On Gluten-Free Bread

Hoy, ayer y mañana se comen caminando,
consumimos un día como una vaca ardiente,
nuestro ganado espera con sus días contados,

pero en tu corazón el tiempo echó su harina,
mi amor construyó un horno con barro de Temuco:
tú eres el pan de cada día para mi alma.
— Neruda, Love Sonnet LXXVII

I never thought I’d be bothered with the gluten-free thing, but, when someone close has a number of food-sensitivities and the request is made to try one’s hand at a gluten-free baguette for a small family dinner, suddenly one is excited by the new challenge.  So, with about two days’ notice, I had to draw on all my experience and knowledge of bread baking and at the same time temporarily forget a lot of what I knew and ignore my expectations and instincts.

The big challenge of gluten-free yeast bread baking is the fact that gluten is the almost-magical ingredient that makes real bread possible. Nothing in the world has quite the properties of that mix of proteins called “wheat gluten”.  Wheat gluten has unparalleled ability to form airtight, extremely elastic little bubbles. Even rye gluten is not a match for the gluten of wheat.  If you try making a loaf of 100% rye bread, look closely at the dough as it rises, particularly if brushed with oil.  You will see — perhaps even hear — bubbles escaping to the surface of the dough.  This is why 100% rye bread is inevitably more dense than a good wheat bread.

What can possibly be added to non-gluten bearing flours that will help form and hold bubbles with something approaching the satisfactory?  Eggs, particularly egg whites, are often recommended. But, did I mention food sensitivities? Living with a mild nut allergy, I’ll not dismiss the concerns of the truly food sensitive. (The fashion/fad food sensitive I will happily dismiss.)

So. No gluten. No eggs. What’s left?

Well there’s this interesting product that is derived from what amounts to bacterial snot. Xanthan gum is a polysacchride, basically a charbohydrate polymer that is secreted by the bacterium Zanthomonas campestris. The gum was discovered by Allene Jeanes and her team in the mid-20th century and approved for use in foods in the U.S. in 1968. It’s a relatively new and very versatile food additive manufactured in a simple process not unlike brewing beer or, indeed, bread making.  A vat of feedstock is inoculated with the bacteria, the concoction is allowed to ferment for a few days, and then a load of isopropyl alcohol is dumped into the vat (that’s the part that makes me smile at the “natural” label on my package of xanthan gum).  The alcohol makes the fresh snot solidify and sink to the bottom of the vat. The gum in rinsed, dried, and ground up for sale in expensive little packets at your local Green, Organic, Whole, Vegan, Gluten-Free Health food store.

Without the xanthan gum, my project could never have risen much above terribly disappointing hardtack. And if I didn’t talk much about the isopropyl alcohol bit, I might be able to get away with it.

I skimmed a few recipes online and read the back of my sack of Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Flour — mostly chickpea flour so watch our for gas if you eat a lot of this bread. Then I laid out my basic recipe, based mainly on my own real baguette recipe.  I used a cup of Bob’s flour, quick rise yeast, salt, two teaspoons of xanthan gum, half a cup of water and a splash of lime juice because it was handier than lemon.  I was aiming for something like the texture of real bread dough, but the result was a little crumbly and not at all elastic.  After a bit of time to rest and maybe rise, I threw it into a 450 degree oven for twenty minutes and pulled out — a bread stick! It was dense but tender and chewy with good flavour, but not a baguette by any measure.

For the second attempt, I used the same proportions except for the water. I used a full cup of water and made what I would call a batter rather than a dough.  I oiled the top of the loaf and left it to rise. I could see bubbles popping through the oil.  When it was close to double in size, I gave it 20 minutes at 450 degrees and this time I had something approaching an actual baguette! And it tasted good!  It wasn’t really what I would call bread, but it was a quite satisfying product in itself.

Now I had to produce the presentation loaf, the one that would be the accompaniment to a family chili dinner. A little bit of tinkering with ingredients and process and the following recipe is what I have to call an almost complete gluten-free success (it wasn’t so good for garlic bread, I’m told):

My Gluten-Free Baguette

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose flour
2 generous teaspoons xanthan gum
1 tablespoon fast-rising yeast
1 scant tablespoon baking powder
1 cup water
a splash of vinegar
olive oil for coating the top of the loaf

Mix dry ingredients very well.
Mix water and vinegar.
Mix wet ingredients well into dry ingredients. The dough will be very wet, more like a batter, about the texture of a pound cake batter.

