Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Vanishing Faces

James Lovelock's book the Vanishing Face of Gaia is not a comforting book to read. I first came across Gaia theory about 20 years ago and it made immediate sense to me -- the earth is a living thing.

The implications of that -- according to Lovelock's book -- are not good for humanity. Through man's actions we have been messing with Gaia's systems and it is about to undergo a change that will not be in the least bit kind to humanity as a whole, moving to a hot state that will be unpleasant for a good deal of humanity.

Lovelock's main message I think is that we ought to be preparing for the impending disaster. The scientific consensus on global heating (as he calls it) is based on flawed models that don't take into account its biological component, and that the world is already midst disproving as being too conservative.

Thus the targets set by world governments, and the movements to meet those targets are badly flawed. He seems to feel the whole green living movement, and focus on renewable energy is a waste of time. His vision though never wholly articulated with any cohesion is that a
much smaller humanity will be living a nuclear powered life, with synthesized food, in the various places around the globe that will be least affected by Gaia's change of state.

Lovelock, likens the current urban environmental movement to a religion, and dangerous (the most dangerous ideology?) because it is now more focused on the health of humans rather than the health of the planet. Windpower and individual solar panels are sops to the weak minded in the service of corporations who are afraid of losing money to cheap nuclear energy.

He spends considerable time laying into windpower, one because it might make landscapes ugly, two because of its large footprint, and three because urban centers need constant power.

Somehow it doesn't add up - if the modern environmental movement were to be carried to its logical conclusion, its members would be self-sufficient, vegetarians not badly placed to survive in a world where self-sufficiency is called for. There are plenty of criticisms that can be fairly leveled at the environmental movement, but it's not clear to me actually what Lovelock's are, or if it is only a portion of it.

The term environmentalist has had a bit of a tarnish of late, and is used by people of all persuasions to attack the particular element of environmentalism they don't like. We could use some more particular terms perhaps.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Founding Folks

I picked up the latest from David Liss in paperback (he has one newer one out in hardback) called Whiskey Rebels. Liss remains my favorite AgeOfReason Noir writer. Or Econ Noir, except that doesn't convey the historical nature. This novel takes place a decade past the revolutionary war, and one of the main character is a scoundrel, a former spy and accused traitor, who gets a chance to redeem his lost honor. The other character, a woman, makes her way into the wilds of Pennsylvania to make a living with her new husband only to find that there are scoundrels everywhere.

Revolutionary characters come into the story -- Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Washington, as well as forgotten characters, all set in a complex world of finance and a very familiar, fierce and bitter partisan squabble. Liss deflty places his fictional characters in the murky areas of history.

The story captivated me enough, that when I came across a copy of Founding Brothers, I gave it a read. The book is an examination of the relationships of some of our Founding Fathers: Hamilton, Burr, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. With ease it took apart my myths of the founding fathers, if only by knowing (as one might expect, if one thought of it) that they were just men, flawed in different ways, who by luck and good timing pulled off this amazing feat, and managed to keep it going often through their common rather than individual effort. Despite intense and often hard feelings, our revolution did not "eat itself" as have others in the peace that followed victory.

The book mostly focuses on what happened after the revolution, the divisions that grew over the Federalists and Republicans, those who wanted more federal power, those who wanted states power, the way that most parties came to terms (aka silence) over the issue of slavery, issues of finance, foreign policy, and issues of populism over elites. Intense hatreds developed, friendships floundered and were restored.

It's a marvelous retelling of our history worth reading for the complexity and ideas that we will still see reflected in the politics of today.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Holiday Reading

One upside of the nasty illness I had over this vacation is that I got a lot of reading done:

I marched on through Bernard Cornwall's Sharpe's series, and they continue to be thoroughly engaging. Sharpe's Enemy was particularly timely as it took place during the winter time. It has a description of a Christmas dinner that was almost as good as eating -- but that may have just been because I had no appetite.

I also finished Cornwall's grail quest trilogy (the Archer's Tale, Vagabond, and Heretic). The story takes places in the reign of Edward the Third after he invaded France. I hadn't really known much about the English long bow outside of Henry V and the battle of Agincourt. Apparently, the long bow already had been ruling the battle field for some time, and was particular to England because of the peculiarities of culture (wielding the bow being the national sport before soccer came along I guess). History aside, it was a good read all told, the main character Thomas the archer is much like his other main characters (Sharpe and Starbuck) rash, passionate, and soldier's soldiers -- not knowing much outside of how to fight never mind why -- their enemies are often on the same side as not.

I also found a new author, Louis Bayard, with the book The Black Tower, a historical mystery of sorts taking place during France's restoration of the monarchy after the demise of Napolean. The main character becoming involved in the investigation of a murder. What makes the book is the investigator, a man named Vidocq. He's a great character (read the wikipedia article on him), somewhat Holmesian, but more passionate, a former criminal, a lover of women, a master of disguise, and the terror of criminals all through Paris.

