Thursday, February 28, 2013

Drowning Towers (Sea and Summer): A Review

George Turner's Drowning Towers (U.K. title: The Sea and Summer) is an apocalypse-in-progress set in a world slowly collapsing under the weight of over population and global warming.  Taking place strictly within the narrow confines of Melbourne, Australia, the time frame is both a highly stressed mid-term future (2041), with some additional post-apocalyptic reflections from a further on (2061) recovering future. The book is of interest for being both a very early (1987) global warming warning, and also for making various best ever lists (Science Fiction: 101 Best Novels).   It is, at least in Australia,  a common subject for academic papers (pdf of one). Written over a quarter-century ago, prior even to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the novel is stunningly prescient on a number of subject matters that would not come to the forefront of worldly concerns until much latter.  There are two very loose sequels: Down There in the Darkness and Genetic Soldier.

The U.S. hardback release cover (also the cover of my copy)

George Turner (1916-1997) is often noted as one of the Deans of Australian Science Fiction.  Before becoming a science fiction writer and critic late in life, he was a successful award winning mainstream author. As Wikipedia notes (correctly based on this novel) he is known for his very thorough and detailed extrapolations, and for his interest in morality and social issues.  The story here was derived from a short story, The Fittest, that was published in the Australian anthology, Urban Fantasies. This novel won the 1988 Arthur C. Clark Award .

In a future, half of a century from when it was written (1988), global warming, along with some other more localized environmental disasters has collapsed the world economy.  Where there once was a third world that the Western economies could ship off their products in return for under priced commodities, now the third world is everywhere.  The particular everywhere of this story is Melbourne, Australia.  World population has blossomed to ten-billion, and ninety-percent of it, referred to as “Swill” in Australia, is unemployed.  In Australia, the incomeless have been put on a minimalist dole, and into gigantic tenement towers.  Towers sited with the typical bureaucratic greased palm incompetence, are too close to the rising waters.  Thus the American title, The Drowning Towers.
The Sweet, those who are lucky enough to still have a job, are desperately trying to avoid loss of their privileges, and becoming "Swill": while at the same time regarding their position as just and proper. We eventually learn there is also an elite, something like our 1-percent but chosen with a stronger basis on merit (intelligence/talent) than money. They don't have the same fears, but use their position of advantage with a callous self aggrandizement disguised as duty.   
Our story starts of with a young family whose bread winner has been made redundant by technological advances.  Desperate to avoid the huge tower blocks, they set up in the fringe: the downfallen remnant neighborhoods of standalone housing that stands between the tower blocks and the nice areas of town.  Very quickly they learn that being out of the ghetto, does not make you safe, and as one person in the protection racket notes, it is harder to "protect" all the separated homes, than the condensed, squeezed together apartment flats with 8 people living in a one room apartment.
As noted above, the novel does an amazing job of extrapolating from some basic assumptions.  What happens if world population continues its rise, and global warming gets out of control?  For having been written over 25 years ago, it is only dated in just a few areas of unanticipated technology.  And since we are mostly spending time with the down and out, they likely wouldn't have any of it anyhow.  If coffee or tea are luxuries, and the early internet style televisions no longer work, you probably aren't going to have much of a cell phone system running either.
The novel does not dodge a lot of tough questions.  If you're economy is slowly falling apart, how are you best going to keep everyone fed.  And if it looks like it is going to keep getting worse, what types of methods might be justified in bringing the situation in control.  Rather than pontificating from a bully pulpit, the author tends to play out these situations through a  worms eye view of people who are living on the edge.  They are both the mechanisms and the victims of the plot.
I obviously liked the book.  It is not an action packed novel, playing out more like a contemporary family character study.  The characters are under a lot of pressure and are not always on their best behavior:  family life under duress.  The ending is a little bit of a fuzzy feel good, but doesn't actually seem to be the main point of the novel.  The point of the novel is the getting there.
We have our two descriptive ratings, Realism and Readability: 1 to 7; with 4 at the mid-point and 7 high.
Realism is mixed.  The novel is clearly portraying a world that is not exactly ours.  The dystopian mindset of today would bring forth slightly different horrors than that of 1987.  The robotic predator drone showed up in 1984 with William Gibson's Neuromancer, but this author misses that fright.  Both missed cell phones.  On the positive side, it does an exceptional job of portraying possible mechanisms behind a slow social and economic collapse.  It does a better job portraying today's economic collapse on some levels, than some of today's contemporary novels.  We will call it a 5.
Readability is not its literary merit, but literally: "how painless of a read is this?"   It is not a page turner.  While it doesn't go too deep into high symbolism, there is a fair amount of moralizing over social and personal issues.  In particular, parts of the middle section began to get slow for me.  It takes a little while to get the story to where it is going.  It is a literary 4.
Thumbnail of very cool original Sea and Summer cover.  Larger version is here .

