Listening to bebop

Bebop was the beginning of modern jazz. Starting in the 1940s, young jazz musicians began to bust out of jazz that was solely a jazzy version of the blues or of standard tunes taken from shows. Instead, they began to explore a music that was both rhythmically and harmonically more complex, syncopated and dissonant. There’s long been a joke that this was done by Black musicians to discourage White ones from copying them. Some truth to that, but also this was the Young Turks saying “Try this, old man” to the players (Black and White) ahead of them in the pecking order of big bands. Bebop’s heyday was from about 1948 to the death of Charlie Parker in 1955. But it’s influence has been permanent — people still play bebop and you can hear its influence today, if not all that frequently anymore.

To listen along, use the player below. You can scroll through it by moving the little bar on the right side down.

Our listening starts out with 3  versions of Embraceable You, a Gershwin tune from a 1928 unpublished operetta that was repurposed for the 1930 film Girl Crazy where Ginger Rogers sang it. I couldn’t find a recording of that. Instead, I’ve used a Doris Day version from the late ‘50s as a proxy for that. Spotify also has a Judy Garland version. So this is a standard as such – not jazzed up. Then Billie Holiday applies the swing treatment, as well as the vocal approach first pioneered by Armstrong. I’ll refrain from describing that – see what you think. Lastly, a late ‘40s version with Charlie Parker on alto. You’ll see how it departs from both of the others after a perfunctory nod to the original. Listen to how Parker ornaments the melody and the melodic line in his solos – about half the notes are just there to approach the key notes from above and below. A little bit like Baroque trills.

After that, Woody ‘n You, a Coleman Hawkins number from the ‘44s. He’s best known for the classic swing jazz Body and Soul, which it’s no exaggeration to say led to the tenor being the main jazz horn, replacing the trumpet. Hawkins was a transitional figure and this cut shows that. While Hawkins is more rooted in the ‘30s, he has some young Turks like Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford on this date. You can literally hear both swing and bebop, sometimes on the same solo. Not that there’s a giant wall between the two – bebop is definitely built on swing rhythm.

Next I threw in Bud Powell’s Bouncin’ with Bud. He was a bebop piano giant. This is a ‘49 recording. Fats Navarro on trumpet is like Hawkins as a transitional figure, but the very young Sonny Rollins (tenor) and Roy Haynes (drums) are young beboppers who would go on to become giants of the post-bebop era. Now we’re starting to get into mainstream bebop.

Then we move on to Thelonious Monk, also from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. If Dizzy was bebop’s great trumpeter, and Parker it’s great sax player, than Monk was its most influential piano player. Except almost nobody plays like Monk – so it’s more about influence than emulation. ‘Round Midnight begins to show how bebop translated the blues. Epistrophy and Ruby My Dear show off Monk’s quirky style. The two most notable things are the heavily syncopated rhythms and the extensive use of discord. But as a thought experiment, if you have any old Duke Ellington records, and Duke plays any solos, compare his playing to Monk’s.

Next, Parker’s Confirmation, one of his most famous tunes, from 1946. This is pure bebop. Listen to the keys in the background, you’ll hear there are a lot of chord changes. Bebop is a lot about that.. Yardbird Suite is another typical Bird (his nickname, short for Yardbird) tune. The theme is stated up front, then all the solos are based on the chords behind those themes, not the themes themselves. In other words, alternate melodies to the same harmony. All improvised on the spot. BTW, I think this is the original 1946 version featuring a very young and raw Miles Davis on trumpet.

Then we finish up with Dizzy Gillespie, who was possibly the most virtuousic of them all. I have heard recordings where he plays at around 280 beats a minute, which is actually faster than I can tap my fingers. Diz was a character and an entertainer and songs like Salt Peanuts were part of the whole beatnik culture. Before bebop, jazz was a very social music — people danced to it, couples went to nightclubs to hear it. Early in bebop, as players realized dancers weren’t hitting the floor, they tried ways to preserve it’s entertainment value. Eventually, it seems, they gave up on anything but the pure music. Groovin High is another bebop classic. Night in Tunisia was a pioneer in putting the bass upfront with a heavily syncopated line. Diz also enjoyed music outside the southern Black tradition, and this is an example. Manteca is another, and was part of the first great meeting of Latin and American jazz. Lastly we end with Diz’s version of Duke’s Caravan, and then the original, a ‘30s number, for contrast.

A lot has changed since 2007

In writing Replay Earth, I was not specifically looking at what people might actually do in a climate-ravaged future. The example I give in the book are notional and the notions are well-established: sustainability, fairness, collaboration, connection. But fairly early on, I realized that this was only part of the equation.

I am now embarked on writing a sequel, and have thoughts about a third book, too. In the sequel, I want to get deeper into the struggle to rebuild the world. What would life be like for people who, on the one hand, are not guaranteed of survival, and on the other hand, feel both the exhilaration and fear of needing to make entirely new social rules?

Since I don’t know what those rule should be, I have embarked on a period of doing research into what people who study these issues are saying. There’s a lot out there, but I’m not too sure how far any of these thinkers and writers have gotten.

One of the first books I’ve looked at is a collection of essays on key topics called Surviving the Century, subtitled “Facing Climate Chaos & Other Global Challenges” written in 2007. It seems to have been something of an inaugural statement by the World Future Council, a Euro-Anglo-American think tank based in Hamburg. Here’s what the scene was like in 2007:

  • George W. Bush was president and he was establishing the pattern of disengagement and duplicity around environmental issues that Trump has taken to the proverbial next level
  • The Kyoto Accords were still in effect, no Paris Accords
  • There’s little mention of actual climate disasters, as many of the hurricanes, floods and droughts that have captured popular attention had not yet happened
  • Glacial loss was just beginning to become alarming
  • And, most importantly, there was just the beginnings of recognition of both how little time we have to react and how long our failure to do so would resound.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that today there’s the beginnings of a sense that failures to certain things in 10 years, and others within 100 years, leave us only the question of just how warm it will get and just how much of the Earth will become uninhabitable to us, and to life in general for the next 1,000 years or more. That perspective was not present in 2007, at least not in the foreground. If these writers knew that, they were perhaps shielding the public from it out of fear that it would paralyze people.

So what did the World Future Council seek to focus on in 2007? Much of it is still important:

  • Sustainable cities. Herbert Girardet, who also was the lead editor for the book, focused on this. The world is largely urban now. In the developing world, once the redoubt of the rural, people are streaming in from the countryside. Deurbanization is not likely, but redefining the city might. Girardet draws on a 1996 UN formulation:

A sustainable city, ‘EcoPolis’, enables all its citizens to meet their own needs, and to enhance their well-being without damaging the natural world or endangering the living conditions of other people, now or in the future.

  • `A new socio-econcomic order. Francis Moore Lappe (she of Diet for a Small Planet fame) addresses the paradox of Western democracy: free-market capitalism leads to the concentration of power, while democracy is intended to disperse it. She calls our current arrangement “thin democracy” and wants to build a living, dynamic democracy in which the goals of society are constantly evolving and determined by the citizens. Businesses cannot elevate profit and shareholder value above the needs of the many.
  • Sustainable international trade. Many commentators have observed that while it may seem wonderful to be able to buy a pear from Japan and an apple from Chile, the environmental cost of flying a piece of fruit all that way is not sustainable. Stewart Wallis describes a new view of international trade that is centered around a few basic ideas: environmental sustainability, reduction of poverty and inequality, and regulated by open and accountable public governance.

