Friday, May 31, 2013

Leaky Roofs

This story is about a building by Santiago Calatrava plagued by the bane of modern architecture: leaky roofs:
He is the genius behind some of the world's most spectacular bridges, museums and airports, but Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava cannot plug a leaking roof, according to a client who is demanding he contribute to the €2m (£1.7m) needed to pay someone else to do the job. A dozen years after Calatrava built the spectacular Ysios winery in the rainy Alava region of northern Spain, the building's dramatic, undulating roof continues to let in the damp.

Now Domecq, the owner of the winery, has said it is fed up with the botched attempts of Calatrava's original builders at fixing the roof and wants money from them so that it can bring in fresh architects and engineers to design a new one.

An expert's report that accompanies a writ lodged at a court in Vitoria claims that the roof, made of wood and aluminium, has never managed to keep the rain out. The firm pledges to maintain the original outline designed by Calatrava – an architect and engineer sometimes compared with fellow Spaniard Antoni Gaudí – but says that the leaks are damaging its image.

The row comes on the top of complaints in Calatrava's home city of Valencia about the slowly wrinkling, ceramic outer skin of the city's emblematic Palau de Les Arts, where tiles have started to shake loose.
Celebrated architect Santiago Calatrava told to pay for leaking roof (The Guardian)

If you read the Guardian article, you’ll see that a number of Calatrava’s buildings have been plagued by various technical and usability issues and cost overruns. It’s sort of a pity, because I really like the aesthetics of his work. Here in Milwaukee, he’s something of a celebrity for designing our art museum, which is simply called by most people ‘The Calatrava.” Ironically, the art museum features a movable roof structure, but problems so far have been pretty minimal.

Once again we see the sad record of modern architecture in keeping buildings dry. Creating some kind of new type of roof, often using high-tech materials, seems to be a calling card of modernist architecture, despite usable roof shapes and techniques dating back thousands of years. Isn’t this reinventing the wheel? In fact, thatch, a very old natural building material, seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance:

Town Hall Midden-Delfland by Inbo (Dezeen)

Living on the Edge by Arjen Reas (Dezeen)

These thatched roofs are probably less leaky. See more here:

Also, see these examples of brick architecure:

And speaking of more building techniques using natural materials, I find this intriguing: Brettstapel: another way of building with wood (Treehugger). See also Wooden skyscrapers: efficient, fire-safe, environmentally friendly(ier) (BoingBoing)

There are a lot of innovative ways to build with natural maerials, if only we can past the gizmo-centric greenwashing and tree-infested skyscrapers.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sweet Water R.I.P.

I was sorry to hear that while I was gone, Sweet Water Organics, the aquaponics businesses close to me and one of the world's largest, finally closed its doors:

Sweet Water Organics ceases production, owes city $137,000 (JSOnline)

I previously noted the irony in having to grow fish in tanks in old industrial buildings in a city on a major lake and crossed by multiple rivers in The Perils of Complex Systems.

It's too bad, and I hope it doesn't discourage people from trying things like this. But, in the end, you still have to run things like a business and make things work financially under the current paradigm.

In other news from 'sconsin: Dairy farmer acquitted on three of four charges in raw milk trial. I may be able to get raw milk yet in America's Dairyland.

Le Recession

In recession people are turning against the euro, globalisation and the import of cheap foreign products.
In Villeneuve they have created their own currency. It is called the Abeille. One Abeille equals one euro. But it can only be spent on local produce and services. It is 20 euros to be a member, but it is a non-profit initiative and any money raised is ploughed back into helping local businesses.

"We have 150 families who are using it," said Nicolas Queyreau, vice president of the Abeille group. "And an increasing number of traders. You can pay for your haircut, you can eat in restaurants, and of course you can do your weekly shop. It creates a connection, a relationship between the consumer and their local producers."

The Socialist candidate, Bernard Barrel, who will run in the forthcoming election, is all about supporting local employers. But on a visit to the town of Fumel and Metaltemple, a truck components factory, where shifts has been halved in recent months, he concedes it is not the best time to run for the governing party. "But we do believe in the programme Mr Hollande has set out. He has implemented 40 of the 60 new initiative he set out," he says.

"This is only the first year. The effects are yet to be felt - but they will be."

They have time in the Lot, it is a slower pace of life, but all the problems France is accumulating are flowing into the region. Suddenly recession threatens their cherished quality of life. Restoring it is the government's challenge, and not just for the people of the Lot-et-Garonne. 
French recession: Farms feeling the pinch (BBC)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Back In The U.S.A.

Well, I have made it back to the United States, arriving yesterday evening. Today I’m back at work. Sigh. Anyway, my laptop ceased to function during my trip, so posting may suffer for a bit longer. It looks like my hard drive is kaput. That means I’ve probably lost my long list of bookmarks and a few blog posts I was planning on publishing. So if I have any readers left, please bear with me as I try to put stuff back together.

I went on kind of a media fast during the trip (out of necessity after I lost the use of my laptop), but the few times I did go online, it seemed that I would magically hit on stories aimed directly at me. So, here a few of them:

Rich Tourist, Poor Tourist (The New York Times). Found just this morning, and I can really relate to this now:
But not long ago, on a journey through India, I began to see things a little differently. For two weeks, I had been fairly battered by the daily chaos of budget travel. Then, on my last night in Kolkata, I met up with some particularly affluent friends who had spent their vacation escorted by private staff from one security-gated refuge to the next, and who were staying in a palatial five-star hotel on the outskirts of the city. In their cocoon of opulence, they quizzed me about my comical but vivid excursions, which had left me both exhausted and exhilarated. I began to realize that they suffered their own form of travel envy. The sense of control money provided them had also served to deaden their experience.
Ah, yes, the daily chaos of budget travel, will batter you down, that's for sure.

Chinese Tourists Warned Over Behavior Abroad (BBC). Found on the first day I went online while travelling, maybe a week into this trip. I fell out of my chair laughing.Yes, it’s actually reassuring to know that Americans are no longer anywhere near the most despised tourists in the world. In fact, we barely place. The Chinese tourists are EVERYWHERE! Trust me, we have nothing on them when it comes to tourism. I'll say more about this later.

