Jan 2008

An alternative

I was reading an article and stumbled across the phrase “a $1.5 trillion war in Iraq”. One and a half trillion dollars, in essence, pissed down the drain. And very little to show for it except a shitload of murder and mayhem.

It struck me that in terms of cold dollars alone, that spectacular blunder has pretty much caught up with Dubya’s $1.6 trillion tax-cut (implemented a few months prior to September 2001 and now a forgotten, minor footnote in a dire presidency).

But lately I’ve also been reading a bit about the US sub-prime credit crisis that’s been giving the global economy a serious kicking. It turns out everyone’s in a tizz about a 600-800 billion dollar hole in a total housing debt of 1.9 trillion.

You see where this is going, don’t you?

I may as well make it explicit… while it’s throwing trillions around, why doesn’t the US government declare a Housing-Debt Amnesty? How about this… the treasury pays 100,000 dollars off every single mortgage*. No means testing, no favouritism, just a flat payment. For most low-income homeowners (i.e. the ones currently defaulting in large numbers), 100k will cover the entire loan leaving them outright owners of their property. For everyone else, it’ll ease the burden. What a gift to the poor homeowners of America! The president who did that would end up on Mount Rushmore.

I’m sure a passing capitalist can explain why it’s a bad idea.

Incidentally, I’m well aware that the really poor people aren’t homeowners at all, and this doesn’t help them. I’m not suggesting this is a solution to poverty. I’m just suggesting it’s a better way to spend a trillion and a half dollars than blowing up another country, or tax breaks for the wealthy. Oh, and before you complain about banks getting paid public funds… I’m making a value judgement here: it’s better to give public money to banks in return for houses for poor citizens, than to give public money to Blackwater in return for killing foreigners.

* Number plucked out of the air. Clearly if such a policy were undertaken, we’d do a bit more maths first.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2008

I'm not spamming you

Just a quickie. I’d like to assure anyone who may have received some junk email over the past 24 hours claiming to be from a numero57.net email address, that it has nothing to do with me. I’ve just received a large number of ‘bounced’ messages (the subject line was “JANUARY 75% OFF”) and a cursory glance would suggest that they were sent from ‘web’ at ‘numero57.net’.

However, this is misleading. A closer examination of the header details of the spam emails reveals that they actually originate from an ‘telecomitalia.it’ address, but the “from” address has been spoofed to read mine.

To the best of my knowledge, there’s really not much I can do about this, folks. I’m sorry that you’re getting spammed, but I simply can’t prevent an anonymous stranger (possibly in Italy, though even that’s probably a zombie machine) from typing my address into the “from” field of his software.

Goddamn spammers!

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Jan 2008

Organ donation, grief and a question of tone

I may be wrong here, but I’m fairly certain that an historic first was recently marked. Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, actually made a half-decent proposal. I believe it’s his first since taking office, but I’m open to correction on that.

I’m afraid he didn’t surrender himself to the International Court of Human Rights for his involvement in the illegal invasion of Iraq. No, what he did was a little less dramatic, but a good idea all the same; he backed a radical change in the way organ donation works in the UK.

As it stands now, and this is the case in Ireland too, a person must place their name on the organ donation registry if their organs are to be eligible for use in transplant surgery post mortem. Brown appears to be pushing towards a system of “presumed consent” whereby your organs are automatically considered available unless you place your name on an “opt-out” registry, or unless your next of kin lodges an objection at the time of your death.

This is a great idea. Over the course of a decade it will save ten thousand people from a painful and premature death and will relieve the suffering of more than a hundred thousand others. In my view, Gordon Brown should be strongly supported on this issue (at the very least, wait until he’s talking about something else before you throw those eggs). It represents a positive step for British society and, like one or two other social policies which have been running successfully for years in the Netherlands, should really be adopted here in Ireland and elsewhere around the world.

Naturally, there are those who object. And seeing as how I’m usually on the side of the objectors when it comes to the plans of British Prime Ministers, I’m willing to listen to those objections and see if maybe there’s something I’ve missed. There doesn’t appear to be.

The Libertarian Position

What we do have is an incoherent libertarian position regarding ownership of the body. By “presuming consent”, the state is essentially asserting ownership of a person’s body; an assertion that must be denied. I believe that’s the essence of the libertarian objection, though I’m willing to be corrected on that should a libertarian pass through.

The trouble is, the objection is based upon two fundamental misconceptions.

