Archive for 2009 December

The Aughts: the decade that sucked

Most everyone polled by Pew agrees: the Aughts sucked.

Really. If this decade was a guy in high school, he'd be one lonely fella. If this decade was an athlete, he'd be the last picked for the team. (Seriously — every other decade on which a poll has been taken has been well liked by a majority of respondents, but the aughts? Two to one negative.) If this decade were a sunset, it'd be hidden behind dark, ominous clouds. If this decade were a car, it'd be in the shop.

But Pew went on to ask a couple of really interesting questions. What good came out of this decade? Cellphones were the top contender, followed by — drumroll, please — green products.


Pew also asked a brilliant question: What word would you use to characterize the aughts?

The top choice was "downhill."

Reasonable, but I prefer Alex Ross's description: ghastly.

Thank God it's almost over.

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Evan Bayh: in this economic climate, we must ignore climate change

The Senate will not act on climate change in 2010, if conservative Democrats in the Senate like Evan Bayh have their way, and Yglesias, for one, is not happy about it. He writes:

Evan Bayh, too, seems like he wants to write a blog about congressional politics:

“We need to deal with the phenomena of global warming,
but I think it’s very difficult in the kind of economic circumstances
we have right now,” said Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, who called
passage of any economy-wide cap and trade “unlikely.”

It is difficult to deal with and passage of an economywide cap does seem unlikely. But, again, it’s only difficult because Senators are making it difficult. It’s only unlikely because Senators are making it unlikely.
If these guys don’t want to vote yes on a clean energy bill, then they
should say what their reasons are, not engage in this kind of odd
prognostication as if they’re detached observers of the scene.

Here's Evan Bayh, in a picture taken just last year, I'm guessing.


If the Senate refuses to act to reduce gas emssions, the Obama administration may have no choice but to go to the stick: the EPA.

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Enviro Song of the Year 2009: a new “This Land is Your Land”

The columnist George Will recently wrote about the new movie Up in the Air.

While breezily discoursing on the emotional pain of the worst unemployment record in decades,  Will happened to mention that the "opening soundtrack" to the movie, featuring a new version of Woody Guthrie's classic This Land is Your Land, was (and I quote) "weird."

Check out the song for yourself, via the interesting music site LaLa:

Will, the bow-tied baseball-ed embodiment of white-bread conservatism, is about as stuffy as an American man can be, so it's no surprise that he completely misses the point of this funkified classic by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.

Jones sounds like a young Aretha unleashed. She and the Dap-Kings turn out to be a fascinating story in their own right, a collective devoted to the classic funk of the James Brown style.

Their sound is brassy and tight, but without synthesizers or digital gear, giving their songs an analog funkiness that's timeless, sexy, and in your face. They even turn out to be the secret weapon behind the huge success of Amy Winehouse and her hits "Back to Black" and "You Know I'm No Good."

But the truth is, of course, that George Will could never in a million years say anything good about this greatest of all American folk songs, funkified or not, because the lyrics challenge the unbounded faith in private property espoused by him and other American conservatives.

In the glossy, funny, but not phony movie, we only hear the first of Guthrie's words. and then an up-dated fade-out of the song from the band, mentioning locales such as Houston and L.A.

Is it possible that after all these decades, the lyrics are still too radical for most movie-going Americans? Take a look or a listen, and decide for yourself….

As I went walking, I saw a sign there
And on that sign it said "Private Property"
But on the other side it didn't say nothin'
That side was made for you and me !

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Mann’s latest temperature reconstruction record: Could a warming globe mean more La Ninas?

From a November paper by Michael Mann and cohorts in Science, meticulously reconstructing the temperature record over the last fifteen hundred years, from proxies including tree rings, pollen, coral, oxygen isotopes, sediments, and so on. 

The end point — in black — is from the instrumental record. 

This gives us a familiar conclusion — since the Industrial Revolution, global atmospheric temperatures have warmed about .7 degrees C. But most interesting is Mann's argument, which he concludes this way:

If the tropical Pacific thermostat response suggested by our analyses of past changes applies to anthropogenic climate change, this holds profound implications for regional climate change effects such as future drought patterns. 

In other words, expect decades-long California droughts.

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Cap and Trade: FactCheck calls GOP liars

The ACES/Waxman-Markey
bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, currently going nowhere in the
Senate, has been victimized by a number of outrageous
misrepresentations and figures.

Even if you don't think the bill is the
best answer to the challenge of global warming, as many do not, that
doesn't justify flat-out lying.

