Keystone XL obsession, explained

With the Keystone XL pipeline proposal in the news again, lately, this seems like a good moment to pull another item up from my archives. It attempts to explain the bizarre depth of Republican politicians’ obsession with a pipeline that supposedly won’t make much of of a difference to anything, an obsession that seems all the more arbitrary with oil prices tumbling.

I created this about three years ago, and would probably adjust it a bit if I were starting over today. The red slice would probably be at least 50%, e.g. But, obviously, this is essentially a “fake” infographic; the relative proportions are the point rather than precise numbers.

Because they're psychotic.

All the manga in Japan

One ray of sunlight amid the gloom: I’m starting to think about a trip to Japan later this year. Perhaps I can write more about this later. At the moment, though, it has inspired a small diversion…

In the spirit of the What If series by Randall Munroe, and prompted by a (mostly) joking suggestion from comics’ #1 fan, I feel like investigating

What if I bought all the manga in Japan?

This feels like a question that pleads to become a catchphrase, at the very least; move over “all the tea in China.” I am confident that “all the manga” offers, at the very least, a valid synonym for “a lot.” As for greater precision than this…

Obviously it’s complicated. In theory there should be a real answer, in that I’m thinking about real physical objects; if we took all of the manga in Japan right at this moment and counted it up, it should be entirely possible to determine its weight and volume, at least. (Price would be much more complex even in theory.) There is some inevitable gray area, though, introduced by questions of “what counts as manga.” That of course is just theory, never mind practice.

In practice, to cut to the chase, I’m largely just going to make some things up and try to come up with a figure that (once more with Munroe as my model) at least offers some order-of-magnitude accuracy, probably. If nothing else, I’m curious whether it’s conceivable that “all the manga” could be loaded into a single container ship. Or even some plausibly low number of them. It wouldn’t shock me… but then again I could be way off. Let’s start estimating…

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2014 Year in Review

I don’t really have a big Year in Review post in me this year. I don’t know how much that’s me slowing down, or the novelty wearing off; perhaps a little from column A and a little from column B.

For the most part, certainly in terms of the creative/work theme on which I have focused in previous years, the story of 2014 was publishing another book and otherwise just hanging on. I’m still proud of Cotton’s Library, and the fact that I was the first person in its four-century existence to write and publish a book-length history of this important collection. Still, I guess that having done this once before, something of the wow factor is missing this time. I’m not sure what it says that I can feel like researching, writing and publishing a book is just part of the old routine… but that’s kind of how it feels now.

Work in 2014 also had a “keep doing my thing and try to make ends meet” lack of magic. At the moment, most of my clients are with one firm, so a lot of the work is of a kind, in addition to being sharing-restricted anyway. They do throw challenges at me, but not too many are the type of challenge that is solved by exploring new frontiers in creative design. Lot of charts dense with numbers, lot of coordinate maps. More Microsoft PowerPoint…

Otherwise, I did a surprising amount of drawing, including this, this and a series including this. I began researching a third book. I also had some interesting minor adventures like visiting the Cartoon Library, revisiting archives from my college house-presidency for a current-resident archivist, and changing ISPs. That last one was really less an adventure than a fiasco, though, and on the whole…

Really, 2014 was kind of a downer year, to be honest. I feel a deeper pessimism about the society around me than, very possibly, ever. Contrarians can offer all the “the world is actually getting better!” items they want, and I’m aware that there is a lot of the world about which I have little more than a hypothetical awareness… but pretty much all the world with which I feel any practical affinity seems like it’s locked onto a negative trajectory for years to come. Basically, I see a world of which I just don’t want to be part, and no practical alternatives.

That just makes for a drag, every day, basically. Meanwhile my individual existence hasn’t been on any kind of offsetting highlight trip, as noted. “I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries…”

And this just seems like that’s basically that for now. Tough crap, keep on slogging. I have some plans and ideas, inevitably; I maintain some expectation of wringing some juice from life in 2015 come what may.

But it does seem like “keep doing my thing and try to make ends meet” will predominate.

