Monday, November 24, 2014

Architects Behaving Badly

It's been a while since I wrote about architecture, so here's a bit of catching up.

Starchitect Frank Gehry made headlines recently by behaving badly. In a photo that I predict will become as iconic as Einstein sticking out his tongue, the great architect expressed his opinion in physical form:

Frank Gehry responds to the critics.
If I ever publish my long-delayed critical look at Modernism, or if anyone else does so in the meantime, please use this image as the cover photo.

He then appears to do Sturgeon's Law one better:
"Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98 per cent of everything that is built and designed today is pure sh*t. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it. Once in a while, however, there’s a small group of people who does something special. Very few. But good god, leave us alone!"
Leave us alone, Godammit! People forget that at base, even the great genius starchitect is just a cranky, old Jewish guy with jet lag. Oy!

"The Flower." Break out the sealant!
The indispensible Lloyd Alter has some thoughts:
Now I don't think Frank is far off the mark with the 98%. The problem is, much of his own work fits right in there, particularly his residential buildings. 
In a world where architects are trying to figure out how to build resilient buildings, how to address climate change, trying to think about the 2030 challenge, Frank Gehry is designing buildings that couldn't be built before there were computers and the tools that connect to them, what's known as parametric design. 
Parametric design is a wonderful thing, and can be great for green building. Allison Arieff wrote in the MIT Technology Review: 
"If it seems there's some immensely complicated system being used to engineer these gravity-­defying arcs, ramps, and curves, that's because there is. But that technology, known as parametric modeling, can do much more than facilitate the fantastic creations of Gehry, Hadid, and their ilk. Increasingly, parametric design is being used not just to make buildings more visually compelling but to precisely tune nearly every aspect of their performance, from acoustics to energy efficiency. It's not as sexy an application, but it will become far more valuable to architecture and the way we live and work." 
Architects like Perkins + Will use parametric tools to model thermal performance, daylighting, and more; Allison continues: 
"They could simulate the thermal performance of different wall, roof, and window assemblies—and evaluate the performance against the cost. They could study how different types of glass would perform—not just in general but on the northeast wall at the building's exact location, under conditions suggested by long-term weather data."  
Frank Gehry uses parametric tools to design impossible facades where the cladding is folding and twisting, dramatically increasing the surface area of the building. Making every part of the building as individual as a snowflake. Making it just about impossible to wash the windows. That often leak. That are so expensive that not even the One Percent can afford it, this is for the 1/100th of One Percent. That, to my mind, shows no respect for humanity or for anything else. 
Passive house consultant Bronwyn Barry has a term that I like: BBB, or Boxy But Beautiful. Because every jog, every bend and every joint is a source of air leakage or thermal bridging. That's why passive houses tend to be boxy. 
Some of Frank Gehry's buildings are among the most beautiful on earth, but others, like many by Zaha Hadid or Bjarke Ingels, are technical and thermal nightmares that will turn into money pits for their owners as they try to keep the rain out and the heat in. So lets not talk about respect for humanity, Frank Gehry, and lets not complain about other architects building sh*t.
Frank Gehry gives the finger to 98% of architects. Why he should look in the mirror. (Treehugger)

Lloyd beat me to a post I've been meaning to write - Square Is Beautiful (the reference is of course to to E.F. Schumacher). The point I wanted to make is that, same as the passive house above, that the ideal shape for building in climates like where I live (the Upper Midwest) is a cube, since it holds the maximum interior volume for the minimum surface area (technically a sphere does, but spherical buildings tend to have problems of rolling away). Also, restricting the amount of projections and ins-and-outs keeps the insulation and exterior surfaces as continuous as possible. Finally, instead of all glass walls (which have the R-value of plywood even with insulated glazing), it's best to have just enough windows to let in the light and let users control airflow in the summer months without mechanical means.

And when I take a look around at the buildings built before we had mechanical systems to take care of everything and before the need for endless novelty, what do I find? Lo and behold:

Note that areas like this (in this case Milwaukee's Third Ward) are usually the most desirable places in any city with the highest property values and rents. Who needs Modernism?

When you look at the Gehry design Lloyd features in the article, you can't help but recall James Howard Kunstler's comment that modern-day architects, "strive to confound people in order to appear supernaturally the service of grandiosity and narcissism." If that doesn't describe Gehry to a tee, I don't know what does. Sadly, most architects today have followed suit to make a name for themselves, each trying to outdo the other with crazy shapes and contorted structures. And the elite architecture schools teach students to design this way (while paying lip service to 'green' design, of course).

And I also ran across this fascinating article: The Brain on Architecture (The Atlantic). There seems to be a whole host of investigation using techniques of science and mathematics to understand the effects of the built environment on the human brain and put it on a more objective basis than just the ad-hoc whims of "genius" architects. The article starts out with the usual pillorying of Brutalism:
At a particular moment during every tour of Georgetown’s campus, it becomes necessary for the student guide to acknowledge the singular blight in an otherwise idyllic environment. 

“Lauinger Library was designed to be a modern abstraction of Healy Hall”: a sentence that inevitably trails off with an apologetic shrug, inviting the crowd to arrive at their own conclusions about how well it turned out. Much of the student population would likely agree that the library’s menacing figure on the quad is nothing short of soul-crushing. New research conducted by a team of architects and neuroscientists suggests that architecture may indeed affect mental states, although they choose to focus on the positive.
Lauinger Library is a Brutalist building:

The attempt to match Healy Hall didn't work out too well
But it seems there is actual science behind the types of buildings that make us feel calm and spiritual, like a Gothic Cathedral or country cottage, and buildings that fill us with sense of dread, like concrete bunkers, gridded towers, and dark all-glass Darth Vader helmets:
I spoke with Dr. Julio Bermudez, the lead of a new study that uses fMRI to capture the effects of architecture on the brain. His team operates with the goal of using the scientific method to transform something opaque—the qualitative “phenomenologies of our built environment”—into neuroscientific observations that architects and city planners can deliberately design for. Bermudez and his team’s research question focuses on buildings and sites designed to elicit contemplation: They theorize that the presence of “contemplative architecture” in one’s environment may over time produce the same health benefits as traditional “internally-induced” meditation, except with much less effort by the individual.

Contemplative architecture contains a series of design elements that have historically been employed in religious settings: Bermudez noted that it is “logical to expect societies not only to notice [the link between built beauty and experience] over time, but to exploit it as much as possible in their places for holy purposes.” These elements may be used in any place intended for contemplation or discovery, whether of a spiritual, personal, or even scientific nature.
It's not all bad news for Brutalism; the Salk Institute is listed as a contemplative building, meaning that even concrete can be humane if used properly, as in this case by Louis Kahn:

"Spiritual" Brutalism?
Bermudez and his team expected that architecturally-induced contemplative states would be strong, non-evaluative aesthetic experiences— eliciting more activity in areas associated with emotion and pleasure, but less activity in the orbital frontal cortex.

The presence of an external stimulus (the photos of the buildings) also removes the tedious self-regulation that occurs in the prefrontal cortex during traditional meditation. The interviews of the 12 subjects revealed that “peacefulness and relaxation, lessening of mind wandering, increasing of attention, and deepening of experience” were all common effects of viewing the photos—also common was a slight element of aesthetic judgment, seemingly inescapable in the crowd of critics.

The provisional conclusions of the study are that the brain behaves differently when exposed to contemplative and non-contemplative buildings, contemplative states elicited through “architectural aesthetics” are similar to the contemplation of traditional meditation in some ways, and different in other ways, and, finally, that “architectural design matters.”

That last conclusion sounds anticlimactic after all this talk of lobes and cortices, but it reinforces a growing trend in architecture and design as researchers are beginning to study how the built environment affects the people who live in it. ANFA proclaims that “some observers have characterized what is happening in neuroscience as the most exciting frontier of human discovery since the Renaissance.”

Other findings discussed at ANFA’s conference get even more into the gritty details: the optimal ceiling heights for different cognitive functions; the best city design for eliciting our natural exploratory tendencies and making way-finding easier; the ideal hospital layout to improve memory-related tasks in patients recovering from certain brain injuries; the influence of different types and quantities of light within a built space on mood and performance.
This is a fascinating avenue of explanation, and may give us a better idea of why people flock to places like Paris and San Fransisco, and mass shootings tend to take place in American suburbia. I wonder if the architecture profession will pay attention. It would fascinating to see this combined with Christopher Alexander's a pattern language to show the effect of his theories on the human brain and societal well-being. I can't help but wonder which part of the brain lights up in response to Gehry's creations above - the threat region perhaps? After all, the early deconstructionists were intentionally trying to signify the disjointed and fragmentary nature of society with their work (or so they said - it was probably just a justification).