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Tartar Steppe: A Review

Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe (translation from Italian:  Tim Parks) is a dystopia of the here and now type novel which traces the life of a young officer posted to a far off, nearly forgotten frontier post, in the far off North.  The rocky lost wilderness outside the fortifications remind the soldiers of the rugged steppe country, and thus the name the Tartar Steppes.   The novel does have an apocalyptic flavor in so far as much of the time it involves the soldier's various concerns about encroachments on their fortification in anticipation of an attack by barbarian hordes.  Hordes that presumably storm in and destroy their country if they are not able to hold out long enough to allow reserves to come up and hold the passes.  The novel makes many best-ever type lists: here a top 100, and here the 1001 books you must read before you die.

Dino Buzzati (1906-1972) was an Italian novelist and artist.  His writing is described as being magical-realist in tone, although as an atheist his novel here does not try and find meaning from supernatural sources outside our own existence.   So as not to lose people right at the start, I should note that matters of a certain type of faith and authority are part of the ongoing discussion, and thus the book is not without relevance to matters of faith.

The book first came out in 1940, just prior to Italy entering the war on the side of the Germans.  The novel has been said to have been in part a criticism of Mussolini's earlier invasion of Ethiopia in a rather naked act of empire-building.  As the author was stationed in Italian East Africa at the time, that is very much possible.

When the movie was later made into a well known European film, the author noted the following:
"If I were the director - he said to me - for the soldiers of the Fortezza Bastiani I would not choose a single uniform, but all the most beautiful uniforms in history, as long as they were slightly worn, rather like old flags. I am thinking of the uniforms of the dragoons, the hussars, he musketeers encountered in the pages of Dumas, the Bengal Lancers, like the ones used in a film with Gary Cooper...Of course, together with the uniforms, also different helmets, caps and badges. In other words, a regiment that has never existed but which is universal". The question I asked Buzzati was: "Which uniform would you have lieutenant Drogo wear?". The answer came without hesitation, "I should dress him up like a Hapsburg officer because Drogo's life is pointless, but full of pride". - Dino Buzzati in an interview with Italian journalist Giulio Nascimbeni on the screen adaptation of his novel (courtesy) trad.Interpres-Giussano) (found here).

The novel starts with the young officer, Giovanni Drogo, setting of for his new posting deep in the mountains at the northern reaches of the country.  The fortress blocks a narrow exit from the rocky deserts beyond the mountains.   The soldiers are dutiful in their watchfulness, but much of the exercise seems pointless.  Drogo initially wants nothing more than to get back to civilization, but as time goes on he feels less and less attachment to the everyday concerns of city folk, and has developed an attachment to the mountains, and the solitude of the surroundings.  The time spent in the fortress duty is viewed as a waste of time, but the novel leaves very much open the question of who is wasting more time, the city folk with their busy affairs, or the soldiers in their quite watchfulness.

As time goes on, the garrison is slowly drawn down in size as the post is viewed as less and less a likely place of action.  While this goes on there are hints, and signs that their northern neighbors are becoming more interested in this area as an avenue of attack.  But with such a long period of peace, few really believe it.

As the novel reaches its conclusion, an invasion appears immanent, but all of Drogo's friends have retired from the service, and the elderly Drogo is not able to participate in any of the upcoming events.  The glory of action alludes him.  But the author notes, that to die bravely in battle, at the peak of ones powers is easy.  To die bravely, alone, after having done one's duty, but never seeing any acclamation or honer - that is hard.

Did I enjoy the novel?  I did.  It is not terribly long, the perfect bound paperback being 235 pages.  But it is not a page turner either.  The most interesting part for myself was the way that the focus on Drogo switches to one of lost opportunities for life in civilization, to one of lost opportunities due to being too old to participate in events.  As Taleb noted, there is an honor that belongs to those who stand guard, even if the event which they are guarding against never takes place on their watch.

For our descriptive ratings: Realism and Readability: 1 to 7 with 4 the  midpoint and 7 high.

For a novel said to be rather surrealistic, it is mostly pretty realistic.  Mostly the troops spend their time on monotonous guard duty, discussing their various prospects.  There is one scene in particular that has a ghostly quality, but to my mind it is well within the realms of illusion and mirage with which we can fool ourselves.  In the end, it seemed more universal than anything else.  I would put it at the midpoint:  a 4.

Readability is straightforward.  It is a rather philosophic novel, but the symbolism is not particularly hidden in any important way.  People try and find meaning in their life. As they get older, they may give up on ambition, but they don't loose hope for meaning.  Not a page turner, but still a quick read:  a literary 5.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Castle Argol: A Review

Julien Cracq's The Castle of Argol (Chateau d'Argol) is a Gothic-surrealistic novel set on the Breton Coast of France presumably sometime after World War 2.  As a Gothic novel it has elements of impending doom, and the noir/dark atmosphere of a dystopian novel.  It is a novel of both personal and societal decadence, doom, and decay.

