Archive for 2012 July

Climate change apologist calls for a hotter planet

It's hard to keep up with the latest in climate change denial: it's just so far out. Last week Paul MacRae, a pro-climate change author associated with climate change denier central, Watts Up With That, boldly called for more planetary warming.

No, really.

Specifically, he sees the goodness of a time when CO2 levels in the atmosphere were vastly higher than they are today, and temperatures were far hotter than today. When the north and south poles were ice free, and the temperate regions (like the continental U.S.) tropical as the Amazon.

Of this era he writes admiringly:

This geological age was at least 10°C warmer than today, free of ice caps, and with CO2 levels, [Donald] Prothero suggests, of up to 3,000 parts per million, which is almost eight times today’s level of about 400 ppm. Yet Prothero calls the Eocene a “lush, tropical world.”[8]

At the end of the still very warm Oligocene (33-23 mya), Prothero puts CO2 levels at 1,600 ppm, or four times today’s levels.[9] Prothero’s 1994 CO2 estimates may be a high, but no one—not even [James] Hansen—denies that CO2 levels were several times higher than today’s in the Eocene and Oligocene and, indeed, right down to the Miocene (23-5 mya).

For Prothero, the boundary between the Eocene and Oligocene was “paradise lost” because it was then, about 33 million years ago, that the planet began its slide from a “lush, tropical world” into its current ice age conditions (see Figure 1), with glaciations every 85,000 years interspersed with brief, 15,000-year warm interglacials.

Who wouldn't want to live in the tropics? Well, sea level researchers have some concerns. Imagine Manhattan, Florida, and much of the eastern seaboard underwater, and sea level up to five feet higher along the California coast by 2100, according to a June study from the National Academy of Sciences. 

But MacRae sees it as "paradise regained." Perhaps it might look something like this, from The New Yorker's recent cover contest on global warming. 


One species paradise is another species hell. 

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Will 21st century be the end for professional writers?

According to a fed-up journalist Ewan Morrison, writing in the Toronto's respected Globe and Mail newspaper, even well-established authors such as himself are working essentially for nothing now.

The economic trajectory of writing today is “a classic race to the bottom,” according to Morrison, who has become a leading voice of the growing counter-revolution – writers fighting fiercely to preserve the traditional ways. “It looks like a lot of fun for the consumer. You get all this stuff for very, very cheap,” he says. But the result will be the destruction of vital institutions that have supported “the highest achievements in culture in the past 60 years.”

In short, he predicts, “There will be no more professional writers in the future.”

I'm not sure the exaggeration helps. Fundamentally, this is about a few fairly well-paid professionals, working mostly for the established media, a handful of big names like Jon Krakauer and the like, and the 99% of the rest of us. Professional writers in Canada's union for writers make about $11,000, on average. That's pretty pathetic, and right on the mark, in my experience.

It's a bit like acting. According to Screen Actors Guild stats, about 95% of actors in movies make less than $5000 a year. A tiny percentage — less than 1% — make over 100k a year. 

How hard would you work for virtually nothing? What if your identity was part of your work?

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Stoneface: or, the comedy of dignity, by Buster Keaton

Sacred Fools is a little theater in Hollywood with a big hit: Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton. Wonderful to see the spirit of Keaton brought back to life in the 21st century. Critics and audiences both love this show, and that too is wonderful to see — a truly delightful success on stage. 

This is a show that brings to life countless classic gags (stunts, we would call them today) from the silent era of silent movies, all the while gracefully, amusingly, touchingly, telling the true story of Buster Keaton. The gags are so physical that the show — a charmer — becomes almost pure dance for much of the time, and about half the first act.

The storytelling lets us see the angst in Keaton's life, but his joys and his uniqueness too. Even though Keaton's life was as sad at times, in many respects, as the fictional tale of The Artist last year, this story (as the subtitle indicates) is funnier and a lot less melodramatic.

What makes the show work, most of all, is the immense dignity of French Stewart (best known as one of the stars of Third Rock from the Sun). With his inimitably dry voice, the gravity of his stony expression, and the way his stoneface sometmes cracks up. Turns out there's a reason for the depth of his portrayal.

