The Blog

27 Jan 2015

I wish I could be as optimistic as this.

Why nature is rebounding – a summary by Stewart Brand

Over the last 40 years, in nearly every field, human productivity has decoupled from resource use, Ausubel began. Even though our prosperity and population continue to increase, the trends show decreasing use of energy, water, land, material resources, and impact on natural systems (except the ocean). As a result we are seeing the beginnings of a global restoration of nature.

Some of the examples are a little bizarre. eg 10,000 foxes in London is an example of nature returning? And it's repeating some of the old canards about increasing CO2 levels and temperate region temperatures is leading to greater plant growth. Mostly it feels like trying to say that if we can just put a few more sticking plasters on, we'll be able to mend the broken leg.

So what are we to make of the relentless optimism of the Long Now people? Or the relentless pessimism of the environmental people?
 Jesse Ausubel Seminar Media »
This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation

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26 Jan 2015

Ah, Politics. The sentiment below is of course about Scotland and the SNP. But lots of us feel exactly the same way about England. Remember that when the election comes round and all the choice you get is various colours of Tory.

The Party leadership remain infected by managerialism. It is easy to convince yourself you are doing good things while not changing anything fundamental, and at the same time building a very well paid career and a personal powerbase. I don’t want devo-max, I don’t want more powers, I don’t want something “as close to federalism as possible”. I want freedom for my country. I want independence. I want to live in a country which does not illegally invade other countries, collude in torture, carry out mass surveillance of its citizens, or possess nuclear weapons. The idea of running the Union a little bit better, making it a teeny bit more humane and competent, does not interest me. Nor does dulling the edge of austerity, when it is going to behead us anyway.

The article as a whole is about Greece and the way that they are not alone in being caught up in the wholesale corruption of gifting the citizen's cash to the bankers. And paying for it with a debt that we'll end up paying for forever in tax and VAT.
 Craig Murray » Blog Archive » Greece, London, Scotland and Europe  »
The entire purpose of this blog is to ask you to think outside the box. It therefore cuts across the lines of dogma of any group, and is formed purely by my own independent thought. As I have frequently stated, if anybody agrees with every point I make, something is wrong.

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24 Jan 2015

So farewell then, Edgar Froese,

I used to love your analogue synthesiser noodlings with Tangerine Dream and found them strangely hypnotic. But my Mother-in-law complained that the bleepy repetition gave her a headache.

It's Kosmische, Motherf*cker.
 interview with Edgar Froese (RIP) »
RIP Edgar Froese, who I interviewed eight years ago for this piece on the analogue synth epic genre.  THE FINAL FRONTIER: The Analogue Synth Gods of the 1970s Groove, 2007 by Simon Reynolds Ask people about synthesisers in ...

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21 Jan 2015

Another good reason to avoid Nuclear power. It's centralised, needs centralised control and centralised military protection. 
 Paris Terror Spurs Plan for Military Zones Around Nuclear Plants »
Lawmakers in France want to create military zones around its 58 atomic reactors to boost security after this month’s Paris terror attacks and almost two dozen mystery drone flights over nuclear plants that have baffled authorities.

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19 Jan 2015

Think Bigger!

in <134> "It seems to me that the Chinese are the ones who still get it about legitimating a government with concerted, focussed efforts of mega-engineering."

To add further substance to that point, here's two recent articles on Chinese megaprojects:

108 Chinese Infrastructure Projects That Are Reshaping The World

In China, Projects to Make Great Wall Feel Small


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18 Jan 2015

A review of King Crimson live. In 2015! It makes me pleased that one of the greatest bands of the 20th century is still producing great performances.

And then this in the comments:- For my own part, I think the really interesting part of this equation is the fact that there's clearly a compelling demand from music fans of all stripes for nostalgia as mainstream entertainment. Why do we seem to have developed a morbid inability to just let go of the past? It's like we're participating in the collective recital of a Really Important Dream, lest its details slip away...

"The collective recital of an important dream, lest its details slip away" This. I've recently been listening to FourTet/Floating points 6hr set and then dipping into Caribou's 1000 track playlist. And in both I was struck by their reverence for the late 60s and early 70s mainly in the form of barely remembered soul and funk. Do we have to keep deliberately remembering this to avoid forgetting it? Or is this turning into some tribal memory kept alive by the elders repeating it to each new generation.

btw. Go and listen to "Starless" and "One more red nightmare" again off King Crimson's album Red. And turn it all the way up to 11. Fair makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck. But this is the one that gets me every time. The Letters from the album Islands.

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14 Jan 2015

Re-visiting a theme that is much on my mind, this January.
Here's William Gibson paraphrased:- In the 20th century, everyone spoke with reverence of the 21st, while here, deep into the 21st, the 22nd century never gets a look-in.

Where's the SciFi being produced now that describes short to medium term futures? Like say, 50-100 years hence. Because 2100 is only 85 years away or one (reasonably lucky) lifetime for somebody born today. It seems like there's a gap in the middle. Between 5 minutes in the future SciFi which is really about now and ages quickly getting overtaken by events. And far future space opera, which requires an alternate physics to make it work. The middle ground is about both imagining realistic futures but also creating narratives that help to explain where we're going. I'm convinced we need this to counter the endless dystopianism. How are we going to fix pervasive economic injustice, catastrophic climate change, rampant sexism (manifest by white guys holding forth etc.), media conglomeration, network interference, terrorism, etc.? Just describing all that is not enough. We need people to imagine some solutions. 