Here are the facts, courtesy of a year-end analysis from, called Whoppers of 2009.

Inflated Cost Claims: The GOP drastically overstated
how much proposed cap-and-trade legislation would affect the average
family’s energy costs — Republicans said costs would increase by $3,100
a year, more than twice the estimate of the conservative Heritage
Foundation. On NBC’s "Meet the Press," House Minority Leader John
Boehner cited a figure closer to the Heritage Foundation’s estimate —
$1,700 per year — attributing it to the Treasury Department. But that
number really came from a back-of-envelope calculation by a CBS News
blogger. The Treasury Department has called the figure "flat-out
wrong," and the Congressional Budget Office’s much lower estimate is
$455 per year over the 2012-2050 period. "Cap and Trade Cost Inflation," May 28; "Boehner and the Cost of Cap and Trade," Sept. 22

The links are thoroughly sourced, for people who like that sort of thing.

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Positive Thinking and Calvinism: American Twins

"If one of the best things you can say about positive thinking is that it articulated an alternative to Calvinism, one of the worst is that it ended up preserving some of Calvinism's more toxic features — a harsh judgementalism, echoing the old religions's condemnation of sin, and an insistence on the constant interior labor of self-examination. The American alternative to Calvinism was not to be hedonism or even just an emphasis on emotional spontaneity. To the positive thinker, emotions remain suspect and one's innner life must be subjected to relentless monitoring."

"In many important ways, Christian Science itself never fully broke with Calvinism at all. Its twentieth-century adherents were overwhelmingly white, middle-class people of outstandingly temperate, even self-denying habits. The British writer V.S. Pritchett, whose father was a "Scientist," wrote that they "gave up drinhk, tobacco, tea, coffee — dangerous drugs — they gave up sex, and wrecked their mariages on this account…it was notoriously a menopause religion."


"But the most striking continuity between the old religion and the new positive thinking lies in their common insistence on work — the constant internal work of self-monitoring. The Calvinist monitored his or her thoughts and feelings for signs of laxness, sin and self-indulgence, while the positive thinker is ever on the lookout for "negative thoughts" charged with anxiety or doubt. As sociologist Micki McGee writes of the positive-thinking self-help literature, using language that harks back to its religious antecedents, "continuous and never-ending work on the self is offered not only as a road to success but also to a kind of secular salvation." The self becomes an antagonist with which one wrestles endlessly the Calvinist attacking it for sinful inclinations, the positive thinker for "negativity.'" 

From Barbara Ehrenrecih's bold new book Bright Sided

This blogger is often criticized for painting a dark picture of our future, never because the facts don't justify such a picture, but because it's "depressing." 

Seems odd to me. I would like to point the finger at the ideology of "positive thinking," but I'm not sure that's fair. But I never thought I would come across a John Calvin bobble-head doll, either…

Calvinist bobble-head

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Feminism Messes with Blanche DuBois

On Double X, Slate's relentlessly smart site for women's issues, Margaret Wheeler Johnson alleges that feminism has screwed with Blanche DuBois. 

Forget about the irony of the alleged perpetrator for a second, and think of the victim.

Is there a greater crime possible against a character in American theater?

The greatest of all American tragedies — the rape of beauty by force — has been sullied, if such an allegation is true, and if such a double negative is possible.

Wheeler complains:

Stanley’s attack is the second rape attempted on Blanche in a single
evening, following the unwanted advance of her recently disillusioned
suitor, Mitch. [Tennessee] Williams’s stage directions specify that she “sinks to
her knees,” allowing Stanley to carry her “inert figure” to the bed.
Her reaction inevitably raises the question of why she doesn’t fight
back. Has she just come to believe that she deserves it, or does she
actually deserve it?

The BAM production elides this feminist’s dilemma by calling into
question whether this is rape at all. In [Liv] Ullmann’s version, both
Blanche and Stanley are drunk off their rockers by the time Stanley
pushes Blanche onto the bed, giving the scene, at worst, the ambiguity
of date rape. “It is clear this is something [Blanche] may want,”
Ullmann said at a recent Q&A at BAM. The director’s main goal seems
to be to rescue Blanche from total passivity. Of course, this creates
the problem that if she wasn’t raped, she later lied to her sister and
said she was. But in Ullmann’s version, at least Blanche remains in

Fundamentally, and interestingly in this context, the complaint about feminism as a movement seems to be that it doesn't know when to stop.

It's true that men far too often use force in sex, for instance, but then feminist Andrea Dworkin famously complained about the nature of sex itself, arguing that (according to Wikipedia):

"Intercourse is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men's contempt for women."

