Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Solar good news

I was working on some book reviews that should start coming up next week.  Which leaves me short on time for this week.

Since I do actually look for items on the positive side, I thought I would highlight the good news on solar panels.

Solar Stats Will Blow Your Mind
Travis Hoium, The Mootley Fool, 12 September 2012 (Hat tip: The Big Picture)

The U.S. solar industry installed 742 MW of PV in the second quarter of 2012, up 45% sequentially and 116% annually. This is despite the expiration of the 1603 Treasury Grant Program, a policy that allowed solar installers to get a cash grant in lieu of a future tax credit; the industry has now installed 2.85 GW of solar.
The cost to install solar is dropping like a rock
Every quarter the solar industry takes another step toward grid parity in locations around the world, even passing it in some locations.
    According to GTM Research, the cost to install a utility scale solar system has fallen 45.8% since the beginning of 2010 to $2.60 per watt.
    Over the same time frame, residential solar installations have dropped 21.8% to $5.46 per watt.
It goes onto note other more business related positives and boosts the stocks of certain companies within the field.    The record of providing firms at the leading edge of a technology wave is mixed.  If Edison and Westinghouse did well, the airplane manufacturers, and most of the many new automobile companies did not fair as well.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Life with the Spartans

A guest author at Nature Bats Last has written an excellent, and slightly scary post about a low level college class he took.  The class itself had the students mimic the same type of control structure that was used in Ancient Sparta.  Sparta for those who are not aware, was an extremely totalitarian slave state.  To some degree it was odd in that it not only enslaved its "slaves", but even the upper level participants were tightly controlled.  It was not a particularly vibrant culture, and while it was a useful check for when the Athenians got to be too full of themselves, their input into the greater Classical Greek culture has always struck me as rather limited.
The students within the class become part of this highly authoritarian structure.  What is scary, is that they seemed to love it.

A Curious Course on Conduct and Crapulence

Andrew Bell guest posting at Nature Bats Last,

To make matters worse, or better, depending on your worldview, the professor has received much adoration for the syllabus. He is flown around the country to do small versions of this syllabus with businesses in the attempt to create better and more efficient work environments, so I am told. The professor also teaches an Athens class which is run in the same way but structured as a democracy. He has informed me that, without fail, the Sparta class gets better grades and is able to get through more material. The Athens class, so he says, is always incredibly unorganized and undirected. 
The performance difference between the two structures will pose something of a problem for many. When stepping back, the Sparta structure gets better and bigger results. However, as many of the readers have probably come to understand, the problem(s) we are facing today have more to do with bigger, better results of human action than undirected or unorganized human behavior. Taking the idea a bit further there is an assumption that coordinated human effort can solve the problems brought about by coordinated human effort.
I would strongly recommend following the link and reading the post.
I would also say that in a classroom full of students who are facing a rather daunting economy that they will eventually be graduating into, the appeal of strength and certitude would be very powerful. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

We are getting out of debt!

We are getting out of debt!  We are getting out of debt!  Yahoo!

Household Debt Has Gallen to 2006 Levels, But Not Because We've Grown More Frugal
Josh Sanburn, Time Magazine, 19 October 2012 (hat tip: Big Picture)

U.S. household debt has finally fallen back to pre-recession levels. So, we’ve finally learned our lesson about spending more than we make, right? Well, not really. The real reason our debt has dipped is that so many Americans defaulted on bills they couldn’t pay...
In fact, says Mustafa Akcay, an economist at Moody’s, “nearly 80% of deleveraging is caused by defaults.” Only 20% of the decrease comes as a result of what he calls “voluntary deleveraging,” i.e. the hard work of paying down our debts faster than we borrow.
 Well at least we are doing better.  We are now at the same level we were in 2006 (11 trillion), which is still well into the housing bubble years, and I am scared to think what level we need to be at to get back to the pre-Vietnam War debt bubble - which granted was mostly government debt.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Collapse of Chinese Solar

The build it and they will come, is not working in the solar industry.

It is a little as if the 19th century industrial powers had decided to push railroad construction by pushing more steel development, and left the rest to fate.  Without the seed money for constructing, which in the 19th century came from a combination of government policy and support, and a huge stock bubble, the steel would just sit unused.

Glut of Solar Panels Poses a New Threat to China
Keith Brasher, New York Times, 4 October 2012 (Hat tip: MR)
BEIJING — China in recent years established global dominance in renewable energy, its solar panel and wind turbine factories forcing many foreign rivals out of business and its policy makers hailed by environmentalists around the world as visionaries.
But now China’s strategy is in disarray. Though worldwide demand for solar panels and wind turbines has grown rapidly over the last five years, China’s manufacturing capacity has soared even faster, creating enormous oversupply and a ferocious price war.
The result is a looming financial disaster, not only for manufacturers but for state-owned banks that financed factories with approximately $18 billion in low-rate loans and for municipal and provincial governments that provided loan guarantees and sold manufacturers valuable land at deeply discounted prices.
China’s biggest solar panel makers are suffering losses of up to $1 for every $3 of sales this year, as panel prices have fallen by three-fourths since 2008...      
The Chinese are hoping for some consolidations. 
In the solar panel sector, “If one-third of them survive, that’s good, and two-thirds of them die, but we don’t know how that happens,” said Li Junfeng, a longtime director general for energy and climate policy at the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s top economic planning agency.
The problem is that once you built the railroad -no easy task granted- it was the cheapest land transportation.  That is not the case with solar panels.  They have come down considerably in price, but electricity generated by them is still three-times as expensive as fossil fuel alternatives.  That makes a duplication of the railroad, or more recent telecom, bubble difficult.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

More on less food

We have been talking here a little while now about food scarcity as a growing concern.  Our to flip that around, the problem with feeding our growing population.

It's not going away, and it is quietly becoming accepted wisdom.

