Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Retrotopia: Diminishing Returns

This is the nineteenth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator, forced to grapple with the cognitive dissonance between everything he believes about progress and the facts of life in the Lakeland Republic, tries to evade the issue for an evening—and ends up even deeper in perplexity...

***********
The next day was Saturday, and for a change, I didn’t have anything planned. The marathon sessions of negotiation with President Meeker’s staff, exhausting though they’d been, had taken up less of my time in Toledo than I’d expected; even if I sat on my rump in my room until it was time to catch the train home Wednesday, I’d still get back to Philadelphia with everything taken care of that I’d officially been asked to do. That was comforting—or it should have been.

As it was, I woke up in a foul mood, and things didn’t get any better as I went through my morning routine and then stared at the window, trying to decide what to do with the day. Partly, I was annoyed at the way the evening had gone, annoyed with myself for almost getting into a fight with Melanie Berger, and with her for almost getting into a fight with me. The worst of it, though, was the bizarre logic she’d used to brush aside my concerns about the Lakeland Republic’s survival. Her notion that progress had somehow turned into the enemy of prosperity and the source of most of the world’s problems—I could barely frame the idea in my mind without shaking my head and laughing, it was so obviously wrong.

The difficulty was that I couldn’t come up with a straightforward argument against it. You know the kind of paradox that looks simple and turns out to be diabolically complicated once you start trying to poke holes in it? This was the same sort of thing. I started by trying to come up with a mental list of new technologies that obviously had more benefits than drawbacks, but that turned into a tangled mess, because I’d spent enough time in the private sector to know that most of the costs of any new technology get swept under the rug in one way or another and most of the benefits the public gets told about are basically made up by somebody’s marketing department.

For that matter, most of the new technologies that I’d seen hitting the market—bioplastics, veepads, the metanet, and so on—actually offered fewer benefits than the things they replaced, and I knew damn well that the publicly admitted costs weren’t the only ones there were. Technologies come onto the market because somebody thinks they can make a profit off them, period, end of sentence. You can spend your entire life in corporate boardrooms and one thing I can promise you you’ll never hear is someone asking, “But is it actually better?” 

I tried half a dozen other gambits and got absolutely nowhere. Finally I decided to go for a walk and check out the latest news. I was tired enough after the last few days that I’d slept in late, and it was past ten in the morning before I went out the front door and headed for Kaufer’s News. The day was brisk and blustery, with torn scraps of gray cloud rushing past overhead, and the blue and green Lakeland Republic flag out in front of the Capitol snapped and billowed in a cold wind.

There was a crowd around Kaufer’s. I wondered what that meant, until I got close enough to hear the woman who ran it saying, in a loud voice:  “Ladies, gentlemen, listen up. I’m out of today’s Blade, but there’s more on the way. No, I don’t know how soon—depends on traffic. Hang on and it’ll be here.”

I’d figured out by the time she started talking that something important must have happened, but I didn’t want to stand there, so I walked the five blocks to the public library. I thought I remembered that they had newspapers, though if the big story was big enough I guessed there might be a line there too. They did, and there was, but there were half a dozen copies of the Blade and one copy each of a dozen daily papers from nearby cities, and they all had the same thing on the top headline. Since I didn’t care which paper I got, it took just a couple of minutes before I got handed a copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and settled down on a chair to read the news.

The short version was that the business between Texas and the Confederacy was getting ugly in a hurry. Right around the time Melanie Berger and I were trying not to quarrel, the president of Texas gave a speech in Houston claiming that Confederate oil companies, with Richmond’s covert backing, were using horizontal drilling to poach oil from offshore fields on the Texan side of the treaty line—and he said he had hard data to prove it. The Confederate secretary of energy held a press conference an hour later calling the claims an attempt to cover up Texan mismanagement of offshore oil reserves. President Bulford was right back on the podium fifteen minutes later warning of “consequences” if he didn’t get a satisfactory response; Richmond responded by putting its armed forces on alert.

The Plain Dealer had the sort of detailed situation report you basically have to belong to government to get in the Atlantic Republic. Of course there were photos of President Bulford, his face red and angry under the mandatory Stetson, and Secretary Lyall, with the icy expression that Confederate gentlefolk use the way rattlesnakes use their rattles, to warn you that someone’s about to die. The pages further in, though, gave all kinds of hard data: a map of the treaty line off the Gulf coast with drilling platforms marked in, a sidebar talking about the quarrels over the Gulf boundary before the Treaty of Richmond, one long article about the Texan accusations and the Confederate response, another long article about the troubled history of the Gulf oil fields, a third trying to gauge international reaction.

I read the whole thing carefully, because it wouldn’t take much to turn the situation into a world-class headache for the Atlantic Republic. There were still a few wells pumping in Pennsylvania, but most of the oil that kept things running back home was bought from the Confederacy, and there wasn’t enough spare capacity elsewhere to make up the difference if the Confederate and Texan oilfields were shut in. That meant yet another spike in oil prices, more turmoil on stock markets worldwide, and a messy balance-of-payments problem for the new administration in Philadelphia to deal with.

The most annoying thing about it all, though, was that it brought me right back up against Melanie Berger’s paradox about progress. The one country in North America that had absolutely nothing to lose if the Confederacy and Texas started lobbing ordnance at each other was the Lakeland Republic. While the rest of the continent was going to be flailing around trying to keep their transport networks from coming unglued, the Lakelanders didn’t have to care; their trains, streetcars, canals, horsedrawn buggies, and the rest of it would keep on running. It frankly seemed unfair.

By the time I was finished with the Plain Dealer it was getting on for lunchtime. I found a pleasant little Greek place a couple of blocks past the library, had lunch, and then headed back to the hotel to regroup. Right out front was a kid with a canvas bag of rolled newspapers. He was calling out, “Extra! Latest news on the mess down south!” That sounded worth another buck and a quarter. I had to dig in my wallet for a one, though, and in the process a card went fluttering to the ground. The kid scooped it up and handed it back to me, so I tipped him an extra quarter. The card turned out to be the one the musician handed to me my first day in Toledo, the one advertising Sam Capoferro and His Frogtown Five; I glanced at it, pocketed it, took my paper and headed up to my room.

I’d seen newsboys shouting “Extra! Extra!” in old vids, but didn’t have a clue what they were yelling about. Now I knew, and I also knew one of the ways that people in the Lakeland Republic got news about fast-breaking stories. The extra issue was a single thick section, all about “the mess down south;” they’d apparently thrown every reporter in town at the story, gotten plenty of quotes from Lakeland officials and assorted experts, not to mention the Confederate and Texan embassies in Toledo, and a couple of stringers down on the Gulf coast. I ended up putting in a good chunk of the afternoon reading and taking notes. Wednesday night I’d be back in Philly, and unless this blew over fast I was going to be in Ellen Montrose’s office Thursday morning and I needed to have proposals ready.

All the while, though, my mind kept circling back around to Berger’s wretched paradox. She’d claim—I could hear her say it—that the Atlantic Republic was being held hostage by its own technologies, that it was less stable and more vulnerable because it chose to run its transport network on imported oil and made itself dependent on complex systems reaching out past its borders. She’d point to that as one more example of the way that progress cost more than it was worth. Absurd as that generalization was, I couldn’t think of a cogent argument to refute it, and that irritated me.

I actually ended up spending the better part of a couple of hours, when I could have been doing something useful, standing at my window staring out at the streetscape and trying to make sense of the whole business. When I finally noticed how much time I’d wasted, I grumbled something I won’t write down, and decided to go out somewhere and chase the circling thoughts out of my head. I thought of Sam Capoferro’s card; a jazz club sounded like a good choice, and with the help of the hotel concierge, I was sitting on a streetcar fifteen minutes later as it rattled its way down toward the waterfront district.

The Harbor Club was in a big square brick building with tall windows that spilled lamplight onto the sidewalks. The guy at the door was big and tough enough to double as the bouncer, but he took a good look at the card I handed him, nodded, and waved me past the desk where other patrons were paying the cover charge. The band was tuning up, and people were standing in groups on the dance floor talking and flirting, waiting for things to get started. Me, I got settled on one side of a little two-person table, waited for a waitress, asked about a menu—they had food service, I’d seen coming in, and not just bar snacks—and, on a whim, ordered the same sort of Lakeland-style martini Melanie Berger got the previous night, just gin, vermouth, and an olive.

I honestly had no idea how it would taste. Every martini I’d ever had back home had stuff thrown in to flavor it—crème de cacao, crème de menthe, grenadine syrup, maple syrup, clam juice, carrot juice, butterscotch ice cream, sriracha-flavored mayonnaise, or what have you—and I’d always thought that’s what a martini was: gin or vodka, and anything up to half a dozen sticky things to beat up your taste buds. The drink the waitress set on my table a few minutes later was a different creature entirely. I looked at it and sniffed it, and then took a sip.

It was delicious. I blinked, set the glass down for a moment, considered the taste, and then picked it up again and took another sip. It was just as good the second time. I sat back, let the alcohol smooth down the rough edges of my nerves, ordered dinner and waited for the band to start.

Meal and music arrived within thirty seconds of each other, and both were just as satisfactory as the drink. The food was tasty in that unobtrusive way that doesn’t call attention to itself. The band was something else again. I’d guessed, the first time I’d heard him on the piano, that Sam Capoferro could play a hell of a jazz number, and he was as good as I’d thought, playing stride piano like a reincarnated Fats Waller. The other players ranged from common or garden variety competent up to really good, and their notes danced and spun on top of Capoferro’s driving rhythms. The playlist was mostly familiar jazz standards, with a couple of pieces I didn’t recognize—if they were new, though, they’d been composed by someone who knew all the nuances of classic jazz, and was more interested in crafting a good tune than in trying to be original.

By the time the first set was over, the bad mood I’d had earlier had packed its bags and caught a train to somewhere else. I was on my second martini by then, which didn’t hurt. The band finished up the last notes of “The Joint is Jumpin’” and the crowd clapped and roared. Half the people on the dance floor headed for tables and the other half clumped up to talk and flirt; a busboy came by and scooped up my empty plate; and maybe five minutes later, I saw a half-familiar face moving through the crowd, pretty clearly looking for somewhere to sit.

I don’t think he saw me, but he passed close enough that I could call out, “Mr. Vanich.”

He turned, quick as a cat, and spotted me then. I hadn’t been mistaken—it was the quiet man with the improbably forgettable face and voice. “Good evening, Mr. Carr.”

“You look like you need a seat.” I motioned to the one facing mine.

“Here by yourself?” When I nodded: “Then please, and thank you.” He settled onto the chair; the waitress came over, took his drink order, headed off into the crowd.

We chatted for a little while about little things, what I’d seen in Toledo and so on, and then I decided to take a calculated risk. “If you don’t mind my asking, what do you do in government?”
“I work for the state department.” He sipped his drink. “Foreign technology assessment—thus I tend to come along when somebody from State or the President’s staff meets a foreign dignitary, since I know what technologies they’re used to using and can translate, so to speak.”

I gave him a surprised look. “If I’d placed a bet, I’d have lost it. I had you pegged as intelligence.”

He laughed. “Good, Mr. Carr. Very good. You’re not the only one who’s come to that conclusion, but—” He shrugged. “I look far too much like a spy to make a competent one.”

I nodded after a moment. “Foreign technology assessment. That’s got to be an interesting gig—tracking the capabilities that other countries have that yours doesn’t.”

“True.” He sipped his drink—something brown called an Old Fashioned. “But that’s only part of my job. The other part, which is far and away the larger one, is tracking the vulnerabilities they have that we don’t.”

And there I was, face to face with Berger’s wretched paradox again. I must have looked completely blank for a moment, because Vanich went on. “Almost always nowadays, Mr. Carr, when a country adopts the latest technology, the costs outweigh the benefits—but the costs aren’t necessarily obvious. In many cases they’re not public knowledge at all. One of my main jobs is figuring out what the costs are, where they’re likely to show up, and how heavily they’re likely to strain political, economic, and military institutions.”

I covered my confusion with another swallow of martini. “Okay,” I said. “But I’m not sure I’d agree with your claim that the costs always outweigh the benefits—”

“Almost always,” he noted with a bland smile.

“Okay, almost always. That still seems kind of extreme.”

“Not at all, Mr. Carr. You’re familiar with the law of diminishing returns, I imagine.”

“Of course.”

“That applies to technology as much as it does to anything else.”

“Granted, it applies to individual technologies—” I started, and then saw his look. It was the classic Lakeland you-don’t-get-it look I’d seen so many times before.

“Not just to individual technologies,” he said. “To technology as a whole, just as it applies to every other human activity.” He indicated my drink. “One martini is a very good thing. Three or four? Still good, but with certain drawbacks. Ten? You’re kissing lampposts and walking on your knees. Twenty? You’re in the hospital, or worse. We agree on that—but to claim that technology is exempt from the law of diminishing returns, it’s as though you insisted that when you’ve already had four martinis, you can have four Manhattans, and then four scotch and sodas, and then four Old Fashioneds, and then four gin and tonics, and you’ll be just fine.”

I literally couldn’t think of anything to say. A moment later, the band spared me the necessity of coming up with a response, launching into a good lively performance of “All That Meat and No Potatoes.” The waitress came around, and I ordered a third martini and tried, with some success, to lose myself in the music. When that set was over, I changed the subject, and we chatted about something I honestly don’t remember in the least; by the time the third and final set was over, I’d remembered that I’d planned to go to the Atheist Assembly the next morning, said my goodbyes, paid my bill, and headed out onto the street to catch a cab back to the hotel.

While I waited, Vanich’s words circled in my head: Technology, as a whole, subject to the law of diminishing returns. That couldn’t possibly be true.

Could it?

180 comments:

Robert Mathiesen said...

I liked your Mr Vanich when he first appeared, and now I like him even more.

Tom Schmidt said...

I do love the odd martini with gin and vermouth. Never cared for the people who would insist on swishing vermouth around the glass and then pouring in gin.

As to technology and diminishing returns, make I recommend the book Knowledge and Power, by George Gilder? He talks about profit via the information theory of Claude Shannon as applied to capitalism: true entrepreneurial profit is awarded by the market only when a genuinely new discovery is made. It differs from the natural rate of interest. Most of what we call profit is simply cost shifting, using Taleb's phrase "picking up nickels in front of a steamroller" to describe banking as an example. Heads, they win all and win small, tails we lose, and lose big.

Definitely will inform your analytical approach, and will serve as a small intellectual debt repaid for introducing me to Schumacher, and getting me to read some Spengler.

alex carter said...

And the trumpet solo in "All That Meat And No Potatoes" from Louis Armstrong's recording of this almost-standard, is what's playing in the scene at the end of the movie "Office Space" when the building's burning down. And that's what got me into classic jazz.

Marcu said...

Dear Mr Greer,

I just wanted to leave a quick note to say that I really enjoyed The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth. It was unlike anything I have ever read before. I hope the next installment is released soon!

#############################

The next meeting of the Green Wizard's Association of Melbourne will be held on the last Saturday in June. All interested parties are invited to attend. For those people who are unsure about the nature of our meetings, imagine a long descent support group with some intentional living discussion mixed in.

If you are interested to join us, meet us on Saturday the 25th of June 2016 at 13:00. The venue is, Vapiano, 347 Flinders Lane, Melbourne Victoria, Australia.

Send queries and comments to limitstogrowth1972[at]gmail.com.

Just look for the green wizard's hat.

P.S. I have created a webpage where I will post the details of the next meeting and any further details for those who don't frequent the comments here. The webpage can be found at wormlamp.com/gwam

Brian said...

Considering technology as subject to diminishing returns is a very useful thought experiment, but if we agree that it is real, how far back do we go? In Lakeland they've made a conscious decision to go back to early industrial revolution era technology, but the steel mills, printing presses, etc. that they are using still require complex systems, numerous raw material inputs, mining, sophisticated large-scale organization and large amounts of capital. Many of the things they are using were the 'high technology' of the late-nineteenth century and subject to the same vulnerabilities as our current technologies, though possibly not to the same degree - and degree matters.

My question is, did the Lakelanders go far enough back to ensure a sustainable existence?

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, I'll pass that along! ;-)

Tom, I tend to favor dry martinis, but there's dry and there's dehydrated! Thanks for the recommendation; I'll put it on the get-to list.

Alex, hmm! There was no intentional reference -- I was just thinking of Fats Waller pieces I like. Still, whatever gets someone into classic jazz is a Good Thing.

Marcu, thank you! The second volume, The Weird of Hali: Kingsport, is at the publisher right now -- I don't have a release date yet. A bit of a teaser: Owen appears only briefly and, shall we say, at a distance. The main character of the second book, and in some ways the most important character of the series, is Owen's housemate Jenny Parrish, the English major with the mop of mouse-colored hair; she has, ahem, family in Kingsport, and it just so happens that they're getting ready to celebrate a certain ancient festival...

John Michael Greer said...

Brian, good. Why do you think they've gone back not just to a single technological level, but to a whole series of them, the oldest (tier 1) being very nearly preindustrial?

Justin said...

Tom/JMG, the fashion for dry Martinis came from the poor quality of vermouth available in America from the prohibition era until the 1950s or so - first the quality vermouth production was limited to Europe by prohibition, then war got in the way of the real business of civilization. I'm glad the Lakeland republic isn't affected too badly.

Alex/JMG - I noticed the same thing, I'm not really a jazz person, but I looked it up on youtube and was pleasantly surprised. Of course, I consider it an appropriate reference regardless of what the intention was.

JMG, how many people get around by bike in the Lakeland republic? The kind with no engine or batteries.

Ben Johnson said...

You've said in the past the Retrotopia posts don't get as many views. Those folks are missing out.
I've taken to only shaking my drinks; martinis, Manhattans or otherwise.
I would love to read about a world-class throw down between Texas and the Confederacy. Retrotopia: Part Two?

Sawbuck said...

Wednesday evening, and class is in session. I simply love where this tale is taking us.

whomever said...

Sadly, the more I see the more I think you are 100% accurate. I was curious about what's going to be the response to the several record Houston floods in the last few months. Well, read http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Subdivision-never-flooded-until-it-did-and-8057169.php. Basically, oh well, more flooding will come, but anything else is too politically difficult. Much like you mention a big moment for the US will be losing a war, I think an even bigger one will be the point where some major city basically has a huge disaster, congress says "we've got no money to bail them out" and it ends up being abandoned. And I have a horrible feeling I'll see it in my lifetime.

Ray Wharton said...

This has me thinking of adaptation. For a culture that is fitted to its circumstances, hand in a glove, there isn't much reason for adaptation. Should their preferred circumstances endure they could happily stay the same like a Cretaceous crocodile. But, of course in practice there is generally some degree of wiggle room, or tight spots and such. This is potential for advantageous adaption.

For a new technology to be beneficial, I think that that is predicated on such ill fittedness. Which could result from at least three situations that come to mind: changing circumstances, changing culture, or jump to different circumstances. These blur into each other in practice.

For example, the oxidization of the worlds fossilized carbon. Once fossil fuels found a way to 'follow their bliss' I suspect that humans were in a swift stream toward industrialization. Our freedom of will was in play but contending with a strange and powerful change, the circumstances morphed by a fundamental energy imbalance. In this event, a radical chance in circumstance, a radical change in the rules of the game (akin to a piece that can move like a knight or a queen being added to chess) throw delicate balances in politics, culture, and economics wobbled far outside of historic values.

