Vanishing Ice and Future Economics

In my novel, TWIST, set in the year 2075, the seas have risen as a result of global warming, inundating the coastal cities and driving the Gulf of Mexico up the Mississippi River valley. The current exhibition at the Whatcom Museum, entitled Vanishing Ice, presents a sobering visual record of the process that has been taking us there for the past 250 years.

Seventy works of art – photos, videos and paintings by a range of international artists – depict alpine and polar environments, highlighting the massive recession of glaciers and ice fields, the fundamental changes caused by global warming.

This leads us into another dimension of dystopian economics, as a follow-up to my previous post, The Chapstick At The End Of The World: the increasing economic value of an ever-more-scarce ecology.

Vanishing Ice by Noble -- Click To Enlarge

In the utopian scenario, we foresee wealthy ecotourists paying big bucks to visit the last few penguins and polar bears in their native habitat. For example, here is a print from the museum show by Anne Noble, entitled Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica, and described as follows: “Anne Noble juxtaposes Antarctica’s seemingly inaccessible landscape with empty plastic chairs that perhaps represent the droves of tourists eager to experience the ice before climate change transforms the continent. A sense of loss pervades her work, as Antarctica becomes yet another commodity for the taking.”

Vanishing Ice by Braasch -- Click To Enlarge

But then there is the dystopian vision of this future, in which desperate tribes of humans armed with pointy sticks fight for control of the few remaining repositories of fresh water, since the glaciers and snowfields which fed them are long gone. Take a look at this pair of photos of the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park, the more recent shot in 2005 by Gary Braasch, compared to Arthur Oliver Wheeler’s 1917 image. From the description in the museum exhibit:“ [they] confirm the scientific data that the Athabasca Glacier has lost half its volume and retreated almost a mile (1.5 km) since its discovery in 1898.

Hate to be Mr. Negative, but what do you think? Take a look at Vanishing Ice and decide for yourself.

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The Chapstick At The End Of The World

Masterful dystopian novelist here, reporting on the predicted end of the world as we know it.

So, dear readers, shall I advise you to stockpile gold bullion and bullets? Noooo, actually end-of-the-world economics will not be based at all on gold — can’t eat it, and it won’t prevent sunburn or cure warts or do anything else useful, therefore you won’t be able to trade it for much because in addition to being useless, it is heavy to carry around. You and everyone else will have more important things to think about than jewelry.

Ok, what about bullets? Yes, you would think they might be a good medium of exchange, at least until they are all used up or the guns break or rust. But bullets will not be a universal currency — only those with the right type of guns that utilize the type of bullets you happen to have will be interested in bartering with you. And once you’ve given them the bullets for their gun… well, how long will they let you keep the stuff they just gave you for the bullets? Maybe this will work if you have more and better guns than they do. But the odds are against being able to get the stuff you want with bullets, unless you put the bullets in your own gun, thence to rob and/or kill, which brings up more fundamental issues than dystopian economics…

Returning to the subject at hand, let’s look at other possible media of exchange. How about coffee? Soon to become rare, coming all the way from Central and South America, and valuable as a stimulant. Say, speaking of stimulants, might as well throw some of that Columbian marching powder on the back of the donkey or in the hold of the sailboat as you bring it north…

Hmmm. Sailboat — now there’s an idea — a boat that can carry heavy loads from place to place without fossil fuel. Might be handy to have.

But since not everyone will acquire a sailboat — or a donkey — just in case the world might come to an end, let’s bring this down to a more basic level. How about band-aids and antiseptic ointment? Aspirin? Chapsticks? These are small and inexpensive items, easy to stockpile, that just about everyone will want once the world comes to an end, since there will be a lot of headaches, infections and chapped lips. Two chapsticks for a chicken? Well, alright, I’ll make it three.

In
image
We Trust.
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Nebraska

A new film, Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendants), features Bruce Dern with a supporting cast of eminently watchable characters, including Bob Odenkirk and Stacey Keach.

Dern portrays Woody Grant, an irascible old guy with borderline dementia who lives in Billings, Montana, and receives a sweepstakes letter from a magazine publisher announcing he has WON a million dollars!

His car keys having been taken away by his serpent-tongued wife and two grown sons, he decides to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his winnings. There are several false starts, in which one or the other of the boys collar him as he ambles alongside the highway in a southeasterly direction. Finally, the younger son agrees to drive him to Lincoln, to prove to him that the letter is a scam.

Nebraska -- Click Here for Reviews

And so the adventure begins — a road trip across the Great Plains, a boy and his dad, with many stops and adventures along the way, particularly in Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne, where things get complicated with his brother, nephews, old flames and a former business partner, when they learn, mistakenly, that Woody is now a millionaire.

Like most good movies, this one is fundamenally about relationships and growth of character. And it is shot in black and white, with stunning photography of the big sky and barren plains, the broken-down old towns and farm houses, and the worn faces of the people who inhabit these places.