It also ties in nicely with the work of Nikos Salingaros, whose work attempts to use mathematics to explain how our brains process the built environment and why Modernism, with it's rigid geometrical fundamentalism, boxiness, sleek surfaces free of decoration, and endlessly novel forms at odds with their surroundings are inherently disturbing to human perception and social cohesion:
Up to about 1900, architects were understood to be practicing an adaptive craft, in which a building was an inseparable part of a dynamic streetscape and a neighborhood. “Blending in” respects the extant complex connective geometry, where components contribute to overall coherence. A building was assumed to meet the physiological and social needs of the people of that neighborhood first and foremost, and only then it would express its artistic qualities.

With the coming of the industrial revolution, and its emphasis on interchangeable parts, the traditional conception of architecture that was adaptive to context began to change. A building became an interchangeable industrial design product, conveying an image, and it mattered a great deal how attention-getting that image was. The building itself became a kind of advertisement for the client company and for the architect (and in the case of residences, for the homeowner seeking a status symbol). The context was at best a side issue, and at worst a distraction, from the visual excitement generated by the object.

Peter Behrens, the father of corporate branding, was given the challenge of developing the first architectural “branding” for the buildings of the German Electrical Equipment Firm AEG. He did so by using elementary industrial geometries, formed into a romantic and iconic expressive shape. The building itself was now a kind of billboard for the company—an attention-getting new product design in its own right. It was not a coincidence that three of his young colleagues went on to profoundly shape architecture in the 20th Century: Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius

Their buildings all certainly celebrated the individuated form, as objects standing dramatically apart from context. To heighten this drama, those architects masterfully employed the then-alien new language of early industrial technology (cubes, planes, cylinders, repeated rectangles, etc). As we have written elsewhere, this was a kind of “geometrical fundamentalism”, combining these elementary forms to create dramatic, attention-getting objects, fundamentally different from the model for architecture up to that time (Salingaros, 2006). Coherence was abandoned.
Michael Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros: The Architect Has No Clothes (Guernica Magazine)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Time and the Technological World

Check out this fascinating summary of  How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. This particular summary looks at the part of the book that documents how our perception of time has changed, and how that has affected the modern world.

The book talks about something called the "Hummingbird Effect," which describes the way in which various inventions and technical discoveries change the world in unexpected ways. Some of you may recall James' Burke's excellent TV show Connections on BBC/PBS (These used to be available on YouTube, but JamesBurkeWeb appears to have disappeared. Still, some episodes can still be found) which covered the same ground:
Johnson points out that, much like the evolution of bees gave flowers their colors and the evolution of pollen altered the design of the hummingbird’s wings, the most remarkable thing about innovations is the way they precipitate unanticipated changes that reverberate far and wide beyond the field or discipline or problem at the epicenter of the particular innovation. Pointing to the Gutenberg press — itself already an example of the combinatorial nature of creative breakthroughs — Johnson writes:

    "Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press created a surge in demand for spectacles, as the new practice of reading made Europeans across the continent suddenly realize that they were farsighted; the market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to the invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells. You wouldn’t think that printing technology would have anything to do with the expansion of our vision down to the cellular scale, just as you wouldn’t have thought that the evolution of pollen would alter the design of a hummingbird’s wing. But that is the way change happens."
It starts with Galileo's observation that a pendulum always swings to-and-fro in a regular amount of time.
"But machines that could keep a reliable beat didn’t exist in Galileo’s age; the metronome wouldn’t be invented for another few centuries. So watching the altar lamp sway back and forth with such regularity planted the seed of an idea in Galileo’s young mind. As is so often the case, however, it would take decades before the seed would blossom into something useful."
The ability to accurately measure time was a departure from before when:
    "Instead of fifteen minutes, time was described as how long it would take to milk the cow or nail soles to a new pair of shoes. Instead of being paid by the hour, craftsmen were conventionally paid by the piece produced — what was commonly called “taken-work” — and their daily schedules were almost comically unregulated."
Once the regimentation of the clock was introduced, many things followed from that due to the Hummingbird Effect:
Over the century that followed, the pendulum clock, a hundred times more accurate than any preceding technology, became a staple of European life and forever changed our relationship with time. But the hummingbird’s wings continued to flap — accurate timekeeping became the imperceptible heartbeat beneath all technology of the Industrial Revolution, from scheduling the division of labor in factories to keeping steam-powered locomotives running on time. It was the invisible hand of the clock that first moved the market — a move toward unanticipated innovations in other fields. Without clocks, Johnson argues, the Industrial Revolution may have never taken off — or “at the very least, have taken much longer to reach escape velocity.” He explains:

    "Accurate clocks, thanks to their unrivaled ability to determine longitude at sea, greatly reduced the risks of global shipping networks, which gave the first industrialists a constant supply of raw materials and access to overseas markets. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the most reliable watches in the world were manufactured in England, which created a pool of expertise with fine-tool manufacture that would prove to be incredibly handy when the demands of industrial innovation arrived, just as the glassmaking expertise producing spectacles opened the door for telescopes and microscopes. The watchmakers were the advance guard of what would become industrial engineering."
Not mentioned is the introduction of public schools, designed to take farmers used to "cow milking time" and "discipline" them into a workforce able to sit still and obey and punch a clock, a system we are still living with today. Those of us who cannot or will not conform to this ruthless discipline are severely punished:
And yet, as with most innovations, the industrialization of time came with a dark side — one Bertrand Russell so eloquently lamented in the 1920s when he asked: “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” Johnson writes:

    "The natural rhythms of tasks and leisure had to be forcibly replaced with an abstract grid. When you spend your whole life inside that grid, it seems like second nature, but when you are experiencing it for the first time, as the laborers of industrial England did in the second half of the eighteenth century, it arrives as a shock to the system. Timepieces were not just tools to help you coordinate the day’s events, but something more ominous: the “deadly statistical clock,” in Dickens’s Hard Times, “which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin lid.”


    "To be a Romantic at the turn of the nineteenth century was in part to break from the growing tyranny of clock time: to sleep late, ramble aimlessly through the city, refuse to live by the “statistical clocks” that governed economic life… The time discipline of the pendulum clock took the informal flow of experience and nailed it to a mathematical grid. If time is a river, the pendulum clock turned it into a canal of evenly spaced locks, engineered for the rhythms of industry."
And as clocks became ever more precise and ubiquitous, things flowed from that - more regimentation, more standardization (village clocks used to be set by the sun's position, but this introduced inaccuracies in railroad timetables - thus two inventions, one steam-powered and one not, are bound up together), and entirely new scientific discoveries which led to new inventions such as the computers that now rule over our lives:
Johnson goes on to trace the hummingbird flutterings to the emergence of pocket watches, the democratization of time through the implementation of Standard Time, and the invention of the first quartz clock in 1928, which boasted the unprecedented accuracy of losing or gaining only one thousandth of a second per day...But the most groundbreaking effect of the quartz clock — the most unpredictable manifestation of the hummingbird effect in the story of time — was that it gave rise to modern computing and the Information Age. Johnson writes:

    "Computer chips are masters of time discipline… Instead of thousands of operations per minute, the microprocessor is executing billions of calculations per second, while shuffling information in and out of other microchips on the circuit board. Those operations are all coordinated by a master clock, now almost without exception made of quartz… A modern computer is the assemblage of many different technologies and modes of knowledge: the symbolic logic of programming languages, the electrical engineering of the circuit board, the visual language of interface design. But without the microsecond accuracy of a quartz clock, modern computers would be useless."
And once the computer is invented - note that it becomes the new mega-metaphor taking over from the steam engine - the brain as "neural network" that can be simulated, the economy as a perfect "information processing machine" via the price mechanism and humans as "rational utility maximizers"of Neoliberal economics, and recasting the analog world as binary one of ones and zeros - art, music, literature, etc. that can be simulated through sufficiently complex algorithms. All this flows from our view of the world, which in turn is dictated by our technology.

The Hummingbird Effect: How Galileo Invented Time and Gave Rise to the Modern Tyranny of the Clock (Brain Pickings)

More at the link. It's worth noting that this entire thesis was laid out by Lewis Mumford as far back in the 1930's in Technics and Society, and this book looks like it covers much the same ground.

Mumford's these is that the Industrial Revolution did not spring forth fully-formed from nowhere, but came forth from changes in the human perception of the world and man's relationship to nature that had been occurring for centuries beforehand. He called this the Eotechnic period, and points out that it needs to be understood to see how the modern world emerged. He classified the subsequent periods as Paleotechnic (centered around the stream engine, iron and coal), and the Neotechnic (centered around electricity and the scientific method). He stressed how much our perception of the natural world and human nature dictate the nature of our science and social organization.

