Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Robocalypse Now!

A few weeks back in his ongoing series of failed end time prophecies, John Michael Greer included a section on The End of Work, and how predictions about this utterly failed. What he misses is that more thoughtful commenters on these topics were mostly borne out over time. This is one apocalypse that appears to have some merit, and grouping it with wide-eyed end-time prophecies does a disservice to some very real issues. Just as cornucopians believe technology will solve all our problems, sometimes there is a tendency for people who know better to go the other way and completely dismiss the effects of rapidly advancing technology on society. Neither approach is helpful.  Advancing technology and Peak Oil are not mutually exclusive. As I've done a fair deal of writing on this very topic, I feel a response is necessary.

In his debunking the end of work scenario, Greer makes a number of classical mistakes common to critics of this idea:

1. Seeing the robot revolution exclusively as humanoid automatons like Rosie the maid from The Jetsons or Robbie from Lost In Space as doing all our work for us like some sort of cartoon mechanical slaves. This view may have been a staple of techno-utopian science fiction novel covers, but unfortunately it tends to obscure reality. I define a robot as any machine that does human work, based on the original meaning of the word – robota, the Czech word for worker. Robots are workers, plain and simple, and any machine that performs human work is a robot by my definition. They look like whatever they need to to get the job done - in a car factory they may look like giant armatures, but the fact is, a robot may be nothing more than some silicon chips and look more like an oversized computer printer than the robot from Metropolis. Anthropomorphizing robots does nothing but obscure the real issue. A good example is the medical scanners that read and diagnose X-rays. These look nothing like people, but they do the jobs of people quite well.

2. The second mistake made by people who reject his idea is that it’s necessary for robots to replace all human workers. This is ridiculous and no one seriously proposes this. If nothing else we will need people to design and fix the robots! We will still need managers, scientists, engineers and creative thinkers, of course. But how many of these jobs are required? Just as deniers of Peak Oil insist that it’s about running completely out of oil, deniers of the effects of automation claim that it’s about completely running out of jobs. Both are straw men, of course – Peak Oil is as much about turning to lower quality and harder to get sources of carbon as it is about running out. Similarly, automation is about not creating enough jobs to supply a growing population. As we’ve said so often here, you need to create over a million jobs a year in the United States just to keep up with population growth, and there are similar numbers in most industrialized countries. Now that formerly agricultural nations are industrializing and women are expected to be in the workforce, this is an even more dire number. When those numbers are missed, as they have been consistently now for years and years all around the world, you have a crisis, even when the majority still have jobs.

Algorithms are the key to this whole thing. Essentially, any repeatable series of steps can be described by an algorithm. And in modern industrial society, that’s all the vast majority of jobs are – a series of repeatable steps. Anything that can be described by an algorithm can be automated, and that’s probably three-quarters of all jobs. Add to the fact that most jobs are totally unnecessary busywork. You need a certain amount of people to keep order, keep the utilities running, grow food, keep the shelves stocked, and fix what’s broken. That’s a very small number of the population. See this post: http://www.oftwominds.com/blogmay12/labor-paid-work5-12.html

The real issue is not a science-fiction future of robots taking over but technological unemployment, and it has been an area of real concern for economists from Karl Marx to J.M. Keynes.

3. Forgetting that part of the robot revolution is not just automatons but also increased productivity due to things like the computer. Mechanical devices like bulldozers, cranes and backhoes have reduced the need for human muscle, but computers have decreased the need for human brains. As an example consider a structural engineer in 1965 armed with nothing more than a slide rule and maybe a simple calculator. How many engineers would it take to plow thought the calculations required to build a Sears tower? How many draftsmen had to sit at tables cranking out hand-drawn sheets? Now with computers, small teams of engineers can plow through calculations in a fraction of the time using advanced computer models, and small teams of architects can model the entire building in 3D, changing things on the fly (this is how it works today). I could make a similar case with an accountant armed with an Excel spreadsheet who can now do the work of a dozen accountants from 1965. As is so often stated, the average worker has more computer power on their desks than did the original NASA team that put men on the moon. Do you think that might increase worker productivity just a bit?

To date that excess productivity has been channeled into more complexity, more volume, and shorter timeframes. Bigger, faster, cheaper, more. So those architects and engineers worked on ever-more buildings, larger, and with much more complex designs and framing. And they turned them out on shorter and shorter timeframes. But that can’t go on forever, and it’s finally coming to a halt. And without the extra volume of activity, there’s just no need for those extra workers anymore.

4. Forgetting that people providing services for themselves via the internet is as much a part of the robot revolution as actual robots, and may be an even bigger driver of job loss! Have you ever used and ATM, or a bar-code based scanning station at a store? Guess, what, those are robots in my book. Have you ever downloaded a song instead of going to a CD store? Have you ordered a book or any other goods off of Amazon.com? Have you booked a trip on Kayak or Orbitz? This is a huge part of the robot revolution that his almost always ignored. Guess what, all of these contribute to job loss!

When America deindustrialized, economists touted the “service economy” as the absorber for all those displaced workers. Now the service economy is looking pretty shaky (leaving aside the crappy wages and benefits, and the fact that these jobs are nontradebale and not value-added), because anyone with smart phone can do these things for themselves – book a trip, buy a movie, buy a stock, transfer money, learn a language, etc. Bill Gates has termed this frictionless capitalism. Some call it simply the elimination of middlemen. Good for consumers, but middlemen need jobs too. Already we see so-called "brick-and-mortar" stores closing down. Now Amazon plans same-day delivery all over the U.S. and has purchased the largest factory automation company in the world. A sign of things to come? See this article: http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2012/04/06/the_end_of_retail.html. Being able to do things for yourself is great, but it has consequences for the overall economy.

And let’s not forget that you can now hire workers to do cognitive/professional/clerical tasks literally anywhere in the world. I can now have an accountant in New Delhi armed with a laptop and Excel (see #3 above) do all my accounting for cheap. While not strictly robotics, this is another outgrowth of computer technology that has a tremendous impact on jobs. And while enthusiasts tout the benefits of online learning in educating the world, for practical purposes this dilutes the value of education. When everyone can become a “knowledge” worker thanks to the internet, such workers will be bought for pennies one the dollar by corporations who enjoy monopolies over nearly every industry (and already are).

Pretending that there are all these unmet needs that are out there and that people will just all start new companies and become self-employed is living in a state of denial and delusion. But denial and delusion is our specialty.

6. Forgetting we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. We’ve only begun to exploit the "long tail" of automation, as Kevin Drum points out. Many of these innovations are only a decade old, some barely a few years old. It’s a wide open field for entrepreneurs, but today’s online entrepreneurs are eliminating as many or more jobs than they create, despite our culture’s fetishization of entrepreneurship as the solution to all our problems (e.g. Thomas Friedman’s claptrap). This is called the back-half of the chessboard problem.

With one in four young people unemployed in the U.S. and one in two in parts of Europe, and with unemployment causing instability in places like the Middle East, I find it hard to dismiss this problem as casually as Greer has. If we factor in underemployment, temporary jobs, people working below their abilities, seasonal employment, part-time work, etc., the situation becomes even worse. If this is not a jobs apocalypse, then what is?

For his part, Greer argues that the rising costs of energy and falling wages will make job scarcity a thing of the past as it suddenly becomes cheaper to employ people than machines. Eventually, maybe, but there is currently no evidence – none, zero, zilch - that wages are falling low enough to shelve automation in manufacturing, agriculture or professional services. The recession has only increased the drive for automation in tandem with the increasing abilities of this technology. Is he unaware of people buying his books over the internet? We're already several years past the global oil peak, and the higher energy costs are being absorbed without slowing down the drive for automation. Again, where is the evidence?

Now Greer is right in that there are some jobs that are a combination of both difficult to automate and low-paying that will probably continue to employ human workers, even if they can be theoretically automated. Two examples that come to mind are home health care aides and agricultural workers. Even if these could be automated - and there is some evidence that they can to some extent – the abysmally low wages in these fields will probably make it easier to use human workers, especially since there are so many. But that merely confirms the hypothesis – we cannot run an economy where the only jobs available are low wage scut jobs. Yes, factories are leaving China for lower-wage countries like Vietnam. But that's only for very simple manufacturing - high-end manufacturing is done in places like Germany, Japan, and yes, the United States in highly automated facilities that use less people every year. And as I’ve said earlier, oil costs will cause wages to rise, not fall, as the costs of living go up. Machines require no vacation, healthcare, benefits, etc.

So here’s one “apocalypse” that appears to be unfolding before our eyes, if we forget our silly preconceptions and recognize it as such. And unlike gray goo, this one is eminently solvable. It's not a problem of technology, it's a problem of how we've organized our society. What should be a boon has become a curse.

