Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Negative Effect to Energy Efficiency Regulation?

A few days after a recent post in which I discussed issues surrounding government regulation of energy efficiency (Government Regulated Energy Efficiency and the Light Bulb), I read an interesting related article in The New Yorker magazine, by David Owen, The Efficiency Dilemma (December 20/27, 2010). 

In the article, Owen recalls the work of William Stanley Jevons, who published a book in 1865, “The Coal Question,” in which he argued that increasing the economy (efficiency) of the use of coal would not delay the exhaustion of England’s coal reserves, but would rather hasten it.  Jevons’ thesis, as Owen relates it, was that more efficient use of coal would lower the cost of whatever was being produced from coal, and so increase the demand for it, and so, ultimately, increase the use of coal.
If some technological advance made it possible for a blast furnace to produce iron with less coal, he wrote, then profits would rise, new investment in iron production would be attracted, and the price of iron would fall, thereby stimulating additional demand.  Eventually, he concluded, “the greater number of furnaces will more than make up for the diminished consumption of each.”
Owen goes on to present arguments of modern economists for and against the idea that ‘effort to improve energy efficiency can more than negate any environmental gains.’  He refers to a negative, ‘rebound’ effect, in which improved energy efficiency actually leads to greater overall use of energy.

There are two issues I have with Owen’s arguments.  One is general: I feel he makes the fallacy of false equivalency; he states at one point that ‘most economists and efficiency experts have come to’ the conclusion ‘that the Jevons paradox has limited applicability today,’ but, he dedicates half the article to an economist who argues that Jevons was correct and his theory applies to modern economies.

My second issue with the article is that Owen begins with Jevons’ original theory, which Jevons applied to production processes, and extends it to the product efficiency improvements being regulated by the government.  Many of the arguments Owen presents seem to confirm at first glance the thesis that efforts to improve energy efficiency can negate environmental gains, but don’t stand up under further investigation. 

Taken together, though Owen has written a thought-provoking article on the larger trade-offs of the push for energy efficiency, his article sensationalizes the ‘rebound effect’ beyond what can currently be supported by data, and so goes too far in calling into question the benefit of having the government regulate energy efficiency to reduce energy use.

Automobile Fuel-Economy Regulation

Automobile development and fuel economy regulation are one example where I would argue that Owen’s data don’t support his conclusions:  Owen states that ‘the first fuel-economy regulations for U.S. cars … in 1975 … were followed not by a steady decline in total U.S. motor-fuel consumption but  by a long-term rise, as well as by increases in horsepower, curb weight, vehicle miles traveled (up a hundred per cent since 1980), and car ownership.’  But look at this in more detail.  The plot below shows data from the site infoplease; the data is for ‘personal passenger vehicles, buses, and trucks.’  I have drawn in a dashed line for 1975, when the fuel-economy regulations were first introduced in the US.


 Looking more closely at Owen’s six claims, based on the data in the plot above:
  • The total U.S. motor fuel consumption has increased, but the increase is basically on the same rate of increase as was already occurring from 1960 to 1975; in fact, if anything, there was a period of time from the mid-1970’s to around 1990, when fuel consumption dipped slightly.
  • The vehicle miles traveled has increased, but the increase is again only slightly above the trend already established in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, before the fuel-economy regulations were introduced; as Owen reports, vehicle miles traveled were up 100% from 1980 to 2006, but, then, they were up 100% from 1960 to 1980, also.
  • Vehicle ownership is increasing, but it can be seen to roughly track the US population increase, and is on the trend already established well before the 1975 regulations were introduced.  (I assume Owen meant vehicle (cars and light-duty trucks) and not car; the statistics at the same site show car ownership has actually flattened since the late 1980’s, most likely because of the increased purchase of SUV’s and light trucks.)
  • Regarding the increases in horsepower and curb-weight, a plot from an earlier post is reproduced below.  As can be seen, vehicle weight dropped significantly in the 5 years after the regulations were introduced, and 0-60 time (related to horsepower) remained relatively flat, as manufacturers focused on meeting the regulations, but once the regulations were met, manufacturers had little motivation to improve fuel economy standards and so the focus went back to improving performance (for example, by reducing 0-60 times and making larger vehicles).
Later in the article, Owen states:

The Model T was manufactured between 1908 and 1927.  … its fuel economy ranged between thirteen and twenty-one miles per gallon.    But focusing on miles per gallon is the wrong way to assess the environmental impact of cars.  Far more revealing is to consider the productivity of driving.  Today, in contrast to the early nineteen–hundreds, any American with a license can cheaply travel almost anywhere, in almost any weather in extraordinary comfort; can drive for thousands of miles with no maintenance other than refueling; can easily find gas, food, lodging, and just about anything else within a short distance of almost any road; and can order an eat meals without undoing a seat belt or turning off the ceiling-mounted DVD player.

A modern driver, in other words, gets vastly more benefit from a gallon of gasoline --- makes far more economical use of fuel --- than any Model T owner ever did.  Yet motorists’ energy consumption has grown by mind-boggling amounts, and, as the productivity of driving has increased and the cost of getting around has fallen, the global market for cars has surged. 

All of this is clearly true, as a set of facts.  But, it lumps under ‘fuel efficiency improvements” many things that have been implemented not directly to improve fuel efficiency, but rather to provide an improved service, to improve the country’s business infra-structure, or to improve particular companies’ bottom-lines.  The interstate high-way system was not built to improve fuel-efficiency, any more than side roads were paved to do so, or companies located fuel stations on well-traveled roads to do so.  All of this happened, and will continue to happen, for many reasons, none of which are related to the regulation of vehicle fuel economy.

Thus the trends leading to increased energy consumption in motor vehicles existed well before the fuel economy regulations were introduced in 1975.  These trends were a result of the governments desire to improve the countries economic infra-structure, and manufacturers desire to sell more products by improving what we can generically call performance (e.g., horsepower and comfort), and none of this was driven by government regulation of fuel economy.  The fuel economy regulations only forced the manufacturers to also consider energy efficiency in their designs.  This is not to argue that increased fuel economy standards do not at all affect consumer behavior, and in theory lead to some overall increase in fuel usage as the cost impact of driving is reduced.  It is just not clear, based on the actual data, that the fuel economy standards themselves had any sort of significant ‘rebound’ impact leading to an overall increase in energy usage.

Refrigerator Energy Efficiency Regulation

Owen mentions refrigerators as another example.  He states that an ‘escalation of cooling capacity has occurred all over suburban America,’ adding that ‘as the ability to efficient and inexpensively chill things has grown, so have opportunities to buy chilled things --- a potent positive feedback loop.’  But, the question again is whether the ‘escalation of cooling capacity’ is really a function of improved energy efficiency, in particular. 

Below I reproduce another plot from the earlier post, this time showing both the average energy use per refrigerator and the average size of refrigerators over time in the United States.  From the starting point of the plot, in 1947, there is a roughly linear increase in the average size of refrigerators sold, and in the energy use per refrigerator sold, up through the point where energy efficiency regulations were introduced in the mid-1970’s.  Thus, purchasers of refrigerators were driving an increase in the size of the refrigerator, despite the fact that it meant higher energy use.  Only with the introduction of the energy efficiency regulations does the energy efficiency of refrigerators improve (dramatically); but, the size of the refrigerators purchased continues to increase, albeit, more slowly.


