Saturday, January 31, 2015

Things Said Best By Others

It's time for another edition of things said best by others. The first comes from KMO from the C-Realm podcast on why transhumanism and similar philosophies tend to be embraced by the wealthiest and most powerful members of society who parrot such ideas in what is essentially an echo chamber:
"Having friends who are extopians and transhumanists, and having been one of them myself, I know several responses that they would give to what you just said. One of them is the idea that the benefits of this grand technology will not be limited to the wealthy few. That these will be widespread benefits throughout humanity and people can decide for themselves how they would like to project themselves into the future, either with children or just by not dying. And for some people who would like to do both, some accommodation would have to be reached because there are resource limits and other physical limits that would have to be respected."
"My thought on it is this: The benefits of technology are not evenly distributed now. The wealth creation that technology enables, the benefits of that are not equally distributed. So I see no reason based on what human behavior [is] so far to think that these described benefits would be evenly distributed."
"And for somebody who, you know, they have...they've made good money in the tech world. And they have secured for themselves about the best life that this world has to offer in terms of material comfort, and the opportunity to have a variety of interesting experiences and encounters with other people, and travel to see various lands. And they look at that situation and the thing that they would change is not the distribution of benefits now. But they would change the fact that the people who have the absolute best  distribution of of those benefits now will eventually die. Like that's the problem with the world. Not that there's poverty, not that there is injustice, not that there is political repression, but that the people how have the absolute most right now, eventually will grow old and die. And that's a tragedy. And that's a tragedy that should be everyone's highest priority is to find a cure to that problem."
C-Realm 445: Pocket Utopias 15:50 - 18:00

The next exchange comes from an exchange between Christopher Ryan and Andrew Gurevich on Tangentially Speaking:
Andrew Gurevich: "The thing I want to ask you about is the discussion you guys were having. It seems like in the futurist community there’s like these two visions. There’s the utopian and the dystopian. And the one goes along the lines of the stuff Duncan [Trussell] ‘s taking about that its great; we’re all going to be cyborgs soon. Or another version of that is this is that guy who’s doing the resource-based economy, structure of society, the dude that has the thing at the end of Zeitgeist, that little utopian society that they’re trying to build...You know what I’m talking about?"
Christopher Ryan: "No."
AG: "I’ve got to find that guy’s name for you. Like he’s created this vision of a resource-based economy that can create this social utopia, He’s trying to build one of them. [the person he’s referring to is Jacques Fresco – CH] And so there’s these visions of whatever’s coming that have this sort of utopian transformation. Were finally going to innovate ourselves out of these problems."
"And then there’s the other view that says were f*cked, everything’s going to collapse. Right? And you guys were kind of having that discussion. And it seems like he was more on the side of where we’re going to be innovating our way into some pretty interesting places here, and then the other side of that is that technology is what’s causing a lot of these difficulties. And so, how do you,  what do you think about these two…I mean have you run into that? You’ve been to a lot of these futurist conferences…"
CR: "I’ve never been to a futurist conference."
AG: "Oh. You go to Paleo conferences, but that’s a whole different thing."
CR: "I’ve spent a lot of time with Joe [Rogan] and Duncan [Trussell] though, which is like a futurist conference sometimes."
"No, I mean, that’s the thing. When I’m hanging out with those two I’m the bummer. I’m  the turd in the punchbowl. Cause I think they’re full of shit on that point. I say that with utmost respect and affection. [crosstalk]. Yeah, no, I mean Duncan’s all excited about his Oculus Rift, and I think it’s a silly waste of time and money. You know, I saw a thing the other day on Twitter, there’s some scientists excited because they think they found a planet finally that may be habitable. And my first response was, ‘great, let’s go f*ck that one up too!’"
AG: "Or send McConaughey is what we should do first of all..."
CR: "But I don’t see any evidence that we’re getting our shit together. So why…the trajectory’s gone the opposite direction. There’s more and more carbon in the air, there’s more and more plastic in the ocean, half the world’s dying of starvation, the other half’s diabetic. Like where do these people see hope in that that I don’t know."
"I was talking to a guy today, a guy who’s just written a book about secularism and we got into this question of progress. I was sort of bumming him out a little bit [I believe that's this episode]. And I said to him, 'look, man, you’re asking me these questions and I’m answering them. But I also know that you’ve got two young kids…' I don’t like talking to people who’ve got kids about how I think the future’s really f*cked because I envy them their optimism. And I don’t really want to squelch that. But if you’re asking me, my honest opinion, my honest opinion is the trajectory of human society is definitely, demonstrably negative. We are self-deluded. We are led by lunatics and idiots. And, well, when you’re led by lunatics and idiots you’re not going in the right direction. We’re not. The whole things is set up…the trajectory of the Leviathan is leading us away from where we want to be, which is egalitarianism, which is a non-consumerist model of happiness, the good life."
AG: "Conspicuous consumption."
CR: "You know we never get there. It’s so obvious that were running on a wheel. And I think what interesting about this particular historical moment, I may be wrong, but I think there’s sort of a critical mass of people who recognize that this is not going to work. You’ve been saying a cure for cancer is right around the corner since Nixon. And I don’t remember how many tens of billions of dollars have gone into that since."
AG: "And more people are getting cancer."
CR: "And the treatment is essentially the same as it was in 1975, right? …So yeah, I just don’t see it. World War One was the war to end all wars, and here we are with our Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning president blowing people up all over the world with no legal justification at all."
AG: "You’re bumming me out man..."
1:09 [discussion of the philosopher Slavoj Žižek]
AG: "...Every one and a while he [Slavoj Žižek] says something that I really think is great. And he was taking about our understanding of nature. And he says  ecology is another ideology and as such it has some limitations. And we have this idea that nature is this perfect, pristine, self-contained system that we have now somehow messed up. And that's a secular version of the fall. And that nature is not the wonderful, balanced, pristine system, nature is actually a series of profound catastrophes. You know, Our number one fuel source, oil, um, the oil reserves in the ground got there if you think about it for a second as the results of profound catastrophe. Land formation itself [is] the result of volcanic eruptions. If you think about the Big Bang or just the universe itself, it's a place of infinite catastrophe, of things exploding and smashing into each other, and collapsing into themselves."
"And so, humans’ adaptability the thing that, is our sort of response to that. That it's the kind of absurd hubris of humanity in the face of all that to still find a way through it and forward. And so... right when I start to get too pessimistic, I swing back over to the optimist's side because I think we've always found a way. And at some point we won't and then we'll just go extinct like many of the species we've run off the planet."
CR: "Well, there’s several things that come up with me when you talk about that. One is his characterization of nature as a series of catastrophes. Yeah there are catastrophes, you know. But if you’ve got to go back to the Big Bang  in your sequence, that a pretty big canvas. Earth, okay, the last major catastrophe on the earth I think was probably the...happened in Sumatra as a matter of fact, the Toba eruption 70,000 years ago. That wiped out most humans in fact, probably down to about 4000 breeding pairs … the whole DNA bottleneck at 70,000 years ago is due to the Toba eruption. But 70,000 years is a long time ago. So the ones who survived had it pretty good because they were essentially on an unoccupied planet and our species can eat just about anything."
"So, you know, that vision of nature as this essentially tragic realm to me is, well, that’s one of the things that I'm really grappling with in this book, because that’s Hobbes, that’s Dawkins, that Pinker, that's an appeal to authority to protect you from the dangers of nature."
AG: "Only society can protect you. As a communist you would say only the collective can do it. And then the authoritarian view is saying only America can do it…"
CR: "Only Jesus can do it, only the U.S. military can do it, yeah. So part of the sale is to say, you know, to oversell the present. 'Hey this is great, we’ve almost got cancer [cured], you’re going to live forever! Oculus Rift, you’re going to able to fuck Salma Hayek! Everything’s amazing, just around the corner, hold on just a little more!' Right? We’ve been hearing that forever. It used to be salvation came after you died, now its salvation's coming ... just around the corner, we're almost there, its morning in America, here we go!"
"And then the other side is …'and the alternatives are terrifying.' Because the alternative is nasty, brutish, and short. The alternative is, you know, 'Nature, the bloody struggle for survival!'  Every BBC special you see...I remember seeing this thing, it opens up, there's a seal frolicking in wave. And then you hear Attenborough or whoever it is, saying, 'yes, but soon enough, the evil...' And you see the shadow in the wave...It's a Great White Shark. It's coming up and it hits this seal, and the seal goes up in the air, and then they slow it down. And they actually say in the narration, 'we've slowed this down forty times so you can see...,' and you see the terror in this little seal's face, and the shark's teeth get unsheathed, and it's like waiting for a seal to fall, and then it's crunching, and the tail's flapping, and it's like, 'oh that's so bad!' 'And that's the 'bloody struggle for survival,' according to Richard Attenborough."
"So I'm watching this and I'm thinking, 'wait a minute. How old do these things live?' So I look up the harbor seal. They live to be thirty, alright? I've seen a lot of seals, you've seen a lot of seals. What are they doing? They're lying around on a hot rock most of the time. Or they're frolicking in the water eating fresh fish. They don't look very stressed to me, right?"
"So here's this seal. Let's say he's not old, let's say he's twenty-five, okay? He's like my age - older, middle-aged seal. And he meets his maker. Alright, first of all, that death, without the slo-mo... "
AG: Took about four seconds...