Bruce Sterling's call to arms. Write more about the 22nd Century #22C

Neal Stephenson's Call to arms. We need more optimistic SciFi to counter the dystopianism.

Kevin Kelly's Call to arms. A request for 100-word descriptions of a plausible technological future in 100 years that he would like to live in.

Stewart Brand's call to arms. Try and imagine a 10,000 year future for mankind.

Jem Finer's call to arms. A 1000 year long song to listen to while it plays out. Longplayer has now been playing for 15 years 013 days 20 hours 16 minutes and 27 seconds (as I write).?

Meanwhile this is just so last century. King Crimson - 21st Century Schizoid Man (BBC Sessions - 1969)
Fripp & Sinfield (& the others) were talking about You, Now.

And here's a shallow look at how 2015 was perceived by historical SciFi
 The WELL: Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow & Jon Lebkowsky: State Of The World 2015 »
The WELL: Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow & Jon Lebkowsky: State Of The World 2015

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13 Jan 2015

Assorted music irritations

Yet another music limit that's getting in the way. Google's Play Music has a 20k song restriction on uploaded music. This has a side effect on Chromebooks, tablets and phones. Since they don't really understand local storage and especially local network storage, you're expected to store everything in the cloud. Except the cloud isn't big enough! Even within the 20k limit, actually managing and dealing with a 20k track library is hard with the UI provided. For instance you can delete/remove tracks and albums but not artists. Meanwhile the upload "Music Manager" program is still fairly brain dead and still doesn't understand .pls or .m3u playlist files.

The next problem is that DNLA compatible media servers and clients are universally horrible. It's the kind of thing that gets built into "Smart" TVs and home NAS. So why does Buffalo's NAS fail to index all the files? VLC locks up when trying to display them. The "smart" TV just gives you a huge long list of tracks instead of any kind of Artist or Album display. MS Windows Media Player fails to actually provide any kind of list when acting as a server and is just as useless at working as a client as all the rest. Just about the only bit of "Smart" in the TV I actually liked was the Youtube app.

Another year has gone by and Winamp still survives but there's been no developments, bugfixes or updates while the new owners try and work out the various licensing issues. It still works pretty well but runs out of steam somewhere around 50k tracks. Several people I know have given up and just use VLC with a sensible directory structure. The remaining problem is searching on track metadata rather than just filenames and directories. For actual desktop programs with library management I've yet to find anything as good as or better than winamp. 4 synced window panes for Artist, Album, Track, Playlist, just kind of works. And just kind of works better than tree or any of the other approaches like drilling down into a folder structure. VLC may be good for playing media, but it sucks for managing a library. As for Itunes, it's still horrible on Windows. Maybe it's better on OSX but I wonder. 

One tip for using Youtube. Open one tab to play your "Watch Later" playlist. Then use other tabs to find and cue up more music. Click the "Watch Later" icon on each and they'll get added to the end of the main playlist. It kind of works. And see above about the Youtube TV App.
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09 Jan 2015

This post got deleted by the mods in the SciFi community. Hard to tell exactly why. Anyway, it's quite a tasty little short story from one of my favourite authors.

One side effect of the nowt protocols is suppression of Saccadic Masking in the visual processing functions of the brain. This makes them more aware than the rest of us of the 50/60 HZ flicker of LED and energy saving fluorescent light bulbs. In extreme cases the simple act of walking through a new housing development at night can produce petit mal epilepsis unless the nowt is careful to avoid sliding their gaze across the typical fake tudorbethan door lights.

Julian Bond originally shared this post:
Paul di Filippo short story.

 Faster Now »
Some decades ago, neuroscientists discovered that the moment of nowness is actually a composite of everything we've experienced in the past fifteen seconds. Naturally, somebody decided to hack this. T…

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08 Jan 2015

This is why I read Bruce Sterling. He points me at stuff like this.


What is certain, though, is that Xiaomi isn’t going to the West anytime soon. Not only would the licensing fees be prohibitive,6 but the West already has fully furnished houses and powerhouse brands. The opportunity is simply so much greater elsewhere. It’s absolutely the truth that a company can be worth $45 billion - and, in the long run, probably a lot more - without ever targeting the United States or Western Europe.
 Xiaomi's Ambition - stratechery by Ben Thompson »
Xiaomi is a hard company to understand if you only think of them as a smartphone maker. In fact, they want to own the entire house of their true fans.

[from: Google+ Posts]

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06 Jan 2015

It's time for the +Bruce Sterling  vs +Jon Lebkowsky  vs +Cory Doctorow  "State Of The World 2015".

It's on The Well so you can't really participate if you're not a Well subscriber except via moderated email. This seems curiously old fashioned in 2015. It may be good for moderation and noise control but feels like a conference with worthies up on the stage talking to themselves while a cast of thousands look on. You can't even heckle! So maybe we should start a reddit or a G+ community or something to have the meta discussion of just how full of bullshit or truthiness they are being.

This year I'm going to try really hard to bite my tongue as Bruce's usually inciteful glocal comments about the world get diverted into yet another discussion about the USA. That lasted about as long as it took to get to Jon's opening paragraphs. Oh well. The view from Austin or Silicon Valley is interesting but we get to do that all the time. I was hoping for more of a global perspective. It being "State of the * World *", and all.


