Sunday, November 29, 2009

Al Gore: "Our Choice", on climate change, and maybe demographics

Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth II” comes as a grandiose paperback book “Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis”, published this fall (2009) by Modale/Melcher Media, with ISBN 978-1-59486-734-7, 414 pages, paper. The book is rather like a film (or film strip, as we called them in grade school in the 50s), with an enormous number of high quality photographs and engineering diagrams. On the back page, Al Gore discusses the minimal carbon footprint in publishing and printing the book.

The most challenging part of the book is the last, the last five of the eighteen chapters, where Mr. Gore examines the social, political, and most of all psychological impediments to adjusting to climate change. Human beings are unique among animals in being able to pass a culture on to the future, but the time scale of climate change is so great as to test even our advantage with “Kultur”. There is a problem with the way our “free markets” work, emphasizing short term profits and rewards. And there is the most subtle problem of all: with the advance of hyper-individualism, almost ironically as a logical consequence of the use of reason, the need for man to act again as a social, even conjugal being, caring more about the future of his line than about himself, comes into play as an issue of social “sustainability.” But he also is critical of the way big special interest (even ExxonMobil) manipulate the media to distort the science of the problem and hide the truth; in his view, the democratizing influence of the Internet ought to be a good thing.

The earlier chapters of the book go into great scientific detail about how greenhouse gasses work, and then as to how all the renewable energy technologies stack up. In that sense, the book would make good subject matter for an AP Chemistry book report assignment. Mr. Gore gives detailed discussions of the biofuels controversy, pointing the way toward advances; later the describes the smart grid (much as did Thomas Friedman in 2007 with Thomas L. Friedman: “Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, hardbound, 438 pages, indexed, ISBN 0-374-16685-4. Mr. Gore offers many other interesting details, such as the “Kneeling Curve” (that ought to impress one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s roles as much as “pie charts”), a graphic picture of mountaintop removal strip mining for coal, and a positive discussion of the future of nuclear power – except that global warming could undermine that by undermining the water supply for the plants.

Mr. Gore offers a balanced proposal on population. He acknowledges that some more affluent populations are not replacing themselves and dependent on more fecund immigrant minorities (that could lead to political instability, particularly in Europe – the supposed “demographic winter” problem described by Phillip Longman [“The Empty Cradle”] and others), the thinks that stable population depends on the proper empowerment of women (p 228), including the belief that their children will survive. An aging population is not a “problem” if people can work longer, the economy supports their employment, and if medicine and lifestyle changes keep the elderly out of disability. That seems a bit optimistic. Mr. Gore mentions the western style safety net to care for the elderly, as if to trivialize it, and then talks about cultural traditions in poorer societies (without the safety net) that encourage large families, partly to have children to care for parents. But the severity of the demographic problem in the West is rapidly increasing, and it’s surprising that Mr. Gore doesn’t acknowledge that, given the health care and Medicare debate.

Al Gore's blog entry for the book is here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

NatGeo December 2009 Issue warns us about the Carbon Bathtub, in same issue that it looks at extrasolar planets

The December 2009 issue of National Geographic is particularly important as to “planetary futures”.

The cover asks “Are we alone?” with the caption “searching the heavens for another Earth” and has a picture of Gliese 581 e, a planet about twice the mass of Earth (probably another Venus) around a small M star 20 light years away. In fact, 581 d, another planet, may have water. The whole solar system reminds one of the one in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”.

The article, by Timothy Ferris, features a pull-out diagram of the Milky Way, with a little square showing a 400 light year neighborhood of our Earth. This fans out into the Kepler Search Arm running out to about 1800 light years. And we’re on a supplementary spiral arm, halfway out from the center of a galaxy measuring 100000 light years across, with plenty of astrophysical. Another diagram shows a 2-D blown to 3-D simulation of the immediate neighborhood. Most inhabitable planets are likely to be around M stars, and may face the same side of their sun all the time.

