Are there fundamental limits?

Looking through history, especially the history of thought, you often come across pronouncements of profound limitations. Only for a paradigm shift to leave these notions in the dust.

The “Malthusian Trap” may be the best example of this. It shows how easy it is to get caught in modern paradigms, extrapolating only from what is currently possible or emphasised.

But are these limits always transitory, or can they actually be more fundamental?

I’ve been wondering this after a recent interview where Vaclav Smil posits that we are on the cusp of the limits of energy efficiency:

If you look at the fundamentals of human existence, the yield of crops, the energy which we save by making materials, the energy we save by making better converters, no matter if it’s turbines, or cars, all these things which run our economy are basically improving at a rate of one, or two, or at best about 3 percent a year…

It’s actually becoming more and more difficult to wring out even those 3 percent, because there are many things here. We are approaching thermodynamic or straight pneumatic limits with many of these things. This idea of dematerialization, decreasing the energy intensity — fine, you can keep doing it, but you cannot do it forever. If I built a house, I can make it lighter, but I will still need some steel, some lumber, some tiles, some glass. I cannot make it not using material. This is another kind of false god — dematerialization and decrease of energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is helpful, it’s happening all the time, but it has its own thermodynamic and material limits.

Can we simply innovate our way past continued consumption growth and trust compounding efficiency to make up the difference? Or are we up against something more fundamental?

(My emphasis)

Where is the power in a suit?

It’s hard to separate suits from a profound sense of obligation.

I’ve always lived in places for which they are thoroughly, climatically, ill-suited. Yet they are still donned on the regular. As a signal that something is being taken seriously. Or that wearers take themselves seriously.

There’s a separation there, which has historical roots. But makes less and less sense with mass production and the shift of power away from the West.

The expectation-filling that guides (forces?) people to wear suits to work, weddings , court and interviews also seems thoroughly at odds with the notion of it as a symbol of power.

I’ve never seen this articulated as powerfully as in this Vox piece on the decline of suits:

Although the suit is historically associated with projecting elegance, authority, and mastery of a profession, those qualities hearken back to the days when suits were prevalent, worn by the Atticus Finches and Don Drapers of the world. How long until we realize the suit — while still used for special occasions and by a shrinking number of traditionalists — has become associated with the opposite? The suit has become a uniform for the powerless….

….When you’re in control, at least in relative control, from the C-suite down to the long rectangular table in the open-air office, you wear whatever you want, which is almost never a suit. It is the vest or bomber jacket for men , a blouse or a shell top for women…

There is a class element here – which the piece goes into. After all, the decline of the suit as de facto serious person attire is largely taking place in a handful of industries, countries and social strata.

And, just as with school uniforms, there may be something to say for suits as something of a leveller. As a well-beaten path into “respectability“.

However, as suits become less normalised, and more explicitly worn for unpleasant occasions like court, will the association become more sour? Will the power of suits leech even more?

Climate coverage isn’t just about prevention

Building my daily news emails, it’s staggering the dearth of good climate coverage. It’s few and far between, and much of what exists is caught up in prevention.

Absolutely we need to reduce emissions and avoid 2 degrees. But we have also already locked in a certain amount of pain that will need to be managed.

This is especially true in countries like Sri Lanka that have (relatively) negligible per person emissions and little scope for further reduction. Many of these areas will also bear the brunt, thanks to geography and economics etc.

One example of it being done well is The Guardian reporting on a heatwave that shut down some Scottish distilleries for up to a month last year. The quotes towards the end suggest this is just the beginning of a shift.

Experts fear that last year’s conditions may not be unusual in future. This week the environment agency is hosting a “drought summit” in London with water company bosses, as fears grow over similar temperatures this summer. Research has shown that last summer’s heatwave was made about 30 times more likely by the human-caused climate emergency. Some estimate that such heatwaves could be happening every other year by 2050 if emissions continue to increase…

…Helen Gavin, who researches climate breakdown and drought at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, said such extreme events place stress on the environment and the economy. “There’s an impact already,” she said. “It’s not just hot and dry summers, but strange weather like we’ve just had – 18C in February, that’s just weird. And that messes up biological and agricultural cycles.”

