Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sunrise Boulevard: Growing Up In Hollywood

If people ever ask me where I grew up, I often say Hollywood. Now wait a minute, I am British, I was born in London, spent my adolescence in a village halfway between London and Oxford, and never even set foot in Los Angeles till 1987, at the not so tender age of 29, so how do I come by the wisecrack about growing up in Hollywood?

But it really is true. I arrived in Hollywood as a script doctor at the start of 1989 and lived there just over a year. It really did feel like the sun had been switched on for the first time and I loved it. I couldn't believe the warmth in the air and the warmth of life in general. So different from the cold and miserable 60s that passed for my fragmented Dickensian childhood and the endless recession that Britain always seemed to be in.

Some plants need a lot of water and some need a lot of sun. It turned out that I was of the latter variety. I had a wonderful time in Hollywood, found friends, was helped out when I needed it, and had a lot of fun even without a lot of money. I couldn't understand why people complained about it - everybody knew what Hollywood was like, so if that wasn't your cup of tea, don't go there, I couldn't help thinking. After all, there's always Paris or Budapest or Ulan Batur, if you can get the visas.

At least one of the friends that I made there went on to become a major producer, though it took him a fair while. I left on my own terms when I felt that it really would not be possible to make the kinds of films that I like to see - intelligent films for adults, with charm, a lot of irony, some sophisticated humour and no violence. Fitting into this non-genre at the time I could see only Woody Allen and a few French directors (including Truffaut, whom I once nearly met, but was already dying of cancer), but that was about it. It has been a long time since Hollywood made these kinds of films, and I was aware that a lot of what it had come to produce was problematic and not very helpful to the world.

For me, the real golden era of film making was from about 1930 to 1960, especially the films of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, though there are many others. Not too heavy on the gritty realism - for me that belongs better in the news, current affairs and geo-political analysis, which I like to devour. Judging by Sullivan's Travels, Sturges would agree - in hard times, we all need to find an excuse to smile.

I keep hoping that one day there will be a revival of films like the ones I love - and just maybe the Internet will make this possible. I think it would be nice to think of an old-fashioned Cinema Paradiso on every corner, but that is a bigger stretch to imagine, at least for now. Unfortunately I suppose it all comes back to the little matter of economics. Films usually take a lot of money to make (though they didn't always) and somehow they have to get distributed and somehow money has to flow back to the producers.

With the problems besetting the rest of the media world - newspapers closing down, publishing companies freezing new acquisitions - this looks like a bad time to do anything except batten down the hatches and hope that the storm passes before you run out of corned beef and rum. There may be some parallels between the way the arrival of television affected film in the 1950s and some of the effects of the Internet now - the web is paradoxically in some ways killing traditional media even as it greatly expands the audience for its content.

However, the upending of the old sneering line "If you don't like the views of this newspaper, go and start one yourself - it's a free country" has also genuinely been accomplished by the Web. The Huffington Post is one of the most extraordinary examples, but if you get the tone and message right, it is amazing what can be done and who you can reach.

Could this come true for films (and perhaps by extension television drama and sitcoms), funny or otherwise? Could we have a new wave of sophisticated, excellent cinematic story-telling? Of course making movies will still take money, and writers, actors and crew will need to get paid, and we still seem to be a long way from finding any reliable way of converting pixellated eyeballs into dollars, euros or renminbi.

As I have mentioned when talking about the decline of the print media, there may be some hope for a virtual complementary currency and maybe the principles of micro-blogging can be metamorphosed into micro-finance so that we can easily and safely pay small amounts for certain pages or pieces of media. There are also possible analogues with recorded music and royalties, though that is a pretty complex operation. However it is done, the economics would have to be carefully worked out, and things could go wrong, but that remains true for every medium and just about every product.

I caution myself that I remember talking a bit like this in the mid-1990s when I was studying journalism in Texas and getting really excited about the web and thinking that real high speed Internet connexions were just around the corner and high quality film could be delivered through fibre-optic cable. The dot bomb helped scupper that idea, but I can see now that my exuberance was premature. Maybe the timing is still not right just yet, but the technical jigsaw does finally seem to be slotting into place for some wonderful new possibilities in the moving picture department.

And if these wonders do come to pass and we have a new golden age of film making, I hope it happens where you are, just in case the experience does for you what Hollywood did for me - switched on the sunshine and showed me people at their kindest, offering an altruism that still warms me to this day.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Trying To Be A Hopeful Green Realist

As is often the way, whilst researching one topic - social evolution, I re-discovered another topic - self-deception, that I had long wanted to spend some more time investigating. That will be the topic of yesterday's blog. I know that sounds a bit strange, but the explanation - self-deception - also explains a more serious problem - why it has been so hard to write a couple of articles for some important publications, when there is so much to write about in these clearly troubled and historical times.

