Daily Office:
Wednesday, 10 November 2010


¶ James Fallows tackles coal, here and in China, as only James Fallows can. (The Atlantic; via The Morning News)

What would progress on coal entail? The proposals are variations on two approaches: ways to capture carbon dioxide before it can escape into the air and ways to reduce the carbon dioxide that coal produces when burned. In “post-combustion” systems, the coal is burned normally, but then chemical or physical processes separate carbon dioxide from the plume of hot flue gas that comes out of the smokestack. Once “captured” as a relatively pure stream of carbon dioxide, this part of the exhaust is pressurized into liquid form and then sold or stored. Refitting an existing coal plant can be very costly. “It’s like trying to remodel your home into a mansion,” a coal-plant manager told me in Beijing. “It’s more expensive, and it’s never quite right.” Apart from research projects, only two relatively small coal-fired power plants now operate in America with post-combustion capture.

Designing a capture system into a plant from the start is cheaper than doing refits. But even then the “parasitic load” of energy required to treat, compress, and otherwise handle the separated stream of carbon dioxide can come to 30 percent or more of the total output of a coal-fired power plant—so even more coal must be burned (and mined and shipped) to produce the same supply of electricity. Without mandatory emission limits or carbon prices, burning coal more cleanly is inevitably more expensive than simply burning coal the old way. “When people like me look for funding for carbon capture, the financial community asks, ‘Why should we do that now?’” an executive of a major American electric utility told me. “If there were a price on carbon”—a tax on carbon-dioxide emissions—“you could plug in, say, a loss of $30 to $50 per ton, and build a business case.”

“Pre-combustion” systems are fundamentally more efficient. In them, the coal is treated chemically to produce a flammable gas with lower carbon content than untreated coal. This means less carbon dioxide going up the smokestack to be separated and stored.

Either way, pre- or post-, the final step in dealing with carbon is “sequestration”—doing something with the carbon dioxide that has been isolated at such cost and effort, so it doesn’t just escape into the air. Carbon dioxide has a surprisingly large number of small-scale commercial uses, starting with adding the sparkle to carbonated soft drinks. (This is not a big help on the climate front, since the carbon dioxide is “sequestered” only until you pop open the bottle’s top.) All larger-scale, longer-term proposals for storing carbon involve injecting it deep underground, into porous rock that will trap it indefinitely. In the right geological circumstances, the captured carbon dioxide can even be used for “enhanced oil recovery,” forcing oil out of the porous rock into which it is introduced and up into wells.


¶ Attending the third Avignon Forum, John Thakara is put in mind of the popes and cardinals who once held sway there — and their blithe hypocrisy. For example: the holy principle of copyright protection.

A desire to use culture for social control is not unique to the digital age. The connection between culture and money goes back even further.

I was impressed at this point by the candor of the man from Ernst&Young. His slides featured the “ME Industries” — and I had thought it was just me who believed that modern media fosters mass narcissism. Then I realized that ME was shorthand for Media and Entertainment industries and that no disrespect was intended. On the contrary, the man from E&Y was on a serious quest: “Monetizing digital media and culture: creating value that consumers will buy.”

Monetization, or its lack, was a sensitive issue for this gathering. Digital is proving a mixed blessing. It was not a surprise that the issue of piracy soon took central stage. From the European Commisisoner down, a panoply of popes waxed righteous about the necessity for artists to be paid fairly for their creativity. Any crumbs left over from the cultural cake could be divided among the publishers, they added humbly — but the Rights of the Artist were paramount.

Mind you, those crumbs soon add up. Pope Philippe Dauman of Viacom, for example, was paid about $34 million in 2009. Mr Dauman’s “compensation” is roughly 3,000 times more than what most of my artist friends are paid. It’s fully 48,000 times more than is available to “Bottom of the Pyramid” types — among whose number, in my experience, the most vibrant culture and creativity is often to be found.

But pah! to the politics of envy. These vulgar details commanded little attention in Avignon. The popes and their cardinals spoke as one: copyright protection is a matter of principle, not profit.


¶ A leading Japanese economist, Noriko Hama, plays the child’s part in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes — where the dollar is the emperor, or in monetary terms, a currency with no backing. (Japan Times; via Naked Capitalism)

When you say the dollar should have lost its value “a long time ago,” when exactly was that?