Several intellectual revolutions had to take place in order to get us to the Industrial Revolution. One, as noted above and emphasized by Mumford, was the accurate measurement of time. Another was the increasing control over motive forces exemplified by the windmill and watermill. Another was individual perception, as indicated by the use of perspective in painting. Another was the increasing standardization, political centralization and bureaucracy. Another was the discovery of the New World of which the ancients had no knowledge or precedent. Another was the increasing use of the abstraction of money for trade. But perhaps the biggest one of all was recasting the natural world as a machine that could be analyzed and understood. These changes were all formative to the Industrial Revolution, which could not have come about without them.

Mumford writes extensively about the Medieval period, and how that period increasingly used technology to control the environment but in a genuinely humane way, one designed to enhance human needs and desires rather than control or eliminate them. Think of the medieval clock-making guild as opposed to the deskilled factory worker for example. The decentralized and localized nature of the Medieval period is what allowed technology to be used in this way.

But, beginning in the seventeenth century with the rise of the nation-state and the consolation of Europe's kingdoms into large, centralized states with standards and bureaucracy (much of it due to the emergence of gunpowder and artillery, against which castles and mounted knights were useless), all that began to to change. Technology became increasingly tyrannical, and man was more and more forced into the "logic of the machine." Consider the armies that emerged identical uniforms, identical weapons with interchangeable parts and drilled, regimented training designed to turn men into interchangeable parts themselves. Military training was the precursor to the disciplined workforce of the Industrial Revolution, which is why the connection between business and military discipline remains to this day (corporations today are run on the top-down hierarchical military model). Since battles were won by sheer numbers of "citizens" with rifles rather than an aristocratic warrior class who owned horses, the social relations changed, and the common man emerged with more importance. Population growth equaled national strength in the new order. Man's rationality became celebrated, all other values were discounted. Productivity and technological "progress" became goals in the themselves rather than means to an end. Pursuit of growth and profit became all-consuming, human needs be damned.

In contrast to the Medieval period, today's technology is dehumanizing, submitting man to centralized control, and seeing him as nothing more than a machine. Mumford envisioned a society where human values could once again take center stage instead of the productivist logic of "the myth of the machine" Thus Mumford was not anti-technology; rather he wanted a world in which technology served profoundly different values than in our present time. The brutal regulation of time, rather than the human time of being in the world - the difference between chronos and kairos, or the subjective and the objective - is one of the best illustrations of this difference. Just because we can measure time down to the nanosecond does not mean we have to be enslaved to it. That is a social choice, as Mumford would quickly remind us.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Status Update

Sunday Morning I woke up and was unable to properly close my right eye.

I thought I had just slept funny, but I noticed I couldn't move my lips properly either. It didn't get better. Monday morning it was obvious that the right side of my face was not working properly.

I was able to visit the doctor Monday afternoon. Thankfully, it's not a stroke (always a risk for someone with hypertension). It is a fairly common condition called Bell's Palsy. Apparently 1 in 70 people get it at some point in their lives, and it effects people between the ages of 10 and 40 (I'm 41).

This is not a pleasant experience. The prognosis is good, but it will take time to get back to normal. I'm off from work this week.

It's been difficult to care about much else lately. Add to that the bitter, bitter, brutal cold we're experiencing here, already as cold as the depths of January here in mid-November. Last year I said another winter like last one would literally kill me. Already this winter is shaping up to be far, far, worse. Much of the East Coast is buried in snow, and it looks like our personal fallout from Climate Change will be a much, much, much colder and harsher climate. We've been 15-35 degrees below normal temps for the past 2 and a half years at least. It barely got above 70 all summer for the past few summers, and was mostly in the 60's. Winters will now go months without seeing 0 much less freezing (Fahrenheit). The Upper Midwest will probably be the coldest place south of the Arctic Circle now.

My Internet service is not working properly for reasons I cannot discern. My 7200 baud modem back in 1998 worked faster than the lousy Time Warner cable connection, and I assure you I am not exaggerating - it can take 5-10 minutes to download a single web page, if it downloads at all, that is. I cannot watch any video, and can access email half the time (I'm at a local cafe now).

Which wouldn't be so bad, if I didn't have to pay $150.00 a month for internet service (it was 19.99 when I started). Time Warner is, of course, a monopoly (and no, it's thanks to government deregulation, not regulation). I have a hard time justifying paying that cost for such a poor product, and am seriously thinking about cutting the cord. It's just not worth it. Thanks again, to America's extractive monopolies, crushing the economy to make fortunes for a few oligarchs, they've killed yet another online enterprise (one that didn't make any money, but still...)

I can't do that now, because my phone doesn't work either. I transferred my number to my new phone provider (Ting) but I can't make any calls. Without phone or internet, it's hard to correct these issues. When and if I get my phone service back, I'll probably do it, as I need to save every penny right now.

That will make blogging harder, of course. It won't be impossible, though, I'll just need to read and write stuff off-line and upload it at work or at the cafes like where I am now. That might be a good thing - maybe it's time for longer, reflective pieces.

I read a book by the Minamalists recently, and it made an effect on me. It was called Everything That Remains. I wish I could write a review, but circumstances intervene. Perhaps soon. You can find their site here:

I'm pretty jealous. I wish I could could quit my job (which pays substantially less than six figures), and they managed to have writing/blogging careers immediately after quitting theirs. I've been writing here for years with nothing to show for it, money-wise at least.

So, I've been getting rid of my stuff. It's an ongoing process, not that I had that much to begin with. Really, I've been a minimalist my whole life, but I'm just taking it up to the next level.

I've been using the time to read a lot. I've been studying to take the LEED exam (BD +C). Some of you may note the irony - I am a pretty bitter critic of LEED, but even I am not exempt from credentialism, and I need all the help I can get. It's hard to read the boring manual when I've got so many other reading/writing projects ongoing. Currently I'm also reading Mumford's The City in History, The Great Mortality, an excellent readable history of the Black Death, Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance, How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand (highly recommended - I need to write a review) and Poor People by William Vollman. By coincidence, I ran across this - Morris Berman on my literary hero Mumford:

Honestly, getting out of here is the only thing that keeps my going. I'm not very  happy right now, and I want the use of my face back.

So, this is to say, posting my be erratic for the foreseeable future. Thanks for your understanding.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Curb Your Enthusiasm

I know should really leave aside the topic of self-driving cars for now, but I just want to make a final point about the expectations of technology.

Much of the problem with current writing about technology is inflated expectations about what technology can accomplish. I was reminded of that by reading this bizarre article from ForbesThe Massive Economic Benefits Of Self-Driving Cars. Note that they are already busy treating the benefits of this as yet unproven and experimental technology as if it were a fait accompli and money in the bank.

Why I consider this article bizarre is that its central arguments – 1.) the large toll on our economy taken by traffic accidents, and 2.) the amount of productive time wasted in traffic, are both the most commonly cited against driving cars in the first place! But now they are employed in defense of driving. WTF?

If you’re concerned about these, clearly you would favor public transportation – high speed rail for example, that would solve both of these. Where are the editorials in Forbes for high-speed rails, subways, metros, trams, etc.?  These arguments are waved away when proponents of public transportation bring them up, and then conveniently trotted out and deployed when supporting self-driving cars.

It’s shifting rationalizations in action! Too bad most readers of Forbes are only concerned with justifying their ideology rather than intelligent discussion. That’s all too common in media nowadays, probably a major reason we can’t solve any of our worsening-by-the-day problems – we just read to confirm our biases. Forbes, of course, being a propaganda organ of and for the rich and powerful, is totally committed to the Neoliberal economics doctrine. Thus, if a private company makes money it’s good, but if there is not private profit, even if there is tremendous utility to the public at large, then it’s bad.

One thing not discussed at all in this defense is the waste of having thousands upon thousands of single user-cars to carry a single passenger (as most of them do) as opposed to trains, streetcars, trams, buses, etc.). This argument is conveniently omitted. If this writer is so concerned about saving billions, what about billions of gallons in gas that Americans have to pay for, not to mention the cost of wars all over the Middle East? The silence is deafening. Don’t those cost money too? And what about all the pollution caused by cars leading to higher health-care expenditures (e.g. asthma rates).

In my state, the governor actually cost the state money by cancelling a light rail project, the same type of rail that’s existed for decades in most other industrialized nations of the world (and which China built in a decade) Where were the arguments about wasted time and saving lives then? Where were the denunciations of his actions in the pages of Forbes? I must have missed them.