Here is a perfect place for technology. With such large gaps between traditional ways and the changed balances of technology there was a niche for new technology. Into this niche the industrial revolution flowed.

Complexity is costly. The vast complexity which our culture managed to finance testifies to how great a change the fossil carbon represented. If energy were as cheap as it once seemed then it could be argued that there would be still much room for progress. With original effects of the fossil carbon oxidization diminishing or reversing I think that that trajectory of progress is playing itself out.

Rita said...

My dissertation in English was on the role of alcohol in the hard-boiled detective novel. One of my committee members was chair of the Philosophy Dept. and near retirement age. He was appalled to learn of the existence of chocolate martinis. This was 2003 when the flavored martini craze was just getting started. Now we seem to have a return to classics in some venues combined with a fad for cocktails comprised of unlikely combinations of the lesser known liqueurs. I suppose this is encouraging evidence that some people drink for flavor and not just to get blasted.

On diminishing returns--one of my upcoming projects is to transfer my collection of music cassettes to CDs, since I no longer have a cassette player in my car. I'm just glad that the mini CDs did not take over, guess they were preempted by iPods and their ilk.

fudoshindotcom said...

Excellent, as always!

I particularly liked the comparative symbolism of the martini's.

Sriracha flavored mayonnaise? Good lord, I think that even violates the Geneva convention. At least it should count as a chemical weapon.

As for myself, I've made the jump and purchased twenty acres of undeveloped land in a rural county in Texas. My intention is to build a sustainable homestead.

gwizard43 said...

Hmmm...thus far, it seems that for many if not all nations outside of the Lakeland Republic, as might be expected, the myth of progress holds sway and mainstream populations in those other nations continue to adhere to thus myth. However, no populace is a monolith - just as there are pockets of folks interested in "technological retrogression" here in the real world, surely there are pockets of individuals - perhaps even in Texas and the Confederacy! - who 'get it' and are fans of what the Lakelanders are doing. Perhaps some of those other nations even have political parties based more or less on this ideology which perennially get laughed at by the mainstream pundits, while eking out a percentage point or two in election after election?

Gordon said...

Mr. Greer;
I've only been reading your blog for about a year now, and I have to chime in on how much I've enjoyed the experience, and how much I look forward to each new installment. I've very much enjoyed and appreciated your political commentary for its pithy realism, but most of all I really love your Retropia series. A marvelous way to suggest (or sometimes slap your face with) concepts which tend to elude most people. It is always enjoyable to read comments by people who just "don't get it", but you patiently explain things again to them, as a good teacher should do for his students. Doubtless I will reread this installment yet again before I retire for the night, but I very much look forward to your next effort, and those further in the future as well. Thanks!

Gordon said...

Oh, and BTW: Martini fixings are an excellent thing to keep in your survival kit in case you are hopelessly lost. All you need to do is sit down and begin to make one up to your liking, and someone will step out of the woods and say "That's not how you make a proper Martini!" and then ask them for directions.

Keystonekabes said...

"But it it better?" This sentence sums up why I still use the injectable single bladed safety razor instead of the 5 bladed razors where a new pack of blades is 30 bucks! I think you even used the example of the safety razor in a prior post to make the exact same post.

On a side note about the HW assignment. I dusted of my anthology of literature through the ages, one of the best books I got in college incidentally, and I found a Roman play called the Pseudolous. Is that an acceptable example of a literary work from a prior culture or does it have to be bonafide literature?

Thanks and I love Retrotopia. You really should give us another installment next week.

Kevin

nr-cole said...

All this talk about drinks makes me want to know more of how the Lakeland Republic brews and distributes its beer. Before all of my writing time got gobbled up by my graduate thesis, my plan for the Space Bats challenge was the story of a brewery that started up in today's craft beer craze and had to muddle its way through the technological skids and bumps of the next century or so. I think I was hoping they'd end up with biogas for firing their kettles. Carbonation would have to be casks and bottle conditioning mostly, except for the very rich who could still afford to have a fizzy, ice cold draught served on CO2. And of course, temperature-controlled fermentation would be a thing of the past, and you'd be back to brewing with the seasons.

Justin said...

Sriracha flavored mayonnaise martinis are the perfect metaphor for diminishing returns. Sriracha is good, mayonnaise is good, martinis are good, and sriracha mayonnaise is sometimes good. But together, well, yuck.

Peter VE said...

@Ben Johnson - shaking martinis or manhattans is casus belli in my house. The way the drink slides over the tongue is ruined by shaking. If I ever pass by the grave of Ian Fleming, I will have to water it.
JMG - slightly off topic: could we build an Institute of Green Wizardry with the MacArthur Foundation's $100,000,000?

MayHawk said...

JMG,

Another great Retrotopia installment.

I have to believe that the Lakeland republic Public Library will have copies of "Henley's Twentieth Century Book of Formulas, Processes, & Trade Secrets". Last edition was in 1956 but used copies are easy to get online.

Highly recommended for anyone working toward a sustainable lifestyle as it covers the diverse subjects of Inks, dyes, waterproofing, cement, Plating, Glass, Varnishes, soaps, glues and adhesives, paints, enamelling cosmetics, and lubricants. And that is the short list.

Got my issue of "In the Ruins" a couple days ago. I am stunned by the beauty and quality of the stories. I'm on my second read now.

Mayhawk.

Donald Hargraves said...

Brian, John: My guess would be that Teirs 4 and 5 are tolerated because the Lakeland Republic must still defend itself against technologized foes – and you still need some technology (even if it's mid 20th century tech) to hold up against drones and bio-Kevlar. As the Atlantic Republic falls into chaos and the Confederacy burns itself out against Texas the Lakeland Republic will celebrate the dropping of Teirs 5 and 4 (if the Barber we met earlier is any indication, and I DO believe he is an indication, of public opinion and desire).

sgage said...

Thanks for this, JMG - This is really good stuff. These people are coming alive...

Roy from Cascadia said...

JMG, this series has been excellent!

Also, I would like to announce the inaugural meeting of The Cascadia Guild, Greater Seattle Branch, which will be held on Tuesday, July 12th, at 7:00 PM (Pacific Time). All interested parties are invited to attend. The Cascadia Guild is dedicated to the preservation of useful technologies and of regional culture as we enter the Long Descent - you can learn more at The Cascadia Guild website. All interested parties are invited to attend and help with the formation and shaping of this organization.

Venue is Salish Sea Brewing Co., 518 Dayton St, Edmonds, WA 98020.

Send Queries and Comments to roysmith95[at]live[dot]com.

Thomas Mazanec said...

You know, the Lakeland Republic seems to be saying "Your end of the boat is sinking." If the other nations of North America collapse, how will the Lakeland Republic handle twenty million starving refugees pouring in like Huns?

Steve Morgan said...

The dispute between Texas and the Confederacy sounds eerily familiar. Almost like it's 1990 and the Gulf oil fields in question happen to lie on the border between two other post-imperial fragmented countries. Makes me wonder if either Texas or the Confederates are going to be paid a visit by a regional hegemon from across the water a ways.

But of course, while history may not repeat itself exactly, it can rhyme or echo itself like in any good classic jazz tune.

Mr. Carr might just bring home the best intel on the whole mess when he packs a copy of the local paper in his suitcase to read on the way back east.

Thanks for the Retrotopia series. It's fun reading.

John Beasley said...

"Sure, But four Martinis along with a burger and fries is better than just the Martinis alone..."

Not that I disagree with the premise necessarily.

Joel Caris said...

Hi JMG,

I continue to really enjoy this series and am looking forward to eventually having an actual printed version in my hands to read over a few leisurely nights. I appreciate the idea of diminishing returns on technology--not that it's something you haven't raised before, of course, but it's interesting to start thinking about how the concept applies to my own life and the technologies I use. I started pondering that, and it turns out that it comes to me as an extremely complicated and fraught subject matter--despite the fact that, in many ways, I have evaluated this exact concept in a wide variety of personal choices. (I've thought about this quite a bit in the realm of farming and gardening over the previous seven years, when I started out on my first farming internship.)

I'll have to think on this question for awhile and look at some of the technologies in my life that I haven't otherwise considered at any real depth.

Also, I hope you don't mind, but I want to take a moment to thank the readers over the last few weeks who have said kind things about the first issue of Into the Ruins here in the comments. I've been extremely busy over the last month or so, including moving, and so I've had limited time to respond, but please know that I saw them and greatly appreciate them. Thank you to those who have spoken kind words about the project, to the fantastic authors who contributed to the first issue and made it what it is, and to JMG for providing such generous support. Now that my life is starting to settle back down a bit, I'm diving into the second issue and already have four stories lined up. Here's hoping I can make it as good or better than the first.

Oh, and I would love to get some new letters to the editor for the second issue, particularly from readers of the first! Stop on by and send me some thoughts. And for you artists out there, submit some cover artwork, as well!

jbucks said...

Another great Retropia installment, thank you!

Two points.

You wrote: Technologies come onto the market because somebody thinks they can make a profit off them, period, end of sentence. You can spend your entire life in corporate boardrooms and one thing I can promise you you’ll never hear is someone asking, “But is it actually better?”

I work (unfortunately) in IT, and I know that many developers don't necessarily think in this way. Many programmers who are working on new software for example do indeed imagine that they are working on something that will be 'better'. A programmer colleague, for example, is interested in virtual reality, and is working on such a project in his free time. I would say he's motivated equally by profit potential as he is by sheer interest in the technology, and I would imagine this is true for some of those in corporate boardrooms as well, who are often former IT people (Google comes to mind). A lot of Silicon Valley companies are indeed motivated by a desire to 'make the world a better place' (indeed, that very quote is often spoofed by a recent satirical television show about Silicon Valley).

Incidentally - my colleague suggested that I get into virtual reality as well, and I refused. I'm trying to get away from my involvement in tech, not deeper into it.

Second point / question:

You wrote: The playlist was mostly familiar jazz standards, with a couple of pieces I didn’t recognize—if they were new, though, they’d been composed by someone who knew all the nuances of classic jazz, and was more interested in crafting a good tune than in trying to be original.

I'm a hobbyist composer, and I've been wondering quite a bit about 'new' art created in an era of decline. So if the pieces that Carr didn't recognize were indeed new, then it looks like artists aren't really creating anything new, or rather, not new for the sake of it. Rather, they are consolidating traditions begun in the past and working within them. Essentially an artistic version of the mindset you wrote about in the Burke post - find out what actually works, and only make changes based on that!

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, in 2065, bikes are kind of expensive in Lakeland because steel isn't cheap -- Lakeland has no iron mines of its own, and the supply of wrecked skyscrapers from the prewar era was very heavily depleted to rebuild the rail and streetcar networks -- and some of the other raw materials, such as rubber, are expensive imports. Give it fifty years for Lakeland tinkerers to come up with renewable substitutes, though, and I suspect they'll be more common.

Ben, a war novel set in post-US North America would be interesting, but I probably won't write it -- that takes different interests and literary skill sets than I have. Generally, the deindustrial dark ages have been sorely neglected as a setting for war stories, barbarian novels, etc. I'd like to see that change!

Sawbuck, thank you.

Whomever, you may see it in this decade. Miami Beach currently floods with seawater whenever a high tide combines with a strong onshore wind, and there are some other very low-lying towns along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts that may be swamped sooner rather than later -- and of course that's just one class of catastrophe.

Ray, exactly. Exactly.

Rita, your committee member was a man after my own heart. Chocolate martinis are an abomination unto John Barleycorn and those who partake of them should be shunned by all who appreciate decent booze!

Fudoshindotcom, congrats on the great adventure! May it work out marvelously for you. As for sriracha-flavored mayonnaise, I can definitely see ladling great masses of it into the business end of a catapult and flinging them over the walls of a fortress to force capitulation!

Gwizard43, no doubt. Stay tuned...

Gordon, thank you!

Keystonekabes, plays count as literature, and the Pseudolus very much so -- Plautus was one very competent, very funny playwright. The next Retrotopia installment will be two weeks from now; btw; next week, we'll be back in class, with another homework assignment.

Nr-cole, you can do temperature-controlled fermentation very well if a temperature in the 50s F. is right -- a deep cellar with insulation above it will quickly get to the ambient temperature of the subsoil, which tends to be something around that, and stays there. But I don't know enough about brewing to know if that will help!

Justin, as far as I know, nobody yet puts sriracha-flavored mayonnaise in martinis, though it would not surprise me. Mayonnaise as an ingredient in mixed drinks, on the other hand, is a (hideous) reality. Great Cthulhu shudders at the thought!

Peter VE, no doubt, but trying to get it would be wasted effort. That dulcet word "archdruid," combined with an assortment of publications on occultism, guarantees that no respectable foundation will give me the time of day.

jessi thompson said...

While that's a fascinating interpretation, I wholly disagree that progress could continue even if humanity perfected perpetual motion or started harvesting cheap energy directly from the spacetime continuum. Unfortunately, humanity has never been able to master its own innate biological drives toward reproduction and consumption. If we had reached a steady state in population before we discovered fossil fuels, we probably could have gone on to colonize the galaxy with all that energy. Instead, we used it to add about 6 billion people to the population and then used it to leverage about a quarter of all the planet's biomass for human consumption. After we discover infinite energy we will need to promptly discover another 8-16 earths to give us time to learn how to reach a steady state. (Humanity currently needs 4 earths to healthily support the current level of consumption.)

jessi thompson said...

Vietnam didn't.

John Michael Greer said...

MayHawk, I'm quite sure Henley's has been reprinted by an enterprising publisher in Cincinnati and is readily available in bookstores as well as libraries,along with such perennial Lakeland bestsellers as The Integral Urban House and How To Grow More Vegetables.

Donald, ahem -- the tiers determine what infrastructure is paid for out of county tax revenues, remember, and that's it. The Lakeland Army isn't supported by county taxes, and so it has whatever level of technology the legislature decides is needed. No, what'll cause Tier 5 and possibly Tier 4 to phase out in due time is cost: as it becomes too expensive to maintain 24/7 grid power and the other urban infrastructure, counties will vote to shed a tier or two to keep tax bills down.

Sgage, thank you!

Roy, delighted to hear it. Please lift a good dark beer for me!

Thomas, funny. Stay tuned!

Steve, excellent! Why, yes, history does rhyme. Stay tuned...

John, exactly. A burger and fries belong to a different category of existence from a martini, and thus you can't just pile up drinks and expect them to result in a burger and fries. In the same way, a healthy environment is a different category of things from advanced technology, and you can't make a healthy environment by piling on technology -- you've got to save some of your budget for that burger and fries!

Joel, I don't mind at all. Thank you, and I've already made arrangements to have Retrotopia published as a book. Just the thing to give all your technofetishist friends! ;-)

Jbucks, IT is currrently (in 2016) in the middle of a bubble, with vast amounts of venture capital sloshing around, and so idealists still have a bit of influence in boardrooms. (Not, I have to say, in Google's -- it's painfully clear that "Don't be evil" has nothing to do with the company's actual behavior.) By 2065 that's a thing of the past, and IT has descended into the same ethical cesspit as the rest of the corporate economy. Your second point is going to take a lot more discussion -- the next Retrotopia episode will touch on it, but there'll be more posts to come, because there's a real difference in any art between what works in the era of innovation and what works in the era of performance!

E-man said...

Long-time reader, first-time commenter here. I'm loving the Retrotopia series, and find myself waiting impatiently for each new instalment.

Reading Retrotopia has inspired me to re-read "The Breakdown of Nations" by Leopold Kohr. I'd be surprised, JMG, if you haven't read the book yourself, or at least heard of him - E.F. Schumacher cited him as a major influence in his work.

Kohr's main thesis is that the primary cause of all forms of social, political, and economic misery is "bigness": if something isn't working any more, chances are it's gotten too big (a variation on the law of diminishing returns, I suppose). The cure is to make things small: to split up the overgrown nation-states, corporations, and other organizations that tend to dominate our modern world. A world of small states won't make everything sweetness and light - there will still be poverty, wars, tyranny, etc. On a national or international scale such things are overwhelming for governments, let alone to the average citizen - but on a small scale they are more comprehensible and manageable.

One example Kohr cites is that of Germany. As a great power and led by Hitler, Germany's aggression in WWII almost destroyed Western civilization. But if Germany was still broken up into small states, Hitler would at best have taken over Bavaria, and led an otherwise harmless little comic-opera dictatorship until he died or was overthrown.

Another example is Europe. If Kohr was alive today he would take one look at the European Union and declare that it will never work. The interests of the large member states would dominate (as they do), and eventually either prompt the growth of an even more powerful central bureaucracy to control them (as is happening in Brussels), or with their competing interests destroy the union (as is indeed happening with Brexit). Only by breaking up the large states into their constituent small entities (Wales, Brittany, Normandy, Bavaria, Tuscany, Castile, Gascony, Rhineland, etc., etc.), and allowing them the maximum possible autonomy within a larger federation would it work in the long run.

Kohr cites a number of other historical examples to illustrate his arguments. His book also has maps to illustrate both successful and unsuccessful state systems or federations.

Bringing this comment back to Retrotopia, it appears that the Lakeland Republic is keeping things small and manageable, has decentralized almost to the county level, and has instituted the Tier 1-5 system and allowed each region to set its own levels of technology and, by implication, culture. Government and bureaucracy remain small because, as Kohr himself writes, "the only way to reduce the size of government is by reducing the size of the unit to be governed". Problems will arise at the local levels, and more often than not will be solved locally. Beneficial concepts will spread to different regions, and will be adopted where they are appropriate or ignored where they are not. A thousand flowers will bloom.

Anyways, JMG, I hope you and your other readers find this useful. I'm looking forward to the next chapter!

Brian said...

John, Donald: Yes, but even 'very nearly preindustrial' is still industrial, with all of the complexity problems that that entails.

Still, that lower level might be the most enduring...

Yossi said...

As a late-comer to "The Long Descent" I was wondering what your thoughts were on Guy McPhersons's prediction (From Abrupt Climate Change to Climate Collapse * Presentation CA 3 May 2016 : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SuqtbpUF7s&feature=youtu.be) that abrupt climate change was underway and exponential growth of carbon and methane in the atmosphere would result in an increase of the global earth temperature of 4°C by 2030 making human life extinct.

David from Normandy said...

"Is it better?"

Hum. As Keystonekabes brought again the subject of razors.. I have to confess that I've repentante tried to replace my 3 blades "modern" razor by the whole kit safety razor + real shaving soap and badger...
And frankly, I am not better shaved with the old-fashioned method. And not worse either, but I for sure cut myself a lot more.

Please don't throw too much rotten vegetables at me.

Seb Ze Frog said...

Good Morning.

A few words about beer brewing, since this came up...
I am not a Master Brewer, but have brewed some drinkable beer and some meads that I am even kind of proud of...

Beer has been around for many centuries now, even in a way that wouldn't hurt our cultural taste. The difficult part of brewing, which is the temperature control of the different stages of cooking the malt, has been done for centuries without even thermometers, just knowing empirically the right amount of boiling water to add to the batch. Of course, with a thermometer, things get easier. And I don't think that cooking thermometers will disappear that fast.

