Sunday, March 30, 2014

Generic ad for progress

Why watch Sunday morning political shows when you can just watch the ad?

Brought to you by ExxonMobilDowShellMicrosoftGoldmanSachsMonsanto Corporation. How can you not be filled with hope for the future after watching this?

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Hipcrime vocab on the C-Realm

"Money and credit are as much human contrivances as bicycles, and as liable to expansion and modification as any other sort of prevalent but imperfect machine." --H.G. WELLS

C-Realm 407: Distinguishing Collapse from Catastrophe

It was really a privilege getting to be on the show, especially with the caliber of guests that KMO has on. I have not listened to it, because I'd feel too weirded out listening to myself speak. I'll try and recall what I said from memory as much as I can. I did listen to the intro and outro, however.

To answer one obvious question, Chad Hill is not my real name, it's a non-de-plume. It is very close to my actual name, however. It's not that I have anything to hide or I'm trying to be secretive at all (I'm sure the NSA knows who I am); I'll happily correspond with people using my real name. It's just that a.) I want to control access to the site and not just have it come up with a random Google search of my name, and b.) Blogging anonymously gives me more freedom, because I don't have to worry about self-censorship, even subconsciously. That would ruin the purpose of writing here, where I can talk about topics that, well, for better or worse, are a bit out of the mainstream, and c) It sounds better.

And, as always, thank you so much to all the readers and commenters over the years for your continuing patronage and support. As I mentioned, it's been a real pleasure finding an audience.

Now, for some show notes. I mentioned some possible downsides to the sharing economy where everyone has to operate as a free agent all the time, even if they have a job. I was referring to these articles in particular:

The Collaborative Consumption Trap (Medium)
What if we find ourselves running in place in a Red Queen’s Race, as this additional income disappears into rising fixed costs like rent? I already know people who can only afford to pay their rent by renting out their place on Airbnb. For them, they have no choice but to participate in the Sharing Economy just to stay in place. I don’t know how we can prospectively determine how those gains will be distributed — but my instinct is that people driven to the point of renting out the clothes in their closet are not in a great bargaining position. And even if some gains materialize — the safety net becomes weakened.
Pixel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in the Gig Economy (Fast Company)
Whatever you do, it will be your choice. Because you are no longer just an employee with set hours and wages working to make someone else rich. In the future, you will be your very own mini-business. The vision is so intoxicating that even as the U.S. unemployment rate remained stubbornly high, with millions of long-term unemployed dropping off the rolls and untold millions more underemployed, the gig economy came to offer not just a path to freedom from our desks but also a way to get the American people back to work. In a TED talk, Rachel Botsman, author of What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, described sharing economy companies as "lemonade stands on steroids.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a piece headlined "How To Monetize Your Closet” that argued "these entrepreneurs are not the only answer for our economic woes...but they are surely part of the answer.”
 If Tom Friedman is talking up something, be very afraid.

In the outro, KMO mentioned people drugging themselves to compete. I first heard of this drug on the Joe Rogan show, (watch this if you dare) and it sounds like it's already becoming widespread among the executive class: Modafinil (Wikipedia). And, of course, Adderall abuse is already endemic in major universities.  ADHD diagnoses are up 24 percent in 2013, and autism rates are up 30 percent.  And see this: America's Medicated Kids (BBC) and The Drugging of the American Boy (Esquire):
On this everyone agrees: The numbers are big. The number of children who have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder—overwhelmingly boys—in the United States has climbed at an astonishing rate over a relatively short period of time. The Centers for Disease Control first attempted to tally ADHD cases in 1997 and found that about 3 percent of American schoolchildren had received the diagnosis, a number that seemed roughly in line with past estimates. But after that year, the number of diagnosed cases began to increase by at least 3 percent every year. Then, between 2003 and 2007, cases increased at a rate of 5.5 percent each year. In 2013, the CDC released data revealing that 11 percent of American schoolchildren had been diagnosed with ADHD, which amounts to 6.4 million children between the ages of four and seventeen—a 16 percent increase since 2007 and a 42 percent increase since 2003. Boys are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed as girls—15.1 percent to 6.7 percent. By high school, even more boys are diagnosed—nearly one in five.

Almost 20 percent.
And as for sleep, the military is leading the way:
Darpa is working on more exotic answers to sleeplessness, too. Columbia University psychologists, working under a Darpa grant, are keeping people awake for 48 hours straight and then zapping their brains with focused magnetic waves, to keep their cognitive capacities intact. Lexicon Genetics has found genetic targets in mice that seem to make sleep itself more restorative, enhancing learning and memory. And Wisconsin professor Giulio Tononi is breeding a strain of fruit flies that gets by on just a third the normal amount of sleep. If his research keeps progressing — and that’s one big, fat if — maybe some day, far off, troops may not need any kind of lamp at all to stay awake. 
No “Go Pills”; Air Force Wants Sleep-Fighting Lamps (Wired)

And lest you think that's not a big part of corporate culture already:
Sleep comes to be seen as part of a leader's character. When Napoleon Bonaparte was asked how many hours sleep people need, he is said to have replied: "Six for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool."

For the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the "warrior" prime minister as set out by the Times' Matthew Parris this week. "She understood that this was war when others didn't. And in war you need a warrior," he writes. But is the four-hour measure something ordinary people should aspire to?

In the world of business it is certainly something people strive for. High-profile chief executives from Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! to Pepsi's Indra Nooyi get by on four hours a night, while Donald Trump claims to survive on three. Geraint Anderson, author of City Boy, who worked as an analyst and stockbroker for 12 years, recognises the phenomenon.

"There was a real macho competition in the City about sleep. One of the ways of getting respect was bragging about how little you got." The hours were long - from 6.30 in the morning to seven at night. Socialising might mean staying out till three in the morning. And this was just the analysts. The corporate financiers were the real hard workers. "They'd work into the early hours, get a couple of hours' kip at the office and start again."To admit needing sleep was a sign of weakness: "After the Christmas or summer party you'd make sure you stayed the latest and came in a little earlier than normal the next morning."
Thatcher: Can people get by on four hours' sleep? (BBC)

Also related to his story: 24. Alabama Farmers Look to Replace Migrants with Prisoners (Project Censored) (incidentally, chattel slavery for prisoners is entirely legal under the U.S. Constitution)

For another horrifying way that technology may not make our lives better, see: Future Drugs Will Allow Prisoners To Serve A ’1,000-Year Sentence In 8 Hours’ (Disinfo) Considering what they did to Bradley (Chelsea) Manning, this does not fill me with confidence.

I'm not sure if this topic came up in this podcast or will be in the Vault, but I came across this article, which makes some of the same points I made about using our resources to create a post-carbon economy: Think Big, Think Bold (Yanis Varoufakis) Why the Left in Britain and in the Eurozone must aim for a radical Pan-European Green New Deal.

And this is the website I mentioned, New Economic Perpectives

And I like the distinction between quality of life versus standard of living. I've been working on something about that that I'm hoping will be done this weekend. Thanks all!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Apocalypse Not?

So there's been quite a bit of attention paid to Nafeez Ahmed's article on the collapse study we talked about last week. One of Ahmed's harshest critics, Keith Kloor, hit back with several posts criticizing the conclusions:

About that Popular Guardian Story on the Collapse of Industrial Civilization (Discover blogs)

Judging the Merits of a Media-Hyped ‘Collapse’ Study (Discover blogs) Blogger Kloor seems to be stridently dismissive of anyone with a message he perceives as "doomer," see this for example: The Merchants of Doom

The first criticism is what relationship the study had with NASA. For its part, NASA released a statement distancing itself from the study:
"A soon-to-be published research paper, 'Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies' by University of Maryland researchers Safa Motesharrei and Eugenia Kalnay, and University of Minnesota's Jorge Rivas, was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity. As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions."

