Thursday, May 21, 2009

California poppies, sure sign of spring in Arcata, but there's not as many as there used to be, as more wildflower territory becomes concrete or otherwise de-lifed. Click photo to real life proportions.

Follow-Up: The New York Review

A few weeks ago, I posted here about why I value the New York Review of Books, and on an impulse, posted it at Daily Kos. It got only about a dozen comments and fewer than 20 recommendations, but eventually it appeared on the Rescued Diary list.

Then a few days later I got an email from an editorial assistant at the New York Review, which contained a PDF version of a brief note from Robert Silvers, who has edited the Review from its first issue in 1963.

It said: I was touched by what you said about the paper. During 46 years, I’ve never read a piece in which a writer said what was actually in an issue.

Awesome, and yet, I was aghast: nobody, in 46 years, had written about what was actually in an issue? Yet for 46 years, this man kept it going, and kept its quality and voice. That's truly awesome.

Although there were only 14 comments at kos, two of them stand out for what they say about the particular effects of this periodical.

From Dana Houle:

I grew up in a place where nobody went to college. My family also got three newspapers a day, and they bought me books because I was expected to go to college, but you can't say I "grew up around books." Nobody in my family had graduated high school. When I graduated high school, I couldn't write a complete sentence. I went to community college, got caught up on my basics, and then transfered to a pretty good state university. The first term I was there, a historian, a Viennese-Jewish emigre who came to the US as a teen, worked as a skilled craftsman while in grad school, and a man of the working class left, took an interest in me. He could tell I was trying to become educated, that I had many interests, but numerous holes in my knowledge. His suggestion was that I should start reading the New York Review of Books, every article, every edition. It's one of the best things that anyone has ever done for me. And the NYRB is one of the most enjoyable and invigorating things in my life.

and from someone else:

I used to think I was really intelligent until I picked up a friend's copy of the New York Review of Books and tried to read it. I could feel a whooshing gust as the contents went right over my head. Maybe if Jon Stewart did a Comedy Central version, I would catch on?

If you don't know what we're all talking about, the online version is here. But it's the full paper version that means the most. Here's the wikipedia history.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

These particularly dark, velvety Irises that Margaret planted in the front yard are currently blooming. Click the photo to enlarge and get a good look. They are actually darker than this, though. Digital color just isn't there yet.


Updates 5/20: A NY Times editorial on the case for these new emissions standards as "a huge step forward in the effort to limit greenhouse gases and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil" as well as "With this deal, America also wins back a bit of energy independence. But the biggest winner could be the atmosphere." Also indication that the climate and energy bill described below will be voted out of committee, on its way to passage.

For all the pain it is causing and will yet cause, the Great Recession is also providing unforeseen opportunities to improve the chances of a better future. The difference is who is President. And it isn't the Recession itself so much as the realities about our past and our future that it brings into sharper focus.

Tuesday, President Obama is expected to unveil new fuel mileage standards for American vehicles that will "mean a 30 percent reduction in global-warming emissions from new vehicles by 2016, with improvements beginning in the 2011 model year," according to this article at Grist. Though Republicans in Congress and in Washington will probably scream about it, the proposal may well have wide support where it counts--apart from the public and environmentalists, from business, including car companies.

Why? The Great Recession not only makes the auto industry more dependent on the federal government, but reduces the margin for error while providing an opportunity to chart a new course to its future prosperity. A number of states have enacted their own standards--California conspicuously--and a single federal standard saves the car companies money, plus it gives them a real blueprint for what they will be expected to do for the next decade:

The move will please the Auto Alliance, the major industry group representing car makers, which has been asking for one standard that unifies emission and fuel-economy standards across the whole country. “We recognize that greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles need to be reduced,” Charles Territo, a spokesperson for the Alliance, told Grist last month. “At the end of the day, what’s most important is that we have a single, national standard that is achievable, but that is aggressive and cost-effective.”

The standards are also more gradual, giving car companies more time to adapt. Consumers will gradually pay more, at least by today's estimates, though their costs will be offset by spending less on gasoline. This is no small deal--some say it is the biggest and most effective way so far to cut greenhouse gases. It eventually will "equate to taking 177 million cars off the road, or shutting down 194 coal-fired power plants."