How to speak Franglais (BBC). The language I spoke while in Paris. Well, what I tried to speak it, anyway, actual French being beyond my grasp. I understand why French language is revered so highly by the French - it seems to be the main uniting factor of the Francophone world, and the only way you can learn to speak it properly is to speak it growing up as a child.
Why not take a leaf out of the livre Anglais? "Franchement", pour exemple, in le dernier paragraphe, is "Frankly" in English. Plus simples. Actuellement, frankly is derived from vous ancestres, Les Franks. C'est temps a vivre up to votre nom. C'est aussi temps pour moi to introduire mes rules d'or que will be of great aide to notre French cousines dans cette situation difficile.
The uneven charm of Rome's cobblestones (BBC). Found on BBC, ironically enough, shortly after I got there (I could still use my iPod). The cobblestones do provide a lot of character and are unique, and you can build your roads without fossil fuels. But, as this was my last stop, by this time my feet were in intense pain, and I have to say, it was hard to make your way over these when you're tired. Hell on luggage too. The photo at the top of the article looks much like where I stayed in Trastevere.

Well, it's nice to be back, believe it or not. I’ll be writing about my trip when I get back up and running. Since I’m sure many readers are familiar with Europe, I’ll try and keep observations general, along with any travel tips for anyone foolish enough to attempt what I did. Ciao.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Hipcrime Vocab European Tour

Thank you to all of the new members who have joined up in the last few days. When I began this blog a few years ago, I was unsure if anyone would read it. Now I am truly humbled whenever I glance at the right-hand column and see your lovely faces (avatars?). And thanks to all the wonderful comments and feedback.

So I feel a bit guilty taking a vacation now. But I’ve decided to take a leap and will be spending a few weeks in Europe. Why? Well, because I can. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis, but I’ve got enough money saved up, and a lot of vacation time to burn, and well, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, so why hold on to it? Science tells us that the surest way to change money into happiness is to buy experiences. It’s a bit painful depleting the savings, but I’d rather do it now, before airline travel becomes an even more expensive luxury. It’s a lifelong goal to see all these places I’ve only read about, and who knows if I’ll have the opportunity to again.

I’ll also be experiencing the sharing economy first-hand – most of my places to stay have been booked through airbnb. We’ll see how that goes. I don’t know what, if anything I will be able to post. I’m travelling light, so I’m not sure what if any Internet access I will have. So feel free to browse the back catalog during by absence. Half the time I don’t even remember what I wrote when I go back and reread it. I meant to set up some posts and write a link dump, but, ah, the best laid plans…

I doubt I have any readers on the continent, but if anyone wants to meet up, send an email. Hopefully I’ll be able to check it. I’ll be in Paris Thursday, May 9th through Sunday. Monday I’m taking the TGV to Milan, where I’ll spend the day Tuesday. Then it’s off to Bologna for most of that week, with side trips to Venice and nearby towns. The following Sunday I’ll head to Florence for the first half of the week, then Thursday to Rome, where I’ll be flying out of on Sunday, May 26. I’ll be back in the U.S. on Memorial Day.

I can’t wait to see Italy. As you can tell from the posts here, I’m a Roman history nut, so I can’t describe how excited I am to actually be in the actual land of the Romans. And, of course, I’ll be looking at lots of architecture. Believe it or not, I’ve never spent a significant period of time in a non-United States culture (except in high school for a couple of weeks in Mexico), so I hope to learn a lot.

P.S. If you want to learn stuff for a couple of hours, Mark Shepherd taught my Permaculture class and I had the privilege of visiting his farm last summer. He's a true inspiration:

And for another couple of hours of listening, check out this music from ancient Rome:

Ciao and à bientôt!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Gift of Poverty

Someone asked me recently what actions I have taken based on the types of things I write about here. To answer that, first I'd like to digress a bit.

Back when Roberto Benigni won the Oscar for Life Is Beautiful, there was one phrase he used that struck me at the time, and I have remembered it ever since. He thanked his parents for "the gift of poverty."

The gift of poverty?

Now the reason that phrase struck me so hard is that I could not believe anyone could see poverty as a gift. For me it has been a curse. All my life I have lived with people who have more than me. Sure, many people have less, and I know that intellectually, but the way our minds work, we judge ourselves by our peer group and our immediate surroundings. The fact that people in Africa or Central America live without running water does not register if you live in a city in the American Midwest.

Poverty put me in debt from an early age. Poverty meant that I was bullied and abused in school. Poverty meant that I grew up in rentals with loud downstairs neighbors across from a housing project and next to a cement factory (seriously, I could write a good Blues song about it). Poverty meant I had no dates in high school. Poverty meant I had little choice in choosing a college. Poverty meant my car would break down before it was paid off, and I had to drive without insurance to drive at all. Poverty meant I could not travel the world as a young man they way I wanted, for fear of debt collectors. Poverty meant I could not quit jobs I didn't like, or get decent vacations or benefits.

Poverty meant that I could not get an advanced degree, and my career would suffer. Even in the professional world, you work twice as hard for half as much as the people around you. They live lifestyles you could only dream about. They give their kids every advantage you can imagine. It's a very different world from the one I grew up in. I often say that I feel like I'm behind enemy lines in the class war. The principal I work for, a true class warrior and fanatical Republican, promotes only those who know the "secret handshake" of casual privilege - the loud and boastful self-promoters who have that easy air of confidence that comes from a family background of money and connections. The rest are little more than galley slaves. And let's not even talk about my personal life, which is isolating and lonely. Yes, it's true, women don't like to marry outside of their class, either.

So to me, poverty took my life away from me. I'm never going to get those years back (I'll be 40 this year). So that phrase struck me as so profoundly opposite of my experience, that I could not even wrap my head around it.

