Thursday, April 30, 2015

Has Globalization Jumped the Shark?

A funny thing happened on the way to Neoliberal globalization utopia:
...[G]lobalization...was supposed to act like a rising tide, lifting all boats in poor and rich countries alike. Buoyed by hundreds of thousands of new assembly line jobs courtesy of multinationals in emerging nations, the middle class would swell, which in turn would propel higher local consumption. More factories would be needed to meet the demand, further raising local standards of living and handing the largest non-domestic companies a vast and enthusiastic new customer base. Meanwhile, in the United States and Europe, consumers would have their pick of inexpensive items made by people thousands of miles away whose pay was much lower than theirs. And in time trade barriers would drop to support even more multinational expansion and economic gains while geopolitical cooperation would flourish.

The shortcomings of globalization manifest in any number of ways. For one thing, international trading patterns point to an increase in protectionist attitudes rather than a golden age of open borders...Moreover, the recovery in world trade volume is much slower in this post-recession period than prior ones...Somewhat surprisingly, cross-border capital flows are equally foreign direct investment (which reflects the amount that companies earmark for doing business in other countries) has fallen to a mere 2 percent of global GDP from 4 percent before the recession.

Western corporations — hoping to find new fast-growth revenue channels and inexpensive manufacturing opportunities to augment mature, developed economies at home — moved to set up shop in far-flung regions like China, Brazil, Russia and India, where the greatest GDP gains were anticipated, as well as in so-called second tier emerging nations such as Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Nigeria.

Yet despite all this activity and enthusiasm, hardly any of the promised returns from globalization have materialized, and what was until recently a taboo topic inside multinationals — to wit, should we reconsider, even rein in, our global growth strategy? — has become an urgent, if still hushed, discussion.

...vast new consumer markets in globalized nations have not emerged either. For example, Chinese household consumption accounts for about 34 percent of GDP — down four points in the past decade — compared to a healthier 70 percent in the United States....There are myriad reasons why these markets have lagged, some of them unique to specific countries or regions. For instance, China’s one-child policy has produced a penurious generation of young adults who are the sole support for aging family members. And in parts of Southeast Asia and Africa the infrastructure in rural areas, where much of the population lives, is too primitive to support extensive retail activities. But equally problematic is that the growth of the middle class in China and most other developing economies has been slow. And these newly minted consumers face volatile, often expensive prices for housing, food and other staples. “The biggest contribution to Chinese growth for many years has been government investments, about 50 percent of GDP, off the charts compared to any country in the world ever...”

To protect the marketshare of domestic firms, emerging nations have attacked foreign multinationals....In the past year, as many as 30 multinationals were placed under investigation — some were penalized and others raided — by Chinese government authorities for any number of dubious infractions...Last August, Russia shuttered four McDonald’s locations in Moscow, the chain’s busiest stores in the country, citing sanitary violations. Russian authorities produced little evidence; the step came after sanctions were imposed by the West for Russia’s role in destabilizing Ukraine.

Less visible but arguably more harmful are cyber strikes. In 2013, at least 3,000 U.S. companies were victims of data theft and network disruptions, according to published reports. In some cases, the hackers are believed to have ties to rogue regimes in Asia and Eastern Europe and their aim appears to be to destabilize global commerce... state-owned enterprises, or SOEs... are financially backed by central and local governments and are notorious for crony capitalism in which they gain access to local contracts, markets and capital unavailable to foreign firms. ...Well over half of all companies in China, Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, to name a few, count their governments as stakeholders. These enterprises — in mining, telecom, banking, construction, manufacturing and even retail — receive preferential treatment in lending rates, government investment and subsidies with little accountability for their results.
The great unraveling of globalization (Washington Post)

Given the corporate gutting of  the West's middle classes, they have staked everything on the Chinese consumer to heroically consume enough to expand profits. The Chinese are letting them down. Maybe they need some exhortatory posters with Chairman Mao whipping out his credit card and buying buying a new iPad. "Do your part! Consume heroically for the good of us all!" Ignore the toxic air and water while you're at it.

In fact, the Chinese are living up to their reputation for inscrutability: no one seems to know how fast their economy is really growing at all. Some people studying the energy figures think it's much lower than advertised. Uh-oh!

To the Apple Store!!!!!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Shrinking Circles of Prosperity

On an episode of the C-Realm podcast, KMO interviewed the author of Manna, Marshall Brain:
[34:00] KMO (host): I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s book Who Owns the Future? And a big part of his thesis is that a lot of these tech fortunes that have been amassed in recent decades are the result of systematic accounting fraud made possible by technology. He says that lots of jobs are being pushed from the formal sector into the informal sector and lots of work that should be paid work is being pushed into the unpaid category. The obvious examples are things like Facebook. Facebook is of no value to Mark Zuckerberg and his investors without the users, and yet the users who are expected to contribute all of the content to the site are not paid for their efforts. And you ask what will people be doing when there’s all this jobless technology, well, they’ll be doing something like Facebook, but if it’s not paid, then our economic system is not viable, because for businesses to exist there has to be people earning livings who can by the things that those businesses sell. 
Marshall Brain (guest): Indeed. And so, just to expand a bit on what you said, capitalism in general is –I have not figured out the right word for what capitalism is – but it’s a set of rules that on their surface make sense, but underneath don’t make sense at all. And that whole little scene you painted about Facebook is a perfect example of that where someone is able to make huge amounts of money through ownership and everyone else is cut out of that, and we all accept it, I think, because on the surface it does seem right. But underneath it’s not quite right, and there’s quite a bit of brainwashing that occurs that makes us complacent about how unnatural and unfair the fundamental rules of capitalism are. 
So I don’t know that I’ve answered your question, but it is a really…you know, you said people aren’t going to have money and therefore they’re not going to spend it in the economy and therefore you would think that the people who need customers would be alarmed by that. But then you look out ant the world and you realize that about half the population of the planet doesn’t participate in the economy in a real way either. And they could all be empowered to participate in the economy but we don’t do that. Instead the tendency is to concentrate wealth which inevitably lowers the ability of the rank and file to consume. And that is not in the best interests of the people who are concentrating wealth if they looked at it with a broad vision, but they aren’t looking at it that way,. They’re looking at it from a very selfish standpoint that is enabled by the rules of capitalism. And it’s like I’m going to take whatever I can get and screw everyone else. And that’s the society we live in. 
KMO: well that is a very interesting response because I noticed in your Robotic Nation series you don’t make any overt criticism of capitalism, you don’t name it although it seems that so much of what you are writing, particularly the bit that I read aloud is an implied criticism of capitalism. 
When you went to the Singularity summit, a good many of the people there are the beneficiaries of this concentration of wealth and a lot of the other people there are the wannabes. And they are certainly not open to the notion that the system by which these large fortunes are being amassed is one that is based on unfairness. 
I spent time recently with the family of my girlfriend who are all staunch Republicans who were born Jewish in the Soviet Union and got out in the eighties and who worship Ronald Reagan. There’s no talking to them about any of the issues that we’re discussing here. Their narrative that they adhere to with just fanatical zeal is that people in a capitalist system, they get what they deserve. They earn what they deserve to earn. The money they make is a reflection of how much value they put into the system. And the fact that more and more people are struggling is symptomatic to them of a moral malaise where people are just too lazy to work. And it’s a self-reinforcing, self-congratulatory narrative and it’s very seductive. And I don’t think that the  folks who assemble at the Singularity summit are necessarily Fox News consumers, but they do have a particular self-justifying narrative that is very hard to shake them out of and I don’t know that there’s really any point in trying to shake them out of it. But as more and more people are displaced, and more and more people who used to have a secure retirement lined up, or used to have a reliable income no longer do, I think there’s an opportunity to spread a message, and I’m just hoping over time to begin to pick up the pieces that allow me to articulate that message.
KMO’s description at the end is, I think, the fundamental justification behind support for capitalism. It goes by a variety of names – the "Just World Fallacy," "Just Desserts," etc. I’ll have more to say about that later.

