- Read: Indian and Pakistanis are living with “unsurvivable” heat.
- Read: George Orwell on Hitler’s Mein Kampf in 1940: “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.“
- Listen: Yuval Noah Harari Thinks Life Is Meaningless and Amazing
- Listen: This podcast is more about citizen governance than big tech, so definitely worth a listen
- Watch: Who controls gas prices? (It’s not the president)
- Read: The Netherlands has the “least best” surface water quality in the EU. This is mostly due to agricultural pollution (=animal shit) and has been known for years. The Dutch need to decide whether they value their environment or their meat exports. This article [in Dutch] explains how they’ve received two 6-year extensions since the original deadline of 2015 and will probably miss the 2027 deadline. Other EU countries are also having problems, but not as badly as the Dutch, who have natural (peat bog) challenges as well as a very strong pro-pollution lobby (the farmers).
- Watch: My colleague Paul gave a great TEDx talk on climate and tipping points.
- Listen: Robin Dunbar (of Dunbar number fame!) on why religion keeps evolving
- Read: How to minimize hassle and maximize facemask safety on planes
- Read: A rising share of humans is exposed to heat stress — and most of them are in poorer countries where relief is out-of-(financial)-reach.
Month: July 2022
George Carlin on our failing species
In 2001, I was lucky to see George Carlin (1937-2008) live in Las Vegas, as he is (or was) one of the sharpest commentators on contemporary life. I recently watched the 2021 documentary about his life, American Dream, and came across the clip below, which captures his “trick” of staying sane in our current world.
In his 1997 book, Brain Droppings, he explained it as:
“I frankly don’t give a fuck how it all turns out in this country—or anywhere else, for that matter. I think the human game was up a long time ago (when the high priests and traders took over), and now we’re just playing out the string. And that is, of course, precisely what I find so amusing: the slow circling of the drain by a once promising species.”
I find this perspective to be quite healthy for me, mentally. Although I only recently decided that I was more of a pessimist than a realist, it’s been clear to me for some time now that humans are miraculous not for their achievements and good works (many of them in the “excludable goods” side of life) but merely for not destroying themselves so far. Unlike other species, we experience, tolerate and choose for war, genocide, inequality, corruption and other nasty ways of harming each other (in the “non-excludable goods” side of life), but it’s in our war on the environment where the wheels are truly coming off. I’ve written plenty about this, so I’ll leave it to Carlin to summarize.
(Note how many of the people listening to him continue to insist that he’s trying to “help” us with his comments. He’s not. He’s written our species off.)
- Listen: A “dotcom millionaire” who later wasn’t on the market, and crypto meltdown.
- Read: Aridzona’s silly water laws are leaving owners of $600k houses dry.
- Read: Time for a post-Roe-Wade vasectomy? (I’m very happy with mine!)
- Read: Some researchers claim that large, rich Dutch cities are not “happy,” but they failed to back out the impact (good and bad) of inequality. That’s a fail because the entire point of cities is opportunity (thus inequality), not homogeneity.
- Read: E-scooters aren’t green if they are only used a few months.
- Read: Americans are losing millions to overseas “scam relationships.” Related: How Wall Street made millions as Main street lost to crypto scams
- Read: Stop reading the news to stay sane — and connected to reality. Related: Going offline in Wales to slow down and enjoy life
- Read: Rich people’s yachts as the ultimate (and movable) “fuck u, I’m rich”
- Read: This interview with Herman Daly, an ecological economist behind “steady-state [no growth] economics” presents his ideas clearly. I agree with all of them, since he’s talking about the right way to do economics.
- Read: One reason for higher prices? Abuse of market power by ocean shipping companies
I found this 2011 book by Tim Harford in the local “book exchange” on teh corner and grabbed it, since I’ve read his Undercover Economist and listened to his fun “Cautionary Tales” podcast.
I was glad I did.
Harford’s books fall into the space between Malcolm Gladwell and Nassim Taleb, as he’s both an economist and journalist, and that’s where I like to hang out. (Fun fact, this book came out before Taleb’s 2012 Anti-fragile, which covers, AFAIK, the same topic.)
This book’s premise is that we can hardly hope to get it right the first time, especially when exploring new ideas or facing new challenges, so he says we should focus on adaptation, which is useful for dealing with climate change but also to any other change.
The way to do this is summarized as the Palchinsky Principles*:
- Seek out new ideas and try new things.
