Monday, February 28, 2011

The Quiet of the Future

[Note: the grandchildren referenced in the following story are unlikely to be mine. Perhaps they will be yours?]

Grandchildren, clamoring for a story? How strange. I would that we had clamored for the same. The advice we got from our grandparents might have been better than anything I can provide for you.

Still. I think I'll begin with the roaring in the ears. With the sound that was everywhere, inescapable, whether you had asked to hear it, or not.

Just another one of those things which are kind of amazing to think about, now.

Sure, many of us chose to listen to music. Or noise. Video games, movies. We had speakers in our homes, our cars, our businesses, and our pockets. If what we were listening to was not what our neighbors or roommates wanted to listen to, we had headphones--personalized speakers that we strapped on to the sides of our heads. And then later on, these were not loud enough for us. If we turned them up loud enough to satisfy, the people around us could still hear.

We were always trying to get away from each other, those days.

So we made the speakers smaller and stuffed them up into our ear-canals, so we could have it roaring loud and personal, just for ourselves. And these little ear-canal speakers were cheap. We could buy a pair for around ten dollars, which most of us could earn in an hour or two, working even the most menial of jobs.

But putting the music aside for a second, consider what the rest of the world sounded like, in America, at the turn of the century. We had a little house that had stood for 300 years. It was built along a main highway, in its day. Its timbers were hewn and raised to the sound of foot-falls and horse-hooves. But when it finally crumbled it was to the whisper of electric cars, the constant rumble of gas burning engines, the throaty growl of diesel trucks. It was a loud place to live. When the traffic backed up out front, it was like a pride of lions purring, all at once. When the traffic flowed smoothly, conversations would have to stop and resume to the whim of the vehicles flying past, vehicles that moved more miles in an hour than you or I could ride in a single day.

Most of us didn't live so close to major roads, of course. But the highways were everywhere. The most remote and isolated of us would still hear them, like a constant, distant sigh. I remember hiking in the mountains, once, and descending after a long day's walk into the crater occupied by an alpine lake. I think the hours we sat there were the only hours in my life where I could not hear any traffic. A single jet passed overhead, trailing it's contrail, too high up even to be heard.

That kind of silence was a treat, a symphony. I remember thinking, a person could become a connoisseur of such silences. The silence of the mountains, the silence of the desert, the silence of the forest. That kind of silence was precious and rare.

What a shock it was, then, when the oil ran out and the engines stopped running, and today’s silence descended, gradually, everywhere. What a surprise to hear it every day, and not even have to travel for it. But it was a cruel consolation, given the hardships we faced.

I say gradual, of course, because the gunfire went on for a bit after the cars stopped. But that was sporadic and eventually it, too, would cease—to make room for quieter violence.

How strange this must sound to you, with your carefully preserved, hand-cranked record players, as you dance at the hall to music my grandparents danced to. Anything as loud as a car or a plane is an alarm, a surprise. And music, music is a treat. There are no digital recordings of the best singers to ever sing—or rather there are, but we haven’t the machines to play them. Pianos only as good as the people who play them, guitars only sing at the hands of their players.

For the most part, that’s enough. I understand our county has a symphony again. Over eighty musicians, playing at once, well practiced and in tune. If you can afford to hear them, do. I doubt you will ever forget it.

And to think, for a hundred years there, we could listen to that sound any time we wanted to. We could turn it up and play it again and again, until we went deaf from it. Even now, I wish that I had listened to more.

But you will forgive an old man his regrets, I hope.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Nymex, Insider Trading, and Peak Oil

It would be hard to find a more readable account of the financial aspect of our present oil crisis than The Asylum by Leah Goodman.  It’s especially interesting (and a little surreal) to read this while sitting in front of newspaper headlines about the unfolding crises in the Middle East, Oil Prices spiking over $100 a barrel again, and a stock market that’s starting to shudder in what, we can only hope, won’t be a repeat of the financial earthquakes of 2008.

Futures trading has long seemed so obscure as to be almost magical to me. Why would the producers of goods allow their stuff to be traded so wildly and unpredictably? Why not just slap a price tag on their oil, their corn, their pork-bellies—whatever—and sell it to a willing buyer, charging what the market will bear?

Goodman does a good job explaining the basic concepts here. Sellers use a futures market because it guarantees them a price for their goods at a future date, and consumers (be they individuals or businesses) can plan their future operations knowing what they’re going to be paying as well. And then if there are changes to the value of stuff in the mean-time, the traders are there to absorb the risk—taking the hit or pocketing the profit depending on what happens during that time.

There’s a conflict here between the producers/consumers who want stability to plan their business, and the traders who want volatility so they can take their cut. This conflict is a good thing. It’s supposed to keep the system in balance. That’s why there’s federal regulations (supposedly provided by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, or CFTC) that are supposed to limit volatility, placing caps on price swings and the like.