Julien Cracq's was born Louis Poireir (1910-2007) at Saint-Florent-le-Old of the Loire region of France.  Published in 1938, the Castle of Argol is Julian Gracq's first novel.  An ardent Communist at the time this novel was written, he became disillusioned and turned  in his membership card prior to World War 2 (August 1939) after Nazi-Soviet (Hitler-Stalin) Non-Aggression Pact that led to Soviets being an undeclared supporter of the Germans through the early portions of the war.  Much like Malevil's author, Robert Merle, he served in the French Army (Infantry Lieutenant) and was captured by the Germans at Dunkirk.  Due to his poor health, he was released early and returned to his home. Although he wrote during the war, unlike René Barjavel who was a functionary in the Vichey French government, he had to wait for the war's end to continue publishing.  His most famous work The Opposing Shore (Le Rivage des Syrtes)(1951) frequently is listed within the cannon of great literature and shares some of the themes of this earlier work.

Cracq was heavily influenced by the surrealist movement, but is not generally included within it.

Gracq, although he did not belong to the organized Surrealist group (as organized as that pack ever got, anyway), had strong Surrealist sensibilities. His books all flutter darkly around the same ideas: waiting, yearning, mystery, the absolute, the reconciliation of two irreconcilable poles, and a sense of impending doom that makes the whole enterprise feel like Poe, or Lovecraft, if Lovecraft had ever taken his meds ((From: The Fisher King (Le roi pêcheur), Shelf Love, 18 February 2012)).

Gracq was contemptuous of the symbols and thinking of the established culture of Western Society.  Although new attempts at Democracy had replaced the earlier monarchies, he appears to have felt that a society of people, who simply followed the old rules and ways of thinking, was not likely to be any less stifling than the old ones.  Thus the complete overturning of society, as proposed by Communism, was of interest to him.  But the novel does not at all come across as being much interested in a workers paradise.  Real work, the type of work that puts food on people's plates, is not mentioned at all. This is a novel of Gothic mystery and decadence. So oddly enough it is  René Barjavel, the ardent French conservative and Nazi sympathiser, who wrote of an idealist post collapse society in Ashes, Ashes (Ravage) that comes much closer to the Communist ideal.

Much of the interest in reading this short novel is trying to pick out the various themes.  With much of the action being highly symbolic, and at the same time rather surreal, it is not always crystal clear.  Appropriately, one of the primary themes is the search for meaning, in both life and death, in a confusing, chaotic world.  Their are elements of Gnosticism in the writing, as the characters search out for the hidden meaning of the world.

Within the book, life and death are frequently shown as two sides of the same coin.  A long hard swim in the ocean, pushed to extremes, brings on extreme euphoria, but also very nearly death.  The sun gives life, while it destroys with its harsh glare.  This can be extended a little further- friendships can also be rivalries.

The dominant theme is that of the Fisher King.  The Fisher King was the holder of the Holy Grail in the Arthurian stories.  With an injured leg, he is disabled.  His infertility is projected onto his lands which are barren and desolate, and the otherwise inactive King spends his time fishing.  As told by Cracq, the Fisher King is symbolic of a society that has fallen into stasis- trapped within its own circle of impotent symbolism.  When the Knight Parcaval comes to rescue the situation, he is not given grace by the power of the Grail, but through the power of his own work:  "redemption to the redeemer" (p125).  The Fisher King was to remain one of the lasting themes of Cracq's work.

I did enjoy the novel.  It combined enough elements of over-the-top Gothic horror, with Poe-like psychological confusion, to be entertaining and even humorous at times.  It was short enough in length that the overall confusion didn't get to the point where it completely wore you down.

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

Realism?  The novel in addition to having elements of the surreal, is also very true to its Gothic nature.  What made the early Gothic novels unique is that they took the previously fantastical events of medieval fiction, and applied them to normal people.  What makes them interesting is the actions of normal people when confronted with events that are completely outside of the normal world.  Surrealism combined with Gothic, is inherently unrealistic:  a 1.

Readability?  The book is surreal.  It is particularly difficult, because the elements of Gothic horror, sometimes work counter current with the Poe-like madness that is in evidence.  It is not always clear that our narrators are particularly reliable.  The only  real actors in the piece, are the themes and symbols interspersed throughout.  The only easy thing about the read is that it is short.  That is not enough: it is a highly literary 1.

Author with surrealist writer  Nora Mitrani prior to her early death in 1969 (from here)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Genesis: A Review

Bernard Beckett's Genesis is a post-apocalyptic novel set in a future where the memory of the apocalypse are recounted as historical events.  The initial apocalyptic event was a world wide pandemic plague that killed most of humanity except on a small isolated island in the South Pacific.  The island's situation has stabilized, but at the start of the novel there is what appears to be a bit of a dystopian situation, and how all these changes came about is the general subject matter of the novel.  When the novel was originally released in New Zealand it was directed at a YA (young adult) audience.  It's various re-releases have generally been toward an adult market.