Bruce has a phrase he uses often about the near future as seen from 2015. "old people in big cities afraid of the sky." I'm curious about this. I suspect that the global average age of people in cities is nearer 20 than 70. Perhaps it should be "old people afraid of young people in big cities who are afraid of the sky". I'm picturing Sao Paolo, Shanghai, Mumbai here not Tokyo, Prague, Chicago.


I think we need to marinate on this next bit for a while as well. It fits right in with thoughts about 2030 no longer being the far future; 2050 being on our door step; and as an antidote to Post-Millenial-Tension. Seriously, let's look forward to 2100 not back to 1967.

But speaking of the influence of William Gibson, he said something very striking last year; that in the 20th century, everyone spoke with reverence of the 21st, while here, deep into the 21st, the 22nd century never gets a look-in.  Of course he's right, but this problem seems like honest work to me.  A child born in 2015 will be 85 in the Twenty-Second Century: it's within the reach of a normal, average human life span.

So, the 22nd Century: I'm determined to make it our friend.  I've resolved to talk more and more about it.  Let it be the buzzword, let it become the watchword. The 22nd Century, the #22C : whatever the hell it is, it's getting closer every day.

Bonus link: 2014, Hottest Year Evah!
 The WELL: Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow & Jon Lebkowsky: State Of The World 2015 »
The WELL: Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow & Jon Lebkowsky: State Of The World 2015

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04 Jan 2015

So did you feel a little light headed and a little lighter on your feet at precisely 9:47 UTC[1] this morning? I know I did.

ps. There is no gravity; It's just that the Earth sucks. In your heart, you know it's flat.

[1]The tweet got it wrong. It's UTC, not PST.

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When are China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the USA going to join the civilised world, stop doing State-sanctioned, judicial executions and consign the death penalty to history? It's 2015 people, grow up!
 Chief Executioner Officers: Mapping The Dealth Penalty World | Zero Hedge »
ISIS, it appears, does not have a monopoly on 'executions'. As Amnesty notes, while there were no executions reported in Europe and Central Asia last year, executions were recorded in 22 countries during 2013, and increased 15% over 2012 (excluding the thousands of people executed in China that go unreported). Common to almost all executing countries was again the justification of the use of death penalty as an alleged deterrent against crime; bu...

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02 Jan 2015

An awesome post that deserves wider appreciation. 

Re adjacent possibles. I've been thinking for a while in terms of soft landings and I think these have to do with timescales. It may be that there's a stable sustainable 1000 year future with 100m to 500m humans on the planet. Take the mid point. Getting to 250m from 7b could be via a catastrophic collapse that happens in 10s of years in which case it will be particularly horrific. That's the hard landing. Or it could be spread over a 100 years in which case it could be accomplished via a small drop in the birth rate. That's the soft landing. I'm absolutely sure that the current system is completely unsustainable in the 1000 year time frame. But I'm still holding on to the belief that we can find and get to an adjacent future that is reasonably fun to be part of. That's a belief that it doesn't have to be a catastrophic, chaotic collapse and die off involving large scale war, pestilence and famine.

The challenge then is to turn the 100 year and 1000 year sustainable futures into a 10,000 year future. A Long Now to the tune of the Long Player, Anathem style.

Edward Morbius originally shared this post:
Fish Poop, Snowballs, and why not being evil isn't good enough

There's a meme circulating that "Many PEOPLE Did Not Evolve Respect For The Environment Of Their REMOTE ANCESTORS !!!".  As many memes are, this one is wrong, though its sentiments are understandable and even admirable.

It's exceptional in the number of levels on which it is wrong.

Fish poop in the sea -- and if that's not shitting where you eat, what is?[1]  But let's got back a bit further.

Big picture:  what is life, and what is the purpose (if not the meaning) of life?

Biological life is a dissipative system:  "a thermodynamically open system which is operating out of, and often far from, thermodynamic equilibrium in an environment with which it exchanges energy and matter."[2] 

That is:  living organisms develop complexity within, and often among themselves, in order to utilize existing resources, what I refer to as entropic gradients, which both support the complexity required and increase the net generation of entropy within the system.

A crucial element of dissipative systems is that the power flow, the energy flux, is required to sustain the complexity.  Remove or reduce the energy flow, and complexity is reduced, further reducing the net power flow.

An entropy gradient may be an energy store, and energy flux, a material resource with useful properties (or some mix of the above), or an arrangement of other systems themselves exploiting entropy gradients.

There are additional elements, generally involving self-reproduction, autonomous existence, and heritable characteristics.  Autonomous existence means that what we generally consider life forms have within them the mechanism for their own reproduction -- cells are alive, viruses aren't.  A virus is simply a pattern, a cell is a pattern and the pattern-replicating machinery.  Heritability is generally represented by DNA.

Life degrades resources faster than they would in the absence of life.  Which could be called its purpose.  It's certainly its effect.