If you're still not convinced, have a gander at this article: The End of Chinese Manufacturing and Rebirth of U.S. Industry
The robots of today aren't the Androids or Cylons that we used to see in science-fiction movies, but specialized electro-mechanical devices that are controlled by software and remote controls. As computers become more powerful, so do the abilities of these devices. Robots are now capable of performing surgery, milking cows, doing military reconnaissance and combat, and flying fighter jets. And DIY'ers are lending a helping hand. There are dozens of startups, such as Willow Garage, iRobot, and 9th Sense, selling robot-development kits for university students and open-source communities. They are creating ever more-sophisticated robots and new applications for these. Watch this video of the autonomous flying robots that University of Pennsylvania professor Vijay Kumar created with his students, for example.

The factory assembly that the Chinese are performing is child's play for the next generation of robots--which will soon become cheaper than human labor. Indeed, one of China's largest manufacturers, Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group, announced last August that it plans to install one million robots within three years to do the work that its workers in China presently do. It found Chinese labor to be too expensive and demanding. The world's most advanced car, the Tesla Roadster, is also being manufactured in Silicon Valley, which is one of the most expensive places in the country. Tesla can afford this because it is using robots to do the assembly.

Then there is artificial intelligence (AI)--software that makes computers do things that, if humans did them, we would call intelligent. We left AI for dead after the hype it created in the '80s, but it is alive and kicking--and advancing rapidly. It is powering all sorts of technologies. This is the technology that IBM's Deep Blue computer used in beating chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997and that enabled IBM's Watson to beat TV-show Jeopardy champions in 2011. AI is making it possible to develop self-driving cars, voice-recognition systems such as Apple's Siri, and the face-recognition software Facebook recently acquired. AI technologies are also finding their way into manufacturing and will allow us to design our own products at home with the aid of AI-powered design assistants.

Even if the Chinese automate their factories with AI-powered robots and manufacture 3D printers, it will no longer make sense to ship raw materials all the way to China to have them assembled into finished products and shipped back to the U.S. Manufacturing will once again become a local industry with products being manufactured near raw materials or markets.

So China has many reasons to worry, and manufacturing will undoubtedly return to the U.S.--if not in this decade then early in the next. But the same jobs that left the U.S. won't come back: they won't exist.  What will the new jobs be? We can only guess. Autodesk CEO Carl Bass says that just as we have created new, higher-paying jobs in every other industrial transition, we will create a new set of industries and professions in this one. Look at the new types of jobs and multi-billion dollar businesses that the Internet and mobile industries created--these came out of nowhere and changed our lives, Bass says.

Carl Bass is one of the leading authorities on 3D printing and digital manufacturing, and I share his optimism that we will create an era of abundance.  But I worry if we will create the new jobs fast enough and distribute the prosperity.

EuroJobz

Eurostat, the EU's statistics office, said 17.801 million people were out of work in the eurozone in June. That was 123,000 more than May, and is the highest level since the euro was formed in 1999. The increase was the 14th in a row and means that around 2.25 million people have lost their jobs since April 2011.

Despite the increase, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in June was unchanged at a record 11.2 percent. Without Germany's relatively-low unemployment rate of 5.4 percent, the wider figures would be much worse.

It's particularly grim in Spain, which is at the forefront of Europe's debt crisis concerns. It had the highest unemployment rate across the eurozone of 24.8 percent. Greece's rate was not far behind at 22.5 percent, though the latest figures available are for April. In Greece and Spain, every other person aged under 25 is unemployed.

Many countries that use the euro, including France and Italy, also have double-digit unemployment rates.

Eurozone unemployment at record high in June (Yahoo!)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Infrastructure and Climate Change

Kurt Cobb makes a point I've been trying to make for a while now - our current infrastructure was built for a different planet:
This summer has shown just what can happen when those built-in tolerances for heat, moisture (or lack of it) and wind are exceeded. The New York Times did an excellent short piece providing examples of some of those effects:

1.A jet stuck on the tarmac as its wheels sank into asphalt softened by 100-degree heat.
2.A subway train derailed by a kink in the track due to excessive heat.
3.A power plant that had to be shut down due to lack of cooling water when the water level dropped below the intake pipe.
4.A "derecho", a severe weather pattern of thunderstorms and very high straight-line winds, that deprived 4.3 million people of power in the eastern part of the United States, some for eight days.
5.Drainage culverts destroyed by excessive rains.

Past attempts to forecast the possible costs of climate change have been largely inadequate. They failed because of unanticipated effects on and complex interconnections among various parts of critical infrastructure.

Back in 2007 Yale economist William Nordhaus wrote in a paper that "[e]conomic studies suggest that those parts of the economy that are insulated from climate, such as air-conditioned houses or most manufacturing operations, will be little affected directly by climatic change over the next century or so." Having air-conditioning does not do you much good, however, if the electricity is out. And, manufacturing operations depend on reliable electric service. Many manufacturing operations are also water-intensive and so will be affected by water shortages. In addition, damage to transportation systems (as detailed above) could hamper the delivery of manufactured products.
He forgot to mention roads buckling from the heat, which happened here in the Midwest earler this month. And let's not forget barges on the Mississippi being stranded and unable to ship due to low water levels:
For those who make their living along the Mississippi River, helping ship many of the country’s most vital commodities, this year’s drought has inevitably raised the specter of 1988. That’s when the river got so low that barge traffic came to a standstill — and the industry lost $1 billion. Unfortunately, 2012 could be worse.
 And now, right on schedule, we see a massive power blackout in India:
NEW DELHI: There has been a major power failure in north India since late Sunday night affecting at least six states.

The states affected include Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, UP, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.
"Yes there are problems with Northern Grid, we are trying to restore it", said SK Soonee, CEO of Power System Operating Co (PSOC).

PSOC manages the Northern Power Grid. Officials sources said while the exact reasons for the grid failure are being ascertained , over drawl of power by states could have led to the problem.
The restoration of the grid may take a few more hours even as the engineers are trying to restore it since early morning.

Power supply in some pockets is being restored and the first priority is for public services like hospitals and transport.

"We are hoping to restore the grid in the next one or two hours. We are giving essential loads for services like Railways, Metro and Hospitals," chairman and managing director of Power Grid Corporation AM Nayak said.

Meanwhile, thousands of office-going commuters in the national capital are facing severe hardship as Delhi Metro services have been largely disrupted owing to the Northern Grid failure
Major power failure in north India, Delhi Metro services hit (Times of India)
Power cuts are a common occurrence in Indian cities because of a fundamental shortage of power and an ageing grid. The chaos caused by such cuts has led to protests and unrest on the streets.

Earlier in July, crowds in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon blocked traffic and clashed with police after blackouts there.

Correspondents say that India urgently needs a huge increase in power production, as hundreds of millions of its people are not even connected to the national grid.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has long said that India must look to nuclear energy to supply power to the people.

Estimates say that nuclear energy contributes only 3% to the country's current power supply. But the construction of some proposed nuclear power stations have been stalled by intense local opposition.
Power cut causes major disruption in northern India (BBC)

You will recall it was just last week when torrential downpours overwhelmed Beijing’s infrastructure. Note that the affected population of 300 million is nearly equal to that of the United States. It seems like the next phase of capitalist expansion due to the two billion consumers (!!!!) of China and India is meeting with some unintended SNAFU's. Please note also the mention of Guragon, the libertarian's ideal model city of the future.

I wonder if these nearly daily stories of extreme weather and infrastructure failure are having an impact. Remember, it takes an enourmous amount of resources just to conteract entropy and maintain the infrastructure we have, as anyone who has read the book World Without Us or seen the Discovery Channel special knows. How will we expand the economy when we keep having to spend resources rebuilding what we've got after it's been destroyed over and over again? And see this:

Energy Shortage Constrains India's Economic Growth (Planetizen via WSJ):
Energy shortages in coal, natural gas, and diesel fuel are constraining India's growth. At the heart of the shortages are government subsidies that keep prices low, state-run monopolies that are unable to increase production, and costly imports.

"A shortage of coal, which accounts for more than half of the nation's energy supply, is crippling the power sector, forcing companies to delay the opening of multibillion-dollar projects. India in April announced an 80% jump in coal imports ...but many plants still run below capacity for lack of coal."
Electricity shortages have resulted in clinics being forced to dump vaccines due to lack of continual refrigeration. As many as 400 million rural residents may lack access to electricity.

Coal shortages are largely a result of the inability of Coal India, India's state-run monopoly, to produce enough due to many factors, including old equipment and security threats.

"(Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) is beginning to realize that there's a very bleak outlook in terms of energy security, and that this is going to create the single largest constraint on the economy", said one energy consultant. Deregulation of energy will be challenging.

"State-run energy companies are racking up billions of dollars in losses by selling auto fuel, cooking gas and electricity at artificially low prices to protect consumers from global cost increases." Consequently, residents expect low prices on these fuels.

