Archive for 2007 November

The Surprise Endings of T.C. Boyle

If there is an American fiction writer better able to surprise us with an ending than T.C. Boyle, I can’t imagine who it might be. Boyle is that rare talent whose work is realistic enough to grip the imagination, creating the possibility of happiness or disaster, and build up real speed towards the finale, allowing for the sudden emotional swerve that hooks a climax into memory. Yet he’s "literary" too, so as not to be constrained into predictability by requirements of any particular genre, which tends to require either a happy ending (as in most movie dramas) or a horrific ending (as in much horror, cf. Stephen King).

Boyle is also rare, if not unique, as a fiction writer for his deep-seated interest in environmental questions, which often emerges in his fiction (for example "A Friend of the Earth," another book I’m overdue to read). This interest in environmental matters and in surprise endings has come out in two recent stories published in two of our best magazines.

A couple of years ago in the New Yorker, Boyle published a harrowing story about the floods of 2005 in SoCal, called La Conchita, which left a powerful (and good) impression on me; last month he published a story about the infamous idea of cloning a beloved dog in Harper’s, called Admiral, which has also stuck with me, although it’s not as potent.

But here’s the point: in both cases, the story builds up towards an apparent disaster — a cataclysm, of some sort. [Warning: those who haven’t read the stories and might want to, go do that now: SPOILER AHEAD!]

The surprise is that despite the 21st settings and the threat of an apocalypse, personal or bigger than that — it works out okay. That’s the true twist ending, these days,. Survival. And it feels so sweet. Here’s a big moment for our lead near the end of the best of these two:

People were crowding around all of a sudden, and there must have been a
dozen or more, wet as rats, looking shell-shocked, the hair glued to
their heads. Their voices ran away like kites blown on the wind.
Somebody had a movie camera. And my cell was ringing, had been ringing
for I don’t know how long. It took me a minute to wipe the scrim of mud
from the face of it, and then I pressed the talk button and held it to
my ear.

Straight out of a movie, isn’t it? That’s the point. True heroism, these days, is to believe in the future.

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Black Swan Sighted in Climate Sensitivity

Despite the indefatiguability of denialists, most of the facts of global warming are exceedingly well established. We know that the atmosphere is warming (about 2F, on the average, in the Southwest). We know that six out of seven world oceans are warming (see this colossal study out of Scripps, led by Tim Barnett). We know that the earth is absorbing more heat energy than it emits, which is unequivocal proof of global warming right there. We know that countless species and habitats are shifting in an attitude to survive on a globe whose climate is evolving at alarming speed. We know that Arctic Ice cover is vanishing at a remarkable rate and will be ice-free in the summer within twenty years. We know that fires are becoming more dangerous and heat waves more severe — Phoenix could well become unlivable within our lifetimes, if you consider 122 degrees unlivable, and the mortality risk of heat waves is well-established. And so on and so on.

But despite considerable nervousness on the part of the experts, 82% of whom consider the IPCC’s alarming 4th report to be either fully accurate, or not alarming enough, we still tend to think that things in the future, when it comes to weather, will be like things in the past.

Are we blind? Are we fooling ourselves?

Probably so, argues a "quant"–an  exceedingly well-paid Wall St. statistician who makes a living by mastering stochastic (highly random, often large) changes in the economic weather. In a bestseller called The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a strong case for the fact that a single "improbable" change–or disaster–can have a decisive or devastating effect on our lives. Nobody Knows What’s Going On, he titles an early chapter.

Yet although ultimately his argument is mathematical, he begins with a personal story.Taleb grew up in Lebanon, a member of an extremely well-educated, prominent, and successful family. The Lebanon he grew up in was a "paradise." Beirut was known as "the Paris of the Mideast." Then when he was fifteen, a civil war erupted between Christian and Moslem factions in his country.

"I was constantly told by adults that the war, which ended up lasting close to seventeen years, was going to end in "only a matter of days."" writes Taleb in the book.

This devastating experience, among others, forced him to confront the possibility of abrupt change, and especially a change beyond our mind’s ability to absorb. The Black October stock market crash of l987, the rise of the Internet, 9/11 all served to convince of the central importance of these stochastic shifts.

"History and society do not crawl," he argues. "They make jumps. They go from fracture to fracture…yet we (and historians) like to believe in the predictable, small incremental progression."

The book symbolizes this idea with a black swan, because it’s a great example. For centuries the civilized world "knew" that swans were white. Then it discovered southern Australia, where swans are black.   