- Try new things on a small scale, so failure is survivable.
- Seek feedback and learn from mistakes as you go.
You can stop reading here, as that’s “the lesson,” but I will (as usual) add a bunch of notes (only a fraction of the notes I made while reading) that give more context to those steps.
- Life as hunter-gathers was simple: eat, walk, sleep, fuck. The leader had a few simple responsibilities but got respect. In our extremely complex world, leaders cannot hope to understand or manage those systems, but our primitive mind keeps assuming they can.
- The survival or success of firms has little to do with their leaders, which should make you question their stupid-high salaries.
- The Soviets were spectacularly bad planners, but the USSR survived on the wits of its citizens, many of whom were punished for “deviations.” Palchinsky (*mentioned above) was murdered by Stalin’s goons for making too much noise about all that was going wrong.
- “If formal experiments hold few joys for traditional leaders, informal feedback will often fail to reach them, too… There is a limit to how much honest feedback most leaders really want to hear; and because we know this, most of us sugar-coat our opinions whenever we speak to a powerful person. In a deep hierarchy, that process is repeated many times, until the truth is utterly concealed inside a thick layer of sweet-talk” (p 30)
- High modernism and grand visions are dangerous because they over-reach.
- Whistle-blowers and short sellers are hated for interfering with the vision, but they should be rewarded for pointing out dangers (and actual fraud).
- “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” or, in Mike Tyson’s words, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
- Hayek said a lot of this in his amazing 1945 paper (one of my favorites)
- The US only recovered from early failures in Iraq (recall the book came out in 2011) due to local leaders giving local soldiers authority to ignore orders from the top (“frag the lieutenant”) and solve local issues.
- Variation in ideas (and actions) is safer (see #2) than pursuing one big idea (cf., market indexing vs superstars).
- Many good ideas (and many more failures) come from “skunk works” filled with engineers and others freed from corporate oversight (#1, #2).
- Don’t be fooled by the “success” presented to you. Look at all the data (#3).
- A simple (sophisticated) economy usually makes simple (sophisticated) products due to many factors. Simple economies are usually poorer than sophisticated ones, but that’s not always true. Saudi Arabia is rich, but simple (selling oil), which is why its people have trouble making sophisticated products. Israel’s current wealth could be predicted by the (educational and cultural) sophistication of its people.
- The northern European port city of Lübeck (now in Germany) exported it successful model and founded the Hanseatic League (which dominated European commerce for centuries) because its ruler, Henry the Lion, established a stable and open trading policy in 1158.
- John Tyndall’s 1859 description of the Greenhouse effect was based on some pretty clever science (he showed that sunlight would heat water vapor in a flask but not if the flask was a vacuum)
- Most of our understanding of cause and effect, as applied to climate chaos (e.g., recycle! drive an electric car!) is off or wrong, so we should be worried about “targeted policies” (looking at you, politicians) and favor a direct instrument like a carbon tax: “What the carbon tax would do, then, is recreate the fantasy carbon calculator app, and give it teeth. No central database would be needed. Every product in the world would change in price according to the carbon content of the energy that produced it, and that would give every decision maker, fromthe electricity company to Geoff himself, an incentive toreduce their carbon footprint using whatever tactics occurredto them” (page 168).
- A complex, tightly coupled (think falling dominos) system is vulnerable to blowing up. That’s what happened in the Global Financial Crisis, when everyone realized that the bankers had no fucking idea what they were buying and selling. The current crypto-market blow up is a smaller, far less regulated, version of this (see #2) that would NOT have been avoided with regulation. (Lack of regulation is a feature, not a bug, when you’re inventing a market.)
- Separating banks into “utility” and “speculative” was a good idea in 2011, and it’s still a good idea, but bankers have bribed politicians to keep the casino open — and they’re gambling with your money.
- Financial regulators and auditors don’t spot corporate fraud: Journalists, whistle-blowers and other (non-financial) regulators. Why? None of these later types are paid by the firms they “oversee.”
- Individuals die as the population adapts, via selective breeding. That’s bad news for the individual but good for the species.
- Peer monitoring is far more effective than the boss looking over your shoulder.
- Disruptive innovations only get going because incumbents don’t see the potential in better ideas. They are comparing a new, rough idea to their old, refined one. “Big mistake” — Elon Musk.