This criticism has some validity. Apparently, the truth is that some NASA funding went into the model the researchers used, but the study was not itself commissioned or released under the auspices of NASA - it was by independent researchers. The idea that it was a "NASA study" was put forward by the media outlets who picked up the story, in a kind of game of Chinese whispers (and why you should be skeptical of what you read on the Internet). That's more a commentary on how the Internet spreads misinformation, and the laziness of the corporate media than a refutation of the study itself. Whether or not NASA was behind the study, what about its conclusions?

One of the things Kloor does is conctact experts on collapse, including Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies. I wonder about the wisdom of trying to dispove a paper about collapse by contacting a guy who wrote an entire book on how civilizations collapse. And why did he contact the people he did? As Ahmed comments (see below) "Curiously, he [Kloor] can find not a single scientist or scholar who found the study useful, worthwhile, or bearing some validity worth further research." Did he try and contact Jared Diamond, for example?

I did find this comment from Dr.Tainter insightful:
"It is interesting how collapse theories mirror broader societal issues. During the Cold War, we had theories ascribing collapse to elite mismanagement, class conflict, and peasant revolts. As global warming became a public issue, scholars of the past began to discover that ancient societies collapsed due to climate change. As we have become concerned about sustainability and resource use today, we have learned that ancient societies collapsed due to depletion of critical resources, such as soil and forests. Now that inequality and “the 1%” are topics of public discourse, we have this paper focusing largely on elite resource consumption."
It's true that inequality has become the forefront of social concerns. And it is true that the causes of collapse focused on by various researchers tend to reflect whatever the pressing social concern is at the time. I think Tainter makes that point well, and why the study's focus on inequality in particular seemed to me, well, a little bit too targeted to contemporary political concerns that are hot right now. But it's equally true that all the other factors he listed above do play a role in collapse dynamics as well. That they also reflect contemporary concerns as well does not invalidate that fact. As for his other criticisms:
The paper has many flaws. The first is that “collapse” is not defined, and the examples given conflate different processes and outcomes. Thus the authors are not even clear what topic they are addressing. 
Collapses have occurred among both hierarchical and non-hierarchical societies, and the authors even discuss the latter (although without understanding the implications for their thesis). Thus, although the authors purport to offer a universal model of collapse (involving elite consumption), their own discussion undercuts that argument. 
Contrary to the authors’ unsubstantiated assertion, there is no evidence that elite consumption caused ancient societies to collapse. The authors simply have no empirical basis for this assumption, and that point alone undercuts most of the paper. 
It's true collapses have occurred under heirarchical and nonhierarchical societes. But they are particularly acute among agricultural societies which are heirarchical. And class stratication is a pretty consistent feature of them.
As for collapse not being explicitly defined, I've made this point several times myself. Personally, I'm not a fan of Tainter's reasoning. Tainter argues that civilizations ratchet up complexity when they encounter problems. But it seems to be that complexity is usually a result of civilizational success rather than difficulty. As a civilization grows, expands, has a bumper crop, conquers its neighbors, invents new techniques and so forth, it becomes more complex. As it can no longer maintain those gains, it becomes less complex. But the complexity does not cause the collapse. Rather it is a symptom of no longer having the resources to maintain the status quo. That is, a reduction of complexity is an epiphenomenon of collapse, not the central cause. If that were true, we would have collapsed long before now, as we're by far the most complex civilization that has ever existed. I think there is a fundamental correlation/causation error there.

Ahmed himself has published a response to Kloor's articles: Did Nasa fund 'civilisation collapse' study, or not? (The Guardian) Journalistic standards won't be upheld by attempting to discredit science we don't like

Ahmed looks at Tainter's criticisms:
He [Kloor] quotes, for instance, leading collapse anthropologist Prof Joseph Tainter, who critiques the HANDY model for a "flawed" understanding of the rise and fall of civilisations due to unsustainable levels of complexity. Some of Tainter's criticisms may well be correct (such as noting the lack of a precise enough concept of collapse) - but Tainter is not always right. 
Tainter's model of the collapse process of past civilisations in his landmark book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, is contradicted by the historical record on many of his own examples (a matter I've discussed more extensively elsewhere). The process of collapse, he says, occurs on a timescale of "no more than a few decades," when the complex structures created to deal with increasing problems generated by growing complexity begin to crumble under their own weight (p. 4). 
But this is incorrect. The collapse of the Western Roman empire, for instance - one of Tainter's prime examples - did not occur over decades through a single protracted collapse-process, but rather consisted of a series of crises over a period of centuries. Each crisis led to loss of social complexity and the establishment of temporary stability at a less complex level. Each such level then proved to be unsustainable in turn, and was followed by a further crisis and loss of complexity. The first major breakdown in the Roman imperial system came in 166 CE, and further crises followed until the Western empire ceased to exist in 476 CE. Collapse processes simply aren't as fast as Tainter thinks, and do not occur simply due to the dynamics of the resource issues surrounding his concept of 'complexity.' 
This doesn't mean Tainter is entirely wrong, just that his theorisation of what makes collapses take place, whether over shorter of longer periods of time, is open to question. Indeed, in my own PhD research at the University of Sussex I explored the direct link between class dynamics, inequality, overconsumption, and social instability in past empires, leading to past collapses and genocides - an area that remains under-explored in Tainter's work, and at least tentatively addressed by the HANDY model.
It's true that Tainter's assertion that collapse happens rapidly and in a matter of decades is probably the single biggest error in the book. Anyone looking at the historical record can see that. Such collapses usually happen to smaller, isolated societies and are the result of a catastrophe. Ahmed's description is closer to the mark, and will be familiar to people who know John Michael Greer's theory of catabolic collapse.

And it's true that the simplistic "we're all doomed" narrative put forward by the media was sensational and not entirely accurate. But pointing out the iceberg in the path of the Titanic is not that same as resigning yourself to drowning in icy water. Ahmed has a good follow-up:
Doom is not the import of this study, nor of my own original research on these issues as encapsulated in my book, A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It. Rather what we are seeing, as I've argued in detail before, are escalating, interconnected symptoms of the unsustainability of the global system in its current form. While the available evidence suggests that business-as-usual is likely to guarantee worst-case scenarios, simultaneously humanity faces an unprecedented opportunity to create a civilisational form that is in harmony with our environment, and ourselves. 
Of course, there are those who go so far as to argue that humanity is heading for extinction by 2030, and that it's too late to do anything about it. 
But as other scientists have pointed out, while the number of positive-feedbacks that could go into 'runaway' on a business-as-usual scenario appears overwhelming, whether they have yet is at best unclear from the numbers - and at worst, we find that proponents of fatalism are actually systematically misrepresenting and obfuscating the science to justify hopelessness.
The global Transition tipping point has arrived - vive la révolution (The Guardian)

He goes on to describe the kind of society that we really want to create that will deal with these converging crises: one that gets its energy from renewable, rather than non-renewable resources. One that is not dependent upon growth and debt. One that produces healthy food with means that enhance rather than despoil the earth and its systems. One that does not turn resources into waste for frivolous consumption. One that is more egalitarian and decentralized. And one that promotes the human values of meaningful work, freedom, fellowship, and cooperation, rather than exclusion, coercion, drudgery, surveillance, and conflict.

It's a nice view, but there a lot of forces arrayed against it. As Richard Heinberg noted recently in an interview with Chris Martenson, the only preparations the authorities seem to be making is preparing to deal with social unrest by putting in an all-seeing police state, and buying up as much farmland as they can. I've also noticed an increasing number of "thought leaders" arguing that democracy is no longer compatible with economic growth. Disturbing. Allowing this to go forward rather than Ahmed's more inclusive vision is the most "doomer" approach I can think of.

