Termination Shock: a novel and a bad idea

I usually enjoy Neal Stephenson’s novels a lot. Termination Shock gave me some pretty mixed feelings, though.

The plot: it’s the near future and the climate has (surprise!) gotten worse. Sea level rise is a serious threat to some places in the world, while others are all but uninhabitable witout air conditioning or cooled “earthsuits.” Lots of ecological side effects, two more COVID pandemics and ongoing supply chain chaos, are really not helping any.

A Texas billionaire oil baron kicks off a desperate geoengineering project to launch sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere — a similar effect that volcanic eruptions have. He doesn’t ask permission, he just rounds up a bunch of other rich people with a stake and shows them the system.

Outside of the fiction, this method has been modeled and is expected to effective at cooling temperatures and even relatively cost-effective… as long as you don’t ever stop. (Stopping causes warming to rebound worse, which is called “termination shock.”) There are also a lot of unsettled questions about how much it would reduce rainfall (and make it more acidic), reduce sunlight available for agriculture, increase ocean acidification, potentially damage the ozone layer, affect atmospheric circulation, and have generally unknown effects on the ecosystem. Whether it’s an extremely bad idea, a questionable one, or something to maybe try out very cautiously depends on who you ask and which models they’re looking at.

In the story, the effect on rainfall is assumed to be regional, very dependent on where the sulfur is introduced — in this case, it is the “breadbasket” of the Punjab that is adversely affected, which is a major plot point. Ocean acidification is briefly mentioned as a main reason for carbon capture and reduction rather than continuing to dump carbon into the atmosphere; the sulfur is meant to buy some time for that. Termination shock of course is a serious concern, as is the political destabilization factor of an eccentric, rogue non-state actor having control of a “climate weapon.” But overall, the attitude of the book’s characters — and thus, apparently (?) the book and the author — is that opponents of the geoengineering scheme are either India (facing possible starvation, so their opposition was rational, but misguided because more sites were supposed to balance the first one) or deluded lefty Greens (rarely if ever shown in a sympathetic light). The book’s political stance is kind of unclear, with the US as an example of a nearly failed state thanks to its “Comanche” individualist warrior redneck attitude, but also its choice of protagonists (Libertarian Texan, gun-toting redneck, a literal queen who owns significant stock in petrochemical and mining companies, and… a Sikh martial artist?) It’s weird. If I hadn’t read other books by Stephenson I would really wonder about the politics in it. He’s absolutely not on the Fox News/Trump side, that much is clear. But a lot remains ambiguous — partly because of where it ends, on the assumption that this “solution” is probably going to work and therefore the world is saved by one of the rich white patriarchal Libertarian gun nuts who broke it in the first place.

It’s still a Neal Stephenson book, and therefore a dogpile of crazy fun tangents (although some of them drag on a little bit), absolutely hilarious and absurd moments and characters. I don’t regret reading it like I do some things that turned out to be pretty clear-cut Ayn Rand worship, but I’m not fully comfortable with it either. And it’s a different sort of discomfort from reading Ministry for the Future, which confronts rather than abstracts human suffering, and where eco-terrorism contributes positively to the eventual solutions (a different sort of rogue actor, anonymous agents rather than a protagonist).

Now I’ve started reading She Who Became the Sun, “a reimagining of the rise to power of the Hongwu Emperor in the 14th century.” Which is less dry than it sounds. A young starving girl disguises herself as her dead brother and also takes on his destiny — becoming a monk (narrowly escaping detection) and then attaching herself to a rebellion against the Mongols and eventually becoming emperor. If it sounds a little like Mulan, well… it’s at least 300 years later, not the same situation or politics, and more queer overall (there’s also a general who’s a eunuch and kind of despised by his peers, but who fascinates the protagonist).

I keep GASsing for that Miezo bass or similar, and asking myself why. It’s still essentially a bass, and would provide similar (probably not identical) sound to the Mikro. Most of the time when I want a different piece of synth gear, it’s either for the sound, experimental possibilities, or some aspect of modulation or workflow that I’m confident will suit me well.

The reasons come down to:

  • It looks really flipping cool. It’s distinctive and frankly kind of SF/fantasy-ish.
  • A shorter scale length than even the 28.6″ does have some appeal for me, in that it’d get me solidly to OFPF (one finger per fret) throughout the full range.
  • Shorter overall body length makes it more wieldy. The Mikro’s total body length is 42″, and I do sometimes bump its headstock into stuff when tweaking other things. The U-bass is about 29.4″. Mini-basses range from about 20-26″ in total length.

I still need to put some thought into it though.

  • Is this something that ends up replacing the Mikro, or supplementing it? That depends, I guess.
  • Do I want to go for 16″, 18″, 22″? (Shorter is cheaper; longer is supposed to work better with standard tuning ranges and slapping, but the 16″ have been demonstrated to be decent. The 22″ has 4 more frets.)
  • 4 strings? 5? 6? (On a shorter instrument, more strings compensates for the shorter “reach” of each string. On a longer one it extends the range and adds more fingering options. Would be nice to have a low D for when I’m accompanying my spouse on the dulcimer. But more strings = pricier and more complex.)
  • Fretted or fretless? I’m leaning toward frets because that’s better for slapping and tapping, and the U-bass is covering fretless ground pretty nicely.
  • Why not a second U-bass then, fretted? I’m not sure even with the steel flatwound strings and frets, they are as good at slapping and tapping. And they’re not as short. But it is still something to think about.

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