Interesting stuff

  1. Read about the most dramatic art scam of the twentieth century
  2. Listen to the fascinating details of the Salman Rushdie’s blasphemy, and how it divided real from phoney “liberals” and “conservatives.”
  3. Listen to Jonathan Haidt argue (convincingly) for regulating social media for under 16s.
  4. Tally-Ho is going to sea! Watch.
  5. Fuck this: 36 percent [of young liberal academics] approve using violence, 57 percent approve blocking entry, and 77 percent think it’s okay to shout down some speakers.
  6. Doctors have a hard time with young people dying of cancer, the rate of which is increasing (!). Read more.
  7. A nice discussion of 20 years of blogging at Marginal Revolution.
  8. Listen to Kevin Kelly explain his important life lessons
  9. Time to plant? “Globally, annual food inflation rates could rise by up to 3.2 percentage points per year within the next decade or so as a result of higher temperatures” due to climate change.
  10. More danger means more push alerts, but will people stop paying attention as they become more common? Read more.

Review: The Undoing Project

Michael Lewis wrote this 2016 book about the “intellectual love story” between Amos Tversky (AT) and Daniel Kahneman (DK), two Israeli psychologists who overturned our ideas about risk, decision making and the way we see the world. And by “our” I don’t just mean humans but also (to a degree) economists.

AT died in 1996, at 59 years old. DK won the economics Nobel in 2002, based (partially) on work that they did together. The story of their intellectual relationship has a lot to do with their different personalities: AT was exact, confident, and smart in a sharp, cutting way. DK wondered, full of doubt, into vagaries that ranged from silly to mind blowing. They got along because they forgave the other in ways that they did not forgive others. DK listened to AT’s criticisms without shying away; AT was willing to suspend his aggressive critical mind while DK “groped” his way thorough a forest of possibilities.

They worked most productively from the late 1960s until the 1980s, but then they had a falling out — somewhat predictably — when DK felt like AT was not giving him his due. Although they were mostly estranged in the years leading to AT’s death, AT spent more of his last days and hours talking with DK than he did with anyone else, as old partners come back together in times of need.

Lewis is a great story-teller, as usual, and I took a lot of notes:

