Friday, December 17, 2004
Chain Jerking?

Hmmm...looks like the Wall Street Journal has a bit of a rebuttal to Matt's speculation.

This is a compelling story, but probably a misguided one. To see why, ask yourself the question: Where do those billions in reserves come from every month? Over the past year, roughly half of China's [foreign exchange] reserve inflows came from portfolio capital, including so-called hot money flows. In effect, Chinese banks and firms have been drawing down their asset positions abroad, or borrowing money in foreign markets, and bringing these funds back to the mainland, in part to speculate on a possible renminbi move.

But this means that as private agents move out of dollars and into yuan, the PBoC is buying up the dollars and pumping them right back into the U.S. The net effect on U.S. markets from these transactions is...virtually zero! [ellipsis in original] This is an overly simplified explanation, but very close to the mark nonetheless. Despite the apparent size of the headline reserve accumulation, China's true support for the dollar is much smaller.


The bottom line? It's surprisingly difficult to argue that the Chinese renminbi exchange rate--or the exchange regime--has had any substantial impact on the way the rest of the world works. Whether we look at jobs, trading patterns or global currency markets, China still shows up as a relatively small economy, and certainly not one that is "driving the show," now or in the near future. And whether the peg stays or goes is a sublimely unimportant issue in the large scheme of things.
It seems, of late, that the common wisdom, more and more often, turns out to be wrong. The common wisdom before the Canadian election said that the Canadian people would remove the Liberal government from power, possibly giving the Conservative Party a minority government - it was all over the newspapers, at any rate. Reality: the Liberals retain a minority government, one seat away from a majority. The common wisdom before the American election said that John Kerry and the Democrats would win walking away - even the exit polls early on November 2nd demonstrated this trend. Reality: GWB wins with the largest number of votes in American history, the first true majority in 16 years, and the Republicans expanded their lead in both houses of Congress. The common wisdom before the Iraq invasion was that Saddam has storehouses of hidden WMDs, and that once the US had deposed him, the oil-rich nation would unleash its flow of gasoline into the tanks of American vehicles, driving the gas prices down to record lows. Reality: Saddam's weapons storehouses were empty, at least of nuclear and biochemical missiles ready-to-launch (where the weapons went is a question for the UN inspectors), and the price of gasoline has remained at record highs.

It makes sense that the Chinese economy, with its very real gains in the North American system, and its very real economic surge, would be a major player in the world markets, perhaps even establishing itself as a threat to American trade dominance. But, according to WSJ, this bit of common wisdom, too, is not quite right.

Funny how that works.
Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Ah, my guilty pleasure. But hey, at least I match up with my favorite character on the show I'm ashamed to admit I enjoy, right?

Monday, December 13, 2004
Internet Solves World Pollution!

Sort of:

Bob says "Make cars twice as efficient". For Bob[']s cure to go into effect, Billions of dollars and man-hours will need to be expended before the first benefit will be found in the marketplace and the economy. Varifrank has a much simple[r] method that costs close to nothing and can be implemented immediately.

Buy whatever car you want. Get whatever kind of mileage you want. Manufacturers can take their sweet time making hybrids (which I like, and will like more when I can get a Dodge Ram ½ ton that uses a diesel/electric motor, but I digress...)

All you have to do to reach Bob[']s goal, is drive half as much as you do today.

How do you do that? Chances are, you already are. If you are reading this, you are using the infrastructure that has the best chance of lowering America's dependency on "Foreign oil".


**...I drive a Dodge Dakota V-8 manual 5 speed transmission, it gets 12 miles to the gallon. When was the last time I bought gas?

October 12th!

I love my truck, but what saves me from buying gas for it is my T1 line, not my fuel injection technology.
[Emphasis in original]
It's an interesting idea, and it seems of a piece with Michael Crichton's comments in "Aliens Cause Global Warming":
Let's think back to people in 1900 in, say, New York. If they worried about people in 2000, what would they worry about? Probably: Where would people get enough horses? And what would they do about all the horseshit? Horse pollution was bad in 1900, think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses?

