Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Meta-narratives: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Nuclear Power, and Post-Modernism

In anticipation of the film adaptation coming out later this year, I have recently finished reading (or more accurately listened to the audiobook of) David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  It is a novel arranged like a literary nesting doll.  It tells six stories set in six different historical time periods.  Each story is narrated with a different narrative voice and style.  The novel starts with the earliest time period, a 19th century trans-Pacific voyage recounted in the journal entries of an American notary.  The story is cutoff at the midpoint, and the novel continues with the next story.  It does this till it reaches the later most time-period, a post-apocalyptic landscape at an unspecified future date. Once that story is finished, the novel then winds itself backwards.  Each story is completed in reverse succession.

I would consider Cloud Atlas one of the greatest contemporary novels I've ever read (or listened to) if it was not for one huge facet that infuriated me.  The third story, entitled "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery," stands out as an extremely bad novel inside a good one.  Set in 1970s California, an evil corporation will stop at nothing to hide the inherent dangers in the design of it's new Hydra-Zero Nuclear Power Plant and it is up to independently minded and tenacious reporter Luisa Rey to stop them.  The story is basically a retelling of The China Syndrome.  Unlike the other stories in the sextet, "Half-Lives" is narrated with an omniscient third-person narration, whereas the others are narrated in the first-person.  It is primarily plot driven.  Its prose style is extremely dry and descriptive.  All the characters are painfully one-dimensional.  Even the reading of the narrator sounded grating and unenthusiastic.

I might be a little biased on this subject.  Over the past several years I have been producing a documentary film about nuclear power.  I have interviewed many people on the subject ranging from scientists, to engineers, to citizen activists, to utility executives, to anti-nuclear journalists.  I have extensively reviewed newsprint articles, to state and company documentation, to the peer-reviewed literature on the subject.  I can say with utmost certainty that the narrative about the greedy energy company executives who are willing to put the public health at risk in order to make money off deadly nuclear power, and the selfless journalist who attempts to expose their lies in the service of truth and justice, is a fiction.

If anything my experience and research convinces me that the situation is exactly the reverse.  The nuclear engineers and scientists I have met in the process of making this film are some of the most thoughtful, caring, and intelligent people I have ever met.  They are extremely conscious about the safety of the energy they create and concerned about how energy consumption and pollution affects themselves, their families, their friends, the society, and the ecology.

The real anti-nuclear journalists as opposed to their fictional counterparts, are not heroic, clever, or taking part in a daring struggle in the service of truth and the protection of their fellow man. (though they certainly operate under that delusion) In reality the career anti-nuclear journalists are some of the most ignorant, miss-informed, and arrogant individuals I have ever had the displeasure of meeting.  Former anti-nuclear journalist George Monbiot of summed it up perfectly when he said "The claims [the anti-nuclear movement] have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged and wildly wrong."[1]

What found more distasteful then the story's view of nuclear power is its philosophical outlook. One character articulates this viewpoint, a spokeswoman for a Greenpeace style ecological organization:

"The conflict between corporation and activist is that of narcolepsy versus remembrance.  The corporations have money, power, and influence.  Our sole weapon is public outrage... Any stage may be sabotaged.  The worlds Alberto Gremaldis' (the story's evil CEO) can fight scrutiny can burying truth in committees, dullness, and miss-information.  Or by intimidating the scrutinizers.  They can extinguish awareness by dumbing down education, owning TV stations, paying "guest fees" to major writers, or just buying the media up.  The media and not just the Washington Post is where democracies conduct their civil wars."

This is a particular postmodern outlook.  It suggests that truth, or what we think of as the truth, is part of a larger meta-narrative that is influenced by those with power.  I find this view particularly destructive, as it seems to excuse unjustified assumptions.  It reduces a policy dispute to a Manichean struggle of justice against the injustice.  Where one side is unquestionably on the side of good and the other is unquestionably on the side of evil.  Of course everyone thinks they are on the side of good.  Why have reliable standards of evidence when you could simply dismiss any counter-argument as the machinations of those working for the financial interests of an elite.  Like the above statement, postmodernism pays lip service to the ideals of democratic participation.  But in reality, is extremely destructive to individual reasoning and civil discourse which are the core values of democracy.