The previous article by this writer dismisses the problems raised by the Slate article I cited – Why Self-Driving Cars may never happen. I’m not convinced by his dismissals. To me, it seems a classic overoptimism bias – explain away the flaws in the technology by assuming very unlikely things will happen. In the interests of fairness, let’s summarize his arguments:
“This [the article’s arguments that the cars need to have every road in America mapped  to work] assumes that the information will continue to be pulled by the car companies rather than being pushed by the government. If this technology can demonstrate that it works and saves lives, you can imagine detailed up-to-date mapping of the roads being a task the government takes.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, there! A task the government takes? Really? The same government that for the last forty years we have been told is nothing but an anchor weighing down the “efficient” private sector. The same government that steals money from the rich and gives it to the shiftless, lazy poor working three minimum wage jobs? The same government that is forever too bloated and inefficient? The same government that does nothing but impose unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles and burdensome taxes on the job creators? The same government that the Republicans perennially claim need to be cut and pared back and drowned in a bathtub? The  same government that the Tea Party wants to “make squeal” like a gelded pig?

Um, that government?

So the government that taxes the rich and unearned income at minimal rates (which are perennially being reduced even further) is now going to foot the bill for a private company to have a monopoly on all cars in the United States. Please tell, me, O Libertarians, how that fits into your anti-government ideology. It seems that government has to ride to the rescue an awful lot to make the free market products dreamed up by the John Galts of the world function. Heck, all the billions made by the internet billionaires were only made possible by the government’s own invention of the internet. Our tax dollars subsidize their billions, and in return we get replaced by machines and workers in Bangalore. You’re welcome.
"Again, you don’t put up a traffic signal without government approval, so having the government make a widely available digital record of this before the change hits the real world doesn’t seem so drastic or unimaginable. Gomes argues signs and signals are change far too quickly, and quotes an electronic road sign company that says their portable construction signs are often “simply towed to a site and turned on”. Is it really so difficult to imagine these sign companies being required to upload the GPS coordinates of these signs to a government database before they turn them on?"
Yes, Mr, Ozimek, it really is so difficult to imagine this. Especially since the government can barely maintain the roads we have now, thanks to inadequate gasoline taxes. Everything is being crappified and crumbling around us left and right, as people who are not professional shills for the rich are noticing. The government can’t even keep track of health care records (but can spy on us all apparently). Have you ever worked on a road construction project or for a state government?
"The author also complains that self-driving cars can’t operate in the snow. This is a humorously ironic complaint since the inability to drive in the snow was one of the reasons why automobile skeptics claimed that they would never replace horses...When you consider the scale of the change that society needed to make the move from horses to automobiles it really makes the changes self-driving cars require seem quite minor in comparison."
None of this dismisses the actual argument - can self-driving cars work in ice and snow or not? the fact that this was an argument against cars in 1900 is a red herring.

Note also the massive infrastructure to make cars work was paid for in an age of cheap oil and economic expansion. The growth rate in America was probably 10+ percent a year. Now we're lucky if we get 2. And how expensive was gas in 1900?

It should also be noted that cars and driving only became ubiquitous after world War 2 when we redesigned the built environment around the automobile and made it a requirement for everyone to have one just to get around.
"Automobiles weren’t the only technology that required big changes in infrastructure to really replace existing technologies. Compare the work that needed to be done for electricity and telephones to replace the oil lights and telegrams. In comparison self-driving cars mostly need roads, signs, and other cars to simply communicate with them better. Not that big of an ask when you consider the tens of thousands of lives that will saved."
Those investments also increased the productivity in the economy, something redoing all the roadways in America for self-driving cars will not. Again, his arguments for self-driving cars make a better case for building a high-speed rail network in America, which could be done much cheaper than replacing or upgrading all of our highway infrastructure. Why isn't the author for that? They could also be accomplished by redesigning our built environment to not need a car to get everywhere. How about that? Won’t that save even more lives for even less money? Hmm?
"All these mapping concerns make a huge assumption about the world, which is that roads and signals will remain designed to be seen by humans. Instead, roadways and signage could be required to emit some kind of signal that self-driving cars can easily detect, some kind of digital lighthouse… Or something like that. I’m not an engineer, so I won’t get bogged down in the details of this..."
Yeah, forget those pesky details, they just bog you down! Go get an EE or CS degree and we shall chat (sorry, couldn't resist). Who is going to pay for these hypothetical lights? Google? And what about those of us without the cars? Why are we going to pay taxes to subsidize people who do buy them? Do we get a free car?

Will the billions of dollars saved by the economy offset the billions of dollars that will need to be spent to make the technology work? Mr. Ozimek may not be an engineer, but it seems like he’s not much of an economist either. But then again, in America you apparently don’t need to be good at anything to get a job telling the rich what they want to hear. In Wisconsin, you don’t even need a college degree.


Self-driving cars and 3-D printing (and biotechnology and new battery technology and…) to me are prime examples of our overinflated expectations of technology, and therein lies the problem. Yes, these two things do exist, and they do some neat things. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging and appreciating that fact. But notice how we go from that to saving billions in the economy and creating a “third industrial revolution” Why are we so easily given to hyperbole over these inventions? I think it’s because we need them to “save” us, that’ why. Or rather, we need to encourage the perception that they will save us.

The reality is, self-driving cars seems to have limited applications. For most applications it would make more sense to build some sort of public transportation. For applications where public transportation is unfeasible, and where there is the appropriate infrastructure, these may be good options. But that’s a long way from saving the economy billions of dollars (and what about the lost jobs?).

Personally, I think the best use of Google’s inventions would be to put sensors in existing cars to cover your blind spots. That way, if there is a collision coming that you can’t see, the car could warn you or shut itself down. The car could partially self-drive in well-mapped areas. I can tell you from driving in LA traffic, I wouldn't have minded that. Useful stuff, but hardly as revolutionary as the steam engine or artificial lighting.

Similarly, 3D printing has lots of useful applications. Medical objects, which are bespoke (since every person’s body is slightly different) is an obvious application. Similarly, in building construction, there are always unique conditions, and there are often objects that are uneconomical to mass produce but are better made a as one-off.

But whenever you hear about these inventions, you hear less about the simple, practical uses of these inventions, and more about how these are harbinger of a new economy, one which will bring back economic growth and prosperity for all! Or about how they will change human society and bring about some sort of magical utopia.

The fact is, these are simply yet another of humanity’s long line of inventions that will allow us to do a few things more efficiently and be useful to a limited set of goals. But that sort of realism won’t inflate stock market bubbles and won’t mollify the masses who are seeing their wages shrink and jobs disappear with every passing year. So we get the hype instead.

So I guess my message might less “this technology won’t work,” and more “curb your enthusiasm.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Fun Facts

Some of these I've used before, some are new:

• The average price of a slave has decreased during the past 200 years. In 1809, the average price of a slave was $40,000 when adjusted to today’s money. In 2009, the average price of a slave was $90.

• Every 5 Minutes a Child is Killed by Violence

• Up to a third of the population will suffer from an anxiety disorder or panic attacks at some point in their life.

• More Americans have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died from Ebola.

• One in five Americans is taking psychiatric drugs

• America employs more private security guards than high-school teachers.

• America's Mentally Ill Prisoners Outnumber Hospital Patients, Tenfold

• US soldiers are more likely to kill themselves than be killed in combat

• We are now in the longest continuous period of war in American history.

• In the United States today there are more prisoners than farmers.

• Each Year Since the Recession, America's Richest 1% Have Made More Than the Cost of All U.S. Social Programs

• Just 47 Wealthy Americans Own More Than Half of the U.S. Population

• The Upper Middle Class of America Owns a Smaller Percentage of Wealth Than the Corresponding Groups in All Major Nations Except Russia and Indonesia.

• The world’s urban population is growing very rapidly, especially in the developing world. [I]n India alone such an expansion [of urban populations] will require the building of, in essence, a new Chicago every year for the next several decades.

• [T]he extinction of species, [is] now estimated to be at about the same rate as it was 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the Earth.

• The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.

• Somebody dies by taking their own life every 40 seconds

Monday, November 10, 2014

From the Comments

Normally, I don’t take an actual post to respond to comments, but this one for this article is just so vituperous and over-the-top, that I thought I would point it out. It might be instructive on several levels to single it out for dissection and response because it so perfectly illustrates many of the attitudes present in contemporary society.

The commenter is full of hate, spittle, bile and anger. Now as I always say, I don’t mind if you disagree with my positions, as long as 1.) You are actually responding to the arguments I have made, not some imaginary argument in your head, 2.) You have actually taken the time to read what I said, and 3.) You are respectful, and not mean, aggressive, belittling and spiteful, and do not resort to ad hominem attacks.

This commenter managed to violate all three. Let’s look in detail.

The commenter begins by being confrontational and insulting:

“You dont have any clue what you are talking about. None whatsoever.”