There's a principle called the Darwin-Lotka Energy Law, named by ecologist Howard Odum, which adds the concept of evolution to this entropic relation:.  It states that the maximization of power for useful purposes is the criterion for natural selection.[3]

That is:  evolution increases the rate of power throughput, and entropy generation, in the environment.  As life forms (and systems) vary randomly and are subject to selective pressure (Darwin's principle of evolution in a nutshell), the forms which can maximize power throughput thrive over those which cannot.  So not only does life degrade resources, but it seeks to do so at the greatest rate possible.

That's a bit of a doozy, more to come.

So now we've got:

⚫ Life is a dissipative process, it creates structure to extract negative entropy from the environment.

⚫ Life works by exploiting available entropy gradients

⚫ Life evolves through random variation and a selection pressure to maximize power throughput.


So, human's ancestors couldn't change the environment?

Well ... one human predecessor, if not a direct ancestor, were the cyanobacteria which appeared about 2.5 billion years ago.  After about 200 million years, they created the first great atmospheric pollution crisis.  Their metabolic waste product, oxygen, was starting to accumulate in the atmosphere, eventually precipitating what's known as the Great Oxygenation Event, during which atmospheric oxygen increased from roughly zero to first about 5%, then as high as 20-35%, before settling to the 20% value we know today.[4]

The results were profound.

First off, the cyanobacteria couldn't tolerate living in their own waste product.  They had an anaerobic -- oxygen-free -- metabolism, and were obligate anaerobes, meaning oxygen was not merely useless but toxic to them.  They largely died off (though some remain in isolated environments) or were out-competed by subsequent organisms which could maintain an aerobic metabolism -- which, by the way, is vastly more efficient than an anerobic one.  Yeah: it maximizes power flow.[5][6]

Anaerobic organisms today typically operate at about 150 kilojoules (kJ) per mole in fermentation of sugar.  That's about 5% of the rate of an aerobic reaction -- so your aerobes have 20 times the metabolic capacity of anaerobes.  Darwin-Lotka at work.[5]

The theories pertaining to how and why oxygen accumulated so slowly at first vary -- chief is that bare iron weathering and oxidation consumed much of it -- but eventually levels rose.  That weathering and oxidation, by the way, is the process humans are reversing, through the addition of energy, when they refine metal ores and oxides to produce free copper, iron, aluminum, and other metals.  Re-winding an entropic clock spring which was wound billions of years ago.

One of the first results was to oxidize much of the free methane in the atmosphere, which you may recognize as a greenhouse gas.  This triggered a climate catastrophe known as Snowball Earth[7] -- think the ice world of Hoth -- in which much, and perhaps all of Earth was covered to kilometer depths in ice and glaciers, called the Huronian Glaciation, 2.4 to 2.1 billion years ago.  It is the earliest known ice age, and is thought to be the most severe and longest lasting.[8]  In addition to the oxygenation event, removal of greenhouse gasses, and possibly continental landmass distribution, the solar flux (Sun's brightness) was lower at the time -- as the Sun ages its rate of energy production actually increases gradually, which will eventually pose other problems (in about 800 million to 1.2 billion years).

A subsequent Snowball Earth event, the Marinoan glaciation, occurred about 650-635 million years ago, preceding the Cambrian Explosion in which a vast profligation of life-forms emerged, though its cause doesn't seem to be related to biological activity (continental alignment seems to have played a more important factor).  Though it demonstrates that life and glaciation periods can have causality relationships pointing either way.[9]

Two more major glaciation periods are thought to have occurred between the Huronian and Marinoan, the Sturtian, 720-660 Mya, and Kaigas, about 750 Mya.  During each substantially the entire Earth was covered in ice sheets a kilometer thick.[10][11]

By contrast, the most recent glaciation period (technically we're still in the Quaternary glaciation) affected largely just the Northern Hemisphere, and even then largely northern North America, Europe, and Asia.

The two points of which is that:

1. Life can, does, and has influenced the environment, profoundly, to the point of destroying itself in the process.

2. Those changes set the stage for life-forms to follow. 

Humans and the Environment

OK, you say, but Dr. Morbius, that's ancient history.

Well, technically, it's ancient prehistory, but point taken.

Thing is:  humans are life forms (though this is sometimes not immediately apparent), and as with all other life forms affect the environments in which they live.

Which includes numerous cases in which environmental changes -- exogenous or endogenous to human activity -- had profound impacts on humans themselves.

A good overview of this is Charles L. Redman's 2001 book, Human Impact on Ancient Environments

From the blurb:

By discussing archaeological case studies from around the world -- from the deforestation of the Mayan lowlands to soil erosion in ancient Greece to the almost total depletion of resources on Easter Island -- Redman reveals the long-range coevolution of culture and environment and clearly shows the impact that ancient peoples had on their world. These case studies focus on four themes: habitat transformation and animal extinctions, agricultural practices, urban growth, and the forces that accompany complex society. They show that humankind's commitment to agriculture has had cultural consequences that have conditioned our perception of the environment and reveal that societies before European contact did not necessarily live the utopian existences that have been popularly supposed.

Humans have left a trail of environmental destruction behind them throughout history.  Among the reasons for the nomadic lifestyles of many early cultures (and some recent and present ones) is that nomads move their footprint.  After depleting the resources of a given area, they relocate to new grounds, allowing the first to recover.  Desertification, megafauna extinctions, deforestation, erosion, salinization, and other effects have occurred throughout the world when and where humans have entered new or inhabited existing ecosystems.  North Africa, the Fertile Crescent, Greece, Rome, the Indus River Valley, Australia, the Americas, the Mayan, Inca, Aztec, Anasazi, and other new-world civilizations.

