l33tminion: (Neobama)
Yesterday was election day, and I took the day off to canvass for the Elizabeth Warren campaign. It was quite different from my previous experience with political canvassing (for a local city council candidate as a requirement for a high school civics class). That was blind, door-to-door, persuasive canvassing. This was a data-heavy, highly-targeted, get-out-the-vote effort. Work really at the margins. Get hundreds of people to work hard all day on election day, and maybe you'll convince a few hundred extra supporters to make it to the polls than would have otherwise (but if the polls are within margin-of-error, it could be that close). I saw that aspect of the "nerdiest election" first-hand (see also). The technology platform used by the Warren campaign was impressive.

As to the results: Warren won, McCaskill defeated Akin, Donnelly beat Mourdock, victories for marriage equality, victories for those hoping drug policy will one day be more realistic than rabid. First gay senator, more women in the Senate than ever before. California may yet be able to rescue its state government from attempted bathtubbing.

And Obama won a sound victory in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Conservative pundits' accusations about a skew in the polls were not so much based on evidence as wishful thinking (and met hard reality in the expected manner). Nate Silver was scarily accurate. Obama's election wasn't a post-Bush blip, or at least not so much of an anomaly that a candidate as malleable as Mitt Romney could defeat a sitting president, even in such mediocre (though great by comparison to four years ago!) economic circumstances.

Obama's got a lot of work cut out for him. Congress is still divided, the Republicans still have an option of "say no to everything and hope stuff gets worse" (for another two years at least). The right side of the House in particular has become so polarized that Obama's all-compromise-all-the-time, literally-propose-the-Republican-plan-from-15-years-ago strategy seems "one-party strident"

There's the looming "fiscal cliff" (the obviously-terrible default cut-the-deficit deal that Congress (including Congressional Republicans) agreed would blow up in everyone's faces if they couldn't agree on something better), for one. That default deal would be pretty terrible for the economy, but chicken seems to be the GOP's favorite game lately. However, some Republicans are sane enough to see the writing on the wall with regard to tax raises, and notice that some subtly-done compromise on that issue would make two things a lot easier for them (those two things being "defusing the debt crisis without crashing the economy" and "beating Democrats in upcoming elections").

Some of my colleagues are despondent about the election results because of that last bit about tax raises. But I don't think it's realistic to expect to deal with 2010s problems on less than a 1990s budget while cutting the deficit, when 2010s problems are much worse and the 1990s budget still involved borrowing a ton of money. America had a great opportunity to solve 2000s problems on a 1990s budget while investing in infrastructure that would make 2010s problems less bad and cutting the deficit, but instead opted for an extra war and more tax cuts (at least the rich used the extra funds from those tax cuts to create jobs; haha no, just kidding, they spent like 179% of it on highly-securitized mortgage-backed derivatives). In 2012, we're dealing with the plateau (and eventual decline) of global energy production (mostly due to physics and geology related to petroleum and natural gas). We're also dealing with a decline in global per-capita demand for labor (mostly due to good things about technology). Not to mention some increasingly nasty weather.

We need to make investments in infrastructure that will get us through those problems, while paying down the debt. (It would be foolish to act as if US government borrowing is unusually expensive now, but foolish to ignore that the US has already borrowed a lot and that borrowing could get much more expensive later.) Not that it's theoretically impossible for such investments to be made by a method other than "government taxes people and hires people to build stuff", but I don't expect the necessary investments will happen at the necessary scale in any other way.

Americans are getting four more years of a President who thinks it's important to invest in infrastructure, education, and science. One who recognizes climate change as a serious issue as opposed to thinking of it as irrelevant to "your families". One who appoints competent administrators to agencies like FEMA. And a President that believes Americans need to come to some consensus about what investments are necessary to deal with (near-)future problems which involves (especially those most able to pay) actually paying for those investments.

@BarackObama #GoodLuckWithThat
l33tminion: (Peak Oil)
The results of the debt deal are in:
1. Pretty much everyone (especially Japan) going "oh shit we'd better devalue our currencies".
2. Pretty much everyone running around in a SELL EVERYTHING panic.

Oil's down below $87. Didn't expect to see below $90 until the next real crash, but hey, maybe that's here.
l33tminion: (Peak Oil)
It isn't "balanced" and it's the end of any "stimulus", but the debt deal doesn't really involve that much in terms of spending cuts. It puts Democrats in a far better political position than the one they blundered into during the extension of the Bush tax cuts, which resulted in the current (now just past) crisis. And it's not nearly as bad as a constitutional crisis or an instantaneous long-term cut of government spending by a third.
l33tminion: (Exercise)
Last week I got to watch Ink with Michelle and have Chinese food with Tara. Saturday was relaxing. Sunday, I went to a dim sum gathering, then later to the Cake and Robots party at Artisans Asylum. So that day was too much food.

Food's been a problem in general. My attempt to redouble my exercise has been largely successful, but I've been making too many exceptions on the diet. Sometimes it does make sense to indulge in moderation, but it's way to easy to inadvertently hand over the keys. My weight has stayed about stable, and I do need to remember that my weight often rises a bit before it declines at the start of a new workout routine. Still, I want to drop a few pounds in the next few weeks, which means I really need to watch the snacks.

