Thursday, June 28, 2012

Parallel lives in fiction: Murdoch, Barnes, the Man Booker prize

As if by chance, the first novel I picked up after finishing my reading group's current selection was the latest (2011) winner of the Man Booker Prize: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. I walked into Pegasus Books on Shattuck Avenue, spied it on a display shelf, and there you have it.

For my reading group I'd just finished Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea, which also won the Booker Prize -- in 1978.

Is it odd or is it predictable that 33 years later the prize was awarded to a novel that echoed the theme in Murdoch's 1978 prizewinner, and is narrated by a protagonist-narrator that also echoed her own?

Let's see how they compare -- spoilers are minimized but inevitable in the synopses that follow ... caveat lector:

Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea: Charles Arrowby has retired from the London theatre and bought a home on the coast of England. The novel is the diary he begins to keep -- or perhaps it's a biography, Arrowby isn't sure as he sets out (Since I started writing this 'book or whatever it is I have felt as if I were walking about in a dark cavern... -- that's at page 75 of nearly 500). His narrative swirls and circles around the many women in his life until it settles into obsessively steady orbit around a first, childhood love, never consumated, with Mary Hartley Smith, a girl he grew up with, whom he always called by her middle-name, Hartley. Hartley, he explains, beginning on that selfsame page, 75, deliberately disappeared from Arrowby's life shortly after he left the town where they grew up together to attend university. One day she was gone, and no one could or would help Arrowby find her. Hartley had already told Arrowby she would not marry him, as they had planned and promised each other. Devastated by her sudden, unexpected, never-explained vanishing, he has carried a torch ever since, and has looked for Hartley -- or says he has -- everywhere and always. By chance (it's a novel, people), their paths cross in the small hamlet where Arrowby has bought his home by the sea. She is married, unhappily it seems. Arrowby longs to rekindle the romance he has burnished over the many years that have passed. He goes to, um, considerable lengths in pursuit of this goal.

Barnes, The Sense of an Ending: At boarding school, Tony Webster is close friends with two other boys, and the three are joined by a fourth. Adrian is the latecomer to the school; he brightly outshines his new friends. When the boys go their separate ways to university, Tony tells the reader, The original three wrote less often and less enthusiastically to one another than we did to Adrian [...] we each thought we were -- and deserved to be -- closest to him. At university, Tony has a brief and discomfiting affair with Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford. It's a strange pairing. Her family, he thinks, treats him disdainfully on a weekend visit to her home, in that classist way one finds so regularly in British life and fiction. The two don't have "full sex" except for once -- and that after they have stopped seeing each other. Subsequently, Veronica becomes lovers with Adrian. The new lovers deliver news of their relationship to Tony in a jointly-written letter. Tony does not take the news well. A few months later Adrian commits suicide. Decades after that, Veronica's mother passes away and leaves £500 and Adrian's diary to Tony in her will. Tony can't imagine how Veronica's mother came to possess the diary. This inexplicable and wholly unforeseen resurgence of his past leads Tony to track down Veronica and orbit, obsessively, around re-establishing a connection -- and perhaps a romance? -- with her. Oh, and about getting his hands on Adrian's diary.

In each novel, the woman by whom the protagonist is obsessed is living a life the protagonist cannot grasp. Neither protagonist "gets it" -- it being the real life of the woman he imagines himself to be after. Neither can see through the scrim of remembered pasts, scrims composed of distant events that have taken on the weight of personal mythology, encrusted with layers of meaning accreted long after the events themselves occurred.

Romance is rekindled in neither story.

In each book, the name by which the protagonist called his beloved is not the name she uses in her adult life. Matter of fact, in both cases the names used in adulthood by the pursued women is Mary. Veronica becomes Mary. And Hartley becomes Mary.

Weird, eh?

I'm not the first to notice the correspondence between these two Booker Prize winners. From Mr. D. James "nonsuch" on Amazon and elsewhere, reviewing the Barnes novel:
Why, for instance, should Tony continually pursue a girl, then the girl as woman, who was only using him as a plaything? It makes no sense to him or the reader. Is it sufficient to say that it is the donnée on which the whole book rests, just as other obsessives, like for instance Kemal in The Museum of Innocence or Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea, expend vast energies in pursuit hopeless causes?
I don't think it's surprising, or in any way bad, that plots, themes, and characters recur in fiction. I think it's more-or-less inevitable.