"India has a very distorted system of subsidies," Jaipal Reddy, minister for petroleum and natural gas, said. "But how, in a vibrant democracy like in India, do you change the system suddenly?"
What articles like this always assume is that these problems are just economic - that is just a matter of inefficient organization, and nothing whatsoever to do with limits to growth. Even so, social and political limitations are just as real as economic ones, and often just as insurmountable.

UPDATE: Now half is India is without power, a number nearly twice the population of the U.S. (and the "I" in BRIC):
More than half the country was hit by the power cuts after three grids collapsed - one for a second day. Hundreds of trains have come to a standstill and hospitals are running on backup generators. The country's power minister has blamed the crisis on states drawing too much power from the national grid. The breakdowns in the northern, eastern, and north-eastern grids mean around 600m people have been affected in 20 of India's states.
Hundreds of millions without power in India (BBC)

India's energy crisis threatens its economic growth (BBC)
670 million people—roughly half of India's population—has been without electricity for two days, following a massive blackout. The United States has a much more modern grid, but only nine years ago a blackout in the Northeast of this country cut power to 45 million. 
India's in the dark, are we next? (BoingBoing)

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Hits Keep Coming

ELMIRA, New York (Reuters) - Two people were dead and more than 100,000 homes and businesses in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania were without electricity Friday morning after severe thunderstorms swept through the region late Thursday.

The storms spawned a tornado that touched down in Elmira, New York, toppling trees and tearing off roofs, the National Weather Service said.

Officials in Pennsylvania and New York reported two storm-related deaths.

In Elmira, the city's east side took the biggest hit from the tornado. In one four-block neighborhood, most homes had trees toppled upon them, street signs were bent in half and tree trunks had debris wrapped around them. Several cars were crushed by downed trees.

One two-story brick building had most of the second story torn off in the storm.

On Friday morning, most power remained out for the city's 29,000 residents.

Meteorologists said 70-mile-per-hour (113-kph) winds were reported in parts of Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma.

As the storms sent black, menacing clouds rolling across some cities, hail ranging from the size of a dime to a quarter fell in some areas of Pennsylvania, AccuWeather.com said.

Pennsylvania accounted for a majority of those still without power, with more than 85,000 customers in the dark early Friday, according to electric companies serving the region.

Roughly 34,000 people in New York were without power, most of them in the southern tier region near Elmira, according to NYSEG. About 13,500 customers in eastern Ohio were still offline, according to AEP Ohio.

The storms formed along a cold front stretching from the Northeast into the Ohio Valley, bringing the threat of damaging winds, hail and tornadoes, according to the Weather Channel.

The storm activity forced the cancellation of over 900 flights on Thursday, according to FlightAware, a Texas-based company that tracks the status of flights. The highest number of cancellations was at LaGuardia Airport in New York.
Two dead, over 130,000 without power after fierce U.S. storms (Reuters)
One year after its waters swelled to historic proportions, the lower Mississippi River now sits so low that barge operators hauling some $180 billion in goods must lighten their loads for fear of getting stuck.

If water levels drop any lower, industry insiders say, prices could rise on the raw commodities commonly shipped by boat -- coal, grain, petroleum and steel, to name a few.

"The main thing that they're doing now is voluntarily reducing the size of their tows ... so they're having to take more trips to carry their normal volume of commodities," said Ann McCulloch, spokeswoman for American Waterways Operators, a national trade association representing tugboats, tow boats and barges.
"This will drive up transportation costs if it continues over a long period of time," she said.

Kirby Corp, the largest U.S. inland tank barge operator, said Thursday it is adding more capacity to its fleet that carries petrochemicals, gasoline and fertilizers.

Scattered rains in the Midwest this week have come too late for many crops, government drought specialists said, and the worst drought conditions since 1956 worsened over the last week.

Almost 30 percent of the nine-state Midwest was suffering extreme drought as of July 24, nearly triple that of a week ago.

The United States is the world's largest exporter of corn, soybeans and wheat. Markets around the world are growing worried that local food costs will soar because imports will be expensive, food aid for countries from Asia to Egypt will not be available, and food riots could occur as in the past.

Drought and scorching temperatures in Eastern Europe from Poland to Romania also have burned up crops, causing alarm about stockpiles and soaring prices. Russian wheat harvests will also be cut by drought and Indian harvests will be cut by the poorest monsoon rains in four decades, officials said on Thursday.

The U.S. Agriculture Department said U.S. food prices are likely to rise as much as 3.5 percent this year and as much as 4 percent in 2013, with higher feed costs driving up meat and dairy products. By comparison, the overall U.S. inflation rate is estimated at 2 percent this year and 1.9 percent in 2013.

Wildfires in drought-hit areas were also a growing problem. Firefighters in three Nebraska counties battled expanding wildfires, and Ola, Arkansas, a town of 1,300 people, was evacuated because of an approaching fire.
Greenland ice, it seems, can vanish in a flash, with new satellite images showing that over just a few days this month nearly all of the veneer of surface ice atop the island's massive ice sheet had thawed.

That's a record for the largest area of surface melt on Greenland in more than 30 years of satellite observations, according to NASA and university scientists.

The images, snapped by three satellites, showed that about 40 percent of the ice sheet had thawed at or near the surface on July 8; just days later, on July 12, images showed a dramatic increase in melting with thawing across 97 percent of the ice sheet surface.
Record Greenland Ice Melt Happened in Days (Live Science)

The power went out briefly at work today (no severe weather that I can tell). I wonder how much economic "growth" is being wiped out.
 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Genes, Human Evolution, and the Coming of Civilization

There's a fascinating new series on Slate: Blogging the Human Genome. It's surprisingly good. It considers some things like whether men will go extinct , whether an STD-like virus drove human evolution, and how close the human race came to going extinct (evidence says maybe down to a few thousand adults).

This entry begins talking about the fact that perfect pitch is more prevalent among the Chinese whose language is tonal - the pitch changes the meaning of the word. Because children grow up in that culture, the genetic basis of perfect pitch is activated more often than it is in European cultures where pitch is less important, at least to those who do not wind up studying music at an early age. It then goes on to talk about how the cultivation of yams gave rise to sickle-cell anemia. In the process, it makes a larger point about how human genes have been transformed over the last few thousand years of human cultural adaptations:
One profound example of co-evolution involves chromosome 11. Thousands of years ago, various tribes in West Africa began clearing out the dense, ancient forests near their homes and cultivating plots to grow yams and other crops. Their strategy worked well—the yams thrived, becoming a dietary staple—but had an unintended side effect. The old forests had slurped up excess rain quite well; the bare farmland did a poorer job, and left standing pools of water that attracted hordes of mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes harbor diseases, especially malaria, which became endemic among Africans there, and the tribes had to come up with genetic defenses to survive. One mutation in particular seemed to help, an A→T swap on the hbb gene on chromosome 11. This mutation changed the shape of some red blood cells, making them less like a disc (the normal shape) and more like a crescent. This in turn helped prevent malaria, which parasitizes red blood cells, from getting a foothold. As a result, the mutated hbb gene began to spread in the region, following the clear-cutting yam farmers wherever they expanded.

Unfortunately, when the mutated, crescent-cell-producing gene became relatively common, people started having children with two copies of it. And while having one copy still provided resistance to malaria, having two copies proved deadly, since the crescent, or sickle-shaped, blood cells died off prematurely, and also jammed up inside small blood vessels. Today we call this condition sickle-cell anemia. The hbb mutation never would have wreaked such havoc among these tribes if not for the ancient decision to farm yams so intensely.

Cultural choices have expanded or contracted many other genetic traits as well. Different prehistoric diets (including the introduction of cooking) probably changed our teeth and jaw structures, farming starchy foods probably intensified the concentration of certain enzymes in our saliva that digest starch, and domesticating cattle and other milk-producing animals probably led to what by all rights should be called lactose tolerance (not lactose intolerance, since adults who can digest milk are the mutated weirdos). Many superficial human features, like eye color, also responded strongly to cultural cues about what different groups found attractive. In fact, modern civilization has curbed the ancient threats to our survival—exposure, droughts, starvation, predators, parasites—so well that culture probably shapes our genes as much or more than anything else nowadays.
Blogging the Human Genome. Entry 14: How yam farming contributed to the rise of sickle-cell anemia. (Slate)

And this leads me to articulate a theory I've been working on for a while, but have been unable to articulate. But since the above article directly related to it - specifically how society shaped human genetics, I will try and articulate it now, even though it's not very well-formed and in rough sketches. Sorry in advance for the choppiness and incoherence.

We must first accept that there is a strong genetic component to authoritarianism. By authoritarianism, I simply mean the fact that we listen to what “they” say. The fact that we are forced to act against our own will because everybody else is. We are forced to go with the herd – because we will be sanctioned if we do otherwise. But why is there a herd at all, in other words, why do human beings engage in this bizarre behavior that seems so against their self-interest? How could city-states form when people could just reject it in favor of a better alternative? Why do we see the rise of leaders being worshiped as gods and hard-earned grain taxes paid to temples because some distant priesthood “commands” them to do so? And why do we see this behavior even in the absence of direct military compulsion (you would need as many soldiers as subjects)?