That's going to be hard this month because I have a lot scheduled. This weekend is Intercon. The next weekend is PAX East. One weekend free, then I'm taking a weekend trip to NYC.

Also, oil's up to $102/barrel. Time to party like it's 2008.
l33tminion: (Peak Oil)
Monday was fun. Hit the gym, relaxed, and had a nice dinner with Tara. If only the weather wasn't so cold!

In other news, the comment spammers are still hounding me, though now with actual accounts. Hopefully the site admins are listening to those spam reports.

The real news continues to be interesting. If I'd ventured a guess about which country was most likely to provoke the next politically-caused spike in oil prices (any time after the Iraq invasion), I would have gone with Iran. But turns out it's Libya! NYMEX futures up to $98 today, briefly hitting $100. Gold's up, too (mainly from people fleeing stocks). The split between the major oil futures is way higher than previous. Demand for shipping has cratered again. Can't imagine my industry will be terribly happy about this.

Gaddafi, being a professional crazy man, is determined to go down fighting / ranting / hiring mercenaries to fire on the crowds. Don't see him winning this one, though.

libyans
l33tminion: (Default)
The BP oil spill has been sucessfully contained! Lets hope that holds.

In unrelated news, earlier this week, the Federal District Court judge for Massachusetts ruled DOMA unconstitutional. Will be interesting to follow this one, especially if it's appealed.
l33tminion: (Cubicle Crack)
Despite my continuing insistence that I'm not looking for a new job, recruiters have been hard at me lately like they sense blood in the water. Not sure pressure-sales is a good tactic for getting someone to switch jobs from a job they really like. I probably should be more aggressive about telling particularly annoying recruiters to get lost.

Still, it was enough to motivate me to update my resume (for the first time to a post-college, already-have-a-real-job state). I'm not sure if I should think of myself as a freelancer or a dedicated company man or something in between, but at the very least, I don't think "stop thinking about the job market entirely because I'm securely employed now" is a good strategy. There are not-working-at-ITA things I might want to do incompatible with working at ITA, so the answer to how long I want to work at ITA might not be "as long as possible". (And even if it is, despite my current job security, I can't assume "as long as possible" = "until retirement", so I'd still have reason to keep my eyes open.

It's odd, thinking about what would get me to take on the opportunity costs of changing jobs (even without a change in living situation, there's the obvious risk of changing from a job I like to a job I might not like, plus giving up on the benefits of working at ITA (financial and otherwise) that accrue over time). As I've said before, my job doesn't quite pass the Lottery Test,* so something equally cool, still in town, that paid much more money could grab my attention. But that's a weak statement: Much more money would be a lot of money (quite possibly more than I could secure) and my current job is very cool (at least for the sort of person who finds large-scale software systems written in Common Lisp implementing incredibly complex logic for a huge, high-stakes industry cool (e.g. me)). Of course, there may be opportunity costs to waiting, too, especially given the usual catch-22 of negotiations: I'm in a much better position to negotiate for a different job with good terms when I don't particularly want a different job.

* i.e. "If you won the lottery, would you still keep your current job?", though actually making life-changing decisions based on one-time windfalls, no matter how large, tends to work out poorly for psychological reasons, so a better wording might be, "If you were independently wealthy, would you necessarily keep your current job?"
l33tminion: (Doom)
(I want some more dynamic content on my new website, so I'm starting a blog there and putting more thought-out blog entries there. For now at least, I'll be cross-posting. So, cross-posted.)

The story of the Gulf oil spill have been on my mind a lot lately, I've been following it since the initial disaster, and there are some interesting recent developments, so it's as good a topic as any to start with. Basic background:  On April 20, there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig (belonging to Transocean, leased by BP, operating 80 km off of the Louisiana coast).  The resulting fire could not be extinguished, and after two days, the rig sank.  The disaster killed eleven crew and caused a massive oil spill.

The oil spill should have been stopped by the rig's blowout preventer device.  It's unknown if the crew tried to trigger the device manually.  The failsafe dead-man's switch failed to trigger the device.  Subsequent attempts to activate the device with ROVs failed.  Some countries require an acoustic remote control for the blowout preventer on offshore wells, but BP had successfully lobbied against US regulation that would require that.  It's not clear that would have helped.  Yesterday, the well casing collapsed.

More to it... )
l33tminion: (Default)
A massive oil-slick is still spreading from a April 21 oil-rig explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon platform and left 11 missing, presumed dead. Early attempts to seal the well failed, as did early attempts to contain the spill within a reasonable area. The next step is to try to burn off the oil before it makes landfall, which would be even more of an ecological disaster. I assume all the other oil infrastructure in the spill area further complicates that process. There may also be some interesting political implications for this disaster, with regard to proposed expansions of offshore drilling.

In somewhat more optimistic (and local!) offshore energy news, Cape Wind has finally been approved. Awesome!