For now I want to focus on Mr. Brain’s assertion -  why are there so many outside the economy in the twenty-first century?  Why are so many people “cut out” as Brain puts it, of wealth production? This system for “generating wealth” has been around for 150 years, at least. Why are there still so many people outside of the global economy at this stage of the game? See this: Five billion people 'have no access to safe surgery' (BBC)

It’s often argued that you cannot have an economy where only the rich can afford to buy stuff. But is that really the case?

That is, you need a mass market, under capitalism the thinking goes. By definition capitalism must create broadly shared prosperity because it needs to pay workers enough to buy the products that they produce. The idea of an economy where a tiny amount of people do all the earning and all the consuming while the great mass of people are outside the system - useless as workers or consumers and struggle just to get by, is impossible, according to this line of thinking.

But on a global scale, in essence, this is exactly what we already have!

Of course, the big repudiation here is the great “emerging middle classes” of China and India, especially. However, it should be noted that China and India also have the most poor people. Internationally, inequality has gone down even as it has gone up intranationally. This is just the natural workings of the market  we are told – nothing to be done.
…about 69% of Indians live on less than US$2 per day: 850 million people. A third of Chinese, 400 million, remain similarly poor despite the country’s amazing success in reducing poverty. Together those two countries contain more poor people than there are Africans.

That is, capitalism seems to have this tendency only to sell to people who can already afford it. Just as the popular Tea Party slogan goes, “no poor person ever offered me a job,” we can also say that “no poor person ever bought any of my products.” It doesn't make sense to sell to poor people because they can’t afford what you’re selling. It seems like every advertisement is targeted to the already affluent – to get them to buy yet another product, a second car for junior, perhaps, or an Apple Watch, or a computer system that lets them adjust their thermostat from their smart phone. These people not needy, but they are the only ones whose living standards are going up, while most people increasingly can’t even afford to partake in the consumer economy at all.

It is often said that the large amounts of hard-working poor in China and India is just a temporary condition – that once enough time passes (someday…), wealth will trickle down such that even the poorest of the poor will have lifestyles their ancestors could only dream of!

But if that were true, why are we cutting every-more people out of wealth production in mature industrial capitalist economies? Why are living standards going down? Why are families poorer on average in America? Why is workforce participation dropping? Why have lifespans stalled, or even gone into reverse, for most people outside of the wealthy in mature Western economies? Why do we assume that eventually the poorest will prosper when we are already going in reverse in the places where capitalism has been around the longest? That which had trickled down once upon a time is now busily being Hoovered back up.

If, globally we cut a huge portion of the human race out of production (the masses of India, Africa, Latin America, etc.), what is stopping us from doing the same domestically? What’s to stop us from an economy where 10-15 percent buy ever more stuff because only they can afford it, and the rest of us consume hardly anything and have the living standards of a Bangladeshi bricklayer? Why do we just assume this can’t be a natural outcome of globalism? If living standards are falling for us outside of a small minority, why do we assume they must expand for the Chinese and Indian masses?

I think people ignore this possibility.

Besides, if everyone becomes a middle class American, who will  make our toys, shoes and T-shirts? Certainly not middle class people – then we couldn't afford them! We need cheap labor, so aren't we lying to ourselves when we say that capitalism will eliminate poverty? Yes, robots and all that, but then where will the jobs to “lift yourself up” come from?
…the current economic system relies on cheapness. Capitalism functions partly via its ability to maintain low wages. Why has global inflation been so low over the past decade or more? Partly, the China effect, whereby the opening up of huge untapped labour markets meant that whole Western industries could outsource their manufacturing and that new local manufacturers could emerge. China’s rural poor keep Foxconn workers on their toes – if you don’t like assembling iPhones at US$18 for a 10-hour day (much higher than it used to be) 1000 people are waiting to take your place. 
Nairobi’s Kibera slum-dwellers and rural poor keep wages low by functioning as a reserve army of labour willing to work for peanuts. In Haiti garment manufacturers recently argued that a minimum wage rise to the equivalent of five dollars a day would kill their business.
People think that broadly shared prosperity and high living standards for all are just inevitable features of capitalism. They assume that because a mass market is needed, the raises will eventually come. But the last 30+ years show that this is false. See this – Big Mac test shows job market is not working to distribute wealth (NYTimes). China and India may be exception, but eventually they will follow the same pattern. The rich will become a self-perpetuating closed caste, with no more admission. Everybody else will be trapped where they are. Statistics say that while individual people may more up or down, but overall poverty levels will be “locked in,” (since people will be moving down as well as moving up).

Thus it seems like the natural workings of capitalism is not to expand the consumer market, or create new small merchants, but to cut people out of the market entirely. But can this be self-sustaining - a permanent overclass and an underclass – the aristocracy and the masses, forever?

Why not? As we've seen, billions of people are already outside the global economy. And most human societies effectively functioned that way for most of human history. Why should we expect something different under capitalism?

Anyway, just thinking out loud.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Civilization Without Fossil Fuels

Today, we have already consumed the most easily drainable crude oil and, particularly in Britain, much of the shallowest, most readily mined deposits of coal. Fossil fuels are central to the organisation of modern industrial society, just as they were central to its development. Those, by the way, are distinct roles: even if we could somehow do without fossil fuels now (which we can’t, quite), it’s a different question whether we could have got to where we are without ever having had them.

So, would a society starting over on a planet stripped of its fossil fuel deposits have the chance to progress through its own Industrial Revolution? Or to phrase it another way, what might have happened if, for whatever reason, the Earth had never acquired its extensive underground deposits of coal and oil in the first place? Would our progress necessarily have halted in the 18th century, in a pre-industrial state?

Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels? And the answer to that question is: maybe – but it would be extremely difficult. Let’s see how.
Out of the ashes (Aeon). Fascinating article about culture and technology. It’s a point I like to make: there is nothing that we do with fossil fuels today that we cannot theoretically do without them. What is really at stake is not the ability to use technology but the scale of our civilization – the size of our populations, consumption levels, trade networks, political systems, etc. A lot of us argue that these have gotten too big already anyway, and shrinking them down voluntarily or not would be a good thing for most people (except for elites at the top of the pyramid). But there's no technology to my knowledge that absolutely requires fossil fuels and has no substitute.

However, it is doubtful we ever would have achieved our current level of technological sophistication had we not unlocked the energy contained in fossil fuels. It’s a sort of feedback loop: more energy = more surplus = more people = more people a society can support as scientists = more discovery = more intensification = more energy = more surplus.

That is, we got to where we are because we were no longer confined to the harnessing of photosynthetic energy via topsoil. This allowed society to balloon to gigantic proportions that it would not have done otherwise. Then there’s the raiding of the surpluses of the New World and elsewhere by Europeans, which proved the raw materials for the Industrial Revolution (timber, cotton, ores).