And follows up with:

“A. solar panel roadways already exist, water pipes are run under roads and they are used to heat up water.”

Which, although it might be true, has no relevance to what I was discussing. I was discussing a very specific proposal for solar roadways.

“B. No one is saying redoing all the roads that way. That is what is called a strawman argument.”

Fair enough, although those objections were raised by every critical piece I linked to. The inventors seemed to imply that this is their intent, although they don’t state it explicitly.

"C. The electrical grid is old, it is old because it fucking works. A transformer properly designed can have a +100 year lifespan. almost no moving parts, few chemical reactions, low physical stresses, simple design with few parts to fail. Of course you didnt know this because in liberal arts school they didnt teach it."

Yes, some parts may work, but I’ve read any number of articles about how aging electric infrastructure is a very real concern, and is a root cause of an increasing number of blackouts. I’ve also read that maintenance is needed, but not being done to the extent that it could be.  See this article:
Our grid is old. The average substation transformer is 42 years old—two years older than the designed lifespan of a substation transformer. For the most part, our grid hasn’t been modernized—it’s largely mechanical equipment operating a digital world, Clark Gellings said. Perhaps most importantly, the grid isn’t being prepared for the future. 
”From 1995-2000, the electricity sector put less than ⅓ of 1% of net sales into research and development,” Massoud Amin said. “In the following six years, that number dropped to less than 2/10 of 1%. We are harvesting the existing infrastructure more and investing less and less in the future.” 
Phasor networks are a success story in the making. So are new national rules Gellings told me about, which put a much higher penalty on utility companies that don’t keep their trees trimmed. One untrimmed tree can cost $1 million in fines. All of this will help prevent blackouts of the size we had in 2003. But it doesn’t help deal with what’s coming 20-30 years down the road.
Shouldn’t this be a priority rather than rolling out new, unproven and expensive ones? We have limited resources, we must direct them to the most efficient ends. Of course, you didn’t know this because engineering programs apparently don’t teach economics.

And for the record, I do not have a liberal arts degree. And although I am not an electrical engineer, I do need to have a basic understanding of how electricity works as part of my job.

"D. Electrical lines hung above ground suffer from less loses then those underground. Putting wires underground is due to space concerns and because the cost of maintaining them exceeds the expected cost of power losses. In most new communities they are buried underground."

Fair enough, although I had heard that lines are commonly buried in places like Europe. There are both pros and cons to this approach, as this article points out:
After a 2002 storm that knocked out electricity to 2 million customers in North Carolina, regulators there took a look at what it would cost to bury the three major power companies' overhead lines. The state Utilities Commission concluded the project would be "prohibitively expensive."

"Such an undertaking would cost approximately $41 billion, nearly six times the net book value of the utilities' current distribution assets, and would require approximately 25 years to complete," the report states. Customers' rates would have to more than double to pay for the project, the commission' staff found.
If it was “prohibitively expensive” to do this, would it not be “prohibitively expensive” to replace existing roads with solar roadways? Who would pay those costs, especially since gasoline taxes are already inadequate for road maintenance costs right now, and politicians refuse to raise them to maintain popularity? Just sayin’

"E. putting panels on people's roofs means multiple owners vs a road which involves one owner. It also means economies of scale."

Yes, multiple owners is a concern, but this can be dealt with. Various subsidies and incentives have increased the use of the ready-to-go solar panels we have right now, and the price of solar keeps falling. What about the power of the much-vaunted “private sector?” Nothing in the reply responds to the very real comments made not by me, but by others, about the durability of the surface, snow and ice buildup, slipperiness, and position of the panels relative to where they would be most effective. These are all practical concerns which are an essential part of good engineering. Just as it might make more sense to hang electrical wires for maintenance, it might not make sense to put solar panels underground for exactly the same reasons. All of these concerns were raised by the articles I linked to.

More to the point, electrical lines run along very large open rights-of-way that are owned by a single owner. These often run parallel to state and interstate highways (I drive next to one that runs for miles quite often) These vast tracts of land where electrical wires run are wide open and could be installed full of panels tilted at the appropriate angle. Remember, solar panels are not benign – they are made of substances that are toxic to mine. Thus, from an environmental standpoint it makes sense to use them were they will be maximally efficient. But then again, I’m not an engineer…

“F. I am not going to even respond at your crap on self-driving cars you are not in any way qualified to talk about. Go out and get a degree in EE or CS and then we shall chat.”

Is this a scholarship offer? I’d happily take you up on it – in fact I was only 6 credits short of a CS minor in college, and have diagrammed chip architectures and worked as a database programmer. But the point to make here is that the criticisms of the self-driving car were not made by me! Have a look at the actual article, they were made by:
  • MIT roboticist John Leonard, and
  • Raj Rajkumar, director of autonomous driving research at Carnegie-Mellon University
Er, let’s see, are they qualified? Perhaps they are worth talking to, hmmm? I bet they don’t have liberal arts degrees (maybe as undergrads). Apparently those of us without STEM degrees are not only a lower form of life, but have no right to participate in discussions about the technologies that affect us all. This is very typical of the arrogance of the technology community – you just shut up and let us do whatever we want. Perhaps rethinking that attitude might lead to better outcomes.

And now here comes the requisite name-calling:

“…people like you are always standing in the way of progress. Your intellectual ancestor was probably busy rambling about how fire doesnt work and eating raw meats huddling for warmth was better. Damn luddites”

Honestly, considering what I write I sometimes wonder why I don’t get more of this. So I’m 'standing in the way of progress' am I? I think this is what anyone who dares question the 'more technology, Gospel of Progress' is expected to get. Notice that all this article does is critique three pieces of experimental technology (solar roadways, self-driving cars and fusion reactors). So raising objections (which were not actually raised by me, but be the authors of the respective pieces, including one in Scientific American) and criticizing the practicality, costs and feasibility of these projects is ‘standing in the way of progress?’ Really? Is any criticism at all standing in the way of progress?

I contend that walkable neighborhoods, bicycling, public transportation and high-speed rail are more intelligent and economical use of resources than self-driving cars (which still need to be powered by gas and electricity) and building yet more roads. I also contend that putting solar panels in rights-of-way and on rooftops is more efficient and cost-effective than putting them under several tons of vehicles. The advantages to these technologies is that they are existing and running right now all over the world, unlike the things discussed in the article. Thus I contend that they are better uses of our limited resources. They are also more efficient. Do you disagree? On what basis, economical, technological or efficiency? But then again, I’m not an engineer, and am apparently unqualified to discuss this without an STEM degree (and even less so if I had a liberal arts degree, apparently).

The condescending tone and over-the-top nature of this comment should tell you something. The failure of technology to bring the promised utopia is starting to make true believers a bit brittle and anyone who raises even the slightest criticism a target of spite.

By the way, there is increasing evidence that the use of fire predates Homo sapiens. But you probably didn’t know that because they don’t teach anthropology in engineering school (sorry, couldn’t resist)

Also, you might want to read up on Luddites. I think you meant to call me a technophobe. Please use the correct term.

“The world isnt falling apart you just cant stand the fact that random brats arent consultant on important decisions so you project your own failures on the world."

"But no worries you will read this and get mad but within an hour you will have forgotten and will resume your posts explaining to the world how you are right about everything and it is the world that is wrong.”

I haven’t forgotten, as this post proves. And I do not claim to be right about everything, and never have. I do claim to be civil, which is more than I can say for this commenter. In fact, I’ll even admit to possibly being a little too critical of solar roadways, as the Dutch are actually installing some solar bike paths in the Netherlands:

So there may be some potential here, otherwise the Dutch wouldn’t be doing it. But, as the article points out, “In bike path form the cells are 30 percent less efficient than they would be placed within a standard solar installation. As a result, when this first test strip is extended to its full 100 meters (328 feet) in 2016, it will provide about enough electricity to power three households.”

Thirty percent less efficient? 100 meters in 2016? Three households??

It’s worth noting that the Dutch are very pressed for space, something the United States is not. The Netherlands is one of the densest and most urbanized countries in the world. It’s also worth noting that the climate is not as harsh as parts of the United States, although other parts of the U.S. have more benign climates. I could see an application for this in, say, Los Angeles or San Francisco, where both prerequisites are there (mild climate and a lack of open space). It also makes sense to use this for new bike paths rather than replacing existing automobile infrastructure. Note also the high taxes, overall excellent state of infrastructure, and widespread deployment of existing green technologies in the Netherlands, none of which are in evidence here in the United States currently.

I don’t get what he (let’s be honest, we know it is a ‘he’) is saying about random brats being consultants (???). Does this make sense to anyone else?