Tech-blog Gizmodo has found themselves in hot water since they leaked info about Apple's new iPhone prototype, which they acquired for $5k from a guy who picked up the phone in a bar, where it was lost by an Apple employee. Gizmodo probably crossed the line on that one, they almost certainly violated CA's trade secrets law. The finder of the phone is probably guilty of misappropriating lost property for selling the phone instead of turning it over to police after efforts to return it to its rightful owner. If the finder didn't make a reasonable effort to return it, that upgrades the charge to theft and puts Gizmodo on the hook for receiving stolen property (again, attempts to plead ignorance will probably fall flat given Gizmodo's other actions). It's those latter criminal charges that got the police involved, raiding a Gizmodo editor's house and tracking down the suspected phone thief. Gizmodo complains that this violates shield laws protecting journalist sources, legal opinions are divided.

In world poverty news: Haiti has returned to a state of desperation as the post-quake aid fades out (especially for those in villages too small for NGO notice). And Niger is experiencing famine due to drought, with total crop failure in some regions.

In Arizona, a new anti-illegal-immigrant law requires the police to enforce federal immigration law and requires them to verify the immigration status of anyone they suspect might be an illegal immigrant. If such a person can't immediately present papers, the law requires that they be detained and fined. That is, aside from basically mandating racial profiling, the law requires citizens to carry proof of citizenship... but only if their skin is of middling hue. Even Karl Rove thinks the law is dumb, and it's not hard to see why, the Republicans will have a hard time appealing to otherwise conservative Hispanic voters with an immigration policy of "papers, please".
l33tminion: (Doom)
On to my predictions for the coming decade!

Peak Oil: I expect that the peak is behind us and that will be a major cause of economic trouble. Sticking to my "major trouble by end of 2015" prediction. Oil prices will go up, but will remain very volatile. Fuel will get expensive or scarce unless the economy declines ahead of oil supply. Either way, American cities will see a lot of trouble in the next decade.

Efforts to Sustain the Unsustainable: There will (still) be a lot of attention on things like efficient combustion engines, plug-in hybrids, electric cars. But Americans aren't going to be buying 300 million new cars in the next decade or two. On the electricity side of things, there will be a lot of attention paid to "clean coal" and carbon capture and sequestration schemes before renewable energy gets the attention it should. Maybe we'll get around to talk of solar and wind and wave and tide, electric passenger trains, and walkable communities before the end of the decade, but solutions that don't benefit existing players will be largely ignored until things are quite bad.

Ubiquitous Computing: Augmented reality will not come in the form of heads-up displays or VR goggles, but cheap smartphones with cameras and internet access. How much of an effect this has (and what sort of effect) depends on how cheap it gets, how widespread wireless broadband gets, and how much internet access spreads to the poorest areas of the world. Location-based social networking is a cool toy, but that's just the beginning. Combining information about product certifications with visual search could go a long way, for example. Mobile computing could also help mitigate transportation problems if fuel gets too expensive and centralized solutions are absent. I mentioned Avego before and thought it was a bit premature, but startups like that might take off during the next decade. I said that real cellphone use didn't begin until this past decade, and I expect I'll say the same at the end of the next decade.

The Long Tail vs. The Fat Head: Media companies will actually reach a point of change or die in the coming decade. The question is whether they'll have to change their business model, or whether they'll first change our political system in increasingly extreme ways. This is one reason why "net neutrality" will be an important issue, many of these increasingly desperate media companies are closely tied to companies that provide the lion's share of internet access. I expect that on this one reformers will be able to squeeze out some sort of victory, but TV and radio are not out of the picture yet, so don't underestimate the power of the persuasion machine.

No Reform Without Revolution: The US has a shot at real political change if things get bad enough, but that could go in any number of directions. Best guess: At some point during the decade, Republicans will get elected and they will go flying back to Bush-era policies with a vengeance, even if that's not at all what the people who elected them wanted. Who knows where things will go from there. (Past predictions reiterated: Obama will definitely be the Democratic candidate in 2012. And if he's not, things will be so bad that the Democrats will definitely lose.) If the Republicans can't win in 2012 or 2016, either things will have gone far better than even my most optimistic predictions, or there will have been some other radical deviation from the status quo. Without radical deviation from the status quo: Intellectual property reform might happen. Electoral reform probably won't happen. Who knows how healthcare reform will go in the long run. (Tax reform or foreign policy reform, maybe, depending on how pressing the financial constraints on the federal government are and whether we get ourselves into any new wars.)

Regularly Scheduled Apocalypses: On December 21, 2012, the 14th b'ak'tun will begin and nothing of significance will happen (nothing not caused by some crazy people doing something crazy, anyways). There will be lots of awesome parties. No prediction on how Pinchbeck will react to the non-event. (Also, good odds that this will be yet another decade in which no nuclear weapons are used on actual targets. WWIII will probably not happen. The LHC will produce lots of data of technical interest to particle physicists, but fail to destroy the world. The US will remain united. Etc.)

Things Get Worse for the "Global South": Only massive investment in alternative energy in the developing world could keep the global (real) economy growing, but that probably won't happen. At best, they'll get some money for disaster mitigation. The effects of climate change will get worse. Less screwed parts of the world may start to have more of a problem with refugees. There will probably be some efforts directed at mitigating climate change (see below), but not enough to do anything significant climate-wise.