"One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millenia of confirmatory sightings of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird," writes Taleb in his prologue. In the book he alludes in passing to the possibility of a black swan in climate change change, but doesn’t pursue the idea. He is more focused on the possibility of economic disaster (a threat environmentalists certainly should not ignore). Yet the book makes a strong emotional and mathematical argument for considering bigger risks  in climate — an enviro disaster bigger than Katrina.

In mathematical thinking, Taleb disdains the Gaussian — bell curve — model as a means by which to analyze our lives, arguing that the small events of daily life mean little when put up against the huge changes that determine our fate.

"The traditional Gaussian way of looking at the world begins by focusing on the ordinary, and then deals with exceptions or so-called outliers as ancillaries….[which] is like focusing on the grass and missing out on the gigantic trees," he writes.

When it comes to the climate, which already is expected to warm a huge 3 degrees F in the next-twenty five years, this can’t be ruled out. And last month two researchers took a second look at the math of climate sensitiviity–the rising temperatures in years to come that we will experience due to the increased energy already stored in the oceans and the atmosphere. When we have doubled the usual rate of CO2 in the atmosphere, what will we see in terms of global temperatures?

This is a huge question for the IPCC; this year’s Fourth Assessment devotes pages 64-68 to introducing the discussion, and argues that in fact a central advance in this report is the increased precision we can place on the question of how quickly the planet will warm.

Where the last report estimated between 1.5 degrees Centigrade and 4.5 degrees C, the Fourth Assessment, which compares the performance of thirty different climatemodels against various sets of observations, much more confidently projects temperatures between 2 degrees C and 4.5 degrees C, mostly likely on the short side of 3. It admits that "Values higher than 4.5 degrees C cannot be excluded, but agreement with observations is not as good…"

Last month in the most prestigious of American science publications, Science, a study subtly challenged the IPCC on the likelyhood of a moderate sensitivity to increasing greenhouse gas permeation. Gerard  Roe and Marcia Baker took a second crack at the math and concluded that "the probability of large temperature increases are relatively insensitive to decreases in uncertainties associated with the underlying climate processes."

In other words, although we can exclude the possibility that the climate will not warm, the IPCC’s narrowing of the range of sensitivity was not warranted.

For a sympathetic analysis of their argument, you can consult the Three-Toed Sloth (who also usefully includes a link to the complete study). James Annan has doubts; mostly he objects that yes, the possibility of a huge increase cannot be completely rejected, but the IPCC has in fact considered it and concluded that almost certainly it will not happen. RealClimate tends to agree, a little less confidently, but splits the difference by pointing out that we can rule out negligible warming of no consequence, we must "recognize and confront" the possibility of unexpectedly high temps.

But what sticks with me is the comparison of a Gaussian set of possibilities [top diagram] with the long tail of an "outlier" [bottom diagram]. Looks kinda like a black swan…



  (h/p: Political Animal)

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Best Debate Ever: Republicans on YouTube

I’ve been watching Presidential debates since the Carter-Reagan era, and I have never seen a more entertaining or more revealing debate than the Republicans on YouTube. Since the questioners knew this was their one and only shot at a national audience, they asked what they really wanted to know, without undue fawning and with good humor, and elicited genuine and often surprising answers.

My favorite question came from a bright-eyed young fellow named calciumboy. He asked the candidates if they believed every word in the Holy Bible was true. I thought he was joking, but check out his site on the question of matrimony.

He’s not. He tells prospective mates:

If you think I’m "the one", for cryin out loud, don’t wait for me to ask you out; just tell me.  I’ll never have the nerve to ask you.  I figure if a girl doesn’t like me enough to tell me she wants me, then she doesn’t like me enough to be my wife.

Oh and here’s the fun part: after revealing my flaws (ie. social cowardice) and my lack of money and prospects, I have the "nerve" to tell you that I must have a humble, godly wife, who understands that this is not an "equal-partnership", it is a Biblical marriage (you know, the "old-fashioned" kind that everybody patronizes today, where the wife respects and obeys the husband – I know, that’s tough to hear when you’ve been fed feminist propaganda your whole life).  If you have a problem with this, we will never marry…

He then went on to quote a slew of Old Testament prophets: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands, as unto the Lord…" etc.


Huckabee jumped in and as a preacher tried to take the Holy Bible question away from Giuliani, who said (in essence) that no, some of the Bible is allegorical, such as Jonah and the whale. Huckabee agreed, but preached it — inspirationally.

