Communion Of Dreams


It’s a test.

Today’s xkcd triggered a thought: that we can think of the challenges of climate change as being akin to a planetary gom jabbar. Do we have the ability to endure short-term pain and survive, or do we give in to our immediate short-term desires and suffer the consequences?

 

Jim Downey



47 hours.

In about 47 hours I’ll be on the shuttle to the airport.

* * * * * * *

There was a news item I saw the other day which indicates that this year’s extreme temperature records are starting to convince more Americans that global climate change is real.

Every summer it seems like a different kind of out-of-control weather pattern decides to strike. In the past month alone, we’ve experienced deadly Colorado wildfires, early-season heat waves and a wind-whipping hurricane, convincing formerly dubious Americans that climate change is actually real, according to the Associated Press.

“Many people around the world are beginning to appreciate that climate change is under way, that it’s having consequences that are playing out in real time and, in the United States at least, we are seeing more and more examples of extreme weather and extreme climate-related events,” Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told the AP.

* * * * * * *

A month ago:

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., said he was “dead wrong” when he dismissed media reports over trading in the bank’s chief investment office two months ago as “a complete tempest in a teapot.”

“When I made that statement I was dead wrong,” Dimon said in his Senate Banking Committee hearing on Wednesday, pointing the finger at the former chief investment office head Ina Drew, who Dimon said assured him that “this was an isolated small issue and that it wasn’t a big problem.”

* * *

Dimon abruptly disclosed last month that JPMorgan has suffered at least $2 billion of trading losses in a few weeks. The estimate of the trading losses has since increased to $3 billion and maybe more, although Dimon reiterated in Washington that he expects the bank’s second quarter to be solidly profitable and suggested the losses are under control.

Today:

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Investors are gearing up for a week full of earnings reports and domestic news, but Europe will once again be hard for U.S. investors to ignore.

Dozens of companies are set to kick off earnings season this week. All eyes will turn to JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) on Friday, as the company will post its trading losses tied to its bad hedge from its London unit.

Some estimate that the loss could be as high as $9 billion, though the bank’s chief executive officer, Jamie Dimon, said back in May that the loss then stood at $2 billion.

* * * * * * *

My garden is about fifty paces behind our house, in a lovely large & open area. There are large trees closer to the house, but nothing back further, so it gets plenty of sun. Decades before we moved in my (to-be) father-in-law maintained a large truck garden there. He had a good eye for the spot.

Every three days for the last few weeks I make multiple trips out to the garden, swapping the feed on the soaker hoses.  Each hose is laid out to water two clusters of plants. And I run each one for about 20 minutes. This whole process takes two hours.

Today, as I walked out to the garden, for the first time I noticed the crunch of dry grass underfoot. I had been watching as the lawn slowly turned increasingly brown, but this was the first time I noticed the actual sound of the grass breaking underfoot.

91% of Missouri is now under what is officially described as either “extreme” or “severe” drought conditions.

* * * * * * *

You’ve been screwed:

The biggest scandal in the world right now has nothing to do with sex or celebrities. It’s about an interest rate called LIBOR, or the London Interbank Offered Rate.

* * *

LIBOR, as it turns out, is the rate at which banks lend to each other. And more importantly, it has become the global benchmark for lending.

Banks look at it every day to figure out what they should charge you for not just home loans, but car loans, commercial loans, credit cards. LIBOR ends up almost everywhere.

Gillian Tett, an editor with the Financial Times, says that $350 trillion worth of contracts have been made that refer to LIBOR.

So literally hundreds of trillions of dollars around the world, all these deals, are based on this number. Now we find out this number might be a lie. At least one bank was tampering with that number for their own profit.

This past week Barclay’s Bank was fined $455 million, and two senior executives (the chairman and the CEO) resigned as investigation into the scandal started to turn up evidence of the scope of the market-rigging.  But many people familiar with the industry say that this is just the tip of the iceberg — that there will likely be a number of other multi-national banks proven to have participated.