Good stuff. I just started another book by Bayard, called Timothy, which is the life and times of Tiny Tim now all grown up.

I did plow through a couple non fiction books as well: Saxon, Viking and Celts by Bryan Sykes. This is an investigation into the DNA of the people of the British Isles, trying to match genetics to what we know or believed we knew of the actual history. The annoying thing about the book (for me) is that it as written as an unveiling of a mystery, rather than "these are my conclusions and this is how we arrived at them". For me, that makes it a little less trustworthy somehow -- since I don't know where it is going to end up, I guess I can't see where and if the author is making leaps.

In any case, the upshot of their findings is that the genetics maps pretty well to history from the 800s on (in terms of where say viking and saxon genes -- which are hard to distinguish -- are likely to be), but there is little evidence for the migrations that we thought made up earlier prehistory. The Celts have been there for thousands of years. What we know of as Celtic culture, was likely a cultural migration.

And speaking of migration, this brings me to my last book, The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic by Stan Ulanski. I had high hopes for this book but was ultimately left disappointed. I can be quite fond of books that are leap from connection to connection, but reading details on for example sport fishing, the story of edward teach, and the story of the Mayflower seemed either self-indulgent, or filler. I was surprised there was not a more thorough treatment how the biology of the stream -- there was lots of details on the tuna, sports fish, and jelly fish, but there was little in between. Whales weren't talked about at all until the author began talking about whaling. Cod was mentioned only in passing.

The other big missing element is much about the environment, how much the biology might have changed over the years (there's hint when he dissects a fish at one point and finds a bottle cap), and there is not a mention of the controversy over the conveyor and Global warming except in the epilogue.

By the end of it, I felt I would have been better served if the title had been, The Atlantic Gyre: how the Atlantic ocean spins biology and history. Or something like that. It does have great details on ocean dynamics, climate, and the history of humans crossing the Atlantic, but I feel like the gulf stream itself is still merely a river in the ocean, but that I know that it is more.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

war, what is it good for?

Reading is one thing. I'm not sure why, but I really enjoy the reading of battles when it is done well. Two recent reads come to mind. Bernard Cromwell's first book, Sharpe's Eagle (not the first book in the Sharpe series, but the first he wrote), tells the story of Richard Sharpe, a rare enlisted soldier lifted into the ranks of the British Army during the wars against Napolean. The battles are as much internal ones against British class society as they are against the French army, but Cromwells' description of battles are pretty amazing. I've also seen the British TV adaptation and while doing the characters justice, can't make the battles seem as desperate as they are in the novel. There's something about desperation that gets me hook line and sinker every time. The epitaph of the book quotes Samuel Johnson, "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a solider." And it is sadly, perhaps, at least in my own case, true.

The other book for splendidly awful battles is a fantasy series by David Bakker known as The Prince of Nothing. The eponymous prince is a man from a hidden tribe of people who have trained themselves to control themselves, and by extension other people. Think of your most accomplished and idealized Buddhist Shaolin monk, take away any notion of compassion, and you have Kellhaus, who manipulates his way across a continent and into the head of a massive army on a crusade to crush the infidel.

The book is filled with intricate plots that no one knows the extent of: there is a haunted barbarian looking for revenge, there are factions of sorcerers trying to destroy each other, another faction trying to prepare for the end of the world, rulers of different countries, holy men, and a cruelly passionate group of something or other (disguised as men) who are looking to bring about the apocalypse. Its mostly fun stuff.

In the midst of it Kellhaus's power grows and it was hard for me to take his cold manipulations of people and power. In some ways, those are the most annoying bits, where people are wondering at his amazing power, and being taken in hook line and sinker. Ultimately, you still don't know his true motives and I wished I had known however, the trilogy was not a complete story, otherwise I might have passed. But the battles were brilliantly written, even if somehow they all end up feeling like the same thing happens. They to are able to catch the desperation of men hoping for glory and finding something else.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008


I've got a new favorite Sci Fi author. Not THE favorite, but A favorite, by the name of Charles Stross. Accelerando was the one I read first, because I was onon a kick of SingularityFi books (a book by Ian McDonald and another by the name of Light).

Singularity is one of those ideas, which fascinates me, but is generally pretty damn boring to read about (with the previous exception of Vernor Vinge's Marooned in Realtime). Mainly because it dips into revolutionary events beyond the ken and caring of this reader. Stross's Accelerando while dipping into revolutionary and massive change remains grounded throughout the book through the lives of one family and their generational differences (similarly Vinge's book is about one person who witnesses the singularity in quite a different way).

But what is really brilliant about Stross is that his ideas, although tremendously wacky on some level, make a lot of sense. The best part of Accelerando is in the beginning of the book in the near future, where one of the main characters is living in a gift economy, trying to stay apace of a rapidly changing world. Economics are topsy turvy to what they are today (the book in some ways is EconoFi, in a similar way to Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle).

Halting State is another of Stross' works. It takes place in the near future in Scotland, where a online game's bank is knocked over by a band of orcs. The collection of people who gather to investigate it find themselves in deeper waters than they expect. There is no singularity here, and no revolutions.