So, again, there is every indication that consumers would have continued to purchase larger, higher energy consuming refrigerators, even without energy efficiency regulations pushing down the energy costs for operation.  It is simply not clear that consumers make energy efficiency a key element in their purchase decisions (unless, possibly, subsidies such as tax rebates drive such behavior).

The Bigger Picture of Reducing Energy Use

Aside from the specific examples discussed above, where I feel that Owen has exaggerated any relationship that can be found in the data tying government energy efficiency regulation to a rebound effect of leading to higher energy use, there is the concern, that he also discusses, of a secondary effect, which can be summarized as follows: saving consumers money through increased energy efficiency in one area (say their automobile or refrigerator) and so reducing their energy costs, frees them to spend money on some other energy using device, and so leading to an overall increase in energy usage.

As Owen states in his article, such a relationship is intuitively appealing, but difficult to prove in the data.  Certainly the number of energy using devices owned by the typical American consumer is increasing.  But can this increase be ascribed primarily to having more disposable income due to energy efficiency improvements in existing devices, such as automobiles and refrigerators?  More likely (though I am admittedly stating it without supporting data) the lowered cost of these new devices and the U.S. government’s subsidies in support of low energy prices would appear to be the major drivers of this trend.

All of which points to a more appropriate, if still today politically untenable, approach to reducing energy usage: a carbon tax.  If reducing energy use is considered a good thing (for the environment, for our political situation in the world), then increasing the cost to the consumer of using energy will have the most direct impact on energy usage.  And, it will drive energy efficiency improvements across the board on products, through consumer demand, as opposed to having to be legislated piece-meal by the government.  (The movie Carbon Nation, for example, makes this argument.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Book Review: 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle For Leibowitz (1959)
Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1923 - 1996)











335 pages

In 1959, with Cold War tensions mounting, Walter Miller wrote a dark vision of mankind’s future in a post-nuclear world.

Miller’s novel, "A Canticle for Leibowitz," opens many centuries after man has unleashed a world-wide nuclear war in the late 1950’s, leaving much of the civilized world destroyed. With relatively few survivors left to pick up the pieces, the world has been reduced back to small, mostly independent communities and groups and the effects of the war remain visible from generation to generation as the mutations caused by the nuclear fallout are passed on. The novel is split into three sections; the first takes place roughly 600 years after the war, the second and third parts some 600 and 1200 years beyond that.

The story centers on a small abbey in the desert south-west of what had been the United States. The abbey is a part of what is left of the Catholic Church, which has attempted to maintain its structure in the re-ordered, post-war world. This particular abbey has taken on the roll of preserving what it can of the scientific documents of the old civilization, saving them from the hysterical mobs that roamed the post-nuclear world, killing the educated and destroying any texts of science, all of which they blamed for having led to the nuclear war in the first place.

As the centuries pass, the generations of monks at the abbey are left with no understanding of the meaning of the documents: they simply keep them safe, making copies from time to time to preserve the now incomprehensible words and figures for the future. Gradually, as the proscription against knowledge and learning disappears, scientists discover again nature’s laws, and begin linking up what they learn with the bits and pieces of knowledge saved by the monks, re-discovering the science of the past. The question for Miller is how man will handle this second chance at civilization, with the knowledge and evidence of the near complete elimination of our species that had occurred before. His devastating conclusion is mixed with a tentative flicker of hope.

In his novel, Miller creates a compelling psychological portrait of mankind, combining a scathing critic of our inability to alter an at times fundamentally destructive behavior (even in the face of the visible and dramatic effects of past mistakes) with occasional scenes of charity and sacrifice, and a humorous look at our many foibles.



Other reviews / information:
A review in Challenging Destiny, a science fiction and fantasy magazine.

A review on the blog Something about Nothing.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Friday, December 24, 2010

University Foreign Language Requirements: Do They Make Sense?

There have been a number of media reports in recent months of colleges cutting their foreign language departments and eliminating certain, historically prominent, languages.  (For example, a recent story about programs being cut at the State University of New York at Albany in the New York Times.)

On the heels of these reports, Jim Sollisch of the Wall Street Journal wrote an essay (Money Out the Fenetre) suggesting that the requirement for students to take a foreign language should be eliminated completely.  Similar articles appear every few years, it seems. 

Basically, his points can be summarized as:
  1. Students don't become proficient or retain the languages anyway.
  2. "If the goal is to ... give students a more global, less ethnocentric worldview," then he suggests "replac[ing] those two years of [required] language with a mix of comparative religion, comparative government, cultural anthropology and geography."
I would argue that he is missing the point of learning a foreign language, even if it's not learned to the point of becoming proficient.  He seems to imagine that the intent is a direct transmission of cultural 'facts' through learning a language, and he doesn't see that direct transmission, and so suggests that students take classes that will explicitly teach these 'facts'. But the advantage of learning a foreign language is not so direct, in my opinion, even if it is critically important.
  1. Learning a foreign language leads a person to begin to think outside their box, the box they grew up in.  I don't think his solution of replacing it with "comparative religion, comparative government, cultural anthropology and geography", as much as I'd be happy to see those as requried classes for everyone, makes sense.  Without the language classes first, I think most people will go through those four classes, still inside the box they grew up in, and will not get the benefit they could, if they first took a language class.
  2. But, I do believe that it's true that the foreign language requirement comes from a time when people went to school to learn how to think, to become educated.  Now, I would argue, many, if not most, students are just going to high school as prep/training for college, and college as prep/training for a job.  Not only are they not there to learn how to think or to become educated in a general sense, they conciously approach their studies in the university as basically a trade school preparation for their future jobs.  'Of course you go to college to get the degree that you need to get the job that you want; why am I being forced to waste my time taking all this useless stuff???'  Even students that pursue what are seen as 'non-productive' majors (i.e, not engineering, or science, or business,...)  often seem to feel like they may be failures for not having picked a more lucrative path of study, and so again are thinking of the university in a trade-school sense.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Government Regulated Energy Efficiency and the Light Bulb

Lighting manufacturers are pushing back against widespread rumors that the federal government is banning incandescent light bulbs. Rush Limbaugh and some Republicans in Congress are calling for the repeal of a 2008 law signed by President Bush that sets tougher standards for light bulbs beginning in 2012. They claim consumers would be forced to use less popular fluorescent bulbs. But bulb manufacturers say that claim is false.
This was the lead from a recent NPR report (9 December 2010). The story went on to interview Mr. Randy Moorhead (Vice President, Philips Electronics): “There has been no ban on the incandescent light bulb. The incandescent light bulb actually lives. It's just going to be 30 percent more efficient.”

George Will is just one example of a commentator who didn’t bother to check the facts; in an editorial he wrote about the “provision of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007” and a couple who: “replaced their incandescent bulbs with the compact fluorescents that Congress says must soon be ubiquitous.” What government is actually regulating for light bulbs --- and similarly over the past several decades for products such as cars and appliances --- is greater efficiency of the product; it is not regulating how specifically the product is to be designed.

