Thursday, July 28, 2011

What works, what doesn't?  Eventually the public dialogue will get to this, once all the denial and posturing about energy and the Climate Crisis comes to naught.  Actually, at least two groups are looking closely at these questions: ordinary people who need to watch their energy costs closely and are open to alternatives, and the researchers, policymakers and journalists professionally involved in the technical and policy questions.

What doesn't work?  Michael J. Graetz in The End of Energy: The Unmaking of America's Environment, Security, and Independence (The MIT Press) looks at the U.S. policymaking history over the past 40 years, and sees that just about nothing at that level has been effective, and much of what was done (and not done) has made matters worse.  It's not an unfamiliar story--especially the machinations of the fossil fuel industries--but it's all here, in scholarly detail, though with particular interpretations.  It seems to support the suggestion by David Orr and others that the last best chance to avoid the fall into the horrors of the likely future were in the 1970s.  Graetz offers the ray of hope that the events of the near future could create enough public pressure to force needed changes in energy policy.

Why public policy so far has by and large not worked gets another answer from Brendon Larson in Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability: Redefining Our Relationship with Nature (Yale).  That scientists and the technicians that tend to lobby for environmental laws use metaphors may be the first revelation of this book, especially to them.  That their choices of metaphors has been largely lame and hurt their cause is perhaps another.  I've long been frustrated with the predominantly tin-eared choices they've made, even in the labels and names, as well as other terminology--all of which are basically metaphors. The Greenhouse Effect, for instance, is neat scientific shorthand for a process, if you know what greenhouse effect you're talking about.  But for the general public, greenhouses are pretty good places--plants grow in them.  Global warming sounds very pleasant and inviting, especially in winter; happiness is a warm puppy, after all.

Words that become technical terms and then become cliches can be so confusing and mind-numbing that they become worse than meaningless.   For example, there are two distinct sets of actions needed to confront the Climate Crisis: dealing with the causes, and dealing with the effects.  Those two categories go by the names of mitigation and adaptation.  Do you know which is which?  Truth is, either could mean the other.

Larson asserts that metaphors employed until they become standard (or "naturalized") begin to limit critical thinking and establish a view that passes for scientific, foreclosing other interpretations and even other evidence. The standard interpretation of Darwinian evolution, favoring competition over cooperation with such ferocity that evidence to the contrary is dismissed is more than a metaphor problem, but it may be news to a lot of scientists that their metaphors (for instance, the selfish gene) become literalized, and dangerous.

"Environmental scientists may also have little opportunity to develop an appreciation for the power of language," Larson writes.  Maybe they should have taken a literature course or two?  I applaud this book for centering on this subject and for its insights and the issues it raises, though it's heavy going in places for non-academic readers.  But if that's what it takes for environmental and other scientists to take this problem seriously, it serves the future.    

Okay--so what does work? I've long felt that the best hope for a clean renewable energy future was in solar.  It's virtually unlimited energy, delivered by technologies that can be scaled from the very large to the solar cells on your house or your wrist, or maybe even in the paint on your car.  In Switching to Solar: What We Can Learn from Germany's Success in Harnessing Clean Energy (Prometheus Books), Bob Johnstone provides a history of the solar industry with most of the attention focused on Germany, where much of the action has been.  Just the fact that Germany has done so much, as counterintuitive as that is (sunny Italy, sunny Brazil, even sunny California---but sunny Germany?) suggests what the potential for this source of power might really be.  His account is full of characters and companies, and it is a business as well as a technology story.  If you're looking for something positive, try this account of entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of opportunity combined with ecological awareness and commitment,  resulting in technological, business and policy innovations.  And maybe even in something like a future.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Dalai Lama met with President Obama in the White House on the last day of his recent trip to the United States.  As in past visits to the White House, the Dalai Lama wasn't photographed in the Oval Office, which might suggest he was being treated as a head of state.  But the Chinese government protested vociferously anyway.

So it is in the current phase of Tibet's troubled history with China.  Tibet: A History by Sam Van Schaik (Yale University Press) uses a narrative approach to that varied history, from the seventh century until now.  It is an absorbing if complex set of stories, of emperors, warriors, monks and tribal leaders in this vast land, which nevertheless had many significant encounters with neighboring countries and empires.  In considering the contemporary conquest by China, Van Shaik is more measured and perhaps hopeful about Tibet retaining its cultural identity than, for example, Tim Johnson in Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China (Nation Books.)  Against other recent portraits of Tibet--the cruel oppression of Buddhist monks and nuns, the destruction of shrines and temples while others are Disneyfied for tourists and run by Chinese immigrants--Van Schaik tells stories of cultural resilience.

Another recent book from Yale, The Taming of Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism by Jacob P. Dalton is a narrower history and analysis of the creativity as well as destructiveness of ritual violence in Tibetan Buddhism, mostly in the distant past.  This attempt to provide "a history of violence in Tibetan Buddhism in Tibetans' own terms" probably will interest to scholars and others deeply interested in the subject.    Van Shaik's book however has wider appeal, with its larger than life narratives about a region still shrouded in mystery. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

While Beyond Boundaries (reviewed below) is essentially a brief for the research and potential of a new technology, these three books are outside analyses of the nature, uses and future of new and on-the-horizon technologies by people who know these technologies well. 