One can get a very good foam without artificial carbonation. To my mind, it is even better for reasons I won't discuss here. Check the micro-breweries around and you'll see.

And of course low fermentation and temperature controlled fermentations can be achieved with cellars, as our esteemed Archdruid points out. It seems right to say though that the brewing process in a desindustrial age will have to get again in touch with the Seasonal realities... But I am far from thinking that this would hurt the quality of the beer.

And finally.... "fizzy ice old draft served on CO2" will probably stay a delicacy for the very rich for some time, just because it will be hard to get. Which is fine to me, since to my taste it was never one to start with. I'd get a good dark porter at my cellar temperature, or a good deep blonde chilled in my well instead of such a delicacy (especially if the beer name has "Lite" in it) without a second thought.

I might be worried at times about the survival of non-linear algebra and general relativity, but never for good mead, beer or wine. We got down from the trees for one reason after all: distillation is much harder on a tree top, even with four hands ;-)

Seb











Unknown said...

And right on cue this article appeared on my favorite local news site, Tasmaniantimes.com

http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s4481060.htm

The story is by the Aussie national broadcaster about how the internet news sites are not making the money they expected to make because nasty facebook is syphoning off all the advertising revenue. It is well worth the read, and not just for the obvious reasons. There are some interesting assumptions and blindspots revealed. The comments are likewise recommended.

Progress in journalism, it seems is the route to poverty, and not just in the financial sense.

And thanks for a very fine story, sir. As a onetime bartender and cocktail fan I concur, adulteration of martini's by adding chocolate should earn a life irrigated by diet pepsi and nothing else!

Cheers


eagle eye

Brian Cady said...

There's something delightful about reading, JMG, your story about someone I disagree with, watching them stumble into arguements I've stumbled past. I feel so superior, so secretly exceptional. What a great conceit! I feel I share a secret with you, JMG, the author, as we watch your protagonist raging back and forth in his martini-assisted fog. This helps me forget that I actually am as unprepared for currently-likely calamities as Mr. Carr is for those before him. Ahh, oblivion! I'm cackling to myself as I anticipate and wonder about Carr's future and choices. It's such a treat to forget about my future for a few minutes. Like sipping just one martini, I suppose - I'm tempted to buy one of your books, for why sip when, for a mild fee, one can wallow.

fudoshindotcom said...

JMG,

Thank you, I have hopes of transitioning from survival (which most people do whether they're conscious of it or not) to living (which I think of as living on purpose).

I chose rural Texas because our government, in it's negative wisdom, trumpets the virtues of ecologically sound living and then enacts laws restricting those same practices. The geographical separation should be an advantage.

On topic, planning the homestead has required much thought about technology and just what infrastructure is needed to support it. On this small scale it becomes quite obvious that the simpler the better. I can't say I'll fall in to a specific tier, but will certainly be leaning far toward the less complex.

234567 said...

I did a study for a major offshore oil exploration company about 15 years ago. It compared drilling costs from 1990 to the current costs, and what benefit accrued from these new technologies. I spent 6 months on this project, researching nearly every technology and drilling adjunct used in normal offshore operations.

The upshot was that in 1990, it took fewer people, less equipment, less capital and lower technology than today. The net result of the technology and practices was to provide management a 'comfort level' regarding innate risk factors. In 1990, it took 30 days to move in a rig and drill a well, with concomitant costs. In 2006, it took 45 days at a higher cost (25% higher) to perform essentially the same operations, using real-time data and digital systems. The failure rate (number of dry wells drilled) was improved by 10%.

Many of the additional expenses were mandated by government bureaucrats (in the name of safety, status monitoring and such), but the change to digital from analog brought out an entire herd of associated costs for both operators and drilling contractors - with little tangible benefit. The 'perceived' benefits were well documented - but never seemed to measure up to their touted economic advantage. It still cost more to drill with the new digital technology, even using inflation adjusted dollars, with only marginal amount of risk averted.


My dryer went out recently. Analog dryers are simple to fix - the thermostat or the heating element or the blower motor - not much else. My current dryer has a digital logic board, safety sensors and many more parts. The function of these new digital replacements is fuzzy to me at best in a device designed to dry damp clothing. The effect of it was to remove my ability to troubleshoot and fix the dryer, and instead call a repair guy, spend more money than with fixing an analog device, and to incur a week of waiting time for digital parts. Still looking for the technology upgrade benefit.

Luddite? Well, in some cases I am, because it make much more economic sense. And from a social perspective, a slower operating speed means less heat - slowing life down allows for us to enjoy it in a daily, personal way - rather than view it as video clips.

Just some thoughts after reading this installment...

trippticket said...

Yesterday I was over at the farm owner's house, checking in on his bronchial infection, when he looked up and said, "I saw that you removed the wifi router from your house. Are you just going without internet service?"

"No," I said, "we are just plugging our laptop directly into the hard internet cable. It's the only way we seem to be able to get reliable internet service out there. With the wifi we were trouble-shooting every time we wanted to log on, but with the hard line we get right on every time."

"I guess that makes sense," he said. "But I was just about to reboot the wifi service."

"No need to do that on our account. This is better. It also disciplines us to not be online all over the house whenever we feel like it," I added.

Not sure that made as much sense to him, but it does to us. There is one place in the house where the internet works without hassle, no wifi signal bouncing off of our brains, no accidental surfing for our young children on the tablet (which is now just a camera, calculator, and alarm clock mostly since our contract just ended and we chose not to renew, which means we're also not taking credit card payments at farmers markets and craft shows anymore. Surprisingly, it hasn't hurt us much.)

All this "retro-teching" makes a world of sense to me, but you sure have to get past the religious underpinnings of Technology as inevitable and beneficent! And that's big.

By the way, when do you think "Retrotopia" will be available in book format? I'm planning on handing out about a dozen copies to friends and family for Christmas, if that's a possibility. And my wife has promised to put a copy in the local library ASAP too.

Zach said...

Mr. Vanich is being disingenuous with our traveler. The technological systems evaluation that he does must be one of the most critical pieces of intelligence (diplomatic and military) that the Lakeland Republic has.

peace,
Zach

ed boyle said...

I don't have an opinion on alcohol but are smoothies better than a piece of fresh fruit?

Could we go to different technology, not just older or hi tech. Like evolution that never happened. Most see humans as logical end of evolutiion. Is our brain and our toolmaking, technology capability the diminishing return of animal brain power per se? We are a dead endin evolution at extinction point due to the question in this piece. A gazelle and cheetah were fastest, dinosaur, whale biggest on land, sea. Smartest has one focus only, tech, and this demands energy, which runs out.

Is steel, metal making the only alternative to wood, then stone? Nowadays light fibre composites, perhaps bioplastics would replace metalls, cloths, wood for construction.

Energy production renewable without metals, meaning wooden windmills, water heaters or high quality bioplastic water wheels, windmils to last longer.

Food- instead of agriculture, hunting gathering maybe just eating insects or something equally odd would be plausible.

David said...

John--

I am looking forward to ordering my copy of the novel-version of Retrotopia and am very glad to hear that arrangements for said novel are in place. The idea of conscious "regression" to a "lower" (perhaps "previous" is a less value-laden term) level of technologies is one that I am very interested in pursuing. Right now, I am quite fortunate to have a secure (relatively speaking) job with a municipal utility, a good paycheck, and a home in a smaller town with a lower cost of living. My wife and I keep our lifestyle modest and live well within our means. Most of our excess income goes toward structural investments in the house/homestead, building a reasonable rainy-day fund, projects and causes we value, and getting the (small) mortgage paid off. (On resource usage, we are hovering around 220 kWh/mo and 2000 gal/mo -- good, but I'm working on further reductions.) It is a step-wise process for us.

The decentralization inherent in the LR strategy (the county-level tier system) is a valuable concept and one which I wish our society would consider more carefully. It seems that everything we are doing is moving in the other direction, with more centralization of control and direction. A recent story on the impending Brexit vote

http://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-06-16/why-global-capital-fears-brexit

raises a number of points which I find relevant to our situation on this side of the Pond. Specifically, the sections speaking to localization, if re-framed from a EU-to-national scope in Europe to a federal-to-state scope here in the US, parallel well in my opinion. In essence, I am coming around to the idea that the US needs to decentralize in order to survive, though perhaps many would see anything other than our current level of federalization as wholesale collapse. (I've been accused of seeking a return to the Articles of Confederation, which were "an obvious failure.") My view is the the resurgence of regional differences (no longer papered over as well by the dwindling benefits of empire) are going to lead to some form of rearrangement anyway. Better a controlled change than an uncontrolled one forced upon us by crisis.

OkanaganPermie said...

Another great episode JMG. Interestingly, I just yesterday read the new e-booklet written by Permaculture co-originator David Holmgren, "A History from the Future". It appears that David is a reader of TAR (hello David and thank you for your work)! In this fictional future history, you will find a reference to Retrotopia, the tier system, and a wry aside as to whether you influence him, or vice versa. You are in good company sir.

stravinsky7 said...

Sorry, this is more relevant to last week's thread, but it's pretty interesting.

First, an explanation of two terms-

Genetic programming is a software engineering technique (field, really) whereby you make programs that adapt to their situation in a darwinistic fashion. You create like 50ish randomish variants of a program, and see how well they do on a task. The better a variant does correlates to the likelyhood of its 'genes' being inherited by the next generation. It's basically simulated evolution.

The prisoners' dilemma is a game theory scenario. Two people are suspected of committing a crime, but are taken in for a lesser charge, for which there is ample evidence. Both are taken to rooms and offered a deal,- turn the other suspect in and go free while the other spends three years in prison, or spend a year in prison themself for the lesser crime.

This is all from a book on genetic programming, by Melanie Mitchell, btw...

Long story short, a programming competition was held. Each round consisted of three hypothetical imprisonments against another program, with the fewest total years served at the end of the competition deciding the winner.

A program called 'tit-for-tat' won. It would not 'rat out' the other prisoner on the first round, and in the next two rounds would tit-for-tat do whatever its frenemy did the previous round.

This is where genetic programming gets interesting. Given a large field of opponents, a genetic program will eventually end up learning tit for tat. It really is the best. However, what is fascinating is that if you train the same genetic algorithm with a small set of opponents, it does substantially better than tit-for-tat,- even if tit-for-tat is one of the opponents. (and this is 'blind', it doesn't know what player it is up against)

I see a distinct parallel with the jets from last week's post being able to do everything, and being not good enough at any specific task. Meanwhile, the highly 'adapted' or 'evolved' species is highly successful in its own ecology.

By the way, your example of flying cars (being bad at flying and driving) really opened up my eyes to this dynamic. (which is too bad, because, well, I'd really love to get around in a flying car!)

barrymelius said...

Mr. Greer,Its obvious that you have been seeing beyond the propaganda spread by mainstream media for quite a while. I refer to the run up to our intervention after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait,when the news pushed tales of babies being dumped out of incubators by evil Iraqi stormtroopers while the fact of Kuwait dipping its toes into Iraqi oil using horizontal drilling techniques was conveniently ignored.

Gabriela Augusto said...

Dear JMG,
just to say how much I enjoy you retropia series, as I enjoy most of what you write here and in your books. Also I can say that I read all the comments in the blog whenever I have the time. Is comforting to know that wise and civil people do exist na can be found here!
Another note on technology: my husband faced with a succession of disbelief, astonishment and embarrassment that I am repairing my 10 years old sony vayo (broken lcd) instead of buying a new laptop. The young employee of the repair shop offered to buy my old computer by 3x the cost of the lcd replacement (60% of the price of a new laptop), and agreed “very reliable and you can really persuade it to do what you want, instead of blindly obeying the manufacturer”.
There you have, a man young enough to be my soon, that obviously knows about computers, recognizing the value of a seriously outdated machine!

Laylah said...

Roy from Cascadia, thank you for taking the plunge and for posting about it! I'll see if I can scrounge up a few friends to bring with me from down here at the southern edge of the city.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20160616T160620Z


Jeepers jeepers jeepers, I have to stop my reading for a moment just to make a comment on Roy ("6/15/16, 7:48 PM"). At http://thecascadiaguild.blogspot.com and cognate URLs, Roy's newly formed Cascadia Guild mentions, among its interests, "electronics-free mathematics". This is a happy thing. Green's Theorem (one of the "Big Three" in vector caclulus - Green-Stokes-Gauss) was originally developed in a pure-maths club. Green was a Victorian autodidact, who advanced from work in managing a mill to eventual acceptance at Cambridge. It's sort of a "Jude the Obscure" story, but in pure maths as opposed to Graeco-Roman classics, and with a happy ending. (Jude tries and tries, as an earnest Victorian, to get into "Biblioll College", and ends up only with Unhappiness on Steroids. In real life, Green did okay.)

We may piously hope that pure-maths clubs exist in Lakeland.



Hastily,


Tom

http://toomaskarmo.blogspot.com

Moshe Braner said...

I liked the use of both drinks and music as examples of where "innovation" for its own sake leads to absurdity, not (real) progress.

I live in Vermont where people pride themselves for supposed down-to-earth common sense. But especially in the relatively urban parts, and in government, the worship of "progress" has taken over. A couple of years ago the whole state lost access to the (new and enhanced) "e911" emergency call system because a tree fell down in a neighboring state, cutting the cable that connected that system to the data center 2000 miles away that actually serviced those calls. Did they learn from that event? Of course not. They've since decided to further centralize that system.

And in the most recent idiotic decision, the state workers in at least one large department were told that the landlines will be abandoned, all the landline phones will be discarded, and (to save money and streamline maintenance, not to mention be up with progress) be replaced with newfangled phones that work through the internet. Now every radio interview I've heard that is via Skype sounds crappy, and every call I've gotten via Skype got dropped somewhere during the call. And the internet connection is sometimes down. And next time we have a real disaster (like hurricane Irene was) and the state government centralized internet gateway goes down, state workers won't even be able to use a phone. And meanwhile, I don't believe that this move will ever save money.

Moshe Braner said...

Rita: Instead of, or in addition to, CDs, I suggest converting your old music cassettes to MP3 files. Yes it may sound like higher tech and thus against the concept we're discussing here, but consider these points, which I think add up to making the MP3 files "appropriate tech" - and that's why I think this comment is "on topic":

* First, whatever you do, convert those cassettes soon, since they self-destruct over time. Also, keep both cassettes and CDs out of direct sunlight, the UV destroys them over time.

* Conversion to a digital format (whether audio CD or MP3 files etc) has the advantage that it can later be copied, with no further loss of audio quality, onto any new type of digital storage medium as technology changes. And back to analog as needed.

* You can also convert MP3 files to audio CDs to play in your car device, although I prefer playing the files using a smartphone plugged into the car's AUX input (or an FM modulator) - an old smartphone (that would otherwise be discarded) can be bought for next to nothing, and does not need a "service plan" for this use.

* CDs of the kind you "burn" yourself only last a decade or so, if stored well. So you'll need to copy them over again later anyway. If you keep them in the car (where it is often rather hot) they'll last even fewer years, so make copies for the car, don't use the 'master' discs.

* You can store MP3 files on a data CD, and some CD players (including those in some cars) can play those. They too will need copying after some years. But the music you can store on one such disc would take a dozen audio discs, meaning more work, expense, resource use, and storage space.

SLClaire said...

Another flavored abomination that for the moment is ongoing is flavored green tea. I'm not sure how many different flavors have been added to green tea, but one extra flavor was too many, IMHO. Whatever happened to good green tea flavored by itself?

I feel kind of sorry for Mr. Carr. Those of us who read and get what you're saying can take as long as we need to work through the stages of grief and all the rest that is associated with seeing through the myth of progress. Mr. Carr, on the other hand, only has a little over two weeks to go through the process. No wonder it hit him hard in the last few installments. Let's see, he's been through denial and anger already. I suppose bargaining is on the way ...

SLClaire said...

Or maybe he went through bargaining in this installment, now that I think more about it. That could have been part of what so occupied his mind when he was listing off different technologies, trying to see more benefits than costs in them.

pygmycory said...

re the homework assignment:
I read Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. I found the characterization excellent, but the plot very slow to get started, especially by modern standards. I'm not especially a fan of romance plots anyway, so I got fairly bored in the first part of the story. It did improve, and the character interactions were sometimes quietly funny even when there wasn't much actually happening.

The concentration on the english gentry, and more specifically, the women of same, meant that the main character and her sisters weren't actually doing very much. There was a lot of partying, gossip and the like, and not much doing useful things. They had servants for that. An exception was when Charlotte married Mr. Collins, and then had chickens and fruit trees and vegetables, and it sounded like she was actually doing some of it herself, though even they had servants.

It was odd hearing all the men addressed by last name only. I'm still not sure what Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham's first names were. It seems exceedingly strange to be calling your fiance by his last name!


pygmycory said...

And what do you do when there is more than one Mr. X present?

Chris Smith said...

I am glad to see the (proper) Martini survives the coming civil war.

I am unclear on the law of diminishing returns applied to technology as whole. Is the point that if you take our entire system of tools, the more tools we add and/or the additional complexity to our system of tools the less aggregate output we will get per unit of input we use? And I take it that those same inputs are required to create and maintain our technology as a whole (using that same technology) also plays a role?

The funny thing is, like Mr. Carr in the story, I can see how that's true of any particular technological development. But I guess if every individual technology is subject to the law of diminishing returns, then we would expect the entire system of these technologies would likewise be subject to the law of diminishing returns. (Barring some emergent property of the system as a whole that is not really in evidence.)

Am I understanding this right?

Bob Patterson said...

I think that the drumbeat of PROGRESS! is an offshoot of the perceived need for growth. And the battle cry of GROWTH! is the theoretical need for growth to allow the repayment of debt and interest. The more the better. But there is a disconnect here. Is the idea of a steady state economy so bad? Tom Robbins likens the way our fiscal matters have been handled as a bonfire, where economic resources are poured into a growth machine, disregarding the fact that they are running out of wood. I agree.

Bob Patterson said...

Rita - the rise of CDs was powered by the fact that they were not not covered in most contracts between artist and record companies. So they did not have to pay the artists anything and could take the master recording and convert them to CDs at minimal cost. It was a financial bonanza they have desperately wanted to repeat.

Roy from Cascadia said...

It has just been brought to my attention that I posted the wrong URL for The Cascadia Guild website. The correct URL is: http://thecascadiaguild.blogspot.com/

Myriad said...

At my university in the 1980s, there was a popular undergraduate course called "Technological Assessment" (nicknamed something much like "Tech Assmt." except with two fewer letters). The reason it was popular was its reputation for being one of the easiest courses in the catalog. I never took it, because it was obvious even to me then that any nontrivial form of technology assessment must actually be an extremely complex undertaking and no easy course on it could be worthwhile. But now I wish I had at least listened in; I might have a clearer idea of how the current generation of business leaders were trained to do it wrong.

Calculating the costs or the benefits of any technology in terms that can be compared with one another or with other technologies seems intractably complex. Sometimes a relatively close comparison can be intuitively clear (to some at least) , such as the uncompetitiveness of supersonic jet airlines for business travel. We can surmise that, in an age of limits, the same net-negative economic value will eventually apply to passenger air travel in general when all the costs are accounted for. Maybe it already does. But railroads, for example, are harder to figure.

