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More nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize

So the winner of this year’s  Nobel Peace Price is …. the EU? What the heck? Who’s going to be awarded the 2013 peace prize — the Nobel Peace Prize committee itself?

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2014 will be awarded to the word “peace”  … for its undeniable power to help people express their ideas more easily.

For 2015 the Peace Prize will be awarded to “Life” for demonstrating  temerity not to shirk from terrifying nonexistence and to  infuse people with the desire to live and let live.

For 2016 it will be awarded to the “smile” for its unsung role in promoting peace and cooperation.

For 2017 it will be awarded to “paper” without whom the leading peace treaties would never  have been possible.

For 2018 it will be awarded to “war” — which frankly has gotten a bad rap these last few centuries — but whose contrast helps us to value what peace itself is.

For 2019 it will be awarded to “myself” , the place where all peace has to start.

For 2020 it will be awarded to “traffic lights” for its crucial role in preventing collisions and disputes.

For 2021 it will be awarded to “Rainbows” for suggesting a kind of society which unifies all kinds.

For 2022 it will be awarded to “wimps” who are brave enough to embrace the path of nonconflict against intimidation and aggresison.

For 2022 a joint award will be given to   “cannabis” for promoting the cause of indifference to conflict.

For 2023 it will be awarded to “Martin Luther King” because there’s nothing wrong with repeating oneself sometimes.

For 2024 a joint award will be given to “mouthwash and underarm deodorant” for helping people to get closer.

I realize that with this year’s  award, the Nobel committee has made a clever  and interesting point about the benefits of international bodies. But the main purpose of awards is  to identify and reward extraordinary individuals. You are squandering this real value of an award when you try to reward  institutions  rather than individuals. Individuals are the ones who actually  fight for these concepts. They are outgunned and underfunded. Their individual struggles matter, and awards can help expose these struggles  to a wider audience and raise the status of these people in their own society. Peacemakers, contrary to what you might think, rarely make the news; they rarely work with a sizable PR budget, and frankly they don’t often “win” (even if ultimately their point of view ends up prevailing over the long term).


(the photos you see are for the intersection of Westheimer and Greenridge in Houston, Texas. Click here for a Google maps street view (here is the actual address in Google Maps)

Pardon the macabre nature of this post, but I wanted to call attention to how often cars come to killing pedestrians and cyclists. It frightens the daylights out of me. Drivers of cars are oblivious they are when they are hauling around this ton of metal. It’s bad enough that car drivers are gradually eliminating the climate as we know it; they also have a gigantic capability to issue a fatal blow to another human without trying very hard.

I vividly recall a tragic moment from my college years. I was speeding down  a country road — taking a short cut to reach the highway to San Antonio and I crushed a fairly large turtle in the middle of the road which was lunging away from me as fast as a turtle could. I also remember a time when my dog got loose and ran onto a crowded road and was hit by a car. As tragic as these deaths were, I recognized that for drivers it was more dangerous to swerve away from these animals than to crash into them. The nightmare scenario involved swerving to miss a cat and running into an SUV and killing everybody in  the process.

Another vivid college memory. While driving my parents to San Antonio, I got a traffic ticket for speeding. My dad never let me hear the end of it. On the way home, my dad insisted on driving, with me on the passenger seat (my mom went home separately). We turned into Schulenberg to get gas, and as we headed to a four way stop on the feeder, my dad  accidentally pushed his foot on the gas instead of the break. The action flustered him so badly that he didn’t realize what had happened; he thought the car was out of control. We looked ahead and we saw an 18 wheeler truck ahead of us which we would surely hit. I quickly honked the horn several times, and the truck driver and another driver managed to yield to us while we flew past the stop sign and back onto the freeway again. Eventually my dad realized that the problem was merely a misplaced foot, but we both recognized that this random mistake could have cost  us our lives. Years later, both of us would recall that incident with the same feeling of trepidation and the sense that my quick thinking (and  luck) had probably  saved  our lives.

Those are memorable moments, to be sure. And I’ve had several small accidents which could have been worse than they were. But I have had a LOT more near misses as a pedestrian or cyclist than as a driver.

In 1991 or 1992 on Kirby and West Alabama,  I was knocked off my bike  by a pizza delivery boy in a pick up truck. He just hadn’t seen me. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention; who knows? He was  sorry (and did pay for my bike). Luckily I wasn’t hurt. A few years later in the Rice Village, I was waiting at a stop light on the right lane. Various cars were inching forward to turn right on the red light. Even though I wasn’t at the front of the line, all the cars ahead of me had advanced and turned right at the red, so I ended up moving forward also.  Then the car behind me turned right – brushing me down swiftly. The driver hopped out apologetically. He was a doctor and obviously  a responsible person. He had hit me after coasting a few yards  and accelerating. It didn’t hurt me or my bike, but it scared me because it was so unexpected. It never occurred to me that a stationary car at a red light could just run into me. As the doctor went back to his car, he said, “Be careful!”. “No, you be careful!” I jeered in as contempuous a tone as possible.

I can’t find the video or article in question, but a pedestrian once crossed a busy intersection with her two children of elementary school age. Both kids were killed, and instead of the driver being charged with involuntary manslaughter or  just ticketed, the mother herself was charged with a felony. All right, you say, what kind of crazy woman would walk with her kids across a busy street? As it turns out, the situation was substantially more complicated. The mother lived in an apartment complex with a few hundred residents.   There was no crosswalk to walk down; the nearest one was a mile in the opposite direction. There was not even a path to this nearest red light/crosswalk. There  were simply tall weeds. Many of  the apartment dwellers who didn’t have cars crossed the middle of the street in the same way.  The woman eventually escaped the felony charge, but this horrifying incident  underscores how bad urban planning often is partly to blame.

Of course, if a pedestrian or bicyclist is negligent, he or she rarely ends up killing the other party. I won’t deny that there are probably some daredevil bicyclists on the road, (most are just ignorant or uneducated), but most of the bicyclists follow the law to the letter. Why? Because they are absolutely terrified of being struck dead by a motorist who wasn’t paying attention.  About  once a month I come close or somewhat close to a near fatal accident. 95% of the time, it’s not my fault.  It’s the fault of a motorist who wasn’t looking or talking on the telephone.  Here is my nightmare vision of my mortality:

A woman who is happily chatting away on the telephone makes a rolling right turn without stopping or realizing that she has just crushed  a pedestrian or bicyclist who had been  trying to cross the street.  That split second that matters – when the woman is busy talking about Starbucks or the latest episode of the Bachelor or sharing the latest office gossip – is the moment which will determine whether I will live or die.

About a month ago I was at a complete stop while waiting for the light to go green. In the meantime, a woman in a Honda on a cellphone just coasted by me to take a quick right turn on the red. She did not see me and practically hit me. She was going only 10 miles an hour (if that much) but the sudden acceleration to take advantage in the  traffic lull was unexpected and downright scary.

When that happened, I immediately backed away from the curb to the sidewalk only to have the very next car (another girl talking on the cell phone) do the exact same thing!

Here is another scenario which happens almost once a month. I am on a side road on Westheimer – Greenridge(the same one where the woman almost hit me). Westheimer is a major Houston street, but at this red light intersection,  there is no protected green. I am on my bicycle and  waiting to cross Westheimer. I am not turning right; I just want to cross Westheimer and continue down the same road to my apartment. But oncoming traffic wants only to make a right turn onto Westheimer. Westheimer is where everybody wants to be, you see.

So the light turns green, and I ride straight. Normally, when there is no protected right turn on green, you are always supposed to yield to oncoming traffic. But here’s the thing. Oncoming traffic almost never yields to a bicyclist going straight ahead in the opposite direction. Instead, oncoming cars usually tear ahead of me to turn left onto Westheimer.  Occasionally it’s because the driver hasn’t noticed me, but most of the time  it’s because the driver just feels that even though the bicyclist has the right of way, the car (by virtual of its size)  doesn’t need to, and instead the bicyclist needs to do the yielding. This ambiguity is what creates the danger.

These are regular occurrences for me. I read a horrifying article about bike safety. It reported fatalities involving many  experienced and safety-conscious bicyclists  who were wearing all the right gear and obeying traffic regulations to the letter. The problem they didn’t anticipate is that the driver would never see them; either they weren’t paying attention or weren’t attuned to this kind of distraction.  There are these amazing bike lights called Knog lights which shout their presence to cars. The problem is that if you are coming at a less-than-ideal angle or speeding, this extra light may not do anything to deter a driver’s behavior.

Daniel Duane wrote a [paywalled]  ground-breaking article discussing how rarely the driver is punished or even ticketed for extinguishing a bicyclist life:

In stories where the driver had been cited, the penalty’s meagerness defied belief, like the teenager in 2011 who drove into the 49-year-old cyclist John Przychodzen from behind on a road just outside Seattle, running over and killing him. The police issued only a $42 ticket for an “unsafe lane change” because the kid hadn’t been drunk and, as they saw it, had not been driving recklessly.

You don’t have to be a lefty pinko cycling activist to find something weird about that. But try a Google search for “cyclist + accident” and you will find countless similar stories: on Nov. 2, for example, on the two-lane coastal highway near Santa Cruz, Calif., a northbound driver lost control and veered clear across southbound traffic, killing Joshua Alper, a 40-year-old librarian cycling in the southbound bike lane. As usual: no charges, no citation. Most online comments fall into two camps: cyclists outraged at inattentive drivers and wondering why cops don’t care; drivers furious at cyclists for clogging roads and flouting traffic laws.

But studies performed in Arizona, Minnesota and Hawaii suggest that drivers are at fault in more than half of cycling fatalities. And there is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene. When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it’s like there’s a collective cultural impulse to say, “Oh, well, accidents happen.” If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, “Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,” that will most likely be good enough.

“We do not know of a single case of a cyclist fatality in which the driver was prosecuted, except for D.U.I. or hit-and-run,” Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told me.

Laws do forbid reckless driving, gross negligence and vehicular manslaughter. The problem, according to Ray Thomas, a Portland, Ore., attorney who specializes in bike law, is that “jurors identify with drivers.” Convictions carry life-destroying penalties, up to six years in prison, Mr. Thomas pointed out, and jurors “just think, well, I could make the same mistake. So they don’t convict.” That’s why police officers and prosecutors don’t bother making arrests. Most cops spend their lives in cars, too, so that’s where their sympathies lie.