These are all great starting points and were probably cutting edge 12 years ago. What they don’t address is what we already see happening, the cracking of the social fabric in many countries, and at all levels of development. In the relatively calmer climate of 2007 (presumably before the Crash) the answer to “How will we get there?” seems to have been assumed to be “Through steady persuasion based on the truth.”

I find it hard to believe that will suffice in today’s world. Saving this world and building a new one will require vigorous offense and defense. Living in the US in 2019, it’s hard not to feel that a key question, perhaps the key question, is “How will we conduct political change in a world where the forces arrayed against change are willing to use every social division to prevent it?”

Books like this are valuable and I’ve learned some important things from it. But we need to think in more than technocratic and idealistic terms — to those needed perspectives must come, “But how do we convince people to fight for this? And how should that fight proceed?” It seems to have been a disease of think tanks in recent years to eschew this question, but if your starting point involves greater democracy, you really must ask that question. Otherwise, you are just feeding the trope that all intellectuals live in a very well-furnished Ivory Tower, descend to go to Davos now and then, and know nothing about how real people live. And i really don’t think that is the reality or intent of the WFC.

A really good, Half-White Album

The release of a re-mastered White Album by The Beatles reminds me of all the mixed emotions I have about this album. Leaving aside Magical Mystery Tour, essentially a soundtrack for a British TV special, The Beatles, as the White Album is officially known, came in 1968 on the heels of Revolver and Sergeant Peppers. I, and I think many Beatles fans, consider those two their finest work. Some people consider The Beatles or 1969’s Abbey Road (again, after an intervening soundtrack, Yellow Submarine) to be that.

But for me, the White Album has always been massively frustrating. It has some really great songs, but like Abbey Road, some that feel to me entirely disposable. There’s long been a truism in rock that most double albums are failures to edit down to a good single album. I don’t recall, but I suspect the White Album is the source of that idea. But what about the good stuff? What would a really great single album — let’s call it The Half-White Album — comprise?

Before giving my list, I do want to say that this album is a college course in 1968, a year like few others. To list just the more obvious things: the United States essentially lost the war in Vietnam during the Tet offensive, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election after being elected in 1964 in the largest landslide in history. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. The Cultural Revolution began in China. Czechoslovakia defied Russia which then invaded it. French workers and students struck and the nation was plunged into a violent conflict for 6 weeks. The Democratic Party national convention in Chicago was consumed by a demonstration of more than 20,000 anti-war, anti-racism protesters and the police riot that followed. Hubert Humphrey backed the repression and effectively ended the Democratic Party’s long, historical dominance dating back to FDR. And I’m sure there are more consequential things that happened that year, but you get the idea.

The White Album reflects many of these things but that may not be obvious to those who didn’t live through the times. There is a great deal of “beginning of the end” in the album. Emotionally, it contrasts a great deal with early and mid-Beatles, which are drenched in youthful optimism. I’ve long felt that a good deal of the Fab Four’s appeal was just that brash, confident, forward looking cheeky feel. (Later, there would be a whole subgenre of “end of the end” songs as the ’60s disappeared in the rearview mirror — I’m thinking of Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty and Gil-Scott Heron’s Winter in America)

On the White Album, though, we get the warning signs. Psychedelic fervor has turned to downers and suicidal thoughts  on Yer Blues. We get the out of control Helter Skelter. There’s the sarcastic frustration with America of Happiness is a Warm Gun, but matching disillusionment with the youth culture in Revolution. Taken together, there’s a feeling of being hemmed in, seeing few ways out. A number of songs go in a different direction, bespeaking a need to look deeper inward to personal history and conflicts (Julia, for example). Ultimately, that was the path for the Beatles, but not one they were able to walk together for much longer.

Yet the album also has real power, strength and art if you ignore the whimsical experiments that didn’t quite pan out (but kudos for trying!). So here goes my playlist for a single, LP-length Half-White Album. Listen to it on Tidal!

Side 1

1, Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey. This has both the optimism of early Beatles with the musical sophistication and edge of the later albums. And it rocks! (3:03)

2. Back in the USSR. Replacing the US with the USSR was a brilliant way to poke fun at American self-satisfaction. And who doesn’t want to hear The Beatles do Chuck Berry tunes? (2:43)

3. Dear Prudence. The segue between the prior song and this so great, I don’t want to break it up. Otherwise, this song might not have made it. (3:54)

4. Martha My Dear. Paul’s fascination with music hall songs eventually became annoying, but here this is just a nice acoustic number. As always, experimenting with various non-rock instruments and then having the electric guitars rescuing it just in the nick of time. (2:48)

5. Blackbird. I had no idea at the time that this was a comment on Rosa Parks, but it’s a beautiful tune and the context further cements its place. (2:18)

6. Piggies. Just to be true to the spirit of the times and for the harpsichord fans in the audience. (2:04)

7. Julia. This is one of John’s great works. The lyrics are a brilliant poem, powerfully evoking both a young boy’s impressions of the mother he adored and a young man’s mourning of the mother he never had. The music and the playing are achingly sad. I can think of few tunes as emotionally honest in both words and music as this. (2:56)

8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (4:45). Of course.

Side 2

1. Glass Onion. Well, it’s either this or Rocky Raccoon, but I went with this for its energy. (2:17)

2. Yer Blues. Under-appreciated. The Beatles didn’t do the blues that often, but this has all the down home you could want without just blindly copying Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. The lyrics are a kind of white, psychedelic evocation of Delta hoodoo. (4:01)

3. I Will. A nice little throwback to the Beatles 65/Rubber Soul sound. (1:45)

4. Happiness is a Warm Gun. More biting satire. (2:44)

5. Revolution 1. The Beatles, like Dylan, were often described in revolutionary terms that both were uncomfortable with. By 1968, the more radical youth no longer see The Beatles as all that and John clearly knows it. Here he tries to come to terms with a youth movement he can’t relate to and whom, he suspects, can’t relate to him. His plea for an inward focus sounds sad in retrospect. (4:15)

6. Mother Nature’s Son. Another of the albums acoustic, folk rock gems, Paul’s plaintive paen to the power of music and nature. Maybe a kind of portend of Let it Be. (2:47)

7. Helter Skelter. If Revolution 1 was a reaction to protest, this seems to just react to the general tearing apart that 1968 was. The manic and sinister feel of it is so startling coming from The Beatles and especially cuddle-bear Paul who returns to his Little Richard vocal roots. (4:29)

8. Revolution 9. And so we end in an electronic collage, a fog that envelops us in which we struggle to glimpse all sorts of things. A fitting end. (8:20)

Well, that’s 49:25 minutes of music, which was on the high end of LPs in those days. And for the CD, of course, bonus tracks.

CD bonus tracks

Rocky Raccoon
Sexy Sadie
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

You can and should argue with this list! Let the fun begin.

Who wins the long game?

American society has been consumed by a debate over whether Darwin’s theory of evolution is right or not for a long time. Its a shame for two reasons: its obviously basically right (if you don’t think so, please take some time to study it — its hard to refute) and so many interesting refinements to it have been made that are getting lost in this basic debate. Most people don’t really know how far the theory has come and so haven’t been able to adjust their thinking accordingly, even if they’re willing and able. And that’s a shame, because many recent discoveries put the lie to some of the biggest myths about human evolution.