Incidentally, I first featured the work of Dr. Ahmed back in December of 2011.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

100 Years of Norman Borlaug

Marginal Revolution reminds us that Norman Borlaug was born 100 years ago today.

If you read the comments on that site, you'll see a good deal of triumphalism. MR is a libertarian-leaning blog, and I would guess the readers rely heavily on the ideology that human cleverness and innovation will solve any problem. There's even a tagline at the bottom, "The man who proved Malthus wrong born 100 years ago today" But did he?

I won't unpack that question in any depth here, except to point out that this sort of triumphalism seems mainly to come from economists and businesspeople rather than people who actually grow food (the lords are more certain about higher crop yields than the peasants). For a more critical view, see this article by Nafeez Ahmed: Dramatic decline in industrial agriculture could herald 'peak food' (The Guardian)
Past trends over the last five decades of perpetually increasing crop yields were "driven by rapid adoption of green revolution technologies that were largely one-time innovations" which cannot be repeated. These include major industrial innovations such as "the development of semi-dwarf wheat and rice varieties, first widespread use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides, and large investments to expand irrigation infrastructure."

Although agricultural investment in China increased threefold from 1981 to 2000, rates of increase for wheat yields have remained constant, decreased by 64% for maize and are negligible in rice. Similarly, the rate of maize yield has remained largely flat despite a 58% investment increased over the same period. The study warns:

    "A concern is that despite the increase in investment in agricultural R&D and education during this period, the relative rate of yield gain for the major food crops has decreased over time together with evidence of upper yield plateaus in some of the most productive domains."

The study criticises most other yield projection models which predict compound or exponential production increases over coming years and decades, even though these "do not occur in the real world." It notes that "such growth rates are not feasible over the long term because average farm yields eventually approach a yield potential ceiling determined by biophysical limits on crop growth rates and yield.
And from the Agroinnovations podcast: What is the Agrocollapse?

I'm reminded of something I posted a few years back: A Limit to Gains From Genetically Engineered Cotton (New York Times)
After collecting four rounds of data from more than 500 farms in total, Dr. Qaim and a graduate student, Jonas Kathage, looked at the farmers’ cotton yields profits as well as their household expenditures, a marker of the farmers’ standard of living.

They found that using the modified seeds increased the farmers’ cotton yields by 24 percent and their profits by 50 percent. Farmers’ harvests improved mainly because the genetically altered plants suffered less damage from insects, Dr. Qaim said; profits grew as a result of the larger yields.

But as genetically modified seeds take over cotton production in India — in 2010, so-called Bt cotton plants covered about 90 percent of the land used to grow the crop in India, according to a report by the Central Institute for Cotton Research — farmers may cease to reap added benefits from their use, Dr. Qaim said. Because the modified seeds are used so widely, bollworms may develop a resistance to the toxins, he explained.

Although farmers are planting more and more acres with cotton, their productivity seems to have plateaued; cotton yields have not increased since the 2007-8 growing season.

“A technology can lift yields, but once you have lifted yields, what else can that technology do?” Dr. Qaim said.
Anyway, make up your own mind. I'll just leave you with this:
A parasitic worm is becoming rapidly resistant to the corn that was genetically engineered to kill it, according to a new study.

Published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it’s a cautionary tale of how bioengineering is only beneficial until evolution manages to catch up — and how mismanagement of biotech crops can hurry up that process.

The crop in question, known as Bt corn, was first planted in 1996. Able to resist rootworms and corn borers, it helped farmers increase their yields and reduce their use of conventional pesticides. It worked so well that it now accounts for three-quarters of the U.S. corn crop.

“Unless management practices change, it’s only going to get worse,” Aaron Gassmann, an Iowa State University entomologist and co-author of the study, told Wired. “There needs to be a fundamental change in how the technology is used.”
Evolution one-ups genetic modification (Salon) Happy birthday Dr. B!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Prediction is hard

It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.
-Attributed to Niels Bohr and Yogi Berra (and Mark Twain and Sam Goldwyn and...)

The only relevant test of the validity of a hypothesis is comparison of prediction with experience.
-Milton Friedman

There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.
-Steve Ballmer, USA Today, April 30, 2007.
(the last quote is from here

I was interviewed by KMO for the C-Realm podcast today, so hopefully I managed to say something intelligent. It was my first on-air interview, and of course there's always a bit of esprit d'escalier - stuff I thought of only after it was over.

One topic that came up is predictions for the future, specifically David Graeber's claim that many of the predictions for what we could technologically accomplish for 1960 came to pass, whereas many of the predictions from 1960 for the year 2000 and beyond have not happened, despite that fact that they are theoretically possible. The implication is that the managed Keynsianism that prevailed after the Second World War delivered a lot of the goods to the masses, but the Neoliberalism that has prevailed since the 1980's has instead put resources into accumulating wealth for the one percent and squelching any alternatives.

So, this seems like a good time to run these posts about predictions for the future, the right, the wrong, and the ugly:
The Ladies Home Journal of December 1900 ran a very brave list of predictions by one John Elfreth Watkins. Some are quite accurate, some wrong, and many are plain odd. Although grouped into 25 predictions, each one is a collection of not entirely related ideas. Some samples:

Prediction #6: Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today. Farmers will own automobile hay-wagons, automobile truck-wagons, plows, harrows and hay-rakes. A one-pound motor in one of these vehicles will do the work of a pair of horses or more. Children will ride in automobile sleighs in winter. Automobiles will have been substituted for every horse vehicle now known. There will be, as already exist today, automobile hearses, automobile police patrols, automobile ambulances, automobile street sweepers. The horse in harness will be as scarce, if, indeed, not even scarcer, then as the yoked ox is today.

Prediction #16: There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other. Russian will rank second.

Prediction #21: Hot and Cold Air from Spigots. Hot or cold air will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house as we now turn on hot or cold water from spigots to regulate the temperature of the bath. Central plants will supply this cool air and heat to city houses in the same way as now our gas or electricity is furnished. Rising early to build the furnace fire will be a task of the olden times. Homes will have no chimneys, because no smoke will be created within their walls.

Prediction #22: Store Purchases by Tube. Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles. These tubes will collect, deliver and transport mail over certain distances, perhaps for hundreds of miles. They will at first connect with the private houses of the wealthy; then with all homes. Great business establishments will extend them to stations, similar to our branch post-offices of today, whence fast automobile vehicles will distribute purchases from house to house.

Prediction #23: Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of today. They will purchase materials in tremendous wholesale quantities and sell the cooked foods at a price much lower than the cost of individual cooking. Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes or automobile wagons.
100-Year Old Predictions from 1900 (Long Now foundation). The original page seems to have gone dead. The pneumatic tubes will apparently have to wait for the Futurama of the year 3000:

Here are some predictions from Nikola Tesla in 1935, via Paleofuture:
At present we suffer from the derangement of our civilization because we have not yet completely adjusted ourselves to the machine age. The solution of our problems does not lie in destroying but in mastering the machine.

Innumerable activities still performed by human hands today will be performed by automatons. At this very moment scientists working in the laboratories of American universities are attempting to create what has been described as a ” thinking machine.” I anticipated this development.