Drivers are always killing bicyclists and pedestrians, but bicyclists and pedestrians never kill drivers. That’s the way of the world. The only way these flaws of urban planning  are corrected when a death of a cyclist or pedestrian is particularly horrific. If I am one of the unlucky ones, perhaps they will stumble upon this blog post and realized that the danger was always there and acknowledged – but no one bothered to do anything about it.

From now on, I will compile a list of these strange drivers who through stupidity or inattention nearly killed me.

  1. Oct 1, 2012. I exited my Metro bus, and when the light turned green, I was nearly going to walk on the crosswalk when a man in his fifties hurriedly drove to the intersection and stopped 3/4 of the way into the crosswalk. If I had not been particularly careful, or if I had started walking when the light turned green, he would have certainly hit me. I was so shocked that I yelled out the man (I was wearing a business shirt and slacks). But the man was fiddling with his radio and he didn’t even  notice me.
  2. Oct 17, 2012. I was riding my bike early in the morning. I was ready to cross Voss at Voss and Westheimer. I had a WALK sign, but one of the oncoming SUVs from Westheimer was 1/3 through a right turn when the person noticed me.  I think the driver knew I was there (there were no cars on the road), but I was amazed that the car never really stopped when turning right and how close the car actually got to me.
  3. Oct 20, 2012. (Voss/Westheimer) A young Indian man in a small car was talking casually on the phone  to a friend, and as he turned right on a red light, just happened to notice that unless he slowed down he would surely kill me!
  4. Oct 21, 2012.  (Greenridge/Westheimer)At a red light, an impatient man in a huge pick up truck gave me a dirty look when he realized that I was manning the pedestrian lane and ready to go forward on the green. This man clearly saw me, but the way he drove ferociously to cross the pedestrian path ahead of me was frightening. Pick up trucks not only are loud, but they can accelerate very quickly.
  5. January 18, 2013 (Richmond and Fountain View). A cute and well dressed lady in a small car was preparing to turn right at  Richmond to Highway 59. The light was red and she was inching forward to turn right on red, but she didn’t notice that I had already  started to walk my bike across the street.  Luckily, she caught herself  by the time her car came within 4 or 5 feet of me. Close call!  She gave me the usual humorous and apologetic expression that suggested she certainly had no idea she was so close to running me over.  I guess I should be relieved that she looked so apologetic; on the other hand,  tigers tend to be very playful and friendly to their prey before they tear them to pieces!
  6. May 13, 2013 (Greenridge/Westheimer). A Toyota Camry sped up to beat a red light and in the process nearly destroyed my life force. I’m careful enough now to count 5 seconds before crossing the street, but it’s still shocking to think that for the inexperienced bike rider, he or she would never be alert to this possibility.
  7. August 2, 2013 (Greenridge/Westheimer). This is not a near miss, but a VERY scary situation. A man driving a huge  SUV that was very elevated off the ground, was at a red light, and so was I. We were waiting together. I was ahead of him and planning to go straight. The SUV driver was planning to turn right onto Westheimer. But his hood was so high off the ground that he probably couldn’t see me or my bike — and I’m a tall person! He was pleasantly talking on the phone to someone, while inching ahead. I tried signaling him with my hands to make him aware of my presence; eventually I started shouting! But the man was unable to hear. The SUV had insulated all the outside noises, and plus he wanted to hear what his buddy was saying to him about the latest game. I was almost ready to back off and just let him pass — a sudden jerk of 2 or 3 feet could possibly destroy me and my bike. But as luck would have it, the man was a cautious driver and he waited a few seconds for the red light to turn green before advancing.
  8. September  25, 2013.  (Fountain View & Woodway). A totally bizarre encounter. An older woman on a cell phone was trying to make a right turn on a red. She was inching her car slowly ahead. But it  didn’t occur to her that there was one bicyclist (me!) and a pedestrian waving frantically from her right trying to get her attention so we could walk across the crosswalk to the other  side. We were yelling at the top of our voices, but the woman could not hear. She was still talking on her phone, waiting for the right opportunity to turn a rapid right. But the woman never saw us; we had the right of way; we had limited time to cross the street, yet this woman’s phone conversation made her so oblivious to the people 4 feet away from her that the pedestrian and I decided to wait for the light to turn green and red again before trying to cross.
  9. October 11, 2013. (Greenridge/Westheimer).  An Indian woman and her daughter in a gigantic SUV (Range Rover) were in a parking lot driveway for a strip mall with a red light. She was trying to make a right turn onto Westheimer on the red. Even though she clearly saw my bike go by, she didn’t realize that I was parked to her right at the right side of the lane — prepared to go forward. Again, the bad angle of the SUV driver seat made it hard for her to see me, but her daughter in the passenger seat finally noticed me, so the woman waved me ahead.
  10. November 6, 2013. (Greenridge/Westheimer). At 6 PM I tried to ride across the street when the light turned green. But three cars coming in my direction decided that rather than yield to me — that was only the LAW — they would simply turn left ahead of me and hope that I would yield.
  11. December 17, 2013 (Greenridge/Westheimer). At about 5:30 PM, I almost got hit by an SUV driver who cut in front of me from the Chilis parking lot driveway. (Ironically it occurred 15 seconds after 2 cars cut me off by going left when I had the green light on Westheimer). The SUV came within 5 feet of me and after I yelled at the driver — he did slow down, but luckily I had time to brake to prevent a collision. (H ave I told you that I’m paranoid about SUVs?!) The driver slowed down to lecture me about why I didn’t wear reflective clothing. Sadly, I have to conclude that even if I had done that — he probably wouldn’t have seen me anyway. The problem was the high position of the SUV obstructed a bike level line of sight, and that the driver simply wasn’t looking for me.
  12. January 9, 2014 (Greenridge/Westheimer).  Almost identical to what happened on November 6, 2013. The situation is that if you are going straight behind another car, cars turning left will be totally surprised to see a bicyclist behind a driver. It is really hellish to be behind a car who has already turned and face a car who is trying to turn left in front of you. The question becomes: do you keep going (and stay consistent) or do you slow down and create more uncertainty?

Note about the video: I invited Pedestrian Pete  (former Houston City Councilman Peter Brown) to walk with me and videotape the area.  He’s a local advocate for more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. He and a small camera crew take walks around neighborhood and record their experiences on video. I wanted him to see how many pedestrians were in my neighborhood. Unfortunately, he arrived in the middle of the day when all kinds of traffic were at their lowest and the temperature was 100 degrees! We tried walking across 9 lanes of traffic, and we almost got hit by a truck! And 10 seconds later, by another SUV!  The walk down the side street of Winsome where I live was quieter, but still fraught with danger. I couldn’t have scripted it any better than what actually happened. Several cars pushed us off the road; despite this and the searing weather, we encountered several bicyclists and quite a number of pedestrians. Here’s a great quote from another Pedestrian Pete video: “The pedestrian is the indicator species of a healthy community.”

Update #1. Strangely, I happen to know personally the woman who was charged with fatally hitting a bicyclist and failed to render aid. To me the driver was nice but somewhat clueless — certainly no monster. I tend to think she is mostly culpable, but Houston roads generally make it hard for bicyclists to ride apart from cars with any degree of safety.


Everybody has their tales of awful customer service, and I’m going to share mine.

I paid for a family member to have Comcast broadband Internet. The price was about $30 per month for 6 months, then Comcast increased the price to the “normal” monthly price of $46.97. I switched Internet providers, and called to cancel Comcast service.

I called and was put on hold. Then it hung up on. me I called several times again and was mysteriously hung up upon. I spent an hour trying to wait on hold, only to be hung up upon. In desperation, I sent an email to customer service and copied the email to their Vice President of Customer Relations (or something like that). Fairly soon thereafter that office got back with me, leaving a message to call back. I called back and thankfully talked to a human who gave me a number to call in Houston to cancel service.

So I called that number.  The person in Houston billing processed the Cancellation request fairly quickly and said that they could not undo the automatic withdrawal of $46.97 which would happen on May 1, but that a refund for the remaining balance would be sent to me in a few weeks. I think the woman said  3-4 weeks, but I am not sure.

So I waited. And waited. And waited. At the end of July  I thought, “did I ever receive that refund Comcast promised me?” I checked my bank account and was dismayed to discover they hadn’t.  Irate, I called billing and said, “Where is my refund?” The Comcast billing person replied that the refund for $21.92 was still being processed – nothing was wrong – and that in the middle of July, the refund request was close to reaching the final accounting stage of  being processed.

“Do you realize that you’ve been keeping my money for 3 months? MY money?”

“Don’t worry, you will be receiving the check within 2-3 weeks.”

“Why can’t I receive it NOW?”

“That’s not the way it works,” the woman on the telephone replied.

“I can now transfer funds to any person or company in a matter of seconds. Why does a multibillion company like Comcast need so much time to process a $20 refund?”

“Don’t worry, you will receive your refund in 2-3 weeks.”

But more than 4 weeks went by, and still no refund. I called Houston Comcast again and asked when I would receive the refund. The person on the phone confirmed that the $21.92 was due to me, and that it was sent on August 22 (more than a week ago).

“I never received it,” I said. Neither I nor my family member  at the service address had received any check from Comcast. “Can Comcast provide an estimate about when the check should arrive?”

“It should take approximately 2-3 weeks.”

“Yes,” I said mournfully, “that’s what the other woman said 4 weeks ago.”

I have a theory about why Comcast requires so much time to send a refund: Pure unmitigated greed. Comcast already has my money; why on earth should it be in a hurry to give it back to me? Of course, the extra liquidity and interest is always a pleasant bonus. 

My case  is hardly unique. Many Americans have had experienced similar delays from big companies when receiving refunds.   It can take weeks if you’re lucky. Eventually you will get your money, though if you are not paying attention, sometimes you may forget to notice that the big corporation never sent it to you. Besides losing access to that money, Americans waste  a lot of time on angry  telephone calls and emails.

Big companies like Comcast pay no price for these kinds of delays.  They know that the amounts of these refunds are small enough that consumers won’t bother to take legal action about it.  At the same time, all of us know that if customers took 4 months to pay bills, Comcast would have cancelled service immediately (and probably turned the matter to collections). Comcast expects consumers to pay their bills on time; at the same time, they insist upon the right not to abide by that same standard of promptness.

In the meantime, the dollars keep rolling in.

I read online that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts earned $26 million last year. That’s almost a dollar earned for every second of every  day in the year.

Comcast’s revenues for last year was 55.8 billion dollars. That means Comcast as a company has earned $1800 in revenue for every second of every day in the year.

In fact, in the time it  took you to read my complaint (3 minutes), Comcast’s CEO earned $160 and the company itself earned $324,000.