The Carbon Bubble: There will probably be some sort of cap and trade scheme for carbon dioxide emissions because Goldman Sachs seems to want it and they get what they want. Such a scheme will probably involve giving away wealth to those who currently pollute the most and include some sort of "offsets" scheme that hurts the poorest people in the world at the expense of the richest without actually decreasing emissions.

Terrified or Not: Either the American people will find a way to ditch the security theater that's honestly been more of a problem than it's worth post-9/11, or they'll accept more and more of a police state. Not sure which is more likely. Also, if the color-coded terror alert system is kept, it will remain at orange at least 90% of the time (no one wants to reduce it below orange, since if it's below orange and a terrorist attack does happen it will seem like they were caught with their pants down, and no one wants to increase it to red because then they look foolish when nothing happens; besides, there's no incentive to change it from current levels because changing the alert level doesn't actually specify that anyone should do anything differently).

Roadmap in Pieces: During the next decade, the peace process in Israel will probably remain in tatters. Hamas will not abandon their delusion of provoking the Arab nations into action. A shift of opinion in Israel is perhaps somewhat more likely. The US could apply political pressure, too, and at least get Israel to lay off the war crimes. But despite Obama's minor revisions of US position with regard to conduct in war (opposing torture, trying to close the prison at Guantanamo), the US government will probably remain deeply ambivalent about (when not openly hostile towards) international law.

Main Street Strikes Back: The main thing that makes me optimistic about the coming decade is that there will probably be some real effort towards solving systematic problems in our economy / society. Probably a lot of those efforts will be wrong-headed, but there's still some real potential for positive change. The end of denial is an extremely important step, and I don't think it's possible for the "9/11 changed everything so go shopping" mentality to persist. Though the public response to Wall Street control of government has been subdued so far, the key words are "so fare". The situation on the ground is still bad, and the next decade will probably be more interesting than the last.

Note that I make no claim that I am good at predicting the future. (If I was, I'd have more invested in individual stocks!)

Questions, comments, predictions? Things I missed prognosticating on that you'd like me to take a crack at?
l33tminion: (Fools)
Before I make some predictions for the next decade, let's take a look back at the past one. Certainly has been an interesting decade.

A Decade of Duds and Disasters: This post covers it. On the duds side: Y2K, anthrax attacks (strangely all but forgotten), avian flu, SARS, swine flu (at least not the predicted pandemic so far). On the disasters side: 9/11, post-9/11 terrorism freak-out, two wars (Mission Accomplished!), New Orleans destroyed by Katrina and largely unrebuilt.

Moore's Law Continues: Processing power, storage space, and bandwidth have continued to get much cheaper and more compact. Multi-gig USB keys are common, cell phones with more power than desktops had a decade or two ago are becoming more common. CRT screens have moved into the "obsolete" category. VHS is pretty much gone. DVDs are ubiquitous and BluRay is beginning to rise. Multi-processor technology progressed but still has a way to go. Real cellphone use didn't even start until this decade. A new generation of mobile devices started to rise (smartphones, netbooks, ebook-readers). Massive improvements in digital recording, photography, and video. Internet access and wireless broadband continue to spread, but still a long way to go, especially in the poorer areas of the world. The above fuels the rise of Web 2.0: Blogging spreads, the rise of Facebook, the dominance of Amazon after the fall of most of the specialized dot-coms, reviews sites, social networks, recommendation engines, the beginning of "micro-blogging" (lowering the barrier for entry for real-time broadcast communication).

The Fall of the Newspaper Business Model: The newspaper industry has been suffering due to the following problem: You can't sell your content without giving it away for free, but there's so much free content out there that you can't sell your content, period. Newspapers need search engines for traffic and need to give away material to get search engine traffic, but search engines also allow the free content to be a more effective substitute for paid content. Withdraw your free samples, and you just shoot yourself in the foot. If the industry could coordinate enough to withdraw everyone's free samples, it's not clear that bloggers and freelancers wouldn't just take over. The issue remains unresolved, the industry has moved into a war-of-attrition phase without any real change in business model. (Interestingly, the pornography industry evidently is having the exact same problem, with pretty much the exact same lack of response.)

Copy-Every-Which-Way: Creative Commons, the rise of BitTorrent, the rise of DRM, the fall of DRM for music (when record companies realized that DRM gave way too much control to those with the dominant DRM scheme and distribution channel (Apple)) but not for other things (despite multiple instances of multi-million dollar R&D projects being totaled in a weekend, by teenagers, irreversibly, for free), the rise and (to some extent) fall of the "sue your customers" business model for creative goods. The DMCA continued to be the law of the land, changing DRM from a technological impediment to copying to a "let companies write their own copyright law" scheme. On the plus side, the "safe-harbor" provisions of the DMCA allowed sites like YouTube to continue to exist, despite their reliance on illegally copied content. And those provisions made it hard to suppress information, despite the abusability of the DMCA's takedown notice and counter-notice procedure.

