Thursday, June 4, 2015

Embracing the Cloud

I want to believe that my head works better than most heads. I want to know shit that nobody else knows, and I crave the capacity to figure out puzzles, usually by routes nobody else would have taken. And in particular, when it comes to recalling the past, I want to remember everything.  Sharp, rich recollections are the most useful raw materials for any writer.

Unfortunately, the universe doesn't have much interest in what I want.

In some areas, my brain works well. Bits of science, bits of world history. But I’m lousy with every language besides Midwestern American.  Always have been.  I’m also taxed by fresh names and the strangers attached to those names.  At 58, I'm beginning to feel as if my head is juggling too many faces and too many complicated life stories.  A shortage of cognitive RAM, that’s what this is.  I hope. And to make matters worse, authentic lives are vast and murky, badly acted and most endings happening far offstage.

But despite those liabilities, my personal past remains immediate.  My childhood.  My twenties.  And to varying degrees, events closer to today.  The substance of conversations that everybody else has forgotten: That's my specialty.  Facial expressions, the tone of the voice, and the buried, revealing meanings inside offhand statements.  The precise phrasing usually gets lost.  (My wife, the trained journalist, does a far better job pulling out authentic quotes.)  But I like to believe that the heart of every important conversation is mine to hold.

I began to write in junior high, Bic pens filling up spiral notebooks. But no matter the writer's name, editors don’t like inky scribbles.  So I learned to type. There was an old black Underwood with an agreeable rattling music, and in college, a manual office Royal.  Where other students tried pot, I experimented with an electric third-hand IBM, learning to despise its humming, hot engine and how it shut off without warning.  Later came a succession of electronic typewriters.  "Pragmatism" is my middle name, and those early digital days brought me a series of electronic Brothers.  I still sent paper manuscripts to the magazines, but I'd reached a point where I could at least save my work as ASCII files. If the story was bought, I had to tuck a magical disk inside a magnetically-protected envelope and then launch both by mail.  But this sluggish evolution frustrated the markets.  I can't recall our actual words, but one important editor warned me that with all the money she’d sent my way, I should buy a real computer.  Which was a $1500 investment, as I recall.  The CPU and monitor, a printer and all of that other necessary crap.  At 5 cents a word, a state-of-the-art beast was rather less important than paying my rent.


Three more conversations come to mind.

My brother is three and a half years younger, though strangers often assume that I’m the younger one.  He has always enjoyed responsibilities and paychecks as well as notoriety in his profession.  And being a brother, he thinks he knows more than his sibling knows, and I should welcome his gracious help.

I liked those cheap electronic typewriters.  Dimwitted pieces of machinery helped me write all of my early successes, and like cherished lovers, each died under me while I was enjoying myself.  At the same time, my brother was working for a college, inhabiting an office filled with new Apple computers, and with a very serious tone, he informed me that I needed to buy one of these marvels.

Honest as can be, I explained that no, computers were too expensive.  If I wasn't working part-time, I wasn't working. Besides the writing, of course.  $1500 was too much of an investment in a machine that looked as if it would break down two seconds after you began believing in it.

But my brother refused to let it go, which generated a second painful conversation.

“You really need a computer,” he said.  “It’s the wave of the future.”

Those probably aren't his words.  But the “wave of the future” cliche was buried in his argument.

Needing another rebuttal, I offered my best second answer:  I hated the green letters riding on the dark background.  And I meant that word, “hated." I absolutely despised that flashing cursor and the slow responses, and those old screens that were either tiny or extraordinarily expensive.

Nothing deserves scorn like two honest answers.

There was a third conversation, and again I suffered the pestering tone, that younger-sibling-knows-best attitude.  And being tired of this shit, I finally offered an idea that he apparently believed.  Because years later, seeing me pushing through my working life, my brother said, “But hey, I thought you hated technology.”

Apparently he had forgotten my two genuine excuses.


Newly married, with two credit cards and a healthy bank account, I felt flush.  But I still avoided purchasing a computer.  My wife with the real job took that gamble.  A Windows 95 system.  No green glow on the monitor.  My new brother-in-law worked for Gateway, and we got what we thought was a solid deal.  The entire system cost us $2000, including the printer and a lot of software that sounded essential. And then a few hours after we made the historic order, the transmission of our Chrysler LeBaron’s failed.

