Interesting stuff

  1. Read about the teething problems of recycling solar panels
  2. Read: The Brilliant Inventor Who Made Two of History’s Biggest Mistakes (inventing leaded gas and CFC refrigerants)
  3. Read: Drug dealing (and dangers) multiply as fentanyl’s spread leads to more lethal doses.
  4. Read: The good side of the Colorado’s drought is the resurfacing of Glen Canyon’s beauty
  5. Read: Your “recycled” grocery bag is only recycled on average.
  6. Read: The Great Salt Lake is dying of excessive irrigation
  7. Listen for some advice (I like “don’t act on anger for 24 hours”)
  8. Read: Don’t use your smarts to create a life of increasingly difficult challenges at a cost to family, friends, passion and community.
  9. Read: America’s “patriotic” 1920 shipping law impoverishes the country
  10. Read: Why is inequality so bad in America? Middle class subsidies

Learning is struggle

ChatGPT excites people who think (I use this word with caution) that they can use GPT to do less work/impress people/advance their careers.

This ideal may be true for those who already know how to do the work they are asking GPT to do (e.g., writing a blog post), but it won’t work for learners who admire GPT output without being able to do it themselves. They will pass GPT’s work as theirs, but they will not be able to explain “their” logic or conclusions. “GPT-cheats” will get caught. Hopefully they will just be disciplined, but others will do far more damage in their assertive ignorance (a human version of hallucinating). I am reminded of the massive damage caused by Bush’s loyal-but-incompetent agents in Iraq.

In the meantime, GPT users will be busy trying to fool each other into getting paid for work that GPT has done while non-GPT users will find the entire situation frustrating.

Non-augmented humans will take hours to do what GPT can do in seconds; they will struggle to understand complex ideas and integrate them into reasonable thoughts. They will question the point of going on. But then they will be the ones to spot the errors, to suggest novel alternatives, to add value.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

With GPT, we will see adults losing their analytical skills. Students will not even acquire them. Average IQ will drop, as will productivity.

(The only exception will be the few people who use GPT as a “Socratic sparring partner” to push their knowledge and/or skills. They can benefit from GPT, but the vast majority will fall for an “apple of knowledge” that is rotten inside.)

My one handed conclusion is that GPT will take the jobs of anyone who uses GPT to do those jobs, let alone study for them.

Interesting stuff

  1. Listen: In a noisy, tumultuous world, how can we find inner peace?
  2. Watch: A reminder (from 2012) of the vast difference between the inequality that Americans want, what they think it is and what it actually is (far worse). And it’s only gotten worse since then (with perhaps a small decrease in recent years due to low unemployment and rising wages).
  3. Read: Science and religion can be complements rather than substitutes
  4. Read: The Welsh government has stopped a project to build another car bridge, because the government’s policy is to reduce driving. That is how you do it!
  5. Read: So people are falling out of love with Airbnb…
  6. Read: South Korea’s women are turning from men to “political lesbianism.”
  7. Read: Governments defining “cybercrime” to fit political goals are making us all more vulnerable.
  8. Read: “Tech bro” influencers — nextgen, get-rich-quick conmen
  9. Read: Will the Seine be safe for swimmers in the 2024 Olympics?

Review: We Made Every Living Thing from Water

MK recommended this short documentary (40 min, free to watch) on worsening (collapsing) water management in Lebanon.

It focuses on the decline in water quality due to failures to control pollutants flowing into waters, the abuse of watersheds (building dumps on top of springs, etc.), and the non-operation of wastewater treatment plants build with outside funds (due to local failures to bring sewage to those plants). On the quantity side, there are leaking systems (>50% losses), unregulated wells, and over-pumping-driven saltwater intrusion.

What’s even more sad is that the situation has only gotten worse since the film was made in 2015: the 2019 protests against corruption and political incompetence, the 2020 port explosion that destroyed a large part of central Beirut, the 2021 energy crisis “fueled” by an energy mafia blocking grid operations. The Lebanese pound has lost 99% of its value.

I give this documentary FIVE STARS for its useful investigation into the many causes and effects of water mismanagement in a country that is (basically) a failed state.