The self-deception in the cases in point is mainly that of being too hopeful or optimistic. It's a mild form of self-deception, a kind of illusion, and there is plenty of academic evidence to suggest that it can be quite beneficial when not carried to extremes. In the case of trying to write a useful but brief introduction to self-deception using some primary sources (and not just cribbing off Wikipedia, which in this case wouldn't get me very far, since the entry is very short), I underestimated how long it would take to track down sources and then to read them studiously then distill something out of the copious fruit.

I sort of knew it would take longer than I was telling myself, but the subject is really important (as I hope to show yesterday), and if one is too honest about how much time things really take, many good things would not get done. Hence my attempt to be a hopeful realist, which in this case will mean the triumph of realism over hope - I'll finish today's piece before yesterday's. It reminds me of Samuel Johnson's famous quip about second marriages - the triumph of hope over experience.

The second example of self-deception also has a dimension of illusion to it and concerns my efforts to write something reasonably cheerful or at least helpful about how the coming decline of global petroleum production will help green business and clean technology - hence the green hopeful realist.

It's relatively easy to write about how the decline of oil will affect the world if you stay vague and keep the timeline indeterminate. What is not so easy is to offer specific areas of opportunity and generative strategies within a short-to-medium timeframe and take account of the global economic crash that is so far making life very uncomfortable for just everybody except the repo man. I suppose you could say that repossession was a form of recycling, but it's a pretty ghastly way to do it.

So I have struggled for more than two weeks now to find something positive to say about the near-term future for the kinds of businesses we shall certainly need. Every time I thought I had something promising, the realist in me would point out that for such and such an opportunity to come true it would require either that the US government realise how dire the energy, climate and environment situation really is and change policy dramatically or else we would need to order up a fairly major miracle along the lines of the Red Sea being turned into wine. Or oil. Or vinegar, more likely. Maybe I have my miracles mixed up, but the scale is right.

Most likely we need both policy change and miracles. Some might say that the former will be a form of the latter. However, even if all kinds of wonderful policy changes start on Day 1 of the Obama epoch, major things like the electricity grid and the broken US railway system are not going to change quickly nor will the new US president have much of a free hand to wave a green magic wand, much as he might like to.

One of the articles I was about to write was how California could once again lead America into a renewable energy renaissance that would banish fossil fuels to the dark and backward abysm of time (to slightly misquote Shakespeare) and send a signal to the world that America meant business when it came to going green. I still intend to write this piece and I hope this does happen (the article and the greening of America), because without full-scale American involvement, it will be hard for the world to scale up to the realities we face. However, this definitely can't be done without sweeping help from the government at federal and state levels.

In the meantime, I think I have finally come up with two themes that offer opportunities for those that want to make a living from sustainable business (which will ultimately be most of us) and won't require miracles or even huge policy changes to make them come true. If wonderful things happen in high places, then so much better, but, if you will pardon the grim pun, I am not banking on it.

Mind you, I said that I think I have got something green and realistic ready for the virtual printing press, but then of course I may be deceiving myself.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Is Obama The Green Wave's Last Chance To Count?

There seem to be all kinds of waves and cycles in life, everything from the watery ones that King Canute wanted to prove he couldn't control through Kondratieff economic waves to really important cycles like the rise and fall in fashionable hemlines.

Now that the wheels appear to be coming off the world economic wagon in quite a serious way, it is easier to ask whether some grand cycles and waves are coming to major inflexion points, in particular the ascendant new green business wave and the old, but undoubtedly, effective fossil-fuel wave that has been mainly rising for hundreds of years.

Economic waves, such as Kondratieff waves, are still being argued over after nearly a hundred years and they involve quite a lot of assumptions and some complex notions, which necessitate a fair amount of detailed study in order to gain some literacy in their operation.

However, I am not going to attempt a disquisition on economic cycles, a subject I am currently exquisitely poorly positioned to talk about in depth, but rather I want to pose the following simpler but possibly rather more significant questions.

Firstly, if we grant that the world economy is going through a major downward dislocation and further that green movements, both citizen and business, tend to lose steam when money is scarce or energy prices drop, does the current upswing in matters of sustainable living and renewable energy have enough momentum to keep going through what could be a prolonged contraction, or must it be helped somehow?