Thoreau's observation that the time saved by riding a train doesn't compensate for the time needed to earn the cost of the ticket does not appear to hold true, today, where I am. But is that only because I'm being overpaid for my own work, and/or because my ticket isn't paying the true price of the ride? In the latter case, I'm likely bearing those externalized costs whether I ride or walk, so it can be an economically rational decision for me to ride even if it's not economically rational to operate the railroad in the first place, or to build it if it didn't already exist. That's a hysteresis of sorts; aka an overshoot.

In my next Space Bats story (in progress), I address the "no collapse" part of the challenge by exploring the idea of "plateau" technologies, which are technologies whose net benefits relative to their complexity, infrastructure requirements, and material costs are sufficient for them to persist (or to be re-introduced, re-developed, or acquired by trade if locally lost) despite other less or more complex means of doing the same things being known and hypothetically achievable. Kiln-fired ceramics is likely one example. Having already been around a long time is one likely hallmark of plateau technologies, but not necessarily a requirement (nor a guarantee; cuneiform was in use a lot longer than any form of book has been so far, but printed books are the more likely candidate for a plateau information storage technology). Another hallmark is that the present industrial implementation of the technology still uses the same basic processes, albeit in multiplied/automated/scaled-up versions.

I have my own guesses, but I don't think we're in possession of any "Tech Assmt" methods that can tell us with any certainty whether, for instance, any form of motorized transport, any form of long-distance telecommunications, electric lighting, aircraft, computers, waterworks, firearms, photography, or even artificial satellites are or are not plateau technologies. Comparing steel knives with printed books suggests diminishing returns on technology in general doesn't mean all technologies reach those diminishing returns in the same historical year.

So, poor Carr will rack his brain searching for definitive refutation of Vanich's point, to no avail. Having failed to find any simple disproof, he might consider looking for simple positive proof of it instead, and he might find that too is hard to come by. It's easy to see which hypothesis is more likely, though. Welcome to uncertainty.

Sylvia Rissell said...

Another example of diminishing returns: I own enough books to last the rest of my life. If I buy an additional book, it will either go unread, or displace the exisiting book that I might otherwise get around to reading.

Im still going to buy "Weird of Hali:Kingsport" when it comes out.

Eric S. said...

I'm really starting to wonder how much of Retrotopia is being written with a martini in hand over whatever food Carr is eating that week. These stories are starting to give me cravings...

On to the story itself:

It sounds to me like the thing Carr's going to have to start learning as he copes with his cognative dissonance is just what point along the line of technological progress diminishing returns kick in, and progress becomes the enemy of prosperity. Will he be stepping on the magic time machine all the way back to the very beginning thoughts of this blog, perhaps and begin learning about the distinctions between technological tools and prosthetic technologies perhaps? That seems to me to be at least one of the major points at which progress gives way to diminishing returns...

Larry Barber said...

It appears that there is reprint available of Henley's book: https://www.amazon.com/Henleys-Twentieth-Century-Formulas-Processes/dp/1330736850/ref=pd_sim_sbs_14_2?ie=UTF8&dpID=51B-dJ2E-tL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL320_SR214%2C320_&refRID=SZ7MTPJBW3ZKDJ766ZYS . Looks interesting might have to put it in the already too big to-read list.

John Roth said...

@Brian

They didn't go all the way back. To get that special edition out that fast requires something like a Linotype, not letterpress. Linotypes are pretty complex machines, although they were coming into use in the very late 19th century.

@Unknown

The problem with the internet news sites started when Craigslist siphoned off most of the advertising revenue that the newspaper industry depended on to make a profit. Everything since then has been an attempt to fix the revenue stream. The sites that are making money are the ones that are charging membership fees for premium content, and have the premium content to make paying the membership fees worth while.

@Ed Boyle

Every material has its good points and bad points. From what I know, carbon based composits could probably be made in a village workshop with a few tweaks to the process, but would they replace wood or steel? For some applications, surely. For others, not.

The same applies to cloth. What it's good for depends on the material.

@stravinsky 7

Re flying cars. If you can find a copy of one of the Jetsons episode, take a good look at the flying car. See any wheels? No? I thought not. Take a look at pretty much any other show that features flying cars. Same thing. A flying car has as much business on the ground as an airliner.

The notion that a flying car has to serve both flight and ground transportation is a straw man.

@Chris Smith

The law of diminishing returns applies to an entire technological suite. There's a very nice illustration of that: how long it takes to get from New York to London. In the Age of Sail, it sometimes took over a month, depending on the season and the winds. With steam technology, it took a lot less. Now with airplanes, it takes less than a day. Each of those started out and developed faster ships until they hit the law of diminishing returns. In fact, airplanes backed off of faster-than-sound travel for not being cost effective.@Brian

They didn't go all the way back. To get that special edition out that fast requires something like a Linotype, not letterpress. Linotypes are pretty complex machines, although they were coming into use in the very late 19th century.

@Unknown

The problem with the internet news sites started when Craigslist siphoned off most of the advertising revenue that the newspaper industry depended on to make a profit. Everything since then has been an attempt to fix the revenue stream. The sites that are making money are the ones that are charging membership fees for premium content, and have the premium content to make paying the membership fees worth while.

@Ed Boyle

Every material has its good points and bad points. From what I know, carbon based composits could probably be made in a village workshop with a few tweaks to the process, but would they replace wood or steel? For some applications, surely. For others, not.

The same applies to cloth. What it's good for depends on the material.

@stravinsky 7

Re flying cars. If you can find a copy of one of the Jetsons episode, take a good look at the flying car. See any wheels? No? I thought not. Take a look at pretty much any other show that features flying cars. Same thing. A flying car has as much business on the ground as an airliner.

The notion that a flying car has to serve both flight and ground transportation is a straw man.

@Chris Smith

The law of diminishing returns applies to an entire technological suite. There's a very nice illustration of that: how long it takes to get from New York to London. In the Age of Sail, it sometimes took over a month, depending on the season and the winds. With steam technology, it took a lot less. Now with airplanes, it takes less than a day. Each of those started out and developed faster ships until they hit the law of diminishing returns. In fact, airplanes backed off of faster-than-sound travel for not being cost effective.

jdmeth said...

No matter how well meaning I detest people who think what they like and use is exactly right for me. I shed a lot of blood using a single blade razor 50 yeas ago, even a triple blade leaves my neck raw. I love my five blade Schick Hydro.

I wasn't exposed to alcohol and when I was 30 I decided to try some. Pickling vinegar combined with Listerine, yum. On top of that no buzz, just a feeling of being weighted down. Glad I stayed away from it.

I read all the doomer porn I can find, this tale low on doom and high on hope. Good read anyway.

trippticket said...

@ OkanaganPermie:
I'm just curious as to whether you are, well, I won't say your real name, but "Skeeter"!?

If so I took a course from you in Spokane several years ago on ditch medicine (basically) upstairs at the hippie grocery store. I took another course from Darren Doherty and Penny Livingston-Stark that same year on Keyline Design, in central California, so it was a pretty darn good permaculture year!

Just wanted to say that I agree wholeheartedly with you: whatever the complaints about American permaculture, David Holmgren and John Michael Greer are hands-down the two biggest positive influences in my life.

Not that it has anything to do with his lurking, but I sent an ADR link to David a couple years ago and had a nice response from the missus, Sue. We named our son Oliver after their son, Oliver Holmgren. He'll be 6 next week. Mine, not Holmgren's; he's probably 25 by now. And a very cool cat in his own right. How could he not be?

Martin B said...

This may be a bit OT, but there is a real-life example of one nation stealing another's oil, according to a group called ENDS: Every Nigerian Do Something. Chad is stealing oil from neighboring Nigeria in the oil-rich Lake Chad reason, and pumping it via Cameroon to the coast from where it gets shipped to refineries in Le Havre.

Now you might think Nigeria would be upset about this. Not so. Powerful southern Nigerian politicians have interests in Chad oil, and wish the theft to continue. This is where Boko Haram comes in.

Some years ago there was an election and northern Nigerian politicians formed private armies to contest it. After the election was over the armies were no longer needed so they stopped paying them. With weapons but no money the armies turned to banditry to survive and are the origin of Boko Haram today.

As long as oil exploration companies stay out of northern Nigeria, no oil wells will be drilled in the region. So the southern Politicians with oil interests employ Boko Haram to spread terror to keep the drilling crews away and leave the oil for their Chad wells.

Whether this is true I don't know but it makes a good story. See http://ends.ng/boko-haram-big-oil-and-the-chad-connection/

Greg Burton said...

"All that meat, and no potatos", indeed ;)

One needn't come to the conclusion that tech as a whole is subject to diminishing returns in order to identify the problem domain. If we understand that a civilization (or a culture) is a system, and we understand that at a given point of complexity, ANY change will make the situation worse (including "fixes"), we get to the same place, pragmatically. And it has the advantage of being expressible in equation form.

Cacaogecko said...

The law of diminshing returns definitely applies to accepted agricultural practice. I'm reading The Soil Will Save Us, and farmers who pay attention to what the soil is doing underneath, cover crops, limited grazing, are achieving dazzling results with no pestices, fungicides, insecticides, or fertilizer. Absolutely no dig, planting new seeds amidst a huge variety of cover crops and dead plants. Drought? No problem in these farms in North Dakota. Roots 8 feet deep. Don't even turn over the soil. Just plant. Think of the money you save.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

A very enjoyable story!. Thanks for taking the time to continue with this narrative.

I assume that Mr Carr is going through his own form of a "Peak Technology" initiation ceremony? It is nice that he has many useful, willing and helpful guides to assist him along with that path. One thing that I've noticed with Mr Carr's interactions with his guides is that he tends to view them through a combative lens and he always tends to believe that because they challenge his core assumptions about how the world works, that they rather than he, must somehow be wrong - and it is almost as if they are out to get him. I can almost feel the defensive stance that he is taking time and time again in his dialogue. I see a lot of that in the real world... And that is very unfortunate too.

As a general observation, he also displays the current social policy that people appear to be rather ungracious in their interactions with other people. I've long suspected that such policies have arisen out of the sort of monetary economy that we live in, where if an interaction doesn't have a dollar value, it is not worth anything, as well as the thoughtless habits of modern communication techniques. I've noticed recently that text messages are more likely to be used nowadays, rather than voice messages, and the vast majority of those miss out on many social niceties. Conan had something to say on that matter...

Hey, I reckon that diminishing returns is an expression of entropy. And that entropy is an expression of the second law of thermodynamics. I recall you writing about that many years ago and honestly a lot of it went over my head, but I grasped the general concept - which appeared to be entropy will always win and I guess that is how the Universe is. Dunno, that one is complex.

Thanks again for continuing this enjoyable narrative! It is very instructional and it also portrays how we look to another culture.

Cheers

Chris

234567 said...

@ Bob Patterson -

Growth? Maybe, but in these last few decades it seems to be a pernicious type of growth. By that, I mean growth was based on better performing or longer lasting and reliable products. Today, these same reliable and simpler products have been replaced by digital controls and web accessible devices that provide very real disadvantage due to their complexity and lack of solid reliability. Other than they are "high tech", they do little in terms of innovative design.

My neighbor bought a new home security system. It is useless without the internet. It does use a landline, but with the landline switching system having been converted to digital, and the landline system a declining infrastructure - you guessed it. It goes down shortly after the wifi and cellular does in big climate or similar events.

Oh - the security system call center is not even in this country - go figure that reliability in...

Unknown said...

re 234567, about that dryer.

As part of Caterpillar pretending to give a rats about the local community it was leaving for a cheaper manufacturing site I attended a presentation by a Professor Goran Roos. His speciality was modern manufacturing, and he had some very interesting things to say.

Pertinent to your comment was the bit about how modern manufacturers designed their offerings in such a way that they stood to make more from the parts and service than they did from the initial product itself, over the lifetime of the product. Combine that with the absolute evil that is "built in obscelesence" and it is clear that progress is simply a wealth pump. The latest empire is not the US, it is the transnational corporate machine.

eagle eye

John Michael Greer said...

E-man, I've heard of Kohr but haven't gotten around to reading him yet. Many thanks for the reminder!

Brian, no sociopolitical state is permanent. The question is purely whether something can be sustained for the foreseeable future without imposing costs on those who come after that are higher than the benefits they receive from cultural transmission.

Yossi, I've responded to that here and here.

David, "better" is a value judgment, and of course that means it's going to differ somewhat from person to person. As for rotten vegetables, I need those for my compost bin!

Seb, I'm with you. If fizzy tasteless yellow beer were to be blasted from the face of the Earth by an offended deity, I would consider any collateral damage to be well worth it.

Unknown Eagle, a good point. One of the costs imposed by technology is the race to the lowest common denominator.

Brian, that's part of the fun of narrative fiction -- but remember that a lot of readers will come to this book with ideas like Carr's, and move with him through the process of getting a clue. Retrotopia is not intended to preach to the choir!

86 said...

I think that Rita was referring to minidiscs. These were actually an example of technological determinism not actually being a thing. As a magneto-optical disc they would not degrade like burnable cds and were nearly indestructible. The format was destroyed by the Sony legal and marketing departments outsmarting themselves, just as they did with betamax.

The current discourse reminds me of being involved with the commissioning of a biosolids processing plant that suffered from multiple layers of complexity being added in an attempt to solve problems caused by excess complexity. Although consuming enormous amounts of natural gas it was somehow promoted as being greener than the process that it replaced, which was leaving the stuff in a pile on the ground for three years.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@barrymelius--The story about babies being dumped out of incubators was a transparent update of British propaganda from the Great War about evil Huns bayonetting babies. I recognized it immediately.

That’s a rarely mentioned advantage of reading history. Being able to spot right away that someone is lying to you.

Christopher Henningsen said...

This was an excellent installment - I think I finally understand your position on progress a bit now. If I follow the 'martini' analogy further, what you're warning against seems to not be so much the amount of progress our species makes over its natural life span but whether it happens at a rate that allows the negative effects to be recognized and addressed; one might say that the rate of progress should not exceed our capacity to 'metabolize' it. An important distinction from the naively technophobic approach of drawing arbitrary lines and saying 'this far but no further!'

Patricia Mathews said...

@Cherokee Organics: Text messaging is a blessing to the hard of hearing, though. This fro experience.

234567 said...

@ eagle eye -

The only way to stop the transnational idiocy is for the true cost of the transit to be felt. With the energy subsidies worldwide, and at this point, a glut in oil due to falling consumption and world recession - energy cost bump is out for a bit. Unfortunately, this is part of the demand destruction cycle - which zero interest money accelerated right into the US shale plays.

Things are so interconnected financially, with all the crazy unregulated financial instruments - up or down, some uber-rich-psycho is making money, and that takes it away from us little guys. The unfortunate truth is that the LEECH CLASS and MIDDLEMEN (guys who provide no real service and produce nothing of value) have exceeded the carrying capacity of the economies of the world.

Bureaucrats, administrators, managers, assorted directors and officers and corporate and government officials - they only add cost, not value.

Your job is a Money Manager? Seriously?
Human Resource Analyst? WHAT?
Compliance Administrator?? Aaarrgghh!

It has to break before we can try something new. and it will not go without a fight.

tiotiomi said...

Since we're continuing with Technology and Progress this week, here is a timely article (with pictures) from this week's Georgia Strait (Vancouver's arts and culture paper) describing the Home of the Future as envisioned by Telus in a traveling road show. It gives a glimpse into what the mainstream thinks, or hopes we all think, about how good life can be with smart refrigerators and a lot of big screens.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

JMG, I enjoyed Mr. Vanich's rattling off the Tier Five cocktail list. Circa 1950 a pitcher of martinis, a pitcher of Manhattans, some canapes and onion dip was a cocktail party.

Gibsons and vodka martinis are decent drinks once in awhile. A martini with a twist is a martini. I haven't drunk an Old Fashioned made with good rye, so have no opinion. Otherwise, no substitutions, please.

My list of cocktails to make at home or order when out has the Negroni in place of the Manhattan. Probably only popular in places that have Italians. I have a warm place in my heart for the man who introduced me to Negronis. Mixed drinks with tricky ingredients are best ordered in bars that specialize in that.

John Michael Greer said...

Fudoshin, excellent. May it (and you) thrive!

234567, "Luddite"? Nah, you're just committing the heresy of technological choice. Blasphemer! ;-)

Trippticket, good! That kind of bit-at-a-time downshifting is a very useful way to get out of the progress racket. I'm not sure how soon Retrotopia will be out in book form, but it's got either five or six episodes left to round out the story, and I plan on getting it to the publisher immediately thereafter. I'll check with him about the probable timeframe, and keep everyone posted.

Zach, or the term "intelligence" has become a little more specific by 2065...

Ed, of course we could go with different technologies -- that's one of the reasons I had the young couple with the maser in an earlier episode. The point of the retro theme in this narrative is to point out how much of our present experience is defined by crapification in the name of progress, and to point out that going back to older technologies that cost less and work better, blasphemously heretical as that idea is, remains a viable option.

David, the next time somebody tells you you're in favor of the Articles of Confederation, you might consider saying, "No, I'm in favor of the Constitution," and show them the tenth amendment. As written, the Constitution defines the US as a federation of states which delegate only a very narrow range of powers to the national government. It's a good scheme; the reason it went out the window, of course, is that you can't really run a global empire that way.

Permie, hmm! Glad to hear it.

Stravinsky7, fascinating. That makes sense.

Barrymelius, well, yes. I do try to pay attention.

Gabriela, glad to hear it! I write on an old tabletop computer that runs Windows 98, so I can certainly sympathize with the repairman. ;-)

Moshe, that's a classic example of progress as the enemy of functionality. Thank you.

SLClaire, agreed! Green tea doesn't need flavoring; if it's good, it's got a lovely delicate flavor, while if it's the cheap raspy Japanese sencha I grew up with (and still enjoy heartily), it has enough flavor to whap you over the head and steal your wallet into the bargain. As for Carr, I'm actually not using the Kubler-Ross model here, but a somewhat different model. Stay tuned!

Pygmycory, well, there you are. You're not the only one who can't remember Mr. Darcy's first name; my wife, who's a passionate Austen fan, had to think about it for some minutes before she remembered that his first name is Fitzwilliam.

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, good. Yes, that's one way to think about it. In any society, each new technology that's introduced will bring certain benefits and impose certain costs. These latter include resource costs, which become more difficult to pay as the number of technologies competing for resources goes up, and complexity costs, which rise as the number and pervasiveness of technologies increase. Meanwhile the increment of benefit you get from each new technology tends to decrease, because low-hanging fruit (that is to say, technologies with high benefits and low costs) tend to be developed first. Thus you get to a point of diminishing returns, where each new increment of technology costs more and provides fewer benefits than the one before it; then you get to a point of zero incremental returns, where benefits and costs cancel each other out; and finally you get the point of negative returns, at which each new increment of technology makes things worse. We're well into that latter territory today.

Bob, Robbins' metaphor is a good one, but debt is again only one part of the picture. Ask people why they support growth and progress and you'll find that most of them have simply bought into the belief that growth is good because it's good and progress must progress because, well, it's progress.

Myriad, what that suggests to me is that a historical rather than a theoretical approach might be in order. Instead of asking "what characteristics should identify a plateau technology," that is, why not study a whole series of plateau technologies in contrast with non-plateau technologies, and see if there are certain telltale features that distinguish the two classes?