The article points out that fossil fuels are used for two principal purposes. 1.) to generate electricity, and 2.) to generate heat for industrial applications such as smelting, heavy manufacturing, etc. These correspond roughly to the first and second industrial revolutions.
When people talk about replacing fossil fuels via solar panels, they are usually referring to using them in the first instance. This is replaceable via sold-state technologies such as solar panels, and fuel cells.or using some other motive power such as windmills and hydroelectric/wave power (essentially both fluid mediums). 
They forget about the second, Heavy manufacturing of solar panels, steel, concrete, glass, silicon, or pretty much anything else, required large amounts of heat.
You can’t smelt metal, make glass, roast the ingredients of concrete, or synthesise artificial fertiliser without a lot of heat. It is fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – that provide most of this thermal energy. 
If you find yourself among the survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, you could scavenge enough working solar panels to keep your lifestyle electrified for a good long while. Without moving parts, photovoltaic cells require little maintenance and are remarkably resilient. They do deteriorate over time, though, from moisture penetrating the casing and from sunlight itself degrading the high-purity silicon layers. The electricity generated by a solar panel declines by about 1 per cent every year so, after a few generations, all our hand-me-down solar panels will have degraded to the point of uselessness. Then what?
New ones would be fiendishly difficult to create from scratch. Solar panels are made from thin slices of extremely pure silicon, and although the raw material is common sand, it must be processed and refined using complex and precise techniques – the same technological capabilities, more or less, that we need for modern semiconductor electronics components. These techniques took a long time to develop, and would presumably take a long time to recover. So photovoltaic solar power would not be within the capability of a society early in the industrialisation process.
Which leads to the following conclusion which for me was the most thought-provoking part of the article:
In our own historical development, it so happens that the core phenomena of electricity were discovered in the first half of the 1800s, well after the early development of steam engines. Heavy industry was already committed to combustion-based machinery, and electricity has largely assumed a subsidiary role in the organisation of our economies ever since. But could that sequence have run the other way? Is there some developmental requirement that thermal energy must come first?
Which makes me wonder – what if the principles of electricity generation and harnessing had come first? Theoretically, they were always there to discover, with or without fossil fuels.The Baghdad Battery is an enticing clue that there might have been at least some rudimentary understanding of electricity in ancient times.

In other words, could the second industrial revolution have happened before, or in place of the first?
In Mumfordian terms, could we have leaped directly to the Neotechnic era from the Eotechnic area without the interventing Paleotechnic era? Could we have bypassed Megatechnics in favor of something simpler?

For example, many people know that the internal combustion engine preceded the widespread use of petroleum. The first gasoline engines ran on vegetable oil. Today, fryer grease and cooking oil can be recycled into biodiesel. Henry Ford was a great proponent of expanding soybean production because he wanted to use it as the feedstock to design the bodies of his cars.
The early diesel engines had complex injection systems and were designed to run on many different fuels, from kerosene to coal dust. It was only a matter of time before someone recognized that, because of their high energy content, vegetable oils would make excellent fuel. The first public demonstration of vegetable oil based diesel fuel was at the 1900 World’s Fair, when the French government commissioned the Otto company to build a diesel engine to run on peanut oil. The French government was interested in vegetable oils as a domestic fuel for their African colonies. Rudolph Diesel later did extensive work on vegetable oil fuels and became a leading proponent of such a concept, believing that farmers could benefit from providing their own fuel. However, it would take almost a century before such an idea became a widespread reality. Shortly after Dr. Diesel’s death in 1913 petroleum became widely available in a variety of forms, including the class of fuel we know today as “diesel fuel”. With petroleum being available and cheap, the diesel engine design was changed to match the properties of petroleum diesel fuel. The result was an engine which was fuel efficient and very powerful. For the next 80 years diesel engines would become the industry standard where power, economy and reliability are required.
Diesel engines can operate on a variety of different fuels, depending on configuration, though the eponymous diesel fuel derived from crude oil is most common. The engines can work with the full spectrum of crude oil distillates, from natural gas, alcohols, petrol, wood gas to the fuel oils from diesel oil to residual fuels. Many automotive diesel engines would run on 100% biodiesel without any modifications. This would be such a potential advantage since biodiesel can be made so much more cheaply than it takes to have traditional diesel fuel from your fuel station's pump...Pure plant oils are increasingly being used as a fuel for cars, trucks and remote combined heat and power generation especially in Germany where hundreds of decentralised small- and medium-sized oil presses cold press oilseed, mainly rapeseed, for fuel.

I’m going from memory here, so please correct me if I got anything wrong, but all of this is detailed in David Blume’s encyclopedic ethanol tome, “Alcohol Can Be a Gas.” Blume’s book devises a method by which the by-products of farming can produce significant amounts of ethanol without taking land out of production and without the massive inputs of fossil fuels utilized to make ethanol today. That is, it is theoretically possible to have a net-positive EROEI production of alcohol fuel for engines without taking land out of production (although much less EROEI than petroleum provides, or course). If corn were first fermented, its starch could be used for alcohol and the remainder fed to cattle — far more efficient for food, fuel and land use.

Could this fuel have powered an alternative industrial revolution without fossil fuels? Complex gearing and high manufacturing tolerances were already an outcome of clock making. Could medieval tinkerers and gearmakers have put together rudimentary internal combustion engines powered by alcohol and vegetable oil? Could cars and trucks have been zooming along the old Roman roads between cities in the Middle Ages? Of course, the tricky thing here is rubber –as Lewis Mumford points out, a critical and often missed component of modern industry. No rubber, no hoses and no tires. However, there is some evidence that bicycles we invented during the medieval/early modern period. See:

Bikes can be made out of wood:

Easy-to-ride pedal-less wooden bike revives an early form of bicycling (Treehugger)

Ajiro Bamboo Velobike: A "Grown Vehicle" That's Farmed, Not Factory-Made (Treehugger)