You won't hear things like this in the mainstream media. People like me are not in the mainstream media, so you need to keep in mind what the background is of those people when you listen to their pronouncements. That's why they talk about things like the improving jobs report and rising stock prices, and obsess about things like gay marriage and guns in schools.  They live in a bubble of privilege, and always have. To them, we're just an anonymous mass in flyover country. I recommend tuning them out entirely. I hope that bloggers like me, ordinary people who actually live among you - can provide a useful corrective. I think we have  a better idea of what's going on.

But as I got older, I began to understand a little bit what he meant. You see, when you start with very little, it has a couple of effects. One, and it's a cliche but it's true, is that you have to work hard for literally everything you have. You have to be smart, because you can't be stupid. There is no safety net for people like me, no rich parent to bail you out of your mistakes, just the hard hammer coming down on you in a society with no other ultimate purpose than for hard men to make as much money as possible by breaking workers at the wheel. You quickly develop an awfully dark view of human society, one that I still carry with me.

And you don't have the sense of entitlement that you see in so many people around you. People of my grandparents' era had much nicer living standards than people today (even without iPods), but they never felt it was something they deserved. Their grandchildren, however, feel entitled to a comfortable middle-class life. They feel they deserve a comfortable office job with fancy benefits, and that they need a big house in a good school district with a nice lawyer foyer, a new minivan to chauffeur their children to their copious extracurricular activities, Netflix, cable TV, ski vacations, and the like; and they feel they deserve all this because they work harder or are somehow better than the Mexicans tearing up sod in front of the building or cooking their omelettes. I can tell you that many coworkers refuse to really spend the time learning new skills or new software because they have risen up the ladder by virtue of their status, so really, why should they bother? By contrast, people like me have to learn these things just to have a job at all. Getting ahead is not really a concern; your entire life is lived in survival mode.

But mostly, you realize there really is nothing to lose. Because only when you think there's something to lose do you act to preserve it. When you're poor, everything is a gift, so you feel no particular desire to hold onto it. All you have, in the end, is yourself and your relationships. This is the message of spiritual disciplines worldwide. This is why religious people give everything away. Put another way, it's all gravy, or as Scarface put it, "every day above ground is a good day."

I've often been struck by how much of the Peak Oil scene is an upper middle class phenomenon. The Mexicans in the aisles of MiSuper Foods or rolling ice cream trucks down my street probably have no concept of Peak Oil or collapse and don't care. And people have often noted the lack of African-Americans in the Peak Oil movement. In many places like Detroit, the collapse happened a long time ago and is old news. Peak oil just doesn't register. When they grow urban gardens, it's because they need jobs even more than they need oil. I think there is a lesson in that. As I often say, if you want to know America's future, look at Detroit.

When I lost my job after September 11 (I was a Web programmer) and had to sell all my possessions and move home, I realized how totally useless all this "stuff" was, and I permanently lost any desire to buy or accumulate anything. After all, that stuff didn't save me, did it? Besides, one fire could destroy everything you own in an hour, anyway. When you talk to people who have lost everything in a fire, often times they express the realization that their stuff didn't matter, and they often do not repurchase what they had before. If you realize this without a fire or job loss, you will be very much ahead of the game. I still buy things, of course, but I think really long and hard about it. And I don't buy anything I am not prepared to lose or have stolen tomorrow.

So the simple answer to the reader's question is: nothing. Why should I? Why am I so different than the other 315 million Americans, or 7 billion inhabitants of the planet that I need saving? I live my life from day to day, that's all. I don't worry. What happens, happens. This is that attitude the ancients cultivated, and hunter-gatherers for that matter. And I recommend it to anyone. You'll be much happier. As Steve Jobs put it in his famous speech, the knowledge that you're going to die someday should disabuse you of the notion that you have anything to lose.

It’s like death. Admitting your own mortality can take a huge load off your chest. It helps you focus on what you, personally, can and cannot do, with what you really want to do with your life. Any fighter knows that no matter how tough the opposition, you can't spend all your time in a defensive crouch. You miss out on life that way. Yes, I see what's going on, and I write about it. But I am not afraid or worried at all.

I think some people's minds are overly attuned to danger and threats. It has to do with an overactive amygdala, something that was probably beneficial on the ancestral environment. I recognize this tendency in myself. It's the opposite of the complacency and blind optimism so many people live with. but of course, neither extreme is good. I suspect a lot of my readers might have the same tendency. But of course, like the optimist, it's easy to take it too far. So if you , like me, recognize this tendency in yourself, it might be a good idea to observe your own thoughts, and gain a measure of control over them. Perhaps you are overreacting, after all. Meditation is helpful for this. Maybe take some time away from it all (even from here - I won't mind ;), go for a walk, garden, play with your kids, pick up dames, whatever. Look out your window. Right now as I write this, it's a nice spring day and the sun is shining. There is something to be said for that. As Buddhists point out, this is the only true way to experience life. Worrying is just paying for a bill that hasn't come due.

There is a good part in this in interview with Noah Raford about the attitude his colleague from Africa had, which sums up my views pretty well:
Back before Y2K I was really freaking out a bit and had a year’s supply of food all stored up, gas cached away, etc. I was telling people to buy gold, learn to hunt, whatever. I thought that could be the end. And mind you, it might have been if we hadn’t figured it out before hand and poured billions of dollars into fixing it. A lot of people like to dismiss it because we fixed it. But that wasn’t like the UFO story. This was a documented, observable bug that really could have caused some serious damage if we didn’t fix it in time. But thankfully we did.

Anyway, while I was preparing for this, I was talking to a Ghanaian friend of mind, from Ghana in West Africa. He grew up with power outages, civil wars, water shortages, etc.

His responds was, “Ah, worst case scenario I starve to death. So what?”

I’ll never forget that. It sounds crass or fatalistic or something, but there is a wisdom in that statement. It’s not like he was giving up and volunteering to die. Quite the opposite. He had life experiences that taught him what he could and could not control, what he should and shouldn’t worry about. And this acceptance gave him a sense of realism that is really quite liberating.
So what? Cultivate a "so what" attitude. That's the attitude of people who are, or have been, poor. Be prepared to lose it all. That doesn't mean you should seek out that outcome, of course, but you must make peace with it.