Hard bound cover - U.S.

Initially I thought Genesis was New Zealander, Bernard Beckett's first novel. More correctly it appears to be the first novel that broke out to a wider audience.  As is often the case, he has worked many years to become an overnight sensation.  He finished Genesis while he was on a research fellowship investigating DNA mutations.   At the moment he appears to be teaching drama, mathematics, and English as a high school teacher in Wellington, New Zealand.  Genesis won the Prix Sorcieres in France, was short listed for the Guardian Children’s Book Prize 2009, and won the NewZealand Post Book Award 2007 for Young Adults, and the 2007 Esther Glen Award.

The novel takes place at two levels simultaneously.  The story is told through a young lady who is giving an oral presentation to a group of examiners for admission to The Academy:  The Academy which sets the rules and organizes her present society.  The story she tells is of a famous individual, Adam Forde, who was a rebel against the Platonic philosophy based government that had ruled the island in the immediate aftermath of the apocalyptic crises.
At 157 pages it is not a particularly long work, coming very close to being a long novella.  With much of the dialog involving either issues of morality, or concepts of consciousness and humanness, it doesn't sound like a page turner;  But it is.  There is a lot of tension.  The young protagonist, Anex(imonder), is under  lot of pressure to do well under questioning, and at the same time there are sinister hints in the both the past tense story she is telling, and the present tense situation that is unfolding.  There is a double twist ending which some may catch on to part of, but I doubt many will figure out all of it.  But there are hints.  It's almost a philosophical murder mystery, without any obvious bodies around.
Obviously I liked the novel.  It has received a lot of hype in some quarters, and deserves it.  There is an immense amount of tension, and even violence of a sort dressed up within a YA novel.
We will move on to our two descriptive quantification:  Realism and Readability:  1 to 7:  4 is the midpoint, and seven is high.
Realism is a bit difficult.  It is mostly people talking to each other, so there is not a ton of material to be specifically unrealistic with.  But it does tend to deal with rather higher concept issues than the living of day to day life, and there is a science fiction speculative element that clearly removes it from the current world setting.  In net I would but it at the midpoint: a 4.
Readability is easy.   There is a little bit of symbolism as many of the characters have the names of ancient Greek philosophers or leaders.  They are all pretty obvious and easy to google.  There is of course an Adam, and an (intentionally ironically named) Eve.   So we will take off a point for obscuring symbolism of on a minor scale.  Otherwise it is a relatively short page turner:  a literary six.

One of the YA audience covers

Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Reviews from afar: Round 2

Afar in this case means not written in either the two dominant post-apocalyptic powers - the United States and Britain.

Per our previous, foreign born round, these tend to be more dystopian, than strictly apocalyptic.  Although in all cases, the discussion of declining or collapsing civilization is under discussion.

In order of appearance:

Monday - Bernard Beckett's Genesis (New Zealand)
Tuesday - Julien Cracq's Castle Argol
Wednesday - Dino Buzzati's Tartar Steppe
Thursday - George Turner's Drowning Tower (a.k.a.Sea and Summer)
Friday - David Longo's Last Man Standing

One of the books makes frequent best all time novel lists (Tartar Steppe), the other is written by an author who makes the same list for a somewhat similar novel (Julien Cracq), just not the one I am reviewing, George Turner's novel often makes the list of all time great science fiction. Bernard Beckett received critical acclaim for Genesis, and David Longo's is probably the most fun to read of the bunch.  How can you go wrong when you have a post apocalyptic novel somewhat in the vein of The Road, that features an elephant.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Grads making less and peak employment

I am a little late getting to this, but college graduate earnings dropped again in 2011.  The early reports from 2012 were hopeful, but still preliminary: we should know by now that this stuff gets corrected a lot.

Young College Grads: Real Earnings Fell in 2011
Diana G. Carew, PPI, 20 September 2012 (hat top: MR)

Note that this is part of the deflationary spiral that should be embarrassing the Austrian-style economists.  Or it would, if the other economists had a better clue.
Real wages are a very strong indication that an economy is turning around.  Wages are a  concurrent indicator, employment is a lagging one.  Companies will add overtime before they will add workers.  Note the sharp up tic (2003 to late 2005) matches very closely the housing boom's best years with August of 2005 being the peak of housing construction.  In a short cyle, peak employment is often just before a downturn.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Creative class won't save us

I have always like some of Richard Florida's ideas as far as showing the trends where the better jobs would be, I just thought that he pushed the idea of a creative class renaissance way to far.  While having a booming artsy class in your city is obviously going to help the municipal tax base, it is much more difficult to see  why exactly the prosperity is going to rub off on everyone else.

