Poisoning our chance of a safer future

QuadRanting is depressed by current events. From the limited viewpoint afforded by his rural hermit hole, he cannot for the life of him get the apparent assassination attempt in Salisbury to smell right.

What would the Kremlin stand to gain by attacking a former (alleged) spy who was exposed, jailed and swapped-out for rival spooks many years ago? Why, if the Russians are so brilliantly fiendish at the dark arts of subversion and subtle revenge-taking, would they show their hand at a time of rising tensions and when the man has his very photogenic daughter with him – which makes the story a full house in Tabloid Bingo terms ?

Why aren’t supposedly impartial media outlets like the BBC asking the same questions? Their main story on the affair this morning read like a masterclass in state smearology; full of ‘is-believeds’, ‘thought-to-bes’ and ‘sources-says’. Endless references to Alexander Litvinenko but none to Georgi Markov. Perhaps that’s because the Bulgarian secret service killed Markov – and they don’t count – whereas all the players in the Litvinenko case were Russian. And a UK official enquiry into Litvinenko eventually got round to pointing a finger at the Kremlin – though only when it suited the UK Government to do so.

The key point, some 24 hours after the Salisbury incident began, is no-one yet knows what apparently poisoned the two Russians, or when, where, how or by whom the mystery substance was administered. All we have is speculation backed up by large photos of police in anti-contamination suits and of the late Mr Litvinenko (in case we’re not making the required connections fast enough).

It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that we’re looking at an overdose of some recreational material, although that hardly looks likely. Assuming the poisoning was deliberately done by a third party, the possibilities at this stage are endless.

Secret services? If so, whose? The US permanent government is plainly intent on driving up tensions between its putative allies and Russia. The UK, mindful of past kickings dealt to it over non-participation in Vietnam, and other disloyal moments, has always harboured plenty of spooks willing to play Mutley to Washington’s Dick Dastardly.

Crime? Possible. The carve-up in Russia, post Soviet collapse, epitomised Honoré de Balzac’s saying about great crimes lying behind great fortunes. Who knows what might one day pop out from the labyrinths of old scores and rivalries, and why and where?

Trade? Anyone who thinks our top Brexiteers are patriotically devoted to reclaiming British sovereignty, rather than to their own chances of becoming the UK’s next oligarchy, probably doesn’t have an internet connection. Poisoning pension-age ex-spies in Wiltshire might not impinge directly on trade but it does throw a lifeline to the likes of Boris Johnson, who gets to direct stern international noises at Putin instead of having to listen to everyone stifling their laughter at his incoherent pronouncements around Brexit.

And yes, it could be a Russian state hit job. But the question comes back to why and why now? The victim was a guest of the Russian state for four years after his conviction, until swapped in 2010. Violent places, many Russian prisons. But you wait eight years to get your revenge, until a few days after your winter sportsmen and women have been officially readmitted to the Olympic fraternity and only months before hosting the soccer World Cup?

Doesn’t smell right. Doesn’t smell right at all. Not that that will prevent our fearless politicians and media from doing everything they can to instil the belief that it was the Russians wot done it, short of actually coming out and saying so.

And at least in this case there’s an actual incident to use as a launching point. Not like the incident of the mythical Russian sub in Swedish waters. The US papers that clarioned the story in 2014 never got round to telling their readers when it eventually emerged that there never was a sub and the whole thing was merely a red scare in a teacup. Funny that.

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Two visions of utopia

Quadranting loves sharp, intelligent comedy. Therefore it loves Bridget Christie’s Utopia on Radio 4.

She gets plenty of mileage from the idea that our current civilisational trajectory is “not good; rapidly getting shittier” (my phrase not hers). There are too many humans now for us to reverse course – as per Quadranting First Law1 – so, as individuals, our best recourse is to find a way of coping with the knowledge that billions of our fellow beings, with the best of intentions, are striving with all their might and main to bury humanity’s future under piles of vanity projects like self-driving cars and colonising Mars.

You can see how fucked up we are by doing a Google search for pictures of Utopia. You get this as the top result:

The Prologue and the Promise. McCall Studios

Painted for Disney World (where else?), it reads from the pyramids and Acropolis on the left – the prologue – to a glorious near-futuristic metropolis around now and lastly to the lifeless, radioactive void of space interstellar civilisation – the promise.

What does this tell us – apart from suggesting that Disney was already plotting to get its hands on the Star Wars franchise back in the 1980s?

