Friday, December 19, 2008

Dickens' The Chimes

I hadn't known, before people at The Valve started reading The Chimes, that A Christmas Carol had been one of a series. Just like a genre fantasy writer today, Dickens had a success and followed it with another similar book and another until it was played out. The Chimes was the second in this series, out of five. A previous post addressed one of the key aesthetic elements of the work.

It's a political novella. The protagonist, Toby nicknamed Trotty, is a pathetically inoffensive old man, scraping out a living by delivering letters and parcels. The other poor people in his set are Meg, his grown daughter, Richard, her fiance, William Fern, a laborer who he takes in out of sympathy, and Lillian, William's young ward, his sister's daughter. Toby's ghostly vision, given to him in a dream by goblins of the church chimes that he listens to where he waits for work, shows what happens to them nine years later if Toby dies that night; all four are ground down by poverty in four different ways. Richard becomes a drunkard, Lillian a prostitute, William Fern a terrorist, and Meg decides to commit suicide with her baby daughter. These four are schematically opposed to four flat characters who represent the people grinding them down, who in contemporary terms might be described as a nostalgic conservative, a technocratic utilitarian, a social conservative actively oppressing the poor, and an aristocrat.

Many of the people commenting at The Valve don't seem to get the book, dismissing it as overly political, too didactic, not very engaging. (Adam Roberts writes some interesting comments about metallic imagery and hardness/softness, though.) All of that might be true, but it doesn't seem like a very useful way of looking at the book. Why doesn't it work, if it doesn't? I'd say that Dickens is bravely running head-on into the same political problem addressed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 -- The Chimes was written and published in 1844 -- the problem of the "hungry forties". Or, as Cherneshevsky would title a novel that inspired a more famous work later, What Is To Be Done?

The first thing that surprised me about the book is how Marxian Dickens sounds, without Marx. Toby is called up before the goblin Chimes for false consciousness. He keeps pathetically apologizing although he doesn't know what he's done, but what he's done is believe that poor people are innately bad, taken in by the newspapers that he reads that transmit upper and middle class ideology. DIckens hammers away at the idea that the people are innately good, and only social conditions are to blame when and if they go bad. The Chimes also inform Toby that they represent historical necessity, and that anyone who goes against them is going to inevitably fall. Of course Dickens, a liberal, is not a Marxist, but there's a lot of rhetoric that I associate with Marxism that seems instead to have been common to various political tendencies of the day.

Where people seem to think that the novella fails as a narrative is that Toby doesn't really do anything. A Christmas Carol has a traditional redemption narrative that middle class people can identify with -- a greedy person changes, and then his own life and the lives of those around him become better, not only emotionally, but in terms of the actual resources that he shares. But Toby has no resources. He was cheerful enough at the beginning of the book, degradingly so to a contemporary sensibility. (I'll return to this later.) He has nothing that we recognize as a personal sin, and no way to change his ways. After his dream, everything is magically all right -- he hasn't fallen down the church tower and died, Meg and Richard haven't been discouraged from their marriage by hateful people telling them they are too poor and / or can do better -- but he didn't bring any of that about, even by word. What did he do?

Here's what he did. His action comes during the dream, not after he wakes up. He sees his daughter Meg about to kill herself, and says:

‘I see the Spirit of the Chimes among you!’ cried the old man, singling out the child, and speaking in some inspiration, which their looks conveyed to him. ‘I know that our inheritance is held in store for us by Time. I know there is a sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves. I see it, on the flow! I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another. I have learnt it from the creature dearest to my heart. I clasp her in my arms again. O Spirits, merciful and good, I take your lesson to my breast along with her! O Spirits, merciful and good, I am grateful!’

He has changed from a acceptance, an even cheerful toleration of his fate, to an active hope and faith. He knows, as a fact, he sees, that all who oppress and wrong "us", the poor, will be swept away.

Is this a revolutionary conviction? It can't be, given Dickens' politics. For there is another sort of ghost haunting the novella, going by the name of William Fern. William Fern goes to London to look for work, falls asleep in a shed, and is arrested for vagrancy. He is called "a turbulent and rebellious spirit" by the authorities; they decide to make an example of him. In Toby's dream vision, here is how he ends up:

‘What have you done?’ she [Meg] asked again.

‘There’ll be a Fire to–night,’ he said, removing from her. ‘There’ll be Fires this winter–time, to light the dark nights, East, West, North, and South. When you see the distant sky red, they’ll be blazing. When you see the distant sky red, think of me no more; or, if you do, remember what a Hell was lighted up inside of me, and think you see its flames reflected in the clouds. Good night. Good bye!’

This seems to have been a reference to rick-burning. But Fern has no political program as such. He's simply been tormented into striking out.

Fern is the locus of Toby's earlier action, the real action that he takes in the book. At the start, Toby is such a servile character that I would think it's easy for a contemporary reader to despise him. Doesn't he have any revolutionary or class consciousness? Any simple fatherly pride? The oppressors insult his daughter, and say she's worthless and shouldn't get married, right in front of him, and he doesn't even have the dignity to get angry. Instead he just takes their money to deliver a letter. He doesn't even do it grudgingly, secretly resentful; he just believes them. You can't help but hate him.

But the letter is from one oppressor to another, and they discuss it right in front of him -- he's harmless -- how they plan to make an example of William Fern. Toby then happens to meet Fern. And he doesn't hesitate for an instant to warn Fern about the letter, and tell him not to visit the person he was going to visit to ask for mercy, who is going to throw him in jail. Indeed, Toby takes Fern and his daughter in, gives them shelter, and feeds them out of his meager funds. He isn't harmless after all. Although his thoughts are pretty despicable, his actions are not. If Fern was a member of a revolutionary movement and Toby was a sympathizer, he wouldn't have done anything different.

So, for Dickens, this is the revolution -- the revolution of kindness. Embittered violence, for Dickens, is self-destructive, and in any case will not succeed. Instead, people have to help each other. But it can't be merely on impulse, unthought, as Toby does. It has to be accompanied by the active faith that what is happening is wrong, that they are correcting a wrong, and that someday all that wrong will be swept away. That faith itself is what is going to sweep it away -- otherwise, individual acts of kindness are possible, but they do not add up to an overall refusal of the system.

Is that politically incoherent? Yes, more or less. As a political program, it looks like quietism. As a work of art, it doesn't quite hang together. Dickens' lower-class people can be cheery, but his Victorian sentimentality means that he can't really depict them as proud, and really what Toby needs is some pride, of a certain happy sort. But despite its incoherence, its lack of any analysis or any active plan, has it really done so badly, historically, compared to the alternatives? Certainly I wouldn't want Toby as my labor organizer. On the whole, though, Dickens' mushy liberalism at least avoids some world-class failures. Unfortunately, no one really did any better.

the Tower

At The Valve people are reading one of Dickens' lesser-known Christmas books, The Chimes. I'll be writing more about the book itself shortly, but first, Dickens really did get the atmospherics of ascending the inside of a church-tower right. They are odd, liminal spaces, human constructions that rarely have a human presence, yet (unlike the inside of a large machine) are supposed to be accessible. This post is a bit about my own trip up a church-tower, with some not very interesting pictures.

The Tower, as an archetypal symbol in tarot decks, generally shows a tower being struck by lightning, with people falling out of it. Dickens makes use of it in The Chimes in much the same way; his protagonist ascends in dream-voyage, and has his worldview shattered and remade. To quote wiki, " The Tower is struck by lightning when Reality does not conform to expectation."

Once, at a UU church in L.A. -- only in L.A. could a church built early 20th century seem reasonably old, but it did -- I decided to climb the church tower during the service. I can no longer remember why I did this. Perhaps I excused it on the basis that most of the church members were reasonably old, and someone should check out this space to see if anything was going wrong with it in some obscure way. But really, I think, it was a treasure hunt, a chance to see a space in the middle of a packed city that no one had been in in years. So I borrowed the key and started up. As the rest of the church sat through a service, I was going to climb.