My theory is that civilization formed from the bottom up – when authoritarian genes became dominant in the population. This occurred because cultures with large number of authoritarian followers were able to act coherently – in a “hive mind” so to speak, and militarily conquer peoples whose members were more able to reject hierarchical authority and think for themselves.

The Bible is practically a narrative of this dynamic – the Semitic Hebrew tribe conquers people after people in Iron Age Palestine, slaughters all the men and children and impregnates the women. They are told to do this by their God (the same God worshiped by Christians today, incidentally), who rules over them in a rigid class hierarchy. Thus they are able to pass along their authoritarian genes and eliminate the genes of the societies less able to resist their military onslaught for whatever reason (less cohesion, less institutions, less martial farvor, etc.). This process probably happened even earlier among the ancient city-states of Mesopotamia, where the Hebrew tribe and the stories of the Bible got their origin.

Essentially, man self-domesticates. Man is domesticated the same way any other animal is – by selective breeding. This is done by culling specific traits and selecting for others. They key is – and this is essential – it is human society which has done this, not a higher intelligence with a specific intent in mind such as man’s domestication of the cow or the dog. While the cow was designed by man for docility and the dog for submission and loyalty, civilization domesticated man to be a follower, with all of the cognitive blind spots this entails.

Human culture has transformed humans into herd animals, or sheeple – docility accepting the will of the alphas and accepting whatever unjust social systems exist, no matter how ridiculous or absurd. It took several thousand years for this process to occur, which explains why settled domesticated life began about fourteen thousand years B.C., but city-states and large-scale societies only begin to emerge about 4000 B.C., and spread rapidly from there. This is how long it took for authoritarians to become the dominant form of humanity and individualist genes to be sufficiently purged. Early agricultural villages like Catal Huyuk and Goblecki Tepe in Turkey show little signs of hierarchy. A few millennia later in places like Ur and Babylon, man’s spiritual inclinations had been hijacked by a dominant priesthood interceding between man and his tribal gods, and we see the emergence of kings, slaves, temples, taxes, and armies.

The Bible is practically a documentation of this effect. Consider the story of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Here Abraham is so dedicated to following his invisible sky God that he is willing to cut his first-born son into little tiny pieces. In the end it’s just a test – God is making sure that man is the unquestioning follower he needs to command to bring about the success of his “chosen” people.

People who thought for themselves were less able to form armies and thus resist the onslaught of the authoritarian tribes who blindly followed the leader, essentially always on the basis of a religious affiliation. Such people were culled in the domestication sense – their genes were not passed on. The authoritarians, by contrast, were able to breed prodigiously. They were allowed to breed because they followed orders. It makes sense – how many people who went against the grain in history were rounded up and tortured or killed for their beliefs, while people who sided with the majority stayed out of trouble? Certainly following the pack was a better way to get your genes passed along.

Authoritarian societies were not better in any sense- but their members were more reproductively successful. Even before the military invasions, it’s likely that authoritarians, with their combination of fundamentalist religious belief and unquestioning acceptance of hierarchy were able to outbreed more lackadaisical tribal members. Even today authoritarianism and religion are tightly linked. It is also known that religious people tend to breed more (hence the baby fetishism prominent among Evangelical Christians even today). Once their genes became the majority – these societies were able to militarily conquer everything in their path. The use of religion to ensure tribal cohesion and divide groups into “us and “them – which also continues even today – helped increase the success of such tribes and their gene pool, ensuring that more and more people shared this world view.

The downside is that people were essentially enslaved by their minds – bound to serve and obey no matter what. The kind of bizarre and disordered thinking that characterizes authoritarianism – the belief in leaders so intense as to deny reality – is a genetic feature that seems to have spread through populations over thousands of years, and it is such behavior that makes hierarchical civilization possible. Simply put, authoritarians are more reproductively successful.

These beliefs were probably combined with the cocktail of other beliefs that have come to define civilization – a belief in dominance over nature, a removal or all checks on reproduction and a desire for permanent growth, a worship of military dominance, a desire to win at all costs and see all of society as a competition, a disdain for equality, etc. Again, look to the Bible – man is given dominion over the earth and everything in it. The Epic of Gilgamesh begins with Gilgamesh chopping down the forest to build a city.

From these origins, civilization spread not because people loved the idea. Civilization has always been spread by force. But what has maintained it? When civilized people took over other tribes, they practiced selective breeding to transform the gene pool into a mirror image of their own. This is what made civilization “spread.” Even today “primitive” tribes are wiped out.

Most of us are probably descended from these Semitic tribal peoples. Their authoritarian genes are the glue that holds modern society together even today. And even today people who object to the dominant social order are culled – prevented from reproducing, either through poverty or outright violence. Thus our genes continue to change – continue to get more and more authoritarian.

The other possibility is that modern American society is changing us genetically to be more cruel, selfish and less empathetic. Cultures are shaped by female preference. American woman seem to prefer the smarmy, glad-handling, garrulous, back slapping corporate salesman-type with the elevated mood. Plus, success is increasingly determined by your ability to navigate the Machiavellian world of corporations, meaning such people are able to have more children. Studies have conclusively shown that empathy is significantly declining among college students. And it is also known that empathy is associated with certain brain structures which are likely genetic in origin. is it possible American society, with it's promotion of the most selfish and sociopathic individuals, is breeding out human qualities like empathy and compassion? As an immigrant society, Americans are already self-selected for traits such as optimism, religiosity, greed, etc.

It is not surprising that the social revolutions of the Enlightenment in Europe began after the colonization of the New World. Simply put, the authoritarians were all shipped to the Americas. Most of them self-selected on the basis of religiosity. The populations remaining behind in Europe had a higher percentage of people less accepting and more critical of the social order, allowing revolutionaries to gain a toe-hold and gain enough popular support to topple the social order. That may seem paradoxical considering the American Revolution, but remember that was a top-down revolution led by aristocrats who were not supported by the majority of the population. today we see America devolving into an almost medieval feudal social order ruled by ignorance and superstition, and with more rigid hierarchy and less class mobility than Europe.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Lactose Intolerance

Fascinating Slate article on why cow's milk predominates:
The three dairy animals familiar to Westerners were domesticated between 10,000 B.C. and 8000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent. Goats and sheep were probably first, followed by cows. All three have since been bred to improve temperament and output, but cows have responded the most profoundly.

The ancestor of the European milch cow was the ox-like wild aurochs, which finally went extinct in the 17th century. The aurochs could be fierce and stubborn, but a few centuries of breeding transformed it into an animal so docile it will actually line up to be milked and so prolific that a single cow produces around 100 pounds of milk a day. The cow's genome, for whatever reason, responded readily to human dabbling. In this, cows are like wolves, from which we've created dog breeds as different as Chihuahuas and Great Danes, and unlike cats, which all look and act pretty much the same despite having been domesticated back in the Neolithic era. Given its genetic pliability, it was probably inevitable that the cow would become a major dairy animal wherever it could survive.

In America, cows never had any real competition. The ice age had scoured the continent of all of its large ruminants, with the exception of the bison, and Native Americans had no dairy tradition for the colonists to adopt. So, as Deborah Valenze recounts in Milk, Europeans brought cows along with them when they set off for North America and then let these autonomous food factories graze on the continent’s unlimited vegetation until their milk or meat was needed. The cows thrived, to say the least: Between 1627 and 1629, while the colonists were fretting about other things, the number of cattle in Virginia grew from 2,000 to 5,000.
Why don’t we consume dairy products from mammals that aren’t cows? (Slate)

I imagine in a future Permaculture world full of local biodiversity, we'll be able to enjoy the rich milk and cheese products of other animals the article talks about:
But what are we missing out on by abstaining from other mammals’ milk? Take the goat: Its milk is tangier, richer, and, to reasonable persons, much tastier than cow’s milk. The superior flavor owes a great deal to the fact that goat's milk does not separate; the cream is knitted into the milk. Goats produce the most milk of any mammal relative to body size, which would make them attractive to industrial dairies if they weren’t so small. At best, dairy goats are the size of a Newfoundland; milk output averages only around a few gallons a day. A direr failing: Goat's milk cannot easily be made into butter.
Unpalatable fat and protein levels keep some milks off the shelves, but the difficulty of milking recalcitrant beasts can be no less an obstacle. Consider water buffalo, which are raised in Campania, Italy, to make the otherworldly mozzarella di bufala but are otherwise little known in the West. Water buffalo are smart and watchful and have giant horns—in other words, they’re dangerous—yet their milk has been a cornerstone of the most dairy-crazed cuisine in the world, that of India, for 1,000 years. Indian cooks use buffalo milk in cream sauces, boil and coagulate it for paneer, or reduce it to a paste called khoa that becomes the basis for desserts such as the rosewater-sweetened gulab jamun.
 But according to Mark Bittman, you may not need that milk at all:
But the bucolic cow and family farm barely exist: “Given the Kafkaesque federal milk marketing order system, it’s impossible for anyone to make a living producing and selling milk,” says Anne Mendelson, author of “Milk.” “The exceptions are the very largest dairy farms, factory operations with anything from 10,000 to 30,000 cows, which can exploit the system, and the few small farmers who can opt out of it and sell directly to an assured market, and who can afford the luxury of treating the animals decently.”