My wife’s computer was always hers.  Except when I played Civilization 2, which was a wonderfully compulsive game that I have no interest in returning to.  I really don’t.  Except today, working on this little essay, I still see the very simple, very random landscapes generated by the computer, and the enemy armies that I had to face, and Christ, I get halfway embarrassed, remembering how those nonexistent empires would piss me off.

For writing, I stayed loyal to electronic typewriters.  But the ribbon cartridges were growing scarce and Brother wasn't building new models.  I had no choice but purchase my own computer, another Gateway, and not long after that--I believe this is correct--my wife’s machine began to have enormous troubles.  Something about the hard-drive needing to be reformatted, and a friendly voice in North Dakota told me how to do this necessary chore. The woman's husband was serving in the Air Force, I recall. And I remember asking if it was important, hearing a distinct pop when I booted up the machine one day.  “No, that's nothing,” she lied.  Later, my brother-in-law admitted that Gateway had shitty hard-drives, but a good reformatting could give you another few months of illusionary health.

As a rule, my computers always lasted just long enough.  I used them daily, sometimes for full days and part of the night, and I've been both lucky and shrewd when picking my particular species of Windows.  My first was a 97--reliable and not too slow.  My second and third computers were XP.  Very stable, at least compared to the frail contraption where the operating system lived.  Through my wife’s machines, I got to experience the prurient challenges of Millennium and then Vista.  Which leads me to this observation:  Terrorists have tried and tried, but that have never inflected as much economic pain on the West as Microsoft manages with its balky operating systems.  Viruses swarm. Commerce stops while Windows reboots. And then comes the blue-screen-of-death, wiping away one woman’s faltering dreams of doing the household books.

Hating Microsoft is the central cliche of our age.

It's like hating the Yankees. Except in this case, what you despise is living inside your house. Mickey has broken into your liquor cabinet, the Babe is chasing your women, and A Rod is sitting on your office desk, shooting god knows what into his arm.


Good writing has many ticks, but one very important item is usually neglected by those who teach writing.

The words you use are just not that important.

Imagine your favorite story. Right now, think of the tale that stirred your imagination most when you were seven or seventeen.  Or sixty-three.  I bet you don’t remember every word used by the author.  You might have a few passages memorized, but not five or fifty thousands words, you don’t.  Unless you're someone who wants trying to steal honest work from a computer.

For the purpose of this writing exercise, let's agree that this is the perfect story.  You remember where you read it. You still get a buzz just thinking it. The story lives in your mind.  But the specific words are gone.  In fact, they've been removed from the world, every copy burned, every digital file erased. And now let’s say that you want to resurrect that piece of fiction.  Resurrect it just from memory, and you’re a good enough writer to pull off this trick.  And you aren’t the only one trying.  On the same day, ten thousand and nineteen other compulsive fans set to work.

All of you remember the basic plot and most of the characters.  But nobody knows the specific letters used or the spaces between letters or those dots and dashes that make copy editors happy.  Ten thousand and twenty people set to work independently, and the project takes a full year, and twenty of you die during those months.  But the rest of you endure and succeed, and that’s why ten thousand versions of that first story now exist.

For shits and giggles, let’s assume that each version is a success.

Ten thousand stories, and each is its own beast.  Very similar characters and very similar adventures, but in the end, each effort is unique.

This is what I mean when I claim that the specific words don’t matter nearly as much as you might believe.


My first laptop was a Windows 7 machine--a slab of plastic and rare-earths that cooked my thighs for several years.  I was loyal to Microsoft Word in that way you have to be loyal in a monopolistic world.  I knew there were other writing programs, but I was comfortable with this one.  If usually took a few minutes to boot up the machine in the morning, and unless there were updates and patches, but I could always do other things.  And well, sure, the machine might lock up before noon, but I could always reboot and have lunch while waiting for that ritual to pass.

I don’t recall when I started playing with Google Drive, but I'm rather sure it was called Google Docs.  Maybe.  I had a much slower Internet connection, and the program wasn’t as advanced or as stable as it is today. But what I appreciated, probably from the first few lines, was the simplicity.  “Pragmatic” means stripped down and clean, and Docs didn't distract me with features that I never used, writing like a crazy boy until the Internet gave out.  Which it always seemed to do.