I admit that this is a rhetorical question, because based on the evidence, I don't think there is as yet anywhere near enough real green business momentum to ride out what may be a very difficult period. So that brings me to even more important question number two. Is there enough political momentum to carry through the kinds of changes we need?

Much of the environmentally aware and energy savvy world is waiting with baited breath to see what future US president Obama is going to do to try to revive the American - and perhaps the world - economy, while hoping that he does this in large part by unleashing a tidal wave of green-collar jobs and energy saving, green energy and clean tech initiatives.

If Obama does this, then we might not have to run the experiment of seeing whether fledgling new green business strategies can make it through very hard economic times - an experiment that Thomas Friedman would surely say will come to a sticky end (again). The question will then be how best to make a new green wave part of the answer given the current state of tight money, imperfect public knowledge, and notoriously fickle voter and political will.

Friedman's point is that now is the moment for bringing in fuel taxes and widespread carbon taxes - it has to be done when there is political capital in the bank. The trouble is there is not much else in the bank, though since the US government seems willing to engage in financing by the printing press and national debt, there could be money for just about everything that green strategists could wish for.

Climate activists have been saying for some time now that we have only a few years in which to act to save the climate (peak oil analysts perhaps put the figure in negative decades), but if Friedman and activist-analysts are collectively right, then America may genuinely have just a few months to get on the right course, because if Obama's political capital starts to wane, all hope of bold strategic and infrastructural moves may be foreclosed. If scientists are right, and this really is our last chance to avoid runaway climate change, then this will be our final opportunity for a green wave that can actually get us on track for a very different - and better - 21st century.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Do We Need Beauty More Than We Think?

I have been aware of the importance of beauty in both the natural and the man-made world for about as long as I can remember. Born though mainly not raised in London, whenever I am there I spend a lot of time looking up at the wonderful architecture of Wren, Vanbrugh, Nash and Jones, to name but four. Growing up in the countryside of south Bucks, half way between London and Oxford, I loved the cherry trees, with their oozing bark, and the kind of daily dawn chorus that it seems you can now only hear in Ravel's Daphnis and Chloé.

It was living in Rome and Paris, however, that made the beauty of buildings most real for me, with Rome having the extra delight of so many fountains and groves of trees interleaved with buildings and alleyways that consuls and emperors had passed by. There were also birds by the thousand. I remember many times feeling an extraordinary sense of connexion with the past as I walked past Trajan's column, along the edge of the Forum or down the Appian Way, and could almost hear the voices of Horace and Martial, two such warm and human poets that the ink seems to be barely dry on their writing.

What really intrigues me is what effect beautiful and harmonious architecture combined with nature, particularly trees, has on the mind and heart of both the individual, the city, society and the culture. It is easy to get too lyrical and romantic about this - Martial complains of the tiny 'cell' he inhabits in Rome, and Italian films from the Fifties illustrate grinding poverty, but making our surroundings beautiful must have had value, because over at least the last two and a half thousand years in the West, we have spent fortunes on trying to create environments that go way beyond the simple need to keep the rain off.

It may be that studies with Positron Emission Tomography and other advanced techniques of neuroscience will help explain why beauty really is important to civilisation, and perhaps why, at least for some, there are elements of classical architecture and landscape that are peculiarly satisfying. In the meantime, cycling through Golden Gate Park in San Francisco with trees like the umbrella trees of Rome and stopping at the children's playground with its classically inspired rotunda (containing a carousel) and a small art school loosely cast in Romanesque style, I felt a certain sense of belonging, even though we have been here less than a month.

Part of the charm - both as pleasure and magic - is engendered by the trees in a place, and though we may soon be wondering how to find the wherewithal to rebuild our misbegotten modern ugly - and grossly inefficient - cities, planting trees is an inexpensive step towards harmonious urban form and maybe even some greater civic sense. Trees can also help give the rest of nature a toehold or two, while beautifully removing some of the excess carbon we have seen fit to put in our air. I can't help dreaming that if we could grow enough trees, we might one day be able to put the songs back in our silent springs.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Bibliophile's Happy Hunting Ground

One of the many benefits of living in a larger city is the possibility of having access to a considerable public library system, further interconnected into many other library and information systems.

In my case, the San Francisco Public Library offers many bons bons, from DVDs of classic films from the early golden era of film-making to several shelves full of new non-fiction books, which can offer kinds of tempting surprises. But it is the inter-library loan system that is so captivatingly powerful.

Almost every book that sounds interesting can found in seconds through the catalogue browser, and then requested either from the public library or from any of the participating libraries, which include the local universities. All of this is accomplished through the same web interface.