CR: Or less. Secondly, it's well demonstrated that when an animal is attacked by a predator, endorphins are released. So not only is it a very swift death, it's a painless death. So look at that animal's life. Twenty five years...

AG: And it's probably never even thought about death until it was actually starting to happen.

CR: Exactly, right. Although we can't get away from that. We are human, so we'll always think about it. But I mean you look at the deal that seal got. Twenty-five years, good years, hanging out with his buddies, eating good food, getting laid a lot, you know, in good shape, healthy, happy, whatever; and a four-second, probably painless, probably high out of his brain, death; versus what we have. I'll take what that seal's having.

AG: It's not a bad deal at all when you put it that way.

CR: Yeah, so it's all about framing, you know. So anyway...
Tangentially Speaking: 103 - Andy Gurevich's Third Visit: 100:00

And this is from the Tangentially Speaking with Dr. John Gowdy:
Christopher Ryan (host) [31:00]: The general egalitarianism or band-level hunter-gatherer society far as I know there is no evidence that that's not accurate and yet there is this view that people who ascribe to this view of hunter-gatherers and therefore of most of our history as a species, our prehistory as a species, are silly romantics.
John Gowdy (guest): Yeah, I mean it just goes against the grain of progress and so on. Agriculture was this big breakthrough that made civilization possible and all that. You know, life was miserable before that.
CR: Right, so do you think it's essentially a political argument?
JG: Yeah, I think it's even more subconscious than that. It's sort of what Sahlins called cosmologies that we believe in. You know, the notion of progress, the notion of a harmonious universe and so on. Sahlins traces it back like economics, actually back to Garden of Eden, you know, we had this idealized system that took care of itself. And then Man interfered with God's will. Substitute the Market for God's will and you have modern political economy.
CR: Okay. I think that's going to be the quote that will open the podcast. That's very profound. You throw it off in an offhand manner but essentially what you're saying is that, if I understand you correctly, is the sort of Neoconservative faith in the market is not science, it's mythology or even a religious impulse.
JG: Yeah, Marshall Sahlins has a really nice phrase if I remember correctly, but something like 'The genesis of economics was the economics of Genesis.'
CR: Very nice. And that also explains why its so difficult to...why the same arguments never seem to go away, because evidence doesn't matter.
JG: Right, exactly. It's so ingrained in the way people like us are brought up to look at the world. Of course other cultures have very different viewpoints...
John Gowdy [38:58]: "Its bothered me for a long time that people really miss the incredible break that agriculture was; a break with the past. People lived a hunter-gatherers--depending on what you call human you know Homo erectus staring two million years ago, Homo sapiens probably a couple of hundred thousand years--so it's really in the last five percent in the life of our species that we really had agriculture. And it was just like night and day. The population, say twelve, fifteen thousand years ago was probably something like four million, human population in the planet, and it just spiked up to something like 600 million within a couple thousand years."
"We argue in the paper that this is when economic society really became economic. As hunter-gatherers, people lived off flows from nature. And if they overhunted animals it came right back to bite them, or overharvested plants. It wasn't that they were more moral than we are, but just that the way they made a living dictated sustainability. And then they had all these rules, as you mentioned, that kept the society egalitarian. A guy [named] Christopher Bohm has written a lot about this, the egalitarian aspect."
"But the real breakthrough with agriculture, and we share this with ants and termites, is actively controlling the production of our own food. So you start doing that and ...I mean populations expanded without agriculture as the species moved into a new area and so on. Humans moved into the New World and took over and expanded. But when you start controlling your own food supply, producing your own food, that's just, that's a new thing, and it was very rare to occur. According to E.O. Wilson it only happened ten to twelve times in the history of all species. But those species, they evolved into a lot more species and they dominate the planet. The total weight of humans is something like ten times the weight of all other vertebrates combined. And likewise social insects, they're about two percent of species now, but they comprise about 75 percent of the earth's biomass."
Christopher Ryan: Yeah, I saw in your paper there was a great moment that if you add up the biomass of humans and the biomass of ants they end up being the same. 
JG: Yeah, that's a back of the envelope calculation E.O. Wilson makes.  
CR: So I never thought of anthills in terms of economics before. 
JG: Yeah, we argue that once animals started actively producing food then these economic laws sort of kick in. The advantages of division of labor. The advantages of larger size. Economies of scale, and so on. And also tapping in to stocks...with agriculture humans were able to tap into the stock of fertile soil for example, and existing water supply and so on. And gradually soil fertility was lost as they drew that down. Then, of course, more recently the stocks of fossil fuels. It gave a huge evolutionary advantage to these species. And again I'm not a biologist, but getting into the ant literature, I mean the parallels are just astonishing.  
CR: Yeah, even to the point where, as you say quite explicitly, as with ants individual quality of life declines as social complexity increases. 
JG: Yeah. 
CR: Would you say individual quality of life has declined in humans as well since the advent of agriculture? 
JG: Yeah, I mean its hard for us to judge. I mean, most of the people listening to your show are probably academics and avid readers, I mean we have it really good. I would be long dead by now if i were born as a hunter-gatherer in the Pleistocene. So it's hard to judge. 
 CR: [46:40]...You made another point. You say it's hard for us to judge, which is certainly true. Many of us who were born with any sort of disease or medical issue that needed immediate attention; we wouldn't be alive in a hunter-gatherer society. And yet there are ways to make a sort of objective comparison. One of them that I find interesting is when hunter-gatherers have had the opportunity to join civilization they've almost always refused... 
...You were talking about morality and you were careful to make the point that hunter-gatherers aren't more moral, you know, the whole 'noble savage' thing isn't an accurate way to look at hunter gatherers. And yet isn't it interesting that...and I completely agree with you, that the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers and many of the other qualities that we admire about the way they live, are simply the most practical way to live in that ecological circumstance. You're not going to survive if you're selfish. You're only going to survive if you share because no matter how good a hunter you are, you're not going to get something every day. 
JG: [54:08] We argue that hunter-gatherers were actually a lot more autonomous in the sense that, if you were born into a hunter-gatherer society, you had to know everything you needed to know  to make a living. I mean, you know the seasons of the animals and the plants and so on. So you weren't dependent on specific others as you are in this society. That's actually something that Adam smith pointed out, I think that's in the paper. 
CR: You quote him showing how, in the brute societies, everyone could do everything but there was no specialization. And the fact that everyone can do everything--everyone knows how to build a shelter, everyone knows where the berries and the roots are and how to snare an animal--also means that no one can exercise coercive power over anyone else because you can't cut them off from what they need. 
JG: Right, yeah. I have a quote here by Marx actually, he says the vitality of primitive communities was incomparably greater then that of capitalist societies. 
CR: Interesting. The one thing I kept thinking about last night as I was reading your paper, and I think it's brilliant to look at these different levels of organization in almost a fractal sense where civilizations are organisms, they're living organisms just as much as a termite hill is a living organism. And we talk about ourselves as individuals, but one of the things I'm getting into as I'm doing this research that I'm working on right now is the microbiome. So over 80 percent of our body mass, if you take out the water, is composed of organisms that don't have our DNA. So even thinking of the individual as an individual is a stretch. Like people who say, 'well, it's kind of silly to think of society as an organism.' Well, no more silly than to think of yourself as an organism. So you can go up or down the scale. 
So what I was thinking about is the human superorganism and the leafcutter ant colony...I guess what I'm trying to get at is, is this natural? 
JG: It may be natural, but that doesn't mean that it's good. Ants and termites have been around fifty million years with agriculture, humans ten-thousand at most. We argue in the paper it's really beginning to strip away some of the things that makes [sic] us human. 
CR: Or is this what makes us human? Is this capacity to congeal into some higher scale organism part of what makes us human, and maybe the most important?
JG: Well it may be changing. We make the point in the paper that there's a difference between coordination and cooperation. A lot of the comments; I mean, isn't it wonderful--you look at a car it was made in ten or fifty different countries or whatever--that means people are cooperating, and we're becoming more international. You know it really doesn't. You drive a car, you don't know where the parts come from, it's a mechanical thing. 
In biology the term they use is...superorganism...control without hierarchy. So we write in the paper when state societies began to develop, whole groups were selected that had certain characteristics that enabled them to produce and protect their food supply. And so we have these rules now, we have to act in a certain way, we just don't see them. 
And if you look at it sort of politically, it turns everything on its head...but if you look at Libertarianism, sort of the Objectivism of someone like Ayn Rand, I mean, I argue it's really the philosophy of an ant colony. You're supposed to sacrifice yourself to this superorganism that's the market and you're only judged by what you produce, which is an economic theory. Milton Friedman sort of says that. 
CR: So that's a real mind-blower, because you're saying that Ayn Rand, who's sort of the emblematic philosopher of selfishness, is actually advocating, even though she probably didn't know it, is actually advocating self-sacrifice for the collective. She would hate to hear you say that. 
CR [1:04] Do you consider economics to be a science? 
JG: Not exactly. Not really. I think it's...I mean it can be. Some people apply the scientific method to economic phenomena. But in general its based on something called welfare economics or Walrasian economics, sort of this mathematical superstructure that's a justification for market economies. There's something called the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics. It says something like a perfect competitive market will lead to Pareto optimality. I mean it's a little more complicated then that because they recognize that price signals may be wrong, and so the wrong signals are sent to consumers and so markets are not always perfect and so there's a role for the government in correcting externalities and so on. But in general, the mathematics of that theory is a way of making scientific Adam Smith's notion of the invisible hand.