This isn’t isolated. And, interestingly, some distilleries appear to have foreseen and planned for this. That can be replicated as long as the problem is made salient.

Around the world we’re already seeing the impact of increased climate variability in droughts, floods, heatwaves etc. We have to start dealing with it, and that means drawing attention to the increased probability of weather events.

It means highlighting what policy makers should do about city planning and building codes, helping people and businesses that are disproportionately affected, sorting out food and other supplies etc. etc.

We have to stop treating the 2 degree limit as if it’s the finish line of a race that hasn’t started.

As usually my emphasis

Identities are breaking down all over

It’s [not] funny how often I see lamentations for the way things used to be. It’s no longer pure! Whatever it is. These new people don’t get it. They ruined it!

They aren’t true Scotsmen.

You can probably think of numerous examples. This is supposedly the driving force behind right wing populism around the world, for starters.

There’s an interesting rumination on changing identity in a recent Aeon article on “hacker”. It sweeps through the evolution from curious kids playing with technology, through “cypherpunks” and “crypto-anarchists” to the modern, bro-y t-shirt and jeans Silicon Valley types.

It really gets interesting towards the end, as the author places this change within the concept of gentrification. As more people take on an identity, some of the difference, the “disaffection” as he puts it, disappears.

Technology was stereotypically the domain of “geeks”, who harnessed its power to build an identity, community and to express themselves.

But an influx of people without those same predispositions has left it a rather muddled identity. More people have worn down the edges, making it child proof.

At the frontiers of gentrification are entire ways of being – lifestyles, subcultures and outlooks that carry rebellious impulses. Rap culture is a case in point: from its ghetto roots, it has crossed over to become a safe ‘thing that white people like’. Gentrification is an enabler of doublethink, a means by which people in positions of relative power can, without contradiction, embrace practices that were formed in resistance to the very things they themselves represent

…We are currently witnessing the gentrification of hacker culture. The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.

From the POV of those who lament changing definitions, there seems to be diminishing returns to people taking on a group identity. The new people don’t have the same experiences as the founders. They have other identities that may be in conflict or demand different treatment.

It reminds me of something I noticed in Coders by Clive Thompson. He gives this pretty innocuous description of what makes a coder:

More than introversion or logic, though, coding selects for people who can handle endless frustration. Because while computers may do whatever you tell them, you need to give them inhumanly precise instructions.

This fits within the framework of the Aeon article, of an identity shedding its roots as of outcasts and rationalists to one that is purely functionary.

Just like national identities that shed ethnic and cultural roots, forming instead around civic ones. Flexible enough to embrace new people with other experiences and histories.

Maybe there isn’t really anything specific in the various, changing national, regional or activity-based identities. It’s just the result of falling barriers and more people taking them on. As ever it was.

The perversion of what makes a ‘story’

There’s a graph doing the rounds that spectacularly illutrates how context rules coverage. Taken from Our World in Data, it compares actual causes of death to Google searches and media coverage.

From the accompanying blog post:

…around one-third of the considered causes of deaths resulted from heart disease, yet this cause of death receives only 2-3 percent of Google searches and media coverage…

…When it comes to the media coverage on causes of death, violent deaths account for more than two-thirds of coverage in the New York Times and The Guardian but account for less than 3 percent of the total deaths in the US…

(My emphasis)

The stories we tell shape our reality, our concerns and actions. This places a lot of power in who and what determines a story, especially the ideological, financial and technological (etc.) incentives and constraints.

All of the journalists I’ve ever met have been hyper-concerned with being accurate. But this seems to relate more to the “facts” within the story, rather than the choice of what to cover.

Over-inflating the salience of a violent death is surely as misleading?