We’re seeing a bit of a course correction recently. The New York Times, among others, made a big deal about David Quamen’s new book, The Tangled Tree. I haven’t read it, but judging by several reviews I’ve read, the ideas are contemporary, but not new. The basic idea is that we now know that evolution is not a simple binary process. Yes, new species with new, more advantageous traits emerge from old ones in a tree-like fashion.

But as a new study in Science details in depth, related species often interbreed, passing traits back and forth for extended periods of time. The idea that the new kid on the block drives out all the others just doesn’t hold water, in this case.

The article details extensive genomic analysis of hundreds of species of cichlid fish in Lake Victoria. Its a complex tale. The lake is fed by two large river systems, the Congo and the Upper Nile. The fish live in both the rivers and the lake. About 130,000 years ago, fish traveled back and forth from one river to the lake to the other. Than the lake dried up and the fish in each river evolved separately. About 15,000 years ago, they re-united in the once again full lake and began cross-breeding again. In only 15,000 years, these hybridized fish blossomed into about 450 species. Some are small, some are large, some carnivores, some scavengers, some herbivores. The diversity is too great to have occurred solely or even mainly through mutation. If different kinds of cichlids hadn’t interbred to create still more kinds, there would be far fewer kinds, occupying far fewer ecological niches.

Of course, we now know that we humans did something similar, if less spectacular. Up until about 30,000 years ago, we occasionally interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovan hominins (the term for human-like primates), both of whom we share a common ancestor with several hundred thousand years ago.

Some scientists believe that we inherited certain genes for immunity from Neanderthals that helped people survive the many plagues that ravished medieval Asia and Europe. Some of those same genes may be responsible for the small percentage of humans who seem largely immune to HIV. Most Europeans and Asians alive today have at least 1% of their genes from either of the two pre-homo sapien hominins. And this also puts into serious doubt the notion that Neanderthals went extinct because were in some grand competition and we won and they lost. Something more subtle, as yet undetermined, happened.

Very interesting, but so what?

These discoveries show that the 19th century, social Darwinist notion that evolution is a winner-take-all, fight-to-the-death contest may sometimes be true, but is probably more the exception than the rule. Darwin published his work right in the middle of the great expansion of capitalism as an industrial force. Many of his interpreters saw his work in the same light as the economic competitions of the day.

Humans became the ultimate industrialists, the J.P. Morgans of the animal kingdom. Within the human race, there must be winners and losers as well, indelibly stamped in our genetic makeup. This, of course, was a thinly veiled attempt to put a scientific cast on the already existing racist and colonialist views that were common then (and still are today).

Anyone who has spent time in the business world knows that “survival of the fittest” is a powerful idea in the business culture, and the business culture has an outsized influence on society as a whole. “Survival” in this context means one side dominates, the other is absorbed or disappears. “Fittest” means bigger, stronger, faster.

Biologists have established that, for the most part, the route to success for any organism is not to out-compete other species, but to find empty ecological niches that they can fill. That’s a very anthropomorphic way to say that but the idea is that if an organism evolves so that it can eat something or breed somewhere that no other organism cares that much about, it’s more likely to succeed than by having to constantly defend it’s turf.

What modern science also tells us is that the surest way to long-term success is diversity. No species can survive for long with a single monolithic set of traits. Climate changes, food supply changes, and many other things that impact survival change as well. At any given moment, humans as a group need to be a kind of library of traits. When the change comes, those with the newly advantageous traits will prosper, those with the now disadvantageous ones will not.

The picture that’s emerging is that a species wants to have at least some percentage of individuals who are not optimized for the moment but can still survive under a variety of different conditions that may become more common in the future. Today, for example, many species are having to adapt to new temperature, moisture and food supply conditions. Many cannot, but some species retain some individuals who have characteristics descended from warmer eras in the past, before the Ice Ages. Or at least have evolved mechanisms to regulate various processes to morph themselves to respond to these changes.

It’s still true that Darwin’s original idea of random mutations selected by nature is a major determinant of evolution. If anything, the last 50 years of genetics has shown that some mutations (in so-called regulatory genes) have far-reaching implications, causing new limbs to sprout, or body size to increase dramatically. But even that picture is now known to be incomplete. We don’t yet know how much the relative contribution of mutation versus hybridization is, nor how much diversity is enough or too much. But its time to bury the old 19th century notion of nature as some grand cutthroat competition.

What I hope will take its place is a recognition that many of the traits that don’t help people become billionaires are valuable to human society. I don’t argue that we don’t need aggressive, self-interested people, just that we don’t all need to be that way. Without people who excel at empathy, collaboration, self-sacrifice, a willingness to share valuable knowledge and things, we wouldn’t have made it this far. We won’t make it much further if we don’t value them more.

This Woman’s Got Soul

I wrote this song sometime in the early 1990s as part of a project to explore how black and white musicians influenced each other during the formative days of rock ‘n roll. The rest of the project never really happened. All of the events in this story are imagined.

Carole was on her third cigarette and still waiting for Moe to bring her sandwich. What’d it take to smoke three Kools? Maybe 20 minutes? Shit, used to be you could pass that amount of time at Moe’s no problem. The Brill Building used to empty into Moe’s at lunch, lured by fat sandwiches and an atmosphere that always felt like night, no matter how hard the day tried to impose its square cheeriness. Some wiseguy would always be holding forth on something, the Pope of 54th Street.

The place was quiet now, nothing but her own thoughts keeping time waiting for Lenny, her agent, rapping her nails on the table, nervous and bored.

“Hey, Moe, some coffee while you pluck the feathers off that turkey?”

“I tell you what, hon, you have another cup, and by then you’ll be ready for a good pee, and when you come back, you’ll have a turkey club fit for a queen like you.”

You couldn’t rattle Moe. He’d been feeding the hacks, hopheads, and hepcats of Broadway since Ziegfield realized his folly.

“You got an answer for everything Moe.”

“Hon, I had the answers before you were old enough to have the questions. Anyway, your sandwich’s up now.”

Three Kools, two coffee’s, one turkey club. Her foot tapped drums to a tentative piano line. No good—the second syllable in coffee through it off. Three Kools, two drinks, one guy…well, something for the subway ride home. Probably nothing. It felt old anyway, like that novelty song whatshisname did about a lifetime ago about that little car. Beep, beep, honk, honk, something like that. Who the hell could you get to do a song like that in 1966 anyway? Maybe Bobby Rydell could stage his comeback on the Sullivan show with a number like that. Joey Dee could reopen the Peppermint Lounge.

Or maybe Carole could climb out of the Billboard basement, even if it was with some pompadoured creep has-been. She caught a glimpse of her bouffant in Moe’s window and winced. Maybe Lenny had some good news. He was supposed to have been here 15 minutes ago, which meant he’d show up in about ten minutes. The only thing on-time about Lenny was his watch. Always had to have a Swiss watch, one of those beautiful thin Longines. Always fiddling with the stem, resetting it every time he heard the time on the radio. And never less than 25 minutes late for an appointment.

Sure enough, there he was, hurrying down Broadway, narrowly avoiding death by taxi as he ignored the light at 54th. Carole yelled over to Moe to get Lenny’s pastrami ready. Lenny was very predictable once you knew his system: at Moe’s he always ate pastrami. At the Carnegie, he had the corn beef. Lasagna was Mama Leone’s. He didn’t need a menu, he needed a map.

“What’s shakin, doll?”

“Same old same old Lenny. You got any reason I should go back up to my little rat hole office after lunch?”

“Carole, it hurts me to hear you talk like that. You’re an artiste.”