Fallacy of the creative class: Why Richard Florida’s ‘urban renaissance’ won’t save U.S. cities
Susan Cagle, Grist,11 February 2013 (no ht)
It was an urbanist’s nightmare. On Feb. 1, a teenager was shot dead in the middle of a popular art gallery walk and street fair in Oakland, Calif. — a town that highlights exactly what a city wins and loses when it attracts a huge influx of the vaunted “creative class.”...
By the urbanist creative-class metric, Oakland is winning. It’s a top city for urban farmers, local organic gourmet food snobs (love you, food snobs!), cyclists, and art-lovers. It’s home to a growing number of imported young makers, tech start-ups, and rising artists, in large part because of its close proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. At the same time, about 13 percent of Oakland residents are unemployed, and the city still has one of the highest murder rates in the nation, especially for teens.
So are the new urban homesteaders lifting all boats along with them.

More Losers Than Winners in America's New Economic Geography
Richard Florida, Atlantic Cities, 30 January 2013 (hat tip: Susan Gagle's Grist article above)
Highly skilled knowledge, professional, and creative workers continue to benefit. They have more than enough left over in the more expensive metros. The positive correlation between their wages left over and housing costs (.58) indicates this, and the line on the scatter-graph points upward.
But the opposite is true for the other two classes of workers. The correlations between left-over wages and housing costs are negative and significant for each of them (-.36 for service workers and -.20 for blue-collar workers), and the lines on the scatter-graphs slope down.
The trickle-down effect disappears once the higher housing costs borne by less skilled workers are taken into account. The benefits of highly skilled regions accrue mainly to knowledge, professional, and creative workers. While less-skilled blue-collar and service workers also earn more in these places, more expensive housing costs eat away those gains. There is a rising tide of sorts, but it only lifts about the most advantaged third of the workforce, leaving the other 66 percent much further behind.
So if the workers stay near their job, they get higher pay, put the rent and food costs eat up all the difference.
This reality is almost the norm in America.  The help, whether it is the police, firemen, or the McDonald's employees, cannot afford to live in most areas of Urban Middle America where they work.  Although there is a lot of talk about the 1% taking all the money, the 10 to 20% in America can still do reasonably well for themselves.  They just can't afford to let too much of their money trickle down to the servants.With automation, and immigration, and to some degree, even the Walmart throw-away culture,  helping to eliminate or reduce the pay of many of the working class jobs, the workers fight over the remnants.  That keeps the pay low. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Indian small farm miracle?

A village in India is using new planting methods and has broken two records for food production: rice, as shown below, and potatoes.  Not surprisingly, this news is being picked up by various alternative food sites.

India's rice revolution
John Vidal, The Guadian (U.K.), 16 February 2013 (hat tip: NC)
Instead of planting three-week-old rice seedlings in clumps of three or four in waterlogged fields, as rice farmers around the world traditionally do, the Darveshpura farmers carefully nurture only half as many seeds, and then transplant the young plants into fields, one by one, when much younger. Additionally, they space them at 25cm intervals in a grid pattern, keep the soil much drier and carefully weed around the plants to allow air to their roots. The premise that "less is more" was taught by Rajiv Kumar, a young Bihar state government extension worker who had been trained in turn by Anil Verma of Professional Assistance for Development Action, an Indian NGO which has introduced the SRI method to hundreds of villages in the past three years.
While the "green revolution" that averted Indian famine in the 1970s relied on improved crop varieties, expensive pesticides and chemical fertilisers, SRI appears to offer a long-term, sustainable future for no extra cost. With more than one in seven of the global population going hungry and demand for rice expected to outstrip supply within 20 years, it appears to offer real hope. Even a 30% increase in the yields of the world's small farmers would go a long way to alleviating poverty.
For myself, I will wait and see.  The methods don't seem different enough to be a world record practise, and there are not any confirming, follow up reports.   That world farmers can probably squeeze out a bit more efficiency wouldn't be stunning news.  But world records with fairly mundane practises seems unlikely: time will tell

Monday, February 18, 2013

The second great killer

The first great world killer is mosquitos who pass around malaria, yellow fever, and a variety of other deadly diseases - although in North America, Deer are involved in more deadly accidents through car wrecks, than people dying of malaria.

The second big killer is not particularly well known:

Tommy Leung, Parasite of the Day (blog), 17 February 2013 (no ht)
Blood flukes from the Schistosoma genus is found in over 77 countries, infecting at least 230 million people, and second only to malaria as the most socioeconomically crippling parasitic disease in the world. But the majority of flukes from the the Schistosomatidae family do not infect humans; they parasitise other species of mammals, as well as birds. There are about 100 known species of schistosome flukes around the world. Understandably, those species from the genus Schistosoma are the most extensively studied due to their public health importance. However, there are many other blood flukes for which very little is known on even the most basic aspect of their ecology.
The post above is about elephant blood flukes.

