Saturday, December 10, 2016

Rain Days

California weather fans will recall all the excitement over El Nino last year.  Would it bring desperately needed rain?  If so, to what parts of the state?  Precedents were all over the place.

This year: no El Nino, nobody cares.  Or at least cared to speculate.

But here on the North Coast (far northern CA), we've had more rain since October than in this period last year--in fact, more than twice as much.  Due to a very rainy October and a pretty rainy November, we've had 19 inches of rain from Oct. 1 to today (December 9.)  We got a touch over 9 inches last year in the same period.  October 2016 alone was the second highest on record.  By late November our reservoir was full and we were officially out of drought.

Last year we did end up with some El Nino rain later in the winter.  But even though we're a tad behind last December, it's raining now and there's rain in the forecast for the next week.  We've been spared the worst effects of the winter storms that have hit harder to our north and east, but we're getting the rain.

So what gives?  We're not looking gift rain in the mouth, but this isn't a reversion to normal patterns either.  October was early for that much rain, and the Oct. & November totals likewise.  Statistically and experientially, December and January are the big rain months.  Average for Oct.& Nov. together is 7.8, exceeded this year by more than 10 inches. But those months this year were also several inches over the combined Dec.-Jan. average.

We've had surprises in recent years--a month of rain every day followed by a bone dry winter month--but it does look like a wet winter.  And if this month and next are high we're looking at mixed blessings--including possible flooding.

So if it's not El Nino and not a reversion to normal?  It could just be weather variation. Or (or more likely, plus)...the climate crisis.   New climate crisis models show the likelihood of more high rainfall storms--a 400% increase in big storms with 70% more rain--but these are more likely on the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf states.

Still, we're having warmer temps year round now, and with the preponderance of evidence, you'd be foolish not to consider climate crisis causes for climate changes.  It is this uncertainty in specific places and times that makes some planning difficult.  But it seems likely we're at the leading edge of lasting changes. We just don't yet know exactly what some of those changes are going to be here.

Fortunately, this is California, and we can still talk about the climate crisis, and address it's causes and effects.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Click You

Given the development of today's economic and technological trends,  a fundamental problem of the present is likely to dominate the future: due to various forms of technology and how that technology is used, there are meaningfully fewer jobs that pay a middle class income.  And if growth in these technologies continues, there will be fewer and fewer jobs that pay much of anything.  The obscenely rich will become more so, until the whole system is radically different or collapses into chaos.

The fundamental problem has been known since the 1960s, when one kind of remedy was first proposed: the guaranteed income, in which the government would pay everyone a minimum income so they could live and support a consumer economy.  The idea has been revived in various forms, and even tested in a few places.

But somebody has come up with another idea, to at least ameliorate the problem in certain sectors.  Jaron Lanier is a first-generation Internet guru, developer of virtual reality and as close to a digital philosopher as we've got.  His first book,  You Are Not A Gadget questioned the values currently supported by high tech, and his next Who Owns the Future? analyzed the economic situation, present and future--and proposed something of a solution.

I'm just starting the books, but there are a number of his associated talks on YouTube, both short and long.  I liked one of the longer ones, a talk at Microsoft.  It gives a pretty good range of his personality and ideas.

I can summarize this particular point with a couple of early paragraphs from Who Owns the Future?:

"I will argue that up until about the turn of this century we didn't need to worry about technological advancement devaluing people, because new technologies always created new kinds of jobs even as old ones were destroyed.  But the dominant principle of the new economy, the information economy, has lately been to conceal the value of information, of all things.

We've decided not to pay people for performing the new roles that are valuable in relation to the latest technologies.  Ordinary people "share," while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes."

People making these fortunes (in finance, insurance, etc. as well as the big Internet media companies), he argues, make them based on access to information that individuals produce on the Internet for free, as through social media.  The "elite networks" pay nothing for this information, and the people whose information it is, get nothing for it.  (Note that this comports with Bruce Sterling's point:while those who bought into borderless friction-free data have been immiserated by the ultra-rich.)

Lanier's proposal involves a system of micro-payments (sometimes called nano-payments) that essentially provide a small amount of cash for every piece of information anybody accesses for profit. That presumably adds up.  Something like this, he says, is essential if there is to be a middle class in the future.