This being L.A. in the daytime, the atmosphere was hardly the one Dickens' used, of wind and cold. Everything was drenched in sun. But I quickly realized that perhaps I shouldn't be making this climb in my good shoes. The first room featured rusty iron braces set into the cinderblock as a ladder, up through which one went through a hole in the floor of the room above:

Which led to a long, free-standing ladder:

It was at this point that I started to wonder what I was doing. I was neither especially athletic, nor young, nor fond of heights. If I fell down one of these 15-foot spaces onto concrete, I could easily break something, and I wasn't really sure if anyone knew where I'd gone. The top of the ladder had a hatch-cover that had to be pushed quite hard to get it to move, and I didn't know if I could shift it with one hand -- using two would require having none on the ladder, and bracing myself against something I was moving. But of course this was a self-test of sorts, now:

The space above that featured a bird's nest, one of the many details Dickens included that mark this kind of structure as an oddity. No one had even been bird-watching this bird, at least not on its nest. It had a sort of privacy, right in the middle of the city:

And the space above is where I stopped. I'd heard that if you kept going up, there were old, disused bells of some kind. But in the picture above you can see that there's another heavy hatch-cover. And to push up on it, I had to stand on a sort of platform, tacked across the top of the room with two thin steel beams. Pushing up on the hatch meant pushing down on the platform with equal force; I thought I could feel it creak a little. Also, I'd heard that years back, the last time anyone had been up here, the maintenance crew the church had hired had found the top room covered in inches of guano. I had visions of finally raising the hatch against the excess weight lying on top of it, only to be showered in bird poop -- surely the opposite of glory.

So I never exerted my full strength against that last hatch. In this parody of a vision quest, I'd found out who I was -- I was a person who would finally, sensibly give up. I made my way down the hatches and ladders and wall-set braces, returned to helping to raise my then one-year-old child, and bought life insurance.

The view from near the top, though, was good:

This risible adventure, though, did make me appreciate Dickens' use of the space. When Toby or Trotty in his story finds himself at the top of the dark tower, and wonders whether he's going to climb down or fall down, that's a realistic fear. Which makes them a particular kind of psychological place as well. These spaces are the closest many city-dwellers get to the inaccessible, to, if not the religiously numinous, at least the unobserved, the tower of one's own mind.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Saint-Gobain, Northampton, MA

The fallout from the USA Today report mentioned in the last post is still settling, with politicians and Federal and state regulators promising various responses. I've heard that there's the usual rush of facilities, after a TRI report like this is released, to correct their reporting errors and/or explain their reports. But I'm getting involved with this locally too; a school that I've often biked past, and that some of my friends' kids go to, is listed as the third most potentially polluted from these industrial sources in Massachusetts.

Update: after new information was supplied by the facility, this is probably nothing to worry about: see below.

Looking at the site, 99% of the estimated risk is from a single polluter here, a Saint-Gobain facility. Looking up their TRI data here, as well as their RSEI data, it's clear that the estimated risk is due to their report of an air release of chromium compounds.

I've seen many, many facilities get themselves bad publicity by reporting in the way that this facility did, when they report something like chromium compounds or diisocyanates, something with a high toxicity or carcinogenicity. They reported an air release using a release range: 11-499 pounds. EPA routinely transforms this into the midpoint of the range: 250 pounds. That's a lot of chromium. In addition, EPA doesn't have respondents distinguish between hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen (and the chemical that Erin Brockovich campaigned against), and trivalent chromium, which isn't anywhere near as bad.

The facility should clarify this so that everyone can get a better idea of how much concern there should be. I called their TRI public contact on the phone, left a message, and got no response -- that's no surprise; I've been working with TRI data since 1991 and have never, ever gotten a response from a public contact. So I sent the following Email to their technical contact:

Dear Mr. (redacted):

I am Emailing you because you are listed as the TRI (Toxic Release Inventory) technical contact for the Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials facility in Northampton. I am an independent researcher living in Northampton who has worked with TRI data for some time, as well as the RSEI data used to make the USA Today report that references your facility at:

As you can see from this USA Today report, the Saint-Gobain facility causes the Montessori School of Northampton to rank in the top two percentile of schools nationwide in terms of schools whose air is potentially polluted by industrial facilities, as well as potentially affecting other Northampton schools. Looking at your TRI report at:

and at the RSEI data, it is clear that the potential pollution in question is listed in your report as a release range of 11-499 pounds of chromium and chromium compounds to the air in 2005. EPA routinely treats release ranges of this sort as being equivalent to the midpoint of the range: 250 pounds.

I have some questions about your TRI report and the facility's operations:

1. Do you have a better idea of how much chromium and / or chromium in compounds is actually released than 11-499 pounds? Getting a more accurate number could affect the RSEI risk screening calculation quite dramatically.

2. Do you have an idea, through testing or other means, of how much of the chromium is hexavalent chromium -- a known human carcinogen -- vs how much is trivalent [note: I originally wrote this as "chromium trioxide", oops.]? That would also lead to a better understanding of the potential risk involved.

3. Are there any plans possible or underway to reduce use of, or emissions of, chromium? Your 2006 TRI report, the latest publicly available, shows the same chromium release as in 2005.

Thank you for your attention to this request for information. I plan on sharing your reply with other people who may be concerned about the chromium emissions from the Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials facility. If you wish to contact me, I can be reached through Email, or by phone at xxx-xxx-xxxx.

Best regards,

Rich Puchalsky

cc: (redacted), Montessori School of Northampton

I'll see what I response I get. Given that Saint-Gobain is a multinational, I'd guess that my missive may well get passed up quite a chain. But I plan on continuing to pursue this.

My guess is that the range reporting may well have inflated their reported number to be greater than what they actually released. But there's no way to know without asking them.

Update (12/12/2008): The facility says that the level of hexavalent chromium in the chromium they use is very low, so I'd think that this means there's no reason for undue concern. Their reply was:

We produce various ceramic powders used by our customers in coating applications.  One of our products is trivalent chromium oxide used in wear resistance applications.  This chromium product contains well over 99% trivalent chromium oxide.  We have tested for hexavalent chromium oxide and the concentration tends to be around 50ppm in our product.  As stated in the USA Today website that you reference “Chromium 3 (trivalent) is an essential nutrient and helps the body process proteins, sugars, and fats.”

We believe that the emission values that you reference are a conservative estimate and the actual values are likely much less. The trivalenet chromium is present as a small particle like dust. We process our internal process air through “dust collectors” that are designed to remove 99.99% of the dust in the air. This treated air is then vented back into the building. We also utilize a plant wide central vacuum system for cleaning floors and equipment to minimize dust generation during cleaning. Therefore any trivalent chromium emissions are simply any minimal dust that may escape through open doors.  As you can imagine the actual number would be difficult to measure, but we feel that the actual number is closer to 11 lbs than to 499 lbs per year.

My reply was:

Thank you for your reply. The RSEI model used to estimate the risk from your facility's chromium emissions assumes that air emissions of chromium are particulates, as is the case for your facility, but it also assumes, based on industry averages, that the percentage of hexavalent chromium in the chromium released would be 34%. An actual hexavalent chromium percentage of 1% (to round up) would then reduce the estimated risk to 1/34 of the original calculation. That would lower the concern about emissions from your facility to the point where the Montessori school, and other schools in Northampton, would no longer score high on a nationwide or statewide comparison of the kind used in the USA Today report.

I should mention, however, that as far as I know, TRI estimates of releases are supposed to be made for the amount leaving the facility, not the amount "released" internally and then recollected before it reaches the outside. It's good to know that you have processes in place to reduce emissions, but the 11-499 pound estimate is presumably your estimate for the amount released to the air after your emission-control equipment has worked, not before.