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What Is Myron Reading?

For the past several weeks, I’ve been immersed in the novels of Nelson DeMille, having gotten started upon the recommendation of a friend. Mr. DeMille, a best-selling author, is a true craftsman. So far, I’ve devoured Plum Island, The Lion’s Game and its sequel, The Lion, plus his latest, The Panther (all centered around one of his major characters, John Corey). I’m now in the midst of The Gatehouse.

Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

What makes his novels so readable? First of all, many of them have a strong sense of place, being centered in and around Long Island, New York, an area of the country which DeMIlle knows well — he grew up and lives there. So there is a huge amount of engaging historical and geographical detail. True, the most recent John Corey novel, The Panther, take us to Yemen, but even there DeMille gives us a detailed and engaging background.

Secondly, at least in the novels I’ve read so far, DeMille writes in the first person singular. So we are in the central character’s head, looking out at the world. This gives us a dual level reality; that is, what our protagonist actually says and observes, in juxtaposition to what he thinks and imagines. And what he thinks is generally phrased in sarcastic and humorous one-liners, the kind of zingers we’d all like to spout, but don’t — this makes for an entertaining read.

Next, DeMille writes very well. His prose is tight and descriptive. Ok, I agree that his latest, The Panther, may not be his best — a few too many pages covering a bit less action than we’d like, and he could have placed more emphasis on the unusual twist towards the end, when we learn who our hero’s true adversaries are, but it is still a good read. And the guy has written so much for so long, maybe we can kick back with him on this most recent. Remember the movie The General’s Daughter, with John Travolta, James Cromwell and Madeline Stowe? That was based on a DeMille novel of the same name.

Lastly, DeMille just writes and writes and writes — you could fill a bookshelf with his work, and it ain’t easy to maintain his level of dedication and focus over decades. Reminds me of advice I received as a young man, aspiring to write, from an older mentor: the art of writing is fundamentally the practice of applying the backside to the seat of the chair!

If you want to get started reading DeMille, I would recommend Plum Island or The Lion’s Game, early in the John Corey sequence. Words of warning: these may be stories that appeal mainly to guys, since the protagonists are manly men (yes, I meant ‘manly’, not ‘mainly’) who aren’t afraid of Islamic terrorists, guns, knives, alcohol, bloodshed or political incorrectness; and for some, such as myself, they may become addictive.

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I Am A Donut

Now that I have been back in the U.S. for several weeks, after a month of travel in Europe, particular experiences stand out. For example, as we cruised the River Elbe from Prague to Berlin, our riverboat guide, Stephanie — a tall, young, red-headed Germanic woman – got a good laugh when she informed us that President Kennedy, in his famous speech at the Berlin Wall, had actually declared himself to be a donut. She explained that a Berliner is a popular German pastry, essentially a jelly donut, thus when Kennedy proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner”, he was actually saying “I am a jelly donut.”

I Am A Jelly Donut

And since we are currently absorbed in remembering JFK as we approach the 50th anniversary of his assassination, this matter of the jelly donut is timely and thought-provoking.

Anyway, Snopes.com, which is a useful touchstone for fact-checking stuff that floats through the internet (much of which turns out to be drek), lightens the stigma of Kennedy’s potentially silly and embarrassing words. Yes, “Ich bin ein Berliner” could be taken to mean “I am a jelly donut” – it would be a correct literal meaning – but it would be like hearing someone say “I am a New Yorker” and taking this to mean they are a glossy magazine of the same name. We could focus on the magazine interpretation if we were being silly, or perhaps stupid. But we would more likely understand that the person meant they were from New York.

Contemporary language studies inevitably lead back to Ludwig Wittgenstein, and we can find comfort here in Meister Ludwig’s definition of meaning, i.e. “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” So we should be able to tell from the context what JFK meant.

Irony and humor often depend on twisting words into misrepresentation or confusion of meaning — “Haha did he really say he was a jelly donut…?” One of my favorite twisters is “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.” Or, if you are old enough to know who Groucho Marx was (hint: he did not write Das Kapital), you might remember him saying “While in Africa, I shot an elephant in my pajamas — how an elephant got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”

[BTW, the historic origins of Stephanie’s red-headed gene pool might make a good future blog topic. Stay tuned.]

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Trabi Safari in Berlin

So I’m walking down the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin, on my way from a visit to the cutting-edge Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, toward the Brandenburg Gate, when I see all these weird little cars in a parking lot behind bars, some painted strange colors and patterns, like zebra stripes, and all with the words “Trabi Safari” on the side. WTF?

Trabi Behind Bars -- Click To Enlarge

So I walk on and do my tourist thing — the Gate, the Reichstag, the Museum Island — until I’m sitting weary at sidewalk café table, and what comes around the corner but the Trabi Safari!