I actually constructed ” robots.” Today the robot is an accepted fact, but the principle has not been pushed far enough. In the twenty-first century the robot will take the place which slave labor occupied in ancient civilization. There is no reason at all why most of this should not come to pass in less than a century, freeing mankind to pursue its higher aspirations.
Long before the next century dawns, systematic reforestation and the scientific management of natural resources will have made an end of all devastating droughts, forest fires, and floods. The universal utilization of water power and its long-distance transmission will supply every household with cheap power and will dispense with the necessity of burning fuel. The struggle for existence being lessened, there should be development along ideal rather than material lines.
Nikola Tesla's Amazing Predictions for the 21st Century (Paleofuture) Of course, he also thought that departments of hygiene and selective breeding would eliminate disease. A look at our medical-industrial complex seems to indicate we're going in the opposite direction.

Here is a review of Paris in the Twentieth Century by Jules Verne. From the review:
On the most basic, surface level, Paris in the Twentieth Century is an astonishing book for its depiction of the modern age. Written in 1863, the story is set in the Paris of the 1960s. Paris in the Twentieth Century concerns a 16-year-old, Michel Dufrénoy, who graduates, with a devotion to literature and the classics, but finds they have been forgotten in a futuristic world where only technological writing is favored. The officially sanctioned creativity is government sponsorship of the arts, resulting in lowbrow theater for the masses, composed along the lines of the mass-produced collaborations of the 1930s Hollywood studio system. Dufrénoy's alienation is, in fact, inspired by Verne's own situation; at the time, to support his family, he was writing in the mornings before spending his days working at the Paris Stock Market, which he loathed.

Dufrénoy determines to be an artist, working on his own, but finds that his book of poetry is impossible to sell, and soon he is starving in the winter's cold, one of the few forces of nature that science has yet to overcome. In despair, he spends his last sous to buy violets for his beloved, but finds that she has disappeared from her apartment, evicted when her father lost his job as the university's last teacher of rhetoric. In a moving but excessively melodramatic climax, the heartbroken Dufrénoy, bereft of friends and loved ones, wanders through the frozen, mechanized, electrical wonders of Paris. The subjectivity becomes steadily more surreal as the dying artist, in a final paroxysm of despair, unconsciously circles an old cemetery. Dufrénoy encounters the modern tool of criminal execution--the electric chair (yet another scientific prediction, opposed to the guillotine of Verne's time)--before freezing to death.

Verne's prophecies of the world to come in Paris in the Twentieth Century, both in technical and cultural terms, are breathtaking in their extent and nearly unerring accuracy. Virtually every page is crowded with evidence of Verne's ability to forecast the science and life of the future, from feminism to the rise of illegitimate births, from email to burglar alarms, from the growth of suburbs to mass-produced higher education, including the dissolution of humanities departments. The accuracy of the prophecies cannot be overstated, and I would estimate that nearly 90% have come to pass. Perhaps Verne's most amusing error was in anticipating that the government would conduct itself in such a businesslike way as to show a dividend.
Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century (DePauw University Science Fiction Studies)

This article is from the New York Times Magazine from 1964 about predictions for the year 2000- Back to the (Far-Fetched) Future (New York Times). Here is what New York City was supposed to look like:

New York today seems to look more 19th century than 20th. And this passage struck me in particular:
"If economics and politics are not effective means toward producing happiness, what is the use of them? Next to mass suicide and mass starvation, mass unhappiness is the worst evil that could overtake the human race. And, alas, mass unhappiness seems now to be just around the corner."

"The present outlook for happiness is bad. Happiness had various sources. One source of it  us the mutual love that links a human being with his family and friends. Another source is religion. But a human being cannot be happy unless he is also happy in his work, because it is his work that gives him his significance and his value in society, and his membership in society, and therefore work, is one of the necessities of life, since man is a social creature. It looks, however, as if work is going to become a less and less important part of life. Happiness is being eliminated from work by mechanization. Mechanization is the price of affluence, and, so far as we can see ahead, mankind is going to opt for affluence--"

"'Doing it yourself' is a creative activity, and it is one which, unlike the arts of painting or writing poetry of composing music, is within the average human being's capacity. If the overmachinaized worker chooses, in the free nonearning hours of his waking life, to make this creative use of his time, he will become, outside the factory walls, a nonprofessional jack-of-all-trades, like his Neolithic and Paleolithic ancestors. And, if he regains the happiness of working for love, he will also regain an unimpeded access to the deeper sources of happiness in his family, his friends, his religion."

"How can one be truly happy without either being frustrated by suffering from too much mechanization or being kept poor and hungry by enjoying too little of it? If, by the year 2000, mankind has solved that problem, it will be able to look forward to the years 3000, 30,000 and 300,000 with fresh confidence."
And finally, here are some more accurate predictions that Isaac Asimov made in 1964 about the year 2014:
"Men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better."

"Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare 'automeals.'"

"Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence."

"Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with 'robot-brains'—vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver."

"Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books."

"In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000."

"The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders."
Isaac Asimov's Predictions About 2014 Are Eerily Accurate (Slate)

See also 26 Shockingly Bad Predictions (Buzzfeed) and Prediction-Quotes

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Selective Incompetence

If you've been following the stories about the NSA, then you know their technical capabilities are enormous. You know they have the power to intercept every email, tweet and phone call in the world. You know they can spy on world leaders. You know they can hack into any computer. You know they can break any encryption. You know they can tap into the Internet's "backbone." You know can they sift through trillions of bytes looking for information. You know they can store pedaflops of data. You know that they have a giant black-glass clad cube in the desert that houses billions of dollars (at least) in the latest computer equipment and pays employees and  contractors hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. There are probably a lot of other things I'm failing to mention due to my lack of technical knowledge. Their abilities are practically infinite, as is their budget. see this: A Running List of What We Know the NSA Can Do. So Far (The Brian Lehrer Show)

And yet the government could not get the Web site that offered health care to Americans up and running correctly on time. How is that possible?

Dmitry Orlov pointed out that Washington just pledged a billion dollars to help Ukraine, but pledged not one cent to help keep Detroit from bankruptcy. Where did the money come from?

Many others have noted the billions and billions of dollars poured into the failed state rebuilding projects of Afghanistan and Iraq, while at the same time we are unable to build high-speed rail in this country, and our creaky, crumbling infrastructure is falling apart while millions are unemployed.

Food stamps are cut while at the same time billions of dollars in subsidies to wealthy farmers and agribusinesses are retained and even expanded.

We're told that the deficit is an existential threat, yet taxes on the wealthy are perennially cut.

And, of course, 700 billion dollars was conjured out of nowhere to bail out the bankers, but things like Social Security and Medicare are "unaffordable," "unsustainable" and must be cut due to "hard choices." Apparently the bankers and bailed-out corporations were free of having to make those same "hard choices", however.

The government  is cutting back things like food inspection and enforcement of tax fraud, yet enforces copyright protection with such fervor that even downloading a single song or video from billion-dollar corporations results in hefty fines and jail terms.

The government puts drug users behind bars, but lets the criminals who wrecked the economy go scot-free. The government will spend tens of thousands to keep people behind bars, but not to give them a free college education.

Look at the NSA. Could an incompetent government do that? look at the military. Could an incompetent government do that.?

And yet New Orleans was left to drown in 2007.

What's going on here?

It seems like the government is selectively incompetent.  It seems like government is a powerful and effective tool when it comes to things that help out the one percent. At the same time, it seems like the government is the Keystone Cops when it comes to helping us out in the 99 percent, even with our society seemingly falling apart. Why do we permit this?

Instead we buy the simple bromides that  government is useless, wasteful and inefficient. Yet it seems to do astonishing things when it wants to; the capabilities of the NSA are testament to that fact, as is the very existence of the Internet itself. Cutting-edge technologies, from solar panels to the microchip were developed either directly by the government or with government money.Yet we're constantly told that "innovation" comes from the private sector alone, and that government is a useless parasite on society, worthless, a black hole hole for money that would be put to better use by the invisible hand.