Income from Work: The Food-Population-Resource Crisis in the 'Short Africa'
Michael Lipton, Sussex University, 3 April 2012 (hat tip: MR)

Between 1950 and 2012, population in the 'short Africa' rose fivefold. It will more than double again in 2012-50 to 11.3 times its 1950 level. Workforces - people aged 15-65 - are rising faster still, thanks to better child survival and some fall in fertility. In 1985 sub-Saharan Africa had 106 people of prime work-ing age for every 100 dependants. By 2012 there were 120; in 2050 there will be 196. That's a 63%rise in workers-per-dependant from now to 2050 - and a 3.5% rise each year in the number of people aged 15-64. In South and East Asia, a similar rise in workers-per-dependant proved a demographic window of opportunity, contributing about a third of the 'miracle' of growth and poverty reduction8 - because those extra workers found productive employment: first, in smallholdings, gaining from a green revolution and usually land redistribution; later, in industry and services, as farm transformation released workers. In 'the short Africa', will the swelling ranks of young workers produce Asian miracles - or worsening poverty, unemployment and violent unrest?

Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture
Verena Seufert, Navin Ramankutty,  Jonathan A. Foley, Nature 10 May 2012 (hat tip: MR)

Our analysis of available data shows that, overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields. But these yield differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics, and range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable). Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields, whereas under others it at present cannot. To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.
Note, they are not arguing that organic might not be the more sustainable long term method, they are only arguing that it cannot match the output of the chemical/nitrogen dump that is current practise in agriculture. 

That small holding farms can be very efficient is noted within the same set of articles:
Michael Lipton, Sussex University, 3 April 2012 (Hat tip: MR)
Within farming, smallholdings (up to 1-5ha dependent on land quality) are central, for two reasons. First, they support the vast majority of farm people in Africa, and will long do so. Second, on a big weight of macro and micro evidence, small farms are 1. efficient resource users; 2. though risk-averse, keen innovators; 3. in developing countries, where farming relies more on supervised family labour than on capital, get more output per hectare, and provide far more employment and labour income per hectare, than large farms. Africa is running out of spare land, so small farmers' higher output per hectare is key. They need intermediation for processing and supermarket access, but, once they have enough surplus to sell, this usually works, in Africa as worldwide.11
In 1977-84, when China reformed land into fairly equal family smallholdings and relaxed controls, these farms - most below 0.7ha - used water-control, fertilizers and improved seeds to raise rice and wheat out-put by over 6 per cent per year for six years.

Of course if you take a small farm and input lots of people hours, as is often done in homestead style farming, the results would look different. But that in of itself is an energy dump of sorts, and as noted below with Singapore's water supply it is very hard not to get away from some sort of hidden subsidy.

Welcome to Dystopia!
Entering a long-term and politically dangerous food crisis
Jeremy Grantham, GMO Quarterly Letter, July 2012 (hat tip: MR)

Water constraints are worse than I thought a year ago. Squabbles or even wars over the division of rivers that flow through different countries seem more likely: Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over the Nile; China and India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and practically all of South East Asia over the flow of Himalayan rivers. Over pumping is also a bigger problem than I represented. About 300 million Chinese and Indians (125 and 175 million, respectively) among many others are fed through the use of declining aquifers. When entirely depleted, these perhaps then half a billion people will be thrown back onto already overstressed surface water. As with some other resource problems, there is an easy enough solution – desalination. And as with other easy solutions, it comes with a dreadful drawback – ultra high cost. (Singapore, ahead of the curve as usual, has addressed its critical water problem correctly: by pricing all of its water at the cost of the next marginal liter. Uniquely, their next liter of water is from desalination plants, so they are paying many multiples of the water price that is paid by the rest of the world, drowning as it is in subsidies. Even then, despite their Draconian policy with locally generated water, Singapore still benefits from the hugely underpriced water used to produce the majority of their food, which is imported. And Singapore is not representative of our problems with water in one very important way. They are now just about the richest people around with incomes per capita of more than $50,000 U.S.!) That changes from the old normal climate patterns exacerbate water problems seem to be revealed by the week: unpredictable monsoons (that as this year are sometimes weaker), less snow cover to run off in the spring, and unnervingly common severe droughts that we must hope are at least partly non-recurring.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


FEMA has said itself that it is best if you make your own precautionary emergency measures, and that you need to be prepared to manage on your own for some time before sufficient government relief can arrive.
That doesn't mean that they have sat still since the disaster that was Katrina and not made any changes.

FEMA Corps Develops the Next Generation Emergency Managers
Jim McKay, Emergency Management Magazine, 13 September 2012 (no hat tip)
FEMA Corps is a partnership between FEMA and the Corporation for National and Community Service that adds additional support for response and recovery of disasters by new FEMA Corps teams within AmeriCorps. Each team will consist of 10 FEMA Corps members, 18- to 24-year-olds who have signed up for the program.
FEMA Corps teams will support preparedness, response and recovery efforts by aiding survivors, helping with public communication efforts and more. The goal is to accumulate 1,600 FEMA Corps team members in the next 18 months, each serving a 10-month stint with the option for a second year. The second-year members will qualify to be team leaders. Until then AmeriCorps personnel will serve in that capacity.
One issue FEMA has had is that it has had little muscle of its own.  It relies on a system of contractors to get much of the repair work done.  That's o.k. as far as it goes, but there are advantages to have your own immediate responder, boots on the ground, yourself.
One item I am curious about is how are they planning to house all these volunteers.  Contractors generally make their own arrangements, and truthefully most of them are a far more experienced and used to being out their on their own.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Building code blockage

Jon Robb has just discovered how annoying the building process can be.  Even vanilla buildings, say a prefab steel light industrial building, built in a relatively benign business environment will take over a year to get built.

How Archaic Local Regulations Are Killing the Future and Homes Built Like Bunkers
Jon Robb, Resilient Communities, 6 October 2012 (hat tip NC)

Now, I’m all in favor of local rules that keep people safe like many of the regulations do, but these regulations don’t just do that. Instead, they simply prevent you from doing anything different (which ranges from brilliant to stupid).
Why does it work this way? We live in a litigious society where people will sue the community’s building inspector if they a) buy a house with non-standard construction and then b) suffer injury due to that construction technique.

Note he links to this picture which shows the various pathways that the permitting process can take.