* * * * * * *

Climate change? Climate change.

Global Annual Mean Surface Air Temperature Change

Fig A2

Line plot of global mean land-ocean temperature index, 1880 to present, with the base period 1951-1980. The dotted black line is the annual mean and the solid red line is the five-year mean. The green bars show uncertainty estimates. [This is an update of Fig. 1A in Hansen et al. (2006).]

Figure also available as PDF, or Postscript. Also available are tabular data.

(I don’t put up with climate change denial here. Take it to your own blog.)

* * * * * * *

Perspective:

Leaders shape the frame of argument.  They delineate the forms of dissent and opposition.  They define, both by what they say and by what they fail to rule out, whether we have a small “r” republican approach to government, or rule by the manipulators of the manipulated mob.  When they stay silent they are the cowards of the headline, passive bystanders as their followers betray the basic principles of (small “d”) democratic politics.

Greece is a good place from which to think about this.  You don’t have to go back to Agamemnon or to Plato; living memory—the civil war, the colonels, very recent memory indeed offer regular reminders of the fragility of government by consent of the governed.  Words matter here, and have for millennia.

So it is in this place, with that history in mind, that I am reminded once again that the habit of dismissing crap like that spewed by Nicholson and Davis as wingnuts being wingnuts is not acceptable.  The speakers themselves may not count for much, but for a nominally civil society to allow such speech to pass without massive retaliation, actual leadership from those who would lead from that side…well, that’s how individuals get hurt, and democracies die.  It’s happened before, not many miles from where I sit as I write this.

* * * * * * *

In about 47 hours I’ll be on the shuttle to the airport.

Of course, I don’t have everything done which needs to be done. And I really shouldn’t have taken the time to put together such a long and wide-ranging post.

But I wanted to take a moment and thank those who bought books yesterday. It may have been prompted by yesterday’s blog entry, it may not — I have no way of knowing. But thank you. It wasn’t a big day for sales, but it was a nice bump up from the single sale the day before.

I won’t be traveling to Greece, but to Rome. And it won’t surprise me if I find a new perspective or two while I’m there. I’m hoping that the change will allow me to integrate some of the many things I have been thinking about concerning the next book.

Things like spontaneous combustion. It seems that the world is ripe for it.

Again.

Jim Downey

 

 

 

 

 



Shudder. Shudder and weep for the human race.
November 2, 2009, 11:11 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Failure, Global Warming, MetaFilter, Science

Oh, give me a break:

How green is your pet?

SHOULD owning a great dane make you as much of an eco-outcast as an SUV driver? Yes it should, say Robert and Brenda Vale, two architects who specialise in sustainable living at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. In their new book, Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living, they compare the ecological footprints of a menagerie of popular pets with those of various other lifestyle choices – and the critters do not fare well.

* * *

To measure the ecological paw, claw and fin-prints of the family pet, the Vales analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food. They calculated, for example, that a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals.

It takes 43.3 square metres of land to generate 1 kilogram of chicken per year – far more for beef and lamb – and 13.4 square metres to generate a kilogram of cereals. So that gives him a footprint of 0.84 hectares. For a big dog such as a German shepherd, the figure is 1.1 hectares.

Meanwhile, an SUV – the Vales used a 4.6-litre Toyota Land Cruiser in their comparison – driven a modest 10,000 kilometres a year, uses 55.1 gigajoules, which includes the energy required both to fuel and to build it. One hectare of land can produce approximately 135 gigajoules of energy per year, so the Land Cruiser’s eco-footprint is about 0.41 hectares – less than half that of a medium-sized dog.

Quick, in that quoted bit alone (and trust me, there’s more in the whole article), how many flaws in the argument can you recognize?

Our race is doomed. And here’s a hint, people who write things like this for the New Scientist – it’s not because of the doggies and kitties.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi, where there’s actually a pretty good discussion of the article. Cross posted to UTI.)