That, then, is the final gift of poverty.

We're all caught in something larger than ourselves. It’s not like any of us can prevent collapse from happening. Not you, not me, not Barack Obama, not Bill Gates, not Ben Bernanke, not the Pope. No one is charge anymore. It’s just too big, too fast, and too complex. The best we can do is to live though it, the way so many of our ancestors have done. One of the reasons I like history so much is that it puts everything in perspective. People  throughout history have made enormous contributions, and lived valuable, meaningful lives with just a fraction of what you and I possess. People in the nineteenth century often had no heat or running water. They lived in a world full of pollution and injustices like debtors' prisons, robber barons and slavery. Yet look at what they did. Look at what people do every day across this planet with so much less than us. Get some perspective.

The French have a word debroullier. It's the art of always landing on one's feet, of surviving by the skin of your teeth, of overcoming odds by breaking the rules and slipping between the cracks. The French call this "System D." We should take note. System D ought to be in the toolkit of every Peak Oil aware person. I also recall the advice the Sokka Gakkai Buddhists give to their followers: be prepared to do the things that others don't want to do. if that is your attitude you will do well in whatever society we end up living in.

Philosophically, I would also recommend reading the Stoic philosophers. It seems to be that Stoicism, born of an earlier civilization undergoing collapse, is the ideal philosophy for the Peak Oil era. Try starting with Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and the Enchiridion (the 'manual') by Epictetus (it's practically a pamphlet). I'd also recommend "Man's Search for Meaning," by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

Having said all that, I'll include a few more practical and prosaic things I have done. Really, it's nothing more than what everyone else has been saying. When I first read Ran Prieur's famous essay, How to Drop Out (like everyone else, it's how I found his site), I realized that I had independently arrived at many of his conclusions. You don't need to completely drop out; just live on the margins and depend on mainstream society as little as possible. Artists have been experts at this - make friends with some if you can. Buy a bicycle and learn to fix it. Learn to cook good food at home, including beans and rice. Invest in a grill and slow cooker if you're a meat-eater like me. Try and get a skill where you can paid on the side. Keep out of debt. Make friends with people who can help you. Reciprocity is fundamental to our species, and it will work when the big systems fail. Like I said, nothing you won't read on the Archdruid Report or Club Orlov.

I'm fanatically allergic to anything I cannot walk away from. I don't like long-term contracts, and for a long time it kept me from having a cell phone (I now have a no-contract phone). I don't have Netflix. I obviously have Internet service (reluctantly). Everything I do for entertainment is via the Web or the local library. I don't play computer games - I'd rather spend my time creating a blog post, reading a good book, or architectural design.

I buy most things second-hand or at rummage sales except clothes. My entire house is furnished with flea market items. This does two things - not only is it cheaper, but it keeps stuff out of a landfill and prevents the need to add new stuff to the world. 99 percent of the stuff the human race needs has already been manufactured, let's use the last of the oil wisely, eh? Plus, old stuff is often of superior quality.

I shop at farmer's markets, ethnic groceries, and buy directly from local farms. Yes, I pay more, but that accomplishes two things - it gives you better health, and it gives money to people who are farming the earth responsibly. The more money people like that earn, the more people will be doing it. Paying more for good, sustainable food is better than any charity - it is actually shifting the way we do things via the free market. And that's a good thing. If it helps, think of the extra money as charitable donations to promote things like organic agriculture and responsible husbandry.

Unemployment pays one-third of your previous income, so it stands to reason that you need to live on one-third of your income, whatever that is. I studiously do so, and bank the rest.

Last year, I did something I never thought I would do. I bought a house. My savings weren't earning anything in the bank, so I put it as down-payment on a house because I was tired of being a rent mule. I thought of buying a house outright, but I still couldn't find an acceptable one in my price range. But my large down payment (40 percent) means that my house is cheaper than even the cheapest one bedroom rental in my city. I pay as much of the mortgage as I can to build equity in the house. And the repairs I make are all with an eye to energy efficiency - I put in a new furnace to take advantage of the credits being offered (it was a very old furnace). Luckily, I'm well insulated, but if you're not, insulate and weatherize first. Then think about energy independence - wood stoves, solar hot water, photovoltaics, etc.

The way I see it, you're always going to need a roof over your head. And say what you will about gold, but the value of a house truly never goes to zero. I'm lucky I live in a very affordable rust-belt city, where housing prices are reasonable and have stabilized. And my house is comfortable but humble - even with this year's increased assessment, it is still assessed at under six figures by the city. The best part - I can literally walk to everything I need and bike or bus everywhere else. I realize not everyone is this lucky, though, as jobs change, etc. But often house location is a valuable tradeoff for price.

I've set up my life so that I can purchase food and shelter even while working for minimum wage, since this will be what most of the wonderful new jobs our leaders are creating will pay. That includes my mortgage payment. I highly recommend this for everyone. Anything above that you can bank or invest.

The stuff in Mr. Money Moustache also sums up a lot of my advice. I don't think you need to be afraid of investments or stick your money in a mattress. I think banks will remain solvent and some investments will still increase in value. Again, as always, don't gamble with what you can't afford to lose. I have not invested my savings, because I want them liquid in case of job loss (the house being the exception). My money is in my credit union, and I went through them to finance my house. Keep you money out of the big banks. I think savings in credit unions are safe, so that would be my primary method, with investments being above and beyond that. I don't think FDIC will fail, remember, we can always print money - we're doing enough of it already.

And definitely get involved in your community. Kompost Kids and Victory Garden Initiative are two I've been involved with in the past, but certainly your town is looking for help and volunteers, whether they are "officially" for peak oil or not. Homeless shelters and food banks are worth more in the coming collapse than cob ovens and windmills (not there's anything wrong with those). I roll my eyes at Transition Towns a little, because it seems like more of a networking group for upper class green liberals. What we really need are ways to get homeless people into foreclosed houses and jobs rather than solar panels or biodeisel at this point. As I've said, fossil fuels are still around; it's their cost that's going to kill us, along with their environmental impact. I think one of the benefits of gardening is that you realize how much of human life is dependent on the climate. Anyone who doesn't get that is not worth listening to.