Eventually I moved all of my files to Docs/Drive.

But I kept local copies on venerable Word.  And of course I leaned hard on Microsoft whenever I had to deal with the larger, less forward-thinking publishing world.

Chromebooks already existed.  At first I didn't have any burning urge for that kind of machinery.  But I got more comfortable with the Googleverse, and Samsung put out a well reviewed and wonderfully portable Chromebook.  I wanted portability.  I wanted to pay less than $300, which is a pretty cheap revolution.  And after making that enormous step, I felt absolutely entitled to be furious when the machine refused to load my longer works, and then three days into the relationship, the keypad stopped playing nice.

I sent the Samsung back to Amazon, but still enamored with the idea of writing in coffee shops around Lincoln, I bought a second PC, a Toshiba Satellite ultrabook.

The Toshiba proved heavy and slow-witted and I hated the keys.

Which leads me to another professional observation: Words do matter, but the writer’s relationship to his or her keys can matter almost as much.

I stayed with my old slow workhorse laptop, although the machine continued to get crankier and hotter, collecting various species of malware as the months passed.  Then Acer put out their little C720, the model with 4 gigs of RAM and a dependable solid-state drive.  For more than a year, that little Acer screen and keyboard were my closest companions, and the old computers were booted up only on special occasions, for Word work and updating, and a good round of cursing too.

That new normalcy might have continued for another year or two.

But the Toshiba Chromebook 2 came out, sporting a gorgeous screen. I couldn’t ignore the opportunity.  Amazon didn’t have any C2s in stock, so I went to Best Buy, coming home with a machine that served me well enough for several months.  But despite the beauty of its display, it proved laggy, particularly with the largest files.  Plus the space bar and I never liked each other.  And then Google, knowing my mind better than I do, suddenly put out a new top-of-the-line marvel:  The Pixel 2015.

I bought the cheaper of the two Pixels, which can't be confused for cheap.  The Ludicrous Speed with 16 gigs of RAM and the i7 processor was a temptation, but my i5 Pixel is already like a gun being brought to a knife fight.  The LS delivers a platoon of Marines, and I couldn’t justify that additional expense.


I’m not a business man.  I am the business.  My head is my office, my factory, while these digital files are my showroom and warehouse.  The Pixel is a dream for typing, and it is swift swift swift, and the screen is brilliant and rock-solid clear, and when I guess about the future, I can imagine remaining loyal to this one machine for years.  Particularly as Google brings in more functions, including android apps and a better music player...well, my new best friend is going to grow faster and more competent.  Not slower and dumber.  Which is what every normal PC will do.

Two minutes of power washing, and I gave the Toshiba Chromebook to my daughter, and she put in her account info and was loaded and ready in minutes.  Which is another huge benefit with the Chrome  OS:  Like Doctor Who, you wipe away one identity, giving a new face and personality its chance to shine.

My old machines are still in the house.  And in fact, they’re busier than ever.  The Toshiba ultrabook became a much better machine when I stripped it of iTunes and Word and all of the bloatware that I could find.  I use LibreOffice for the occasional Word problem, and a lightweight program when I need a pdf reader, and doubling the RAM helped quite a bit too.  When I need a PC, there it is, booting up in a surprisingly brief while.  Meanwhile, the old Acer remains my emergency Chromebook, and just to see if I could, I pulled the tiny hard-drive, replacing it with a 100 gig monster.  In Chrome terms, that’s gigantic.  Then I put on Crouton and a Linux OS--xfce--that runs like grease beside my normal Chrome files. The only problem is that I can't seem to download my Google Play movies.  A bug?  A feature?  Don’t know yet.

As the original laptop, the heavy hot quirky Dell?  Windows 7 is banished.  After several experiments, I settled on Linux Mint Cinnamon.  Mint comes with a program to analyze your hard-drive, and Mint warned me that my drive was failing and to back up everything, preferably last week.  But I just yanked the old drive instead, replacing it with a 120 gig SSD beauty, and now I have a Linux machine that flies.

I’m considering throwing Linux on the Pixel, for fun and to increase its functionality.