- “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard Feynman. It’s for this reason that I named my website kysq (kill your status quo), since (#3) the first step to learning is admitting (not denying) that you’ve made a mistake. This is why good writers can “kill their babies” (paragraphs); they need to make peace with their losses.
- “I am not a failure. I have made a mistake.” (p 257)
- Self-employed people tend to be happier than employed because their customers give immediate feedback, good and bad, whereas employees need to rely on bosses who may not pay attention or know what’s good or bad.
My one-handed conclusion is that we can all benefit from Palchinsky’s Principles — and reading this book, especially as we enter an era that (in my evolving opinion) will not look like the 1930s or 1970s, but the 2020s, and it’s going to full of chaos and the need to adapt. FIVE STARS.
- Read: The Petty Pleasures of Watching Crypto Profiteers Flounder
- Read: Dam removals are happening in Europe, but there are many many (useless) dams to go. [Insert “something something circular” comment here, to move old concrete into new construction?]
- Watch: John Oliver describes the clusterfuck of water in the Western US — something I’ve warned about for 15+ years.
- Watch this amazing collaboration: Dutch Cities are Better for the Environment, which links into (?) The Suburbs Are Bleeding America Dry
- Read this paper on “climate insecurity,” which points out that loss of (potential) GDP — the conventional measure of “damage” — does not capture the damage (physical and psychological) from losing secure access to food, water, energy, etc. These insecurities will — as I have said many times — really harm what we consider “quality of life”
- Read: San Francisco voters have recalled their “over-woke” local officials for discarding a working system in favor of counterproductive virtue signaling. I hope that the “radical Left” continues to lose power in favor of the center. (The Republicans on the Jan 6 committee are doing that job from the Right.)
- Read: Dutch festivals are cutting back on disposable plastic beer cups. Good.
- Read: The fish-of-the-day comes from much warmer waters than 100 years ago. Climate chaos will hit our diet in many ways, but this is clearly quantified.
- Listen: “Today on Hot Take, Amy and Mary talk with David Wallace-Wells about the lessons we can learn from Covid-19, the parallels between pandemic response and climate response, and how Russia’s war in Ukraine sits at the intersection between the two.”
- Think: US gun violence is well known, but consider: There were 45,000 firearm deaths in the most recent year (2020), which is over 120 per day. That’s more than die due to motor vehicles (110/day) but not “poisoning,” i.e., mostly drug overdoses, @ 265/day). Most gun deaths (24k) are suicide, then homicide (19k), with police “legal intervention” coming in at 600 or so (Source CDC). So cops may be violent, but look at their environment! Here’s more, and more recent, data. Why can’t the US “get things under control”? Maybe because of the 1996 “Dickey Amendment,” which banned use of federal funding for research that “may be used to promote gun control.” Well, fuck.
H/T to DW
Social tipping points and climate chaos
Social consciousness can overtake rational calculation and lead to tipping points that overwhelm all planning.
These tipping points, which may not look very different from mass panic or mania, can be useful or destructive. Consider:
- How anti-vaxxers were able to convince many people to avoid Covid jabs.
- How people have rushed in, then out, then into (and out) of crypto.
- How Instagram has replaced Facebook (sadly, also the owner of IG) for young people wanting to hang out with friends and for advertisers chasing them (network effects)
- How “nobody” wants to buy a house in Flint (lead poisoning) or Groningen (fracking-related earthquakes)
- The rise of K-pop
- How Americans facing higher gasoline prices didn’t just pay $100 extra per week or month for gasoline, but paid $10-20k to buy a smaller car. (This was in 2009 and maybe also today…)
- Etc., forever.
Now these trends can be helpful (more fuel efficient cars) or harmful (anti-vaxxers), but they share one common element: those people are not making calculated guesses based on data, risk and modeling (Thinking Slow). They are reacting emotionally and following the mob (Thinking Fast).
All of this means that government and scientific models of “climate change” (which have their own flaws) are likely to be ignored or overwhelmed in a way that leads to “climate chaos,” i.e.,
- People will abandon an area due to a single weather event.
- People will suddenly become vegan.
- Politicians will block food markets, “for safety”
- People will follow a (cult) leader promising protection or redemption.
This post is inspired by an event I attended in Amsterdam that focused on land management in response to climate change. At the event, there were discussions that focussed on millimetres of sea level rise or percentage changes in risk. Those discussions were NOT looking at long-term CC impacts (e.g., depopulating coastal areas — the Randstad being most notable in the Netherlands — as they flood), but how to “manage” that inevitability.