So I feel pretty sure Comcast can afford it.

October 22, 2012 Update. Comcast finally did send the $21 refund 3 weeks after I wrote this message. I wrote this blog post mainly to shame them, but frankly, I don’t think my protestations made a single bit of difference. In the meantime, Comcast took over my apartment complex as the sole broadband provider, so I’m afraid I have to deal with them again.


News Flash: Green-headed Dufus Repents!

Yesterday I got my hair cut at a budget hair salon run by  Vietnamese people. Mostly older woman, but a few young men. Probably none  of them spoke English other than a few key phrases. (“Thank you” “You want hair cut?”, etc).

I arrived in the middle of the day when half of the workers there were idle. One older woman motioned for me to sit down, and after I did, she said, “How you want your hair?”

Knowing that the nuances were likely to be misunderstood, I kept it simple while motioning with my hands: “Straight in back,  keep it the same around the ears, I comb everything back.”

The woman nodded and proceeded to give me the worst haircut of my life. On the right side, she shaved off ALL the hair  up until an inch about my ear. At that point, I immediately stopped and said, “NO!” and asked her to cut anymore there. Just cut it evenly on the other side.

To add to the  horror,  I noticed that the right side of my head which was now exposed had several large green spots. This had nothing to do with the woman or the haircut, but earlier that day I had gotten some greenish ink or food coloring over my fingers. I have no idea where this green color came from, but it had been all over my hands and mostly refused to come off despite repeated washings. I still had bluish-green around my fingertips, and now I see that the result of having inadvertently brushed my hands through my hair earlier that day.

I left the haircut place stewing and aware of how abominable I looked. The ink would eventually fade, but the haircut would linger, and there’s not much another barber could do except shave the whole thing off. I had to stop by the grocery store on the way home, a store frequented by all sorts of youngish and single adults. I don’t exactly dress up for it (but I always remember one friend’s  rule that one should dress up no matter where you are going  because you never know who you will meet). I trade glances with a random pretty young woman. I wouldn’t call it a flirt, but we definitely smiled.

Then it hit me that I must have appeared to people as absolutely redorkulous.  Did this mystery woman notice my green spot? Or my horrible haircut? To my dismay, I realized that the collar to my stylish red shirt was pulled up against my neck. I  began to smooth it down when I realized that the reason the collar was sticking up was that I was wearing the shirt inside out

New rule: Always (and I mean always!) look at a mirror before leaving home.

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Stumbling Upon a Book Idea

Over the last month or so, I’ve been obsessed with the subject of building and organizing a digital music collection. So much so that I have decided to write an ebook about the subject.

I’m writing as a dedicated amateur (not an expert), and the treatment will be somewhat technical, somewhat journalistic, somewhat superficial.

I write a lot of “serious” stuff and often it takes forever to  get them into finished products. Also, I write my serious stuff  under pseudonyms, so it would be nice (finally) to write something under my own name for a change.  Although I plan to make this ebook useful and interesting and personal, I also will make it short – something I can finish in 6 months, and then update over time.

I may or may not blog about some of the subjects for this ebook.  But I want to mention an outlining/note-taking tool which I’ll be using for this book project. Over time I have used Personal Brain mind-mapping tool to store my research and organize my thoughts.

The web dump is here: http://webbrain.com/brainpage/brain/9E6A5930-6FFC-DBCD-DF75-35B2D4DCCB77;jsessionid=342C824536322A57D5F17127FCA1B14E#-1

(I am not linking to it because I don’t want search engines to know about it, plus I may eventually mark it as private).

The desktop interface is a little better.  You can open your brain up in an expanded view (See this screenshot).

Personal Brain is a costly tool ($200-250, although there’s a free version), and I would not use it for certain kinds of projects, but it does two things extraordinarily well:

  1. It lets you store disparate kinds of information in the note section.
  2. It lets you display and organize your ideas in a very visual manner.

There is another important and easily overlooked advantage.  I often work with projects over a long period. Sometimes I start with a lot of enthusiasm and start writing and researching. Then – for various reasons –  I have to put the project on the back burner. Later when I try to pick up the same project, I discover that I cannot get into it again.  Either I  misplace my notes or cannot read them. Also I cannot remember the logical connections I once made. When I keep my thoughts and notes in Personal Brain, I am also retaining the logical relationships I am making as well.  Now it becomes much easier to resurrect my notes when I return to the project later.

Interestingly, although I have used Personal Brain for mind-mapping big projects, often the finished product bears no resemblance to the brain I made for it. That is not the point. The primary purpose of personal brain is not to provide a skeleton for the actual book or essay you will write. Rather it is  to organize and store  thoughts for easy reference before the writing actually begins. The organization in Personal Brain may roughly correspond to your writing outline (especially at high level), but that would merely be a coincidence;  the writing process is much too fluid to be tied down to a preset organization structure.

Thebrain  lets you sync your local brain with a webhosting site.  I paid for the web brain component  as part of my license. The cost is not small, and my subscription lasts only for a year (after which I will have to renew). I don’t really need public or web access – that is just a nice extra feature. A local brain is good enough.

Personal Brain has a lot of advanced features which I have not investigated.  I would love to reorganize thoughts and add lateral relationships and jumps (which I know is possible, but I keep forgetting how to do it). 

Personal Brain seems to be the ideal tool for a book project of this nature. (The superficial and middlebrow Malcolm-Gladwell  kinds of books).  Actually I think historians and literary critics  might find it useful as well.  I haven’t actually started, but I have 3 other projects which I’d like to transfer onto a Personal brain.  This tool not only stores information; it provides   a glimpse of where your ideas are bringing you. When you write things, you may not even know that until after finishing the first draft.


Getting Up All Riled Up for Nothing

Duty CallsThis morning I spent 2 hours reading about a semi-scandal on the Net. I am not going to be specific or even link to commentary about the scandal. I don’t want you to be distracted; I actually spent a lot of time reading about it and the back and forth between players. I even wrote a few comments on several blogs and even emailed one of the instigators of the semi-scandal to express my disapproval.

This sort of thing happens every few weeks or so. For a media junky like myself, I can’t help but get sucked into it.  Usually I just lurk and follow the unraveling of everything.  Sometimes I will add my own two cents. Generally, because I am reasonably well-informed, I can make a rational (i.e., non-crazy) comment, but days or even later, I look back and wonder: Why did I spend so much time reading about THAT? Why did I bother spending so much time coming to the defense of X or going to great lengths to show that Y doesn’t know what he  is talking about?

In most of these cases, the people involved genuinely feel the way they did; they are not in fact trolling or trying to bait anybody. But usually by the time you hear about the semi-scandal, most of what needed to be said has already been said; the rest is just piling on. If you think about it, almost any intellectual discussion can be completed with less than 20 statements. But some threads contain dozens or even hundreds of comments and replies.  Why do people do it?

Online debates will devolve, even when the stakes are relatively high. With climate change controversies, the climate hawks literally believe that the fate of the planet is at stake and that the denialists are helping that to become a reality; the doubters believe that the climate change people are nothing more than communists dedicated to imposing their world agenda of dominance. Both sides are wrong on this, of course. But at least you can understand the depth of the passion. With the semi-scandal I learned about today, I can safely say that it doesn’t matter very much; in a week or so, it will be completely forgotten about. Some people were duped; some people exaggerated and said things they shouldn’t have, but ultimately it will barely register as a blip in anyone’s long-term memory.

Why do people do it? Why do they succumb to the temptation to  mouth off about things  when they haven’t heard the full story? Perhaps some people simply get hot-headed (a charge I am occasionally  guilty of). But  anger can be a fascinating emotion; it entangles a person to the point where it becomes impossible to become untangled.  Some get invested in these semi/pseudo scandals because they feel (correctly) that mouthing off about it has no  long-term repercussions.  I never ceased to be surprised at how rarely  the people who mouth off actually pay  consequences. Ironically,  Facebook is the only place where you actually hear back from your peers that something you said online wasn’t right. My mother (who never  — and I mean NEVER — reads my blog –  hi, Mom!) occasionally will scold me for things I have said on Facebook. I don’t deny that on Facebook I am often willing to participate in lengthy discussions about hot-button subjects. While I occasionally feel regret about something I wrote (more for how MUCH I have written and not for WHAT I ACTUALLY WROTE), I rarely have considered deleting my comment; I said it, why deny it? Besides, the kinds of people who keep tabs on you (i.e., potential employers or dates) rarely take the time to collect and process everything.  The response  of today’s youth to the problem of Internet permanence  is simply to drown the world with cat photos and funny youtube videos and produce so much material that only the truly obsessed could track it all down.    I’m sure I have said rabid things about George W. Bush or other hot-button topics that probably would embarrass me to read now. But why start deleting? Chances are that these ill-considered remarks are destined for the dustbin of obscurity anyway.

On the web there is the tendency to engage in what I call “non-constructive activities.”  There’s a great Star Trek episode where the Emergency Medical Technician (a humanoid medical robot) short circuits every time he contemplates a dilemma of medical ethics. His positronic brain literally explodes every time he reexamines the same dilemma (which he can’t help doing because his memory banks are wiped clean before the reinitializing of the brain can begin).  Surely psychology has developed behavior modification techniques to help people  disengage from nonproductive or self-destructive activities.  I am no psychologist, but here are some techniques I have found which helped me to ratchet down my involvement in an online matter.

Disengagement Strategies

People who are not writers will  suggest not writing the thought down at all unless you want  it to appear on the front page of the New York Times. That is an absurdly high  criteria, and it ignores the fact that most writers value   their own ability to take a stand and use their words to criticize. I believe it is impossible to suppress the desire to write a snappy retort. But you can limit the length of this retort and the frequency of retorts. If you find yourself in the middle of a thread war, you should limit yourself to 2 replies (or maybe 1 per day).  Ideally a comment in a heated discussion should be no more than 2 paragraphs – anything longer than that, and you are just ranting. Besides that, the phenomena of trolling should make you aware that sometimes the very act of writing may be a way of conceding defeat. (i.e., if you write another response, “then the terrorists have won.”)

