Archive for April, 2014

Readers have recently been registering hits on my blog backlog (evidenced by stats kept by WordPress in the backstage), which has prompted me to revisit a few of my older posts. (I’d say they’re “gathering dust” except that this blog is entirely virtual. Do electrons have dust?) One post particularly worth revisiting is “Doomsday Creeping Closer” about the Doomsday Clock found at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. My original provocation to blog about this was a 2007 news report of an adjustment to the clock from 7 before midnight to 5 before midnight. The metaphorical hands were adjusted back in 2010 and forward in 2012, now sitting again at 5 before midnight.

My original post was written before I had become fully collapse aware. Although already a pessimist, fatalist, misanthrope, and sometimes harsh critic, I shared many of the same illusions as the public, foremost among them the idea of a future based on historical continuity still stretching out a long way in front of us. Since then, considering how bad news (scientific findings, political gridlock and infighting, and geopolitical stresses, but most of all, accelerating losses in animal and plant populations as climate change ramps up in all its awful manifestations) keeps piling up, my time horizon has shortened considerably. Thus, I find it curious that the esteemed atomic scientists provide the following reasons for moving back the doomsday clock in 2010:

6 minutes to midnight
2010: “We are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons” is the Bulletin’s assessment. Talks between Washington and Moscow for a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty are nearly complete, and more negotiations for further reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenal are already planned. The dangers posed by climate change are growing, but there are pockets of progress. Most notably, at Copenhagen, the developing and industrialized countries agree to take responsibility for carbon emissions and to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.
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Armageddon resulting from global nuclear war has always been regarded as a serious threat to the Bulletin going all the way back to 1947. However, I wonder what “pockets of progress” have been made on climate change? My appreciation is that, in high distinction from the usual political theater, none of the various climate talks and publications throughout the years have yielded anything other than some quasi-hysterical shrieking (handily invalidating the message) and delegates leaving without forming agreements or signing treaties. No one wants to give up the bounties of industrialism. The default is then business as usual (BAU), which ironically has historical continuity — at least until is doesn’t anymore for reasons quite beyond anyone’s control. Reasons for moving the doomsday clock forward in 2012 fare better:
5 minutes to midnight
2012: “The challenges to rid the world of nuclear weapons, harness nuclear power, and meet the nearly inexorable climate disruptions from global warming are complex and interconnected. In the face of such complex problems, it is difficult to see where the capacity lies to address these challenges.” Political processes seem wholly inadequate; the potential for nuclear weapons use in regional conflicts in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and South Asia are alarming; safer nuclear reactor designs need to be developed and built, and more stringent oversight, training, and attention are needed to prevent future disasters; the pace of technological solutions to address climate change may not be adequate to meet the hardships that large-scale disruption of the climate portends.
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Notice the tiny change in position of the hands on the clock? Neato! (I need a SarkMark () or an interrobang () there ….) The 2012 assessment is far more sober and honest, asking quite plainly “whatcha gonna do?” Inadequacy weighs heavy on our institutions and leadership, though incompetence and corruption might be just as applicable. Also, the (ongoing) Fukushima disaster has (re-)raised the specter of a nuclear Armageddon arising from something other than war. It’s notable here, too, that it’s scientists who hedgingly admit that technology may not rescue us. Further, the prospect of near-term human extinction (NTHE or NTE) as part of the Earth’s sixth great (or mass) extinction event (a process rather than a date) might be cause for the Bulletin to reevaluate the more likely cause of doomsday. Indeed, one wonders if the clock will ever register true time if no one survives to update it.
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An article in Wired pushes the meme that coal, whilst claiming the lion’s share of responsibility for releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, can be cleaned up to continue to provide (mostly electrical) energy for everything we use. Pshaw, I say. Comments at the magazine’s website also call bullshit on the article, going as far as to baldly accuse Wired of shilling for big energy, and note that hundreds of similar comments following publication of the story have been purged. Pro-and-con debate on the subject lies beyond my technical prowess, though I have my suspicions. Most interesting to me, however, is what’s not said.