Building officials can get sued, but they rarely lose.  It will vary from State to State, but in most cases you cannot sue a government official who is in service to the public.  The duty of officials is to the public, not to the individual.  Most building codes specifically state that they are in place for public, rather than private, good.  Nobody would care if someone built a fire hazard, if it didn't also threaten surrounding buildings and the lives of emergency workers.
The enforcement of building codes has to be cookie cutter to some degree because building safety officials aren't in a position to review the details of the engineering of these projects, and truthfully, most engineers cannot work beyond the cookie cutter approach themselves.  There is a lot of work involved, but trying to do the basic engineering from scratch every time is far too expensive.  You might save a little on individual projects, but in the end you would have a combination of chaos mixed in with higher costs as insurance (liability and property-casualty) went through the roof.
The real problem is that there is not enough money for the green building component manufacturers to go to every state and/or local governing body and get there products approved. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Anti-hero Odysseus

The story of Odysseus and his many travels is a popular theme in apocalyptic novels that hit the road.  It seems to be particularly popular with male writers on their first book, writing about their male hero.

It is interesting to note, that the Classical Greek audience reaction to Odysseus is not what we would think.  Note that the Classical Greeks were looking back at a pretty old series of tales.  The stories of Odysseus were stories of a hero during some rather unsettling times.

The good rogue Odysseus
Emily Wilson, The Times Literary Supplement, 5 October 2012 (hat tip NC)
But in the extant literature of fifth-century Athens – especially, in Athenian tragedy – there is an increasing suspicion that Odysseus’ good qualities are not really good at all. As Silvia Montiglio notes in From Villain to Hero, “in all his significant appearances in extant tragedy except in Ajax . . . Odysseus is a rogue”. Moreover, his villainy is linked to many of the same qualities for which he is admirable in Homer, such as his ability to tell lies when the occasion demanded, his cleverness, his eloquence, and his ability to keep his eye on the prize and use any means possible to get it. Odysseus in Athenian tragedy is associated with all the bugbears of contemporary society: he is a demagogue, a man with an eye only for the main chance; he favours might over right, the end beyond the means; his brains are all used in the service of self-interest…This flexibility of mind is at the root of Odysseus’ appeal in Homer, but also the reason for much later ambivalence and suspicion of the hero’s morals.
In unsettled time Odysseus seems the natural hero.  That we are in unsettled times, allows him to once again be a hero.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Possible changes here

I am changing my work situation soon.  That is not a bad thing, but I will have longer hours and greater responsibilities.  I am not sure I rise to the Spiderman dictum of "With Great Powers comes Great Responsibilities" but it is likely to have an effect here.

So if I am not posting as often (daily) as I have been, it is not because of any negative occurrence.  It is simply a change.

During the long rollout of reviews, I have actually been reading other books.  Trying to catch up with a few contemporary pieces.  So I will probably have another short spurt of reviews coming up soon.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Super salesmen and the can-do spirit

I think this is a very timely piece.

The American culture of sales has always tended toward the optimism=success, and a large dose of survival bias, to instill a can-do attitude into what is often a rather thankless task.  Are you having a hard time selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door?   Your not trying hard enough.

The U.S. economy from some time back into the late 19th century has been growing, in real terms, about 3% a year.  So a lot of time, the rising tide was lifting a lot of boats.

But what happens when the tide goes out, or if you take the worst-case-view, the bathtub is completely drained of water.

Life of a salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized

Eli Saslow, Washington Post, 7 October 2012 (Hat tip: Big Picture)

He had always managed to find optimism in even the worst circumstances, and here was another chance: a heat advisory, 98 degrees and rising at 11 a.m., the hottest day of the year yet.
"Thank you," said Frank Firetti, 54, as he walked out of his Manassas office into a blast of humidity in early June. "Thank you," he said again. "What a perfect day to sell a pool."
He opened the trunk of his 2004 Toyota compact and changed into his selling outfit of slacks, a yellow polo and a silver wristwatch. He rubbed lotion on his face and sifted through six pairs of shoes before grabbing his dockside loafers. His goal was to arrive at a customer’s house looking "out of the catalogue," he said — no traces of mud on his feet, no worry lines carved into his forehead, no indication whatsoever that sales at Blue Haven Pools had been plummeting for five years running and that a staff of 24 full-timers had dwindled to six.
His job was to stand with customers in their back yards, suntanned and smiling, and look beyond the problems of the past several years to see the opportunities in every suburban cul-de-sac. How about a pool and a sauna next to the patio? Or a custom waterfall near the property line?
"The possibilities here are as big as you can dream them," he liked to tell customers, gesturing at their yards.
This is just the lead in on a long thoughtful piece.  Frank Firetti is having a hard time, and you do feel for him.  For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, there may be a little bit of deja vu, from the decline of the rust belt.  That much of the rust belt malaise was turned back with borrowed money, and that we never really seemed to get over the Vietnam War borrowing bubble is somewhat worrisome.  Does it take the destruction of the world's manufacturing base, and the death of millions to reset the baseline of the world economy?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Oryx and Crake: A Review

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is a somewhat near-future dystopian apocalypse-in-progress story set near New York City.  The dystopia comes from a world of over population and dwindling resources, where weak governments have lost all control over the wheels of commerce.  Margaret Atwood is Canadian.  An underrepresented group within a field dominated by American-British apocalyptian authors, this is the last novel in this round of our international reviews.

One of many covers: This shows a mirror-imaged traditional Adam and Eve (implying cloning gene-splicing).  Others show the portions of the left panel of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights

Margaret Atwood, is a very well known novelist.  At the time of writing this novel, she was already know for having written the earlier dystopian novel The Handmaiden's Tale.  The novel written prior to this one, The Blind Assassin won the 2000 Booker Price.  So there were a lot of expectations when this novel came out.  In general, I would say people were not disappointed.  Many years after this novel came out, she wrote a parallel story (The Year of the Flood) that clarifies some of the events at the end of this story, and their is a planned sequel.