So, how crazy are you?

An interesting post on MeFi about survivalists – here’s the lede:

“Civilization is Just a Thin Veneer. In the absence of law and order, men quickly revert to savagery. As was illustrated by the rioting and looting that accompanied disasters in the past three decades, the transition from tranquility to absolute barbarism can occur overnight. People expect tomorrow to be just like today, and they act accordingly. But then comes a unpredictable disaster that catches the vast majority unprepared. The average American family has four days worth of food on hand. When that food is gone, we’ll soon see the thin veneer stripped away.”
posted by Joe Beese (119 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

Now, I haven’t bothered to go look at the sites linked there. I know the mindset, and have no real need to read more of it. But I found the discussion on MeFi that ensued to be very interesting and insightful.  Howso?  Well, here’s one comment that stood out:

A lot of this is weird to me because I grew up and live in “flyover” country.

It’s strange to me that some of you don’t own generators because I wonder what the hell you do if there’s an ice storm.

I suppose some of you don’t own guns but in Michigan it’s damn near the easiest thing in the world to shoot a duck or a goose and save the $15 you would have spent at a grocery store to purchase one.

And everyone in my neighborhood has five or six gallons of gas on hand for the generator, truck, wood-splitter or whatever because the gas station is a long way off and unreliable.

So I guess the thing that surprises me most is that “survivalism” has now been relegated to “being able to keep shit running” and that’s kind of depressing. People should at least have something on hand to produce food and heat in case of a natural disaster.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:55 PM on January 28 [3 favorites]

It seems that there is something of a bell curve here – with the complete stereotypical “survivalists” on one end, and the total “everything is always fine in my world, why worry about the future?” types on the other – and both extremes viewing the other as crazy.  Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, naturally, with distributions on one side or the other of the center according to our experiences and where we live.  Few of us have a Farnham’s Freehold mindset, but likewise few of us would trust to fate for nothing bad ever happening to us – we make some preparations to cope with an uncertain future, whether it is only by insurance or savings or by keeping a few weeks worth of food on hand (and I don’t buy the claim that most families only keep a 4 day supply of food on hand – most people shop weekly at most, and could probably subsist on “stuff” in their cabinets for a couple of weeks, even if it wasn’t the sort of regular meals that they’re used to.)

I’ve written about my own attitudes on the matter a fair amount – taking what I see as some common-sense precautions, while understanding that I don’t want to just completely retreat from living my life in the present.  We live in a world with earthquakes, tornadoes, flu, global warming and countless other things which can and do happen, or may realistically happen, which can lead to a period of civil disruption or at least the power being out for a few days.  And yet to read the comments on that thread it shows me that I am further to the side of the bell curve than I would expect.  And yes, of course I see all those who are less well prepared as being more crazy than I am.

Hmm . . .

Jim Downey

(Cross-posted to UTI.)



Talk about a breath of fresh air…
December 20, 2008, 10:35 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Global Warming, Government, Politics, Preparedness, Religion, Science, Society

From landing on the moon, to sequencing the human genome, to inventing the Internet, America has been the first to cross that new frontier because we had leaders who paved the way: leaders like President Kennedy, who inspired us to push the boundaries of the known world and achieve the impossible; leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respected the integrity of the scientific process.

Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it’s about protecting free and open inquiry.  It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology.  It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient.  Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us.  That will be my goal as President of the United States – and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.

That’s President-elect Obama, in his weekly radio address this morning, announcing his top science advisors.

Compare that to the mindset we’ve put up with from the Bush administration, the latest round of which was announced yesterday:

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration announced its “conscience protection” rule for the health-care industry Thursday, giving everyone from doctors and hospitals to receptionists and volunteers in medical experiments the right to refuse to participate in medical care they find morally objectionable.

“This rule protects the right of medical providers to care for their patients in accord with their conscience,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

The right-to-refuse rule includes abortion, but Leavitt’s office said it extends to other aspects of health care where moral concerns could arise, including birth control, emergency contraception, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research or assisted suicide.