I encourage you to develop a better estimate of how much chromium is actually released, sufficient for you to report to TRI with your best estimate in pounds rather than as a range. Until that is done, the public can only assume that 250 pounds is the best guess, which leads to more concern about your facility than is warranted if the true number is actually much lower. Hexavalent chromium is by far the primary concern for air emissions, but there are some environmental processes that can change trivalent to hexavalent chromium under some conditions, so it's still of interest to people to know how much is being released.

And that is that. Really what is needed is some way to change TRI reporting to discourage this kind of report from happening -- reporting chromium speciation would be good (people already report dioxin speciation to TRI, so it can be done), and there might be a category of highly toxic chemicals that range reporting is not used for, or at least warned about. I'm going to take this up with EPA once the new administration is in place.
...Read more

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Toxic air and America's schools

There's an excellent report by USA Today that uses EPA reported pollution data and air modeling to estimate air quality at schools nationwide. It has a good database-backed Web site, too, that lets you look up your school, the schools with the worst air quality from those sources in your state, and so on.

I was involved very tangentially in this project -- I helped to work on data for PERI that USA Today used. I'm impressed by what USA Today did with it; it's better than the usual environmental toxics story. What PERI did was a bit complicated to explain, but I'll make the attempt -- there's a database, TRI, in which large industrial sources report their toxic pollution. A project within EPA, RSEI, takes the reported pounds of air pollution from each facility and runs an air model to see where the chemicals are going, geographically. They can then use Census data to see how many people live in each area affected by the pollution. They add all of this up into an overall risk screening score for each facility. PERI realized that these data could be obtained for each location on the ground, instead of being all added up to a single score for each facility. That lets you find the contribution of each polluter to a particular place where people live. (Or, in this case, where a school is.)

I only wish that I had the resources that USA Today does; their database-backed Web site is significantly more polished and user-friendly than I can generally make mine in the time that I have available to work on them. Learning how to embed databases into Google Maps is something I'm going to have to pick up. But there is one map graphic they created that I particularly wanted to call attention to: this -- or as a screenshot rather than an interactive map, so that I can show it here, the map below.

Compare this with the map of electric power generation by fuel source that I copied from eGRID for this earlier post. Or, for that matter, compare it with Joel Garreau's division of North America into "nine nations":

Industrial pollution near schools seems to be heavily concentrated in the areas of the country that Garreau refers to as Dixie and the Foundry. That's surprising, in some ways. Other places such as California certainly have industrial pollution too, but perhaps it's more spread out, or further away from city centers. Of course, this particular pollution map doesn't include non-point sources such as cars -- Los Angeles' smog problem gives it much worse overall air quality throughout its region than the vast majority of point-source-polluted sites. And this map doesn't include all sorts of other sources. But it's an example of how pollution is largely affected by regional patterns of development. If you were mapping environmental damage from mining waste, you'd get a different region of the U.S. highlighted -- national solutions to these problems often come down to regional politics.

...Read more

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Deciding right now

"The incoming administration is deciding right now how ambitious they can be on climate and energy policy."

That's the first line in a mass Email sent out by Repower America (a good organization that you should sign up as a supporter of if you're in the U.S.). That's pretty much what I'd expected. Somewhere in the background some transition team plus Congressional staff is putting together what may become policy for the next few years. It's probably going to be cap-and-trade, since that's what Obama has said. That's highly preferable to nothing, but it's not really an infrastructure-replacement plan (like Repower America's). The acid rain program has cap-and-trade, and they have for their latest year of data 40% more pollution permits than they have pollution. In other words, the program is currently doing nothing -- people put better scrubbers on their electric power plants because of Clean Air Act requirements, easily reduced their pollution to below what the cap requires, and the neoliberal trading scheme is just sitting there, giving people a nice glow of faith in the market or something.

I'll be posting more on eGRID soon. Going through a database is a lot like work.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bob knows already

About science fiction's uncanny oracle, and U.S. politics, and Katrina. With poetry.

Science fiction has a problem particular to its genre -- how to communicate all the information about the made-up SF world to the reader. It doesn't help the reader's suspension of disbelief to have the narrator tell them. ("In this future world, people routinely flew using jetpacks" ...) A good author would have these details emerge incidentally along the course of the book. But of course most SF authors are not good. So there grew up the tradition of implausible expository dialogue in which people told other people things they already knew, so that the reader would know them. This became known self-mockingly as As you know, Bob. "'As you know, Bob, people fly using jetpacks these days,' said Fred."

Bob is rather uncanny, as you can see. He knows everything. Yet people persist in telling him what he already knows. Of course he must do it back to them too. All of his life people have been telling him things he already knew; it's the only way he's ever related to people. So he tells people things, assuming that they already know them. Sometimes they don't really already know, but it doesn't matter; there's something in his manner that makes people not listen to him, or people don't listen because there's nothing they can do anyways. He'd be Cassandra if the kind of SF that he grew from had anything remotely female about it.

For the last eight years or so, or more, what some Bush servitor named the "reality-based community" has been Bob. People already knew everything bad that was happening. But, of course, knowledge was powerless. Speaking truth to power was about as productive as speaking truth to the wind.

One of things that people knew about was what would happen to New Orleans if a major hurricane hit. There were plans aplenty to rebuild the levees, regenerate the barrier wetlands... but there was no way that Republicans wanted to spend the money. So they waited until afterwards, and then said that there was no way they could have known, just as they are with the banking crisis that everyone who wasn't in the tank predicted.

But in a sense, everyone knows. Everyone knows that the system that we're in doesn't really serve us; we just don't want to hear it, because we don't think there's anything we can do. I wrote about that in the Savior Machine post as "forgetting", but can people forget what they never really knew? No one is teaching people that the system can be otherwise -- but somehow, I think that they must know that it can be.

Let this all serve as an introduction to a Katrina poem, the best of the many that I wrote about that time. It contains Bob the useless prophet, a figure who I hope will be limited as an archetype to these last eight closing years of the twentieth century. Because if future historians don't see this year as the real boundary between the 20th century and the 21st -- if the Bush years were the first years of the 21st century -- then God help us all.

As You Know, Katrina

It was in New Orleans
That he first appeared
He was white, in his 50's
With wild hair and a strange fixed grin
And burn in his eyes
Somehow he was always facing you
He never said much
Just stood there, ticking
No one knew him

We were sitting on the curb
When someone's radio played
And we didn't pay much
Weather alert
Attention, but he was standing there
His eyes got brighter, his mouth opened
"As you know," he said
"We live in a bowl"
A bowl? People shrugged, smiled
To each other, but he went on
Something about how we knew
About global warming and
Hurricane cycles and the
Corps of Engineers and the
Levee system
No one could laugh, quite
So we went home, or just away

Over the next days
When we couldn't find a car
And were standing, talking, looking
For some wood, there he was
The first wind
Blowing his hair every way
"As you know," he said
"We live in a racist society"
And one old man said all sour
"We know that," but he went on
No stopping him, about how
As we knew
The city, the police, the plans
Were made for certain
To get out
Certain to not
We couldn't get away
But the sound of hammering wood
Drowned him for a while

The next days
Some said they'd seen him
Standing in the water
When you ran for the Superdome
He'd be by the side
"As you know," he'd say
And all about Bush and some
Man we didn't know named Brown
And about corruption
His eyes glowed so you could hardly look
It seemd like his smile
Might freeze forever
People waded by as fast as they could
Making hand signs
And somehow we knew
What was waiting

When we were trying to get out
After the food was gone
People would see him coming
And drive him off if they could
It was all jammed together
As you know
About the weather and crony capitalism
And how
As we knew
We'd never see that reconstruction money
"Stop it, stop" people would yell
But it was the same eyes, grin, hair
Always the face
The words

When we got out
We'd meet sometimes at the shelters
"Did you see him?" someone'd say
And someone'd say they saw him
Dead, water flowing through that grin
Or shot at last
Or just gone away
But we knew

We knew he'd come back
...Read more

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Treaties can work

The recent news about climate change in the U.S. has been dominated by the EPA appeals panel's decision to block a coal plant's permit, which has stopped permitting of about 100 U.S. coal plants until the Obama administration can decide what to do about them.