QE Worked...

...for some people.

What is "Quatitative Easing?":
The theory behind [QE] is simple: Unable to cut the price of credit further, central banks shift their focus to expanding its quantity. The implicit argument is that this move from price to quantity adjustments is the functional equivalent of additional monetary-policy easing. Thus, even at the zero bound of nominal interest rates, it is argued, central banks still have weapons in their arsenal.

QE’s impact hinges on the “three Ts” of monetary policy: transmission (the channels by which monetary policy affects the real economy); traction (the responsiveness of economies to policy actions); and time consistency (the unwavering credibility of the authorities’ promise to reach specified targets like full employment and price stability). Notwithstanding financial markets’ celebration of QE, not to mention the US Federal Reserve’s hearty self-congratulation, an analysis based on the three Ts should give the ECB pause.

In terms of transmission, the Fed has focused on the so-called wealth effect. First, the balance-sheet expansion of some $3.6 trillion since late 2008 – which far exceeded the $2.5 trillion in nominal GDP growth over the QE period – boosted asset markets. It was assumed that the improvement in investors’ portfolio performance – reflected in a more than threefold rise in the S&P 500 from its crisis-induced low in March 2009 – would spur a burst of spending by increasingly wealthy consumers.
The Lemmings of QE (Project Syndicate)

Ian Welsh points out that all the money from quantitative easing has worked - it has made the rich richer and had no effect on the rest of us except to make real estate too expensive for anyone by the rich to buy:
One of the great “mysteries” of the last 7 years or so is why all the money from unconventional monetary policy hasn’t shown up as inflation.  Many analysts thought that printing that much money must surely increase prices, but inflation indices in most of the developed world are barely up, and in many cases are flirting with deflation.

The answer is obvious, but you’ll hardly see anyone point it out.

First, who was the money given to?

Rich people and corporations.

Ok then, what do rich people and corporations spend their money on?  Stocks, and real estate—high end real estate...Inflation has, then, shown up exactly where one would expect, in the assets bought by the people who were given money.  Ordinary people did not receive the largesse from unconventional monetary policy, rich people and corporations did.

That inflation has not shown up in much (though not all) of the rest of the economy is simply based on the fact that no one else except the rich and corporations has received (I can’t call it “earned”) more money.  Nothing more, nothing less.

This economy is entirely artificial. It is based on giving money (in various ways) to those who already have a lot of it.  This is in no way a competitive market, certainly not a free market, and barely deserves to be called a market at all.  It is pure oligarchical abuse of the power of printing money in all its modern guises.
This is what happens when money is controlled by small elite not beholden to the public interest at all. And the effects are not just soaring stock prices but more expensive real estate as a now international class of wealthy oligarchs buys up the world's premier real estate and using them as virtual gold bars to store their ill-gotten wealth:
Racine is the latest victim of what some have called “lights-out London” where absentee owners push up property prices without contributing to the local economy. When Racine opened in 2002 the average price of a Knightsbridge home was £745,000; now it is £3.4m. There are an estimated 22,000 empty properties in London, partly a consequence of the city’s status as what the novelist William Gibson has called “the natural home of a sometimes slightly dodgy flight capital”. As Racine’s story shows, some businesses are feeling the effects.

Absenteeism as a problem is peculiar to the smudge of “super-prime” London around Harrods (although there are pockets elsewhere, such as Highgate). In a survey by the Empty Homes Agency last year, Kensington and Chelsea was found to have had a 40% annual increase in empty properties, the only area in southern England to show such an increase. Other boroughs on the list were mainly in poor parts of the north and north-west. The idea of the most expensive homes sitting empty is provocative in a city where any kind of property ownership is increasingly out of reach and politicians are moving to act.

Writing in the Independent, Tessa Jowell, who hopes to be Labour’s candidate in the capital’s mayoral contest next year, called empty homes a “scandal” and promised punitive taxes for their owners if she is elected. “Today in London hundreds of thousands of people are stuck in temporary accommodation, on social housing waiting lists, or years of saving short of buying their first home. At the same time the global super-rich buy London homes like they are gold bars, as assets to appreciate rather than homes in which to live … Absentee owners should live in the house they own or sell up – or face uncapped charges until they do. No dodges or clever schemes to get round that.”
Meanwhile in America:
Here’s the first problem to overcome, particularly with the president’s focus on the middle class: we have two housing markets, one for the rich and one for the rest. The only home sales growing are for million-dollar properties. Home purchases made entirely in cash are historically high.

Simply building more homes and increasing the supply of houses won’t bring down prices. The homes being built are bigger than ever, and increasingly designed for the luxury market.

Consider this incredible statistic from the research analyst Redfin: through last April, sales of the McMansions of America – the top 1% of homes by price – rocketed up 21% compared to last year. But sales of the other 99% of homes were down 7.6%.

It’s not even clear that rising home prices – traditionally a way to measure a recovery – would be good for the middle class. Price increases harm the affordability of homes, particularly for first-time homebuyers, who have not returned to the market at their historical level. This is an important group: first-time homebuyers drive the entire market, allowing sellers to step up into bigger homes.
A tale of two housing markets: mansions for the rich while poor are priced out (Guardian)

Much of this presages a return to Neofeudalism - instead of broadly distributed ownership, the rich will own all land and housing, and the rest of us will be "serfs" perpetually in debt to them from the day we're born and paying all of our income for the necessities of life, which the rich will own outright.

Which has, of course, been the goal all along.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Technological Advance Means More Work, Not Less

Here's an old one from last year - an interview with anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan:
...Civilization and industrialization have most certainly introduced innumerable problems, but our ability to remove ourselves from the merciless "survival of the fittest" paradigm is a no-brainer. How could you ever convince people to relinquish the gifts of modernity — things like shelter, food on-demand, vaccines, pain relief, anesthesia, and ambulances at our beckon call?

It is reality that will "convince" people — or not. Conceivably, denial will continue to rule the day. But maybe only up to a point. If/when it can be seen that their reality is worsening qualitatively in every sphere a new perspective may emerge. One that questions the deep un-health of mass society and its foundations. Again, non-robust, de-skilled folks may keep going through the motions, stupefied by techno-consumerism and drugs of all kinds. Do you think that can last?
Most futurists would answer that things are getting better — and that through responsible foresight and planning we'll be able to create the future we imagine.

"Things are getting better"? I find this astounding. The immiseration surrounds us: anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia, etc. on a mass scale, the rampage shootings now commonplace. The progressive ruin of the natural world. I wonder how anyone who even occasionally picks up a newspaper can be so in the dark. Of course I haven't scratched the surface of how bad it is becoming. It is deeply irresponsible to promote such ignorance and projections.
That's a very presentist view. Some left-leaning futurists argue, for example, that ongoing technological progress (both in robotics and artificial intelligence) will lead to an automation revolution — one that will free us from dangerous and demeaning work. It's very possible that we'll be able to invent our way out of the current labor model that you're so opposed to.

Technological advances have only meant MORE work. That is the record. In light of this it is not quite cogent to promise that a more technological mass society will mean less work. Again, reality anyone??
Transhumanists advocate for the iterative improvement of the human species, things like enhanced intelligence and memory, the elimination of psychological disorders (including depression), radical life extension, and greater physical capacities. Tell us why you're so opposed to these things.

Why I am opposed to these things? Let's take them in order:

Enhanced intelligence and memory? I think it is now quite clear that advancing technology in fact makes people stupider and reduces memory. Attention span is lessened by Tweet-type modes, abbreviated, illiterate means of communicating. People are being trained to stare at screens at all times, a techno-haze that displaces life around them. I see zombies, not sharper, more tuned in people.

Elimination of psychological disorders? But narcissism, autism and all manner of such disabilities are on the rise in a more and more tech-oriented world.

Radical life extension? One achievement of modernity is increased longevity, granted. This has begun to slip a bit, however, in some categories. And one can ponder what is the quality of life? Chronic conditions are on the rise though people can often be kept alive longer. There's no evidence favoring a radical life extension.

Greater physical capacities? Our senses were once acute and we were far more robust than we are now under the sign of technology. Look at all the flaccid, sedentary computer jockeys and extend that forward. It is not I who doesn't want these thing; rather, the results are negative looking at the techno project, eh?
Do you foresee the day when a state of anarcho-primitivism can be achieved (even partially by a few enthusiasts)?