Spoon the batter into a parchment-lined baguette pan. Shape into a smooth loaf with the back of a wet spoon. Spread olive oil over top of loaf.

Let rise for half- to one hour until sort of doubled.

Bake 20 minutes in a pre-heated 450 degree oven. Spritz water onto the loaf in the oven every few minutes.

If you love bread but have a sensitivity to wheat or gluten, there is definitely hope, as long as you don’t have a problem with bacteria being doused in isopropyl alcohol so that bacterial snot solidifies and is collected for your bread. You’re already cooking the life out of yeast cells. Can it be so bad that millions of bacteria died for your baguette?

A Meditation on Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”, and a slight review of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre’s production of same

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”
— T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Artist”

Tom Stoppard is a demanding dramatist.  He does not stoop to explain references in detail. He assumes that some in his audience will be left out — never more explicitly perhaps than in The Invention of Love in which a character tells the audience “if you can’t read Latin go home, you’ve missed it!”  In Rock ‘n’ Roll he expects the audience to remember Syd Barrett and know about The Plastic People of the Universe.  And, in Arcadia, Stoppard puts before us Byron and hangers-on of the Romantics, English landscape architecture, iterated algorithms and fractals, a joke dependent on an understanding of both Old and New Testament, and, yes, a bit of Latin.  Many will be left behind as are left behind by the references in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. Yet we all enjoy Romeo and Juliet.

The slight review of the Citadel Theatre’s production of Arcadia

. . . literature, ever since Theocritus, has been sophisticating nature  . . .
— Agnes Latham, introduction to the Arden Shakespeare (second series) edition of As You Like It, p. xliv.

Finally on Easter Sunday I had the opportunity to see Arcadia in a matinee performance of the appropriately pretty production directed by Tom Wood at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.  I’ve been waiting to see Arcadia since first reading a review of the play in, of all places, the July 1997 issue of Scientific American.  To be honest, I feel Stoppard’s tight script and careful stage directions leave little extra for the director to do, and, not meaning to sound like Septimus talking to Chater, Wood does a good job of it.  One particular touch I noticed was in the first scene of Act II, when non-verbal Gus (Luc Tellier) sits up straight and perks up his ears when Bernard (Jamie Williams) mentions Gus’ namesake predecessor, Augustus Coverly (also played by Tellier). This touching and meaningful tiny moment is not hinted at in Stoppard’s stage directions, and the gesture adds subtly but greatly to the cross-century connection.

The set is exquisite, the costumes beautiful (both by Leslie Frankish), the sound (Owen Hutchinson) and lighting design (Kevin Humphrey) are perfect.  Performances were spot on, with special mention going to Julia Guy’s totally charming and intimidatingly intelligent Thomasina Coverly, Kevin Klassen’s lovably foppish Ezra Chater, Claire Armstrong’s crustily vulnerable Hannah Jarvis, and Jamie Williams’ smarmily narcissistic Bernard Nightingale.

My criticisms of what went on on stage are so small as to barely need mention: Plautus the tortoise is a model rather than a live tortoise; Aaron Hursh gives a little too much shrillness to Septimus Hodge’s laughs in Act I; and the wig Luc Tellier wears as Augustus Coverly makes that character a little too distinguishable from Gus Coverly, the other character Tellier plays.  Stoppard is explicit that the two should be easily confusable.

But, picking nits.

Arcadia is a long and challenging play.  It became clear part way through the second act that many in the audience had lost track and were exhausted. At the end of each of the last few scenes, a good portion of the audience began to applaud, in mistaken relief that the play had ended, uncomprehended.  I see this incomprehension not as a criticism of the play, the direction, or the performances.  Arcadia demands much of the cast and much of the audience.  It is impressive that the cast rose to those demands, and not surprising — although sad — that some audience members weren’t up to it.  Arcadia is a play to be savoured.  Careful engagement richly repays the challenge.

Arcadia plays at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, on the Shocter Stage, until April 12, 2015.

Please check out Jenna Marynowski’s review of Arcadia at After the House Lights.

A Meditation on Arcadia

Life is a quest for a quarry we will never capture.  We reach for perfection in art and always fall short.  We investigate the universe ever more deeply through science and mathematics and every answer brings a thousand new questions.  We strive for Arcadia but find ourselves fumbling in a gazebo in an English formal garden.