The Techno-Human Condition by Braden R. Allensby and Daniel Sarewitz (MIT Press) examines the many aspects of technological enhancements to human beings.  The authors nudge the less knowledgeable into realizing that these technologies are underway and are in a sense just the latest in a long line of enhancements.  But they also aim to restrain the overenthusiastic who are thoughtless of consequences, counselling a bit more humility.

This is a sophisticated examination of the issues and assumptions that applies to areas beyond these technologies, to an approach to technological change--or even other sources of change-- and future ramifications in general.  The section on war ("Killer Aps") is chilling. There's jargon and technical language to navigate, with lots of long paragraphs, but the process is helped by wit ("In short, we are now back in the comfort zone of ambivalence, ambiguity, and mud wrestling") and a balanced skepticism.  The book itself is handy to hold and carry--always a plus when reading about an alien world that is rapidly becoming our own.

Technological Nature: Adaptations and the Future of Human Life by Peter H. Kahn, Jr. (MIT Press) looks at the psychological effects of experiencing nature second-hand through technology.  It's got case studies, statistics and analysis, with the author's summaries and recommendations.  These occasionally highlight the absurdity of technological nature, as when he suggests that instead of creating simulated views of nature in offices and hospitals, it might make more sense to create views of actual nature.

Some of the examples of how far technological nature has gone may well be surprising, though the prescriptions are not.  The broader and deeper work on these subjects (particularly children and nature) by human ecologist Paul Shepard and others is bearing some fruit in studies like those described here.

Sentient City: ubiquitous computing, architecture and the future of urban space (MIT Press) is a collection of articles and studies by various authors, edited by Mark Shepard, that stems from a 2009 exhibit at New York's Urban Center.  The topic is certainly topical, as information technologies are embedded in the everyday street, often invisibly, with a plethora of often hidden sources, intentions and effects.

Some of the chapters describes projects and studies, while others offer analysis and context, including historical context.  The vocabulary is often pretty dense for the general reader and no sustained examination is possible in a collection from various authors, but this volume can serve the non-specialist as an often provocative introduction to the technologies and issues involved.  And with technologies that enable a park bench to eject someone who oversits his welcome, or that can create an entire city of linked workers (or data-slaves), these issues are pertinent.  Plus the projects themselves can be witty.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains With Machines—And How It Will Change Our Lives

by Miguel Nicolellis
Times Books

The results of his research on brain-machine interfaces (BMI) has made Miguel Nicolellis a famous scientist, even capturing the attention of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. This book describes his experiments, culminating in the monkey with electrodes implanted in his brain who played video games or controlled a distant robot just by thinking.

Nicolellis is not shy in predicting future applications—and neither is anyone else. Besides hopes for victims of various diseases, disorders and accidents, he asks us to “imagine living in a world where people use their computers, drive their cars, and communicate with one another simply by thinking.” Or even “touch the surface of a different planet” or “download the thoughts of one of your forefathers” to create a Holodeck encounter in your head.

These resemble the visions of adherents of different and perhaps competing research, into brain-computer interfaces (BCI.) The great weakness of this book is Nicolellis’ refusal to consider that any of this is creepy, or that it would ever be used for nefarious purposes with catastrophic results.

But then, that’s what we have science fiction writers for—to imagine the unforeseen consequences when real people are involved. Already his exoskeleton suit to enable paraplegics to walk looks a lot like Robocop. As he notes, it’s this kind of research that inspired The Matrix and Avatar, though he rejects such dour scenarios without saying why. Especially considering that the Pentagon is already experimenting with BCI.

Nor does Nicolellis consider that a future with the economics necessary to support all of this is getting less likely every day. Such tunnel vision exposes another continuing danger—that we think we know enough to assume everything in the psyche is a matter of manipulating neurons.

Still, one can hope for cooler and more cautious heads with more balanced evaluations, since the research itself clearly has potential. Besides, these speculations make up a very small part of the book. Much of it is a brief for the anti-reductionist view of neurons not as single function push-buttons but as part of a neuronal orchestra—a musical metaphor which he uses in various ways throughout, generally to good effect. It’s also clearly a metaphor, after the supposedly literal explanations of the brain as the current dominant technology, depending on the century: clockworks, steam engine, telephone exchange or computer.

Perhaps the most intriguing hypothesis being tested is that the brain continuously creates models of the body’s interactions with the world, including imagining future possibilities and rehearsing simulations.  Thus the brain is always rehearsing the future, even at the neuronal level.

Except for some egregious overwriting (especially early on) and often endearing awkwardness, these chapters and the accounts of the experiments are often absorbing and engaging. Meshing the science with personal anecdotes and philosophical observations seems to have become standard in books by brain scientists, but here as is often the case they add to both understanding and reading pleasure for the non-specialist.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change by Philip Conklin, Richard Alley, Wallace Broecker and George Denton, with photographs by Gary Comer
The MIT Press

In late June, U.S. government scientists announced that more of Greenland’s ice melted in 2010 than in any year since comparable measurements were first made in 1958. Melting of the vast ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are major determinants of how high the oceans will rise along the world’s coasts. But as this book shows, that’s only one reason that Greenland is key to our understanding of climate change.