The first is that ownership extends beyond death. It clearly doesn’t. Upon death, all ownership is transferred. It’s called “inheritance” and we’ve developed all manner of complicated rules by which it occurs. While a person is alive, I believe they should indeed be considered the “owner” of their body (in whatever sense that might mean in this context). This is one of the reasons I feel, for example, that drug prohibition should be opposed, though that’s a subject most right-wing libertarians find it politically expedient to ignore. But once a person is dead…? Well, it is simply not possible for a dead person to own anything. Not even their own body.

The people who are considered legal owners of the body, one supposes, are the next of kin. And rather conveniently, the policy proposes to leave the decision in their hands. They may insist that the body remain intact if that is what they wish. This right is not removed, the next of kin may still assert absolute “ownership” if they choose. And the opt-out registry, just like a will, provides a legal facility to those who may not trust their next of kin (for instance). The libertarian argument is bunk.

And that’s without getting to the second fundamental misconception. Which is, that “the state” is taking ownership of the organs. It’s not. At least, not in any sense that matters. But because “the state” is the big bad wolf of libertarianism, it tends to be crowbarred into a lot of arguments where it doesn’t really belong. It’s a symbol of evil. A rallying point. As such, the emotional power it carries as a symbol is worth deploying even when it lessens the coherence of the argument.

All the same, that’s exactly what it does.

The state is not asserting any ownership at all. It is merely setting the rules by which ownership is transferred. By passing laws, it acts as arbitrator, just as it does in all cases where inheritance laws are complied with.

What I do concede is that right now, the shortage of suitable organs means that a selection process must be undertaken, and in that sense the organs are “allocated” by the state (or a state agency). A side-benefit of this new policy, however, would be to eliminate even that element of “state” intervention. Essentially it would have the practical effect of further liberating the transplant process from politics. You’d imagine that’s the kind of thing that would surely be applauded by libertarians.

Different voices

A successful organ transplant can, in essence, take an organ that was otherwise destined to rot in the ground and instead use it to give life to a dying person. This is about as uncontroversially positive a thing as I can think of. Sure, we can get all abstract about the demographic dangers of medical advancement, and we can question the cost:benefit ratio of transplants as compared with other medical programmes. We can do those things. But when all’s said and done, transplant cases usually boil down to taking an individual whose daily life is characterised by significant physical pain; and relieving them of that pain.

I mean, it’s just your basic Good Thing, and if we can afford it but aren’t doing it because of a shortage of organs, then we need to change that immediately. A system of presumed consent in tandem with the aforementioned opt-outs would be a simple, effective and socially just method of achieving this.

What has frustrated me a little about the debate on this issue, however, hasn’t been the libertarian objection. Instead it’s been the tone of some of those who actually support the policy change. “Living people matter. When you’re dead, you’re dead” was probably the worst offender (unsurprisingly it came from the rather silly, and mystifyingly well-regarded by some, Polly Toynbee) but even the good guys got in on the action as Justin illustrates in “Monkeys and the organ minder“.

Both articles are guilty of one of the cardinal sins of social policy debate. And they’re symptomatic of a wider trend on this issue. They propose (or in this case, support) a policy without giving any real thought to the impact of the policy on those directly affected. Indeed, they go so far as to caricature and trivialise them. I find this problematic.

We’re dealing here with a significant shift in social policy that will have an impact on two groups of people. Firstly and most obviously, those in need of transplanted organs. The policy is essentially (and rightfully so) tailored to them and is primarily aimed at serving their interests. However the second group of people who will be routinely and significantly affected by this policy is the recently bereaved. This is problematic because we’re talking about a group of people who will be under great stress and prone to irrationality. People who are potentially experiencing the worst trauma of their life. We need to place a sensitivity to this fact right at the core of our thinking on this issue. And those who fail to do this are, to be honest, speaking in a voice unpleasant to my ears.

The Psychoanalytic Position

In 1917 Sigmund Freud published Mourning and Melancholia (it can be found in Volume 14 of the Complete Works). It’s a landmark paper and represents the culmination of two years working towards an understanding of grief and depression (to use modern terminology). Despite its age, however, I contest that it is as good an explanation of the grieving process as exists…

It is also well worth notice that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment. We rely on its being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful.
In what, now, does the work which mourning performs consist? I do not think there is anything far-fetched in presenting it in the following way. Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. This demand arouses understandable opposition — it is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis. Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it. Why this compromise by which the command of reality is carried out piecemeal should be so extraordinarily painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of economics. It is remarkable that this painful unpleasure is taken as a matter of course by us. The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.

