To Save California, Read “Dune”

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Andrew Leonard in Nautilus:

Fifty years ago science-fiction author Frank Herbert seized the imagination of readers with his portrayal of a planet on which it never rained. In the novel Dune, the scarcest resource is water, so much so that the mere act of shedding a tear or spitting on the floor takes on weighty cultural significance.

To survive their permanent desert climate, the indigenous Fremen of Dune employ every possible technology. They build “windtraps” and “dew collectors” to grab the slightest precipitation out of the air. They construct vast underground cisterns and canals to store and transport their painstakingly gathered water. They harvest every drop of moisture from the corpses of the newly dead. During each waking moment they dress in “stillsuits”—head-to-toe wetsuit-like body coverings that recycle sweat, urine, and feces back into drinking water.

Described by Dune’s “planetary ecologist,” Liet-Kynes, as “a micro-sandwich—a high-efficiency filter and heat exchange system”—the stillsuit is a potent metaphor for reuse, reclamation, and conservation. Powered by the wearer’s own breathing and movement, the stillsuit is the technical apotheosis of the principle of making do with what one has.

Someday, sooner than we’d like, it’s not inconceivable that residents of California will be shopping on Amazon for the latest in stillsuit tech. Dune is set thousands of years in the future, but in California in 2015, the future is now. Four years of drought have pummeled reservoirs and forced mandatory 25 percent water rationing cuts. The calendar year of 2014 was the driest (and hottest) since records started being kept in the 1800s. At the end of May, the Sierra Nevada snowpack—a crucial source of California’s water—hit its lowest point on record: zero. Climate models suggest an era of mega-droughts could be nigh.

Which brings us to Daniel Fernandez, a professor of science and environmental policy at California State University, Monterey Bay, and Peter Yolles, the co-founder of a San Francisco water startup, WaterSmart, that assists water utilities in encouraging conservation by crunching data on individual water consumption. Fernandez spends his days building and monitoring fogcatchers, remarkablyDune-like devices that have the property of converting fog into potable water. “I think about Dune a lot,” Fernandez says. “The ideas have really sat with me. In the book, they revere water, and ask, what do we do?” Similarly, Yolles says, “I remember being fascinated by the stillsuits. That was a striking technology, really poignant.” And inspiring. The fictional prospect of a dystopian future, Yolles says, “helped me see problems that we have, and where things might go.”

More here.

Ignorant Good Will

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Rick Perlstein reviews Bryan Burrough's Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, in The Nation:

Burrough begins Days of Rage with the story of the New Left’s first convert to armed struggle, an oddball named Sam Melville, who started bombing random Manhattan banks shortly after enjoying the music at Woodstock and later died in the uprising at Attica. But the best history is always about the backstories—the flashback reconstructions explaining how a mentality that may strike us as alien today made perfect sense in the minds of those who shared it at the time.

Consider Mutulu Shakur. Born Jeral Williams in 1950, he became an early proponent of the Republic of New Afrika movement. His career as a militant began in a hospital. In 1970, members of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican version of the Black Panthers that started as a street gang, occupied the auditorium of a tumbledown hospital in the South Bronx to protest its inadequacies. They demanded a heroin clinic. Harried hospital administrators were amenable; they needed a heroin clinic. So they let the Young Lords start one. Nourished with nearly $1 million in state and city funds, Lincoln Detox soon grew into the South Bronx’s largest drug-treatment facility.

Its program prescribed a theory popularized by Malcolm X: “that the plague of drugs was a scheme concocted by a white government to oppress blacks,” as Burrough puts it. Shakur started volunteering; his specialty was acupuncture. Another part of the treatment was studying a pamphlet subtitled “Heroin and Imperialism,” which advised that a commitment to armed struggle was a more effective analgesic than methadone. Lincoln Detox soon became what Burrough describes as “a kind of clubhouse for New York’s radical elite”; for instance, medical supplies purchased with government funds—“by the truckload”—were turned over to the Black Liberation Army to assist it in its campaign of murdering cops. Crazy stuff, to be sure. But in the South Bronx of the 1970s—where cops were heavily involved in the heroin trade, and building owners found it more profitable to torch their property for the insurance than to rent it out—it’s easy to understand why taking the fight to the police seemed a more realistic route to social change than voting for Hubert Humphrey had been in 1968.

More here.

The economic consequences of austerity

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Amartya Sen in The New Statesman:

Why did Keynes dislike a treaty that ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers (surely a good thing)?