IMO, that sort of mierenneuken (focussing on tiny details) was ignoring the potential for tipping points that would screw up all plans. Imagine everyone in Amsterdam trying to drive or bike out of the city. The roads would be too crowded to work. (We saw this in Ukraine’s western borders with people trying to flee the Russians.)
In short: one big storm surge, and the Randstad depopulates 100x faster than predicted.
Aside: What was ironic, or perhaps calculated, in the Dutch discussion is how much energy politicians and banks are putting into the story (or myth) of protecting
people’s homes real estate values. What we know is that those values will drop like a rock as soon as owners realize that nobody wants to buy. Such a drop will have a very big impact on bank finances and the government’s ability to raise taxes and pay for all the nice people who work for it. We saw this in Flint and Groningen recently but also in Detroit over the past decades.
That’s one irony. The other is that the Dutch government is now doing “everything it can” to make housing more affordable. The easiest way to do that is announce how fast (currently expensive) areas could be underwater. That would drop prices to affordable in a hurry. Problem solved, eh?
My one-handed conclusion is that most of our work on climate chaos may be worthless in the face of tipping points.
Thanks to PB and TR for chatting about these topics with me
- Watch: Environmental racism (or lack of justice) in the US
- Read: AI System for Real Time Monitoring of Water Quality
- Read: Unilever’s push for more single-use plastics
- Read: Hoboken Hasn’t Had a Traffic Death in Four Years. What’s It Doing Right?
- Read: Wildlife crossings cut down on roadkill, but they may not help with conservation
- Read: Stefanie Kelton (of modern monetary theory fame) has delusional ideas of how interest rates and inflation work (e.g., “higher interest rates will give more income to bond holders who will spend it, spurring inflation”… which is suspect at best, but clearly silly when one considers how higher rates put a massive brake on borrowing/debt). My prediction is that MMT will die quickly as its “birth conditions” (the great moderation) disappear and we discover the purpose of interest rates: putting a price on money.
- Watch: Utilities often abuse their monopoly power (regulatory fail)
- Listen: The business of porn, a short podcast series
- Watch: Misinformation on social media is much worse for non-English speakers… because US social media companies (FB, YT) don’t have enough foreign-language moderators (oh… and what algorithm?!?)
- Read: Researchers now estimate that humans cannot “tolerate” (=not die) wetbulb temperatures above 31C (87F @100% humidity), which is much lower than the widely used cited figure of 35C. Some people now experience these temperatures (and feel terrible) but climate chaos will make them more common, in more places. Time for the matrix?
H/T to RM
Review: Cork Dork
I can’t remember who recommend this book to me, but I am glad they did. It is about wine, and the weirdnesses we attach to wine, sometimes for good reasons, but often not. It’s a good companion to a movie like Sideways for those people who have a tendency to put their noses too deep into their glasses.
Bianca Bosker sets out with a huge ambition (to become certified as a sommelier, aka “cork dork”), and she learns a lot on the way from those kind enough to give their time (or too slow to escape her persistence). This book is her record of that process of going from “red or white?” to someone able to recognize the smell of a particular grape, vintage AND region.
I won’t go into step-by-step details, except to say that the process gives some excellent structure to writing that balances between funny failure and caustic critique of the many steps between the grape and your glass.
The good news is that most of us can drink tasty wine for $30 per bottle (these are restaurant prices, so maybe $10 from the store?). The bad news is that anyone who wants “something different” — and especially if they want something that’s more handmade (a thousand cases per year) than industrial (a thousand cases per day) is gonna be paying $100 per bottle ($30 in store) and up, until you get to showoff bottles ($500 and up) that are not really worth the extra Benjamins.
Along the way, I made some notes:
- The per-glass price to a customer is roughly the per bottle price to the restaurant.
- If you’ve heard of the grape (e.g., cabernet sauvignon), then you’re likely to be over-paying for such a crowd-pleaser. Weird grapes are better value for money.
- Sommeliers can steer you to more expensive wines, but they are more likely to get excited about finding “the most interesting you have for $30,” since they can actually put their knowledge to work.
- Intellectuals and scientists have neglected smell as a sense, which is why we know so little about it in comparison to other senses. It’s also hard to collect anything like “objective” data on smell, since we have different sensitivities to different smells and can’t easily explain what we smell to others. It’s much easier to describe what we see or hear…
- A “dry” wine has turned all its sugar into alcohol, so its stronger and less sweet.
