Sunday, January 31, 2010

Obama's SOTU

Frank Rich, NY Times, on Obama's State of the Union address:
...our union is not strong. It is paralyzed. Many Americans were more eagerly anticipating Steve Jobs’s address in San Francisco on Wednesday morning than the president’s that night because they have far more confidence in Apple than Washington to produce concrete change.

This and That

Just some interesting things I've come across:
  • Stoat has a great picture of wind turbine wakes.
  • Every so often a book comes along that is unlike anything else you've ever read. One such recent book is David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. If you're of even a slightly scientific/sci-fi bent, but also like to think about the really big questions in life, you will be happy to have encountered this book. Check it out.
  • In 1993 Richard Gott of Princeton wrote a Nature paper that got a lot of press attention. Based on elementary reasoning, it seemed to say everything and nothing. In particular, he reasoned that man would probably (95% certainty) exist for at least another 5100 years, but only had a few more decades to make it off our planet and permanently to (at least) Mars. It seems a little hard to believe... but it also seems it's coming true.
  • Speaking of which, doesn't it seem a shame that in a country with annual income of about $15 trillion, we can't find $25B or so to explore space? I don't mean exploring by either manned or unmanned missions -- but by doing both. Why don't we have plans to drop a probe onto Titan? What does it say that we can't even make it back to the Moon? We can't seem to solve anything anymore.... Has the size of our civilization surpassed some kind of tipping point where we just can't get it all together?

More on Tolstoy's Last Days

The other day I mentioned the peculiar end to Tolstoy's life. Today I learned that there is a book on the subject, The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Final Year by Jay Parini, in which Tolstoy's end seems even more bizarre than I knew. Moreover, that they're making a movie about it, but I recommend just reading the book and not seeing the movie. Movies are hardly ever as good as the book (the only example I can think of is The World According to Garp), and more importantly, the movie overwrites all the hard-earned images that you have in your head from reading the book and you can never get them back.


Friday, January 29, 2010

JD Salinger

JD Salinger died yesterday, a recluse in New Hampshire, and the mainstream media's reaction seem mostly to be, How dare he not allow us 40 years of worship, hype, and fake flattery. We could have sold a lot of magazines about the women coming in and out of his lair.

Anyway, good for him for telling them all to go to hell. (Of course, you can do that when a book you wrote over 50 years ago still sells 250,000 copies a year.)

Anyway, I never understood all the noise about Catcher in the Rye. I always thought Franny and Zooey was much better, with its intimate and intelligent banter between siblings, a deep familial love that bordered on the romantic, young people who were impossibly insightful and much too smart (and too despairing) for their own good. I really wanted to be one of them -- it didn't matter which.

They lead into other such stories that I like a lot -- The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving, shades of The World According to Garp, and tones that led to A Separate Peace, the first novel I ever loved. Even the movie Stealing Home -- they were all of a piece. There aren't movies like that anymore -- at least, any that I've seen. They belonged in a certain time, before green screens and before CGI.

But it was still a time when literature mattered. Now, if what what you want to say isn't on video -- even a 3-minute clip on YouTube -- who can be bothered?


There are rumors that Salinger was writing in secret, 15 or more books, and that they will be released now that he is dead. I hope not a wit of this is true.


Tepid US Emission Goals

This Reuters story says that the US says it will embrace the Copenhagen Accord and "aim for a 17 percent reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for global warming by 2020, with 2005 as the base year."

This will not happen.
A final emissions reduction target will be submitted, the U.S. said, once the U.S. Congress enacts domestic legislation requiring carbon pollution cuts. But such legislation has an uncertain fate in the Senate.
Regardless of this, let's look at the numbers.

2005 US emissions = 7256.9 mt CO2e

First of all, let's note that its very unlikely that the US can determine its GHG emissions to one part in 100,000. There's no uncertainty on this number. It's clearly just what some GHG model spit out, and those who ran it have given on reason why we should believe its incredible accuracy.

In any case, to meet this target, 2020 US emissions must be less than 6023.2 mt CO2e. Now

2007 US emissions = 7282.4 mt CO2e

So we must achieve an average annual reduction of 1.5% to meet this target by 2020.

Can we do this in an arena were everyone believes economic growth must increase by 2-3%/yr? I don't see it happening.

And EVEN IF WE DID: This emission rate is far, far above what scientists say is needed -- which is essentially 0 mt/yr.

