophy to the logic and algorithms that underly modern computers. It’s a wonderful book and I can’t imagine anyone not being transfixed by the story, regardless of any previous interest (or lack thereof) in math and logic.

The Texas Stream Team

Testing pH the old fashioned way

My participation on the Irving Green Advisory Board has made me aware of how little I know about the environmental aspects and activities of Irving, Texas. To remedy this, I’m taking advantage of every opportunity to get involved in local activities. On Saturday, January 18, I got up early to observe and photograph a Texas Stream Team educational activity at Towne Lake Park.

I noticed the event listed on Irving’s Green Events webpage and also noticed Karen Siddall’s name as the Irving representative of the Texas Stream Team. I had met Karen Siddall in 2012 through my civic hacking connections and knew she worked for the City of Irving but wasn’t aware of her exact job. Then late last year, I ran into her again at a meeting of the Irving Amateur Radio club. We talked a little about her work and I discovered she is in the Public Works department and her title is Drainage Programs Coordinator.

The Texas Stream Team is a group of trained volunteers who test and monitor local water resources. The program was established in 1991 as a partnership between Texas State University, the Texas Commission on Environmental quality (TCEQ), and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It’s administered by the Meadows Center for Water at Texas State University. Unlike most government programs, this one doesn’t spend millions of dollars buying fancy equipment and paying an army of technicians. Given how many bodies of water there are in Texas, that approach wouldn’t be feasible.

Instead the program relies on citizen science, in effect crowd-sourcing the project to a network of volunteers, who are trained and provided with minimal support. The field work is done by volunteers who enjoy the chance to participate or who feel a responsibility to contribute to the well being of their communities. Their work makes possible a massive data collection network at a very low cost. The event I attended was a demonstration of what a Stream Team member does. With so many bodies of water in Irving, there’s a constant need for new volunteers. Several local residents attended the demonstration to observe and ask questions. Hopefully a few of them will choose to become team members.

So what does a Stream Team member do? Each team member is assigned one body of water. They select a day of the month and time of day that works for them. At the chosen time, once a month, they visit their location and make some simple measurements and observations. The measurements are made using basic tools in a provided standard equipment kit. Data collected includes ambient temperature, water temperature, dissolved oxygen level, conductivity, pH, water clarity, and a few other field observations. To keep the costs down, the test kit uses very basic tools like a plastic Secchi disk and a thermometer instead of the modern digital instruments costing thousands of dollars. Of course, that means instead of just pressing a button, team members have to learn some very simple chemistry but the procedures are easy to learn and well documented.

The data collected by Stream Team members goes into a database at Texas State University, where it can be monitored and used by various government agencies. The data is also available to researchers and to the general public. You can browse some of the recent data from Irving by going to the Texas Stream Team data viewer and selecting “City of Irving” from the “group” drop down field. For example, here’s a listing of data for the Towne Lake Park site that I visited: Towne Lake Park gazebo, site 16269.

Even with several people watching and asking questions, and with me stopping her periodically to shoot photos, Karen was able to complete the entire data collection procedure in about an hour. Without us there, she probably could have done it in a much shorter time. So a volunteer is only giving up about one hour a month to help maintain and protect their city’s water resources. If you’ve been looking for a volunteer opportunity that gets you out of the house, doesn’t take much time, and provides a real benefit to your city, the State of Texas, and the environment, this might be what you’re looking for. You can find out more about the Irving branch of the Texas Stream Team on their facebook page. If you live in another Texas city, visit the Texas Stream Team partner list to find out who to contact in your city. And, if you’re curious, you can see my full set of photos documenting the morning’s events.

Common as Air

Benjamin Franklin open sourced an array of Leyden jars and named it a "battery"

One of many inventions Benjamin Franklin open sourced, an array of Leyden jars he named a “battery”


 
Having just received several new books as Christmas gifts, I’m reminded that books I’ve already finished are growing into a pile and crying out for reviews in my blog. There’s never enough time to review them all but one that I’ve been intending to write about all year is Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership by Lewis Hyde. It’s a wonderfully written book about the history of the commons and property rights.

As a software developer who releases my work under the GNU GPL, a free software license, I’ve been on the receiving end of many a rant on these subjects. My contributions to a freely accessible cultural commons of creatives works, I’m told, is communism and will lead to the eventual downfall of the one true system of property ownership as expressed by God in modern copyright and patent law. I don’t take such rants seriously anymore but when I found a book offering an in depth look at how our modern laws came to be and what the founding fathers actually said about these things; well, I could hardly pass it up!

Hyde starts out with a brief survey of ideas on property rights from cultures all over the world. He then looks at the origins of modern western thought. It turns out, of course, that the founding fathers believed quite strongly that free access to ideas was critical to democratic self-governance and free enterprise. This comes as no surprise to those in the free software and open source communities, who have rediscovered many of the same principles, including the importance of creating a “commonwealth of knowledge”.