- Rules rules rules: “Don’t pour men before women, don’t pour hosts before their guests, don’t pour more for one person than another. And God help you if you drip. Don’t pick up glasses to pour, and don’t take more than two pours to fill one glass. Don’t empty the bottle the first go-around. Don’t ever block the label with your hand. Don’t look awkward. Don’t fidget. Don’t pour from the left. Don’t walk clockwise. Don’t ever swear. Don’t make guests ask you the vintage. Don’t be so eager. Don’t be so serious—you don’t want to be a funeral director, do you? Don’t be so shy. Don’t say “um.” And for the love of God don’t look so nervous. This is supposed to be fun.”
- “Flavor” happens in the mouth. “Taste” combines flavor, smell, and even touch (feel).
- Humans can smell more accurately than dogs, sometimes, and smell can help us avoid dangers, such as sick people or food that’s gone bad. Protip: If the wine is corked, then say something. I got a corked glass once and sent it back. I was amazed to see that it came from a nearly-empty bottle, which meant that three people before me hadn’t noticed that the wine tasted (=smell + flavor) like
- Marketing? “These mass-market wines are what you see over and over again in every liquor store you visit, or on the laminated menus in chain restaurants. They usually have critters on the label, or puns that get chuckles around the office water cooler (“Marilyn Merlot,” “Seven Deadly Zins”). And they drive oenophiles crazy. Wines like Yellow Tail have all the delicacy of “raspberry motor oil,” railed biodynamic winemaker and cellar celebrity Randall Grahm in one of his newsletters. To the elite, these are overmanipulated, nurture-trumps-nature, factory-made Frankenwines“
- Lots of marketing: “Anything that costs $500, it’s not about wine. You’re not buying wine. That’s a collectible,” said Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton University econometrics professor who collaborates with Karl on the Journal of Wine Economics. Putting aside speculation or sentimental value, when it comes to flavor, “there’s no justification for a $500 bottle of wine. I guarantee you I can get you one that will cost only $100 and you won’t be able to tell it apart,” he said. “The world is full of people buying bullshit“
- All the crazy words associated with taste (start with “forest fruits” and keep going to “wet socks”) are there for two reasons — pretension and communication — that are hard for normal people to separate (=they’re meaningless). These “flavor words” were only invented in the 1970s, so Churchill (a legendary drinker) was not asking for a “lively” wine with “a dose of rich mineral character,” and which was “very refined with a driving slate imprint that intensifies the already seething soil/fruit battle.
- Sommeliers who cannot afford to taste the wine menu are not going to be able to say more than “others have chosen this” when it comes to recommending expensive bottles. Part of their high price, therefore, is the cost of helping the somms learn what’s on offer.
- Is there such a thing as “super smell”? Maybe for some people but that’s not what somms specialize in: “Though I’d initially wondered about super-noses and über-tongues, I no longer had any doubt: Advanced flavor-fanatic sommeliers don’t possess better physical equipment, like ten times as many taste buds or thousands of extra olfactory receptor genes. Rather, it’s their manner of thinking that is unique. They perceive and interpret the flavors they encounter in a more developed way, and that filter changes everything.“
This is an entertaining fun book. If you like wine, then read it. FIVE STARS.
- Read: Natural (now more like “worsened by us”) disasters are more frequent, which makes each one harder to recover from (and makes us poorer, by diverting resources from “adding” to “staying the same”)
- Read: Legalise ecstasy and cannabis to combat drugs crime in NL. Yep.
- Read: Why It’s Impossible to Rent a Car Right Now (markets are taking time to adjust)
- Listen: Nature needs rights to be protected from us — and Nature is getting them.
- Read: The real gentrification villain? Not the hipsters, but the boomers preventing new development in their neighborhoods.
- Watch: The French Fry King Of Rio de Janeiro
- Watch: John Oliver on databrokers selling your data to anyone. (I can’t find an update, to see if he exposed the “members of congress” he was targeting.)
- Watch: Some insights into Christiana (Copenhagen).
- Listen: Rethinking (Neo)liberalism? (An excellent discussion of a many-sided topic).
- Read: Lead exposure dropped 3-6 points off the IQs of Americans born in the 60s and 70s (that’s me…. aarg!). Related: Read this post on lead, crime and poverty and another on (modern) air pollution.