 Blood flukes are found in warm areas.  The human version, like malaria, it is a two animal disease, with the babies (larva) living in water snails, and the adults living in the abdomen.
They aren't found in North America.  I imagine they don't do well in cold climates in general.
But unless you are one of the religious Fox News worshipers I know ("I just don't buy into global warming"), you may have had some thoughts about the weather getting a bit warmer lately.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Nuclear nun update

An update on our nun, who is not Megan Fox, and her friends.
In the arguments about what the U.S. Government will, or won't do in (self perceived) extremes to its own citizens, we might want to look at some protesters who cut a chain link fence, snuck into a (poorly guarded) facility, spread around some blood, and photographed themselves with a sign.

Punishing Anti-Nuke Protesters
John La Forge,, 13 February 2013 (hat tip: NC)
All three are out of jail on conditional release preparing for trial — set for May 7 — on three felony charges that together carry a maximum of 35 years on prison. Yes, 35 years for trespassing, spray painting and embarrassing.
Good think they didn't kill anyone! They'd be looking at serious time!

One wonders if they are being prosecuted for their crimes, or prosecuted for embarrassing those in power?  You don't have to agree with their particular protest to question what is going on.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Renawable energy now cheaper in Australia

Part of the problem when comparing renewables with fossil fuel is that the subsidies for renewables is generally more transparent than those in place for fossil fuels.  How exactly do you factor in the cost of those aircraft carriers (not to mention wars) over in the Middle East?

This appears to be an effort to alleviate some that imbalance.

Renewable energy now cheaper than new fossil fuels in Australia
Bloomburg, 7 February 2013 (hat tip: Big Picture)
Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s research on Australia shows that since 2011, the cost of wind generation has fallen by 10% and the cost of solar photovoltaics by 29%. In contrast, the cost of energy from new fossil-fuelled plants is high and rising. New coal is made expensive by high financing costs. The study surveyed Australia’s four largest banks and found that lenders are unlikely to finance new coal without a substantial risk premium due to the reputational damage of emissions-intensive investments – if they are to finance coal at all. New gas-fired generation is expensive as the massive expansion of Australia’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) export market forces local prices upwards. The carbon price adds further costs to new coal- and gas-fired plant and is forecast to increase substantially over the lifetime of a new facility.
BNEF’s analysts conclude that by 2020, large-scale solar PV will also be cheaper than coal and gas, when carbon prices are factored in. By 2030, dispatchable renewable generating technologies such as biomass and solar thermal could also be cost-competitive.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What is all the cheering about?

I guess I am getting a little tired of some of the cheer leading.

The New Reality Of 'Economic Recovery' For American Workers
Testosterone Pit, 7 February 2013 (hat tip: NC)
“Deeply pessimistic” is the term used in the sobering survey, “Diminished Lives and Futures: A Portrait of America in the Great-Recession Era.” A confirmation of bits and pieces of economic data that has been trickling in over the years on this topic.
Just today, for example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that wages adjusted for inflation had continued their morose decline: in 2012, by 0.4% after having already declined 0.5% in 2011. It doesn’t seem much. With nominal wages rising, workers might temporarily be fooled into thinking that they’re moving ahead. But enough of those declines, and pretty soon you’re talking about some real money.
They compound the lingering impact of the financial crisis. “Five years of economic misery have profoundly diminished Americans’ confidence in the economy and their outlook for the next generation,” conclude the authors of the survey. And yet, since 2007, Congress borrowed $8 trillion, nearly doubling the US gross national debt to $16.48 trillion, and the Fed printed another $2.1 trillion, all under the unholy pretext of wanting to stimulate the economy

The sobering survey is Diminished Lives and Futures: A Portrait of America in the Great-Recession Era (pdf).

The husband of someone I work with, an Iraqi Vet who is/was working as an Electrician was just laid of because the company ran out of work.  He had just received a raise a few weeks earlier but than the tap simply ran dry for new work coming in.  From what I have seen, almost all types of service work (plumbing, hvac, electrical) are very slow.  New construction is vastly over prescribed in the number of bidders for each job.  Since we are talking about the much discussed Research Triangle Park (RTP- the triangle being Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State U.) we are not talking about some lost backwoods of the economy.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Shot first, and often

As Yves over at Naked Capitalism (NC) noted, "The LAPD is giving trigger-happy goons everywhere a bad name."

Police seeking Dorner opened fire in a second case of mistaken identity
Robert Faturechi and Matt Stevens, Los Angelos Times, 9 February 2013 (hat tip: NC)
In the first incident, LAPD officers opened fire on another pickup they feared was being driven by Dorner. The mother and daughter inside the truck were delivering Los Angeles Times newspapers. The older woman was shot twice in the back and the other was wounded by broken glass.
David Perdue was on his way to sneak in some surfing before work Thursday morning when police flagged him down. They asked who he was and where he was headed, then sent him on his way.
Seconds later, Perdue's attorney said, a Torrance police cruiser slammed into his pickup and officers opened fire; none of the bullets struck Perdue.