Is there much doubt that without such regulations, there would often be little to drive investment in efficiency improvements?

Refrigerators are a classic example of the difference efficiency regulation can make. Starting in the late 1970’s, California, and later the US as a whole, began regulating progressively higher levels of energy efficiency for refrigerators. The effect was dramatic; in the decades before the regulations took affect, as the interior volume of refrigerators increased, the amount of energy used per refrigerator increased, as the basic technology did not change. In the decades since energy efficiency regulations were put in place, the energy used per refrigerator has dropped dramatically.

The figure below from a 2004 paper by Reuben Deumling (University of California, Berkeley):
Thinking Outside the Refrigerator: Shutting Down Power Plants with NAECA? plots this result for the time period 1947-1996. Up through the mid 1970’s, as the size (in terms of interior volume) of refrigerators increased, the amount of energy used by each refrigerator increased roughly proportionally. After the mid 1970’s, even though the interior volume continued to increase (albeit more slowly), the energy used per refrigerator dropped significantly as manufactures tracked to the new regulations, and by the early 1990’s a 20 cubic foot refrigerator was using less than an 8 cubic foot refrigerator had 45 year earlier.


Interesting to note also is the shaped of the graph as the regulations for progressively tighter energy efficiency were put in place. Big improvements can be seen to have been made as the 1978 and then 1980 standards became current, then the improvement slowed, until the 1987 standard approached, then again slower improvement until the 1990 standard, and a big improvement to meet the 1993 standard. Then, with no new, lower standard until 2001, energy used per refrigerator flattened. With no imminent tighter efficiency regulation in sight, there was no further improvement in the energy efficiency of refrigerators (interior volume remained roughly constant over this time). This is logical behavior from refrigerator manufacturers: which one of them individually is going to sign up to do the design work to improve inefficiency, design work that will cost them money and so require them to charge more for their refrigerators than their competitors? Only if all manufacturers are required to meet these government regulated targets, can any one of them afford to do the work (i.e., spend the money) to do so.

A similar behavior can be seen in the automotive industry, relative to fuel economy standards. The figure below, is from Fuel Efficiency and the Economy by Roger H. Bezdek and Robert M. Wendling.


The light blue line shows the federal targets for corporate average fuel economy (CAFE), while the light brown circles show the average fuel economy for cars, by model year, tracking just above the target, and flattening out as soon as the target stops increasing. Similar behavior, for similar reasons, as in the appliance industry: manufacturers invest in design work to meet new targets but have little or no incentive to spend money on further improvements, if there is no change in the regulated targets the entire industry is required to meet. (A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists by Richard Byrne provides an interesting summary of the history of the development of the CAFE standards.)

Thus, in these industries, the government has regulated increase inefficiency, not the development of specific technologies, and the effected industries have responded by designing improvements to their products to meet the regulations. And, based on the evidence in several industries, and the simple logic of competitive behavior, it is clear that industries will not pursue these developments if there is no incentive to do so.

I will close out this post with short answers to several questions that can be asked at this point about government regulation of energy efficiency…

1. Is such regulation in keeping with a capitalist, competitive system?

Yes. The key point is exactly the miss-representation mentioned above in the case of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 for light bulbs: incandescent bulbs were still allowed under this act, but they needed to be re-designed to meet a new, stricter energy efficiency target. The government created a common target, for all manufacturers of light bulbs, of whatever kind, and so the industry as a whole had a level playing field on which to work.

This is in keeping with the political economic theory of even economists who champion small government, such as Friedrich Hayek, who in The Road to Serfdom wrote that the key point is that everyone has a common set of ground rules (what he called the Rule of Law) within which they operate, and which does not give preference to certain individuals or groups of people in a society. Two examples from his text:
To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances or to require special
precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary
arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition.
The successful use of competition as the principle of social organization
precludes certain types of coercive interference with economic life, but it
admits of others which sometimes may very considerably assist its work and even
requires certain kinds of government action. … Any attempt to control prices or
quantities of particular commodities deprives competition of its power … [but]
this is not necessarily true, however, of measures merely restricting the
allowed methods of production, so long as these restriction affect all potential
producers equally…. Though all such controls of the methods of production impose
extra costs … they may be well worth while.
2. Are there economic benefits to government regulations on energy efficiency?

Yes. And maybe. There are two ways to look at government regulation on energy efficiency.

The first is the clearest to state: as the government tightens regulations on energy efficiency it increases the engineering work that needs to be done on otherwise established products. Without the need for further design improvements, light bulbs, refrigerators and cars (and all other products) are simply commodities that require little or no new design engineering, which means little or no investment in such engineering, and so less of the kind of higher paying jobs that are critical for an advanced country to maintain. Manufacturers of commodity products look simply for the lowest cost manufacturing site, which is typically overseas.

Increased energy efficiency regulations, however, require design innovations, and so design groups to develop these innovations. Although this kind of design work can increasingly be moved to other countries as engineering capability improves world-wide, the US still has a strong base of research and development from which to lead this work. Many if not most large US companies have moved their manufacturing overseas, but continue to maintain a significant portion of their design and engineering work at home. Government regulation drives the employment of exactly the kind of high-tech jobs a country is interested in having. (Of course, it does not make sense to ‘regulate energy efficiency to create jobs’, but if there are other benefits to such regulation, this additional benefit cannot be ignored in the discussion.)

The second benefit is more difficult to analyze, and can only really be done on a product by product basis. Typically, increased energy efficiency regulations drive increased price into the product --- if only because the design work just mentioned must be paid for, though the product and product manufacturing process can also become more costly. This increased price to the consumer, however, is balanced by a savings to the consumer in energy usage costs. The arguments become difficult to prove out, one way or the other, because of variability of energy costs, consumer behavior in using a given product, and the fact that it can be difficult to isolate the cost of the product directly associated with the new energy efficiency regulation. (For example, in a car engine, the same new, more advanced part that allows increased fuel efficiency can provide increase performance, which makes the car more marketable to the car buyer.)

I have read several articles that analyze this trade-off, and will add the links as I go back and dig them out.

3. Why not let consumers drive the move to more energy efficient products, as opposed to the government?

Like that of the economic benefits of energy efficiency regulation, this is a complex question that does not offer an easy answer. I would argue that there are strong reasons for improving energy efficiency that are societal in nature, and so require society as a whole, through its government, to address; they cannot be effectively addressed by the behavior of individual consumers. I will outline the reasons I believe are most critical, and provide some links to what others have said on these topics --- and maybe make them the topic(s) of future posts.