Sometimes I think this is just the beginning. Growing comfortable with the magic, I'm making for the day when I back myself up on the Cloud.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Unsolvable 5, Part 2

Toes to the fire, here’s a confession plenty of agnostics would make:

I prayed once. Earnestly, fiercely prayed.

Nine or ten years-old, I was on a bad-news softball team embroiled in some kind of tournament.  In those days, I was a right-field specialist.  It’s a very difficult position, contemplating the universe from a portion of the field where almost nothing happens.  But I have one reliable excuse for being a lousy fielder:  My glove.  More toy than a professional instrument, it was slick plastic and undersized.  Somebody, probably my father, cheaped-out when they bought it for me, and they must have felt wise as a consequence, seeing how I couldn't catch half of the balls hit to me.


I was sitting on the bench when prayer happened.  Details suffer, what with the decades and the lack of ESPN coverage.  But I know it was a strange field in some distant part of town, and we were playing under the lights, both factors giving the event far more importance than it deserved.  I don’t know if I was pulled from the field as a defensive measure or waiting my turn to go up and swing at the fat, slow, impossible-to-smash ball.  Either way, we were losing and losing badly, and I was unusually worked up about our lousy play and anguished about my role in this ongoing tragedy.  That’s why I struck up a conversation with God.  Starting out with the old nonsense about “I don’t ask for much” seemed like a worthwhile tactic.  I remember that much.  Shameless as can be, I begged for one little effort on the Almighty's part.  Was it so damned hard, making a couple balls fly where they normally didn't belong?

It’s interesting to consider:  What if we had rallied and won?  What if I was the boy who cranked the dramatic home run?  Would I now be approaching forty years of service to God as a priest in the Episcopal Church?

The image brings a chill.

Despite my temporary passion for softball, and despite all the good that might have come from one little miracle, we lost our game.  And I will take a moment now to argue that my experience is common.  No team has ever won shit through prayer.  Dumb luck, yes.  Ignorant foolish unfair luck never sleeps.  But when your team relies on its resident skeptic to talk to the Creator, then you know that you have already dug yourself a considerable grave.


On the subject of prayer:  I've read about studies that have tried to test the concept, studies generating data and using statistical methods to examine the data.  In particular, researchers have tried to determine if sickly people can be helped with nothing but a few well-practiced chants.

Guess what.  You can’t help them.

What I recall from one paper is that the only possible relationship, and this was very slight, was that more prayer was tied to a slightly reduced chance of survival.  In agnostic eyes that means big-hearted people know the patient is miserably sick, and they liked the old gal, and that’s why they throw in an extra dose or three of self-reported magic.

And my point in this?

I don’t believe in God’s existence.  But being agnostic, I have no taste for God’s nonexistence either.  Agnostics and atheists are different beasts.  We have separate meetings, different secret handshakes.  Atheists are The Faithful of a different sort, while agnostics have very few opinions about Cosmic politics. Personally I have nearly zero faith in every kind of magic.  A philosophy that has always hamstrung me as a fantasy writer, but the same sensibility has made a better, more furious SF writer.

As a rule, I don’t believe in optimism serving as a tonic for what ails you.  But being human, I’m capable of making wishes.  I wish for things that I can imagine, using a voice even less sophisticated than the voice used during prayer.  Sunshine after a long dreary patch of rain.
Who doesn’t imagine that?  Strong knees.  Everybody wants strong, stable knees. Everybody envisions professional successes, and if that happens, we greedily want more success.  And more than any other father in this universe, I wish my daughter finds enough happiness to carry her over life’s random disasters.

Being an SF writer, I also wish for truly big things.

A video transmission from aliens, for instance.

One lush plateau in the Amazon crowded with dinosaurs.

And I want an event that would seem utterly miserable should it occur.  But the misery brings humanity to its senses, which would a blessing beyond value.

I imagine the sudden release of melt water from the West Antarctic ice sheet.  That’s what I want for Christmas.  The seas rise a credible distance and in a frighteningly brief period of time.  I want people leaving Miami Beach and complaining to the cameras about their losses. Unfortunately I’m also hoping that a million strangers in Bangladesh drown or die as refugees.  A one-foot rise in one impossible year:  That would force the world to look hard at itself and make the easy necessary changes.