Researchers have observed this method of reasoning in the lab.  No matter what political persuasion or cultural outlook all subjects displayed the signs of "cultural cognition" or "bias motivated reasoning." [2] This is the act of perceiving information as either trustworthy or reliable based on whether or not it agrees with their particular cultural reinforced viewpoint.  The above mentioned George Monbiot observed this first-hand when examining the anti-nuclear claims that he had previously taken for granted:

"Failing to provide sources, refuting data with anecdote, cherry-picking studies, scorning the scientific consensus, invoking a cover-up to explain it: all this is horribly familiar. These are the habits of climate change deniers, against which the green movement has struggled valiantly, calling science to its aid. It is distressing to discover that when the facts don’t suit them, members of this movement resort to the follies they have denounced."[1]

If there was anything that made me forgive this bad novel inside of a good one, it is that Mitchell seems to acknowledge that he has written exactly that.  When placed in the context of the novels larger meta-narrative there are various points where the novel seems to undermine and even mock "Half-Lives."  Once the the story of Luisa Rey has reaches it's midpoint cliffhanger, the novel proceeds to the next historical time-period/narrative thread.  The "Half-Lives" story is revealed to be a pre-published manuscript in the possession of a literary publisher living in modern day England, Timothy Cavendish.  This explains the striking stylistic differences from the rest of the novel.

Cavendish, with a dry English wit, picks apart the story's narrative and stylistic pretenses, "It would be a better book if Hillary V. Hush (the fictional author of "Half-Lives") weren't so artsily fartsily clever.  She had written [the book] in neat little chapteroids.  Doubtless with one eye on the Hollywood screenplay." He later deconstructs the pretenses of much of fiction writing seeming to mock the simplicity of Hush's story, "Hero goes on a journey.  Stranger comes to town.  Somebody wants something.  They get it or they don't.  Will is pitted against will.  Admire me for I am a metaphor."

At one point Alberto Grimald,i the novels evil CEO, gives a speech that is actually very sensible and forward thinking:

"Our great nation suffers from a debilitating addiction... It's name is oil.  Geologists tell us just 64 billion gallons of this Jurassic ocean scum remain in the Persian gulf.  Enough perhaps to see out our century?  Probably not.  The most imperative question facing the USA is 'Then what?'"

This sentiment is mirrored by the protagonist of the last story.  He ponders what separates a savage from a civilized man:

"The savage sacrifices needs now...  His master is his will.  The civilized sees needs further...  His will is his slave."

One interesting throw away bit of dialog I found interesting, as it suggests that it is not only environmentalists who wish to see the Hydra Zero reactor shut down.  One character suggests, "Exxon will pay top dollar for to anyone who can kill the nuclear industry in its infancy." A nuclear engineer friend of mine, Rod Adams, has dedicated a regular portion of his blog to "Smoking Gun" evidence that the fossil fuel industry actively seeks to discourage the use of nuclear power.



Even with this major problem I have with the book, I still find it one of the most compelling novels I've ever read and anxiously anticipate the film adaptation.  To appreciate some films and literature it requires the viewer/reader to compartmentalize their knowledge and see the work in the context of a world with a multiplicity of world-views and cultures.  The ability to entertain hypothetical scenarios and consider other points of view is what makes storytelling valuable.  That may be one of the reasons why Mitchell decided his story between six different narrators. As the protagonist of the final story in Mitchell's sextet states, "Most [stories] got a bit of true.  Most [stories] got some true.  And a few [stories] got a lot of true."



1. "Evidence Meltdown;" George Monbiot; April 4, 2011; http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/04/evidence-meltdown/

2.  http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2011/04/18/the-science-of-why-we-deny-science-motivated-reasoning/

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Imroving Welfare Spending

With the recent economic crisis threatening current entitlement programs in the US and Europe, I believe that it has become clear that we cannot solve 21st century problems with 20th century economic models. We need to take a new approach to the way government acts to supply the demands of its citizens. We need to embrace new technology and a better understanding of human psychology, where older economic theories were based on an outdated understanding of human nature and limited by technology.

We should replace the social welfare state with an online social welfare network. States are large, impersonal, inefficient when handeling funds, and slow to change. Networks are defuse, interpersonal, efficient at transfering funds, and dynamic. Many of the ingredients are presently available. There are allready online social networking sites such as Facebook and Google plus, and fund transfering services such as PayPal. This way taxpayers can subsidise recipients, individuals or organizations, directly in exchange for tax credits.

Psychologist Paul Slovic and coleauges conducted studies measuring levels of human empathy and discovered that human empathy reaches its maximum when directed at a single human being and deminishes when concerning greater populations. [1] This explains many peoples difficulty with empathizing for the abstract number of people who are currently dependent on the welfare programes. By giving tax payers an face-to-face relationship with the recipient of their tax money, either through the actual individual or a represenative for a group or organization, that would exploit the maximum empthetic capacity of every citizen.

Taxpayers who give more then their government mandated share can be awarded with special honors and awards. A rankings list can be maintained displaying profiles on the most generous citizens. [2] Since the currencies of attention and reputation are as strong a motivator online as monetary currencies people will compete to out-do others in the relm of assisting other people. [3] There would need to be a third-party to confirm the identity of the recipient. And considering that there are a lot of people who do not have access to the internet or own personal computers there would need to be a way for these people to access the network.