Sylvia, thank you! I know the feeling; now and then I go through the shelves, put together a stack of books I know I'm not actually going to get to, and sell them at a used book store so that someone else can have the fun of finding them.

Eric, funny! No, I enjoy the occasional martini -- a vodka martini, relatively dry, with a twist is my fave -- but most of the time I write without the assistance of steaks or mixed drinks.

Larry, glad to hear it.

Jdmeth, de gustibus non disputandum est, and all that. What on earth did you drink that tasted that bad, though? Introducing a novice to alcohol should be done gently, using things that taste good to the inexperienced tongue.

Martin, oil gets stolen all the time in today's world. I had in mind some of the hijinks in the Middle East, but yours is as good an example as any.

Greg, yes, but I'd suggest -- for reasons mentioned in responding to an earlier commenter -- that it's also true that the project of technological progress is subject to the law of diminishing returns, for reasons not limited to the growth of complexity costs. There are plenty of things that can't be reduced to an equation that are still important realities!

Cacaogecko, yep. The spread of such techniques is one of the things that gives me hope for the far future.

Audrey Pangallo said...

Hello John,
While I have opinions on the topic of these pieces you write, they aren't really relevant enough to point out. What I really want to talk about is your writing style. Specifically, I'm very interested in how you write your dialogue.
I haven't been reading your blog long enough to catch more than a couple of your fictional pieces, but from what I have seen, you write your secondary characters with an interesting voice. Your narrator has a really strong voice. Your secondary characters though, and I don't really mean this as a criticism, but the two secondary characters I've heard from (the one in this piece, and I think the last one was a mayor?) sound very similar to your voice, when you write your non-fiction blog posts.
At least to me they do.
Sometimes it almost sounds like you're not just telling a story, but using your characters to illustrate your own internal dialogue. It makes the piece feel very investigative and interesting.
Anyway, I'll look forward to seeing more.
Happy writing.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, you're welcome and thank you! You're right about entropy, of course, and it suddenly occurs to me that Clausewitz' concept of friction is also highly applicable here. Hmm. I'm going to have to brood on that one for a while.

Christopher, that's another issue, though it's a valid one. No, what I'm suggesting is that there may well be such a thing as too much technological progress -- that the process of limitless technological complexification pushed far enough produces costs that outweigh its benefits, and that there exists a happy medium between too little technology and too much.

Tiotiomi, what a hideous kitchen. For me cooking is a quiet activity involving simple tools, unprocessed foodstuffs, and some degree of concentration. Having screens yelling at me while some jerk on the internet hacks my refrigerator and holds the milk and eggs to ransom is exactly the kind of progress-as-crapification I loathe most.

Unknown Deborah, hmm! I've never had a Negroni -- in fact, I'll have to look that one up.

David, by the lake said...

John--

You are spot on re the 10th amendment and the structure of enumerated powers, which rather seem to be deal-letter these days. That whole topic got touched off when I expressed my support for a constitutional convention and was treated to responses of shock and horror at the notion.

I also appreciate your response (I forget to whom) that no socio-political state survives forever. A good reminder, as I keep falling back into that quest for a long-term solution. Sigh. All solutions are contextual.

siliconguy said...

"... suggests diminishing returns on technology in general doesn't mean all technologies reach those diminishing returns in the same historical year."

That realization, or lack thereof may be Carr's problem. When I go camping the two technologies I miss the most are hot showers and refrigeration. Neither of those has changed much since the 1930's, although both of those are more efficient now. The peak of airline technology now is more efficient than a 747, but no faster.

Wikipedia is probably the best part of the current Internet. And smartphones seem to have raced right by peak utility, assuming they were ever better than cell phones, which I still have not adopted. Nor will I until the local phone company decides to abandon the land lines (and maintenance is becoming more indifferent every year) or cell phones become mandatory "for your own protection in an emergency".

So there is plenty of evidence that diminishing returns sets in at a unique time for each technology.

Peter VE said...

@tiotiomi: that sounds like a long step on the way to the The Happy Breed by John Sladek, published in Dangerous Visions those many years ago. In the story, the computers have decided the limits of human intelligence and free will.
@ the unknown Deborah Bender: a Negroni in the Piazza Farnese is the ultimate. Lacking that, one at home is pretty darn good. ;-)

zerowastemillennial said...

I've started listening to some old time radio shows lately, and my GOD they're good. Tighter, better storytelling and line writing than anything I've seen on television today.

At any rate, I've decided that your dear protagonist for this story sounds like John Lund, and I'm reading the whole thing in his voice. It's... awesome.

Christophe said...

JMG wrote, "I've never had a Negroni"

That definitely needs to be remedied! No popular drink is quite as bitter and, as a result, interesting. Friends who always vacationed in Positano in the 60's and 70's first introduced me to Negronis. The Italian style is to mix even thirds of gin, Campari, and red vermouth. Most American bartenders have become so used to just rinsing their glass with vermouth that they make awfully gin-heavy Negronis. For the most part I find it easier to buy the three ingredients and make them myself than to argue with confused bartenders. Buon appetito!

Greg Burton said...

@JMG - Many of the important things can't be expressed as equations ;) And your logic appears sound. I suspect we can add a third factor to the over-determination of diminished returns: increased externalized risk. That's a new thought, so I can't flesh it out as yet, but Taleb might have some insight there.

Indus said...

Hi,

Isn't this the eighteenth installment of Retrotopia? I have the following in the series
Dawn train
View from window
Cab ride
Public utilities
Change of habit
Scent of ink
Question of subsidies
Inflows and outputs
Visit to capitol
Economics by other
Gift to be simple
Neglected technology
Learning lessons
Lines of separation
Back to what worked
Distant scent of blood
Far side of progress
Diminishing returns

Have I missed any? Thanks.

streamfortyseven said...

Actually, non-steel, non-aluminum, non-high tech carbon fiber bike frames exist today, made of bamboo and hemp fiber: http://calfeedesign.com/products/bamboo/ as one example. They use polyurethane resin to stick things together, spar varnish could, I think be used as well. Back before steel was used for rims, they were made of steam bent wood, something stiff like ash. That leaves the gears, spokes, cables, brake mechanisms, and chain; and the tires. As for tires, they're made of fabric coated with some sort of rubber which is then impregnated with carbon black (a/k/a soot) and sulfur, and submitted to heat and pressure. They'd probably be sew-ups - then you've got the valves, which require machining... Same case, probably, for the rest of the parts, but if the Wright brothers could do it ...

MigrantWorker said...

Good morning mr Greer,

Well, another example of negative consequences of technology popped out in a free newspaper I read on the bus today:

In last year's attacks in Paris, a young woman has died. Her father is now suing Google and Facebook for 'providing material support' to terrorist organisations which committed these attacks. He argues that the companies 'knowingly permitted' them to recruit members, raise money and spread propaganda using their web applications. He also 'alleges' that YouTube - and by extension Google, who owns the brand - was giving money to terrorists, by means of sharing revenue from the advertisments added to the published videos.

The companies of course argue that the accusations are 'without merit', that their terms of use prohibit terrorist recruitment, that they have special teams which search for such potentially dangerous uses and report their findings to the authorities etc. and in any case they cannot be held responsible for the content that the users publish.

The companies do not dispute the claim that their applications were used as a communication platform by terrorist organisations. But as I see it, the case is not about terrorism: it implicitly acknowledges that there are negative consequences of social media, and seeks to determine who will be burdened with dealing with them.

MigrantWorker

Karim said...

JMG said:"that there exists a happy medium between too little technology and too much. "

As my Grandma used to say (in french) : :trop et trop peu gatent tout les jeux"

which can be translated as: "Too little or too much of anything spoils everything"!

Karim said...

JMG wrote: "Technology, as a whole, subject to the law of diminishing returns. That couldn’t possibly be true. "

(1) Don't you think that by 2065, this would be blatantly obvious given the speed at which new technologies simply under perform?

(2) What could be the vulnerabilities of a country that voluntarily diminishes its dependency on advanced technologies like Lakeland Republic?

Seb Ze Frog said...

Good Morning.

Since Thermodynamics is among my favorite physics disciplines, I couldn't help but notice the mention of entropy in the context of diminishing returns. I hope no-one will be offended if I recap the law of thermodynamics here. It states that any energy transformation, from one form to an other, means transforming at least part of it in the form of heat.

It also states that to extract work (i.e. transformations) from heat, one needs to have this heat flow from a hot source to a cold source. If the cold source is "infinite", the process can last for as long as the hot source lasts.

The pure beauty of it is that you don't need to know any details about the process at work. Friction is the usual suspect here, since friction is just a lingo meant to say in fewer words "all those complicated little processes that happen to go against what I want to do, and heat the system instead". And while those processes are never easy to describe, because they involve many many interactions of many of the minute parts of the system one is considering, their effect can be summarized on large scales as the second law of thermodynamics.

Regardless, the second law of thermodynamics in itself doesn't imply diminishing returns.

The law of diminishing returns needs something more than the three laws of thermodynamics: it needs to take into account that the cold source, and the hot source, are finite. Note that for many thermodynamic applications, this is *not* the case: to study an engine, one usually assumes an infinite amount of heat (i.e. of oil) and an infinite amount of cold (i.e. the atmosphere never changes its temperature). This is a very useful approximation to understand one engine. But not a useful one to understand how a finite system will evolve.

I have been daydreaming of writing things like that for my kids, "Useful Thermodynamics: a field guide", or something like that... But for some reason it keeps floating in my long lists of "things I'd like to do". But several times I have had the feeling that this blog and the comments here might, one day, bring a spark that will...

Well, we shall see
Those were my two cents (of Euro, while it exists)
Seb















Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thanks and yeah, Carl von Clausewitz appears to me to be discussing his concept of friction as to how the abstract is not the actuality and the two must not be confused. He wrote in a very unusual style so as to avoid getting bogged down in the details. A very clever strategy too, which I am able to comprehend but totally unable to replicate using his language (that pretty much answers your homework from two weeks back!). It almost appears to me to read as a form of poetry. But then, perhaps that is a flight of fancy on my part? Dunno. Certainly you could use that mode of thinking and writing to adequately discuss and explain how a complete ecosystem looks when observed from a distance and on high, whilst still addressing many of the complexities of the ecosystem. Mind you, to do so would mean being slammed dunked by Universities and “peers”. Oh, it would be brutal.

Sorry, I digress. Chapter 7 which discusses Friction is quite a quick read, but it is very deep. It captured the essence of the difficulties I recently had explaining how the performance of the solar power system here cannot be assessed by the potential of the components, but rather how they functioned together, as well as the individual components, in real world conditions. I sometimes suspect that we have been trained from a very early age to break concepts down into ever smaller and more manageable components. That can be a very useful tool, but there are those pesky diminishing returns again... Incidentally, I reckon the second law actually describes the Universes theme music or rather: anthem!!! One of the problems with breaking problems down into ever smaller chunks is that at some point we lose the ability to consider the whole and that is what George Orwell was writing to with the novel 1984.

Getting back to the concept of friction. The parallels are fascinating. One interesting quote was: "Activity in war is movement in a resistant medium". What a fascinating insight and what I gather he is suggesting is that the goals that you set out and attempt to achieve will inevitably meet resistance (which can apply to any field) which he then goes on to explain can only ever be met (an interesting admission in and of itself - he uses the word mediocre no less) through real world experience. He made some rather interesting remarks about those that rely heavily on theory!

I believe he also slipped in the thought that one should not let the perfect stand in the way of the good merely because of (his concept of) friction. His time with the Russians is on display there.

And it was nice that he ended the chapter by discussing tact. The interesting thing was that I do not believe he used that word as we use it today. Instead it was used more as a sort of combination of good judgement and necessary understanding of the consequences of a person’s actions. Whilst, did I also detect an undercurrent of a solid grounding in Stoicism?

It was nice that he wrote his Modus Operandi in an incremental fashion over a number of years and that it also grew and changed as he did.

It was rather unfortunate for him that he was completely unaware of germ theory...

I reckon brooding upon the matter is certainly worth a few brain cells, as he has some very interesting things to say - especially in relation to that particular concept which was the one that stood out the most to me of all of them.

Cheers

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Patricia,

Of course that is very true. Technologies have benefits as well as costs, and that certainly is one benefit of text messaging.

Cheers

Chris

Twinruler334 said...

I fear that Great Britain might break apart, into its component countries-- England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland--- after it leaves The EU. It does not make me happy to think about, being a lifelong Anglophile. Indeed, it makes me feel rather sad to even think of it now.

James Gemmill said...

I wonder if one of the proposals Peter Carr will offer to Ellen Montrose, in the event the saber rattling between the Confederacy and Texas goes hot, is to go retro. Might be the only viable way to eliminate all those pesky vulnerabilities.

Ha! The elites in the Atlantic Republic will probably have to be decorating lamp posts before such a radical idea could even be presented, let alone be implemented.

pygmycory said...

On a totally different topic, I just sold some of my handspun to a local store.

Mike said...

On the topic of diminishing returns and technology, fans of the ironic will be glad to hear that one of today's featured TED talks (http://www.ted.com/talks/tristan_harris_how_better_tech_could_protect_us_from_distraction) tells us how technology can protect us from distraction.

Jasmine said...

Dear Mr Greer

I know this is off topic, but I would keep an eye on the EU referendum we’re having over here. The polls show leave ahead and I have a feeling from what I’ve heard on the ground, that the majority for leave could be higher than that indicated in latest polls. I could of course be completely wrong about this. I haven’t got a good word to say about the leave politicians, they’re a pretty nasty bunch, but the remain team have been beyond abysmal. I know they had project fear in the Scottish referendum, but this seems to be project fear on steroids with a tanker load of rocket fuel added for good measure. We’ve been told we that our economy would go down the drain, we would have war and that our pensions and NHS would be cut if we vote leave. They seem to be threatening us and people don’t like that kind of thing. I haven't heard a single positive thing about the EU from the remain camp, which makes me wonder if there is any good reason for staying. It was funny when Barack Obomber, sorry I mean Obama came here and threatened to put us at the back of the queue for a trade deal if we left. That means we will be back of the queue for TTIP, which is the best reason I’ve heard for getting the hell out of the EU. Every neoliberal sociopath in the western elite seems to be wetting themselves about this votes. I think they’re going to need some pretty good incontinence pads come next Friday. This could spell the end of the EU.

Speaking personally, I want to get out of the EU, because it is fundamentally undemocratic. Friends tell me that they will vote remain, because if we leave, we will be ruled by the tories who are worse than the EU. I agree with them. However I will vote leave because I prefer to have a government I can kick out, to a bunch of Brussel bureaucrats I can do nothing about. You might call this the removal van test of democracy and for all its faults, democracy in this country still passes that test. Having a functioning democracy will be essential if we are to survive the next 50 to a 100 years with some kind of social stability. I am not saying it will work, because we are going to be in for a hard time what with climate change, peak oil etc, but it will give us a better chance. We have a long tradition of democracy in this country which has survived two world wars and a great depression. This is important because democracy is a culture and a way of being in the world and its the way we do things in this country and we have a better chance of surviving if we stick to our traditions.

The campaign has been suspended for a few days because of the tragic murder of MP Jo Cox, but I think this is unlikely to change the vote

Zach said...

@Cherokee Organics and @JMG,

All right, you two are definitely bumping von Clausewitz's priority up in my reading queue.

peace,
Zach

Ed-M said...

And Mr. Carr still doesn't get it, does he? Hasn't he read the sorry history of the F-35 and other S&MIC boondoggles? Or is all that censored from the history books, even the files, in the Atlantic Republic?

Inquiring minds want to know!

On the technophile side, or rather technology-will-save-us-all-because-they'll-think-of-something side, Nikola Motors just came out with a new diesel/electric hybrid tractor for semitrailers (semiarticulated lorries for all y'all in the UK!). Except for the batteries and a capacity to use biofuels instead of diesel fuel/petrol, this is all a tweaking of GM's Electro-Motive Division offering of diesel-electric railroad locomotives staring with the E and F series in the 1930s. I expect it to go off to a good start and capture a significant and growing amount of the market... until we can't get our hands on lithium anymore. ;^)

OkanaganPermie said...

@trippticket,

No, I'm not the honoured Mr. Pilarski, I'm from north of the border (we say OkanagAn, you say OkanogOn). Indeed there is much to be gleaned from permaculture, especially Holmgren's work. Green Wizardry is a very permaculture book, although I know JMG doesn't like the term.,,

Ed-M said...

PS The Altantic Republic is going to be in a world of hurt! At least New England will be receiving a large portion of its electricity from HydroQuebec, just like today!

Patricia Mathews said...

And on the nastiness of the pro-leave politicians, Scotland's own Charlie Stross. Who generally has less use for the corporocrats/free trade/globalization crowd than he would for a nest of rattlesnakes.

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/

My private guess is that the minute Britain leaves the EU, Scotland will be approaching Scandinavia, with "Let's Make A Deal" in mind.

latheChuck said...

Jasmine (said): "We’ve been told that our economy would go down the drain, we would have war and that our pensions and NHS would be cut if we vote leave."

I hope you can see that that's only half of an argument. It leaves unsaid the likelihood that "our economy will go down the drain, we would have war and that our pensions and NHS would be cut" if you vote "stay", too.

As Woody Allen said: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” (According to goodreads.com)

John Roth said...

@streamfortyseven

You can make a workable bike frame out of a lot of different materials. As you point out, the hard part is the drive train, which has to be made out of something that can take a lot of wear. I don't know enough about materials to know if you can get by with something other than metals.

Justin said...

Jasmine, I don't have any specific issue with the EU, except for the point that we need much smaller more local governments now, not the the opposite. I found it disgusting, from my side of the pond the way the Remainers crawled all over her still-warm corpse with lies about the killer and teary-eyed pledges to fight harder for remain. I hope Britain sees through the lies and turns out for a massive Brexit vote, just to spite the empire of nothing.

(How cool is it that I could open up the ADR on Wednesday night without any expectations of hearing about the Orlando shooting?)

John Michael Greer said...

Audrey, this story is a little different from my usual fiction, since it's a utopian narrative and therefore has a didactic dimension. I'd be interested in whether you find the same thing to be true of my other fiction-- say, the "Adam's Story" series:
Twilight in Learyville
Nanmin Voyages
Banners in the Wind
Tillicum River
Uncharted Waters

David, all solutions are contextual, all solutions are temporary, and all solutions are the cause of the next round of problems. The bright side of all of this is that you don't have to try to make the universe perfect -- just to patch up the current troubles and try to keep things rolling in a good direction.

Zerowaste, I certainly agree about radio shows -- you have to be better if all you've got is voices and sound effects! I don't happen to know who John Lund is, though.

Christophe, so noted, and I'll make the opportunity to have one. Thank you!

Greg, "increased externalized risk" -- good. Very good. Definitely something I'll want to mull over.

Indus, no, you're right and my count was off. I left out an important lead-in to one of the later episodes, too, so will edit the post shortly.

Stream, sure -- give the Lakelanders another few decades to get the rest of the canals dug and finish a few other urgent projects, and I bet they'll be all over that.

MigrantWorker, a solid example. Thank you.