Could pedal-powered farms, factories, washing machines and motors have made an appearance back in the Middle Ages? How would that have changed history?
When mechanical clockwork finally took off, it spread fast. In the first decades of the 14th century, it became so ubiquitous that, in 1324, the treasurer of Lincoln Cathedral offered a substantial donation to build a new clock, to address the embarrassing problem that ‘the cathedral was destitute of what other cathedrals, churches, and convents almost everywhere in the world are generally known to possess’. It’s tempting, then, to see the rise of the mechanical clock as a kind of overnight success. 
But technological ages rarely have neat boundaries. Throughout the Latin Middle Ages we find references to many apparent anachronisms, many confounding examples of mechanical art. Musical fountains. Robotic servants. Mechanical beasts and artificial songbirds. Most were designed and built beyond the boundaries of Latin Christendom, in the cosmopolitan courts of Baghdad, Damascus, Constantinople and Karakorum. Such automata came to medieval Europe as gifts from foreign rulers, or were reported in texts by travellers to these faraway places.
Robots came to Europe before the dawn of the mechanical age. To a medieval world, they were indistinguishable from magic (Aeon)
On the face of it, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that a progressing society could construct electrical generators and couple them to simple windmills and waterwheels, later progressing to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams. In a world without fossil fuels, one might envisage an electrified civilisation that largely bypasses combustion engines, building its transport infrastructure around electric trains and trams for long-distance and urban transport.
What if this had happened before the industrial revolution? Electromagnetic induction at is base, rotating a magnet around a wire. In theory, You could have theoretically hooked up some of those 5,624 waterwheels mentioned in the Domesday Book to electric generators. The Dutch could have hooked them up to their 1,000-plus windmills. You could had and had lightbulbs lighting up Canterbury Cathedral in 1350 and streetlights lining the streets of Bruges and Antwerp in 1500.
The waterwheel never played a major role in the Muslim world, not for lack of knowledgeability—Muslim hydraulic engineering was far ahead of European—but for want of fast    flowing streams. Large dams and intricate irrigation systems aided agriculture in Moorish Spain, but the waterwheel was used only for grinding grain and raising water. In Christian Europe, in contrast, the vertical wheel, including the powerful overshot type, was finding important new applications. Once more the monasteries led the way. The great Benedictine abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland pioneered the use of waterpower for pounding beer mash as early as 900. The new Cistercian reform movement launched in 1098 at CĂ®teaux, in Burgundy carried on the Benedictine tradition of promoting technology by founding waterpowered grain mills, cloth-fulling mills, cable-twisting machinery, iron forges and furnaces (where the wheels powered the bellows), winepresses, breweries, and glass-works. The edge-runner mill, long known to China, was adopted for more efficient pressing of olives, oak galls and bark for tannin, and other substances requiring crushing.
One of the earliest widespread industrial applications of the waterwheel was in fulling cloth; the trampling feet of the fullers were replaced by heavy wooden hammers lifted and dropped by the turning waterwheel. One effect was to draw the fullers into the countryside, where they further profited by freedom from the sometimes restrictive regulations of the towns. Another effect was the spread of the knowledge of gearing. Hemp production required a similar pummeling action to break up the woody tissues of the dried stalks and free the fibers for manufacture of ropes and cords. The existence of a waterpowered hemp mill is documented in the DauphinĂ©, in southeastern France, as early as 900. 
By the late eleventh century, waterpower was pounding, lifting, grinding, and pressing in locations from Spain to central Europe. In several applications of waterpower, notably in lifting and dropping hammers, the camshaft made its earliest Western appearance, diffused from China (as Joseph Needham believes) or independently invented, as seems not unlikely. The cam, a small projection on the horizontal shaft of a vertical waterwheel, caught and lifted the falling hammer, which dropped of its own weight. Usually a pair or more of cams on the same shaft operated alternately.
Waterpower spurred construction of dams, at first on a small scale to create millponds and millraces but increasingly on a larger scale. The Arabs, who in their era of conquest had learned about dam building from India and the Near East, brought their knowledge to Spain, where a few Roman dams still operated...By the twelfth century, dam building had crossed the Pyrenees in a spectacular form. At Toulouse, forty-five mills were driven by streams controlled by three dams in the Garonne. The principal one, mentioned in a document of 1177, was probably the largest dam then existing. Thirteen hundred feet long, it was built diagonally across the river by ramming thousands of giant oak piles into the riverbed to form palisades that were then filled with earth and stone. 
Millraces similarly expanded into hydropower canals in the twelfth century. The monastery of Clairvaux dug a 3.5-kilometer (2-mile) millrace canal from the river Aube to the abbey, while the Cistercians of Obazine chipped one 1.5 kilometers through solid rock. 
Medieval engineers were the first to exploit the waterpower supplied by ocean tides. Tidal mills are recorded in Ireland as early as the seventh century, in the Venetian lagoon before 1050, near Dover in Domesday Book, and a little later in Brittany and on the Bay of Biscay. The practical value of tidal mills was limited by their short operating periods (six to ten hours a day), the eccentric working hours imposed on the millers, and the vulnerability of the mills to storm damage.
In the last twenty years of the twelfth century, an entirely new prime mover appeared simultaneously on both sides of the English Channel and the North Sea. Nothing like the windmill in its vertical European form had ever been seen. Though some scholars believe it to have derived from the horizontal windmill of Persia, perhaps diffused through Muslim Spain, the weight of evidence favors an independent origin, possibly in East Anglia, where it replaced unsatisfactory tidal mills and supplemented     the scanty waterwheels. Reversing the waterwheel's arrangement, the windmill placed the horizontal axle at the top of the structure, to be turned by sails, gearing it to the millstones below. The immediate problem of keeping the sails faced into the wind (or out of it in a gale) was solved by balancing the mill on a stout upright post, on which it could be turned, none too easily, by several sturdy peasants gripping a large boom. 
Frances and Joseph Gies; Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, pp. 113-117

Flowmill. Source
The same thing could be said for wireless technology. What if we had discovered wireless before harnessing fossil fuels? Would lords have radio telescopes with vacuum tubes set up in the towers of their castles sending HAM-radio transmissions to fellow lords and distant armies?  Could packet radio have sent dispatches to diplomats in distant Cathay from the royal courts Europe? Would radio towers and radar be high on the masts of sailing ships today?

Indeed, one does not even require silicon for mechanical computing, a simple power source will do. Could mechanical computers have been invented before the steam engine? In addition to the Antikythera Mechanism, rudimentary mechanical computers were built by Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz and most famously, Charles Babbage in 1837 when electricity was still a novelty (although his Analytical Engine was designed but never actually built) .

Could the Ancient Romans Have Built a Digital Computer? (Gizmodo)

You could also harness solar power directly without fossil fuels: “An alternative is to generate high temperatures using solar power directly. Rather than relying on photovoltaic panels, concentrated solar thermal farms use giant mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto a small spot. The heat concentrated in this way can be exploited to drive certain chemical or industrial processes, or else to raise steam and drive a generator.”

In fact, this was invented by Augustin Mouchot in the 1800’s.

Back to the article. "...when it comes to generating the white heat demanded by modern industry, there are few good options but to burn stuff. But that doesn’t mean the stuff we burn necessarily has to be fossil fuels." It spends a good time talking about combustion for industrial uses, and specifically the substance that was most commonly utilized for that purpose before coal – charcoal. It uses Brazil as an example of large-scale charcoal production, Brazil having much more available wood than fossil fuels, so they’ve scaled-up to industrial production:
Long before the adoption of coal, charcoal was widely used for smelting metals. In many respects it is superior: charcoal burns hotter than coal and contains far fewer impurities....The Brazilian enterprise has scaled up this traditional craft to an industrial operation. Dried timber is stacked into squat, cylindrical kilns, built of brick or masonry and arranged in long lines so that they can be easily filled and unloaded in sequence. The largest sites can sport hundreds of such kilns. Once filled, their entrances are sealed and a fire is lit from the top. The skill in charcoal production is to allow just enough air into the interior of the kiln. There must be enough combustion heat to drive out moisture and volatiles and to pyrolyse the wood, but not so much that you are left with nothing but a pile of ashes. The kiln attendant monitors the state of the burn by carefully watching the smoke seeping out of the top, opening air holes or sealing with clay as necessary to regulate the process....Around two-thirds of Brazilian charcoal comes from sustainable plantations, and so this modern-day practice has been dubbed ‘green steel’. Sadly, the final third is supplied by the non-sustainable felling of primary forest.
Theoretically, this is carbon neutral- because the carbon released is equal to that sequestered by trees. This is very similar to biochar.

It can also be used to produce building materials like shou-sugi-ban.

As Low Tech Magazine has documented, you could power factories with wind power and water power as well as fossil fuels.

Another option is wood gasification:
Another, related option might be wood gasification. The use of wood to provide heat is as old as mankind, and yet simply burning timber only uses about a third of its energy. The rest is lost when gases and vapours released by the burning process blow away in the wind. Under the right conditions, even smoke is combustible. We don’t want to waste it. Better than simple burning, then, is to drive the thermal breakdown of the wood and collect the gases. You can see the basic principle at work for yourself just by lighting a match. The luminous flame isn’t actually touching the matchwood: it dances above, with a clear gap in between. The flame actually feeds on the hot gases given off as the wood breaks down in the heat, and the gases combust only once they mix with oxygen from the air. To release these gases in a controlled way, bake some timber in a closed container. Oxygen is restricted so that the wood doesn’t simply catch fire. Its complex molecules decompose through a process known as pyrolysis, and then the hot carbonised lumps of charcoal at the bottom of the container react with the breakdown products to produce flammable gases such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide.The resultant ‘producer gas’ is a versatile fuel: it can be stored or piped for use in heating or street lights, and is also suitable for use in complex machinery such as the internal combustion engine.
Biogas can power cars as well as motrocycles. Planes are hard without fossil fuels given the power/weight ratio, but hydrogen from electrolysis can produce gas for dirigibles.

Low Tech Magazine
And what if medieval Europe had solved two problems simultaneously - sanitation and energy. Human waste can be harvested for energy in a variety of ways. Many cultures harvested it for the purposes of fertilizer, but imagine a medieval rural economy where the waste of animals was placed in gas digesters to make enough methane to power a self-sufficient manor.

And, even more fascinating, what if the scientific revolution had occurred first?

