A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, October 11, 2013

Political Book Reviews

ON OF THOSE THINGS that TOF finds ever perplexing is the tendency of some politically committed readers to commit politics on books they read.  TOF knew such folks in the 60s.  They would wool over pop songs, examining their lyrics closely for heterodox opinions, whether of satanic influences or of less-than-leftward sentiments.  The story is that at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Pete Seeger almost took an axe to the cable when Dylan came on, not because of the electronic backup, but because Dylan was no longer doing political songs. 

Well, it's a New Age, Faithful Reader.  While browsing through customer reviews of On the Razor's Edge on TOF discovered the following nugget by Gregory N. Hullender:

After reading "Lion's Mouth" I checked out the author's web site. On his web site, I learned that the author is a climate-change denier who thinks human beings cannot influence the climate and that the Earth is headed for another ice age. It's not important to the story, but it does turn up in the book that no human technology in all of history was capable of preventing an ice age. Really? Even though the Commonwealth was able to change the Earth's rate of rotation, they couldn't stop an ice age?
If it's not important to the story, why bring it up?  Why, to wave the bony finger of heresy at the detested Other, of course.  It is distressing how often such reactions mimic those of religious zealots.  TOF notes the infamous use of "denier" in order to create a subliminal link to Holocaust Deniers.  Tsk, tsk.  Alas, Mr. Hellender could not have checked out the author's web site too closely or he would not have made three errors in one sentence. 
  1. TOF does not deny that the climate changes.  Change is in fact the one constant in the material world.  We might even say that change defines the material world.  We need not look far to find Little Ice Ages, Climatic Optima, and other such conditions in our past.  It would be foolish to suppose there would never ever be further changes.  All too often people think that the way the world was in their youth is the way the world should always be, and so they panic at the thought that it might differ in the future.  
  2. Nor does TOF think that humans cannot influence the climate.  "Influence" is such a supple word that it can mean almost anything, so what fool would write it off?  The extent of human influence is another question, and one that is subject to a lively debate within what is charmingly called "the climate science community."   "Extent" is one of those words that escape the relentlessly binomial thinker. 
  3. John Gribbin's 1977 book
    about the coming ice age.
  4. Finally, TOF is not convinced we are headed for another Ice Age, although a new "Maunder Minimum" is not beyond possibility, given the current solar situation.  Granted, such a new ice age was scientifically touted back in TOF's storied youth, when "global" temperatures showed a long-term decline; but the general trend for the past 300 years has been upward, despite zigs and zags.  (However, see Greenland ice cores, below.)  The world is still colder than is normal for an interglacial, and we can only hope it warms up some more.  Cold kills.  Warmth lengthens growing seasons.  However, astrophysicists, esp. in Russia and Scandinavia, have been predicting a cold interval that may last into the 2030s or 2040s.

A fourth error of course is the presumption that in the story framework the Commonwealth could have halted the Ice on earth if they had wanted to.  But the text makes quite clear that
a) the Commonwealth was in decline,
b) the colony worlds were revolting, and
c) they just didn't care enough about Terra to do so.  
It is a common mythos among those to whom Science!™ is a form of Magic!™ to suppose that it can accomplish anything.  But that may not be the case.  There may be a gap between what folks can do and what they are interested in doing.  The gods Cost and Benefit play their tug-o'-war; and often there are limits to human hubris.  Who likes to see their deeply-held beliefs called into question, even by implication? 

Climate is Long Term; Weather is Short Term

WHICH RAISES THE QUESTION of what is "short term"?  The 30 year recent increase?  The 60-year MDO oscillation?  The 300-year rebound from the Little Ice Age?  Here is the past 10,000 years since the end of the Pleistocene as reconstructed from Greenland ice cores:
Notice the normal temps for the interglacial have been considerably higher than at present.
Temperatures began falling after the Minoan Warm, marked by the collapse of several civilizations
and the Volkerwanderung of the Aryas, Dorians, Sea People, et al. Same thing happened after the
Roman Warm (Germans, Vikings) and the Medieval Warm (Turks, Mongols).  Meanwhile, CO2
levels began increasing about 7000 years ago, due to capitalist industry.

