Death of the Author, J.K. Rowling, Orson Scott Card, and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lindsay Ellis is generally worth listening to, but I especially liked this because the comparison she made between Rowling and Card hits home for me. It was shocking to learn about his political views and activities after reading Speaker for the Dead, and it took me some time to come to the conclusion that while he was alive, I could not, in good conscience, support him financially or socially.

This brings me to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Hamilton.

First, I want to be clear: based on what I know about Miranda, I do not think he belongs in the same category as Rowling and Card. He seems to have a general liberal desire for the world to get better, he’s on the right side on most things, and I’m aware of no bigotry on his part. That said, he has also not been and entirely benign and positive influence in the world specifically when it comes to Puerto Rico, and I think that’s worth paying attention to.

I like Hamilton. I really do. I love the music and the writing, and its ability to make me feel feelings. I also think it’s worth noting the hard work and skill of the many people who created that musical other than the author, and I don’t blame them for his actions any more than I blame the cast of the Harry Potter movies for Rowling’s bigotry.

Just as Miranda has used the wealth, power, and fame he got from Hamilton, and his earlier hit “In The Heights”, I think it’s important to use the spotlight that’s currently on him and his work to also highlight the ongoing damage of colonialism. This isn’t just to shame Miranda, or to get him to personally change how he thinks about and uses his power. It’s nearly certain that he will never read this blog post, though I hope he has read @lxzdanelly‘s twitter thread, and it would be nice if he would listen to his critics in Puerto Rico and change his behavior accordingly.

My purpose, in writing this, is to play some small part in using Hamilton to draw more attention to the situation in Puerto Rico, and the role Miranda has played in it. As we keep seeing, the problems of people with little wealth or power rarely make it into corporate news. The massive Black Lives Matter uprising in the United States hasn’t stopped, but with a decrease in showy property damage, and the media’s propensity to lose interest in ongoing events, the coverage has dropped off in a big way.

Puerto Rico got a lot of attention when it was hit by Hurricane Maria, but while those troubles, and the thousands of needless deaths continued, the attention paid to them by the United States, as a body, faded far too quickly.

It has also been noted – and bears repeating – that Hamilton tells a story about a chapter in American history, while making no mention whatsoever of the people indigenous to this continent, who were forced out their homes to “set the stage” for the events fictionalized in Miranda’s play. Reality is messy and complex, and it’s not possible to capture every nuance of history in a single work, but this is a glaring omission, particularly given the thought that went into the racial dynamics of how the story was told.

The problems faced by Puerto Ricans, and by Native Americans, are likely to continue for as long as neoliberalism holds sway in the United States and around the world. The path to a more just world is long, shifting, and hard to see at times, but raising awareness of perspectives and commentary like this twitter thread seems to be an important part of the process.

I can’t give a comprehensive list of places to learn about these issues, and I won’t try. There are some links to follow in this post, and you could do worse than checking out this article on neoliberalism and Puerto Rico from Solidarity.

While you’re checking things out, I highly recommend you listen to this Native America Calling episode from April of 2019 on socialism and capitalism.


And finally, I can’t afford not to make my regular plug for myself. If you want to support this blog, and my ability to keep a roof over my head and food on my plate, please consider signing up to be a patron at patreon.com/oceanoxia, at whatever rate you feel you can afford.

The Enemy of Old has taken the land, so I must garden in the sky

When I was a young warthog, I attended Waldorf Schools. One of the things required of me was the artistic decoration of the various essays I wrote. We were required to illuminate our work, in imitation of European monks copying religious texts. The exact details of these decorations were generally left up to the students. Sometimes it was faint drawings behind the text, sometimes it was color gradients around the edges, and sometimes it was doodles in the margins relevant to the nature of the essay.

What I didn’t do, really was spend much time studying the phenomenon of marginalia. For those of you who have, it’s likely that you’ve noticed a lot of snails. So. Many. Snails.

The image is a drawing from the margins of some medieval text. It depicts a knight in chain mail with a helmet and a shield, wielding a club. The knight is fighting a giant snail - slightly larger than himself. They are both a grassy lawn, with some sort of bush in the background, and a red-leafed tree nearby. It's possible that rather than the snail being huge, the knight is tiny. I can't tell.

