Friday, May 30, 2008

Little People had a banner advertising Slant, a compilation of Asian-American short films. The ad featured an array of wooden finger puppets. I remember playing with these a long time ago. According to this, Fisher Price made all kinds of Little People.

Update: Little People became 'chunky' in the early nineties and are still made that way.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Life in the Crash Lane

Kunstler writes in The Washington Post and notes on his own site that the Long Emergency is probably here.

May 26, 2008
Anxious Hiatus

Loveliness was everywhere this holiday weekend in upstate New York, and it was probably hard for many to believe that the wayward nation would return to the dread uncertainty of life in the crash lane [a much better title for this post, I think--P.Z.] when the barbeques were over. There was even a wan overtone to the late-night sports news about the Indy 500 race -- as though the spectacle of cars droning round and round a speed oval epitomized the futility of American life in this moment of our history.

I had a discussion with one guy at a Sunday night party about the prospects for hydrogen-powered cars. We rehearsed the usual reasons why such a system was unlikely to get up-and-running -- and then he said, "...but what if we took all the money from the war and put it into something like the space program and... they came up with some way to make it happen...!"

This is certainly the golden heart of the great wish out there, as the empire of Happy Motoring begins to run down on $4 gasoline. It seems inconceivable that a society so bold as to put men on the moon (fer crissake) can't overcome such a prosaic problem as finding something other than oil byproducts to run our cars on.

From this holy font all cognitive dissonance flows.

It seems inconceivable, but it begins to look like that's the way it really is, and we just can't accept it.

Of course, one of the reasons that Americans are so anxious to get away on a holiday weekend from the places where they live is because we did such a perfect job the past fifty years turning our home-places into utterly unrewarding, graceless nowheres, where the private realm of the beige houses is saturated in monotony, and the public realm has been reduced to the berm between the WalMart and the strip mall. Now, we barely have the gasoline to run all this stuff, let alone escape from it for a weekend.
We're at a dead end with all this and a lot of Americans are paralyzed with fear about what's next. This may actually be a deeper fear than the anxiety about money and banking in 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in and tried to reassure the nation. Back then, despite the grave problems of capital, we still had plenty of everything: plenty of good productive land, plenty of manpower earnestly eager for hard work, plenty of ore in the ground, shining cities equipped with excellent streetcar systems, a railroad network that was the envy of the world, sturdy small towns and small cities fully equipped with locally-owned business, and a vast number of small family farms that could re-absorb family members unable to get wages in the cities. Most of all, we had plenty of oil in the ground, and the world's biggest industry for getting it out and selling it. What we didn't have in 1933 was cash money.

The crisis at hand now goes way beyond a crisis of capital -- though that is certainly part of it. Notice how many of the things we had in 1933 are gone now. Our cities, with a few exceptions, are imploded husks. Our small towns and small cities (Schenectady, home of G.E.!) are gutted, especially in terms of locally-owned business. Our passenger rail system is worse than anything a Soviet ministry might produce (while the airline industry that replaced it is dying of a kind of financial hemorrhagic fever). Our local transit hardly exists anymore. Family farms have all but disappeared. We have plenty of manpower earnestly eager to become American Idols (but certainly not for heavy labor). Our oil industry now supplies only a fraction of the world's daily supply (and not even enough for half of our own needs).

What happens now? We face not just change but convulsive change. The public senses the rapid unraveling of our car-centric arrangements. In the week before the holiday, gasoline prices went up several cents each day -- in upstate New York, it crossed the $4 mark and kept going up. The trucking system faces collapse as diesel fuel price-rises exceed even the rise in gasoline, and the vast number of independent truckers who make up the system confront the individual calamity of a personal business failure. American Airlines last week announced severe measures to keep operating through the fall of 2008. but none of the airlines can feasibly carry on as usual with oil prices above $120-a-barrel -- and the ominous message is of a business model that has no conceivable way to adapt to the new reality. Most likely, in a very few years air travel will no longer be a "consumer" enterprise.

In the background of these practical problems -- "off screen" during the holiday of car races and ball games -- is a crisis of capital orders of magnitude worse than the one faced by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. For behind the "liquidity" (i.e. insolvency) issues faced by the big institutions lurks the Godzilla of the derivatives trade, which has evolved into a black hole capable of sucking all notional "money" into oblivion. That "money," which represents the aggregate value of our society, also amounts to the emperor's new clothes of an empire in serious trouble. As the black hole of derivatives sucks away these "new clothes," America will stand naked against the elements of fate.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cockburn vs. Clinton

Alexander Cockburn kicks knowledge and science like few others. In his latest column, he lays down a scathing rebuke of Hillary Clinton:

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Trying Out Cooper Black

Hence my blog's new lettering. What do you think?