Osteoporosis? You don’t need milk, or large amounts of calcium, for bone integrity. In fact, the rate of fractures is highest in milk-drinking countries, and it turns out that the keys to bone strength are lifelong exercise and vitamin D, which you can get from sunshine. Most humans never tasted fresh milk from any source other than their mother for almost all of human history, and fresh  cow’s milk could not be routinely available to urbanites without industrial production. The federal government not only supports the milk industry by spending more money on dairy than any other item in the school lunch program, but by contributing free propaganda as well as subsidies amounting to well over $4 billion in the last 10 years.
 Got Milk? You Don't Need It (NYT)

The BBC World Service was recently on a farm in the UK; they pointed out that milk is sold for less than it costs to produce making it impossible for anyone to get into dairy farming. WTF?

The Future And The Past

Sadly, I think this might be pretty accurate:

TOM THE DANCING BUG: What Will Be the Biggest Political Story of 2032?

The only thing he's missing is the lawmakers promising tax cuts and interest rate manipulation to get the unemployment rate down from 50 percent to a more "normal" level of thirty percent. Economists will still be wondering when things will get back to normal. I like this comment:

Sadly this is too true to be funny.  Every bill that passes congress might as well be named the "Fiddling While Rome Burns Act of 2012"

Rewind almost exactly 100 years, and this is what they thought they'd be getting: The Remote Control Farm of the Future, Circa 1931 (Treehugger)


Unfortunately, they did not depict all the crops withering from drought due to global warming. How did the techno-fetishists miss that one? But I'm sure all their predictions today about our glorious future are accurate.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Not Just Oil

Water is just as necessary, not just for agriculture but for energy generation:
Our energy system depends on water. About half of the nation’s water withdrawals every day are just for cooling power plants. In addition, the oil and gas industries use tens of millions of gallons a day, injecting water into aging oil fields to improve production, and to free natural gas in shale formations through hydraulic fracturing. Those numbers are not large from a national perspective, but they can be significant locally.

All told, we withdraw more water for the energy sector than for agriculture. Unfortunately, this relationship means that water problems become energy problems that are serious enough to warrant high-level attention.

During the 2008 drought in the Southeast, power plants were within days or weeks of shutting down because of limited water supplies. In Texas today, some cities are forbidding the use of municipal water for hydraulic fracturing. The multiyear drought in the West has lowered the snowpack and water levels behind dams, reducing their power output. The United States Energy Information Administration recently issued an alert that the drought was likely to exacerbate challenges to California’s electric power market this summer, with higher risks of reliability problems and scarcity-driven price increases.

And in the Midwest, power plants are competing for water that farmers want for their devastated corn crops. Unfortunately, trends suggest that this water vulnerability will become more important with time. Population growth will mean over 100 million more people in the United States over the next four decades who will need energy and water to survive and prosper. Economic growth compounds that trend, as per-capita energy and water consumption tend to increase with affluence. Climate-change models also suggest that droughts and heat waves may be more frequent and severe.
Will Drought Cause the Next Blackout? (New York Times)
Lets start from the beginning of the fracking process. Each well requires between 5-10 million gallons of fresh water (depending on the industry source for the estimate). We’ll give the frackers the benefit of the doubt and go with 5 million gallons of water per well.

They take this 5 million gallons of water and pour it down a newly drilled gas well. Proprietary chemicals are then added to the well at different points in the fracking process to achieve different results. Some of these chemicals are added first, some last, some in between. This is important to note because it makes reusing the “frack fluid” impossible without some sort of treatment. You can’t get the flour back out of a loaf of bread without a lot of work.

When the fracking is completed, about 10% of the water/chemical mixture flows back out of the well according to the industry. They call this “waste water” and more frequently “flow back”. It’s only waste water above ground. If it’s still in the well, it’s benign.

10% of 5 million is 500,000 gallons. The treatment, or disposal wells are not next to the gas well. At a high estimate of 11,000 gallons of water per tanker truck, this means at least 45 tanker trucks full of wastewater to be trucked away after each well is fracked.
Doing Some Math on Fracking Propaganda (Naked Capitalism)

And to bring it closer to home:
Madison - Thousands of people are without power Tuesday after severe thunderstorms rolled through southern Wisconsin.

Alliant Energy reported more than 12,000 customers were without service at one point after strong winds and heavy rain pounded the area. WKOW-TV ( reports authorities in Green, Iowa and Rock counties report some storm damage and downed trees.

WTMJ-620 was also reporting that 1,100 customers were without power in Waukesha along with 300 in New Berlin.
 Over the past few weeks, we've had power outages in the Minneapolis and Washington D.C. offices unrelated to any storms. Hmmmmm.....

Diminishing Returns To Technology

A classic case of the diminishing returns to technology can be seen in this story of genetically modified cotton use in India:
After collecting four rounds of data from more than 500 farms in total, Dr. Qaim and a graduate student, Jonas Kathage, looked at the farmers’ cotton yields profits as well as their household expenditures, a marker of the farmers’ standard of living.

They found that using the modified seeds increased the farmers’ cotton yields by 24 percent and their profits by 50 percent. Farmers’ harvests improved mainly because the genetically altered plants suffered less damage from insects, Dr. Qaim said; profits grew as a result of the larger yields.

Switching to modified seeds eventually yielded tangible improvements in the lives of farmers and their families, according to the researchers’ analysis. Growing genetically altered cotton had little effect on households’ spending in the initial years of the study, but their expenditures — including spending on health care and education — went up in 2006 and 2008. This suggests that farmers waited to see if their increased profits would continue before starting to spend more, Dr. Qaim said.

But as genetically modified seeds take over cotton production in India — in 2010, so-called Bt cotton plants covered about 90 percent of the land used to grow the crop in India, according to a report by the Central Institute for Cotton Research — farmers may cease to reap added benefits from their use, Dr. Qaim said. Because the modified seeds are used so widely, bollworms may develop a resistance to the toxins, he explained.

Although farmers are planting more and more acres with cotton, their productivity seems to have plateaued; cotton yields have not increased since the 2007-8 growing season.

“A technology can lift yields, but once you have lifted yields, what else can that technology do?” Dr. Qaim said.

And this brings to mind an old blog post about the refrigerator of the future from Matt Yglesias:
I have seen the refrigerator of the future. It's made by LG and it has a "blast chiller" compartment that can cool a room temperature can of soda or beer down in just five minutes. Awesome stuff. It also illustrates a pet point of mine, namely that the unequal distribution of consumption power tends to discourage innovation. LG's highest-end fridges are already beyond the means of most families, costing upwards of $2,500, and it's not as if super-rich people are going to go out and pay three dozen advanced refrigerators. Under the circumstances, the incentive to invest money in developing even better appliances is relatively muted. That doesn't mean we see no progress, of course. But it does mean that we see less progress than we might in a world where appliance-makers were confident that middle class families would have strongly rising disposable incomes and a hunger for cool new features.
I think Matt’s making a different point than he realizes. It’s less about how unequal incomes discourage innovation. It’s that innovations are giving us less and less tangible benefits for greater and greater costs. You’re spending a good five times as much for a standard fridge just so you can cool your beverages in five minutes instead of waiting an hour. Is that even necessary? I mean it's certainly convenient - I would have liked it this weekend after I bought my beer Sunday night, but is it worth thousands of extra dollars? (I just bought a new fridge for about $450)  I just made do with beer that was warmer than I would have liked, and I'm still here to write about it. This is what the pundits tout as ‘innovation’ nowadays – throwing massive amounts at technology at relatively simple problems that could be solved by a modicum of simple planning.

The critical point is, going from having no way to store and preserve food in the average domicile to being able to do so is a huge leap, one which we now take for granted. Putting these machines into every person's home is another huge leap. Making it progressively more efficient as we’ve been doing is helpful, but again, not nearly as transformative. Cooling down your can of Pepsi in five minutes? That’s much less of a deal. How can that even compare to not having a home refrigerator or freezer at all, as most households did less than one hundred years ago?

And that’s why innovation won’t save us – the innovations we are making are incrementally more and more trivial, and are costing us more and more.  That’s why people are turning up their noses at the super blast fridge – it’s just not worth the high costs of the appliance for such an incremental improvement. And across the spectrum that’s what we’re seeing – incremental improvements. Going from no automobiles to two cars for every person is huge. Better mileage is helpful. But once personal mobility is ubiquitous, what then? You can’t go much faster that thirty-five in the city and 60-70 on the highway without it becoming dangerous. Flying cars are probably suicidal. And the only effective result of Google’s self-driving cars is to put people out of work, at least under the current social arrangements. And what happens to the waste from those old cars and refrigerators?