Yea, slimy things did crawl on grass, and poke their eyes at me

There are snails fighting knights, snails minding their own business, even the occasional Divine Hoversnail with attendant worshipper:

The image shows a leafy branch extending sideways from the bottom of a large, decorative letter - possibly a T? Kneeling on the branch is a knight in full chain mail, with a tower shield behind him, and his sword stuck in the branch in front of him. His hands are held together in prayer. A snail, about the size of his torso, is hovering in front of him.

All Hail the Hoversnail

There are various theories as to why snails fill the borders of these texts, but having lived in Scotland for almost a year now, I have come to believe in one theory in particular.

Even to this day, the inhabitants of monasteries generally keep gardens. Over the centuries these have provided food and medicines for monks, as well as  occasional means for generating a little income to help meet the expenses of the monastery. This meant that the monks creating these marginalia likely spent a great deal of time maintaining gardens, and as any gardener knows, it’s an activity that will regularly bring you into contact with snails.

What I did not realize – what had not really sunk in – was just how many snails there are here.

There are a lot of snails here.

Like – a ridiculous amount of snails.

I let Raksha out three times a day usually, and we generally just go into the courtyard seen in the various pictures of her I’ve posted. Once the sun goes down, the snails come out.

The image shows a garden snail on grass. There's a daisy in the bottom left corner of the picture, closed up for the night. The snail has a brindled brown and tan shell, and dark pebbly skin. Its eyestalks are extended, actively searching around. It seems interested in the world around it.

An active, interested snail, scanning the world for more plants to eat or knights to fight.

 

Snail on gravel. This snail has a brindled brown and tan pattern on its shell, with the tip of the cone on its right side (left side of the picture) white. I can't tell if it had some sort of residue on it, or the shell is just white. Its eyestalks are extended, looking for something tastier than gravel.

This snail is in the barren desert section of the courtyard, crossing the harsh gravel desert to reach the bounty that is the lawn. Over the years, as the knights died out, the snail population boomed, no longer held back by their natural predators.

 

A snail on the brick walkway, moving along a line of moss between bricks. Its shell has the same pretty brown and tan pattern, and its pebbly dark gray skin has a white dotted line down the back of its neck starting between its eyes. The eye stalks are less extended than the others, but still looking around.

This snail is following a line of moss between the bricks of the walkway. With the downfall of the knights, the monks were left without protection from their ancient foes, leading to a long-running direct war between the Monastic Orders and the snails.

 

This image shows the lawn at the edge of the courtyard's gravel section. The grass is spotted with closed daisies and buttercups. There are 6 snails in an area of about one or two square meters

Here are 6 snails in a small patch of the lawn. Not stepping on them has been a challenge. No longer able to rely on the knights for protection, the monks had to take up the fight, leaving them with little time to illuminate manuscripts, which is why we no longer see many such works.

 

The image shows a turquoise window box attached to a sturdy railing over a parking area. The brown soil has several dwarf broad bean plants with white and black flowers.

Flowering dwarf broad beans in our window box The snail wars are secret, so it’s hard to know how they’re going. That said, I’ve seen many more snails than monks around here, so it’s safe to say the snails control this region.

 

The image shows three cans and a plastic container inside a turquoise window box. The containers contain soil and some chard and kale plants. The parking area below is visible in the background

We’re a little short on soil, so the greens are still in the containers we used for the seedlings. With the ground under the snails’ control, we’ve had to elevate our gardening. The window boxes are booked over a sturdy railing, and further secured with parachute cord. It might be overkill, but we don’t have to worry about them falling.

 

Image shows give cans with kale growing in them. The cans are in another turquoise window box, attached to the railing with hooks and parachute cord.

Our kale crop, still a bit stunted by lack of soil. We’ll be able to buy more soon, but in the meantime, they’re doing OK. The snails either don’t know, or are satisfied with controlling the ground.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. It will also help save my crops from the Molluscoid Menace. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Capitalism, global warming, and the fear of change

Years ago, when I was first learning about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I heard about strict limitations imposed on foreigners visiting that country. It wasn’t just about limiting what they said and did, but also what items they could bring in, cell phones in particular. The purpose of this was to control how the citizens of North Korea viewed the world and their role in it. A foundational dogma of the Kim dynasty was that North Korea was the most advanced nation in the world, and that while life wasn’t perfect there, it was better than anywhere else.