Another thing you can do is to make your tone as lowkey and dispassionate as possible.  Often I have used extreme language to criticize something and later realized that my criticism wasn’t entirely valid  or that  with the passing of time, the matter no longer seemed important enough to feel  irate about.  I rarely have regretted the substance of my remarks – though I sometimes regret jumping to conclusions so quickly. But  I almost always overestimated the psychic value of being right  or  besting someone in argument. Ultimately, no one cares – although people will always remember how much you blather – without bothering to remember if the points you made were actually right. Politeness is not only  a good strategy for keeping things friendly, it’s also a way to insure yourself against the possibility that you may have been seriously wrong. It also reduces the awkwardness if you end up meeting an  adversary in meatspace. (Yes, it happens sometimes).  More than likely, people won’t remember the insightful remark you made on a blog or forum. Hey, that’s life. But people certainly remember online instances where someone acted like an asshole. Avoiding assholes online is actually an evolutionary stable strategy for humans. It’s probably embedded in your genes somewhere. If humans have a natural tendency to avoid assholes in real life, the logical strategy to adopt from an evolutionary point of view  is that one should avoid being perceived as an asshole. A businessman friend  who sells a lot on ebay told me that he never gives negative feedback  for customers or other sellers even if he felt the other party was unreasonable  or dishonest. Why?  Doing so creates the risk that the other party would reciprocate with negative feedback, creating a vicious circle.  One way to succeed is to stay as objective or dispassionate as possible. Injecting a little bit of passion or emotion into an argument is not necessarily a bad thing. But when dealing with an unhinged person online,  strenuous or passionate arguments can only aggravate the situation.

You should be content not to have the last word. For writers and wonks and polemicists, there is a tendency to want to post replies to every point your opponent has made. Your foe responds, and then you must respond to everything in the response (while making  additional points).  That’s a surefire recipe for an extended argument that will lead to absolutely nowhere and suck oodles of time. At some point, one of the parties has to stop responding.  But how stubbornly and tenaciously you stick to the argument has nothing to do with who is more right or logical. Quite the opposite.  Sometimes the inability to disengage may indicate an irrational fear of being bested. If two people end up wasting a day or two on a pointless discussion thread, what have they accomplished? What other things could they have spent their time doing?  (This sort of thing ended up sucking so much of my time that I decided to start charging money for it).  Failing to respond to a troll or even a legitimate arguer  can be a courageous and fully logical act. It takes a wise person to recognize when it is better  not to add your two cents. (Update: I have a solution to this: “That fish has been fried!”)

Concede ground when you are wrong or unaware of the complexity of an issue.  That increases a person’s credibility and earns good karma. Discussions are adversarial. Either Person A is right about something or Person B is right.  But if Person A admits that on subpoint 1 he was wrong, it not only advances  the discussion,  it sets a tone that  Person A is  flexible and reasonable. It might even inspire  reciprocal concessions. Both sides can become  less worried about saving face and more dedicated to making the discussion worthwhile for both people.

How do you know when you are wrong? And how do you say it?  A blogger  can simply provide an update at the end of a blogpost. Blatant apologies often are appropriate and appreciated. If you were wrong, why not admit it upfront? Earlier, I said that people almost always remember online assholes. But they remember public apologies just as much.

When participating in a long thread, it’s important to ask yourself, “Is my  contribution  actually unique and interesting?” Obviously you are an interesting person, and obviously you think that anything you write has to be interesting. That is self-evident.  But on a heated discussion where many people are weighing in, there is a tendency to overestimate the value of one’s own potential contribution.  If you didn’t make this comment, would the point still be made? (Or was it already made earlier?)  Some threads actually  increase in value with more contributions. This usually happens when individuals can provide illustrative anecdotes , recommendations or when individuals can locate citations or further not-so-obvious evidence. Roger Ebert’s blog threads, to pick an obvious example, are replete with worthy comments by people offering alternate interpretations about a movie.  On the other hand, policy and technical blogs often don’t need contributions by readers. Many readers are simply not well-versed on the topic or they remain unaware that their arguments or grasp of facts are incomplete or long since disproven.

I find it helpful to apply this criteria to my potential comments or contributions. Would a neutral person regard my comment as a rant?  The secret to eloquence is in avoiding the accusation of being a ranter.  Let me explain. A rant exhibits certain characteristics: prolixity, rhetorical flourishes (wit, sarcasm, etc) and a tendency to cover EVERYTHING when arguing. Rants can be fun especially when they are a form of self-parody. But what matters the most is context. If I rant on my blog, that’s ok because  it’s my blog. I can do and say whatever I want. But if I rant in a comment to someone’s Facebook post or someone else’s blog post, chances are that the other person doesn’t appreciate and may even resent my attempt to steer the discussion.   Sure, some bloggers or forums don’t care as long as your comment contains interesting information  and doesn’t go on  too long.  Others are less forgiving. You need to factor in that your estimation of other people’s tolerance level for your rhetoric will probably be higher than it actually is.   No matter how brilliant or informed you or others think that you are.

You should ask, is this a good use of my time?  By definition almost all Internet activity is a waste of time.  But when you engage intellectually and emotionally in a certain hot topic or thread, you risk throwing away time which you may never get back. This morning, instead of working on ebook production, I spent 2 hours reading/feeling irate and drafting pointed comments towards strangers I will never meet about a semi-scandal that ultimately does not matter. Looking back at it, I just wish I had  worked on ebook production tasks and not bothered. (*See Note)  I rarely think back about online battles I have waged and feel satisfaction about my words or actions. More often, I just wish I had that time back. Years later, I never revisit those same  threads and think,  “What an eloquent bastard I was!”    An intellect has many useful functions, but rescuing people from ignorance on forum threads just doesn’t rank  that high in importance.

Finally, a confession.  After reading this essay, you might assume that I never make rants and never waste afternoons  writing pointless comments on threads. Far from it. I write with  insight about this subject precisely because I fall into these rhetorical traps so often.  I will probably  continue to  commit the same errors out of stubbornness, boredom and pride.  Over the years, I have made these kinds of mistakes less often  – thank goodness!  but I’m sure I will succumb again. But at least I will recognize the malady when it hits.  Mea culpa, mea culpa. Eloquence isn’t always great or beautiful; sometimes it can be  downright annoying – but at least you can choose the best way to make use of it.


* Actually one good thing came from all that reading and feeling irate: writing this essay!

Cartoon Credit: XLCD

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One sign you have become an energy geek is when your bedtime reading tends to be academic tomes about renewable energy. Despite my literary tendencies, I don’t deny that I find these volumes to be engrossing and fascinating; the subject seems to have an urgency missing from the software or publishing world.  I have come across many books  on the subject over the last 2 years (including many free titles available as PDFs).  I haven’t finished reading these titles yet, but all are worth reading. Here’s my current list:

  •  Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era (2011) by Amory Lovins is an excellent in-depth analysis about energy needs, business innovation and policy. It has the depth and research about the subject and covers a wide variety of topics. It has a good holistic view of the subject. The Best Book on the Subject
  • Eaarth by Bill McKibben. (2011) This journalist, advocate and protest leader makes the spiritual and moral  case for fighting climate change policy. McKibben doesn’t claim to be an expert on anything, but his well-researched book indicates a good understanding of the problem – both from a political and ethical point of view.  This book is very easy to read and passionate as well. Recommended for Laypeople.
  • Our Choice by Al Gore. (2009) Gore has always been a divisive figure in climate change politics, but that doesn’t detract from his ability to do his research and explain technical matters well. I use this book often as a reference guide for  the various energy solutions; Gore certainly has mentioned it here.  Reinventing Fire is a much more comprehensive book, but newcomers to the subject may find Al Gore’s overview to be sane and refreshing.
  • Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity by James Hansen. (2010)Hansen was one of the earliest scientists to call attention to climate change; he has done tireless amounts of research on the topic. In this book he delves into detail about how openly the Bush Administration disregarded the pronouncements of climate science. Even I was shocked.
  • Earth: The Operator’s Manual by Richard Alley (2011). In preparation for the PBS Science series, Alley wrote a science book for the general audience.  This was a very thoughtful and generally nonpolitical book which nonetheless lays out the evidence for climate change in a seemingly incontrovertible way.
  • Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air by David JC MacKay.  (2009)When I started reading this book, I immediately grasped its usefulness.  It defines terms about how to measure the effectiveness of various policy measures and how scientists calculate things like energy efficiency. It also explains the scientific principles and formulas for gathering data.  It doesn’t necessarily make policy recommendations, but clarifies how to have an honest debate without getting lost in quantitative analysis and semantics.  The full book is available for online reading and also downloadable as a PDF… for free!
  • Cooler, Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living. (2012)Expert Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists.   This well-researched guide for consumers helps them to make purchasing decisions and to figure out the carbon footprints of their lifestyle. Although the introduction to climate change is necessary, the rest of the book provides valuable information for consumers and environmentalists alike. Recommended for Consumers
  • The Two Mile Time Machine (2001) by Richard Alley gives a first person account of how scientists use ice core samples from glaciers to estimate the carbon levels and temperature levels of previous millenia. This book is over a decade old, but well-beloved by people in the climate change field.
  • Hack the Planet (2010). Eli Kintisch and How to Cool the Planet (2010)  by Jeff Goodell are two books I’m reading by journalists about the important topic of geoengineering. Many climate scientists warn of the dangers of taking affirmative actions to manipulate the environment to combat global warming, but these two books are the first to describe the ethical and practical problems of doing so.  One climate scientists said that we have been already manipulating the environment through greenhouse gases; we might as well get past the ethical concerns about geoengineering because humanity will have no choice to implement these measures.
  • Global Warming and Climate Change Demystified by Jerry Silver. This book reads like a high school textbook, and that is good. It summarizes the results of the IPCC conference and explains the basic science principles behind  climate modeling and measuring change. Unfortunately, even the IPCC data is out of date (on sea level rise for instance). Nonetheless, this is a good place to get a basic foundation in the science. (Recommended for Students).
  • What’s the Worst that Can Happen? by Greg Craven (2009). Craven is a high school science teacher who put up a short series of entertaining climate change lectures on youtube. I picked a used copy of this book and was struck by the clarity of his reasoning and explanations. Interestingly, this book is less a book about climate change than about how to weigh evidence and how to derive policy conclusions from scientific evidence. This readable book addresses on a more basic level why embracing climate change policy is an example of sound and rational thinking. The book is essentially a manual about how to think scientifically.  Recommended for students and conservative skeptics.
  • Solar by Ian McEwan. (2009)  (A novel). I don’t consider this to a masterpiece, but it is the first attempt to describe global warming as a cultural influence. (leaving aside Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol series). Solar is a social satire of environmentalists, professional deniers and how academia cossets both types. By the way, I am writing a sort of comic novel about climate change as well. I didn’t think the novel worked overall, but several of its set pieces were effective and provocative.

Other Books

Here are some books that I know somewhat well but which I haven’t read for one reason or another.