He got to this analysis because he's also a musician, and he saw the bulk of middle class jobs in the music industry disappear with file-sharing and streaming.  There are lots of people posting music on the Internet, and almost none of them make an income from it.  He has also noted what the Internet has done and is doing to journalism jobs and entities.

He also notes that just as self-driving cars are about to put a lot of people out of work, if 3-D computer printing develops, alot of the manufacturing sector could shrivel and die.

Granted that this is an analysis based mostly on the Internet (though that is where business is going) and new technologies.  (At least in these speeches--there may be more in the books I haven't gotten to yet.)  There are other ordinary factors and likely extraordinary ones that will pertain--like the many disruptions and resulting economic changes due to climate crisis effects. Noticeable now, in a decade or two they are likely to be pervasive.  How these will interact seems outside the scope.

But I note Lanier because this the only new idea I've seen on this problem, and it might be a basis for discussion.  And he's a fascinating guy with a lot of knowledge to share.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Defining the Darkness.9: Orwell Gets An Update

Every January, futurist and sf author Bruce Sterling does his "State of the World" posts at The Well.  There's nothing else like them.  I expect the next one to be epic, but there are a few themes from the last one--in 1/2016--that seem of particular relevance now.

Among them are his comments on oligarchy and authoritarianism.  He mentions that:

"As for corporate dominance, it's quite old-fashioned. What actually
dominates now is stockholder value and a few ultra-rich individuals;
finance defeated corporate power many years ago. We have oligarch
dominance, not corporate dominance. Otherwise, Donald Trump would
be insulting and trolling corporations instead of individuals. The
Koch Brothers wouldn't be hated, feared and respected, we'd hate
their front corporations instead. People don't do that now.
Mistaking the Koch Bros for one of their corporate fronts would be
naive and corny."

I note this in connection with the upcoming US administration.  Not only are these cabinet secretaries against what their agencies administrate (anti-labor Labor secretary, anti-environmental EPA, etc.) but a conspicuous number are billionaires, with zero experience in government.  It is not only an oligarchical government--it is run by literal oligarchs.

The authoritarian tendency of the Republican candidate was no secret.  Here's what Sterling had to say about prominent authoritarian governments and economies elsewhere:

"In Russia and China in 2016, digital media is an arm of
the state. Internet has zero revolutionary potential within those
societies, but all kinds of potential for exported cyberwar. The
Chinese police spy and firewall model, much scoffed at in the 1990s,
is now the dominant paradigm. The Chinese have prospered with their
authoritarian approach, while those who bought into borderless
friction-free data have been immiserated by the ultra-rich."

It will be interesting to see how "exported cyberwar" applies to what Russia did in this American election (apparently a matter of controversy in Washington.)  But the larger point is the drift of oligarchy to authoritarianism, and how well it works economically--for the oligarchs.  This has implications for the economic well-being of Americans (including and perhaps especially those hapless stooges who voted Republican) and for freedom--for effective dissent, or freedom in any and all traditional senses in America.  Orwell gets an update.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Gravity's War

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, which a day later formally brought the US into World War II.

It's made me realize that I've been immersed in that period for several months now.  Most recently I've been reading Thomas Pynchon's huge novel, Gravity's Rainbow, which is set in 1945 before and after the European war ends, while I've been going through the BBC Foyle's War series, set in a coastal town in England throughout the war.  Each episode includes one or two features of the homefront part of the war, usually lost to the usual histories, along with its murder mysteries.

Neither of these wallows in nostalgia, though they have plenty of the texture of those times, both attractive and not.  They offer a related but now different counter-environment to today's thundering chaos.  There is some comfort in finding applicable patterns but only relatively, since those patterns are generally evil.

Gravity's Rainbow posits a global capitalist conspiracy of sorts, that had corporate powers profiting and cooperating on both sides during the war, and ready to dominate the future, with everybody else just hapless instruments of their madness.  But of course that's only part of what it's about, and certainly of what's in it.

Foyle's War demonstrates that, contrary to the propaganda that survives as history, there was plenty of xenophobia, mixed loyalties, controversy, complacency and criminal exploitation as well as unknown heroism in this "last good war" fought by "the greatest generation."  Also a lot of problems for returning soldiers, including what we call PTSD, that are associated mostly with more recent wars.

World War II was an immense disaster for the world--too large for us to comprehend.  People did rise to the occasion, and there was a widespread idealism, both in the UK and the US, that the end of the war would necessarily elevate the "common people" to more power over their lives.