On stage throughout Arcadia there is a tortoise, perhaps a very long lived tortoise, like the Galapagos tortoise named Harriet who was reputedly collected by Darwin in 1835 and died in 2006.  In the 19th century scenes in Arcadia the tortoise is named “Plautus” for the early Roman comic dramatist.  The Roman dramatist was a source of plots for young Shakespeare and I have no doubt Stoppard has chosen the name carefully, at the least as a reminder of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Soldier).  The action of Plautus’ play, like that of Arcadia, is triggered by a servant’s accidental witnessing of a carnal embrace.  Plautus’ Soldier, Pyrgopolynices, fumbles through life with the mistaken impression that he is in control when he is, in fact, slave to his own failings and the wiles of his own slaves.  Some of Stoppards characters, Chater particularly, have much of Plautus’ soldier in them. But the most important and interesting characters in Arcadia are very much aware of what ultimately controls things — the entropy which winds down every life. Et in Arcadia, ego.

In Classical Comedy, we laugh a lot and there is a generally happy ending.  Plautus’ plays are exceptionally light fare.  Arcadia, on the other hand, for all its glittering wit and English country sunshine, for all its joy of discovery running through, is a fundamentally tragic vision.  Stoppard shows us that not only do we each have a fatally tragic flaw, but that the flaw is the tragic flaw of the universe.  No matter our joys, our discoveries, our duels or our carnal embraces, we are all doomed with the universe itself to

. . . wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless . . .

as the second law of thermodynamics grinds its irresistible way to that far future when Darkness is the Universe.

In Stoppard’s play, Hannah recites the above lines of Lord Byron, using poetry as evidence that even before our thermodynamic doom was understood mathematically, it was possible to glimpse the cold, dark truth.  This dark truth hangs over all the characters in Arcadia.

But we are not alone, either in space or time.  Septimus says of the endless succession of human generations:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.  The procession is very long and life is very short.  We die on the march.  But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.

I can’t help but hear an echo of T. S. Eliot here:

He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.

Indeed, I find much in Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” which illuminates Arcadia.  Consider:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.

Arcadia is fundamentally about creativity in the face of the Second Law.  it is about life as a local reversal of entropy and what a marvellous gift that reversal is.  Arcadia is about the quest to find out, to learn. Hannah says:

Comparing what we’re looking for is missing the point.  It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.  Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.

Yes, Death is there, but, before all else, Even in Arcadia is Life.

Some, having little understanding of the Second Law, have tried to argue that Darwinian Evolution, for example, contravenes that law by increasing order when order must decrease.  But, of course, there is nothing in the Second Law which makes impossible localized, temporary increases accompanied by a greater decrease elsewhere or elsewhen.  Each pleasantly arranged dessert, each beautiful poem, every evening at the theatre, is made possible by the distant future cinder we now call The Sun.  These local eddies of increased order are what Stoppard offers us — not as consolation — as purpose and meaning.  “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow the universe will sink into a lightless heat-death.”

Eliot again:

….he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Near the end of the play Gus, the non-verbal youth picks up what has been shed, as he had earlier picked up a trans-temporal apple for Hannah (a reference, I think, to Theocritus’ third Idyll). Gus gives Hannah the unexpected clue she needs to clinch her argument about the identity of the Hermit.  In that moment, Gus and Plautus the tortoise are linked through time.  The silent watchers hold the answer, but there is a melancholy.

Septimus and Thomasina dance. Gus silently invites Hannah to dance.

Hannah says,

“Oh, dear, I don’t really . . .”

But, really, she does.

As the couples orbit each other into the night at the end of the play, we and they know that the journey and our companions, including those who have preceded us, and what we make of them, are all we truly have.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard is published by Faber & Faber.

On a lighter note

From page 38 of my 1993 copy of Arcadia:

Et in Arcadia Typo

Et in Arcadia, Typo.

Ever since I was little . . .

Every since I was little I figured a human being would want to strive for a certain level of cultural literacy. And, by “culture” I mean “the things that people do and think about. Their tools, games, work and works, their understandings and misunderstandings.”

I figured a person would want to have a certain level of mathematical literacy (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, etc.), a good understanding of science and the method of science, and a bit of a knowledge of at least a second language. I figured a person would want to have some understanding of the major world religions, of the remarkable fact that there are as many religions as there are believers, that there are more sects of Islam and Christianity and . . . than there are preachers on street corners in all the world.

I’ve figured that a person would want to have a pretty good familiarity with the great literary works of their language and some familiarity with the great works of other traditions. I figured a person would want to be able to at least plunk out a tune on a musical instrument, compose a sonnet, draw a picture, even if they produce pretty crappy art. I figured people would want to know a little about the history of Art.