Say what you will about religion, and I'm the harshest critic there is, but it often motivates people to help others. But you don't need religion for that. If Peak Oil aware people really rolled up their sleeves and got involved, rather than just endlessly pontificated about the apocalypse, we would really make a difference, and that is how movements are born, not blogs (yes, I'm damning myself here a bit too). Christianity took over the Western world not through its nonsensical theology, but because it gave people a helping hand in tough times. The Peak Oil movement needs to take a page from that. By doing so, people will start listening to us instead of the corporate media. Occupy is good start, but it's just a start.

I've said enough, I think. It seems as though poverty is a gift that more and more of us are going to receive, whether we want it or not. Seeing it, no making it, a gift is something that we can and should cultivate. And finally, I would close with the words of that great American sage, Kurt Vonnegut: "Goddamn it, you've got to be kind."

Twenty-First Century Stoic -- From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic (BoingBoing)

Drawing Blood: Being a Poor Person in America (Post Swag Poetics). I recognize a lot of my own story in this terrific essay.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Automation and the Resource Curse

Important article by Steve Randy Waldman at intefluidity. He has, I think, a significant insight. The increasing wave of automation (and globalization for that matter), has meant that Western industrialized nations are now becoming resource curse countries.

For years, economists have noted that countries with plentiful natural resources - fossil fuels being the most significant - are often corrupt, poor, and backward places. Think places like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya or Nigeria. And often countries with poor natural resources - think Japan or South Korea or Ireland or Denmark - are relatively wealthy and well-governed. What's going on?

As Waldman tells it, countries with plentiful natural resources need only a small amount of people to extract the resource, meaning most people are superfluous to how the country makes its money. Wealth is produced not by business activity, but by ownership of the resource. That means a few things - the country does not develop its "human capital" like a resource poor country does. The leadership shares the proceeds of the resource among an "ownership class," who see themselves as "civilized," while those who lie outside of that class are increasingly seen as "uncivilized." They do not need to produce much domestically, because they can trade the natural resource for whatever goods they need from abroad. So most people are simply ignored, and even seen as a threat.

Automation acts as sort of a natural resource. The owners of automation, don't need us anymore - they can produce what they want with just a few workers, and the majority of us are superfluous to the economy. Thus 'human capital' is not developed - people are allowed to get poorer, education to atrophy, social services to be cut, health to decline, and infrastructure to decay. Wealth becomes concentrated into a hereditary ownership class based on automation rather than natural resources. Politics becomes corrupt too, more responsive to the needs of the ownership class and hostile to anyone outside of it looking for more bargaining power, much like a "banana republic." Thus, the pathologies of resource-poor countries become manifest in industrialized nations as well.
[Resource-rich countries have] valuable tradable goods the extraction of which requires a small numbers of workers relative to the size of the economy as a whole. [*] Goods like this create a very strong tension between private property and social welfare. In the mythology of capitalist economics, “as if by an invisible hand”, the self-interested pursuit of private wealth promotes the general welfare precisely because we all require one another’s help. The butcher slaughters her beasts and the baker sugars his cakes, each with an eye to their own profit. But the butcher needs her carbs and the baker likes his meat, so the end result of their self-interested selling is mutual aid rather than mere accumulation.

This logic breaks down in an economy dominated by a valuable natural resource. Yes, the miners require meat and mead, but if they are small in number relative to the rest of the population, that won’t cost them very much. They are few mouths to feed, and the not-miners are many and lack bargaining power. What makes happy capitalism work, the silent tendon of the mythologized hand, is a kind of balance between individuals’ desire to accumulate and their need for the assistance of others. If there exists a very valuable natural resource, and if that resource can be privately controlled, there is no balance. Self-interested agents drop their butchering and bakering, and try to gain control of the resource. No magic force turns that into a positive sum game. Unless there are “very strong institutions” — whatever that might mean — the pursuit of wealth becomes a game with winners and losers. The invisible hand can manage no more than to lift a middle finger.

The more resource-curse logic binds, the more likely as a technological matter that control over economic value will be concentrated among a relatively small fraction of the society. This leads to a greater separation of circumstance, between winners who perceive themselves and their communities as “civilized”, and losers exhibiting social pathologies that may be more effect than cause of disadvantage, but are nevertheless real, and usefully assist in reinforcing the arrangement’s legitimacy. Corruption and idealism become impossibly fused. Did Timothy Geithner “save the world”, or did he perpetuate the stranglehold of a particular extractive elite? He did both. He saved his world.
You also get circumstances where the society's wealth and resources are channeled into protection of elites' wealth rather than human capital development. Thus you get the American phenomenon where we spend more on prisions then on schools, and a blank check is handed to the national security state even as more and more Americans lack jobs or adequate health care. Again, very similar to a banana republic. Note that Waldman points out the demonization of the "uncivilized" in resource-rich societies, and we're seeing the same thing here - the poor are lazy, they drop out of school, they have babies too early, etc., never mind the failing schools, lack of jobs and job training, crushing debts. etc.

But his footnote is even more intersting. He notes that they key is bargaining power. In countries which need just a fraction of the workforce, most workers have no bargaining power, i.e. the ability to demand higher wages as their productivity goes up. He notes that the period of industrialization we have just been through was an anomaly in human affairs - it needed a lot of workers for economic production. Take that away, and what you have looks a lot like feudalism - poor and desperate workers unable to achieve bargaining power or exercise control over production.
It’s probably more accurate, although depressing, to qualify this, and rewrite it as “a small numbers of workers capable of achieving bargaining power relative to the size of the economy as a whole.” Feudal economies, in which the majority of people work to produce agricultural goods, look a lot like resource-curse economies, even though numerical involvement in production is not concentrated. Bargaining power, defined as the ability to assert control over production, remains very unequal. If you define the resource curse this way, you end up with “cursedness” as the normal state of human affairs, and it becomes more sensible to talk about the “industrial age blessing”, a fleeting mix of social and technological conditions under which large numbers of workers contributed to production through processes that required scale and coordination. These circumstances allowed unusually broad segments of the population to organize and achieve bargaining power, increasing the scope of economic prosperity and the impetus to mass production that economists eventually label “growth”.
I think this is a very important insight. People assume the way things were is the way things will always be, but the fundamental cicumstances have changed. A lot of people have compared our current conditions to a sort of Neofeudalism, and based on the above, we can see why this is the case. Are automation and globalism driving us toward Neofeudalism?