In a post on fiction categories a couple years ago I cited Christopher Booker's categorization of all plot in fiction into seven types. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories lists them as:
  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth
Barnes' and Murdoch's novels? Perhaps they're Voyage and Return, spiced by both Comedy and Tragedy. Something like that.

It is only fair to note that in some respects the books are as different from each other as rags and riches.

Murdoch's Charles Arrowby natters on and on and on: about what he eats, his swims in the sea, the women with whom he made whoopie, his endless conjectures and plans and clumsy forays into the life of an erstwhile love who will not have him back again, the pretty colored stones he collects and arranges around his lawn, his rival cousin James who is some kind of British spy or general or Orientalist or mystic or all the above. Five hundred pages of self-centered disquisition, punctuated by anchovy toasts and canned clams and spaghetti with a little bit of butter and dried basil.

Barnes' Tony Webster closes out his tale at page 163 of the edition I have in hand, and if there aren't twice as many words on each of Murdoch's pages I'll eat my Penguin edition. Where Charles tells us everything, Tony confides little, and what he confides he confides elliptically. Had I read his review before I read Barnes' novel, I'm afraid I'd have found myself agreeing with Geoff Dyer, who wrote on 16 December 2011 in the NY Times:
The paucity of action gives Tony ample opportunity to reflect on — and enact — the self-serving and self-deceiving workings of memory. “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time, ” Tony declares in one of several reiterations of the book’s central ideas.

These ideas might better be termed commonplaces. But while commonplaces tend to dress themselves up in their Sunday best to assume greater weight, Barnes has always treated them lightly so that, by a kind of negation of the negation, they are taken . . . seriously! (Note Barnes’s pre-emptive body swerve: announced early on, one of Adrian’s pet aversions is “the way the English have of not being serious about being serious.”) Something similar operates at the level of feeling. The author’s famous restraint and withholding take on the form — and are evidence — of a powerful emotion that is being held in. How do we detect this submerged pressure of emotion? By the fact that it has been so thoroughly restrained as to appear nonexistent. Absence is proof of presence.

I found both The Sea, The Sea and The Sense of an Ending frustrating, but I don't suppose their protagonists could inspire any other response. They are themselves frustrated, mightily. I hasten to point out, though, that my frustration had nothing to do with recurring themes, or with any sense that Barnes was cribbing from Murdoch.

I don't mind recurring themes, I expect them. Themes recur in our own lives, and in the lives of those we know and love -- why shouldn't they crop up again and again in fiction? We examine the facets of our lives' recurring themes from many angles, and from perspectives that shift as we age.

What's your response to recognizing in one book a thematic echo first encountered in a book you've read before?

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Bobcat walkabout

Last year I posted a video of a bobcat hunting a gopher at Walker Creek Ranch in Marin County, California. It seemed like an amazing stroke of luck to be in the right place at the right time, and to have a digital camera in my pocket besides. I've been visiting Walker Creek Ranch just about annually since 1999: it's where my Tai Chi teacher hosts a workshop each June. In all the years before last I'd never seen a bobcat on the ranch property. Foxes, yes. Wild turkeys by the dozen. Loads of deer, hares, lizards, snakes, racoons, falcons, and more. But last year's bobcat was a first.

I was at Walker Creek Ranch again last week, and the bobcat's still in residence. One of the ranch staff said he'd seen the cat hanging out with one of the local foxes just sittin' and chillin' together in the middle of a field full of yumalicious gopher snacks. I didn't see the fox and bobcat together, but I did see the bobcat hunting gophers again, and catching more than s/he missed. The cat is strangely unafraid of humans; though this is true for most of the wildlife on the ranch, it strikes me as especially strange for a bobcat. Walker Creek Ranch is a school district site, where the staff teach an outdoor education curriculum to Marin County students; the site is safe haven to most any critter that makes its home there. Except for critters that bobcats and foxes like to eat, of course. Gophers, for example.