Keynes was not, of course, complaining about the end of the world war, nor about the need for a treaty to end it, but about the terms of the treaty – and in particular the suffering and the economic turmoil forced on the defeated enemy, the Germans, through imposed austerity. Austerity is a subject of much contemporary interest in Europe – I would like to add the word “unfortunately” somewhere in the sentence. Actually, the book that Keynes wrote attacking the treaty, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, was very substantially about the economic consequences of “imposed austerity”. Germany had lost the battle already, and the treaty was about what the defeated enemy would be required to do, including what it should have to pay to the victors. The terms of this Carthaginian peace, as Keynes saw it (recollecting the Roman treatment of the ­defeated Carthage following the Punic wars), included the imposition of an unrealistically huge burden of reparation on Germany – a task that Germany could not carry out without ruining its economy. As the terms also had the effect of fostering animosity between the victors and the vanquished and, in addition, would economically do no good to the rest of Europe, Keynes had nothing but contempt for the decision of the victorious four (Britain, France, Italy and the United States) to demand something from Germany that was hurtful for the vanquished and unhelpful for all.

The high-minded moral rhetoric in favour of the harsh imposition of austerity on Germany that Keynes complained about came particularly from Lord Cunliffe and Lord Sumner, representing Britain on the Reparation Commission, whom Keynes liked to call “the Heavenly Twins”. In his ­parting letter to Lloyd George, Keynes added, “I leave the Twins to gloat over the devastation of Europe.” Grand rhetoric on the necessity of imposing austerity, to remove economic and moral impropriety in Greece and elsewhere, may come more frequently these days from Berlin itself, with the changed role of Germany in today’s world. But the unfavourable consequences that Keynes feared would follow from severe – and in his judgement unreasoned – imposition of austerity remain relevant today (with an altered geography of the morally upright discipliner and the errant to be disciplined).

More here.

For Couples, Time Can Upend the Laws of Attraction

John Tierney in The New York Times:

CoupleThere are hundreds of romance novels in a category that some have named “Plain Jane and Hot Stud,” a theme that was equally popular when Jane Austen wrote “Pride and Prejudice.” Tall and good-looking, endowed with a “noble mien,” Mr. Darcy initially denigrates Elizabeth Bennet’s appearance: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” He notes “more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form.” Even worse for the rich Mr. Darcy, her family’s social status is “so decidedly beneath my own.” His initial reactions make perfect sense to evolutionary psychologists, because these preferences can improve the odds of passing on one’s genes. Beauty and physical symmetry are markers of a mate’s health and genetic fitness; status and wealth make it more likely that children will survive to adulthood.

…In the 2012 survey, people were asked a version of the famous question in Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century poem: “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” A great many, it turns out. In the survey, 33 percent of men and 43 percent of women answered yes when asked if they had ever fallen in love with someone they did not initially find attractive. Dr. Fisher terms this process “slow love,” and says it is becoming more common as people take longer to marry. “Everyone is terrified that online dating is reducing mate value to just a few superficial things like beauty — whether you swipe left or right on Tinder,” she said in an interview. “But that’s just the start of the process. Once you meet someone and get to know them, their mate value keeps changing.” When the survey respondents were asked what had changed their feelings, the chief reasons they gave were “great conversations,” “common interests,” and “came to appreciate his/her sense of humor.” All of those factors contribute to Mr. Darcy’s change of heart in “Pride and Prejudice.”

More here.

Go Ask Alice: What really went on in Wonderland

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker:

AliceWho reads “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”? The answer used to be: Anyone who can read. From the tangled tale of mass literacy one can pluck a few specific objects—books that were to be found in every household where there was somebody who could read and people who wanted to listen. Aside from the Bible, a typical list would run like this: “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” to which were later added “The Pickwick Papers” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Notice that Alice is not the sole adventurer. Every one of those titles contains the leading character, whose fate is to go on a journey, and whose mettle is tested in the process. Each explores a different landscape, or body of water, but all five traverse what you might call the valley of the shadow of life, profuse with incident. Three of the writers were men of God, and the two others began as journalists. Had you asked any of them to take a creative-writing course, the door would have closed in your face.

But who reads the Alice books nowadays? Everybody knows Alice, but that is not the same thing. There are countless ways to know something, or someone, without firsthand evidence, and Alice, as familiar as a household god and as remote as a child star, is a prime case of cultural osmosis. Having seeped through the membrane of the original books, she has spent the past century and a half infusing herself into the language, and the broader social discourse; as a result, we can all too easily picture her, quote her, or follow her example in the nonsense of our own lives without having read—or even feeling that we need to read—a word of Lewis Carroll. Yet the need is more urgent than ever. Carroll wrote with a peppery briskness, impatient of folly, and always alive to the squalls of emotion that we struggle to curb:

“You know very well you’re not real.”