A few people cannot achieve such a future in isolation. The totality infects everything. It all must go and perhaps it will. Do you think people are happy with it?
Why Do the Anarcho-Primitivists Want to Abolish Civilization? (io9)

That point about work is the most profound, I think. Despite all our labor-saving devices, we work more hours per year than medieval peasants. I was listening to a podcast whee the author pointed out that when email came along, we all thought it would be great that we wouldn't have to take the time to write out a letter in longhand, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, go to the post office, and so on. We would have so much more time! But of course now we spend a good portion of our day as well as our free time answering emails. And thanks to the digital tether, we are essentially working twenty-four-seven for our employers. The host of another podcast I heard recently described how an executive friend of his doesn't answer phone or emails when he leaves work and how people are mad at him that they had to wait until the next morning for a response.

So the idea that technology is going to free us from work has a rather poor track record.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Musk Ox Thinking

This article is ostensibly about nuclear weapons, but in reality it is about the root cause of nearly all our problems, including climate change and Peak Oil. Probably nothing here you don't know already, but it's very well put here:
How does evolution create our ignorance, thereby adding to our danger? Because its two forms — biological and cultural — are disconnected, and so are we, from our own self-interest.

Homo sapiens is the product of biological evolution — a painfully slow Darwinian process — yet we are simultaneously enmeshed in its cultural counterpart, a Lamarckian phenomenon which, by contrast, is blindingly fast and proceeds under its own rules. We have one foot thrust into the cultural present and the other stuck in our biological past.

Individuals, after all, do not evolve in the Darwinian sense; only populations and lineages do. And they are shackled to the realities of genetics and reproduction, since organic evolution is a process whereby gene frequencies change over time. Accordingly, generations are required for even the smallest evolutionary step.

By contrast, cultural evolution is astoundingly rapid. Acquired characteristics can be “inherited,” a la Lamarck, in hours or days, then passed along to other individuals, modified yet again before being picked up or dropped altogether. For example, in just a few decades (less than an instant in biological time), personal computers were developed, proliferated and modified. If they had “evolved” by Darwinian, biological means, as a favorable mutation to be promoted in one or even a handful of individuals, there would currently be only a dozen or so computer users instead of billions.

Just a superficial glance at human history shows today's world is vastly different from that of a century ago, which is almost unimaginably different from 50,000 years ago. And yet a Cro-Magnon baby, magically plunked down at birth in 21st century America, could very well find herself comfortably reading on her iPad, and offspring of today's technophiles could adapt to the world of saber-toothed cats and stone axes.

Consider that stone ax. The history of civilization is, in large part, one of ever-greater efficiency in killing, as in the progression from club, knife and spear, to bow and arrow, musket, rifle, cannon, battleship, bomber and nuclear-tipped ICBM. At the same time, the human being who creates and manipulates these devices has not changed much at all.

As a biological creature, in fact, Homo sapiens is poorly adapted for killing, given his puny nails, minimal jaws and laughable little teeth. But cultural evolution has made it not only possible but easy.

This biology-culture disconnect is especially acute in the realm of nuclear weapons. At the one-year anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Albert Einstein famously noted that “the splitting of the atom has changed everything but our way of thinking; hence we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

He might have been talking about musk oxen. These shaggy Arctic beasts have long employed a very effective strategy when confronted by their enemies: wolves. They herd the juveniles into the center while the adults face outward, arrayed like the spokes of a wheel. Even the hungriest wolf finds it intimidating to confront a wall of sharp horns and bony foreheads, backed by a thousand pounds of angry pot roast. For countless generations, their behavior served musk oxen well.

But in more modern times, their primary threat hasn't been wolves, but human hunters carrying high-powered rifles. Today, musk oxen would do better if they spread out and high-tailed it toward the horizon, but instead they respond as previous generations always have — forming their trusted defensive circle — and are easily slaughtered.

Human actions changed everything but the musk ox way of thinking; as they clung to their biology they drifted toward unparalleled catastrophe, until another human action (conservation) intervened.

Humans also cling to (or remain unconsciously influenced by) our biology. That stubbornness is especially evident when it comes to thinking, or not thinking, about nuclear weapons...
Stubborn like a musk ox -- why Homo sapiens can't think straight about nuclear weapons (LA Times)

...or climate change, or environmental destruction or dysfunctional social systems, or arms races, or inequality, or the petroleum based high tech food system, or antibiotic resistance, or, well, any progress trap, really.

And, related: Technology is making us more vulnerable (Aeon)
...Which is to say, the same technologies that are making our lives easier are also bringing new, often unexpected problems. On 1 September 1859, the British astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), a burst of solar winds and magnetic energy that had escaped the corona of the Sun. The Carrington Event, as it came to be known, was not only the first recorded CME, it was also one of the largest ever on record, and it unleashed a foreboding and wondrous display of light and magnetic effects. Auroras were seen as far south in the northern hemisphere as San Salvador and Honolulu. As the Baltimore Sun reported at the time: ‘From twilight until 10 o’clock last night the whole heavens were lighted by the aurora borealis, more brilliant and beautiful than had been witnessed for years before.’

At the time, the event caused some minor magnetic disruption to telegraph wires, but for the most part there was little damage caused by such a spectacular event, its main legacy being the fantastic displays of light across the sky in early September. But should a solar flare happen on the scale of the Carrington Event now (and there’s a 12 per cent chance of one hitting the Earth before 2022), the effects might have a radically different impact on our advanced civilisation. If a CME with the same intensity were to hit the Earth head-on, it could cause catastrophic damage.

A National Research Council report in 2008 estimated that another Carrington Event could lead to a disruption of US infrastructure that could take between four and 10 years – and trillions of dollars – to recover from. Particularly vulnerable are the massive transformers on which our entire power system relies. Massive fluxes in magnetic energy can easily overload a transformer’s magnetic core, leading to overheating and melting of their copper cores. In the worst-case scenario, a repeat of the Carrington Event would cripple our infrastructure so severely it could lead to an apocalyptic breakdown of society, a threat utterly unknown to our ‘less civilised’ ancestors.


After all, it’s been a long time since we lived among those crippled by polio, or in communities wiped out by smallpox. The longer we go without direct awareness of a threat, the more desensitised we become to the reality of that threat, and the less seriously we take the safeguards put in place to protect us from it. As Henry Petroski notes in his book on engineering failure, To Forgive Design (2012), despite significant technological improvements, buildings and bridges still fail, and planes and cars still crash – not because of the technology itself, but because of the inability of designers to internalise the hard-learned lessons of previous generations. ‘Unfortunately,’ Petroski writes:

The lessons learned from failures are too often forgotten in the course of the renewed period of success that takes place in the context of technological advance. This masks the underlying facts that the design process now is fundamentally the same as the design process 30, 300, even 3,000 years ago. The creative and inherently human process of design, upon which all technological development depends, is in effect timeless. What this means, in part, is that the same cognitive mistakes that were made 3,000, 300, or 30 years ago can be made again today, and can be expected to be made indefinitely into the future. Failures are part of the technological condition.

Despite our progress and achievements, human civilisation doesn’t necessarily progress in the way we expect. If technology moves along a linear axis, it is complemented by a cyclical resurgence of human forgetting, folly and failure. We might not be in danger of lapsing into the Dark Ages, but we do find ourselves relearning the same life-or-death lessons each generation.

Just as technology pacifies once-dangerous events, sometimes the needle swings in the other direction. Call it a reverse sublime, a return of the repressed: a thing that was once safe becomes dangerous. Perhaps we already know this. Perhaps this is why our cultural imagination is suffused with apocalyptic disasters, from Godzilla to The Day After Tomorrow, and we never seem to tire of stories of our own hubris, where the barest instance separates the banality from catastrophe. It’s as though we’re constantly reminding ourselves that everything we’ve built is at its core tenuous, and ready to collapse at a moment’s notice.
And now we've made all our money and our entire economy dependent upon complex computer systems that are vulnerable to attack. And just wait until everything is integrated into the "Internet of Things," a completely needless and unnecessary complication that has no other purpose than to become the next profit center for capitalism and corporate America. Just wait until the cyberattacks and viruses run wild on that. I think we've long since passed the diminishing returns to complexity.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Geopolitical Question

I've pointed out several times over the last year that the Eastern Mediterranean seems to be the centerpoint of collapse in the West - Greece (and to a lesser extent Italy), Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Eqypt, Libya and what's left of Iraq after being destroyed by the longest continuous period of war in U.S. history.

After years of punishing and counterproductive austerity, it seems Greece is finally ready to elect the leftist anti-austerity Syriza party. This could signal a writeoff of Greek debt and an exit from the Euro. Frankly, I'm amazed that something "unfortunate" hasn't happened to Tsiparas (suicide, car crash, etc.). Hopefully that doesn't mean he'll change his stripes once in office.