Science hasn’t been a priority for the last eight years – conforming to ideological and religious demands has been.  That may be a good way to make your political base happy, but it sure as hell is a bad way to deal with the problems we face as a nation and a planet.

Even with the misgivings I may feel about the prospect of an Obama administration, this is a very welcome breath of fresh air.  We’ve got real problems facing us, and for once in a long while it feels to me like we have adults back in charge of dealing with them.

Jim Downey


Cross-posted to UTI.



Enter the vortex.
November 30, 2008, 10:33 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Daily Kos, Global Warming, Science, tech

Ever stand on the bank of a stream and watch a submerged stick oscillate up and down?  Or maybe seen something similar happen when you were fishing, and a cork/bobber got pulled underwater, the way it will swing back and forth?

That’s vortex induced vibration.  And it is a real problem for all kinds of engineering disciplines – just about any real world application which involves a fluid (or a gas, or even a plasma I suppose).

It could also be the thing which saves us from a carbon-based energy nightmare.  Vortex Hydro Energy is a new technology which could supply clean, renewable energy.  Professor Michael M. Bernitsas at the University of Michigan has helped pioneer this system.  From his University profile:

Current Energy Conversion: Invented, designed, and model-tested for the VIVACE http://www.vortexhydroenergy.com/ (Vortex Induced Vibration Aquatic Clean Energy) energy converter (patent pending UofM#2973). VIVACE is an ocean/river current energy converter based on the idea of enhancing rather than spoiling vortex shedding, increasing rather than suppressing VIV under high damping, and harnessing rather than mitigating VIV energy. VIV was first observed by Leonardo daVinci in 1504AD in the form of “Aeolian Tones”. Since then, engineers have been trying to suppress VIV which damage aero, civil, mechanical, marine, offshore, nuclear engineering structures. The VIVACE Converter takes this destructive force in nature and utilizes for the benefit of mankind. The VIVACE Converter is designed to be in high damping VIV ? thus extracting energy at high efficiency – over the range of current velocity that is of practical interest: 0.25-2.5m/sec (0.5-5.0knots) [79-80]. Testing of the VIVACE Converter in the Low Turbulence Free Surface Water Channel of Ocean Renewable Energy Laboratory at the University of Michigan for high damping resulted in a power harnessing rate of PVIVACE=0.22pwDLU3 for current velocity of only 0.840m/sec (1.63 knots) [80-82].

News of this just broke, and the research is still very much in its early stages. So there is still a lot to be done to assess the potential power generation as well as the downsides of applying the technology. It is likely that placement of the VIVACE system would be critical, so as not to disrupt environmental conditions necessary to the maintenance of a healthy planet.  But it strikes me as a potentially elegant solution to the problem of safe power generation with minimal environmental impact, and would avoid many of the issues that such technologies as wind power have.

Fascinating.

Jim Downey

(Via dKos. Cross posted to UTI.)



Heinlein was right.

Via BoingBoing, an interesting discussion over on Tor.com: The Dystopic Earths of Heinlein’s Juveniles. An excerpt:

It’s funny how it’s overpopulation and political unpleasantness that cause the problems, never ecological disaster. Maybe that wasn’t on the horizon at all in the fifties and early sixties? I suppose every age has its own disaster story. It’s nice how little they worry about nuclear war too, except in Space Cadet which is all nuclear threat, Venusians and pancakes. They don’t make them like that any more. Come to think it’s probably just as well.

* * *
No individual one of these would be particularly noticeable, especially as they’re just background, but sitting here adding them up doesn’t make a pretty picture. What’s with all these dystopias? How is it that we don’t see them that way? Is it really that the message is all about “Earth sucks, better get into space fast”? And if so, is that really a sensible message to be giving young people? Did Heinlein really mean it? And did we really buy into it?

Yeah, he meant it. And further, he was right.