“I am real!” said Alice, and began to cry.

“You won’t make yourself a bit realler by crying,” Tweedledee remarked: “there’s nothing to cry about.”

“If I wasn’t real,” Alice said—half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous—“I shouldn’t be able to cry.”

“I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?” Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

The second half of this exchange was used by Evelyn Waugh as the epigraph to “Vile Bodies,” in 1930, and the tone is a perfect match for the chill, directionless frenzy of Waugh’s personae. But Tweedledum’s question is, if anything, more pertinent still to our epoch, when the capacity to weep, whether in triumph or disaster, is a heartfelt imposture that has proved de rigueur, not least in the realm of the reality show—a term, by the way, that would have caused Carroll to sharpen his pen like a carving knife.

More here.

The Winners of the 3QD Arts & Literature Prize 2015

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Jonathan Kramnick has picked the three winners from the nine finalists:

  1. Top Quark, $500: Joanna Walsh, Ventimiglia
  2. Strange Quark, $200: David Kurnick, The Essential Gratuitousness of César Aira
  3. Charm Quark, $100: Sarah Blackwood, Editing as Carework

Here is what Jonathan had to say about them:

This is a great time for public art writing and literary criticism, with new venues of review and discussion popping up all over the internet. The essays I picked all in one way or another present the intimate and individual experience of an artwork in compelling, public language. That is not an easy thing to do.

Top Quark: Joanna Walsh, Ventimiglia. A variation on the aesthetic education genre, complete with travels to Italy. A beautiful meditation on beauty.
Strange Quark: David Kurnick, The Essential Gratuitousness of César Aira. Sentences that curl gorgeously around a singular and strange literary corpus.
Charm Quark: Sarah Blackwood, Editing as Carework. A short, moving piece on gender and editing from a voice helping us redefine what it means to be a public intellectual.

Congratulations also from 3QD to the winners (remember, you must claim the money within one month from today—just send me an email). And feel free, in fact we encourage you, to leave your acceptance speech as a comment here! And thanks to everyone who participated. Many thanks also, of course, to Jonathan Kramnick for doing the final judging.

The three prize logos at the top of this post were designed by Sughra Raza, me (using a photo by Margit Oberrauch) and Carla Goller. I hope the winners will display them with pride on their own blogs!

Details about the prize here.

“the best picture in the world”

Piero true crossI recently found myself marooned with a large group of astronomers in a remote 11th century abbey in Tuscan countryside. Despite the picturesque beauty of the landscape not to mention the abbey's splendid library; still the days (I must admit) stretched on and on…

I guess it's true that google is making me stupid, but I discovered that it is a lot harder for me than it used to be to read for hours on end. And without any wireless nor any real means of getting myself back to civilization, I decided to hatch a means of escape. It wasn't all that hard actually, it was just a matter of reminding him (the astronomer with the driver's licence) that located not all that faraway from the abbey was what has been called “the best picture in the world.”

Has anyone else read that wonderful essay by Aldous Huxley called “The Best Picture?”

It is a brilliant essay –and the title says it all. But, wait, you ask, how can there be such a thing as “the best picture” in the world? Isn't it an absolutely ludicrous suggestion to make?

Of course it is, and this is not lost on Huxley–for as you can see in the essay, he addresses this absurdity immediately:

The greatest picture in the world…. You smile. The expression is ludicrous, of course. Nothing is more futile than the occupation of those connoisseurs who spend their time compiling first and second elevens of the world's best painters,eights and fours of musicians, fifteens of poets, all-star troupes of architects and so on. Nothing is so futile because there are a great many kinds of merit and an infinite variety of human beings. Is Fra Angelico a better artist than Rubens? Such questions, you insist, are meaningless. It is all a matter of personal taste.And up to a point this is true. But there does exist, none the less, an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one. Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work. Not that all virtuous men are good artists, nor all artists conventionally virtuous. Longfellow was a bad poet, while Beethoven's dealings with his publishers were frankly dishonourable.But one can be dishonourable towards one's publishers and yet preserve the kind of virtue that is necessary to a good artist. That virtue is the virtue of integrity, of honesty towards oneself.

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Burning My Confederate Flag

by Akim Reinhardt

1967 Summer of Love WardrobeTo be born in America in 1967 is, to some degree, to fall through the cracks.

The Baby Boom was most certainly over by then, its most senior elements old enough to vote and drink. But the Millennials, now the focus of every drooling advertising executive and marketing guru, were naught but twinkles in the eyes of their Boomer sires and dames.