Greece’s collapse is officially worse than the US Great Depression (Quartz)
After casting his vote, Syriza leader Alexist Tsipras told the BBC that "the vicious circle of austerity is over". He has said his party would restore "dignity" to Greece by rolling back cuts to jobs, pay and pensions which have hurt millions of people across the country.

The possibility of a Syriza victory has sparked fears that Greece could default on its debt and leave the euro - the single currency of 19 EU members.This is despite the fact that Syriza has moderated its stance since the peak of the eurozone crisis, and says it wants Greece to stay a member of the currency.
Now it seems that at the sole of the boot that is the Arabian peninsula, Yemen has fallen into chaos. This is another epicenter of collapse - too many people, too few jobs, too weak a government, and not enough water or food to sustain the whole thing, combined with a quasi-medieval world view and tribal social structure. Somalia, the perennial cautionary tale for Libertarians, is nearby as well.

And in between the march of ISIS and Yemen, is of course, Saudi Arabia, home to most of the world's oil and where the King has died at an almost impossibly bad time. The King was apparently popular, whereas his successor is widely hated (and probably senile to boot). As Naked Capitalism opined, "This is a huge deal, one the CIA and State Department have long dreaded. The old king was loved and the Crown Price is despised."

For years I've heard that the nightmare scenario was a radical Jihadi takeover of Saudi Arabia which would shut down the oil pipeline to the West. Now it seems like after twenty years of hearing that, there is almost a perfect storm to make this happen. Between ISIS in Iraq and the militants in Yemen, it seems like there is a real possibility for Islamic fundamentalists to take over the holy cities and kick out the infidel. Much of the population living under the constant terror of drone strikes and extrajudicial assassination would probably welcome it at this point.

I'm not a military analyst, but John Robb is, and he's got a few posts about this over at his site Global Guerrillas:

Saudi Arabia's Kryptonite

Abdullah is Dead. ISIS has an opportunity to flip the Kingdom. Here's how.

Saudi Arabia Plunges into an Abyss

It seems ISIS is already attacking high-ranking Saudi officials - they killed a general recently at the border, something that nobody seems to have heard about in all the Charlie Hebdo news (coincidence?). The Hebdo massacre itself seems interestingly timed given all of the above as Robb points out. The Yemen branch affiliated with Al-Qaeda appears to be behind the Hebdo massacre.

In a podcast I was listening to last night, someone jokingly suggested that a big attack was coming due to the release of American Sniper - a patriot-porn film of pure, unadulterated military propaganda that is already causing increases in military recruitment and death threats against Muslim Americans. They also suggested that old Clint may have not had the mental faculties at his age to direct this thing given his age and his performance across from the empty chair at the last Republican convention. They wondered whether the Pentagon is the real director behind the scenes and put Clint's name on it to make it more high profile. Probably just idle speculation but fun to think about.

Of course if Saudi Arabia falls to militant Jihadis and the oil wells shut down, this will send the industrialized world, heck the whole world, into a tailspin of chaos that will make the seventies oil embargoes look like a cakewalk by comparison. Forget two dollar gas and get ready for five dollar a gallon gas, at least. Russia, Venezuela and Iran will get their groove back, and there's not enough oil in America's fracked crust to smooth over this ugly scenario.

The Archdruid Report has been sounding uncharacteristically apocalyptic lately. I wonder if this is part of the reason. If it were me, and I were a betting person, I would put this forward as the apocalyptic scenario that leads to the unraveling of the whole industrial experiment. Maybe Ebola will make a comeback to boot. the fact that this is all going down as the world's oligarchs are meeting at Davos is just another bit of irony. From their elite privilege bubble, the clueless and feckless oligarchs are presiding over a collapsing world.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Night Music

The Great Climate Filter

This article in the New York Times is more interesting than its generic title would suggest: Is A Climate Disaster Inevitable? It looks through the lens of the Fermi Paradox (or Great Filter) - the idea that if the conditions to create intelligent life are present in many places given the enormous size of the universe, why do we seem to be the only ones we know about?

One popular answer to this since it was proposed was nuclear war. If a species had sufficient technology to send radio signals and travel through space, it also had sufficient technology to wipe itself out. A nuclear exchange between hostile tribes would eliminate most higher terrestrial life on our planet. Alien civilizations may have also developed weapons we can't conceive of and used them on themselves in mutually assured destruction.

This article looks at the fact that a sufficiently advanced civilization would destroy its own climatological life-support system by harnessing the amount of energy needed to create that civilization. That energy would make the planet unlivable eventually and undermine its own existence. That reminds me of Tom Murphy's calculation that if energy use continues to grow exponentially for another four centuries, the waste heat alone would boil the planet. And what if Guy McPherson is right, and runaway climate loops turn the planet into a Venusian furnace the way the oxygenating bacteria described below created the initial conditions for life? Is it possible that the habitat destruction caused by energy harnessing is what kills civilizations before they fly off into space?
The defining feature of a technological civilization is the capacity to intensively “harvest” energy. But the basic physics of energy, heat and work known as thermodynamics tell us that waste, or what we physicists call entropy, must be generated and dumped back into the environment in the process. Human civilization currently harvests around 100 billion megawatt hours of energy each year and dumps 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the planetary system, which is why the atmosphere is holding more heat and the oceans are acidifying. As hard as it is for some to believe, we humans are now steering the planet, however poorly.

Can we generalize this kind of planetary hijacking to other worlds? The long history of Earth provides a clue. The oxygen you are breathing right now was not part of our original atmosphere. It was the so-called Great Oxidation Event, two billion years after the formation of the planet, that drove Earth’s atmospheric content of oxygen up by a factor of 10,000. What cosmic force could so drastically change an entire planet’s atmosphere? Nothing more than the respiratory excretions of anaerobic bacteria then dominating our world. The one gas we most need to survive originated as deadly pollution to our planet’s then-leading species: a simple bacterium. The Great Oxidation Event alone shows that when life (intelligent or otherwise) becomes highly successful, it can dramatically change its host planet. And what is true here is likely to be true on other planets as well.

But can we predict how an alien industrial civilization might alter its world?...We know that Mars was once a habitable world with water rushing across its surface. And Venus, a planet that might have been much like Earth, was instead transformed by a runaway greenhouse effect into a hellish world of 800-degree days.

By studying these nearby planets, we’ve discovered general rules for both climate and climate change. These rules, based in physics and chemistry, must apply to any species, anywhere, taking up energy-harvesting and civilization-building in a big way. For example, any species climbing up the technological ladder by harvesting energy through combustion must alter the chemical makeup of its atmosphere to some degree. Combustion always produces chemical byproducts, and those byproducts can’t just disappear. As astronomers at Penn State recently discovered, if planetary conditions are right (like the size of a planet’s orbit), even relatively small changes in atmospheric chemistry can have significant climate effects. That means that for some civilization-building species, the sustainability crises can hit earlier rather than later.

Even if an intelligent species didn’t rely on combustion early in its development, sustainability issues could still arise. All forms of intensive energy-harvesting will have feedbacks, even if some are more powerful than others. A study...found that extracting energy from wind power on a huge scale can cause its own global climate consequences. When it comes to building world-girdling civilizations, there are no planetary free lunches.

This realization motivated me, along with Woodruff Sullivan of the University of Washington, to look at sustainability in its astrobiological context. As we describe in a recent paper, using what’s already known about planets and life, it is now possible to create a broad program for modeling co-evolving “trajectories” for technological species and their planets. Depending on initial conditions and choices made by the species (such as the mode of energy harvesting), some trajectories will lead to an unrecoverable sustainability crisis and eventual population collapse...One answer to the Fermi paradox is that nobody makes it through — that climate change is fate, that nothing we do today matters because civilization inevitably leads to catastrophic planetary changes.
Is A Climate Disaster Inevitable? (New York Times)

This actually seems like a reasonable resolution to the Fermi Paradox. It makes sense. However, if you read the article, you'll see at the end he holds out hope that some civilizations can escape this fate: "Depending on initial conditions and choices made by the species (such as the mode of energy harvesting), some trajectories will lead to an unrecoverable sustainability crisis and eventual population collapse. Others, however, may lead to long-lived, sustainable civilizations." However, I don't place much faith in that for this reason.

Given what we know of biology, species compete against one another for territory, status, etc. It's possible that primate species like ours are the only ones who can harness extrasomatic energy in a form we can recognize. If that's true, than any potential species will have the same social instincts as we do such as the desire to make war, to compete for status, etc. This will preclude the necessary cooperation and open the door for nuclear war and climate change. Both of these would require not only unilateral disarmament, but actual intentional shrinkage of the species and the foresight of a species to limit its reproduction, energy capture, and environmental destruction. And I don't think biological creatures are capable of this by their nature.

Since his was a physics simulation, my assumption is that it did not take into account these socio-biological realities and thus is incomplete. The competition that capitalists fetishize is indeed the driver of growth, but it also has the seeds of not only its own destruction, but most likely of our entire species as well. Here is some more evidence:

Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists (Guardian) Humans are ‘eating away at our own life support systems’ at a rate unseen in the past 10,000 years, two new research papers say.

