quotes ranting

Studying the math

Anything that is not replenished by nature as fast as we’re using it cannot be part of a successful future.

Prof. Tom Murphy, in Ultimate Success from his Do the Math [] blog

That’s the sad truth, we are depleting things faster than the earth can replenish them. And whether you acknowledge humans as the primary driver of climate change or not, you should understand that humanity is using things faster then they can be replenished and that’s going to be a problem at some point. If you use the sugar or milk faster then you can get to the shop to replace it you have to do without… how do you do without energy when we run out of coal and oil and gas?

I’ve been reading UCSD Professor Tom Murphy’s Do The Math [] blog since close to the beginning, back in 2011 I think (at least that’s when I quoted him the first time []). It dropped off the radar for a while, no posts for a couple of years but in the past few weeks it’s come back. And for a good reason, Prof. Murphy has turned the central premise of the blog into a proper textbook, that you can read online or download for free at eScholarship [] or purchase an actual physical copy at Lulu [].

The blog is an amazing way to get into some of the hard science behind the debt we, humanity, have and continue to build up to fund our planet destroying growth. But let me let the blog speak for itself:

[Do the Math] takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth. The approach is often playfully quantitative, with the aim of arriving at a fresh perspective on our world. Posts stress estimation over exactness, because in many cases a reasonably complete picture can be developed without lots of decimal places. Estimations of this type can be used to bring clarity to complex issues, or to evaluate the potential of proposed energy solutions. Hopefully, readers will gain the courage and techniques to start making valuable estimations of their own. The blog begins with a two-part assessment of the implications of continued growth, then settles down to tackle a variety of cute questions relating to energy storage, biofuels, home energy, transport, climate change, etc.

Prof. Tom Murphy, in About this Blog from his Do the Math [] blog

I ordered the book from Lulu and it just arrived the other day. Now to find the willpower to read an honest to goodness textbook for the first time in years. I think more people should have a decent understanding of the basic mathematics and scientific concepts behind these issues, so it’s time to put my money where my mouth is (actually I need to put my time where my mouth is and read…) Most normal people are not going to read the full textbook, but I encourage you to go and read some or all of the blog. Start here with the Guide to Posts [], you can read by subject, focus on Growth and Sustainability or Alternative Energy or the very important why change is Easier Said than Done.

Whatever order you want to read the blog or the textbook in, please do it. More people should understand the basics of the trap we built for ourselves and what we need to be do to get out of it.

quotes ranting

Know your history, but don’t be a slave to it

History isn’t some static set of facts. … We are connected to history today.

Nick Sheedy, quoted in She sued her enslaver for reparations and won. Her descendants never knew, [] from The Washington Post

This is from an interesting article in the Washington Post about the rediscovery of one families matriarch, Henrietta Woods, and her legal battle for reparations from the people who kidnapped her and sold her back into slavery. Spoiler: she won. It reminded me of one of the plot lines in Lovecraft Country [] about the family matriarch who kept a record book of the debt she was owed by her former slave masters, with interest. I wonder if the author was familiar with this story.

It will be interesting to see how the current discussions about reparations [] go in the US. This article seems to be making an argument, without blatantly stating it, that the long term success and attitude of Henrietta Woods descendants owes something to the reparations she won, not only the cash but to the fact of the reparations.

For myself, I’m not sure where I stand. I’m not outright opposed to reparations, I can see an argument that the descendants of enslaved peoples still suffer from the effects of slavery. I would like to see more debate and understand what sort of format reparations would take. How will it work? Direct payments (the Forbes article reference a poll sighting only 20% of American support direct payments)? Or targeted programs? The Forbes article also says most serious models … have been focused on reparative community-based programs. It’s a hard question. I know there are proposals out there, have been for a long time, but until there is a proper public debate it’s hard to tell what we are actually talking about. And given the mixed success of programs designed to address racial inequality, like Affirmative Action, how will a more focuses program succeed?

On the other hand, I can see how holding the entire current generation of America accountable for the sins of the fathers, through payments using tax money, will be… controversial, to say the least. Even an official apology, without reparations, would be fuel on the fire for way too many people. People who have been more and more vocal about their racism in the past few years. I hope that the more visible and vocal racism in the US over the past decade or so has been the result of a changing of attitudes in the majority of Americans, becoming less racist and less accepting of racism, pressuring an increasingly small minority of racists into a corner and causing them to lash out… but I’m not sure I have that much faith in America, or the world, these days.