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Post-Oil Novel

Some prime examples of this emerging genre of speculative fiction are discussed.

The essay also lists books of the related genre of "green science fiction" or ecotopian fiction (defined by Wikipedia as "a subgenre of Utopian fiction where the author posits either a utopian or dystopian world revolving around environmental conservation or destruction. Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia was the first example of this...") : by authors such as:

  • Ursula K. LeGuin ("The Dispossessed, "Always Coming Home")
  • Molly Gloss ("The Dazzle of the Day")
  • Judith Moffett ("Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream")
  • Ernest Callenbach ("Ecotopia")
  • Kim Stanley Robinson ("The Wild Shore" and "Pacific Edge")
Wikipedia lists the following authors and books:

To all these I would add Harvey Wasserman's SOLARTOPIA: Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030, summarized on the author's website thusly:

After the age of fossil/nuke ... a new era dawned ... Climb aboard our sleek, quiet, supremely comfortable hydrogen-powered "Hairliner" as we fly halfway around an Earth of A.D. 2030 that has mastered the problems of energy and the environment. Beneath us we see a post-industrial world booming with the wealth and harmony of a revolution in green power, one brewing since 1952, but finally in place. Written by one of the world's leading advocates of renewable energy, SOLARTOPIA takes its place with LOOKING BACKWARD and ECOTOPIA in classic visionary thinking. Read this once -- your view of the future will never be the same.

19 January 2009 update:

Frank Kaminski wrote in his review of peak- and post-oil novels (linked above) that:

"They are most certainly the vanguard of an entire subgenre of such books, an increasing number of which will be written by veteran speculative fiction authors (assuming, of course, that we have enough energy to keep the presses running). This is not mere speculation; other authors are now waiting to deliver their own unique takes on peak oil. Speculative fiction-short-story-writer Paolo Bacigalupi, for one, clearly seemed quite engaged on the subject during an interview with Locus Magazine this past year."[25]

25 “Paolo Bacigalupi: Facing the Tiger,” Locus, issue 558, vol. 59, no. 1 (July 2007): 76-8.

Indeed, as Annalee Newitz reported:

"Awesome eco-scifi author Paolo Bacigalupi reports that he's just sold an intriguing-sounding dystopian novel to publisher Little, Brown. Bacigalupi writes, "The book in question is Ship Breaker, a young adult novel about all of my favorite things: global warming, peak oil, genetic engineering, poverty and collapsed societies. You know, happy fun stuff. Fortunately, it’s also a ripping adventure. Joe Monti at Little, Brown is the cool guy who decided to buy it, in a two-book deal." Bacigalupi has already published a book of short stories, Pump Six, [No, it has nothing to do with gas stations--P.Z.] and is working on another novel called The Windup Girl. [via Windup Stories]"

Kaminski noted that the peak-oil genre is taking off:

"...Peak oil enthusiasts have indeed begun doing all of these things, as evidenced by the online discussion boards, book reviews, and post-oil short story contests. It will be interesting to see how their debate evolves, as well as how the post-oil novel, and the unlikely partnership between speculative fiction and peak oil, build over time."

A brief search for the abovementioned turned up a story fragment on how not even the Amish are immune to the deprivations wrought by peak oil. There is also an interview with Robert Pogue Ziegler, who won a Rocky Mountain News-sponsored short-story contest with his post-carbon story "Heirlooms."
And Alan Wartes lets out a full-throated "peak oil rallying cry to artists":

"...What we desperately need now are new stories. ...

Artists, we need you. We need your vision and your courage to tell the truth. We’ve got plenty of “analysis,” and enough punditry to last us forever. What we lack are the gut-wrenching stories that put a human face on the collapse that is upon us. We lack imagination to see through the present smoke and dust to what comes next. We lack the icons of this revolution that can sum up the future in a single phrase or image - and suggest what must be done to face it. ...

I offer this small step forward: at So Long, Hydrocarbon Man, we will now take submissions of poems, short films, short stories and images that speak to the realities of peak oil, climate change and life at the end of the era of Hydrocarbon Man. Visit the site and read our submission guidelines. Spread the word to artists: a challenge has been issued to create stories that tell the truth about where we are and ones that imagine the possibilities of where we can go from here. ..."

Alan Wartes is a filmmaker, writer and musician. He writes a blog at,[now defunct--P.Z.] a site that is now taking submissions for art work - short films, poems, short stories and photos - that speaks directly to life at the 'end of the era of Hydrocarbon Man.'"