The implicit assumption is that energy demand must be met somehow. Totally and utterly outside of consideration is demand destruction, whether through pricing, metering, or simple unavailability. Sure, there’s 100+ years of coal still available to be mined (or harvested, or exploited, or <choose your euphemism>). Guess we have no choice but to go after it, right? The author does shed some hazy light on environmental and health costs from burning coal, especially in China where it’s worst, but nowhere is there a suggestion that we might stop burning so much of the stuff, which I find a serious omission. Instead, in true technophiliac fashion, an unproven innovation will rescue us from the consequences of our own behavior and deliver salvation (BAU, I suppose, including gadgety distraction if that’s your idea of fun) in the form of “clean coal,” namely, underground resequestration of CO2 released in the process of burning coal. Basically, it’s the equivalent of continuing to dig the hole we’re in by attempting to refill it with its own pollutants. And never mind the delayed effects of what’s already done.

The “clean coal” meme was risible on its face when it appeared a few years ago. Innovation notwithstanding, it continues to be primarily the work of fiction authors marketers and, I guess, stringers for Wired. Several coal ash spills and tonnes upon tonnes of CO2 added to the atmosphere (increasing year over year without stalling) since the meme was hatched are far more convincing to me than hopes of a technofix. Facts and figures make better arguments most of the time. I have none to offer. Instead, let me simply point to everyday sights (and smells inferred from the visuals) we confront. Here is an image from twenty years ago of the city where I live:

Here’s a more recent one:

These days are become a lot less exceptional. How far down this path do we intend to go? All the way, I surmise.

I heard the title phrase — improper use of celebrity — uttered recently in relation to celebrity feuds that fuel the paparazzi and related parasite press. It was one high-profile celebrity (is there any other kind?) admonishing another to behave himself because it is a mistake to air petty grievances publicly and thus fan media flames. That seemed to me a worthy corrective, considering how little self-restraint most people practice, especially overtly dramatic public personae who run increased risks of believing their own hype, and accordingly, entitlement to publicity, whether good or bad. We all know too much already about the childish antics of media whores who, among other things, throw tantrums with impunity compared to the general public.

rant on/

The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media just issued a public relations piece about a new Showtime multipart climate change documentary called Years of Living Dangerously. I call it public relations because, like all good PR, it appeals to prurient interests (look at the beautiful people doing beautiful people stuff) and instructs credulous readers far too much about what to think, lest anyone form opinions without the guidance of the infernal marketing machine. Rampant name-dropping with bullshit glamor-shots showing a few famous people (all filmmakers and actors, laughably relabeled “correspondent”) getting their green on precedes the risible assertion that celebrities function as proxies for the average person despite the average person having absolutely nothing in common with the wealth, overexposure, travel, command of attention, heaping of accolades, and enjoyment of fawning deference that characterize celebrities. Drawing focus to climate change and (one might hope) swinging discussion away from deniers (who champion controversy over truth) are cited as precisely the reasons why celebrities are perfect for this documentary. The PR piece further examines (albeit briefly) celebrity activism and provides links to studies on the social science of celebrity (gawd …) before admitting that some backlash might ensue. I guess I’m fomenting backlash.