But this press release (via Michael Tobis) struck me as being quite important too. Countries are agreeing to destroy stocks of CFCs, which cause global warming, under the Montreal Protocol, which was designed to address stratospheric ozone depletion. The end effect could be quite significant: 6 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalents with possibly more later.

As I wrote before, I'm not going to deal with global warming denialism with regard to science -- there will always be Flat Earthers. But there's a more subtle form of denialism that says that we can't do anything about global warming. This manifests itself, among other ways, in a conviction that countries can't agree to manage their infrastructure: their national interests will differ too much, or it will be too expensive, or, if they agree, they'll cheat. The Montreal Protocol is a standing rebuke to those people. In fact, the Montreal Protocol has worked as I expect global warming agreements to -- once people make a commitment to change an industry, it can change quite quickly, and people naturally use the new infrastructure without a lot of voluntary coaxing or permit trading. The CFC stocks planned to be destroyed are being destroyed because once people built alternatives, no one really needs them.

Update: and see this (via John Quiggin). I expect that market mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions will prove to be just as reliable and well-behaved as every other market just now.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

William Gibson retrospective; or, how Bush killed cyberpunk

A long, somewhat cranky piece on William Gibson, cyberpunk, and the failure of a certain kind of technological-change ideology under the pressure of political events.

William Gibson has now written eight novels, not counting The Difference Engine, and in some basic sense they are all the same novel. They are all populated by stock archetypal characters -- the Thug With A Heart Of Gold. The Finder of Art, someone with the medieval-mystical ability to find God in the ordinary, picking out sculpture or watches or cool itself. The Everyman With A Skill, the completely ordinary person, usually a computer hacker, who carries a fundamental innocence. The Wizard / Oracle. The Dupe, longing hopelessly for the world before everything broke down. The usually evil Corporate Boss. The same goes for the themes of the work, and the plots are mostly "let's get the party together -- we need a fighter, a mage, a thief, and a cleric -- and do the quest."

This is not necessarily a bad way to write. There is a peculiar energy in Gibson's best work, and Neuromancer is going to be remembered long after technically better works have been forgotten. I've wondered how to describe authors of this type, and I think that the best short phrase is "subgenre creators" -- writers who tapped into some essential aspect of their time, something that gave their work that vigor that led to many imitators, often many failed imitators. Think H.P. Lovecraft and those works now called Lovecraftian. Robert E. Howard and sword-and-sorcery. E.E. "Doc" Smith and space opera. And Gibson and cyberpunk. Before the inevitable objections, I'm aware that Gibson wasn't the first cyberpunk writer, didn't coin the word, that Bruce Sterling was the movement's chief ideologue, and so on, but without Neuromancer, I think that cyberpunk would have been a hopeful might-be-subgenre that never reached critical mass, like so many others.

Why write about the death of cyberpunk now? People have been saying it's dead since the 90s, after all, so why bother? Because it tells us something about cyberpunk and about our time, I think. In October 2008 Bruce Sterling responds to the is-cyberpunk-dead question: "It might well be, depending on how you define “cyberpunk” and “dead,” but that’s not gonna make any practical difference. Me, Gibson, Rucker, Shiner, Shirley, Cadigan, Di Filippo, I doubt any of us give that issue a minute’s thought now." That sounds about right. Gibson, in particular, seems to me to still be writing cyberpunk. It never was about the gizmos and the gadgets. It was about "the street finds its own use for things", about social change starting at the margins under the pressure of technology, about the uncontrollability of culture by governmental forces. And Bush essentially took a lead pipe to that and beat its head in.

I'm talking, here, about Gibson's 2007 novel Spook Country. Gibson has previously written novels that are simply bad, within the context of his work -- Idoru, anyone? -- but Spook Country is that rare case of a tremendous failure that points out something interesting. I'm going to write spoilers about the book at this point, if anyone cares.

Spook Country's plot concerns a shipping container full of money, packed full of the bricks of money delivered to Baghdad by the Bush administration to spread around during the Iraq war, and then embezzled by corrupt insiders and diverted. It's being chased down by the good guys not to steal it, but to render it radioactive and unuseable, and therefore to strike a quixotic blow against -- who? Certain unnamed mid-level government people for whom this was the most that they could steal, unlike the real big-timers.

Gibson clearly really wants to denounce Bush, as well he should, but he just can't seem to find the purchase to do so. Absurdly, a standard-order lecture about and criticism of the Bush regime pops out of the mouth of a junkie, directed towards a contract thug who couldn't care less. And the junkie thinks "why am I saying this?" As does the reader, and, I got the feeling, the author himself. The book might work as a sort of leftist romp -- "ha ha, you liberals, you think you can fix this system" -- but Gibson doesn't seem to really have absurdity in him. Instead what he has is a subgenre in which governments can not do what the Bush administration evidently did; take control of society, in every important sense, and turn it to its own ends, using brute force and even the momentum of failure itself. So the book is one long thrashing-around, like the apologetics of a Marxist coming up with reasons why the USSR was really state capitalism.

Gibson is forced to make every actor in his books a social marginal of some kind. For instance, he never had a handle on real, impersonal corporate power -- all of his bad guys were highly atypical, individual and eccentric super-rich people. Now he has people distressed by bricks of money being loaded into planes bound for Iraq and disbursed to who knows who -- but the bad guys are somehow not really the government. Oh, they may be in the government, but they're basically thieves; they aren't carrying out governmental policy, as the real people who sent those bricks of money were. And the people opposing them aren't trying to bring anything to light, or engage with democracy in any way -- it's just spy-vs-spy. Weirdly, there's bad apples at the bottom, and only silence at the top. Gibson is left with no way to say "Huh -- you know, maybe the government really is important after all." There's Spook Country, but no one can ever give orders to the spooks. The Cossacks do not work for the Czar.

It's not just Gibson, though. Try Bruce Sterling -- I think that Sterling is a better writer in almost every sense, and doesn't get the chops that he should, even though it seems likely that no individual work of his is going to be as influential as Neuromancer. Compare Schismatrix and Holy Fire, his in my opinion two best novels. While they're both about human attempts to transcend limits to freedom, Abelard Lindsay's increasingly slick betrayals of every ideology that would freeze his life and Mia Ziemann's fulfillment of youthful fantasy that turns into her remaking into a creative person are the actions of two actually different characters. So it's a shock in 2004 when Sterling writes The Zenith Angle, in which once again, people are maneuvering amidst the wreckage that Bush left, but the government really doesn't control anything -- Sterling puts in an offhand remark about how Bush is really a kindly dullard, mostly concerned about his daughters. So all the post-9/11 farcical war on terror just sort of happened. No one did it. It was in the zeitgeist. Sterling gets tremendous credit from me for the Viridian list, a good attempt to mobilize his SF prestige and his fans towards global warming issues, but I also remember the denial that crept in with Bush-v-Gore. You couldn't get the sense, reading the list, that this really would make a much greater difference than any kind of decentralized action by designers and technologists could.

The New Weird, the subgenre that has as great a claim as any towards picking up cyberpunk's baton, has China Mieville's Iron Council as its signature work. That's a novel in which the action is driven by social marginals, yes, but in the end, it makes a whole lot of difference which government stands and which falls. And that's what makes it a more or less living SF subgenre in our time.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Chemical security report released

The Center for American Progress has released Chemical Security 101: What You Don’t Have Can’t Leak, or Be Blown Up by Terrorists. Whatever the awkwardness of the title, the report is excellent, identifying the 100+ most hazardous chemical facilities in the U.S. and listing specific actions they could take to change their operations to eliminate the hazard, rather than treating the problem as one for gates and guards. I'm familiar with the report because I spent a significant amount of time crunching numbers for part of it.