But being a charitable nonbeliever, I also wish that the collapsing glaciers manage to cool the southern seas enough to stop the melt for ten years, give or take.  Until we’re complacent again, and then another wave of destruction, and our resolve rises with the waves.


Modest Biblical floods aren’t among the most likely futures.  Data and the computer models show that three giant glacial masses are melting today.  Greenland and the two pieces of Antarctica.  They’ll undoubtedly melt faster in the future, but they probably won't peel away from the crust and ocean floor tomorrow, as in Hollywood spectacular-style.  Unless of course the models are wrong.  Which does happen now and again. So there's that hope, praise the Lord.

I won’t pretend optimism anywhere.  I don’t imagine any sudden fever of reason washing across the world.  Nations and entire cultures aren’t going to do the simple blunt and very workable act of taxing carbon.  Moral people can and will do minimal actions according to their own sensibilities.  I can lower my thermostat.  If my wife is at work, I can lower it even more.  I can also compost my banana peels and coffee grounds.  But those are tropical indulgences brought north at a respectable cost to the environment, and I still demand bananas and coffee in my life, and aren't I a shit?

The collective decency of smug people doesn’t change the grand equations. Certainly not in the time allotted.  The world is getting warmer.  There will be droughts and blistering summers punctuated with awful storms.  Nations will fail, and some of the collapses will have climate as a recognized agent.  There could even be patches of ground where summers grow too hot for too long.  Electrical systems will crash, air conditioners will crash, and wet-bulb temperatures best left in the lab will suffocate thousands and millions of praying souls.

No, I won’t pretend optimism here.

But I don’t believe in pure pessimism either.  And why is that?  Because I have a robust sense of human adaptability.

The average person will die younger than she “should”.  But barring other global disasters, lifespans in this century will remain long.  Certainly better than the mortality rates stood five centuries ago. And it's worth wagering that in every period of history, many people were absolutely convinced that they were content, if not outright happy.

Wealth is going to suffer.  Not that there won’t be rich people or fertile societies.  And for that matter, certain industries and professions will prosper during the coming decades.  We can hope that private militias aren’t the growth industry of 2051.  My suspicion is that some of my neighbors will make fortunes growing milo, that lowly grain that says “fuck you” to drought and heat. And anyone who builds compelling games and other virtual reality playgrounds...well, they'll be eating bananas at Starbucks long after the rest of us are dreaming of milo stew.

On the matter of imperiled nations:

Certain countries look risky on paper.  Drought and heat as well as political trouble could spell the end for Egypt.  And probably Texas too.  But Pakistan is perched near the top of my worry-list.  A mostly young population in a society with minimal infrastructures, a failing education system, and a government that won’t rid itself of corruption.  Plus uranium.  Pakistan has U-235 in abundance.  Which is the added spice for a cauldron that will probably simmer for the rest of this century, if not out and out explode.

And yet.

Put two hundred million Americans into today's Pakistan, and nothing good would happen.  We’d battle each other for power outlets.  We’d sit in the dark, weeping about lost comforts.  As long as we think like Americans, we would be useless to ourselves and our future. But miserable Pakistan has shown enough backbone to survive until now, which is an amazing, mostly unheralded accomplishment.

And then there’s India.  The larger, not-so-different brother of Pakistan certainly deserves concern.  Its bombs aren’t uranium-based, but plutonium, which is harder to steal and far harder to handle. And India seems enjoys more education and prosperity, a farther reaching bureaucracy, as well as a diverse and somewhat united population--if only in comparison to its neighbors.  But India also has too many people and too little potable water, and while the British left behind cricket and the iron-backed civil servant, they also left a fondness for burning coal and dreaming big.  Shifting monsoons and great droughts could ravage entire regions.  The heat alone might kill cities.  Or Pakistan dies, either in a regional war or from a succession of human-inspired disasters.  And living next to a radioactive failed state is the kind of nightmare that should put an Indian politician in the mood for making peace and building good lasting bonds.

Of course I’m not Indian.

Set me down in Mumbai, and I am as lost as a right-fielder with a toy glove.

Yet that spirit of deep ignorance makes me hopeful about the situation in southern Asia.

India and Pakistan have to come to terms.  Because the only choices besides accommodation are so very miserable, or unlikely, or just daft.

Will Pakistan ever have the power to remove its neighbor from the equation?