Innovation is no longer growing exponentially, and that’s what’s required - exponential growth. this point is often lost. It’s not that improvements or innovations aren’t being made. They are – but they are much less transformative and much less significant. And in the case of Indian cotton, they diminish over time so that you're back to baseline. To suggest that we’ll be able to make such transformative leaps forever is ridiculous, but it’s one of the main concepts behind the idea that “innovation” will solve all our problems, political, environmental and social.

This terrific post by Lloyd Alter sums up the differences in world view so well, I just had to include it: Kitchens haven't changed much since 1959 (Treehugger):
On July 24, 1959, American Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev had a debate in a model kitchen at a Moscow trade show. Nixon boasted of the consumer tech like dishwashers; Krushchev complained about American materialism. After Nixon described yet another labor saving appliance, Krushchev satirically asked if there was a machine that "puts food into the mouth and pushes it down".

Khrushchev: We have steel workers and peasants who can afford to spend $14,000 for a house. Your American houses are built to last only 20 years so builders could sell new houses at the end. We build firmly. We build for our children and grandchildren.

Nixon: American houses last for more than 20 years, but, even so, after twenty years, many Americans want a new house or a new kitchen. Their kitchen is obsolete by that time....The American system is designed to take advantage of new inventions and new techniques.

Khrushchev: This theory does not hold water. Some things never get out of date--houses,for instance, and furniture, furnishings--perhaps--but not houses. I have read much about America and American houses, and I do not think that this is exhibit and what you say is strictly accurate.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Climategeddon!

After talking about the weather over the weekend, here's another one - epic torrential downpours in Beijing. It appears the infrastructure was not able to handle the flooding. Too much money spent on empty cities and not enough on basic infrastructure it seems:
Newspapers and netizens asked why drains in the capital could not cope and why more warnings were not given. The storm struck Beijing on Saturday night, with torrential rain continuing for several hours. Roads were flooded and thousands stranded at transport hubs by the bad weather. Hilly areas on the edge of the city were hardest hit.

Several Chinese newspapers criticised the capital's drainage system for failing to cope with the onslaught, in contrast to the centuries-old ditches around the Forbidden City that kept the national monument relatively dry.

Several million comments were left on weibo platforms - China's equivalent of Twitter - with photos of submerged cars and property being shared online. A Tencent Weibo user from Shandong asked how, as an Olympic city, Beijing's drainage system could be so vulnerable. On Sina Weibo, a user from Shaanxi urged people to learn how to swim, calling the government "unreliable".

"Wishing you happy-ever-after in the afterlife, let's hope at least it has better drainage," sad a Sina Weibo user from Jiangsu.
Deadly Beijing floods prompt infrastructure questions

I love this – it turns out that how you actually perceive the weather is determined by your political beliefs! If you believe that unregulated free market capitalism is sacred, you actually convince yourself that it’s really not that warm outside after all. So there is no objective reality – you literally do adjust your perception of something even as fundamental as 90 degree temperatures in order to keep your political beliefs consistent:
Things were completely different for temperatures. In fact, the actual trends in temperatures had nothing to do with how people perceived them. If you graphed the predictive power of people's perceptions against the actual temperatures, the resulting line was flat—it showed no trend at all. In the statistical model, the actual weather had little impact on people's perception of recent temperatures. Education continued to have a positive impact on whether they got it right, but its magnitude was dwarfed by the influences of political affiliation and cultural beliefs.

And those cultural affiliations had about the effect you'd expect. Individualists, who often object to environmental regulations as an infringement on their freedoms, tended to think the temperatures hadn't gone up in their area, regardless of whether they had. Strong egalitarians, in contrast, tended to believe the temperatures had gone up.

The authors conclude that climate change has become perceived as a form of cultural affiliation for most people: their acceptance of it is mostly a way of reinforcing their ties to the political and ideological communities they belong to. And, since temperatures have become the primary thing the public associates with climate change, people now interpret the temperatures through a filter based on their affiliations, a process termed "cultural cognition." In other words, we tend to interpret the temperatures in a way that reinforces our identity, and our connections with others who share similar political persuasions.
Ideology clouds how we perceive the temperatures. Flooding, drought, remain immune to politics. (Ars Technica)

*Sigh*. I'm sure it applies to a lot of other things to. That's probably why every single libertarian I've ever heard from disbelieves anthropocentric climate change - it allows them to maintain their ideological belief system without question. You would think science would be, I don't know, an objective measure of reality, wouldn't you? Paul Krugman puts his finger on why there won't be a solution:
A couple of weeks ago the Northeast was in the grip of a severe heat wave. As I write this, however, it’s a fairly cool day... Weather is like that; it fluctuates. And this banal observation may be what dooms us to climate catastrophe, in two ways. On one side, the variability of temperatures from day to day and year to year makes it easy to miss, ignore or obscure the longer-term upward trend. On the other, even a fairly modest rise in average temperatures translates into a much higher frequency of extreme events — like the devastating drought now gripping America’s heartland — that do vast damage.
Yes indeed. As I've tried to point out, economic devastation from climate change will more than cancel out any "growth" and will in fact pound civilization down to a more sustainable level, like it or not. And our ridiculous economic system will measure the repair of the devastation as "growth", even in an age of dwindling resources.

I like this comment left at the Economists View blog:
My favorite bit of climate skeptic stupidity is the retort that it was hotter in the Medieval warming period, so we don't have to worry! Well, first off, the Medieval warming period may have been an anomaly restricted to one hemisphere only. But the real kicker is the question, "So what were the conditions in the Medieval warming period?"

Well here it is: Basically the western half of the U.S. was a sand-dune desert. From the book Six Degrees, by Mark Lynas: Chapter 1, "One Degree" (i.e., only one degree Celsius hotter than present):

"...between A.D. 1000 and 1300...[when] the old trees in Walker River and Mono Lake were growing. Wildfires had raged in both national parks twice as frequently as before... The area we now call California had in medieval times been hit by a megadrought, lasting at different periods for several decades... ...how geographically widespread was this event? Evidence from another lake, far away on the Great Plains of North Dakota... ...scientists have now reconstructed long-term records...from old lake sediments. ...before A.D. 1200, a series of epic droughts had swept the Great Plains..." (pp. 26-27)

"...the evidence is now overwhelming that what the western United States suffered during this [Medieval] period was not a short-term rainfall deficit but a full-scale mega-drought lasting many decades at least. ...the [Colorado] river lost 15 percent of its water during a major drought during the mid-1100s. For 60 years at a time, the river saw nothing but low flows... ...the remarkable coincidence of dates with evidence from New Mexico suggests that this was the very same drought that finished off the Chaco Canyon Indians." (pp.28-29)

"...an immense system of sand dunes that spread across thousands of miles of the Great Plains, from Texas and Oklahoma in the south, right through Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, to as far north as the Canadian prairie states of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. These sand dune systems are currently "stabilized": by a protective layer of vegtetation, so not even the strongest winds can shift them. But during the Medieval Warm Period...these deserts came alive... People who remember the 1930's Dust bowl think they have seen the worst drought nature can offer... In a world that is less than a degree warmer overall, the western United States could once again be plagued by perennial droughts... Although heavier irrigation might stave off the worst for a while, many of the largest aquifers of fossil water are already overexploited..." (pp.29-30)
And of course following the Medieval Warm Period in Europe was the Little Ice Age, ushering in the Great Famine and the Black Death, killing a third of Europe's population. I guess that's what the head of Exxon means when he says we'll "adapt" to climate change.

Friday, July 20, 2012

You Don't Need A Weatherman...

..to know which way the wind's blowing:
Japanese troops are airlifting supplies to thousands of people trapped in mountainous districts cut off by floods on the southern island of Kyushu. Rescue teams have been searching for those missing following flooding and landslides caused by record rainfall.

The death toll has now risen to 26. Hundreds of thousands have been affected. Many of them are staying in evacuation centres. Heavy rain has also caused flooding in Japan's historic capital, Kyoto. TV footage showed muddy waters sweeping through homes and streets as rivers burst their banks in Kyushu.
Japan floods: Troops airlift supplies to Kyushu (BBC)
One person has been killed and at least 10 others injured during a series of freak tornadoes in northern and western Poland. The extreme winds hits the country's Kujawy-Pomorze and Wielkopolska provinces, destroying 100 homes.

Some 400 hectares of trees have also been damaged in Bory Tucholskie forest, a national park and popular tourist destination. Electricity power-lines have also been damaged.