Tolstoy's End

Lately I have been reading some of Tolstoy's nonfiction, especially his views on religion. (Basically, he thinks nearly every Christian is (at least) a serious hypocrite, and if you look at the US, say, it's hard to argue he's wrong: with our huge military expenditures, state-sponsored terrorism, glorification of money, disregard of the poor, abortion (some would argue), rate of divorce, intolerance of race, sexual orientation, gender, etc.... we're perhaps the state with the largest ever ratio of piousness to actual action.)

Anyway, the story of Tolstoy's death is amazing, and something I didn't know before.

In his later years, he basically beat himself silly over the incongruence between his idealism, his wealth, and his actual life. He seemed to desperately want to be an ascetic, but (like so many of us), despite taking some important steps, he didn't have the stones to actually live the life he felt he should -- and he knew it. (As we all know it, deep down.)

Finally, at the age of 82 Tolstoy gathered his nerve and left everything behind -- home, family, books -- and set out on some kind of quest. In the middle of the Russian winter. Only he knows exactly what he had in mind.

He made it as far as the local train station. He got very sick, and died shortly thereafter.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Obama, SOTU, So What?

Just over a year ago I voted for Barack Obama, who I thought could make a genuine difference. I watched with astonishment and glee as he was elected President and the country seemed ready to crawl out of the dark ages of the Bush administration. I had great hopes he would make some changes, especially in the health care arena, as I'm a self-employed person who, due to pre-existing conditions, is unable to buy health insurance at any price.

Tonight I watched Obama give his State of the Union address. It struck me as just words, written systematically, spoken routinely -- and accomplishing nothing.

Is it just me? I don't believe Obama has any capability to get his agenda through. Maybe noone does. The Republicans are ogres who would oppose him even if he wanted to give lollipops to schoolchildren; they don't give a shit about the average American.

Even Obama seems more interested in making sure insurance companies and the unions approve of what he's doing. He's just another rubber politician -- and why did I really expect anything else? The people stopped mattering in American at least 20 yrs ago -- if they ever did. Now it's all about the bankers, the big corporations, Goldman Sachs, K-street.

And American's are now so stupid, so addled by television and Tiger Wood's sex life, that they just back while the elite screw them deep in the ass. (Crass, I know -- but there are no other words for it.)

Americans are now to dumb, so passive.... that... ah, who cares.

I honesty think it's time to leave here. I am seriously thinking about it. Frankly, I think my life literally depends on it. I can't purchase any health insurance here, which means I can't get anything beyond the elementary care offered by (bless them) community clinics -- a blood pressure check, and a prescription or two for the cheapest drugs possible. No comprehensive care. No blood tests. No annual checkups. No investigation of chronic problems. You just live with them.

I know we're all supposed to be proud and loyal Americans, but fuck that. This country is on the way down. Why stick around?

Too Much Information

I don't know about you, but often I find that the Web provides too much information. Let me explain.

Anymore, when I read a book or watch a video I make notes about things I want to know more about. I can't help it -- I'm curious. Just in the last few days, this list includes
magnetar SGR 1806-20

statistics on water levels in Lake Mead?

Neil Shubin and HOX genes

okra - sliced, fried?

The problem is, the Web allows you to look all these things up, and then some. You can follow them each for hours.

Before the Web, you'd wonder about any of these, and then dismiss it, as each would entail a trip to the library, finding an encyclopedia, or the Reader's Periodical Digest, and then you'd spend even more time finding them, xeroxing, and in the end you'd never find exactly what you wanted anyway. Except sometimes maybe by chance. How did people live like this?

Now, if you Google "Lake Mead water levels," you immediately get this graph, which is updated in near-real time.

Fine, except then you need to look up Lake Powell, and then you're wondering about the population gain in New Mexico, and recent drought statistics, and whether Intel is taking too much water from the Rio Grande, and there's no end to it.

In some ways it was much easier before the Web.

Uninsured Americans

Garrison Keillor, NY Times:
Meanwhile, one-sixth of the U.S. population is without health insurance, and Republicans have decided that defeating Mr. Obama is more important than the welfare of 50 million Americans: Let them die and decrease the surplus population and be quick about it. That’s the long and the short of it.

He's right -- clearly the Republicans could not care less about Americans who have to line up in fields to get basic health care, underneath tents.