Here's a video I took when I came upon the bobcat on the way back from my dinner. The cat seems to be looking around for his gopher "friends," in the same area I watched him (her?) hunt last year. You can see toward the end of the clip, around 1'45", that the cat passes about ten feet from where I'm standing.

Not shy at all ...

So the same fellow who said he saw the bobcat hanging out with a fox said he thinks s/he might be a hybrid, spawn of a bobcat that mated with a feral cat.

I'm a bit skeptical: a shallow look around suggests this isn't something that can happen ... Wikipedia claims that There are reports of bobcats breeding with domestic cats, but such matings have never been successful because the two species are not interfertile.

This bobcat looks thinner and has a smaller head than other bobcats I've seen in the wild, including one that crossed a trail only a few yards in front of me, years ago, out at Tomales Point, at the north end of Pt. Reyes National Seashore -- not far from Walker Creek Ranch.

I encourage any bobcat experts who stumble upon this post to weigh in with an opinion!

Walker Creek Ranch is also the site of a pond that inspired the setting for a short story I re-published as a free e-book a couple of weeks ago: "Martin's Pond," available now on Smashwords and soon available at an e-bookstore near you. Check it out, and let me know what you think in a review or as a comment to the blog post I wrote about it a week and a half ago.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

April showers brought May flowers

I know June's almost out, but I'm getting toward the end of a six-day workshop so I thought I'd go easy today. Kind of reprise the self-publishing thing, but as a photo retrospective.

For a while I've been posting photos onto Tumblr of flowers I encounter every day as I walk or ride my bike through the streets of my neighborhood in Berkeley, California. As I've said before, people in Berkeley -- omitting my black-thumbed self, I'm afraid -- are terrific and generous gardeners. We've got some of the loveliest front yards of anyplace I've ever been. Anyway, in May I posted some color-themed collages: white, red, pink, purple, yellow.

Today, in this blog post, I'm picking a 'best of' each color. Feel free to visit One Finger Clicking, on Tumblr, for more...

I hope you're having a bloomin' fine week...

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Decision fatigue

I'm having a busier year than usual, and that on top of being a juggle-lots-of-stuff kind of a person. The details aren't important, everybody's got too much to handle at some point or other in their lives, it just happens to be that sort of time for me right now.

The last couple of weeks have been especially amped up, what with grant proposal deadlines at work and my determination to take some time off in this latter part of the month. By Friday morning I was punch-drunk with about half a dozen simultaneous threads of attention-demanding activity, from configuring some non-trivial apps on unix servers to running a meeting to answering urgent e-mails to booking tickets for a family vacation later this summer ... and so on. I finished up the morning's business in time to welcome houseguests, which was the point of the packed morning in the first place; then I went for a swim and headed out for an evening at the opera (Verdi's Attila, a rousing score and the silliest ending of any opera I've ever seen).

By Saturday morning I couldn't string two thoughts together. I was ready to sleep for two or three days solid, just to keep from having to think about anything.

This reminded me of a magazine-length article that a colleague pointed out a bit under a year ago: Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? in the NY Times, 17 Aug 2011.

The article's author, John Tierney, makes a fascinating case for the hypothesis that making decisions take energy, that it's an exhausting activity. If a person makes a series of decisions without taking time to recover the expended focus and energy, later decisions will be less fully-considered, one way or another. Maybe they'll be reckless; maybe they'll take a defensive path of least risk and resistance.

Some of the experiments psychologists devised to measure this phenomenon were pretty clever. Have you ever bought a car? See if this seems familiar:
[...] the other [experiment] was conducted at German car dealerships, where customers ordered options for their new sedans. The car buyers — and these were real customers spending their own money — had to choose, for instance, among 4 styles of gearshift knobs, 13 kinds of wheel rims, 25 configurations of the engine and gearbox and a palette of 56 colors for the interior.

As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in, they would start settling for whatever the default option was. And the more tough choices they encountered early in the process — like going through those 56 colors to choose the precise shade of gray or brown — the quicker people became fatigued and settled for the path of least resistance by taking the default option. By manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2,000 at the time). Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy wheel rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered and how much willpower was left in the customer.