But the most important article may be “The Big Idea” on p 26, “The Carbon Bathtub.” The article notes the extremely long time that excess carbon takes to “drain” from the atmosphere. It is not enough to just stop increasing our carbon emissions; if we don’t decrease by 80%, our CO-2 level will reach 450 ppm by 2050. The article discusses the book “The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate (Science Essentials)” by David Archer, from the Princeton University Press, 978-0691136547.

The article also talks about a “cognitive flaw” in human thinking”, which shows up in the way people manage debt (credit cards and mortgage), not seeing the “derivatives” of “asset” accumulation and depletion, whether physical or monetary. This is similar to moral considerations of personal behavior related to “sustainability.”

Perhaps Venus had a civilization a billion years ago and ran into tragedy, leading to some kind of runaway CO-2 apocalypse. Perhaps greenhouse gas ovens are rather common around the Galaxy. Take heed.

A short piece by Melody Kramer on the "Health page" called "Fighting the Flu" makes the case for enforced social distancing as a way of controlling H1N1 if vaccines prove inadequate.

The link for the “December Issue” of NatGeo is this.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rebecca Hagelin: "Protecting Your Family In a Culture that's Gone Stark Raving Mad"

Rebecca Hagelin writes a regular column about “family values” in The Washington Times, and a recent column questioned why we aren’t committed to edifying traditional marriage and also recommended her book “30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family,” from Regnery, a well known publisher of conservative books. I looked, and saw this more recent book from Thomas Nelson Current, ISBN 978-1-59555-283-9, 266 pages, paper, and the title is “con moto” metaphoric: “Home Invasion: Protecting You Family In a Culture That’s Gone Stark Raving Mad”. The cover also includes the phrase “cultural terrorism.”

Okay, I finished this one while waiting for “The Men Who Stare at Goats” at an upscale mall AMC Theater, probably not far from where she lives (Tysons), and included a picture of the ticket stub to make one point. She doesn’t like the distraction that the media throws at families trying to raise their kids. And that’s an understatement. (She probably wouldn’t like this particular movie.)

In September, I reviewed Allan Carlson’s “The Natural Family: A Manifesto”, and although this new book has a similar message, I wouldn’t call it a manifesto; it doesn’t read down from “on high”. Instead, with a bit of a paradigm flip from Carlson, this new book presumes that most adults really want families and a lineage but finds our modern corporate media culture a horrific distraction. Yes, tangentially she mentions homosexuality and gay marriage as negative influences, without giving much “logic” in an explanation. In fact, normal people with normal families have to run for the covers because of too much inward-focus, encouraged by commercial, secular culture. Most of her "moral" values are based on "God's rules" and don't seek deep intellectual rationalizations.

Hagelin is specific in some areas. She writes vividly how she was stranded in Little Rock on 9/11, and how that was a wakeup call, that American individualists cannot continue to live according to an unsustainable paradigm. In her last chapter she makes what is probably one of her “30 Ways” – for a wife to ask her husband to become a sole breadwinner. Laura Schleshinger has suggested that. But this sort of thing spreads to affect men who never did have children at all: they might be expected to become providers for others, especially given the rapidly escalating eldercare crisis.

Again, that little conjunction “If…” makes all the difference. If you have children, you should be in a monogamous marriage (I’ll leave aside the same-sex question), and you have to put them first. True, teenagers should not be overwhelmed with sexual messages; they should focus on their schoolwork, sports, and life skills. True, people from non-functioning families do more drugs and have more teen pregnancies. No argument there.

But what if you don’t have children? The Carlson book took on that question more directly, perhaps, although then not even that directly. But an obvious inference of Hagelin is that people whose lives center on the abstractions of media or other instrumentalities of the expressive work world and who do not pay attention to people may be burdening those who do have children and who do try to maintain traditional families. The “modern world” with its communications technology and other infrastructures did provide someone like me (however “schizoid”) the opportunity to live a rewarding “alternate” life, but one which maintains extreme interpersonal selectivity (along with upward affiliation), and which denies offering people unwelcome emotion or attachments. I could go on here, and will elsewhere; it gets existential, but there is the gut reaction that some kinds of interpersonal situations (maybe demanded of me by others) do not “deserve” my emotions, much less sexual interest, long term or otherwise. Of course, this “modern world” may be more fragile than we could have imagined fifteen years ago. Of course, the "Introvert Advantage" dependent on technology can be taken away by external events.