The Beginning of the Econopocalypse: The oil spike popping the housing bubble in 2008 (the post 9/11-crash probably pushed that one a bit later; I'd say war spending, too, but that isn't distributed to the working class nearly as much as previous). Unfortunately, this time the speculative bust also caused a consumer credit bust, and consumer credit was the main thing keeping the growth of the real economy above population growth rates (given basically flat wages), hence a much more dramatic effect on Main Street than the dot-com bust. Also, the peak of global oil production, maybe (won't be sure for some years down the line). In the US, some significant government intervention in the economy at the end of the decade, but small relative to the magnitude of the problem and mostly directed at "sustaining the unsustainable", little investment in renewable energy and renovation of food and transportation infrastructure. The US federal government is drowning in debt and many state governments are in crisis.

No Reform, No Way: No significant intellectual property law reform. At best, efforts to rework copyright to be even more in favor of big corporations have stalled in legislatures and when those efforts were moved to terrifying secret copyright treaty negotiations, people worked to stall those as well. Electoral reform is something we're not getting either in the US, despite one constitutional crisis, voter suppression controversies, and a fairly high level of dissatisfaction with a system that ensures a two-party lock-in. As far as financial reform goes, even moderate measures like reenacting Glass-Steagall will not be done, no politician will send anyone in to repair the foundations of the financial system given that there are probably lots of skeletons buried in the basement. Instead, they will shore up the walls with money and hope the whole thing doesn't fall over (on their watch). US healthcare reform has also been limited to the "fling money at it" approach (still better than nothing, but quite bad).

Getting Hot In Here: Of the countries that signed on to the Kyoto Protocol only a handful actually met their treaty obligations (and only a slightly larger handful cut emissions at all). The follow-up negotiations in Copenhagen were a disaster. China gutted the deal on account of their economic growth being dependent on building coal plants as fast as possible, though Obama's negotiation efforts were also lacking. The consensus of the scientific community and most of the world remains that global warming is real and can be mitigated by human action, with the US population remaining disproportionately skeptical.

Paging Jack Bauer: The War on Terror, in which the US government went so far towards the "rules of war are obsolete" side that an anti-torture policy reimplemented at the end of the decade was considered reform (seriously, the US explicitly defended practices that we executed people for at the end of WWII). The only good news was that WMDs remain hard to make and transport, but terrorists proved that they could cause plenty of trouble with cheap weapons, improvised weapons, and suicidal zealotry. Sadly, the US has done very little on the "make people hate us less" anti-terrorism front: Iraq is in a state of collapse after we invaded and fired half the country from their jobs; we haven't been able to keep the Taliban out of Afghanistan, and their new government is a corrupt joke; don't get me started on Israel.
l33tminion: (Peak Oil)
The "not happening but actually pretty moderate by the scientific community's standards" numbers:
  • 60% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2050 (including reductions that actually happen in the developed world, not just mandated by the developed world)
  • lower atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350PPM
  • global average temperature increases by 1.5°C before stabilizing
  • $100B/year for disaster mitigation and investment in alternative energy in developing nations (mostly the latter)
The "'compromise' solution supported by the US, so that's what will be maybe almost done until the next time we elect a Republican president" numbers:
  • 17% percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 (6% from 1990 levels, mostly achieved by buying carbon offsets (i.e. we would have razed that bit of rainforest but we didn't, look at all the carbon emissions we "saved") little reduction of emissions in the developed world)
  • atmospheric carbon dioxide remains >>350PPM
  • global average temperature increases by 2°C before stabilizing (the UN climate scientists predict 3°C)
  • $10B for disaster mitigation and investment in alternative energy in developing nations (mostly the former)
Anyways, there seem to have been no big surprises on Friday: The G77 didn't walk out for reals, developing nations will take their Hobson's choice, US politics remains largely unswayed by basically every climatologist's opinion that the current spate of global warming is caused by human pollution (but don't expect that they are swayed by the disproportionately-skeptical know-nothings either). Obama talked a good talk on moral leadership, but did little of that himself (not that political martyrdom would have been productive). Real economic growth will undoubtedly require investment in alternative energy in developing nations, but the Obama administration is counting on enough of that coming reactively from the private sector (at least enough to prevent disasters here), or they expect that any more expensive alternative is politically unfeasible.

So yeah, no surprises.
l33tminion: (Peak Oil)
The generically-named 15th Conference of the Parties (aka the Copenhagen climate change talk) is now ongoing. It's important to note that there are several significant goals being pursued related to climate change negotiations (at the conference and elsewhere), some of which are not primarily motivated by a desire to mitigate climate change:

1. Arrange a massive transfer of wealth from rich countries to developing countries to invest in renewable energy infrastructure. Hopefully, such countries would be able to leap-frog a fossil-fuel powered electrical grid in the same way as many skipped straight to cellular telephone infrastructures. The reason for this is simple: There's a need for economic growth, and most of the potential for rapid growth is in developing nations. However, if that growth comes with significantly increased demand for oil, prices will spike again, bringing the world economy to its knees. (Additional objective for poor countries: Try to get this amount of investment to be as high as possible. Talk about "climate reparations" and pretend that whatever foreign aid comes out of these talks has anything to do with social justice.)