In the program, the writer Vanessa Claire Stewart explained that when she happened to meet the actor, and learned he had always wanted to portray Keaton, but feared he had grown too old, she set out to write a play to allow him to become Buster Keaton. In the process, evidently, they fell in love and married. Another wonderful twist to a unique story. 

It's a triumph. And the play includes Buster Keaton's most famous gag, an incredible feat on stage. (Buster's original classic version can be seen at the end of the delightful video poem extolling his comedy by Dana Stevens, film critic for Slate, below). Amazing. 

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These are not your grandfather’s thunderstorms: Masters

For over a decade climatologists have been saying, and I have been reporting, that we will be seeing more extremes in weather. This goes unnoticed in the here and now of daily reporting, but it's true. 

Here's a map of yesterday's thunderstorms over Gotham and the East:


Jeff Masters commented this morning:

The severe storms covered an unusually large area, erupting along a 1,500-mile long swath of the country from Texas to Connecticut. The intensity of the thunderstorms was increased by a very hot and moist airmass; temperatures in the mid to upper 90s were common across the region Thursday. A number of record highs for the date were set, including a 98° reading at Washington D.C.'s Dulles Airport.

Last year Hurricane Irene hit New England, which was unusual (but certainly not unprecedented) behavior for a tropical cyclone spawned in the Atlantic. What made Irene really striking to the experts was not its ferocity nor its path but its magnitude — the size of Europe

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Monster threatens NYC…and ozone layer

Speaking of attacks on Gotham…tonight's thunderstorm. 

Monster storm rips through #NYC tonight. on Twitpic

From NYC photographer Inga Sarda-Sorenson. Meanwhile, a new study from James Anderson and associates at Harvard unexpectedly finds that this sort of huge thunderstorm could damage the ozone layer, allowing more ultraviolet light to reach the earth. From the Christian Science Monitor:

The study by Dr. Anderson's team is based on well-established atmospheric chemistry and observations over the continental United States of an underappreciated character in the ozone story: summer thunderstorms.

In essence, the team found that thunderstorms and their powerful, convective updrafts drive unexpectedly large concentrations of water vapor high into the stratosphere. The high concentrations of water vapor alter conditions in ways that encourage ozone destruction when the man-made chemicals associated with ozone depletion are present.

If the frequency and intensity of mid-latitude storms increase with time, as some global-warming models suggest, Anderson and his colleagues say they are concerned that ozone destruction at mid-latitudes could become one of those irreversible feedbacks.

Results surprised researchers. Excellent story from veteran Pete Spotts

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Batman and the way we fear now: Ross Douthut

Batman 3, or, officially, The Dark Knight Rises, is actually a lot like the other big superhero movie of 2012, The Avengers.

Both stories feature a team of superheroes battling an overwhelming menace attacking Gotham/New York, with the usual betrayal, trickery, and power struggles, and (without giving it away) almost exactly the same plot twist at the finale. 

But the evil in director Christopher Nolan's pic comes from below, with menace, treachery, and a political appeal to the 99%. It's a fantasy in political claustrophobia, dark, menacing, and cruel, with little or none of the irony of The Avengers. The tone could hardly be more different, for better or worse.

And the villain's plan, as Ross Douthut points out, makes no real sense in a material, carnal, or spiritual way. Bane is a suicide bomber determined to destroy the city, but he has no plans to escape, and clearly intends to destroy himself and his minions in the end, to become part of his annihiliaton. 

Alfred Hitchcock liked to point out that the stronger the villain, the stronger the picture. In terms of both psychological depth and opportunities to act, this half-machine named Bane cannot compare to the gleeful nihilism of The Joker, perhaps the greatest of all supervillains.

So maybe this is a crummy picture. Certainly doesn't make much sense as a plot. 

But Douthut makes an indelible point about the portrayal of Bane, which has little or nothing to do with plot, and much to do with the sheer excessiveness of its evil:  

Every human society has feared the anarchic, the nihilistic, the inexplicably depraved. But from the Columbine murderers to the post-9/11 anthrax killer, from the Virginia Tech shooter to Jared Lee Loughner, our contemporary iconography of evil is increasingly dominated by figures who seem to have stepped out of Nolan's take on the DC Comics universe: world-burners, meticulous madmen, terrorists without a cause.