As for sins of the my own fathers, as far as I know there is no history of slave owning in my family. Everyone in my mothers known family tree immigrated to the Midwest in the second half of the 1800’s well after the Missouri Compromise, so slave owning was never a real possibility. So nothing there. On my dad’s side there is nothing in the known tree, but there is a person, so far unlinked, with the last name Beggerly in an Alabama “Slave Census” in 1855 [] who owned 5 people… there is another record from Tennessee in the 1846 census [] listing two Beggerly’s, also unlinked, one of which is taxed for two slaves… my fathers family tree is much less well known than my mothers, they lived in various places around the South in the 1800’s and the name is not very common, so it’s very possible there is a link to one or both of these slave owners. So I can’t confirm my family is innocent. And of course that is only talking about Pre-Civil War slavery, not considering Jim Crow.

Reading the article triggered a vague memory about public apologies for slavery. I did some searching and it seems the House of Representatives did pass a bill apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow [] in 2008. I was not living in the US but I don’t recall much of a public backlash at that time (though maybe it galvanised the hate that lead to Nazis in my hometown [] and the rise (or at least, much more visible,) white supremacy movement that is trying to normalise its views once again, and having an uncomfortable about of apparent success. The apology came with conditions that it could not be used as a basis for reparations.

So we have no official apology and the legacy of slavery lives on… not that an apology would change it, people are as racist as ever. Would paying reparations move us forward? Who knows, but let’s have some proper debate. We have been failing to live up to our founding creed, that all men are created equal for our entire history, it’s time to take another step towards it.

While looking for news articles on the 2008 House apology I can across an opinion piece in the New York Times from 2015 [], saying Obama should apologise officially (it didn’t go over well, it’s a touchy subject and apologies and reparations have a lot of symbolism). Anyway, about halfway down is this line:

[Obama] could also elevate the current discussion on race, which swirled earlier this week around the serial liar Rachel Dolezal, and the race-baiting billionaire vanity blimp of Donald Trump.

Timothy Egan, in Apologize for Slavery [], published by The New York Times. Emphasis mine.

In hindsight, yea, that was a bit of foreshadowing, dark foreshadowing.


Social Doomsday

The social web is doing exactly what is was built for. Facebook does not exist to seek truth and report it, or to improve civil health, or to hold powerful people to account, or to represent the interest of its users, though these phenomena may be occasional by-products of its existence.

Adrienne LaFrance, in Facebook is a Doomsday Machine” [], published in The Atlantic

The article as a whole goes a bit overboard into hysteria, to me, at least that’s what I thought when I was reading it. Then again, it was published in December, before the final death throws of the Trump administration. The social media driven buildup to January 6th and the knee jerk overreaction by the tech industry to their own role in the violence kind of prove the authors point…

quotes ranting

Hetero (or Homo) Lifemates

In Pocket’s Best of 2020 [] list I came across this article on The People Who Prioritize Friendship over Marriage []. Interesting article, you should read it.

A couple of random poorly connected thoughts on this:

  1. I’ve pontificated before on this blog about an idea that is related to this. In this post on The Separation of Marriage and Civil Union [] (five years before the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodge [], legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the US). I noted that Marriage is a religious idea and in a secular state, like America with the constitutional separation of church and state, it would be better to leave marriage to religions and out of state matters. To do this you need to remove any distinctions, advantages and disadvantages of being married from law. Replace the religious idea of marriage with a secular idea of a civil union (or some other phrase if that is too loaded) such that any legal or commercial issues which are today based on marriage would be instead based on civil union. Whats more a civil union, is not a romantic thing and need not be between romantic partners, so it could be between friends as described in The Atlantic’s article. The article comes close to the same idea:

[Elizabeth Brake, a philosophy professor at Rice University whose research focuses on marriage, love, and sex], takes issue not just with cultural norms that elevate romantic relationships above platonic ones, but also with the special status that governments confer on romantic relationships. Whereas access to marriage currently hinges on (assumed) sexual activity, Brake argues that caregiving, which she says is “absolutely crucial to our survival,” is a more sensible basis for legal recognition. She proposes that states limit the rights of marriage to only the benefits that support caregiving, such as special immigration eligibility and hospital visitation rights. Because sexual attraction is irrelevant to Brake’s marriage model, friends would be eligible.