Opting out of the NFL

I may do a year-in-review post a bit later, but for the moment I feel like writing a bit about a minor item of 2014, in most ways: turning aside from the NFL.

I suppose the arc of my interest in the NFL spanned about 20 years. Up until high school I never took particular interest in sports, as participant or spectator. Then… peer pressure, I guess? I wasn’t drinking, smoking or taking part in any other illicit activities, but I also wasn’t comfortable with isolating myself completely from the mainstream of my peers. Adopting a team* popular among some of their number worked for me.

I think the NFL must have been the first sport/league of which I really developed a functional understanding. The NES classic Tecmo Super Bowl was undoubtedly a great help here. The 1990 season has remained my baseline for evaluating NFL affairs ever since, in a lot of ways. I still bust out this 8-bit masterpiece from time to time, too. I played a couple games of “Tecmo” just last night in fact.

In 2014, though, that has been about it for NFL stuff.

After 20 years, I simply did not return from the (period formerly known as the) off-season this year. Just didn’t really feel like it.

There is no one reason, as usual. The revolting spectacle of millionaires vs billionaires in a greed-off a couple of years ago was probably a big shove. Since then, as most observers would acknowledge, the NFL has been through a series of scandals adequate to prompt “will football survive” essays. The league’s predictable stonewalling has not exactly fed or watered my enthusiasm for it, nor has the continued extortion, by millionaires and billionaires, of public money.

I should emphasize that I don’t regard dropping out of NFL nation as a test of moral superiority. I have abandoned neither college football nor the NBA, each of which shares more than one of the NFL’s offenses. I can quibble about how the NFL seems worse, when all is added up, but the difference is ultimately quantitative rather than qualitative; if it’s wrong to be a fan of the NFL then it’s wrong to be a fan of those other entertainments. I can’t go quite that far. All of them are compromised, certainly, but we live brief lives in a fundamentally compromised world, and on the list of Evils that People Should Stop Enabling, the NFL is a long way from the top. Even I don’t make it through the day on virtue and righteousness alone; if the NFL makes existence a bit more bearable for you, I think “go right ahead” is an entirely valid answer.

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Lord of the Rings, 2014

I have been re-reading The Lord of the Rings this month. Looks like it has been about four years since the last read-through; this always feels like a bit of an event, probably not least because it’s 1,000 pages. I seem to appreciate new elements on each reading, though.

This time, I was struck most of all by how much LotR is, arguably, a post-apocalyptic novel. My thinking along these lines was inspired by comments, (discovered by me) earlier this year, from Max Gladstone:

Magic in Tolkien’s works is big and vast and ancient. His characters relate to that magic with awe, with fear, and occasionally with love. No one tries to hack the One Ring. Certainly no one tries to build a new one!

In the sense of magic as simply “any technology sufficiently advanced,” a similar dynamic is often present in the post-apocalyptic genre. Leftover machinery no longer understood, certainly not well enough to make more, essentially becomes magic objects.

Middle Earth resembles post-apocalyptic worlds in other ways, too. This is something that is really only evident in the novel, as Jackson’s films condense a lot of the story, particularly movement through the landscape. Even with three-hour extended editions, the movies mostly whiz through Middle Earth at something like the speed of modern travel, with most of the realms between the major capitals blurred like scenery outside a bullet train. The novel, though, repeatedly notes this ruin, or that extinct kingdom. Just the relatively thin population of Middle Earth, by itself, feels post-apocalyptic. The sheer amount of uninhabited but fertile land seems to point unavoidably to a great plague or war, even when a now-vanished settlement is not mentioned explicitly.

Technically, it would be more accurate to describe the Third Age of Middle Earth as a post-decline world, as there is no one concentrated collapse in its background. Reflecting on it, I concluded that in a sense one might for that matter apply the same term to its real-world analogue, Dark Age Europe. Much of Europe, in the centuries after the western Roman Empire fell, is arguably the greatest post-decline scenario in human history: populations reduced by plague and war, scraping out a living in the wreckage of trade and information networks and other infrastructure that sometimes still functioned (roads, aqueducts) but was no longer being maintained, let alone extended. Rome itself, reduced almost to a ghost town for a time, calls to mind any number of locations in Middle Earth.

