Rational Pessimism

Matt Ridley’s new book about how we’ve got it so good today, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, has met with pretty decent reviews. I only just got around to reading Brendan O’Neill’s review for The American Conservative today (yes, yes, I know it’s dated August 1, but I’ve been busy), and it quashed any desire I might have had to read it.

I mean, I know I’m a pretty ornery cuss, but let’s face it: despite rapid advances in material prosperity, we as a society don’t seem particularly happy with our lot. O’Neill is right in saying that all the threats guaranteed to kill us all – Y2K, Bird Flu, that Man-Bird-Pig disease of a year or two ago – have never materialized, and that despite our constant worrying over the end, if it indeed comes it is almost certain to catch us by surprise.

And yet, there is so much of Ridley’s overall hypothesis that seems to make no sense. At the risk of becoming one of the “angry, graph-obsessed nitpicking” types O’Neill warns against, I think it would make sense to examine Ridley’s actual claims and see why they ring hollow.

In just the past 50 years, the average human “earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children, and could expect to live one-third longer.”

Right off the bat, I can see one problem here: the average human. While wages and prosperity have risen steadily around the world, in the United States income disparity is at historical levels. Productivity has soared in the past fifty years,  but relative worker pay has dropped precipitously. We’re doing more and getting paid less to do it. So while much of the world may have seen a tangible increase in quality-of-life, we’re in many ways worse off than we were 20, 30 years ago. Continue reading

Collapse

Thanks to Netflix finally appearing on my PS3, I’ve been able to watch all sorts of ridiculous National Geographic documentaries like Stress: Portrait of a Killer, Kim Cattrall: Sexual Intelligence, and Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure. Mixed in with those are some gems, though, like the Inside series (Inside Special Forces, Air Force One, Inside the US Secret Service, etc.).

I saw and decided to take a chance on Collapse: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire Book by Jared Diamond. I should admit that I haven’t read Diamond’s book, but the premise is clear enough. The major factors contributing to our hypothetical demise are a lack of water, food, and oil, all multiplied by the effects of global warming. The story of our collapse is told through the eyes of fictional scientists and researchers in the year 2210 combing the desertified ruins of the globe for evidence pointing to one factor or another (at one point, I think they even recycled five seconds of footage from I Am Legend). This is interspersed with historical reenactments of other collapsed civilizations, including Rome, the Mayans, and the Anasazi.

One-line review: it’s kind of like those Life After People and Aftermath: Population Zero ‘documentaries’, but with more anthropology and more science. I mean that in a good way.

But anyways, I was left with two burning questions at the end of it.

The first was where and how did these scientists survive and come to be? Oral tradition alone should explain our downfall, but they have ridiculously advanced technology. Like iPads with the Minority Report interface. And where are they based? They’re exploring the American West and Southwest, along with the British Isles, Southern Europe, and the underwater ruins of Hong Kong. But where do they live? Did New York miraculously escape destruction?

The second has to do with our impending water crisis. I know that we’re on the brink of the first water wars, but for long-term considerations: what the hell are we doing with desalinization?

According to my research, the most intensive barriers to more widespread adoption are the cost of the technology itself and of the power needed to operate the plants. But in most of the Middle East, for example, virtually every new power plant is constructed with some sort of desalination capacity incorporated into it. Current desalinization, though, can start recycling some of its own energy, meaning with a viable renewable energy source – nuclear comes to mind – a plant can be self-sustainable and contribute energy back to the grid.

As is, the costs of desalinization are passed on to end-users to the tune of $3 per thousand gallons. That seems steep, but then again, we buy bottled water, don’t we? Bottled water runs about $7,945 per thousand gallons. Seriously, this seems like a proactive step we could take. Now. To secure our water reserves for a long time to come and maybe, just maybe preserve California’s Inland Empire as a viable place to live while recycling much-needed energy to the grid.

But forget Phoenix, humans seriously have no business living there whatsoever.

OODAs of Noodles

Ah, Boyd. Master of all things. As a good friend once explained the cult of Boyd as “it’s like the Americans wanted to scream, ‘WE HAVE A MILITARY GENIUS, SEE!’ while losing in Vietnam.” But still, the underlying theory is sound, and this chart does a good job of breaking down all four letters.