There would need to be individuals who have priveleged access to the network and mediate the exchange of funds. Current public locations, such as schools, universities, libraries, and post offices. Since the post office is in financial trouble they can be especially useful as retrofitted welfare network access points, considering they are allready a nation-wide network. In order to garuntee that there is no fraud and that the maximum value is being spent.

Organizations that recieve welfare funds should have to disclose their financial records for public knowledge. And individuals who recieve funds should attend regular peer-group meetings that reinforce their financial obligations. Grameen Bank has had tremendous success with peer-group reinforcement as a means to get their borrowers to repay their loans. They maintain a repayment rate over 95% despite the majority of their barrowers to poor women without collateral. [4]

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1. This is the example I drew from Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape”. He suggests that these discoveries concerning human empathetic capacity should signal us to “build our better selves into our institutions, laws, and tax codes.”

2. Anyone familiar with Kiva.org will be able to identify their model of competitive lending. As it turns out the atheists lead the Christians for the most generous members of Kiva (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEC3OwKWgfc)

3. Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired Magazine, is also the author of the book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price”, the audiobook of which can be downloaded off of iTunes and Audible.com for free! (it is a great book which I highly recommend) In that book he explains how many internet based companies have been able to make a business model off of giving things away for free. One of the variety of models is what he describes as the “Labor Exchange” where users willingly submit their time and energy to improve a service and expect no repayment except for the attention and reputation they receive in return. (think Wikipedia and the movie listings on IMDB)

4. Economist Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize for creating a method by which the poor can receive loans without collateral. He is the author of several books “Banker to the Poor” (his autobiography), “Creating a World Without Poverty”, and his most recent “Building Social Business”.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

IndieGoGo

I have started a new product page at IndieGoGo.com. I prefer this site to Kickstarter.com because even if I don't meet my fund-raising goal I still get to keep a portion of the money!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

SHOREHAM (the official movie poster) from Zazzle.com

SHOREHAM (the official movie poster) from Zazzle.com

The official merchandise store for Metalhead Motion Pictures in now up on zazzle.com. The first and only item you can purchase as of now is the official poster for the movie SHOREHAM.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

SHOREHAM Kickstarter Project

Been a while since I last posted on this blog. That is mainly because this SHOREHAM documentary has been taking much longer then I previously anticipated. And honestly it is not as if I am somehow depriving an avid readership with my prolonged absence. But now I have a serious update that is worth documenting. I am now finished with all of the specifications for my Kickstarter project proposal!

What is Kickstarter? For all of one of you who've asked Kickstarter.com is a website dedicated to helping creative persons crowd-source capital for their various creative projects. This can include illustrated work, music recording, live presentations, art exhibitions, dance, and motion pictures. Using this venue I hope to raise at least $5,000 (more would be even better, but right now I am lowballing it) by the end of October. If that funding goal is met or surpassed then I will be able to keep all of proceedings with only a nominal fee paid to Kickstarter. These funds will allow me to finally complete the film and put the film online for all to see.



While I am talking about Kickstarter.com I would like to help promote filmmaker John Allen Soares's project 'The Danger Element'. John was the person who had exposed me to Kickstarter and gave me the idea to raise funds in this manner. I don't know the guy personally and have never communicated with him. But if you have seen his work (Sockboy, and Battle Jitni are available to watch for free on YouTube) you can see he is a really talented guy and could use all the promotion he gets.

Monday, April 19, 2010

YouTube's Film Your Issue Contest

I took some time off of the development of the 'SHOREHAM' film recently to work on an entry for YouTube's "Film Your Issue" contest:



Homelessness and Nuclear Power: How are they related?

My solution seeks to alleviate high utility costs which drive up the cost of housing, leading to greater numbers of homelessness.

Utilizing new modular atomic reactor technology combined with low-cost modular living spaces, it could be possible to offer low cost available housing to anyone. By bringing down the marginal cost of heating and electrifying a small living space, it may be possible to offer rent for free. All that is required is to cross-subsidize the free rents by selling the excess products generated by the atomic fission reactor.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Testimony of Catacosinos

For James and I one of the first stops for our research was the local library. There we found the transcript of the 1987 Senate hearings on the opening of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. One of the LILCO representatives that testified at the Senate hearing was the CEO William J. Catacosinos.

The first thing that popped out about his testimony was how forward thinking he was. Throughout this whole production what struck me was how all of the pro-nuclear people were concerned about our nations dependence on foreign oil and climate change. While all of the anti-nuclear people, the same people who are so very concerned about oil imports and climate change now, were the ones speaking out against Shoreham.

Long Island now gets 60% of its electricity from Oil. Long Islanders have been paying off the $6 billion dollar price tag for the Shoreham plant ever since. William J. Catacosinos left the island for Arizona where he now works for a coal company, but not before, as former LILCO Vice-CEO of construction Matthew Codaro, he got the government to totally pay the bill.