And even if India could win a blunt war, or avoid war with a dying Pakistan, what would remain?  A stateless neighbor, heavily armed and profoundly angry.  With U-235 sitting inside its file drawers.

With humans, at some point history and hate will mean less than a person's immediate survival.  And that’s the heart of what I wish for.

The idea is growing inside all of us, telling us that our survival is at stake.


I'm asking. Out of all the things people do with their days and nights, what is the most fundamental human activity? What can we do inside one long weekend, taking pleasure and then coming away telling ourselves, “Now that’s about as fundamental as you can get, all things considered.”

A weekend of dancing, some are thinking.

I hate dancing.

Drinking colorful cocktails.

Well, there certainly is that opinion.

Three days and nights of sex parties.

Really?  You’re thinking that?

What I’m suggesting here is an activity that cuts to the core of our species.  That reaches back to our very beginning.  Which communes with our forefathers in ways nothing else can.

I’m talking about L.L. Bean.

I am thinking about colorful tents and smoky fires, food eighty steps removed from grilled mammoth...and yet wild food nonetheless.


What I wish for is some event, vast and obvious, that leaves our world ready to camp.  I’m not imagining every stomach surviving on the paleo diet, which would be pretty much a nightmare for meat everywhere.  Or even everybody inside a tent.  No, I'm just hoping for a sequence of events that convinces us to take a little trip, building a new kind of home and new routines while living inside that more minimal existence.  Plane flights are rare.  When you travel, buses and self-piloted electric cars are the norm.  (I have little faith in American abilities to build continent-spanning train lines.)  By “camping”, I don’t mean misery.  I don’t even mean a standard of living that hearkens back to the 1880s.  I just want us to be fancy refugees on a world that is trying to take everything from us, and in order to free up resources for the great fight, we go camping for the next hundred years.

Al Gore loves the frog-in-the-warming-water story.

Lift the temperature gradually, and the frog doesn’t realize that he’s being cooked.

But let’s take the frog in a new direction.

Scare him.

Down he goes, diving deep into the cool depths of the pond, holding his breath until the danger vanishes.

That’s what I wish for.

People ready to make the dive.

But I won’t pray for it, no.  If God can’t fix a fucking softball game, She sure as hell can’t fix this inevitable mess.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Unsolvable 5, Part 1

This is the first piece in a series of articles:  The initial bullet in a small hopeless magazine about the human future.

Think my tone's too grim?

Wait and see.


I'd like to believe reasonable people will agree about certain issues.  Tomorrow has a date and there's no choice in the matter.  Gravity is real, although the force isn't understood particularly well. And there are groups, small well-defined groups, who know a lot more than the rest of us. These are specialists. Their brains and years have been focused on fascinating, often narrow questions. And it's hard to argue that these people, taken together, are idiots or liars, or both.

The future is full of potential choke points.  Respected, venerable sciences are doing the work, and they aren't just pulling numbers out their asses.  There are data. Hard clean respectable and very predictable data.  Sensors in labs and sensors in the universe dance with trusted principles, everywhere and at all times.  In each field, there are proven experts who know the numbers.  The relentless, undeniable numbers.  And looking at the wealth of possibilities, these learned souls often find themselves in an important state called “bat-shit panicked”.

Yeah, scientists can panic.


And they can also drink too much beer.

Or so I've been told.

Now while we’re at it, here’s something else for us to agree about.  Something vital and inescapable:

Everything is temporary.

Our universe seems to be built on relentless, unapologetic change. And change demands destruction.  Each creation insists on annihilating some piece of what came before it.  I can’t see the future.  Not past two seconds, some days. And when I begin writing a story, from the vague thought preceding that first word, I understand that the majority of my predictions will be wrong. Many, maybe all of them will be laughably wrong.  But even if these five Unsolvable essays miss the mark--even if next week brings some curing transformation that saves the Earth and humanity--I think it is fair for reasonable people to assume that the human future will be less than eternal.

And now you know why I don’t drink.

If I started, I would never stop.




Two genuine words.  Two words with long histories and very clear meanings.  No sane voice would argue otherwise.

Carbon is an ash pulled from dead stars, and carbon happens to be an essential ingredient to almost everything necessary.  Combined with equal amounts of oxygen, and you get a house full of dead people.  But double the oxygen, and the plants grow. And if there is an increasing amount of carbon dioxide floating free, then the earth’s heat budget changes in slow, significant ways.