Peak Democracy

Fascinating article on Aeon magazine. I think it has a very important point - to understand what's happening we need to think about the very fundamental notions of democracy, the nation state, and industrialism and ask ourselves if these things have a future. I think one thing is certain: democracy as we classically understand it no longer exists. As the byline to the article puts it, "Governments now answer to business, not voters. Mainstream parties grow ever harder to distinguish. Is democracy dead?" I'm going to go ahead and answer that question: yes, it is. Now what?
[Colin] Crouch sees the history of democracy as an arc. In the beginning, ordinary people were excluded from decision-making. During the 20th century, they became increasingly able to determine their collective fate through the electoral process, building mass parties that could represent their interests in government. Prosperity and the contentment of working people went hand in hand. Business recognised limits to its power and answered to democratically legitimated government. Markets were subordinate to politics, not the other way around.

At some point shortly after the end of the Second World War, democracy reached its apex in countries such as Britain and the US. According to Crouch, it has been declining ever since. Places such as Italy had more ambiguous histories of rise and decline, while others still, including Spain, Portugal and Greece, began the ascent much later, having only emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s. Nevertheless, all of these countries have reached the downward slope of the arc. The formal structures of democracy remain intact. People still vote. Political parties vie with each other in elections, and circulate in and out of government. Yet these acts of apparent choice have had their meaning hollowed out. The real decisions are taken elsewhere. We have become squatters in the ruins of the great democratic societies of the past.

Neo-liberalism, which was supposed to replace grubby politics with efficient, market-based competition, has led not to the triumph of the free market but to the birth of new and horrid chimeras. The traditional firm, based on stable relations between employer, workers and customers, has spun itself out into a complicated and ever-shifting network of supply relationships and contractual forms. The owners remain the same but their relationship to their employees and customers is very different. For one thing, they cannot easily be held to account. As the American labour lawyer Thomas Geoghegan and others have shown, US firms have systematically divested themselves of inconvenient pension obligations to their employees, by farming them out to subsidiaries and spin-offs. Walmart has used hands-off subcontracting relationships to take advantage of unsafe working conditions in the developing world, while actively blocking efforts to improve industry safety standards until 112 garment workers died in a Bangladesh factory fire in November last year. Amazon uses subcontractors to employ warehouse employees in what can be unsafe and miserable working conditions, while minimising damage to its own brand.

Instead of clamping down on such abuses, the state has actually tried to ape these more flexible and apparently more efficient arrangements, either by putting many of its core activities out to private tender through complex contracting arrangements or by requiring its internal units to behave as if they were competing firms. As one looks from business to state and from state to business again, it is increasingly difficult to say which is which. The result is a complex web of relationships that are subject neither to market discipline nor democratic control. Businesses become entangled with the state as both customer and as regulator. States grow increasingly reliant on business, to the point where they no longer know what to do without its advice. Responsibility and accountability evanesce into an endlessly proliferating maze of contracts and subcontracts. As Crouch describes it, government is no more responsible for the delivery of services than Nike is for making the shoes that it brands. The realm of real democracy — political choices that are responsive to voters’ needs — shrinks ever further.

Politicians, meanwhile, have floated away, drifting beyond the reach of the parties that nominally chose them and the voters who elected them. They simply don’t need us as much as they used to. These days, it is far easier to ask business for money and expertise in exchange for political favours than to figure out the needs of a voting public that is increasingly fragmented and difficult to understand anyway. Both the traditional right, which always had strong connections to business, and the new left, which has woven new ties in a hurry, now rely on the private sector more than on voters or party activists. As left and right grow ever more disconnected from the public and ever closer to one another, elections become exercises in branding rather than substantive choice.

Crouch was writing Post-Democracy 10 years ago, when most people thought that things were going quite well. As long as the economy kept delivering jobs and growth, voters didn’t seem to mind about the hollowing out of democracy. Left-of-centre parties weren’t worried either: they responded to the new incentives by trying to articulate a ‘Third Way’ of market-like initiatives that could deliver broad social benefits. Crouch's lessons have only really come home in the wake of the economic crisis.

The problem that the centre-left now faces is not that it wants to make difficult or unpopular choices. It is that no real choices remain. It is lost in the maze, able neither to reach out to its traditional bases of support (which are largely dying or alienated from it anyway) nor to propose any grand new initiatives, the state no longer having the tools to implement them. When the important decisions are all made outside of democratic politics, the centre-left can only keep going through the ritualistic motions of democracy, all the while praying for intercession.
Post-democracy is what we're living in. Now what?
Perhaps, over time, they will figure out how to engage with the mundane task of slow drilling through hard boards that is everyday politics. Perhaps, too, the systems of unrule governing the world economy, gravely weakened as they are, will fail and collapse of their own accord, opening the space for a new and very different dispensation. Great changes seem unlikely until they happen; only in retrospect do they look inevitable. Yet if some reversal in the order of things is waiting to unfold, it is not apparent to us now. Post-democracy has trapped the left between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. We may be here for some time.
Henry Farrell - On Post-Democracy. Aeon Magazine

As vested interests capture the state, and the government becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate America, people simply abandon the state as a means of producing beneficial change (unlike in the Great Depression). Their voices are not heard, and they are increasingly powerless, while the authorities live in an alternative universe where money and jobs are plentiful, totally disonnected from the people they "serve." Meanwhile, the media attempts to mollify us and keep us at each others' throats to prevent any kind of concensus. And all the while, the system is collapsing around us, leading to fear and paranoia. It's an ugly situation indeed.