Sigmund Freud | Mourning and Melancholia

We can quibble about the details and about the terminology (I take a much more Jungian view of libido, for instance, than many psychoanalysts) but ultimately it’s a pretty damn accurate description of the grieving process, as I feel certain anyone who has gone through it will attest. We deny the death. Initially it may be quite overt… “No, you’ve got that wrong. I don’t believe you!” even though we have no reason in the world to doubt the news we’ve been given. Usually that overt denial passes quite rapidly. In Freud’s words, “respect for reality gains the day”. Beyond that, it can take a long time to ‘carry out the work of mourning’. Our unconscious may be filled with memories of the deceased, and each one requires re-evaluation based on this new information. Much of this is indeed unconscious, but plenty of it isn’t. We experience it as dreams of the person, and as a tendency to “think about them” a lot in the immediate aftermath of their death. Notably, as time passes, those thoughts become less painful.

This is how we grieve, and any social policy designed to deal with grieving people needs to take it into account. If it doesn’t, then it runs the risk of being a monstrous attack on the vulnerable. What’s vital to take away from this account of the grieving process is that there is a very real period during which a recently bereaved person will overtly deny the death. In most people it lasts mere seconds… long enough to say “I don’t believe it…” then Bang! it hits you. But in others it can drag on. This isn’t a choice they make, and it doesn’t make them ‘perverse’ or ‘weird’ in the words of one commentator. It’s how grief works in some people. Polly Toynbee talks about the forces of superstition and reaction and about overcoming them with the “spirit of enlightenment”. What? Overcoming human grief? What’s next? A war on terror?

The point is that a grieving person may well suffer a total failure in reality-testing. This happens often enough that we consider it a natural reaction to bereavement, albeit at the extreme end of such reactions. Such people may — and often do — fixate upon the integrity of the body and insist that the dead person will soon awaken. This period may continue beyond the time at which organ harvest becomes impossible. And an attempt to interfere with this process could well be needlessly* traumatic for the already traumatised person.

Now, nobody is suggesting that these people be deprived of the right to “opt-out”. I’m not trying to build a straw man here. I’m merely suggesting that those who speak in tones close to contempt about the irrational behaviour of the recently bereaved are failing to demonstrate the sort of basic compassion that should inform any discussion of social policy in this area.

* I say “needlessly” because it bears mentioning that a system which presumes consent will see the total number of available organs rise dramatically, thereby lessening the impact of each individual opt-out.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2008

Farewell Facebook

I’ve just deactivated my Facebook account. To be honest, I’m surprised it took me so long. Within days of signing up to the site, I’d set my junkmail filter to treat it as a spammer. Not an auspicious beginning. Somebody’s vampire attacked somebody else’s lieutenant zombie. And did I want to help in a fight between some people? Apparently I had a free “atomic punch” to offer. For a dollar I could send some bad clip-art to someone.

But the death knell was sounded late last year when I received an email from my new friend, Bono. Sending mass emails isn’t Bono’s style. At least that’s what the first line of his mass email said. But he was just so excited about his new song that he had to tell all his “friends”. I was his friend, you see. I’d used some facebook music-tracking widget, and then I’d played some U2. This made me Bono’s friend. Well, it made me his friend insofar as he treats his friends to mass emails about his new records. Something tells me our friendship doesn’t extend much beyond a marketer/marketed-at relationship. I probably can’t count on Bono if I need someone to help carry boxes next time I move house, for instance.

Anyways, I turned off all the various notifications and asked the site to stop emailing me. I disabled all the widgets and I upped the privacy settings. But then I found myself worried in case people were actually trying to contact me (about something other than facebook widgetry) and I’d be effectively ignoring them as I was automatically junking messages from the site.

By chance I intercepted an email from facebook before it got shredded as junk last night. It would have been a shame to have missed it. But I just can’t be dealing with the volume of complete nonsense generated by that site. It struck me that I’d much rather such messages didn’t get sent, than got sent and ignored. So I deactivated my account with immediate effect. My atomic punch forever unused.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Jan 2008

Oil companies and Climate Change

UPDATE 20-03-2008: A significant error has been revealed in a section of the following post (relating to the amount of CO2 that would have been captured by BP’s Miller Field CCS project). For details of this error, please read the correction / apology: Oil companies and Climate Change Redux. For the calculation estimating the quantity of CO2 emitted by a single barrel of oil, please see: Carbon dioxide emissions per barrel of crude.

This article, therefore, remains as merely a cautionary example about placing too much faith in published figures, and should be disregarded.