This is separate from the cap-and-trade bill now in Congress, the Waxman-Markey bill that now has wide support. Despite Congressional GOPer promises to offer hundreds of nonsense amendments to tie things up, the bill is expected to become law this year. For some environmentalists it is too modest, and fossil fuel industries are pouring millions into opposing it. But on Monday, Paul Krugman made the best case I've read for why cap-and-trade will work. It's estimated that in lessening greenhouse gases, this bill will equate to take another 500 million cars off the road. "After all the years of denial, after all the years of inaction, we finally have a chance to do something major about climate change," Krugman concludes. "Waxman-Markey is imperfect, it’s disappointing in some respects, but it’s action we can take now. And the planet won’t wait."

Supporting the likelihood of both of these efforts are polls which suggest strong public support for regulating greenhouse gases, even if it costs.

One of the reasons Krugman favors cap-and-trade over a carbon tax is that it's international in scope. Everyone knows that without India and especially China, there isn't much hope. So these hints of secret and ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and China on Climate Crisis measures, plus public moves (like Secretary of State Clinton stating that U.S.-China relations should center around climate change) suggests a dramatic agreement may not be far off.

There's other good news in the climate crisis arena: from promising new technology to a suggestion that the Great Recession slowdown coupled with an imminent cap-and-trade system means that the growth of greenhouse gas emissions may have ended in the U.S. But continuing at the current rate will continue to make matters worse--we need to start cutting, and eventually, cut deeply.

Unfortunately however, there has been no good news in what's actually happening in the environment, or in predictions of what is likely to happen. Most of that is getting worse. This includes the widely reported study that cut in half the prediction of how much sea levels will rise as a result of melting from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Look under the headline and see that even if this study is correct, it doesn't mean sea levels will be half of previous predictions everywhere. In fact, they will be even higher in certain places--like the West Coast of the United States. Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, etc. And also the East Coast. Boston, New York City. With impact on Washington, D.C.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Fascinating--and Logical

A lot of controversy, some anger and what's become the all-too-usual hyperbole and invective have accompanied recent decisions from the Obama administration. But beneath the often deceptive headlines there's something we're maybe not used to: intelligence. Maybe the decision is wrong, but it was arrived at with reasons and with a logical process that includes many sources of information and debate. In a new interview in Newsweek, President Obama describes the step-by-step process he undertook in making decisions on important matters like Afghanistan. And he says:
But one of the things I've actually been encouraged by—and I learned during the campaign—was the American people, I think, not only have a toleration but also a hunger for explanation and complexity, and a willingness to acknowledge hard problems. I think one of the biggest mistakes that is made in Washington is this notion you have to dumb things down for the public. I've always been struck by the fact that, if you can get me in a room with a group of people, even who disagree with me violently on an issue, they'll still take the time to listen. They might not, at the end of it, agree with me, but having seen how I'm thinking about a problem, having a sense of how I'm making decisions, that I understand their point of view, that I can actually make their argument for them, and that that's part of the decision-making process, it gives them a sense, at least, that they've been heard, and I think clarifies—well, it pushes us away from the dogmas and caricatures that I think get in the way of good policymaking and a more civil tone in our politics."
Later in the interview he mentions that he's just screened the new Star Trek movie in the White House, after people kept telling him he's Spock--and then he flashed the Vulcan greeting. He says he was a Star Trek fan from the age of 10.
The Star Trek connection and Spock both make sense. Spock was a symbol of intelligence--of what he called logic--when American policy in the late 60s was crazy, defying sense and logic. By the 80s it was even worse: the complete rule of the cynical and deluded selling patently stupid self-destructive policies to a hapless public glorying in a consumption based on dumbness. I keep thinking of a title of a book of essays about the 80s by Martin Amis--it was called The Moronic Inferno, and that's still the best description of the 80s, when our current disasters were born, brought to maturity by Cheney and the Bushites.
Spock stood for intelligence, which to him meant ethics as well: because they were logical. Gene Roddenberry said that Star Trek's popularity proved that ordinary people were ready for that kind of future, and that they were "light years ahead of their petty governments and visionless leaders."
We have a leader now with vision, who models intelligence. We're not used to this. We're not over Bush. We're not even over the '80s. We're still surrounded by the moronic inferno. But there's at least a light in the White House. Not just empathy but intelligence. May it live long and prosper.