All of this feels rather post-apocalyptic, and I’m not sure there’s any firm division. What is an apocalypse but a very, very sudden decline, after all?

Meanwhile, Gladstone’s remarks prompted one other related set of observations, about the one character in LotR who conceivably would attempt to hack the One Ring, and to make a new one: Saruman. He is a hacker, a tinkerer, an experimenter in mysterious magic/technology undaunted by any fear or awe. If Middle Earth is a post-apocalyptic world, then Saruman is a mad scientist eagerly seeking to recover every bit of technology remaining, and to unlock its secrets. Not just ring-lore, either. Saruman’s dabbling in explosives, orc genetics, and even proto-industrialization. The movies make more of this last item than do the novels, I’ll confess, but they didn’t invent it and on the whole Saruman is a veritable Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

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Charlie Brown Christmas thoughts

Christmas time once more. I’m still working on getting completely into the swing of things. A week of chaos related (but not exclusive) to changing ISPs has not helped. On the other hand, I’m organized; I’m well along with most of my shopping, lights and decorations are up, Christmas Ale is purchased, my brother’s latest drawing commission is (finally) done, and my cards are underway. Though that last was a trial this year. May post more about this at my design blog, later…

For the moment, though, a thought or two about the timeless Charlie Brown Christmas special. I do like this little cartoon, certainly. (In fact, I may actually buy the DVD just because ABC positively butchered it this year with how many scenes they cut to squeeze in more ads…) Mostly because of tradition, and the inherent endearing character of Peanuts in general, I suppose. I wouldn’t call it brilliant, but it has been around for generations now, really, and it feels like it never gets old. So many scenes and lines and images feel like solid, reassuring cultural reference points.

That said, there are… one or two points of interest, as the great one would say. Particularly related to the last act. For years, now—probably ever since I resumed viewing the CBC after a sort of hiatus from Christmas in my 20s—I have puzzled over Charlie Brown’s disappearance from the stage just before the final scene. Chuck moans “I’ve killed it,” etc., walks offstage, his peers amble up and perform their miracle with the Saddest Christmas Tree Ever, start caroling, and he returns for the big finale. What does he do in the interim? Obviously, this is trivial as can be, and yet every time I watch now, it feels as mysterious and tantalizing as the 18-minute tape gap.

It isn’t difficult to come up with a simple explanation. Chuck goes inside, slumps down in a chair in despair for a moment… then sees and/or hears activity outside, and goes to investigate. But… does he take off his coat and boots, then put them back on, in that short time? More to the point, does anything else happen? He sees the day’s mail, maybe? Catches something on TV? Grabs a snack? Ponders the meaning of life? Stands on the porch listening to his parents argue (wa-wa-wa)? It just feels like there is something missing here. Maybe it’s poignant, maybe not, but the way the star of the show vanishes at that crucial moment without explanation just haunts me. I suppose “the world may never know.”

This year, meanwhile, another little oddity struck me for the very first time.

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Cotton’s Library art, charts and maps

Cotton’s Library includes, by my count, a dozen pieces of artwork. The majority of it is my own work, in some sense, if only because I produced my own hand-renderings rather than pay for (or outright steal) rights-restricted digital images.

The situation is similar for three charts and graphs, though in this case I produced new computer illustrations more for a combination of quality and clarity. For much the same reasons, I’m going to post those charts and graphs online, here. The ebook format, after two go-rounds, just seems to me like it is not a great platform for images. It definitely is not a great platform for large and/or complicated diagrams. The Cotton’s Library epub omits a family tree that appears in the print editions, and the Kindle edition—which is even less friendly to images owing to a range of devices that render a given picture anywhere from thumbnail size to enormous—omits that plus a map.

I don’t want anyone to be shortchanged, though, if I can help it. So here are nice, big PNG files that should (at full size) make everything nearly as clear as the print edition. First, the context of Cotton House in Westminster c. 1630…

Map of Cotton House in historic Westminster (London)

Click for larger image. (Based on research by Colin Tite)

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Cotton’s Library release day!