  • Air Pollution and Global Warming: History, Science, and Solutions, (2012)” by Mark Z. Jacobson (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012) is probably the best college textbook on the subject of climate change written by one of the best climate scientists around. (If you don’t believe me, read his Scientific American article or other ones). The book sells for $130 new and 86$ used, but I expect in a year or so that the price of used copies will go down at least 20%. So keep it on your wishlist until then. (The book’s slides are here).
  • Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2011) by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Oreskes and Conways are science historians who found direct connections between the propaganda effort to sell smoking and the effort to sell fossil fuels. Although the book doesn’t try to do media criticism, Oreskes is famous for her study which found no disagreement from the science consensus in journals while significant controversy in articles written for news publications. I’ve seen several of Oreskes’ public lectures on youtube.
  • Straight Up (2010) and Hell and High Water (2009)  by Joe Romm. Romm is an energy policy wonk who used to work for the Dept of Energy under Clinton. His Climateprogress blog is one of the best informed about climate change policy. Romm does not duck controversy and sometimes may seem too argumentative, but he understands better than anybody the various tradeoffs you make with each climate change solution. I haven’t read either book, but I suspect they have culled the best parts from his blog.
  • Hockey Stick and Climate Change by Michael Mann. Mann is a scientist who was thrown into the limelight after publishing an estimate of the relationship between climate change and carbon over the millennium. Practically every major scientific body has validated Mann’s research, but he has been the subject of an unrelenting attack by the right-wing attack machine.  I’m sure it will be an interesting read, but for more Mann’s personal story than for what he says about climate change.

Other Free Stuff

I’ve downloaded a ton of free white papers about various climate change issues. Here are some favorites:

  • John Cook at Skeptical Science has published two mini-ebooks (each about 15 pages) about climate change. The Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism (PDF)  summarizes the arguments about why humans have caused climate change and why it is a serious problem. It also answers the common charges made against it. This PDF packs an incredible amount of stuff in 15 pages!  The Debunking Handbook is a summary of insights from social psychology about which persuasive techniques have proven to the be the most effective. A fascinating read.
  • Climate Change Impacts is a summary of the potentially disastrous effects that climate change can have on American life.  The federal government commissioned some of its top experts to cover all the major bases, and it is informative and not particularly controversial.
  • National Academy of Science reports. Did you know that you can download practically any NAS report as a PDF? Sure, you have to register for free, but you can get access to first-class analysis for easy reading on your ipad! I haven’t read any of these titles yet (but plan to), but these seem to be the most substantial.  Climate Stabilization Targets (2011)  does a lot of number-crunching about the practicality of meeting targets, America’s Climate Choices (2011) gives a less scientific overview, Understanding Earth’s Deep Past: Lessons for our Climate Future gives a more rigorous overview of the historical climate records.
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Here is the link to Jake Seliger’s The Story’s Story blog. (Good blog about literature, writing and culture, by the way).

You can ignore this post. Apparently through some bureaucratic  mishap, his domain was not extended, and godaddy snapped it up and is now selling it for $38,000.  I’m just giving some much needed google juice to his blog. One benefit of having a long-running blog with a stable URL is that Google tends to reward it in search results. I predict this will be in the top 5  results on Google for “Jake Seliger” in an hour or so.


Brief Book Reviews 2

Here are some abbreviated book reviews. (The brevity neither reflects on the quality but simply on my inclination to write a thorough review at the time). See also: my index of book reviews which I recently started. Please note that at the bottom of this post I’m going to try to mention books which I’m currently reading and plan to review. No promises obviously, but  the To-Read is more for my reference.

alley-orig Earth: The Operator’s Manual. By Richard Alley.  This book written for the general reader provided the foundation for a PBS series about climate change and earth science. This is not great writing, but the tone is dispassionate and fair-minded and full of useful information. Alley first came to prominence through his work with ice cores and testifying before Congress. He doesn’t have strong political views, but he understands the places where people commonly misunderstand the science and is a good explainer.
image With One Eye Open by Polly Frost  ($2.99). This  is a  series of sophisticated but hilarious sketches by Polly Frost about popular and Net culture. It’s light and fun reading, poking fun at writers, Facebook, theatre, commercialism, dieting, celebritydom, software to write novels. These are obvious targets of satire, yes,  and the humor is so topical and trendy  that I wonder if it could have been  written 6 months from now. Most  take place under a Manhattan backdrop, with a love/hate relationship towards technology, publishing and the bohemian lifestyle. Among my favorite stories were “Final Paper You Want From Me” (a college girl dreams up new and crazy social networking sites), Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way (seminars to teach people to resist the impulse to write) and  My Dog Breeds (an illustrated guide to dog breeds for today — such as the iDog). Frost and her husband Ray Sawhill are the writers behind Sex Scenes, sexy audio stories about Hollywood. P.S., I read almost every piece on the bus while standing up! Recommended.
image Mind Performance Hacks by Ron Hale-Evans. I bought this 2006 book by accident and have greatly enjoyed it (and used copies are selling for next to nothing on Half.com and Amazon).  The book consists of 75 chapters of about 3-4 pages each. Each chapter contains a hack or technique for creative problem-solving or just mental exercises. Sounds hoaky, but page after page is loaded with insights: how to think analogically, learn an artificial language, ask stupid questions, cultivate the naïve mind, construct memory palaces, hold a question in your mind. In addition to being well-written, it is also well-researched.  Lots of  references to important cognitive psychology and self-help sources , including a reference to my all time favorite  How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett.  Even if you are not seriously interested in the subject or the specific techniques being proffered, it is still a great read. Highly recommended.
image Offshore. by Penelope Fitzgerald  I read this with high hopes (after reading her incredible Blue Flower book about the life of Novalis).  Structurally, this book had lots of short chapters, but the story dragged … lots of talk, not really any development.  I kept waiting for the action to proceed, but the not-so-interesting dialogue became the sole reason for reading. I gave up. (Hard to believe that this won the Booker).
ctrct_7 Contracts: The Essential Business Desk Reference by Richard Stim.  (Ebook price: $20).  This ebook gives an alphabetized list of contract terms and examples of how they are used and the legal principles behind these terms. The important thing to know is that this is more like a reference or dictionary than a how-to guide. I would have preferred a better organization system to help me understand the relationships between the different terms. This ebook would have been perfect if it provided a hyperlinked & hierarchical outline of related terms in a Part 1 and then provided the alphabetical list in Part 2. Instead, the only way to read this ebook was alphabetically – which is ludicrous.  The explanations and writing for this book were outstanding; too bad  Nolo didn’t have enough insight to provide different paths to look through the digital content.
image Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.
I read 100 pages and was utterly bored, both by the style and action (the premise was somewhat interesting, but far-fetched).  The premise was good, and I could tell the book was headed somewhere, but until that point, the narrative just wasn’t doing a lot.  I have fond memories about some of Heinlein’s earlier books (like Tunnel in the Sky), but this one just didn’t engage me.
image Arthur & Edith, Mike & Gloria. by Donna McCrohan (print book only) describes the reaction to the show in the 1970s  I wondered whether anyone had ever written about this milestone TV series, and I am happy to report that this book is every bit as revealing and insightful as I had hoped. This book reprints reviews by TV critics and does in-depth analysis of how characters evolved during the show. It also provides a lot of background about how Norman Lear started the show and how his primary aim was entertainment and not really social commentary.  We need more books like this: short, well-researched books about historic TV series which allow readers to appreciate what social forces influenced the show and how the public responded. Highly recommended.
File:Lost Moon.jpg Lost Moon: Perilous Journey of the Apollo 13. By Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger.  This book (upon which the film Apollo 13 is based) provides a lot more details and background information about the accident. I’m guessing that science journalist Jeffrey Kluger had a major role in shaping the narrative (which was expertly told and whose chapters alternated between flashbacks and current dramas). The book highlights things missed in the movie: the vast amount of flight experience Lovell already had (having flown twice around the moon),  the personal connection Lovell had with ill-fated Apollo 1 tragedy, the social protocol NASA astronauts had (including that of Lovell’s wife, who had to keep one wife “busy” while NASA prepared to deliver the news of her husband’s death), the nitty-gritty detail of the necessary burn operations they had to take,  how the “venting” of oxygen  surrounded the ship during most of the  return home (and interfered with visibility). The book certainly captures the exciting and heroic efforts of the astronauts and crew; strangely, the whole story is told in third person, which papers over the fact that (inside the spaceship at least), the perspective is entirely Lovell’s.  Recommended


Still reading: The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air by David J.C. MacKay, Lying: 10 Easy Ways to Spot a Liar, Two Mile Time Machine by Richard Alley, Hack the Planet by Eli Kintisch, Puddenhead Wilson by Mark Twain, Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living (Union of Concerned Scientists),  various accounting books,  Using Drupal (Oreilly). Reinventing Fire by Amory Lovins, Walking Words by Eduardo Galeano, What Philosophy Can Teach you about your Cat by Stephen Hales, Revised Kama Sutra by Richard Crasta, Last Tragedy by  Herb Mallette,  Every Vote Equal by John R. Caza.

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Doris Day’s Secret Life

Today, while waiting in line at the supermarket, I picked up a tabloid with the headline “Doris Day’s Secret Life.” I was mildly curious, if only because these tabloid publications rarely covered celebrities from so far back.   It’s hard to remember that merely because celebrities drop out of public life doesn’t mean that they’re dead.  (Ask Luise Rainer) . I read recently that one of the Andrew Sisters was still alive (a fact that both shocks and exhilarates me). If/When I am 90, what will I think about the world or technology or pop culture?

Anyway, I thumbed through the pages of the tabloid for the article – skipping through various entertainment news, astrology columns, that sort of thing. I wondered  if  addictions or sexual peccadilloes or personal tragedies would be part of this secret life, but when I came to the article on the last page, I learn that Doris Day was an old person in California  who didn’t like interviews. In fact, the apparent reason for this  lazy article was that Doris Day was promoting her charity for stray animals.

So that is Doris Day’s secret life!!!! Now I should be satisfied.

Update: Apparently Doris Day has had a lot of romantic heartbreak in her life (also here).  In the seventies she  was  involved in a lawsuit of epic proportions against her husband’s business partner which lasted for 15 years and which she won  (although not to great result). All things considered, perhaps it is fitting that Doris Day’s secret life should remain  a secret.

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I’m in the process of organizing my life. Prioritizing, Cleaning (lots of that), budgeting and simply tracking the wealth of my ideas and intellectual and creative projects.