Turn, Turn, Turn...

Note reverse scale on left: More rapid solar heartbeat
means shorter sunspot periods.
BACK BEFORE 1990, when TOF was all caught up in the global cooling thingie, he ran into the following graph by a pair of Danish scientists.  They showed that the temperature tracked the periodicity of the sunspot cycle rather well.  The faster the sun cycled, the warmer the earth grew.  When Old Sol slowed down, the earth cooled.  No mechanism was suggested, but science often starts with actual unexplained data.

TOF was startled at the rising temperature at the tail end, since the incipient ice age was de rigeur at the time.  Perhaps that appealed to his inner skiffy.  Gribbin had written a nice SF novel about the sudden-onset ice age.  A second look at the chart suggested a long-term cycle increasing from c.1910 to c.1940, decreasing from c.1940 to c.1970, then increasing from c.1970 to...  TOF guessed at thirty years. c.2000.  This wild-ass guess has proven curiously accurate, and the Northern astrophysicists predicting a cooling trend out to c.2030 seem to be carrying the 30-year ball for another first down.  (The MDO is thought to have a cycle length of 60 years.) 

Astute Reader will note that the warming and cooling swings are nonetheless ratcheting upward.  How can this be (TOF hears you ask)? 

On the Simultaneity Walking and Chewing Gum

THE ANSWER IS that there may be more than one thing happening.  In industrial quality control, different causes will often make different footprints in the data.  Some causes result in sudden shift of mean, others in gradual trends, still others in cycles, and so forth.  When two or more causes are present, we can get such things as a cycle riding on the back of a trend.  

In this sketch a simple sine wave has been hired to play the role of the Multi-Decadal Oscillation (MDO) and a linear trend portrays the rebound from the Little Ice Age.  By adding the two together, we get a pattern very similar to that of the Danish researchers shown above.  It is easy to see that when the MDO is on the upswing, warming is "accelerated" while when it is on the downswing, there is a "pause" in the warming.  In the present situation, one side cries that temperatures have never been higher in the past thirty years!  The other side, cackles that there has been no global warming for the past decade or so.  Our little simulation shows how -- and why -- they can both be correct.  It's called an inflection point. 

Spanking Bad Data Won't Make Them Behave

But TOF! (we hear you cry) where do they get the temperatures that they use for the analysis?  Well, for one thing, they are not what you think: reading thermometers and plotting the readings.  

But that is a tale for another time.


  1. On nearly any other blog, I'd think "oh, he hastily typed 'binomial' when he meant 'binary'", and I'd move on. But one of the reasons I enjoy your feed is the interesting discussions of subtle vocabulary distinctions, and so I have to wonder if I might be the one in error here. Am I?

    1. Discrete, either/or thinking. Bi-nomial:two-names. Binary is a notational system using 0 and 1, but can count any amount.

  2. It's interesting, although maybe not very enlightening, how the "warm period/little ice age" seems to line up with historical ages in the west. The "axial age" comes at about the middle to end of the "cold period" between the Minoan and the Roman warm periods, Caesar crosses the Rubicon at about the peak of the Roman warm period, The Western Empire collapses in the middle of the Post-Roman cold period, right when temperatures start really trending downwards, much of the ancient Greek learning that was lost in the collapse of the Empire starts being returned to Europe at the peak of the Medieval warm period, the worst of the Reformation occurs in the middle of the Little Ice Age, and we're experiencing a seismic shift right now, the the (presumably) middle of the modern warm period. I wonder if that's just an odd coincidence. I also wonder if you could find similar patterns in China, India, or Central America.

    1. Chinese empires run about 200 years earlier than the West; but on a geological scale that isn't much. When bad weather in Central Asia sends the horse nomads on the move, they'll reach China first.

  3. Spanking bad data won't make it behave, but the State Climatologist for Virginia had on his door a sign that read, "If you torture the data long enough, you can get it to confess to whatever crime you wish."

    A remembrance from my storied youth at Mr. Jefferson's Academical Village.

  4. Patiently waiting for the rest.