2. Put some price, any price, on carbon dioxide emissions. That might help reduce emissions directly, but the more significant goal is creating a financial market based on carbon emissions. That allows the financial sector to better invest in / reward companies that improve their energy efficiency. It also allows Goldman Sachs et al to create the next gigantic speculative bubble to replace the housing bubble. (Additional objective for the financial sector: Keep the public focused on anything but that last point.)

3. Cut global greenhouse gas emissions. (Additional objective for rich countries: Try to get put as much of the burden of cutting emissions as possible onto poor countries, don't strive for equality in the near-term (or ever), don't let the poor nations know about your plans in that regard. Additional objective for environmental and anti-poverty activists: Demand emissions cuts in line with the recommendations of climate scientists, don't get too depressed that nothing of the sort has even a remote chance of happening.)
l33tminion: (Food)
Lately, I've been reading a lot about the economics and culture of food.

There are currently some obvious problems with the global food system. Peakniks tend to point out that in an expensive-and-scarce-oil future, there may be some trouble running a food system where everything is done with (planting, harvesting, irrigation, transportation) or made from (packaging, fertilizer, pesticides) fossil fuels. Popular society tends to notice one and only one problem, but the response to that has been mostly counterproductive (as with a lot of things, this is in large part due to the fundamental attribution error, though one cannot neglect the influence of other character flaws). But as Raj Patel's Stuffed and Starved explains, that's just the start of it.

Probably the most significant of these problems1 is that the global food market is really terrible for farmers themselves, who can, on average, almost-but-not-quite make a living (India is a striking example, but the conditions for farmers aren't just bad in India, or even just in third-world countries). The food industry itself does fairly well, profits-wise, but the lion's share of the profit goes to food processors and middlemen.

Read more... )
l33tminion: (Do Something!)
Today, I went to the premiere showing of The Age of Stupid, a documentary on climate change. While the premiere event was mostly boring (save for a very amusing appearance by The Yes Men) and marred by technical difficulties (in a record-breaking stunt, they decided to broadcast the premiere by satellite instead of actually shipping the film to theaters), the movie was awesome. Despite covering the same subject as An Inconvenient Truth, it was practically that movie's polar opposite, providing a far broader perspective and focusing on the stories of individuals as opposed to the numbers of climate science.

The central conceit to the documentary's narrative is that the film is being created on-the-fly in post-apocalyptic 2055 by an archivist trying to figure out why his generation did nothing about climate change. Smartly, the movie doesn't spend too much time on speculation, focusing on documentary footage from the near past. The individuals it highlights are varied: An Indian old-money entrepreneur seeking to found a new low-budget airline, a family of orphan war refugees from Iraq, a young woman from Nigeria who wishes to become a doctor, an old glacier tour guide, a family trying to cut their carbon footprint, a man living in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a British activist whose efforts to build a wind farm are thwarted by his neighbors (probably one of the most frustrating scenes in the movie is in the immediate aftermath of the town meeting defeating the proposal, where one of the leaders of the anti-wind-farm-because-it-will-mar-the-view faction ironically states she "wants to see" a solution to climate change).

Personally, I found the segments from Nigeria the most compelling, since they make a clear case for why our present system is messed up independent of climate change. The movie doesn't spend a lot of time expounding on the backstory, just showing the effects of the current order on the lives of a few particular individuals.

The extraction of Nigeria's oil wealth is a tragic case of neo-colonial exploitation. It's an example of the "resource curse": Since the discovery, most of the country has become significantly poorer. Not only is the oil removed, but other natural resources are marred: Drinking water is polluted by spills, fish populations are greatly reduced (and what's left is often contaminated), air is polluted by natural gas being "flared off" (the gas could be sold locally, but that's insufficiently profitable). Hiring of locals is intentionally minimal. The portion of profit promised to local communities is diverted by corrupt politicians or stolen outright. Injustice and desperation predictably lead to violence, and Shell and others were quick to use the violence as an excuse to break more of their promises to help local communities. Instead, the Nigerian government cracked down on the rebels, indiscriminately killing and terrorizing the population to make the area safer for big corporations. Manipulating governments works much better than hiring mercenaries for Shell and the like, since they can decry the actions of the government while benefiting from the "free market" / "free trade" policies. (The pattern of development in Nigeria is neither new nor unusual. Rather, it represents the normal, wide-spread, and long-established pattern of global capitalism.)