Theoretically, there was nothing stopping it from occurring before the industrial revolution once a few breakthroughs happened (glass, alloys, etc.). It was sort of like trying to start a lighter - there was a spark in Ancient Greece, in Ancient Rome, in Ancient China, in Ancient India, in the Islamic world, in the Medieval period, and the Renaissance, but for some reason it only caught fire and kept going and spreading in the late 1600's in Western Europe, and continues to burn in the present without going out as before. It was more of a philosophical change in world view, and not dependent upon fossil fuels. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes the three most transformative revolutions for our species as the cognitive, agricultural and scientific, not even mentioning the Industrial Revolution.

What if it had happened earlier? Could we have had antibiotics and variolation to deal with the Black Death? Could we gave had a world where artisans were making calculators along with clocks in their workshops? Where power looms were hooked up to electric generators powered by waterwheels? Could the Broad Street pump maps have been made of a well in a medieval village? Could medieval alchemists have morphed into true chemists and made bioplastic from hemp, and rubber from dandelion roots? Could lords have had sages working on immoratality potions by looking at telomeres under microscopes? Could Renaissance physicians have been splicing DNA in Bologna in 1500? Or is everything so interconnected that could history have only unfold the way that it did?

It's an intriguing thought.

What if we had been able to partake of the benefits of science without being forced into factories and filling the air with coal ash? What if the scientific revolution had been yoked to Renaissance humanism instead of Capitalist productivism? And if we did have the scientific revolution first, would have gone down the industrialization route now that we know how destructive it is to people the planet?
The innovations of the central Middle Ages in agriculture, power sources, handicraft production, building construction, and transportation were accompanied by dramatic developments in the realm of pure science. "The tenth century, though on the surface a time of invasion, cruelty, barbarism, and chaos," writes Richard C. Dales, "is nevertheless the turning point in European intellectual history in general and the history of science in particular."
One of the Middle Ages' most important creations, the medical school, was founded at Salerno in the eleventh century, when by no coincidence the earliest cultural contacts with Islam occurred.  General higher education had its beginnings in the cathedral schools founded in the tenth through twelfth centuries in Paris, Chartres, Rheims, Orleans, Canterbury, and other cities. Emphasis varied. Partly because of the Church's need to determine the dates of its movable feasts, astronomy was a favored subject...    The cathedral schools' teaching was not tor the clergy alone; by the twelfth century, some fathers enrolled sons to    prepare them for careers in the law and other secular callings, including the growing governmental bureaucracies. The abacus, coming into wide practical use during the eleventh century, was introduced into the Norman-English exchequer in the twelfth.
In the mid-twelfth century, the "precocious humanism" nurtured by Gerbert, his pupil Richer, and other scholars met and merged with another current, the growing importance of the professions of law and medicine, to create the first universities, at Paris and Bologna. From its beginnings, the University of Paris as well as its early offshoot, Oxford, articulated "productive ideas concerning nature as a fit subject of study." Scholars such as Peter Abelard (1079-1142) formulated "a new approach to the systematic study of science" (Tina Stiefel) even before the works of Aristotle became available in Latin. 
But it was the Muslim-assisted translation of Aristotle followed by those of Galen, Euclid, Ptolemy, and other Greek authorities and their integration into the university curriculum that created what historians have called "the scientific renaissance of the twelfth century." ... Two chief sources of the translations were Spain and Sicily, regions where Arab, European, and Jewish scholars freely mingled. In Spain the main center was Toledo, where Archbishop Raaymond established a college specifically for making Arab knowledge available to Europe.
The twelfth century also witnessed the tardy introduction to Europe of the second of the great "false sciences," alchemy, whose sister, astrology, had remained known and practiced in unbroken continuation since Roman times. Once regarded as a pair of fruitless medieval exercises in superstition and charlatanism, the two have gained stature with the maturing of the history of science...The first Arabic treatise on alchemy to be translated into Latin was rendered by Robert of Chester in 1144, quickly followed by several more as the new science caught on. Alchemy had two aspects, theoretical and practical. The first involved and mystical theorizing led nowhere, but the practice of alchemists in their laboratories became the direct ancestor of modem chemistry and chemical technology. 
Practicing alchemists pursued two aims: the conversion of base metals into gold, usually by means of the elusive "philosophers' stone," and the discovery of the "elixir of life" (also known as the "most active principle" or the "fountain of youth"), which would confer immortality. The first kind of research, based on the hypothesis that gold is the sole pure metal and that all the others are impure versions of it, led to accumulation of knowledge about physical and chemical reactions, while the second kind gradually turned into iatrochemistry, the search for healing drugs. 
Medieval alchemists, Arabic and European, introduced no wholly new equipment into their laboratories, but they created a multiplicity of furnaces and stills. Furnaces of varying sizes were needed partly to accommodate the diversity of fuels—charcoal, peat, dried dung—and partly to provide the varied temperatures required for calcination (reduction of solids to powder) of different substances. Bellows were much employed, causing alchemists in France to be nicknamed souffleurs (blowers). A parallel collection of stills served the alchemists' other principal technique, distillation (boiling and condensation to separate compound substances). The typical still was a tall vessel shaped like a church spire, mounted on a short tower; the fire in the lower part heated liquid whose steam condensed in the upper part and was guided by a long spout to another vessel. Early stills lacked an efficient cooling device, and volatile liquids were usually lost. The still in which condensation was effected outside the still head may have been invented by a physician of Salerno named (for the city) Salernus (d. 1167). One product of the process, alcohol, strengthened by distilling, found a variety of uses, as a solvent, a preservative, and the basis of brandy, gin, and whiskey, at first taken medicinally, later recreationally. 
Both astrology and alchemy remained sources of interest to intellectuals long after the Middle Ages, but the importance of the magical element in medieval science has been exaggerated. "The striking thing about the [twelfth] century," in the words of Richard Dales, "is the attitudes of its scientists... daring, original, inventive, skeptical of traditional authorities ... determined to discover purely rational explanations of natural phenomena," in short, portending "a new age in the history of scientific thought.
Frances and Joseph Gies; Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, pp. 158-164


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Technology and Social Change

If the printed book was the most "admirable" innovation of the fifteenth century, the firearm, now reaching maturity after a slow start, was the most dramatic. Erratic black powder was tamed to consistency by the invention in the 1420s of "corning," or granulation, by which the powder, dampened by vinegar, brandy, or "the urine of a wine-drinking man," was passed through a sieve, forming coarse granules, not only safer to handle but more reliable in action. Experimentation with mixtures improved explosive power, and consequently range and accuracy. Gradually the weight of the projectile diminished in proportion to the weight of the gun, and the weight of powder rose replaced by the slow match, a cord soaked in niter and alcohol. ...
Similarly, gunpowder artillery crossed a threshold. Fabrication was made easier by a new technique, casting a mold to form a hollow cylinder around a mandrel (core); using the same mold guaranteed identical calibers. In the closing stage of the Hundred Years War, the royal French artillery under the command of the Bureau brothers, a pair of talented smiths, used iron cannonballs to batter down one English-held castle and town wall after another and even performed effectively in the field, as at Castillon, the war's last battle, in 1453.     
Gunpowder weapons had three conspicuous effects. First, artillery reinforced the trend toward the national professional army, since only a wealthy central government could afford it. Sovereigns often took a personal interest in their martial toys; John II of Portugal and Emperor Maximilian of Germany were two who expressed not only enthusiasm for but genuine expertise in the "art of gunnery."

Second, small arms made the armored knight obsolete, not so much because his armor did not stop musket balls as because the new musket infantry was cheaper to arm and equip and more flexible to employ, and the emerging pistol-armed cavalry of the sixteenth century much more formidable. Breastplates and helmets continued in fashion through the seventeenth century, but chain mail and full armor disappeared except for parades and tournaments. Individual prowess, hallmark of the age of chivalry, was curtailed as the new-model army extended the principle of standardization from arms and ammunition to uniforms and drill.