Hyde’s story crosses paths with the free software community once or twice along the way. It also crosses paths with the supreme court, Donald Rumsfeld, John Adams, Sonny Bono, John Locke, Noah Webster, and a host of other familiar people. It’s the story of how we slowly traded the long term benefits of a commonwealth of knowledge for the enticing profits promised by “intellectual property”. The story makes great reading as history even if you’re not terribly interested in property rights. You’ll read dozens of interesting historical anecdotes you may not have heard before. For example, there’s the story of Benjamin Franklin’s founding of what sounds like the first hackerspace. He and other interested amateurs in Philadelphia put some money together, got some space, and started doing weird things with electricity. They created a crowd-sourced procedure for collecting and dispersing information about electrical experiments and open sourced the results, like an array of Leyden jars he named a “battery”. No doubt my right-wing friends would consider Franklin a liberal hippy with communist leanings. A modern “intellectual property” lawyer would consider him a “pirate”; indeed, Hyde titled the chapter “Benjamin Franklin, Founding Pirate”.

Once Hyde gets to the end of the history, he ponders what can be done to protect what’s left of the commons and even restore it for future generations. He offers three examples of real-world attempts at fixing the problem. The most familiar and successful of the examples is Richard Stallman and the GNU General Public License. The software commons created by Stallman and the GPL is responsible for at least some of the software running on nearly every computing device in the world today from the largest supercomputer to the phone or tablet on which you’re reading this blog. Hyde notes also the example of folk singer Pete Seeger, who worked with other folk singers to protect a piece of music called “We Shall Overcome” using the earliest known example of the “claim and release” idea later used in the GPL for software and, more specifically, in the Creative Commons licenses for art and musical works. It worked as a method of freeing information in a system that forces everything to be “owned”. The final example is the attempt at keeping scientific information free that was made through a formal declaration by the scientists working on the Human Genome Project.

What all three of Hyde’s examples have in common is that they were devised not by the government but by individuals working on their own or in groups to protect the freedom of ideas FROM the system enforced by the government. There are vast amounts of money and effort focused on the government by business to create more and stricter “intellectual property” laws (because they are very, very profitable for the few companies that hold the “property”). His examples give us some hope that, even if we the people can’t match the financial and lobbying resources of the corporate world, we can still outsmart them and protect the freedom of our ideas.

Going Green

Last night I went to my first meeting of the Irving Green Advisory Board since being appointed. I learned that I’m filling a vacated position (officially “Place 8″) so apparently my first term will be slightly longer than the usual one year. I got to meet most of the 14 other board members and was one of two new members attending the meeting. It was the last board meeting for 2013 and not much actual work was done, it was mostly summing up what had been done in 2013 and listening to a couple of presentations.

The first presentation was about Lady Bird Johnson Middle School, which is a LEED Gold building and the first middle school in the US to be net zero – that is, producing the same amount of energy as it consumes. The building uses photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, geothermal wells, rainwater harvesting, grey water harvesting, xeriscaping, LED lighting, and a variety of other technologies. The presentation included data from the first years of operation, confirming that the building had successfully achieved net zero operation. Check out live telemetry from the school’s systems or read more about the technology.

The other presentation covered a leasing program for residential photovoltaic systems. A resident who had gone through process described the details and costs. She listed the rates three of our local electric utility providers charge for electricity vs what they pay. Two of the three charged twice the rate they paid (e.g. you pay them 10 cents per kWh but they pay you only 5 cents per kWh). Only Green Mountain offered a fair deal (12 cents both ways).

I also got an overview of the topics that we’ll be dealing with in 2014 for the City of Irving and it sounds like fun. It matches up pretty closely with topics I’m interested in anyway. There’s the obvious stuff like air quality, water quality, waste management, and recycling. But we’ll also be working on bicycle lanes, West Nile and mosquito control, urban gardens, fracking, residential solar and wind turbine systems, xeriscaping, bat houses, just to name a few.

The Green Advisory Board has several committees within it where a lot of the work gets done. So the next thing I’ve got to do is pick out which committees I want to be on. I’m also reading through minutes of past meetings so I can get caught up on work that’s already been done. I should be up to speed and ready go when we start meeting again January. It will be interesting to see what we can actually do.

We met in a conference room at Irving City Hall. I brought my notebook computer to take notes and so I could do any quick research if needed. I was quite surprised to find there’s no public WiFi in City Hall. I could see an SSID called COI, obviously a City Of Irving official WiFi. I asked a couple of folks if they knew the login but was told it was for internal use only and that the City’s IT staff refuses to allow public WiFi access within the building because of security fears. As I’ve learned from civic hacking efforts, IT departments can be the biggest impediment to engaging Cities through modern technology. For now I’ll tether from my Nexus 4 phone.