Good Lord, how cheap is America these days?

How deep do your pockets need to be to get a 100-plus million Americans to buy-into your product?

Here’s a little table of US adverting budgets from 2015 to help you answer that:

  • Procter & Gamble Co – $4.3 billion
  • AT&T – $3.9 billion
  • General Motors Co. – $3.5 billion
  • Comcast Corp. – $3.4 billion
  • Verizon Communications $2.7 billion
  • Ford Motor Co. $2.7 billion

Or, from 2017:

  • “Russia” (apparently) – $100,000

The cheek of those danged Rooskies! Seems they stole the 2016 US election from Saint Hillary by splurging forty thousand times less on advertising than P&G needs to dispense to maintain soap powder sales.

If we’re to believe the narrative the US deep state is furiously peddling, then Trump owes his elevation to the White House solely to a minuscule amount of fiendishly-clever Facebook advertising taken out by shadowy actors linked to the Russian state.

Presumably, the skies between Madison Avenue and Red Square are already filled with planeloads of US corporate marketeers, all scrambling to get the Russians to tell them how to buy their fellow countrymen’s brand loyalty for peanuts.

As a narrative, this week’s developments take the Russiagate meme way down below farce and ridicule to whatever the name is for the roiling stew of propagandising lunacy the mainstream media exists to feed us.

It’s unbelievable that apparently intelligent people would give any credence to this mendacious bullshit. But they do. Yesterday’s edition of The Daily Zeitgeist podcast dropped its usual tone of cynical absurdism to report straight-faced the central claim that “the Kremlin got to 126 million Americans via Facebook” last year, and – yes, the host actually said these words – “changed the course of American history.”

All this would be as funny as the idea that Michael Fallon resigned as UK Defence Minister solely because of ‘kneegate’ if it wasn’t for the likely deadly consequences of the Imperial Elite tearing into itself like a pack of wolverines in a sack.

The fury of those who thought they’d bought and paid-for Clinton’s coronation over the last 20 years, only to have it snatched away from them by the voters, is palpable from thousands of miles away. Like the little Austrian corporal calling down total destruction on the population for not delivering his megalomaniac vision, 70 years ago, the last people the elites will blame is themselves.

We’re merely voters. Our rulers can and will try to throw our rights and freedoms under the bus if they become sufficiently scared-of or angry at the citizenry. While the media focuses on using Russiagate to crowbar the elected president from the White House (however you feel about Trump), the crunching and sawing noises you hear from backstage are the sound of free expression being undermined to save us from ‘fake news’ and the chance to think critically for ourselves.

On the other hand, if I cashed in my modest pension balances, I reckon they’d total the equivalent of a hundred thousand bucks.

What’d be more fun to buy with that? An annuity? Or a superpower that’s badly lost its way?

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Memo to ‘The Economist’

Almost every day I get needy emails from the neo-liberal establishment’s fantasy worldview generator, The Economist, begging me to re-subscribe. Sometimes I’m tempted. But then they go and blow it, as usual.

Today they’re telling folk straight-facedly:

“special counsel [Robert Mueller]’s true target is not Mr Trump or Mrs Clinton, it is Russia, the hostile power that attacked American democracy.”

You have to be pretty far gone to be able to trot out an oxymoron like ‘American democracy’ without turning into a turnip. But the The Economist is still further removed from reality and decency.

It’s now reduced to parroting “Putin did it, Putin did it, Putin did it…” on the age-old grounds that you can make anything feel like the truth provided you repeat it often enough. Perhaps the paper really does want to alienate everyone capable of critical thinking. And thus keep pure the hermetically-sealed echo-chamber it offers Washington’s corporate kleptocracy.

Oil Ain’t What it Used To Be

So there I was, being bemused about why BBC radio has a programme called Archive on 4 and another called the Archive Hour, when I caught an episode called Driven on Archive on 4.

Whichever series it was, wasn’t, isn’t or might be, the episode was about driverless cars. Mainly the sociological aspect of driverless cars. Will we take to them? Will they change us? Can we cope with the idea of not being in control?

Not, you’ll notice, are driverless cars economically feasible? As in, how likely is it that a society that today can barely afford to fill potholes will tomorrow be able to maintain the level of complexity-investment needed to build and operate fleets of autonomous vehicles?

During the programme, a voice from archive-land intoned that there are (or were – it could have been an old voice) 5.5 trillion barrels of oil still out there. One assumes they brought this up to head off any carping from dreary sceptics wishing to know whether the BBC had thought about the laws of thermodynamics before editing-together 58 minutes of speculation about our glorious autonomous future.

Anyway. Oil. Not a problem. Billions of BTUs at our service.

Or not. There’s a school of thought that says that oil ain’t what it used to be. Yes, it’s basically the self-same stuff that comes in styles ranging from too-light-for-vehicles to too-heavy-for-anything. But what today’s oil will do for you just isn’t as good as what yesterday’s did.