It tells us a lot about hubris. Essentially it’s the myth of progress writ large. Who is promising the viewer a passport to the City on a Hill and then the whole Universe? Is it God? The Almighty Inevitability that our dirty, temporary, fossil-fuelled living arrangement (notably absent from the mural) will shortly pupate into CGI-ed heaven because that is What Is Ordained.

Human scale is absent from the picture. People scurry along roads that lead away from, or at a safe distance from, the symbols of civilisation in the background. Perhaps that’s because all the empires represented, from Egypt to Washington, rested to a greater or lesser extent on human slavery because that’s all there was before industrialised carbon came along.

The future is a monstrous, towering, machine-made environment stripped of vegetation and animal life, lit by a Hiroshima-like sun. It takes for granted that the essential millions of fossil, fission or fusion-supplied energy slaves will continue to multiply endlessly, although the mural paints all energy conversions out of history.

You can say ‘Oh well, it’s just a feel-good painting from an amusement park’ but it’s more than that. The Prologue and the Promise still fits the official narrative, peddled in everything from smartphone adverts to the never-ending Star Wars series. Which is that this type of techno-grandiose utopia is what we should be heading for. And if your own life feels like an unfulfilling, exhausting farrago of debt slavery and pointless consumerism apparently designed expressly to exacerbate pollution, congestion and inequality, it’s because you are not trying hard enough to keep up.

Oddly enough, although our ancestors lacked almost every advantage of modern life from property rights and freedom of speech to pain-free dentistry, vaccination, clean water, ample food and insecticides, they seem to have had a far more achievable and sustainable vision of an idealised living arrangement.

Lucas_Cranach_the_Elder_-_The_Golden_Age

Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Golden Age, 1530

Surely there has to be a middle way between Disneyfied hubris and a level of existence so precarious that the idea of going for a swim in a wildlife park seems like paradise?

The infuriating thing is that we could be working towards a balanced approach now, if humans en masse weren’t so utterly fuckwitted. Instead of being prepared to nuke each other for the right to live on the right end of the Prologue and the Promise, we could be making an honest appraisal of planetary limits, not lying to ourselves about the potential to run industrial civilisation at current scale on future energy flows, and generally building a worthwhile future for our grandchildren, not indenturing their lives in service of an impossible fantasy.


  1. Humans are wonderful in smallish groups but batshit crazy in large numbers  

Match of the cephalopods: the elites’ house mag vs. Vlad the Impeller

For all its family resemblance to the the witch sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Russiagate is turning dangerous.

Very predictably, we now have the Economist weighing in on behalf of the one per cent it exists to serve with a cover story representing Putin as an octopus threatening Western democracy with his sinister tentacles.

eco-putin-octo

The Economist: Cover 22 February 2018

Russiagate started out as a comforting story that the permanent government in Washington made up for itself, to wish away the uncomfortable fact that its anointed successor to Obama had been bested by a louche chancer with unfeasible hair and a bad Twitter habit. Then it went ballistic.

This frankly ridiculous meme, whereby a handful of trolls with no proven connection to the Kremlin supposedly stole the US election by spending a minute amount of money, which most American candidates wouldn’t even answer the phone for, is now the thinnest of wafery excuses for a stance of Imperial aggressiveness that the deep state warmonger faction had hoped to reach “democratically” if their apparatchiks in the Dem party hadn’t so badly misread the electoral runes.

The chief characteristics of the alleged meddling are that it was indistinguishable from the vastly larger volume of ongoing American-on-American political trolling, and it had no measurable effect.

However, the Economist has a response to this:

”It is futile to speculate how much Russia’s efforts succeeded in altering the outcomes of votes and poisoning politics. The answer is unknowable. But the conspiracies are wrong in themselves and their extent raises worries about the vulnerabilities of Western democracies. If the West is going to protect itself against Russia and other attackers, it needs to treat Mr Mueller’s indictments as a rallying cry.”

Or to paraphrase the Economist’s position: “Don’t matter that there’s no evidence – burn the witch!”

And don’t overlook the pernicious elision of a troll factory – that could easily be just another group of cyber criminals sifting flyover America for easily-led suckers to scam for cash – with Russia the nation.

The subtext of the Economist story is that meddling is supposed to be very much a one-way street to be indulged-in solely by the Imperium.

Time-Yeltsin-Cover

“The Secret Story of how American Advisers helped Yeltsin win” 1996

Try to find a country where the US hasn’t meddled to some extent over the last 50 years. America’s interest in your freedom or mine comes a long way behind its own freedom to do whatever it wants wherever it wants. Its problem with Putin is not that they think he’s a bastard; it’s that he’s his own bastard, not theirs.