Kaminski soon revisited the peak-/post-oil novel by reviewing Ill Wind, a book set in a post-oil world but not about peak oil, unlike the novels in his previous review. (In the story, experimental oil-eating microbes set loose on a tanker spill escape to devour the world's petroleum.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Kunstler vs. Clinton

I might add pictures later.--P.Z.

May 12, 2008
Monster of Ambition

I was pretty disturbed eight years ago when Hillary Clinton up and announced she was running for a New York seat in the US Senate. Say what? She didn't even live here after she quit Arkansas. Why didn't she run for the single non-voting District of Columbia House of Representatives seat (in a primary against Eleanor Holmes Norton)? Why? Because Hillary is a monster of ambition.

So, Hillary and Bill bought a piece of real estate in Westchester County, NY, and that theoretically qualified her to run for that senate seat. Of course, her move was a huge slap in the face to the 15 million or so adult native New York staters who were also theoretically entitled to run for that office -- including especially the smaller but still substantial number of New Yorkers with serious qualifications. They all rolled over for Hillary, allowing the Clintons to maintain a major power base in American government when the Big Show of Bill's White House tenure was up.

Her run for president took off on schedule with a disturbing sense of inevitability. It was clear that she had internalized the arc of the women's movement to the the degree that the nation owed her a turn in the White House, since this was the logical symbolic destination of the Boomer political ethos: absolute equality above all other considerations -- Hillary gets to play, too! The American public seemed willing to go along with this national psychodrama. It satisfied a certain school days sense of morality. Then Barack Obama had to come along and spoil it all. The nerve of that... uppity Negro!

Or so, apparently, Hillary would have us believe, now that her campaign has run off the rails. In awful desperation she has so much as said that the Democratic party has to nominate her because non-white people are unelectable -- forgetting for a moment that Barack Obama is as much white as he is black.

The spectacle of Hillary's un-making has been pretty horrible to witness, the efforts to stage her as a lumpenprole Nascar mom drinking boilermakers while celebrating her latest hunting exploits. (How worried is Hillary about making her mortgage payments, or filling her gas tank?) Naturally, the final act of this nauseating play takes place in Hillbilly Heaven, the states of West Virginia and Kentucky, where Hillary expects to make a big "statement" about exactly whom voters will go for. She'll win big and the effort will symbolically disgrace her.

She's carrying on now like William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial -- an obvious, gibbering loser unwilling to shut up and go home, even after every measure of consensus from the bailing super delegates to the cover of Time Magazine has made it clear who the preferred party nominee will be.

I hope New York voters will not fail to remember this ghastly final act of the 2008 primary season. I hope a bona fide New Yorker will step up and challenge Mrs Clinton for the senate seat she will return to for the next several years. I hope the Clintons will move offstage and do something else -- enjoy their millions... make even more money... use it to "go green" or something....

Back around the year 2000, I used to joke with my friends that Bill Clinton would return (despite the two-term limit) as Emperor Bill the 1st. He almost made it. I voted for him twice in the 1990s, but the new script addition wasn't so appetizing. It would have been one of the stranger occurrences in all of modern world history. The political "death" of Hillary and Bill is a story of Shakespearean dimensions. It seems to be ending as farce, though. Who knows, before the day is over, Hillary may yet put on a pair of overalls with one suspender and have her picture taken sucking on a jug of moonshine likker. Of course, irony has been the Boomer's intellectual stock-in-trade.

Whatever America's fate may be in these very trying times of peak oil and climate change, a consensus seems to have formed that we can't afford to leave the same old cast of characters running things.

Movies and Music

About 9.30 p.m. I found this Counterpunch essay declaring Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay the best film of the Bush era or at least the most subversive. The latter judgement makes more sense to me, as comedies and cartoons (e.g., The Simpsons, South Park) can usually get away with more pointed observations than can documentaries and live-action films, respectively.

I haven't seen it yet, but I just saw Iron Man this afternoon. The 1.45 screening room was packed so we decided to wait an hour in another room for the 3.00 screening. Not much to do for an hour, but I discovered two bands whose songs were playing on Movie Tunes before the movie started. The Red Button's "She's About to Cross My Mind" sounded just like something out of That Thing You Do! And the young jazz chanteuse Rosey proclaimed "It's a Ruse."

On Starz! in Black this evening I watched Holy Man and remembered the first time I heard (and heard of) Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," playing over the ending credits of this movie, so I kept rewinding the tape to hear it. Of course, that song, and so many others, are online now. I found "Summer Soft" (just added to my list of music videos) on YouTube tonight.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Victorian Supercomputer Reborn

Is College for All? Part Two

Steve Sailer thinks condensed books might do the trick for students.