  • There are important geo-political reasons to reduce our use of oil. Much of our oil comes from dictatorships that we need to support simply because we rely so heavily on them to meet our energy needs. Thomas Friedman is probably the most recognized commentator on this topic, in the New York Times, and his books, such as Hot, Flat, and Crowded 2.0: Why We Need a Green Revolution - And How it Can Renew America. Greater energy efficiency can reduce our use of oil, and save us significant amounts of money in terms of military expenditures to support and protect these regimes, and the political capital we lose by having to do so.
  • Global warming and pollution concerns, make improved energy efficiency critical to our future. Global warming and several types of pollution are in large part due to our need to generate a significant amount of energy from carbon sources (coal, oil, gas). Energy efficiency has been stated to be the most cost effective way to reduce our use of energy, and so our use of carbon as a fuel (as opposed to the development and implementation of alternative energy sources).
  •  The economic position of the United States in the world market. Even if you don’t believe in global warming, and the need to reduce our use of carbon fuels to protect against it, many people in countries around the world do, and are subsidizing the movement of their industries in the direction of what are typically called, ‘green technologies’. This is perhaps more an argument for how the US can avoid being left behind in these new markets, than about energy efficiency regulation, per se, but it is none the less a part of the larger picture of energy policy. The recent documentary film Carbon Nation focuses on the economic argument for reducing the use of carbon fuels, and, again, Thomas Friedman makes this point passionately in his articles and books.
  • Entrenched industries maintain the status quo, at times at a detriment to the consumer and the country as a whole. Most established industries, most of the time, will prefer not to have to invest in new technology development; and, these industries will have a significant level of control over the political and economic debate in the country. The article referred to earlier, on the history of automotive fuel economy standards, recounts how the US automotive industry fought these new standards, even as companies in other countries embraced them, and went on to out compete the US industry for several decades.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Carbon Nation: A Review of the Documentary Movie

A recent documentary, <i>Carbon Nation</i>, takes a refreshing look at the issue of America’s dependence of carbon-based fuel, and the potential options for reducing that dependence through alternative energy and improved energy efficiency.

With the exception of a few commentators, such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, the discussion on this topic is often focused on the science and scientific consensus for global warming, and the need to move from carbon-based fuels to alternative energy sources to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; sometimes it will be mentioned that there can be economic benefits to moving to alternative energy, but it is at best a secondary argument.  In <i>Carbon Nation</i> the main argument carried throughout the movie is that there are significant economic benefits to be gained by reducing our dependence on carbon based fuels.  The filmmakers do include information on the current science of global warming, but it becomes a secondary argument to the economic reasons for moving to new, non-carbon sources of energy.  Thus the movie is addressed directly to the main concern of the people who have the power to make the changes: their bottom line.

The documentary presents a wide variety of approaches to reducing the use of carbon-based fuels - from the common, such as wind and solar, to the controversial, such as nuclear, and the unusual, such as growing sod to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it back into the soil. In keeping with its approach of focusing on the economic benefits, the film looks primarily at the work of small entrepreneurs, and individuals in larger companies and organizations, who find ways to profit or increase their profits through the development or use of alternative energy sources and energy efficiency techniques.

The thesis presented is that the best way to increase the spread of many of these new technologies is for businesses, small and large, to recognize the benefit it can bring to their bottom line and take the initiative individually to harness these money-making or money-saving possibilities, as opposed to waiting for the government to move forward on larger initiatives.  This view of carrying out the fight at the local level is a particularly appealing aspect of the movie, given the deadlock that exists in Washington DC these days over both energy policy and the issue of global warming.

Mixed in with statistics on current and predicted future energy usage, the science of global warming and some discussion of the politics of energy, are extended, detailed looks at how entrepreneurs around the country are finding ways to make money through alternative energy and energy efficiency.  The majority of these stories show the impact that individuals and small groups of people can have in the transformation away from carbon-based fuels, whether the individual is one person bringing together the owners of many small farms in his area to work as a cooperative with the local utility to develop a large wind energy farm, or is the owner of a company who realizes savings by simply painting the roof of his city building white to reflect sunlight and so lower his air conditioning usage and so energy costs.

Along the way the film presents many interesting stories and facts.  One small example is regarding the concern of mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs, which requires them to be recycled.  The movie reports from a study showing that even if all the CF bulbs in use today were simply thrown into landfills when the bulbs quit working (thus releasing their mercury into the environment), there would be less mercury put into the environment than if incandescent bulbs had been used in their place.  This is because coal burning power plants are a significant source of mercury in the environment, and the equivalent light provided from incandescent bulbs would have required enough more electricity, that the additional amount of coal burned would generate more mercury than would come from the (non-recycled) CF bulbs.

This is a minor point in the movie, but it demonstrates the systems level thinking that plays a large part in making the movie effective and ultimately interesting to watch.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Functions of Government

One of the most disputed questions both in political science and in practical statesmanship at this particular time period, relates to the proper limits of the functions and agency of governments.
Although it sounds like it could be taken from today's editorial pages, this was actually written by John Stuart Mill in 1848 in his book Principles of Political Economy.  He went on to describe the tension between the those who look to government to improve the human condition and those who fear too much government control:
And when the tide sets so strongly towards changes in government and legislation, as a means of improving the condition of mankind, this discussion is more likely to increase than to diminish in interest.  On the one hand, impatient reformers, thinking it easier and shorter to get possession of the government than of the intellects and disposition of the public, are under a constant temptation to stretch the province of government beyond due bounds: while, on the other, mankind have been so much accustomed by their rulers to interference for purposes other than the public good, or under an erroneous conception of what that good requires, and so many rash proposals are made by sincere lovers of improvement, for attempting, by compulsory regulation, the attainment of objects which can only be effectually or only usefully compassed by opinion and discussion, that there has grown up a spirit of resistance in limine [at a gut level] to the interference of government, merely as such, and a disposition to restrict its sphere of action within the narrowest bounds.
Again a description that is relevant even today, though, it is striking to read a fair appraisal of the two sides of the argument, as 'impatient reformers' and 'sincere lovers of improvement' on the one side, and on the other those 'accustomed by their rulers to interference' and who therefore have 'grown up a spirit of resistance.'

Such a more thoughtful consideration of the two sides and their motivations than one often hears in discussions today, particularly in some places in the media.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Review: 'On The Beach' by Nevil Shute

On The Beach (1957)
Nevil Shute (1899-1960)

234 pages

Nevil Shute's On The Beach is one of the most devastating novels I have read.   Reading it a second time shakes one even more than the first reading, because, knowing how the story ends shatters one's natural tendency to believe that there must be some hope of escape. In the second reading, every decision, comment and action of the characters, some of whom carry a false hope deep into the story, becomes more painful to observe. This fact makes it a much different reading experience from most other post-apocalyptic novels.

The story opens in late 1962, and takes place principally in Melbourne, on the eastern end of the south coast of Australia. A year before, there had been a month long nuclear war in the northern hemisphere, accidentally started, but eventually involving all of the major powers. Since the end of the war, no contact has been established with anyone in the northern hemisphere. More critically, the thick dust of radiation that polluted the northern half of the globe is slowly drifting southward, with cities in northern Australia already dropping out of contact.

A US naval submarine, her crew having managed to survive the war, is docked in the Melbourne harbor. The story develops around Australian and US naval personnel, who head north on a submarine mission to understand and report back on the extent of the destruction and the spread of the on-coming radiation.

The focus of the novel, however, is on how people might deal with an imminent, but not immediate, end of everything they know. Do you plant flowers in the spring if aware that no one will be there to see them bloom in the fall, or any future fall?  That is, fundamentally, the question that Shute examines in his story. The recognition of their situation his characters finally come to, with various degrees and manners of acceptance, is The Last of the Mohicans writ large: "My day has been too long.  In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans."

Other reviews / information:
A review in Challenging Destiny, a science fiction and fantasy magazine.