Greenland’s history of habitation during a climate shift, its peculiarly sensitive location amidst temperature zones and ocean currents, and the deep history of climate changes over eons available by analyzing samples from its deep ice, are all part of its central story. Research suggests that warming in Greenland propagates globally.

Beginning in 2002, Land’s End billionaire entrepreneur Gary Comer took selected leading researchers (the co-authors of this book) on several scientific expeditions to Greenland, before succumbing to cancer in 2006. By combining these expeditions with narratives of the relevant scientific history and the science itself, this book creates a compelling story of both Greenland and the sciences involved. It ranges from the 19th century geologists dawning understanding of ice ages, to how to drill an ice core. It does so with remarkable narrative momentum. Despite some jargon and awkward constructions, the writing has a calm conversational cadence, but organized with the logic of a master storyteller.

This is the kind of physical book that ebooks and Kindle can never replace. Not only are Comer’s photographs of Greenland's landscapes and icescapes beautiful in themselves, but they are well placed in a well-designed book, down to the subtle color scheme and typography. The book is a size and weight that craves being held and carried.

All that is important to the reader’s morale, considering the message. The news is not all bad: the danger of melting waters changing the major moderating ocean currents—the abrupt climate change scenario of The Day After Tomorrow movie and Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate crisis novels—seems less likely than was first feared.

But their findings basically confirm that global heating is happening and will continue, with more bad than good effects. The chances are much greater that its future extent and damage have been underestimated than overestimated. The researches chronicled here confirm that past climate changes can be explained only when taking into consideration changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They also support the roles of feedback effects and tipping points—in other words, the science in the United Nations reports, and those of other major scientific organizations on the climate crisis.

This research adds particular support to the idea that the climate can change radically and abruptly—in the past, as fast as in a few years. Though that now seems unlikely in the near future, it’s still possible, especially if we keep increasing greenhouse gases.

But this book’s calm narrative of the science lends reassurance to its sense that the climate crisis can be addressed, although the impact of effects already in the pipeline are outside this book’s purview. The beauty of Greenland it shows, the intrepid scientific adventure it chronicles, make it a valuable contribution to the now.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

For Pleasure: Summer Reading
So I noticed on several newspaper and magazine sites this weekend a feature about books that people (usually famous people) are reading this summer, usually accompanied by a photo like the one above (the pipe stem is a nice if unintended touch--I used to smoke it many years ago, and now I keep it around for the occasional phantom pipe tobacco taste, but mostly as decor.)

So in addition to my never-dwindling pile of books to review (many still to go from this past spring), my summer reading so far is this pile of books.  I wish I could say it was a considered literary program, but all of them were recent finds in used bookstores and a big bookstore sale (except the Vonnegut and the James Hillman, which I've had for years and am re-reading; I generally do a Hillman around my birthday, especially big ones.)

I've just completed reading (for the first time, I'm ashamed to say) Memories of My Melancholy Whores, so far the last published novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It's better than the reviews I remember.  I kept waiting to find a proper hardback used or remaindered, but at this late date I settled for this new paperback.  It was also an interesting book to read around my birthday (though still a quarter century from my 90th, which is the narrator's age.)

I've been re-reading Vonnegut's novels more or less in order.  I read Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan last month and started Cat's Cradle, only to realize I re-read this one last year.  But it has been years since I've read the rest.  I'm also intrigued by the idea of re-reading J.D. Salinger.  I haven't re-read any of those books in decades.

I've started Margaret Atwood's Moral Disorder collection of stories. The voice is very similar to that in the occasional pieces in Writing With Intent--same sort of humor, of little leaps and connections, but with more literary qualities.  The first story in the collection, "The Bad News," is an absolute masterpiece, the best apocalyptic in everyday life story I can recall since one by Charles Baxter many years ago.  I'm enjoying this a lot--come on, Nobel Prize committee!

I've started Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, Galileo's Dream. I've been a little wary of his historical/alternate history novels, though I can't exactly explain why.  I guess I couldn't see how they could be as good as his s/f and future vision novels.  And Galileo has always seemed more of a symbol to me--he seems to be treated that way in several plays about him--and not my choice for someone I'd like to see Doctor Who visit.  But he's a real character here, and not at all stiff or stuffy.  I am enjoying this, and I sense there's more to it in regard to the contemporary world than noted in reviews or descriptions.

Earlier this year I had a chance to buy a remainder copy of Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart, and passed on it.  Though I went back to get it, I'd lost my chance.  Faced with it again as a sale paperback, I couldn't pass it up again. I tend to start but not finish his books, though I don't know why.  I started reading it as a spiritual balance to the soul concerns of Hillman (Hillman makes a big distinction between soul and spirit, and it makes a lot of sense.)  Its subtitle is "A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology" which is of great pith and moment.

That's the summer so far, though I'm likely to roam through my library (and probably a few more bookstores) in search of another kind of moment, another reading experience, as the spirit (and the soul) moves.