Karim, your grandma was a very wise woman! As for the diminishing returns on technologies, remember that every utopian narrative is about the present, and the 2065 of the story is a funhouse mirror through which to see right now. How many people today, despite ample evidence, notice that progress has long since passed the point of diminishing returns?

Seb, many thanks for the clarification. Of course you're right about entropy. I tend to base the law of diminishing returns more on raw historical experience than on any theoretical principle, mind you!

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, the more I think about Clausewitz' concept of friction the more useful it seems to me. War is indeed movement in a resistant medium, but then so is everything else! My first thought is that a principle of friction, whereby you start from the assumption what whatever you try to do will run into resistances and plan around those, would be a good starting point for systems thought; my second is that it might be possible to find some kind of general quantitative scale -- for example, the amount of friction is always proportional to the number of moving parts -- that might help guide decisions between lower-friction and higher-friction alternatives.

Twinruler, as I see it, that choice belongs to the people who live there.

James, heh heh heh. Stay tuned...

Mike, okay, that was another fine tea-on-the-keyboard moment. I expect another talk on how getting drunk will help you deal with alcoholism!

Jasmine, I'm paying close attention to it, not least because the Remain campaigners have conducted perhape the most incompetent political campaign of modern times. I may have something to say about that in a couple of weeks.

Ed-M, stay tuned...

Ray Wharton said...

I want to see Carr provide a better defense of the obvious virtue of progress. So much so that I invented one which might just work from his perspective. The most successful people he knows are the people at the helm of progress, or at least somewhere near the bridge. So controlling progress leads to prosperity, obviously. Therefore, having prosperity with out progress, is pretty nearly non sense, clearly.

Granted the rest of society has a TON of problems, but how can you say for sure they are related to progress, I mean that mess is so complicated that one could hardly possibly come to any solid conclusion about whats wrong with them.

Christophe said...

Cherokee wrote, "I sometimes suspect that we have been trained from a very early age to break concepts down into ever smaller and more manageable components."

That was one of the most startling realizations I had about Western culture while living in Indonesia. They don't break things down - they memorize entire things. While I was trying to learn music and dance the way we do in America, by learning the basic building blocks and the rules for assembling them (chords, arpeggios, tendus, pliés) they were teaching songs and dances. I simply couldn't follow them. My brain had to identify constituent parts, categorize them, and make up rules for their sequencing into larger entities. Otherwise I was in a hazy fog with nothing to grasp onto. By breaking things down, I could do things Indonesians could not like Western improvisation or shifting back and forth into other national styles. But Indonesians could memorize and internalize much larger concepts than I possibly could. Artists who had learned a 12-minute piece twenty years ago in school and never performed it since would hear the introduction played on the reyong or bonang and begin playing or dancing it flawlessly from memory. It was quite surreal.

Eventually I did become better able to let go and just learn by turning off some familiar part of my brain. It was strange because I could not force it at will. It was more like going through the preparatory rituals as a meditation to enter a mild trance state. If done properly, I was still in the hazy fog but whatever came next was always there to grasp onto. If done improperly, I was just trying to think my way through something impossibly complex. If done too well, I would slip into full trance and have no memory of the class or performance at all. That was when I played and danced the best and when the new works would be in all my dreams, but I didn't stand a chance of explaining them or breaking them down - that part of my brain had never learned them.

It really is startling to become aware that, not just our thoughts, but the very way we conceive of thinking is biased and limiting, and that other ways of thinking exist just outside our grasp, and that other people really do live in different worlds than we can experience. I like to think of this blog as being a slowly unfolding immersion in a foreign way of thinking - one that allows us to conceive of concepts more holistically in context rather than being distracted by irrelevant minutiae.

KL Cooke said...

"...a war novel set in post-US North America would be interesting, but I probably won't write it -- that takes different interests and literary skill sets than I have. Generally, the deindustrial dark ages have been sorely neglected as a setting for war stories, barbarian novels, etc. I'd like to see that change!"

Here's one.

http://www.lulu.com/shop/porter-walsh/solomon-wu/paperback/product-22757749.html

Not for those with delicate sensibilties, or the politically correct.

Jo said...

I am as always enjoying Mr Carr's slow but thorough epiphany as he enjoys his retro-gressive Lakeland experience.

I have been retro-gressing myself - I recently moved into a small, cosy cottage with my two daughters. It is tiny, close to the city, so walking distance to everything we need. I have retro-gressed to wood heating, which was a steep learning curve, but the best heat in the world, and on moving into our new quarters I left behind the dryer, dishwasher, microwave and TV.

We live in a radio shadow and our super-dooper fast internet service is slow and/or intermittent. Our lives have become very quiet. It is heavenly. My eleven year old daughter, deprived of her one-to-two hour TV fix every day has suddenly become a reader, devouring several novels a week. We play board games after dinner. We cook soup on the wood heater. I feel like we are living a life not unlike my grandmother lived. I am very much enjoying my retro-gressive new life, and want to thank you for your books and blog which have very much inspired me to continue moving in this direction. I'm sold! Progress can pass me by in my happy little backwater:)

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Hmm, you know it never occurred to me to consider guiding decisions between lower friction and higher friction decisions. Interesting. You know, I reckon the quantitative scale extrapolates his concept pretty nicely. I'm really at a bit of a loss about how to further expand the concept without getting bogged down into details, so I might give you an idea about how I deal with complex systems here such as the solar power system.

The solar power system is an inherently complex system because it contains many separate components and has to work under all conditions. By working, I refer to the concept of meeting an arbitrary goal under all conditions. War is a lot like that because the sheer scale of variables which you may or may not control (not controlling is the usual mode by the way) makes for an inherently complex system. I then work backwards from my arbitrary goal (and other people may have differing goals given the exact same circumstances, equipment and situation) and then either: adjust the existing components in the system; add additional components; and/or adjust my own expectations to suit the prevailing conditions. And then the system - which is inherently complex - has to be observed and if the performance drops below the arbitrary goal, then I have to revisit the various choices that I have available to me at that point in time.

And that is pretty much the decision making process I use to assess most projects here in the real world.

The thing that I take from that process and the concept of friction is that goals are both arbitrary and that a certain amount of feedback is built into the observation and experience side of the equation. It also does not end up in a binary choice for the observer and so it is more useful for complex systems.

As I wrote before I was having troubles explaining this without getting bogged down into details.

Cheers

Chris

Jasmine said...

Dear Mr Greer

Apologies for being off topic and going on so long. This is probably the most important vote of my life, so it has absorbed my attention

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the EU/USA tried to damage the UK economy if we left in order to punish us. However the thought of that makes me more keen to get the hell out of the EU. If I thought that the EU was a voluntary club that we could leave if we wanted to, then I would feel differently about it. It does suit the US empire to have us in the EU and I don’t think that the leave politicians want us to leave the US empire, they still want to be members of NATO etc. After all being in the US empire does reduce our defence costs etc. If the US is sensible, then they will accept that we want more independence and not try to stop us. After all it is better to have willing subjects than unwilling subjects. If Britain had adopted that principle in 1776, you lot over there might still have our Queen on your bank notes. This is a piece of psychology that the remain campaign have forgotten. If you use threats and fear, then people will be unwilling to do what you want them to do. This tactic may work if you’re Hitler or Stalin, but it does not work in a democracy. It reminds me of this man I heard on a radio phone in responding to Obama’s threat to put us at the back of the queue for a trade deal. He said something along the lines of

“Britain was first the queue when it came to invading Afghanistan, Britain was first in the queue when it came to invading Iraq; if that’s Obama’s attitude, then I’m voting out”.

I think my reaction is also shaped by our history. We are one of the few countries in Europe that has not been occupied, had a civil war or a dictatorship in the last century, therefore I am not particularly overawed by the EU. If I was Greek and lived in a country that suffered occupation, followed by civil war and the Colonels dictatorship, then I might have looked on the EU as the guarantor of democracy in my country and my attitude might be different. This may explain why the Greeks are conflicted and have not just put two fingers up to Brussels and left.

The other interesting question is what parliament will do if we vote for Brexit. The majority of MP’s in parliament support remain and the referendum is only advisory and has no power in law. Therefore parliament could decide to vote against leaving the EU. I think that this is more likely to happen if the majority for leave is small. However if they do this, then I think we could be heading for a constitutional crisis, especially if the majority for leave is large. Could be interesting.

The remain side overlook the fact that the EU is going collapse anyway, the Euro crisis which has plunged southern Europe into poverty makes it unsustainable. The only question is when it will happen and whether that collapse will be peaceful or come about as a result of war. If the EU let the crisis deepen for another 10 years, then the chances are that collapse will come about as a result of war. We have already seen fascists parties like the National front and Golden Dawn increasing in popularity. As some politician once said

“The first thing you should do if you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging”

By the way I saw some remain poster that said that Britons aren’t quitters. I am sure that the passengers getting on board the life boats as the Titanic started listing were called quitters.

Varun Bhaskar said...

Archdruid,

With the amount of damage that you've thrown at global industrial civilization, I'm surprised it's still standing. At what level of dysfunction will the global system stop being global? Certainly at this point in the retrotopic world vast territories must be controlled by warlords.

Regards,

Varun

pygmycory said...

Jasmine, thanks for pointing out the probable relationship between quite how turbulent Greece's 20th century history was, and their support for remaining in the EU and eurozone despite the very high costs to them. I hadn't fully put that together before.

william fairchild said...

JMG-

I like your use of highballs as a metaphor for diminishing returns in technology. They say that folks who suffer from addiction issues, at root, drink, smoke crack, shoot heroin, pop oxy, smoke cigarettes, because they like the way it makes them feel. Of course, there are certain biochemical issues. Smoking or chewing tobacco literally changes your brain. The noggin, unable to make what to do with nicotine, crossing the brain/blood barrier, makes a chemical receptor, a binder if you will. Now you are well and truly screwed. Because whilst the the binder is constantly produced, nic is not constantly present. Hence craving and withdrawal. The only solution IMO (whether you start with patches or not), a nasty 3 day detox (this can truly, truly suck) and then total abstinence.

I bring this up because it seems to me that tech has so embedded itself into this culture that it has created binders. Try and go without a car in many, many, neighborhoods, and you are hosed. Try and find a driving route, without GPS, you may be hosed. Maps are getting rarer and rarer. No internet access: how do we download Little Johnny's homework assignments for this week? Screwed.

So, does this culture have a "technology problem"? I think so. Must we hit "rock bottom"? Perhaps. The Lakeland Republic did, during their civil war. They came out okay, but most certainly chastened from ever taking the first high-tech drink again.

My personal experience with the diminishing returns of tech. Just yesterday, I had to replace the plugs and wires in my wife's minivan. I put if off for a few months, because I knew it would be a pain in the butt. Now, in the old days, when the standard motor was a straight 6 or a v8 with rear wheel drive, this would be a 20 min operation. But now, it is all FWD or AWD with the engine mounted "sidewinder", the engine compartment shrunk to save on weight, and all sorts of emissions stuff, and elec. do-daddery jammed in there as tightly as possible. So, the front 3 plugs. Not so bad. But the rear three, well, I had to put the van on ramps, wait for the exhaust manifold to cool, and then engage in automotive yoga and contortion. Cylinder 5 was like a one-armed downward facing dog. And it was all by touch, since I couldn't see in the tiny space. This is why I don't wear gloves while turning wrenches.

So you gain a little mileage on a FWD car and some stability in snow. But if it needs work, normal repairs (an alternator, spark plugs), become either a pain in time and effort, or a serious, serious cost if you take it to the shop. And God help you if your flat screen controller goes wonky. No A/C or radio for you without beaucoup bucks.

trippticket said...

JMG: "That kind of bit-at-a-time downshifting is a very useful way to get out of the progress racket."

Happy to be of service in THAT regard for a change! After 2 years of living in a big tent, and 2 more in the resultant 480 s.f. cottage, without any power or indoor plumbing the whole time, with my wife and 2 children, while building extensive gardens by hand all around it, wood stove, sawdust toilet, rainwater, and no internet most of that time, it's nice to be the moderate guy!

Now, we're really just helping some friends get some serious food production going at their homestead in exchange for a house to live in, and 4-5 acres of gentle south-facing slope, with a spring at one edge. We'll rebuild, with improvements on the last attempt, in the next couple of years. Coolest part is, our new pending property consists mostly of blow-down from (presumably) a microburst some time a few years ago, so there's a lot of cleanup to do, but I shouldn't have to take any more timber down. Or not much.

Meanwhile, we're retro-teching the interim house we're in back a couple of tiers, and renting our off-grid place out as a 150W weekend experience (you now get hot running water in a kitchen sink, a couple ceiling fans, and a couple of AC outlets - how spoiled...). It's a nice little place, and I hope it will show people how beautiful and quiet living like that can be. And tasty! The perennial gardens are really starting to pop - plums, peaches, figs, loads of berries, gourmet mushrooms - plus the ever-present potatoes, green beans, and zinnias for the table. Not to mention the medicine garden growing among it all. We are herbalists by trade.

Guests can also order produce in advance from the farm we're building now. The first pastured chickens are ready to process, turkeys growing and goat coming, rabbit, eggs, local charcuterie made by my brother, a wide range of veggies, and eventually beer, cider, and mead. We're laying down mead now, babying a cider orchard, tentatively planting our first hops, and learning to brew beer. And we'll probably offer organic cannabis down the road a bit, too, when it's legal. Just gettin' the soil ready...

Oh, and I homeschool our children. And referee area soccer to stay in better aerobic shape. Been busy. But I agree that organic, step-wise adaptation is probably the best path. My wife just happens to like my particular brand of crazy.

Myriad said...

"Myriad, what that suggests to me is that a historical rather than a theoretical approach might be in order. Instead of asking 'what characteristics should identify a plateau technology,' that is, why not study a whole series of plateau technologies in contrast with non-plateau technologies, and see if there are certain telltale features that distinguish the two classes?"

The problem there is circularity. To identify plateau technologies, we first identify plateau technologies and look for their common characteristics…

I know you meant something more like "to identify present or recent plateau technologies, we first identify past historical plateau technologies…" but the problem doesn't really go away. A whole host of technologies, from Arabic numerals to printed books to LEDs, are historically relatively recent, very widespread, and not yet tested by the collapse of the cultures originating or adopting them. (Indeed, that's why we're interested in the question, at least for SF purposes even if most of the eventual outcomes are irrelevant to our personal fates.) Many of them have replaced older longer-standing technologies that nonetheless had major drawbacks and/or externalized costs of their own. (Consider torches, oil lamps, candles, incandescent light bulbs…) A fair unbiased comparison between historical and present forms, for plateau status, is a challenge.

I suspect your suggestion is getting at characteristics like simplicity, resource sustainability, localizable production, longstanding use, and widespread use, all strong indications of resiliency. We start out, a priori, expecting that pottery, steel blades, and sailing vessels are likely candidates for plateau technologies. (At the other extreme, technologies completely dependent upon vanishing non-renewable resources cannot qualify, and frivolous embellishment like powered or Internet-connected versions of things that work perfectly well unpowered and un-Internet-connected is a strong sign that the point of diminishing returns has been passed.) However, resiliency varies separately from value. Circumstances such as displacement or war can put even the simplest and most beneficial technologies out of economic reach, right down to the most basic sanitary facilities (e.g. a hole in the ground). That's no proof that the technology itself is too complex for plateau status. A better test would be whether the technology consistently comes back into use when circumstances stabilize, but as I said this has not been tested for most of the cases we're interested in.

What I've found with such questions is that they tend to become irreducible in two different ways. The first way is that any given technology's plateau form depends on its context, including infrastructure, available resources, and usage, which depends in turn on other technologies and on the society. The second, partly as a consequence of the first, is that a meaningful assessment requires one to be an expert on, basically, everything. (cont.)

Myriad said...

So, for instance, to figure out whether the strange forms of modern compound bow (the ones with the weird cam wheels and criss-crossed strings and bits sticking out all over) are a significant and sustainable advantage, or post-diminishing-returns aberrations, I'd have to learn a whole lot more than I know about archery (to assess the advantages and disadvantages in actual use) as well as such technical areas as fiberglass manufacture, not only how it's done now but also how it could be done differently (to assess localizability, feasibility and costs within a hypothetical resource-stable economy). I've done this again and again for other technologies, often getting into some really fascinating areas in the process, but there's never an ultimate end point. And I also have to consider the usage cases: if the advantage of the modern compound bow's more complex features is in being easier to master rather than in ultimate performance, that could still be a decisive advantage if one expected to equip a large force with the weapon (see also: crossbows), but not if it's for use by a highly trained elite force. But in either case, the whole question could be moot if the actual plateau technology for personal projectile weapons is firearms instead…

Perception rather than logical deduction wins out, of course, especially when story submission deadlines loom!

trippticket said...

On that topic, we are actually looking for someone to live in our off-grid house for a couple of months while I finish getting it ready for the rental market. I would expect this person to maintain an obvious presence on the property, water and pick the gardens so I don't have to run back and forth so much, and help me with some light construction, electrical, and plumbing projects. Some pre-existing skill in those areas would be helpful! No money needs to exchange hands in the summer term, but I'm shooting for having it ready to rent by Labor Day. Could turn into a longer term rental agreement if the situation is right.

The property in question is in Ellijay, Georgia, closer to Jasper than Blue Ridge, about an hour and a half north of Atlanta, and an hour and a half southeast of Chattanooga. Contact me at my blog, www.smallbatchgarden.blogspot.com, or by email at my user name@gmail. There will obviously be an appropriate vetting process involved, but hanging out here in the first place is a great start.

It's my hope that this ad catches someone among the ADR readership at just the right place and time in their journey. Until then, adalante amigos.

Tripp out.

siliconguy said...

Those subversive thoughts about diminishing returns stayed in my head even when I was out on the shooting range. It seemed quite fitting that I was sighting in a 270 Winchester (designed circa 1930) built on a bolt action Paul Mauser would have recognized instantly as being copied from his 1898 design. They haven't really improved on the 270, except at the cost of a lot more powder consumption and recoil and muzzle blast. Nor has the bolt action changed much, although manufacturing tolerances are much better now, as is barrel steel.

On the other hand, on my truck the check engine light just came on. Is the 2008 model really any better than the 1990 I used to have? Not really, although the gas mileage is better, at the cost of a large increase in complexity (Secondary injection air supply solenoid?) Peak technology in cars was probably with the advent of electronic ignition. I really do not miss ignition points. Fuel injection was nice especially for winter starting, but it wasn't that great an advance over carburetors from the users point of view.

And the new Scientific American just showed up. One of the articles is on how the Internet of Things is just not taking off the way "they" expected it to. They being the advertisers who want the data, I suppose. A big increase in complexity in exchange for...what exactly?

And diminishing returns must have set into the advertising business, as they seem to be scrabbling ever more desperately for each dollar the unprotected class (or wage class) still has.

So, more data to support the hypothesis that not all technologies reach diminishing returns at the same time, but there is no reason to suspect than any technology is immune from diminishing returns either.

Jeanne Labonte said...

The subject of flying cars made me go look at a YouTube video of the Jetsons intro. The car had no wheels but did have landing gear which is visible for about two seconds before George has his transportation neatly fold up into a briefcase and (thanks to cartoon physics) picks up without any effort to take into the office with him.