Yes, my life is a failure, guilty as charged. I guess the commenter means to imply that this means that all my criticisms are merely me projecting my failures upon the wider world, and that everything is actually hunky-dory for everyone else.

Perhaps, but I’m willing to bet that a lot of people feel the same way I do about the state of things. Just look at popular culture. Are they all failures too? I’m willing to bet there are more people questioning “progress” who would take issue with your statement that “the world isn’t falling apart.” Take a look around. But I leave that to individual readers to decide.

I’ve written multiple times criticizing the chicken little complex that some people have, but at the same time, to simply accept that everything is fine seems to me to be just as delusional. We have serious problems, and yes things are getting worse. You can disagree with that statement, of course, but by my reckoning, increasing numbers of people would agree with me, not you. They may not express it in the same way, but is clearly in evidence.

I don’t know if trying to inject an alternative view than the mainstream media is a prophet complex. Can’t the same be said about the Cornucopians like Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, who keep insisting that everything is getting better for everyone and will continue to do so in perpetuity despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Certainly things are getting better for them and their class, but less so for the rest of us.

The vituperousness displayed in the comment tells you something. One, the hostility, condescension, and arrogance of the technophile crowd and the extreme hatred of anyone who dares question the prevailing belief system of our times. John Michael Greer frequently writes about how belief in progress and technology is a belief system akin to a religion, and I never really got it until now. It’s as if this person were Christian and I had insulted Christianity. It pushes the same emotional buttons and gives the same hyperemotional response which goes way beyond any reasonable rational objections. You can clearly see it in the tone of the comment. I presume the author of the comment is a “success,” but normally successful people are less full of bile and hatred.

My argument is not so much anti-technology, but the fact that we are using technology as a distraction to prevent us from seriously dealing with our problems. We are thinking that “technology is the solution” rather than well, actually solving our problems, because that might upset the status quo. We are also prevented from considering solutions that are more cost effective and will produce better results in favor of high-tech solutions because technical solutions will add more wealth and power to the already rich and powerful, whereas other, simpler solutions will not contribute to their wealth or power but will make us average people better off.

Technology can solve certain technical problems, but it will not solve our increasing social, economic and environmental problems. Instead we are made passive and foisted off by the “someday” argument about some future (often imaginary) technology instead of responding to pressing problems right now.

It is also designed to keep us from considering the underlying assumptions of our society – productivism, infinite growth, structuring society to cater to the needs of business for profit, debt based money, imagining away waste and environmental destruction, trickle-down distribution, unquestioning trust in the anarchic “free” market to deliver ideal outcomes, and so forth.

That is my argument. But I guess I have no idea what I'm talking about. None whatsoever.

Have a nice day.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Longevity Deception (part 5 of 5)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

5. Why hunter-gatherers actually lived longer

What brought this to mind was this quote from Christopher Ryan on his podcast concerning how the perception of time changes when you're traveling:
"That movement of time is so heightened when you're traveling. And when you're not traveling you can almost ignore it because one day is like the next, like the next, like the next. And then you look back and you say, 'Holy shit, it's been four months since I got here or five months since I got that raise or..?' That doesn't happen when you're traveling."

"When I was traveling I often timed my movements with the moon. So I'd say, okay, for example...I remember I was in Kashmir and I wanted was a full moon. Kashmir is in northern India up in the Himalayas. It was a full moon and I was in this place ... Dal Lake, amazing, Srinigar.

Anyway, I wanted to be in the Taj Mahal at the next full moon. And I did. I timed it, I took the different buses and trains and worked it out so I'd be in the Taj Mahal for the next full moon in Agra."

"And I remember saying, 'Holy shit, it's been one month? Only one month? It feels like years!' Because of all the novelty, all the newness, all the things that have happened, and the people I've met, and so on and so forth."

"So travel stretches time. Novelty stretches time. Because time is a measure of change. That's all it is. Time doesn't exist in a vacuum. If there's nothing there, nothing changing, time stops. There is no time. Because how else do you measure it? You can only measure it by change. So if nothing changes there is no time. And if a lot changes, time slows down to pack it all in. "

"That's the secret of experience in my opinion. That if you have a life full of change, full of novelty, full of interesting things, full of risk; because those things don't come without risk, you live longer. I don't care if you die when you're twenty-seven. You live longer than the person who gets up and goes to work and puts in their seventy years or eighty years and then croaks. You've lived longer. Not only more interesting, not only better, but actually longer, because time stretches for you."
TS1 13:52 - 16:24

If we accept the fact that a person can die earlier and yet live longer, this gives us a whole new perspective. Here’s another rumination on the topic:
I was thinking about, like, how it...journeys seem to take longer when you're not sure where you're going. The journey back always seems so much shorter. When you know where you’re going, then you’re not focused on the uncertainty of it. You’re not wondering where it is; you’re not wondering how much further [sic] it’s going to be. You know how much further it going to be, and so you don’t think about it and it ends up taking much less time. Seemingly. Subjective time.

And then I was applying that to life, and the travel years, and the years now where I'm doing the same thing every day. I've talked about that before - how this idea that when there's a lot of variety and surprise and unexpected elements in your life, that life seems to take longer, it seems to last longer because time really is a measure of change. And so if there's nothing really changing in any tangible way in your life, it sort of seems like time stops in a way. But you're still aging; you're just not feeling it the same, you know.

I mean, I guess it’s like the difference between floating down a calm stretch of river or shooting the white water. You’re much more alive and much more aware of what’s going on in the white water than you are when you're just floating down a lazy river.

I've been reading this book called ‘Antifragile’ by Nassim Taleb. It's interesting; he's a very combatitive guy, obviously. He wrote The Black Swan as well...but he's talking about randomness and how randomness actually makes a more stable, robust, antifragile system. And he and I are thinking along the same lines a lot in terms of the modern world,and how the modern world is set up to protect us from randomness, and yet randomness is what we need in order to feel alive.

So it's as if we've dredged all the rivers to remove the rocks, the obstacles, the white water. And so now the rivers, we've dammed them all quite literally, and so the rivers are all placid and sluggish and slow moving, and as we float down these rivers we're safe, but were also zoned out, 'cause nothing's happening. Were bored. So we take our antidepressants and we get our silly little hobbies or whatever. Kill time. Think about that expression 'to kill time.’ No, time's killing you, man.

Anyway, I thought I'd read a little passage from the book I found interesting. He says:
'If I could predict what my day would exactly look like I would feel a little bit dead. Further, this randomness is necessary for true life. Consider that all the wealth of the world can't buy a liquid more pleasurable than water after an intense thirst. Few objects bring more thrill than a recovered wallet lost on a train.'

‘Further, in an ancestral habitat, we humans were prompted by natural stimuli, fear, hunger, desire, that made us work out and become fit for our environment. Consider how easy it is to find the energy to lift a car if a crying child is under it, or to run for your life if you see a wild animal crossing the street.’
‘Compare this to the heaviness of the obligation to visit the gym at the planned 6pm and be bullied by some personal trainer, unless of course you’re under some sort of imperative to look like a bodyguard. Also consider how easy it is to skip a meal when the randomness in the environment causes us to do so because of lack of food, as compared to the discipline of sticking to some 18 day diet.'
That's the truth. So much of what we're trying to do in the modern world is to replicate the randomness of the ancestral world. And that, my friends, is the thought I will leave you with...
TS2 - (7:20 - 12:22)

It turns out that there is actual science behind this.

By fortunate coincidence, I happened to catch this podcast with Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman (I’ve added info from another podcast as well). The book is about the Flow state, and specifically what its effects are, what the neurobiology behind it is. He does this by studying action-adventure sport athletes, particularly in natural settings (snowboarders, surfers, mountaineers, etc.). He describes flow as:
"Flow is technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness. So this is a state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best. And most people have at least a passing understanding of flow. If you've ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation , [or] you get sucked into a work project where everything else vanishes, then you've tasted the experience."

"In flow attention gets so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Your sense of self, your sense of self-consciousness, they just disappear completely. Time dilates. So sometimes it can slow down like that freeze frame in a car crash, or it can speed up - five hours will pass by in five minutes. And throughout all aspects of performance, metal and physical, go through the roof."
BX 1:55

Kotler describes how the perception of time changes in flow and the science behind it:
"What is happening in the brain during flow is the brain is performing an efficiency exchange at a very basic level."

"So your brain is an energy hog. It is 2 percent of your mass but uses 20 percent of your energy. So the first order for the brain is always, 'how do I conserve energy?'"

"Conscious processing is very slow first of all. It's also very energy expensive. So what is happening in flow is our need to pay more attention - as our focus goes up, the brain performs an efficiency exchange. It turns off the conscious mind; it turns on the subconscious mind."