  1. DK’s interest in human complexity dates from the moment at the end of WWII when a Nazi soldier, reminded by DK of his own son, hugged the young Jewish boy instead of shooting him.
  2. DK: By then the question of whether God exists left me cold. But the question of why people believe God exists I found really fascinating. I was not really interested in right and wrong. But I was very interested in indignation.
  3. The Gestalt psychologists and the behaviorists and the psychoanalysts might all be jammed into the same building with a plaque on the front that said Department of Psychology, but they didn’t waste a lot of time listening to one another. Psychology wasn’t like physics, or even economics. It lacked a single persuasive theory to organize itself around…Part of the problem was the wild diversity of the people who wanted to be psychologists—a rattle-bag of characters with motives that ranged from the urge to rationalize their own unhappiness, to a conviction that they had deep insights into human nature but lacked the literary power to write a decent novel, to a need for a market for their math skills after they’d been found inadequate by the physics department, to a simple desire to help people in pain. The other issue was the grandma’s attic quality of the field: Psychology was a place all sorts of unrelated and seemingly unsolvable problems simply got tossed.
  4. On DK: When someone says something, don’t ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.” That was his intellectual instinct, his natural first step to the mental hoop: to take whatever someone had just said to him and try not to tear it down but to make sense of it.
  5. The University of Michigan psychologist Dick Nisbett, after he’d met Amos, designed a one-line intelligence test: The sooner you figure out that Amos is smarter than you are, the smarter you are… “He’d sit there quietly. And then he would open his mouth and speak. And in no time he became the light that all the butterflies fly to; and in no time everyone would look up to him wanting to hear what he would say.”
  6. On violations of transitivity (a key assumption in mathematical economics): “Is this behavior irrational?” he wrote. “We tend to doubt it. . . . When faced with complex multidimensional alternatives, such as job offers, gambles or [political] candidates, it is extremely difficult to utilize properly all the available information.” It wasn’t that people actually preferred A to B and B to C and then turned around and preferred C to A. It was that it was sometimes very hard to understand the differences. 
  7. But here’s a good way to think about it: When people picked coffee over tea, and tea over hot chocolate, and then turned around and picked hot chocolate over coffee—they weren’t comparing two drinks in some holistic manner. Hot drinks didn’t exist as points on some mental map at fixed distances from some ideal. They were collections of features. Those features might become more or less noticeable; their prominence in the mind depended on the context in which they were perceived. And the choice created its own context: Different features might assume greater prominence in the mind when the coffee was being compared to tea (caffeine) than when it was being compared to hot chocolate (sugar). And what was true of drinks might also be true of people, and ideas, and emotions.
  8. It is generally assumed that classifications are determined by similarities among the objects,” wrote Amos, before offering up an opposing view: that “the similarity of objects is modified by the manner in which they are classified.”… A banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit. Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.
  9. DK thought of himself as someone who enjoyed, more than most, changing his mind. “I get a sense of movement and discovery whenever I find a flaw in my thinking,” he said. His theory of himself dovetailed neatly with his moodiness. In his darker moods, he became fatalistic—and so wasn’t surprised or disturbed when he did fail. (He’d been proved right!) In his up moments he was so full of enthusiasm that he seemed to forget the possibility of failure, and would run with any new idea that came his way. “He could drive people up the wall with his volatility.”
  10. Reforms always create winners and losers, and the losers will always fight harder than the winners.” How did you get the losers to accept change? The prevailing strategy on the Israeli farms—which wasn’t working very well—was to bully or argue with the people who needed to change. The psychologist Kurt Lewin had suggested persuasively that, rather than selling people on some change, you were better off identifying the reasons for their resistance, and addressing those.
  11. The more complicated and lifelike the situation a person was asked to judge, they suggested, the more insidious the role of availability [an image, example, or scenario]. What people did in many complicated real-life problems—when trying to decide if Egypt might invade Israel, say, or their husband might leave them for another woman—was to construct scenarios. The stories we make up, rooted in our memories, effectively replace probability judgments. “The production of a compelling scenario is likely to constrain future thinking.” 
  12. Historians imposed false order upon random events, too, probably without even realizing what they were doing. Amos had a phrase for this. “Creeping determinism,” he called it—and jotted in his notes one of its many costs: “He who sees the past as surprise-free is bound to have a future full of surprises.”
  13. One of my favorite observations: The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours. It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.
  14. AT found it troubling to think that “crucial decisions are made, today as thousands of years ago, in terms of the intuitive guesses and preferences of a few men in positions of authority.” The failure of decision makers to grapple with the inner workings of their own minds, and their desire to indulge their gut feelings, made it “quite likely that the fate of entire societies may be sealed by a series of avoidable mistakes committed by their leaders.”
  15. DK was stunned: If a 10 percent increase in the chances of full-scale war with Syria wasn’t enough to interest the director-general in Kissinger’s peace process, how much would it take to convince him? That number represented the best estimate of the odds. Apparently the director-general didn’t want to rely on the best estimates. He preferred his own internal probability calculator: his gut. “That was the moment I gave up on decision analysis,” said Danny. “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”
  16. If you follow the rule that you take any bet with a positive expected value, you take the bet. But anyone with eyes could see that people, when they made bets, didn’t always act as if they were seeking to maximize their expected value. Gamblers accepted bets with negative expected values; if they didn’t, casinos wouldn’t exist. And people bought insurance, paying premiums that exceeded their expected losses; if they didn’t, insurance companies would have no viable business. Any theory pretending to explain how a rational person should take risks must at least take into account the common human desire to buy insurance, and other cases in which people systematically failed to maximize expected value…. The marginal value of the dollars you give up to buy fire insurance on your house is less than the marginal value of the dollars you lose if your house burns down—which is why even though the insurance is, strictly speaking, a stupid bet, you buy it… You place less value on the $1,000 you stand to win flipping a coin than you do on the $1,000 already in your bank account that you stand to lose—and so you reject the bet.
  17. Expected value theory [EVT] blew up the theories of rational choice and expected utility [EUT].. which the entire economics profession, seemed to take as a fair description of how ordinary people faced with risky alternatives actually went about making choices. That leap of faith had at least one obvious implication for the sort of advice economists gave to political leaders: It tilted everything in the direction of giving people the freedom to choose and leaving markets alone. After all, if people could be counted on to be basically rational, markets could, too.
  18. Of course, EUT also predicted that people would take a sure gain over a bet that offered an expected value of an even bigger gain. They were “risk averse.” But what was this thing that everyone had been calling “risk aversion?” It amounted to a fee that people paid, willingly, to avoid regret: a regret premium.
  19. The gambles that economists studied were choices between gains. In the domain of gains, people were indeed risk averse. They took the sure thing over the gamble. Danny and Amos thought that if the theorists had spent less time with money and more time with politics and war, or even marriage, they might have come to different conclusions about human nature. In politics and war, as in fraught human relationships, the choice faced by the decision maker was often between two unpleasant options.
  20. The reference point was a state of mind. Even in straight gambles you could shift a person’s reference point and make a loss seem like a gain, and vice versa. In so doing, you could manipulate the choices people made, simply by the way they were described. This one they called “framing.” Simply by changing the description of a situation, and making a gain seem like a loss, you could cause people to completely flip their attitude toward risk, and turn them from risk avoiding to risk seeking.
  21. Economists assumed that you could simply measure what people wanted from what they chose. But what if what you want changes with the context in which the options are offered to you? “It was a funny point to make because the point within psychology would have been banal,” the psychologist Richard Nisbett later said. “Of course we are affected by how the decision is presented!
  22. The imagination obeyed rules: the rules of undoing. One rule was that the more items there were to undo in order to create some alternative reality, the less likely the mind was to undo them. People seemed less likely to undo someone being killed by a massive earthquake than they were to undo a person’s being killed by a bolt of lightning, because undoing the earthquake required them to undo all the earthquake had done. “The more consequences an event has, the larger the change that is involved in eliminating that event,” Danny wrote to Amos. Another, related, rule was that “an event becomes gradually less changeable as it recedes into the past.” With the passage of time, the consequences of any event accumulated, and left more to undo. And the more there is to undo, the less likely the mind is to even try. This was perhaps one way time heals wounds.
  23. Two cultures: We tried to create a psychology and economics seminar at Yale. We had our first meeting. The psychologists came out completely bruised. We never had a second meeting.” In the early 1990s, Amos’s former student Steven Sloman invited an equal number of economists and psychologists to a conference in France. “And I swear to God I spent three-quarters of my time telling the economists to shut up,” said Sloman. “The problem,” says Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, “is that psychologists think economists are immoral and economists think psychologists are stupid.” In the academic culture war triggered by Danny and Amos’s work, Amos served as a strategic advisor. At least some of his sympathies were with the economists. Amos’s mind had always clashed with most of psychology.
  24. We think we know things we don’t. We think we are safe when we are not. “For Amos it was one of the core lessons,” said Redelmeier. “It’s not that people think they are perfect. No, no: They can make mistakes. It’s that they don’t appreciate the extent to which they are fallible [read The Black Swan or Fooled by Randomness]. ‘I’ve had three or four drinks. I might be 5 percent off my game.’ No! You are actually 30 percent off your game. This is the mismatch that leads to ten thousand fatal accidents in the United States every year.”
  25. DK made a rule about his fantasy life: He never fantasized about something that might happen. He established this private rule for his imagination once he realized that, after he had fantasized about something that might actually happen, he lost his drive to make it happen.</em