What Goodman shows is how little the CFTC has done in performance of their role. Regulatory chairmen leave their positions within the government to head the very exchange they were supposed to be regulating, calling up their old cronies when opportunities to profit present themselves. The conflicts of interest are staggering, and they led to the Enron loophole (which I’d vaguely heard about) and the London and Dubai loopholes (which were new to me) and which played a huge part in the downfall of Lehman Brothers, the troubles with other major bangs which we all ended up bailing out, and the financial bubbles that seem to keep popping with increasing frequency in the 21st century.

nymexThere’s a colorful cast of characters here, and more action than you’d expect from such a dry subject. Cross-dressing, hookers, fist-fights, drugs and booze on the trading floor; class warfare among millionaires; politicking and intimidation and death threats. Goodman also does a nice job tracing the history Nymex, the New York Mercantile exchange from its roots in agriculture (mostly potatoes) into the powerhouse that controlled the most important resource ever traded on our planet, all the way to its purchase by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and the changes that hit its players as they went from trading in the pits of the trading floor to the computer screen.

Goodman herself seems to be awfully chummy with some of the story’s players. Even as she reveals their most salacious and rapacious dealings, she shows them a great deal of respect—even affection. She’s reported on these guys for years, attended their conferences and functions and dinners. And in the acknowledgements she thanks them for sharing details that had to be uncomfortable. “To know you was a privilege….Your humor and sagacity transcend your extreme-capitalist alter egos,” she writes. All this after spending 400 pages detailing how they stole from their customers, taxpayers, consumers, and their own market. The assumption being, I suppose, that any one of us might have behaved the same way, if given the same opportunities.

I suppose she wouldn’t have gotten such a good story if she hadn’t been friends with these guys. But her admiration tastes a little funny at the end of a book about insider trading.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Some Good News About Books

McSweeny’s has a series of articles up on why the rumors about the death of books have been over-exaggerated, with pages about the state of libraries, publishing, and global literacy.

This is nice to hear. I’ve been having, for the past couple of years, mixed feelings about the trajectory of the printed word. Electronic readers finally seduced me with their siren song. I’ve got a Barnes and Noble Nook and spend at least an hour with it each day.  Before that, I’d turned my little Asus 701 into an e-reader for catching up on free classics from Project Gutenberg and Manybooks. What times we live in, that the whole of the Western Canon is available for download in seconds, for free.

The old assertion that “People aren’t going to read books from a screen,” fell by the wayside as soon as screens got portable and crisp enough. And then it’s amazing how quickly books change from an object of desire—something we want to handle and collect and accumulate—to something bulky and inconvenient. I’ll find myself looking at a beautiful hardcover in the bargain bin, a book I actually intend to read, sitting there available for just six dollars. And I’ll check my Nook and see that the e-book version is $11.99. This should be an easy decision. On the one hand, an elegant physical product, something I can write in and loan out or pass on or even sell. On the other, and for twice as much: the license to an ephemeral digital file that winks out when the power goes off. But I’m struck by how damn heavy the book is, and how much space it’s going to take up in my house, and how much energy it’ll take to pack up and move it the next time we re-locate.

It’s a bit hypocritical, I suppose, to bemoan the loss of our independent bookstores and the shrinking inventories of our chains, and then refuse to pay even six dollars for an object that, one year ago, retailed for five times that. And it’s petty of me, perhaps, to get irritated with publishers who don’t make the stories I want to read available in electronic form. (I’m looking at you, Europa Editions. I get that you use lovely cover art and high quality paper. But I want to read your stuff, not hang it on my wall. And what’s with you, Haikasoru? Kindle and Apple Bookstore versions only? I’m eager to exchange my pretend electronic money for your pretend electronic content. Japanese culture is supposed to feel cutting edge. So get cutting, already!)

In fact, as I look around at the books that I do have, it’s with designs of selling them, or giving them to friends, or donating them to the library. I realize that I have bought, perhaps, six new books in the past five years. (The Boston Public Library was my favorite place for a couple years, there, and then along came the electronic readers.) The last three times we moved, our library shrunk with each trip.

And then, sometimes, it hits me. Ten, twenty years down the line, I’m really going to miss books. Especially once the effects of Peak Oil set in, and cheap electronic gadgets and the power to run them are a thing of the past.

It’s a matter of both common sense and experience that hard drives and digital storage will fail. That’s fine, when storage is cheap. We backup our data, and copy information from old storage to new. I just bought a one terabyte hard drive for seventy dollars, popped it into a computer that came from the dump, loaded it with everything digital I’ve done during my entire life, and used less than a quarter of the space. When it fills up and wears out in a couple of years, I’ll buy a four terabyte drive and backup onto that.

A few years after that, who knows? Chinese factories might be producing petabyte drives by then, if the minerals and the energy needed to extract them are available. That in itself is a big if. Then, will our dollars be strong enough to pay for them? But will they be shipped around the world on 400 meter long diesel powered container ships that burn 1,660 gallons of heavy fuel oil per hour? Will they be doing this when oil costs $200 or $300 a barrel?

What, in short, is going to happen to our digitized culture when the machines that display and share it become precious and irreplaceable? What is going to happen to culture in general if so much of it is digitized right at the end of the era of cheap energy?

This is what keeps me from unloading my paper library—or at least those volumes which are worth saving and reading again. And it’s what makes me happy to know that 752 million books were sold in 2010, just a little off from the 2009 peak of 777 million. It’s nice to know that those books are still out there, getting printed and purchased. We might have a use for them again.

Even if it’s not me who’s buying them.