Scientists: Human activity has pushed Earth beyond four of nine ‘planetary boundaries’ (Washington Post)
At the rate things are going, the Earth in the coming decades could cease to be a “safe operating space” for human beings. That is the conclusion of a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science by 18 researchers trying to gauge the breaking points in the natural world.

The paper contends that we have already crossed four “planetary boundaries.” They are the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean.

“What the science has shown is that human activities — economic growth, technology, consumption — are destabilizing the global environment,” said Will Steffen, who holds appointments at the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Center and is the lead author of the paper.

These are not future problems, but rather urgent matters, according to Steffen, who said that the economic boom since 1950 and the globalized economy have accelerated the transgression of the boundaries. No one knows exactly when push will come to shove, but he said the possible destabilization of the “Earth System” as a whole could occur in a time frame of “decades out to a century.”
Three minutes and counting (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
The IPCC reported that global warming is unequivocal and unprecedented and already responsible for widespread damage. It warned that warming—if unchecked by urgent and concerted global efforts to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions—would reach 3 to 8 degrees Celsius (about 5.5 to 14.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. This may seem like a modest rise in the average global temperature. After all, people at a given location often experience much greater temperature swings in the course of a single day. But that is a local variation, not a change in the average temperature of the surface of the entire planet. A similarly “modest” global average warming of 3 to 8 degrees Celsius brought Earth out of the frigid depths of the last ice age, utterly transforming the surface of the planet and in the process making it hospitable to the development of human civilization. To risk a further warming of this same magnitude is to risk the possibility of an equally profound transformation of Earth’s surface—only this time the planet’s hospitality to humanity can by no means be taken for granted.
Does that sound like a civilization that's going to change it's tune anytime soon? Maybe we should ask the folks in Davos, or Bill Gates who thinks cell phones will solve everything.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Link Dump

The billionaires and corporate oligarchs meeting in Davos this week are getting worried about inequality. It might be hard to stomach that the overlords of a system that has delivered the widest global economic gulf in human history should be handwringing about the consequences of their own actions. 
But even the architects of the crisis-ridden international economic order are starting to see the dangers. It’s not just the maverick hedge-funder George Soros, who likes to describe himself as a class traitor. Paul Polman, Unilever chief executive, frets about the “capitalist threat to capitalism”. Christine Lagarde, the IMF managing director, fears capitalism might indeed carry Marx’s “seeds of its own destruction” and warns that something needs to be done. 
The scale of the crisis has been laid out for them by the charity Oxfam. Just 80 individuals now have the same net wealth as 3.5 billion people – half the entire global population. Last year, the best-off 1% owned 48% of the world’s wealth, up from 44% five years ago. On current trends, the richest 1% will have pocketed more than the other 99% put together next year. The 0.1% have been doing even better, quadrupling their share of US income since the 1980s.
The Davos oligarchs are right to fear the world they’ve made (Guardian)
When it comes to more regulation or higher taxes, Randers says voters tend to revolt and, as a result, politicians will continue to refuse to take courageous steps for fear of being thrown out of office at the next election. 
“The capitalist system does not help,” says Randers. “Capitalism is carefully designed to allocate capital to the most profitable projects. And this is exactly what we don’t need today. 
“We need investments into more expensive wind and solar power, not into cheap coal and gas. The capitalistic market won’t do this on its own. It needs different frame conditions – alternative prices or new regulation.”
‘It is profitable to let the world go to hell’ (Guardian)
Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty- seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks. 
Just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance. Glenn Wilson, former visiting professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, calls it info-mania. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. And although people ascribe many benefits to marijuana, including enhanced creativity and reduced pain and stress, it is well documented that its chief ingredient, cannabinol, activates dedicated cannabinol receptors in the brain and interferes profoundly with memory and with our ability to concentrate on several things at once. Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot‑smoking. 
In a famous experiment, my McGill colleagues Peter Milner and James Olds, both neuroscientists, placed a small electrode in the brains of rats, in a small structure of the limbic system called the nucleus accumbens. This structure regulates dopamine production and is the region that “lights up” when gamblers win a bet, drug addicts take cocaine, or people have orgasms – Olds and Milner called it the pleasure centre. A lever in the cage allowed the rats to send a small electrical signal directly to their nucleus accumbens. Do you think they liked it? Boy how they did! They liked it so much that they did nothing else. They forgot all about eating and sleeping. Long after they were hungry, they ignored tasty food if they had a chance to press that little chrome bar; they even ignored the opportunity for sex. The rats just pressed the lever over and over again, until they died of starvation and exhaustion. Does that remind you of anything? A 30-year-old man died in Guangzhou (China) after playing video games continuously for three days. Another man died in Daegu (Korea) after playing video games almost continuously for 50 hours, stopped only by his going into cardiac arrest.
Why the modern world is bad for your brain (Guardian)
Eli Lilly charges more than $13,000 a month for Cyramza, the newest drug to treat stomach cancer. The latest medicine for lung cancer, Novartis’s Zykadia, costs almost $14,000 a month. Amgen’s Blincyto, for leukemia, will cost $64,000 a month.

Why? Drug manufacturers blame high prices on the complexity of biology, government regulations and shareholder expectations for high profit margins. In other words, they say, they are hamstrung. But there’s a simpler explanation.

Companies are taking advantage of a mix of laws that force insurers to include essentially all expensive drugs in their policies, and a philosophy that demands that every new health care product be available to everyone, no matter how little it helps or how much it costs. Anything else and we’re talking death panels.

Examples of companies exploiting these fault lines abound. An article in The New England Journal of Medicine last fall focused on how companies buy up the rights to old, inexpensive generic drugs, lock out competitors and raise prices. For instance, albendazole, a drug for certain kinds of parasitic infection, was approved back in 1996. As recently as 2010, its average wholesale cost was $5.92 per day. By 2013, it had risen to $119.58.

Novartis, the company that makes the leukemia drug Gleevec, keeps raising the drug’s price, even though the drug has already delivered billions in profit to the company. In 2001 Novartis charged $4,540, in 2014 dollars, for a month of treatment; now it charges $8,488. In its pricing, Novartis is just keeping up with other companies as they charge more and more for their drugs. They know we can’t say no.

But what if we didn’t require insurance companies to cover all drugs? We can see the answer in Europe. Many European countries say no to a handful of drugs each year, usually those that are both pretty ineffective and highly costly. Because they can say no, yes is not a guarantee. So companies have to offer their drugs at prices that make them attractive to these health care systems. A recent survey of cancer drug policies revealed you don’t have to say no very often to get discounts for saying yes...
Why Drugs Cost So Much (New York Times)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Stoicism and Philosphy

I've written before about how the ideas of Stoicism are the ideal philosophy in times of collapse and unravelling. The above image is a good summary. But a much better story is this article in Aeon Magazine:

Why Stoicism is one of the best mind hacks ever

It also makes me wonder about the difference between religion and philosophy. Most people get their philosophy of how to deal with life through their religious affiliation, which for most Americans is some form of Christianity. But the use of a series of folk tales written by Iron Age shepherds as a basis of modern daily life doesn't seem like a good idea to me. Many people look to leaders in the Christian faith to give them guidance, but often times that guidance comes with a big helping of supernatural beliefs and cultural baggage (demonization of sex, denial of scientific rationality, homophobia, shame, guilt, and so on)

In the past, however, things like Stoicism were expressly designed to help you cope with living in the world, and what the value and meaning of life was. Often times these philosophical schools would also develop scientific theories such as atomism. By contrast, religion was a separate, tribal affair, mainly designed to signal one's ethnic affiliation but with little instructions about how to live day-to-day life. Zeus and Apollo had little to say about that after all, and the extensive rules and demands of the Hebrew patriarchal desert God had no sway over them.

That's why Buddhism is so hard to categorize. It's considered a religion, but is also a philosophy dealing with how to live in the world. To some extent, it is a symbol of the fact that the line between the two is not so easily drawn. It might be said that Buddhism started as a philosophical offshoot from Hinduism that borrowed much of it's vocabulary and symbolism from it, and then developed into a religion over time due to it's cultural importance. People do pray to Buddha as a supernatural being and Buddhists do talk about angelic and demonic beings. However, this is not a requirement for acceptance of many tenets of Buddhism. For some reason, in the West, these two things remained separated by an iron wall. Maybe that's why we have the concept of separation of church and state.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday Night Music - Really Really Old Edition

What Did Ancient Babylonian Songs Sound Like? Something Like This (Newsweek)

Is this the first ever piece of choir music? Earliest piece of sheet music for more than one voice discovered - and sung - after 1,100 years (Daily Mail)

Archaeologists unearth oldest musical instruments ever found ( Go to link for sound file.

Against Basic Income

Since I’ve been writing here over the years, one consistent issue has been the removal of jobs through automation, or to be more accurate, the prevention of creating a sufficient number of jobs to employ the number of people who need to work by various digital measures including automation, self-service, online ordering, offshoring, etc. Put more simply, if a society develops a system where most people need to sell their labor power in order to survive, and then you do not give them sufficient opportunities to do that, then there is a problem.