As PR, the piece is certainly well written, despite its unabashed star-fucking celebrity worship. Further, celebrities have legitimate interests in politics, culture, climate change, and collapse, just like anyone else, even though exorbitant wealth enables them to behave as supranational entities like so many stateless multinational corporations. So why not use their fame to influence people, right? There You GoWell, we’ve already been down the primrose path of celebrity spokespersons occupying positions of influence, speaking from well-crafted scripts, and selling out issues and policy like commodities. Some celebs even understand those issues, though that’s no guarantee of wizened leadership. Consider Arnold Schwarzenegger’s undistinguished tenure as California governor. I have never lived in California to know first hand, but my dominant impression of Schwarzenegger’s leadership style was unapologetic political theater, with incessant catchphrases from his movies functioning as entertaining drivel misdirection matched against his inability (or anyone else’s, for that matter) to solve intractable problems. Curiously, his name is connected as a backer to Years of Living Dangerously, with a whole section of Yale’s PR piece devoted to charges of hypocrisy over his being a loot-and-pollute industrialist once removed through partial ownership in an investment company. Indeed, such conflicts of interest and hypocrisy are flagrant among celebrities who jet around the globe to movie sets (jet-setting?) then jet off again to have themselves filmed bearing witness (in flyovers, it seems, taking a spurious god’s-eye view from above the fray) to ecological devastation. I hesitate to raise this objection because ideological purity doesn’t exist, and as demonstrated in this lengthy blog post, charges of hypocrisy are hard to make stick after even modest analysis. But still, those who most enjoy the fruits of our passing Age of Abundance might pause to consider how it looks when they throw support behind undoing the same disastrous institutions that rewarded them so handsomely. It may not be quite the same as saying we must all now accept austerity (typically, you first! — as in Harrison Ford confronting Indonesian officials?), but near-universal austerity is inevitably where we’re headed anyway.

These are not my principal reasons for whining and ranting, however. My main reason is that by putting rich, celebrity “correspondents” at the center of the story (perhaps they put themselves there, I can’t really know), they adopt an approach similar to too-big-to-fail and too-rich-to-prosecute, except now it’s too-famous-to-ignore. The MSM, revealed as ugly-sister handmaidens to corporate and political power, has failed completely to engage the public sufficiently on climate change, but by putting pretty, loquacious celebrities on display and in charge of rude issue awakening, the documentary falls to the level of clickbait despite whatever intentions it may possess. So although nominally about climate change, it’s really about celebrities waking up to climate change. How lovely! But this is a life-and-death (mostly death at this stage) issue for all of humanity, not just entertainers. Further, what do celebrities qua celebrities bring to the discussion? Nothing, really, except the empty glamor of their fame, expert line delivery, and ability to improvise dialogue (wait! I improvise dialogue all day long!). Maybe I shouldn’t sniff at that, considering how journalists (now climbing into celebrity ranks for all the wrong reasons and too often themselves at the center of the story, both of which undermine journalistic credibility) and politicians have failed so utterly to address social issues effectively. No matter that it’s the job of journalists and government policymakers to bring to light the harrowing news that we done done ourselves in. I warn, however, that if James Cameron or any other instigator behind Years of Living Dangerously believes their project to be a game changer, he or she has seriously misunderstood dynamics that shape public opinion. For centuries, we’ve been assiduously ignoring Cassandra-like warnings from far more authoritative scientists and blue-ribbon panels such as the IPCC. Why would that change now by mixing in celebrities?

And why on earth would earnest celebrity response to recognition of imminent disaster brought on by climate change be to put on a show (the Little Rascals response) with self-serving celebrity spin? Or for that matter, why succumb to notorious solutionism, hopefulness, and the ironically dispiriting happy chapter? The answer is that they have not yet processed the true gravity of our multiple dilemmas and reached the fully foreseeable conclusion after delayed effects are taken into account: we’ve totally and irredeemably fucked. But I guess that wouldn’t sell DVDs, now would it?

/rant off

Intellectual history is sometimes studied through themes and symbols found in novels with the writers of those novels being manifest about their intent. This is the second of two blog posts exploring truth-telling in fictional narrative. The first one is here.

Although I watch exactly zero TV, I see a fair number of movies (usually at home on DVD), which fulfills my need to stay in touch with the Zeitgeist of mainstream culture. Periodically, I go to iTunes Movie Trailers to see what’s coming out. In my experience, most offerings are interchangeable genre films with themes, stories, and effects drawn from the same worn-out bag of tricks. Actors, directors, and screenwriters repeat themselves with predictable regularity, which I’ll admit doesn’t necessarily stop their films from being entertaining or making money. If I’m drawn to any particular genre, it’s science fiction, which typically presents some provocative ideas, though they are promptly sacrificed to cinematic convention.