And after much Googling, I learn that the Trabi (nickname for “Trabant”) is a crappy little car that was produced in East Germany under the Commie regime. It took years to get one, and then its weenie two-stroke engine smoked and stank, one of the worst cars ever produced. East German joke: “What’s the best feature of a Trabant? There’s a heater at the back to keep your hands warm when you’re pushing it.”

But now it’s kinda cute, a piece of pre-reunification nostalgia. And you can see Berlin while driving your own Trabi, if you just sign up for the Trabi Safari!

Trabi Safari -- Click To Enlarge

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Myron In Prague — Kafkaesque?

Kafka Memorial -- Click To EnlargeFranz Kafka is perhaps Prague’s best known author. He died of tuberculosis in 1924, but his three sisters lived long enough to perish in the Holocaust. Here is a photo of the bronze monument dedicated to him, on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, as enigmatic as Kafka himself.
In one of his novels, a man awakens in the morning to find he has been transformed into a giant cockroach; in another, Josef K. is accused of, and punished for, a crime which is never revealed, neither to the reader nor to Josef, even though he resolutely flails his way through a maze of incomprehensible court proceedings; and in yet another novel, the narrator, K., arrives in a village governed by a mysterious bureaucracy operating from a nearby castle, the purpose of which is never explained nor understood.
The Dancing House -- Click To Enlarge

And so Prague today is a city of resplendent architecture, block after block of Baroque, Art Deco, Cubist, Modern and Post-Modern buildings — like “The Dancing House”, shown here — full of color and decoration above, but tainted at street level by massive graffiti as well as the scourge of contemporary signage and commerce.

For example, the Charles Bridge and its approaches, historical gems, are polluted with trinket shops, pizza parlors, “museums” of medieval torture, street buskers, panhandlers, pickpockets, caricature artists and a never-ending flood of tourists. Kafkaesque? Yes. But like plucky Josef K., we must keep moving forward to focus on the beauty above and not be baffled by the Byzantine hub-bub around us.

Shouldna Parked There -- Click To Enlarge

Oh, by the way, don’t even think about parking illegally — you won’t just get a ticket, but a lift truck will arrive with lights flashing and in a few moments your car will be plucked out of the street, placed on the back of the truck and whisked away, no doubt disappearing into some bureaucratic hellhole of which Franz Kafka himself might have conceived.

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Myron In Paris

The transatlantic flight arrives at Charles de Gaulle airport at 8:30 a.m. Groggy and jet-lagged, I wait interminably for my suitcase at one of the most inefficient luggage carousels known to Man, vision obscured by the many other passengers crowding and craning in their attempt to see past each other and glimpse their valued belongings. Finally, my bag comes, blissfully intact.

Next, there is the shuttle to the train which will take me into Paris, but the shuttle is a mistake, wandering for half an hour into and through distant corners of the airport property, until I arrive at the station and realize that an easy five minute walk would have brought me to the same place.

The attempt to buy train tickets at the automatic kiosk which will not accept my credit card fails and is followed by a long wait in line to purchase the necessary billet from an attendant who gives directions to the proper train in rapid, incomprehensible French, so I end up on the local, rather than the express, and bump from one filthy station to the next through the post-apocalyptic neighborhoods which rim the northern approach to central Paris, among rag-tag local passengers whose hands, touching the same bars, poles and handles which I must grasp, have been God-knows-where…
Myron In Paris -- Click To Enlarge
Need anything be said about the search for the taxi queue at the Gare du Nord, and the long, anxiety-filled wait? When my taxi comes, will it be the sleek new Mercedes, or the dirty and disreputable aged Peugot?

But ultimately there is arrival at the hotel, check-in, deposit of luggage, escape into the freedom of the streets and… Voila! It is, after all, Paris! Ca va bien — all goes well. How can it be any better than this?

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You Are So Beautiful

A very close friend died last week. She had courageously battled cancer for over ten years. Her husband, also a dear friend, asked me to perform a special song, which had been meaningful to them in their marriage, at her memorial service. However, I will be out of country at that time, so I have offered to record the song for him, voice and guitar. I’ve been practicing for the past few days, and have a recording session scheduled tomorrow.

The song is You Are So Beautiful To Me, originally written by Dennis Wilson, Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher, and recorded by Preston. It was popularized by Joe Cocker. You may remember Joe Cocker and the Grease Band from the ‘60s, or the 1970s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour with Leon Russell… Or not.

If you haven’t heard the 21st century Joe Cocker perform this song, you might want to give a listen. Here is a Youtube video (sorry, there may be ads you’ll need to skip):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpgY5S3AcSw.

joe_cocker

Anyway, I didn’t know the song before I was asked to perform it. Listening, learning and getting up to speed to record it has put me back in touch with the raw emotion that flows out of Joe Cocker, and given me a deeper feeling for my departed friend and her grieving husband. What else can I say? For me, the song says it all.

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