Related: The Rise of the Corporate State (FireDogLake) best part:
We see how that socialization works for corporate fodder. Work hard and keep your nose clean, and maybe you can make a decent living. Or maybe we’ll fire you because we want to make more money or because we don’t like you. Or because we checked your credit score and we didn’t like it. Or because you didn’t wear enough flair. The random outcomes keep people off-balance, and working harder and harder, like perseverating pecking pigeons.

Perhaps you thought your technical and professional skills would protect you, but that’s not true, as all too many excellent computer coders, engineers, accountants and lawyers have learned. It’s no different for many professionals in private practice, and even for middle level administrators. The plain fact is that your success or failure doesn’t depend on your skills, but on whether you get lucky in your selection of a career and an employer.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Has Peak Oil Been Cancelled?

That seems to be the subject of a few recent articles:

What If We Never Run Out of Oil (The Atlantic)

The Deluge: We Are Entering a New Era of Fossil Fuels (Pacific Standard)

And Matt Yglesias, of all people, supplies a useful corrective:

Long story short, we're in nothing like the peak oil nightmare that a naive forward projection of the 2003-08 hockey stick would have led you to expect. But we've hardly conquered oil scarcity either. New discoveries are having trouble keeping pace with rising car ownership in Asia and declining production from many established oil sources. Meanwhile, unconventional oil is coming onto the market in part because oil is scarce and expensive, which makes it profitable to extract hard-to-extract oil. That's better for the economy than if we didn't find any, but it also means we haven't returned to the 1990s oil bounty and most likely never will.

Natural Resource Scarcity Is A Real Thing (Slate) See also - Oil Supply and Demand to 2025 (Early Warning). I'm a little wary of listening to some of the major Peak Oil pundits as they have invested so much into the concept that they will defend it at all costs to avoid looking foolish. I think the reality is, we really do have a serious situation on our hands. The very fact that we are fracking and planning tar sands pipelines seems to me incontrovertible proof that Peak Oil is real and happening. The major questions are, is there enough "nonconventional oil" to offset the loss of conventional fields and keep growth going, and what effects will this have on the climate.

I think two things are hurting the optimists, though. We need to continue growing exponentially in the developing world as well to keep the capitalism Ponzi scheme running, and the new sources of fuel are more expensive (remember EROEI). But I don't think the shelves will be empty of food and taps running dry of water anytime soon. It seems like economic disintegration means we'll be living sub-third world lifestyles even if there is plenty of oil and natural gas for the time being. And besides, even if there are enough futile dodges to put off the day of reckoning, that day will still come.

Is The New Economy Off The Books?

What happens to workers who drop out of the labor force? (Sober Look)

1. Older workers retiring earlier.
2. Young workers going back to school.
3. Getting paid under the table.
4. Disability.
Whether it's the spouse, the underground economy or the federal government providing the income, there is "life" after the unemployment checks stop coming. Meanwhile, the "official" labor participation rate keeps falling.
Related: The Underground Recovery, James Suroweicki, The New Yorker:
The increasing importance of the gray economy isn’t only a reaction to the downturn: studies suggest that the sector has been growing steadily over the years. In 1992, the I.R.S. estimated that the government was losing $80 billion a year in income-tax revenue. Its estimate for 2006 was $385 billion—almost five times as much (and still an underestimate, according to Feige’s numbers). The U.S. is certainly a long way from, say, Greece, where tax evasion is a national sport and the shadow economy accounts for twenty-seven per cent of G.D.P. But the forces pushing people to work off the books are powerful. Feige points to the growing distrust of government as one important factor. The desire to avoid licensing regulations, which force people to jump through elaborate hoops just to get a job, is another. Most important, perhaps, are changes in the way we work. As Baumohl put it, “For businesses, the calculus of hiring has fundamentally changed.” Companies have got used to bringing people on as needed and then dropping them when the job is over, and they save on benefits and payroll taxes by treating even full-time employees as independent contractors. Casual employment often becomes under-the-table work; the arrangement has become a way of life in the construction industry. In a recent California survey of three hundred thousand contractors, two-thirds said they had no direct employees, meaning that they did not need to pay workers’-compensation insurance or payroll taxes. In other words, for lots of people off-the-books work is the only job available.

Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at Columbia and the author of a study of the underground economy, thinks that many workers, particularly younger ones, have become comfortable with casual work arrangements. “We have seen the rise of a new generation of people who are much more used to doing things in a freelance way,” he said. “That makes them more amenable to unregulated work. And they seem less concerned about security, which they equate with rigidity.” The growing importance of services in the economy is also crucial. Tutors, nannies, yoga teachers, housecleaners, and the like are often paid in cash, which is hard for the I.R.S. to track. In a 2006 study, the economist Catherine Haskins found that between eighty and ninety-seven per cent of nannies were paid under the table.
Here's the story of one labor-force dropout: an interview with the Mr. Money Moustache guy. Click through to the interview. I link to the Slate article because there should be some interesting comments. I'll just note that I've followed nearly every proscription he has - paid down debt, no cable TV, walk or bike, don't buy useless junk, etc. I am nowhere near retiring, however. For one, I was heavily in debt for college, and when I graduated I made $25,000 with a lengthy commute on top of it, not $77,000 with no debt. And I have not invested my money, as for most years I had no disposable income, and I need access to money in case of job loss. So I think his circumstances are highly unusual. Still, there are some good tips here.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Perils of Progress

Continuing on what seems to be a theme this week:
Edward Tenner's new book, Why Things Bite Back, is subtitled Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. And that, in a nutshell, is Tenner's message. When we apply our technologies to the world around us, things do indeed bite back.

In other episodes (e.g., 81, 457) I talk about the way a new safety device lulls us into carelessness and increases accidents -- how pesticides and germicides breed new and tougher insects and diseases. Tenner's idea isn't new, but he does a fine job of rearticulating and re-emphasizing it. Tenner's Revenge Effect means that, if we mess with the natural order of things, things bite back.

