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.

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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 being handed 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.”

Apocalypse Not Yet

I was talking to my independent financial adviser the other day. He’s a patient man. He mentioned that I’ve been predicting the cataclysmic disintegration of the financial system for 10 years now.

Ten years. So it is. Although to be fair, I got past the ‘Armageddon tomorrow’ stage quite a long time back. The point my IFA was wearily making is that I still won’t be convinced that Business As Usual (BAU) is sustainable whereas he can’t see what’s wrong when the markets keep going up and the funds his clients are invested in keep growing nicely.

A courtesy call isn’t the place for a discussion about net energy and turning points, so I agreed to his proposed reallocation of my modest exposure to the markets and left it at that.

The thing is he’s right; there are very few signs on the surface that much is wrong with the economy. The big picture looks, if not rosy, at least reassuringly ‘normal’.

Yet this reassuring picture is made up of details that are consistently unsettling. The financial woes of schools and the NHS, even before the back-loaded Private Finance Initiative interest payments start to kick in. The bursting of the university-places-for-all bubble as more and more school leavers recognise it was only a scam to load them up with debt in return for mostly worthless degrees.

Behind all this is a sense of growing weakness; like a racing cyclist who’s been unable to take enough food on board – their finely-tuned system wants to keep going but the flow of fuel to the muscles is no longer sufficient.

When the flow of high-quality energy from coal faltered a century ago, oil and gas kicked in with the thermal bonanza that took the industrialised world from Kittyhawk to the moon and from the Bell telephone to the Internet.

This time round, there are no more massive seams of cheap BTUs to be mined. It’s manifested in the phenomenon where oil producers can no longer extract oil profitably at the kind of prices consumers are willing or able to pay. Which is another way of saying that net energy is entering the twilight zone.The fires under the boilers are dying down. Renewables will realistically run an economy about 25% the size of today’s.

That’s an article for another time, though. The take-away today is that the solid mass of thermal Jenga blocks that underpins our way of life has been eroding since the Millennium, when net energy turned the corner. What’s happening to the NHS, pensions, the auto industry and almost everywhere else you look are the first small cracks you see in the soil at the top of the slope as the land starts slipping.

Let’s see how they widen over the next 10 years. Easily far enough to swallow a good many of today’s expectations, I’ll bet, even if there’s no full scale avalanche.

Dominoes Fall for Self-Driving Cars

Latest hilarious development in the autonomous car saga is Ford’s breathless announcement that it’ll be providing self-driving cars for pizza deliveries in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Only, as with all autonomous vehicle stories, the whole will be considerably less than the sum of its parts. When tech-savvy Ann Arborians call up a 25-inch Quattro Staglione with extra everything and buckets of soda, it’ll traverse the city to their door in a vehicle laden down with a human driver (yes, really) plus a few Ford technicians, not to mention all the auntonomising gubbins on the car’s roof, sides and ends.

The hungry customers must then liberate their pizza from a ‘hot box’ squeezed into the trunk alongside more car-tech. Obviously, they’ll need to avoid eye contact with the car’s occupants since any acknowledgement of a human presence will ruin the self-driving vibe.

Domino’s Pizzas openly state that they’re only actually interested in the final 50 feet of the pizza’s journey, since the big worry is that customers will prove too lazy to walk out to the road to collect their meal – and let’s be honest, the customer is really only thinking about their pizza’s final five inches.

Mr Pizza must be hugely grateful to Mr Ford for creating a carbon footprint the size of the Tour de France merely to deliver smallish slabs of dough, cheese and toppings around a small city.

I think we can safely bet that Mr Pizza’s ultimate vision is not so much Ford/Tesla as small, self-piloting, heated mobile sideboards handling 25 deliveries at a time. The only catch being that the ruinous societal cost of all the thermodynamic dead-ends represented by autonomous cars will so impoverish Domino’s customer base that the only folk who can afford their product will be the very rich, who’d never dream of subjecting their bodies to the wellbeing downsides of a take-away pizza.

There goes the equestrian statue

Genocidal maniacs get statues put up in their memory. So do lots of other people. Florence Nightingale, Paddington Bear and Oliver Cromwell come to mind. Oh, sorry, quite a few people think Cromwell was a genocidal maniac, don’t they?

No-one could call Robert E. Lee genocidal. Or a maniac. He was rather prone to fighting battles using an army of men with no shoes on their feet or food in their bellies but that wasn’t unusual in the mid-19th century. General Lee was a good military leader who fought for what most people see as the morally-wrong side in a war whose nuances were so complex that legions of historians are still fully occupied sifting through them 150 years later.

No-one should have the slightest respect for white supremacists, neo-Nazis or the still-extant breed of bullying, black-hating redneck that does his or her best to restore overt segregation. But does that mean removing every lump of bronze recognisable as General Lee on an ‘orse from town squares across the former Confederacy? I’m coming from this from the point of view of the great-grandson of a genuine black slave (though his masters were also black and also African).