Many of the reviews state that the novel is about genetic engineering run amok.  A few say that it is about a pandemic plague causing a collapse.  A fairly typical sample:

Lorrie Moore, The New Yorker, 19 May 2003
Atwood, who is the daughter of a biologist, vividly imagines a late-twenty-first-century world ravaged by innovations in biological science. Like most literary imaginings of the future, her vision is mournful, bleak, and infernal, and is punctuated, in Atwood style, with the occasional macabre joke—perhaps not unlike Dante’s own literary vision. Atwood’s pilgrim in Hell is Snowman, who, following a genetically engineered viral cataclysm, is, as far as he knows, the only human being who has survived. Snowman (formerly Jimmy) has become arboreal, living in trees and in shelters of junk, roaming the beaches and picnic grounds of a former park—where fungi sprout from rotting picnic tables and barbecues are festooned with bindweed—scavenging for food. His only companions are a dozen or so humanoids, the Crakers—gentle, naked, beautiful creations of Jimmy’s old, half-mad scientist friend Crake.
This is not the story.  This is the epilogue.  We see the effects of the problem first, so the reviewers latch onto the effects. 

The primary story is of Jimmy, who eventually becomes the self-named Snowman, growing up in a series of commercial corporate run enclaves that are the upscale version of the old company towns.  Except these are company towns with walls, perks, and authority comes through the corporate police.

What is stated clearly in a number of locations in the novel is that over population is the primary cause of all (or at least most) of the problems.  Because there is not enough resources to go around the wealthy locked themselves into enclaves.  Because there is a shortage of food,  genetic engineering (the pigoons illustrated below) is pushed as a way to alleviate that problem.  If people were not so desperate, the corporations would not be able to push them around so easily.  If you argue with the corporations they kick you off of the bus, and your on your own in the wilderness of the pleblands (plebian lands). 

So as we see, the story has two plot threads.  One is the aftermath of the disaster.  What has happened, has happened.  The events in this aftermath take place over a very short time line, and it primarily acts as the engine through which "The Snowman" tells the second story:  the story of how the world got to be in this mess.

The interplay of the plot lines adds a lot of dramatic tension to the novel as the older Snowman tells of his earlier life, and his association with Crake and Oryx, two people very responsible for how the dystopia came to collapse.  After the collapse, Jimmy named himself after the Abdominal Snowman:  A big hairy monster.  However, it seems rather likely that this is intend to show that he has been "snowed" (fooled):  Certainly by Crake, and in my estimation by Oryx as well.  Since Jimmy is rather representative of the clueless middle class "everyman" going along with the flow (in a cynical fashion) of events, the "snowing" is also likely meant to be indicative of much of the novel's audience.

The novel does drop through a number of subtle, and not so subtle prods at the audience.  The artists, the writers of this world are pretty much given short shrift unless they can use their talents within the the world of marketing or mass communication.  Jimmy buys in and works as a wordsmith in the advertising world.  At one point, Jimmy is roommates with a number of bohemian-style artists.  They complain about his corporate sellout.  They state that mankind would never learn, that it would keep creating until it died vomiting on the waste from its own corporate produced junk. "Jimmy asks : Like your computers?  The ones you do your art on?" (p243).  That there is truth in some of the artists statements is beside the point.  They don't really intend to separate themselves, or others wise do anything serious about societies self destructive nature.  Like reading (or writing) a novel about humans driving over the cliff of self inflicted extinction: it's all very entertaining.

There is most certainly a lot of bio creations running loose in this novel, they are one of the more aggressive parts of both plot lines.  Other plot lines include the falling away of the common people, as resources shrink and the few available are grabbed up by the small number of scientists who can wring out marketable benefits.

Jimmy and the Pigoons (thumbnail: original here)
Although told in much different way, the novel reminds me of M.J. Engh's Arslan, where a conquering Asian general comes out of nowhere to not only take over the planet, but also to put an end to humanity through birth control.  Oddly enough, in Arslan, everyone got the point about overpopulation and birth control, and missed the author's primary point about environmental degradation. 

The tone of the novel has elements of the slightly surreal to them, which is probably a good, because if you were to really connect with the potential of the horrors on offer, it would arguably make  Cormac McCarthy's The Road seem almost cheerful: less people are suffering.  The predatory bio engineered pigs of course bring up Animal Farm, but also take out a little of the sting.
By the end of the story, we discover what has happened to bring about the world noted in our first quote above.  Crake, Jimmy's childhood friend, and Oryx, a woman that the two of them first saw as a young girl in a pornographic movie, are both involved.  The role that Snowman has had thrust upon him, is to become the caretaker of the innocent bio engineered humanoids, The Crakers.

Crake, is the obvious driving force behind the plot.  That is fairly clear early on.  After all, the Crakers are named after him.
Oryx is much more subtle.  She had at least some level of buy in with Crake's mission.   When defending Crake she says:
Oh, you are wrong Jimmy. He has found the problem, I think he is right. There are too many people and that makes the people bad. I know this from my own life, Jimmy. Crake is a very smart man! (p322).
Although she is given part of the classic victim through much of the story, she tends to do a very good job of moving her way through each setting and getting to a place she would rather be.  Where other woman find Crake to be creepy, she does not.  Jimmy, who does not always understand what he hears asks her at one point what she was thinking as a girl in that first porno movie they say, at the moment she was looking at them: "
I was thinking, that if I ever got the chance, it would not be me down on my knees" (p92).
Crake is the destroyer, and creator.  Oryx is the mother.  The activities of both them combine perfectly toward prodding Jimmy to become the Snowman, and protect their children.