Merrick‘s writing an article about the use of hydrogen as fuel (sneak preview: he’s not uncritical of the idea. Update: here’s that article.) and encountered this particular proposal by BP. Now, while the project won’t be going ahead, the proposal itself makes fascinating reading. The basic idea goes something like this…

Instead of building a new Natural Gas power station, BP proposed to build a two-stage plant. Stage 1 would extract the hydrogen from the Natural Gas. Stage 2 would burn the hydrogen to generate electricity. The only emission from burning hydrogen is pure water. Notch one up for the fight against Climate Change, and drinks are on me! BP go so far as to claim this process results in 90% less CO2 emissions than through burning the Natural Gas directly. Which by any standards is pretty damn impressive.

Except. Well… except it’s not really. Because if you step back to Stage 1 of the process, it turns out that extracting hydrogen from Natural Gas leaves you with large amounts of waste, in the form of… you guessed it… CO2 gas. Makes you start wondering what the hell Stage 1 is actually achieving, right? But hey, chill out, all is not lost. Rather than release this CO2 into the atmosphere (which would make the whole hydrogen extraction process singularly pointless) BP instead proposed to capture it. They’d simply pump it into one of their old oil wells that was entering decline, and Bob’s your rather expensive, but nonetheless low-carbon, uncle.

You know what? As a way to reduce the carbon emissions of a Natural Gas power station, that’s really not a bad idea. The electricity produced would be a good deal more expensive (that hydrogen extraction process doesn’t come for free, energetically speaking, and nor does compressing and pumping CO2 deep underground) but it would be far less of a contributor to Climate Change. Based on the planned capacity and lifetime of the plant proposed by BP, there’d be 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 captured that would otherwise have been emitted as a result of burning Natural Gas.

I’ll go on record and state that in principle this is an interesting way to exploit Natural Gas if you are committed to using Gas in the first place*. And if that were the end of the story, this would be an article praising an oil company for getting something right. Which are few and far between in this neck of the woods.

Think like an Oil Company

But that’s not the end of the story. So I’m afraid my praise shan’t be forthcoming. BP have added a little kicker to sweeten the deal for themselves. In what is — and I say this without hyperbole — one of the most astonishing examples of Orwellian doublethink in corporate literature, this kicker appears under the heading “Industrial-scale decarbonized fuels project”:

… the carbon dioxide would be transported by an existing pipeline and injected for enhanced oil recovery and long-term geological storage in the Miller Field. Injecting the carbon dioxide into the Miller Field reservoir more than three kilometers under the seabed could extend the life of the field by about 20 years and enable additional production of about 40 million barrels of oil that are not currently recoverable.

When operational, it is planned that DF1 will create 350 megawatts of carbon-free electricity, enough to power a quarter of a million homes in the UK. The project would also permanently store 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of removing 300,000 cars from the roads.

See that? The way they just slipped it in there? In return for the 1.3 million tonnes of carbon captured, they’re getting to extract 40 million barrels of oil that would otherwise have remained underground and consequently in very little danger of being converted to atmospheric CO2. Suddenly this isn’t looking like such a great deal for the environment after all. But let’s not be too hasty, how much atmospheric CO2 will be produced from 40 million barrels of oil? If it’s less than 1.3 million tonnes, then we can perhaps, albeit grudgingly, still accept the proposal as better than just burning the Natural Gas. After all, it’s not like we really expected an oil company to be doing something for the greater good. If we’re honest with ourselves, we were always looking for the ulterior motive even as we hoped against hope that it might not be there this time.

So, all that’s left is to find out how much CO2 would get emitted by 40 million barrels of oil, and we’ll know just how much this industrial-scale decarbonized fuels project is benefiting the fight against Climate Change.

It was at this point that Merrick emailed me with the question, “how much CO2 gets emitted when we consume a barrel of oil?” And it got me thinking…

How much carbon per barrel?

I’m afraid there’s no precise answer. No simple formula.

Crude oil is (almost) never used directly. Instead it’s refined into all manner of interesting chemicals, most of which we burn in various engines, but some of which never get converted into CO2 (lubricant oils, plastics, asphalt, etc.). Different grades of crude oil will produce significantly different amounts of each. So a barrel of light / sweet crude might produce lots of petrol and kerosene but only a small amount of asphalt (as a very simple example). But a barrel of heavy / sour crude would produce more asphalt (still less than the amount of petrol produced, but more in comparison with the sweeter oil). This means that, ironically, less of the heavier and more sulphuric stuff, although it’s called sour (and sometimes “dirty”) oil tends to end up as atmospheric CO2 (we coat our roads with it instead).