Other superb questions: What would Jesus do about the death penalty, and how many guns do you own?

Best answer of the night: McCain on torture. [See below.] Will it help him?

With Republicans, probably not.

Winners: Huckabee, McCain
Losers:   Romney
Agreed Upon-On Also-Ran: Thompson
Questions on Global Warming or Environmental Matters: None

Update: Tom Toles on the same question, candidates.

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Quote of the Day: the Two Malibus

"There are two kinds of Malibu. There is the beach Malibu. And there
is the rocks and cactus and coyote-ate-the-cat kind of Malibu."

–Malibu mayor Jeff Jennings

Guess which one burned?

Picture from firefighter Nancy Jackson’s Flickr set:


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The Weather Outside, the Climate Inside

W. S. Di Piero, a favorite poet, published in Poetry (10/06) a wonderful selection of his notebooks, written during a moody stay in San Francisco. It’s not available on-line, unfortunately, but a key segment deserves recapitulation here nonetheless. What I wish to bring to your attention is his discussion of how our inner weather determines what we make of the landscape we see outside. It’s finely wrought.

To wit:

The mind freights weather with its own confabulations and anxieties. Serial rainstorms here in San Francisco, intermittent blue mist — the Asian mist of screen-paintings of hillsides — infiltrating trees in Golden Gate Park. The lull between storms softens things. Then the rain starts up again like cat-o’-nine-tails thrashing my windows. A certain kind of depression, my kind — a Motown-ish lyrics: "My kind, my kind, my kind" — brings episodes that beat against the coastline of the sane or balanced self, baffled just so by meds and the talking cure. It’s not curable because it’s the nature of that particular self. (Or, in my mental menagerie: the dragon of chaos must be fed, else he rip apart every order he sees; he never goes away, he sleeps in the gate.) Late one night, writing, I start to break up (who knows why? unknowability is pain’s core; sobbing is the stupefied noise pain makes) and so lie on the floor waiting for the waves, the dragon-ish sea, the un-nameable hurt, to pass over…

Clinical melancholia doesn’t color one’s feeling for reality, it determines it.

Or, as a friend of mine — one who doesn’t believe in global warming — put it more crudely: "Global warming is an issue for liberals, but that’s because liberals have issues."

Would that we all could wave it off so easily! But he’s not entirely wrong, either. How do we distinguish between the fate we fear and fear itself? Science, I say, but scientists too have moods sometimes…

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Department of a Thousand Words

While visiting the great Edward Weston at the Getty, saw another astonishing photo exhibit by the daringly amoral photographer Luc Delahaye. As this fascinating story in Artnet about a gallery show four years ago reveals, he worked as a war photographer in Bosnia, but after a few years there had to give up the traditional photojournalist belief that taking pictures of horrors would help anything. With this  abdication of hope, he found his voice — a disturbing one. For me his most memorable picture in the exhibit was the one below, of a dead Taliban Soldier, lying in a ditch, completely at ease.

Coincidentally, a report in the Washington Post yesterday said that according to intelligence and military sources, we are winning the battles in Afghanistan, but losing the war.

U.S. troops number more than 25,000 and make up the largest contingent
of the 41,000-member NATO force in Afghanistan. NATO officers say they
have eliminated Taliban leaders and fighters in higher numbers than in
any previous year. But such claims of success reflect "a very tactical
outlook in a game that is strategic," said a former U.S. senior
commander in Afghanistan who shares many of the intelligence
community’s concerns. "I have a lot of respect for [Taliban] strategy,"
he said. "These guys are not cowardly by any stretch of the

Looks that way, doesn’t it?


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The End of the World, According to John Howard

John Howard lost not only his position as prime minister of Australia last week, but even his long-held seat in parliament — a defeat widely described as "humiliating." His support for the war in Iraq and against action to reduce the risks of climate change had a lot to do with that humiliation. For those of us living far away from Australia, John Quiggin succinctly defines Howard’s blase attitude towards the climate crisis neatly in a pre-election newspaper column. Quiggin concludes:

Nothing sums up the government’s position better than Howard’s response
to the IPCC report. After noting the serious of the challenge, Howard
observed that ‘the world is not coming to an end tomorrow’. Indeed not,
but Australian voters might prefer a leader who can look a little way
beyond tomorrow.

One thing we know for sure: the world is not coming to an end today, but John Howard’s world pretty much is. And isn’t that the nature of life for all of us? It’s not the world at large that matters, but the little world we live in.

In this new century, those who will not face change will have to suffer the consequences.