There've also be exogenous events, of course, and mixed-cause events.  Among the more notable of these was the Late Bronze Age Collapse, 3300-1200 BCE.[12]  First thought to have been the result of climate change, it's now thought that social, cultural, and economic disruptions relating to the rise of ironworking also contributed.  Following it came the rise of the classical Greek and Roman empires.

A letter from the last king of Ugarit, a Semitic state, named Ammurapi, to the king of Alasiya, makes clear just how dramatic and desperate the situation was:

My father, behold, the enemy's ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka?...Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.[12][13]

The requested help never arrived, Ugarit was burned to the ground.

Other periods include the Younger Dryas period (10,800 - 9500 BCE) and Little Ice Age (~1500 - 1800 CE)[14][15]

The Blame Game

William R. Catton makes this point clear in the introduction to his book Overshoot:

Futile Vilification

Homo sapiens has not been the first type of organism to experience this vise-tightening [of overcommitted resources and excessive pollution], nor even the first species to inflict upon itself this kind of fate.  Pre-human instances of this common phenomenon hold importan lessons for us, as we shall see.  For mankind, as the pressure intensiies, ignorance of its most fundamental causes (and ignorance of even how common the phenomenon has been in nature) makes it easy to succumb to the temtation to vilify particular human groups an individuals....

While vilification often brings emotional gratification, it brings no solution to our common plight.  Indeed, it aggravates life's difficulties.  Our common plight is not really due to villains.  Too few of a troubled world's proliferating antagonists have known the concepts that would enable them to see the common roots of their own and their supposed adversaries' deprivations.  Under pressure, people retreat from the mutual understanding mankind has so falteringly achieved.  Pressure also makes us disinclined to comprehend the human relevance of nature's impersonal mechanisms.  It behooves some who have borne the pressure only marginally to discern and discuss its nature, that all may stand some chance of abstaining from the plight-worsening actions to which pressure so easily tempts us...

There is no point to another morbid wringing of hands over mankind's alleged "greed" or immoral myopia. [16][17]

The point isn't that the present threats aren't severe

They are.  The rates of atmospheric and climate change are unprecedented in at least the past 800,000 years, and quite likely over millions to hundreds of millions -- the immediate aftermath of the Chicxulub meteor impact which ended the reign of the dinosaurs (birds excepted) 66 million years ago being a notable exception.[18][19]

But as Catton points out in the passage above, there's a crucial difference in understanding some moral failing with a fundamental and innate characteristic of biology.  Howard Odum, quoted above, makes an interesting aside in his 1971 book, Environment, Power, and Society

Sometimes in half-seriousness we say that man may have been evolved by the system as a mechanism to get the fossil fuels and other minerals back into circulation.  We hope he is pre-adapted for other roles after that.[20]

That's pretty much my view.


Humans are driven by biological, social, cultural, economic, and military dynamics to exploit resources.  To that extent we're rather markedly like deep-sea scavenger communities chancing upon whalefall -- the carcasses of dead whales which sink to the ocean floor.[21][22]  These events represent a tremendous transfer of food energy and resources to a normally barren environment, and a substantial community rapidly coalesces around the carcass, stripping the skin, blubber, muscle, fats and oils, and eventually even the bones of the whale.

But when the carcass is gone, a process which can take up to 50 years, there's nothing left to sustain the population, and it must either find another carcass (thought to occur every 5-16 km in the Pacific off the coast of North America), or perish.

Humans' whalefall for the past 200 years or so has been the vast wealth of energy represented by fossil fuels in the form of coal, oil, and gas.  It's a short-term resource though, and a one-time bounty.  Over the long term humans' use of fossil fuels is predicted to look somewhat like this:

The image is derived from M. King Hubbert's 1956 paper, "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels"[23]

Each of the fossil fuels -- coal, oil, gas -- represents buried ancient sunshine, accumulated over perhaps 500 million years -- which from the history above is most of the period of advanced life on earth.[24]  Certainly for us, and quite possibly over the lifetime of the Earth.  Coal in particular formed as plant matter, with recently developed tough fibers called lignin, died and were buried before decomposers evolved capable of breaking down and metabolizing the tissues.  Humans, in this case, are playing the role of fungi and other decomposers which didn't exist at the time:

The large coal deposits of the Carboniferous primarily owe their existence to two factors. The first of these is the appearance of bark-bearing trees (and in particular the evolution of the bark fiber lignin). The second is the lower sea levels that occurred during the Carboniferous as compared to the Devonian period. This allowed for the development of extensive lowland swamps and forests in North America and Europe. Based on a genetic analysis of mushroom fungi, David Hibbett and colleagues proposed that large quantities of wood were buried during this period because animals and decomposing bacteria had not yet evolved that could effectively digest the tough lignin.[25]


A new study--which includes the first large-scale comparison of fungi that cause rot decay--suggests that the evolution of a type of fungi known as white rot may have brought an end to a 60-million-year-long period of coal deposition known as the Carboniferous period. Coal deposits that accumulated during the Carboniferous, which ended about 300 million years ago, have historically fueled about 50 percent of U.S. electric power generation.[26]

In this case, the "coal battery" is one that can only be charged once in the history of the planet.  At the very least it would take tens of millions of years to recharge, and other geological and astronomical events will likely make Earth uninhabitable within this time -- 800 to 1.2 billion years[27].