The BBC's Adam Easton, in Warsaw, says that though tornadoes are not unknown in Poland, this summer's series of events has been particularly dramatic and weather forecasters have predicted stormy conditions will continue.
Poland: Tornadoes hit Kujawy-Pomorze and Wielkopolska (BBC)
Flash floods caused by torrential rain have swept the southern Russian Krasnodar region, killing 144 people, officials say. The floods, the worst there in living memory, struck at night, reportedly without warning. TV pictures showed people scrambling onto their rooftops to escape.

President Vladimir Putin has flown over the region by helicopter and has had emergency talks with officials in the worst-hit town of Krymsk. Most of those who died were in and around Krymsk, a town of 57,000 people. But nine deaths were reported in the Black Sea resort of Gelendzhik with a further two in the port town of Novorossiysk. 
Russian TV showed thousands of houses in the region almost completely submerged and police said many of the victims were elderly people who had been asleep at the time.

"Our house was flooded to the ceiling," Krymsk pensioner Lidiya Polinina told the Agence France-Presse news agency. "We broke the window to climb out. I put my five-year-old grandson on the roof of our submerged car, and then we somehow climbed up into the attic." Dozens of people are reportedly missing, and there are fears that the death toll will rise further.

Emergency teams have been sent from Moscow by plane and helicopter. Crude oil shipments from Novorossiysk have been suspended.
Russia flash floods: 144 killed in Krasnodar region (BBC)
Wildfires have struck in Greece, Spain and Portugal, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes. Helicopters and planes have been used to dump water onto the areas affected. Susana Mendonca reports.
Wildfires burn across southern Europe (BBC)
As Londoners prepared for the 2012 Olympics, the UK has experienced unseasonably wet and cool weather. The months of April, May and June were unusually rainy, cloudy and cold in Great Britain (and July hasn’t proven much better!). Even ping-pong ball-sized hailstones were part of the mix in June.
The average rainfall in Wales and England during June was more than double the normal amount, and precipitation levels in Scotland and Northern Ireland were high as well. With skies full of storm clouds, hours of sunshine have also been fewer than normal across the country. What's more, flooded streets made driving hazardous in some areas, while a landslide even caused a freight train to derail.

Weather forecasters have attributed the downpours to a weather pattern known as the Spanish plume. Rain occurs when a warm, humid air mass encounters a cold air mass. During a Spanish plume, the warm front comes from the UK's south, while the cold front sweeps in from the west.

In addition to the Spanish plume, the jet stream has also been blamed by meteorologists for the dreary weather. The jet stream is a major current of air in the upper atmosphere. In recent months, the jet stream was further south than it is normally.
Strange 2012 Summer Brings Downpours and Drought (Environmental Graffiti)
The rice harvest in India, the world’s second-biggest producer, is set to drop from an all-time high as the weakest monsoon in three years slows planting, potentially boosting global prices. Futures climbed for the first time in four days.

“It will be difficult to match last year’s record rice production,” said Samarendu Mohanty, a senior economist at the International Rice Research Institute in Manila. Output was 104.3 million tons in the year ended June 30.

A 22 percent shortfall in monsoon rains delayed sowing of crops from rice to cotton, stoking a rally in commodity prices and threatening to accelerate India’s inflation that exceeded 7 percent for a fifth straight month in June. Dry weather from the U.S. to Australia has parched fields, pushing up corn, wheat and soybean prices on concern global supplies will be curbed. Costly rice, staple for half the world, may increase global food prices forecast by the United Nations to advance this month.
Weakest Monsoon Since 2009 to Shrink India Rice Harvest (Bloomberg)
CHICAGO – Water worries are springing up across the Midwest amid worsening drought conditions. Demand is approaching record levels in some areas, forcing voluntary and mandatory usage restrictions as utilities strain to pump enough water while reservoirs and other sources shrink.

Des Moines issued a peak water alert after demand Wednesday reached 90.6 million gallons, nearing the 2006 record of 92 million gallons, says Des Moines Water Works assistant general manager Gary Benjamin.

If the situation gets worse, he says, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could be asked to release water from the Saylorville Lake reservoir. "We're just asking people to use water wisely," he says.

All of Indiana is under a water-shortage warning, and many communities there have implemented mandatory restrictions. A water-shortage watch is in place for more than two dozen Kentucky counties, and Nebraska farmers have been ordered to stop using rivers and streams to irrigate their crops because of dropping water levels.
Midwest drought and heat increase water supply worries (USA Today)
In Nelson’s corn fields — the plants more vulnerable to drought than beans — crops look like corpses. Hair-dryer winds have given way to more moderate breezes this week, yet the ground remains kiln-dry.

Spring rains quit early in the Midwest. In fact, they barely came. Summer storms never struck with enough moisture to keep soil from turning to dust and some corn and soybean fields from going bust.

The parching of the region has already led some growers to cut their corn for silage, the farmer’s version of salvage. That same scorching of America’s grain belt could bump up prices at the pump and the grocery store.

At a time when the world’s appetite for corn has never been greater — to fatten our cattle, to make our chips, to sweeten our soda and to fuel our cars — a relentless drought has made kernels into crisps.

Not since the late 1980s has the nation’s midsection seen the corn crop so battered by lack of rain. Where leaves of emerald would normally dangle eight and nine feet above the ground, dung-colored ribbons droop and crackle while tassels barely reach eye level.
Midwest corn crop ravaged by drought (Kansas City Star)
As Bill McKibben points out in a piece to be published in Rolling Stone on Friday, not only was May the warmest on record for the Northern Hemisphere, not only was it “the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average,” but it was also followed by a June in which some 3,200 heat records were broken in the United States.

The first page alone of the Rolling Stone article will scare the pants off you, but the chorus needs to grow bigger, louder and stronger. That’s why the forthcoming book (due July 24) from Climate Central, “Global Weirdness,” is so welcome. “Global Weirdness,” which explains climate change in simple, easy-to-understand language and ultrashort chapters, is intentionally calm because, says Michael Lemonick, one of the authors: “Some people respond well to ‘Big trouble is coming and we must do something immediately,’ but others are overwhelmed and just turn off. We believe that if you look at all the available evidence it’s clear we’re pushing the earth into a regime where it hasn’t been before, and the effects could well be disastrous.”

The time to avoid calamitous effects has likely passed. This doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless, but the longer we wait to curb emissions, the worse and longer-lasting the effects. Climate Central’s projections show that the biggest cities in Florida, and a great deal of the Northeast coastline (including New York City), will be underwater by 2100, when almost everyone now alive will have “managed” to leave the scene. Of course, the calamities won’t be limited to North America, nor is 2100 some magical expiration date; the end isn’t in sight.
The Endless Summer, Mark Bittman, New York Times.

An unstable climate is already wrecking the global economy. Remember this tidbit from late last year:

Thailand is 20% underwater, and is second-biggest hard drive producer after China. Now do you care about the floods? (BoingBoing) According to the Financial Times, the world is braced for another food crisis. Get ready for the next round of global political instability.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Hollowing Out

Long, in-depth piece by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times: The Hollowing Out (NYT):
It has become a campaign ritual. Immediately after the release of unemployment figures on the first Friday of every month, Democratic and Republican spin shifts into high gear.

“Our mission is not just to get back to where we were before the crisis. We’ve got to deal with what’s been happening over the last decade, the last 15 years — manufacturing leaving our shores, incomes flat-lining — all those things are what we’ve got to struggle and fight for,” Obama declared at the Dobbins School in Poland, Ohio.

Romney took the opposite tack in Wolfeboro, N.H.: “This is a time for America to choose whether they want more of the same; whether unemployment above 8 percent month after month after month is satisfactory or not. It doesn’t have to be this way. America can do better and this kick in the gut has got to end.”

Both candidates are only tinkering at the edges of the most important issue facing the United States: the hollowing out of the employment marketplace, the disappearance of mid-level jobs.

The issue of the disappearing middle is not new, but credible economists have added a more threatening twist to the argument: the possibility that a well-functioning, efficient modern market economy, driven by exponential growth in the rate of technological innovation, can simultaneously produce economic growth and eliminate millions of middle-class jobs.
This informative chart is included:

On his blog, McAfee explains the graphic:
Since the Great Recession officially ended in June of 2009 G.D.P., equipment investment, and total corporate profits have rebounded, and are now at their all-time highs. The employment ratio, meanwhile, has only shrunk and is now at its lowest level since the early 1980s when women had not yet entered the workforce in significant numbers. So current labor force woes are not because the economy isn’t growing, and they’re not because companies aren’t making money or spending money on equipment. They’re because these trends have become increasingly decoupled from hiring — from needing more human workers. As computers race ahead, acquiring more and more skills in pattern matching, communication, perception, and so on, I expect that this decoupling will continue, and maybe even accelerate.