Take for instance this blog — which despite my dearth of recent posts — I think often about. An hour ago,  I took inventory of all my drafts of blog posts. I have dozens of started drafts — some which never will be finished, but a few will certainly be finished and published.  Glancing over these drafts, I seem to have found  indisputable evidence of my genius … or laziness…Take your pick.

Perhaps in a later post I will elaborate on goal setting and task tracking.  Over the last week I spent a lot of time on  filing and task management system (and am nowhere near finished).  I am generally not a fan of applying the project management methodology or the “Getting Things Done” philosophy  to everything in my life.   In the professional world, project management makes perfect sense. You are being paid to accomplish certain tasks, so getting offtask or distracted by things is a clear hazard.

But for creative types who devote a lot of personal time to  projects, performance efficiency is not the most important goal or the primary metric. It’s easy to map out a plan, and then the steps within this plan. But that assumes that the plan is actually workable and actually important. I often recalibrate my priorities — and sometimes have had to write off hours (or days or even weeks) of time  because I eventually concluded that the project wasn’t important enough,  I couldn’t execute it well enough or just didn’t have the necessary enthusiasm for it.  Sometimes I just had more important things to work on,and never came back to it. My thinking was that if this changed — and the endeavor turned out to be important, it would gnaw at my insights until it eventually clawed a spot onto my ToDo list.  “Never make a decision today that you can reasonably put off tomorrow, goes the slogan. ” (my thinking is that when I return, I will be in a better decision to decide whether the project was still significant enough to complete.

I’m just throwing out numbers, but I probably have about 50+ half written blog posts, about 10 serious  book-length projects, 4 or 5 multimedia projects worth working on, 3 or 4 technical projects plus 2-3 learning projects (i.e., becoming proficient in a tool),  50 things I’d like to read sooner rather than later, (and don’t get me started about movies). I have 2 or so business projects (some of which demand technical expertise I haven’t acquired or real life business experience which I haven’t gained). Then I have lots of routine geek system administration tasks, outside interests (currently climate change), skill-building for job search and …by the way,, looking for a job! Also family, organizations, traveling, exercise, etc….

What I need help on is with recalibrating — and comparing apples and oranges. Sometimes, if you come right down to it, apples are better than oranges. I need better ways to visualize the scope of my ideas and projects. I am used to dealing with information overload and sometimes sudden course changes. But I need a way to make sure that I am not forgetting anything — so I can have the luxury of deciding whether an idea of mine is ultimately unforgettable.

One final point. Flitting from one project to another has  costs …especially in the world of creative writing. Sometimes I develop enthusiasm for a writing project, start writing, put it off, and then years later when I actually have time to complete it, I realize that my earlier work was just useless. Actually this is not so much a factor with creative projects as it is with technical projects or critical essays. I frequently start big essays and after significant delays, I find that my original work is inscrutable or useless. My solution to it is use a note-taking, mind-mapping solution like TheBrain which let’s me feel as though can I describe complex ideas and relationships in a preliminary state so that if I return to it years later, I can actually decipher those thoughts. With harder technical projects, the solution is simply not to flit — or to avoid doing it as much as possible. I have started deploying a drupal site several times (and in Jan 2011 I was really close to deploying). At the moment now I am focused on this project almost solely to the exclusion of everything else. Then, once I reached a finishing or stopping point, I can make it a back burner item.  For creative projects, the brain has a tendency to reintroduce old inspirations, but  for more technical things or analytical things, you either need to either capture what you are learning or commit to realizing it to the very end.

Related: the ipad app ABC Notes


Natural Gas is Not Lobster

This one chart summarizes what climate change is about.

Below is another chart. Basically, for 10,000 years  of recorded human history, there has never been temperature variation of  than 1 degree Centigrade. (There have been other temperature variations during the last few million years, but humans haven’t been around). image

In the last 100 years, temperatures have risen .6 degree Centigrade, and another .5 degree Centigrade is in the pipeline.  It generally takes 30 or 40 years for CO2 increases to result in temperature increases (although sometimes a threshold is reached, causing more temperature increase).

In 2007 the IPCC (an international science body) laid out the scenarios from best case to worst case. A1F1 is considered the “worst case scenario”  and B1 and B2 (now thought unattainable) required fast-action to prevent this.

IPCC said that limiting temperature increase for 2100 to 2 degrees Centigrade was “attainable” though not ideal and provides a good safety margin against catastrophe.  If carbon emissions were limited to 450 parts per million by 2050, then we’d have a pretty good short at limiting the increase to 2 degrees. (Pretty good = greater than 83% chance of attaining it).

In 2009 every nation pledged to support  on this 2 degree centigrade goal even though many scientists said limiting to 2 degrees is “not good enough.”

We are currently at 394.5 PPM and rising at 1.5 PPM per year (more or less). (But this rate of increase will accelerate when icecaps and Greenland melt — due very soon. Also wildfires like what we experienced in Texas will accelerate carbon emissions). image

Our current path is worse than A1F1. Despite the talk, there has not been any significant progress towards carbon reduction (aside from Europe, and California and soon — New York).

No one can predict human response to disasters, but scientists say that even current human stupidity would recognize the wisdom of veering off  the A1F1 path. How soon? No one will know.

A prediction by the world’s leading energy group (IEA) says that every year delaying investment in renewable energy infrastructure will end up costing the world $500 billion in greater infrastructure & disaster costs.

Since 2007, multiple scientific reports have suggested that limiting carbon emissions by 450 ppm in 2050 is essentially impossible. Right now they say 550-650 ppm is a more realistic scenario, and there is considerable controversy about what temperature increase this will bring. Right now the best prediction is 2.5 – 3 degrees, but there is considerable uncertainty. The “climate sensitivity” (defined as “What happens if CO2 levels in the atmosphere double? “See chart) could possibly mean  temperature increases as high as 4 degrees or higher.image

(I belong to 350.org, a world movement that says we should have zero emissions and that the only safe way is to bring carbon levels to 350 ppm — the same levels which humans had in 1985. The 350 ppm target is recommended  by James Hansen, one of the first scientists to go public about climate change in 1980. I should stress though that reaching this goal is 1)quixotic and 2)not conclusively been shown to be necessary. Mainstream scientific opinion suggests that humans can still do well at 400 or 425 ppm, but even that could change depending on what happens in the next 20 years).

You probably don’t see these kinds of facts on CNN, newspapers or the nightly news. Yet, I pretty much can guarantee you that every single leader in today’s world is familiar with this information. Hell, even the presidents of Exxon, Phillips and BP know this information. They listen to their own experts  who tell them a)the science is not settled about climate sensitivity and b)there will be short term economic disruption if humans took countermeasures to limit carbon emissions and c)the cost of building new infrastructure to support renewable energies will be expensive.

Absolutely it will be expensive (though not as bad as Republicans suggest). But what Republicans don’t say is that the costs will be more expensive with every passing year — especially if we have to accelerate the building of all this new infrastructure.  Faith Birol, the head of IEA said that by 2020 the costs of switching to renewable energies will be 3 or 4x as expensive than if we tried it today.  There are short term political benefits to refusing to finance a transition to renewable fuels. It is the failure of politicians (and the failure of Obama –let’s not kid ourselves) to make this a priority or even to bring the subject up which is continuing this problem.

One more thing — because it relates to Texas. In the last 2 years, Republicans have started to embrace “natural gas” as a solution to climate change. So has Obama. In fact, environmentalists cautiously embraced natural gas as a “transitional solution” to fight climate change. But in the last year or two, several dramatic scientific findings have challenged that strategy, so much so that environmentalists have disavowed natural gas as even a transitional solution.

There are three separate issues with natural gas.

  1. whether the use of natural gas instead of gasoline or coal will reduce smog.
  2. whether the “fracking process” (a new process to extract natural gas from the ground) is safe, whether it uses too much water, and whether it contaminates the water supply and
  3. whether natural gas improves the carbon emission situation. Please note that carbon emission question should be broken down into 2 parts: a)how much emissions the extraction process causes (i.e., how much methane it releases during extraction) and b)how much CO2 is used when a vehicle burns it.  Many natural gas companies tout B while conveniently ignoring A.

About 1, natural gas does indeed reduce smog by about 50%. That helps people with asthma and lung disorders and probably has an effect on cancer rates.
About 2, a lot of evidence in the past few years suggests that it is not safe, uses a lot of water and contaminates the water supply. But these are fixable problems, and I believe the natural gas industry will do their utmost to minimize these bad effects. (Do I trust them? No. But at least, improvements are within the realm of scientific possibility)
About 3, studies in the last year or so suggests that switching to natural gas for power plants doesn’t reduce  greenhouse gases long term in the slightest (and some  evidence  suggests that in the short term it actually is worse than coal for  greenhouse gas emissions). It is true that B (how much CO2 is emitted when the fuel is burned) is approximately 50% lower,  but A (how much methane is released during extraction) partially or fully offsets these reduced emissions.

Last Spring, a Cornell researcher presented a paper about natural gas and climate change. It was bitterly attacked by the oil and gas industry (and honestly, because of lack of data, the paper was full of unanswered questions). But two followup studies (here and here)   have confirmed this original assessment. Just a month ago one of the world’s leading climate change scientists published a peer-reviewed paper showing that it would take 200 years for the use of natural gas to have any beneficial effects on climate change. Even if we assume minimal leakage of methane (the biggest problem with natural gas and fracking), the comparative benefits of switching to natural gas are minimal and will kick in only after it is too late. (In contrast, the benefits of a solar powered plant or a wind energy generator come within 10 years).

The army of paid cheerleaders for the natural gas industry are trying to spread the message that natural gas is better and safer and that fracking is relatively safe.  But even if everything the natural gas  industry says is true, they will never be able to show that  the idea that natural gas will  reduce carbon emissions. All they can do is point to an alleged comparative advantage (that it is less dirty than coal), but  initial studies over the last year have cast serious doubt on even that claim.

So whenever a  politician like Obama or a TV pundit tells you that natural gas is clean and safe, they are feeding you bullshit while telling you it’s lobster.


Postscript.  I didn’t have time to talk about whether the world has enough renewable resources to power the world (even when taking into account reasonable projections of growth).  I have been reading a lot on this issue lately. Perhaps this merits a separate post, but here are two quick things to address this question. Mark Jacobsen, a Stanford climate scientists has studied this issue in depth. First, he gave a concise 5 minute interview about the subject in April 2012.