"Now, to do this, huge swatches of the brain are turning off. The technical term for this is called transient, meaning temporary, hypofrontality. Hypo is h-y-p-o, it's the opposite of hyper; it means to slow down, to deactivate. And frontality refers to the prefrontal cortex - the part of your brain that's right behind your forehead that houses all of your cognitive functions."

"So to return to your original question, why does time pass so strangely in flow? Because researchers now know that time is calculated all over the prefrontal cortex. And when parts of the prefrontal cortex start to shut down, they wink out, the brain can no longer perform this calculation. So we can no longer separate past from present from future, and we're plunged into what researchers call the deep now."
AOC 4:45

In addition, flow causes people to feel a mystical sense of oneness with everything:
"If you stay in that flow state for long enough, the deactivation can go out of your prefrontal cortex and into your other lobes and if it goes into the right parietal lobe what happens is - there is a part of the right parietal lobe that help you orient in space - its nickname is the object association area, OAA, and this helps you navigate through a room. So people who have brain damage or a stroke to this area, they can’t sit down a couch because they don’t know where their leg ends and the couch begins.

In flow, this portion of the brain, in deep, deep flow can totally shut down. When that happens, you can no longer separate self from other. So the notion of becoming one with everything, that oneness that spiritual traditions talk about, that experience of unity, cosmic unity, that's a real thing. It's a part of your brain that differentiates self from other turning off. And at that moment in time you feel one with everything."
BX 22:00

Kotler describes the other changes taking place in the brain:
"In flow, attention is going up, so you're taking in more information per second. This is happening because norepinephrine and dopamine massively jack up attention, they amplify attention."

"Now simultaneously they do something else that's really cool. They lower signal-to-noise ratios in the brain, which is a fancy way of saying they accelerate pattern recognition - our ability to link ideas together. So not only are you taking in more information, the norepinephrine and dopamine are helping you make connections between those ideas, usually close connections."

"Anandamide, which is another chemical that shows up in flow, increases lateral thinking which is our ability to make connections between tangential ideas. So what you see here is that the neurochemistry of flow literally surrounds the creative process. This is why people report being seven times more creative in flow. Even cooler...that heightened creativity outlasted the flow state by a day or two which suggests may actually teach us to think more creatively overall."
AOC 10:30

These neurochemicals in the brain are highly addictive. It turns out that many of the addictive drugs that plague society are just stimulating the neurochemicals which are naturally activated in the flow state:
"As you pointed out, these are fundamental neurochemicals. they are very, very addictive. On top of that, flow is all about mastery, passion, purpose, all kind of these fundamental human motivations. So by playing with flow, you're playing with very fundamental neurobiological properties that evolutionary biology shaped us to have. You have to know what you’re doing because if you find yourself in a situation where you're getting into fast flow states right and left and then you’re cut off from them for whatever reason - you switch jobs, you have kids, you get sick, etc. etc. Being cut off from flow is the same as being denied drugs."

"Okay, so if you want it put in drug terms, so I listed five neurochemicals. We won't talk about all of them, but one of them is dopamine. When you snort cocaine which is widely considered the most addictive drug on earth, all that happens is dopamine floods the brain , and then blocks the ability to reabsorb that dopamine so you get the effect for longer. Every one of those five neurochemicals has a drug analogy - norepinephrine is speed, serotonin is ecstasy, etc. etc."

"You couldn't cocktail those drugs on the street, you would end up drooling or dead. Flow cocktails them naturally and perfectly, gives you the best of all those highs in a sense. Usually addictive. Very, very, very potent, very powerful. You have to ...there is a flow path, there is a way to work with this, but you need to have a fundamental understanding of what flow is, how it's produced in the body, how we can create it. There are 17 flow triggers and there’s a flow cycle. And you need to know all these things to start playing with this, otherwise you’re going to find yourself in a really bad, dark place."
AOC 13:00

And flow is not just an individual state, very close groups working together can achieve the state collectively:
"So there's a group version of flow, a shared flow state. if you’ve ever seen a fourth quarter comeback in football, that’s group flow in action. If you’ve ever taken part in a great brainstorming session, that’s group flow in action."
AOC 17:33

Many of the chemicals released in flow are important in group bonding. Generosity and service to others actually enhances flow (but not consumerism and selfishness):
"Some of the chemical that show up - you get dopamine and norepinephrine, these are performance enhancing reward chemicals. You get endorphins. You get anandamide; you get serotonin. All performance enhancing reward chemicals, but they all serve social bonding functions. Norepinephrine and dopamine, that's romantic love essentially. Serotonin is a social bonding chemical. Endorphins is maternal love in children and familial love and friendship love in adults, and anandamide is essentially  the psychoactive released when you smoke pot and it gives you that 'Bro, I love everybody' sense. So all of these chemicals really expand social bonding."

"So the important thing about altruism is, not only does altruism put you into a flow state but it expands empathy. In the flow state itself it expands empathy. Psychologists talk about this and they say that people are more 'complex' on the other side of the flow state. 'Complex' is a fancy way of saying you're fundamentally altered, and one of the ways you're fundamentally altered is by becoming more empathetic."
BX 16:44

You achieve flow states by activating various flow "triggers." According to Kotler, these triggers consist of:

3 environmental triggers
3 psychological triggers, and
10 social triggers.
"Who are the best at producing flow in their lives have done a very simple thing. They've packed their lives with these flow triggers. Anybody can do this. so let's talk about a couple of these flow triggers. Before we get there, let's give people some understanding of why I talk about action adventure sport athletes in Rise of Superman, because I use action adventure sport athletes who are very good at getting the flow as my case studies in Rise. So when I talk about these triggers first I’m going to talk about how the action adventure sport athletes have used them, and then ill translate them for other people..."

"The happiest people, and more specifically, the people who have the greatest amount of life satisfaction, overall life satisfaction, meaning, purpose, those kinds of huge motivators, have the most flow in their lives."
AOC 17:49

In a slideshare presentation online, Kotler lists the flow triggers:

Psychological Triggers:
  • Intensely focused attention - long periods of interrupted attention; deep focus.
  • Clear Goals - know what you're doing and why you're doing it - the point.
  • Immediate Feedback - An extension of clear goals - clear goals tells us what we're doing, immediate feedback tells us how to do it better.
Environmental Triggers:
  • High Consequences - danger lurking in the environment, elevated risks drive focus.
  • Rich Environment - an environment with lots of novelty, unpredictability and complexity.
  • The Challenge/Skills Ratio - the challenge needs to be slightly greater than the skills we bring to the table.
Social Triggers:
  • Deep Embodiment
  • Serious Concentration
  • Shared, Clear Goals
  • Good Communication
  • Familiarity - everybody has a shared language and is on the same page
  • Equal Participation - all participants have an equal role in the project.
  • Risk - Potential for failure
  • Sense of Control - combines autonomy and competence.
  • Close listening - fully engaged in the here and now.
  • Always say yes - interactions should be additive more than argumentative

  • Creativity - creativity triggers flow, then flow enhances creativity.
As the intro to the slides states:
Flow might be the most desirable state on earth; it might also be the most elusive. Seekers have spent centuries trying yet no one has found a reliable way to reproduce the experience...except action and adventure sport athletes. Quite simply THE ZONE is the only reason these athletes are surviving the big mountains, big waves, and big rivers.
And now we get to the crux of my argument. If you read the above list, you realize that all of these conditions existed for all people in the Paleolithic Era! Essentially every human being on earth was an action adventure sport athlete! There was no other way of living. They were living this way twenty-four hours a day for their entire lives.

Look at some of the triggers - Risk taking. A sense of control. Deep focus. Camaraderie. Altruism. Familiarity. Shared goals. A rich environment full of novelty and unpredictability. These were all the things that people in hunter-gatherer societies experience all the time.

A great example of the kind of environment our ancestors lived in comes from an interview with author Robert Greene on The Drunken Taoist podcast. Greene describes his book Mastery:
Robert Greene: "Yeah, I cover...So I have like an Einstein, the extreme, but then in the book I talk about these Polynesian navigators to show you that these are the extremes from what we consider very primitive culture to the most sophisticated. And essentially these are navigators, a system of navigation, that goes back maybe 3,000 years, somewhere in that vicinity. People who were basically [using] stone age technology using canoes navigating vast spaces of the ocean. They live in [a] mostly water environment. And how they conquer that environment. Not conquer it, but learn how to navigate it without any tools, no instruments, zero, and all of the insane dangers. And it's through using what the brain is intended for and using their whole bodies in this process..."

Host: "Including their giant balls.."

Robert Greene: "You know about that. I don't know if I've mentioned that. That's true, even that part. They're lying on the bottom of their vessel and using their testicles to feel where the ocean is coming, you know, things like that, to the point where I describe that they can navigate this water world as easily as a taxi driver in London. That is real human power. That is really using the brain in an incredible way."