But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport. And in 2000, France was getting 80% its power from an energy source that was unknown in 1900. Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Japan were getting more than 30% from this source, unknown in 1900. Remember, people in 1900 didn't know what an atom was. They didn't know its structure. They also didn't know what a radio was, or an airport, or a movie, or a television, or a computer, or a cell phone, or a jet, an antibiotic, a rocket, a satellite, an MRI, ICU, IUD, IBM, IRA, ERA, EEG, EPA, IRS, DOD, PCP, HTML, internet. interferon, instant replay, remote sensing, remote control, speed dialing, gene therapy, gene splicing, genes, spot welding, heat-seeking, bipolar, prozac, leotards, lap dancing, email, tape recorder, CDs, airbags, plastic explosive, plastic, robots, cars, liposuction, transduction, superconduction, dish antennas, step aerobics, smoothies, twelve-step, ultrasound, nylon, rayon, teflon, fiber optics, carpal tunnel, laser surgery, laparoscopy, corneal transplant, kidney transplant, AIDS? None of this would have meant anything to a person in the year 1900. They wouldn't know what you are talking about.

Now. You tell me you can predict the world of 2100. Tell me it's even worth thinking about. Our models just carry the present into the future. They're bound to be wrong. Everybody who gives a moment's thought knows it.
Crichton expands his focus to 'environmentalism as religion' in a second speech that is also well worth reading.

[HatTip for the Crichton pieces goes to Greg. And be sure to pick up Crichton's new book!]
Sunday, December 12, 2004
Long Time, No Post

Wow - it's been 10 days since my last free blogging moment. Lots of stuff happening, but unfortunately for me, nothing that seems to lead to regular cash flow just yet.

More coming later, but I've got to get ready for a Christmas concert this evening. I just wanted to quickly let my (ever-decreasing) readership know that I haven't forgotten them.

Thursday, December 02, 2004
First It Was Television... it's music! Apple's iTunes Music Store is now available in Canada. A bit late, true, but certainly welcome. You'll pardon me as I go scoff at HMV's latest overpricings.

In related news, Apple is bringing a retail outlet to Toronto next year - it just keeps getting better!

The "cultural invasion" continues...

Epic Vision (Part II)

[Continued from Part I. An apology that this took so long, real life is a bit busy.]

Science and Fantasy Fiction ("Speculative Fiction" or "SF") are frequently and usually grouped together, not only in the aisles of a bookstore or library, but also in literary dichotomies. The more general category of "escapist" literature - that is, fiction that enables the reader to enter the realm of imagination as a temporary alternative to reality - is frequently used to include SF along with other varieties of fiction that are dismissed as less worthy than other forms. This is, of course, unjust and generalizing; but it is a reality, nonetheless.

There are important aspects of SF, however, that blur the lines of 'worthy literature' and 'escapism.' Under certain definitions, any work of fiction, at all, can be considered 'escapist.' And under defintions of the opposite extreme, most any written word can be considered 'worthy literature.' But these extremes aside, it seems to me there are two dividing lines between these categories of 'accepted' and 'dismissed' work, though even these are blurry.

The first line is what I refer to as 'artistic merit.' Beowulf, the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Canterbury Tales, the Inferno, Paradise Lost, The Faerie Queen, Shakespeare's Tempest - these are all considered great works of Literature; but they all deal with similar elements of the fantastic that we read in contemporary authors. The historical value and obvious talent that went into crafting all of these works 'rescue' them from the label of escapism. As more modern takes on speculation are slowly accepted, artisans like Tolkien receive better treatment by both critics and academia.

The second doorway to acceptablity, as I understand it, is 'intellectual merit.' It is under this heading that my primary point lies. Asimov, for instance, is not regarded a great writer, per se; but the ideas he forwarded in his novels were incredible. The same goes for Sir Arthur C. Clarke (though he could reach great literary heights as well), and Philip K. Dick, among others.

But here's the rub: all the authors I listed in the above paragraph write the Science portions of SF. Neil Gaiman is the only fantasy author since Tolkien I can think of who has delved into topics that twist the mind, and he is only marginally considered a writer of fantasy (most bookstores I've seen place him in either Sci-Fi or General Fiction). If literature is a laboratory for the mind, where writers play with the various implications of ideas, the Fantasy genre has long ceased experimenting.

Fantasy authors face a dilemma as regards literary merit. If there are only two available qualities that will allow them to achieve 'respectability' in the minds of those who matter, they must fulfill one or the other. But as history has demonstrated, artistic merit takes decades - even centuries - to determine. If an author of fantasy literature wants acceptance in his or her lifetime, it is better to go the second route. But fantasy doesn't lend itself to this kind of mental experimentation as easily as does science fiction.

More often than straight intellect, fantasy literature relies on an author's epic vision to drive a story. The most appealing stories are the most fully imagined; those that bring their alternate worlds to life completely. This act of imagination, and the demand of the reading public, drives authors of fantasy to attempt to chronicle the entirety of their fictional landscape. After all, the deeper they go, the more readers will enjoy their work. The majority of their labor, then, is directed toward fully realizing their world, rather than trying to connect it to this one.