What separates us from our remote ancestors isn't some innate change in affinity or respect for nature, but a hugely expanded capacity to impose our will upon it

Coal, oil, and gas, once we'd worked out how to extract them and transport them effectively (a process which itself involved significant utilization of them) provided, at a low direct cost to humans, an immense energy wealth. That in turn fed a tremendous growth in population (from less than 1 billion in 1800 to 7.1 billion today), in per-capita resource consumption (by 10-20 fold in advanced nations[28]), and in per-capita pollution and effluent production.  All accompanied by a tremendous increases in the complexity of human society, economics, industry, and politics.

And if one group doesn't take advantage of the resources, another almost certainly will.  That issue alone has been a major sticking point in climate talks, particularly for China and India, who ask why it is that the US, Europe, Australia, and Japan should have grown wealthy through carbon emissions while they cannot.  Though as the negative consequences of massive fuel consumption become more clear, and China's unbelievable economic boom has absolutely been accompanied by a tremendous increase in fossil fuel use, they've started to revise that view somewhat.

The point though is that you cannot simply point a finger to a moral failing or bad people.  It's not the US, or Europe, or China, or India.  It's not, as a friend rants on about, the carniggers, though yes, private fossil-fuel powered transportation used to travel tens of miles daily is not in the least sustainable, even for the only one in seven of people on Earth who own cars, let alone the other 85% of the population (many of whom would very much like to have cars).[29]

Most of these people are simply trying to live their lives:  to get to work, buy groceries, raise a family.  But there are enough humans on the planet that that itself is a problem.

We've got to come to terms with, to accept, to embrace, and to re-shape our expectations, based on limits.

There's an equation which describes the interaction of humans with the environment, called I=PAT[30].

   I = impact
   P = population
   A = affluence (per-capita resource consumption)
   T = technology

Among other things, it tells us that, other than what we can do through improvements in technology, human impacts are a matter of population and resource consumption.  If you want to reduce impacts, you've got to reduce one, the other, or both of these.  It's a trade off between "how many" and "how rich" (per person, on average).

The question of technology and its limits is something I don't want to get into here, though in general I side with those who feel it is limited in its capabilities.  If, as noted, life, humans, economic, and industrial systems exploit existing entropic gradients, then technology can increase the efficiency of that process, but it cannot, of itself, create new entropic gradients.  We cannot simply will new energy sources or mineral resources into being.

As to population, estimates vary, but several estimates put humans as requiring the resources of 4-5 Earths on a sustainable basis.  Put another way, this would call for a reduction of population, affluence, or both, to 20-25% of present levels.  Credible estimates of long-term sustainable industrial populations range from 500 million to 2 billion or so -- roughly what the global population was between 1600 and 1920.  There is some range of disagreement on this.[31]

Again:  we've got to come to terms with, to accept, to embrace, and to re-shape our expectations, based on limits.

But that also means reducing net energy throughput, which means an overall reduction in energy, which means, looking above at dissipative systems, at reducing the overall capabilities of the system as a whole.

And that backwards movement is what makes transitioning to a sustainable path so difficult.  Dennis Meadows, who's been studying this area for nearly fifty years, defines this sort of challenge as a hard problem -- in order to make things better, in the long term, things have to get worse for some, or all people, in the short term.  In economics and game theory, researchers talk of "Pareto optimal" or "Nash equilibrium" solutions, in which all parties are made better off.  That's not the case here.[32]

This gets to the question of the adjacent possible from Stuart Kauffman[33], for which good descriptions are difficult to find, though this is a good one:

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.[34]

Essentially, an adjacent possible is a near-and-attainable state.

Which raises the possibility of other alternatives, including both distant and unattainable states.  One of the bigger risks humanity faces is that the sustainable state which we seek is not an adjacent possible one, but a non-adjacent, or improbable, state.

Which again is why fixating on morality isn't merely inaccurate but actively harmful:  it focuses our attention on the wrong problem.

Which if I've got to wrap this all up, is a good way to do so:

⚫ Humans aren't behaving differently from "nature" or "biology" or other life-forms.  We're just tapped into a temporary but tremendous enabling resource.

⚫ Put another way:  the problem isn't that humans are evil. Which means that it's not enough to just be "not evil".  We've to to actively seek out a sustainable path (or we'll have one imposed on us whether we like it or not).  A paperclip maximizer would destroy the Universe.[35].

⚫ We've got to accept limits.  Including limits to both affluence and population, quite likely to levels well below both present global population and OECD median wealth. 

⚫ There's a tremendous amount of wishful thinking presented on all sides of the limits / environment / resources debate.  I see it from deniers of various stripes, as well as self-proclaimed Greens.  There's short-term gain to be had in promoting fixes or cosmetic changes.  Rearranging deck chairs can come with significant benefits by way of PR, government incentives, or even investor dollars.  It won't keep the RMS Titanic afloat.  I find the Kübler-Ross "stages of grief" model hugely useful in understanding various reactions.[36]

⚫ The process will be painful for all parties involved.  Addressing the equity issues may help in this.  Stating that the consequences are "unacceptable" doesn't keep them from happening.  If you'd polled the passengers and crew of the Titanic on the morning of 14 April 1912 as to whether or not the death of seven in ten of their number was acceptable, they'd doubtless have said "no".  But by 2:30 a.m. the next morning, 68% of them did in fact perish.  Reality is a bitch.