And that the racial and national prejudices broken by fighting together (to some extent) would functionally end those prejudices in the future.  (Despite the prejudices encouraged against enemy nationalities.)  So there is that.  I've written more about it here. And here. And here.  Well, there's a World War II label for that and more.  And specific notes about Pearl Harbor here.

Hey Gates, Disseminate

One of the many things I learned reading Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (see this post)--or to be more accurate, noting in A Gravity's Rainbow Companion (though a specific advantage of reading it through now-- as opposed to the 1970s when it came out-- is the existence of online references such as The Gravity's Rainbow Wiki) was this:

In 1940s slang, somebody was called a "gate" if they were particularly fond of swing music (you know, like the gate that swings.)  So I guess in 2016 that's me.

This is another swing tune by the Glenn Miller band from one of their movies, Orchestra Wives.  It's the one specifically World War II song, that relates "people like you and me" who like corny poetry, romantic nights under the moon and stars, etc. to the "people like you and me" who are fighting the war: both in the services ("Say get a look at those gobs/doing their jobs/keeping the sea lanes free/just to make the future bright for/ people like you me") and those who "roll up our sleeves/tighten our belts" at home, with a specific invocation of the Statue of Liberty.  Yeah, way back when immigration was patriotic.

The trumpet player in this clip is actor George Montgomery--the real player was Johnny Best. And once again we get Marion Hutton, almost as lovable here as in the hit tune from this movie, "I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo."

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

R.I.P. 2016 Jim Harrison

"Sitting on the stump under the burden of his father's death and even the mortality inherent in the dying, wildly colored canopy of leaves, he somehow understood that life is only what one did every day."

Jim Harrison "The Man Who Gave Up His Name," in Legends of the Fall (1979)

“Why would anyone wish to be unique unless it was ultimately for the common good?”
Jim Harrison, "Tracking" (2005)

Born in 1937, Jim Harrison died in March of this year 2016.  He started publishing as a poet in the 1960s, which is how he first came to my attention.  I still have his 1971 volume Outlyer and Ghazals.  

He continued writing and publishing poetry throughout his life, as well as essays and observations, but his best known work is his fiction. His first famous work, probably still his most famous is "Legends of the Fall," which in addition to being a mythic story, began his legendary revival of the novella form.

One of his longer works was The Road Home (1998).  He said of that book that it "addresses the soul history of our country."  Its events are interlaced with those in a previous and much admired novel, Dalva.  Together they seem to me to qualify as a Great American Novel, of which there are but a few candidates from the later twentieth century.

I've read much (although not all) of his work, and have written about some. (I just collected some of those pieces over at Kowincidence.)  I kept trying to characterize what was unique about his writing.  My last attempt read: His paragraphs are like waterfalls of musically balanced sentences that don’t always relate in obvious ways. Observation, flashes of memory and epigram tumble together to achieve both bursts of illuminating surprise and a kind of mesmerizing momentum.

His work was often ribald and some of his protagonists were outrageous.  Harrison wrote about sex and Hollywood, but his physical appearance did not match up that well.  Blinded in one eye, riven by the tragic loss of his father and sister in the same car crash, he managed a long marriage and fatherhood as well as a writing life that remained productive to the end.

Harrison did not confine himself to contemporary urban domestic scenes that grip the literary Zeitgeist, but wrote about American history, the West and Midwest, rural and small towns, and particularly the human engagement with the natural world.  These are all reasons he didn't get more literary attention and prizes, though he did have plenty of admirers.

On another blog, I wrote this during the week of his death:  On Saturday, the day he died (though it wasn't announced until Sunday), I watched a video of the late psychologist James Hillman (who Harrison often quoted) saying that as humans, our job in the world is to fall in love with it. The New York Times obit Sunday quotes Will Blythe reviewing Harrison: “His books glisten with love of the world."

His allegiance was with this planet, in all its dimensions.  In one of his last books, his main characters notes that his sense of wonder is less engaged by billions of stars in the night sky than “the billions of green buds in thousands of acres of trees surrounding him.”

Though we never met we had people and places in common. He was nearly a decade older and we were just out of phase.  But there are a number of odd symmetries and coincidences (including in that photo above--for years I had exactly the same lamp in my writing area as appears there.)  As a writer he's been a touchstone and a teacher.  He's also endlessly quotable, especially from the interviews that often sound like one of his characters talking.