Indeed, even when there is some sort of ideological cause involved in these irruptions of evil — as there was in the Oklahoma City bombing, and of course in 9/11 itself — the main objective often seems to be destruction for destruction's sake. Calling Osama bin Laden's terrorism "Islamist" or Timothy McVeigh's terrorism "right wing" is accurate, so far as it goes. But the impulse that brought down the twin towers or blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building feels more anti-civilizational than political — and thus closer to the motives of a group like the League of Shadows, the secret society that seeks Gotham's destruction throughout Nolan's Batman trilogy, than to the enemies America confronted in the past.


Nolan's films are effective dramatizations of the Way We Fear Now. Their villains are inscrutable, protean, appearing from nowhere to terrorize, seeking no higher end than chaos, no higher thrill than fear.

So maybe this is a great picture. Both critics and audiences seem to think so, and the horrific massacre in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater perversely attests to the film's visionary qualities. 

Still, after two looks, I think it struggles to compare to Batman 2 and Heath Ledger's Joker, but does do a fabulous, fun, and subtle job of introducing us to Robin and Catwoman.

Catwoman has the best line in the picture.

"There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne," she says. "You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could ever live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." 

Decades ago this character was inspired, it turns out, by aforementioned inventor/movie star/sex symbol Hedy LaMarr, and in truth, can't you see traces of her look in Anne Hathaway's depiction today? 

Here's Hedy:


And here's Anne:


LaMarr's inventions just don't quit, from wireless to the Catwoman

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Naked Hiking Day on the Appalachian Trail

Chris Nottoli, with whom I hiked for a week on the AT in April, is still at it, has passed the thousnad-mile mark, found a band of fellow thru-hikers, and appropriately celebrated Naked Hiking Day a month ago. 


To see his charming posts from the trail go to Walk It Off, Nottoli

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Sleeping outdoors: John Fowles and Mary Oliver

From John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman:

For one terrible moment he thought he had stumbled on a corpse. But it was a woman asleep. She had chosen the strangest position, a broad, sloping fedge of grass some five feet beneath the level of the plateau, and which hid her from the vew of any but one who came, as Charles had, to the very edge. The chalk walls behind this little natural balcony made it into a sun trap…the girl lay in the complete abandonment of deep sleep, on her back. Her coat had fallen open over her indigo dress, unrelieved in its calico severity except by a small while collar at the throat. The sleeper's face was turned away from him, her right arm thrown back, bent in a childlike way. A scattered handful of anemones lay on the grass around it. There was something immensely tender and yet sexual in the way she lay…

From Mary Oliver's Sleeping in the Forest:

I thought the earth 
remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grapplng
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

That's the real dream, isn't it? To merge with the universe. 

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Amber waves of grain…in Ventura County?

A fun story I wrote for the Star about two young farmers determined to turn back agricultural time in California.

Amber waves of grain have not been seen much in Ventura County for more than a century, but this year, two young farmers in Ojai set out to turn back the clock, planting wheat, a crop once central to agriculture in the county.

The reward for those who came out to help with the harvest was dinner, so I pitched in, plucking grain heads with other volunteers. In return, the paper's photographer, a very nice guy named David Yamamoto, took a pic of me too:


Thanks, David.

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Seeing global warming: The New Yorker

The New Yorker's captivating Blown Covers blog offers a contest for images of global warming, with many of their best to date, including this old fav:


The record-breaking heat wave that has hit the Midwest and much of the nation this spring and summer, the huge fires in Colorado this year and in Texas last year, the super "derecho" thunderstorms that hit the East this year, and the slow-moving Europe-sized hurricane that blundered into New England last year — these are just the sort of increasingly extreme events climatologists have been expecting to see. 

(As Elizabeth Kolbert said in the lead editorial in this week's edition of the magazine.)

So why then can the possibility that global warming could contribute to drought conditions not be mentioned in coverage of the extreme drought that is gripping the nation? 

USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and even the New York TImes all put the drought on the front page this week, yet did not mention climate change in any of the stories. (The New York Times did predict that the drought would worsen, which at least opens the door to discussing the future, if only a crack) When Andrew Freedman dove into the research on drought today for Climate Central, he pointed the finger at La Niña first, for good reason, but certainly didn't overlook the factor of climate change. 

But his outlet is for the already interested.

For the general public, one has tø wonder: Is global warming the elephant in the room in American journalism?

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