I’m sure not all North Koreans believe that, but the point was to have enough to send a clear message – change could lead to disaster. You think you have it bad now? Rock the boat and it’ll get worse for you. Some of that threat was from the government itself, of course, but at the same time there’s the idea that this leaky, dangerous boat with its brutal captain are all you’ve ever known, and the choice presented is not between that boat and a better one, but between that boat and no boat at all.

And when someone complains to much, the captain makes a big show of throwing that person overboard to remind everyone else that things can always get worse.

When news broke of the efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, there were a lot of people trying to work out what Putin’s interests might be in meddling in the American government. First, to be clear, America is a near-global empire, perhaps the first of its kind. Its military reach covers the whole planet through a massive air force, and a huge network of military bases. All of that power has gone not towards controlling territory, but rather towards ensuring the global economy is a capitalist one, as much as possible. That means that there’s a very real way in which the control and activities of the American government are a legitimate concern for everyone on the planet.

Setting that aside, one of the proposed motivations for Putin’s activities was very similar to that narrative I had heard about North Korea. Putin’s interest wasn’t in controlling America, though he’d doubtless be fine with expanding his power, but rather in convincing the Russian people that while his rule might not be everything they wanted, it was the best they could expect. No other system that might look better from the outside is stable enough to last. Having the United States operate in a way that directly benefited Putin would be nice, but more valuable than that was the chaos and decline in standard of living that would come from a Republican administration under Trump. Under that analysis, it didn’t matter whether Trump was fully controllable, or even that he always worked for the benefit of the Russian government. What mattered was that he continue to be divisive, chaotic, and corrosive to the United States and its allies, to provide evidence that the notion that America’s claimed democracy was so unstable that it wasn’t worth trying for.

Hearing this discussion about Putin, and linking it to what I had been told about North Korea, made me think more about the United States, and the narratives fed to us as citizens of that country. Various flavors of nationalism are ubiquitous. Slogans like “America #1” can be found everywhere, as can the claim that it’s the “greatest country in the world”, to the degree that it causes a bit of a scandal if anyone suggests that that’s not the case. When we talked about improving our healthcare system, we were told that what we had was already the best possible healthcare system, and given justifications for the downsides, and outright lies about what other countries had.

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Reminder: Ending fossil fuel use will cause a short-term increase in temperature as the air clears.

This came up in the comments on my post about the Arctic heat wave, and I think it merits further discussion.

Even ignoring the multiple feedback loops that are likely to see the planet’s warming continue long into the future, if we do everything right in terms of addressing climate change there will be severe warming in our lifetimes. This is not a new concern. Aerosol pollution played a role in the cooling period of the 1970s that climate deniers love to talk about, and after the environmental movement of that era succeeded in reducing air pollution, there was an increase in temperature that followed.

This is one of the reasons I consistently advocate for climate action that includes taking dramatic steps to prepare for a much warmer and more unpredictable world. If we had taken serious action to reduce energy consumption, develop renewable energy, and expand and improve nuclear energy in the 1970s and 1980s, we would have different options available to us today, but we missed that window. Returning to the “pre-industrial norm”, within our lifetimes, no longer seems to be an option. As I discussed in my geoengineering post, we have to learn how to responsibly use the collective power we’ve developed as a species if we want a livable world for future generations.

StevoR linked to this 2005 episode of BBC’s Horizon on global dimming and the overall effects of aerosol pollution on the climate:

The effect was first spotted by Gerry Stanhill, an English scientist working in Israel. Comparing Israeli sunlight records from the 1950s with current ones, Stanhill was astonished to find a large fall in solar radiation. “There was a staggering 22% drop in the sunlight, and that really amazed me,” he says.

Intrigued, he searched out records from all around the world, and found the same story almost everywhere he looked, with sunlight falling by 10% over the USA, nearly 30% in parts of the former Soviet Union, and even by 16% in parts of the British Isles. Although the effect varied greatly from place to place, overall the decline amounted to 1-2% globally per decade between the 1950s and the 1990s.

Gerry called the phenomenon global dimming, but his research, published in 2001, met with a sceptical response from other scientists. It was only recently, when his conclusions were confirmed by Australian scientists using a completely different method to estimate solar radiation, that climate scientists at last woke up to the reality of global dimming.

Dimming appears to be caused by air pollution. Burning coal, oil and wood, whether in cars, power stations or cooking fires, produces not only invisible carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas responsible for global warming) but also tiny airborne particles of soot, ash, sulphur compounds and other pollutants.