Bookmarked between bigger generations, being born in the late 1960s and early 1970s meant you were conceived and suckled amid the tumult of the Civil Rights and Vietnam protests; in (cloth) diapers when the moon landing occurred; discovering kindergarten as President Richard Nixon’s Plumbers were bumbling the Watergate break-in; and learning to read when the final U.S. helicopters evacuated Saigon.

To be born in 1967 means that when the late 1960s and early 1970s were becoming iconic, you were there, but you weren't. You didn't get to partake in the Summer of Love. You're what it spit out.

Thus, when coming of age, many important things were very familiar to you, but their meanings were muddled. Cultural symbols like bell bottom jeans and rubber Richard Nixon masks were still common enough to be lodged in your consciousness, but deeper insights were lacking. By the time you were waking up in the late 1970s, they seemed to be little more than goofs, unmoored from the bloody anti-war protests that divided a nation, or the collapse of a presidency that shook Americans' faith in their government.

Sure, we understood our own moment well enough. Late Cold War and early computers. AIDS and acid rain. Crack cocaine and homelessness. But the gravitas that had conceived us was by then little more than parody and catharsis. Black Power surrendered to Blacksploitation. Protest songs gave way to disco and synth pop. Vietnam was reduced to Rambo.

And if the late 1970s began glossing over so much of what had immediately preceded it, then the 1980s buffed it into a smooth, porcelain sheen. In pop culture representations of the 1960s and early 19790s, substance had been overtaken by style. Symbols, absent their meaning, were rendered fashion accessories and punch lines. A case in point was the Confederate flag.

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American politics as the clash of symbols

by Emrys Westacott

My Facebook profile describes my political views as “very liberal.” In the US this is a shorthand way of indicating that I support gay rights, government-run health care, stricter gun laws, abortion rights for women, abolition of the death penalty, reduced military spending, environmental protection, campaign finance reform, the United Nations, Charles Darwin, the Toyota Prius, and higher taxes on people richer than me.

When I get together with other very liberals—which is quite often, since I'm married to one—a favorite topic of lamentation is the blindness of our political opponents. Why don't they get it? Why don't they see that we'd all be better off if we spent more on education and less on weapons systems; that if they really want to see fewer abortions they should support rather than oppose sex education in school and universal healthcare; that violent crime in the US is more likely to be reduced by having stricter gun control laws than by increasing the number of executions.

Our discussions of such matters follow a predictable course. After a round of annoyed tongue clicking, irritation gradually mounts until we reach a crescendo of infuriation and incredulity, from which we subside, with much headshaking, onto the soft but comfortless pillow of our usual answer. Why don't they get it? Because, to quote Samuel Beckett, “people are bloody ignorant apes!”

I believe something like the same kind of incredulity characterizes the view that many Europeans have of American politics. Whether the issue is denial of climate change, teaching creationism, resisting even minimal gun control, or opposing a more efficient health care system, the first impulse is to shake the head and ask, “How stupid can you get?”

As an explanation of why millions of people don't agree with me, the “ignorant ape” hypothesis has the virtue of simplicity. But I can't help feeling that it lacks depth. After all, in other areas of life conservatives aren't any more stupid than me or my fellow VLs. They make perfectly good parents, neighbors, and colleagues. So why do our wonderfully cogent arguments have so little purchase on their thinking?

I believe one key reason is that when it comes to political topics and stances, rational cogency often counts for less than symbolic meaning. ImagesIn any debate, on any topic, the ideal is for the outcome to be determined entirely by the force of the best evidence and arguments. Indeed, submission to the argument is largely what we mean by scientific or scholarly objectivity. But submission to the argument seems to be less common in politics than in most other spheres. Instead, it is the symbolic significance of a political position that often decides whether a person endorses it or rejects it. This is true in every society; think for, instance, of the headscarf controversy in France. But it is perhaps more true in the US than in most other developed countries because for some reason symbols seem to play a bigger part in American political culture.

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Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si’

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Introduction by Bill Benzon

This month I've decided to turn things over to my good friend Charles Cameron, whom I've known for somewhat over a dozen years, though only online. He's a poet and a student of many things, most recently religious fundamentalism and its contemporary manifestations in terrorism. He characterizes himself as a vagabond monk and he blogs at Zenpundit and at Sembl. When he was eleven he applied to join an Anglican monestery and, while they didn't take him in, that act did bring him to the attention of the remarkable Fr. Trevor Huddleston, who became his mentor for the next decade. Thereafter Cameron explored Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu mysticism, and Native American shamanism. He's been around.

