The Atlantic, December 2010

Several interesting pieces this month.  I’d mention three.

Kenneth Brower is the son of environmentalist David Brower and has for decades been close to physicist and all-around genius Freeman Dyson.  In the last few years, Dyson has become the most prominent of scientists who are unconvinced that human-caused global warming represents a significant threat.  Brower’s piece in this issue asks what went wrong with Dyson.  I can’t entirely suppress a suspicion that Brower is being less than fair to Dyson, but the article is fun to read nonetheless.

James Parker wonders what the deal is with all those late-night talk shows where there’s a host who comes out, delivers a monologue, then chats with celebrities who take turns sitting on a couch next to his desk while the house band plays and the studio audience cheers.  Isn’t that an awfully tired format?  Evidently not too tired for the tastes of the American viewing public, as many such shows now command millions of eyeballs nightly.

At the end of a column about internet dating sites, Alexis Madrigal says that “It’s when people deviate from what we predict they’ll do that they prove they are individuals, set apart from all others of the human type.”  I tend to disagree.  If others are to work with us, they must be able to predict our behavior well enough to know our next move.  If we are to accomplish anything new by working together, that predictability will have to be the result of a deliberate creative process.  Indeed, I would say that the greatest of all creative challenges is the creation of predictability.

The Nation, 4 January 2010

Several reports on the Copenhagen summit on climate change draw Alexander Cockburn out with a column trumpeting his dissent from the view that by dumping such great volumes of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere humans are doing enormous harm to the environment.  Cockburn never convinces me when he mounts this hobby-horse of his, but I must confess to taking pleasure in the self-righteous sputtering that fills the letters to the editor in the subsequent issues.  For every well-reasoned counterargument from someone with a grasp of the science and a solid case to make against Cockburn’s claims, the magazine must receive hundreds of letters from people who are not at all equipped to analyze climate data but who are entirely prepared to denounce a heretic and cast him out.  I’m fairly sure that Cockburn is wrong and his detractors are right about climate.  At the same time, I’m quite certain that he is doing a public service by luring would-be enforcers of orthodoxy into the open.  He’s even doing a favor to them; if the self-appointed Grand Inquisitors have the sense to read their letters and realize that they have made fools of themselves,  they might shed their crusading demeanor and adopt a more wholesome attitude.

On The Nation‘s website, there’s a piece about the president of Italy’s parliament, Gianfranco Fini.  The piece notes the rather amazing fact that this man whose political career began in the neofascist Italian Social Movement has became “the country’s most responsible right-wing politician.”  Several months ago, The Independent praised Fini’s willingness to stand up to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in defense of values like accountable government, a secular state, and openness to immigration, values that liberals and socialists are supposed to care about but that the leaders of Italy’s center-left parties seldom lend their full-throated support.  The Independent called Fini “the best leader the Italian Left never had.”  This really is an extraordinary transformation; as recently as 1994, Fini described Benito Mussolini as “the greatest statesman of the twentieth century.”  How anyone could possibly apply that label to il Duce is beyond me.  Before Mussolini came to power he was in some ways an intriguing figure, I grant you.  He led an highly colorful life, full of adventure and rich in ideas.  As a national leader, however, Mussolini was a disaster by any standard of evaluation.  The evil he did (for example, sending 3,000 Italian Jews to die in Hitler’s camps) infinitely outweighed any good with which he could be credited, yet in the end it was his sheer incompetence that triumphed even over his murderous villainy.  This is a digression, I suppose; Gianfranco Fini seems to be highly competent, and no more likely to commit murder than the average Western European politician. 

Katha Pollitt’s annual list of worthy charities includes, as usual, MADRE, a fund that backs various groups of women in poor countries who have organized themselves to combat their own problems on their own terms.  For example:

In Iraq, it supports Yanar Mohammed’s network of secret shelters for women fleeing domestic violence and honor murder. In Kenya, it works on water purification projects that free women from the task of transporting water over long distances. In Bolivia, it helps indigenous women prepare to run for political office. Right now, 100 percent of your gift goes directly to projects.

Barry Schwabsky’s review of some recent retrospectives on abstract painting includes a snippet that may provoke a response.  After telling us that he experiences art one work at a time and looks with a skeptical eye on all art history that describes movements and schools, Schwabsky says:

Abstraction arguably should have even less to do with movements than any other art: a movement of abstractionists would be a contradiction in terms, like a church of atheists. Abstractionists, like atheists, are united only in what they reject. Abstraction is not a specific way of doing art–on what basis can Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana and Daniel Buren be considered part of a single movement? Rather, it is a considered effort not to do what Western artists have made it their job to do for hundreds of years: namely, to construct credible depictions of people, places and things. What if anything else goes?

Perhaps that’s why, as Bob Nickas points out in his new book Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting (Phaidon Press; $75), “so many contemporary artists who paint nonrepresentational pictures reject the notion that their work is in fact abstract.” They realize that the name itself, as handy and unavoidable as it undoubtedly may be, conveys a false sense of unity. Other commonalities, even those that would rightly strike us as quite superficial, can be more important.

Tiger Woods crops up.  Ever since news started hitting the papers of Woods’ very active extramarital sex life, I’ve been thinking of William Blake.  “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,/ in the forests of the night…”  Or is it “Tiger, Tiger, burning sensation/ experienced during urination…”  Anyway, the item here is all about how Tiger Woods has spent his career promoting sleazy schemes by global bad actors such as Chevron and the Philippine government, all the while pretending that he had nothing to do with politics.

The Atlantic, July/ August 2009

the atlantic july and august 2009We as a species are currently dumping massive amounts of carbon into the upper atmosphere.  Average temperatures around the world are rising at an alarming rate, evidently at least in part as a consequence of this dumping.  No movement is in prospect that would stop the dumping, or even reduce it substantially.  So, what to do?  Some scientists and engineers want to remake the rest of the earth’s climate to accommodate our carbon dumping habit.  How could this be done?  There are several possible methods. 

We could shoot sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere.  That would be remarkably affordable- for as little as a billion dollars, it could end global warming.  The drawback is that eventually sulphur would rain down from the sky, and if we stopped shooting new sulphur dioxide up there global temperatures would increase dramatically in a very short period.  Also it would cause severe droughts throughout central Africa, a region which has not exactly been among the big winners of industrialization to start with, so that seems unfair. 

Also we could dump iron powder in the Antarctic Ocean, causing a huge plankton colony to bloom and suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  We’d have to be a bit careful about that- half a supertanker’s worth of iron powder could feed a big enough plankton bloom to trigger a new Ice Age.  And when plankton dies, it releases methane, which is a much more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. 

There are also people who would like to block sunlight by shooting millions of clay discs at the Lagrange point between the earth and sun.  These skeets might well reduce average temperatures on the earth, but they could also stop the formation of ozone in the atmosphere.  And without an ozone layer, life as we know it could not exist on the surface of the earth.  So that’s a little bit on the risky side too.  So it seems like reducing carbon emissions might be worthwhile after all. 


Obama Has Only 4 Years to Save the World

Tall Order for Mr. O

Dubai Leader in Promoting Global Warming

Nakheel Development via AP file

Nakheel Development via AP file

Custom-made for balmy-weather loving billionaires: Global warming not happening fast enough? Run out of outrageously frivolous ways to spend your tons o’ money? Try Dubai!