Interesting stuff

  1. Credit card reward programs are a tax on the poor
  2. The humanities need to go back to basics: an empty room, a group, a conversation): “You simply cannot sustain a serious humanism as an integral part of a digitalized culture
  3. Think: The Netherlands had more sunshine in 2022 than in any year since records began (1965) as well as a shortage of rain. The transformation into California continues!
  4. Read: Another study on masks: Not sure if they work for the population, but pretty sure they work on individuals. Thanks for the confusion.
  5. Read: Why we usually can’t tell when a review is fake
  6. Read: Dating apps helped us meet each other, but “revenge bans” (plus’s monopoly power) can isolate you from that scene.
  7. Read: San Francisco is thinking of reparations to Blacks for discrimination (not slavery). Although justice is certainly worthwhile, I think that efforts based on race (a concept lacking objective definition) are inferior compared to those aimed at poverty. I worry that SF’S politicians are pursuing an “eracist” policy of signaling virtue as a means of closing the topic (using citizen’s money) and walking away, guilt free.

H/T to CD

Too much bread, too many circuses

We humans have mastered survival and adaptation. We’ve gone further, to thrive, by developing religion and states, bureaucracy and markets.

Now we have easy access to the sugar highs and social signals that were rare and valuable in the survival and social eras, respectively. But the mass market version of these pursuits means that everyone’s party is disrupting everyone else’s. We’re hearing more cacophony than music. We’re experiencing more destruction than development.

And we’re not gonna stop. We’re addicted to gluttony. Poor people are obese. How can a poor person get fat? By living in a system where you trade debt for calories and pay billions for insulin.

And then there are the bells and whistles of over-consumption: formal dining (never used), collections (never touched), three-car garages (no space for cars), and parties that burn down forests, blow out kitchens and bankrupt the hosts.

At the polls, we vote for more of the same: Populists promising that the party can go on, that consequences are for suckers, that we can have all the rope we want… to hang ourselves.

Roman emperors had a policy of pane e circu — or bread and circuses — that kept the masses busy with stuffing their faces and laughing at tragedy while the elites did what they wanted. The emperor paid a lot, but everyone preferred parties to hard work or self-denial.

In these modern times, many of us have the buying power of emperors and the discipline of children. We’re fat and unsatisfied. Influencers and saviors are everywhere, promising a good time for $19.99, but we remain unfulfilled.

Money can’t buy you love — and it can’t replace the ecosystems that allow us to live — let alone party.

We — petty, drunken emperors — are going to have a very bad hangover when the bread runs out, and the circus is washed away.

Be careful what you ask for.

Interesting stuff

  1. Watch one of Trevor Noah’s best analyses: Trump the African president
  2. Listen to The Capitalisn’t Of Consulting: McKinsey And Beyond
  3. Read about new (effective) weight loss drugs. I can haz cheezburger? Related: Eye-care cream is expensive due to marketing, not quality.
  4. Sorry racists skin-tone fetishists: Early Dutch were dark-skinned and blue-eyed
  5. Read: The vertical farming bubble is popping
  6. Q: Is South Africa as dangerous as the media makes it out to be? A: Worse.
  7. Read a long, interesting article on the downfall (and transformation?) of the humanities: “One literature professor and critic at Harvard—not old or white or male—noticed that it had become more publicly rewarding for students to critique something as “problematic” than to grapple with what the problems might be; they seemed to have found that merely naming concerns had more value, in today’s cultural marketplace, than curiosity about what underlay them. This clay-pigeon approach to inquiry struck her as a devaluation of all that criticism—and art—can do.”
  8. Watch how oil and gas companies set up astro-turfing operations to create a false sense of voter opposition to green policies.
  9. Read how citizen assemblies can fail — and work
  10. Read: AIs are now capable of “passing” the Turing test [meant to separate humans from computers], so now humans are being forced to show THEY are not computers.

The vicious cycle of water supply

Alex writes*

Athens, Greece’s capital and largest city, has a population of 3,2 million. The city attracts around 6 million tourists each year, many seeking sunny weather. But high temperatures also represent a threat — to the city’s water supply.

Droughts, wildfires (Η Καθημερινη 2023) and heatwaves (euronews.2022) are not surprising news anymore, so what happens if Athens lacks the  water to extinguish the fires, irrigate crops, or serve the population?

These goals are already difficult to achieve, but current water management makes water scarcity worse.

Athens’s water quality is among the best in Europe (scoring 10 in the EU’s Urban Water Atlas), but its management of supply and environmental flows in the Mornos and Evinos rivers is lacking, in what Giorgos Kallis calls a “vicious cycle of water resources.

Athenians have discussed water scarcity and management since the nineteenth century. One choice that altered Greece’s water infrastructure was the construction of a dam on the Mornos River, which not only failed to meet skyrocketing demand but pushed demand even further. That was because the Athens Water Supply and Sewerage Company (EYDAP) kept prices low to encourage consumption. Citizens bought dishwashers, took longer showers, and used water in many novel ways.