⚫ Top-down (global) and bottom-up (local) options are argued.  Some mix of both may well apply.  A third option is that external (imposed) consequences will force events if no conscious decisions are made.

⚫ If we're going to address the situation through conscious and deliberate action, it's going to require a tremendous amount of awareness of the environment and human's role and relationship to it.  This is unprecedented in all history and biology.  Where humans are unique is in being the first life form self-aware of its own impacts on its environment.

⚫ There's an arbitrariness to this all.  There is no guarantee that humans, or at least our present civilization, will survive.  As Howard Odum noted, we can only hope we're suited to another role after playing through our present one.

But what would you be if you didn't even try.  You have to try![37]

h/t +John Hummel

#sustainability   #environment   #ecology   #population   #LimitsToGrowth  


1. For a real mind-bender, look up the viral load of the oceans.  On a cellular basis, if you're a cell living in the ocean, you have a one in five chance of dying today.  That is, the daily mortality of cells in the ocean is 20%.

Though I don't know for certain that the viruses either affect fish directly, or if fish poop is a vector, though it seems that it might well be the case.












13. Jean Nougaryol et al. (1968) Ugaritica V: 87–90 no.24 (via Wikipedia)







20. Howard T. Odum, Environment, Power, and Society, 1971, p. 101.
Revised edition, 2007:



23. M. King Hubbert, "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels", Presented before the Spring Meeting of the Southern District Division of Production, American Petroleum Institute Plaza Hotel, San Antonio, Texas March 7-8-9, 1956.

See also:

24. Jeffrey S. Dukes, "Burning Buried Sunshine: Human consupmtion of ancient solar energy", 2003.

I recommend this paper (short and quite readable) very highly for those who want a general sense of just how vast present human energy consumption is, particularly with regard to total plant productivity:  "net primary productivity" (NPP), also known as the photosynthetic ceiling.  Human appropriation of NPP, or HANPP, is seen as one of several environmental limits to sustainable populations on Earth.  Given that much present ag productivity is heavily reliant on nitrogen fertilizers (fossil-fuel based), phosphorus (in critically limited supply), pesticides (fossil-fuel based in part), and energy-intensive cultivation, transport, and processing, odds of sustaining present levels of food and other agricultural output over the long term are considered low by many experts.


26. "Study on Fungi Evolution Answers Questions About Ancient Coal Formation and May Help Advance Future Biofuels Production"

27. "Timeline of the Far Future", particularly failure of C4 photosynthesis in 800 million years, increased solar flux in 1 billion years, and carbon dioxide starvation in 1.3 billion years.  We are living in the late afternoon of life on Earth.  It is possible that more distant planets or moons might remain suitable for life.

28. Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms, chapter 1:

29. "World Vehicle Population Tops 1 Billion Units"



32. "Hierarchy of Failures in Problem Resolution"

Meadows' phrase appears in an address he made to the Smithsonian, "Dennis Meadows - Perspectives on the Limits of Growth: It is too late for sustainable development", at 42m22s

"There are easy problems and hard problems.  Imagine two actions.  For easy problems, the actions which actually solve the problem make it look better over the short term.  The next evaluation is the next election, or your quarterly earnings report, the next time someone's going to evaluate what you're doing.  The market and politics deals with these problems quite well.  Unfortunately, in dealing with sustainability, we're not dealing with easy problems but with hard ones.  Ones which require a sacrifice now in return for benefits later.  The actions which solve those problems over the long term make things look worse in the short term.  We need to increase the price of energy now in order for it to be lower later.  We need to reduce certain types of economic activity now in order to slow climate change in order to have more flexibility for industrial activity later.  Unfortunately, the next evaluation comes long before we can take credit for the fundamental solutions.  And we're stuck in a system now where politics and the market systematically drive us over the cliff."

33. "Autonomous Agents and Adjacent Possible Theory (AAAPT) of Stuart Kauffman"




37. In the immortal words of Lyell Lovett:  "Please, if it's not too late...Make it a cheeseburger!"

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01 Jan 2015

First coffee post of the year. It's the same old, same old.

Go into any café anywhere in France, first thing in the morning. You'll be able to get a croissant and a "petit café crème". Get there early enough and you'll be surrounded by people having the same thing as breakfast on their way to work.

But what is a "petit café crème" and how do you make it? It seems to be roughly a single or double espresso, using a dark French roast coffee, topped off with a little hot milk, maybe 2:1 coffee to milk served in a small cup and saucer. That sounds simple but it's something that seems to be almost impossible to get elsewhere in the world. And the predominantly US coffee commentators don't seem to understand it or be able to explain the recipe. There's no good description in wikipedia as far as I can tell. Please note it's not a French version of a Cappuccino, Latte, Cafe Crema, Flat White. And it's the petit not the "café crème" or "Grand café crème" I'm most interested in.

People have suggested using to search for it, but all I'm getting is the same web pages returned.

