Archive for 2012 March

A fire to make The Hunger Games look tame

The new movie blockbuster, The Hunger Games, turns out to be shockingly good. Not because it's futuristic — with a little magic, it could easily have been set in ancient times. Not because it stars a teenager, or a young woman; the same story could be told through a male perspective, if less imaginatively. But simply because it's a great story: mesmerizing, suspenseful, surprising. 

The movie includes a brush with a forest fire — a moment of real terror: 


But this movie fire cannot compare in magnitude to the real fire that burned through much of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana  in l910, a story brilliantly told in Timothy Egan's great book The Big Burn

Here's how Egan describes this fire, as it exploded from Idaho into Montana, eastern Washington state, back towards Glacier National Park, and across the border into British Columbia. 

…the wall of flame took over the forest, hundreds of feet high, at least thirty miles wide in some parts, and still gaining strength, still fanning out, consuming oxygen in heaves, and picking up intensity as its core temperature rose. The firest was a classic convection engine now: heat rising, pulling the hottest elements upward, a gyro of spark and flame. After racing through the Clearwater and Nez Perce forests, leveling nearly all living things in the Kelly Clark region, the fire swept up trees at the highest elevations. At this altitude, along the spine of the Bitterroots, the wind moved without obstruction, and the fire itself threw brands ten miles ahead of the flame front. The storm found the Montana border and spit flames down into the heavily settled Bitterroot Valley. It found the Lolo forest and crossed over the pass and along the summits, jumping ridgeline to ridgeline. At the peak of its power, it found the Coeur d'Alene forest, leading with a punch of wind that knocked down thousands of trees before the flames took out the rest of the woods. By now, the conscripted air…was a firestorm of hurricane-force winds, in excess of eighty miles an hour. What had been nearly three thousand small fires throughout a three-state region of the northern Rockies had grown into a single large burn. 

An incredible fire that led to extraordinary heroism, and the Forest Service as we know it today. 

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Kathleen Edwards: Never Gonna Feel the Same

On tour last night in Ventura, the increasingly popular Kathleen Edwards concluded with her near-hit Change the Sheets, which opens:

My love took a ride on a red-eye plane
Going home
And we're never gonna feel the same
Change this feeling under my feet
Change the sheets and then change me

This central idea reminds me of what a true rock and roller, Craig Goris of Ojai's much-loved Char-Man band, said to me a while back, a year or so before he passed away, far too young. I had expressed the idea that rock was fundamentally opposed to the idea of "the same" and Craig said:

That's what rock and roll is always about. That moment when everything changes.

I'm paraphrasing from memory, but that's what I believe he said, and I think it's true. 

Edwards knows it. She can be gritty:

Asking for flowers
Is like asking you to be nice
Don't tell me you're too tired
10 years I've been working nights

She can be classic, in Neil Young's From Hank to Hendrix

Somewhere on a desert highway
She rides a Harley-Davidson
Her long blonde hair is riding in the wind
She's been running half her life
The chrome and steel she rides
Colliding with the very air she breathes
The air she breathes

And she can be tough, in her crowd favorite Back to Me

I've got lights you've never seen
I've got moves I've never used
I've got ways to make you come
Back to me

Whether or not she becomes a big star, Kathleen Edwards rocks:

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Wind turbines threaten condors — or is it vice versa?

Amazing story in Forbes from January, about how a burgeoning wind turbine industry in the Tehachapis may be shut down by the possibility that a wind turbine could kill an endangered California Condor. 

At this point it’s unknown whether the federally protected bird, which can fly some 200 miles in a day, will avoid huge turbine farms or be fatally attracted to the 500-foot-high machines as it scours the landscape for carrion. That creates a great deal of financial and legal uncertainty for wind developers, operators, financiers and utilities.

In other words, will wind farm owners and operators be held criminally liable if a turbine’s spinning blades kill a condor? Will banks and other investors shy away from financing wind projects for fear that the unauthorized “incidental take” – to use the legal language of the federal Endangered Species Act – of a condor could prompt interruptions in electricity production, and thus revenues, or even lead to the shut down of wind farms?

Great question. Will try to follow up from a Ventura County perspective, and work in a discussion of the recently announced new guidelines by the US Fish and Wildlife service for birds and wind turbines. 


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Tony Parker, starring in the “Flop of the Night”

Since the great Vlade Divac left the NBA for charity work a decade ago, the prize for best flopper in the Association has been up for grabs. But last night, the ever-clever Tony Parker made a move to take Vlade's crown, transforming a slightly extended elbow brush-by into a flailing backpedaling collapse that took him and Steve Nash to the floor. Amazing.