In regards to the complaint about the hazards of old fashioned shaving, now you know why barber shops were so popular. I can still remember the old barber shop that used to be in town complete with the classic spinning pole, a legacy of the association with bloodletting, surgery and apparently occasional tooth pulling.

The local Congregational church threw a ‘low-tech’ fun day for families with old fashioned activities such as croquet and hula hoops, for the second year in a row. It was so popular last year that they held it again this year, adding arts and crafts along with a ‘good fortune lady’. There seems to be a growing hunger for simpler things. Let’s hope it’s a real trend.

@JMG, last week in the comments section I submitted my two contributions to the Space Bats contest but didn’t see any confirmation that you picked them up. I’m assuming you did, but we all know what happens when you ‘assume’ something…..

Hobbes2012 said...

Here is a new article about how the future will just transition seamlessly to renewable energy and everything will be fine. I'm very skeptical - this appears to be a reasoned, forward-looking series of predictions, but something seems to be missing. Is this a possible future? Or just more cornucopian wishful thinking? Linear trends run amok, in other words.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-13/we-ve-almost-reached-peak-fossil-fuels-for-electricity

What would be the reasoned rebuttal to this? One missing component I noticed is no mention of possibly running out of the raw materials for all these renewable energy devices. Another possible snag is that the reduced costs for solar and wind depend on the economies of scale which come about as the result of large scale deployment. This seems a bit of a circular argument. Solar and wind are widely deployed because the costs come down due to wide deployment. Hmmm...

Am I missing something?

Grebulocities said...

Is it just me, or has the pace of historical events seemed to have picked up dramatically in the past year or so? Things seemed to go remarkably slowly throughout the period 2009-2014, even though we were mired in the worst depression since the Great one. The curtain had been pulled back in 2008 and everyone had seen the wizard for what he really was, but somehow the political and economic systems seemed to just chug on regardless. Now, though, it seems like change - the real, gritty and painful kind of change in which some people will get hurt, not Change We Can Believe In - really is in motion.

Can you or anyone else here confirm or refute that? It's not based on anything but a feeling, and I can't really prove it, but it seems like the cracks in our sclerotic political systems throughout the Western world are growing like those in a Bangladeshi garment factory nowadays.

John Michael Greer said...

Ray, he won't be providing one, because I've never yet heard any true believer in progress offer one. The strength of the faith in progress is precisely that it's a blind faith, wholly circular in its logic, and resting entirely on unquestioned and unstated value judgments. There are plenty of rationalizations offered by believers, especially of the "I get to claim everything good progress has done, but don't you dare mention anything bad it's done" variety; once you start trying to reason your way to faith, though, faith is drawing its last few breaths. Carr, as a surrogate for the reader, has to go through the same process of getting out from under blind faith in progress that many readers will go through, and that's why I'm modeling his reactions so closely on those I observe.

KL Cooke, nah, that's a post-apocalyptic novel of the standard "after a nuclear war" variety -- there have been truckloads of those. I'm looking for fiction set in a world in which industrial civilization declines the way other civilizations have declined, without benefit of apocalypse.

Jo, thank you for this! It's accounts like yours, of people who have ditched the dubious benefits of progress and discovered that yes, in fact, life really is more fun without the latest technotrash, that make writing this blog easy.

Cherokee, and that's a reasonable process. My thought is that there might be some kind of simple quantitative shortcut, not to replace the process but to factor into it, that would work out some kind of surrogate for estimating probable friction in advance. I'm not yet sure where to go with it -- all I have at the moment is the idea. Hmm...

Jasmine, no question, it's going to be a spectacle whatever happens. The question at this point is not whether the EU is going to collapse, but simply how and when -- but those latter points have a lot to say to how much damage is going to happen to Europe in the process.

Varun, good -- you caught that. I'm not factoring that into this particular story, because I don't want to distract from the core point -- the benefits of deliberate technological regrssion -- by bringing in other issues such as the coming of the deindustrial age. In a real 2065 of the sort I've sketched out, though, maybe half the world will no longer really be part of the global economy.

William, one of the reasons I expect to see more and more people bailing out of the current institutional arrangements in the US -- public schools, the usual kinds of employment, "health" care, etc. -- is that those have so blatantly turned into a racket meant to soak the ordinary citizen. Relocate somewhere where you don't need a car and you can do without a vast number of hassles, including the soaring cost and difficulty of car repair. Go to home schooling and you don't have to upload Johnny's homework, and so on.

Tripp, congrats! The new digs sound very nice, and all that blown-down wood -- oh my. Lots of possibilities.

Myriad, nah, I'm thinking of looking at previous civilizations, identifying the technologies that plateaued in their historical arc, and generalizing from that basis. Any technology invented by our civilization is too recent to be sure of, but that leaves plenty of others, from clay-tablet writing and irrigation canals to windpowered ships and the city-state. No plateau is permanent, but it's not hard to find specific technologies that, once reached, remained in use in essentially the same form for a millennium or more, and that'll do.

John Michael Greer said...

Siliconguy, it strikes me that all this is rather similar to the structure of peak oil. No two oil wells, oil fields, or oil provinces hit peak at exactly the same moment, but if you add it all up, global production of conventional petroleum has a definite peak. In the same way, technologies may peak at different dates, but the entire project of technological progress may have a discernible quantitative peak.

Jeanne, yes, I did -- thanks for checking! A reminder to everyone who's submitted a story: please also, if you haven't already done this, put through a comment marked "not for posting" with your name, your email address, and the title of your story, so I can figure out who to contact once the winners of the current contest have been chosen.

Hobbes, there have been scores of rebuttals to this sort of pie-in-the-sky reasoning -- indeed, there's an entire literature on the subject. You've cited two of the difficulties such arguments try to magic away -- resource shortages on the one hand, and circular reasoning around economies of scale on the other; there are plenty more. You might want to look into how much renewable technology only pays for itself because it's supported by lavish government subsidies, for example, and how much actual net energy comes out of these schemes.

Grebulocities, I don't think it's just you. Things seem to be accelerating in a way familiar from history...

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Well yeah, the number of individual components and/or variables is a pretty good start. You see, I reckon the scale of the evasiveness and outright dodgy claims that get thrown around is relative to those two metrics - nothing much else matters. It may well be that simple.

Cheers

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Ooops, forgot to mention that it has parallels to Hagbarts Law!

Phil Knight said...

JMG,

With regard to resilient technologies, you might want to check out "Shock Of The Old: Technology and Global History since 1900" by David Edgerton

Jo said...

If any of you are looking for deindustrial fiction, you might be interested in 'The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047' by Lionel Shriver which I have ordered from the library. It is her latest novel and my interest was piqued when I read this review:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandarts/lionel-shriver-the-mandibles-cautionary-tale-economic-collapse/7513896

This is how Shriver describes her novel:

'I wanted to write about civil breakdown but not in the terms that we usually read or watch about it,' Shriver says.

'I didn't want gangs of murderous rapists running through the streets. I didn't want zombies!

'I wanted to control the scale of it, so that it felt accessible, so that it seemed as if this indeed could be you. The trick of writing the plot was having things fall apart very slowly and in a way that seems credible.'

Looks like quite our cup of tea. Can't personally recommend it yet, but will post a review when I get my library copy. Or more than likely someone here has already read it? Would love to know what you think..

David, by the lake said...

John-

"and all solutions are the cause of the next round of problems"

This is incredibly liberating. Accepting the limits of humanness is one of my key challenges. (You made a similar point in "A World Full of Gods" with respect to the lack of "an Archimedean point of objectivity," which also resonated strongly with me.) Thank you.

Tripp said...

"The new digs sound very nice, and all that blown-down wood -- oh my. Lots of possibilities."

I'm giddy just thinking about it. The last four years were a great experience, and I'm certain we can do a better job of it this time - better passive solar design, better blending into the landscape, better garden-house integration, more attractive structure. We've got our sights set on a substantial local rock plinth wall (we've got great blocky granite lying around on the hills here), topped with a few feet of thick cob, and as much heavy timber framing from the blow-down as we can pull off. Lots of light, white gypsum plaster inside, great herb shop separated slightly into the garden.

Brought home a flyer advertising a guy and his portable sawmill from the local feed store yesterday. Rates seemed totally reasonable. Told his wife what a great side business I thought her husband had started. Looking forward to getting him out here.

Meanwhile, blackberries are coming on...

Oh, and even though I didn't get the literary homework done - and I'm sure I would benefit from it - I did get some other homework done: planting marginal food crops for warmer times ahead. There are now 5 fig trees between the two farms, and they are right on marginal for our area, but seem to be doing well.

Kyle said...

JMG and Cherokee,

Re: finding a simple metric to estimate friction. While it may not be exactly about friction, Nassim Taleb's fragile/robust/antifragile metric for risk is very simple and seems like it would apply. His point is that things are unpredictable, so instead of trying to predict effects, for example, you minimize your exposure to negative black swans, and maximize it to positive black swans.

Large things are complex and fragile, and therefore highly exposed, and not coincidentally, bound to encounter a lot more friction due to the moving parts and the reduced options. Moving 5,000 troops, with all their equipment and supplies, is high friction because it is large and complex, and there are few ways they can move, and fewer ways they can adapt if things go wrong.

Compare that to an 8-man special forces team. If they experience friction, which is less likely because they have fewer moving parts, they also have more options for adapting. Obviously these two different forces are used in different ways, but you can compare the large, centralized army to one composed of mostly-independent smaller units.

It seems like assessing a situation in the terms laid out in Antifragile would be an effective way to minimize exposure to friction and maximize optionality when you inevitably encounter it. A salaried employee with debt is fragile. Someone with a half dozen distinct monetizable skills, no debt, and a savings account is at least robust, if not antifragile depending on the skills. If both lose their job, the latter will experience considerably less friction in his life because he has lots of options and less exposure (in is case, debt).

The same kind of thinking could be applied to a new technology, or anything we call progress. If there is a small, well-understood maximum downside and a large, unknown upside, that would be antifragile, and we'd want to accumulate as many of those opportunities as possible. But if the upside is small and well-defined, while the downside is murky and potentially ruinous, that's fragile and we could avoid such exposures. This line of thinking also fits perfectly with the Burkean conservatism you wrote about a few posts prior.

Bruno Bolzon said...

JMG, and Myriad, I think we can safely assume that whenever the costs of adding more complexity to a given technology outweighs the benefits of adding such complexity, that technology has plateaued. Costs and benefits are, of course, variables, and will change according to the energy available in given society and its particular needs and conditions. Since that energy level has remained stable throughout different societies until the industrial ages, most technologies have also plateaued during the pre-industrial time.

Hubertus Hauger said...

One of the underlying questions, again and again arisen here and within myself are; Where is it all going?

Long the idea is going with me, that there are cycles. Ever repeating, irregular feedback circles, triggered for their conclusion from ever changing origins. But somewhat resembling.

The strongest systematic I got from Joseph Tainter, where I also first encountered that expression; Diminishing returns. His research makes sense to me, that a fabric lying underneath each and ever collapsed society. Even, as his studies do only refer to half a dozen such cases.
Him I do understand, that the cycles closing automatism comes from diminishing returns. Then the cycle is completed with a collapse and another cycle begins allover again.

Now I have come across one human civilization, that's called Cucuteni-Trypillian culture.

But this one is tricky. Because what I sense nowadays, that of many people who are ready for a transition, them do see in sort of organic farming society, living in harmony with nature for ever and ever, the salvation all yearn for.
For this desired myth, the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture has something to say about. As I understand it, them were a quite lively organic farming society. No worshiping of warfare or privileged statutes, a rather egalitarian society with strong matriarchal orientations. And they seemed to have enjoyed quite some living standard, while feeding plenty of people.

Sounds perfect, doesn't it? The only thing I am critical about, is, that they vanished!
As I understand contemporary science is saying, due to “... Ecological deterioration … after millennia of farming and deforestation …, making what had once been a land that was bursting with abundance and fertile soil into a relative desert of overworked soil…” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decline_and_end_of_the_Cucuteni%E2%80%93Trypillian_culture#Ecological_collapse)

If a society seems to have been in harmony with nature, than it was the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture. Yet, there was never a time of everlasting salvation and my guesstimation is, there never shall be. Only an ever repeating cycle of life, completed with death at the end and another one beginning afterwards.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

A couple of months ago, we had a discussion in the comments section about right livelihood. I listed several occupations in which one might earn a living doing something useful. One was lawyer.

I was wrong about that. Some lawyers do earn a living doing honest work but law school tuition has gone up and there are too many lawyers already in the US, so it's a bad bet. The Lawyers, Guns and Money blog has been covering second tier law schools that charge high fees, have low rates of students passing the bar, and those who do don't earn enough to pay off their loans. Here is the latest entry:

http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2016/06/is-steve-diamond-a-mole-for-the-law-school-reform-movement#comments

Chris M said...

I am a regular reader but only one comment so far, even though I am so interested by JMG's posts that I mean to comment almost every week!.
W Brian Arthur has an interesting take on diminishing returns of technology in his book 'The Nature of Technology'. As a broad summary in chapter 7 he describes what he calls 'structural deepening' in which technologies are developed by elaborating their design, ostensibly to improve performance and overcome constraints. Over time the technologies may improve in performance but they becomes encrusted with systems and subassemblies added on to help them work properly, handle exceptions, extend their range of application and provide redundancy in event of failure (e.g. adding engine control units and emissions control technologies to gasoline engines). The additions may add complexity that becomes a burden. Eventually there comes a time when additions do not add much to performance and a novel principle is needed. But it may not arrive and even if it does it may not easily replace the established technology. The old technology is 'locked in' – because elaborations allow the mature technology to perform better than its nascent rivals, adopting a novel principle may involve changing surrounding structures and organisations (which may not be economically viable) or users may feel threatened by the novel. Arthur calls this adaptation of a locked-in established principle beyond what may be sensible 'adaptive stretch'.
The notion of lock-in to inappropriate technologies is found widely in the environmental literature especially in reference to our dependence on carbon-intensive technologies, and in my view goes some way to explain our failure to transition to more sustainable approaches.
Chris

donalfagan said...

I've gotten through the first book and a half of Middlemarch. It occurred to me today that if Eliot had been writing Retrotopia, Carr would still be on the train, but we'd have been told every last detail about his lineage, prospects and previous relationships.

Patricia Mathews said...

@Jo: sounds good. I'll look at the link. Also good: Octavia Butler's PARABLE OF THE SOWER.

@Hubertus: The question in your first sentence needs "....and why are we in this handbasket?"

Moshe Braner said...

Cherokee wrote: "the performance of the solar power system here cannot be assessed by the potential of the components, but rather how they functioned together, ... in real world conditions".

This prompted me to bring up my recent measurements: I've built myself a small solar-panels-and-batteries-and-inverter backup power system. Not to save the planet etc, but to have a bit of electrical power for essential purposes if the grid were to go down for more than a few hours. Which seems likely here on a dirt road in Vermont. Sure enough in the 8 years I've had this system there never has been such an outage, so it's been a 100% success! :-) But instead of letting the system sit idle waiting for an emergency, I try and make it do something useful, especially in the sunnier parts of the year.

So I have 4 solar panels, a total of close to 800 watts of nameplate peak power. That's about 19 kilowatt-hours (KWH) of energy per 24-hour day, about the electrical energy used by a typical American household. But that's only if the sun were to shine brightly all the time, directly perpendicular to the panels. Alas there are things such as nighttime, clouds, etc. But this is June, so you'd expect perhaps 1/4 of that, say 5 KWH per day, which is about how much my household uses in total.

Last month I finally got hold of a mechanical KWH meter like the utility used to have on the side of the house (before they moved on to so-called "smart meters" which is another example of high-tech that costs way more than its worth). So wired it into the output of my main inverter to see what I am actually getting out of solar power. This time of year I run the refrigerator and two chest freezers on it - one freezer around the clock, and the rest only when the sun shines (with automatic switch-over based on the voltage of the battery bank). This load is probably not enough to fully use up the potential solar power. But my batteries are 8 years old and getting weak, and I don't want them discharged too deeply overnight. Real-world whole-systems friction in action.

Net result: In the last month I have been getting about ONE KWH per day. About 5% of the nameplate power. The amp-hours going into the battery are more than double that, so the roundtrip efficiency (available power into batteries and back out of batteries and through inverter) is less than 50%, due to inefficiencies in the charge controller, the battery, and the inverter.

Proponents of grid-tied "net metering" will claim that I could push more energy out to the grid while the sun shines. From a whole-systems perspective, that is only true because there are others who are using air conditioning at that time, which they don't really have to. And the investment in the solar panels would have been better put into insulating those houses better, teaching them to close shades during the day and open windows at night, etc.

Unknown said...

Deborah Bender, and anyone else interested, Anyone considering lawyering in jurisdictions that use English law as a basis for their legal system should read Evan Whitton's history of English Law here:

http://netk.net.au/whitton/ocls.pdf

It is very thorough, very scathing, and he has never, ever been challenged by the legal profession

For all his faults, Napoleon Bonaparte did produce a better legal system from every perspective but the one that counts for the legal professions.

Avoiding that industry is a good idea, career and soul wise, I think. It was the choice I made. Not that that is doing me any good at present, dairy has collapsed and with it my hours. I am now looking to cut expenses and supplement my income. I am thinking garden tools made of of reclaimed stainless steel, and sold at markets might be the go. I have the equipment, most of the skills, and contacts in the recycling game.



eagle eye

latheChuck said...

The question of prospects for lawyers during decline intrigues me, in that I'm trying to get a grip on Sharia Islamic Law, and very sketchily drawing parallels between the harsh existence of the Middle East and North Africa in the pre-petroleum age and the harsh existence of, well, just about everywhere in the post-petroleum age. Rich as we are now, we can afford to provide food, clothing, transportation, and shelter for the accused awaiting trial, and then for the convicted for terms sometimes as long as the rest of their expected lifespan. They lose only their freedom, while the rest of us pay taxes for their support. But in an age where some of us die due to simple scarcity, when the best lives are still a struggle for survival from one harvest to the next, then this sort of "justice" doesn't look sustainable.

Instead, wouldn't it make more sense to have the quick, painful, and humiliating sentence of "a day in the stocks" and then get the convicted back to work? Or a week of hard labor on the treadmill, or a year on the galley? Or maybe a short spell in jail, but the only source of food and water is the friends and family outside who think you're worth supporting? Without support, a month in jail might as well be death.

Children raised in a society of scarcity will grow up to owe a tremendous debt to the adults around them, and as those adults grow elderly, they have a right to expect that debt to be repaid. A young adult who repudiates that debt is imposing more hard labor, and possibly premature death, upon the elders. Thus, young adults must be made to appreciate the seriousness of these obligations. Maybe you only get once chance to decide: leave the village/tribe/clan/whatever, and you'd better be able to make it on your own, because there's no shelter for you where you came from. "If you come back, come back rich enough for all of us."

It calls for a radically different sense of "social justice" than anything I've heard lately.

Varun Bhaskar said...

Archdruid,

Makes sense.

Rita said...