The 2004 Olympic Games boosted the city’s development and its water network, further increasing demand. According to the EEA, Athens is growing at an excessive rate of 6% per year. Supply, on the other hand, is falling. Precipitation and river flow are projected to decrease by 7-12% (against mean flow levels) over the 30-year period to 2040. Supply may not be sufficient, and “supply-oriented” solutions are expensive, unsustainable, and inadequate if demand is not managed.

Bottom Line: It is important understand the root causes of water scarcity in Athens and to break this vicious cycle of water supply by concentrating on more sustainable and equitable water management practices.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

The dry realities facing Lyon

Elise writes*

The Minister of the Ecological Transition declared that “France is in a state of alert” in relation to the unprecedented drought that began in January 2023. The country has experienced 32 days without rain, and there are no signs of rain on the horizon.

Why is this concerning? Serge Zaka, a professor of agroclimatology notes that there have been dry February’s in the past, but this episode is significant because it is part of a 15-month pattern of deficient precipitation. Surface waters are limited, and groundwater is not recharging. Lyon, for example, has more groundwater discharge than recharge.

What are the reactions?

The government has created a Committee of Drought Anticipation. Those who remember the dry summer of 2022 worry about this coming summer. Lyon faced “red crisis” restrictions in the summer of 2022.

The region around Lyon, 2021 (left) vs 2022 (right)

Farmers are concerned, as they have little water to irrigate their crops. Many have protested, claiming that they should have priority access to water. Lyon’s wine sector is worried about lower production and fewer tourists. Ski stations worry about a lack of snow.

Is this linked to climate change? Yes, because human activity has led to the perturbation of the water cycle, where longer periods of droughts followed by heavy rainfall are expected. In the case of this 32-day drought, an anticyclone that is hovering around Europe has reduced rainfall. By 2050, it is expected that the Rhone and Saone River flowing through Lyon will carry 20-50 percent less water.

What about rain? Even if it started raining heavily, it would not give enough time for the groundwater to recharge before summer. At best, it would increase surface water reserves that could be used in place of groundwater.

So what are the solutions? Experts recommend a complete reform of how we think about water as these unprecedented events become the new normal. In Lyon, a green party succeeded in replacing ‘Eau du Grand Lyon’ (a subsidiary of for-profit Veolia) that was managing water services with public management. The Greens argued that water, as a common good, should be managed by citizens. Other solutions include reforming agriculture to be more resilient, acting on weak linkages in the system, revaluing wastewater and encouraging sobriety on all levels.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Lake Wyangan’s toxic secret

Flóra writes*

At first sight, Griffith seems like a regular rural town in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area of Australia. In recent years, however, a potential link has been discovered between a fatal disease and a lake in this town, namely between Motor Neuron Disease (MND) and Lake Wyangan.

MND is a progressive neurological disorder that slowly takes away people’s ability to walk, speak, swallow and finally breathe. According to Health Direct, people diagnosed with MND usually live another 2-3 years. MND is caused by a genetic condition or a combination of environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors. The number of non-genetic cases in Australia has  increased by 250% in the last 25 years, but the situation is worst in New South Wales’s agricultural area, Riverina, which includes the towns of Griffith and Wagga Wagga, where rates of MND are 7 times the national average (The Guardian) .

What might be causing these abnormally high numbers? Scientists blame the blue-green algae in Lake Wyangan, which is close to Griffith and surrounded by farms. It is a terminal, dual-basin lake that receives inflows from natural drainage, irrigation return flows, local stormwater and, supplementary “top ups” that arrive via irrigation infrastructure.

SBS News and Griffith City Council claim that blue-green algae results from a combination of drought, calm weather conditions and irrigation return flows. These algal blooms affect aquatic life, block water pumps and can make water undrinkable.

NB: “Blue-green algae” is a misleading name, since it refers to a cyanobacterium that produces a neurotoxin called BMAA. The fact that algal toxins can be colourless and odourless as well as persisting for weeks after an algal bloom makes it hard to avoid BMAA.

A study published in 2020 found that the ingestion of BMAA causes nerve damage similar to that observed in the early stages of MND. Although there is not yet enough evidence to prove blue-green algae causes MND, the connection deserves attention. According to The Guardian, the NSW government does not want to fund research, since a causal link could lead to legal liabilities for the government.

Despite all these challenges, the Griffith City Council has ambitious plans to improve water quality in the lake and sustainably supply water to Riverina’s irrigators. The plans focus on reducing salinity and managing nutrient levels to reduce algal blooms as well as connecting the two basins so that a flow-through system improves irrigation water quality.

The future will determine if those plans are effective.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