The edge of the pleblands with the dome in the left center. (Thumbnail, original here and color)

Did I enjoy the story.  Yes I did.  There are a few moments that it moves along relatively slowly, but the author has done an excellent job of creating a mystery of the process of the collapse.  A collapse that we can see some of the results of, but not fully understand.  There are many subtle undertones; I have only touched on a fraction of them.  This is a novel that can withstand at least a couple of readings.  The only off note to my mind is the somewhat clownish nature of many of the bioengineered animals.  That tends to give a little more lightness to the proceedings than I think is warranted.
For our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings: Realism and Readability:  1 to 7 with 7 being high.
Realism is a bit of a mix.  Recall that Realism is meant to be an assessment of how possible/likely the books setting is to our current predicament.  Could we see this happening to us, or maybe to someone we know?  Both the somewhat futuristic setting, and the clownish nature of many of the bioengineered animals tends toward the surreal.   The dystopian setting on balance is a fairly reasonable projection of current trends: not necessarily the correct prognostication, but not entirely impossible.  Some of the immediacy is lost by the fact that much of the novel is clearly retrospective, only a few portions that deal with the Snowman have an actual element of realtime danger.  The Snowman, in realtime, is worried about food and supplies in the degraded world.  I am going to punt and put it at the midpoint:  a 4.
Readability is fairly straightforward.  Outside of the fact that it is set up a little bit like a mystery- not so much a whodunit as a howdunit- it is a fairly straightforward tale.  There are a lot of subtle social points and allusions, but the major threads of the plot line, if not always resolved, are easy enough to follow.  There is a lot of thinking and discussing.  The use of the language is very well done, and it is an excellent example of keeping the dialog moving.   I wouldn't call it a page turner, but  for 374 pages, it moves along fairly quickly.  An above average literary 5.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

La jetée ciné-roman: A Review

Set in a post-World War 3, black and white Paris, Chris Marker's La jetée is both a famous 29-minute 1962 French science fiction film that was composed almost entirely of still photos, and slightly differing companion photographic novel, La jetée ciné-roman, a collection of  photos, captioned in both French and English.  The apocalyptic movie 12Monkeys was inspired by the film.

Chris Marker (1921) is a French writer, photographer, and film director.  He has has a long career, but this appears to be his most influential work outside of the French language.

As the story is told in large photographs, with very short captions, I could probably fit the entire text within the length of one of my normal reviews.  Obviously Monsieur Marker is maximizing on the concept of a picture is worth a thousand words.

The setting for the novel is the bleak underground galleries, and shelters of post-nuclear war Paris.  It is a cruel world, with a lot of fruitless experiments, often with not entirely willing subjects, directed to finding a way back to a life above ground.

The scientists have discovered a time anomaly.  They want to send a subject back in time, or possibly to a different world entirely.  If the subject can survive, possibly the rest of the survivors can follow.  Because the whole process is so unstable, they decide to send back a man who has a particular powerful memory of the past: a scene on a jetty (an airport loading dock); the jetty at Orly airport to be exact.  And thus we have the title.  The initial experiment is successful in so far as the man goes back in time to a place where people still walk around in parks, the pigeons still roost, et cetera.

But of course, if the solution was that easy, that simple you would not have much of a movie. Oddly enough for such a short length, this novel actually has a few complexities not found in the movie 12 Monkeys.  After success in the past, the attempt is made to send the man to the future, to beg for help from whatever people can be found there.  After all, if the future people, do not insure the survival of the past people, how will there be future people?  It all starts going askew there.

The whole effect of the black and white photos, and the alternating cruel, cold, or remote images reminds me a lot of the dark images from Jean Cocteau's Orpheus: this being a retelling of the Greek classic with black clad motor cycle riders. Oddly enough, I am not the only person to make this connection (completely independently), Janet Harbor in her book that focuses solely on this movie, notes that the story is to some degree a story of going back in time, and makes a less specific connection to the Orpheus tale.
Janet Harbord, Afterall Books, London, 2009
La jetée is a story about going back.  It tells of a man whose desire is to return to the past, and as such it is a film that echoes other stories, cultural myths that are full of warning. Orpheus loses his lover through a backward glance…it echoes the (often misplaced) desire of many noir films, to go back and reconstruct the past in order to elucidate a truth about a woman.  Going back is not something that one can get away with.
Did I enjoy the book?  Yes, of course I did.  Since I liked the movie 12 Monkeys, I was predisposed to like La jetée.  The photography is wonderful.  It is a very short story, and a rather sad story, but it is a story that stays with you.
(Thumbnail) The woman of his obsession is at La jetée - similar to the cover shot, this  exact photo is not in the novel, it is courtesy of the Amazon sample and can be found here - likely it is a shot from the movie. It portrays the opening of the final scene.
As to our descriptive ratings: Realism and Readability: 1 to 7 with 7 being high.
Realism:  hmm.  Well the guy starts in a future destroyed world living underground and then goes back and forth in time.  Nothing like this is going to happen to you or your close associates: even if a few of them happen to be French.  There are no elves or faeries: a 2.
Readability:  is almost beside the point.  It is a captioned picture book.  There are some plot twists, and it will get you thinking, but you cannot get much easier to read than this: a 7.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Enfold Me - A Novel of post Israel: A Review

Steven Greenberg's Enfold Me- A Novel of Post-Israel, is an post-apocalyptic tale, almost an apocalypse-in-progress set shortly after the State of Israel has been overrun by Shiite Muslims coming from Lebanon, and "rescued" by Egyptian "allies" occupying the southern portion of the country to prevent it from being captured by Iranian forces.  An excerpt from Chapter 2 can be found here

Steven Greenberg was born in Texas in 1967 and moved to Israel shortly after graduation from Indiana University in 1990.  As is typical in Israel, he served 12 years as a reservist-medic within their armed forces (IDF).   He has worked as a contract writer for ten years, but this is the first work that he has published under his own name.

There have been major energy source breakthroughs that have made the United States a little more complacent about Middle Eastern affairs and less willing to interfere.  Iran has stepped into the void and taken over Iraq, much of the Persian Gulf, and controls Lebanon, and even parts of Southern Turkey.

When a 7.8 Richter Scale earthquake hits just east of Tel Aviv, much of Israel is digging out of the rubble when enemy forces come storming across the border.  First it is the Shiites coming from Lebanon and Syria and grab the northern portion of the country.  Then the Egyptians, concerned that their Shiite enemies will roll up the entire country come in as "rescuers" from the South.  As the Egyptian position is a bit more ambiguous, they control the lion's share of the country.  The Northern occupation area, is a disaster.  Many Israelis are slaughtered, and many of those not slaughtered are pushed out of their homes to make room for Muslim families returning to their homeland from exile.  Islamic law is instituted, and the Jews are treated as serfs.   The novel starts 10 months after the fall.

The story begins with Daniel Blum, left behind in the collapsed Israel, as his family was able to make their escape. 