Yesterday’s oil – think fields in pre-WWII Texas or the 1950s Middle East – virtually jumped into your lap and rubbed its head under your chin. It was wonderfully eager and absolutely able to turn itself into interstate highways, space programmes, suburbs, the Internet and everything else we’ve come to think of as the foundations of a dazzlingly bright future full of .… oh, I don’t know .… full of self-driving cars.

But today’s oil. Oh dear. Today’s oil is a curmudgeonly stick-in-the-sand. You have to pour so much money into getting it to come out to play that there’s barely enough money/energy left over to keep patching up the systems we’ve got, let alone put a Tesla in everyone’s cooking pot (or was that a chicken?).

The ‘fracking miracle’, for example, is all about it being a fracking miracle that outlets like the BBC never mention how the only folk making money out of tight oil are Wall Street bankers whose loans keep drillers afloat so they in turn can pan-handle for investors’ cash to spend on extracting for $55 dollars a barrel what they can sell for only $50.

Today’s oil is also a bit pants as a transport fuel. Fracked oil is too light. So, to ‘Goldilocks’ it, you have to mix it with stuff from elsewhere. More expense. Still-fewer net BTUs left over to keep the economy from resetting to a lower level of complexity. ‘Lower level of complexity’ being shorthand for most people being unable to afford a lifestyle where self-driving cars had either purpose or meaning.

There’s still a reasonable supply of conventional, Mark 1 civilisation-building goop left but that’s been getting less and less every year since 2005. Also, more and more of it stays in its country of origin. That means less energy for UK PLC and its autonomous dreams. And less income for the producing countries to spend on importing our war machinery – sorry, defence equipment.

What was that, Sooty? We could make the autonomous cars electric? Well we could, Sooty. But do you think the people promoting self-driving cars do much systems thinking?

What do they think about the likelihood that running Bitcoin, for example – an entirely digital phenomenon – already uses as much electricity as the whole of Ecuador?

If simply mining imaginary coins takes the same amount of juice as running the world’s 64th largest economy, how much will it take to run the control systems for tens of thousands of autonomous cars? And that’s merely powering the central software: you’ll still need to power all the roadside hardware, the plethora of cameras, sensors and processors in the cars, and all the rest of it. And we haven’t included building and running the cars yet.

No-one’s asking what the point is of doing all driving this. The best the BBC archive could manage was a bit of wishy washy guff about freedom to travel. The main point of mass motoring was to turn oil – basically a smelly, flammable substance with useful chemical applications – into food, housing, supermarkets, hospitals, universities, containerloads of plastic dreck from China and so on .… aka civilisation …. on a scale never before conceived let alone achieved.

Take away oil and you take away most of the point of having cars. I’ll bet that there are a thousand more-efficient ways of turning sunlight into civilisation than perpetuating the massively energy-hungry automobile system.

Tell you what, Sooty, maybe you could sprinkle some oofle dust on our policymakers to help them think more imaginatively. What’s that? You haven’t got any left because Elon Musk already took it all for his Mars programme?

The happier I get, the older I feel

Quadranting was mildly cheered, over the weekend, to read this article on Naked Capitalism about the “mid-life low” phenomenon.

As a physically sprightly but otherwise pretty morose sixty something, it’s good to know my life has entered a phase of rising  self-satisfaction.

Look at this graph from the UK Office of National Statistics. It charts how happy 416,000 of my fellow civic elements are with their lives at various ages:

midlifeUK

(Source)

Seems I’ve made it through the Slough of Despond that is the average human’s mid-50s and am now roaring back to a state of happiness on par with my early twenties. Yes, those early 20s when I was beset by powerful feelings of insecurity and inferiority. The age when I really began to forge an early adulthood full of bad choices. Wrong jobs. Wrong partners. Wrong everything.

But hey, that peak of happiness is still to come for me … when or if I hit 73ish. Right now, my life satisfaction (assuming it follows the curve on the chart) is roughly back up to where it was in my mid-30s. Yay! Divorce. Redundancy. Formal depression diagnosis. Worse job choice ever. Who could want for more?

Yet I do feel better about life than I did six or seven years ago. The only way I got past that low point was to promise myself I wouldn’t force myself to stay alive past 65 unless I felt a whole lot better by then. Who knows: perhaps I will? Just like baked beans, 416,000 other people can’t all be wrong.

After all, not a lot of rationality goes into one’s assessment of how good one’s life is. Since my own ‘happy’ 20s, the world’s gone into population overshoot, passed peak oil, entered the structural crisis of capitalism and turned the climate knob to 11.

Who could be happy about that? Well, me of course. I can’t help it: I’m 61.

EVs and the renewable delusion

I wait for ages to read an article on my pet bugbears and then two come along at once.

Bugbear #1 is governments’ fond belief that the global auto fleet can somehow be entirely replaced with electric vehicles in the next 20 years.

Bugbear #2 is the Magical Thinking / Techno Green delusion that these billions of EVs, along with the rest of civilisation, can be sustained completely with renewable energy.

Kris de Decker dismantles the latter argument in How (Not) to Run a Modern Society on Solar and Wind Power Alone at Low Tech Magazine. Whatever way you look at it, trying to replicate the round-the-clock energy flows available from stored (fossil) sunlight using energy from current account sunlight (solar and wind) is beyond any conceivable future flow of capital.