I’m a little embarrassed to say I hadn’t seen it before (the original website dates it back to 2006). It really is an excellent overview of the OODA Loop, including all the cultural and individual particulars that inform a decision. Also, note the sheer number of ways to ‘observe. The chart can be expanded or condensed for as long as you need, be it split-second decision or drawn-out debate process. And if nothing else, you have a crucial tool to get all inside your enemy’s head.

There is a real risk, though, of reading too much into OODA. More guidelines than rules. And so forth.

Via zenpundit.

Cities Under Siege: A Review

It took far too long, but I finally got around to reading Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege.  In the end, I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.

Graham’s book is sweeping in its generalizations, its implications, and its conclusions. It broadly traces the rise of the city in military and popular conception as a hotbed of vice and perversion, as a target for military operations, and as an increasingly oppressed environment for its citizens. Cities Under Siege is split into sections covering such phenomenon of urban militarization as the rise of the SUV (“Car Wars”), autonomous drones and robot warfare (“Robowar Dreams”), the destruction and replanning of cities (“Lessons in Urbicide”), recreated urban training centers (“Theme Park Archipelago”) and the nexus of the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network.” It’s a mouthful, as is much of this book.

Continue reading

Africa Takes Flight

Nigerian Mubarak Muhammad Abdullahi's homemade working helicopter.

In a delightful example of the DIY ethos, and bearing more than a slight resemblance to the John Robb school (not to mention Cory Doctorow), amateur engineers in Kenya, Somaliland, and Nigeria are cobbling together their own aircraft out of spare parts and discarded hulks.

And that includes both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. The above helicopter was crafted from “scrap aluminum and parts of a Honda Civic, a Toyota, and a Boeing 747.” And it actually flies, too – at an altitude of 7 feet.

Via io9.

Don’t Date Robots!

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This article reads like a serious version of the above cartoon PSA: “Standards are rapidly changing, and within a few years the human race will be in a position in which sexual immorality could exist on a widespread scale.”

It all depends how you define immorality, but I’d like to believe we’re there already. The future is now!

Via The Agitator.

Size Matters

It’s really difficult to envision just how massive Chinese cities are. From Chinfographics comes this chart of the 60 largest with a population of over 1 million (and including some in Taiwan). Alongside for comparison are other famous world cities – but as you may notice, the population counts there look a bit large. They’re using the metropolitan area population, so New York gets 21.3 million instead of the usual 8.3 million, Boston gets 5.2 million instead of the usual .5-1.3 million, et cetera.

But it is rather mind-blowing just how enormous China is.

Via Slate.

Memorial Day

Like Air Force One over Mount Rushmore, it’s hard to find anything more American than Johnny Cash reading the Gettysburg Address.

It’s days like this where I’m embarrassed by my lack of eloquence. I don’t know quite how to express my gratitude and profound respect for those who have served and continue to serve the United States in uniform. It’s a step I don’t know if I’ll take; a commitment that right now I can’t promise to anyone. But that’s what makes you in the military all so much more impressive. It’s thanks to you I have history to study, a country to be proud of, any ideas of my own to write about.

You have made the world, and you continue to shape it.

You have the discipline and the courage to sacrifice for us. To go a step beyond. To show your own kind of restraint. To give us something to admire, to look up to, to inspire us. And I don’t.

All I can do is try and thank you for everything. At the risk of sounding hollow or trite, you never cease to amaze me. And I will never cease to appreciate you for it.

Thank you.

A New Definition of Suburban Sprawl

The atomic bomb was on everyone’s mind quite a bit in the late 1940s. Clearly it was a real city-killer of a weapon, one that worked best when targeted against a dense population system. So what was America to do in the face of such a threat? Simple: spread them out and move all industry underground.

The crux of the issue was to remove everyone from any American city with a population greater than 50,000 people and place them in newly-built communities set out across the country’s landscape (mostly) like a chess board, the towns existing on all of the connecting lines. [As weird as this sounds, the great Norbert Wiener came up with a similarly astounding, untouchable idea using circles.]. The authors proposed to build 20,000,000 new homes, relocate industry (preferably underground), reallocate and redistribute energy supplies and natural resources, and recreate the very fabric of social and economic life in America.

Via io9.