All sorts of technical marvels and innovations, from new drugs to computers are developed by the government and then just handed over for free to the private sector to make money from. Then we must buy back the things we paid for with our own money while at the same time the corporations thank us for our generosity by charging us exorbitant amounts us to pad their profits and CEO salaries, while at the same laying us off and shipping our jobs overseas. You're welcome.

Why isn't this more of an issue? Is it because the corporate media doesn't want us to think about it?

Maybe it's not that government is inherently incompetent, it's just that the one percent make sure its incompetent for us (but not for them).

We're constantly told that the government is broke, but it seems to never lack money when it comes to comes to spying on us, jailing us, and waging eternal wars overseas. It always has money for foreigners and rebuilding countries we destroy, even as our own cities go bankrupt and turn off the lights and our infrastructure crumbles. It always has money for corporate welfare and bailouts on generous terms, just not for things like feeding the hungry, putting people back to work, or giving us a decent retirement income.

Imagine if the technological wizardry that the NSA has deployed, which has so impressed the information science/tech community for it's audacity and sophistication, were used instead to allow us to vote safely, transparently and securely online, instead of spying on us. How can they do what they do yet still claim this is impossible? As one expert has said, if you can bank online, you can vote online. Yet they do not do this. Why not? because that would give the voters more power, not the elites, and that is not what they want. Spying on us gives them more power, which is what they do want. This is not how democracy is supposed to work! But buying into the "government is incompetent" meme is not going to undo this.

The common thinking is that Americans will never sacrifice when you bring up things like moving to a non carbon-based economy or consuming less to help the environment or arrest global warming. Yet Americans are extremely willing to sacrifice if it's in the name of "debt." In fact, Tea Partiers are always out marching in the streets demanding that Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, welfare (TANF) and food stamps (SNAP) be cut or abolished because of the debt, despite that fact that taxes on wealth are at historic lows. It seems that Americans are extremely willing to sacrifice, just sacrifice what the elites want them to - retirement security and feeding to the poor and unemployed to keep taxes low for the one percent.

In fact, polls consistently show that majorities of Americans actually want the government to do more about poverty, unemployment, homelessness, inequality, infrastructure, education and so on. They have for a long time.

Polls do not show that we want to be spied upon, yet that's what the government does. Polls do not show support for corporate welfare or bailouts for Wall Street, yet that's what the government does. Polls do not show Americans want to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, yet the government does that as well. And when it comes to waging war, the Pentagon pulls out all the stops and spends millions of our own dollars to convince us that the enemy-du-jour on the other side of the globe is an existential threat. The government does not have to spend billions to convince us that people going bankrupt from healthcare costs is an existential threat, though. When was the last time you heard complainants about what the government spends on security and war? Yet I'm sure you've heard a lot how much the government is spending on health care and food stamps since the onset of recession in excruciating detail, right?

Right? Selective attention too. So it's no wonder people feel they have no control over the government and where their tax money goes.

And it becomes a self-enforcing cycle. As government becomes more incompetent for us, we lose faith in it, ensuring that it becomes more incompetent for us in the future for us but not for the one percent. The dirty secret is, they have no problems with government, their rhetoric is just for the masses. In fact, more and more of our tax dollars are being used to help them open new markets, keep them secure, do their research, bail them out, and pad their profits, educate their workforce, but not to help us out when we need it. We're told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps (but keep paying taxes). We're told that if government helps us out, that we'll become lazy and dependent. Apparently this is not a concern for the one percent and corporate fat cats, however, even as we subsidize sending jobs overseas and importing cheap labor. No wonder we're so mad at government!

Maybe it's not as simple as whether the government is good or bad. Maybe it's what kind of government is good or bad. If we actually had that kind of debate in America today, we might be getting somewhere, instead of the useless bickering we do have.

So, I would say that these simple bumper-sticker bromides--that the government is bad, that is incompetent, that it's wasteful, that it's broke, that it's evil--are just way too simplistic to describe what's really going on. It's selectively incompetent. It's selectively broke. When the rich and powerful want it to work for them, it does. It could work for us too. They just do their level best to make sure that it doesn't.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The bottomless production of bullshit

A lot of people wonder why, since we seem to be at such a precipice of civilization with so many crises converging at once and perennially getting worse, we seem to be paralyzed; frozen in place, unable to come to any sort of collective agreement on what actions to take. We see decay and dissolution all around us, but all we do is bicker endlessly, with no real resolution. So many people seem so aggressively sure of themselves, no matter how ignorant they are. What’s going on?

There’s a common assumption that it’s just too complicated, or that are no answers. Or that getting to consensus is just too difficult. I’m not so sure. This is easily my favorite article from last week. It talks about a professor who is studying the cultural production of ignorance. This is one of the major reasons we’re heading into a new dark age, and I’m glad someone is at least attempting to make an academic study of it.:
Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford, is one of the world's leading experts in agnotology, a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance. It's a rich field, especially today when whole industries devote themselves to sowing public misinformation and doubt about their products and activities.

The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson's files, "Doubt is our product." Big Tobacco's method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo's author wrote, but to establish a "controversy."

When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco's program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.

It's also echoed by vaccination opponents, who continue to use a single dishonest and thoroughly discredited British paper to sow doubts about the safety of childhood immunizations, and by climate change deniers.

And all those fabricated Obamacare horror stories wholesaled by Republican and conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act and their aiders and abetters in the right-wing press? Their purpose is to sow doubt about the entire project of healthcare reform; if the aim were to identify specific shortcomings of the act, they'd have to accompany every story with a proposal about how to fix it.

Proctor came to the study of agnotology through his study of the Nazi scientific establishment and subsequently of the tobacco industry's defensive campaign.

Early in his career, he told me, he asked an advisor if Nazi science was an appropriate topic of research. "Of course," he was told. "Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship." As part of his scholarship, Proctor says he "watches Fox News all the time."
Cultural production of ignorance provides rich field for study (LA Times)

But showing people the ignorance of their ways changes their mind, right? Wrong!
In a recent study, a research team headed by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College tried four methods to change the minds of parents who had decided not to immunize their children with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine — a factual refutation of the vaccine-autism link; two different means of warning about the risks to children from contracting measles, mumps or rubella, including "a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles"; and horrific photos of children suffering from the diseases.

Some of the interventions persuaded the parents that the autism link was specious, but not a single one made the parents more willing to vaccinate their children. And some intensified opposition to the vaccine, a "backfire" effect.
Ignorance hurts intelligent discussion of policy:
Citing the results of a 2012 Gallup poll, Proctor asks, "If half the country thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old, how can you really develop an effective environmental policy? This sort of traditional or inertial ignorance bars us from being able to act responsibly on large social issues."
And, of course, the Tea Party movement provides a rich field for the study of ignorance:
The [tobacco] industry has succeeded in persuading the public and politicians that it has lost the smoking war, but that's a myth. Proctor says 40 million Americans still smoke and tobacco use is still rising in much of the world. Moreover, the industry's program isn't just about cigarettes, but part of "a larger agnotological project to promote free-market fundamentalism," he points out.

As Stanton A. Glantz of UC San Francisco documented last year, the tobacco industry was deeply involved in the evolution of the tea party movement, which promoted some of the industry's cherished aims, such as fighting tobacco taxes and anti-smoking laws.

"The Tea Party of the late 2000s has become the 'movement'" envisioned by a Reynolds executive 10 years earlier, Glantz concluded, "grounded in patriotic values of 'freedom' and 'choice' to change how people see the role of 'government' and 'big business' in their lives."
The bottom line:
"The myth of the 'information society' is that we're drowning in knowledge," he says. "But it's easier to propagate ignorance."
How can you have a reasonable discussion with people who know things that just aren't so?