Daniel had started almost every day like this since the Fall .  And, for the last six months every morning, he would step out the front door of the empty house -seeking the morning paper in his sleep-fogged habit.  Surveying the scene, and recalling again that no paper would be arriving, he would think it shouldn't look like this.  How could it possibly look like this?
Because it should be a Munchian nightmare - a flaming orange-swirled sky blocking a feeble sun, which, sapped by grief, would lack the fortitude to continue lighting the scene.  There should be no green, no flowers, no dogs frisking in the sunshine.  No people save the sexless, devoid figure in the foreground - with unseeing agonized eyes beseeching....Ten months after the Fall, Daniel stepped off the front porch - peeling paint and overgrown hedges more testimony to absence than to apocalypse- and he was again struck by the excruciating normalcy of the scene.

The scenes within the collapsed Israel are well done.  Not everyone is dead, but not everyone wishes they were still alive.   In another short piece:
Once he left the central region of the country, to the south..., the scenery had taken on a rustic, pastoral charm.  Post-apocalyptic pastoral charm, of course but charm nonetheless.  If you looked past the sprawling refugee camps that the sandy dunes ...had become, past the dirty-faced children waving at passing cars, past the dogs fighting over scraps in makeshift garbage dumps behind blackened bus stops, past buses abandoned on the side of the road that were now inhabited by two or even three families, past the occasional desiccated corpse littering the shoulder of the road - then you could always find beauty...
There is a level of detail.  The thought that there is a world there beyond what is interacting with our current story, and that it is a very scary world.    There are not a lot of books that pull off, not exactly world building, but more the sense of a scene, than this one.  Unfortunately not all of the book involves movement within these scenes.

There are a number of pace slowing flash backs, and even odder nightmare sequences.  Some to the characters personal lives, and others to some earlier experiences some had with neo-Nazis in the United States, or torturing brutal American troops in the First Gulf War (Desert Storm).  These scenes are very poorly done.  The exact point of them is a bit unclear.  So a couple of neo-Nazi's do horrible things in the United States in the 1980s and a handful of U.S. troops get a slap on the wrist in the First Gulf War?  I think we are long past the point where people buy into the idea that the United States is a country that will not stoop to the ugliness (some would say the necessities) of war.  And does anyone think Neo-Nazis are nice people?   These strange, nasty scenes, seem more to the point of showing, through the surrogate characters, why Daniel/Steven Greenberg immigrated (aliyah) to Isreal.  The release of the book to coincide June 5, the 45th anniversary of the Six-Day-War in 1967 was no doubt an intended irony.  Oddly enough, outside of the events unfolding from the practise of Koranic Law, there is almost no discussion, or really any concern, with religion.

Daniel himself is an odd character.  It would be a reach to say that he is incompetent.  It would be closer to say that he is a normal person stuck in a scenario where above normal is required.  He is frequently slow on the uptake, and given to (understandable) panic under extreme circumstances.  As the saying goes in wargaming rules, he fails his "moral check" frequently.

Did I like the book.  Yes, I did.  But I almost didn't.   It starts out well, but than the flashbacks, the ethical musings, and the nightmare sequences drag it down.  In addition, although the action gets increasingly real, and tense as the novel progresses, the earlier action scenes are a little less captivating, possibly a little implausible.  But it improves:  improves a lot.   The cartoon characterizations, give way to a more ambiguous, gray world.  In addition, though I won't hint at them here, the novel manages to pull off not one, but two fairly serious changes of directions:  plot twists most people won't see coming.

We have our descriptive ratings: Realism and readability:  1 to 7 with 7 being high.

Realism is high.  As I noted above, the collapse scenery and tone is well thought out.  It may not be as complete a collapse as some scenarios we have discussed, but in its well thought out details, it is grimmer than most.  I used to call realism grittiness.  Well it's gritty:  a 7.

Readability is a little harder.  It reads quickly, and accelerates almost to where it is a page turner about 2/3 into the book.  But is does have some rough going, and not all plot points (the dreams) are explained in sequence.  There is a fair amount of ethical musings.  But I don't think most people would find them confusing, they simply make parts of the book move slowly.    In net, there is just enough of an action-adventure to the story to rate it above the midpoint: it's a 5.

The Poem from which the novel's title is derived, by Hayim Nahman Bialik

Map of Israel's occupation (from book, found here)

Monday, October 15, 2012

H.P Lovecraft: A Review

Michel Houellebecq's H.P Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (translation:  Dorna Khazeni; Introduction: Stephen King) is a series of critical essays on the now famous pulp horror fiction writer of the 1930s, H.P. Lovecraft, and also includes two of his works the longish short story The Call of Cthulhu, and the novella The Whisperer in Darkness.

Michel Houellebecq is a famous modern French novelist.  Many of his works have been translated to English. His best selling Atomised, much like Lovecraft's work deals with the situation of modern man.  Given that Lovecraft has a number of choice adjectives thrown in his direction, it is probably fitting that an author who has been described as sex-obsessed, racist and misogynist, write a critical acclamation.

H.P. Lovecraft was a writer of pulp magazine horror stories.  Virtually unknown to the world at large, he was reasonably influential within the his own genre, both through his published fiction and the wide correspondence that he kept up with both other authors and fans.  It is estimated that he wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 letters in his lifetime.  Some of his most notable correspondence was with Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, famous early science fiction writer, Clark Ashton Smith, and most importantly August Derleth, the writer who would tirelessly work to continue his legacy.  When H.P. died young (47) from cancer, he was penniless, but he left behind many friends.

More Victorian than the Victorians, he grew up a generation (or two, or three) too late to fit in well with the society he grew up in.  Much like many people today, he felt out of place in the newly industrialized world, that was teaming with immigrants from other lands looking to work in the new factories, lit and powered by electricity.  He is the perfect example of how upper crust families tend to slowly loose their affluence over time in modern mercantile societies.  The magic that struck in an earlier time and place for the families' founder, is dissipated over succeeding generations.  When H.P. finally left the nest, he had almost a charicature of upper middle class ideals, but not the money.

Houellebecq brings up a number of themes with regards to his writing.  I will only cover those that seem to be relevant to what made Lovecraft unique and/or apocalyptic in his style.