Considering the way the world is going, it was only a matter of time before yet another film explored transhumanism, though no one ever says transhumanism, if indeed they are aware of their underlying themes or merely express themselves through an inchoate artistic sensibility. The latest (due out in mid-April) renames the phenomenon Transcendence and stars Johnny Depp as a terminally ill mad scientist whose mind is up- or downloaded into a computer only to go power-hungry and berserk. (I’ve only seen the trailer and a couple featurettes.) Maybe it’s a cautionary tale, but not before luring credulous viewers into technophilia over the wildly imaginative possibilities of minds housed in computers. Michio Kaku, a science explainer/popularizer and author of the book The Future of the Mind, also teases initiates with the ridiculous potential to, say, reduce consciousness to a collection of data points to be “preserved” on a CD-ROM. Thus, through storytelling of consciousness disembodied and gone haywire, the controversy is taught, yet the inevitability of this future is plainly assumed. The scientists in the featurettes, by the way, say we’re only about 30 years away from being able to accomplish the wonders portrayed in the film.

(more…)

Captivating Fools

Posted: April 1, 2014 in Education, Idle Nonsense, Media
Tags: ,

/rant on

I got an unexpected dose of news today — unexpected because I do my best to tune it out and avoid allowing the great simulacrum to influence me too much. It started with the infernal Captivate screen in the elevator going to work, which broadcasts 3-second pablum to the 45-second captive drones (like me) making the final, vertical portion of their commute. In a fit of pique that made it through the editorial process unscathed, the screed screen read that viewers should be wary that anything and everything read and heard today (April 1) just might be lies. Or maybe that should be “lies,” since nothing is really a lie with the right marketing and political spin or prankish motivation behind it. My immediate thought was “Why should today be any different?” Indeed, considering the idiocy emanating from myriad media organs, functioning quite literally as Orwellian Ministries of Information, I’d say most mouth-breathers have pretty much mastered doublethink without even having it forced on them. Call it soft tyranny.

The utter failure of our political leaders and their too-friendly watchdogs in the Fourth Estate together to deliver anything resembling our true condition as late-stage capitalism winds down and the overlapping Carbon and Atomic Eras gradually reduce the planet to lifelessness is the condicio sine qua non of the modern age. For close to 20 years now (by my own lousy memory), we’ve been hearing dire warnings, some from the same media and politicians, that begin “if we don’t address this looming problem now ….” May as well drop that formulation and start with “Since we won’t address problems looming now for decades ….” Report after study after projection all come to the same essential conclusion: destruction of global habitat and the extinction of species that rely upon it for survival. That includes us. Calculating the cost of losses in dollars is a commonplace but completely irrelevant trope.

So quickly after the (ahem) valuable public service announcement that April Fools might be fooled, the screed screen said that a Gallup poll found a change of consumer confidence in one direction or the other. Gallup tracks consumer confidence continuously, but really, why poll the public? Is policy being crowd-sourced now? Sure, the people have power once they can be poked, prodded, goosed, and threatened to move their asses, but the pokers, prodders, goosers, and threateners can’t always predict just where the fickle public mood will wander. Cancel that — they’re actually pretty good at it because, as a nation, we’ve been miseducated and kept in a permanent state of adolescent thralldom. J.H. Kunstler characterizes the great unwashed masses pretty consistently as “demoralized, mentally inert, drugged-up, tattoo-bedizened populace of twerking slobs” or some variation. I concur.

I managed to go a few hours without the constant ooze of the screen dripping into my brain before getting stuck staring slack-jawed at one of the local Chicago news broadcasts, in this case, WGN, billed as Chicago’s Own with this roomful of teeth flashing their high beams indiscriminately at the cameras like an insane clown posse. As usual, the top story was another horrific South Side shooting of women and children then without any sort of contextualizing segue a report on a college student being sexually assaulted in the dormitory shower. These sorts of news stories aren’t lies, really, but one wonders why they are reported the way they are, with some poor on-the-scene hack clutching a mic on a street corner and admitting that “not much is known for certain but we hear ….” Luckily, I extricated myself before getting to the human interest, sports, and weather segments that turn or churn the daily news wheels with remarkably formulaic predictability. Why bother watching?

/rant off