He takes care not to be simplistic in his examples. New technologies certainly do improve the quality of our lives. Medical procedures have reduced the time we spend in hospitals and hastened recoveries. Yet the number of procedures and medications a patient undergoes has risen astronomically. Laparoscopic gall bladder removals, for example, are much less invasive than old-fashioned surgery. The result is, far more people are having their gall bladders removed and insurance costs are rising. Worse still, we now find surgeons making more mistakes when they use a grainy fiber-optic image on a TV screen to guide miniaturized instruments.

Medicine has been shot through with routine hi-tech medications, catheterizations, injections, IVs ... Errors in a tiny percentage of these procedures cause widespread harm because so many are done.

We suffer so many revenge effects in medicine because the human system is terribly complex and still poorly understood. Two hospital procedures combine to produce effects that wouldn't be produced by either one alone. Three or more procedures can lay impossible demands on any doctor's knowledge of side effects.
The same thing carries over into engineering systems as they become more complex. Complex devices that interact with our human system always produce revenge effects. Tenner talks about computers -- the way they've made our work routines less straightforward than handling paper. We lose enormous time and money learning software that never stands the test of time. Meanwhile, eye strain, neck strain, and carpal tunnel syndrome all increase.

So does this mean we should reject new medicine and turn away from computers? Hardly! New technology is bred in our bones. The day we quit pioneering, we quit being human.

The answer is as subtle as the problem itself. Nature demands a wearing-in process. We have to be alert to early warnings and ready to back off. Wanting too much is what causes us to ignore those warnings and react too slowly. And every time we fail to listen, nature will forcefully get our attention.
Things Bite Back - John Lienhard, Engines of Our Ingenuity
In 2010 we saw how even the most secure “air gap” can be breached when the Iranian nuclear reprocessing plant at Natanz was infected with the Stuxnet virus. This appears to have been achieved when an operator plugged in an infected USB stick to an isolated PC that was used to communicate with the embedded computers that controlled and reported upon the centrifuges producing enriched uranium. The Stuxnet virus simultaneously caused the centrifuges to malfunction whilst reporting that all was well to the operators.  Leave a USB stick lying around with what looks like a free game, and you’d be surprised how many users will plug it into the nearest computer.

Since this incident there has been a growing realisation that various elements of a critical national infrastructure are similarly vulnerable.  They use similar, if not identical, embedded computer systems as were used at Natanz. The initial thought was one of defending the realm against foreign aggressors. After all, it was an obvious way to cripple a country without firing a physical shot. Why launch missiles if you can switch out the lights and turn off the water.  It’s cheaper too. So much so that this form of attack has become a great leveller, allowing small nations to potentially punch well above their weight.
For a while there were detractors who have said that this type of threat is nonsense, and that it simply could not happen.  However, tests were already being conducted at research institutes such as the Idaho national laboratories (known as Aurora) by the time Stuxnet was released.  Such tests showed that access to these SCADA systems could not only turn off equipment that we all rely upon but it could cause the equipment to self-destruct.

Hence, embedded computing needs to be kept updated and have protection just as much as the computers with which we are all more familiar. Unfortunately, keeping embedded computers updated can be problematic. Perversely, although they may be vulnerable to remote attacks, updating their software (known as firmware if it cannot be accessed routinely by a remote computer) can require visits to the physical devices.  This takes time and effort, and when coupled with a history of complacency about their risk of attack, many systems remain vulnerable for significant periods after a vulnerability is reported.
The Unexpected risks of Intelligent Infrastructure (Scientific American)
What’s inside your new walls might be even more dangerous. While the flame retardants commonly used in sofas, chairs, carpets, love seats, curtains, baby products, and even TVs, sounded like a good idea when widely introduced in the 1970s, they turn out to pose hidden dangers that we’re only now beginning to grasp. Researchers have, for instance, linked one of the most common flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, to a wide variety of potentially undesirable health effects including thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, and the early onset of puberty.

Other flame retardants like Tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate have been linked to cancer. As the CDC has documented in an ongoing study of the accumulation of hazardous materials in our bodies, flame retardants can now be found in the blood of “nearly all” of us.

Nor are these particular chemicals anomalies. Lurking in the cabinet under the kitchen sink, for instance, are window cleaners and spot removers that contain known or suspected cancer-causing agents. The same can be said of cosmetics in your makeup case or of your plastic water bottle or microwavable food containers. Most recently, Bisphenol A (BPA), the synthetic chemical used in a variety of plastic consumer products, including some baby bottles, epoxy cements, the lining of tuna fish cans, and even credit card receipts, has been singled out as another everyday toxin increasingly found inside all of us.

Recent studies indicate that its effects are as varied as they are distressing. As Sarah Vogel of the Environmental Defense Fund has written, “New research on very-low-dose exposure to BPA suggests an association with adverse health effects, including breast and prostate cancer, obesity, neurobehavioral problems, and reproductive abnormalities.”

Teflon, or perfluorooctanoic acid, the heat-resistant, non-stick coating that has been sold to us as indispensable for pots and pans, is yet another in the list of substances that may be poisoning us, almost unnoticed. In addition to allowing fried eggs to slide right onto our plates, Teflon is in all of us, according to the Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency, and “likely to be carcinogenic in humans.”

These synthetic materials are just a few of the thousands now firmly embedded in our lives and our bodies. Most have been deployed in our world and put in our air, water, homes, and fields without being studied at all for potential health risks, nor has much attention been given to how they interact in the environments in which we live, let alone our bodies. The groups that produce these miracle substances — like the petrochemical, plastics, and rubber industries, including major companies like Exxon, Dow, and Monsanto — argue that, until we can definitively prove the chemical products slowly leaching into our bodies are dangerous, we have no “right,” and they have no obligation, to remove them from our homes and workplaces. The idea that they should prove their products safe before exposing the entire population to them seems to be a foreign concept.
You are a guniea pig: americans exposed to biohazards in uncontrolled experiment (Naked Capitalism) see also: Roundup, An Herbicide, Could Be Linked To Parkinson's, Cancer And Other Health Issues, Study Shows (Reuters)