Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Hypothetical Debate

Image result for gasoline pump

Suppose it was your assignment, dear reader, to set up a debate for some conference about "Crude Oil Consumption in the United States."

Your debate, as part of that conference, would have to involve two reputable figures, two distinct points of view on that subject, and one proposition, on which your speakers would take respectively a "pro" and a "con" position.

What kind of speakers might you look for, and what kind of proposition could best express the opposition you'd be trying to bring out?

There are lots of approaches one might take of course....four occur to me.

1. Resolved: that in five years, the consumption of crude oil, per capita, will be greater than at present.

2. ... that in five years, the consumption of crude oil, overall, will be greater than at present.

3. ...that in five years, much of what is now accomplished through burning crude oil, or other carbon fuels, will be accomplished by alternative means.

4. ... that in five years, the inflation adjusted prices of crude oil and of its chemical derivatives, (gasoline, fuel oil, etc.) will be lower than they are at present.

Any of these might work to set up a fascinating debate, looking at different aspects of the question.

Why focus on the five year time horizon? Because that is a convenient proxy for the difference between talk of an upcoming tipping-point and talking in very speculative terms of flying cars and jet packs in the world of Tomorrowland.

Since the point is to set up a hypothetical pro/con debate, I'm indifferent as to whether the valence of any question is reversed. For example, "greater" could be changed to "lesser" in each of the first two questions, to turn the "pro" side into the "con" side. For the third question "only a little" might be substituted for "much" to the same effect.  Doesn't matter. These seem likely to be fruitful axes of debate.

I'd be very happy to hear comments from my faithful readers, and perhaps other questions in resolution format.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Random thoughts on a movie and some South American miners

A movie on the Chilean mine cave-in and on the successful rescue of all 33 of the trapped miners after they had spent three months in a small room 2,300 feet underground, might not have sounded to some Hollywood moguls like the most likely prospect for a big hit.

Yes, it sounds like a compelling theme. But ... on the part of the endangered parties, there isn't a lot of action, after the early scene in which they're shown scrambling to get themselves to the safe room. After that, for them, it was waiting.

Here's a negative review of the movie that focuses on that point.

I enjoyed the movie more than Lizzie Plaugic did, but I see her point.

There was a fun subtheme about "the Bolivian." Most of the miners were local guys, Chileans. There was the one Bolivean, and he came in for more than his share of ribbing. The two nationalities have a long rivalry. There's a nice exchange between him and a fellow miner who thinks all Boliveans are natural thieves.

The Bolivian snaps, "Chile stole this land from us in 1881. So who are the thieves?"

Chilean responds, "Eighty eighty-one was  [shrugs] 1881."

Seldom has a tautology sounded more world-weary.

Anyway, the exchange inspired me to do a bit of convoluted research (i.e. I let my fingers type my way to a couple of relevant wikipedia articles.) The conflict in question was known as the "War of the Pacific" and it lasted from 1879 to 1883. The dialogue in question presumably referred to an incident within that war, a war that involved not only Chile and Bolivia but Peru and Argentina as well.

The map above is from a depiction of the major land campaign in that conflict.

As to the movie: how's it doing at the box office? Not so well, I understand. It earned $5.85 million on its first weekend. LOVE THE COOPERS got $8.4 million on the same weekend. Neither of them got James Bond style earnings. The latest entry from that franchise, SPECTRE, got $70 million in box office in its first weekend out of the gate.

Well, THE 33 might yet do well on the overseas showings -- as from the various countries that were involved in the Pacific War. As a sentimentalist, I hope it does. The miners involved never received any compensation. I'm hoping they have some share of the movie revenue rights on their story!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Submission, by Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq's new book, SUBMISSION, seems to have caused a good deal of stir in France, and is now producing much the same effect in the United States.

Houellebecq is a well-known novelist, although as is surely the case with many important people, places, things, and ideas this is the first mention of him in this or any of my blogs. His previous novels include WHATEVER (1994), THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES (1998), PLATFORM (2001), and THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY (2010).

THE ELEMENTARY PARTICLES, or in French "Les Particules élémentaires," was first translated into English for the UK market as ATOMISED, then re-translated for the US market with the more literal translation of the title I've provided here.  It may have been his most successful novel thus far.

The new book, though, concerns Islam. At least on its face. It postulates a near future in which an Islamicist political party wins a French national election and forms a government.  Given contemporary politics in both Europe and the Middle East, this was a premise bound to kick up a fuss. 

Laurent Joffrin, the editor of Libération, has said that the publication of this book marks "the date in history when the ideas of the far right made a grand return to serious French literature.” The left regards any contemplation of an Islamicist take-over in France as akin to, say the argument that Dreyfus really was a traitor and got what he deserved.

But as I said above the new book only "on its face" concerns Islam.  The reviewer for The Guardian sees it as a satire on contemporary France, secularist, sclerotic, exhausted, waiting to be overwhelmed by some sort of tidal novelty. Perhaps Islamism is simply a literary artifice akin to the Persianness of the voice in Montesquieu's Persian Letters.

Marco Rich, who reviewed the novel (not very favorably, but without animus) in Harper's in October, observed that the Islamicization of France in Houllebecq's scenaro seemed to amount to making France a satellite of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which itself is an Islam of "mundane compromise," not the militant faith of ISIS or the Taliban.

Herein is my usual confession: I haven't read the book, and don't plan to. This blog entry should be considered merely a non-judgmental observation of one of the passing fancies of the world around me.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mildred Pierce: A Thanksgiving Thought

Image result for mildred pierce hbo cast

On my mind today is Mildred Pierce, a 1941 novel by James Cain, set in the ten years leading up to the date of publication.