While we’re here, let’s not forget that Russiagate is also about controlling America’s domestic ‘enemies’, who include every citizen who has the temerity to believe that US democracy ought to offer them genuine freedom of choice.

Social media and all other forms of handy peer-to-peer opinion-sharing are anathema to a system used to controlling thought via centrally-controlled media – what Joe Bageant memorably called ‘The Hologram’. When the Economist speaks of vulnerabilities and rallying cries, it means finding ways to hamstring social media sharing and independent websites to restore the influence of officially-sanctioned pravda (‘truth’) peddled by a handful of billionaire-owned media groups.

Lastly in this brief peer into the murky depths of early-stage Imperial decline, what’s with the cephalopod meme? Surely the Economist can’t still be influenced by Matt Tiabbi’s accurate but doubtless hurtful characterisation of Goldman Sachs?

What Bitcoin tells you about the likelihood of self-driving cars succeeding

As the Bitcoin bubble neared its zenith in 2017, the internet filled up with dire predictions that “crypto-mining” would melt the world’s power grids.

Whole countries’ energy consumption levels became yardsticks for Bitcoin’s thirst for power. Ireland, Hungary, New Zealand – take your pick. Call it the Ohms Race: so-called miners frantically pumped electricity into processors in the hope of flushing out that elusive $100,000 cryptic coin. Or $10 cryptic coin, depending on which side of the peak they were on when it turned up.

And although Bitcoin brownout alarmism quickly died down, the episode should ring alarm bells in the autonomous vehicle community. Because the amount of power needed to mine virtual coins doesn’t even represent an amuse-bouche in relation to the stonking torrents of amps required to make self-driving cars work.

This was explained in the FT yesterday, with all the insouciance that the house journal of neo-liberal techno-grandiosity could manage. (FT – Driverless cars: mapping the trouble ahead)

You see, for AVs the map is the territory. For the tens of thousands of dollars-worth of on-board sensing gubbins to work, it has to be fed a massively-detailed 3D map of the vehicle’s surroundings. Everything that doesn’t move, from trees to signs to sandwich boards to rubbish bins, needs to be there for the vehicle to compare with what it ‘sees’ at any given microsecond.

Data-wise, these maps are colossal. Gigabytes to describe a modest stretch of uninterrupted blacktop in the middle of nowhere. God-knows-what-abytes for urban streetscapes. There’s no way of streaming so much information to the vehicle fast enough when it’s travelling so it must be loaded aboard on hard drives and carried around everywhere the vehicle goes.

There’s brave talk of perfecting AVs’ artificial intelligence so they can interpret their way along streets using simpler data. But for the foreseeable future they’ll need these 3D mega-maps. And presumably they’ll be restricted to operating within the area of mega-map they can practically carry around.

3D electronic maps may be new but the territory we’re moving into with them isn’t. Joseph Tainter covers it in The Collapse of Complex Societies: he shows that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.

Theoretically, AVs are the answer to several problems Namely, ordinary cars’ huge redundancy (idle 95% of their lives),  congestion, and the cost of accidents caused by human mistakes that machine-driven cars supposedly wouldn’t make. The most happy-clappy proponents of AVs enthuse over their potential to completely eliminate jams and accidents while slicing 60% off the cost of motoring by replacing inefficient car ownership with 24/7 ‘ridership’.

If AVs were simply ordinary cars but with added sensors and a clever brain to do the driving, these pipe-dreams might be valid. But they’re not. It turns out that for AVs to work as intended we’re going to have to build nothing less than a 3D virtual copy of most of the surface of the planet within five or 10 yards of a road.

Creating, storing, updating and transmitting that data will require a huge network of servers – plus fall-backs up the wazoo to ensure 100% uptime. Between the servers and the vehicles will be a layer of energy-gobbling supercomputers performing the gazillions of calculations per second required to coordinate traffic and feed individual vehicles the data they need to make their own decisions.

AV developers and their would-be customers simply assume the necessary power will be there. And this at a time when the cost and complexity of building a single power station is proving a stretch even for an advanced economy like the UK.

There’s every reason to think that Level 5 vehicle automation will be as near-impossible to achieve as commercial nuclear fusion. The torrents of capital and talent going into AV development are pouring into, if not a dead end, a neither-here-nor-there scenario of partial automation and fiendishly complex lash-ups aimed at allowing semi-AVs and  conventional cars to coexist.