I figured a person would want to have enough knowledge of the popular sports in their community that they could watch with understanding even if they never actually played the game.  I thought they’d want to know a few good jokes and maybe a card trick or two.

I figured a person would want to have a fairly good understanding of the workings of their country’s political system, would want to be able to manage money competently, do minor household repairs, grow food in a garden, understand the use of basic hand tools (knife, axe, hammer, saw, etc.). A grown-up would want to be able to sew on a button. As technology has “advanced” in my lifetime, I’ve figured people would want to keep up to some extent.

A grown up would want to be able to prepare a meal for guests, prepare their culture’s staple food (bake bread [without a machine], I guess, in my case).

And I’ve always sort of figured that grown ups would always want to learn new skills, find out new things about the universe and the people around them. Explore! Grow! Build!

But sometimes I look around at humanity, at the pride so many take in their ignorance, at the anti-intellectualism, at the mysterious and peculiar devotion to magical thinking, and particularly when some elected official holds up a snowball as a demonstration that the climate isn’t changing or blathers on twitter about evolution just being a theory and I think —

“They’re all nothing more than a bunch of monkeys throwing poop around.”

Then, I pause. And I look up at they sky and–

The Sky is Filled with Ships!


The sky of our Science Fiction world is filled with the robots that some of those monkeys built to explore. And I look around at the monkeys I know, in my neighbourhood, my city, my country, and all over my planet and I start to feel like maybe some of these monkeys are pretty impressive little monkeys doing exactly all that exploring, growing and building I always figured they all would want to be doing.

I wish all the other ones would want it, too.

Note: the initial version of this rant, which I posted to Facebook, read “should” in each place in which it now reads “would want to”. As I thought about it, I realized that I never really had a prescriptive feeling about this subject. Rather, I always had an expectation that people simply would desire to learn and grow, and as I grew older I was perplexed that some — many — people seemed to have no such desire.  I grew up in a world that I understood had moved beyond superstition. When I was a kid, Science was flying us to the Moon. Then, a few years later when I was about fifteen a schoolmate told me that she “didn’t believe in dinosaurs because they’re not in the Bible”. Of course, I thought she was joking. When I realized the truth, that she actually somehow didn’t “believe in” Reality, I was horrified. Much later l’esprit de l’escalier suggested I should have asked “What about trains? Do you believe in trains? They’re not in the Bible.” Since that day, I’ve never stopped being horrified.

“The Interstellar Age” by Jim Bell: to the highth of this great Argument

Taking advantage of a rare celestial alignment of the planets, those two robots, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, gave us all our first detailed, high-resolution, glorious views of the solar system beyond Mars, revealing the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and their panoply of rings and moons, in all their awesome wonder — not just for scientists, but also for poets, musicians, painters, novelists, moviemakers, historians, and even kids.

The Interstellar Age, p.2.

I’ve just finished reading Jim Bell’s The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty Year Voyager Mission, and, what a ride for an old space nerd like me!  The book is a bit of a hybrid, at once a biography of the ongoing Voyager mission and of Bell the Planetary scientist and President of the Planetary Society.  I’ll say right off, I didn’t learn a whole lot about the Voyager missions.  Bell and I are near contemporaries – I was born at the beginning of the 60s and Bell in the middle.  Certainly we took very different educational paths, though we apparently shared unexemplary dedication to our studies.  But what Bell and I do share is a passion for discovery and the very human idea of exploration.

Bell emulates our shared inspiration, Carl Sagan, emphasizing that Voyager isn’t about robots exploring the universe – it’s about humans, very real, next door neighbour, funny, quirky, artistic humans exploring the universe with tools they have made with their ingenuity and the creativity of generations of engineers, technicians, mathematicians, writers, artists, musicians and poets.  Bell met Sagan.  I only read his words and saw him on television.  Bell was at times in the thick of the Voyager excitement, was on the sidelines for the rest.  I was always up in the cheap seats with a pair of binoculars and one bad eye.  I watched Star Trek. Bell watched Star Trek, but for some reason doesn’t mention Voyager’s appearance in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Despite our different paths, Bell and I have watched the Voyager probes carefully for all our adult lives, so, there wasn’t much new to me about Voyager in The Interstellar Age.

But I couldn’t put it down!