No, I didn't just refer to the movie star best known for playing Sonny Corleone. That's James Caan. I'm thinking now of the   novelist James Cain, born in 1892. Although his reputation is in eclipse now, he was quite well known for a time as a writer of "hardboiiled" crime fiction, a peer of Chandler or Hammett. Cain wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice., both memorably adapted into classic Hollywood films. Mildred Pierce was somewhat different, an effort at offering a naturalistic portrait of southern California suburbia.

Anyway, Mildred Pierce was also made into a movie in 1945, and became a television miniseries in 2011.

The title character has two daughters: Veda (11 years old when the story begins in 1931) and her little sister Ray (7 years). The photo above is of Veda, as portrayed by actress Morgan Turner in an HBO miniseries.

The following two-word sentence is not much of a spoiler, by the way, because it happens quite early in the plot, and sets up the rest: Ray dies.

Indeed, that's why I'm thinking of the book right now. Thanksgiving as currently practiced in the US has a lot to do with the sentimentalization of the nuclear family, and Mildred Pierce has a lot, in turn, to do with that.

Pierce kills off Ray because she is the kind of beloved-and-vulnerable little girl who is brought into literary existence precisely in order to be bumped off. She is Beth from Little Women, or Dickens' Little Nell, or so many others.

And the scene reminds me also of something Oscar Wilde said, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Contemporary Numerology

A recent book by David von Leib (a pseudonym for Barclay von Leib), discusses Von Leib's long career as a derivatives trader.

Along the way, the author has much to say about Martin Armstrong, a market guru prominent in the 1990s, when he chaired "Princeton Economics International" and wrote a widely-followed newsletter.

For no good reason (though he appears to believe the practice gives him some legal immunity) von Leib gives to many of the figures in his memoir slightly fictionalized names. Accordingly, he refers to Martin Armstrong as Marty Amwell.

At any rate, here is a numerological process that, in von Leib's telling, led Armstrong/Amwell to some of his business-cycle hypotheses.

Marty thought that there were too many coincidences here not to view the pyramid of Giza as a mathematical treasure chest from history of some sort -- a gift from the heavens perhaps -- something left over from some ancient -- potentially alien -- civilization.

Marty also considered that the number 72 might stem from the cosmological concept of 'precession- -- alternatively known as the wobble of the earth on its axis, This wobble ever so slowly changes the point where the sun appears each day in relation to the 12 constellations of the Zodiac. The wobble specifically causes a minute one-degree shift every 72 years. ... The ever so slow processional slippage meant that each constellation on the horizon houses the sun at each solstice/equinox point for 2,160 years (360 degrees/12 zodiac signs = 30 x 72 years = 2,160 years), and all twelve of the constellations move past the four key solstices/equinoxes in a total of 25,920 years (360x 72) ... yes, a number coincidentally ever so close to the circumference of the earth in miles...Marty knew that it was time to do some computer modeling.

Wow.  Pass the doobie dude.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Don't Mess Around With Jim

I've been thinking about the Jim Croce song, "Don't Mess Around With Jim." SPOILER ALERT: If you don't know the song, and want to be surprised by the final verse thereof should you someday listen to it, don't read further.

It's a song about what is sometimes nowadays called "micro-history." Micro-history is a term for scholarly inquiries into a narrow slice of space and time, a specific and localized event, and usually not one that strikes a non-professional reader as the obvious concern of History with the capital "H."

So, for example, a careful study of a miller brought to trial by the Inquisition for heretical views in the 16th century became a micro-historical classic. This is in part because the narrow slice of time and space involved, but also because the miller at the heart of the story  was an ordinary fellow, not an aristocrat, diplomat, judge.

And that brings us back to Jim Croce. The song tells the tale of a conflict between Jim and Slim. It is set in the narrator's present time, and in the midtown neighborhood in Manhattan. Uptown got its hustlers, downtown got its bums ... 42d Street got Jim Walker, a pool shooting son of a gun.

With verbal economy, the lyrics establish a certain gray-lit world in midtown where Jim ruled as a not-so-benevolent micro-despot. "When the bad folks get together at night/ You know they all call big Jim boss."

Anyway, after establishing this, the lyrics tell the story of the overthrow of Jim's despotism by virtue of the arrival of a pool-shooting boy named Willie McCoy, known as Slim.

The story can be taken either of two ways. If you -- like me, like Carlyle, like James -- see history micro or macro, as a stage of unpredictable human initiative, you can see Slim's victory in that pool hall as an instance of the decisive consequences of an individual's idiosyncrasies for a changed world.
But if you -- like Spencer, like Pete Townshend -- think the flow of events is determined by iron laws, that individuals essentially execute something none of us can legislate -- then you will focus on the likelihood that Slim and Jim were essentially indistinguishable once the revolution was over., That "You don't mess around with Slim" sounds a lot like "You don't mess around with Jim," and it probably worked out much the same so long as impersonal 'conditions' in the poolhall and its neighborhood stayed the same.

Which view was Croce's? I leave to you.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Brains can fossilize

Image result for neurochemistry

Perhaps issues relating to neurochemistry are also integral to the zeitgeist of the early 21st century. We've got zombie movies all over big screens and small, of course. They begin with the premise that brains can be, well ... yummy. One wonders about the chemistry of that yumminess.

But, more seriously, it also turns out that neurochemistry allows for fossilization. This is not only a new discovery, it is one that has been acknowledged by a wide circle of scientists only after initial opposition.

Not much of a blog post, true. Just call this the "fleeting thought for the day."