It’s a question of whether the game is worth the candle. That originally referred to a game of cards where the stakes were less than the price of the candle burned to light the play.

Will the outcome of the billions poured into self-driving cars be worth it? No. Not when you find out you’ll have to build and maintain a massively expensive 3D facsimile of the world before any AV can even think of operating in the real world like an ordinary car.

Should we stop and do something more useful, or at least redefine our goals for AVs? Of course.

But we won’t. Humans simply aren’t smart enough.

The WYSIWYG President

What Donald Trump’s supporters find as pleasing as his opponents find shocking is one single fact. What you see is what you get.

WYSIWYG-DT

Not a polished marionette, like Barrack Obama. Or an unpolished marionette, like George W. Bush.

Many say Mr Trump’s ‘unpresidential’ qualities make him unfit for office. Others consider the fact that he doesn’t fit the mould is the perfect antidote for the totemic sham that the office of POTUS became in the late 20th and early 21st century.

The Deep State and political perma-elite lost their grip on the glove-puppet show in 2016, revealing the true reflection of US political ‘power’ to be the Man Without a Mask.

Did President Eisenhower, who was a WYSIWYG outsider president in completely different sense, imagine that an eventual outcome of the military-industrial complex might be a White House fit only to be fought-over between candidates people know from the telly?

Answers on a postcard. Or better make that a tweet.

 

The beautiful look of civilisation gone mad

While I was casting around for a peg to hang this New Year rumination on, an email drew my attention to the lovely barrier island of Longboat Key off the west coast of Florida.

Longboat Key is 10 miles long and mostly only a few hundred yards wide. Today every inch of it looks like this:

Longboat.jpg

This highly ‘aspirational’ environment is what you get when an ingenious species breaks into hundreds of millions of years of stored sunlight and then burns through it in a two-century splurge. A hundred years ago, Longboat Key was still more or less what it had been for thousands of years: a few dozen square miles of sandy scrub. A handful of families lived at the northern end, fishing and growing guavas and other fruit. Only when the discovery of the East Texas and Gulf oilfields kicked off America’s unprecedented expansion of the mid-20th century did the Key begin to develop into the richly-manicured fairyland you see today.

Even in the 1960s, its human population was only just over 1,000 folk. It’s grown six-fold since then, although summer and winter visitors swell the total considerably. And of course, Longboat Key is just one relatively insignificant example of the mass conversion of the Earth’s surface into what’s really, if you look at it objectively, a vast fossil fuel-drenched playground.

Maybe 5% of the world’s human population has a realistic chance of travelling to somewhere like the Key on a holiday. Most people sincerely hope that ‘progress’ will eventually allow everyone in the world to enjoy the good life epitomised by the quiet, safe streets, neat houses and well-tended vegetation of energy-intensive developments like the Key.

Doesn’t sound much to ask does it? But the further you go down the biophysical pyramid supporting our apparently harmless lifestyles, the more contradictions you encounter. In the globalised version of industrial civilisation that’s been built in the few decades since I was born, everywhere is interconnected to everywhere else. Picture postcard Cotswold villages and breezy seaside resorts keep their hands fastidiously clean by outsourcing manufacturing and waste disposal to the other side of the planet – though not for much longer – but we’re no less involved in the human exploitation, habitat destruction, degradation of life-support systems and accelerating extinction rates that go with our ‘natural desire’ to ‘better ourselves.’

I find the contradiction at the heart of all this really hard to deal with. For the more we build out our industrial civilisation, the faster we approach the appoint where it starts to collapse rapidly in the face of impossible complexity combined with steady diminution of the net energy needed to ‘solve’ the complexity problem. This is nothing new. It’s happened to every human civilisation in history – though nothing like on the scale ours will face.

Why I’m worrying, I can’t say. It’s safe to say most of Longboat Key will look like this sooner or later:

But the chances are that it won’t be in my lifetime. Perhaps in another century or two, a dozen families will again fish and farm amid the crumbling concrete remains on the Key. Although, given that its highest point is only about four metres above sea level, who’s to say climate change-driven events won’t completely erase the island.

Incidentally, the sad-looking place in the above pic was a thriving tennis resort for a few years. Over 40 years the spot went from unspoilt wildlife habitat, to 17-acre resort, to ruin. Now a developer is talking about spending a billion dollars to knock it all down and build another upscale playground for a tiny sliver of humanity. What a way to fritter away the last of mankind’s allocation of fossil sunlight.

Madness is doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result.