Fox News debuts bizarre, giant tablets in its outrageous new newsroom (The Verge)

Fox News found to be a major driving force behind global warming denial (The Guardian)

STUDY: Watching Only Fox News Makes You Less Informed Than Watching No News At All (Business Insider)

The Founding Fathers imagined a media designed to inform. But his work shows that it is just as likely to be used to confuse, inveigle and obfuscate (to borrow form the X-Files). In fact, it seems that ignorance is being produced even more aggressively than knowledge. Anyone who has seen Adam Curtis’ documentary The Century of the Self, or read Chomsky is already familiar with these ideas, but it’s only gotten more extreme and pronounced in the intervening years. Ignorance has become the most potent weapon in the arsenal of the political and corporate class, and they are deliberately dumbing down society to prevent any challenge to the status quo.

How much other nonsense gets peddled as “truth” on a daily basis – that we can grow infinitely on a finite planet. That we will never run out of oil. That we can go on consuming more forever. That innovation will save us. That there is a techno-fix for every problem. That the rich need to make their billions to be “motivated,” but minimum wages hurt growth. That automation and outsourcing does not cost jobs. That "free trade" is always good. That there is a terrorist under every rock. That we are being spied upon to keep us safe. That all the chemicals in our environment are nothing to worry about. The list is almost endless.

While the article focuses on the tobacco industry, anti-vaccine campaigners, and climate change deniers, I’m sure you can think of many, many more examples from almost any walk of life. FOX News does not just hold forth on science – it covers economic and social issues too, and dispenses just as much confusion and bullshit to the American public. The entire advertising, marketing, lobbying and public relations industries are dedicated to lying for a living. And, of course, let's not forget that the economics profession is an entire branch of pseudoscience peddling nonsense to defend the status quo (remember Kenneth Rogoff's magic debt to GDP ratio?). We have entire industries dedicated to nothing more than  lying and deceiving other people and bending the truth! How many people make their living doing this sort of work in modern society? Is it any wonder why we stand paralyzed while the iceberg approaches on the horizon.

What kind of a society devotes a huge amount of its resources just to lying to itself?

BONUS: From the steady roll of theories on what happened to Malaysian Arlines Flight 370, to Sarah Palin’s “death panels” panic, to Donald Trump’s birther theories, misinformation spreads like wildfire in the age of Facebook. Conspiracy Theories Running Rampant: How Misinformation Spreads on Facebook (Alternet)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Drumbeat Continues

If that last post wasn't "doomer" enough for you, here's some more. This time instead of NASA, it's the United Nations warning us (stupid scientists!):

Official prophecy of doom: Global warming will cause widespread conflict, displace millions of people and devastate the global economy (The Independent) Leaked draft report from UN panel seen by The Independent is most comprehensive investigation into impact of climate change ever undertaken - and it's not good news:
Coastal systems and  low-lying areas

The report predicts that by the end of the century “hundreds of millions of people will be affected by coastal flooding and displaced due to land loss”. The majority affected will be in East Asia, South-east Asia and South Asia. Rising sea levels mean coastal systems and low-lying areas will increasingly experience  submergence, coastal flooding and coastal erosion.
Food security

Relatively low local temperature increases of 1C or more above pre-industralised levels are projected to “negatively impact” yields of major crops such as wheat, rice and maize in tropical and temperate regions. The report forecasts that climate change will reduce median yields by up to 2 per cent per decade for the rest of the century – against a backdrop of rising demand that is set to increase by 14 per cent per decade until 2050.
The global economy

A global mean temperature increase of 2.5C above pre-industrial levels may lead to global aggregate economic losses of between 0.2 and 2.0 per cent, the report warns. Global GDP was $71.8trn (£43.1trn) in 2012, meaning a 2 per cent reduction would wipe $1.4trn off the world’s economic output that year.
Human health

Until mid-century, climate change will impact human health mainly by exacerbating problems that already exist, the report says. Climate change will lead to increases in ill-health in many regions, with examples including a greater likelihood of injury, disease and death due to more intense heatwaves and fires; increased likelihood of under-nutrition; and increased risks from food and water-borne diseases. Without accelerated investment in planned adaptations, climate change by 2050 would increase the number of undernourished children under the age of five by 20-25 million globally, or by 17-22 per cent, it says.
Human security

Climate change over the 21st century will have a significant impact on forms of migration that compromise human security, the report states. For example, it indirectly increases the risks from violent conflict in the form of civil war, inter-group violence and violent protests by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.

Small-island states and other places highly vulnerable to sea-level rise face major challenges to their territorial integrity. Some “transboundary” impacts of climate change, such as changes in sea ice, shared water resources and migration of fish stocks have the potential to increase rivalry among states.
Freshwater resources

The draft of the report says “freshwater-related risks of climate change increase significantly with increasing greenhouse gas emissions”. It finds that climate change will “reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly in most dry subtropical regions”, exacerbating the competition for water. Terrestrial and freshwater species will also face an increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century.
And I recalled that article that the Erlichs published last year for the proceedings of the Royal Society: Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided?

And wasn't it those tie-dyed hippies in the Peak Oil community who kept predicting resource wars:

Russia's Unconventional Weapon: Natural Gas (The New Yorker)

Russia Eyes Crimea's Oil and Natural Gas Reserves (Naked Capitalism)

Meanwhile, in the heart of Babylon, Everything is Awesome!!!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The science of collapse

This is getting some attention. A study out of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center takes a look at previous collapses and has some not very good things to say about our current trajectory. Here's Nafeez Ahmed summing it up:
By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity"; and "the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or "Commoners") [poor]" These social phenomena have played "a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse," in all such cases over "the last five thousand years."

Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with "Elites" based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:

    "... accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels."

The study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:

    "Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use."

Productivity increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries has come from "increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput," despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.

Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri and his colleagues conclude that under conditions "closely reflecting the reality of the world today... we find that collapse is difficult to avoid." In the first of these scenarios, civilisation:

    ".... appears to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this Type-L collapse is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature."

Another scenario focuses on the role of continued resource exploitation, finding that "with a larger depletion rate, the decline of the Commoners occurs faster, while the Elites are still thriving, but eventually the Commoners collapse completely, followed by the Elites."

In both scenarios, Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most "detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners", allowing them to "continue 'business as usual' despite the impending catastrophe." The same mechanism, they argue, could explain how "historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases)."

Applying this lesson to our contemporary predicament, the study warns that:

    "While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory 'so far' in support of doing nothing."
Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'? (The Guardian) Nothing new to those of us who have been studying these phenomena for a while - climate change, resource depletion, extreme inequality, soaring debt, parasitical elites, war and conflict, loss of social trust, and so on. And Gizmodo sums up the conclusion:
Is there a way out? Of course. But you're probably not gonna like it. Dr. Ahmed sums up the researchers' suggestions:

    The two key solutions are to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth.

Which is just as difficult and improbable as it sounds.
NASA-Backed Study Says Humanity Is Pretty Much Screwed (Gizmodo) There is a link here to the original paper, which I'll certainly be checking out.

From the comments:
Here's a link to another mainstream intellectually and methodologically robust study, this one by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) that indicates a 21st century 'collapse' unless we change our consumptive ways.

This one was reported in 'fringe' (meaning scientifically objective and accurate) media like "New Scientist" and Australia's ABC "Science Show" and ignored by mainstream media. I expect internationally, mainstream media ignored it too.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Utopia or Bust

Interview with Ben Kunkel. I especially like the last two paragraphs.
Several times you say that the next crisis is the one that will lead to some kind of Marxist intervention. Do you worry about that being infinitely delayed?