I can also check on the status of the many books I have requested, and because they tell me how many other people have requested the same book and what number I am in the queue, I can guess how soon I am might expect to get a particular book. I can then decide whether I should wait and try before buying or if the book is sufficiently enticing or necessary, I should head to a book shop or online and buy it sooner.

It is another example of content and context, in this case, knowing where I am in the system allows me to make timely and better informed decisions, and better plan my research and writing, instead of endless hunting, waiting and wondering.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Money For Answers And An Answer To Money?

Mahalo Answers combines at least two things that have fascinated me for a long time: a Question & Answer system powered by humans and a virtual community currency. I am not part of the scheme and have not tried it (though I would like to), but just reading the page about how Jason Calacanis launched the operation prompted the following brief comment about the currency matter:

Over the last few years, I have written about and made some fledgling steps towards starting a renewable energy-backed currency, but I think an online currency will be easier to get started and maintain. Currency is a complex entity - it is a bit like blood - it's literally vital, but as soon as you remove it from its host body and all the complex organs it's connected to, it coagulates and dies. Money is a bit like that - it has to be flowing inside the system to work and stay alive. Most new community or local currencies never get into the body politic and so remain marginal or shrivel.

Creating a new currency is difficult for many reasons, but I applaud Mahalo for trying and I hope their scheme works for at least two reasons. The more dramatic reason is that if the Chinese ever stop buying billions of treasuries, the US dollar could find itself in real trouble, with the potential to pop the lid off the whole money bubble that has built up and protected America since Bretton Woods. If the US dollar really did head south speedily, other forms of currency might turn out to be very useful.

The more immediate reason is that like many others I am concerned about the state of serious, analytical media and particularly how writers, journalists and their host newspapers, journals, websites are going to stay financially afloat as powerful forces devour many existing business models. Only yesterday I suggested that an online currency would be worth exploring to help struggling media outlets and before that I have called for stronger and properly funded public service broadcasting, especially for the coverage of current affairs.

In the meantime, over the years, everything from Green Shield stamps to airmiles have been popular and had their uses, and many large shopping emporia will grovel to get your customer loyalty and give you in-store points or coupons. In the end, many of these schemes are similar to local or community currencies, so we should not be afraid of them nor dismiss them as unworkable. They can also be a way of direlcty rewarding the kinds of activities you want to see happen (local jobs?) and increasing local economic security. It will be enlightening to see how Mahalo fares.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Finding Silver And Gold Linings In The Media Meltdown

As new arrivals to San Francisco, we were advised to look in the pink section of the San Francisco Chronicle for some interesting local things to do, especially things that we could do with our nearly four year old son. Instead of heading straight for the web version, I decided to find a physical copy of the paper and buy it. In the end I just couldn't do it, but I had a few interesting thoughts on the way.

There were several reasons for this noble acquisition plan, including knowing that the newspaper business is in a pretty awful state for various reasons, including most obviously the current economic disaster, but also partly because lifelong avid newspaper readers like me do nearly all their avid reading online which nets the newspaper no cover charge, and maybe not much advertising either, since like many others, I use Firefox to block the ads. At least, until recenctly that is.

However, partly because I really do think that (serious) newspapers are important (see my earlier blog on the npr job cuts) and I do want to see them survive and indeed offer more and better serious reporting and analysis, I switched adblocking off, and now deliberately try to look at some ads which I think might be interesting.

Usually, I confess, I do this because some of the better ads stimulate a thought about something I might want to write about, but also I do it because if ads are about the only way that thoughtful online media are going to survive, I had better try to help.

Nor is this idle or idealistic altruism: this very blog is powered by Google Adwords. I am guessing that the revenue I generate thereby gives new meaning to the concept micro-finance, but never mind, I am a professional writer and professionals also need to get paid, at least in theory.

Are online ads the future of financing for serious newspapers and serious authors? On the one hand it seems trivial and demoralising to think that fine thought shall be subsidised by base advertising (I hope saying this doesn't contravene the terms of the Google Adwords legal tome I signed). On the other hand, how else shall writing get paid for?

There aren't many options: if you sell enough books and have a decent royalty agreement you may be able to live off it, but writers able to do this are few and far between, and you had better keep churning those hits out, unless you happen by chance to be the author of Harry Potter, in which case you are probably off the hook unless you were investing in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

If you write for a newspaper, magazine or trade journal, you may be on staff (or just terminated) or you may get paid by the word, which is alright at anything close to a dollar a word, but pity one writer who recently dropped from a steady $2 a word to ten cents. Either way, because of the wider revenue problem, in part due to online viewing and economic shinkage, there is surely less periodical money available to pay writers.