“Yeah, well, even Michaelangelo painted ceilings for a living. How many ways can I write ‘do wop?’”

“A million, babe, and it would still sound good from you. Stick with it: these kids from England can’t last. You wait, the good music always comes back. Look at Gershwin, Porter, Berlin.”

“Lenny, what are you smoking? Go down to Sam Goode’s in Times Square and ask the first teenager you find who George Gershwin is. I’ll give you a fin if he doesn’t think he plays for the Yankees. Anyway, I’m no Gershwin. Berlin maybe. At least I can carry a tune.”

“What’s go you so down? Rock and roll baby, you’ll always be rock and roll, just with that New York twist. You’re the best.”

Carole stared out the window again, looking for redemption on Broadway. It didn’t even feel like home anymore. In 1962 she could sit in this window and watch the people flow by and feel like she knew all the people who really belonged, who made the Brill Building and its little universe of hitmakers. They had a shared secret, this backroom brethren of songwriters who told a hundred and one hormone-struck, vibrating teen idols what to sing and how to sing it. Now most of them were tired repeats, their fire having burned out after just a few 2 minute and thirty-four second singles. And the secret priesthood of rock ‘n roll? They were having trouble remembering the secret themselves.

“Yeah, yeah, Lenny. Thanks for the flattery. Now, what am I gonna do to pay the bills?”

“I got something for you. It’s just an idea. You know how you always liked Phil Spector?”

“Sure Lenny. Phil looking for some tunes?”

“Tunes, tunes are a dime a dozen. This is more than that. He’s putting together a show at the Fox with Murray and they need some music to hold it together.”

So it’s come to this, she thought. Doing charts for the house band at a Murray the K show in fucking Brooklyn. She ought to scratch his eyes out, but she already knew she’d say yes. She decided to make him wait, staring out the window again, waiting until her cigarette almost burned her nails.

“Where and when?” She jabbed the butt out for punctuation.

“I know that look, doll. I’m just saying think about it. Phil loves your stuff. Ronnie, Darlene, they’re your kind of chicks. Why don’t you check it out? They’re rehearsing this week. If the show goes on the road, they’ll make you musical director and it’s a steady gig. A nice change from that,” he cocked his head down Broadway toward the Brill.

Lenny was so full of shit. Ronnie and Darlene were gone from the charts and the hearts. Murray the K’s show would hit the road about the same time Liberace got married. Murray was living the same nightmare as her—the Mersey misery. Oh well, misery loves company.

“Do I need shots and a passport to get to Brooklyn?”

“Nah, just a token. Take the GG to Flatbush. On second thought, shots wouldn’t hurt.”


Put Murray Kauffman down blindfolded in the middle of Arabia, he could find a dive in an hour. Brooklyn,  ten minutes was all he needed. After 2 hours of listening to Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love catfight, Carole needed a joint. But a drink would do.

“So whaddya think, Carole?”

“I think you’re the greatest Murray, and Phil’s a genius. But Ronnie and Darlene—they’re both the same washed-up, pain-in-the-ass, queen-for-a-day singers. They even wear the same white boots, the same fake wig, the same sequined skirt. If one wasn’t white and one black, I couldn’t tell ‘em apart on the street”

Murray laughed. “But when they open their mouths, it’s all worth it.”

“Really, Murray? I’m not getting that chill anymore. Remember when you used to have Dionne Warwick in your shows, when she first came up, and she would walk to the edge of the stage, and the crowd would get all quiet and goose bumpey? And when she sang that first chorus of ‘Walk On By,’ every kid in the audience who ever had a crush and got dumped connected with that scorn, that hurt. Hell, same thing when Darlene used to sing ‘Uptown.’ That was no different than Elvis, that was the most. Now they sound like they’re doing their nails while their singing. What happened, Murray? Is it them or me?”

Murray eyes stared out under his porkpie hat and over his highball glass. They’d maintained a casual, occasional work relationship over the years. He’d always thought of her as irrepressible. Now she was crying in her Gibson to him.

“Yeah, those were good times. But hey babe, it’s a business now. And a lot of it is an import business from across the Atlantic.”

Murray had tried to ride out the English invasion for awhile, doing his Fifth Beatle act until his station got shot out from under him by a brand new invention, all-news radio. He was a strange cat. If you mixed a beatnik with an appliance salesman, you’d get close to Murray. Somehow, he always turned up hip, though.

“Murray, I lost my virginity on the business angle along time ago. But I’m talking about something more. You know the Beatles did one of my tunes. How come it sounds fresh out of their mouths? Something’s up, Murray. They can sing my old shit and it sounds good. But I can’t write stuff like them. We lost it somewhere, only we can’t let go. When the station went all-news, did you think about doing something different?”

“Like what, sell hats?” Murray said, tipping his trademark porkpie.

“How much you want for that?” she deadpanned.

“Seriously, though, baby, it ain’t just you that’s changed. Don’t forget, when you used to go to those Alan Freed shows, it was a sin to swivel your hips in public. We had to have a secret code. We were putting people on, like me with my submarine race watchers. You had that same cool way of delivering the message so only certain people would get it.”

“Sitting in the back of the Fox tonight, Murray, I wasn’t getting any message.”

“Babe, you ain’t even thirty yet. You’re just hitting a dry spell. Happened to all the greats.”

She labored for two weeks trying to put something into the charts, some spark. In the end, she did what she knew would work, what she’d done before. The show opened to a half-packed house of housewives and construction workers from Queens. Darlene and Ronnie were polished, professional. After 10 days, the show closed, never to leave Brooklyn.


Used to be getting laid was a sure ticket to a good night’s sleep. Not tonight. Carole left Alan’s skinny body looking like a ghost under the sheets, wrapped her old chenille robe around her and went out to the piano in the living room. No rest for the wicked.

Guys like Alan were haunting her life now. Maybe if she had someone dependable she could see herself through all this. Meanwhile, she had her Alans to scratch the itch until something better came along. What was that old line? The darkest hour was just before the dawn…

She found herself playing some old bar blues, then laughing at herself. Darkest hour. She wanted to know when the brightest hour was. Was there some dawn ahead? Her fingers kept playing the blues.

A pink rose broke the horizon outside the big picture window in the living room. Even with all Carole’s restless nights, it had been awhile since she’d seen the dawn. A line came to her. “Looking out at the morning sun, I used to feel so inspired.” Often when she wrote, she heard a real voice singing a song. This time it was Shirley Ellis from the Shirelles. Her fingers moved into some Shirelles-type chords, she strained to hear Shirley sing it. It was all wrong. She couldn’t make the words fit the chord progression.

She sat in the big armchair in her bedroom, looking at Alan the Ghost. What had she been thinking? A man playing the sax always sounded like a man you wanted to make love to. With the horn back in the case, the vibrations weren’t always there. She didn’t even feel like sleeping in the same bed with him anymore. The chair would do.

Hours later, Alan gone and the day fading, Carole was still hanging around the house in a fog. Even Eva, her housekeeper and friend, had been keeping her distance. Finally, she sat down across from her, staring her right in the face.

“Girl, what were you playing last night?”

“Sorry, Eva, did I wake you up?”

“Not for long. Where’d you learn the blues, girl?”


They laughed, trying to picture Carole in her pedal pushers and teased up hair uptown with the symphony crowd.

“Must be, ‘cause I never heard you playing that before. You all right?”

“Sure, I’m OK. I haven’t had a hit since Kennedy was killed, I ain’t had a good man since…shit, when was the last time I had a good man? Sure, everything’s just peachy.”