That I’m not too worried about. There’s no strict definition of a crisis, and clearly some people feel that the crisis has passed. But the crisis that began in 2008 has not passed in Europe. In a sense it seems to be deepening in what they call emerging markets. Unemployment remains tremendously high here. It looks like there might be a permanent generational aspect to the crisis. So I’m certainly not worried about capitalism just making everybody so happy that they’re not interested in books like this one anymore.

Are you worried about band-aid solutions like the bank bailout?

It seems like plenty of people who are not on the left, just sane people, have worried that our solution to the last acute crisis may make the next one worse. Banks that were too big to fail are now much bigger. People like Elizabeth Warren are worried about this; you don’t have to be a Marxist to be worried about it. The income gains since 2008 have gone, not just to the one percent, but mainly to the point one percent. The last thing I’m worried about is capitalism just invalidating the left ferment of recent years by creating a smooth-running, prosperous neoliberal Utopia.


You talk a lot about ecology, but you don’t devote a chapter to it.

That’s because I’m devoting a book that I’m writing to it. There was a time when this book might have been longer, and I thought about adding a new essay, but I decided that the book was long enough. You don’t want a handbook to be too long.

The next book, God willing, is a much more ecological and economic book.

My sentiments about peak oil are no longer as apocalyptic as they were. But I think it’s very naïve for people who write about energy to pretend that, because we can now frack these wells that have very swift depletion rates, this means that we’re not going to have much lower energy rates per capita sometime soon.

I don’t think we’re going to have increasing energy for everyone forever. This doesn’t mean that I think we should start scolding people in some Malthusian way for having too many children. People in wealthy countries need to think about how they’re going to consume less, or people in less wealthy countries need to think about how they’re going to forcibly make people in wealthy countries consume less.

In praising Fredric Jameson, you mention that he had “reserves of synthesizing energy that simply outstripped anyone else’s.” That struck me as a provocatively capitalist metaphor.

Blake said that energy is eternal delight. A lot of the things we identify as capitalist aren’t—a kind of dynamism, a kind of versatility of desire, energy, even creative destruction. I allude a couple times to the stationary state, an economy that no longer grows, and some people wonder whether that wouldn’t become tedious and boring. I think, by no means. No more than if you have a certain income, you have to spend it in the same way every year. No more than when we cease to grow physically in our late teens, we cease to be able to do interesting things with our bodies. I’m not worried about post-capitalist society being boring or less energetic. Maybe less exhausting. Maybe you’ll get better sleep.

I was talking more about the implicit competition. That Jameson is better than anyone else.

I consider myself a market socialist. Firms can go bankrupt, people can be fired. It doesn’t mean that the people who are fired suddenly become poor. Some of the existential risk disappears. But competition is a feature of human life. The competition among artists, among athletes, sexual competition, these things exist independently of capital. Writers are going to want to write better than other writers, thinkers are going to want to be more intelligent than other thinkers. Makers of craft beer are going to want to make better craft beer than other makers of craft beer.

The Olympics are going on right now, and I’m old enough to remember when they required that athletes not have gone pro to compete. It’s not as though everyone just loped towards the finish line.
What Time Is The Revolution (The Awl)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Genghis Khan and the climate

How many "great men" have been made by being born at the right time?
The rise of Genghis Khan and the huge Mongol Empire in the early 13th Century may have been helped by good weather, scientists suggest. American researchers studying the rings of ancient trees in central Mongolia have discovered that his rise coincided with the mildest, wettest weather in more than 1,000 years. Grass grew at a rapid rate, providing fodder for his war horses.

The research shows that the years before Genghis Khan's rule were characterised by severe drought from 1180 to 1190, the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said.But as the empire expanded from from 1211 to 1225, Mongolia saw an unusual spell of regular rainfall and mild temperatures.

"The transition from extreme drought to extreme moisture right then strongly suggests that climate played a role in human events," study co-author and West Virginia University tree-ring scientist Amy Hessl told the AFP news agency."It wasn't the only thing, but it must have created the ideal conditions for a charismatic leader to emerge out of the chaos, develop an army and concentrate power. Where it's arid, unusual moisture creates unusual plant productivity, and that translates into horsepower. Genghis was literally able to ride that wave."

Allied to the good weather, Genghis Khan was able to unite disparate tribes into an efficient military unit that rapidly conquered its neighbours.
Genghis Khan: Good weather 'helped him to conquer' (BBC)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Worked to Death

Overwork and unemployment side-by-side. Tell me again why we've invented all these fossil-fuel powered machines and automation. It's the ultimate Rebound Effect - the more we can do, the harder and harder we have to work. Why even bother inventing anything?
BERTRAND RUSSELL, the English philosopher, was not a fan of work. In his 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness”, he reckoned that if society were better managed the average person would only need to work four hours a day. Such a small working day would “entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life.” The rest of the day could be devoted to the pursuit of science, painting and writing.

Russell thought that technological advancement could free people from toil. John Maynard Keynes mooted a similar idea in a 1930 essay, "Economic possibilities for our grandchildren", in which he reckoned people might need work no more than 15 hours per week by 2030. But over 80 years after these speculations people seem to be working harder than ever. The Financial Times reports today that Workaholics Anonymous groups are taking off. Over the summer Bank of America faced intense criticism after a Stakhanovite intern died.


Adam Smith reckoned that

[T]he man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of works.
Get a Life (Economist)
Longer working hours seem to lead to higher premature mortality. (For stats nerds: the strength of the relationship is significant, with an r-squared of 0.2). The implication that over-work is bad for you chimes with lots of research which links long working hours with poor health. Stress, for example, can contribute to range of problems like heart disease and depression. That was, indeed, what the philosopher Bertrand Russell argued back in the 1930s. Overwork, said Russell, led to "frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia".

The pattern is not completely clear. The outlying figures to the right are those for South Korea. The country is famed for its long working hours, but also its healthy food, which may lower the risk of things like heart attacks and thereby reduce premature death rates. On the other side, Hungarians seem to get really stressed out at work: despite working relatively short hours, their PYLL is high. 

If there is such a relationship between working hours and health, then shorter work hours might actually raise a person's total lifetime work by allowing them to live and work for longer. You can use that as an excuse next time you want to slack off early. 
We need a slow but steady move toward a 30-hour week for all workers. This will help solve a lot of connected problems: overwork, unemployment, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other and simply to enjoy life. 

People working shorter hours generally have a smaller ecological footprint. If you are tied to the workplace for 40-plus hours, you don’t have much time for the rest of your life. So things have to speed up. You travel by plane or car instead of train, foot or bike. Convenience-driven consumption takes a heavy toll on the environment. 

Some say it can’t be done because wages are too low. So let’s raise wages. No one should have to work long hours just to get by. Some say it’s uncompetitive. But there’s no match between average working hours and the strength of a country’s economy. The Netherlands and Germany have a shorter workweek than the United States and Britain. But the Dutch and German economies are stronger, not weaker. Workers on shorter hours tend to be more productive hour-for-hour. They are under less stress, they get sick less often and they make a more loyal and committed workforce. 

We ended slavery, built the railways and won votes for women. All these once seemed impossible. We can do the same for working hours. It’s only a matter of time.

While shorter hours defined much of labor history, the struggle hit a successful plateau during the New Deal when the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) established the eight-hour day and 40-hour week as the official law of the land. Although many people continued to try to decrease the work week to 35 hours in order to share work and increase leisure, the fight seemed to end. 