Rhaina Cohen in The People Who Prioritize Friendship Over Marriage [], published in The Atlantic.
  1. I’ve always heard that the most successful, long term, marriages are those that begin or become close friendships. So breaking the idea of life-long legal entanglement from the idea of romantic love and opening it to friendship seems like a good idea.
  2. Despite #1 and #2… I can’t even begin to imagine the changes to day-to-day society that would need to happen for this to be normal. Imagine you are ‘married’ to someone, living with them, I assume, but at the same time have a legal civil union with a lifelong friend. If you die the friend is the main beneficiary (unless your Will say otherwise). You could jointly file takes with someone you are not living with? And who might be living with someone else also? What rights and duties are their with respect to kids from any marriages the two people in a civil union have? And you don’t need to get married to have kids —you don’t need to be married today but it’s still the norm, if there are no legal benefits to being married then maybe people will stop doing it unless they are highly religious. There are so many little things, the traditional idea of what a marriage is is so ingrained, even with the opening of marriage to same-sex couples…
  3. Urban Dictionary has a few definitions of Hetero Life Mate [], including one that says A best friend who is so close, that were they not to match your sexual orientation, you would be married to them. Other sexual orientations may use “homo lifemate” or equivalent. Pointing out that if there can be hetero lifemates there must also be homo lifemates. So maybe we need a better, less bigoted term. Another definition for Hetero Life Mate on Urban Dictionary notes that it’s basically a synonym for “Platonic Soulmate” [].
  4. And finally, Kevin Smith had this shit figured out in the View Askewniverse [] at least by 1999 in Dogma and maybe way back in 1994 in Clerks:

Oh, I’m Jay, and this is my hetero-lifemate Silent Bob.

Jay, in Dogma [].

Maybe Platonic Soulmate is a better term than Hetero Lifemate, given the issue of bigotry that goes with the use of hetero and homo… but as a lifelong fan of Kevin Smiths movies I’m sticking with Hetero Lifemate. And I confess I wrote this whole post just so I could quote Jay.

quotes ranting

They think they know

Never before have so many people understood so little about so much.

James Burke, in Connections [] episode 1 “The Trigger Effect”

James Burke said that in 1979, a year after I was born, in his TV show Connections. As a kid watching reruns of Connections I doubt I understood what he meant. That as society advances people come to use and depend more and more on technology that requires specialized knowledge to understand. We are surrounded by technology that our lives depend on, but few of us understand very much of it at all. Think about all the technology you use every day do you understand it? Even the basics; electricity? The turbines that generate it and the grid that delivers it to you can charge your phone, or laptop, to read this? Forget about the phone or laptop themselves with literally hundreds of components that are each a technical marvel —touch screens, accelerometers, radios for bluetooth, cellular and wifi, and the processor, even the battery. And don’t forget the tens or hundreds of thousands of lines of computer code that make all those physical bits work together so you can look at cat memes on the internet. What about the technology required to grow food on far off farms to feed more than half of the world that lives in cities today? The trains, planes and automobiles that deliver it in an edible state? The list goes on. How many of us could really survive an apocalypse?

The complexity of the world has increased in what feels like an exponential rate over the 40-plus years since Connections was made. Each of us has been reduced from a cog in vast machine to a single tooth on a very small cog in a massive world spanning machine. When I was a kids cars were complex machines but I could learn enough about how they worked, as mechanical things, to understand them. I was far from a gear head but I could even do basic maintenance and little repair. I could change the oil or clean the spark plugs because I could understand what was going on under the hood and apply that knowledge with my hands. Today, the principles haven’t changed (as long as we are talking about internal combustion engines, ignoring hybrid and electric cars for now…) but cars are computers and they require specialized equipment to even diagnose many problems. My car throws an error if you replace the battery without the manufacturer provided software to tell the car what you did. As the world gets more and more advanced we all see less and less of the overall machine and it can be overwhelming. More and more we are surrounded by black boxes we don’t understand. It reminds me of another quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke, in Profiles of the Future

Everything around us is magic today, the technology behind you seeing these words on your mobile phone requires armies of people to design, build and manage. You can’t even name or imagine all the people and tasks along the way much less how it works, unless it’s your job to design it or build it or manage it, or to study it. And that would make you what we call an expert. But these days people don’t seem to believe they need to listen to experts about the things they don’t know.