This visible air pollution reflects sunlight back into space, preventing it reaching the surface. But the pollution also changes the optical properties of clouds. Because the particles seed the formation of water droplets, polluted clouds contain a larger number of droplets than unpolluted clouds. Recent research shows that this makes them more reflective than they would otherwise be, again reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space.

Reducing CO2 emissions means reducing the production of these other forms of pollution. The global shutdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic showed us how dramatically a decrease in fossil fuel use can clear the air of visible pollution, and this will doubtless provide climate scientists with a wealth of data on what we can expect from the kind of rapid, permanent drop in fossil fuel use. Research published in 2019 indicated that climate scientists have been under-estimating the cooling effect of aerosol pollution:

To what extent do aerosols cool down our environment? To date, all estimates were unreliable because it was impossible to separate the effects of rising winds which create the clouds, from the effects of aerosols which determine their composition. Until now.

Rosenfeld and his colleague Yannian Zhu from the Meteorological Institute of Shaanxi Province in China developed a new method that uses satellite images to separately calculate the effect of vertical winds and aerosol cloud droplet numbers. They applied this methodology to low-lying cloud cover above the world’s oceans between the Equator and 40S. With this new method, Rosenfeld and his colleagues were able to more accurately calculate aerosols’ cooling effects on the Earth’s energy budget. And, they discovered that aerosols’ cooling effect is nearly twice higher than previously thought.

However, if this is true then how come the earth is getting warmer, not cooler? For all of the global attention on climate warming, aerosol pollution rates from vehicles, agriculture and power plants is still very high. For Rosenfeld, this discrepancy might point to an ever deeper and more troubling reality. “If the aerosols indeed cause a greater cooling effect than previously estimated, then the warming effect of the greenhouse gases has also been larger than we thought, enabling greenhouse gas emissions to overcome the cooling effect of aerosols and points to a greater amount of global warming than we previously thought,” he shared.

The fact that our planet is getting warmer even though aerosols are cooling it down at higher rates than previously thought brings us to a Catch-22 situation: Global efforts to improve air quality by developing cleaner fuels and burning less coal could end up harming our planet by reducing the number of aerosols in the atmosphere, and by doing so, diminishing aerosols’ cooling ability to offset global warming.

According to Rosenfeld, another hypothesis to explain why Earth is getting warmer even though aerosols have been cooling it down at an even a greater rate is a possible warming effect of aerosols when they lodge in deep clouds, meaning those 10 kilometers or more above the Earth. Israel’s Space Agency and France’s National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) have teamed up to develop new satellites that will be able to investigate this deep cloud phenomenon, with Professor Rosenfeld as its principal investigator.

Either way, the conclusion is the same. Our current global climate predictions do not correctly take into account the significant effects of aerosols on clouds on Earth’s overall energy balance. Further, Rosenfeld’s recalculations mean fellow scientists will have to rethink their global warming predictions — which currently predict a 1.5 to 4.5-degree Celsius temperature increase by the end of the 21st century — to provide us a more accurate diagnosis — and prognosis — of the Earth’s climate.

An erratum published a couple months later indicated that the degree of mis-calculation may not be as severe as Rosenfeld et al. initially stated, but their overall conclusion remains intact. The overall message remains the same as it has been – the problem of global warming has not been addressed in a manner that allows us to avoid serious consequences this century. That means an unprecedented refugee crisis, crop failures, heat waves, wildfires, and increasingly severe coastal flooding. These are all crises we are capable of dealing with. We have the technology and the understanding to help refugees, relocate or re-design coastal cities, and mage huge changes to global food production.

What we don’t have, currently, is a political and economic system that allows us to respond to the demands of our time. We cannot afford to have global production, distribution, and human movement to be dictated by and for the benefit of a tiny fraction of humanity. The drive for endless growth, and endless capital accumulation, even if we did have a more progressive system of taxation and wealth re-distribution, creates artificial scarcity, and prevents the development of a society that can be sustained in the long term.

This is not just an emergency created by our use of energy, it’s also rooted in the capitalist system that currently governs nearly all human activity on this planet. We need radical democracy in politics and in economies if we’re to have any hope of addressing our environmental crisis, and of saving humanity. We need it soon.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!