"And so, part of the book is a little bit of a dig, unfortunately, or fortunately, at our technological[ly]- obsessed culture. As if the only thing that's really of value is what we can do through machines. But in fact, the brain is this insanely far greater than anything that Apple could produce. And let's sort of celebrate that; the potential of what the brain can do as opposed to what we can produce technologically."
TDD 52:00

Now that's mastery.

A good description of the flow state comes from Chuang Tzu:
Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”
It's no coincidence that Kotler found flow most accessible by action adventure sport athletes. Most likely flow is what kept our ancestors alive in harsh environments over millions of years and allowed humans to do extraordinary things like settle the islands of Polynesia in handmade boats across thousands of miles of ocean, or settle on the tops of mountains, or run hundreds of miles at a stretch. And as Greene pointed out, relying on technology takes us out of that mastery so we never get a chance to develop our innate human abilities.

The other thing that immediately jumps put at you is how few of these conditions exist in our present-day environment. Our daily lives in modern industrial societies are the antithesis of flow. We do the same pointless tedium day after day. Our lives are boring and predictable. We have no sense of purpose. We do not have close friendships or a common language. We are isolated from other people. We told to maximize our self-interest. We are not challenged. We have a lack of engagement. We are not equal participants in anything. We don’t get immediate feedback or see the end result of our work. We have no creative outlet. There is no risk - in fact we've totally insulated ourselves from risk in every aspect of our lives. As Ryan noted above, risk and unpredictability are necessary for us to feel alive.

And here is the point - our safe, predicable, isolated, boring, long lives are not making us happy. Because we need risk. We need novelty. We need unpredictability. We need to be challenged. These are the things that make life worth living. Is it any wonder that addiction is rampant in modern society? We want to get those chemicals that we no longer get naturally, so we take drugs to stimulate them. As Kotler pointed out, every neurochemical in flow has a drug analog. We're trying to get back what we no longer get from our environment by taking addictive drugs, drinking, risky behaviors, etc. Is it any wonder so many of us are on antidepressants? Is it any wonder that in the midst of all this so-called comfort, we are so miserable that suicides have reached epidemic proportions?

Being denied this flow state is driving us crazy. We seek it out in unhealthy and destructive ways. Note how the most creative and vibrant people are usually the ones most attracted to drugs. They are the most human of us, but they are cut from something we need as badly as our body needs vitamins and minerals. How much of our social dysfunction is due to this? Is flow as necessary as food and water?

And look at the results of flow. A loss of self. A oneness with everything. A greater sense of purpose. More empathy. A plunge into the eternal now. This is what all the great spiritual traditions describe as the transcendent reality. We are naturally seeking this out as well. This is the state we are supposed to be in. In the flow state, we achieve this spiritual state of oneness providing us with a tremendous sense of well-being. Note that altruism and service to others increases flow. Yet we're constantly told to buy and consume. We are told to accumulate stuff rather than experiences. We are all made into competitors and pitted against one another for everything every single day in our modern societies.

Note also that people are more 'complex' after flow. Don't people seem awfully ‘one dimensional’ and shallow to you today? Maybe that's why. Note that empathy increases in flow. Is it any wonder we have no empathy for other people anymore? You can see it in our politics. Studies have shown that empathy is actually declining in younger generations. A study of 14,000 college students found that today’s young people are 40 percent less empathetic than college kids from 30 years ago. Maybe this is why we feel like isolated individuals with no connection to one another. Our selfish consumerist society is the opposite of what makes us happy and spiritually fulfilled. The science proves it.

Maybe that’s why hunter-gather societies are also characterized by creativity, spirituality, empathy, deep social bonds with others, generosity, spontaneity, egalitarianism and altruism as opposed to control, dominance, hierarchy, obedience, isolation and violence. But note that these do not happen without risk. Risk is a price that must be paid, and yes, when you experience risk you do have a chance of dying younger. But without that, can you really be said to have lived at all?

So in the Paleolithic, when absolutely everyone was an action adventure sport athlete facing death on a regular basis, a lot of time must have been spent in the eternal now. We bonded to other people more closely and intensely than today. Our ability to synthesize new ideas and lateral thinking was enhanced. We felt an intense connection with our environment and with each other. All of this is what the flow research shows. Was it worth losing this? Our long lives seem somehow less appealing to me.

Here is an excerpt from a fascinating article on adventurer Sarah Marquis in The New York Times:
Marquis’s desire to travel began to coalesce around the question of whether she could survive by herself in nature. First, she decided to ride a horse across Turkey. On that trip, she ate apricots off trees and slept with her head on her saddle. Muslim women bathed her in warm goat’s milk. But after that, Marquis’s itineraries veered away from romance and pleasure into solitude and suffering. In her early 20s she flew to New Zealand and set out on a four-day backpacking trip with some noodles, a huge radio and three or four books — “everything except what I needed.” The outing, by typical standards, was a fiasco. Day 1 it poured; Marquis didn’t know how to set up her tent, and she was freezing and bored because, she now said wryly, “at night there was nothing to do.” But near the end of the trip she had a sort-of epiphany. “Something happened,” she said. (Articulating her reasons for pursuing her travels is not one of Marquis’s strengths.) “Over the years I’ve had this feeling again and again.” Chasing that inexplicable sensation is why she walks. 
In Washington last winter, Marquis met with people from the National Geographic Speakers Bureau, because that’s what explorers do (and pretty much have always done): come home and sell their stories. It was nine months after re-entry into mainstream life, and she was happy to return to some physical comforts: sleeping in a bed, taking two baths a day. But she found being among people overwhelming, and her senses remained so acute that even just sitting in a cafeteria was grating. “You hear the dishwasher?” Marquis asked me, pointing toward an unseen kitchen. I shook my head. Marquis said, resigned, “There’s a radio playing back there, too.”

Marquis plans to return to northwest Australia in 2016. She said it’s her “dream to go with just a sarong and a knife” — the ultimate test of survival. It’s hard not to wonder where these urges come from. Geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists and religious scholars have all taken stabs at answering, with unsatisfying results. But perhaps the real reason to court a sufferfest — to explore or adventure, or whatever you want to call it — is that it makes a person feel alive. The literature of survival is weirdly upbeat. A few days before dying, in 1912, Robert Falcon Scott wrote a letter telling a friend that he wished that friend were with him “to hear our songs and the cheery conversation.” The day of his death, Scott said of his trip, “How much better has it been than lounging in too great comfort at home.”

Of course, if you don’t die — well, then the experience of extreme travel is fantastic. After swimming across a river infested with crocodiles, Marquis wrote that every time she finds herself in the bush, “my happiness increases tenfold.” Perhaps among the purest expressions of joy ever recorded is of the Norwegian explorer Aleksander Gamme on the 86th day of his unsupported 1,410-mile expedition from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole and back in 2012. Desperately hungry and dreadlocked, he comes upon a cache that he buried in the snow for himself a few months earlier. From the frozen duffel he pulls matches, Vaseline and zinc ointment. Then he starts screaming: “YEAAAAA! AAAAHHH! HAHA! YEAA! WHOOOWHOOO.” His elation at seeing a double pack of Cheez Doodles might be greater than any most of us will feel in our entire lives.
So I contend that, as Chris Ryan says above, that even if hunter-gatherers did only live to be 40, in a very real sense they lived longer. They lived better. They were alive. You can't tell how much a person was in a flow state from a skeleton. We can only speculate. But based on Steven Kotler's research with action adventure sport athletes, I think we can safely assume that Paleolithic peoples must have spent a lot of time in this state.

The Ancient Greeks had two words for time – chronos, meaning the measurement of time, and kairos. Chronos is what can be measured by a clock, but kairos means the present moment - time lifted from life. The “right” time – moments where everything is right and you feel alive and grateful to be on this planet. We’ve succeeded in extending one but utterly impoverished the other.

For as the saying goes, life is not measured by the number of breaths that you take, it's measured by the number of moments that take your breath away.


Tangentially Speaking - Andrew Gurevich Returns (TS1)
Tangentially Speaking - John Helliwell (TS2)
Bulletproof Executive (BX) - Steven Kotler
The Art of Charm (AOC) - Steven Kotler
The Drunken Taoist (TDD) - Robert Greene
The Woman Who Walked 10,000 Miles (No Exaggeration) in Three Years (New York Times Magazine)
Chuang Tzu: “The Dexterous Butcher” (Bureau of Public Secrets)
The Rise of Superman: 17 Flow Triggers (Slideshare)
College Students Are Less Empathic Than Generations Past  (Scientific American)