The book opens with frequent references to the Arts and Sagan’s friend and collaborator, artist Jon Lomberg is mentioned and cited throughout.  The book is about the creativity of science, the joy of collaboration, and the sheer human exhilaration of being part of a huge, multi-generational creative process.  The Interstellar Age is an inspiring celebration of the human spirit, the spirit expressed in the Golden Records we all sent to the stars on the two Voyagers.

Bell’s book is not about robots, planets and orbital mechanics. It is about the wonder of being human in this infinitely discoverable but never fully knowable universe.  That’s a great Argument I’m glad to be a part of!

The Interstellar Age is published by Dutton.

Just after I finished writing and posting this review I learned of Leonard Nimoy’s departure. Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock, the Scientist-as-Hero-in-Space, I know inspired many of Bell’s and my generation to pursue careers or life-long interest in Space Science.    The One made such a difference to the Many.
Thank you, sir.

Passing the Turing Test

I don’t know when I first learned of ELIZA the primitive chatterbot written by Joseph Weizenbaum back in the 60s. I’ve known about her specifically in her manifestation as DOCTOR, the psychoanalyst computer, for as long as I can remember. ELIZA used simple pattern matching to produce responses to typed questions, responses which seemed startlingly human like at times in those early days of Artificial Intelligence research.

Looking back through my reading I suspect I first came across ELIZA either in Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden (1977), chapter 8, “The Future Evolution of the Brain”, or in Arthur C. Clarke’s Report on Planet Three (1972), chapter 12, “The Mind of the Machine”. I’m not sure which I read first, but I’m certain I read The Dragons of Eden shortly after it came out in paperback in April 1978. So, I probably learned of ELIZA a little more than a decade after she was developed. Within another decade, I had my own computer in my home! It was time for me to do some AI work of my own!

I still have that Tandy 1000sx down in the basement. It has trouble booting these days, sadly. But on that machine I conducted an experiment which I think shows that the Turing Test may cut both ways.

In my first year of university (1978-80) I took a Computer Science course. In those days a Computer was a Mainframe. I learned a version of Fortran and APL. I did a little programming. Somehow the Fortran actually stuck with me so when I sat down at my Tandy I was able to quickly puzzle out how to code in BASIC and I wrote the first version of a stupidly simple program I pretentiously called “DIOGENES”. Some time later I rewrote it in Qbasic and last night I dug up that version from an old hard drive and ran it.

It’s still stupidly simple. Maybe just stupid.

The idea I wanted to investigate was what a program would look like if it simply collected everything ever said to it and responded to each input statement by regurgitating a random line of its constantly growing file of old inputs. The program is absurdly simple. There’s the actual program, consisting of twenty-seven short lines of code, and a text file called “mind” which stores all inputs, appending line after line. Each time the user hits RETURN, the program appends the user’s input to “mind” and then picks a random line from “mind” and outputs it. In the old days, DIOGENES very quickly bogged down in slow processing which may have made the thing look like it was actually pausing to think.

What most surprised me about DIOGENES is that one evening when I had friends over I showed the program to them, explaining how it worked. One friend remained in front of the Tandy while the rest of us wandered away in conversation. About forty-five minutes later, Mike pulled himself away from the computer, came into the living room and shouted “That thing is amazing!”

I can’t help but think that DIOGENES hadn’t pass the Turing Test so much as Mike had failed it.

For the record, here’s the code of DIOGENES, my one and only, and perplexingly successful, attempt at creating artificial intelligence.

PRINT “Please type ‘goodbye’ when you are finished.”
OPEN “mind.txt” FOR APPEND AS #1
IF a$ = “goodbye” THEN PRINT ” “
IF a$ = “goodbye” THEN PRINT “see you”
IF a$ = “goodbye” THEN END
PRINT #1, a$
Numoflines = 0
OPEN “mind.txt” FOR INPUT AS #2
Numoflines = Numoflines + 1
LINE INPUT #2, lin$
OPEN “mind.txt” FOR INPUT AS #3
linenum = INT(RND * Numoflines) + 1
FOR i = 1 TO linenum
LINE INPUT #3, lin$
PRINT lin$

If you can find a machine to run it on, have at it!

Oilsands v Hydroelectric: a reality check on Site C

Yesterday (October 14, 2014) the British Columbian and Canadian Governments gave the Site C hydroelectric project on the Peace River environmental approval because “the benefits provided outweigh the risks of significant adverse environmental, social and heritage impacts.”  It seems the governments have gone back to odd dreams from 1978 of a world made more hospitable for its dominant species.  The Site C project is being touted as a “clean energy” project with clearly audible undertone of “not like the miserable tarsands!”