Why are Americans so passive that they stand for this? Really?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mos Def, "Quiet Dog"

The Unsolvable Climate Problem

There is a lot of gas being passed on both sides of the climate debate.

Especially, almost no one seems to be realistic, and those who are accused of needing medication.

For example, this op-ed in High Country News by Auden Schendler and Mark Trexler merely says "It's time to take radical action on climate change."


Their article is just a bunch of the usual platitudes, unhelpful and completely ineffectual. Not a single person on the planet is going to do anything differently in response to their tepid complaints.

Go ahead -- change your light-bulb from incandescent to CFL -- big deal.

Schendler and Trexler don't take a single microsecond to discuss how to take a "radical step" or how much that will cost, and where that money is supposed to come from.

They're talking about "radical steps" -- by which I suspect they mean building a civilization with on carbon emissions. Do they have any conception at all of how much that would cost or how long it will take?

Just as an order of magnitude calculation you'd have to guess about $100T, and at least 40-60 yrs -- if we started tomorrow, which we won't. And they don't present any reason why we should start tomorrow. With children starving in this country and especially abroad....

Look, no one is more convinced than me that in the long run (60 yrs? 100 yrs? 150 yrs?) our societies will be suffering from global warming and climate change, and perhaps very seriously. But, even though I understand the science, I have no idea how to convince anyone of that -- not this society, not with this educational base. People, frankly, do not have the education to understand it, and lack any moral basis of concern for future generations. We are rampant with greed and selfishness. And no one is going to pay ~$10^3/yr to solve the problem. Period.


So what are we supposed to do?

The Intelligence of Dolphins

The atomic scientist Leo Szilard wrote an interesting collection of short stories, The Voice of the Dolphins, in which humans looked to a group of dolphins for the solutions to their endless problems of being unable to live together in harmony.

The dolphins were a stand-in for rational, scientific thinking, but chosen for a reason. And here's a very good indication of it -- an astonishing example of a group of dolphins clearly showing the ability to develop a solution to a problem:

If you were stranded on a deserted island with no materials, would you have the smarts to devise such a strategy? I'm not sure I would.

Someone on a blog somewhere made a point that has stuck with me: if we found evidence of a group of beings on another planet that were as intelligent as dolphins (or pigs, or dogs, or just about any animal), or just these animals themselves, we would be astonished, and revere and protect them. But given the same organisms here on earth, we abuse them in every way imaginable. That's really made me think.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


"When you don't know where you're going, every road will take you there.

-- Yiddish proverb

Friday, January 22, 2010

True/Slant abuses writers

So it turns out that True/Slant is not a very good place to be a blogger/writer after all.

After we both signed a contract in late November paying me a base rate of $200/mth, they cut me a check for December blogging for $150. When I asked about the remaining $50, things started to get interesting:
1) True/Slant's Leonard Dworkin ignored my inquiry
2) I was unable to log in to True/Slant's site for 8 days -- all inquiries to T/S tech support went unanswered
3) My contact at True/Slant, Katie Drummond, failed to tell me she has quit T/S and that I should inquire elsewhere, and
4) Coates Bates terminated my contract when I asked that the missing $50 be paid now instead of carried over to next month.
If you're a blogger with the opportunity to write for True/Slant, my advice is: proceed very carefully -- they're a pretty slimy organization. At this rate I can't imagine they're going to be around for long.

1/25, 7:45 am PST: By popular demand, here are a few more details:

I started blogging for True/Slant in late November '09. Everything was fine and by early January I was up to 700+ post views/5 days, up 130% from my first month. That's hardly gangbusters, but I was finding my legs and no one from T/S ever said a word.

Then in mid-January they had server problems and I was unable to log in for 8 days. My readership crashed during that time (to about 100 PV/5 days). At the same time they sent me my first payment, for Dec blogging, and it was only 3/4ths of the base rate that my contract called for. Lewis Dworkin ignored my question about it, and I learned that my "boss" at T/S had left without telling me. Then Coates Bateman wrote that what I was paid was what we agreed on. My contract clearly stated otherwise, which he agreed when I sent it to him. He asked if the other 1/4th could be included in next month's payment, because it was "more efficient." I wrote that I'd prefer it be paid now, as per my contract. Bateman wrote back that they would be reviewing my account to see that it "worked for both parties."

The extra payment went through, but shortly after that Bateman said they would be terminating my contract in 30 days (the contract does give them that option).