If I were a high school English teacher, I'd welcome condensed versions of books. They'd be less intimidating to students and they'd take up less time in class, so you can move on to other books. All the economic incentives these days are for publishers to churn out thick books in which readers can wallow in their favorite author's writing, but classrooms contain a wide variety of tastes, so a class is better off with more shorter books than fewer longer books.

With lots of older books, you could just cut out the descriptive prose. Before visual images became hyperabundant, people had a hunger for mental imagery. So, as late as "The Maltese Falcon" in 1930, you have to endure two pages of description of what Sam Spade looks like, which turned out to be not at all like Humphrey Bogart -- Hammett's Spade is 6'3" and blond.And lots of fat books have a thin book lurking inside. For example, Tom Wolfe's 426-page The Right Stuff could furnish a terrific 125-page biography of Chuck Yeager.

Earlier, Steve recommended tweaking school reading lists to appeal to more students:

Unfortunately, educators are living in a dreamland about what kind of books are suitable for their lowest-scoring students. Let's take a look at the recommended reading list for high school students (grades 9-12) who rank lowest out of the 13 levels of scores on the test. So, that's like youths in the bottom decile in reading ability, right?Here are five of the 57 recommendations from the bottom of the barrel list:

Collected Poems by W.H. Auden

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw

Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Right Look, at this level, you just want these kids to read something, so you should be recommending, I don't know, 32-page sports hero biographies in big type with lots of pictures. The Da Vinci Code is way too hard for these poor bastards.This seems to be a general pattern, pushing public school kids toward books that are way over their heads.Let's now talk about average public high school students, rather than the bottom 1/13th. For example, Shakespeare is frequently introduced to students via Romeo and Juliet, which is the young Shakespeare at his most show-offy and incomprehensible. You should start instead with Julius Caesar, which is written in Shakespeare's simplest style in imitation of Latin. And it's about war and politics, which boys like, and boys are the problem these days. Most of them probably won't get it, but at least they have a fighting chance with Julius Caesar.For those high school students who go on to a second Shakespeare play, Henry IV, Part I has perhaps the most entertainment value, with war, politics, honor, and some humor that's still kind of funny in Falstaff. Avoid Shakespeare comedies that are based upon transvestism but aren't actually funny, like Twelfth Night. They appeal to a certain type of English teacher, but not to most students. In general, tragedy endures better than comedy.And avoid "problem plays" like Measure for Measure, which are problem plays because they have problems (i.e., aren't very good).If you are building a public high school reading list of classics, you should look for 1) simple, 2) short, and 3) appealing to boys, which means you'd start with The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Is College for All?

Rod Dreher seems to take strange delight in the June Atlantic cover story, "The Sky is Falling":

It is always a good day when I get home from work to find a new issue of The Atlantic on the table. Yesterday was especially delish because the cover story is titled "The Sky Is Falling," and it's a Gregg Easterbrook piece on how there are far more killer space rocks than you think lying in wait to strike Earth when we least expect it! Oh frabjous day, Black Swan of Black Swans!

I can see how Alicu is drawn to Rod like a tabby to catnip. And he'll probably pounce on his post (no pun intended).

But the post is really about another piece by an English instructor, who claims that the idea of universal college education "is a destructive myth."

What drives this essay emotionally is not disdain for and disgust with dim-bulb students. X says he really identifies with his students and their struggles in life, and wants to help them along. "I could not be aloof even if I wanted to be," he writes. But he can't compromise academic standards out of pity or solidarity.

What it all boils down to, he says, is that a cruel hoax is being played on these students. "America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting someone's options," he writes. And he sympathizes with this ideal -- but he's the one who has to see how little it has to do with reality. His students aren't college material. They don't read (some of them can't really read). They don't share even the rudiments of a common intellectual culture on which to build. He says he tries to explain the basics of narrative to them in terms of movies, but they haven't all seen the same movies. They are more or less well-mannered, hard-working barbarians. The only thing they all share is a sense that they are good people for being in college, and that they can be anything they want to be.

Prof. X says the whole system, premised on a false egalitarianism, is to blame here. One key question this excellent essay raises by implication is this: if quite a lot of Americans are incapable of doing college work, what does that do to the Thomas Friedmanesque understanding that in order to compete in a flattened, globalized world, US laborers are simply going to have to get retrained and better educated? What if there are natural limits to their ability to expand their cognitive skills? What then?