While I’m no particular friend of the strange things done under the midnight sun by the men who moil for oil, and while I’m no enemy of the hope of better living through technology, I have no illusions that hydroelectric megaprojects are a fine, clean, green power line to a happy future.  So, a quick reality check.

As of 2013, according to the Pembina Institute, the six active surface extraction projects in the Alberta Oilsands have disturbed about 715 km² of boreal forest.  The companies conducting the extraction are required by law to restore that land to “equivalent land capability” when they’ve finished the mining.  Whatever one may think of the possibility of such restoration, or of government’s ability to enforce such a requirement, the gesture has at least been made toward “leave it like you found it”.

In contrast, Site C will destroy through flooding a horizontal surface area of 93 km².  Because of the mountainous area involved, the actual ecological area destroyed will be much larger.  The governments have acknowledged in advance the “significant adverse environmental, social and heritage impacts.”  They even acknowledge that this “clean” project will result in greenhouse gas emmisions from the rotting vegetation – a carbon sink before the flooding – for years afterward.  There are no requirements to return the land to its previous state. The project is permanent, the destruction is forever.

So, with a single megaproject British Columbia intends to destroy forever an area 1/7 the size of all surface extraction projects in the Alberta oilsands.  Somehow this permanent destruction is claiming the “Clean Energy” label while confessing “significant environmental” impacts. By the way, B.C.’s W.A.C. Bennett dam, completed in 1968 in the spirit of utopian, nature-controlling High Modernity discussed in my earlier post, has already destroyed twenty times the area Site C would destroy. That’s almost three times as much natural area destroyed by one hydroelectric dam as has been strip mined – with the legislated requirement of restoration – in Alberta’s tar sands.

The oilsands companies and the Alberta Government, for all their flaws and self-interest, at least grudgingly acknowledge that when one makes a mess, one has the responsibility to clean things up as best one can.

I’m glad I have visited the beautiful valley of the upper Peace River. Before long, it will be gone forever.

Update, December 3, 2014: Yesterday an outfit called Clean Energy Canada made a lot of headlines with a report on “clean” jobs in Canada, specifically contrasting direct employment in the Alberta oilsands vs. direct employment in “clean” energy.  What got little coverage was that the report admits that 85% of the electricity they class as “clean” comes from Big Hydro mega-projects, specifically singling out Robert-Bourassa in Quebec, part of the once notorious James Bay Project. The Robert-Bourassa reservoir destroyed almost four times the area of Boreal Forest strip mined in the oilsands.  What is being ignored by Clean Energy Canada is that these Hydro mega projects they are praising have a far more disastrously direct destructive impact on Canada’s Boreal Forest than do the strip mines in the tar sands.  Sure, once the mountains have been mined for limestone, once the carbon has been belched in the production of concrete, once the initial destruction is completed, once the carbon sink is destroyed and its stored carbon released to the atmosphere, once the power lines are cut through the forests, the electricity from these  things is “renewable” for the life of the project.  But, at some point, silting, maintenance costs, changing demand, etc. will lead to the decommissioning of these projects.  What happens then?  Who cleans up the mess left by this “clean” energy?

As a further reality check, China’s much maligned Three Gorges Dam, directly destroyed by flooding 1,045 square kilometres. The first phase of the James Bay Project, which Clean Energy Canada touts as “Clean Energy”, directly destroyed well over ten times that area, 11,300 square kilometres of pristine Boreal Forest.

I think Clean Energy Canada does a tragic disservice to the very industries they are trying to help when they include such grandiose terraforming megaprojects in their definition of “clean” energy. Does anyone remember the shock and horror of the world when China’s Three Gorges Dam went ahead? The extinctions of river dolphins, the displacement of millions of people, the destruction of thousands of years of human heritage and millions of years of natural heritage with a single megaproject that Clean Energy Canada would seem to class as “clean.”  How many of the well-meaning, devoted environmentalists gleefully tweeting news of the “Clean” jobs report would be so excited if they realized that Site C is considered a “clean” project? It’s truly encouraging that low-impact energy sources are growing in importance, but fudging a report by including “It’s humanity’s planet, we’ll do what we want with it” mega-projects in the set of “clean” energy sources sullies the real successes of the workers in low-impact energy industries.