This view is controversial — especially McAfee’s argument that the decoupling of jobs from other positive economic developments “will continue, and maybe even accelerate.” In other words, the downward employment and jobs spiral will keep going, driven by structural forces. Policies to ameliorate the process – a shorter work week, a massive investment in education (for example, at the community college level), the disaggregation of complex tasks into simple functions that could be executed by mid-skill workers — may only slow the decline, not stop it. This is a deeply pessimistic vision.
The article continues:
On July 5, McAfee held the attention of an audience of young researchers and prospective entrepreneurs here at Singularity University. For over an hour after his lecture, students met with McAfee to explore the consequences of his argument.

The students’ questions:

How much can wealth accumulate for a small slice of the population at the top, while large numbers of people are forced to work for ever lower pay or to drop out of the workforce altogether? For such a future society to function, would wealth need to be (coercively) redistributed from the top to those below, in order for the mass of the jobless population to survive? Who would have power and how would tax and spending policies be determined in such a radically bifurcated, automated, workless society?

… Brynjolfsson, who is more optimistic, said in an interview with The Times, “we are hopeful that that (job growth) will happen, but there is no guarantee of it. There is no economic law that says everyone benefits from technological improvement.” He also pointed out that the surge in inequality driven by rising incomes at the very top of the distribution suggests strongly that the benefits of digitization have not been widely spread.

“The problem is not tech stagnation,” as some have argued, “but the opposite,” Brynjolfsson contends.

“Technology is rushing ahead faster than humans can adapt.” The difficulty of human adaptation is, in turn, likely to get worse, he added, because technological innovation — as in Moore’s Law (predicting a doubling of computer capacity roughly every two years) — grows exponentially in scope. The total number of non-farm jobs in the country is now 5 million less than in January, 2008. The 3.7 million jobs added to the economy have not been enough to make up for the 8.7 million jobs lost in 2008-9.
“We are hopeful job growth will happen.”  Isn’t it nice to base an economy on hope? At least they have a clue unlike the other economists cited in the piece, who believe that things in the future will always be like the past. Nice “science” huh? Note that male unemployment has never recovered, as they continue to be displaced from the jobforce by women:


What this chart shows is that male unemployment has never recovered from recessions! Gee, do you think this might have something to do with single mothers and declining marriage rates? Oh that's right, men and women are the same, aren't they? That also squares with the overall labor force participation rate:


Other aspects of the job situation are accurately described in a recent  New Yorker piece summarized by Dave Pollard:
This week’s (July 9/16) New Yorker has a terrific one-page summary by James Surowiecki of why so many job vacancies are left unfilled “for want of any sufficiently qualified candidates” while so many people (especially young people with university degrees) are unable to find work. It’s behind a pay wall, so here’s a synopsis:

•Unemployment is high not because businesses are shedding jobs but because no one is hiring (in one case cited, a company had 25,000 applicants for a standard engineering job, and rejected all of them).

•The idea of a “skills gap” (the unemployed don’t have the skills hirers are looking for) is a myth. The truth is that companies want to hire the most experienced and successful people already working at competing companies, so they’ll hit the ground running, so there’s no training cost, and so there’s no risk they won’t work out. “When companies complain they can’t find people with the right ‘skills’”, Surowiecki writes, “they often just mean they can’t find people with the right experience”.

•This is a direct consequence of the fact that large corporations have slashed internal training budgets as a short-sighted means of cost cutting. The argument, says Surowiecki, is that “job tenure has shrunk, so why spend time and money training somebody who may soon go to work for your competitor”. With the loss of benefits and the disinterest of employers in investing in their employees, employee loyalty has understandably plummeted, creating a vicious cycle that big corporations themselves are to blame for.

•In a weak economy, “companies worry less about getting every possible dollar of new business than they do about keeping costs down”. The unwillingness of big corporations to invest in genuine domestic production (in lieu of outsourcing and offshoring every possible job) is a direct contributor to that weak economy. But it also reflects the fact that big corporation CEOs realize the economy is on the verge of collapse, and they’re hoarding cash and slashing costs to prepare for that eventuality.
So we see, workers will continue to blamed for their own plight. The "workers don't have the right skills" meme, the "need more education" meme, the "they're having babies before marriage" meme and the "there are plenty of jobs in North Dakota" meme have all been trotted out to explain how the deterioration of capitalism is the workers' fault. Sigh.

And see Dean Baker in The Guardian: Technology doesn't cause inequality – deliberate policy change does. In fact, it's both working in tandem. And as for the much-touted, "service economy," well, here's Yglesias again:
According to the BLS, about 2 million more people were working last month than were working a year ago. But we have 10,000 fewer people working in general merchandise stores. We have 20,000 fewer people working in electronics and appliance stores. We have 17,000 fewer people working in "sporting goods, hobby, book, and music stores." Now the overall BLS retail trade category includes other stuff including things like health and personal care stores that seem healthy. But the point is that over the course of a year in which the level of economic activity has clearly risen, certain major categories of big box retail have shed jobs. Given a few months in a row of torrid overall growth, presumably some of that would stabilize. But I think you have to see this as a part of the economy that's facing a persistent decline driven by e-commerce, a decline that should only accelerate since a ton of people are going to get their first smartphone in the next 12-18 months.
 The End Of Retail (Slate)

And the outlook for the next generation is grim:
A recent report published by the Young Invincibles think tank investigated the levels of youth unemployment. The results portray a dark future for young workers and students.

The report, titled “No End In Sight,” begins by stating that unless “trends change dramatically, there is a real danger that the youth labor market will never recover from the recession’s blow.” This is not mere idle speculation. Youth unemployment in the United States had still not fully recovered from the 2001 dot-com crash at the time of the financial meltdown. Since 2007, youth unemployment has skyrocketed by 141 percent and shows no signs of abating. In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that youth employment would never regain its 2007 level. The bureau estimates that even by 2020, there will be two million fewer jobs available for young people than before the crash.

Today, the official unemployment rate for individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 remains at 17 percent. For individuals between the ages of 16 and 19, the rate is 21 percent. The rate for youth minority groups is also considerably higher than the overall figure—approximately 20.5 percent of Latino and 30 percent of African American youth are currently unemployed. In major cities the situation is even worse. The youth unemployment rate in New York City, for example, has remained above 30 percent for three years in a row.
Widespread coverage on the report by major news sources suggests a growing fear within the American ruling class of social upheaval like that which has erupted in Egypt, Spain, Greece, Chile and numerous other countries since the onset of the crisis.
Globally, the epidemic of youth unemployment is mounting. On July 10, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned that the high jobless rate threatened a permanent “scarring effect” on the prospects of the young generations as they come into adulthood with a long gap in their work history and training. In the 34 countries of the OECD, 18.6 percent of young people were neither in school nor employed. As these youth age and raise their own children, the impoverishment created by their early loss of work may pin them as well as their future offspring to low wages, unemployment and all the social miseries bound up with financial distress.
Report details desperate conditions confronting US youth (WSWS)

Of course, they may be the lucky ones: Job Insecurity: It's the Disease of the 21st Century -- And It's Killing Us (Alternet)
Across America, freaked-out employees are coping with sweat-drenched nights and heart-pounding days. They’re reaching for the Xanax and piling on the work of two or three people. They’re running the risk of short-term collapse and long-term disease.

The hell created by three grinding years of 8 percent-plus unemployment brings us plenty of stories of what people suffer when they lose their jobs. But what about the untold millions who live in chronic fear that tomorrow’s paycheck will be their last?

Research shows that the purgatory of job insecurity may be even worse for you than unemployment. And it's turning the American Dream into a sleepwalking nightmare. From young temporary workers to middle-aged career veterans, Americans are being pushed to their physical and psychological limits in what has the makings of a major national public health crisis. 
So it seems you're choices are to be unemployed of stressed out, both of these taking a toll on your health. Welcome to the world of labor in the twenty-first century. And this dystopian vision is being echoed by more and more experts every day. The last word goes to Damien Perrotin:
It is no wonder either that everybody’s political programs focus on how to create jobs. The communists want to create jobs by making everyone a civil servant of sorts. The socialists want to create jobs by subsidizing them, but they presently can’t because they don’t have the money. The moderate right wants to give more money to those who already have a lot of it in the hope that it will somehow trickle down, not that it matters very much if it doesn’t. The National Front wants to hunker down behind barbed wires, which should somehow create jobs. Muslim people need not apply.

As for the Greens, they want to create green jobs, a lot of them, preferably through generous state subsidies. Make no mistake, those green jobs do not involve growing green things. The group the Greens represent, namely the enlightened upper middle class, wants reasonably well paid and prestigious jobs, and herding sheep in central Brittany definitely doesn’t qualify.

Jobs are remarkably close to niches in a non-human ecosystem, which is hardly surprising since human societies basically work like simplified ecosystems in which the dominant species, as well as some of its parasites/symbionts/commensals, can assume a high number of roles.

And as you know, the maximum number of niches a given ecosystem can support depends upon the energy inflow it gets from its environment...
(There ain’t no) green jobs (EB)