Historically the other options that evolved were begging, patronage and subscriptions (there may be others, but this is what springs to mind). The painter Hogarth finally began to prosper with subscriptions, but he was still ultimately selling molecules. I have not heard many stories of the web being a happy hunting ground for subscriptions for anything that is virtual, with the exception of specialist publications which will help you directly make or save money - Energy Intelligence springs to mind, and there are quite a lot of financial offerings in this realm. As for patronage, a cursory study of classical music and fine art will show you that that path is littered with pettiness, misery and wasted lives.

So where does that leave us? Subscriptions sound like a good idea, but mostly don't work on the Internet (or do they? If you know, do tell.) Advertising works for Google and Yahoo and some others - if it works for the famous newspapers, why are they firing so many well known writers? It surely cannot be compensating for the downturn in hard copy sales.

We can all see that the business script is getting into a rather blue if not downright noir phase, and it is not clear what will emerge from this turbid scene. However, for those of a greenish hue there is at least a kind of silver lining to all this.

One of the curious things about serious newspapers is that the more serious they are the fatter they are. This is not because they are full of exegetical wisdom and weighty accretions of sagacious curiosity - though they might be - but rather because they are stuffed with advertising. The Times of London or New York, especially on Sundays, is a massive tome that would have made Dostoyevsky or Solzhenitsyn shrink back in awe, but how it could it only cost a dollar or a pound (or thereabouts)? In fact, only with the gutter press does the cover price really cover much of the cost of producing the epistle.

So the irony is that it has long been the case that serious newspapers have relied on indirectly persuading their readers to engage in buying as much stuff as possible, much of which helps to wreck the very planet that more and more serious readers worry about, or at least say they worry about. The dramatic reduction in newspaper sales that is certainly apparent in the United States is directly saving a lot of trees, energy and water from being consumed and a lot of toxins from being generated at the point of manufacture and a lot of waste paper that won't need to be recycled, landfilled or burnt.

That's why I could not bring myself to buy the three inch slab of the San Francisco Chronicle, just to get to the pink sliver of local events. I felt bad about it, and in some ways even worse when I discovered the contents online.

So yes, it will be a good thing if newspapers go on a diet and go back to being lissom creatures of less than a hundred pages, but what will the economics look like? Pretty awful unless something dramatic changes.

The only golden lining (inside the Golden Fleece?) that I can think of is something I have been wondering about for well over a decade: the idea of online micro-payments. We have micro-lending now, from Surinam to San Francisco, we have burgeoning social media instruments and a lot of online transactions, can it finally be possible to have micro-payments?

And here is a twist, that may make it one day more interesting and perhaps easier to enact: create the online micro-finance system as its own local non-dollar based currency. That may sound nutty, but one day the dollar may take a real tumble, and having some alternatives to it, just like having some alternatives to fossil fuels, may turn out to have been a really good idea. In the interim, it may make it is easier and safer to build such system and get it accepted. It could also be tied into online ads, carbon credits or offsets (maybe), and many other green and beneficial ideas. Who knows, it could even help solve some of America's staggering debt and California's budget deficit. Oh yes, and pay a few hard-pressed writers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A New Kind Of Hybrid

As the oil spigot sputters, we leave the era of Great Games and enter the murky epoch of grand paradoxes. It is hard not to sound a trifle glum when considering the possibility that a large part of western infrastructure, which has literally cost the earth, is going to be at best useless and at worst utterly counter-productive in the great economic and energy contraction that we are now entering.

Some will say that it is doom-mongering even to utter such thoughts, but it may in fact be the only hopeful pathway - to recognise the full depths of the nightmare, and try as quickly as possible to remake the parts that can be useful and transform those that can't while looking for new and sensibly sustainable ways of conducting human life. All of that will certainly create much pain and many a paradox, but it will also either spawn the pathways that lead to a long-lasting future for humans or we'll witness a long and not very pretty sunset.

One of the biggest problems, if not actually a paradox, may be that the economic systems that helped so mightily to create so much growth, may be ill-suited to a long contraction. To be specific, it seems increasingly likely that straight market systems will increasingly appear to be what they are - blind watchmakers, or perhaps bomb-makers. A blazing example is the way in which two auto makers, GM & Toyota, are delaying factories to make some of the most advanced road-ready hybrid electric vehicles - the Volt & the Prius. The reason is the current collapse in car sales, in part due to recent high gasoline prices. Yes, fuel prices in America have fallen astonishingly since July, but what happens when they shoot up again? Suddenly there will be immense demand for the partly electric Volt and Prius, and lo and behold there won't be the factories to make the vehicles.