One of the proposed solutions is an unconditional guaranteed income to all people. Often this is proposed as something distinct from employment. This goes by various names such as UBI (Universal Basic Income); GMI (Guaranteed Minimum Income; BIG (Basic Income Guarantee); or sometimes a Negative Income Tax (you are taxed over a certain income, and given money under a certain income).

Naked Capitalism has recently published a couple of provocative essays arguing that this is a very bad idea. Their concerns are worth noting. On December, they published this article by the Huffington Post:

This City Eliminated Poverty, And Nearly Everyone Forgot About It (Huffington Post) WHich told the story of Dauphin Manatoba, a town in Canada where everyone was given a minimum income with good results. I've mentioned this before. NC added this coda, however: "As we will discuss next week, a much larger scale, 40 year experiment produced the opposite result, allowing employers to keep wages low and producing pauperization of the poor and greater wage disparity. Note that is the conclusion of a prominent socialist."

On January 7th they published: Tech Titans Promoting Basic Income Guarantee as a Way to Shrink Government, Kill Social Programs.

They refer to this article by Vice, in which Silicon Valley thinkers promote such schemes. Why would ultra-wealthy, ultra-libertarians promote such an idea? NC argues it's a way to shrink government, since all means-tested programs would be eliminated. They also think that it provides a way to subsidize programmers coming up with new ideas. They point out that it doesn't necessarily have to involve government:
 One might not expect such enthusiasm for no-strings-attached money in a room full of libertarian-leaning investors. But for entrepreneurial sorts like these, welfare doesn't necessarily require a welfare state. One of the attendees at the Singularity meeting was founder Marshall Brain, who had outlined his vision for basic income in a novella published on his website called Manna. The book tells the story of a man who loses his fast-food job to software, only to find salvation in a basic-income utopia carved out of the Australian Outback by a visionary startup CEO. There, basic income means people have the free time to tinker with the kinds of projects that might be worthy of venture capital, creating the society of rogue entrepreneurs that tech culture has in mind. Waldman refers to basic income as "VC for the people."
Why the Tech Elite Is Getting Behind Universal Basic Income (Vice)

And, they say it will lead to lower wages:
... its main results were to drive wages lower, since employers treated the income guarantee as a reason to pay workers less. Instead of having just WalMart and other employers who rely on government programs to bring inadequate wage rates up to a survival level, that type of corporate welfare would be extended and institutionalized. And another result was a widening of the gulf between the rich and poor, with the lower orders pauperized and deskilled and the rich and merchant classes regarding them with contempt. When this system was dismantled, the new laws put in place were draconian and turned large swathes of the public that had depended on support into beggars.

As Lambert points out, a basic income guarantee simply subsidizes consumption. It does not allow for democratic influence over the labor market. If you think any income guarantee level, even if it starts out as adequate, will remain so for any length of time, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. Just look at how Social Security, which can easily have any long-term funding issues fixed with relatively minor tweaks like raising the cap on income subject to tax, is instead being stealthily gutted with ruses like chained CPI.

Ironically, the feature we often decry about indirect subsidies or housing programs, like food stamps or Medicare or subsidies for housing for the poor, that they too often do more for the corporate beneficiaries than their intended recipients, provides them with political support outside the sections of society that believe in social safety nets. Straight up transfers are much more vulnerable to being slashed quickly, as opposed to being reformulated over time to increase the looting-to-service-content ratio.
The following week they published another article about the Speenhamland system which Karl Polanyi discusses at great length in his magnum opus, The Great Transformation:
The idea of a basic income guarantee is very popular with readers, more so that the notion of a job guarantee. Yet as we have mentioned in passing, this very sort of program was put in place on a large-scale basis in the past. Initially, it was very popular. However, in the long run it proved to be destructive to the recipients while tremendously beneficial to employers, who used the income support to further lower wages, thus increasing costs to the state and further reducing incentives to work. And when the system was dismantled, it was arguably the working poor, as opposed to the ones who had quit working altogether, who were hurt the most.

It is also intriguing that this historical precedent is likely to resemble a a contemporary version of a basic income guarantee. Even though some readers call for a stipend to everyone, that simply is not going to happen, at least in terms of net results. It is massively inflationary, since most of it would fuel consumption. More consumption means more environmental damage: more strip mining of the planet, more chemicals, more greenhouse gas emissions, more plastic containers and other waste. Increased consumption also means more profit for the CEO class without necessarily improving the wage share of national income, hence no better and likely worse income inequality.

Taxes would therefore need to be increased to offset those effects. The best tax outcome you could expect would be a progressive tax on income. Thus the end result in a best-case scenario would be tantamount to a means-tested BIG, graduated so as to avoid any sudden cutoff for someone who wanted to work. Thus the result (whether achieved directly or indirectly) is likely to resemble Milton Friedman’s negative income tax, with the zero tax rate set at a living wage level.

The experiment was the Speenhamland system, which was implemented in England 1795 and dismantled in 1834, was intended to make sure that country laborers had enough income to live. It was intended as an emergency measure to help the poor when grain prices had risen sharply due to meager harvests. The justices of Berkshire decided to offer income support to supplement wages, with the amount set in relation to the price of bread and the number of children in the household, so that the destitute would have a minimum income no matter what they earned.

Even though it was never codified as law, the Speenhamland approach was adopted in country towns all across England and in a weaker form in some factory towns. It was widely seen as a “right to live.” It was neither universal nor consistently implemented, but it nevertheless appears to have been fairly widespread. It reached its peak during the Napoleonic Wars, and was wound down in many small towns before it was effectively abolished by the new Poor Law of 1834. Not surprisingly, the Speenhamland system existed in its strongest and most durable embodiment in areas where the threat of violence by the impoverished was real. But another reason it lasted as long as it did despite the costs it imposed on local landlords was it kept the poor in place with their wages fixed at a bare subsistence level. Rural property owners wanted to keep workers from decamping to towns and cities in search of better paid employment. A smaller pool of local laborers would lead to higher wage levels.

Karl Polanyi explains how a well-[intentioned] program over time proved damaging to the very group it was intended to help....
The Failure of a Past Basic Income Guarantee, the Speenhamland System (Naked capitalism)

Richard Wolff, in his Economic Update show, was recently asked whether welfare and charity actually do more harm then good by underwriting and allowing capitalism to continue. His answer was "yes," and his comments raised some good related points:
1.) "You prevent revolution this way. It's been well understood ever since the German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck started modern welfare system and even further back in terms of private charity. If you don't help people with nothing, then they have nothing to lose, and at that point their desperation, their resentment, their anger at the injustices they've suffered and the poverty they have to endure and the health and death it threatens in them [sic] can make them very bitter, very angry, and very socially disruptive. One of the functions of charity and one of the functions of welfare has always been to keep the poor from becoming revolutionaries and rebels. Give them something to lose. Make them dependent."

2.) "No sooner is a welfare system set up, then a struggle begins between the people in the middle, and the people at the top, about who's going to pay the costs of providing food, clothing, shelter, welfare, to poor people. And given the power wielded by the richest, given the power wielded by the corporations, you can be quite sure that, sooner or later, they will shift more and more of the cost of welfare and of charity onto the middle and lower classes. That creates, then, a burden for the middle and lower classes and a resentment on their part against the poor because they have to pay for it."

"And this divides middle and lower income people on the one hand from the poor. And that creates tensions between them, and they fight and are bitter against each other; then they could be as allies to change the system so that they wouldn't be in this situation in the first place. So it's kind of a social control mechanism that sets one part of the working class that has a job and has an income, against the other part that doesn't have a job or doesn't have a decent income."

3.) "To keep those who get it in a very dependent and unattractive state. You go to where welfare recipients mostly live, you'll see. You look at the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the opportunities they don't have, the neighborhoods they live in, and so forth and so on. And it's kind of a lesson, isn't it? It's a way of terrorizing, of scaring working people, by saying, 'you all know where in your town to go to see what it's like if you don't keep your job, if you don't keep your income. So behave properly, do what the boss tells you, because if you don't have a job, you will live like them.'"
"And so there's a function of disciplining the workforce, that part that's actually working and has a decent income, by constantly showing them how unattractive life would be if they had to live like those on welfare."

4.) "By having the welfare folks isolated, living in poor conditions, it becomes easier to depict their problems as their own fault, not the problems of a society that hasn't got jobs for the people who live in it. That doesn't pay decent income for work done. No, no, no, you're not supposed to think that the problem lies in a system, you're supposed to blame the victims of a system that doesn't provide work."
"That's why the answer to charity and welfare is not to give more or less of it, which is the debate we have so often. The real answer, if you don't deny the problem, in  the economics of denial, is to recognize what the solution obviously is. Which is: give everybody a job, and give them a job at a decent income. That's what the people on welfare want, that's what they've always wanted. They don't want to be looked down on. They don't want to live apart. they don't want to live in those conditions. The notion that they wouldn't give that up because they don't want to work is a fantasy of denial on the part of the people who don't want to face the fact that they live in an economic system that is so irrational that it keeps people from working and then gives them the food, clothing and shelter to survive without working."