“Well alright then, I obviously didn’t need to ask. Somehow I got the mistaken impression something was bothering you. But don’t let me interrupt your wonderful life, child, with any of my silly questions.”

“Nah, you got me, Eva. I don’t know what it is, exactly. Seems like when someone good sang one of my songs, it used to be a thrill. Just hearing my little creation come to life, to hear those thrilling harmonies…”

“You still got it, girl.”

“Thanks, Eva, but the world just doesn’t seem to agree anymore. And when I’m not crying in my beer about it, I’m wasting my time with no-count guys like Alan.”

“You ain’t gettin it at home and you ain’t gettin it at work.”


“You need to come to church with me.”

“Eva, you have truly lost your mind. A nice Jewish girl like me?”

“No, no, I ain’t going all religious on y’all. When I get like that, I go to this one church uptown. They always have the best choir, the best singers. When they’re done with you, you’ll see GAWD. And if you don’t, a look at that fine Reverend Townsend will do.”

“Now I know why you’re going. But you’re not trying to get me baptized here, are you?”

“Carole, you can wear one of them yamulkas, for all I care. When you get the blues, you got to take care of the soul. Trust me.”

Sunday morning they went uptown together. All her life, Carole had trafficked in the ghetto, moving in and out of clubs all night without a second thought. In the quiet bustle of Sunday, she felt so obviously out of place surrounded by this other side of Harlem. It was a new feeling too, to do something like this with Eva.

Eva and Carole had a complicated relationship. Ten years ago, Eva had been a knocked-up high school girl. Her aunt was a backup singer in one of the many girl groups that did Carole’s songs. When Carole’s first husband and writing partner had taken flight, leaving her alone with her newborn daughter, she took in Eva, and their kids had been growing up together since.

Later, Eva hit big with Carole’s “Locomotion” and moved out to her own place. Eventually, the train slowed down and Eva was broke again. The second time around, she went to work for Carole, getting real money to look after the house and the kids. She was part maid, part friend, part sister.

Carole had been expecting a sweaty little storefront, but the Mt. Carmel Abyssinian Church, A.M.E. was a good sized brick church with maybe 300 people in it, all spiffed up and in a good mood. She watched Eva for when to open the book, when to stand, when to sit, and after awhile it started to feel less strange.

Eva was right. Reverend Townsend was a looker: he had those Billy Eckstine smooth pencil brows, and piercing eyes. He had a voice that reached right inside you. The choir was good, and she tried to let herself sway into it, to let go. But she felt the same disquiet as with her own music. If she couldn’t get off on Little Richard anymore, why was the gospel version gonna do the trick?

Just before the sermon, the Reverend brought up a guest soloist, a young black woman with straightened hair and something about her eyes. She hummed a bit with the choir through the first chorus, and then opened up in the second.

Carole was stunned. The girl hit her right between the eyes, just reached down into her guts and grabbed them. Carole barely heard the words, just feeling the way the syllables  slipped in between the beats, the way her voice soared unexpectedly, the way she snapped your head back with the richness, the sensuality of her singing. It was like sitting listening to her daughter’s school orchestra, and all of a sudden Charlie Parker’s playing. She looked over at Eva, who had been sitting watching Carole and almost laughing.

“Now you know why I brought you,” she whispered.

It turned out that Eva knew the girl. Afterwards they went out for coffee.

“Carole, this is Aretha Franklin. Aretha, this is the songwriter lady I told you about.”

“Nice to meet you, m’am.”

“Pleasure’s all mine, Aretha. I really enjoyed you’re singing. How long have you been doing this?”

“Oh, since I was kneehigh. My daddy’s a pastor in Detroit and my sisters and I always sang in the choir.”

“Are you thinking about turning professional?”

Aretha gave her a cool look.

Eva laughed. “Carole’s pretty hip for a white chick, Aretha, but she don’t know nothing about gospel. Carole, Aretha’s been on the road since she was 12. She’s something of a star on the gospel circuit.”

Carole blushed. “Well, I’m glad. I’d hate to think anyone was singing that well for free.”

“Well, the way they pay gospel singers, might as well be. Anyway, I’m thinking about getting a new groove. Mr. John Hammond, over at Columbia, he signed me up, thinks I’m the next Billie Holiday. Truth is, I could never lay back like she could. I like to hit the beat harder, I like to shout now and then. I’m more Lady Night than Lady Day, if you get my drift. Atlantic Records, they did right by Ray Charles, and Mr. Ahmet Ertegun, I think I can work with him.”

Carole didn’t impress easy, but anyone who had impressed both John Hammond and Ahmet Ertegun had her attention.

“You should talk to Carole, Aretha. She been around the block a lot of times.”

“Nice of you to say, Eva, but I don’t think I have much advice to offer. Honey, just sing. Nothing I could tell you is going to help you as much as that.”


Later, Eva said that Aretha was born the same year as Carole. Their lives had gone in parallel for awhile, both singing as teens, then Carole retiring from the stage to write, Aretha going on the road. Somewhere along the line, Carole had lost it, and Aretha had found it. That “it” was in her singing, the same kind of force that Carole and Murray cried about missing over their beers, that was missing from everything she touched these days. She knew she would never write gospel, but if she could tap into that force, it would transform her music, lead to something new.

She had been heading somewhere new, anyway. How else to explain sitting up all night playing the blues? She never played the real old time blues, just that sped up new kind that they renamed rock ‘n roll. Now her fingers were taking her new places, all on their own.

She decided that Alan was a bad dream, that writing that one line of bluesy music had been like waking up from a bad dream. Trying to make a Shirelles song out of it was her big mistake. Stick with her first instinct.

Every time she brought him home, she waited for him to fall asleep. Then she sat down at the piano and thought about everything they weren’t together, everything she wanted and slowly, the words emerged, like a polished oak splinter slowly being pulled from her fingers. She changed the opening line to “Looking out at the morning rain, I used to feel so uninspired,” to keep her away from the relentless teen upbeatness that always pulled at pop music. She savored that slowness, that pleasant pain that made her forget ten years of automatic cliches, of facile rhymes. Her left hand felt like a blacksmith’s hammer, beating the slow bluesy rhythm of the words into finished shape, her right hand like glowing embers flying off hot metal with each strike of the hammer.

After three months, she had a song. If she had to fuck Alan one more time, she’d scream. But she had a song. A real godamm song , a Carole fucking King song, not a Brill Building hack job.

“Eva, you know that friend of yours, Aretha Franklin? You hear from her at all?”

“Yeah, she doing OK. They got her a new producer at Atlantic, supposed to be more modern and shit.”

Carole knew all the people at Atlantic. She pulled a few strings and showed the song to Aretha’s new producer. He was impressed. Aretha was going to be in New York next month, they should get together. But Carole couldn’t wait.

She arrived at Reverend Franklin’s church in Detroit the next Sunday. She hardly noticed the stares, the service, the sermon. She knew she had done the right thing when the Franklin sisters came on. They sang all different songs than Aretha had sung in Harlem, but they had that same undeniable feel. Afterwards, she rushed up to Aretha.

“Hi. I hope you don’t mind my coming. I wanted to ask you something and it’s important.”

“Sure. Just wait a minute and you can come home with me.”

They drove to a prosperous looking area in a Black section of Detroit. The rest of the family was still at church, but Aretha sat Carole down on the sofa in the front room. It was an old-fashioned parlor, with dark wallpaper and glass-paneled wood doors and a baby grand piano. Aretha sat across from her in an old-stuffed armchair, her face betraying no emotions.