Though I hadn't articulated and tested ideas about decision fatigue before I saw this article, over time I've developed habits that insulate me from the worst effects of the phenomenon. I make decisions about writing fiction most mornings, then make decisions about technology most afternoons (I work a putatively half-time job). The alternate modes of thinking provide a respite, one from the other. I swim after work to clear my head. I practice Tai Chi to keep my balance. I generally believe the best way to make a good decision is to decide, then sleep on it before making the choice final. I'm big on walking away from a problem for a while before considering it again afresh.

Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist quoted and cited in the Tierney article, thinks it makes sense to make decisions in a manner that acknowledges and accounts for the fact that people are subject to decision fatigue.
"Even the wisest people won't make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low," Baumeister points out. That's why the truly wise don't restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don't make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. "The best decision makers," Baumeister says, "are the ones who know when not to trust themselves."
I've definitely reached that time when I shouldn't trust myself. It's time for a change of pace.

How do you avoid decision fatigue?

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Thanks to Rude Cactus, Man of Science for the Slurpee Testing Unit image.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My short story "Martin's Pond" published as an e-book

In spring 2003, the literary magazine Five Fingers Review published my short story, "Martin's Pond," in the lit mag's issue #20. It was a themed issue, titled Gardens in the Urban Jungle. You can still find back issues of FFR in some public libraries -- San Francisco and New York, among the few I'm aware of; and if you dig through Amazon you can find a scatter of copies available for sale. For the most part, though, "Martin's Pond" went out of print and became unavailable after its short sojourn on the lit mag shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores.

I list "Martin's Pond" among publishing credits on my website, but for a long while it hasn't seemed right that interested visitors had no easy way to find and read out of print work included there.

Problem solved:

As of late last week, "Martin's Pond" is available on the e-book publishing platform Smashwords. It's free, and you can read it on a Kindle, an iPad, a Nook, a Sony Reader, a Kobo eReader, or on your Windows or Macintosh computer. You can open it in a web browser, or obtain and print a PDF.

And so on ... Smashwords makes it very easy: an author supplies a single file and the platform's software does the rest. Writers: check it out.

My short story -- 4400 words, about 10-1/2 printed pages as it appeared in Five Fingers Review -- describes a young man, Martin, who likes to spend time by himself at a remote pond near a small city in Northern California. Martin isn't the sharpest knife in the block; he works as a restaurant dishwasher; and his family is less than fully intact. Martin's solitude beside 'his' pond is a refuge. He's therefore pretty unhappy when he discovers that -- after six years of having the place to himself -- a stranger has begun to swim there. When she doesn't go away on her own Martin devises one plan after another to encourage her to move along. One plan after another fails. They aren't the best laid plans. Eventually ... well, you'll see when you read the story.

I invite you to download a free copy of "Martin's Pond" for yourself. When you do, I strongly encourage you to sign up for a (free) account on Smashwords so you can leave a review that will help other visitors decide whether to read it themselves. Alternately, I hope you'll leave a comment here on One Finger Typing.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Who was that masked man: Mr. Trololo leaves our earthly plane

When a writer in my critique group called our collective attention to -- a video clip of a strange Russian baritone singing ... who knew what -- I was the only one to respond. Steven Long wrote "Seriously. I am obsessed with this. I believe it holds the meaning to all things." I responded: "Undead. Hands down." From the rest of our eight or nine then-members? Not a peep.

Eduard Khil, the seemingly strange Russian baritone, shuffled off this mortal coil a week ago today.

In case you missed the Russian pop singer when his 1976 performance of, as Wikipedia puts it, a non-lexical vocable version of the song "I Am Glad, 'Cause I'm Finally Returning Back Home" went viral on the intertubes 34 years later, in 2010, here's the Russian TeleRadio Worldwide posting of the clip on YouTube:

To be sure there's more to Khil's life and story than a fewer-than-three minutes video ... but with nothing else to go on in 2010 I thought simply that the guy beat any scary clown I'd ever seen or heard of, hands down. The patently forced facial expressions, the vampire teeth, the stiff body-language attempting to convey some creepily inexplicable happiness, the nonsense syllables (a.k.a. non-lexical vocals), that awful brown suit......