 In a preface to some poems, he wrote: "To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime."

His devotion to this vocation of writing sentences--which as a vocation is a total mystery to most people--is what will stay with me, keep me and maybe bless me, if I'm lucky.

He said on more than one occasion--and was caught doing so on video--that he'd like to be reborn as a tree.  Maybe one like this.  May he rest in peace.  His work lives on.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Elegy for Elegance

President Obama hosted his last Kennedy Center Honors at the White House Sunday.  In his remarks introducing the honored guests (actor Al Pacino, pianist Martha Argerich, songsters Mavis Staples, James Taylor and the Eagles) he referenced the origins of the awards--and the Kennedy Center--in the Kennedy administration's unprecedented support for the arts, including bringing artists of various kinds to the White House.  He mentioned that three grandchildren of Jack and Jackie Kennedy were present.

The Kennedy administration had succeeded in passing legislation to create a national center for the arts in Washington.  After the assassination, many thousands of Americans wrote letters to request that the center be named after John F. Kennedy.  I was one of them, and I still have the reply I received, affirming that it would indeed be called the Kennedy Center.

At a crucial moment in the 2008 primaries, JFK's daughter Caroline wrote an oped saying that she saw in Barack Obama many qualities of her father, and she was supporting him for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Those were her children at the White House Sunday.)

 That led to a cascade of Kennedys offering support, including Senator Ted Kennedy and even Maria Shriver, the wife of the Republican governor of California.  She showed up at an Obama celebrity event and spontaneously gave the campaign one of its signatures when she said "We are the people we have been waiting for."

In eight years in the White House, Barack and Michelle Obama have expanded the White House embrace of artists and entertainers, in quantity and in diversity.  The arts and entertainment communities clearly felt the connection.

This brief speech, eloquent and witty, and these events, demonstrate this President's ease with creators in arts and entertainment, including a knowledge, understanding and feeling for what they do.  This is perhaps even more remarkable in that he exhibits those same qualities in relation to achievers in the various sciences.

But this should remind us of another quality that the Obamas share with President and Mrs. Kennedy: elegance.  The style is different, but the elegance is unmistakable.  And that's something else we are really going to miss.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Defining the Darkness.8

When the real news is almost as fantastic as the fake news,and the fake news is about to take over the government...What follows is all from the Daily Beast article linked at the end...

"The real-life consequences of a made-up conspiracy theory swirling around a popular D.C. pizzeria became all too real when a gunman walked into the venue Sunday afternoon.

During the presidential campaign, some elements of the alt-right began fueling the conspiracy that Comet Ping Pong was in fact the site of a pedophilia ring used by high-ranking members of the Democratic Party, deeming that supposed conspiracy “Pizzagate.”

The D.C. Police Department arrested 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, outside the kid-friendly pizza and music venue. Witnesses say that Welch went through the restaurant carrying the gun and tried to enter a staff area in the back of the building. He reportedly fired multiple shots inside, though no one was injured. He reportedly told the police that he’d come to “self-investigate ‘Pizza Gate,” which the department noted is “a fictitious online conspiracy theory.”

The conspiracy is untrue and easily disprovable. For example, the sex ring is supposed to be run out of the restaurant’s basement, but the owner told the BBC, “We don’t even have a basement.”

The fake news became so prominent that even retired Gen. Michael Flynn, whom Donald Trump has chosen to be his national security adviser, shared the story on his Twitter account.

Brief Shining Moment at Standing Rock

This is another story previously followed here.  A good moment, for however long it lasts...

The Washington Post:

"The Army said Sunday that it will not approve an easement necessary to permit the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota, marking a monumental victory for the Native American tribes and thousands of others who have flocked in recent months to protest the oil pipeline.

“I’m happy as heck,” said Everett Iron Eyes, a retired director of natural resources for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and one of the organizers of a camp protesters set up near the pipeline site. “All our prayers have been answered.”

The victory for the Standing Rock Sioux and its allies could be short-lived, though. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to support pipelines such as this one. And Kelcy Warren, the chief executive of the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners, has been a major contributor to the Republican Party and Trump’s campaign.

Trump, who owned a $500,000 and $1 million stake in Energy Transfer Partners, has sold the shares, his spokeswoman Hope Hicks said. His most recent disclosure says he still owns a similar size stake in Phillips 66, which owns 25 percent of the Dakota Access line."