If and when I get through global warming databases on this blog, I'll write about chemical accident ones. The database used for this report, the Risk Management Plan database, has a particularly interesting history. The chemical industry and the Bush administration crippled what was supposed to be a publicly accessible database by restricting access to it to reading rooms where you could only get information on ten facilities at a time. Otherwise, they said, terrorists would use the data for targeting, even though all the actual incidents so far have been straightforward industrial accidents. And then they proceeded to block one law after another that would have required industry to actually do anything to protect people from these hazards. Computer people like to talk about Security Through Obscurity -- well, this was year after year of Security Theater For Obscurity.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Savior Machine

The group of poets that I write with has decided to do an event as part of the 1000 Inaugural Poets project -- an idea of Brett Axel's, I think. So I'm going to be writing a poem about Obama's inauguration.

This brings up a problem. What am I to make of it? The ceremony itself is just a ceremony. Auden is supposed to have said that "anyone who wished to call him or herself a poet should be able to write serviceable verses, on demand, about the queen's hat" (although the only place I've found that quote is here, so it may be apocryphal.) Well and good. But that requires an approach of some kind, and harsh cynicism would be almost as much of a cliche as hopeful congratulation. I mean, I know how to write harsh cynicism. So does every other contemporary political poet. Should we all go that way just because we're used to it? (This seems to be a common problem. Check out the hilarious Historic Election May Signal Death of Flarf.)

I decided to go for a procedural-poetry approach. I'd go to my favorite free-games site, Kongregate, go to a chat room, throw the question up to the assembled 14-year-olds, and write on the theme of whatever they came up with. Sadly, all I got back was some version of "Well, how do you feel about Obama becoming President?"

How do I feel about it? I expect Obama, personally, to be something of a Clinton figure, and to probably squander our chances. But, at the same time, we finally do have a chance to seriously change the U.S., and I don't want to write a poem blaming Obama for something he has yet to do.

I think that if I can write something that works at all, it's going to have something to do with David Bowie's early song, Saviour Machine, from his 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World. Musically, this song is nothing to write home about -- it has has a good deal more 60s noodling than it really should. But the lyrics have stuck in my imagination:

President Joe once had a dream
The world held his hand, gave their pledge
So he told them his scheme for a saviour machine

They called it the Prayer, its answer was law
Its logic stopped war, gave them food
How they adored till it cried in its boredom

'Please dont believe in me, please disagree with me
Life is too easy, a plague seems quite feasible now
Or maybe a war, or I may kill you all

Don't let me stay, don't let me stay
My logic says burn so send me away
Your minds are too green, I despise all Ive seen
You cant stake your lives on a saviour machine

I need you flying, and Ill show you that dying
Is living beyond reason, sacred dimension of time
I perceive every sign, I can steal every mind'

[repeat "Don't let me stay" verse]

Bowie did some great things with internal rhyme in this song, especially the way he hits adored / boredom. I've mined the song before for bits about, e.g., the forbidden dream of being able to find every interpretation of a text ("I perceive every sign, I can steal every mind"). But it works even better for this inauguration.

Note, first of all, that the poem at first appears to be one of the conservative ideas about Obama writ large -- the "socialist" who is going to try to (as they strain to remember little bits and pieces of Edmund Burke) rationalize everything and destroy society in the process. I'm not interested in that ludicrous fantasy. Still less in the Obama-as-Antichrist one, which this also could point to. More interestingly, the song is against technocracy, as a number of art works from the time may have been -- try the discussion around Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven at Acephalous -- but despite my own involvement in that, that's not the approach I'm looking for either.

What really works for me is that the song brings up a critique of drama itself. The Prayer, unlike so many shoddy SF computers, doesn't go bad because of innate evil, poor programming, or a twisted id-like desire for human experience that it can never have. It's just bored. Plagues and wars are more interesting to it than unending happiness and no one getting killed or going hungry. The Prayer goes on about the sacred dimension of time, and how dying is living beyond reason -- I could even imagine of sort of twisted I-want-to-inspire-you political sloganeering using I need you flying.

But the Prayer is, of course, wrong. What we need most of all right now is the courage to reject drama. To go ahead and make things better, even if that leaves some people with the nagging feeling that it means that our glory days are behind us. Remember that, up until very recently, the quote below passed for non-insane:

"But with public discussion dominated by accountants— 'there's the Republican Party tying itself into knots. Over what? Prescriptions for elderly people? Who gives a damn? I think it's disgusting that...presidential politics of the most important country in the world should revolve around prescriptions for elderly people. Future historians will find this very hard to believe. It's not Athens. It's not Rome. It's not anything.'"

That was Irving Kristol, the father of William Kristol. The supposedly respectable conservative intellectual, not the hack. Saying that it was disgusting that we should be concerned with healing people, and instead should be sending our sons and daughters out to fight and die, for no better reason than to give future historians something to write about -- to make things interesting for them.

There's been a critical failure of imagination in this country. People have forgotten how to even dream about a society in which there is not a desperate crisis of some kind going on, in which people don't have to continually watch out or else. They've forgotten how to even hope for one. One of the things that I'd like to see people writing about is how to imagine a society in which people wouldn't naturally smash utopia two seconds after making it because it's boring to do science, make art, raise children, and work, without having to kill somebody or, at least, crush them in a business deal. (There's a guy who went by CR who I used to argue with a lot, but who understood this. More people should.)

No one's really looking for a Savior Machine, of course. But metaphorically, if a version of it that wasn't bored existed -- a government that actually tried to solve problems -- it wouldn't be made by Obama alone. If it exists, it's going to be all of us, pushing Obama's administration to make the changes that need to be made so that our kids don't struggle with global warming, don't need to scramble for health care, don't lose their lives in endless wars. That means that we need the courage to push for that. To reject the subconscious idea that we need all that drama, or else society will have no reason to go on.

I don't know if I'm going to write a successful poem about Obama's inauguration, but if I do, that's what it's going to be about.
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Monday, November 17, 2008


This is the second post in a series on global warming data, about the basics of U.S. EPA's eGRID database.

eGRID's home page claims that it is “the preeminent source of air emissions data for the electric power sector,” and as for as the U.S. is concerned, that is probably true. It contains air emissions data for nitrogen oxides (Nox) and sulfur dioxide (SO2), which are of concern because they contribute to ground-level smog and acid rain. It contains data on emissions of mercury, a persistent bioaccumulative toxic. And it contains data on emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). It also has information on how much power is generated, and how much fuel of each type is used, so that you can see how efficient each plant is.

eGRID is an odd database in that it's not a data collection; no one ever fills out a form to report their emissions to eGRID. Instead, it's a combination of data from various data collections, together with model estimates. Most of the data that go into eGRID were originally collected through a scatter of databases held by EPA and the Department of Energy. For EPA for the last decade or more, it's been very difficult to get any new, major data collections, so information has to be cobbled together from a number of sources, none of them designed to exactly address the problem.

One of the advantages of a yearly data collection is that it has to be released every year. The primary disadvantage of eGRID, in the past, was that it came out irregularly and by the time it came out it sometimes used old versions of the data sources that it drew from. For instance, it's been released about once a year since 1998, except that it wasn't between May 2003 and Dec 2006. The Dept. of Energy databases that it draws from currently seem to be available up through 2006, and eGRID only has data through 2005. Still, a version has just been released – as of October 2008 – and that makes it up-to-date enough for all but the most picky and expert uses.

One of the large advantages to using eGRID is that some data quality work has been done to match the various databases together. I had to do that once, for a report for an environmental group that we couldn't use eGRID data for, and it's something that you don't want to do unless you have no other choice. Even more important, it upgrades all plant ownership, parent company, merger data and so on to a single date: December 31 2007 in this case. Electric utilities try all sorts of tricks to confuse their paper trail or to take advantage of regulatory exemptions or make financial maneuvers; there has been a lot of buying and selling of power plants among various entities. Making sure that all of that is upgraded to a single date is a significant advance. What this means is that, for instance, a power plant that last reported in 2005 will be listed in eGRID as being owned by whichever company owned it on Dec 31 2007, not by whatever company owned it in 2005.

eGRID is used in all sorts of regulatory initiatives, for environmental disclosure, and in governmental and nonprofit electricity-information Web sites such as Power Profiler, Power Scorecard, or CARMA. If you have a casual interest in your local electric power, you're probably better off with one of those. But it's good for some people to look at eGRID, because more information is available through it directly, and because it sets the baseline that so many people work from.