Of course, with so much acreage of imagination to explore, and so great a push to reveal as much of it as possible, an author can't be expected to cram the whole world into a single novel. And thus we have the proliferation of multi-volume stories in the Fantasy realm. We've already seen where this ends up: aisles and aisles of mediocre sequels, each less tantalizing than the last.

The trend toward publishing a series of books, rather than a single stand-alone tome, (monetary considerations aside) seems in this view to signify a lack of ideation where concepts are concerned. If this continues, it seems clear that Fantasy literature will remain relegated to the condemned genre of 'escapism.' I know Fantasy novels can handle ideas - I've read a few (too few) that have done so. It's up to the more daring authors to rescue their art form, assuming they desire to do so. Fantasy need not leave behind dragons and magic, wizards and knights, kings and thieves. It must simply refocus their use.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Epic Vision (Part I)

I was strolling through the local Chapters last week with Aaron, and we eventually found ourselves perusing the fantasy/science fiction subgenres of the Fiction section. Lots of good (and not-so-good) "escapist" literature in there. We started pointing out authors and series that we each enjoyed, and voiced our opinions on others. It struck me (and I've been thinking about it ever since) that we don't really see too many one-shot fantasy novels.

I wonder why that is? Was it ever any different? I mean, if we go back far enough...say, to Beowulf...then we get epic fantasy in one-volume sections. But there's Homer's Illiad and Odyssey, which might be considered sequels (certainly they share characters). The more recent Lord Of The Rings was actually a one-story one-volume book - though the publishers were nervous about the page-length it would require, and so broke it up. And, of course, you get the Brooks, the Goodkinds, the Jordans, the McCaffreys and the <shudder> Salvatores.

It's not limited to fantasy, of course. Orson Scott Card's Ender series, Isaac Asimov's Foundation-Robot-Empire series(es?), Star Trek and Star Wars (though these are largely in their own categories, as they are written by multiple authors), and so forth. But it seems to me that the tendency to go multi-volume is much greater in the fantasy subgenre than it is anywhere else.

It's come far enough that I'm actually disappointed when I see that an author is writing a sequel. Case in point: Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Truly a remarkable, fantastic book, and a tale that has a solid, if open, conclusion. You finish this novel, and you feel sated. It's great stuff. So when I found out he was writing (and had written) a follow-up - and not just one, but two or more? Disappointment. Not because I don't think he's a good writer - he's one of the best, and a personal favorite. I just don't want to revisit this world, see everything that's been settled (or left purposefully unsettled) disturbed again. It's like a painter who has finished his masterpiece returning to the full canvas, stapling another half-board onto the side and painting on another section.

And it's not always the addition of unneccessary material. Perhaps the story isn't actually finished, or the author always intended to write more...the trouble is, with most novels like this, the quality of the storytelling and writing tends to degrade over time.

Robert Jordan is a perfect example from the contemporary era, and Asimov is just as good from the Golden Age of Sci-Fi. Jordan started off well - in my view - and sucks the reader fully into his world. The next few books, through number six or so, sustain that enthusiasm and excitement, or let it drop only a little. But once we reach the last half (please?) of the series, the story makes it obvious that Jordan doesn't know exactly where he's going, and things begin to break down. When the entirety of a 700 page book chronicles only the events in a single day, you know there's going to be trouble moving the plot.

Asimov's Foundation series is similar. The first three are fantastic (they were given the Hugo Award for "Best Sci-Fi Series Ever" in 1999), mind-bending stuff of grand scale and amazing storycraft. But then he wanted to explore some more. So he wrote a second trilogy. Then he started filling in gaps, with short stories and further novels (one-shots in the continuum of an overarching series). As one reads further and further in, the stories begin to wear thin, and it feels like Mr. Asimov is just a book-writing machine (and with more than 300 books to his name - more if you count his non-fiction - he basically was).

As much as this may read like a whine, or a complaint (and as much as it really is, in some sense), I don't begrudge the authors their artistic decisions. It's completely up to them, obviously, to do whatever they like with their stories and their worlds. I just wonder if we're missing something really important.

This has gotten rather long, and though I'm coming to a conclusion, I've got more to I'll title this "Part I" and come back to it in a new post.

A webjournal of ideas, comments, and various other miscellany from a Texan university student (with occasional input from his family) living in Toronto, Ontario. Can you say "culture shock?"

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