1.  Lovecraft's writing was science fiction based horror.  While he didn't go into the details of how the alien technology worked.  It was meant to be a potentially realistic view of mans place in the world, not supernatural or metaphysical

2.  Lovecraft essentially had an atheistic view of the world.  There was nothing out there that loves us, and what ever we did manage to find out there was likely to be inimical or indifferent to our interests.   We are no more likely to understand the greater sense of the cosmos than the butterfly making its rounds in the garden
In art there is no use in heeding the chaos of the universe; for so complete is this chaos, that no piece writ in words cou'd even so much as hint at it. I can conceive of no true image of the pattern of life and cosmic force, unless it be a jumble of mead dots arrang'd in directionless spirals (p62, from correspondence).
3.  Lovecraft's character are banal.  They don't have sex, there are no discussions of money, they tend to be single and unattached.  There personal life is not a matter of much concern,
Assailed by abominable perceptions, Lovecraft's characters function as silent, motionless, utterly powerless, paralyzed observers...They will remain glued in place while around them the nightmare begins to unravel...[Lovecraft] transform[s] perceptions of ordinary life into an infinite source of nightmares... (p69). 
Not all of Lovecraft's stories threaten an apocalypse, but most of them outside of his dream sequence stories, tend to imply that there is always a horror waiting around the corner.

With regards to the included storiers, The Call of Cthulhu is, if nothing else, famous for one quote:

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
This is one of his globe trotting tales.  A story which will eventually make its way to the South Pacific, where a sleeping giant, a mad god of sorts, is threatening to wake up, and rise from its sunken fortress.
The Whispering Darkness takes place near the famous Arkham, Massachusetts.  The small college town that is a setting for many of his stories.  In this tale a professor at the local college, interested in the universality of folk lore, see parallels between the local stories and sightings, with those of may other cultures.  As he comes to learn, there is a reason that there is a similarity.  Again, the horrific revelation is not of the demonic, but of the alien:  a cruel and bizarre alien.
There is no easy way to descriptively rate the entire body of H.P. Lovecraft's work, nor for that matter its readability across so many stories with such a variety of settings.   In general, H.P. Lovecraft's technology is too dated to appear realistic.  The mundane nature of the settings do give them a bit of dated realism.  The dream-sequence works are based on magic beliefs that most people would not subscribe to today.  Readability various a lot.  His fiction is heavily laden with adjectives and adverbs in an overwrought style that can take some getting used to.
The reason that Lovecraft is so influential today, is that stories of a hostile world, just beyond the one we see day to day, are very easy to update to a modern setting.  Each writer who adopts Lovecraft's themes and tropes, helps to revive interest in the original.  And the list of the "influenced" is extremely long.  There are concordances of Lovecraft based fiction that came out twenty years ago that were thick books then.  If they have been updated, they would probably be three times as large now.  Lovecraft's writing is pulp fiction, but considering the changes in time, technology, and culture, they hold their value well.  To the extent that today we struggle with the same issues that Lovecraft addresses, it might be said that he was prophetic.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Roman Apocalypsis

We are not the only ones who have our apocalyptic prophesies.  The Romans had them as well.
Prophesies of Apocalypse As Venues to Power in the Late Roman Empire
Cynthia Finlayson, Brigham Young University, USA, Inter-disciplinary.Net  First Global Conference
Lactantius, quoting from the works of the Classical historian Varro, claimed that the Apocalyptic prophesies of the Sibyls (The Sibylline Oracles) were kept secret by the Romans and could only be read by specialists called the quindecimviri. Presumably this was to forestall public panic, and/or self-fulfilling actions that would contribute to the eventual cataclysmic fall of Rome foretold within numerous chapters of the Sibylline texts. It is obvious, however, that certain Sibylline apocalyptic prophesies were available and known by many beyond the elite quindecimviri of Rome. Contrary to inciting panic, the Sibylline Oracles were utilized by a number of famous individuals in Roman history as venues to power...Such a study assists us in earmarking the characteristics of ‘Apocalyptic Opportunists not only in the Classical Age, but also in modern times.
The text are here (for a detailed discussion).  Fairly common with 'ancient' oracles, the Sibylline Oracles were current writings, claiming to be of great antiquity.  The ancients were not particularly good at ferreting out anachronisms and textual flaws, likely attributing them to transcript copying flaws, so if you wanted to make a prophecy about current events, a popular method was to  backdate your text and claim to be of much greater antiquity than you actually are.  Note that this has been sited as a problem with both books that were excluded from the bible, as well as some (the Lesser Epistles of Paul being prime examples) and that were included.
So why all these pseudo- and real prophets proclaiming doom?  Because there are always people that see an advantage in overturning the current order.  That they may occasionally be correct is beside the point.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Past patterns: the barren periphery

Cities tend to grow up where there is an abundant food supply, and also the means to bring in additional food supplies. In China, this meant the broad flood plains of navigable rivers.

Daniel Little, Understanding Society, 10 September 2012
Soil fertility and agricultural productivity are related factors. High fertility supports dense population -- hence "core" defined in terms of population density. And fertility is related to rivers. Flood plains have natural advantages when it comes to agriculture. But fertility is related to social factors as well. High population density yields fertilizer in the form of night soil. It also creates demand, as Skinner observed, for fuel, which led to a transfer of nutrients from periphery to core. And agriculture is responsive to investment in infrastructure -- roads, irrigation, water management systems. But these investments are easier to gain in high density populations. This all implies a couple of important feedback loops: density =>; rising agricultural productivity => rising density.

What about the periphery regions? They lack water transport; there is less economic demand for roads; agricultural productivity is low; and peripheries are generally difficult for states to penetrate with civil and military force. So bandits, rebels, and anarchists can loiter there in reasonable comfort.

Braudel, not making exactly the same point, noted the dichotomy between the low land farming areas and the upland pastoral lifestyle. Lifestyles that were both symbiotic, but also often in conflict. 