The official release date for Cotton’s Library is here! You can buy my new book!

To review quickly, this is the story of an incredible 400-year-old collection that has gone through more lives than a cat, and needed them all. Today’s national treasure was repeatedly ignored, pilfered, suppressed, and threatened by fire throughout its long history. Cotton’s Library is the first book-length examination of the whole, mad epic.

The first! Ever!

Retailers should be listing Cotton’s Library soon, if they aren’t already, but you can buy hardcover, paperback or ebook editions here right this minute. Paper books are 20% off the list price, no special codes or gimmicks.

Please have a look at least! You can read a substantial free excerpt here.

n.b. Not entirely by coincidence, this is also the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I’s Accession Day; though Sir Robert Cotton spent most of his career working for the Stuarts, it would be fair to suggest that both he and his library were products of the Elizabethan world.

Keystone XL

Let’s be clear on something. The KeystoneXL pipeline project is a pipeline to bigger climate risks.

This is a basic fact, regardless of any official report stating otherwise. As a friend of mine with an MBA has confirmed, the main thing he learned in earning it is that for any analysis of this scale, 2 + 2 = “whatever you want it to.”

The suggestion that “building this pipeline will not contribute substantially to carbon pollution” does not stand up to simpler, less “flexible” tests. The client for this project is an industry that enables the combustion of very, very dirty carbon fuels. That’s how they make money, that’s their agenda, that’s the purpose of this pipeline. If the assertion that “the pipeline won’t make a difference to climate change because the tar sands will be burned either way” were true, why would TransCanada (and its subsidiary, the Canadian Parliament) be so obsessed with their desire for the pipeline?

If it “won’t make a difference,” why waste good resources on a years-long lobbying effort?

Ultimately, any proposal for how pursuit of KXL advances a profit motive, but does not exacerbate carbon pollution, ignores the core problem of climate change politics. If profits from exploitation of fossil fuels were really something separable from increasing carbon pollution, there would not be a controversy. There is one, however, because these phenomena are joined at the hip.

Suggestions to the contrary = making shit up.

Kuhns’s Law

Just a marker, for whatever it’s worth; I don’t think one gets a choice in this kind of thing and I doubt it’s going to be an issue anyway, but if there ever is a “Kuhns’s Law,” here’s my current best suggestion.

More often than not, people will define a “path to progress” as “more people/institutions sharing my beliefs/biases/preferences.”

Any added value here is very dependent on precision. Obviously, correlation between someone advocating program x, and program x advancing his or her personal wants, is very high. This is a bit different. What I’m picking up on is a tendency for people to believe that others need to be more like them, and to see in this a general improvement to society, or even the solution to any of a range of specific problems.

For example, what should we do about an economy that is excluding most people from the benefits of growth? Well, surprise surprise, Mark Zuckerberg believes fervently that more people need to “learn to code.”

What should we do about the risks of a greenhouse gas build-up wrecking Earth’s climate? Out of all the many many courses that could in theory resolve this global collective action problem? Surprise surprise, a vegetarian homes right in on livestock and concludes that the best thing you can do is stop eating meat.

I see this phenomenon frequently, since having recognized a pattern. I wonder if it is in some sense driven by the instinct to spawn; as with biological reproduction, it offers the prospect of adding rough copies of one’s self to the world, just in a behavioral rather than genetic sense. In fairness, I must admit that one can also look at this from the other direction, and consider whether there’s any alternative besides “do as I say, not as I do.” It’s a good question, but I think it’s also a good question whether or not it makes any sense to look at this from that direction; I have the impression that most people “discover” that x will solve all kinds of problems after they’ve been practicing x anyway, rather than the other way around.

Finally, I should note that I don’t want to slam people too hard, here. The instance that prompted this post, in fact, was this tweet from a friend whom I respect greatly. I am sure that if I start looking, I will be able to find instances of myself doing this same thing.

But, I think that’s the main value of a “law” like this, if any. Once you recognize something like this as a tendency, you begin taking notice of it… which allows you to call out other people, yes, but also hopefully allows you to start correcting for it in your own arguments.

It’s worth a try.