Even the most venerated experts, the canonical example of an expert: doctors, aren’t safe from the disrespect for expertise today. There are many issues with the practice of medicine [] but when I’m sick I still want an expert to take a look, to diagnose and to treat me. I want someone who trained for years to understand how the human body works, continues to keep up with advances and is certified to apply that knowledge. The human body is magic to me, because I don’t have the knowledge. How is it that people can think a random talking head on the Internet knows better than almost all the trained doctors and medical researchers in the world? People are drinking bleach! Or worse making their autistic kids drink Clorox like Kool Aid in Jonestown.

Do you remember, before the Internet, that it was thought that the cause of collective stupidity was the lack of access to information? Yea… It wasn’t that.

Anonymous meme

I can’t find a source to cite for that, I’ve seen different versions of the theme on the internet many times over the past few years, it seems appropriate. But we did know, or some people knew, that the idea, in the early days of the Internet, that access to information would make everyone smarter, was bullshit. We were warned:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Isaac Asimov, “A Cult of Ignorance”, Newsweek (21 January 1980) (more about it on Open Culture [])

This thread of anti-intellectualism is the direct parent of the disrespect, and hostility, towards “experts” on display today. And there does seem to be something fundamental about it as it affects people on both sides of the political spectrum, liberal anti-vaxxers and conservative anti-maskers alike, rich hollywood stars and struggling middle class workers, and don’t get me started on flat-earthers. Ignorance, individualism and the internet are a potent brew.

I don’t know where to go from here, I don’t know how it can be fixed but I suspect it will take many experts…


Elected politicians, in short

Forgetting the good in the search for the power to affect it.

J. R. R. Tolkien, Essay on the Istari, published in Unfinished Tales


Parenting-Work Life Balance

I’m super worried, by the way, about the generation of workers who have kids under the age of 10 during the pandemic. Because in the short term, co-workers can be like, “Oh, so cute, your kids are on the Zoom call!” and then try to make accommodations for that. But in the long term, those workers are fundamentally not going to be able to be as productive as someone who’s been on their computer for eight hours at home with grown kids or without kids. Who’s going to get promoted two years from now? Or who’s going to lose their job two months from now? I really worry about that.

Melissa Mazmanian, interviewed by Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic for What America Asks of Working Parents Is Impossible []

I wonder if that will be the same visible impact on things like lifetime earnings and job advancement as graduating college during a recession?

I remember reading long ago that people who graduated in the middle of the dotcom bust were affected long term because they could not get jobs for a long time or had to take jobs with a lower salary (compared to what they would have expected a few years before or a few years after) and that dragged them down, as a group, year after year. They were something like three years behind for salary and position at any age versus the people who graduated a few years before or after them.


Class War in America

For all the talk of market efficiency, the “information economy” has created a vast category of professionals who do nothing but copy and paste McKinsey info­graphics into presentations for no social or even narrowly commercial purpose.

Julius Krein, in The Real Class War article in American Affairs Journal

I know people like that.

A friend shared this some time ago. It’s an interesting, if long, article on where the classes and allegiances of Americans are and how they got to where they are. There is some emphasis on the rise of bullshit jobs and how they have somehow granted authority to loudmouths.

Best line:

Many of these people presumably possess some narrow technical ability, though if so, it is less and less evident. But they conspicuously lack any self-awareness, much less insight into issues of broader human concern, … The case of Donald Trump speaks for itself.

Julius Krein, in The Real Class War article in American Affairs Journal

Emphasis mine.


These are the rules of the internet

“People love koalas and countries not being consumed by fires, but what people really love is nudes. These are the rules of the Internet.

James Felton, in US Model Raises Over 500,000 for Australia Bushfires by Sending Nudes []

quotes ranting

We don’t have the bus to ourselves

“I see we have the bus to ourselves,” she said. Julian cringed.

“For a change,” said the woman across the aisle, the owner of the red and white canvas sandals. “I come on one the other day and they were thick as fleas—up front and all through.”

“The world is in a mess everywhere,” his mother said. “I don’t know how we’ve let it get in this fix.”

Flannery O’Conner, in Everything That Rises Must Converge

O’Connor’s story is speaking about racisim in the 50s against blacks in the American south, the line before is “Everybody [on the bus] was white”. But, it would work today for others, Hispanics in America, Polish in England, Africans or Syrians in much of Europe. Bigotry is bad and the world is once again in a mess everywhere; people, even politicians, thinking and saying things like this.