Blindness (film) -- 3 second review

Roger Ebert is either dumb or saw Blindness right after seeing WALL-E.

What would you do if society crumbled? What if you were the world's only witness to it.

(Good film; read the book by Jose Saramago).

It doesn't fit with the over-exposed photographys style but I think the director (and/or Canuck Don McKellar) could have drawn more from Leonard Cohen:
And everybody knows that the plague is coming
Everybody knows that its moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But theres gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

Compensatory consumption

Remember when irony died following 9/11?

Whether you call it compensatory consumption, Veblen goods or just maintaining pace with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, I wonder if Pierre Luigi Sacco's insights will apply after the contraction.

The hallmark of a post-industrial economy is that basically people think in terms of identity when they make their choices. What they actually do is think in terms of, 'if I buy this, how will other people perceive me?' or 'if I buy this, what kind of person I am for buying this?' Why this is becoming so relevant? Well, before answering to that, let's just look at how people in the marketing departments actually address you when they try to sell you those goods. Well, they address you exactly in this respect.

The product itself is somewhat disappearing from the centre stage. What's just coming up is the kind of person who buys this kind of goods or the symbolic representation of the good, rather than the good itself, to the point that actually, they don't even make promises about what exactly that product delivers. What they promise is how you'll feel about the good, which is totally different.

The economics of identity is a tricky field because it's entirely new. We don't know anything about it. Why should these problems be threatening? Well, consider this, if scarcity is the hallmark of the economics of survival, what does it mean thinking in terms of scarcity in the economics of identity? Basically, what becomes scarce in this context is not the availability of goods, there are plenty of them, is a sort of invasion, we simply can't just protect ourselves by this attack of goods I mean popping up everywhere.

But, what becomes scarce is 'who can you pretend to be'? 

Feedback loops and inertial blindness

In between reading about the decline of western civilization due to economic collapse, I like to lighten up and learn about the coming decline of global civilization due to environmental collapse.

Recently, it's become clear that common sense can go a long way toward understanding a complex world. Models and world leaders could not predict the current state of our economy, but if you think carefully about whether people can accumulate debt forever, some things become more clear. Jane Jacobs was a successful intellectual who observed and experienced reality and reported on it and theorized anew based upon it. She had little formal training, but she's been proven dead right on urban planning.

So, I'd like to offer two theories based not in math, but in observation of the economy and ecology.

Ecology and the economy are closely related. A hundred years ago, much of Canada's GDP was a measure of things that grow in dirt, livestock that eat those things, the harvest of trees and other organic material, and the mining of minerals and other deposits. In other words, our wealth closely approximated things we took from the Earth.

Today, we have a service economy, and this is underpinned by Paul Romer's theory of endogenous growth; ie. economies grow because they generate technological change, which makes things more efficient. Today, we take more corn, trees, deposits and livestock off of the land, but it's a fraction of our economy; in the large part, we design better fuels, improve the lay-out of cities, improve the rubber in tires, invent information technology and cure pot-holes. We incrementally improve the efficiency of society, all while freeing more people to spend more time thinking up more improvements.

This is called a positive feedback loop, where "positive" is not a moral phrase. In fact, dire ecological predictions are underpinned by positive feedback loops; in the podcast behind the Gwynn Dyer link above (and here), three such positive feedback loops are named around global climate change:
  • the melting of the polar ice caps, which has visibly started and cannot be disputed by people looking at them, removes an essential and quite big "Earth mirror" and replaces it with the Arctic equivalent of a black driveway.
  • the melting of glaciers will release ancient stores of methane gas, which is 10-times worse as a greenhouse gas than C02
  • as oceans warm, their capacity to absorb CO2 will decrease.
Each of these phenomena require a small trigger -- such as our global output of greenhouse gasses -- and they will then feed upon themselves, and each other, far beyond the capacity of our total economy to exert control. When you start to enter a black hole, you cannot get out.

Economically, the credit crisis was also a positive feedback loop, with the collapse in home prices starving consumers of their raison-de-spend, causing layoffs and further bank failures, accelerating the cycle. It really doesn't matter what the trigger is when you've been absent-mindedly storing pails of gasoline in your living room.

Tragically, the economic and ecological loops could trigger a third, political positive feedback loop. Should the ecological loop trigger migrations from equatorial areas, refugee issues arise just as the economic loop triggers civil unrest generally. Governments that should be tackling the first two feedback loops will be distracted trying to reverse the political loop. At just the moment when we need a belle epoque to create regulatory and technological solutions to these problems, we will have the least capacity to do so.

Now, in case you have a gun in your mouth, you may want to read a little further. I'm asking you to consider a second effect, which I'm calling inertial blindness.

Let's say that you want to build a party town somewhere in the Nevada desert. You require water, so you invest in technologies to draw the water from ancient sources deep underground and over time this water enables your manufactured city to generate billions of dollars in both private wealth and tax revenue. But as your city grows, your annual draw on the underground water supply becomes significant. Although your economic growth continues, you're creating an ecological deficit in doing so and the situation becomes absurd. That it continues can only be evidence of both blindness and inertia. No rational person would build a large city on top of a 10-year water supply, but inertial blindness allows this. No rational person would try to build the CN Tower 10,000 feet high, just because at 1800 feet things were going so well.