Since people like to ponder what a future collapsed world will look like, I think it is a good idea to start with how it all used to be before canals, steam, and rails really started to change things.  People seem to spend a lot of time worrying about what is going to happen in the first week of a collapse, the great exodus from the cities and all that, but don't seem to pay much attention to the natural lie of the landscape in their area and how it relates to other adjoining geographic regions.  In the United States this takes particular consideration because almost none of the initial farming was really geared toward subsistance, even the New England colonies, very early on, made their money by trading food to the tobacco raising Southern colonies which were exporting to Europe.  So from the very start development was tied into the a global economy, not some sort of pristine live-off-the land idealism.  People still had to pay taxes, and thus trade was still an issue.  In a collapse that knocked out world trade, redevelopment would not necessarily mimic the early colonial period development patterns.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Vlad: A Review

Carlos Fuentes' Vlad is a dystopian novel set in modern day Mexico City with the primary agent of doom being the one and only Count Vladimir Radu (a.k.a. Vlad Tepis -Vlad the Impaler), commonly known as Count Dracula.

Carlos Fuentes (1928 -2012) is a famous Mexican novelist and essayist.  His first novel, Where the Air Is Clear (La región más transparente) was a success, and I gather he never really looked back.  He is so famous that it is almost pointless to try and summarize his career. Until his recent death, he was often referred to as Mexico's greatest living author (es el escritor vivo mas importante de la literatura mexicana).  Although he is noted for his socialist leanings, the Mexico City portrayed in this novel is a fairly nuanced one.  The depiction of middle class life within  a city of of 20 million people seems to be dead-on.

To summarize the storyline, I am going to get a little help from the New York Times:  

The short novel “Vlad” (first published in Spanish as part of Fuentes’s 2004 collection “Inquieta Compañía”) provides ample evidence of Fuentes’s powerful abilities. The book documents the “awful adventure” of Yves Navarro after his wife helps a respected lawyer find a house in Mexico City for a mysterious European refugee, Vladimir Radu, later revealed to be the infamous historical figure turned vampire Vlad the Impaler.
My anticipation was that the book was going to be a bit of a farce, a sendup, and it did have some of those elements at first.  The Lawyer, Yves Navarro, has his beautiful wife, a realtor, find a house for an old friend of the senior partner at the law firm.  Of course, given the title of the book, we know exactly what is happening here when the client wants a large remote house backing up on a ravine, and all the windows blacked out, but of course Lawyer Navarro does not.

Very quickly there is a bit of melancholy introduced as Navarro recalls the one black spot on his otherwise ideal life: the death from drowning of his teenage son a few years ago.  The melancholy does not last.  Soon the book turns to terror, and is surprisingly creepy and frightening it is for such a short novel about such a well trod subject.  Everyone knows Count Dracula, what sort of surprises can this book hold?  Surprise!

The book addresses a number of themes,  The impermanence of life.  The inevitable fate of even the most successful people to eventually face the death of loved ones, and if they have no loved ones than you must face your own slow fade into oblivion alone.   Here Navarro (the "I") is being addressed by the senior partner at his firm, a very old man who has managed to attach him self to succeeding generations of ruling party politicians as they come and go in Mexico's six year -one term only- Presidential cycles. 

"So you see Navarro, the advantage of living a long life is the opportunity to learn more than one's circumstances alone would allow"
"Circumstances?" I asked in good faith, not certain what [he] was talking about.
"Sure", he said as he brought together his long pale fingers.  "You descend from a great family; I ascend from  an unknown tribe.  You have forgotten what your ancestors knew.  I have learned  what mine never knew." (p. 17).

And we haven't even met Vlad yet.
There is another theme I struggled to pin down until I read the (oddly) related novel,  Cesar Aira's The Literary Conference, (our previous review).  Vampirism has a variety of meanings, but I was missing another word to go with it: parasite.  The vampire is a parasite.  But as this novel knows the world is full of parasites.  In economics, some people would call them rent-seekers.  They hive off value, while producing nothing of consequence themselves.  In the capitalist world, that seems almost normal, but earlier it referred to a variety of landholders, and tax collectors, whose activities seemed less geared toward the general common good.  In a world with no economic growth, the rent seeker could be seen as a parasite.
He does not beat you over the head with it, but here we get a scene where our hero (Navarro), realizing there is trouble, jumps into his BMW and drives to where he hopes he can get some answers:

I had never before been so tortured by the slowness of the Mexico City traffic; the irritability  of the drivers; the savagery of the dilapidated trucks that ought to have been banned ages ago; the sadness of begging mothers carrying children in their shawls and extending their callused hands; the awfulness of the crippled and the blind asking for alms the melancholy of the children in clown costumes trying to entertain with their painted faces and the little balls they juggled; the insolence and obscene bungling of the pot-bellied police officers leaning against their motorcycles at strategic highway entrances and exits to collect their bite-sized bribes; the insolent pathways cleared for the powerful people in their bulletproof limousines; the desperate, self-absorbed, and absent gaze of old people unsteadily crossing side streets without looking where they were going, those white-haired, nut face men and women resigned to die the same way as they lived; the giant billboards advertising an imaginary world of bras and underpants covering small swaths of perfect bodies with white skin and blond hair, high-priced shops selling luxury and enchanted vacations in promised paradises (p79-80).
And they say Germans can write some long sentences: take that Kant!

It is an excellent novel.  Short in length at 122 pages; it is a very fast read; and yet it most reminds me of the much longer Bram Stoker's Dracula for both the sense of dread, and twisted romance of gothic horror that it brings to the proceedings.  The tension mounts throughout the novel, and when we get to the last line, there is a big payoff. 
We now come to our descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: realism and readability: rated 1 to 7 with seven being high.
Realism is tough.  It is set in the very real modern world, and the story interacts within a very normal, Mexican, middle class setting.  But Vlad Tepis is no phony vampire.  He is dangerous, and deadly, and very fantastical in nature.  You cannot replace Vlad with a Drug Cartel Baron and get the same story.  I am tempted to call it is a three, because it feels very real, but that is just good story telling:  it's a 2.
Readability is easy.  It is short, it is very much to the point.  It is very much a page turner at times.  There is a little bit of symbolism, and double meaning within the storyline, but nothing that keeps the story from being well delivered as a story:  a literary 6.
Spanish language cover