Third, the curtain-walled castle was superseded by the low-profile, thick rampart fortress, capable of absorbing the shock of heavy cannonballs and furnishing a good platform for defensive artillery but ill adapted to service as a private residence. The new style fortifications mostly supplanted old-fashioned city walls and were manned by garrisons belonging to the central government. The aging castles of the feudal nobility sank to the status of not very comfortable country houses, storage depots for gunpowder and cannonballs, or prisons for distinguished captives.

Joseph Needham points to China's influence in the large social changes at both ends of the European Middle Ages: "Thus one can conclude that just as Chinese gunpowder helped to shatter this form of society at the end of the period, so Chinese stirrups had originally helped to set it up." Neither invention had any perceptible impact on Chinese society, owing, in Needham's interpretation, to its relative stability compared with Western society.

However that may be, the origins of feudalism in Europe involved much more than stirrup, horseshoe, and saddle, and, by the same token, feudalism was already in decline when gunpowder gave it a final push toward the grave by benefiting national governments at the expense of the old castle-building, armor-wearing, horseback-riding feudal aristocracy.

A subtler effect of the new weaponry and fortifications was their impact on the incipient engineering profession. Expertise was suddenly in great demand. In response, technical treatises began to appear. The first important It one came from southern Germany, where metal mining contributed to the growth of an arms industry. The Bellifortis (Strong war) of Konrad Kyeser of Eichstadt (1366-after 1405) remained a bible for military leaders for more than a century. Kyeser has been called "the first great engineer who has left us a well-established technological oeuvre" (Bertrand Gille).

A physician by profession, Kyeser published his work at the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the gunpowder age was still new. Among his sketches are a battery of cannon mounted on a turntable to be fired in succession, an artillery-carrying chariot, and a long-barreled, small-bore culverin resting on a stand. But of an array of proposed war chariots armed with pikes, lances, scythes, and hooks, only two carry rudimentary cannon, and the incendiary projectiles Kyeser sketched were ammunition not for guns but for crossbows.

Knights-errant had ridden into the sunset. In their place were professional soldiers, who "followed their mercenary calling / And took their wages and are dead."
Frances & Joseph Gies; Catherdral, Forge and Waterwheel, pp. 247-252
At the exact moment that the glass lens was allowing us to extend our vision to the stars or microscopic cells, glass mirrors were allowing us to see ourselves for the first time. It set in motion a reorientation of society that was more subtle, but no less transformative, than the reorientation of our place in the universe that the telescope engendered. "The most powerful prince in the world created a vast hall of mirrors, and the mirror spread from one room to another in the bourgeois household," Lewis Mumford writes in his Technics and Civilization. "Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror-conversation developed with the new object itself" Social conventions as well as property rights and other legal customs began to revolve around the individual rather than the older, more collective units: the family, the tribe, the city, the kingdom. People began writing about their interior lives with far more scrutiny. ..

How much does this transformation owe to glass? Two things are undeniable: the mirror played a direct role in allowing artists to paint themselves and invent perspective as a formal device; and shortly thereafter a fundamental shift occurred in the consciousness of Europeans that oriented them around the self in a new way, a shift that would ripple across the world (and that is still rippling). No doubt many forces converged to make this shift possible: the self-centered world played well with the early forms of modern capitalism that were thriving in places like Venice and Holland (home to those masters of painterly introspection, Durer and Rembrandt). Likely, these various forces complemented each other: glass mirrors were among the first high-tech furnishings for the home, and once we began gazing into those mirrors, we began to see ourselves differently, in ways that encouraged the market systems that would then happily sell us more mirrors. It's not that the mirror made the Renaissance, exactly, but that it got caught up in a positive feedback loop with other social forces, and its unusual capacity to reflect light strengthened those forces. ..

[The historian Alan] McFarlane has an artful way of describing this kind of causal relationship. The mirror doesn't "force" the Renaissance to happen; it "allows" it to happen. ..Without a technology that enabled humans to see a clear reflection of reality, including their own faces, the particular constellation of ideas in art and philosophy and politics that we call the Renaissance would have had a much more difficult time coming into being. Yet the mirror was not exclusively dictating the terms of the European revolution in the sense of self. A different culture, inventing the fine glass mirror at a different point in its historical development, might not have experienced the same intellectual revolution, because the rest of its social order differed from that of fifteenth-century Italian hill-towns. The Renaissance also benefited from a patronage system that enabled its artists and scientists to spend their days playing with mirrors instead of, say, foraging tor nuts and berries. A Renaissance without the Medici—not the individual family, of course, but the economic class they represent—is as hard to imagine as the Renaissance without the mirror.

It should probably be said that the virtues of the society of the self are entirely debatable. Orienting laws around individuals led directly to an entire tradition of human rights and the prominence of individual liberty in legal codes. That has to count as progress. But reasonable people disagree about whether we have now tipped the scales too far in the direction of individualism, away from those collective organizations: the union, the community, the state. Resolving those disagreements requires a different set of arguments—and values—than the ones we need to explain where those disagreements came from. The mirror helped invent the modern self, in some real but unquantifiable way. That much we should agree on. Whether that was a good thing in the end is a separate question, one that may never be settled conclusively. 
Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now, pp. 34-37

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Cost of Fear

At the Hipcrime Vocab I don't often write about personal stuff, but I hope you'll allow me a brief indulgence. I suppose whether you find this a welcome or break or not will depends on you, but personal stuff seems to popular on blogs for some reason.

Anyway, If you've been following this blog for a while, you may have gotten the impression over the past year that I am becoming increasingly dissatisfied with where I am, both geographically and in life in general. One of the things I realized during my trip(ping) in California was that my failures have a great deal to do with where I am. Every day my heart and my gut tell me that I just don't belong here. The cold and gray skies and endless winter envelop me in a gloom that is palpable. I know that everyplace has its downsides, but increasingly I feel that there is nothing here for me anymore. I feel it every day. Listening to Chris Ryan's podcast among others has also altered my perspective.

Yet I'm afraid. I've only ever lived here, and I have no real friends or connections anywhere else.

On the C-realm last week, KMO read a comment from the Friends of the C-Realm on Facebook, and I was struck by this in particular: "I'm reminded of an interview with Scott Adams, the cartoonist who does Dilbert. He was asked why the two smartest people in the strip, the paperboy and the garbageman, aren't engineers. He said something to the effect that really smart people don't allow themselves to be used by others like Dilbert is by the pointy-haired boss, Catbert, etc.  Instead they live their own lives, according to their own rules."

Notice how those professions are considered "low status." But I can see that being a high-status "professional" isn't all its cracked up to be, from the endless stress, to the boring meetings to the the nonstop personality politics. Without a litter to put through college like me cow-workers (sic), I can't help but wonder why I'm putting myself through this.

Intrigued, I decided to look for the interview. I didn't find it, but I did find another interview with him. I picked up his book from the library.

The first thing that struck me was the fact that Adams had gotten on plane and moved out to California from New England with no job, due to an incident where he nearly froze to death in his car. I can relate, especially since it's been 10-30 degrees colder than the average year round for the last four years (and we are already the second coldest metropolitan area in the country after Minneapolis).

Adams also realized that his small New England town didn't have much to offer in the way of opportunities. On the plane to California, a businessman sitting next to him told him that the thing to do when you get a job is immediately to look for a better one, that is, your job is not what you do; your real job is to look for other jobs.

Adams' philosophy is basically that success is a matter of luck, but you can make the odds much better by following system where your odds of succeeding are higher than they otherwise would be, much like a hunter going to a bird blind in a marsh to hunt ducks rather than sit in his backyard.