“You said you had something important to ask me, Miss King.”

“Not ask you exactly. You know I write songs. I often write songs for people, but they’re not really for people. Just sort of with them in mind. But after hearing you sing, I wanted to write a very different kind of song. I had a lot things on my mind…” Aretha’s face was impassive. She was intensely self-conscious, hearing hearself ramble on. “Well, that’s a long story. Anyway, you said you’re looking for a change of style, and the Atlantic people thought this song might work for you. But you’re too good to let some A&R man hand you a song and then you don’t feel it. So, I’m asking you personally if you’d consider recording my song.”

Aretha nodded. “I’d like to hear it.”

Carole sat at the piano with her chart, more nervous than she’d been since Jerry Mortenstein asked her to the Junior Prom. She played the intro, calming her nerves, opened her mouth and sang.

Lookin out on the morning rain

I used to feel so uninspired

And when I knew I had to face another day

Lord, it made me feel so tired


Before the day I met you

Life was so unkind

You’re the key to my peace of mind

Cause you made me feel

Like a natural woman

You make me feel

Like a natural woman


When my soul was in the lost and found

You came along to claim it

I didn’t know

Just what was wrong with me

Until your kiss helped me name it


Now I’m no longer doubtful

Of what I’m living for

And if I make you happy I don’t need to do more

Cause you make me feel

Like a natural woman

You make me feel

Like a natural woman


Aretha was smiling. “Eva was right. You are alright for a white lady. That’s a beautiful song. But I don’t know if it’s for me. See, when I’m not doing gospel, I’m a soul singer. I don’t do the blues.”

Carole was crushed. “Funny thing is, I don’t do the blues either. I’m a rock ‘n roller. But I needed another way to write this.”

“Miss King, you’re a nice person. I guess you had a dry spell. Man trouble, maybe you ain’t got the touch you used to. Do I have that right?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with obvious. You think you need to be all deep and shit, and you think the blues is like that. But the blues isn’t about being deep. The blues is what you sing about when you’re hurting and you can’t do nothing about it. What I mean is, the blues is all you can do about it.”

“Right, I think that’s why I’m attracted to it now. My whole world’s turned upside down, I don’t know what’s up. I guess I could do something about it, if I knew what it was.”

“See that’s the difference between the deep blues and what you got—not being able to say and not knowing what to say. My daddy’s people, they lived in a world of hurt, but they couldn’t really tell it like it was. Nobody tells me what I can and can’t say, and nobody’s going to tell me that I might as well just sing the blues because nothing’s ever going to change. Sam Cooke said it: a change is gonna come. When you got soul, you can feel that same hurt, but you’re going to beat it. So now, what is it got you that you can’t beat?”

“I don’t know exactly.”

“That’s right, you don’t, because you don’t really have the blues. You’re singing ‘You make me feel like a natural woman’ and you’re playing the blues. How’s that? Even a white girl has to feel good about that.”

That was right, she thought, I do have to feel good about this. That’s why I wrote this, because somewhere inside, I still feel that way. Damm, this was getting harder by the minute.  “Maybe I should try and rewrite this as a soul song.”

“Rewrite it? It ain’t about that. It’s not the notes, it’s the attitude, it’s the way you play it. You see an old man shuffling down the street, all beat from life—that’s the blues. You see a young brother, strutting his stuff—that’s soul. They’re both picking up the same two feet and putting ‘em down. You got soul, you just put ‘em down a different way.”

Carole suddenly had the feeling that she was about to learn something very important. “OK, so how would you ‘put ‘em down?’ How would you sing this song?”

“Oh no, I ain’t gonna sing it, not just yet. See, it’s your song, you got to find you own soul in it. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll play the piano like I would play it, get that old bluesy feeling out, and you sing along. See how it feels to you.”

Aretha was as big a surprise at the piano as at the mike. She took Carole’s bluesy chart and gave it a staccato majesty that was overpowering. Suddenly Carole was swimming in a fast, twisty river, scared of the rocks, but exhilirated by the ride. She felt transformed. Was that her song? She laughed, thinking about Eva saying she’d find GAWD in this music.

“Wow. I think you know what I was really trying to say better than I do.”

“I don’t have no idea what you were trying to say. But I know what you did say in these words and I like the feel you put into it. It’s got some soul. One thing though, when I was playing it, I noticed. It’s just got one speed, one groove. I can feel there’s this war going on in the notes, one minute it’s all major, the next minute you want to just go off into this discord,” and she rattled off a seventh chord. “You got to put that other feeling into it more. Rock and roll, you can go straight ahead. This song, you need a bridge or some kind of B part that rides that other feeling.”

Aretha hadn’t said yes or no about singing it, only that she’d think about it. Carole was haunted by her comment about the bridge. She knew exactly what she meant, exactly what the other feeling was—the feeling of coming alive. She started with that—“You make me feel so alive”—sitting night after night at the piano, hearing Aretha’s piano in her head, tightening and tuning the words and the timing, letting that feeling of a new day, a new life, shape the phrasing and the notes. She went to Atlantic and cut a demo tape of the reworked version. She didn’t have the nerve to watch Aretha listen to it, so she left it with the producer, telling him “I don’t even want to know.”

Three months later, she was sitting in her living room in her chenille bathrobe, three in the morning, just staring out the window. Alan was long gone, his replacement, a trumpet player named Gil, snoring in her bed. She had the radio on low, listening to a little Black station from Newark. She sat bolt upright. It was Aretha, singing her song.

Oh baby, what you done to me

You made me feel so good inside

And I just want to be

Close to you

You make me feel so alive

You make me feel

Like a natural woman

 She rocked in her chair, tears streaming down her face. It was the most beautiful song she had ever written.

“I got soul!” She yelled to anyone who was listening “I got soul!”

She called Lenny up and yelled into the phone “I quit! I’m not writing another half-assed do-wop song! Burn my office at the Brill Building! I got soul!”

She called Murray and told him to get some soul.

She ran into the bedroom, yanked the covers off Gil. “Get up, get up. Get out of here now!”

“What, what,” he mumbled. “What I’d do?”

“Nothing, you lousy fuck. Get out of here. I got soul, you hear. I got soul! Find some other washed-up, has-been, dish rag to clean your pipes, you third-rate imitation of Miles Davis, son of a bitch. Because I ain’t doing it anymore. I got soul! I got life!”

And she and Eva and the girls sang her song over and over, until the sun came up.

A tale of two storms

Katrina, Sandy, now Harvey — we have stared at these storms that have ripped apart the life of communities every few years. Thousands of people’s home lost, in the case of Katrina nearly 2,000 people dead. 100 year storms, 500 year storms, 1,000 year storms — not anymore. We are transitioning to an era when the recent past is not an accurate predictor of the immediate future. But we’re now like the man who got on Interstate 80 in New Jersey to go to California — he knows it will be warmer when he gets there, but no idea what it will be like along the way.

Yet more than computer models and statistical analysis, what’s happening in the places without the economic resources of the United States tells us a lot about what the whole world might look like in the coming decades — be that the 30-60 years of Replay Earth or some time a bit further down the road.

Because while Harvey dominates the news here, The Guardian reports that India, Nepal and Bengladesh are being wracked by their own set of fierce rains, driven by one of the wettest monsoons on record. And the toll is horrific: 1,200 dead, as many as 40 million at risk of loosing their homes to the floods, with at least another day of rain in store.