The police opening fire on the wrong people is not exactly new.  But today they do it with a lot more fire power.

Monday, February 11, 2013


The complaints from the right about Obamacare are fairly well reported in the MSM.  What I don't see as much of is the numerous, and truthefully more detailed and pointed complaints from the left.

Obamacare: A Deception
Paul Craig Roberts, Counterpunch 5 February 2013 (hat tip: NC)
What this means is that those Americans with the least or no disposable income are faced in effect with a substantial pay cut. The author provides an example of a 35 year-old with a MAGI of $27,925. The out-of- pocket cost to this person of a Silver level plan (second least expensive) is $187.33 per month. This cost is based on pre-tax income, that is, before income is reduced by payroll and income taxes. There goes the car payment or utility bill. The lives of millions of Americans will change drastically as they struggle with a new, large expense – particularly in an era of no jobs, low-paying jobs and rising cost of living.
The general outline of Obamacare was outlined by the insurance industry.  That the end result that came out of all the political haggling may bankrupt them is a possibility.  However, they were very much at the table when the ball got rolling.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


Michael Pettis has been the Doctor Doom of trade/currency imbalances for some time now.  He seems to be a little under exposed for someone I see quoted a lot in the financial blogging sphere.  He has had a blog for some time, and is one of the few people who can (almost) make the issues of trade imbalances comprehensible.

He has a new book out called the Great Rebalancing.

From the book blurb:
The Great Rebalancing: Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead For the World Economy
hat tip MR
China's economic growth is sputtering, the Euro is under threat, and the United States is combating serious trade disadvantages. Another Great Depression? Not quite. Noted economist and China expert Michael Pettis argues instead that we are undergoing a critical rebalancing of the world economies. Debunking popular misconceptions, Pettis shows that severe trade imbalances spurred on the recent financial crisis and were the result of unfortunate policies that distorted the savings and consumption patterns of certain nations. Pettis examines the reasons behind these destabilizing policies, and he predicts severe economic dislocations--a lost decade for China, the breaking of the Euro, and a receding of the U.S. dollar--that will have long-lasting effects.

His message: "The global crises is a function of the domestic trade and capital imbalances, it would be meaningless to proclaim the end of the crisis until the underlying imbalances have either been worked out or are rescued to sustainable levels".
Note, to my mind, what level it rebalanced at would be a factor of how strong the underlying economies actually are.  At the sustainable, balanced level, we don't seem particularly strong.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Traffic jams off life

A different look at information cascades.  System cascades are often viewed as one way that complex systems get put down.  Small problems in one node, tumble the next node, until a wave of collapse brings down the central core, and with it the entire periphery.  It is the fear of this cascading effect that is the primary stated reason why our government hands lots of money to failing large banks.  But there is another cascading mechanism that can work toward instability:  somewhat in reverse.  What happens when a cascade of ideas and opinions stops?

The power and the terror of Irrational Expectations
Noah Smith, Noahpinion, 29 January 2013 (hat tip: NC)
But to me, that's not even the most disturbing implication of Malmendier's finding, and of this type of expectations model in general. In most theories of non-rational expectations, like Bayesian learning or rational inattention, expectations evolve in a smooth, stable way. And so these models, as Chris Sims writes, look reassuringly like rational-expectations models. But there is no guarantee that real-world expectations must behave according to a stable, tractable model. I see no a priori reason to reject the possibility that expectations react in highly unstable, nonlinear ways. Like tectonic plates that build up pressure and then slip suddenly and unpredictably, expectations may be subject to some kind of "cascades". This can happen in some simple examples, like in the theory of "information cascades" [pdf] (In that theory, people are actually rational, but incomplete markets prevent their information from reaching the market, and beliefs can shift abruptly as a result). In the real world, with its tangle of incomplete markets, bounded rationality, and structural change, expectations may be subject to all kinds of instabilities.
In other words, to use Lucas' turn of phrase, expectations might just make themselves up...and we might get any result that we don't want.
In both of the links, the idea at work, inattention/information cascades theory,  works on the idea that people simply don't have time to work out every possible decision for themselves.  To a varying degree, mostly a very large one, we tend to follow along with the group because enough members of the group have made a decision to go in a certain direction, and we have not received any, or enough negative feedback to change our minds.  We go to work following along with the rest of the vehicles until we hear a traffic report on the radio, or until we hit an impasse.
[pdf] A Theory of Fads, Fashion, Custom, and Cultural Change as Informational Cascades
Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer, Ivo Welch; Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 100, No. 5 (Oct., 1992), pp. 992-1026

This paper offers an explanation not only of why people conform but also of why convergence of behavior can be idiosyncratic and fragile. In our model, individuals rapidly converge on one action on the basis of some but very little information. If even a little new information arrives, suggesting that a different course of action is optimal, or if people even suspect that underlying circumstances have changed (whether or not they really have), the social equilibrium may radically shift. Our model, which is based on what we call "informational cascades," explains not only conformity but also rapid and short-lived fluctuations such as fads, fashions, booms, and crashes. In the theories of conformity discussed earlier, small shocks lead to big shifts in mass behavior only if people happen to be very close to the borderline between alternatives. Informational cascades explain why society, on the basis of little information, will systematically tend to land close to the borderline, causing fragility
 Fragility.  Hmmm...