While we could, no doubt, work out a figure for the CO2 emitted by burning a given barrel of crude oil, it would be very much a red-herring as it almost never happens. To get any meaningful figure for CO2 emitted per barrel we’re going to need to do our calculations on the products of crude oil.

First up, let’s be clear that this is real back-of-the-fag-packet stuff and I welcome input and corrections to this calculation. That said, let’s see if we can’t get some kind of number.

The oil being discussed here is from a North Sea field, so I’m going to assume that it is at least average quality (i.e. we’re not talking about some kind of heavy sulphuric sludge or tar-sand here). Taking Riegel’s Handbook of Industrial Chemistry as our guide, we know that the average barrel (~159 litres) of crude oil to pass through U.S. refineries in 1995** yielded the following products…

1. Gasoline: 44.1% (70.12 litres)
2. Distillate fuel oil: 20.8% (33.07 litres)
3. Kerosene-type jet fuel: 9.3% (14.79 litres)
4. Residual fuel oil: 5.2% (8.27 litres)***

Percentage values from Riegel’s Handbook of Industrial Chemistry, 2003 edition (Page 515, Fig. 15.6). Litre values based upon conversion rate of 159 litres per barrel.

I’m going to be very charitable to the BP project and assume that none of the other products**** will end up as atmospheric CO2. They all have sufficient alternative uses to make this possible even if not 100% plausible. Of the four grades of fuel listed above, however, it’s fair to say all of it is destined to be burnt.

The litre values are no good to us by themselves. Each of the fuels has a different specific gravity (a different weight per litre), and it’s the weight of carbon we’re looking for, not the volume. Once we’ve multiplied the volume of each fuel by it’s specific gravity we’ll have a rough “kilogram per barrel” number for each fuel.

1. Gasoline: 70.12 litres x 0.74 = 51.89kg
2. Distillate fuel oil: 33.07 litres x 0.88 = 29.10kg
3. Kerosene-type jet fuel: 14.79 litres x 0.82 = 12.13kg
4. Residual fuel oil: 8.27 litres x 0.92 = 7.61kg*****

Overall, this suggests that the average barrel of crude refined in the United States in 1995 yielded a shade over 100kg of liquid fuels (that’s an uncannily round number… 100.73kg to be exact). Now, we know that a carbon-based fuel will emit 3.15 times its own weight in CO2 when burnt (Source: Calculating the Environmental Impact of Aviation Emissions, Oxford University Study, PDF file). This may seem anti-intuitive at first glance, but it’s a result of each atom of carbon reacting with two atoms of oxygen to produce CO2. The “extra” weight is being drawn from the air (hence why a fuel fire will die out if deprived of oxygen).

Using the 3.15 multiplier, we see that the combined liquid fuels from an average barrel of crude oil will produce roughly 317kg of CO2 when consumed. This means that 40 million barrels will produce 12,680,000,000kg. Or 12.68 million tonnes of CO2. That’s almost ten times the 1.3 million tonnes BP said would be captured.

As an attempt to reduce atmospheric CO2, it’s utterly risible. And describing it as an “industrial-scale decarbonized fuels project” is surely against some kind of trades-description legislation.

Even if this were the lowest grade North Sea crude imaginable, I’m confident that it would be producing at least 75% of the liquid fuels cited in the above “average” barrel. And if it’s higher than average quality, they might even get an extra 10%. So to be absolutely fair, we should calculate a likely range depending upon the crude. Take the 12.68 million tonnes figure, first reduce it by a quarter to get the potential minimum (9.51 million tonnes of CO2). Second increase it by 10% for the potential maximum (13.95 million tonnes of CO2).

9.51 to 13.95 million tonnes of CO2. That’s certainly a wide range, and it can’t be narrowed without knowing the specifics of the oil in question. But even the lowest number is far higher than the 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 that would have been sequestered by the project.

I’m hardly the first person to do the maths on this; surely it’s occurred to somebody at BP already. Surely they’re aware that describing the project as an “industrial-scale decarbonized fuels project” is, in every sense that actually matters, a bare-faced lie. That at a minimum, the extra oil gained in the project would emit over 7 times the CO2 as was captured.

In May 2007 BP cancelled the plan, citing governmental delays in approving the project and in providing adequate incentives. The Miller oil field is reaching the end of its life, and they needed the CO2 in a hurry to extend it. The capturing of 1.3 million tonnes of carbon was never a goal in itself; it was merely a way to falsely paint the project as a way to combat Climate Change. In doing so, BP would then be in a position to drain public money ear-marked for just that purpose (in the form of planning short-cuts, tax-relief and whatever else can be clawed from the pot to incentivise investment in carbon-reduction technologies).