It’s tempting to think, “Well, that’s India. We have better this or better that,” but that would be foolish. Could Houston survive a storm like this every few years? New Orleans can’t even turn on all its flood relief pumps 12 years after Katrina. And what about when there are 20 Houstons and New Orleans, hit by overlapping storms? Apart from the cold cash involved, do you see a society with the cohesion and will to put aside many competing priorities and spend billions, maybe trillions, on flood control and relief? India is just farther along the curve we’re on.

I don’t know much about India’s weather, but I know I’m seeing a lot of articles about whether Harvey is climate or weather. As a general concept, the distinction between the two is useful and helpful to unconfuse people who think — or want us to think — that global warming means no more cold days. But every day, the climate produces weather — they’re not happening on different planets. The weather we see now is produced by the climate we’ve created in the last 2,000 years, and of course, more so since the advent of universal electricity and the automobile.

That climate is better than the old one at heating up the ocean that is 75% of our planet and the air just above it. That means bigger, wetter storms in some places, just as it means hotter, drier climate in others. Specifically, places like Houston and Mumbai are going to be hammered much more with such storms. Whether there will be more of them, or they will just be longer or more intense, time will tell. But we’re seeing that happen before our very eyes.

This climate will take decades, maybe centuries, to unwind. It will get worse before it gets better, if it gets better. We can speed that up, we can limit some of the damage. But not all of it — we have lost that last moment of control, probably a while ago.

What we can control is how we react and how we learn from that. We are in the early days of a world where most of the time, somewhere, there will be millions — perhaps hundreds of millions or billions — of people homeless or without livelihood from climate change.  We have a lot of work to do.

What’s so funny about peace, love and empathy?

For a long time, empathy was thought of as an emotion, or a willful behavior — in the same category as kindness or compassion. As such, it was subject to whatever societal biases we have for “the softer things.” And while it may turn out that kindness and compassion also have a biological basis, it is crystal clear that empathy does.

It’s dangerous to be too certain about anything to do with the brain and human behavior, given our relatively primitive understanding of both and the link between them. Isaac Newton was quite certain about physics, but he was an alchemist and could not be very certain about chemistry, since too little was known about it at the time. That’s my stance on psychology in the broadest sense.

Still, we do know some things.

One idea that was gained some currency is the notion of mirror neurons. Here’s an excerpt from an article written for doctors that introduces the concept:

Research in the neurobiolgy of empathy has changed the perception of empathy from a soft skill to a neurobiologically based competency (). The theory of inner imitation of the actions of others in the observer has been supported by brain research. Functional magnetic resonance imaging now demonstrates the existence of a neural relay mechanism that allows empathic individuals to exhibit unconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others to a greater degree than individuals who are unempathic (). Patients unconsciously mimic the actions and facial expressions of others through brain mechanisms that mirror the actions of others by stimulating the same motor and sensory areas in the observers’ brains as the person they are observing. This mirroring capacity has been demonstrated at the level of single muscle fibers. If a person’s hand muscle is pricked by a fine needle, for example, the same motor and sensory areas are activated in the brain of an observer ().

What that means is essentially that when you see your friend wave at you across the room, your brain imitates the wave motion in every respect except actually transmitting that “order” to your arm. Then it recalls the emotion that is usually associated with that set of motions and says “Aha, I was friendly when I waved. My friend must be doing something friendly toward me! Yeah” and you may choose to wave back, smile or whatever.

It helps to think of empathy in evolutionary terms. Imagine you are a sheep in a flock. We now know that sheep recognize many facial expressions from their fellow herd-members. How does Sheep 1 know that Sheep 2 is being friendly, and not aggressive, when it looks at it a certain way? Mirror neurons. As far as I’ve been able to read, all mammals have this mechanism. It doesn’t require extreme intelligence, speech, or even will to exercise it. We just do it.

Current research is discovering that empathy is more complex than just mirror neurons, that it involves other parts of the brain, and that it’s behavioral output is not always what we might think. There’s plenty of room for mushy thinking and junk science around empathy, but there’s also solid evidence. So we’ll have to stay tuned.

In addition, emerging fields like behavioral economics are helping us to understand the irrational side of our natures. Often, they complement the work around empathy by exposing the interesting ways we defy logic.

But the reason I made so much of empathy in Replay Earth is that I don’t think we as a society value our own ability to connect at a basic level. Empathy is neither about hate or love — it’s about the fact that we have ways to understand each other. And maybe we don’t currently give them much credence, but if we came to value them more highly and paid more attention to them, we might find that they can clarify social interactions. And that might, indeed, reduce our fear of The Other, whomever that happens to be this year.

More about empathy:

The neuroscience of empathy

Laughter and social bonding

Recent research

Of course, if you search for “the science of empathy” you’ll find many more articles.

Will large parts of Earth become uninhabitable?

One of the amazing aspects of human history has been our ability to live almost anywhere. In the last 100,000 years or more, humans have migrated to and settled in places as diverse as the Arctic Circle and the Kalahari desert. The last frontier of human settlement was not determined by temperature but by oxygen — few live in altitudes somewhere above 14,000 feet. Recent research suggests that the Sherpas, for example, are descended from people who arrived in that area sometime in the last 5,000 – 10,000 years and adapted slowly to the highest altitudes. They may even have had help from ancestral Neanderthal genes.

Today, we face a different problem. Our current popular view of potential climate disaster often centers around rising seas — think Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy on a vast scale. Should that come to pass, very large numbers of people would be forced to move inland.

But the damage we are currently doing risks a potentially far more devastating consequence — driving the temperature in large regions past the threshold of where people can work, and ultimately, just survive outdoors. A recent article in the Guardian describes a research study that uses computer models to project that certain areas in a large swath of Asia, from the Persian Gulf to China, will periodically become too hot to survive outdoors for more than a brief period by 2100. The article is a lay explanation of a scientific journal article by a team of researchers from MIT, Loyola Marymount and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. At least some of it was funded by the Singapore government, which apparently doesn’t agree with the current US government’s dismissal of climate change.

We often think of cold as a killer, but people can survive very cold temperatures surprisingly well with very basic technologies. Witness the Inuit and their relatives who are indigenous to the Arctic Circle around the globe. But our biology cannot tolerate temperatures above about 108F without ceasing to function. Really, we don’t do well above 100F as anyone who has had a fever knows.

We keep our bodies cool by sweating. As the research details, when the temperature and humidity combine to create a wet-bulb temperature  (WBT –that’s sort of like the temperature-humidity index, but not quite) of 35C or 95F we can no longer cool ourselves. Heat builds up rapidly and destructively in our bodies. At this point, we risk death within six hours.

What both articles highlight is that by 2100, large parts of India and Pakistan — notably the areas on the Indus and Ganges rivers — will suffer extreme heat and humidity prior to and during the monsoon season. Parts of Iran, China and Vietnam will also be affected. Wet-bulb temperatures will breach 31C or 88F some of the time, a limit considered dangerous to be outside and essentially impossible to work in.

After that, temperatures could breach the 95 deg wet-bulb limit a few days each year and these regions would simply become impossible in certain months and years. Would people leave and come back? Or would they just abandon the lands and migrate elsewhere? How will people who depend on manual labor to survive and live in rural conditions with no air conditioning live — or will they begin to pack up and leave? Just the very word “inhabitable” may take on new meanings.