No, I’m not really calling into question the premise of the piece – that Heinlein had something of a bias about population and governmental control. And I’m not saying that he was entirely correct in either his politics or his vision of the future.

But consider the biggest threat facing us: No, not Paris Hilton’s involvement in the presidential election, though a legitimate case can be made that this is indeed an indication of the end of the world. Rather, I mean global warming.

And why do we have global warming? Because of the environmental impact of human civilization. And why is this impact significant? Because of the size of the human population on this planet.

And what is the likely response to the coming changes? Increased governmental control.

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

For Communion of Dreams I killed off a significant portion of the human race as part of the ‘back story’. Why? Well, it served my purposes for the story. But also because I think that one way or another, we need to understand and accept that the size of our population is a major factor in all the other problems we face. Whether it is limitations caused by peak oil or some other resource running out, or the impact of ‘carbon footprints’, or urban sprawl, or food shortages, all of these problems have one common element: population pressure. We have too many people consuming too many resources and generating too much pollution. In fact, when I once again turn my writing the prequel to Communion, I may very well make this connection more explicit, and have the motivation of the people responsible for the fireflu based on this understanding.

So yeah, Heinlein was right. He may not have spelled out the end result (ecological disaster) per se, but he understood the dynamic at work, and what it would lead to. Just because things haven’t gotten as bad as they can get doesn’t mean that we’re not headed that direction. Our technology can only compensate for so long – already we see things breaking down at the margins, and the long term problems are very real. You can call it ‘dystopic’, but I’ll just call it our future.

Jim Downey



Ecclesiastes VIII 15

A good friend and I have a running joke about getting our six chickens and a goat, and retiring from the world to farm while things fall slowly into ruin.

But the thing is, it’s not a joke. Not really.

I’m not saying that everyone should fall into a paranoid spiral, become some kind of survivalist nut. I’m not ready to do that. But when you read something like this, it does make you wonder. An excerpt (please note, I added the embedded links in the following):

For decades, his [James Lovelock's] advocacy of nuclear power appalled fellow environmentalists – but recently increasing numbers of them have come around to his way of thinking. His latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, predicts that by 2020 extreme weather will be the norm, causing global devastation; that by 2040 much of Europe will be Saharan; and parts of London will be underwater. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report deploys less dramatic language – but its calculations aren’t a million miles away from his.

* * *

On the day we meet, the Daily Mail has launched a campaign to rid Britain of plastic shopping bags. The initiative sits comfortably within the current canon of eco ideas, next to ethical consumption, carbon offsetting, recycling and so on – all of which are premised on the calculation that individual lifestyle adjustments can still save the planet. This is, Lovelock says, a deluded fantasy. Most of the things we have been told to do might make us feel better, but they won’t make any difference. Global warming has passed the tipping point, and catastrophe is unstoppable.

“It’s just too late for it,” he says. “Perhaps if we’d gone along routes like that in 1967, it might have helped. But we don’t have time. All these standard green things, like sustainable development, I think these are just words that mean nothing. I get an awful lot of people coming to me saying you can’t say that, because it gives us nothing to do. I say on the contrary, it gives us an immense amount to do. Just not the kinds of things you want to do.”

Too late? Yeah, maybe so:

I opened the email to find an article about the most recent “comments and projections” by James Hansen. Hansen, you may know, is perhaps the most famous NASA climate change scientist. He’s the man who testified before Congress twenty years ago that the planet was warming and that people were the source of that warming. He’s the man who was pressured by senior officials at NASA, at the behest of the current administration, to tone down his reports about the impacts of climate change. Thankfully he seems to have resisted that pressure.

I read the article and then I read a related article by Bill McKibben. Hansen says, and McKibben underscores, that there is a critical maximum number of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to heed to prevent climatic catastrophe. That number, he says, is between 300 and 350.

* * *

Can you guess how many ppm of CO2 are in the atmosphere now? Slightly below 350? Slightly above?