No rational gardener denies that her greenhouse grows warmer in the sun.  And the physics of carbon dioxide leave little room for debate.  The Earth is a really big greenhouse, and sure, trade winds can bury some of the excess heat in the deep Pacific.  And sulfur compounds can make little umbrellas in the stratosphere.  Which is why experts and pedestrians should agree: The math has wiggle room.  No climatologist would dare point to the calendar, saying that will be the day when our world is one degree warmer or ten degrees warmer.  But the numbers are relentless, the trade winds and umbrellas will falter, and the stark example of Venus proves in the abiding power of carbon dioxide.

And the situation grows even more interesting.  Combine star ash with the universe’s favorite element.  Hydrogen.  Here comes the methane.  That miracle gas can be pumped and bottled, and it can be burned.  Methane is also a remarkable drug.  It helps people feel good about themselves.  As good as beer, or better. If you don’t live with fracking beneath your feet, how can you doubt the goodness from good clean natural gas?  Don’t listen to the pollution stories.  Certainly don’t ask yourself if society can afford investing billions in buses and power plants running on stuff whose real cost is hidden.  And let’s steer well-clear of the true abundance of commercial methane, which I suspect lies outside the realm of industry projections and investor-eager PR campaigns.

Methane is a greenhouse gas with attitude.

The science of methane does not seem as simple as it does with carbon dioxide.  Yes, the gas is a fiercely effective blanket.  But how effective depends on the unit of time:  When released, a molecule of methane is a hundred times more dangerous than a molecule of carbon dioxide.  But methane combines readily with oxygen.  Methane vanishes, leaving behind carbon dioxide and water.  Which accounts for these curiously up-and-down estimates about the danger:  A hundred times worse, or twenty, or in geologic terms, negligible.

I visited London in August, 2014.  (The author’s hypocrisy is revealed; thousands of miles crossed, and our world made warmer.)  At Loncon 3, I had the bleak pleasure of listening to one of methane’s certified experts talk about gigatons and clathrates and other world-endangering concepts.  The man didn’t claim to be an optimist.  He could envision undersea avalanches throwing up notable quantities of methane.  Over time, the tundra and undersea beds would warm enough to make a difference.  But the fellow showed quite a lot of scorn for certain colleagues.  One of the oldest, least radical journals in the world of dull scientific writing is NATURE, and NATURE had the temerity to publish some very speculative, unsupported research.  Certain colleagues of his were claiming that fifty gigatons of methane were ready to burst from the sea off the northeast coast of Siberia.  It was the direst situation, so much so that if one man carelessly pissed off the end of the boat, the heat of his urine would precipitate a disaster that would quickly ratchet up the heat of the world by several degrees, costing trillions while shoving other reservoirs of methane to the brink of collapse.

Well, maybe I'm overstating both sides of this argument.  A bit.  Nobody actually talked about pissing off the boat, for instance.  But what I took away from the lecture was a palpable sense of confrontation.  One PhD didn’t agree with others.  No, he didn’t drop his pants and wag his privates at his sworn enemies.  But there was a sense of drama to his dismissal.  He disapproved of the research and its wild-eyed conclusions, and the idiots who let that idiocy get free into the idiot public deserved a scholarly dick wagging.

My point in all this?

First, I don’t recall the details of his argument.  Specific numbers are rarely necessary to successful SF.  Try to gaze into any future, and it’s best to push aside the mathematics while relishing the imagery.  A quiet Arctic sea suddenly pierced by trillions of frantic little bubbles.  That is a nightmare in action.  The world’s atmosphere transformed overnight.  It’s an event that plays a large, almost unspoken role in my “Dead Man’s Run” series.

To me, the utter collapse of the clathrates seems less likely than the milder, slower kinds of awful that other researchers predict.  To me.  But here stands my central point.

I don’t know.

I have zero right to act as if I know.

And even among experts, nobody is sure about the methane.

Except for the carbon, of course.  We can relish any opinion we want, informed and otherwise.  But the carbon and its daughters will do what they want to do, and they might or might not give us fair warning.

Carbon has no soul and no basic decency.