I'm not sure whether the movie was overall hopeful or pessimistic. If disastrous, uncontrollable climate change is around the corner (and the filmmakers think it is), I'm not very optimistic. There's only so much voluntary, individual lifestyle change can do (Derrick Jensen said some interesting things on that very theme in a recent episode of The C-Realm Podcast). In general, progressive change is not achieved without political struggle, and large-scale political struggle may not happen on this issue until things are bad (i.e. too late). There is some growing dissatisfaction with the current structure of society, but consumerism (though often the origin) is often not the target of that dissatisfaction. The makers of the film are trying to get people to pressure politicians to get a strong treaty at the Copenhagen Summit this December, but even if the US is pushed to participate this time, any agreement without massive political support will become unenforced at the first sign of inconvenience. The movie itself is well written and nuanced, but climate change isn't a new issue and people are pretty entrenched in their opinions (to the point where the expectations in their heads may be more vivid than the actual content on the screen (evidently are, in the case of some of the reviews I've read)), so I wonder if it will change any minds. Then again, maybe the film will be effective just by rallying those who already care. Speaking of which, what became of that Cape Wind project, anyways?
l33tminion: (Bookhead (Nagi))
Trend #5 of Megatrends: Decentralization. And here's the first chapter that Naisbitt gets totally wrong. The first lead states:

In politics, it does not really matter anymore who is president and Congress has become obsolete.

Ha!

Well, okay, maybe not totally wrong. Congress has since ceded a lot of power over foreign policy through the complete abdication of the power to declare war. But that's no a blow against centralization, it just gives more power to the President. Dramatic tax decreases (especially on the richest) over the past few decades would appear to be ceding power to corporations and oligarchs (not exactly grassroots, but more decentralized than just the government):


(The presidents (and top tax rates) depicted above are (from here): Woodrow Wilson (77%), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (94%), Harry Truman (87%), Lyndon Baines Johnson (77%), Richard Nixon (70%), Ronald Reagan (28%), Bill Clinton (39%), George W. Bush (33%), Barack Obama (40% OMG SOCIALISM))

But the government didn't really give up any power at all (they would have if those cuts were paid for with decreased spending, but the government just took out more debt, moving the claim on taxpayers from "now" to "eventually"). Naisbitt guesses that state politics will become far more important than federal, but since that time, "unfunded mandates" and conditional grants have the federal government sticking their heads far into areas of policy far outside of those powers enumerated in the constitution.

Some of the examples in the chapter seem off: Is the decline of the AMA an example of decentralization? Is the decline of unions? (I doubt that, in many cases that didn't give more power to, say, individual workers.)

Some examples don't seem to have stuck (or come to pass at all): States raising the gas tax after the federal government refused? High speed rail through the midwest? Localized energy production?

The rise of small towns is an interesting case. Certainly, small towns rose in population and influence since the late eighties, but I would argue that they became less small-town-like and more suburban in character.

Will this trend manifest later in the future? Well, some Peakniks certainly suggest that centralized systems will fail first and decentralization will be an inevitable consequence of things falling apart. I'm not sure it's that clear-cut: The federal government et al will be seeking more power to deal with the set of problems that we face, and their are some options afforded by centralized power that can't be done on an ad-hoc level (at least not as quickly). On the other hand, a centralized authority doing the wrong thing can cause no end of trouble... but that says nothing about whether massive decentralization is in our near future or whether that will get pushed further down the line.
l33tminion: (Peak Oil)
The third chapter in Naisbitt's book isn't nearly as exciting as the previous two, since the trend in question, globalization, is an obvious one, and one that's indeed happened in a big way. Most of the interesting reasons behind this trend were already discussed in the first chapter. There's a bit of funny-in-retrospect in that Naisbitt criticizes the US government's thinking that we can solve our problems by bailing out Chrysler and invading the middle east, which is more or less still where we're at, policy-wise.

It will be interesting to see how the other side of this trend plays out. It will be a novel situation, since the disruption of shipping will likely be way faster than the disruption of telecommunications (sure, eventually it might get tricky to maintain oceanic cables or launch telecom satellites, but for now that remains a very effective investment).

Decline in oil supply will make shipping expensive eventually (way eventually, since it takes quite a bit of transportation cost to make up the cheap-ness of third-world wages), but currently prices are way down due to crashing demand. The shipping industry could well end up in an airline-industry-like competition vs. costs dilemma, where charging too low is like shooting yourself in the foot and charging too high is like shooting yourself in the face. Wonder how many industries will end up in this odd state: Vital to the global economy but impossible to make money in.
l33tminion: (Yay!)
Recently, I was excited to find a copy of John Naisbitt's Megatrends at a neighborhood used books store. The book is from 1988, and I love reading old futurism. So I plan to use this for blog fodder.

Naisbitt splits the book up into ten chapters, each representing a different trend. The first is the transition between the industrial economy. Naisbitt predicts that people will shift from industrial jobs to jobs in the primary (librarians, teachers, and the like) and secondary (engineers, accountants, and the like) information sectors. He suggests that the information economy will make Marx's labor theory of value obsolete (iffy, information jobs may not add value to a product as directly as a tightened bolt, but analysis, learning, and communication are still plenty labor-y). He predicts (correctly) that personal computers will become ubiquitous, and that key factors driving change will be the increasing speed of news, availability of communication, and abundance of information (shifting the focus from obtaining information to picking through the virtual haystack). He also notes that the deteriorating American educational system is poorly suited to the task (unfortunately, this is still true).