General Lee certainly fought, to a greater or lesser extent, for the right to keep slaves, since that was a large part of the root causes of the civil war. It tends to get forgotten that the North’s animus against slavery was not solely or even primarily a moral issue. Abolitionists there certainly were, and they were vocal in their opposition to slavery on what we’d today call human rights grounds. But they were a minority in the North where it’s fair to say that many citizens’ views on freeing slaves didn’t extend to welcoming them as next door neighbours or as prospective sons or daughters in law.

The North’s anti-slavery concerns in the lead up to the civil war were quite as much economic and political as moral.

America’s main economic rival, Britain, together with her neighbouring northern European countries, was rapidly developing the new form of fossil-fuelled industrial consumer economy that conferred enormous economic and military reach on those nations. America, with its enormous resource base, had the potential to outdo the combined might of Britain, France, Germany and Italy (the latter’s north industrialising on the back of imported British coal) in the long run. But in this context, the southern states’ slave economy was a millstone around America’s neck.

Slavery allowed the south to maintain a near steady state economy. It didn’t create consumers, which were essential to the expansion of  the new industrial economies. Worse, since Britain’s early-mid-19th century industry centred on textiles, cotton exports from the American south actively helped Britain to increase her dominance at the same time as holding back the North’s attempts to grow as a rival industrial power to Europe.

Throw in the traditional American culture of independent-mined obstinacy that helped create the states in the first place, and the south was never in a million years going to to sit back and allow the North to tell it to industrialise for the sake of Yankee global ambitions.

Underneath those pretexts, everything quickly got all human and very messy as people used their big brains to come up with as many tendentious and self-serving justifications for, on the one hand, maintaining slavery as others came up with moral arguments for abolishing it. By the 1850s, it was clear to any logically-minded person who’d ever seen a coal fire, let alone a steam engine, that the southern economy was doomed in the long run as long as fossil fuels remained economically viable.

Given humans’ tendency to try to delay whatever inevitable is staring them in the face, the southern states’ cascade of secession declarations was a completely predictable response to what southerners saw as rising coercion from the North. To the industrialising North, an independent south was no more use than a south that stayed within the union but ran on raw human power.

That meant war. The wonder was that the south lasted so long: the hungry, unshod rebel infantry who fought at Antietam and Gettysburg were in many ways symbolic of the confederacy’s relative economic weakness. A lot of the credit for losing the war so slowly has to go to better southern generalship. If Robert E. Lee was the right man fighting the wrong cause with insufficient means, George McClellan was his mirror image. Preening, petty, backstabbing, timid and tactically inept, George B.’s mishandling of the more powerful Union armies came close to costing his side the war and definitely prolonged the struggle.

How many more statues of Robert E. Lee are there in the US than statues of McClellan? At least 10:1 I’d guess. Militarily, that makes complete sense.

More to the point, though, how many statues, busts and plaques are there in southern state capitols (and not a few northern ones) commemorating the many racist politicians behind the Jim Crow laws, which denied black Americans civil rights for a century after the civil war? I bet there are boatloads of them. But of course no-one learns their names in history lessons and their prideful memorials don’t sit astride horses in public squares so no-one’s agitating to pull them down.

The point is rightly made that many of the statues of southern generals were erected as recently as the 1930s and the 1950s. Quite a few people see such rearward-looking statue-raising as a two-fingered gesture to the north and to agitators for civil rights for blacks. But if they’re southerners, I guess, the statues are a symbol of resurgent southern pride and culture. Of course, that all depends on which bits of your culture you’re actually proud of.

By all means, discuss removing statues of dead generals. While we’re at it, let’s take a vote on chipping Washington and Jefferson’s faces off Mount Rushmore. Me, I guess I could take a trip to Ghana, where I’m sure I’d find a statue or bust somewhere of a past Ashanti (Asante) ruler to object to on the grounds that his people kept slaves and one of them was my great granddad and therefore his statue might be seen as a symbol of oppression (note: I wouldn’t see it as such).

If a particular statue of Robert E. Lee was erected as a sly symbol of oppression, it shouldn’t be difficult to identify that fact by reference to press reports of the speeches and from articles published at the time. In that case, everyone can debate the speeches and articles and decide whether the statue should stay, go or be given some contextual signage (although good luck to the latter lasting more than a few days). If not, leave it up, even though it’ll always be a dog-whistle to certain people.

As Jim Crow showed, the pen is mightier than the sword. It was politicians’ pens that condemned generations of black Americans to violence, poverty and insecurity for 100 years after the civil war, not a bronze replica of Robert E. Lee’s ceremonial sabre.