Let’s be very clear about this. BP attempted to dupe the public into backing a project on the basis that it would combat Climate Change, despite (surely!) being well aware that in reality it would demonstrably increase emissions. That’s about as low, as craven… as anti-human as it’s possible to get. And while that may well be normal behaviour for a corporation, we’re complete fools if we consider it acceptable.

* It goes without saying that given the natural resources available to us in this part of the world, all investment in new generating capacity should be in wind and sea.

** I don’t have more recent numbers, but there’s no reason to assume 1995 wasn’t a representative year.

*** 1: automobile grade fuel. 2: includes home heating oil and transportation diesel. 4: industrial grade fuel oils; used in ships and oil-burning power plants.

**** Still gas, coke, asphalt, road oil, petrochemical feed stocks, lubricants, etc.

***** Specific gravities taken from this list. The value of 0.92 is an educated guess for what is a mixture of heavy oils with a range of specific gravities. I will gladly accept correction if someone can point me towards a more accurate number.

UPDATE (16:10): The original date for the cancellation of the project was given as February 2007. In fact it was May 2007. The second-last paragraph has been updated to reflect this. Also, the final two paragraphs were substantially rewritten at the same time. The phrasing was pretty clumsy first time round.
UPDATE (22-01-2008): Although the project proposed by BP for the Miller Field in the North Sea has been cancelled, the principle is clearly an attractive one to oil companies. The government of Abu Dhabi appears to be contemplating just such a scheme, though on an even larger scale. This line from the BBC article made me smile: “The CO2 can be pumped underground, either simply to store it away permanently or as a way of extracting more oil from existing wells, using the high-pressure gas to force more of the black gold to the surface.” Hmmm… is anyone really dumb enough to believe the third largest oil producer in the Gulf won’t use the captured carbon as a tool to extract more oil? So, given what we know from the above calculation, Richard Black, the BBC’s Environment Correspondent, is dangerously wrong when he introduces carbon sequestration as a “technolog[y] likely to be important in a low-carbon future”.

12 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2008

Accentuate the Positive

I’ve just been tagged with a blog meme by Justin from his temporary home on blogspot. It’s a simple enough premise… list seven things of which you are in favour. And no tricksy inverting of negatives… no “I’m in favour of George Bush being [insert something nasty]”… after all, that’s just a way of saying what you’re against. This meme’s a sort of “let’s get those positivie vibes flowing in 2008” kind of thing. If I didn’t already know better, I’d have suspected that it was designed by a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist (that’ll be funny to about three people, to the rest of you; “sorry”).

Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts.– Buddha

So yeah, in no particular order, here’s seven positives about the world in which I find myself today. I am in favour of…

  1. My course. I’m digging it.
  2. The Wire. Best thing on TV right now. Maybe ever. Though the jury’s out on that.
  3. West Cork. Just generally.
  4. Hot showers. When I think of things I’d miss most in a world gripped by an energy crisis, long hot showers rank high on the list.
  5. Dolphins. I’m very much in favour of dolphins.
  6. Smoking a little pot and watching a Marx Brothers film. Laughing ’til you cry is a good idea now and then.
  7. Kindness, compassion and basic decency. Sorry to go all hippy here on you at the end, but what can you do?

I’m now supposed to tag a bunch of other bloggers. Have at it, if you fancy it, Gyrus, Rachel, Zoe, L, Merrick, Rochenko and David (on the off chance).

3 comments  |  Posted in: Blog meme

Jan 2008

Three links

Get Your War On. The first and the last are classics. The ones in between are merely excellent. Link via the Chicken Backup.

Culture Club. David Byrne muses on the nature of culture. Half unanswered questions, half insightful commentary. I like his style.

Also from David Byrne, his Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists — and Megastars from Wired magazine.

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Jan 2008

I’m Not There

Over the past few years I’ve begun to notice more and more Dylan infiltrating my musical world. Unlike many music geeks, I’ve never had a “Dylan phase”. Nonetheless, I’ve always appreciated and respected him as a great artist. His music may not have grabbed hold of me, but it grabbed hold of a lot of people whose taste I respected. And although for many years I owned no Dylan records, it wasn’t for quite the same reason that I owned nothing by Rod Stewart or Elton John.

I'm Not There

Unsurprisingly then, as the years wore on, I found myself acquiring the occasional Bob Dylan album, while my collection remained mercifully free of Stewart and John.