So is there a good description, definition and recipe anywhere?
 CoffeeGeek - Coffee: General Discussion, What is a café crème? »
Posted Fri Dec 10, 2010, 6:35pm. Subject: What is a café crème? Widely served in Paris, as either a petit crème or grand crème. There's almost no information about this drink on the Internet. Is it the same as a café au lait, or something different? Thanks. back to top ...

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Anyone up for another lap round the sun?
 Nice Solar System, Would Travel Around Its Star Again »
The main sequence star Sol sits at the center of a pretty nice system on the outer edge of a spiral galaxy. I did a full revolution on its third planet, and the view was great. Definitely up for another one.

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21 Dec 2014

Following on from the list of 2014 lists. 

I wouldn't have found these without the best of year lists and it turns out they're really rather good.
* Grouper - Ruins
* HTRK - Psychic 95 Club
* Toumani Diabate & Sidiki Diabate - Toumani & Sidiki
* Tinariwen - Emmaar
* Moodymann - Moodymann
* Kangding Ray - Solens Arc
* Gazelle Twin - UnFlesh 

Music you owe it to yourself to investigate and you may not have heard of, yet.
* Al Dobson Jr. - Rye Lane Vol 1
* Throwing Snow - Mosaic
* Grumbling Fur - Preternaturals
And as far as I can tell, pretty much anything on the Mood Hut and 1080p labels. Especially Jack J.

Most over-rated (according to me). Mostly because they're SO PAINFUL to listen to.
* Scott Walker / Sunn O))) - Soused
* SDLaika - That's Harikari
* Arca - Xen
* Fatima Al Qadiri - Asiatisch. Nice idea but it just turned out a bit boring.

Best reviewing technique for when you need to be told what to think about all this stuff.
* TinyMixTapes. For instance, read the Beyonce review here.

Best musical comment on the SNP.
* King Creosote - From Scotland With Love

Music Genre that most needs to be clubbed to death and then cleansed with fire.
* PC Music and that whole QT, Sophie, electroclash, alt lit, happy hardcore, Eskibeat, K-pop, J-Pop, 8-bit thing. Seriously, it's horrible. How did that happen?
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The best list of the best lists of the best music of 2014,

- Dazed and Confused
- DiS
- DJ Broadcast
- Dummy
- Electronic Beats
- Fact Magazine
- Fader
- Gottwood festival (??)
- HypeM
  Best albums for specific moods.
- Juno
- Pitchfork
- Paste
- RA
- Rob Booth
- TinyMixTapes
- TheQuietus
  Obviously pretentious, or pretentiously obvious?
- The Wire (Maybe next month)
- Thump/Vice
- Vinyl Factory
- WeekID

Now we need: "Best music released in 2014 after the 2014 lists had gone to press." We also badly need "Most over-rated of 2014".

And purely in the interests of cultural research and shared cultural values, here's the mashups of Pop 2014
DJ Earworm
It's seems pretty clear that 2014 is "The Year of the Butt". And that pop music is more aggressively amped-up than ever.

ps. Follow the links. The ones above are often entry points for many more 2014 lists on the same website.
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16 Dec 2014

Snout. [as Wall] Thus have I, Wall, my part discharged so; And, being done, thus Wall away doth go.
A Midsummer Night's Dream : W Shakspear.

James Bridle of New Aesthetic and Drone Drawing fame goes on a walk. He follows the edges of the London Congestion Zone, documenting some of the CCTV cameras he sees. The edge of the congestion zone is the 3rd wall around the city. The first being the Roman City Wall, the second is the anti-IRA Ring of Steel. It's the first wall that is largely virtual consisting principally of ANPR  cameras.

In Park Lane, he was accosted by a pair of security guards who performed a citizen's arrest and held him until the Police turned up. "When they arrived, the police officers explained that carrying a camera in the vicinity of Central London was grounds for suspicion."

This reminded me of a London Met and Transport Police campaign.

A key part of that was a poster campaign "A bomb won't go off here because weeks before a shopper reported someone studying the CCTV cameras.", "Don't rely on others. If you suspect it, report it". This scary bit of Orwellian double speak prompted an Internet meme generator long since gone. The phrase "don't rely on others" prompted me to mash the image up with some Hawkwind lyrics from Sonic Attack. "Think only of yourselves" The message is clear though. Only look at CCTV cameras out of the corner of your eye because if you pay too much attention to them, you'll be suspected of harbouring thoughts of terrorism.

But then there's London Transport's posters. here This all begins to get scarily post modern. Is this some hipster designer taking the piss out of their brief and sneaking it past some middle management sign off? Or is it doubleplus-good propaganda that works better at inserting the idea into our brain because we laugh at it.

James Bridle can be found here.
 The Nor » All Cameras Are Police Cameras »
This essay is the first of a series of reports from The Nor, an investigation into paranoia, electromagnetism, and infrastructure. Map-500. On the morning of Thursday, 30th October 2014, I set out to walk the perimeter of the London Congestion Charge Zone, a journey of some twelve miles around ...

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12 Dec 2014

Bruce Sterling: Data globalization sure has had a corrosive effect on international law and order.  Even "democratic rule of law" governments are capable of any aberration nowadays: assassination, torture, sabotage, abduction, invasion, guerrilla war, surveilling whole populations, jailing journalists, chasing dissidents into exile, over-arming the police, you can name it.
 BruceS — .. »
"IT IS 30 years since William Gibson, an American-Canadian author, wrote...

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