Luckily, I did not fantasize about writing this review. I just wrote it. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Life (Keith Richards)

I picked up this 2010 book because I had heard a lot of people praising it. They were right. Keith Richards and co-author James Fox (who had known KR for 40+ years).

I liked it for telling his story from the beginning (he met Mick Jagger on a train platform because MJ had a bunch of blues albums under his arm); through the crazy (paraphrasing: “we were the bad boys in comparison to the Beatles, but we were all mates”); the deadly (“I just used heroin at the same level for ages. I thought I was in control until I wasn’t. Guys died when they (a) started up again after going cold turkey with their old dose or (b) raised the dose thinking they would get higher”); and the glorious (“All I wanted to do was play, and I met the most extraordinary people through music…. I’ve had all the girls in the world but finally I found a WOMAN.”)

The prose is sometimes a bit too casual to understand, but it’s nice to feel like KR is “talking to you” in the text Fox provides. KR comes across as a quite the nice guy, if only in comparison to badder pirates 🙂

Here are a few quotes I enjoyed, running from the 1960s to 2000s:

  • The Flying V [of snot] was the one that missed the handkerchief. People were always having colds in those days; things were always running out of their noses and they didn’t know what to do with them. And it can’t have been cocaine; it was a little too early. I think it was just bad English winters.
  • We had nobody to impress except us and we weren’t looking to impress ourselves. I was learning too. With Mick and me at the beginning, we’d get, say, a new Jimmy Reed record, and I’d learn the moves on guitar and he would learn the lyrics and get it down, and we would just dissect it as much as two people can. ‘Does it go like that?’ “Yeah, it does as a matter of fact!’ And we had fun doing it. I think we both knew we were in a process of learning, and it was something that you wanted to learn and it was ten times better than school. I suppose at that time, it was the mystery of how it was done, and how could you sound like that? This incredible desire to sound that hip and cool.
  • At first, our audiences were female driven, until towards the end of the ‘os, when it evened out. These armies of feral, body-snatching girls began to emerge in big numbers about halfway through our first UK tour, in the fall of 1963. That was an incredible lineup: the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Mickie Most. We felt like we were in Disneyland, or the best theme park we could imagine. And at the same time we had this unique opportunity to check out the top cats.
  • The power of the teenage females of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, when they’re in a gang, has never left me. They nearly killed me. I was never more in fear for my life than I was from teenage girls. The ones that choked me, tore me to shreds, if you got caught in a frenzied crowd of them — it’s hard to express how frightening they could be. You’d rather be in a trench fighting the enemy than to be faced with this unstop-pable, killer wave of lust and desire, or whatever it is – it’s unknown even to them. The cops are running away, and you’re faced with this savagery of unleashed emotions.
  • The little idiosyncrasies become so annoying. It was the typical drug thing, that they think they’re somebody special. It’s the head club [as in “crack-head” or “smack-head”]. You’d meet people who’d say, ‘Are you a head?’ as if it conferred some special status. People who were stoned on something you hadn’t taken. Their elitism was total bullshit. Ken Kesey’s got a lot to answer for.
  • Levitation is probably the closest analogy to what I feel – whether it’s ‘Jumpin’ Jack’ or ‘Satisfaction’ or ‘All Down the Line’ – when I realize I’ve hit the right tempo and the band’s behind me. It’s like taking off in a Learjet. I have no sense that my feet are touching the ground. I’m elevated to this other space. People say, ‘Why don’t you give it up?” I can’t retire until I croak. I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me.
  • The smack helped my siege mentality. It was my wall against all of that daily stuff, because rather than deal with it, I shut it out, to concentrate on what I wanted to do. You could go out and about, totally insulated. Without it, in certain cases you wouldn’t have walked into that room at that time to deal with something. With it, you could go in there, brazen it off and be very smooth. And then go back and get the guitar out and finish what it was you were doing. It made everything possible. Whereas straight, I don’t know, there were too many things going on. While you’re insulated like this, you live in a world where other people go round with the sun and the moon. They wake up, go to sleep… If you break that cycle and you’ve been up for four, five days [his record was nine days], your perception of these people who have just got up, who have crashed out, is very distant. You’ve been working, writing songs, transferring tape to tape, and these people come in and they’ve been to bed and everything! They’ve even eaten stuff! Meanwhile, you’re sitting at this desk with a guitar and this pen and paper. Where the fuck you been?’ It got to the point where I’d be thinking, how can I help these poor people who have to sleep every day?
  • It’s now famous, my rule on the road. Nobody touches the shepherd’s pie until I’ve been in there. Don’t bust my crust, baby. It’s written into the contract. If you come into Keith Richards’s room and he’s got a shepherd’s pie on the warmer, bubbling away, if it’s still pristine, the only one that can bust the crust is me. Greedy motherfuckers, they’ll come in and just scoop up anything. I put that sort of shit about just for fun, quite honestly. Because I very rarely eat before I go on stage. It’s the worst thing you can do, at least for me. Barely digested food in your stomach and you’ve got to head out there and do ‘Start Me Up’ and another two hours to go. I just want it there in case I realize I haven’t eaten that day and I might need a bit of fuel. It’s just my particular metabolism; I’ve just got to have enough fuel.
  • There was Syphilis, a big wolfhound I had before Marlon was born. And Ratbag, the dog I smuggled in from America. He was in my pocket. He kept his trap shut. I gave him to Mum, and he lived with her for many, many years. I’m away for months, yet the time you spend with pups binds you forever. I now have several packs, all unknown to one another due to the size of the oceans, although I sense they scent the others on my clothes. In rough times I know I can count on canines. When the dogs and I are alone, I talk endlessly. They’re great listeners. I would probably die for one.