A review on the blog Something about Nothing.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Book Review: 'Earth Abides' by George Stewart

Earth Abides (1949)
George Stewart (1895-1980)


345 pages

Men go and come, but earth abides.
- Ecclesiastes, 1.4

With this epigraph, George Stewart opens his novel of post-apocalyptic America.   Published in 1949 and set in the immediate future, the novel tells the story of a young biologist, Isherwood "Ish" Williams, who comes down out of the California mountains after a two week research trip and discovers that most of the population has been wiped out by a deadly plague. Naturally a bit of a loner, with a tendency to hang back and observe the passing scene, he shakes off his initial shock by deciding to travel across country and, falling back on his experience as a researcher, to observe and understand the new reality.   Finding the country nearly empty of people, and encountering no one with whom he is interested in joining up, he eventually returns to his family home in Oakland.

Over the months that follow a small handful of survivors gather around him and establish a tiny community in the empty remains of what was once a metropolitan area with several hundred thousand inhabitants. This tiny group has all around them the almost limitless left-overs of what they come to call the "old world"; this includes both the useful, such as canned foods and tools, and the apparently useless, such as coins and jewelry. But on the other hand, with just a few random people left, most technical experience and knowledge has been lost to the plague. Most of the survivors, in shock over all they have lost and in being suddenly deeply alone in a nearly empty world, focus only on their daily existence.

At its heart the novel represents Stewart's vision of how this tiny group of strangers might come together and make a new life out of the ruins of all they have lost. And of how someone such as his main character Ish, trained in the sciences and the importance of knowledge, might fare in a community of a few random souls who have varying abilities, capabilities and motivations. Ish often finds his powerful desire to prevent mankind from losing its centuries of accumulated scientific and philosophical progress frustrated by the lack of the larger social structures that in the pre-plague world had naturally ensured the transfer of knowledge to future generations, and thereby provided the basis for further development. The easy access the survivors have to so much of the output of the old world, and the lack of visible benefit they perceive in developing new skills, means there is little motivation to learn. Stewart follows this set of conditions to its not surprising conclusion as the generations of the community become farther separated from the old world knowledge.

The novel is nearly completely focused on Ish; the transition to the new world, and the progress and struggles of the group that gathers around him are presented through his eyes. His fierce determination to prevent the loss of knowledge --- in essence to try and continue civilization as if the plague had just been a blip in the road --- becomes for him a destiny and a burden. Sometimes succeeding, more often failing, his experiences gradually force him to recognize his limitations and learn himself the art of what is possible. Through Ish, Stewart drives home how completely so much of what is today taken for granted can be lost. But he also provides a sketch of how prideful obstinacy in the face of an overwhelming challenge can be softened over time into a more resigned, but ultimately also more effective, outlook.

This 1949 novel shares several connections with later author's visions of post-apocalyptic worlds. One example involves a minor sub-plot in the book that revolves around a black 'family' of survivors Ish finds in a small, otherwise empty farming community in Arkansas; he considers that they "had solved the problem [of survival] better than he," because, instead of scavenging, they were raising most of the food they needed. But his encounter with them, concluded in such a positive note, includes a passage that ties the book to 1949, in that Ish thinks to himself, "I might be a king in a little way, if I remained. They would not like it, but from long habit they would, I think, accept the situation...." This passage differs starkly from a novel that came just ten years later, in 1959, Alas, Babylon, in which a black family plays a much more integral, though still supporting and not equal, role in the small community of survivors after a nuclear war. And, another twenty years later in Steven King's, The Stand, race plays no part in the story.

The Stand compares in another way to Earth Abides in that an infection, this time clearly man-made, quickly decimates much of the world's population. Again the survivors have the left-overs of the old world with which to survive, and are so widely separated that the small groups they do initially gather in can maintain only minimal technical capability. But, instead of remaining separated into small, isolated communities, the survivors gradually coalesce (pulled together by forces of good and evil) into two, competing cities. The larger concentration of survivors that results, along with the inevitable confrontation between the two cities, provides the technical ability and motivation to resurrect the most critical aspects of the old world technology, such as electricity and water, in relatively short order.

Finally, in short asides sprinkled through the story, Stewart steps outside the narrative and describes what he imagines happening to the physical world mankind had constructed, as well as to the world of plants and animals, now that man is essentially gone from the picture. These fascinating pieces present a foreshadow of the recent, non-fiction book The World Without Us.

Other reviews / information:
A review in January Magazine

Book covers for different editions --- interesting commentary on the book and the period when a particular edition was published.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Book Review: 'Alas, Babylon' by Pat Frank

Alas, Babylon (1959)
Pat Frank (1908-1964)

323 pages

"Alas, Babylon", published in 1959 in the depths of the cold war, takes the modern reader back to the days when students practiced ducking under their school desks in preparation for a nuclear attack and the race to space (Sputnik in 1957 and Explorer I in 1958) threatened the extension of nuclear strike capability to outer space. According to the short biography at the end of the book, the author, Pat Frank, also worked as a newspaperman and government official. He turned these experiences into this novel, in which he lays out a plausible scenario for how the US and the Soviet Union could end up at war, and, more importantly for him, how the survivors of that war could re-build.

The majority of the story is told from the point of view of a man in central Florida, Randy Bragg, whose brother is a colonel in the US army, stationed at the Strategic Air Command headquarters. Through Randy's brother, who is stationed as an intelligence officer at the Strategic Air Command headquarters, Frank suggests that the Soviet regime in the late 50's feels that it has a short-term advantage over the US in nuclear strike capability: the Soviets had moved to missiles, which can be launched quickly from submarines or ground based sites, while the US still relied heavily on aircraft bombers.  But the Soviets realize that the US is already beginning to close this missile gap, and they decide to press hard their present advantage to pursue their strategic goals, creating in particular a tense stand-off between US and Soviet forces in the eastern Mediterranean. One poor decision leads to a disaster that convinces the Soviet leadership that the time is right to launch a surprise nuclear first strike against the US.

Due to weather conditions the area around Randy's small town in central Florida is spared significant radiation contamination when the attack comes, though the destruction and contamination of most of the rest of Florida, leave it separated from other parts of the country that have been similarly spared. Once the initial hours of the war have past, and the situation begins to clarify, at least at the very local level, Bragg and his neighbors must force themselves to get past the shock of the attacks that have devastated the country, and decide how to build a life for themselves with what is left around them.

And, ultimately, this is a book of hope and re-building. In that sense, it is much different from "On the Beach" in which Nevil Shute postulates a war that eventually blankets the earth in radiation, killing the last people, or "The Road" by Cormak McCarthy in which a father and son walk through miles of devastation under an unyielding gray sky and which ends in, at most, the possibility of hope. "Alas, Babylon" assumes not only that there will be survivors of such a catastrophe, but that they will have the opportunity to re-build.  The question central to the story is whether and how the survivors will find the will and the means to confront the new world they face.