@ LatheChuck--about 30 years ago I read a proposal to replace imprisonment with a modern equivalent of public flogging, i.e. carefully calibrated electric shocks. The author's argument was not based on economy, so far as I recall, but on the unfairness of the prison system. He pointed out the huge discrepancies in sentencing as one aspect, but also the difference in result. One man might serve his five years without incident; another might be raped repeatedly; another might be killed in fight. I don't think he extended the idea to the type of crimes for which people really need to be isolated from society--murder, violent rape, etc. I also don't recall reading any response to the book. It was one of those that just drop out of sight. Does anyone else recall this book or author, it was out sometime in mid to late 1980s.

Anyhow, I agree that when times get tougher there will be a reaction against the penal system. The idea of convicts being housed and fed in relative comfort while law abiding people are living on the edge will become a huge issue. On the other hand, correctional officers unions and the private companies that are profiting from high incarceration rates will fight any change.

I rather wish our narrator had had occasion to sample the courts and criminal justice system in the course of his visit.

Candace said...

@ Hubertus
Your comment made me think of a lecture I listened to that mentioned a Central Asia civilization I'd never heard of. Couldn't find that reference, but came across this which has quite a bit to explore.

http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/dialogue/general-and-regional-histories/history-of-civilizations-of-central-asia/

Hubertus Hauger said...

“But, I am the son of a maharajah!” comes into my mind. This indignant outcry. Some former dignitary member in India, with rather no skill except their social position. No longer they enjoyed and painfully missed their formerly safe comforts, they so yearningly wished to be pampered with again. JMG calls it entitlement.
That entitlement is a great force to resist a voluntary change towards the harsh reality of a more frugal existence. And that’s what we are being confronted with now.
I see us all being together in this space of entitlement. Even not all of us are descendants of a maharajah. Still we are in a position of privilege. Hardly on moves away voluntarily. For me its not them and us. I see us all together in this. Clinging to privilege is a natural state. Just natural build in self-interest.
While the above one keeps po-faced, unwilling turning away from their entitled privileged, the others are full of misgivings towards them. This reproachful tone I so often hear. In particular I see here plenty of envy, malevolence and jealousy. Guess its mirroring an entitlement of also wanting to be in the position of the privileged.

Beside that emotional approach I see a force within us, to push towards a privileged position. As a matter of fact, so is our nature. That forces is moving us compulsory. Considering that, makes it unreasonable, to blame the other for it, either or. We can not do anything against that forces.
Instead I see, that an inbuilt joy is driving us towards any promising living space, we may be able to inherit it. Anything that is supposed to give us an advantage above our competitors in life. Its natural to overshoot. Its not only the myth of progress, but it’s the reality of our nature. We cannot act otherwise. Being destined for overdoing things. As only the borders of our existence are our limits. But this limits must be reached. Otherwise they cannot be experienced. When we experience however that limits, we do adapt to it. Rather a sensual process than a mental. Survival of the fittest means, we have to feel the limits first, to fit it secondly!

To me it is not reasonable, to postulate, that this overshoot could have been avoided with reasonable restrain. Afterwards it can. But not in advance! As a mass we do not act that reasonable. Instead we act emotionally instinctive. Like a baby does, when it swallows the sweaty dusty big toe of daddy in his mouth. So it really gets it.

Well, I admit, then the above mentioned reproachful attitudes are natural too. Coming out of that emotionally instinctive frame we are compulsory bound to. All is limited. Our living space and our capabilities to understand that worlds around us.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I was reading about the F-35 and came across a quote you might enjoy:
"Ward said any future warplane should have clear and narrow requirements, as opposed to the F-35's broad, incompatible guidelines. Development timelines should be fast, budgets should be inexpensive, the overall concept should be simple and hardware should be as tiny as possible, Ward recommended. “What you don’t do is hold up complexity as a desirable attribute,” he said."

From: https://warisboring.com/fd-how-the-u-s-and-its-allies-got-stuck-with-the-worlds-worst-new-warplane-5c95d45f86a5

Thanks,
Tim

trippticket said...

I feel a little guilty rambling on about my own recent economic gains when so many Brits are staring down the loaded double barrel of balkanization. This must be a huge moment in all your lives, and my thoughts are with you. (As I try to mentally count the number of rebel flags I see flying between the two farms I manage...just a matter of time really.)

Happy June Solstice to you all, British or otherwise. Fire in earth tonight, with the first two pastured chickens from our first crop at the new farm sizzling over it.

Cheers!

nuku said...

Re Lawyers: A Law always defines a general class of actions (or omissions). Don’t steal, murder, covet your neighbor’s wife; don’t fail to provide a safe work environment, etc.
However each individual “case” has its own circumstances. Its the lawyer‘s task to show the judge and/or jury how this particular case either fits or doesn’t fit that general class.
In Classical Athens, in a trial a man spoke for himself, was his own lawyer, and the assembled citizens the judge. In our energy rich and complex enlightened age, we’ve out-sourced the lawyer job to professionals.

João Cláudio Fontes said...

“There are periods in the life of humanity, which generally coincide with the beginning of the fall of cultures and civilizations, when the masses irretrievably lose their reason and begin to destroy everything that has been created by centuries and millenniums of culture. Such periods of mass madness, often coinciding with geological cataclysms, climatic changes, and similar phenomena of a planetary character, release a very great quantity of the matter of knowledge. This, in its turn, necessitates the work of collecting this matter of knowledge which would otherwise be lost. Thus the work of collecting scattered matter of knowledge frequently coincides with the beginning of the destruction and fall of cultures and civilizations.” From In Search of the Miraculous (p.45), P.D Ouspensky

Peter VE said...

Yesterday (Sunday) there were mayoral elections in Italy, and in two major cities (Rome and Turin), M5S won. M5S (Movimento Cinque Stelle: 5 Star Movement) was started in reaction to the sclerosis of the political parties in Italy, and their ideology includes Euroscepticism and Degrowth. Degrowth is another way of saying: "collapse now and avoid the rush". The Italians have had the opportunity to see the benefits of massive bureaucracy and an unresponsive political system for far longer than Americans.

On the subject of the diminishing benefits of technology: with advancing age, I need glasses to read and work at the computer. All my "glasses" have plastic lenses, for which I pay extra for the scratch resistance. All my "glasses" have scratches right in the center of the lens. Glass can crack, but they don't scratch anywhere near as easily. I still have a pair of my late father's glasses, unscratched. I'm in the market for glass lenses, but I suppose I'll have to go a less advanced country to get them.

onething said...

Lathechuck,

I've thought of that very topic long ago. Long prison sentences and not having a death penalty is something only a wealthy society can afford, as well as not a too simple one as the buildings themselves have to be solid. My wariness is about whether people, esp those condemned to death, will actually be guilty. I'm in a quandary about the death penalty because I have a personally very strong reluctance to ever take anyone's life (I don't think I could be a soldier for that reason) and yet I don't have any problem with having a death penalty for serious sociopathic acts. I could probably shoot in self defense, but I would be scarred.

Seb Ze Frog said...

Good Morning.

This diminishing return business and its link to entropy has been buzzing in my mind the whole week-end. I think that there are several classes of diminishing returns, and I will concentrate here on a special one: the case when the resource is potentially unlimited. For example technology, or, in the beautiful metaphor, alcohol. Diminishing returns hit the drinker far before the amount of available alcohol gets into play. What happens is that there is a finite amount of transformation that the human body is able to do per given amount of time. If one was to drink the three glasses of the story each week, there wouldn't be diminishing returns. The problem comes when one wants to increase the rate at which the drinks are consumed. The pertinent physical notion here is power. Power is an amount of energy per second.

When the power increases, the rate of transformation increases. And it so happens that friction is empirically proportional to velocity in many cases (JMG, I think that this could be one of the rules you are looking for... but I have to think a bit more about this). Therefore, while the total amount of transformation increases, the total amount of energy lost in friction increases too, until a plateau is reached. A good analogy here is an accelerating car. At some point, the friction gets so high that to increase velocity by a little bit costs as much energy as one had to expend accelerating so far.

For alcohol, it is the same: at some point, the energy lost in friction inside of the liver is so high that the amount of alcohol that is transformed into non-lethal chemicals per second reaches a plateau.

For technology, complexity means more steps, and each step has to loose, by the second law of thermodynamics, a part of energy in heat. Therefore, the more compound steps, the larger the "friction" and thus the lower the return. The killer here is that our civilization is focused on always increasing the power we use, which is doomed because regardless of the details that thermodynamics doesn't need to know about, increasing the power means increasing the friction, and thus reaching a plateau.

In this case, diminishing returns seems indeed to be the foster son of Entropy.

(And I think that using history instead of an abstract theory is a good idea: history gives empirical data, and empirical data wins over theory every time)

Seb




















Unknown said...

I had another thought on peak progress today. One of my bosses races enduro, and there is a class for older bikes, but they mostly combine with the modern bikes in the same race. There is a local guy who runs grass track on a 198? second hand XR 500 Honda with steel rims, dual rear shocks, a steel tank and it should not be any where near competitive against a modern four stroke enduro bike if the advertising is to be believed.

He frequently whips them by half a lap.

It is absolutely priceless to watch.

I know, it is a "naughty" past time, but it happens at work, and on the property next door to my house, and so I indulge my inner rev head because I can for minimal expense.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Moshe,

Thank you very much for taking the time to run the experiment. This is complex stuff and it just doesn't work like you would think that it would. And as you correctly point out there are so many variables that effect that output.

This week (today is the winter solstice) have been particularly grim for solar PV production. If you are interested, I'm including the solar PV statistics on my weekly blog.

Respect

Chris

donalfagan said...

@Unknown,

I used to ride the XL250s, the four-stroke street version of the XR series. After more than a few close calls with auto drivers that just didn't see me, I gave up motorcycling. But it was fun to ride.

I wonder if the modern bikes lose power due to emissions controls?

Hawkcreek said...

I started trying to see if I could think about anything the law of diminishing returns didn't apply to. Couldn't do it.
My favorite application of technology is in motorcycles. I've seen for years that often a motorcycle is better in it's first iteration, than it is after several engineering improvements have been inflicted upon it. They always seem to get heavier, bulkier, less nimble, and much more costly. Minor things are often improved, but at a greatly increased cost.
Now I always buy used bikes, and just enjoy the Zen of the open road without worrying about whether or not my bike has that extra 10 horsepower. A 40 or 50 year old motorcycle (or scooter) is still great fun to ride, and practical besides.
My other set of toys is bicycles. My friends sometimes spend thousands to save a few ounces of weight. I just devote myself to coming in last, but enjoying the ride.

Unknown said...

Doanlfagan,

I suspect it is more about the skill of the rider than the power of the machine. Many of today's riders equate spending money with developing ability. (Actually, watching home reno programs on the idiot box, its not just bike riders ;)

I had an XL 250 once. I do not ride bikes here in Tassie because we have a plague of miniature kangaroos which a prone to committing suicide under the wheels of any passing vehicle, and they kill motorcyclists. On the up side they represent a very available and renewable source of protein.

Cheers

eagle eye

Unknown said...

JMG,

re the discussion on friction.


It is a great analogy. As already pointed out it is velocity related, increasing with increasing velocity, but it is also subject to the phenomenon of resonance. What I mean is that in certain circumstances the resistance to movement drops away dramatically. Skillful politicians use the resonance to take advantage of diminished resistance to implement changes that would otherwise be unacceptable. Likewise a skilful mage might do the same.

Hence the false flag operations.

cheers

eagle eye

latheChuck said...

A data point for the archives: Our electric bill for mid-May through mid-June showed that our household (3 adults) consumed between 5 and 12 kWh per day, for a total of 223 kWh. We cook and cool with electricity, but heat domestic water with natural gas. Our PV system, rated at 5.25 kW peak, produced 445 kWh over this period. On a good day, we break 30 kWh; on a cloudy day, maybe only 5 kWh. This system has been in operation since December 2014 (18 months). It does not have battery backup. We also "earned" a $12 credit for allowing our local utility to manage demand by shutting off our A/C for up to an hour at a time. Peak power (hot afternoons) is expensive and probably dirty, so it's good to help smooth it off.

latheChuck said...

I once witnessed, I suspect, an episode of "informal justice by shunning". Probably due to a simple misunderstanding, a conflict between two church members led to one of the members (and his spouse) declining to recognize the existence of the other. I do not know all of the details, but I could see the damage. Once the "shun" began, there was no way to undo it. There was no way to reconcile, or ask forgiveness, because there could be no further communication. There was no way to intervene, because the party giving offense had ceased to exist in the mind of the offended, and so there was nothing to talk about. In an isolated community, to be widely shunned could be fatal. And not necessarily fatal to the one experiencing the shunning, if that person is pushed beyond reason to violence. (Our situation was defused when the shunners chose a new church.) A community needs a mechanism for repentance and forgiveness. It will not apply to all offenses, of course.

Kevin Warner said...

Just a brief rant here. In talking about the law of diminishing returns applied to technology I am not so sure that it is anywhere so simple. I am wondering how much a large part of the diminishing effect is mostly due to people gaming mature systems, which they find harder to do in new systems, as well as unnecessary overheads being imposed on technologies due to financial or political concerns.
As a very minor example, the EU wants to phase in lower powered appliances such as toasters, vacuum-cleaners, hair dryers, etc, in order to cut CO2 emissions. Ecodesign they call it. A laudable goal one may say but making newer appliances under-powered means that they have to be used longer to perform the same function as before thus reducing the benefits as well as imposing costs elsewhere. One man was complaining that just to perform the exotic task of toasting bread, that he now had to put it through the toaster three times to get it the same way that once had been enough in an older toaster. Laughable it may seem, until you start to ponder both the front-end costs as well as all the other artificial costs back-loaded onto what should be a relatively simple task.
At the moment the trend is to build layers of complexity onto relatively simple gear such as TVs, refrigerators, etc. It is evolving to the point that if it is not connected to the internet, a basic device will refuse to work. This has happened recently with a home control system whose parent company suddenly decided to pull the plug on what was a popular system. Owners suddenly found that their system was totally bricked for good.
I think that we are seeing this also with computer operating systems where the idea is to have the actual operating system 'in the cloud'. If you lose your net connection though, your computer suddenly becomes a heavy paperweight. When Windows 10 was introduced recently, update control was taken away from customers - you had no say. When you think about it though, there is no reason why over the next ten, twenty years that Windows will upgrade itself into what is essentially a dumb terminal with all computer programs, all files storage, the operating system all 'in the cloud'. Thus a common computer will have all its robustness and utility at the mercy of external, and uncontrollable elements. This result will not be a result of the technology but simple financial decisions, hence my idea that the diminishing returns are actually artificially imposed.

alex carter said...

Donaldfagen - modern bikes are big, heavy, and hard to maintain. No more tinkering, rejetting your own carbs 'cos they don't have carbs, lol. No more reserve fuel valve!

XL250s and KLR250s were great bikes. The one secret to surviving in traffic is to look a bit like a cop. Just putting a fairing on your bike and wearing a black jacket and a white helmet will do it - but just to be sure, it helps to have taken both MSF courses (the basic one and the advanced one), have put in a ton of miles, and have gotten the crashes out of your system by, uhm, well, crashing. (Geez I was a crazy 20-something.)

With the economy as bad as it is, I've been wondering: Where are the damn mopeds? I know what a bad economy looks like, I lived through one in the 1970s. A bad economy means tons of bicycles and mopeds and yes, motorcycles. Because the average person doesn't need 1000s of lbs of metal to get around and pick up a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread after work.

It seems the average citizen has become somewhat alienated from the simple machines we 50-somethings and olders grew up with, and the attitudes about same. I remember my dad teaching me how to find the leak in a bicycle tube in a tub of water, and how to patch the tube, when I was about 8. We were the standard suburban family but we all had bikes, it wasn't just the family car. We were all encouraged to tear around the neighborhood on bikes, and helmets were unknown. Somehow we all survived. When I got older, and as our family fortunes fell, it was something like, "Yeah, you want a bike? Well, you're free to dig around the local junk yard and find parts and build one up" and we did. Whether it was a bike or a skateboard or a moped or what have you, taking it apart and getting your hands greasy just went with the territory.

That's *so* far in the past now; a different time. Amazingly, my beloved Yamaha SRX-6 that I bought new, would be a 30-year old bike now.

Vesta said...

re motorikes:

Modern bikes are staggeringly better than bikes from only a decade or two ago. The guy winning on the vintage XR is just better.

I'm not sure it's a law like that of diminishing returns, but a little skill often beats lots of power.

The same applies in much more mundane endeavors. I'm sure I'm not the only old guy who's noticed he can shovel and chop faster than in my youth, despite being weaker and fatter.

Keystonekabes said...

I must admit a good deal of credit for my single blade's success is due to a shaving cream I had to get thru my barber.

The talk of cocktails forces me to share one of my favorite rum cocktails, just the thing for this hot summer weather. Note if Bacardi is used the drink will be awful. I suggest using a white rum from either Central America or the Carribbean until Cuban rum is available. Flor de Caña is my preferred brand.

Floridita Daiquiri (Scales up to make multiple drinks)

1/2 lime (full lime if using small limes. Must use fresh squeezed lime juice)
3 teaspoons sugar, quick dissolve if possible
1 1/2 oz white rum
1/4 oz or splash of Marascino liqueur (Luxardo is most common brand. Very important do not omit)
Crushed ice

Juice the lime then combine juice, sugar, rum and Marascino into blender. Fill cocktail glass with crushed ice. Add ice to blender and blend until cocktail is same consistency as a smoothie. Pour into glass and enjoy promptly.

latefall said...

@Kevin Warner and the HAM / radio interested
I'd tend to second that. In my view the current dysfunctional system makes it relatively hard to separate signal and noise.
Also if you assume a raggedy S-curve on returns on technology it can be sometimes hard to judge where on those curves we sit and how they look if they get combined with each other. Of course solar budget, material concentration and abundance do give us some guidance, but particularly in developments in the more abstract fields things remain difficult I'd say. Complexity might best be judged in the rear view.

Here is an example of what I could imagine could be a good case not to give up microelectronics altogether. Of course I would have appreciated if they made the thing more resilient/repairable (and the complexity is just unspeakable).
But have a look at the Lime Software Defined Radio (SDR) capabilities:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20UEAdwyngo

latefall said...

Oops, wrong video. This is more for the friends of HAM:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ed7iy0gVywo
I was pretty blown away by a couple of other video demonstrations in this crowd. I guess this would also be interesting to some of the home-schoolers here:
https://www.crowdsupply.com/lime-micro/limesdr/updates/ee-becomes-campaign-backer

Susan J said...

Thanks for the martinis. I have enjoyed your readers' responses! And I've read them with my own martini (Russian Standard vodka on ice).

Hubertus Hauger said...

@ Candace

Thanks for the link. While I was curious to know what written in the link you gave, I couldn’t open the file embedded.

Never mind, there have been in the past so many cultures and they have been intermingled, which enlarged their cultures even more. So that’s for us to be realistic about a circle of life and death we are part of. And its a promise, that when our time has come, new ones will come after us. So life will be continuing, vibrant and chaotic as it is.

Allexis Weetman said...

Continuing from my previous post I would argue that it is the practical use of computer tech that threatens cognition more than games. When we play a game we are consciously entering a "virtual world" that is separate from reality, but with the lines blurred by constant smartphone use, pokemon go, internet addiction etc we may actually see people with a "computer game mindset" thriving in society. And yes then I would agree they may have trouble understanding the underlying reality of the world and they may need to reconnect by disconnecting...