Second, he has done several analyses of energy needs and supply of renewable energies. One of his scientific analysis provided the basis for a cover story in Scientific American magazine in 2009 (download the PDF here). Also, he and Stuart Brand did a great debate at a TED conference about whether nuclear power ought to be in the mix. Jacobsen provided a lot of great charts (slides) and talking points in this lecture. Here, in this extended excerpt from a study press release, is his findings:

The raw energy sources that Jacobson found to be the most promising are, in order, wind, concentrated solar (the use of mirrors to heat a fluid), geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaics (rooftop solar panels), wave and hydroelectric. He recommends against nuclear, coal with carbon capture and sequestration, corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol, which is made of prairie grass. In fact, he found cellulosic ethanol was worse than corn ethanol because it results in more air pollution, requires more land to produce and causes more damage to wildlife.

To place the various alternatives on an equal footing, Jacobson first made his comparisons among the energy sources by calculating the impacts as if each alternative alone were used to power all the vehicles in the United States, assuming only “new-technology” vehicles were being used. Such vehicles include battery electric vehicles (BEVs), hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs), and “flex-fuel” vehicles that could run on a high blend of ethanol called E85.

Wind was by far the most promising, Jacobson said, owing to a better-than 99 percent reduction in carbon and air pollution emissions; the consumption of less than 3 square kilometers of land for the turbine footprints to run the entire U.S. vehicle fleet (given the fleet is composed of battery-electric vehicles); the saving of about 15,000 lives per year from premature air-pollution-related deaths from vehicle exhaust in the United States; and virtually no water consumption. By contrast, corn and cellulosic ethanol will continue to cause more than 15,000 air pollution-related deaths in the country per year, Jacobson asserted.

Because the wind turbines would require a modest amount of spacing between them to allow room for the blades to spin, wind farms would occupy about 0.5 percent of all U.S. land, but this amount is more than 30 times less than that required for growing corn or grasses for ethanol. Land between turbines on wind farms would be simultaneously available as farmland or pasture or could be left as open space.

Indeed, a battery-powered U.S. vehicle fleet could be charged by 73,000 to 144,000 5-megawatt wind turbines, fewer than the 300,000 airplanes the U.S. produced during World War II and far easier to build. Additional turbines could provide electricity for other energy needs.

“There is a lot of talk among politicians that we need a massive jobs program to pull the economy out of the current recession,” Jacobson said. “Well, putting people to work building wind turbines, solar plants, geothermal plants, electric vehicles and transmission lines would not only create jobs but would also reduce costs due to health care, crop damage and climate damage from current vehicle and electric power pollution, as well as provide the world with a truly unlimited supply of clean power.”

Jacobson said that while some people are under the impression that wind and wave power are too variable to provide steady amounts of electricity, his research group has already shown in previous research that by properly coordinating the energy output from wind farms in different locations, the potential problem with variability can be overcome and a steady supply of baseline power delivered to users.

Jacobson’s research is particularly timely in light of the growing push to develop biofuels, which he calculated to be the worst of the available alternatives. In their effort to obtain a federal bailout, the Big Three Detroit automakers are increasingly touting their efforts and programs in the biofuels realm, and federal research dollars have been supporting a growing number of biofuel-research efforts.

“That is exactly the wrong place to be spending our money. Biofuels are the most damaging choice we could make in our efforts to move away from using fossil fuels,” Jacobson said. “We should be spending to promote energy technologies that cause significant reductions in carbon emissions and air-pollution mortality, not technologies that have either marginal benefits or no benefits at all”.

“Obviously, wind alone isn’t the solution,” Jacobson said. “It’s got to be a package deal, with energy also being produced by other sources such as solar, tidal, wave and geothermal power.”

Postscript 2 : I wrote this post in a hurry, not bothering to provide citations or details about the natural gas life cycle analysis. Now let me flesh out these things.

Below is a lot of information and scientific research about a very controversial topic. As of Feb 2013, 5 studies are underway to measure the overall impact that natural gas use has on climate change (and specifically the amount of methane leakage). The first one by UT Austin concluded in Jan 2013.  Here are the Key findings of the early PNAS paper, based on the best available estimates on methane emissions from the EPA:

  • Assuming the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2009 leakage rate of 2.4% (from well to city), new natural gas combined cycle power plants reduce climate impacts compared to new coal plants; this case is true as long as leakage remains under 3.2%.

  • Assuming EPA’s estimates for leak rates, compressed natural gas (CNG)-fueled vehicles are not a viable mitigation strategy for climate change because of methane leakage from natural gas production, delivery infrastructure and from the vehicles themselves. For light-duty CNG cars to become a viable short-term climate strategy, methane leakage would need to be kept below 1.6% of total natural gas produced (approximately half the current amount for well to wheels – note difference from well to city).

  • Methane emissions would need to be cut by more than two-thirds to immediately produce climate benefits in heavy duty natural gas-powered trucks.

  • At current leakage rate estimates, converting a fleet of heavy duty diesel vehicles to natural gas would result in nearly 300 years of climate damage before any benefits were achieved.


Here’s the original Horwarth Cornell study:

While natural gas has been touted as a clean-burning fuel that produces less carbon dioxide than coal, ecologist Robert Howarth warns that we should be more concerned about methane leaking into the atmosphere during hydraulic fracturing.

Natural gas is mostly methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas, especially in the short term, with 105 times more warming impact, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide (CO2), Howarth said, adding that even small leaks make a big difference. He estimated that as much as 8 percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air during the lifetime of a hydraulic shale gas well — up to twice what escapes from conventional gas production.

“The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil,” Howarth said. “We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible. We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas.”

Here is the National Center for Atmospheric Research study:

In summary, our results show that the substitution of gas for coal as an energy source results in increased rather than decreased global warming for many decades — out to the mid 22nd century for the 10% leakage case. This is in accord with Hayhoe et al. (2002) and with the less well established claims of Howarth et al. (2011) who base their analysis on Global Warming Potentials rather than direct modeling of the climate….

The most important result, however, in accord with the above authors, is that, unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.

2012 NOAA study surveyed selected sites and estimated that methane leakages were significantly higher than expected:

 … last month, the research team reported new Colorado data that support the earlier work, as well as preliminary results from a field study in the Uinta Basin of Utah suggesting even higher rates of methane leakage — an eye-popping 9% of the total production. That figure is nearly double the cumulative loss rates estimated from industry data — which are already higher in Utah than in Colorado.

“We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see,” says Colm Sweeney, who led the aerial component of the study as head of the aircraft programme at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder.

Whether the high leakage rates claimed in Colorado and Utah are typical across the US natural-gas industry remains unclear. The NOAA data represent a “small snapshot” of a much larger picture that the broader scientific community is now assembling, says Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Boston, Massachusetts.

Here is the Caldeira-Myrvold paper from a few months ago:

The bottom line that emerges from this “life-cycle analysis,” or LCA, said Myhrvold, is that by the time we could switch from coal to gas, there would already be so much more CO2 and methane in the atmosphere that we’d be much deeper in the hole. “It’s like living on a credit card,” he said. “It’s easy to get into a situation where it will take years and years to pay back.”

In fact, he argues, because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for so long once it’s up there, a switch to natural gas would have zero effect on global temperatures by the year 2100. “If you take 40 years to switch over entirely to natural gas,” he said, “you won’t see any substantial decrease in global temperatures for up to 250 years. There’s almost no climate value in doing it.”

A switch to renewables (true renewables, that is, not corn-based ethanol) would also incur a carbon debt: it takes energy to manufacture solar panels and wind turbines too, after all. If we made that switch, according to Myhrvold and Calderia’s calculations, you wouldn’t see a change in temperatures for decades either. But by 2100, the decrease would start to kick in…..

Postscript #3. According to a 2012 IEA report (quoted and summarized here), by 2030:

The specific emissions from a gas-fired power plant will be higher than average global CO2 intensity in electricity generation by 2025, raising questions around the long-term viability of some gas infrastructure investment if climate change objectives are to be met. If near-term infrastructure development does not sufficiently consider technical flexibility, future adaptation to lower-carbon fuels and technologies will be more difficult to achieve.

Postscript #4. Here’s a great discussion by Shakeb Afsah and Kendyl Salcito about the economic and ecological aspects of the natural gas and fracking boom. Lots of data and charts. Great overall reference. It covers the issue in great depth. Basically, the low price of natural gas has caused it to replace coal in electricity generation; at the same time, it also has meant increased use in manufacturing.  So the low cost of natural gas may in fact lead to more carbon pollution. Furthermore, although switching from coal to gas produces some decrease in CO2, it can be done more dramatically and more cheaply by building infrastructure for renewable energy. Furthermore, the uncertainty about industry’s ability to contain methane leaks suggests that the CO2 reductions will still be less than predicted. They summarize:

Our analysis highlights how little the low price of shale gas has achieved in abating carbon pollution from fossil fuels. It also exposes the weaknesses in arguments of those who are keen to brand shale gas as a solution for climate change.

Natural gas deserves credit where it is due. But our findings show that there’s been a significant over-statement regarding shale gas’s contribution to cutting CO2 emissions in the recent years. This is surprising because readily available data point to the contrary.

Natural gas cannot be credited with the reductions in the US CO2 emissions observed in the last half-decade. Most reductions, nearly 90%, were caused by the decline in petroleum use, displacement of coal by mostly non-price factors, and its replacement by wind, hydro and other renewables. Where low price of natural gas saved some CO2 by displacing coal, it was quickly offset by its increased use in other sectors—highlighting the pitfall of justifying the current market for natural gas as a “bridge” or an interim phase of transition towards clean energy.

In comparison, each MWh replacement of coal by renewables eliminated a ton of CO2, adding to more than a 100 million metric tons of CO2 savings. Energy efficiency/conservation efforts as estimated by the falling economy-wide energy intensity also saved significant amount of CO2 between 2006 and 2011 (see Appendix-4). Clearly, these measures independently outperform the CO2 savings from the low-price driven coal-to-gas displacement, showing that authentic climate policies based on regulations and clean energy standards are essential for lasting cuts in CO2 emissions.