I can pinpoint the timing exactly, and that was Aug. 15, 1971.

So long ago?

Yes, because that was the day of the so-called Nixon shock. Until that day, the U.S. dollar could be converted to gold. So anyone who took dollars to the United States could have them exchanged for gold. But on that day, the U.S. declared that it could no longer keep that promise. From that point on, the dollar ceased to be an international, key currency in the world. So from that perspective, the dollar could have fallen to a level that matched the strength of the U.S. economy. But everyone has treated the dollar in the same way they cajoled the emperor in (Hans Christian Andersen’s story) “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

After the Nixon shock there was the Plaza Accord of 1985 (when representatives of the U.S., Japanese, British, French and German goverments — meeting at the Plaza Hotel in New York — agreed to depreciate the dollar by intervening in currency markets), followed by Black Monday (Oct. 19, 1987, when stock prices plummeted in New York and elsewhere). Then came the Asian currency crisis of the late 1990s and the Lehman Brothers shock of 2008. Through all these events, the dollar has shown us what a dangerous currency it is, losing its clout step by step. And now we are in the final stage of the dollar’s demise.

From 1947 till 1971, the dollar established itself as a key currency, and from Aug. 15, 1971, we have been witnessing a long, long epic drama about the dollar’s end — and we are at the beginning of its climax.


¶ Ed Yong reviews what looks like the much-needed contemporary re-writing of John Greene’s The Death of Adam: Written in Stone, by Brian Switek The role of the fossil record in the evolution of evolutionary theory is crucial, and all smart people ought to be familiar with the onlines of this story. (Not Exactly Rocket Science)

But Written in Stone is really a book about two kinds of fossils. Switek doesn’t just consider bodies entombed in rock; he also digs up fossil ideas. Through quotations and historical anecdotes, Switek unearths the intermediate hypotheses that illustrate how our knowledge has itself evolved. Some of these past ideas are fanciful and seemingly absurd (birds evolving from flippered dinosaurs, anyone?) but they greatly enrich what could have been a textbook account of the fossil record.

Switek tell the stories of the men and women who influenced the way we think, with figures like Lyell, Owen, Darwin and Koch looming larger than life. He tells us not just about the discoveries but the way they were discovered, from the 17th century to the present day. And I do mean present; the book is remarkably up-to-date and even includes findings about dinosaur colours and Neanderthals that were published earlier this year.


¶ “Secret optimist” Chris Lehmann marks the recent , first-time upholding of a pre-nuptial agreement by a British panel of judges. “Purple” is too common a word for his account of the Radmacher case; we’ll go with “magenta.” (The Awl)

The only trouble is that the wife-favoring British system may soon be a receding mirage, thanks to a surpassingly odd recent case in which the English high court upheld a prenup drawn up by a German chemical heiress named Katrin Radmacher prior to marrying a French investment banker named Nicolas Granatino. In the buck-passing tradition of French investment bankers everywhere, Granatino claimed that Radmacher concealed the true scale of her family’s £106 million family fortune, and had exploited his “besotted” romantic state (in the classy locution of his attorney) to rush him into a pre-nup that shorted him out of his true stake in their now-sundered union. Radmacher’s legal team countered that it was something shy of a romantic you-and-me-against-the-world gesture for Granatino to promptly quit his day job after his marriage to work as science researcher at Oxford University and loll around his wife’s £2.5 million estate. He clearly had a pretty good idea that he was in the hands of a flush provider—and what’s more, the Radmacher attorneys noted, he was in line for a £30 million inheritance himself once his own parents, a proud pair of French tax exiles, were dispatched to their own earthly reward.

All in all, one can quickly size up the Radmacher case as a piece without heroes. But when the British Supreme Court upheld the pre-nup in an 8-1 ruling, family law specialists began to worry that ushering Mayfair’s financial moguls into the pre-nup age could mark a distinct step backwards in the cause of gender equality. The court’s sole dissenting vote came from its only female member, a family law specialist who is also—of course—a baroness, named Lady Hale. If the Radmacher precedent stands (which, by the way, the change-averse panel tried to guard against by characterizing the ruling as a one-off), it could open up “some profound questions about the nature of marriage in modern law and the role of courts in determining it.” Some far-seeing opulent lovebirds might well elect “to contract out of the guiding principles of equality and non-discrimination within marriage; others may think this a retrograde step likely only to benefit the strong at the expense of the weak.”