Update, July 7, 2015: Something I didn’t touch on in this post is the downstream effects of Big Hydro like Site C. These effects are now drawing the attention of UNESCO’s World Heritage Council because they threaten Canada’s largest National Park,  World Heritage Site Wood Buffalo NP.  As the Globe and Mail Editorial Board writes:

Our national parks do not exist in isolation. Air circulates, water flows, animals migrate and man-made pollution is indifferent to the boundaries it crosses, and the climate it alters, with effortless ease.

 It is long past time we all realize and accept this fact and acknowledge that it applies to all human activities. From solar panel manufacture to uranium mining, there’s no free lunch in our world. When we decide to build, we also have to decide what we are willing to destroy.

Update, September 8, 2015: Now this from Harvard – “Hydroelectric energy may be more damaging to northern ecosystems than climate change.” Anyone who says Hydro power is “clean” or “renewable” or “green” is either lying or igorant.

“Let’s make the Earth more hospitable for its dominant species!”

“Given wit and imagination, the Earth can be made vastly more hospitable for its dominant species and congenial life forms.” Small is beautiful but big isn’t all that bad either.”  — “Terraforming the Earth” by Ralph Hamil, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, July, 1978, p. 65.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I was a science fiction geek.  In my mind, tomorrow was a technologically and socially Brave New World in a very positive, non-Huxleyan sense.  For a time I subscribed to Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact magazine.  I look back at those magazines now and then.  I see early publications by unknown authors such as George R. R. Martin and Orson Scott Card.  And, I see the exciting predictions in the “Science Fact” department.  An article that has troubled me for a while now is Ralph Hamil’s “Terraforming the Earth”, from July 1978, a few months before my seventeenth birthday — and a few months after I saw the future Captain of the Starship Enterprise on the Stratford stage playing the King of the Faeries.

I look back at “Terraforming the Earth, and I realize that as bad as the current joint environmental catastrophe of climate change and species extinction is, it might have been worse.  Thirty-six years ago, Hamil offered a generation of future scientists and engineers an inspiring collection of Gee Whiz! geoengineering ideas.  Hamil laid out inspiring plans by which “the Earth can be made vastly more hospitable for its dominant species and congenial life forms” (p. 65).  “Hospitable” in this context seems to mean “lots of electrical power, lots of high-speed rail, and lots of irrigation water in places it doesn’t belong.”

Hamil begins with praise of damming rivers:  “Hydroelectricity is clean energy” but admits that “damming rivers sometimes leads to backwater sedimentation, rapid silting, and disruption of marine life and scenic quality.  It frequently requires relocation of homes on about-to-be flooded land” (p. 48).  I can’t help but think of China’s Three Gorges Dam, British Columbia’s proposed Site C Dam and the displacement and destruction caused by countless hydroelectric projects around the world.  I wonder: is Hydroelectricity truly “clean energy”?

When I consider the proposals Hamil raises with some degree of seriousness in this article I can’t help but feel we dodged a bullet by somehow avoiding most of them.  Just imagine if the massive diversion projects of the Soviets had gone ahead:

“The scheme [to divert Russian rivers from the Arctic Ocean to central Asia] is faulted by those who fear that with a lessened flow of fresh water, the Arctic ice pack may shrink, with deleterious effects on the world’s climate.  Some experts worry that the cool air above giant reservoirs would injure crops to the south while the added weight of the waters may stimulate earthquakes” (pp. 49-50).

And it wasn’t just Soviet scheming.  Hamil also references Newsweek’s praise of the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) which would have diverted a number of arctic rivers, including the Mackenzie and the Peace (currently the centre of controversy over the abive mentioned Site C Dam proposal), south through the Rockies to the Fraser, Kootenay and Columbia and through extensions to the Rio Grande and East across the prairies to the Missouri and the Great Lakes.  One third of the power generated by this scheme would have gone to pumping the water to unnatural places.  But the U.S. Southwest would have irrigation water , For a time.  What could possibly stand in the way of such a wonderful proposal?  Well, next to cost, the biggest obstacle Hamil suggests is “Canadian reluctance to export its waters” (p. 49).  Those shortsighted Canadians.

What else would make Earth more hospitable?

How about flooding 140,000 square miles of Brazilian rainforest?

or damming the Strait of Gibraltar and the Dardanelles to generate electricity from inflow into an evaporating Mediterranean?

or the more modest proposal of damming the Red Sea for the same purpose?

Dam the Congo River and flood 350,000 square miles of Equatorial African Rainforest?  Dam the rivers of the Indian subcontinent, including the Sacred Ganges?

Dam the Bering Strait for goodness sake!