So despite never having that Dylan phase, I’ve finally got to the point where I’d call myself a fan. In fact, there’s a recording of Tangled Up In Blue on The Bootleg Series that’s become one of my favourite songs by any artist. In a certain mood, it can send a shiver down my spine and make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. When music has such a deep and direct emotional… even biological… impact, then you know you’re listening to something special.

I was intrigued then, when I started to hear about I’m Not There, the recent and highly acclaimed cinematic biography of Dylan. But the more I heard, the more sceptical I became. As a fan of Dylan’s music who knows almost nothing whatsoever about the man (or even, strangely enough, the myth of the man), I was actually quite interested in the idea of learning a bit about his life and the events that shaped his music. As quickly became clear however, I’m Not There was unlikely to be the film to satisfy that desire.

A biopic?

I think it’s important to point this out. I’m Not There is not a biopic. Or rather, it may be a biopic but you’d already have to have read a biography or seen another biopic in order to work that out. It would be difficult to say with any certainty that I now know more about Bob Dylan’s life than I did before. And the little I did know can be condensed into a single paragraph…

He started out as a traditional folk singer covering the songs of Woody Guthrie (a depression-era folk singer about whom I know even less than a single paragraph). He then started to write his own lyrics and became a folk music legend. He introduced The Beatles to pot in the early sixties and hung out with them occasionally in London (I did have a “Beatles phase”) where he also spent some time with Allen Ginsberg. He picked up an electric guitar and got called “Judas” by the folk scene. Nonetheless he became increasingly successful, but like most people who become living legends was fairly troubled by the experience. He turned to religion, and got into Jesus in a very big way for a while. Latterly he has settled down to tour and make a bunch of albums that inevitably could never have the impact of the earlier ones that created the legend in the first place.

To be honest, I’d hesitate to add anything to that paragraph despite having watched a two and a quarter hour film about the man’s life. And I think that’s kind of weird.

But of course, it can be argued (and I have no doubt that Todd Haynes, the writer and director of I’m Not There, would do so) that the film fundamentally isn’t a traditional biography. It is quite clearly not attempting to tell the Bob Dylan story in a traditional, linear, literal sense and so it’s unfair to criticise it for failing to do so.

And here’s the thing; I accept that. I understand what Haynes was trying to do, and he has to a great extent succeeded. We’re deep into the review and this is the first time I’m saying this, but let it be said; I’m Not There is a masterpiece. It is one of the most beautiful, compelling and perfectly constructed films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s got a magical, hyperreal quality to it that reminded me a lot of David Byrne’s underrated True Stories in places and Woody Allen’s underrated Stardust Memories in others. It is a magnificent piece of cinema and I’d urge all of my readers to check it out, whether or not they are fans of Bob Dylan.

It’s a masterpiece. But it’s a flawed masterpiece. Because when I’m watching a truly great film, the last thing I want is to be dragged out of that immersion in another world towards the nagging questions of my own mind. And I just couldn’t prevent myself from wondering which events were close to being direct representations of scenes from Dylan’s life and which were metaphors. The film tells the story metaphorically, but clearly strays further from literal reality in some places than in others, and the part of me that was hoping to learn something new about Bob Dylan insisted on wondering which was which.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m well aware that’s not the right way to view such a poetic and dreamlike film; but I’d argue that for fans of Dylan’s music who know nothing about his life, it’s damn near unavoidable. Did he really say that in a Press Conference? Or are they the Dylanesque words of a screenwriter? Did he ever spend time travelling America in box-cars? Clearly he didn’t do it as an eleven year-old black kid, but are those scenes entirely a metaphor for his early fixation with Guthrie, or are they also illustrative of a real period in Dylan’s evolution?

And while Haynes might argue that the point is that the young Dylan’s heart and mind were living a hobo’s life… that it doesn’t matter precisely how literal or metaphorical the scenes are… in reality that’s simply not quite true. A young man travelling from town to town, earning his meals playing folk music, is having a fundamentally different set of experiences to a young man who — feeling trapped and suffocated by suburbia — escapes to the open road in dream and fantasy.

The Players

As well as the dreamlike / metaphorical style of the film, I’m Not There is also known for the creative casting. The different stages of Dylan’s life are portrayed by different actors. So Marcus Carl Franklin is an 11-year-old hobo called Woody Guthrie. Christian Bale is “Jack Rollins”, a legendary folk singer who retires from the public eye to become an evangelical preacher. Heath Ledger is a famous actor who plays Jack Rollins in a biopic and whose personal and family life is torn to shreds by fame and public adulation. Richard Gere is “Billy The Kid”; the older Dylan, a fugitive from his own legend. Ben Whishaw is “Arthur Rimbaud” who declaims to camera in scenes which may have had a significance I didn’t grasp (did Dylan really face persecution as a leftist in his early days? Or is that a metaphor for how he felt he was being viewed and treated by mainstream America?) And last but far from least, Cate Blanchett plays “Jude Quinn”, the legendary folk singer who picks up an electric guitar.