Oh, and Mick… He’s a control freak (Lead Vocalist Syndrome) and selfish, but they’re like brothers — writing and jamming since 1961.


Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read this update on cyberwar between the US and China, which is “cold” but could easily go “hot.”
  2. Are American teens exporting their angst to other English-speaking teens? Read more.
  3. Read: No amount of adaptation to climate change can fix Miami’s water problems. Related: In the US each year, heat kills more people overall than do tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods combined—and heat deaths have been increasing. Read more about measuring heat (wet bulb, etc.)
  4. Read: Brits are “done” with Brexit but Brexit is not done with them.
  5. Read how “divestment activists” harm the arts without making any progress towards their goals: “This smells like activism aimed less at global warming than the warm glow of moral smugness.”
  6. Canadian pensions made excellent returns on real estate investments, but now they are not. Read more.
  7. Read: (US) Federal workforce-training programs prepare people for dead-end jobs that no one wants.
  8. Listen to Professor Dunbar discuss the “natural scales” of our relationship networks.
  9. David Brooks writes an excellent counter-point to the widely held belief that “only the young innovate.” Turns out that older folks have a few of their own tricks, relying on diversity, curiosity and wisdom.
  10. I agree: LLMs (AIs) now write lots of science. Good.

Review: Material World

I found, while reading this book, that I paid a lot more attention to concrete, and steel, and other aspects of our built environment. It forced me to balance away from the digital world where I spend too much time.

The author, Ed Conway, devotes a section to each of six materials (sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium), looking into the history of their use and their role in our lives today.

One fact that anyone should keep in mind is the large difference between the price we pay for any of these materials and their value in use. That difference is often very large for water, but it’s also large for these “endless” (not!) raw materials.

I was fascinated from beginning to end, so here are some quotes and notes:

    1. Consumption of some materials is falling in some locations, but it is rising globally, which often means that the pollution and other negative impacts from sourcing the materials is rising faster than rates of extraction, due to the common habit of mining the easier stuff (less work, less pollution) before looking to more difficult sources.
    2. Sand is quite the material, with many uses, like mirrors that are “probably the smoothest man-made structures in the universe’. If you blew one of them up to the size of the United States, the biggest bump would be less than half a millimetre high.
    3. Don’t think “supply chain” but “supply web” with all the complexity that allows for.
    4. We need salt in our diets to live, but it’s used in so many other ways. Governments tax salt for this reason (we need it). The obligation to pay for 7kg of salt per year (sel du devoir) spurred the French Revolution. Gandhi’s march to harvest salt outside the British Government’s monopoly (salt satyagraha) spurred Indian independence.
    5. Ironaccounted for roughly 95 per cent of all the metal we produce and use. Indeed, it’s so fundamental to our lives that it is just as good a measure of living standards as GDP. If you live in a developed economy like the US, Japan, UK or most of Europe, you have roughly 15 tonnes of steel in your life.
    6. If we wanted everyone in the world to have the same amount of embedded steel as we enjoy in the rich world – 15 tonnes per person – that would imply increasing the total global stock of this alloy to 144 billion tonnes. And since that is nearly four times what we have ever produced since the beginning of humanity, and since methods of producing steel without any emissions remain experimental and expensive, we are caught in the horns of a dilemma. The world’s twin goals of decarbonisation and development are heading for a collision. As countries become richer and more prosperous, are they really to be denied the concrete or steel the West poured and forged as it developed?
    7. The need to smelt iron and charcoal to get steel led to shortages of wood until that fuel was replaced by coal. Welcome to the Industrial Revolution, an exponential increase in wealth, and the beginning of climate chaos.
    8. In 1800, 95 per cent of Britain’s energy came from coal; at the very same point, almost all of France’s energy – over 90 per cent – still came from burning wood. No longer was Britain yoked to the organic limitations of how many trees could be grown on its landmass. And around this time, its income per capita, which for most of history had been more or less the same as France’s, began to soar. By the early nineteenth century it was 80 per cent richer than France.
    9. Here we run smack bang into the same lesson we learned from concrete [sand]: what makes steel [iron] a mainstay of the Material World? Not merely that it is very good at doing what it does, but that it is both very good and very cheap. That cheapness – which means steel is a vanishing part of our GDP statistics – is its secret weapon. Back in 1810 Americans spent roughly the same proportion of their national income on iron nails as they do today on computers. Today steel nails cost next to nothing – while being far superior to their iron predecessors – meaning we have more money to spend on, well, computers. The same observation (a big gap between cost and value) can be said about water.
    10. Copper is the great, unseen substrate that supports the modern world as we know it. Without it, we are quite literally left in the dark. If steel provides the skeleton of our world and concrete its flesh then copper is civilisation’s nervous system, the circuitry and cables we never see but couldn’t function without.
    11. There was an …astonishing leap in productivity afforded to manufacturers by electric drive motors [built with copper coils and powered by electricity delivered via copper wires]. Out went the clunky, inefficient steam engines in factories and in came electric motors. This alone doubled American manufacturing productivity by 1930, and then again by 1960.
    12. A note for the industrial ecologists: The flipside of getting ever more effective at mining ever poorer copper ores is that we displace ever more amounts of the planet in our bid to do so. Between 2004 and 2016 Chilean miners increased annual copper production by 2.6 per cent. Yet the amount of ore they had to dig out of the ground to produce this marginal increase in refined copper rose by 75 per cent. The most staggering thing about this statistic, however, is not just the numbers themselves but the fact that they show up in no environmental accounts or material flow analysis, which count only the refined metal. When it comes to even the United Nations’ measures of how much humans are affecting the planet, this waste rock doesn’t count.
    13. When scientists discovered the hole in the ozone layer it didn’t take long to engineer near-identical alternatives to the chlorofluorocarbons that were mostly responsible. It was possible to save the environment without even noticing. Oil and gas are by their very nature far trickier to substitute since they represent an almost perfect energy source and a near irreplaceable feedstock into nearly every manufactured product. Weaning ourselves off them will take far more than a bit of goodwill and a net-zero target.
    14. As of 2019, right before the pandemic struck and skewed the data, just over 80 per cent of the world’s primary energy – which includes both electricity generation and also other uses such as transport, heating and industrial processes – came from the burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. The striking thing about this number is how stable it has been: just over 80 per cent at the turn of the millennium, just over 80 per cent in 1990 and only a touch higher – around 85 per cent – in 1980. Wind and solar, by contrast, provided just 1.5 per cent of our energy in 2019.
    15. The story of modern agriculture is really about… replacing natural forms of energy with fossil fuels…a kilogram of greenhouse tomatoes generates as much as 3 kilograms of carbon emissions… And since most consumers are reluctant to spend much more on tomatoes, and for that matter have little conception of how they are actually grown, that suits everyone just fine… In 2022, as gas prices soared after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some growers simply opted out altogether. All of a sudden, glasshouses were left empty, tomatoes were in short supply, and food prices rose across Europe – in large part because of the shortage of natural gas. Even growers in Spain and Italy, who tend not to grow their tomatoes indoors, were hit by the rise in costs of fertiliser and of the diesel fuel in the trucks transporting their produce. Vaclav Smil has calculated that each tomato from this region has an energy cost of five tablespoons of diesel.
    16. So we return to that same tension we have encountered repeatedly: How to balance the demand for stuff with the consequences of producing it? In the case of lithium the balance is even harder to strike, since it is our means of escaping fossil fuel dependence. Yet in much the same way as the internal combustion engine helped humankind out of one hole (the pollution of our towns and cities by horse manure) yet helped create another one, what are the chances the very same thing happens with lithium, or cobalt or nickel or manganese?
    17. As Wright observed this steady fall in prices and improvement in quality, he came up with a rule of thumb: every time the production of an item doubles, its cost falls by about 15 per cent. And Wright’s law, as it is sometimes called, has been eerily successful at explaining the fall in the price of everything from container ships to specialised plastics.
    18. We are beyond carrying capacity: …we went from having to rely on the sun for all our sustenance, complemented by some mined fertilisers such as the caliche of the Atacama, to relying on fossil fuels. Today our tomatoes, our potatoes and indeed pretty much everything else are nourished with fertilisers made of natural gas. Thanks to the Haber–Bosch process, we are all made out of fossil fuels. That allowed the global population to grow beyond its Malthusian limits – the carrying capacity of the planet if we could only rely on renewable resources like the sun, the wind and the unfertilised soil – but as our numbers swelled there was an arithmetic increase in the amount of fossil fuels we burned. There is a paradox here. Without fossil fuels, roughly half of us would not be alive. Yet now, the carbon emissions from those fossil fuels are causing problems that threaten us all.
    19. No energy transition of this sort [net zero carbon by 2050] has ever been achieved as quickly, indeed the previous four would be better measured in centuries and we are still reliant on coal for more of our energy than oil. And this is before you factor in that in each of the previous transitions – the move from coal to oil and from oil to gas – there was a big incentive to shift: manufacturers could benefit from cheaper, more energy-dense fuels. Each previous shift made their lives easier. This time around, the opposite is often the case. Except for nuclear power, we are shifting to less dense sources of energy. And we are doing so even as the world’s most populous nations are industrialising, and hence increasing their energy consumption. The numbers are challenging: some would say nearly impossibly so.
    20. Consider what it takes to replace a small natural gas turbine, pumping out 100 megawatts of electricity, enough for up to 100,000 homes, with wind power. You would need around 20 enormous wind turbines. To build those turbines you will need nearly 30,000 tonnes of iron and almost 50,000 tonnes of concrete, along with 900 tonnes of plastics and fibreglass for the blades and 540 tonnes of copper (or three times that for an offshore wind farm). The gas turbine, on the other hand, would take around 300 tonnes of iron, 2,000 tonnes of concrete and perhaps 50 tonnes of copper in the windings and transformers. On the basis of one calculation, we will need to mine more copper in the next 22 years than we have in the entirety of the past 5,000 years of human history.
    21. As someone who has worked my entire life in the ethereal world, enjoying the spoils of the Material World without ever getting my hands dirty, the journey recounted in this book has been somewhat chastening. The more I travelled, the greater the nagging feeling that we have all become disconnected from the primary industries upon which we all rely for our survival. Perhaps this is simply the quid pro quo of modern capitalism. You can get anything you want from anywhere in the world for a bargain price, but don’t whatever you do expect to understand how it was made or how it got to you. Perhaps it hardly matters that there is no single person in the world who understands how to make a pencil, or a silicon chip. But what if this disconnection is fuelling the alienation so many people feel towards capitalism?