And yet. There was something seriously compelling about the video. I watched it many times, an embarrassing number I suspect, luckily I didn't count. I wouldn't say I wholly bought into Mr. Long's tongue-in-cheek belief that the Trololololo clip held the meaning to all things ... but it sure held my attention for a few weeks there in early 2010.

What was that song about, anyway? From the Washington Post's obituary last week:
The music was written by well-known Soviet composer Arkady Ostrovsky, but the original lyrics were about a cowboy riding across a prairie while his sweetheart knitted stockings for him, a sentimental view of America that didn’t sit well with Soviet censors during the Cold War.

The NY Times explained the suppression of the song's lyrics this way:
In an interview with state news media in 2010, Mr. Khil said he and the song’s composer, Arkady Ostrovsky, pulled its original lyrics out of fear that the Soviet authorities would consider it pro-American and ban it. The lyrics described "John on his mustang traveling across the expanses of the prairie to his beloved Mary, who lives in Kentucky, waiting for him and knitting wool socks."

When the two could not find suitable replacement lyrics, he said, Mr. Ostrovsky exclaimed, "If that’s how it is, let it be a vocalization!"

All things must pass, as George Harrison once sang. Eduard, we never really knew you. R.I.P.

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Thursday, June 7, 2012


I rode my bike home from a post-work swim on Tuesday, taking my usual route. There was something unusual about the evening, however. With about an hour left until sunset, Venus was transiting the sun. I was wishing I'd planned ahead, but I hadn't: no pinhole projector, no "eclipse glasses," I was out of luck.

But wait! There on the corner of Fulton and Stuart I came upon an unexpected and welcome treasure: a fully equipped neighbor!

In their front yard, a couple I'd never met before had set up a pinhole projector using a camera tripod and a pair of binoculars to focus an image on a sheet of white foamcore. The foamcore was mounted on a small easel. "Can you see it?" I asked as I braked to a stop. They generously stepped aside so I could look for myself ... and there it was, clear as sunlight, a tiny black dot crawling across Sol's disc. Even better? They had a pair of "eclipse glasses," and permitted me a direct look. Three and a half hours after the photo in this post, taken in Minneapolis at 6:01 Central, Venus had moved diagonally down and to the right; but you get the idea, just about exactly.

Eerie. As in, chills up and down the spine eerie.

Not that the visual was anything intrinsically spectacular ... big orange circle, little black circle ... but knowing what I was looking at, knowing that it was a sight that will not recur in my lifetime (or yours if you're reading this the week it's posted!), knowing that the little black dot is a planet -- a planet! big! almost as big as Earth! -- really did give me chills, the sort that come when workaday preoccupation falls away and the scale of life, the universe, and everything becomes clear.

As I looked at Venus silhouetted against the sun through my neighbors' dark glasses, Scott Walker was holding onto his governorship in Wisconsin and Orly Taitz was going down to well-earned defeat in California. My apocalypse-facing blog post of the day before -- Human are like rats and cockroaches: the coming feudalism -- was clocking through its thirteen-hundred-somethingth page view where I'd cross-posted it on Daily Kos. A colleague's wife, who has worked at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Lab for many years, was recovering from brain-surgery -- three weeks ago she had a seizure out of the blue and was diagnosed with stage 3 brain cancer. My mind was cluttered with ephemera about a grant proposal due in the middle of the month, a proposal that, if funded, will define my work life through 2014 (and keep me up more than a few nights if past performance is any indicator of future results). Earlier in the day I'd prepared a short story manuscript for e-publication (more on that in a week or two). The drain was running slow in our bathroom sink.

All that while the planet Venus made its stately way across our common sun, getting right smack between where we live and where our local star burns.

Bear with me as I digress further still.....

The Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa is a bit of clay about 6-3/4 x 3-5/8 inches now housed in the British Museum. About twenty-seven hundred years ago, a scribe in Nineveh copied some astronomical records onto this bit of clay. At the time those records were already a thousand years old -- about the span of time between now and the Norman invasion of England back in 1066. The clay tablet records observations by Babylonian astronomers about where and when the planet Venus traveled through Babylonian skies over the course of twenty-one years. Nineveh, you may recall, was a city in what is now northern Iraq. It is best known to westerners as the "exceedingly great city" featured in the Old Testament book of Jonah, a city chock full of wickedness, spared divine destruction when its citizens repented. It happens I have a tenuous connection to scholarship of cuneiform tablets, grounded in a technologist colleague's involvement in a project to help Near Eastern Studies scholars at Berkeley and elsewhere to use social networking algorithms to map people and their social, familial, and professional relationships described in cuneiform corpora -- a mode of study called prosopography ... I gave a talk to a small workshop of cuneiform scholars in March 2010 about what the technology project I work on might do for them, eventually.

Is everything connected, or what?

So I've got all this time and space, transits and orbits, statewide elections and home plumbing problems, ancient history and present illness -- all these telescoping perspectives whirling around in my head as I'm straddling my bicycle, staring wonderstruck at the small black circle superimposed on the big orange circle.

A sound track is called for. And what does the internal DJ queue up?

Nope, not Smashmouth. Good guess, though.

Would it mark me as of a certain age, and a certain sort of sentimentalist, if I admitted it was Joni Mitchell's The Circle Game? 'Cuz, um, it was.

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

If nothing else, Tuesday evening proved I'm capable of thinking about something other than the end of the world, even if I do think about the end of the world more often than some.

Life's like that.

Thanks to Tom Ruen for the photo of this week's solar transit of Venus he posted to Wikimedia Commons; and to Fæ for the image of the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa. And to Joni Mitchell, which goes without saying.

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Human are like rats and cockroaches: the coming feudalism

Is that too sensational a title for a Serious Blog Post?

I took the bit before the colon from an article in The New Yorker of 14 May. It's a quotation from Michael Specter's The Climate Fixers: Is there a technological solution to global warming? The quote is attributed to Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist in the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University.

Prof. Caldiera's quote in context (emphasis added):
"[...] Climate change is not so much a reduction in productivity as a redistribution," Caldeira said. "And it is one in which the poorest people on earth get hit the hardest and the rich world benefits" -- a phenomenon, he added, that is not new.

"I have two perspectives on what this might mean," he said. "One says: humans are like rats or cockroaches. We are already living from the equator to the Arctic Circle. The weather has already become .7 degrees warmer, and barely anyone has noticed or cares. And, yes, the coral reefs might become extinct, and people from the Seychelles might go hungry. But they have gone hungry in the past, and nobody cared. So basically we will live in our gated communities, and we will have our TV shows and Chicken McNuggets, and we will be O.K. The people who would suffer are the people who always suffer.

"There is another way to look at this, though," he said. "And that is to compare it to the subprime-mortgage crisis, where you saw that a few million bad mortgages led to a five-per-cent drop in gross domestic product throughout the world. Something that was a relatively small knock to the financial system led to a global crisis. And that could certainly be the case with climate change. But five per cent is an interesting figure, because in the Stern Report" -- an often cited review led by the British economist Nicholas Stern, which signalled the alarm about greenhouse-gas emissions by focussing on economics -- "they estimated climate change would cost the world five per cent of its G.D.P. Most economists say that solving this problem is one or two per cent of G.D.P. The Clean Water and Clean Air Acts each cost about one per cent of G.D.P.," Caldeira continued. "We just had a much worse shock to our banking system. And it didn’t even get us to reform the economy in any significant way. So why is the threat of a five-per-cent hit from climate change going to get us to transform the energy system?"
Specter's article brushes up against the question how in the heck do we think about what's going to happen in the event that humankind fails to avert catastrophic climate change that's coming down the pike, like it or not?

And believe in it or not, for that matter. I won't trouble readers with arguments about whether catastrophic climate change is coming down the pike. Another pullout from Specter's article explains why we really need to be beyond such nattering:
Late last year, Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency, said that current levels of consumption "put the world perfectly on track for a six-degree Celsius rise in temperature. . . . Everybody, even schoolchildren, knows this will have catastrophic implications for all of us."