On p. 52 Hamil suggests that “Mideast peace might someday join Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and, perhaps, an independent Palestine in a Jordan Valley Authority for power generation and irrigation purposes.”  The political foresight is as accurate as the environmental.

Hamil lists all sorts of plans to make new salt lakes in below-sea-level areas of land and tells us, the Soviets “have rejected a plan to drain the Aral Sea.” p. 53  Look again!

Iceberg dams for the Northwest Passage. Diverting the Gulf Stream to the Maritimes. Draining Lake Erie.  The list goes on, blithely unaware of zebra mussels and Asian carp.

Hamil’s brief discussion of tidal and wind power is much more rational, although there is no suggestion of any possible negatives here, especially after those superconducting power lines make a world-wide power grid (p. 57 ff.)

Despite in the end explicitly denying an Asimovian dystopian vision, Hamil depicts a Trantor-like “Ecumenopolis” of 20 billion urban dwelling people connected by highspeed railways linking continents through trans-oceanic tunnels (many of which tunnels would be unnecessary if all the trans-oceanic dams got built).  Whence the food to feed the urban billions?  From all that newly irrigated desert and rainforest, one presumes.  And there must be some nature reserves scattered about for those “congenial species” we’ve kept around.

And then . . .

Oh boy!  Gosh! As though channelling Hugo Gernsback (whom he references):

“By the first half of the 21st century . . .” atomic powered locomotives!!!!

And the canals!  Panama’s is child’s play! Hamil draws lines across every continent, joining the river basins of India, diverting the Danube to the Sea of Azov, trenching Central America repeatedly.  Sadly, “Opponents of the new interoceanic canals warn that mixing the wildlife of two dissimilar zoological regions can result in serious ecological disruption.”

But on a positive note:

“Several of these stalled canal schemes might become feasible if nuclear devices could be used for excavation purposes” although, “The missing element of general world sanity may long inhibit such uses [of nuclear devices]” (p. 62).  Because, I guess, the definition of “world sanity” is “using nuclear devices to blast canals through continents”.

But Hamil’s not finished.  With perhaps his best bit of prophecy he tells us that if we are truly going to make Earth hospitable, we have to do something about the climate:

“If humankind is ever to get a handle on both short and long range climatic trends, it will have to utilize tools to alter productive forces in both these weather factories [the oceans and the icecaps] (p.62).

Antarctic coal!

Ocean mining!!

Industrial complexes in the oceans!!!

Cities on the ice of Antarctica and Greenland!!!!

Towing icebergs to desert regions!!!!!

“By the next century” !!!!!!

Let’s get that Global Planning Commission going!

But, remember:  “The entire planning process must be permeated with concern for the ecological well-being of the planet” (p. 64)  Hamil suggests that computers and their sophisticated programming will make modelling simple and keep everything shipshape and Bristol fashion.  Oh, and human rights. Hamil suggests the importance of considering the rights of humans living in the area of terraforming projects, for example, by making Third World construction projects labour intensive, thereby providing jobs for the local underclasses.  Give them a hand up through hard manual labour rather than by educating and training them to be skilled labour.  I notice Quebec’s “James Bay Scheme” on Hamil’s chart of “Examples of planetary engineering: proposed hydroelectric projects” (p.61).  I wonder how that clean energy project worked out.    The first phase was constructed without any serious attempt at environmental assessment or consideration of the human rights of the Cree in the area. The environmental and human damage was incalculable.  Hydro Quebec tried to proceed with phase two, the Great Whale Project, but the Cree used the Canadian Courts to hold the developers’ feet to the fire.  In the end the damage Great Whale would do was so great and so obvious that the Quebec Government “put the project on hold indefinitely”, effectively pulling the plug.  In hindsight, it is clear that the only way these “terraforming” mega-projects ever went ahead is when “ecological well-being of the planet” and human rights do not in any way permeate the planning process

The strangely distorted and rose-coloured vision throughout the article is stunning.  But at the end, there is a brief moment of clarity, obscured immediately by a “but”:

“Sheer magnificence of imagination ought not to hypnotize us.  But an emerging world civilization out to be capable of far more enduring works than its tribal predecessors with their meagre resources” (p. 65).

Well, Mr. Hamil, it’s looking more and more like our emerging world civilization has indeed constructed those enduring works by means of our “terraforming” ambitions and their unintended consequences :  climate change and extinctions. But somehow we haven’t made the Earth more hospitable for any species, “congenial” or otherwise.

I suppose we lacked the wit and imagination.

In 1978 as much as we do today.