Bottom line: I give this book FIVE STARS. Read it and appreciate the infrastructures that make our modern lives possible and pleasurable, and then think of (a) how expensive it will be to shift to sustainable consumption and (b) the consequences if we do not.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Happy solstice!
  2. Read how expats experience discrimination in NL (familiar to me).
  3. “Smoke from California wildfires prematurely killed more than 50,000 people from 2008 to 2018.” …and it will get worse. Read more. Related: Outdoor exercise is getting more dangerous.
  4. Read the constitutional case against exclusionary zoning.
  5. Read: The space commons are filling up, and one crash could lead to a cascade in which ALL satellites are blown to pieces.
  6. Read about the many (conflicting) ways Americans see immigration.
  7. Read: How to give and take criticism.
  8. Listen to this backgrounder on Bergheim (Berlin)
  9. Watch John Oliver explain the suffocating impacts of corn subsidies
  10. Read: Thames Water, loaded up on debt to pay investors dividends while failing to upgrade London’s Victorian-era sewers (and now Thames is bankrupt).

Climate adaptation options

Humans are not doing enough mitigation to slow — let alone reverse — climate change chaos. Average global temperature is now +1.2C, far above which is on track to exceed the 2015 Paris Agreement’s target of “holding the increase in the global average temperature… increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels…” by 2034.*

In this 2011 post (“We’re screwed, now what?”), I wrote:

Mitigation-focused investments (solar, biofuels, zero-emissions stuff) are wasted if there’s no “carbon reduction payback” — this means that a lot of projects are going to turn instantly unprofitable.

Thus, it’s time to adapt: lift your skirts for floods and prepare for droughts.

So which countries will do better with adapting — and which will not?

Here are four factors**

  1. Climate chaos will arrive in all places in different ways. No physical geography will consistently be “better” or “safer.” Winners and losers will change places. Chance and planning will battle. Nature always bats last!***
  2. Wealth is a double-edged sword. It correlates with more resources (useful but not necessary), but it is not sufficient to overcome social divisions and political opportunism.
  3. Poverty can be a blessing in communities that have practiced mutual aid while having to adjust to various shocks and injustices. The poor will abandon a cardboard shack before it floods. Will the wealthy abandon Miami as the waters rise?
  4. Corruption — the abuse of public office for private gain — will get worse before it gets better, for the same reasons as always: stealing is easier than working. The temptation to steal in a “shrinking pieworld — a world that humans have not faced for centuries — will rise as we tell ourselves “I deserve. You don’t.”