The story is laid out plainly; it is not a mystery or action adventure story, though these things also play a part. Frank's experiences with the government and the military come through in the military and civil defense concepts and acronyms he uses often without explanation. Some of these may have been more familiar in the depths of the cold war 1950's, but not knowing them doesn't detract from the story for the reader, because the military jargon is not the point of the story, and it fits the direct and indirect military backgrounds of several of the characters. More prominent are the race and gender dynamics in the story, which seem anachronistic from the view of 50 years later; the story unintentionally provides the modern reader with a reminder of the significant shifts that have occurred in American life in the intervening years.   But the focus of the novel finally is on how people can move past unimaginable devastation to band together and learn to move on --- in their own lives and in their relationships with their neighbors.

Other reviews / information:
A review on a website devoted to the BBC television series
Survivors


A more critical review on Omphalos Book Reviews

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Book Review: 'Waiting for the Barbarians' by J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee (1940- )
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

152 pages

The aging Magistrate of a small outpost on a distant frontier of an empire, looking only to close out the last few years of his capable but undistinguished service in peaceful ease, has his view of the world and his very life turned upside down by the sudden arrival from the capital of a high ranking internal security official, Colonel Joll.

The government has declared a state of emergency, based on reports of increased attacks from barbarians living beyond the frontier. The Magistrate observes that "once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians," and he fears the impact this new situation will have on his quiet, frontier life. The Magistrate watches Colonel Joll capture, interrogate and torture simple nomads, who have for years lived in relative peace with the citizens of the outpost --- sometimes stealing food, but never violent. The Colonel tries to tie these nomads to the barbarian hordes reported to be massing to attack the empire. Unable to look away or go along, the Magistrate gradually, and, he reflects, uncharacteristically, begins countering the violence of the Colonel in particular, and the aggressive policies of the empire in general, with consequences he only too late recognizes, and for reasons that he struggles within himself to understand.

The place and time of the novel are ambiguous. When his official duties are done, the Magistrate has as a hobby excavating giant buildings buried in sand dunes near the outpost, buildings that are of an unknown past; even "the barbarians ... make no reference in their legends to a permanent settlement" in the area. The Magistrate finds pieces of wood with unknown symbols on them among the ruins, that he tries unsuccessfully to decipher. The book has the feel of a post-apocalyptic world of the far future, as civilization slowly rebuilds itself.

But, ultimately, the time and place of the story are not really critical, as Coetzee describes a civilization that may be in our far past or far future, but which has characteristics of today's world powers: an elite political class exploiting fear of the 'other' to stay in power, a security service that is as focused on internal dissent to the empire's political orthodoxy as it is to external military threats, and a large mass of common citizens going along with the status quo hoping to be left to their quiet lives. In the behavior of the empire in the novel, it's hard not see parallels between its use fear-mongering over supposedly imminent barbarian attacks, and, for example, the use in recent years of increases in the US terror alert level as a cynical, political tactic. And, in the character of the Magistrate, Coetzee expresses the struggles of an everyday citizen who decides to push back against policies of the state they find morally wrong.

The gradual, but evolving resistance of the Magistrate to the activities of Colonel Joll are in fact at the center of the novel. His internal confusion grows, as he drifts into his opposition of particular tactics of the empire. He imagines the state, in the form of Colonel Joll, will agree with his view of how the situation with the barbarians must be handled once he explains himself clearly, only to stumble to the realization that he is losing the trust of his superiors. As he discovers himself becoming ostracized by the visiting Colonel, he expects his neighbors to rally to his defense --- so obvious is the validity of his arguments --- only to find himself ridiculed by a crowd so completely convinced of the righteousness of the state that the Colonel in the end must do next to nothing to turn the townspeople against him. As his setbacks mount, the Magistrate begins to question his own motivations for entering the fight; the clear and pure moral certainty he feels early on dissolves as he wonders if he is actually acting more out of pride and stubbornness.

Ultimately there are no heroes in Coetzee's novel, no easy answers, which is what makes it such a fascinating examination of the complexity of taking a stand against a policy with which one has a deep, moral disagreement; the complexity both in one's interaction with the political regime and fellow citizens, as well as in one's internal understanding of the motivations for acting and the lengths one is willing to go to fight back.



I've read that the following poem of Constantine Cavafy, from around 1900, served as
an inspiration for the novel; it certainly carries a similar message.

Waiting for the Barbarians

-What are we doing gathered in the bazaar, and waiting?
The barbarians are supposed to get here today.
-Why are things so dead inside the Senate?
How can the senators just sit there, making no laws?
Because the barbarians will get here today.
What laws should the Senate pass at this point?
The barbarians, when they come, will be making all the laws.
-Why did our emperor rise so early in the morning,
and why is he sitting in the city's grandest gate
on the throne, ceremonial, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians will get here today.
And the emperor expects to receive
their commander. In fact, he has prepared
a parchment as a gift. There he's written him
many titles and great names.
-Why, today, have our two consuls and our praetors
appeared in their red, embroidered togas;
why did they wear bracelets of so many amethysts,
and rings with gleaming, polished emeralds;
why, today, should they take up those precious canes
with exquisite carving in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians will get here today;
and such things dazzle barbarians.
-And why don't our accomplished orators come out,
as they always do, to make their speeches, and have their say?
Because the barbarians will get here today;
and that kind get bored with bombastic speeches.
-Why has this trouble broken out just now,
and panic? (Faces have gone so solemn.)
Why are the streets, the squares emptying so fast,
and all the people brooding as they turn back home?
Because night has come and the barbarians have not.
And a few people have come back from the outskirts,
and said no more barbarians exist.
So now what will become of us, without barbarians.
These men were one sort of resolution.
Before Time Could Change Them:
The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy


translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis

Other reviews / information:
by Chris Switzer at turtleneck.com

on the Blog Integral Psychosis

at Literitude: Literature Review

I have also reviewed Coetzee's novel Disgrace.



Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Book Review: 'The Stand' by Stephen King

Stephen King (1947- )
The Stand (1979, 1990)

1141 pages

Through a series of individually minor human errors, an extremely deadly, flu-like virus escapes from a secret government lab where it had been developed. Within weeks it spreads throughout the country (and by implication the rest of the world) leaving well over 99% of the population dead. So begins Stephen King's apocalyptic vision of the near future. (This uncut version of the novel, published in 1990, is set in the second half of 1990.)

The few survivors struggle to understand what has happened, and to come to grips with the sudden emptiness of the world around them. Basic survival is not a problem - for the limited population left, the food, and more generally "goods", left behind are enough to last many years; technical and scientific skills represent a bigger concern (the health care debate takes on a completely different level when the only doctor is a veterinarian). The main question for the survivors is more whether, and how, to go on. Compounding their uncertainty and fear are dreams they begin having, vivid dreams of good and evil.

With these dreams the novel takes a mystical-religious turn, as the survivors begin to coalesce into two groups, based on their personalities and predilections: one 'good' group in Boulder, Colorado, around an old black woman who seems to have a special connection to God, and a second 'evil' group in Las Vegas, around an incarnation of the devil, referred to, among other names, as the Dark Man. For both of these groups it is clear that one side will eventually dominate and destroy the other, and the story reaches its climax in this battle between good and evil.