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A Strong Relationship — With Yourself

That’s what Texas photographer Kelli Connell depicts in a compelling series of photographs, some of which can be found in an interesting exhibit at the Nathan Larramendy Gallery in Ojai. As I mention in the story for the Ventura County Reporter:

One of the most striking displays in Larramendy’s small but
appealing gallery is a trio of large digital photographs by Kelli
Connell. Each of the photographs shows the same two women; in one, they
appear to be a mother and daughter, and are snuggled together, looking
directly at the camera.
In another photograph, they are together in a bathroom, looking as
relaxed in each other’s company as lovers, and one of the two women is
in the tub. In a third, titled “Kitchen Tension,” they are trading
edgy, over-the-shoulder glances.

But look closer at these photographs, and it slowly becomes apparent
that something is wrong — in fact, these two women are one and the
same, digitally manipulated to share the same space.

To Larramendy, the photographs document a relationship that an individual has with himself (or in this case, with herself).

“It’s about that person who is always two steps behind you,” he said.

But who is that person two steps behind us? Our conscience? Our
memory of a favorite lover? Our anxiety? The question has no single
answer, but that is part of the reason these photographs lodge so
firmly in the memory. Using one model, a digital camera and Photoshop, Connell has found a way to make vivid our inner rush of thoughts — no small feat.

Here’s the one where I first realized that something was going on. Guess it took the nudity to make me slow down and really look at the photograph. Okay, so I’m a little shallow. So shoot me.


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A Global Warming Trilogy

Novelist Kim Stanley Robinson explains in an essay available for forty-nine cents on Amazon how he came to write a science fiction trilogy about global warming:

Somehow my job has made me think about climate change
for years now. I spent most of the 1990s writing a trilogy about the
human inhabitation of Mars; my characters in those books were part of a
huge multi-generational effort to change the climate on Mars, by
melting its ice and pumping its frozen atmosphere back into the skies.
All this was part of the science fictional enterprise that Jack
Williamson named "terraforming" in a story he wrote in the 1930s.
Terraforming is climate change with a vengeance, and pretty early in
the process of writing my Mars books, while reading about the various
environmental problems that were going to be caused by global warming,
it occurred to me that we were already terraforming Earth, in the here
and now, but by accident, and in ignorance of how it worked or what
might happen. All the aspects of terraforming were already present in
one form or another: we alter the Earth’s surface faster than any
natural process, we’re altering the chemical composition of the
atmosphere, making it more of a greenhouse than it was before, and this
change in turn is altering the chemical composition of the ocean, which
is rapidly becoming more acidic. Most of these processes are
destructive to the biological communities already in place, on land and
in the seas; and so the first result of our inadvertent terraforming
seems likely to be a mass extinction event, an extinction to rival the
huge mass extinctions that ended the Cretaceous and the Permian.

The human species itself is not likely to escape such an event
unscathed; we live on the top of a food chain that might be damaged or
might even crash in such an extinction event. This was a dark thought,
and as I wrote my Mars novels it was always present in my mind that
what I was describing as happening on Mars—the conscious and successful
management of an entire planet’s biosphere—might serve as a model for
what we will have to do on Earth too. In that sense as well as others
they were utopian novels, and I believe part of their popularity is due
to this fairly obvious analogy to our current situation.

also, as I went for my runs on the ultra-flat floor of the Central
Valley of California, I would occasionally glimpse the Sierra Nevada to
the east, white with snow even in summer. One time during these years I
read a scientific study that suggested that global warming would impact
California more severely than most places, because only a slight rise
in average temperatures would change most of the snow falling on the
Sierra to rain, so the precipitation would quickly run off, and the
mountains would no longer serve as an immense reservoir through the dry
summers, and California would become even more of a desert than it
already is. People would have to leave—I didn’t care about that,
because too many people have moved to California anyway and it needs an
exodus—but the high Sierra meadows would likely die in the summer
droughts. I love those high meadows, and the thought that I might be
part of the last generation to see them, that the beautiful high Sierra
might become like the blasted wastelands of Nevada, filled me with rage
and grief.

"Rage and grief" because he cares, natch. Poet Gary Snyder, who lives in those Sierras, seems more sanguine about their fate. I wish I shared his optimism…and need to read Robinson’s trilogy.

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Isn’t This How The SoCal Fires Started Last Time?

From rcribbett’s photostream, the fire yesterday in Malibu, as seen from about 10-15 miles south in Playa Del Ray:


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