The last time such dramatic and lethal climate changes occurred was at the start of the last glacial maximum around 26,000 years ago, when much of the Northern Hemisphere was covered with thick ice. But there were likely less than 1 million people in the entire world then. The regions we are talking about now are home to 1.7 billion people today. Many are farmers, and not farmers sitting in air-conditioned tractors, either. Consider the ramifications of people no longer being able to live and grow food in one of the most densely populated and farmed parts of the world. Places where only a few thousand years ago humanity began the great transition to permanent settlements built around agriculture.

Where will these people go? What will they eat? What will people in other regions who depended on their farming output eat? When we see what the carnage in Syria has wrought in terms of political tension around the world, it’s hard to imagine what societies around the world will do to absorb this. Even if temperatures fall a few degrees short of these projected levels, some people will not be able to tolerate them. People will get sick, people will die. We just don’t really know how bad it will get and how people will react.

If there is a silver lining to this, here it is (from The Guardian):

The analysis also showed that the dangerous 31C WBT level would be passed once every two years for 30% of the population – more than 500 million people – if climate change is unchecked, but for only 2% of the population if the Paris goals are met. “The problem is very alarming but the intensity of the heatwaves can be reduced considerably if global society takes action,” said [study author] Eltahir.

In Replay Earth, I explore some of the actions the people displaced by climate change might take. I hope that the people of 2100 don’t actually get to find out, but that will depend on what we do in the next decade or two.

Meet Replay Earth’s co-creator

Although I wrote Replay Earth, the original idea came from my friend Effie Weisstein, or E.B. Weisstein as he prefers to be known officially. We’ve been friends forever. In addition to having come up with the original concept, Effie and I talked about the book about every for six weeks for the two-plus years that I wrote it. I know you’re not supposed to do that, but it actually was fun and very productive. We brainstormed about characters, plot and concepts. In the end, I had to make all that work, throw some of it out, and invent new things, but this was a book of ideas, and ideas benefit from discussion.

Effie 2

E.B. Weisstein, co-creator of Replay Earth

Effie is a life-long educator, free thinker and New York sports addict. But he’s still a great guy.

You called me sometime around the end of 2014 or early 2015, and we had coffee at that ridiculous place in Arlington. You told me about this idea you had for a book and it really captured my imagination. Do you remember what your original idea was – what was the heart of it?

The idea for the plot came from two of my main fascinations—“what’s it (life) all about?” and politics. While I’m sure everyone thinks about the first, I am particularly obsessed with the idea that of the roughly 3 billion humans who are alive at any given moment, not one can claim to really know the true order of things.  Is there really a supreme being(s)?  What’s up with the universe and how can it be infinite?  Those kind of unanswerable questions.

In terms of politics, I tend to think of it rightly or wrongly as an existential struggle between right and wrong. And while I believe in the ultimate goodness of people, I am also somewhat jaded by my  belief that many people are selfish and ready to sell out others to save their own hides.  So the idea for the book is an attempt to better understand both the nature of the universe and the existential political battle between good and evil.   

When did you first start putting this idea together? What was driving you, other than the possibility that the Knicks might never reach the playoffs again in your lifetime?

I was in a NYC hotel room with my wife Ellen when the broad story line just popped into my head. Initially I thought of it as a possible movie screenplay for my good friend Stanley Weiser who has written many Hollywood scripts including “W” and “Nixon.”  While I knew his genre was politics and not SciFi, I pitched it to him as I have done with other ideas or books that I thought he might want to adapt into movies.  Unsurprisingly, he told me “great idea but it’s not my thing. Plus, it’s too complicated for a movie but  it would make for a great book and you should write it.”

So there we were, in what so many people now see as the calm of the Obama years, waiting at least 10 minutes while some obsessed hipster poured water drop by drop into a coffee filter perched on a cup sitting on a scale, while we itched to drink the stuff and get on with talking about the future. And we did that, like 10 meetings, although I think we ditched the coffee place at some point. And for me, it wasn’t the first time I’d thought about these things, but the first time I’d found someone who wanted to talk about how things could be really different if we were really different. Not necessarily a practical guide to avoiding extinction, but more “let’s stretch our minds, let’s see what could be.” And how could me make that an engaging story. Did you have that feeling? Or did you just think we were nattering on?

Well, I had taken up Stanley’s challenge and had begun pouring out lots of pages of narrative.  But I knew that I wasn’t a “real” writer, rather I was a man with an idea. So I was looking for a partner to help me flesh it out and to also do a lot (most) of the actual writing. And I had the sense through our many years of friendship that you might be the ideal partner.

What ideas and concepts do you think are the value in what we’ve created? 

Ultimately I believe that the book is “political” in that it highlights what I believe to be the existential battle between right and wrong that we are engaged in today and have been for as long as I can remember. So for me the SciFi book is really a statement on the world wide political struggle that we are engaged in—possibly for our survival.

And now a question for you: Why did you want to work on this book?  What did you hope to get out of the experience?

I’ll answer that on two levels. Mostly, your ideas caught fire with me as a way to both make a statement about where we are headed. I was always more attuned to  social injustice than “environmental justice.” But how can you not see that the greatest threat to people today is what we are doing to the environment? I don’t know how we are going to change this, but I wanted to be part of trying to, at least adding to the chorus of people shouting about it.

Beyond that, I had reached a point personally where I wanted to shift from writing professionally about technology to writing personally about things that matter deeply to me. Some of that is going to be traditional literary fiction and poetry. But some of it is also going to be speculative, or sci-fi, however you want to think about it.

I’d played around with a few ideas of sci-fi plots, but you had this concept that was well underway and that I pretty quickly connected with. For me, your ideas boiled down to the notion of second chances. Our culture has a Puritanical streak that tends to look askance at giving second chances. I think second chances are the most important thing in life, because who gets anything important right on the first try?

And then I could also see how empathy could be woven into the story. Empathy is an idea I’ve been interested in for a long time. 


Our mammalian heritage

Many ideas in Replay Earth stem from asking what it is that evolution has built for us from our mammalian past. Thinking of humans as animals is always tricky business — we have so many biases and prejudices that meet at that intersection. Nonetheless, we are mammals and we do retain many characteristics of them.

Here’s the ones that intrigued me, and that I wanted to play with in the novel:

  1. We are social animals. Most mammals live in a web of families, bands and herds. From what I know of anthropology, prior to the advent of civilization based on formal agriculture about 10,000 years ago, we lived in small groups of dozens, perhaps associated in larger groups of maybe 200. There’s also evidence that in the last 80,000 years or so, maybe multiple such groups in a region might meet up a few times a year to trade and perhaps dance, sing and mate.
  2. We, like other mammals, balance competition and collaboration. Our society is highly competitive and that tends to make us look back at see that we were always competitive and emphasize that part of our selves. But we also have always been collaborative, and many anthropologists point to that as equally, or more, responsible for our long-term survival and emergence as one of the planet’s dominant life forms.
  3. We think of ourselves as “conscious beings” but like all mammals, we have a powerful set of instinctive responses. Some are learned in childhood, some by experience, and perhaps some are also innate. We have only recently begun to understand that these responses — instinct, the unconscious, subconscious, call it what you will — are not always reined in or controlled by our rational mind. We’re still working all that out, eh?

I continue to read and learn about all of this. Advances in genetics, imaging and so on are helping to clarify the neural picture. Nascent fields like behavioral economics are chipping away at what it means in practice. All good stuff — but I think we are so far away from any firm understanding of how all of that plays out that imagination is entirely called for at this point.