Look around you — is your community ready? Do you even have a community?

* Global average temperatures were +1.58C in April 2024, but that’s not the long-term average? Small consolation.

** What factors have I missed?

*** IMO, homo sapiens will not go extinct, as we are more tenacious than mosquitoes. I see three steps “down” from our current status as the world’s dominant organism. I think each step will take a few hundred years.

  1. We fight over a shrinking pie, but maintain a semblance of today’s nation-states, technological advances, and so on.
  2. We start to forget key elements of knowledge (e.g., nuclear power or silicon chips) and civility (e.g., more slavery).
  3. We are reduced to tribes of social primates who cooperate to survive, but we are too few, and the Anthropocene slowly starts to end.

Interesting stuff

  1. Listen to this podcast if you think that maybe (just maybe!) whales might have a point in seeking revenge against humans.
  2. I’m impressed by this use of AI to help a Japanese mayor speak fluent English. It’s nice to understand more about local politics.
  3. Listen to this critique of America’s crony capitalism, and the need (I agree!) for more worker (counter-veiling) power.
  4. Well shit. US Supreme Court justices are picking the “facts” they want to support their political beliefs? What could go wrong?
  5. Listen to this clear explanation of how the US constitution is supposed to work (e.g., the Electoral College is a feature, not a bug).
  6. Read an update on trying to slow glaciers from sliding into the oceans, which was a big plot point in the 2020 Clif-Fi Ministry for the Future.
  7. Read this VERY LONG but very interesting article on Aridzona’s water issues… and very complex politics. A real masterpiece of journalism. It’s full of zingers like these:

    At certain moments in the Valley, and this was one, ingenuity took the sound and shape of an elaborate defense against the truth… When Kari Lake ran for governor in 2022, everyone knew her position on transgenderism and no one knew her position on water, because she barely had one. The subject didn’t turn out voters or decide elections; it was too boring and complicated to excite extremists.

Review: The Places in Between

Someone recommended that I read this 2004 book by Rory Stewart (a Scot with quite a CV). Although I enjoyed it, I am not sure that the average person would be too enthusiastic about reading a series of mano-a-mano encounters in which tribal customs mix with male violence and companionship.

The book focusses on a “missing link” in  Stewart’s early 2000s walk across Iran, Pakistan and India, i.e., the section in Afghanistan that was closed until America overthrew the Taliban (for the moment).

To the reader’s benefit, Stewart was willing to risk his life while (a) walking a month along a “road less travelled” that no one local knew from end to end and (b) negotiating a “fluid” security and governance situation in regions where the Taliban had killing locals only a few months earlier. Stewart reminds me of  Thesinger (1959) and Sir Richard Francis Burton (19th c.)

This book is thus a travelogue that focusses more on culture and anthropology than on fine dining and the sights. Stewart is utterly vulnerable to the idea(l)s and whims of the people he encounters, the hosts on whose hospitality he depends, and the complex humanity of a culture (or mix of cultures) that outsiders have forever misunderstood and underappreciated — at their peril.

So it’s obvious that he should pick up a dog-as-companion on the way.

He names the dog “Babur,” in honor of the historic Babur who (a) walked the same way (losing many men in the process) and (b) conquored India in the 16th century.

Here are a few insightful passages:

  1. I took out my notebook and sketched Abdul Haq, who was sleeping on his back with his rifle across his thighs, his large chest slowly rising and falling. He had a clear, honest face. I found my fondness for him difficult to reconcile with what I knew of his enthusiasm for killing people and making small children cry.
  2. Islam does not encourage strong social distinctions, and the war and social revolutions in villages had destroyed many of the old feudal structures in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, villagers were very aware of one another’s backgrounds. A multitude of points of etiquette, tradition, and tribal identities differentiated a servant such as Wazir from a feudal lord… Class did not necessarily reflect education and experience. My current host, Seyyed Umar, was a wealthy man from a respected family of landowning clergy, but he could not read or write and had never been abroad. Abdul Haq, who was from a much humbler background, was literate and had traveled. What mattered was power and that depended on allies.
  3. Why did you become a Mujahid [resistance fighter]?” I asked Seyyed Umar. “Because the Russian government stopped my women from wearing head scarves and confiscated my donkeys.” “And why did you fight the Taliban?” “Because they forced my women to wear burqas, not head scarves, and stole my donkeys.” It seemed if the government did not interfere with his women’s headdress and his donkeys he would not oppose it.
  4. Babur seemed prepared to examine, mark with urine, and take possession of every meter of the next six hundred kilometers. Only once or twice in my eighteen-month walk across Asia had I felt some magical claim to the territory I touched with my feet. But Babur apparently felt it all the time. The warm stream of urine was set like a flag to mark his new empire. All his movement was conquest and occupation. He seemed ready to ponder and possess every place in the world. He was like a canine Alexander.
  5. This was a very useful map. It specified everything in terms of a man on foot: the best tracks, the distances that could be walked in a day, whom you should speak to in each village… Day one: Commandant Maududi in Badgah. Day two: Abdul Rauf Ghafuri in Daulatyar. Day three: Bushire Khan in Sang-i-zard. Day four: Mir Ali Hussein Beg of Katlish. Day five: Haji Nasir-i-Yazdani Beg of Qala-e-Nau. Day six: Seyyed Kerbalahi of Siar Chesme… I recited and followed this song-of-the-places-in-between as a map. I chanted it even after I had left the villages, using the list as a credential.
  6. Though most communities, whether Islamic or Hindu, and Muslims talked a great deal about their formal religious responsibilities to a mosafer (traveler), or meman (guest), in practice people often welcomed me reluctantly. This was understandable—they were often very poor, lived tough lives, and were suspicious of the few strangers they met. I was often disappointed by their hospitality. Only later did I begin to see how fortunate I was that they provided me almost every night with shelter and bread to eat.
  7. Six years earlier [1996], two thousand families had lived in Shaidan. Three years ago the Taliban had killed eighty men in the bazaar. A year ago, fresh from dynamiting the giant Buddhas thirty-five kilometers away, they killed one hundred and twenty. Seven months before my arrival, they found the village empty and torched it. Most of the population had fled to refugee camps.
  8. Some [foreign aid workers], such as the two political officers in Chaghcharan, were experienced and well informed about conditions in rural Afghanistan. But they were barely fifty out of many thousands. Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women’s rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people “who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government.” But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? [snip] These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome. Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some areas. Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory. [snip] The differences between the policy makers and a Hazara such as Ali went much deeper than his lack of food. Ali rarely worried about his next meal. He was a peasant farmer and had a better idea than most about where his next meal was coming from. If he defined himself it was chiefly as a Muslim and a Hazara, not as a hungry Afghan. Without the time, imagination, and persistence needed to understand Afghans’ diverse experiences, policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change.
  9. Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.
  10. Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression. Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.
  11. Almost every morning, regrets and anxieties had run through my mind like a cheap tune—often repeated, revealing nothing. But as I kept moving, no thoughts came. Instead I became aware of the landscape as I once had in the Indian Himalayas. Every element around me seemed sharper, the colors more intense. I stared, expecting the effect to fade, but the objects only continued to develop in reality and presence. I was suddenly afraid, uncertain I could sustain this vision. This moment was new to me. I had not dreamed or imagined it before. Yet I recognized it. I felt that I was as I was in this place, and that I had known it before. This was the last day of my walk. To feel in these final hours, after months of frustration, an unexplained completion seemed too neat. But the recognition was immediate and incontrovertible. I had no words for it. Now, writing, I am tempted to say that I felt the world had been given as a gift uniquely to me and also equally to each person alone. I had completed walking and could go home.

I give this book FOUR STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Americans (and many others) do not understand the dynamics of migration (=it’s not zero-sum): “This is madness. Failing to solve the immigration-recruitment kludge as we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on technology subsidies is about as strategic as training to run a marathon while subsisting on a diet of donuts.” Read more.
  2. PFAS contamination means some Dutch eggs and fish are too dangerous to eat.
  3. Read: Dutch politicians made the solar market, and now they broke it. Just another example of why [algorithmic] carbon taxes are better
  4. Harvard wises up: “the belief that the purpose of the university is best served by speaking only on matters directly relevant to its function and not by issuing declarations on other matters [e.g., politics], however important.”… As university leaders pronounce less, faculty and students should feel more free to step up and speak up, not on behalf of any collective, but as individuals who prefer constructive discourse to groupthink. For those who crave pronouncements from the top, there is still religion.
  5. Read this sad explainer on how US governments (at all levels) have outsourced “customer service” to profit-seeking firms that… make a lot of profits by (a) making the process more confusing (tax returns) and (b) taking a large share of benefits meant for the poor. Related: Scammy student-loan servicing companies undermine the purpose of federal subsidies. Watch.
  6. Amsterdam hit a record number of stays (22.1 million nights) by 9.4 million visitors. Is that a lot? Using the average number of nights (2.35), we can see that the “FTE” visitors to the city are 60,500 people (i.e., as if 60k tourists stayed all year), or 6.5% of the city’s current population of 932,000. Is that a lot? Barcelona had 12 million tourists staying 35.9 million nights (3.00 average), which means 98,000 “tourist FTEs” — or 5.8% of its local population. (Fun fact: 1/4 of their “locals” are foreign born.) So, yeah. Amsterdam is busy. (I’ve left off the 15 million day trippers!) What about Venice? Yeah, bad data, but 4.9 million tourists staying 8 million nights gives 22,000 FTE tourists, which is 44% (!) of the historic city’s 50,000 population. That’s why Venice is piloting a “head tax” to reduce day tripping demand.
  7. Watch Stephen Colbert enjoy saying “Trump, the convicted felon” (#lockhimup)
  8. Listen: Companies are finally getting the hang of (first degree) price discrimination (often via apps), which means higher prices for us and profits for them.
  9. Worry: “An additional 1°C of warming will lead to a 12% fall in gdp. A climate-change scenario with more than 3°C of warming would be, according to their estimates, an equivalent blow to fighting a permanent war.”
  10. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail 60 years ago. Listen to this discussion and consider this excerpt:

    We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

    We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.