But it's his connection with Trevor Huddleston that got my attention, for Huddleston managed to broker a gift between two trumpet-player heroes of mine. At one point in his career he was in South African, where a young Hugh “Grazin in the Grass” Masekela was one of his students. On a trip to America, Fr. Huddleston met Louis Armstrong and got him to give Masekela a trumpet.

To the bridge builders…

Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'

by Charles Cameron

I propose that in his recent encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis is exercising his function as Supreme Pontiff, or @pontifex as he calls himself on Twitter – a pontifex being literally a bridge builder. It is my contention that in his encyclical he bridges a number of divides, between Catholic and Orthodox, sacramental and social, liberal and conservative, religious and scientific, even Christian and Muslim, traditional and of the fast advancing moment, in a manner which will impact our world in ways yet unforeseen.

It is my contention, also, that his pontificate provides the third step in a momentous journey.

The first step, as I see it, was taken by Christ himself in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and in his doctrine of forgiveness, not once only but a myriad of times. The second was taken by Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of Creatures – praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through Sister Moon and the stars, praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.. blessed those who endure in peace.. – and in his crossing the front lines of war during the crusades to greet in peace the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. And in taking the name Francis, in washing and kissing on Maundy Thursday the feet of both male and female, Christian and Muslim juvenile offenders in prison, and in issuing this encyclical, I would suggest Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is taking the third step.

The line, the transmission, is of sheer humility. It begins with the Founder of the line, Christ himself, lapses, which all high inspirations must as routine replaces charisma, only to emerge brilliantly a millennium later in the saintly maverick, Francis, lapses again though still fermenting in the imagination of church and humankind, and now at last shows itself once more, in that most unexpected of places: in the heart of the bureaucracy, at the head of the hierarchy, atop the curia, simple, idealistic, practical – a pontifex building bridges.

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Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Jurassic World and the World Wide Web

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by Matt McKenna

Welcome, dinosaurs, to the pantheon of horror film monsters including zombies, sharks, and aliens that have been subjected to the sci-fi trope of genetic-engineering-gone-too-far. To be fair, it's hard to blame directors of horror sequels for invoking this narrative cliché–how else are they expected to make their follow-up films interesting? Must they be forced to produce another movie in which the exact same monster plunks around and kills yet more people in precisely the same fashion as it did in the original? Of course not. Sequels have to be spiced up somehow, and the best way to do that is to make the scary monster scarier. And to make a scary monster scarier, a director has but two options: either add more scary monsters (e.g. there is one alien in Alien, but there are many aliens in its sequel) or dial up the intelligence of the scary monster (e.g. the shark is a simple killing machine in Jaws, but it becomes emotionally complex and vindictive by Jaws IV). Genetic engineering comes in as the convenient means by which one of these methods is enacted. It was therefore only a matter of time before Hollywood created a blockbuster film about scientists creating a gifted and talented dinosaur rampaging about eating people. Jurassic World is that film, it's not bad, and it's also a strikingly good metaphor for the current state of the World Wide Web.

In Jurassic World, the dinosaur-filled theme park of the first film in the franchise has reopened after having miraculously recovered from the disaster that occurred decades prior. To no one's surprise, history repeats itself when a dinosaur escapes and eats a slew of park guests. However, this escaped dinosaur isn't just any old dinosaur–it's a genetically modified ultra-huge and hyper-smart murder monster. As expected, the second and third act of the movie consists mainly of the human characters yelling “run” and “go” and really just a lot of yelling in general as CG dinosaurs wriggle around and eat things.

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Santa Maria della Scala

by Sue Hubbard

Siena

It’s Easter and the museum is empty. Nothing but relics

and saints’ bones – a thumb, a foreskin – it’s impossible to tell,

in their ornate reliquaries, what things are – and holy of holies,

a sacred nail. There’s also a gilded gospel from Constantinople

enamelled in cobalt blue. Tiny Byzantine figures: cobblers,

farriers, bakers and monks stuck forever In the 11th century.

Once this maze of crypts housed weary pilgrims and the sick.

Wet nurses suckled abandoned infants for a fee.

Sorore, the shoemaker-founder, so my guidebook tells me,

died back in 898. Being here, certainly, gives you time

to contemplate the brevity of it all. To wonder where

this strip of cloth, a fragment of the Virgin’s belt, has been

these many years, and whether all truth contains

a contradiction – so even though I know there’s

no heaven, if I stand here long enough,

I’ll, maybe, learn the art of prayer.