Adams famously held a series of corporate cubicle jobs that later formed the basis of his work, but his real goal was to be a CEO or entrepreneur. He pursued a never-ending series of harebrained business ideas and get-rich-quick schemes to free himself from cubicle serfdom. We all know what happened of course - one particular harebrained scheme to be a cartoonist took off. Adams self-effacingly points out that this is despite neither his writing or humor skills being particularly terrific, and he points out all the coincidences that made Dilbert work when there were such long odds against it. Believe it or not, Dilbert did not start as a cartoon about office life. Because he was one of the first cartoonists to make his email public (email being new back then), people unanimously told him that the office strips were their favorite, and the format changed to what we know today. And the timing was perfect - Dilbert came along right as neoliberalism was turning workplaces into downsized dystopias, and it quickly became the symbol of the absurdity of corporate life that we know today.

Even after the comic took off, Adams continued to invest in one scheme after another, often failing (including a TV show, a series of restaurants in California, and the "Dilburrito."). This is in keeping with his philosophy that the key to success is not being afraid to fail often. Other ventures, such as writing and speaking were more successful, but also due to serendipity. There's lots more, of course, but I'll save that for another time.

Last week, a woman at work decided to pursue her lifelong dream to move to New York City, "while I'm still young," (she's probably like 20-21). (Seriously, what is it with young women and NYC, I just don't get it). Anyway, she already had a job lined up. When I asked her how she did it, she said connections and  networking. Not much help for me there, I'm afraid.

In a weird note from above, the firm I left to come to my current one, where I was treated very poorly and left under not the best terms because of it, is relocating from the far northwest side to literally a block away, just down the street. Every day Mordor is moving closer to completion, and I have to walk by it every day on my way to work. You can imagine how that makes me feel. Those people are going to be in my neighborhood very soon, and I do not want to see them.

Like Adams, I've grown increasingly disenchanted with my cubicle-bound existence. It seems that architecture is just another desk job full of drudgery, overwork and stress for all but a lucky few. I increasingly feel like my architecture career is over. I just don't enjoy it anymore. The reasons could fill a post in and of itself, and someday I may do that. But with only a four-year degree, it seems like I'm pretty much unhireable. I just don't feel like spending two more years of my life on expensive and useless education jumping through more arbitrary hoops when I already know what the "reward" will be. As the saying goes, "if you liked school, you're going to love work." I'm also reminded of the old adage about law school - "a pie-eating contest where the first prize is more pie."

That means the thing I've done for the past twenty years I can no longer do. I'm scared of having to start over at my age. It seems that the economy "naturally" wants people unemployed rather than employed, and places all the burden on you to rectify that situation.

Clearly I'm not going to succeed in the office environment. It takes a "special" type of person that I'm just never going to be. It's also the most homogeneous place you can imagine. Bland, boring, upper-class professionals with the suburban house and the minivan and the 2.5 kids discussing spectator sports and golf all day long (seriously, the guys who sit near me spend their weekends watching professional golf on TV). I feel so alienated, and trading in one cubicle for another doesn't seem like a good plan. There are just so few architecture jobs here to begin with, and they're much worse than even the status quo.

Given Adams' advice, it seems like being around people more like me will give me a better change at friendship, romance, and carer advancement in whatever career I end up doing.

As a sidenote, the past few weeks I unexpectedly encountered a couple of people who to my great surprise, are actually from here. I've been watching the brilliant Wolf Hall on PBS. Mark Rylance, the lead, is considered to be one of the best classical actors today. He also grew up in Milwaukee (his parents were teachers who moved here from England to teach). And I listened to this interview with Ginger Kern before discovering at the end that she is also from Milwaukee. Ginger's dream was to live abroad, and now she coaches other people on it too.

Anyhow, to cap this off, I've been thinking about signing up again at my local Crossfit gym. With the weather warming up and my health issues seemingly behind me, it seemed like a good time. I used to go there a few years back. The thing is, when our 6-month winter hits, I am literally CRUSHED. I'm a physical and emotional wreck. It takes everything I have just to get out bed and make it through the day for at least six months out of the year. Everything hurts, I have cold and flu symptoms nonstop, lethargy, no energy, fevers, headaches etc. continuously for months on end. Working out is totally  out of the question. However, during our brief 3-4 month summer, I'm extremely active and outside or in the gym as much as possible.

Anyway, it look like the box is closing down, and here's why:


The nice, sweet older woman architect who I've sat next to has been battling cancer for years. She still showed up every day whenever was physically able. She loved to travel. We regularly talked about foreign places, the Middle Ages (she used to be in the SCA) and all sorts of other topics. She was our longest-serving employee, there from the very inception of the office - over 20 years. She had not been in for several months. Last week her cubicle was totally cleared out in a day. She would not be returning to work. Another architect was moved in immediately. Life is short indeed.

Anyway, I've rambled long enough. It's been an odd few months. I still don't know what to do. But it appears I keep getting hit over the head with messages. I just wish I had some sort of guidance.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Reinventing Reinventing Collaspe?

This article about Russia from the BBC is interesting. It details how Russians are coping with the disintegration of their economy. Ironically, it is a very similar scenario to the SU collapse – crashing oil prices mean less money for oil combined with Western sanctions (this time for Ukraine instead of Communism)

I find it particularly interesting because the approach being taken in Russia seems eerily close to that advocated by many Peak Oilers  for the United States – relocalization, growing your own food, reduced reliance on imports, and making do with less.

For example, this fellow started his own urban farm to deal with rising food costs:
On a small dairy farm some 30 miles from Moscow, 15 cows munch contentedly on hay in their gleaming new barn. Maxim Chebanov has just moved premises to make room for expansion. A former manager in a brewery, he switched to farming a couple of years ago to provide high-quality milk and cheese for his young family, selling the rest at farmers' markets. Then the crisis started and demand escalated. He has increased his herd five-fold in just 18 months due to Kremlin "counter sanctions" which blocked the import of European dairy products and other fresh food. Chebanov is a perfect example of what President Putin calls "import substitution". He even offers his buyers an "anti-sanctions" discount on his website.
In Russia, just like here, it is the rural areas that are hardest hit, and just like here, there is a lack of jobs since industry shut down or moved overseas:
In Moscow, many shoppers said they were coping: either their income was big enough, or they were getting help from relatives. But in the provinces there is much more angst. One woman in Oryol, a small town south of Moscow, said: "Many people went from here to Moscow in search of work when the old Soviet factories went bankrupt. "Now those jobs in Moscow are folding and they are coming home. But there are no spare jobs here and prices keep going up. How are they supposed to live?" She added that she knew many people who had stopped buying meat- too expensive for those with a family to feed.
Eerily similar to here, eh? Have they not heard of the eds and meds economy? Prisons? Meth labs? Selling cans of soda?

Even though the downturn has been several years running, the economic sanctions put in place after the Ukraine invasion have given Putin an excuse to hide behind:
But the downturn does not necessarily translate into pressure on the Russian government from its own consumers. Many people seem to blame the West for all Russia's economic woes.

"It's sanctions that are behind it all," said a shopper outside one Moscow supermarket. "After all, you are the enemy."

And many Russian political analysts conclude that Western sanctions have, in fact, been counter-productive. "Sanctions may have hurt the Russian economy," says Evgeny Minchenko, an independent political consultant who names the Kremlin among his clients. "But politically they unite people against the West. Recent polls show the highest level of anti-Western feeling in recent history. It won't be easy to reverse."
By the way, have economic sanctions EVER worked in the entire history of the modern world? I mean ever? If anyone knows even a single instance, please enlighten me. They seem to be just a way of making politicians look tough without actually doing anything.