I was drawn to the book originally out of interest in reading King's vision of a post-apocalyptic future, and the mystical aspect of the story has a tendency to make events seem a bit arbitrary, because the extent, and more importantly the limits, of the powers of the old woman and the Dark Man are not always clear.   On the other hand, these powers accelerate the confrontation between the two groups, which keeps the pace of the action fast, pulling the reader quickly through the over 1100 pages of this "complete & uncut edition" of the story (which is some 400 pages longer than the original edition, which had been published in 1979, and set in 1985).

There are several unanticipated parallels to events of the last decade in the story. Once the virus has run its course, and people begin finding each other and joining forces, there is initially a strong tendency to overlook differences that would have separated these same people in the pre-flu world as the focus is now on confronting the new situation. This spirit of cooperation gradually weakens, and one of the minor themes of the story is discussion among the characters over whether it is possible to learn from the mistakes of the past, and build a better future. There are strong shades of the post 9-11 discussions in the US in this aspect of the story, and in the end King does not answer this question, or, more precisely, his characters, as they see the course of human nature in the post-flu world, are left unconvinced as the story ends of whether the new world they have inherited can be re-built to improve on what had come before.

Another parallel: reading this book in early 2010, on (hopefully) the heels of the H1N1, swine flu scare made it actually a scarier read than did the mystical, good versus evil aspect of the story. The parallels between how quickly the H1N1 virus spread --- shutting down schools and in Mexico even cities for a time --- and events in the novel made the story feel more like a potentially real future and less like improbable fiction.

Other reviews / information:
at Illiterarty.com

by Robert Kiely for the New York Times

Curious Connecitons:
Click here to play Nick Cave and Bad Seeds, Red Right Hand 
 

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Book Review: 'The Island at the End of the World' by Sam Taylor

Sam Taylor (1970- )
The Island at the End of the World (2009)

215 pages

Set in the western US, in the immediate future, this novel tells the story of a man who lives with his three young children in an ark moored on an island at the edge of a great expanse of water, emptiness stretching to the horizon. The man had built the ark as he watched the natural world and civilization collapse around him, leaving him fearful for the safety and future of his family. The four of them have been living in their ark for seven years, and have built a small paradise where they tend a variety of crops, raise chickens for eggs and meat, and trap wild rabbits.

At night they sing songs the father has written and taught them of the flood that drowned the world (taking there mother with it), of the evil and corruption that existed in the time before the flood and that has now been cleansed from the earth, and how they came to their island paradise. The songs are an odd combination of old children's rhymes and modern rock songs, with new lyrics --- lyrics that recall the songs of ancient peoples telling their origin histories; the young son, in his Pidgin English, tells of one song: "I love this song it all ways makes me happy an shured. Pa rote it the day we rived at the I-land…
Morning has broken like the first morning
The great wave has broken like the first wave
Be cus the rain came an drownd all the sinners
We live on this I-land an we are all saved


The old world wer dying but now we are living
The sins of our fathers are all washt a way
Be cus the rain came an kild all the liars
We no only truth now like on the first day
"

As the story opens, the father is watching through his binoculars with increasing dread as a stranger approaches the island paradise he has found and created for his children. For the father this stranger represents all the evil and corruption that were left behind, and so threatens the innocence of his children and their peaceful lives on the island.

To give more details than these few from the opening pages would be to spoil a riveting story --- one that is part suspense and part psychological drama. The 200 or so pages go by quickly as the mystery of how the family came to their paradise, where the stranger has come from and what it means about the world that remains outside pulls the reader from page to page.

The chapters alternate between first the father and his son, and then the father and his older daughter. The isolation of the family is re-enforced by the author through the voice of the son, who was only a baby when the family came to the island, and who spells his words as they sound: "The airs not cold on my I-lids like befor its warm an sweet the first blossoms mixt up with pine an grass an stove smells all sharp from the night fallen rain." It takes a few pages to get used to the style, but once accustomed to reading the sons chapters 'aloud', it is little trouble to understand him.

The technique seems a bit of a stretch given that it's made clear in the story that the children do read, and so should be able to spell at least the simplest words correctly, but I found it effective at establishing the distance the family has come from their past to their new life, and the focus the father has had on creating a simple life in tune with nature for them. (The children express their ages, for example, by the number of new moons they have been alive.) And this is ultimately the thoughtful and thought-provoking point of the novel: what is paradise and is it acceptable for one person to impose their view of paradise, however well-intentioned, on others --- even a father on his children.


Other reviews / information:
by Nicholas Tucker on The Independent web site

by Patrick Ness on The Guardian web site

Monday, December 6, 2010

Book Review: 'The Spies of Warsaw' by Alan Furst

The Spies of Warsaw (2008)
Alan Furst (1941-)

266 pages

A German engineer, working for a tank manufacturer in 1937 Nazi Germany, falls under the spell of a beautiful polish woman visiting his town. She tells him of her difficult life back in Poland, and, not entirely unaware that she is not all she claims to be, he begins visiting her in Warsaw, and trying to help her, in exchange for the excitement of an elicit affair and the escape that it offers from his dull work and family life. As his love for her grows, and her financial needs begin to surpass his limited income, he allows her to lead him into the waiting trap of a French agent, who provides him the money he needs to support her in exchange for documents and information on German tank production.

So opens Alan Furst's novel of espionage and intrigue in 1937 Warsaw, where the political elite's fear of war is palpable, with Poland tightly wedged between Germany and the Soviet Union. A German tank designer becoming an informant to a French agent on polish territory highlights the international web of spies Furst depicts in pre-war Warsaw. French, Soviet and German agents, operating as counselor officers in Warsaw, together with Polish spies and political officials, meet at intricately described receptions and dinners, and sometimes in private, each wondering how much the other side knows, searching for new information and cautious to guard their own secrets; even allies keep tabs on each others activities.

The French agent at the center of the novel is a colonel, who is serving at the French consulate as a Foreign Affairs officer, but whose true assignment is to gather information on the German military industry and war plans. As the story progresses, he struggles as much with his own superior back in Paris --- whose views on the political situation in Europe differ starkly from his own --- as with the other agents he encounters in Warsaw. And, ultimately, this novel is more one of ideas and history than a tale of action and adventure. There is certainly some action along the way, as the various sides resort occasionally to violence, but the outcome of these episodes is never really in question. Instead Furst uses the story to describe some of the political thinking in Europe in the late 1930's that allowed the German military build-up to continue unchecked: the split in French military and political circles as to Germany's intentions, plans for war and prospects if war were to come; the Polish government's willingness to forsake the build-up of their own forces to earn desperately needed money, as they relied on a (false) belief that the French would come to their aid if they were invaded.

These historical and political ideas that Furst build into the novel are interesting to consider, but they are not finally enough to really carry the story. And, except for the French agent, none of the characters is developed much: the French are courteous, upstanding and courageous, the Germans with the exception of one intellectual who opposes the Nazi regime are either cowards or bullies, and the Polish are mostly window dressing for the story. So what's left is a fairly straight-forward spy story; a fun read that holds the readers attention as the plot develops. But what remains when one has finished the book is not much beyond an already familiar history: aside from a few who spoke out, Europe slept while Nazi Germany prepared for war.


Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:
A more positive review in The Los Angeles Times

A mixed review of a more recent book in Furst's 'Spies' series, that notes something that I also found in the book reviewed here, on the language Furst has characters use: The New York Times Book Review

Book Review: 'A Manuscript of Ashes' by Antonio Munoz Molina

Antonio Muñoz Molina (1956)
A Manuscript of Ashes (1986)

305 pages

This early novel by Antonio Muñoz Molina takes place on a single day in 1969, though much of it is told in flashbacks and remembrances of the various characters.

Central to the novel is the psychological destruction caused by the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the darkness and fear of the early years of the Franco regime (1939-1974). Much of the actual 'action' in the novel takes place in two periods, one during the civil war, and the second over several months in 1947.

Just a half-dozen active characters, and another half-dozen or so 'off-stage', are enough to show how the years of the 2nd Spanish Republic (1931-1936), the civil war and the post-war Franco regime divided families, served as an excuse to resolve old grievances and, in the process, destroyed many lives. Family members who cross class boundaries are despised by those who don't, who in turn stew in the toxic effects of their hatred. Those who fight for what they believe in die at the hands of their enemies, and those who try to remain apolitical and outside the conflict die simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The novel itself plays out as a kind of mystery: Minaya, a young man in Madrid who feels (it is never clear if justifiably, or out of paranoia) that the security forces are closing in on him, flees to his family's home town on the Guadalquivir river in southern Spain. His parents long dead, he stays with his well-to-do uncle, using as pretense that he is interested in writing a dissertation about a poet, Jacinto Solana, who had been a close friend of his uncle's. Solana had introduced the uncle to his friend Mariana, and the two had eventually married, with Mariana being shot and killed, in an apparent accident, in the early morning hours of her wedding night. What begins for Minaya as a cover story for his stay with the uncle gradually grows into an obsession with his uncles past, as he tries to unravel the truth of a story complicated by the animosity between family members and the unwillingness of anyone to re-awaken the ghosts of a past in which every one feels in some way guilty of the part they played.

The story is very much like a puzzle, and from the first pages the reader is left feeling that some key pieces are missing. The final puzzle pieces only fall into place at the very end, as the complete picture reveals itself. Beyond the enjoyment of reading it as a mystery, the novel gives a fascinating look at the confusion, hatred and violence of the years around and during the Spanish Civil War.


Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:
Colin Fleming, in The New York Times

Adam Kirsch, in The New York Sun

Book Review: 'After Dark' by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami (1949- )
After Dark (2007)

244 pages

Late at night, in a diner in downtown Tokyo, a girl sits alone reading a book.   Mari has allowed herself to miss the last train and so is committed to spending the night downtown, away from home. Instead of the uneventful night of reading she imagined, she finds her path crossing with an acquaintance, a chance meeting that leads her into a series of encounters with those who work and play in the city after midnight. She finds the city transformed at night into a new and different reality than is present during the day when the streets are filled with light and people.

Murakami's novel follows Mari through the night as the long hours and strange meetings she has break down her reticence and she gradually reveals why she has decided to avoid going home this night. By the arrival of dawn it is as though she has completed a long journey --- in reality only a handful of hours have past, but psychologically she has reached a far shore from where she started at dusk.

Mari and the other characters in this novel reveal themselves slowly, in fits and starts, as they grow comfortable with the strangers they meet and befriend on the empty nighttime streets. The novel carries the reader through the scenes as though we are watching from behind a movie camera (at times Murakami uses this technique explicitly) that is moving through the city, settling for a time in one place, then shifting its focus to a new situation, slowly piecing together inter-relationships that are sometimes only dimly, if at all, visible to the characters. Murakami's light touch and gentle pace leave you feeling as though you are 'reading' a series of related paintings; paintings in which you can 'hear' the story develop as your eyes drifted from one scene to the next.


Other reviews / information:
by Walter Kirn in The New York Times

by M. Kellner on the California Literary Review web site

Book Review: 'Chaos and Night' by Henry de Monterlant

Chaos and Night (1963)
Henry de Montherlant (1896-1972)

236 pages

Celestino Marcilla, the central character in Henry de Montherlant's novel Chaos and Night, lives in Paris, an exile of twenty years from his native Spain. After fighting as an anarchist with the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, he crossed the border into France with tens of thousands of his countrymen in early 1939, in panicked retreat from Franco's Nationalist army. (For more on the history of the war, see The Spanish Civil War.)   In Paris he shares an apartment with his daughter --- his wife having died in childbirth soon after the end of the civil war.

Not having to work, due to an inheritance skillfully retrieved from Spain for him by a lawyer, Don Celestino also has never learned to speak French, though he can read it competently. He spends his days reading French and Spanish newspapers, and writing anonymous editorials to the newspapers, deriding the political and social situation in the world, in particular in Spain and France, from his anarchist slant. Few of these end up in print; most, in fact, he never even sends out, carefully filing them for a book he never actually gets around to writing. Filled with melancholy for Spain, but disgusted by the fascist regime and his former countrymen who support it, he also has little love for France or the rest of the world.

As the years have passed in France, he remains consumed with his memories of fighting both the nationalists as well as his non-anarchist compatriots --- socialists and communists --- in the Republican militia. With nothing in his life of exile to match the thrill of fighting for his beliefs in the civil war, Don Celestino's anarchism becomes a hardened dogma that defines his life, and begins to warp his perception of reality. He observes and challenges the world around him and finds it in most ways wanting based on his social and political viewpoint. Friend and foe, relation and stranger, all are judged --- and generally condemned --- for their failure to meet his strict standards. He attempts to recapture the excitement of the civil war years by creating conflicts with both friends and strangers, though instead of the physical violence of the war he settles for verbal tirades on the ills of society and mischievous pranks to disrupt what he considers the blind and complacent bourgeois. Having finally rejected the few friends he has made in France over the years, the story finds him sinking into a self-imposed morass of loneliness and isolation, and he feels death drawing near.

This spell is broken by a note from Madrid informing him that his sister has died and he needs to come to settle matters related to the inheritance. Overcoming fears that he will be found out as a former left-wing militia member, he travels to Madrid with his daughter. As he wanders the streets of Madrid for the first time in over 20 years, his senses heightened by his fear of being recognized as an anarchist and former Republican fighter, he feels a new excitement to his life, but also experiences a deepening disconnect from reality, as he interprets every smile or frown from a stranger as connected to his involvement in the long past civil war. The story reaches its climax at a bullfight he attends, which for Don Celestino takes on the dimensions of a representation of the human condition, and speaks directly to his own past and present; his political views and his approach to life become filtered through the lens of the battle between the bull on the one side, and the bullfighter and his helpers on the other. (For a look at bullfighting, see the review for Or I'll Dress You in Mourning.)

In Don Celestino, Montherlant portrays the perilous ends of allowing one's principles and convictions to overrule empathy and sympathy for others, and the insanity that lies at the end of allowing dogma to rule one's life and relationships. Don Celestino replays in miniature the internal strife between political parties that tore apart the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War even as it was losing the larger battle to the Nationalists. Montherlant does, however, manage to walk a fine line in the story: there is humor in what Don Celestino says and does, but he never seems a clown; he creates a sad life for himself, but his strength in facing it holds us back from finding him pitiful.


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Other reviews / information:
The back cover review, from The New York Review Books