There are a couple of reasons why eGRID may not be the best source for generally tracking electricity, as opposed to tracking sources of emissions due to electricity generation. For one thing, it doesn't include any purchases of power, e.g. from Canada. For another, the net generation amounts that it reports subtract generation used by the power plant itself, but don't take transmission and distribution losses into account, so the electricity that people actually use will have a lower efficiency with respect to emissions than is reported in eGRID.

So how do you use eGRID? It's really just a set of three Excel files, so all you do is download them and open them on your computer – you can use OpenOffice. The most basic file holds information for each generating plant, and for subunits within plants. A second file, the aggregation file, adds things up – it combines individual plants into totals by state, owner, operator, parent company, grid, and for the whole U.S. That has almost all of the same data fields as the plant file, so once you learn one of them, you learn the other. The third of the files is for state imports and exports, and you can probably ignore it.

(Note, though, that the aggregation file handles parent companies badly, in my opinion. The people who made eGRID considered a parent company to be a holding company, not whatever company ultimately controls the plant, including the plant itself if there is no other owner. Therefore, some plants in eGRID don't have parent companies. That means that the parent company file, unlike the other aggregations, doesn't add up to the total of the individual plants. I may try to get the people who make eGRID to change this, put in a parent company for every plant, and indicate whether a parent company is a holding company or not with some kind of data field.)

But the plant file is probably the most useful. EPA doesn't like to release information about individual plants, or companies, within its general summary documents which are all that most people see if they see anything. It likes to release numbers about states, regions, industries, and so on, but saying that specific company ABC is responsible for x percent of pollution? You'll very rarely see that from EPA. So you'll have to dig it out for yourself.

The plant file contains sheets on generators and boilers: components of plants. Most users will probably skip those, although it's worth noting that they include years when the equipment went in service, which can be important for some things. But you'll probably want the information on plants themselves. There's about 5000 of them. You can look at the eGRID technical docs to explain the data elements.

What are some of the more useful data elements? Well, for the purpose of global warming, I'll look at CO2, ignoring methane and N2O for now. That's “plant annual CO2 emissions (tons)”, or PLCO2AN. A quick descending sort of the sheet by that field, and the top plant is the Scherer plant in Georgia, whose parent company is Southern Co. With 26 million tons of CO2, that's one percent of the total CO2 emissions for the whole database right there. There's only 68 plants that emitted more than 10 million tons. Those 68 plants account for 36% of the total emissions from electricity generation. That's about 12% of the total U.S. CO2 emissions from all sources, including cars, industry, houses, and residential electricity used by those light bulbs that people are always telling you to change whenever you say that we need to do something about global warming.

But those plants generate electricity too, of course. How much? Well, there the whole thing is complicated by the fact that a single power plant might generate electricity from a wide range of fuels. So just totaling up all the electricity from those plants is going to be a bit off. But I can total up the net generation from combustion sources for them. It's 31% of total U.S. generation from combustion sources – we're getting 36% of the CO2 for 31% of the power from combustion. It's 22% of our power from all sources.

What I'd like to see for these top plants is how efficient they are in burning coal. Coal is worse, from a CO2 standpoint, than natural gas, and coal burning efficiency varies by the equipment and the grade of coal used. But I can't quite see how to do it. The database includes an efficiency number that divides emissions of CO2 by the net generation from all combustion sources, but that includes oil and gas as well as coal. There's a net generation only from coal number, but there doesn't appear to be a CO2 emissions only from coal number, so I don't see how to figure out an emissions rate that includes only coal in both the numerator and denominator. Perhaps I could get it by digging into the boiler and generator data – but this post is too long as it is.

So, finally, here's a table of the 6 largest plants for 2005 for CO2 emissions, those with more than 20 million tons. You could get these yourself through the eGRID tables, but I might as well list them here for Google indexing purposes:

Top U.S. CO2 Emitting Electric Power Plants, 2005

StatePlant namePlant operatorParent company2005 CO2 tons
GASchererGeorgia Power CoSouthern Co26,040,793.5
ALJames H Miller JrAlabama Power CoSouthern Co22,509,466.8
GABowenGeorgia Power CoSouthern Co22,156,373.7
INGibsonDuke Indiana IncDuke Energy21,746,394.3
TXMartin LakeTXU Generation Co LPEnergy Future Holdings (TXU)21,593,119.5
TXW A ParishNRG Energy20,703,129.9

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Adam Roberts' Splinter

Adam Roberts is an English professor, SF writer, and critic. (And poet, and humorist, though he would perhaps rather not have those be mentioned except in a parenthetical.) His SF is often written with a strong self-set formal constraint of some kind; in the case of Splinter, thirds of the book are written in past, present, and future tense. This post is one of a series in which I try to provide readings of his work, each of them, as an exercise, playing off of the formal structure of the book that it addresses in some way.

Splinter was written with a deceptively simple setting, taken from the unendingly stirred soup stock of SF: a catastrophe leaves a few survivors in a changed world. But Roberts complicated the book with any number of agendas and references and interpretations, many of which he supplied in his own critical afterword: it was a homage to Jules Verne's most uncanny novel, Hector Servedac, journeys and adventures around the solar system (an English translation of the title, clearly), in which a comet strikes the Earth and carries part of it off, and which ends with the people on the carried-off planetoid returning to an Earth on which nothing has changed. A smaller piece breaking off a larger suggested to Roberts a book about fathers and sons and the process by which children separate from families and finish becoming adults, sometimes long after they are chronologically adult. And the odd, required-to-be-happy ending suggested ideas about stasis within SF: the way that extreme changes can happen within these works, extraordinary voyages can be taken, yet everything ends up much as it always has been. Because "the default mode for novelistic discourse, the third-person past tense, always already implies the existence of survivors [...] to relate the adventures", Splinter was written in past tense, moving to present, moving to future tense. Did you follow all that?

One of the claims that boastful SF fans sometimes like to make is that SF is "the literature of ideas." Reading the above, you might think that this is the literature of too many ideas. But note what kind of ideas they are; SF ideas are usually supposed to be about speculative science, coupled to a more or less pedestrian writing style. These were speculative ideas about literature, coupled to a more or less pedestrian SF plot. The attraction of Roberts' work, in my opinion, is that so many things are going on within it that it can support strong critical readings. These, for me, are not Roberts' own readings. He spent a good part of his afterword deprecating himself as critic of his own work, saying that he doesn't really know what it's about, although he has his theories. But a strength of his work is not you're not locked into his authorial readings; there's a lot of material there to work with, more than enough to construct your own.

My own reading is that the book worked as a savage and sometimes funny extended satire or metaphor for the history of SF. It was about the anxiety of SF, as a written genre, and its uneasy relationship with literariness -- the concerns of some authors and fans about whether it's ever going to successfully split off and become a new form of literary writing in its own right.

Adam -- I'm going to shift to a familiar, first name reference to him for reasons that soon should become apparent -- certainly assisted in this interpretation by previously writing a Palgrave History of SF, which I was able to read despite its $100 price tag because he sent me a copy. So I write this after a history of correspondence with him, and can say that my idea of what his history of SF would look like corresponds fairly well to what he's actually written. If you can afford it, by the way, you certainly should try it out. Also, and there is no need to afford this because Adam has kindly provided it for free, he has edited and re-translated a new edition of the original Verne book that served as the inspiration for Splinter, which you can read at this link.