In 2009, has feminism — or a dramatic attempt at an expression of such — gone too far again?

Regardless of the answer to that question, the good news, everyone fortunate enough to have seen the production agrees, is Cate Blanchett.

In the words of the great John Lahr, in a recent New Yorker:

Blanche is the Everest of modern American drama, a peak of
psychological complexity and emotional range, which many stars have
attempted and few have conquered. Of the performances I’ve seen in
recent years, Jessica Lange’s lacked theatrical amperage, Natasha
Richardson’s was too buff, and Rachel Weisz’s, in this year’s
overpraised Donmar Warehouse production in London, was too callow. The
challenge for the actress taking on Blanche lies in fathoming her
spiritual exhaustion, her paradoxical combination of backbone and
collapse. Blanche has worn herself out, bearing her burden of guilt and
grief, and facing down the world with a masquerade of Southern gaiety
and grace. She is looking—as Williams himself was when he wrote the
play—for “a cleft in the rock of the world that I could hide in.”

Blanchett, with her alert mind, her informed heart, and her lithe, patrician silhouette, gets it right from the first beat.


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Dean of Climate Reporters Retires From Daily Coverage

Andrew Revkin, a superb reporter and a wonderful guy, is retiring from covering the climate on a regular basis. He's taking a buy-out from The New York Times.

That's the bad news. The good news is that he will continue to maintain his first-rate global sustainability blog, Dot Earth, and write books as well.

As a long-time follower and an occasional interviewer, yours truly is sorry to see him go. Revkin sincerely loves science, beyond doubt, and was wearying of the climate wars. Both the denialists and the true believers in climate change claimed him for their side at times, and complained about him at other times.

What better proof of his moderation?

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The Biggest Control Knob: Carbon Dioxide (Richard Alley Explains All)

For those who would like to get the Richard Alley lecture straight from the source, the American Geophysical Union, here's the video. It's forty-two minutes long, but not a bit boring. Alley has a unique ability to explain complex topics in simple language.

Here's an example of his clarity, from Alley's excellent book The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future.

In the passage Alley is explaining why ice, which to most of us civilians appears to be cold and solid, is to physicists a hot substance, "one of the hottest natural solids around."

"Hot ice" may seem strange to anyone who has ever sat on a snowdrift on an outhouse seat, but it is true. In discussing how materials behave, a "cold" solid is one that is far below its melting point, and a "hot" solid is one that is close to the melting point. In a freezer, an iron horseshoe and a chocolate bar are both stiff and brittle, and neither will flow. In your back pocket, though, the horseshoe will remains stiff and brittle, but the chocolate bar will "smoosh" as it warms near its melting point. Have a blacksmith heat the horseshoe white-hot, almost to melting, and the horseshoe will become nearly as soft as the pocketed chocolate bar. Because ice is typically within a few degrees or tens of degrees of melting, it is more like white-hot iron or a pocketed chocolate bar…ice can flow. The flow of ice isn't fast, but it happens.

And here's a picture of Dr. Alley from his university, Penn State. Could the outfit be a hint? 


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CO and Temperature Changes: Richard Alley Explains

In his talk to thousands of scientists this week at the American Geophysical Union, Dr. Richard Alley, perhaps the best communicator" of all climatologists today, explained with a wonderfully simple metaphor why changes in levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere slightly lag behind changes in global temperature.

It's important because this fact seems to challenge the cause and effect relationship between carbon dioxide and global temps. Alley opened his talk by quoting from a letter than an alum recently wrote the university for which he works, Penn State. The alum complained that for his work on global warming, Alley "should be dealt with severely to prevent such shameful activities in the future," and pointed to this lag between changes in the levels of CO2 and changes in global atmosphere as the "shameful" part of Alley's argument.  

Here's Alley's example. If he was to overspend on his credit card, his credit card company would delightedly raise the interest rate he is charged on the debt he owes. This would in not too long a time raise the amount of debt he owes the company. But nonetheless, the overspending would come first, and so one could argue that the raise in the rate of interest lags the change in the level of debt, and hence there is no cause and effect relationship between debt and interest.

 But as anyone who has ever dealt with debt knows, the interest rate is "the big control knob" on the amount of debt an individual owes, in another of Alley's wonderfully simple metaphors.

Similarly, changes in C02 track changes in global temperatures extremely well, but don't necessarily precede changes in temperature. They lag, slightly. This doesn't change the fact that CO2, more than any other factor, controls global temps…


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