Any flop that epic really does deserve a call…and perhaps a nomination.

Via TrueHoop's first ever Flop of the Night.

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Midwestern Heat Wave: Attribute to global warming?

A Climate Central reporter tries to tease out the contribution of climate change to the unprecedented heat wave in the Midwest, mentioned above, but the attribution studies have yet to be done, and many questions remain. 

For instance, the extraordinary leap in temperatures this month in places like Michigan is due in part to the fact that oddly little snow was on the ground before the heat wave started. If we assume that global warming has no part of that oddity, then the leap in temperatures should be separated from our attempts to attribute the overall weather pattern to this or that cause.

But what if climate change contributed to the lack of snow in the first place?

Story doesn't really get into that. Story does point out that the "blocking high" that knocked the jetstream off its usual path may have no connection to climate chage. Marty Hoerling, the silver-haired dead of Southwestern climate change modelrs, argues that the blocking pattern was not caused by global warming. The story explains: : 

Such “blocking patterns” are often associated with temperature and precipitation extremes, and were present during the 2010 Russian heat wave and the 2003 European heat wave, as well. However, there is a lot of uncertainty about what causes blocking events or how global warming influences them.

Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist at Earth Systems Research Lab, agreed with [Randall] Dole, saying that although global warming is likely playing a role in this event, it probably did not play a major one. “Meteorology, not climate change, is the main ingredient in the current March 2012 U.S. extreme warmth,” he wrote. Of climate change, he said, “. . . its contribution to the magnitude of current conditions (+30°F departures [from average]) is quite small (but not zero) indeed.”

But he's talking specifically about the dome of high pressure. On a broader scale, as Kevin Trenberth of the National Center on Atmospheric Research points out in a study published openly this month, global warming is contributing to all of this:

Anthropogenic global warming inherently has decadal time scales and can bereadily masked by natural variability on short time scales. To the extent that interactions arelinear, even places that feature below normal temperatures are still warmer than theyotherwise would be. It is when natural variability and climate change develop in the samedirection that records get broken. For instance, the rapid transition from El Niño prior to May2010 to La Niña by July 2010 along with global warming contributed to the record high seasurface temperatures in the tropical Indian and Atlantic Oceans and in close proximity toplaces where record flooding subsequently occurred. A commentary is provided on recentclimate extremes. The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climatechange is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate changebecause the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.

Here's my question. Suppose a similar blocking high developed over the Midwest in August. How much hotter could it get? Surely not 30 degrees. But how much?

Someone must be thinking about this…perhaps I should ask Mr. Trenberth.  

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Climate: If it’s not a crisis, newspapers can’t be bothered

Talked to my mom last night, and mentioned to her that the Midwest is experiencing a heat wave the likes of which no one alive has ever really seen. 

The experts have been floored for a week. It's "unprecedented." Thousands of records broken.  


Jeff Masters' weather historian: "It's almost like science fiction –" Bill McKibben: "This is what climate change looks like." In Michigan, lows for the day (53 degrees) that are higher than the previous high for the date (49). "That's incredible — to me, that's just mind-boggling," said Mike Halpert, of a NOAA climate center. 

"I didn't know about that!" said my mom, a little perturbed. As the proud daughter of an eminent meteorologist, she's always been interested in weather, and she's also a person who reads two newspapers a day, and three a week. Yet the papers haven't mentioned it. 

Because it's March, and unusually pleasant in the MidWest, news of the heat wave has yet ot make the front page of the Times, the Post, the Los Angeles Times, or my paper, to the best of my knowledge. Certainly hasn't made a splash, even though the President himself wondered at the possibility of global warming, on a campaign swing. "It gets you a little nervous about what's happening –" Obama said. 

Almost as if it could be due to climate change. 

 To which ABC News' Ginger Zee replies:
video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Essentially, yes.

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Climate: How do we tell this story powerfully?

Dave Roberts has a problem with the reaction to the revelation that Mike Daisey rewrote the truth in now infamous anti-Apple story.

He thinks the moralizing journos at the NY Times sound a bit self-satisfied: 

It’s a weird and naive notion that there is a bright line between objective and subjective, fact and opinion, reality and narrative. Post-war journalism in the U.S. has been besotted with this kind of technocratic positivism, the notion that a reporter’s job is to convey facts and that anything else is personal opinion, bias, or outright deception.