I admit to mixed feelings in writing the last few lines, because cars are really part of the problem. But since I am a proponent of avoiding chaos and trying to keep life civilised and as decent as possible, what we'll need is phased change away from cars, given that few places have good enough public transport systems to deal with the sudden disappearance of the car, and there is surely nowhere outside of tropical rainforest tribes that would last long without deliveries by trucks and lorries.

There is a parallel with our wider socio-economic systems. We are still in the old paradigm, still talking of how to return to growth and get the economy back on track again. And for good reason - it's ghastly to be out of work, and in many places, downright dangerous for your health. Thus I am not surprised that I do not yet see any signs of the realisation that we'll have to develop some different systems to manage overall decline and contraction. Like the cars that may one day get us away from cars, the kinds of systems we'll need will almost certainly be a new kind of hybrid - we'll need to keep some aspects of the way markets work whilst developing systems that can help predict and plan for a world that will require new kinds of innovation as we are forced to shorten our supply chains and work out how to manage on a great deal less than many have been used to. For some this challenge is exciting, but for now, the task remains one of trying bring reality into focus.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Today's Tweets & Facebook messages

I thought I would collect together my various messages on social networks uttered today (slightly edited, reordered & concatenated):

Facebook: (first time actually posting to FB)
I am working on how to combine conversations in Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn & other social networking tools, partly in pursuit of green opinion surveying idea.

At last some good news: Dubai Plans to Refrigerate Beach Sand Associated swimming pool will be cooled too. That's a relief.

New Chinese plugin hybrid car is more electric than most. Manufacturer started as a battery maker. Buffet has 10% ($230m) stake.

Wondering if any green tech startup in Silicon Valley is working on a telephathy API? Have to be open source of course & Ajax friendly.

RT @johnbattelle: do you trust Google? See: jd: Trust is a really tough parameter to gauge. Many have written about trust, especially recently. Seligman's The Problem of Trust (1997) remains very perceptive.

Fear as political factor is a problem. Jacobs, in The Politics of the Real World says: Fear is often accompanied by a feeling of impotence.
Concerned politicians worry that giving public too strong dose of reality induces impotence. Eg BBC report on Arctic warming.
RT @lehacarpenter: if we are impotent, shouldn't we feel impotent? jd: I was struck that a political writer like Jacobs made this remark. Impotence is implicated in depression. However, facing economic & energy crises we must act whether we feel impotent or fearful. It would be even a little reassuring if there were some rocks on which we could base our responses. Reality?

Comparing attitudes to the future from the 1990s & now. So far, looking at UK data. Mid 90s: >60% thought children's future would be worse.

I will very gingerly express something that has been a growing concern for me for some weeks now & I have not seen anyone else mention (maybe no-one has mentioned it, because it is not valid!) I worry that Obama will become like Tony Blair. TB arrived with so much hope & very quickly reneged on just about every green commitment he had made, much to the dismay of environmentalists who had supported him.
RT @energy4america: "I don't think Obama will Blair out. Blair might have done better if he hadn't been Bushed." jd: hoping Obama is sincere.

RT @bbcscitech: Scientists say they now have unambiguous evidence that the warming in the Arctic is accelerating.

Listening to Poulenc's delightful Sextet for piano & wind (1932-9). As the composer says "Très vite et importé." Poulenc seems quite comfortable with wind & piano, but he had a stormy relationship with solo strings - he destroyed 2 violin sonatas, and consigned a string quartet to the Paris sewers (in 1947). Had it been Vienna, the work may have turned up in 'The Third Man.' Poulenc's 2 sources of inspiration were summed up by Claude Rostand: ‘In Poulenc there is something of the monk and something of the rascal.’

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An Unhealthy Stew

In the last few days I have heard news reports about 800,000 children having no health care, and former foodbank donors lining up at the soup kitchens. Stories from the Great Depression? Bangladesh? No. They are tales from that well known third world country, California.

If it were a nation, California would be in the top ten by GDP; and it is the largest farming state in America. It may sound like a rhetorical question to ask how such a rich place can allow such poverty. But until the question is seriously addressed, it is not obvious that America will be able to find a sustainable path through the economic and energy situation now unravelling.

But perhaps it can only be addressed as one of series of interconnected issues, all of which are systemic issues. The history of civilizations getting into trouble suggests that it is difficult to know when decline is really setting in, or instead when a new upward cycle is about to begin. But when a complex system finds its inputs (eg energy), outputs (emissions) and entire modus operandi (economics) constrained and compromised, if it cannot comprehend this and change, possibly rather quickly, it will take either great luck or a miracle to save it.