¶ Hürriyet reporter Mustafa Akyol persuasively argues that the Turkish government is not in any meaningful (menacing) way an “Islamist” one. (Daily Star; via Real Clear World)

The point here is that the AKP is not arguing for the abolition of secularism. It only argues for a more liberal interpretation of secularism. Erdogan has publicly stated that the AKP “prefers the American model over the French model.”

But besides all these legal issues, there really is a big transformation in Turkey on the societal level: the socio-economic rise of the religious conservatives who for decades were the underclass or rural poor. The change began with their migration to big cities and then the rise of “Muslim Calvinists,” as a Western think-tank called them. These are religiously conservative but economically entrepreneurial businessmen who have successfully engaged in regional and global markets. The AKP is more the result of this new middle class than its cause, though it is further enhancing its ascendance now by using the power of the state in their favor (nepotism is a well-established Turkish tradition).

In other words, the AKP is not imposing Sharia on Turkey, but it is helping conservative Muslims to be more influential in public life. The secularists are shocked by this change, which they see as the end of the good-old hyper-secular Turkey. But the ideological Islamists are shocked, too, for they think that their fellow Muslims are becoming too pragmatic and worldly. And that is perhaps where the most interesting part of the story lies.


¶ The uncollected stories of J D Salinger — published only once, in magazines — are notorious for tempting vandals to cut them out with razors. Emily Darrell writes about “A Girl I Used to Know,” a story that did appear in a book, The Best American Stories of 1949, but that suffered the fate of the uncollected. It took her a while to find an intact copy of the anthology. Good for her! (The Millions)

Evidence suggests that Salinger chose to safeguard these stories not because he doubted their quality, but out of spite towards both the world of publishing and the world at large. Several of these “Uncollected Stories” (as they are officially known by Salinger-philes to distinguish them from the “Unpublished Stories,” the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of stories that Salinger may or may not have written in the final five-plus decades of his life) deal directly with the war, and a few, like “A Girl I Knew” are thought to be autobiographical.

Though I didn’t feel like breaking the law in pursuit of some ramshackle, Xeroxed copy of the “Uncollected Stories,” I saw no moral dilemma in tracking down an un-butchered copy of The Best American Short Stories: 1949 where I could find “A Girl I Knew.”

I made a trip to the Richmond, Virginia public library, which at first revealed another TBASS: 1949 in which “A Girl I Knew” had been ever-so-carefully razored out. But after sending a recalcitrant librarian to the basement to retrieve yet another copy of the anthology – which had been apparently been gathering dust since about 1950 – I was able to read the story. I wasn’t sorry that I’d gone to the trouble.

While a few of the selections in Nine Stories had seemed a bit flat to me (“Teddy” and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” come to mind) I found “A Girl I Knew” to be positively brimming with humor, pathos, and romance. It managed, in a mere 12 pages, to make me both laugh out loud and to cry.


¶ How Vikram Akula learned how to help the poor. (Hint: academic education not required — nor even particularly useful.) (GOOD)

But once I was living in the field (literally) I started to understand what Biksham meant. In India there were many examples of projects intended to help the poor that often only backfired. There were government subsidized loans for the poor to buy high-milk-yielding buffaloes—but the buffaloes couldn’t handle drought conditions and died. A project that touted capital-intensive agriculture led to a drop in water tables that caused communities to suffer.
The longer I spent in the field, the clearer it became that the people who knew the most about helping the poor were the poor themselves. It struck me that the poor were seldom asked what they actually needed. This idea was vividly captured in a book I read at that time called “Rural Development: Putting the Last First” by Robert Chambers, a development scholar at the Institute for Development Studies in England. NGO executives and bureaucrats have limited direct engagement with poor people. They get information from large survey questionnaires or brief visits to villages. Their top-down approach to rural poverty meant they got incomplete information and ended up designing inadequate programs that sometimes proved harmful. In reality, poor people themselves are actually far more knowledgeable about their situations than outsiders, and they also have ideas about how to improve things.

By living and working in a village I saw the poor knew far more than I did. I realized that we couldn’t help the poor.

Have a Look

¶ The Roman Army Knife. (Wired)


¶ Well, well: Alex Ross got his start in college radio.