The odd gambit of telling the story in the second person is annoying at first, but you get used to it. Partly because Stross is a pretty engaging writer (a little like Stephenson again at least from his earlier books). Again with this book there are brilliant little ideas waiting here and there, my favorite from this book is

SPOILER ... (not a huge one, but still)

user generated spying. National spy agencies co-opting gamers who think they are just playing a game into agents carrying out small tasks without having any clue as to what they are accomplishing.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Book vs Movie

I just finished reading P.D. James' Children of Men, and I find myself liking the movie more than the book. This is a rare thing. I can count the number on one hand of movies I've liked more than the books.


One obvious difference is that P.D. James is just a dense writer. The psychology of her character is more important than the plot in many ways, and her books are measured meditations on humanity. To mix some metaphors, a movie could only ever hope to sketch the kind of depths she tends to plumb.

I was surprised however, to find, that the movie was only loosely based on the book. If you haven't seen it, the movie is a quick descent into hell, moderated by occassional moments of purgatory and a laugh or two. The movie's plotline seems more like a second story set in the same world, with the same setup, but with completely different people (it so happens some of whom happen to share names and one shares the same occupation). Its remarkable how little dialog or even the action is shared.

The writers of the movie have clearly been informed by the events since 911, and the increasing pressures of globalization Immigrants are mentioned in the book, but we never see any, there is no trip to a refugee camp, no "'fugees". The character pregnant in the book is an older white woman. The movie feels much more realistic for it.

But at the heart of why I like it better is because the characters are much more sympathetic. The book's main character is an aloof arrogant professor once very closely tied to the government, in the movie, he's one of us, being used really, and stumbling into a situation he has little control over. His great old friend in the movie, is an awful old oxford don. It was hard to find any character that was particularly likeable in the book.

For the movie, you could almost find yourself in anyone's shoes. There's no particularly evil people, even the person you hate the most is acting out of a kind of love, almost everyone is acting in what they see as their own best self interest. The movie shows perhaps where that can lead: to much evil that is certain, but also to some good.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

far north

I found two books at work about living in the far north. I seem to have had a "jag" of books on native cultures being overwhelmed by foreign ones.

"The Last Gentleman Adventurer" by Edward Beauclerk Maurice, is an memoir of an English boy who signs up with the Hudson Bay Company, serving as a trapping agent in the far north of Canada. Unlike most of his compatriots, he learns the Inuit language and falls deeply in love with the Inuit culture and people. By the end of his stay his Inuit name has changed from "The Boy" to Issumatak, "He Who Thinks."

It is a great, and someone romantic story, and only slightly tinged with the paternalism, you might expect. He uses the term Eskimo -- not a term of derision in his time, it was the name the Cree (I think) gave to their enemy the Inuit: "eaters of raw meat." (That's a whole fascinating sideline... how many tribe names do we know by the names their enemies gave them -- the Sioux is the name the enemies of the Lakota gave them, the Anasazi is a Navajo word which means ancestors of our enemies. )

To give a deeper picture of the Inuit, you could turn to "The Long Exile," by Melanie McGrath, chronicling the history of one particular group of Indians who ends up exiled to the high arctic far away and much further North than they were used to.

This story is told through that of the son of a Canadian filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, who as he was filming his opus "Nanook of the North," had a child by the films female star, Maggie Nujarluktuk. With really amazing and poetic language, Ms. McGrath, weaves the story of these people, giving us a broad sense of their culture, their history, and their interaction with whites and other Native North Americans.

The two stories intersect only tangentially, the name of a ship, a waypoint on the way farther north. They share a certain sadness for a people caught up in greed, and blinded by ignorance. Both are well worth reading.


how soccer explains nothing

"How Soccer Explains the World: an {unlikely} theory of globalization" by Franklin Foer is a fine and interesting book. I would imagine that even someone who doesn't give a toss about "football" would fine it an interesting read. The book takes around the world visiting the often ugly histories of football clubs as a way of explaining globalization.

But really, in the literal sense of the word "explain", it really explains nothing. It does not give the whys and wherefores. Only the whats. I was a little dissatisfied at the end, there's little in the way of binding, the intro tells us the book is divided into three parts, but those parts are not really drawn out into any overall narrative.

The world of football is a great microcosm of the larger picture -- It's a great glimpse of the good and bad of globalization, and anti-globalization. But the "theory" hinted at by the subtitle is quite absent. If you pressed me, I would not be able to even guess at what it is "globalization happens? some things are good? some things are bad?"

Further dissatisfaction is found in its chapter on Islam (sadly perhaps because that chapter was the most theoretical). It was a little shocking, that the author thinks that the "hope" of Islam or in Iran in particular anyway, is a return to the totalianarism of the secular nationalists! (It didn't help that several things have changed in Iran since he wrote the book).

But all that explanation or lack thereof aside, it trully is an engaging and interesting read.