"You know, there's a simple law in economics. If the people on welfare who are able or are not ill, or incapacitated somehow, obviously we're not talking about them, but if the able-bodied people on welfare, without work, who number in the millions in the United States and in many other countries, if they were given work, then the money they got - the pay, the decent pay - would be more than compensated by the fruits of their labor. We would be better off because we, those who are working, give to those who have no jobs, if we employ them, what we give them as a wage is then repaid by the goods and services they produce. When they're on welfare we give them food, clothing, shelter, but we don't get much back, do we? It's irrational not to put folks to work."

"And do we have the raw materials, tool and equipment? the Federal Reserve says twenty percent of our tools, equipment, and raw materials are sitting idle. So if you're wondering, is there the machinery, are there the raw materials for them to work with, the answer is an unqualified 'yes.' Are there good things to do in our society? Another unqualified yes. Rebuild our cities. Provide real day care, take care of the old people; we have a list as long as your arm. But this is a system that can't work this out. That doesn't provide work to the people who want it. That doesn't provide a decent income to the people who need it. And then turns around and to keep them docile gives them welfare which they don't need, makes them a community apart, undermines their self esteem, this is a system that doesn't work, and nothing shows it so much as this crazy idea of not giving people work who want it, work that would give us the fruits of their labor, which by the way in this country would be in the trillions of dollars, and instead condemns a part of the population to live the life of welfare recipient pauper. Nothing indicts capitalism as starkly as that irrationality."
Economic Update, 1-1-2015 38:00

So the preferred solution for Naked Capitalism and Richard Wolff is a job guarantee for all people:
I’m at a loss to understand reader objection to the idea of a job guarantee. It would either price many McJobs out of existence or convert them back to their old form, of being part-time positions for young people still in school. It would similarly increase compensation for important jobs like home health care workers that now pay rock-bottom wages. It would make it harder for retailers to continue their abusive practice of requiring workers to be on call. And there is no dearth of meaningful work that needs to done: providing universal day care, better elder and hospice care; replanting forests; building wildlife tunnels; maintaining and improving parks; repairing and upgrading infrastructure with an eye to energy efficiency. These are all ways of increasing national output in a manner which can also improve the environment. If we had more enlightened leadership, a Marshall Plan to retool the economy to reduce energy consumption and convert more sources to cleaner ones would be a high-priority target for Job Guarantee workers.

People need a sense of purpose and social engagement. Employment provides that. History is rife with examples of the rich who fail to find a productive outlet and and whose lives were consumed by addictions or other self-destructive behavior. Ironically, we have the veneer of having less of that due to the prevalence of the new rich (CEOs, elite [financiers], tech titans) tend to be a workaholic lot* (that serves as the rationalization as to why they deserve their lucre).

Too many of the fantasies about a basic income guarantee seem to revolve around a tiny minority, like the individual who will write a great novel on his stipend. Let’s be real: the overwhelming majority of people who think they might like to write a book don’t have the [self-discipline] to do so in the absence of external pressure. And that’s before you get to the question of whether it will turn out to be good enough for anyone but the author to want to read it.

When unions provided an wage anchor for factory labor, the US had less income disparity and more class mobility. Under Speenhamland, income disparity widened and real wages fell. Low end service jobs are the modern analogy to former blue collar work. Even with greater automation, many of those jobs will remain. The alternative of job choice with a job guarantee will force wages higher and improve working conditions. It would provide pressure on employers as labor unions once did. And it will add a bit more to individual freedom by giving them more employment options.

A jobs guarantee and a basic income guarantee are not either/or propositions, contrary to the claims of many readers. Job guarantee proponents see it as an addition to, not a substitute for, other social safety nets, such as unemployment insurance and Social Security. For instance, Joe Firestone has argued for a basic income guarantee in addition to a job guarantee, with the income level for the basic income guarantee set at 2/3 the rate of a full time job under the job guarantee. 
I think Wolff's #2 point is the biggest issue. We've already seen how the wealthy push the costs of social programs off of the investor class and onto the shrinking portion of the working classes that still have jobs. Since working class incomes are being squeezed ever harder, the wealthy turn around and say the problem is all the taxes paid to support the "parasites" and "freeloaders" who are getting free money, despite the United States' threadbare safety net. Then the rich decry the "dependency" on the government, despite the fact that workers would be just as "dependent" on any private sector employer as the are on the government (never mind the fact that the rich are just as dependent upon government through corporate welfare, subsidies, etc.). In the United States, the racial element is there as well ("Chedda gets cheddar").

But the problem with Wolff's rant is when he says "we" give people a job. Who exactly is the "we" he is talking about? I'm certainly not able to give anyone a job. I think he means the government, even though he does not say so explicitly.

But we've been told for years ad nauseum by the Republican party that "the government can't create jobs!" This is self-evidently ridiculous, as government is the largest employer in the country (Federal, State & local). We're also constantly told that government jobs are "wasteful" and the work that government employees do is somehow illegitimate, and a "burden" on the private sector. Government jobs and government employees are constantly excoriated, belittled and berated in the media. Why is this?

It's simple, and it also has to do with dependency. By being dependent on the private sector, and the private sector alone, to provide employment to people, they have all the power. We are under their control. That's how this new meme that the rich are "the job creators" can be perpetrated. But as Nick Hanauer has pointed out, the wealthy don't "create" jobs like some of sort of charity, they hire people to increase their profits if the demand is there, and only then. As we've seen, the "job creators" do everything in their power to not create jobs; to give work to cheaper foreign employees, to import cheaper workers (H1-B visas), to demand unpaid overtime and internships, to force customers to use self-service (kiosks, online ordering), or to automate with robots and software. Why are we delegating job creation to an element in society whose every incentive is to destroy as many jobs as possible, and thus increase corporate profits (as well as lower job quality)? When companies conduct mass layoffs, their stock price always goes up (although if the overall employment rate goes up, the stock market goes down - ponder that for a minute!)

By casting themselves as the "job creators," the  wealthy can constantly blackmail the rest of society to give them a never-ending series of tax breaks, cuts, and subsidies so that they will take pity on us and toss us some jobs from their imaginary bottomless pile of jobs. And this view is constantly promoted by Neoliberal economics (market=good, government=bad) and their spokespeople (right-wing politicians, Fox news, economists, etc.). If the government can create good jobs at good pay, then we are no longer dependent on them, and thus helpless. And that's exactly where the wealthy and powerful elites want us - under their control, helpless and dependent upon them to provide society the "charity" of the jobs that we need to survive and with no other recourse.

So when you hear about how "we" can put people to work, keep in mind who "we" really is, and what the difficulties with that are. The wealthy know that if we take control of putting people to work to do what we deem socially necessary, we will no longer be dependent upon them and they will lose some of their power. That is why they will do everything possible to make sure we don't realize this by pushing the "government can't create jobs" line via the "big lie" technique - if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.

The other concern I have is the fact that so many of the jobs we have now are what David Graeber calls "bullshit jobs" - jobs that are not at all beneficial to society and are actually socially harmful. How many people have jobs today only because of these industries (e.g. prison guards, telemarketing, medical billing and coding, ambulance-chasing lawyers, etc.) As Graeber points out, we are essentially creating jobs just for people to have a way to earn money to live, rather than to fulfill any socially, or even economically, necessary purpose. My fear is that the jobs programs promoted by Wolff and Naked Capitalism will lead to even more of this nonsense. That is, it plays into the idea that we have to justify our existence on this planet by doing a "job" no matter how demeaning, useless, unnecessary or ridiculous. Do we really need more of that? Graeber:
Obviously it's not like people are sitting around in a room saying, you know, "Let's think up pointless jobs!" but it is true that people who talk about economic policy talk about creating employment but never talk about whether that employment is meaningful or not.

This completely contradicts what should happen in a capitalist system. You know, we're used to thinking of the Soviet Union as an economy where they had an ideology of full employment and they had to make up jobs for people that were completely unnecessary and pointless; you'd go to a cashier and one gives you a ticket and another does something else and another something else – they were constantly making up these pointless jobs. It's understandable that this would happen in an economy that is based on the principle of work as a value unto itself and full employment and so forth and so on. But in a capitalist society, paying somebody to do nothing is the very last thing you'd expect a firm to do, but in fact they do and often you can observe it.

I remember being very struck by Dostoyevsky, who was in a Russian prison camp, and he said if you really want to destroy someone psychologically, much worse than through physical torture, just make up a completely meaningless form of work. You know, have them take water from some giant vat and then move it back to the first vat again. Have them do that all day and before long even the most hardened criminal will be utterly despairing of life, because there's nothing more horrible than devoting one's life to something completely meaningless. I mean, you know, sure, there will be some freeloaders, but we've got more freeloaders right now.