Those who don't believe in school or care about catastrophic implications for all of us can stop reading now.

I myself don't have faith in engineered solutions to massively complex problems, of the sort advanced by the subjects of Specter's article. I've written to this effect before (cf. Digging deeper holes, dateline a couple years ago), but the gist of my perspective can be boiled down to two words: unintended consequences. And that's in the best possible case, the case in which the engineered solution works. This concern about unintended consequences is at the heart of The New Yorker's article too.

IMHO, Specter portrays pretty clearly that efforts by brilliant, well-intentioned engineers -- scrambling to figure out what in creation can be done to help humankind and the planet as a whole in the face of willful ignorance and political paralysis -- are full-blown nuts. We're talking about one proposal to pump reflective chemicals into the stratosphere through a twelve mile long tube held aloft by a balloon. We're talking about another proposal to stir up entire oceans the way undergrads stir beakers full of liquids with those little magnetic bars on a chemistry lab bench, only, um, at greater scale.

Pretty hard to imagine unintended consequences in either of those scenarios, eh? Not. The Climate Fixers... is free to all comers on The New Yorker's web site, have a look for yourself.

What's most sobering and best-stated in the article is Ken Caldiera's scenario #1.

Global crisis? Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know how to wring our hands over that. I have and do, often enough that regular readers' eyes glaze over when I get an apocalyptic rant on.

But when we stop. And take a deep breath. And think about how crises play out in the real world -- thoughts lead right down the moral sewer that Caldiera conjures: humans living like rats and cockroaches. Some will make it, others will suffer horribly. Pass the Chicken McNuggets, pleez.

Read "castle walls" for Caldiera's "gated communities" and it's not so hard to see that, in the optimistic view, we're probably rolling toward a new and savagely feudal dark age.

The pessimistic view? That's the "global crisis" thing. Full-blown apocalypse. The end of days.

Here's a thought: is a coming feudalism the reason why Steampunk is a popular trope in books and movies nowadays? Is there broad recognition, in a zeitgeist-ish sort of way, that clocks will soon run backward? That play acting at an alt-history with a soupçon of 19th century spicing is a way of discharging horror at how deep we're really likely to sink?

I don't know. But I do wonder.

The tilt toward feudalism isn't just a speculative artifact of speculative catastrophe driven by it's-a-fact-thank-you-very-much climate change.

We know, of course, that there are still feudal cultures in the world, warlords as brutal as any who ever lived before our time; and human trafficking we might as well call slavery or serfdom. These cultures seep well beyond the borders of so-called broken states, well beyond regions and continents that most Americans prefer to think of as 'far away': Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa.

Yes, Martha, I mean we have human trafficking right here at home, even in the U.S. of A., as acknowledged by our own FBI. Where have those Chicken McNuggets gotten to, eh?

Here's Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate and professor of economics at Columbia University, on today's United States, in Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%, from last month's Vanity Fair:
It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran.
That rising tide of yore? I'm thinking tsunamis and salt-deserts. I'm visualizing deep, deep doo-doo.

Here's how Michael Specter sums up a path toward drowning ourselves, literally and morally, that seems pretty feasible given the way our aggregate (but not collectivist) 21st century approach to catastrophic climate change spins:
Unfortunately, the least risky approach politically is also the most dangerous: do nothing until the world is faced with a cataclysm and then slip into a frenzied crisis mode. The political implications of any such action would be impossible to overstate. What would happen, for example, if one country decided to embark on such a program without the agreement of other countries? Or if industrialized nations agreed to inject sulfur particles into the stratosphere and accidentally set off a climate emergency that caused drought in China, India, or Africa?

The thought is enough to make you want to shut your eyes and stop up your ears. Alas, that won't make the problem go away.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Water, water everywhere and a lot of murky reasoning
Unvarnished truth is hard to swallow
Digging deeper holes

Thanks once again to the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies for the graph of world temperature over time; to Luigi Cannella via Fotopedia for the image of the castle at Craco in the deep south of Italy; and to the U.S. Navy on Flickr for the aerial view of Sukuiso, Japan on 18 March 2011.