I could step into the literay agent world (I've worked with them) and say, if you're going to write and publish a book like this, at least cover all the bases. What are the "rules of engagement" for people who find some path in life other than having children (or taking vows of poverty)? (Carlson may come closer to doing this.) Maybe some people won't like your proposal, but make them anyway if you speak about this at all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thieves filch expensive textbooks from libraries for Internet reselling

Who says that the world has forgotten about printed books? In Prince Georges County, MD, twelve people have been indicted for “filching” books from public libraries (borrowing without the intention to return), reselling them to bookstores or on the Internet, taking advantage of the “residuals” market of book resellers. Over $90000 of merchandise has been pilfered this way. The link for the story (The Washington Post, Metro Section, Nov. 11, by Ruben Castaneda) is here.

The main incentive seems to come from the high price of college textbooks, as these were many of the filched books. Some new textbooks now cost $200 a copy.

Authors complain that the resellers market undermines the sale of their books (especially print-on-demand). However they are still the only source of many out-of-print books, including some that have been reviewed on this blog.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Dinesh D'Souza: "Life After Death: The Evidence"

Life After Death: The Evidence
I recall, in the fall of 1958, in sophomore English at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, that a (female) classmate wrote a theme in which she tried to prove the existence of God. She got an A on the theme (I don’t remember what my choice was for that assignment).

That long memory trace popped up into my mind when I heard about Dinesh D’Souza’s new book “Life After Death: The Evidence” from the (“conservative”) Regnery Publishing Company in Washington DC, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59698-099-0, 267 pages, hardcover, with a garish blue dust jacket.

The most striking piece of “evidence”, for my money, comes from general relativity, and the evidence today that there are up to eleven dimensions, seven of which are out of sight (since we live in “space-time” in our Universe). These dimensions might be accessible through “branes” linked to subatomic quantum-like particles, perhaps inside black holes. Perhaps the existence of "dark matter" and "dark energy" corresponds to these normally unreconciled dimensions. But their very existence gives a Deity an opportunity to “construct” (not needing a sharp-point compass or protractor) lots of other Universes to house versions of an Afterlife. Indeed, Clive Barker had toyed with a theory of all this with his Five Dominions (the First was essentially the Afterlife amd the Fifth was ours) in his epic 1991 “Chinese puzzle” novel “Imajica”. (D'Souza does offer discussion of "near-death" experiences but this does not really add much to his argument.)

Quantum theory maps out to the duality of mind and matter, and to the paradoxes we get into when we account for the Universe being the way it is and our planet’s being exactly right for life (and particularly Ben Stein’s exploration of Intelligent Design in the movie “Expelled”). That’s the “Anthropic Principle” perhaps, lending on a number of factors (our large Moon, Jupiter, the properties or water, etc) making our Blue Planet Earth just right (means we’d better take care of it).

This gets to be elaborated into what sound like a conservative’s view of New Age theory about spirit, self, mind, the group, etc. D’Souza takes us through a thorough philosophy of morality (or a blueprint that he would call a teleology), particularly an interesting idea of “selfishness” at the genetic, rather than individual, level. That explains some self-sacrifice (and it certainly explains “conservative” notions of “family values”) , but “evolution” cannot easily deal with higher order altruism expected in Gospel-style Christianity.

Here, I feel tempted to digress into my own area. D’Souza does not delve into gay issues (other than one metaphoric humorous oxymoron “zombie pride”), but in my own experience I can relate to replacing “genetic selfishness” (otherwise I would want to procreate and have a lineage to provide vicarious immortality) with “mind selfishness” in which a “legacy” of intellectual property (be it music or writings, all with ideological influence as to bearing on right and wrong) lives on. This can become boorish, whereas living “real life” is replaced by kibitzing the emotions of others. For me, the worst psychological horror is to be coerced into joining into the cultural causes defined by others regardless of my own view of the "morality" of these causes, and wind up being part of their group asking for help in a group manner. Yet, jumping ahead, Christianity (even compared to other religions) seems to demand some suspension of one's own judgment of right and wrong. Call it "pride" if you like, or even "the knowledge of good and evil."