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The rise and decline of letters

In this case, value-wise, it would be the letters "Z" and "Q".

Scrabble: Should letter values change?
Laura Gray, BBC News, 14 January 2013
All Scrabble players know that Q and Z are the highest scoring tiles. You can get 10 points for each, in the English language version of the game.
But according to one American researcher, Z really only deserves six points.
And it's not just Z that's under fire. After 75 years of Scrabble, some argue that the current tile values are out of date as certain letters have become more common than they used to be.

Call for controversial word score changes in Scrabble
Richard Allyne, The Telegraph, 15 January 2013 (hat tip: MR)
Among the notable additions are all of these short words which make it easVaier to play Z, Q and X, so even though Q and Z are the highest value letters in Scrabble, they are now much easier to play.
So "X" is holding its value, and as noted in the first article, "U" should be gaining.  My guess is that the Spanish ñ (enye) is trying to shoulder its way into American versions.

Monday, February 4, 2013

New York's hurricane coast

Sandy brought together a number of variables that all worked together to maximize the damage from a storm that was down to tropical storm wind speeds when it finally made landfall.  One I had not heard of before was the unusual angle which it made landfall.  Essentially taking a left hook into the shore line.

Risks of Hurricane Sandy-like Surge Events Rising
Andrew Freedman, Climate Central, 24 January 2013 (Hat tip: Big Picture)
The impact angle of Hurricane Sandy was its most unusual feature, ensuring the storm surge would case maximum damage, Hall said. The storm's left-hand turn put the most dangerous right-front quadrant on top of New Jersey and southeastern New York, pummeling these areas with an historic storm surge and record high waves. That, combined with astronomical high tides, led to record storm tide levels.The researchers used statistical techniques and computer modeling to simulate millions of “synthetic" tropical cyclones in the Atlantic in order to determine the likelihood of another storm making a Sandy-esque dramatic left hook toward the coast, striking the most heavily populated region of the U.S. at a nearly perpendicular angle.
The study found that Sandy’s track stands alone in the historical record dating back to 1851, and that modeling simulations showed such a track is an event that would occur about once every 714 years. However, that does not mean that a storm like Sandy won’t affect New Jersey and New York for another 714 years, but rather that the average annual probability of another Hurricane Sandy occurring is .14 percent.
That may seem low, but according to Hall and separate research published in Nature Climate Change in February of 2012, global warming-related sea level rise is likely to make destructive storm surges like Hurricane Sandy’s much more common in the next few decades, regardless of whether storms follow a path similar to Sandy.
Anyone who lives in hurricane territory knows they can take odd paths.  As an example, there have been two separate hurricanes named Diane that have made landfall, went back out to see, and then made landfall a second time. 
If I am governor of New York, I am still going to be worried more about inland flooding from high moisture content hurricanes/tropical storms.  But the potential for New York becoming anything like the Hurricane Coast of the Carolinas is really bad news.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

More frosty apocalyptic releases: William C. Dietz's The Seeds of Man

Given that the hot house planet is the recognized (or denied) future gloom inducing trend, it is interesting to see so many icy apocalypses released in such short order.  We recently had both Lexi Revellian, and our friend D. Robert Grixti releasing frozen end times fare.
Now we have William C. Dietz, a well established science fiction author who seems to reside within the highly commercial, (possibly) male-driven, science fiction adventure niche.
The possibly too serious minded Science Fiction Encyclopedia dams him slightly with feint praise:
As an author of entertainments, Dietz stands out for his thorough grasp of the devices of sf.
In any case his new icy fair is The Seeds of Man

From the blurb:
With The Seeds of Man New York Times bestselling science fiction author William C. Dietz offers us a post apocalyptic future where bullets can be used to purchase anything, and only the strongest will survive.
Millions were killed during a brief nuclear war. But now, fifty years later, the world is locked in the cold embrace of a nuclear winter and food is scarce. Billions of people are dead of starvation and the survivors are battling each other for what remains.
Two youngsters are running around in this mess.  The seeds are from a seed bank, so I don't think it involves the type of seed (as in spilling) in Genesis 38:9
I don't have anything against the cover, but although Dietz is the heavy of the three authors we have noted, I think I like the other two covers better.  Particularly Ms. Lexi's snowglobe.  Dietz's cover for some reason it just seems like it is Paul Bunyan on the front cover.