Paradoxically, Blanchett manages to be the second great flaw in I’m Not There despite turning in the best performance (one worthy of all the acclaim it has received). She is utterly hypnotic when she’s on the screen and overshadows five other fantastic actors. But if anything, she is too good. Partly the quality of the make-up, but mostly the quality of her acting, meant that I found myself — again and again — involuntarily thinking “I really can’t believe that’s Cate Blanchett! She’s just incredible!” And of course, few things are as likely to burst that bubble of cinematic immersion, than repeatedly being reminded of the actor in the role. Which is a shame. Superficially, perhaps if she hadn’t looked so much like Dylan, it would have been easier to accept her…? I don’t know. As it was, she was the best actor in the film, but she was also the one who most exposed the film as a film, rather than an unfolding dream.

Beyond The Flaws

A flawed masterpiece is still a masterpiece. And I’m Not There is the kind of film that only comes around every handful of years. It stands head and shoulders above everything else released last year (though I say that without having seen the new Coen Brothers movie yet) and if you’ve not seen it, then I urge you to. The flaws are certainly there, but despite having spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about them here, they never overshadow the film as a whole. This is a truly great piece of cinema and if you go in expecting “near perfection” as opposed to “absolute perfection”, you won’t be disappointed.

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Jan 2008

Here Comes The Green Gang

Sometime in the 1980s there was a flurry of concern regarding the ozone layer. I’m sure most of my readers will recall… it became the central environmental issue for a time, and the acronym ‘CFC’ entered the common vocabulary almost overnight. I remember hearing the (in all possibility, apocryphal) tale of a crazy religious woman in America who was spending a fortune on hairspray and standing on her lawn all day emptying can after can of the stuff into the air. She sought to hasten armageddon and, one supposes, her ascension into heaven. And she decided the best way to do this was to destroy the ozone layer.

It’s an image that stuck with me. A few years later I worked it into a short story (unpublished) about the public reaction to news of a genuine and demonstrable impending apocalypse. The story drew from a whole bunch of sources (most prominently, the Ziggy Stardust album) and opened with a newsreader weeping as he informed his viewers that the levels of CFCs in the atmosphere had reached a tipping point, and the outer atmosphere had begun to irreversibly burn away. That within five years, solar radiation will have rendered the entire surface of the planet uninhabitable.

The crazy religious woman, surrounded by a small mountain of empty aerosols, and generating her own toxic micro-climate, is one of the people we meet as the vengeance-fixated hero guides us through a world that is dealing with the fact of its own impending demise. One of his encounters is with a lynch-mob. A group of about five hundred people on their way to the local university. Their mission is to string up, or burn at the stake, any environmentalists they can lay their hands on. The hero watches from a distance as the college burns. And as he does so, I seem to recall he quotes Camus and pontificates on the subject of human absurdity. Poor guy had the misfortune of being written by a philosophy undergraduate.

I was reminded of that old short story by a couple of pieces in the news recently. No, the crazy lady with the aerosols hasn’t returned (though I wonder what she’s up to these days? assuming she ever existed). But it looks like the lynch-mobs might be on their way. “Blame the greens when the lights go off“, says Nick Cohen in The Guardian. And David King, the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser for the past seven years, insists that “Greens are hurting the Climate Change fight“.

Quoting Orwell would be just too damn obvious at this point, so I’ll forego it and get straight to the name-calling.

Both Cohen and King claim that the only way to successfully combat Climate Change is to actively encourage economic growth.

Apparently we need to consume our way out of this problem. Fucking. Idiots.

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Jan 2008

Three random videos

I’m just testing out the ability to embed YouTube videos in my blogposts (everyone else seems to be doing it after all). None of these are very long, but they’re all worth watching in their own way. Nothing unites them aside from being in my YouTube “favourites”. First up is David Lynch’s great iPhone subvertisement…

I’ve pointed people towards this one quite recently, but it bears repeat viewing, I give you: Pitch ‘n’ Putt with Beckett ‘n’ Joyce… all fecund in its nuttiness.

And last but not least, as mentioned in the previous post, I’m quite digging the music of Los Campesinos! at the moment. Here’s their latest song… Death to Los Campesinos! They’re playing The Village in Dublin on February 11th. I’m told they’re good live.


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