SF crystallized its literary status anxiety some time ago, in the 1970s, and it's never really gotten through that period. A more recent representative text of the genre is Lethem's The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction, written in 1998. Reading through this and similar critical pieces, you'll see two moments mentioned over and over. First, the 1973 Nebula award that should supposedly have gone to Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow instead of the usual SF potboiler. Presumably this would have indicated that SF awards were now being judged with regard to literary value, strangely enough -- perhaps for the first time ever -- and would have sparked a mass discussion of Barthes among SF fans. The second was Star Wars, which from the point of view of literary SF readers embodied the triple threat of being dumb, visual, and popular. I don't want to get into the merits of this complex of ideas too much, although you can undoubtedly get the general drift of my opinions from the above.

At any rate, back to Adam's book. I'm not going to worry about spoilers; I don't think it's the kind of book where knowing what happens makes an appreciable difference in how much you enjoy it. The plot is simple; Hector Servedac Sr. has had psychic visions of a coming catastrophe, and has called a group of followers together to survive it on his ranch, his son Hector Jr. being the last and most skeptical of these. The catastrophe happens, and Hector Jr. spends most of the rest of the book wondering whether it is real. And that is basically it. I understand calling the book a Voyage Extraordinaire in homage to Verne, but outside flashbacks and Hector Jr.'s initial arrival, there is no traveling in this book. There's only a place where people are stuck. The book is in many ways a classic "cozy catastrophe"; the world ends and Hector Jr. thinks about this in large part as a matter of sexual possibilities. Fog-bound, his largest adventure is a collision with a sofa.

The characters are similarly somewhat skimpy, because they are seen through the eyes of Hector Jr., who is an amazingly feckless, self-absorbed person, interested in women only insofar as they present opportunities for sex, interested in his father in order to bolster his own self-image, interested in other men mostly as rivals for women. So we get little pieces of these character's back-stories as Hector dutifully listens to them while imagining someone naked, but they never come through very clearly. But that's OK, because in this reading, they are mostly symbolic roles, not quite as flat as Dickens' flat characters, but not very round either.

The elder Hector is Verne, not Verne the author but Verne the body of work, the straightforward, how-do-things-work, not very emotionally accessible patriarch. The time of Verne and Wells wasn't really when SF started -- depending on who you ask, that was with Shelley's Frankenstein. Kepler's Somnium, or the ancient Greeks -- but it was when people began to become conscious of SF as a distinct genre, and it has asserted a gravitational influence on all works following. The American Golden Age SF era is Tom, the nerdy science guy who's thrilled that the end of the world has arrived as predicted and whose first action afterwards is to get a gun. (Against whom? Ravening hordes? Like they'd shoot other survivors? His gun is silly, but very American-SFnal, and he ironically gets shot later.) Hector Jr. is people who feel that SF should be literary, but still admit to deep down being thrilled by pulp, and who are wondering how to reconcile their high-art aspirations with that. Or rather, since I'm typing people as eras, he's the British New Wave, which can stand for all succeeding literary attempts. Hector Jr. is an academic studying the arts, but there are scenes in which he admits to himself that he forced himself to prefer high culture because it's high-status; his relationship with it is at best uneasy. (There's a lot of Europe-vs-America in Splinter. Hector Sr. has a flashback to his honeymoon in Europe; almost the first thing Hector Jr. says is "the very air in Europe, it tends to stain." But this piece is long enough already without examining that.)

They are women in this book, too, but seen through Hector Jr's eyes, they can only function as Muse figures. Primary among them is Vera, nicknamed Dimmi. She starts the book as Tom's girlfriend, but calmly informs Hector Jr. that as they are among the few survivors of humanity, she's going to have a child by him eventually. (This is one of the all-time favorites fantasies of adolescent SF, by the way, the catastrophe after which, in order to save genetic variation or something, all the surviving men have to sleep with all of the surviving women. It's required, you see -- by science! It was so prevalent that Joanna Russ had to write an entire book, We Who Are About To. . ., to shoot it down.) But she refuses all his hints that she might sleep with him now, and by the middle of the book, Hector Jr. has found out that she's also sleeping with his father -- that his father is, in cult-leader style, sleeping with just about everyone. This sends Hector Jr. into paraoxysms of jealousy, of course. When is all that vitality going to get passed down to him? It's a perfect metaphor for the literary SF writer, looking back at classic SF and seeing its crudity of style, but also seeing its pulp vigor. In a tragicomic scene, Hector Jr. gets further with potential muse #2, an HIV-positive woman named Janet. But when she leaves to get a condom to protect him during oral sex, he thinks that she's not coming back, and when she returns he's already done himself. The contrasts between Dimmi's promise that she'll have his child and between Janet's in-three-different-ways-infertile sex couldn't be more profound, but Hector Jr. can't succeed even at that.

There is an element of hostile parody to Hector Jr., of course, but he's not quite completely bad. He's a delayed adolescent, someone who has made it to the point in middle age that people usually look at as the last time to decide to have children, and he casually dropped his serious relationship -- the woman who his father thought he'd bring with him to the ranch -- because he thought he could do better. His fantasies don't even involve relationships; he's still stuck on sex. He keeps thinking that he damaged his relationship with his father by giving away a large sum of money that his father gave him, though his father never mentions it. Giving away money without being a saint means giving up possibility, giving up what you can build on.

On the other hand, giving up the money that would have set him up for life is clearly what Hector Jr. did so he could try to be his own person. The problem of the book is that he never quite succeeds. He hangs around the ranch, being skeptical about his father's theories but never ceasing to take the mysterious pills that he thinks may contain some kind of hallucinogen, making abortive attempts to leave that never quite come off. The rest of the people at the ranch have thoroughly drunk the cool-aid -- by the end, they are an almost frankly religious cult based around visions of the future conferred by the alien being that has crashed into the Earth, a good metaphor for SF's attachment to "ideas" -- and Hector Jr. hasn't, but they're still his society. He's not with them, but he's of them. No matter what the literary ambitions of an SF writer, as long as they call themselves an SF writer, they still have to deal with Star Wars.

What will happen in the last part of Splinter? Hector Sr will start to die, and begin channeling Tom, who will have been shot. But most importantly, the events in the book will become an instantly recognizable (to me, anyways) melange of, say, Bruce Sterling and Greg Bear, those kind of writers. The nanoclasm, in which all matter is taken over by mysterious organic processes that can make anything out of anything. Invasive processes that download consciousness. Posthumans forming a new relationship to mortality. The postmodern sprouting of buildings next to each other, growing out of the ground without plan. Hector's future tense will be our SF present, more or less.

And finally, Hector's dad will try to set him up with a woman, growing her out of the ground for him to make up for all the real women who he couldn't make things work with. She will be "The Muse herself" -- a direct quote. And this future being will be fake. She will babble, her tongue will be partly made of something like felt, and when he'll kiss her, she'll taste weird, like smuts -- a fungal plant disease. Sure, the nano-plant-tech will perhaps be working busily on upgrading her to version 2.0, but the idea of him finally becoming an adult and having children with this simulacrum just doesn't work. The people who he spent time with? He will have forgotten their names; the plot will have been lost.

Having read Adam's Palgrave history of SF, I can see where this conclusion comes from -- he thinks that SF has passed from a primarily written to a primarily visual medium. That has to be depressing for a writer, or for a reader.

So, in a sense, the book enacts the Vernean Voyage Extraordinaire of SF. There has been a lot of motion, a lot of thrills -- heroic individuals! strange intelligences! science-catastrophe! the book hits many of the standard tropes -- but it's ended up pretty much where it started.

All in all, a good, thought-provoking book. ...Read more

Larval Poets Manifesto

Poetry where I live has achieved a state of universal marginality.

It is written anonymous into notebooks cached in the woods. It appears on bulletin boards. It is self-published in hundreds of chapbooks, few of which will ever exist in a hundred copies. Events and groups gather around it. And very little of this activity seems to have anything to do with the profession of poetry, which as I understand it involves getting published and getting a job as a teacher of poetry. Which is a worthy thing to do, but clearly can't be done by everyone.