Borrowing to consume some goods is an interesting strategy, especially for a young person who needs a house and a car before s/he can pay for these things. But what if the inertia of this consumption continues into the realm of blindness, to where consumption-beyond-means occurs because not doing this is harder than doing it (also, see Sacco).

The oceans have absorbed roughly 30 per cent of CO2 emissions since the start of the industrial age. But we are inertially blind to the fact that they cannot absorb infinite CO2 emissions. At best, they will stop absorbing these emissions; at worst they will become emitters themselves. Inertial blindness may lead us to turn 70 per cent of the Earth's surface into a smoke stack.

When borrowing and consumption slackened in the early 1990s, quantitative minds who were financial experts engineered new financial products, capable of extending growth. Again, this was inertial blindness -- it was anything but real growth, but it allowed the real growth to transition into theatrical growth. Following 9/11, theatrical growth was accelerated with more creative mortgage products and low interest rates. (Note bene, we did get the Segway out of this decade).

I'm writing all of this because I think it is essential that we develop models -- more sophisticated than I'm capable of creating now -- which identify and isolate these two phenomena, allowing policy makers to kill their causes. It is important that the national conversation (again, what a terrible phrase) include terms that mean what I mean when I say positive feedback loop and inertial blindness. We need to know when we're cutting down the last tree on Easter Island and when we're switching from tree-based energy to alternative energy. We need to know when growth is real and when it is a stage play in a dark theatre.

It is just shocking that the top people in our society did not know these things.


It's waaaay to early to define if/what it is, but the word is hilarious.

I can't stop thinking of manamanah.

The Kitchen PC -- Asus

It's not quite a fridgebook, but life is incremental.

(Does anyone else remember Commodore 64's being pushed for the capacity to organize recipes?)

Book review -- Harper's Team

Tom Flanagan, whom I've described as  a Calgary School teacher, was an intimately trusted advisor to PM Harper from their days at the University of Calgary and in forming policy for the reform party.

I'm not a Conservative, so I didn't read this book out of admiration for Harper. I do admire what he's accomplished, though. There's a line in the final few pages that suggests only four people have strung together Conservative governments of any meaning since John A, and that all of them did it in a way that inflamed the country and ultimately harmed Conservatism in Canada. We know that Brian Mulroney built the Quebec wing of his grand coalition by inflaming the nationalism that nearly cost us the country.

I read "Harper's Team" because I'm very impressed with Harper's strategic skill. The book appears to be a fantastically candid -- almost too candid -- peek into the backrooms of leadership races and general elections. Covering the late 1990s and 2000s, it also captures the changes in political campaigning, which reached an entirely new level last November, well after the book was published.

"Harper's Team" is a frank, detailed, un-objective but not unbalanced history of political campaigning in this era. It's of the nitty gritty -- how to telephone people and how to pay for those telephone calls. And it's framed around a narrative -- the rise of Harper -- which makes it far more readable than a textbook.

If there was substantial emphasis on issues of phone banks and postal drops, perhaps there was not enough emphasis on the strategy of triangulation. Flanagan relates that he gave Harper a copy of Dick Morris' "Power Plays", which as a history of several modern and ancient political campaigns provides as comprehensive description of triangulation as I've read. Harper reads the book on a solemn vacation following an election loss and returns re-invigorated. 

Frankly, he has triangulated the entire national "conversation" (what an odd word that is). The Quebecois are a Nation -- and the Liberals are no longer inside that circle. Most recently, Harper triangulated himself out of the conservative sphere (the geometry is difficult, but the principles are sound) with a stimulus package bigger than Liberals could have imagined.

Triangulation, as I believe Dick Morris roughly put it, is to adopt in part the policies of your competitors, and make them your own. A divided opposition is no opposition.

Liberals in this country need to swallow a lot of pride, recognize that the Conservatives are not even close to being the B team; we need to all read this book.

Book Review -- What is America?

I read this a month ago, so if America changed in some way in the meantime, forgive me.

This is not a book about the present, per se. It's not a discussion of Nixon going to China or Obama rising from Chicago. It begins in 1492 and neatly describes the relationship between the Americas and the rise of Europe.

In 1492, I recall from a Lonely Planet book, Isabella and her husband completed the reconquest of Spain. Oh, and Columbus landed at a Breezes resort.

Ronald Wright makes an original argument that begins as follows:
  • Incan and Mayan societies were among the most advanced on Earth at 1492.
  • They compared well with China. Europe was a backwater.
  • Columbus' Spanish followers were inferior warriors, technologically speaking, to New World societies, and had they not indelicately sneezed while losing battle after battle, we would not get Telemundo today.
  • Yes, a few European airborne diseases all but wiped out several civilizations.
Much of that is well known by high school students. But where Wright gets pioneering is his two-fold argument that:
  1. Europeans did not establish societies in the Americas so much as they inherited some of the world's most advanced cities from civilizations that had accidentally fallen to plagues. Key among this was the U.S.; the image of nomadic tribes being attacked by Kevin Costner bears little relationship to the large cities built along the east. There is no Machu Picchu because Atlanta ended up on top of it.
  2. Newly enriched New Worlders shipped their wealth all mercantile-like back to Europe, which went on a 500-year nouveau-bling shopping spree and took over Earth. But Europe's rise at a time when Arab North Africa was more technologically advanced was a result of New World wealth, not larger foreheads or something.
Very easy read. Very mind-changing.

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