Interestingly, Naisbitt doesn't seem to make the mistake that Cory Doctorow cites in his critique of "information economy" futurism, thinking that such an economy would be based on buying or selling information: Although Naisbitt does talk about selling "knowledge", it's in the context of jobs that add value to traditional economic activities. While he does suggest that such an economy might eventually give rise to novel classes of goods and services, unrelated to industrial production, he doesn't speculate as to what those might be. Perhaps this is because he's somewhat before the personal computer boom, the idea of creative works sold "as information" is still alien. Maybe it wasn't until our industrial economy started to fail that futurists had crazy dreams of an economy run without really producing stuff at all.

Naisbitt misses two significant things in this chapter, though. First, while he anticipates the outsourcing of industrial jobs to developing nations and/or machines, he fails to anticipate the rise of service sector drudgery (which the failing school system actually supports), far more than a "society of clerks" (i.e. accountants, engineers), we've become a society of burger flippers and Walmart employees. Second, he fails to anticipate sustainability issues related to this transition. Does the displacement of industrial jobs create as many information economy jobs? Can the information sectors continue to expand even after the industrial economy hits hard limits? What happens when information jobs, too, can be easily outsourced to machines and/or developing nations?

Overall, this one is surprisingly accurate. The few recommendations he makes are still pretty good today. We need more engineers, more scientists, more education. The problem of transitioning to a sustainable society is not necessarily one of resources or manpower. To some extent, it's a problem of vision (although some are working on that). Mostly, it's a problem of getting to there from here. Knowledge is still what we need.
l33tminion: (Mad Scientist)
I promised a post on this book, so here goes:

Strangely, Bill McKibben's Enough, surprisingly, seems to fail in that it's overly optimistic about technological change. Cloning, germline genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and the like, he seems to think, would send us hurtling singularitywards too fast to adapt.

Post-technosauce, McKibben asserts, people will never know the joy of running a marathon. (Actually, people exist who aren't really challenged by marathons, and they don't seem to have any problem finding even cooler ways to test their limits.) After the singularity, perhaps we'll devote all our time to contemplating philosophy, and there will be no time for down-to-earth matters such as dinner or love. (Though he complains about the bitterness of the singularitian cool-aid, McKibben seems to have drank a bit too much.) Neo-Luddites might be uncomfortable in a more technological society, or worse, ridiculed by their peers. (Oh, boo hoo.)

McKibben also gives little indication that preventing technological development is even possible. Sure, the Amish are quite technologically savvy regarding what they adopt and reject, but they have the outside world as a safety valve, those dead-set on lifestyle-changing technology leave rather than fight entrenched community norms. His other examples are China's dismantling of Zheng He's fleet (which resulted in them getting carved up by those who didn't reject such technology) and Japan's three-century-long rejection of guns. None of those examples involve avoiding the development of new technologies. In trying to get back to the actual point, McKibben undercuts himself even more thoroughly, noting that nuclear deterrence has been mostly effective, DDT and CFCs have been banned, and certain sorts of GMO crops are being rejected (after the technological genies of nuclear power, engineered chemicals, and plant genetics have been thoroughly debottled).

McKibben's strongest argument, perhaps, is that powerful technologies tend to widen the gap between rich and poor. This still has a few weaknesses, though: Avoiding technological development does nothing to help the poor, and many technologies that widen that gap initially end up helping the poor later. Also, that effect is contingent on social structures, and after being so alarmed at the power of these technologies to change society, McKibben neglects to think that they might do so in a way that helps end that trend.

At any rate, staying where we are is not an option. The end of easy, non-renewable energy means the inevitable reduction of the scale of human enterprise. Anything easily predictable from the current mindframe of industrial society is in doubt. In some sense, it's singularity and/or collapse. So when McKibben suggests rejecting certain "high technology" because the former might be a little unpleasant, he seems to be missing the point. A little powerful technology in the right places can make all the difference.

In other words, when you see danger on the road ahead, it might be better to consult a map and adjust your course than to stop, turn around, decide you've had enough.
l33tminion: (Progress)
I just finished watching Zeitgeist and it's got me wondering: How wise is Obama? How wise is Obama? Does he get the magnitude of the problems of exponential energy and exponential money and exponential government size and incomprehensibility? Are the really big changes possible?

The first steps are looking good, though: An unequivocal rejection of torture, the beginning of the end for the gulag at Guantanamo, the lifting of the Global Gag Rule, the passage of the Ledbetter Act, significant policies directed towards bringing transparency to the government (including the records of past administrations). Of course, Obama has a lot to work on, but those convinced that disappointment is inevitable should at least have to exercise some patience (some haters won't, which can't be helped, unfortunately).

That speech from the inauguration is still running through my head, too. It was very much the right speech for the moment: Somber realism, optimistic determination, pragmatic liberalism, an articulation of the core value of liberty for all. Very much a compass point of a speech.

The Viking Youth criticize Timothy Leary's Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out philosophy as counter-productive. In part, this is because those who do drop out often aren't very good at transcending society. [livejournal.com profile] kmo modifies that to "Turn On, Tune In, and Take Heart", which seems to be very much what the end of Zeitgeist says. The powerful are persistent, yet suffer setbacks. Public opinion is powerful, yet can shift very softly. Perhaps all we need is a new direction.

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