We’re at 383 parts per million and counting, well past the number Hansen suggests is critical. We are past it by a lot. We were at 325 parts per million in 1970! Um, I don’t think we can just suck all that carbon back out, ask billions of people not to have been born, tear down all of those new suburban developments, return to non-fossil-based agriculture, and innocently pretend it’s thirty years ago.

So, what to do?

Well, that’s the problem. Lovelock says that you might as well enjoy life while you can, as much as you can, before the shit hits the fan. The second passage, from a very long blog entry evidently by Sally Erickson, explores some options but focuses on the need to convince people that the shit has essentially already hit the fan, in order to radically change behavior sufficient to have a hope to save the world.

I am not sanguine about the prospects of making radical change, nor what that would really mean for our civil liberties. I think, unfortunately, that the mass of humanity just cannot deal with a problem until it becomes an actual, in-your-face emergency, but that once in it, we usually do a fairly decent job of slogging our way out.

This is one of the reasons that I decided to choose a pandemic flu as the cataclysm behind the ‘history’ of Communion of Dreams. As I have discussed previously, I made that decision for reasons of plotting, but also because I actually believe that we’ll likely experience some kind of mass die-off of humanity sometime in the next century, whether due to war, asteroid impact, plague, global warming or some other disaster. We’ve just been too lucky, too long.

But in a way, it is an odd sort of optimism, as reflected in the book, and as shared by James Lovelock (from the same Guardian article):

“There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that’s just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we’ll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly. That’s the source of my optimism.”

And not to end it there, here’s a little something for counterpoint, I suppose:

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi here and here.)



This is the dawning of the age of . . .
January 28, 2008, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Climate Change, Global Warming, Health, Hospice, Predictions, Science, Society

Anthropocene:

Humans have altered Earth so much that scientists say a new epoch in the planet’s geologic history has begun.

Say goodbye to the 10,000-year-old Holocene Epoch and hello to the Anthropocene. Among the major changes heralding this two-century-old man-made epoch:

The idea, first suggested in 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, has gained steam with two new scientific papers that call for official recognition of the shift.

There’s more, basically explaining how the shift from the Holocene can be established. Worth reading.

I may post more later, but am fighting a bit of a sore throat thing that has my energy reduced. Brief update on my MIL: hospice nurse was in this morning to bring us meds and do a check up, and it is clear that my MIL is losing ground. We’ve stepped up her duragesic dosage again, to make sure that she stays comfortable, and Lisa (the nurse) went over some other things we can do if she gets into difficulty. We’re just taking things on an hour-to-hour basis.

Jim Downey



The future just got a little closer.
November 13, 2007, 10:37 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Global Warming, Google, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, Society, tech

I, and just about every other SF writer out there who has written about the near-term future (let’s say the next 50 years), have to some degree based our future on a so-called “hydrogen economy,” wherein hydrogen fuel has replaced fossil fuel for most of our energy needs. I don’t make a big deal of it in Communion of Dreams, but that was my basic assumption, and there are references in the text which show this.

Well, the future just got a little closer.

CHICAGO (AFP) – US researchers have developed a method of producing hydrogen gas from biodegradable organic material, potentially providing an abundant source of this clean-burning fuel, according to a study released Monday.

The technology offers a way to cheaply and efficiently generate hydrogen gas from readily available and renewable biomass such as cellulose or glucose, and could be used for powering vehicles, making fertilizer and treating drinking water.

Numerous public transportation systems are moving toward hydrogen-powered engines as an alternative to gasoline, but most hydrogen today is generated from nonrenewable fossil fuels such as natural gas.

There’s been a lot of hype about hydrogen – a quick Google search of “hydrogen fuel” will kick up about 1.4 million hits. A lot of the predictions made about the use of hydrogen have been overly optimistic, since there are real technical problems still to overcome for it to be put into widespread use. But this is a big step forward – news which should make everyone concerned about global warming or climate change or just ‘peak oil’ happy.

Jim Downey




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