But facts are not truth. Facts do not, in and of themselves, have meaning. Facts only add up to something — literally make sense — when they are embedded in some kind of framework or narrative that fits into our cultural identities and ways of seeing the world. That’s how humans are built to learn, going back to the Stone Age. So “telling a greater truth” is a thing of real value, not some theatrical pretense. 

Then he has to bring up climate: 

One of the striking things about climate change is that majorities of Americans accept it, on some level or other, but it is those who reject it, largely in the conservative base, who display the most intensity. They’re the ones who call their representatives and go to town halls and write letters to the editor and get in a reactionary fury over f’ing light bulbs. Why is that? One reason is that conservatives have been told a story. They have not been given science lectures by Al Gore and James Hansen, instructed on ocean pH and ice sheet volumes and parts per million of CO2. They’ve been told by their media outlets, analysts, and politicians what climate change means: It is part of the liberal plan to control your behavior and expand government. It is elite condescension, high taxes, and global governance. That’s a story that carries great emotional resonance for its audience.

No story so powerful has been told to those who know climate change is real, he suggests. 

Has a point. Here's a specifying angle I haven't seen before, in starkly generational terms, from editorialist Rose Murphy

In 2020, my son will be 9. Due to inertia in the climate system, not much will have changed, although I imagine that extreme weather events, crop failures and water shortages will be more directly attributed to climate change. Will the stories on the news keep my son awake at night? If they do, I will hug him tight and tell him everything is all right – that the adults of the world are working as hard as they can to fix the problems. Will I be telling the truth?

It's painful, but feels real. I guess that's my problem with the Daisey revelations. Daisey to me seems wierdly thrilled by the pain he claims to have witnessed. It's a strange, unsettling performance. 


Yet still: How could we be aroused to such emotion by climate change?  

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Is “The Descendants” as grand a movie as “Tree of Life?”

Elbert Ventura in Slate argues that The Descendants is a great movie, despite its too-pretty-to-be-true Hawaian setting. 

Don’t let the soothing uke and sun-dappled sadness fool you—The Descendants is no less interested in the cosmic than that exegete’s delight The Tree of Life.

He argues that we overlook its soaring depiction of the natural world, with nature's implicit comment on the fairly pathetic squirmings and upsets of our human counterparts, because the director Alexander Payne has no tolerance for the sheer bigness that is so much apart of great filmmaking, from Welles to Bergmann to Malick. 

Allergic to grandiosity, his movies depict losers, schlubs, and schmos dealing with domestic turmoil and personal crises in a nondescript, lived-in America. Across those movies, Payne has carved out an authorial identity defined by career-making performances (Reese Witherspoon in Election, Paul Giamatti in Sideways), adroit tone shifts, and the pitch-perfect rendering of life in these United States. 

In this climactic image, it's hard to deny Ventura's point. But maybe we overlooked the nature in "The Descendants" precisely because the characters in this movie, as in seeming all his stories, are "losers, schlubs, and schmos." If all his people are like that, why should we find special meaning in nature in this movie? It's no more meaningful than the prettiness of the wine country in "Sideways." 


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NSA “to watch everybody all the time” on line

The great James Bamford writes another deeply sourced expose of the NSA, this time for Wired magazine, about an unbelieveably massive, costly, and unconstitutional National Security Agency spy center under construction in Utah (and a twin at Oak Ridge, Tennessee). 

You won't see better journalism this year, and really should read the whole thing.

Here's just one graph: 

The NSA also has the ability to eavesdrop on phone calls directly and in real time. According to Adrienne J. Kinne, who worked both before and after 9/11 as a voice interceptor at the NSA facility in Georgia, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks “basically all rules were thrown out the window, and they would use any excuse to justify a waiver to spy on Americans.” Even journalists calling home from overseas were included. “A lot of time you could tell they were calling their families,” she says, “incredibly intimate, personal conversations.” Kinne found the act of eavesdropping on innocent fellow citizens personally distressing. “It’s almost like going through and finding somebody’s diary,” she says.

Tell the truth: Didn't you already suspect as much? 

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Journos cheer: Santorum lives to fight another day

E.J. Dionne wraps it up perfectly, and admits that "For those who like to watch election nights, the Alabama and Mississippi results are a tonic. They’ll keep things going in the Republican race for some time."

Yes. But even better is Rebecca Traister's tweet:

Yeah, so, Mitt, here's the thing: your party DOES NOT LIKE YOU. I know, I know, too late now. Just, in future, something to keep in mind. — Rebecca Traister (@rtraister)  

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