I mean, look, what if things were flipped, and the Friedmans of the world were telling the "knowledge workers," for lack of a better term, that staying competitive in this globalizing world economy meant having a stronger back. Ergo, nerdling, you're just going to have to start spending a lot more time at the gym to develop a longshoreman's body, or get left behind. We'd laugh at this, because we have no problem grasping that nature has not endowed all of us equally well in terms of physical strength and capabilities. The nerdling would be able to improve his strength to a certain degree, but to tell him his physical limits are defined only by his desires and will to succeed is to play a cruel hoax on

Are we not doing that with some of the people who are in college now? And furthermore, aren't we shortchanging them when we fail to make allowances for them in the kind of economy we're building? A public schoolteacher friend back in the 1990s railed against free trade agreements because she said these agreements did not consider the interests of US workers who made their living with their hands and backs. It's very easy, it seems to me, for the university-educated meritocratic elite to assume that an economic order in which symbolic analysts are the paradigmatic worker to construct in total innocence a "rational" system that favors their interests, at the expense of manual laborers who are by no means dumb, but whose intelligence is not geared toward academic achievement. Indeed, is that not what we have done?

The supposition that makes that kind of economic order seem just is the belief that cognition, and improving cognitive skills, is simply a matter of running people through a diploma mill -- and the conviction that anybody who wants to succeed in school
badly enough can. Again, this is what you get when those who have been genetically blessed with cognitive capability -- intelligence, in other words -- don't grasp how unearned their advantages are. You get what Gov. Ann Richards, I think it was, said of George H.W. Bush: "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."

Understand I'm not making excuses for mediocrity. Plainly there are people who are capable of succeeding in the classroom, but who don't because they lack focus, self-discipline or initiative. What I'm talking about is the taboo we have against admitting that some people are smarter than others, and the contemporary American disdain for the dignity of manual labor, and the gnostic egalitarianism of US culture, which holds that we create our own realities by force of will.

This ideology allows those who have the cognitive abilities to succeed in a meritocratic, information-age economy to disavow social responsibility for those who are not as gifted. This is not to say that the ungifted are to be objects of pity, nor is it to say that they have no responsibility at all for themselves. It is simply, I think, to realize that our ideology prevents us from acknowledging certain truths about the way the world is, and ordering our system around reality, not false idealism that ends up breaking people like Ms. L, and turning people like Prof. X into cynics.

Vocational education is undervalued, and it's too bad, because in a post-peak oil world, trades such as carpentry will profit people more than, say, currency trading. I'm reminded of this Camille Paglia column, written after the Columbine massacre. She takes on primary and secondary education:

These shocking incidents of school violence are ultimately rooted in the massive social breakdown of the Industrial Revolution, which disrupted the ancient patterns of clan and community. Our middle-class culture is affluent but spiritually empty. The attractive houses of the Columbine killers are mere shells, seething with the poisons of the isolated nuclear family and its Byzantine denials. ...

For me, the lesson of Columbine is that primary and secondary education, as it gradually expanded over the past century, has massive systemic problems. We are warehousing students from childhood to early adulthood, channeling them toward middle-class professional jobs that they may or may not want. [And that will almost totally dry up in the Long Emergency--P.Z.] Young, male, hormonally driven energy is trapped and stultified by school, with its sterile regimentation into cubical classrooms and cramped rows of seats. ...Today's busy, busy, busy high school education seems to prepare young people for nothing. There are too many posh cars in the parking lot and too much stress on extracurricular activities. Just as I have argued for lowering the age of sexual consent to 14, so do I now propose that young people be allowed to leave school at 14 -- as they did during the immigrant era, when families needed every wage to survive. Unfortunately, in our service-sector economy, entry-level manual labor is no longer widely available.

At home, American teenagers are being simultaneously babied and neglected, while at school they have become, in effect, prisoners of the state. Primary school should be stripped down to the bare bones of grammar, art, history, math and science. We need to offer optional vocational and technical schools geared to concrete training in a craft or trade. Practical, skills-based knowledge gives students a sense of mastery, even if they don't stay in that profession. A wide range of careers might be pedagogically developed, such as horticulture and landscape design; house construction and outfitting; automotive and aviation mechanics; restaurant culinary arts; banking, accounting,
investment and small business management.

The mental energy presently being recreationally diverted by teens to the Internet and to violent video games (one of the last arenas for masculine action, however imaginary) is clearly not being absorbed by school. We have a gigantic educational assembly line that coercively processes students and treats them with Ritalin or therapy if they can't sit still in the cage. The American high school as social scene clearly spawns internecine furies in sexually stunted young men -- who are emotionally divorced from their parents but too passive to run away, so that they turn their inchoate family hatreds on their peers. Like the brainy rich-kid criminals Leopold and Loeb (see the 1959 film "Compulsion"), the Columbine killers were looking for meaning and chose the immortality of infamy, the cold ninth circle of the damned.