Michael Barrett is a San Antonio writer and critic who has been publishing essays  about cinema and TV for more than 20 years. His screenplay for an animation feature is currently in going through image“development heck.” Other projects include writing children’s fiction actually intended for adults   and appearing in a still-unreleased comic video about the life of John Ruskin.  In addition to currently writing articles and reviews for the San Antonio Express-News, Video Watchdog magazine, and the website PopMatters, he keeps busy selling old books on Amazon. I’ve known Mike since college where we collaborated on a literary magazine  and  I ran the film projectors for an international films series  Barrett  headed. Barrett’s forte is  writing longer analytical essays about obscure cinematic genres under the guide of DVD reviews.  In one of his more notable essays, You are Living in the Golden Age of Cinema, Barrett asserts  that he doesn’t believe in the myth of declining quality of cinema (when compared to “golden ages” like the 1970s).  “The new problem is getting … noticed amid all this overwhelming superfluity of access, but I submit that this is a much happier problem than not finding a distributor—of which there are a surprising number during this so-called decline, and an increasing number of festivals and labels and channels hungry for product.” (An brief annotated list of his cinema essays is at the end—Also, every text link included in this interview takes you to the relevant Barrett  essays). The interview took place in February, 2012.

Personal Observations

You once mentioned to me that every film inevitably has a mirror scene, something which I’ve noticed ever since you pointed out. Are there any other secrets or rules of thumbs to cinema which you’d like to share?

Yes, and the mirror scene is often the very first or last scene. I’ve just watched Fassbinder’s German sci-fi TV movie World on a Wire, which we can safely say has a mirror in every scene!

imageI have facetiously complained that all foreign movies have a scene where somebody urinates; this goes all the way back to Bicycle Thief. Maybe it’s not all foreign movies, but more than fifty percent, and now it’s spread to American cinema.

My personal rules of thumb have been to watch anything silent and anything Japanese (so Japanese silents must be the apotheosis!), and I pretty much think anything from Eastern Europe is worth watching, and most items from Iran and Africa. Eastern European movies are very “film school”, while films from “emerging” countries have a directness bordering on audacity, which has nothing to do with lack of sophistication and perhaps something to do with oral traditions.

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In the second week of April, I’ll be attending or participating in three FOUR  FIVE events in Houston: A Liar’s Contest, Houston Indie Book Festival, a Film Premiere, and an Energy/Environmental Conference. Details for attending these events is below.  (Note: the Movie Premiere is Thursday, the conference is Friday and the Liar’s contest/booksale & book fest  is Saturday — even though I listed everything in reverse chronological order). Drop me a line if you think you’ll be at one of these events!

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I made a tongue-in-cheek test to measure your knowledge of a very important subject.  For various reasons related to search engines, I will not include a hyperlink, but the link is here: http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/robertnagleiqtest.html

I realize that the answers will seem impossible to those who don’t know me personally (and even the people who know me well got a lot of things wrong).  Don’t worry; it’s just for laughs.

PS. What inspired this test was the zany trivia game which Ross Geller invented in the “One with the Embryos” episode of Friends (which is one of the funniest episodes I’ve seen). (More).


Jade: Outlaw By Robert Flynn (Book Review)

jade-outlawJade: Outlaw by Robert Flynn (2010), JoSara MeDia, 190 pages. Author’s Website and Blog (with RSS feed)

Ebook: Amazon/BN (now at  99 cents!)

Print Editions: Used copies are available, but with ebooks so cheap, why bother?

Summary: A  Western tale about a 19th century Texas town  that is harsh, spiritual and profound.

Recommended if you like:  Cormac McCarthy (but with more plain-spoken  language), Faulkner,  Euripides,  Graham Greene

I don’t normally read Westerns, but I’m a fan of this dark and brooding novel. It takes place in a Texas town beset by all kinds of disruptive forces. Civilized living in this late 19th century Texas town  is still tenuous. Towns are small, individuals are vulnerable to attack and robbery and there’s a lot friction between ethnic groups.  The white man is outraged at how Indians attack settlers and steal their belongings. Indians are outraged by the heavy-handed way that the white man encroaches on their territory and retaliates for crimes committed by Indians from other tribes. Caught in the middle are farming families, Mexicans, merchants, drifters, religious people and people with multiple loyalties.

It’s a rough life that claims many casualties. This novel depicts many of these inhabitants, starting with a tough cowboy haunted by the memory of an Indian raid where he shoots his wife to prevent the Indians from  getting to her first.  He consoles himself that it had to be done — and other white woman agree –but after talking to  Crow Poison,  a white woman who used to be married to an Indian, he has to face the real possibility that the Indians wouldn’t have killed and molested his wife’s body after all. How would he ever know? Was it possible that his murderous deed — though committed with the purest of motives — was ultimately a senseless act of destruction?

Jade finds steady work as an escort for cattle, guarding property and chasing after rustlers. He does it exceedingly well (and the author does a great job of capturing the mundane details of being a cowboy: the food, the daily aggravations, the techniques for defending oneself). Jade has already killed several Indians who have committed crimes. He rationalizes his behavior by saying he’s pursuing justice; in a way, he’s avenging the violence which the Indians forced him to do against the woman he loved. At the same time, Jade feels queasy about having so much violence in his life. What he feels is not so much guilt as  regret that these violent deeds have become for him a necessity of living in Texas.

His foil is a white woman named Crow Poison who used to be married to an Indian; tragically, her son and husband were killed during an Indian raid. Jade and Crow Poison are two people with anger in their hearts; they are immediately attracted to one another, and yet they also condemn one another’s values. Jade finds appalling that Crow Poison might have had normal relations with a man whose laws and moral code was so primitive. Crow Poison finds appalling that Jade could dispense with human life so nonchalantly just to make a living. With horror she realizes that a man like Jade — and maybe even Jade himself — could have been the one who killed her husband and son.

That is the central action of the book. How do both lovers make their peace with the other’s past? Both are loners and strangers in this small community; in a way these two are meant to be together — both are aggrieved enough to challenge the other’s cynical world view.

I wouldn’t call this a religious or even a spiritual novel, but the novel  raises questions about what role religion can play (if any) in a society  lacking  order and a settled structure of governance. A preacher and his family live among the people to offer guidance and comfort and an upright example. But most of the transients and townspeople scoff at the preacher’s efforts. The preacher has dreams of mending relations between Indians and Americans, but he practically inhabits a war zone. Wouldn’t it be better for the intrepid preacher  to wait for peaceful society to develop before trying to spread the Christian word? For someone to intervene (either morally or physically) on behalf of the downtrodden  is almost an invitation to self-destruction or martyrdom. The preacher preaches forgiveness and respect and charity, but in the open land, such currencies have no real value.

Weapons have value, and so do whores. So do ethnic kinship and face-to-face meetings and of course money. The general from the ranch house seems to have the most money, but strongmen/teamsters like Jade have the raw power. Still,  people like Jade are not happy; they cannot even relax. Even as a cautious strongman, Jade doesn’t really feel safe; he must be suspicious of everybody.

Who is Jade really? And who does he want to become?

This remarkable novel provides a compelling panorama of Texas settlers in the late 19th century. I can’t speak of its historical accuracy, but the book is overflowing with details and slang (the slang is not too intrusive, and there is  a helpful glossary at the end). My main complaint is more formal than thematic. The book throws out so many minor characters and backstory  that I got lost several times (even when skimming through the novel for a second time to write this review). The reader’s first encounter with a character is through dialogue;  gradually it becomes possible to piece together the character’s personality during the novel — but it takes a while. (Flynn did something similar in the somewhat  more light-hearted  Wanderer Springs).

The advantage of immersing a reader in such a large ensemble is that encounters seem less directed and  more random; we are never quite sure which members in this town community are going to play an important role later.  The first half of the book is about Jade and Crow Poison’s    turbulent love story, but  by the book’s end, an improbable and tragic series of events thrusts several incidental characters into the limelight (I’m being purposely vague here). These events are jarring and heart-rending; they bring insight and require major choices.  There is a lesson to be learned here: every person is important before the eyes of God and God-loving people, no matter how easy to overlook — whether in the novel or real life.

As I mentioned, my unfamiliarity with characters caused confusion and slowed my reading down (although it was no longer an issue by the last third). The style is sparse, and the language stays simple. But when the narrator is permitted to enter the minds of characters, it reveals  complex sentiments and fears. None of the sentences seem remarkable by itself until you stumble upon one which penetrates to the heart of the matter — not in judgment, but understanding. Here’s a scene where Crow Poison compares Jade to her deceased Indian husband Skull Cap:

Why had he /Jade/ come back? Crow Poison pondered. She no longer believed that he had come to the settlement to kill her,  but what did he want with her? He had sat easy at her table and he walked like Skull Cap, as though walking was for squaws. Warriors were above all living things on the earth. Even the mighty eagle could be put under their foot with an arrow or a rifle. The horse was their glory, the proof of their manhood, their first and greatest coup. The horse was the weapon that made them deadly and the shield that made them invulnerable to lesser foes.

They seemed much the same, Jade and her husband, but separated by rivers of tears, mountains of dead, cliffs of hatred so sheer and deep no one could have imagined the bottom.

She had clung to Skull Cap knowing that she was not likely to have him for long. Horses, buffalo, braves, soldiers — all were proud, all were vain, all were doomed. The horses would survive the longest, beyond their usefulness because of their beauty, their grace. Because they could make a man bigger than he had ever been. Like the locomotive she had seen once. More powerful than a man, yet controlled by a man.

Crow Poison wondered if white men would someday turn against the machine the way they had the buffalo despite all the gifts the buffalo had given man. The buffalo had made survival possible. Yet white man had killed them as happily, as wantonly as she had killed scorpions, centipedes, the snakes that carried death in their mouths..

This passage captures both the romanticized way that men in 19th century treated women and horses, and Crow Poison’s fatalistic attitude that they never will change. At the same time, Crow Poison does not really resist Jade’s romantic advances… if only because the two of them share a kinship based on tragedy. And the two of them are able to help the other to grow; neither are able to preach forgiveness, but at least each comes to realize that the other person is not the real enemy here.

Why should people be reading this kind of novel today? Surely society today is nowhere as dangerous as Jade’s world. The novel asks important questions. How do you enforce a moral code? How can people learn to suppress the thirst for vengeance when pursuing justice? What  kinds of actions can we forgive in a loved one? How do peacemakers bridge the barriers between groups of people who deny the other’s humanity?

The end hints at a sequel, and indeed, Flynn wrote one called Jade: The Law. Although Jade: Outlaw  stands well enough  on its own, I like knowing that this novel was  only the first leg of  a longer  journey.  I’m hoping that the second novel will offer less violence and more time to  focus on the ordinary (and less stressful) part of people’s lives.    Jade:  Outlaw  has a few  lighter moments, but for the most part it depicts humans in a precarious state who are beset  by anxiety and sadness.   Great writing, yes, but when (and how) will the  inhabitants find peace and contentment?

Or will they?

See Also:  My blogpost about Robert Flynn’s web essays (with lots of links).

This disclaimer about reviewing books.

(View my other book reviews).

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