To compound matters, it may be that as the effects of decline start to bite, they may be misdiagnosed. This looks to be the case at the moment from a number of angles. In the meantime, a lot of poor children - and adults - will go on being hungry and unhealthy, unless sensible ways can be found to address the complex crisis we are entering in such a way that large numbers of people can survive and prosper even as extraordinary transformation takes place.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Judgment Of Solomon

Or how to pick winners in a hurry. The winners in question are likely to include everything from new economic systems which are genuinely sustainable through high and low technologies to all kinds of societal and individual behaviour change.

We know that large changes are going to arrive because sooner or later we are going to have to power civilization on straight sunlight as the stored sunlight of fossil fuels runs out. Are we reaching the beginning of that transformation now as the energy realists believe, or do we have all kinds of unconventional fossil fuels that we shall be able to tap for another few decades?

The smart money, what's left of it, is starting to lean towards energy realism, for a whole host reasons including economic and geological. As that happens, the question of which civilizational techniques and technologies to back really becomes critical. The next question will be: how on earth shall we judge what will work and what will fail? Who should be helped to produce what innovations in industry, society, governance? It is quite clear that help will be needed, and as luck would have it, getting help from the government is suddenly all the rage. Humans became homo technicus (I apologise for the neologism) a long time back - perhaps 35,000 years ago - and now we rely on technology for almost every aspect of daily survival.

Here in California, one of the world centres of solar and green technology, the question is particularly pointed: how to help many kinds of green and clean technologies, experiments and, one must hope, potential solutions. Venture capital is suddenly very shy and both consumers and credit are squeezed like a Victorian girdle. As with so many other things in this brave new world of the last five minutes, all eyes are on government as the last hope. It does seem rather like a death-bed conversion, but if the economic crash can re-introduce the idea that government is necessary for civilisation - good government that is - then that may help us judge not only what technologies to help, but also what paths society should try to follow as it deals with limits to growth arriving earlier than even the soothsayers of the Club of Rome envisaged.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Smile May Be All That Is Left

Just watched Preston Sturges' thought-provoking 1942 film 'Sullivan's Travels'. Interesting juxtaposition of comedy and the dark side of life, of abundance and scarcity. The film shows legions of homeless people living in awful conditions, and some jail conditions not so far from Guantanamo Bay. The take-home message is that no matter how ghastly or miserable life gets, it is still possible to laugh, and that may be all that some people have left.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Liquid Gold

Tim O'Reilly (@timoreilly) retweeted a message via @judell from Saul Griffith: "Best case, you can look at bio-fuels as a 1%-efficient solar cell." After a few years of various small scale, more or less controlled experiments with feedstocks to make biofuels, and some attempts actually to produce liquid bio-fuels I would have to agree with Saul. Not only that, in order to get the feestock, one frequently has to work very hard, which calls into question whether even 1% efficiency can be claimed. I think we should regard liquid fossil fuels as a form of gold - so precious we should price it exorbitantly and treat as if it were very rare. One day it liquid fossil fuels will be very rare, and I suspect future humans will wish their forebears had been more careful.

Having said all this, what are we to do now? Should we abandon liquid biofuels? From a food and environment point of view, the easy answer would be yes, but in the real world we cannot do without liquid fuels, especially not with a planet so over-populatated. At the very least, it would be helpful to have an enlightened debate both amongst politicians and the public. How to get there, though, that is yet another knotty problem.

Healthcare article & comments

I have just posted the following comment on an npr story "With Daschle, Obama Signals Health Will Be Priority."

Several years ago I had a meeting with an aide to Tom Daschle, in which we discussed the coming impact of Peak Oil and oil decline. The links between energy and healthcare may not be obvious, so I have written an article, entitled 'A Healthcare Renaissance: Could Peak Oil Inspire America To Create A National Health Service?' ( offering some possible reasons why we should give some careful thought to peak oil and healthcare.