And a pointed, if uneven, (raison d’etre does not mean ‘article of faith’) post on OilPrice.comElectric Vehicles: The High Cost Of Going Green – looks at the issue of job elimination in motor manufacturing as well as the challenges of upgrading infrastructure.

”two additional natural gas plants near Manchester have stalled because the developer has been unable to raise the dual project’s 800 million pounds required for them to be built.”

Indeed. If firms cannot raise relatively modest amounts of capital to install essential capacity running proven hardware, where will the thousands of billions come from to build EVs and fleets of wind and solar farms?

Both articles veer towards a point I keep making. Liquid fossil-fuelled Happy Motoring was a one-off. High energy-returned-on-energy-invested (EROEI) fossil fuels are starting to diminish in the rear view mirror. What’s left is insufficient to maintain the global autos and transport infrastructure we built over the last century, let alone fund a multi-trillion dollar transition to renewable-powered EVs for everyone in a 30-year timeframe.

Put simply, shrinking the liquid-fossil-fuelled car fleet will shrink people’s ability to afford to make the switch to electric cars. My guess is that after a few more years of accelerating replacement of ICEs by Evs, there will be a Seneca cliff moment when sales of all types of private auto go into a steep decline.

When that happens, trucks, tractors, trains buses and ships will be where the action is. Very Victorian. But it will be a sweet thing – for a while at least – to own an electric bike shop.

Outlook’s unannounced junk mail failure

Between 60 and 100 million people use Microsoft Office 365. Back in May, Microsoft released an update that broke the junk filters on IMAP email accounts.

Office 365 users with IMAP accounts where the junk filter is set to ‘safe senders only’ are having their inboxes flooded with spam.

Microsoft has been, to say the least, backward in coming forward over its culpability. Google the issue and you’ll find plenty of MS gurus handing out pointless instructions to spam-swamped enquirers on how to check their  email settings. But you have dig much deeper to find references to the fact that MS know about all about the problem and are – apparently – working to fix it.

A curious aspect of the issue is that there hasn’t been more online agitation. True, very many 365 installations are corporate and on Exchange servers, which aren’t affected.  Perhaps the number of 365 users with IMAP accounts and tight junk settings who’re motivated to seek help or complain is small enough for MS to feel they can take their time over fixing something they broke themselves.

(Just to add insult to injury, since the faulty update, Outlook catches the first spam message after the user adjusts their junk settings – as if to say ‘look, I could do this if I wanted to’ – but then lets through every subsequent crudmail).

Why aren’t more people complaining? Have we become so inured to (a) the inescapability of spam and (b) the frequency with which obvious junk messages get past Outlook that most users just put up with it?

I’m often surprised, when I see other people’s inboxes, at how much spam they regard as normal. In most cases, setting their Outlook filter to safe senders only and ticking the ‘trust messages from my contacts’ box would clean up their inflow marvellously.

As it happens, there is a 100% effective workaround for this Outlook IMAP junk problem: roll back Office updates to May 2017. All the ‘how to’ information you need is in the comments section of the article linked at the top of this post.

Trouble is, you have to turn off automatic Office updates after rolling back or your filters will end up broken again. So,  if and when MS cure the problem, you’ll need to know to turn updates back on. It’s rumoured that the fix might be in the September 2017 update.

But since MS aren’t openly admitting that the problem exists, I’ll have to keep on hanging around in arcane corners of Microsoft.com hoping to learn of their unannounced cure for their unannounced mistake.

Loony Uni

So who benefits from a common or garden university education these days? I don’t mean from a high-end Oxbridge mind-expander or a career-critical science/engineering course but from the bog standard ‘Uni’ experience the system shovels school leavers into by the tipper-bucketload every autumn.

According to today’s Independent, the average student clocks up nearly six grand in loan interest before they graduate. By the time they finish paying all the interest over 30 years, their three years at the University Formerly Known As Nnnnn Technical College will have cost them over £120,000.

Supposedly, this gives graduates an advantage in the jobs market.

It doesn’t.

After a decade of taking on grads who can’t spell, add up or manage critical thinking; and who also require babying through their first two or three years on the job, employers are saying “WTF? We might as well take bright school leavers at 18 and be three years ahead of the game by the time they would have left Uni”.

Moreover, when you consider that these 18-year-olds’ other option is to waste three years of their lives at Uni and come out with a £120k ball and chain of debt round their ankles, it wouldn’t be hard to justify asking them to go to work for virtually nothing if it meant being formally work-certified in some way and largely debt-free after three years.

Employers I know have begun taking apprentices instead of graduates for the first time. They’re getting the pick of the crop of kids who’re too smart to get saddled with a shed load of debt in return for making themselves less useful to those employers three years down the line.

Maybe it will take 20 years for all this to work itself out, at the end of which degrees will be rarer and have regained their value. Until then, my advice to anyone asking whether they should go to Uni is: “Only if you really, really have to.”