Carbon just IS, and the last thing the element cares about is my little opinion.


But taxes are different.

Where elements are mindless and soulless, taxes are self-aware and possessed with a measure of decency.

Didn’t know that about them, did you?

I won’t argue this point till I’m breathless.  But consider this:  Each tax exists as an arrangement between agreeable adults.  Percentages are determined by Congress or the emperor, and certain people will cheat the taxman, and certain people, like Elvis, pay their full fair share.

Tax codes are human devices.

A universe that loves hydrogen and carbon doesn't pay much attention to the write-off privileges of a self-employed author.

Taxes are changed yearly, unless they are left alone.  But they’re always subject to review and full-scale revolution.  Maybe the Tea Party man down the street makes his living in cash. A young fellow with a strong back, and he has never paid any income tax.  Good for him. But he’s just another neuron in the tax-mind.  Maybe we give rebates for fracking in Texas and for wind power in Iowa.  But don’t be grumpy.  This is the nature of any tax, to bend according to various needs, and it has always been that way.

Taxes don’t quite think, no.  But every citizen is a conscious, self-aware player in a bureaucracy born in the proto-Iraq.

Yes, we all know people who can’t accept taxation.  Their lives and life philosophies deny the merits of government and the endless need for governmental revenue.  And yes, I agree.  Those people have excellent reasons for their beliefs.  But they number in the hundreds and live in an Amazonian rain forest growing smaller by the day.  Stone Age natives in a communal, property-free environment. What they have is what they hold, and nobody throws a surcharge on what they kill or what they give to one another.

And there are Republicans too.

Some like to shriek about government.  They want an end to the worst offenses of Washington, including most taxes.  But let’s talk about that Tea Party man down the street.  Twenty-three years from today, he has turned middle-aged. And society is going through a rough spell.  One chill winter day, a stronger, younger man comes into the neighborhood and takes away the older man’s home.  He steals the man’s guns, plus his wife and two pretty daughters.  What does a homeless, powerless fellow do in such circumstances?  He finds allies among his neighbors.  He pledges whatever he needs to pledge.  The thief is subsequently dragged into the street, and because these are grim times, the trial and sentencing are carried out by the strongest, most politically astute man in the neighborhood.  The grateful homeowner recovers what is his, minus half of his guns and half of next year's tomato crop.  And for three years, before the Great Drought descends in earnest, the grateful citizen gives tribute to the neighbor boss and the boss's new queen.  Who happens to be the citizen's youngest daughter, of course.

Isn’t that how the story always goes?


Tax carbon.

The simplest, most effective means for dealing with every facet of climate change is that.  It is to make carbon’s various children more expensive, and if possible, doing that trick as quickly and painlessly as possible.

I’m not a tax-policy geek.  I don’t have a favorite yardstick.  “This many pennies for that many tons of carbon.”  But I have great confidence in geeks with yardsticks. People can discern the best rate for a carbon tax, and its application can come over the next few years.  We should be transparent about the rates.  Some or all of the revenue should find its way back to people who don’t burn coal or leak methane.  Live fat and pay a lot more for your fun, if you want. But soon the windmills and solar panels dot the landscape, and the Chinese and Texans who don’t want to play have to endure tariffs on their carbon-tainted products.

That is the blunt simple perfect solution--a steady chemo for a societal cancer that will continue even if carbon emissions are reduced to zero.

My reading of the numbers is that climate change is a monster, and a monster with considerable momentum.

Just because we do the right thing, the world won’t stop growing warmer.

I flew to England once, and that selfish action has consequences that will play out for decades.

But with smart policies, at least the monster’s momentum will be slowed. The worst costs will be minimized. And maybe the methane off Siberia will sleep for another five hundred years.

If we let our taxes do our thinking.


At this point, the essay feels half-finished.  But the Internet frowns on endless rambles, and frankly the author needs some quiet time.  A chance to contemplate what happens when humans, obeying our nature, avoid the blunt and simple and perfect.

Not that I am completely hopeless, mind you.

I just think that what is likely will be slower and smaller and far more inevitable than the rational taxation of carbon.

There will be a muddle.

An endurable tragedy.

A story-rich environment.  That's what the future promises. Which is what people want more than anything, I suspect.

We will do anything to bring about interesting times.