On my O'Reilly blog site, I posted a reply to someone who commented negatively on my blog mentioned above:

I wanted to take a moment to thank Mike Perry for his comments, even though he takes issue with what I have written.
For the record, just under half of all US electricity is produced with coal. Almost no oil is now used to produce electricity, except in emergencies. However, during emergencies it is not the price of diesel which matters, it is the availability. Indeed I made no mention of the price, though in ordinary times, price certainly matters a lot.
Regarding my brief stay in a London hospital a couple of years ago, I valued it very highly indeed. For one thing, I had no idea what was wrong - it turned out not be life threatening, but it was very frightening at the time. Furthermore my mother gave the whole of her adult life to nursing, much of it in the UK National Health Service. I grew up on nursing stories, starting in the Second World War, through which my mother trained as a nurse, even during the blitz. Words can hardly express how highly I value those who practice health care.
I have not experienced private health care, but I have experienced national health care in France, England & Canada, and it has been kind, timely and good in every place. And free at the time I needed it. I accept that others may have had different experiences.
There are certainly problems with national health care systems, and poorer areas of a nation may well get a poorer service, but that is not always so.
CAT & MRI scans are an important issue, and it is certainly easier to get a scan done quickly if you are rich. However, having worked on the first CAT scanners (invented in Britain) and made films about MRI scanners in the national health service, my research suggested that scans were available in a reasonably timely manner in most places.
One of the reasons why I wrote this piece is that politics, healthcare and technology are going to be intertwined, in part because of the unfolding changes to the energy system. These changes will require a shortening of the supply chain system (which means more domestic manufacturing) and much greater energy and scientific literacy. It will be so much easier for people to consider the long training required to change career and reskill if they don't have to worry about exorbitant health insurance payments or worse still, being denied coverage on a whim from an insurance company. The whole of society becomes a safer and calmer place when people know that healthcare is available without fear.
Regarding my voting in the United States, sadly as a non-citizen, I am not allowed for vote for anything. I can say that I hope very much that Barack Obama can inspire the American people to deliver change for the better - he certainly cannot do it on his own, even with all the kryptonite in the universe.
PS. For better or for worse, I have a Y chromosome or two lurking in my system, which puts me in the male camp of homo sapiens.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

NPR Cuts: US Democracy Needs More Public Broadcasting Not Less

US National Public Radio has just announced that it is cutting two programmes and many jobs. Free market adherents will not lament this (partly because they are now too busy lamenting other things), but a national public broadcasting system is more vital to a nation's democracy than may be apparent, especially when print journalism is not all that strong, and there is no national newspaper of record, and none of the nation's chief ministers are elected.
At this time of anguish and questioning, NPR should be broadened, deepened and strengthened. This may sound absurd as the economy buckles under multiple strains, but it is clearly possible, especially given that billions, and most likely trillions, of dollars are going to be injected into the U.S. economy.
Barack Obama has spoken of spending money on infrastructure projects - this should include public broadcasting, especially more and better coverage of current affairs and world affairs. We are entering a global crisis, and it is not just an economic crisis, but also an energy crisis, an environmental crisis, a population crisis, and a civilisational crisis. We are surely now seeing that after moving into overshoot some time ago, we are entering a phase of limits to growth - especially as we pass peak oil and global warming worsens.
A crisis of this depth and scale will require more of the right kind of information and analysis not less. European countries have a variety of ways of funding their national broadcasting systems, with the BBC licence fee being one way of providing at least some insulation from government interference.
Though the Internet has become a vital source of news and current affairs, it is notoriously hard to fund a pure Internet broadcasting or media operation (having founded Global Public Media in 2001, I have some firsthand experience)* and because of the way that the Internet is received, it is not likely to become a full substitute for terrestrial broadcasting. For a host of reasons, every nation should maintain a good network of land-based transmitters operating both AM and FM.
Regarding NPR's financial situation, it does seem absurd and unwise that a national broadcasting system should depend so heavily on funding from just one human being (in this case $225 million in 2004 from the late Joan Kroc, wife of MacDonald's CEO), no matter how generous and public-spirited.
So many problems come back to the way things are funded. Reforming the way American politics is funded is surely at the top of this kind of list, but a well funded and independent national broadcasting system should also be considered as vital to the functioning of democratic government.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

San Francisco Diary 9 xii 2008

First day of new life in San Francisco
From 5am we finish unloading the moving truck and Celine returns it to east side of Francisco, where she enjoys listening to local electrical workers in cafe where she waits for rental place to open.
As kitchen is submerged in boxes and we no longer have chickens, we try out local pie shop for breakfast. Delicious and very pleasant.
After unpacking some boxes and minds, it is late in the afternoon. Kitchen is still buried.
We meet Boris, who runs local Russian deli and has extraordinary stories from Soviet Union - tale of violin as he emigrates & selling VCR; Chris from Newcastle who local bike shop and recommends Park Chow, where we go to have quick dinner with Raphael. Raphael practices introducing himself to people.
As Raphael has been very helpful he gets a lime & lemon pie back in local pie shop.