But Russia is actively trying to develop local economies by trying to become more self-sufficient, which they term 'import substitution' - using local suppliers and manufacturers rather than from abroad, something long advocated by the peak-oil community. This includes tax breaks for small and medium-sized businesses (unlike America, where lobbying ensures advantages accrue to the biggest players and smaller-scale producers are crushed):
So instead, the Kremlin is focusing on import substitution and other measures to try to make the internal market work better - by cracking down on corruption, and giving tax breaks to small and medium-sized enterprises. Whether it will work is another matter. Reports on a recent Cabinet meeting suggest President Putin was agitated and frustrated at the lack of young Russians willing to risk opening new businesses. In theory, Dmitry Finikov is doing exactly what President Putin wants. He has switched from importing to producing his own lower-quality, Russian-made guns and ammunition.
But all is not rosy on the small-business front. There’s a lot of uncertainty:
[Finikov] explains why small businessmen like him remain pessimistic. "I used to plan for five years. Now I can only plan for two or three weeks. The Russian economy has been so globalised over the last 20 years, that it cannot survive like this. "Sooner or later the oil price will go down again, then the rouble will drop again. For the moment we are eating into our reserves. But when they are used up, then the economy will drop immediately like it was in 1992. You remember: hyperinflation, people losing their jobs and not getting paid for six months or a year, and everyone going out to the suburbs to plant potatoes to feed themselves from the ground."
I don’t remember, but I have read Dmitry Orlov’s book, so, yeah, I know the deal. It seems that book may end up being very relevant again very soon.

Speaking of Putin's Russia, the New York Times published an entertaining piece by the novelist Gary Shteyngart called "Out of my Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth," a tongue-in-cheek look at Russian television. The impression one gets is that it is a funhouse mirror image of the American media (especially FOX News) - a controlled and manipulated media kicking up a cloud of misinformation to rural, low-information citizens to keep them riled up against imaginary and perceived enemies, foreign and domestic, while flattering them as true, hearty, salt-of the earth-type folks (unlike urban dwellers and intellectuals). Like FOX, it engages in chauvinistic, war-mongering rhetoric against "weakness," and "moral degeneracy." Either that, or mindless drivel and trash TV of the Jerry Springer variety pandering to the lowest common denominator. Also, just like here, most educated, aware people get their news from the few non-censored Web sites:
The imposition of Western sanctions against Russian officials after Crimea’s annexation dealt but a glancing blow to the Russian economy. Putin’s next move, his support of pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s industrialized Donbass region, led to a war that the United Nations estimates has displaced a million people and resulted in more than 5,000 deaths, and further sanctions from the West. (As of this writing, a cease-fire has been brokered, but it is fragile and may not last.) But it is the collapse of the price of oil, Russia’s main export commodity, that has weakened the regime. As the price of a barrel of Brent crude and the value of the ruble go down, the tenor of propaganda on Russian television goes up.

Putin’s popularity has mostly survived intact despite the ruble’s collapse and the gradual pauperization of his subjects. The media helps with a twofold strategy. First, the West and its sanctions are blamed for the economic situation. Second, the nascent Ukrainian democracy is portrayed as a movement of torch-wielding Nazi fascists under direct control of their Western masters. Few Russian families escaped unscathed from Hitler’s onslaught, and Nazi imagery, which remains stingingly potent, is invoked frequently and opportunistically, as a way of keeping historical wounds fresh.

Ninety percent of Russians, according to the Levada Center, an independent research firm, get their news primarily from television. Middle-aged and older people who were formed by the Soviet system and those who live outside Moscow and St. Petersburg are particularly devoted TV watchers. Two of the main channels — Channel 1 and Rossiya 1 — are state-owned. The third, NTV, is nominally independent but is controlled by Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of the giant energy company that is all but a government ministry. Executives from all three companies regularly meet with Kremlin officials.

Each channel has a slightly different personality. Channel 1 was the Soviet Union’s original channel, which beamed happy farm reports and hockey victories at my parents and grandparents. It features lots of film classics and a raucous health show whose title can be roughly translated as “Being Alive Is Swell!” Rossiya 1 is perhaps best known for a show called “News of the Week,” featuring a Kremlin propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, who once implicitly threatened to bomb the United States into a pile of “radioactive ash.” (Sadly, for me, Kiselev is taking this week off from ranting.) NTV is more happy-go-lucky, blasting noirish crime thrillers and comedy shows, like a “Saturday Night Live” rip-off shamelessly titled “Saturday. Night. Show.” But during regular breaks for the news, the three networks are indistinguishable in their love of homeland and Putin and their disdain for what they see as the floundering, morally corrupt and increasingly lady-bearded West.

Back in my sunlit chamber of horrors, Rossiya 1’s news is on a rampage. A 35-car pile up in New Hampshire. No serious injuries, it seems, but clearly the West is falling apart. Things are even worse across the ocean. “An unpleasant New Year’s present for Prince Andrew,” a reporter says with a honed mixture of seriousness, sarcasm and glee. “Britain is shocked by a sex scandal between the prince and a minor who claims to have been held in ‘sexual slavery.’ ” Viewers in Yekaterinburg wolfing down their morning kasha are given a rundown of the crimes committed by the British royal family, from Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to Princess Diana’s death “in mysterious circumstances.”

Russians, on the other hand, are leading exemplary nonfascist lives. At the site of the Air Asia disaster, in the Java Sea, “Indonesian authorities are relying heavily on Russian divers and their equipment” to find and recover the doomed plane. In the northernmost reaches of Russia, we meet Aleksey Tryapitsyn, a “salt of the Earth” postman in a tiny village who somehow doesn’t smoke or drink and has been featured in a recent documentary, “The White Nights of the Postman Aleksey Tryapitsyn.” His wife is pretty salt-of-the-earth too. “I’m such an ordinary woman,” she says, “I know how to do everything: shoot a gun, catch ducks.”

The lessons for all Russians, especially spoiled Camembert-addicted Muscovites, are clear: In the difficult days to come, learn to shoot a gun, learn to catch ducks.

On my last visit to Moscow several years ago, a drunken cabdriver from a distant province drove me through the city, nearly weeping because, he said, he was unable to feed his family. “I want to emigrate to the States,” he said. “I can’t live like this.”

“You should try Canada,” I suggested to him. “Their immigration policies are very generous.”

He mock-spit on the floor, as he nearly careened into the sidewalk. “Canada? Never! I could only live in a superpower!”

It doesn’t matter that the true path of Russia leads from its oil fields directly to 432 Park Avenue. When you watch the Putin Show, you live in a superpower. You are a rebel in Ukraine bravely leveling the once-state-of-the-art Donetsk airport with Russian-supplied weaponry. You are a Russian-speaking grandmother standing by her destroyed home in Luhansk shouting at the fascist Nazis, much as her mother probably did when the Germans invaded more than 70 years ago. You are a priest sprinkling blessings on a photogenic convoy of Russian humanitarian aid headed for the front line. To suffer and to survive: This must be the meaning of being Russian. It was in the past and will be forever. This is the fantasy being served up each night on Channel 1, on Rossiya 1, on NTV.
P.S. I wanted to pass along this comment someone posted to Morris Berman’s blog (“Wafers” is the nickname for Berman’s readership, from Why America Failed)
"It was a very interesting weekend from a Waferian standpoint. First, the lights went out in Yankee stadium Friday night for 18 minutes. Second, my wife and I went shopping on Saturday and the store had all its computers down, so the store clerks were writing up sales on paper. We stood in line for 30 minutes. Third, we went for a drive on Sunday but gave up on the country roads after the first 100 potholes. Finally, I went to work on Monday morning and the water was shut off in my office complex. A couple of hundred workers were sent home. What do these events have in common? They all point to the gradual but steady decline of America. At least my wife and I weren't tased or shot to death over the weekend, so there is that hold onto."
Both sides lost the Cold War, one just did it somewhat faster than the other (to paraphrase the late, great Charles Bowden). Breakdown continues apace. Here’s an article on the Yankee stadium outage, something more common in a third-world country (which we basically are now). Personally, I think it’s a good metaphor for our libertarian future –  individuals rationally using their initiatives with privately-owned cell phones to replace the horrors of “collectivist” stadium lights. Let freedom ring!