Generally, higher moral notions (and the propagation of the “noumenal” part of us) do relate to various conceptions of an afterlife, even in agnostic or atheistic conceptions by philosophers such as Schopenhauer. Ultimately, D’Souza explains how Christianity is “different” with its notion of grace, which replaces almost completely the idea that one can earn one’s own salvation with works or good karma in the usual sense. D’Souza speculates on what Hell and Heaven would look like, with a degree of Hollywood imagination (I suspect he’s read “Imajica”, and perhaps seen some films like “Wristcutters”). D'Souza, on p. 228, offers an odd comment, "Some humans may be better than others, but the differences aren't enough to make a difference." Maybe we need Grace because a progression of Life is impossible if it must adhere to absolute justice at an individual level; Life by definition, out of its dualistic biological processes, must be "unfair."

D'Souza does admit that reincarnation is possible but, in his opinion, not probable. (Here he certainly digresses from Rosicurcianism.) He describes eartlhy death as the "termination of experience" which he believes would not really happen given the deeper laws of modern physics.

In 2002, I read (and reviewed on an earlier book by D’Souza, “What’s So Great About America?” (again, Regnery). I seem to recall a metaphor or example about a “Starbucks Guy” and a concept of “authentication” by which one establishes that one’s work has some real worth to others.

The seven unused dimensions (11 minus 4, including time) might correspond to the seven heavens, and seven doors in Hell is the Islamic version of the afterlife (see "religion facts" here; the Bridge across Hell (probably inside a black hole) would look great in a movie). It's like your life is a test and you get a final exam grade, determining where you will go; your karma points get added up.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Levitt and Dubner: "Super Freakonomics": a does of existential analysis of many popular issues

In recent days, major media outlets have given a lot of attention to the new book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, a followup on “Freakonomics”. The new book is titled “Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance,” 2009, from William Morris Publishers, ISBN 978-0-06-088957-9, 270 pages, hardcover, indexed.

Most of the book talks about the existential paradoxes that we reach when we follow popular thinking about major issues. The authors believe that many positive changes in society have come about as a result of relatively simple innovations. They give the polio vaccine as an example. Or, they say, consider that whale oil as a fuel source had sustainability problems in the Nineteenth Century. That was replaced, almost on a whimsical accident in Pennsylvania, by fossil fuel oil, leading to today’s debate on peak oil and global warming.

The authors discuss some relatively simple proposed innovations that could cool ocean and Gulf of Mexico waters to prevent super-hurricanes, and also discuss a huge global “straw” to siphon some sulfur dioxide up into the stratosphere to oppose global warming. They also say that global warming could be more influenced by bovine flatulence (releasing methane) that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, and locally grown food is not always more energy efficient.

On the social issues, the authors get interesting. They talk about selfishness and altruism, and show that many nursing home visits or eldercare efforts by adult children seem to be motivated by a desire for bequest; therefore, Singapore (wise to all this) passed its “Maintenance of Parents Act”, one of the world’s most rigidly enforced filial responsibility laws putting responsibility on adult children (most of all the childless themselves).

The authors also discuss statistical evidence that violent crime may have increased since the 1950s in relation to how much exposure young men or boys have to television. It's not violent content that is the issue, as much as the lack of socialization, perhaps.

The authors also explain the particularly self-destructive behavior associated with terrorism, which they say often comes from relatively privileged young men seeking to make their lives into bombastic public statements. They discuss not only 9/11 but also the 2002 Malvo sniper cases, and lay out some horrific hypothetical scenarios which need not be repeated here. They also discuss some profile characteristics of these young men (some of which are kept classified, a secret that the authors say they respect), one of which is the lack of life insurance (because of a lack of generativity).