In conditions of universal overproduction, why should anyone write? Why should anyone read?

I'm unwilling to think of poetry as a pyramid. There is already more good poetry written than anyone could read in a lifetime. We don't have to do violence to our sense of aesthetics and say that there is no good or bad poetry, but the final reason for poetry can't involve it being good or bad. In the dreamed community, everyone is a poet, and everyone reads their neighhbors. Because they are there.

The following is a draft, a latest attempt. Please feel free to criticize, comment, suggest, scorn, or what have you.

Larval Poets Manifesto

They keep turning up as larvae
Immature forms of insects
Fuzzy caterpillars, weevils in cotton bolls, maggots perhaps
Those are poets, poems
Feeding wherever they can
Hoping for a metamorphosis
Not knowing what they're going to be

We eat paper and silence
Leave hollowed-out paths
Jagged edges of leaves re-scalloped
By munching. The faint crunch, crunch
Can be heard at night if you listen
Heard all over Northampton

What is good for a larva? All around
The classics sit, poets have been
Eating words for centuries
Will one of us write classics?
Silly to put the question
As if one glowing maggot,
Imbued with holy light
Could creep into the ear of the muse
And hear there the distant rush
Of the passing blood

It doesn't matter
We write for each other
We fix each other's houses
If a slight whisper penetrates the cotton
Or a twig trembles from a neighboring leaf
Thousands won't hear, but perhaps dozens
Will lift their heads, mandibles in the air
And recognize

Our village Florence was named by a water cure doctor
New England to become Italy
The boiling water that makes silk
Out of a mess of larvae and mulberry leaves

But we can't be boiled down
Not like the langpo people said
Maybe I saw it on Silliman's blog
You can't like all kinds of poetry
You can't be loyal to everything
You need a theory
Grow a hard shell, ants defend the nest

A larva can't be hard
We all try to get better
Going in all directions blindly
Trying to moult to our next instar
We amble along our twig a little further
There isn't one direction we can go
Poems don't need your loyalty
Styles don't, movements
Only poets need loyalty

And that is what it means to be a larval poet
To hear the distant crunch of a neighbor
And wonder what they will be
And listen
Gnawing, hungry
And someday find a discarded shell
Your, theirs, it doesn't matter
And think, there was a poet
...Read more

Global warming -- U.S. sources

This post explains what global warming source data is and why you might be interested in it in a U.S. context.

Global warming -- or anthropogenic global climate change, to be more exact -- is one of the most critical contemporary environmental problems.  It's also one that the Obama administration has promised to do something about.  It's safe to assume that in a couple months, various proposals are going to begin to fly.  What data do we have that would bear on these proposals?  Over those months, I'm going to go over some of the material here.  It's a good excuse to refamiliarize myself with it, since the last time I worked with it was in 2003.

I'm not going to address the science at all, or engage in any way with global warming denialists.  The evidence that this is a real and important problem is unequivocal at this point, and anyone wanting more information on it should check out the IPCC, or if they prefer a group blog, RealClimate, or if they prefer more chatty, individual blogs:  Deltoid, Stoat, Rabett Run, Only In It For the Gold, or More Grumbine Science.

The questions I'm going to look at bear more on politics and infrastructure.  Where are the largest sources of the problem?  Who owns them?  How can people get information that helps them figure out their local power structure, if it comes down to local or state politics rather than national politics?

Global warming is caused by releases of greenhouse gasses, primarily carbon dioxide, CO2.  The overall U.S. estimates of human sources of these gasses are in the U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory.  Looking at its Executive Summary, the total sources for 2006, the latest year available, were about 7000 Tg Co2 equivalents.  (Don't worry about the units for now; just think of it as 7000 something.) Where did that come from?  2,300 was from electricity generation.  1,850 was from fossil fuels burned for transportation.  860 was from fossil fuels burned for industrial use, 330 residential, and all other types of sources were smaller.   That means that roughly a third of the problem is from electric power plants, a quarter is from cars and other vehicles, and about a tenth from large industrial uses.  Those three together make up more than 70% of the problem.

And those three types of sources are susceptible to infrastructural / political intervention.  Affected industries' preferred defenses involve either saying that the market should decide, or diffusing responsiblity to consumers -- as if individual volunteerism like replacing light bulbs or turning down the thermostat a few degrees or driving a few less miles could really have enough of a cumulative effect to matter.  (These actions can help, yes, but in the end you need to change infrastructure.  I may get into that in a future post.)  But no one builds a large power plant without governmental involvement; it's not really a market decision.  The miles per gallon of car fleets is already regulated.  And individual, large sources respond to pressure from organized communities.

Electricity generation is clearly the largest single piece.  What is the picture for current sources?  Here's the best map I could find, for 2005:

That map is from eGRID, one of the best U.S. databases available when it's up-to-date.  You may not be able to read the legend, but the black color is coal, the worst fuel from a greenhouse gas perspective.  There's a few major things to notice.  First, large hydro, the blue color, already dominates the areas where it's available.  Nuclear, in red, has a substantial presence, but no more is going to be built any time soon.  California and New England are already starting to diversify.  The Mountain West and midwest isn't, but the emissions are comparatively small there in any case.  The most immediate problem areas are Texas and the Illinois/Indiana/Ohio/Pennsylvania corridor.

The political situation in Texas may not be the greatest, but Texas has abundant potential solar and wind energy resources, and my guess is that it's going to take advantage of them.  The corridor is where I think local or state action might be most important.

What kind of information might assist in that action?  Well, with a database like eGRID, people can identify which actual plants, owned by which companies, are producing the majority of the problem.  And then there's a number of different outcomes people can push for -- shutting down coal plants and building renewable energy plants are only the most obvious ones.  One type of early intervention can be made through efficiency improvements at existing power plants.

Imagine a set of ten coal-burning power plants, all alike.  If you want to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 10% and keep the same electricity generation, one way to do it is to shut one of them down and build a renewable power plant with the same output.  But another way is to increase the efficiency at which the plants convert coal into electricity by about 10% so that you can shut one of them down and not build anything.  We're going to want to eventually shut the coal plants down and replace them, of course.  But putting in new equipment, such as more efficient turbines, can be cheaper and quicker for the initial stages.

A database like eGRID has information on every individual electric generating plant in the U.S. -- power generated, greenhouse gas emissions, and even some information on how up-to-date the equipment is.  Using it, people can change the problem from a big, fuzzy one involving "large power companies" into one in which they know where their power is being generated, where the greenhouse gas sources are, and which source contributes what.  That suggests points of potential pressure.

Perhaps that pressure won't be necessary -- perhaps a national cap-and-trade program will be implemented, and the problem will magically be solved by pseudo-market means.  (I have my doubts about that, too.)  Perhaps the data won't really be useful to local or state groups, or will be insufficient.  Perhaps they will be useful to national policy people, although they have their own researchers for summarizing this kind of thing. But the particular tool of public access to data is the area that I know something about, so I'm going to assume that it's going to be useful to someone.

The next post in this series will be about eGRID.
...Read more

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

hell o world

My political life started with the early eighties in the U.S., so it has been wholly within the Age of Nixon, the Era of Reagan.  Therefore it involved resistance, from somewhere behind the scenes.  With Obama's upcoming administration, I choose to believe that positive action will become possible.  Part of that involves writing about my small piece of what's going on.

I plan to have a good deal of this blog be about my work, which involves public access to data,  especially pollution and financial databases, and the use of these data within activism.  There are perhaps three people I can think of who would be interested in geekery about these databases and their uses.  Since I'm going to be blogging anyways, I might as well write about everything else as well -- primarily poetry and SF criticism -- which similarly should be of interest to almost no one.  However, taking my cue from the creative efforts of certain financial businesses now sadly going bankrupt, I understand that combining together large numbers of individually uninteresting things into one whole can permit tranches of the whole to become quite interesting.  And you, reader, will get only the best.  It's guaranteed.