Then it reversed. Slowly we trashed collective bargaining, ran roughshod over the Fair Labor Standards Act, and exchanged our desire for freedom for the cult of overwork. Now we respond to every ping of technology, looking longingly at those who still work just eight-hour days. “I’m busy” is our boring mantra; “so much to do” is our futile Greek chorus. 

Now we live with a terrible irony. Although we believe we live in a work world defined by the eight-hour day and other progressive occupational victories, we actually don’t. We have only relics and illusions of those victories, which may be more harmful than not having them at all. It would take 20 years of struggle to get back to where we once were. Overwork is a public problem that should be part of a public conversation. 

“Is it time to rethink the 40 hour week?” Yes, it’s time to think about bringing it back.
Rethinking the 40-Hour Work Week (New York Times)
BEIJING - Having turned off the office lights at 2 am, Wang Yue wearily trudged home. He and his colleagues spent four days in a row working overtime last week because of an urgent project.

"To be honest, I feel exhausted from overwork. I suffer from various kinds of work-related illness, such as loss of sleep, numbness in the neck and shoulders and neurasthenia (a psychological disorder characterized by chronic fatigue and weakness, loss of memory, and generalized aches and pains)," said Wang, a 29-year-old employee in the marketing department of an international pharmaceutical company in Beijing.

It is true that thousands of millions of Chinese jobseekers dream of landing a well-paid job, like Wang's, with an overseas company. However, the sudden death of a young female worker in mid-April rang loud alarm bells and some of them started to change their minds.

Having been employed in the Shanghai office of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the world's leading accounting firms, for just six month, Pan Jie, a 25-year-old young woman died from acute meningitis. She had just graduated from Shanghai Jiao Tong University with a master's degree last year.
Overwork takes its toll on staff health (China Daily)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Why you can't get enough Sriracha, whether or not you believe it. (

Monday, March 10, 2014

Automation, with charts!

Step back a minute. Way back. What precisely is the purpose of technological innovation? Why do we want to make things faster, smarter, better, healthier, new? To get rich? OK: to generate wealth, and ultimately, eliminate scarcity. The endgame, where we’re going as a species if we don’t screw up badly and destroy ourselves or burn out all our resources before we get there, is some kind of post-scarcity society.

Will people have jobs in a post-scarcity society? No. That’s what post-scarcity means. They’ll have things to do, authorities, responsibilities, ambitions, callings, etc., but not jobs as we understand them. So if the endgame is a world without jobs, how will we get there? All at once? No: by a slow and inexorable decline of the total number of jobs. Today’s America is just at the edge, the very beginning, of that decline.

Trouble is, America, more than any other nation, is built around the notion that all able-bodied adults should have jobs. That’s going to be a big problem.

Paul Kedrosky recently wrote a terrific essay about what I call cultural technical debt, i.e. “organizations or technologies that persist, largely for historical reasons, not because they remain the best solution to the problem for which they were created. They are often obstacles to much better solutions.” Well, the notion that ‘jobs are how the rewards of our society are distributed, and every decent human being should have a job’ is becoming cultural technical debt.

If it’s not solved, then in the coming decades you can expect a self-perpetuating privileged elite to accrue more and more of the wealth generated by software and robots, telling themselves that they’re carrying the entire world on their backs, Ayn Rand heroes come to life, while all the lazy jobless “takers” live off the fruits of their labor. Meanwhile, as the unemployed masses grow ever more frustrated and resentful, the Occupy protests will be a mere candle flame next to the conflagrations to come. It’s hard to see how that turns into a post-scarcity society. Something big will need to change.
America Has Hit “Peak Jobs” (TechCrunch)
–There’s newer research suggesting that the demand for skilled workers has actually decelerated in recent years. Beaudry, Green, and Sand present an exhaustive and rigorous statistical analysis of skill demands over the last three decades. They look at tasks, jobs, and earnings, and find that the demand for skilled workers “underwent a reversal” around 2000. The growth in the share of high-skill, high “cognition” (using Autor’s tasks framework), and high-wage occupations stagnated in the 2000s, where the share of college grads kept growing. “That means,” as Green told me, “that the probability that a newly graduating BA will get one of these jobs is declining sharply.” And as more highly skilled workers are displaced, they moved down the job scale, hurting the job prospects of less-skilled workers who now have to compete with those “…displaced from cognitive occupations.”
A Bit More on Technology, Jobs, and Wages (Jared Bernstein) Related: College Grads Taking Low-Wage Jobs Displace Less Educated (Bloomberg) Downward mobility.

But there are two catches. Here's the first. Healthcare spending is growing slower than the economy for the first time since 1997, and "nobody knows why," as Matt O'Brien reported for The Atlantic. And the slowdown in growth is affecting workers, too. Healthcare jobs apparently fell in December for the first time in at least 27 years. Fresh out of the oven, BLS's healthcare employment projections might already be deflating.

Here's the second catch. A new paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne calculated the odds of "computerization" for the 600+ jobs that the BLS tracks. They range from 96% automatable (office secretaries) to 0.9% (registered nurses). Here are the ten fastest-growing jobs and the odds that robots and software eat them:

1) Personal care aides: 74%
2) Registered nurses: 0.9%
3) Retail salespersons: 92%
4) Combined food prep & serving workers: 92%
5) Home health aides: 39%
6) Physician assistant: 9%
7) Secretaries and admin assistants: 96%
8) Customer service representatives: 55%
9) Janitors and cleaners: 66%
10) Construction workers: 71%

These ten occupations account for 3.85 million projected jobs in the next ten years, or 25 percent of the decade's projected job haul. And six of them are at least two-thirds automatable, based on researchers' projections of current computing power. For example, secretaries and administrative assistants are already being complemented or replaced by simple office organization software, and Walmart and Amazon pose a mortal threat to many classic retail jobs, even before you account for Kiva robots patrolling warehouse floors around the country.
The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade (and the Robots That Will Steal Them) (The Atlantic)
There will be work. But who will do it? Note that most of those jobs are terrible. Construction worker would be my choice; I wouldn't last a day as a nurse, home health aide, or physician's assistant.
    The information age has coincided with – and must, to some extent, have caused – adverse economic trends: stagnation of median real incomes; rising inequality of labour income and of the distribution of income between labour and capital; and growing long-term unemployment.

    Among the explanations are: fast-rising productivity in manufacturing; skills-biased technical change; the rise of global winners-take-all markets; and the role of rental income, particularly from intellectual property. Think of the difference between the cost of developing Google’s search algorithm and its value. Globalisation and financial liberalisation are also at work, both also boosted by new technologies.

    Above all, insists the book, this is just the beginning. Much routine brain-work will be computerised, as happened to clerical skills. Middle-income jobs could hollow out far further. The outcome could be still more polarised incomes, with a tiny group of winners at the top and a vastly larger group struggling below. In 2012, for example, the top 1 per cent of Americans earned 22 per cent of all incomes, more than double their share in the 1980s.

    There are good reasons why people should be disturbed by this. First, the lives of those at the bottom might get worse: the authors note that the life expectancy of an American white woman without a high school diploma fell five years between 1990 and 2008. Second, if income becomes too unequal, opportunities for young people dwindle. Third, the wealthy become indifferent to the fate of the rest. Finally, a vast inequality of power emerges, making a mockery of the ideal of democratic citizenship.
Martin Wolf Sounds Cautionary Note on Rise of Robots (Naked Capitalism)

What Jobs Will Robots Take? (Naked Capitalism)

Will the 2nd Great Machine Age be a frightening jobless dystopia? (Telegraph) For a rather weak tea optimistic counter, see Will robots steal our jobs? The humble loom suggests not. (Washington Post) If you need to go back to a time when the steam engine was a novelty to make your case, I don't think you have much of one.