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:


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.


Self-driving cars are a stupidly-expensive distraction

As you know, QuadRanting is no fan of autonomous vehicles. It’s not just that they are infinitely more difficult to achieve than their over-excited fans would have you believe, it’s that no one has really come up with a convincing reason why we need them.

Of course, since self-driving cars (SDCs) are the greatest of techno-narcissism’s current grands projets, the requirement for something as dreary as a worthwhile raison d’etre for them is considered to be an irrelevance. They’re exciting and theoretically achievable so let’s pour billions of dollars into them!

In the same way that the word ‘blockchain’ magically enables unscrupulous outfits to relieve gullible fools of their money, any story involving ‘self-driving cars’ is fully guaranteed to gain wholly uncritical media coverage, even in outlets that should know better. So when we learned that fully-autonomous vehicles will be on the UK’s roads by 2021, it was no surprise to hear the news not from the lips of Ricky the Magic Pixie but from those of the Rt. Hon. Philip Hammond MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

You have to ask why the automotive industry – huge, highly regulated and quite responsible at the operational level, though not existentially – would want to play silly buggers in this way. The answer is that by and large it doesn’t.

There is a smidgen of truth in the idea that the big automakers fear they’ll be put out of business by Google and other tech giants flexing their artificial intelligence muscles. But the manufacturers know they have more pressing threats to their future to worry about than toy cars adorned with $100,000 dollars-worth of sensors that need to be connected 100% of the time to a multi-billion dollar IT infrastructure that itself is guaranteed to be ‘up’ 100% of the time. Yup, 99.99% won’t be good enough. Especially when even Chris Urmson, the former Chief Technical Officer of self-driving cars at Google, recently said it’ll be at least 30 years before anyone achieves a truly self-driving car. So 2050, Mr Hammond, not 2021.

Above all, motor manufacturers understand that even relatively minor moves (in comparison to putting a fully autonomous vehicle on the roads), like developing a new hybrid drivetrain, are immensely complex global undertakings that span international supply chains, multiple vehicle regulators, varied climates, traffic rules and highway design protocols sales channels, and so on. Agreeing something as seemingly insignificant as a global standard for an electronic interface that allows different components to talk to each other can take many years.

It’s obvious that a lot of people are mentally constructing castles on the sand in order to clutch at pies in the sky.

But something has caused, hitherto one of the most shameless boosters of all things autonomous, to inject a note of realism into its discourse. Perhaps someone there had a butchers at the rising tide of SDC stories and thought, “Hmm. What does that remind me of?”


In Before Self-Driving Cars Become Real, They Face These Challenges, Wired quotes Bryan Salesky, who heads up Ford-backed autonomous vehicle company Argo AI, saying (emphasis added):

“Those who think fully self-driving vehicles will be ubiquitous on city streets months from now or even in a few years are not well connected to the state of the art or committed to the safe deployment of the technology.”

Take note of the comment on safe deployment. Achieving Level 5 (total) automation will be incredibly difficult. From the Wired piece:

”Technology developers are coming to appreciate that the last 1 percent is harder than the first 99 percent,” says Karl Iagnemma, CEO of Nutonomy, a Boston-based self-driving car company acquired by automotive supplier Delphi this fall. “Compared to last 1 percent, the first 99 percent is a walk in the park.”

Do the math. He’s saying that when the SDC-ers get 99 percent of the way to Level 5, they’ll be less than half-way to actually putting the technology safely on the road. Unless the rate of development goes exponential, it will take decades to iron out the final bugs between Level 4 and Level 5. And while we’re at it, let’s mix-in the warning from Salesky, above: developers – or countries – that try to rush the process will kill people.

Wired calls Iagnemma a killjoy. Its piece concludes with the obligatory happy ending:

The good news is that there seems to be enough momentum to carry this new industry out of the trough and onto what Gartner calls the plateau of productivity. Not everyone who started the journey will make the climb. But those who do, battered and a bit bloody, may just find the cash up there is green, the robots good, and the view stupendous.

I suspect the phrase ‘battered and a bit bloody’ will sooner rather than later prove rather too literal as far as some passengers and bystanders are concerned. Expect it to come back to haunt Wired.

‘Stupendous’ looks misplaced as well. What the plateau delivers is well short of what peak hype promises. A Gartner curve adapted to SDCs might look like this:


I’m not sure we’ll exactly see a trough of disillusionment. People, especially in the media, are deeply wedded to the belief that everything is getting better and that technology can deliver all our dreams at the flick of a venture capitalist’s quiff. Unless or until there’s a global depression deep enough to scour right through the layers of hype, sheer techno-optimism will ensure the SDC-ers have sufficient Other People’s Money to burn.

Nevertheless, the climb up from reality setting in to the plateau of productivity will be a lot, lot longer than implied by the Gartner model. And the economic headwinds will be getting stronger all the way up. The market for any car, let alone a super whizz-bang expensive SDC, is shrinking along with the dwindling buying power of ordinary people.

Sounding somewhat desperate, one SDC start-up is aiming at retirement communities – clearly hoping that the pension ponzi doesn’t pop before its founders cash out. Another aims at disabled users. That’s a better idea, in that there’s actually a problem there that an SDC could be the solution to. But again, it’s a niche market that doesn’t justify the stratospheric cost of attaining Level 5. There are undoubtedly better and cheaper community-based solutions for disabled travellers.

All in all, SDCs are industrial civilisation’s equivalent of brilliant plumage in the animal kingdom or exotic blooms among plants. But unlike natural showing-off, which is developed to be sustainable over millennial timescales, SDCs are no more than hubristic adornments at the apex of a system that’s already running out of cheap energy and starting to drown in its own effluent.

When the history of the 21st century comes to be written, SDCs will undoubtedly feature on the list of Stupidly Expensive Diversions from Attending to Real Problems.

Russiagate, Truthism and the Big Lie

A lie silly story, repeated often enough, becomes a kind of truth. Hence the inescapable ‘truth’ that Vladimir Putin hacked the 2016 US election on behalf of Donald Trump.

You hear it every day in the right wing media. Never mind the unhealthily-close relationship between these outlets’ proprietors and the military wing of global corporate capital, which really, really needs to portray Russia as a scary bogeyman so it can justify its metastasising demands for bigger arms budgets.

You hear it in the left wing media. They can’t believe the voters rejected HC – as bought-and-paid-for a corporate tool as Obama but sadly lacking his eye- and ear-appeal – all by themselves. And that voters rejected, by extension, the cosmopolitan liberal elites’ peculiar brand of snowflakey, virtue-signalling identity politics.

What’s the word for a silly story that takes on a casual resemblance to a fact with the help of repetition? A ‘truthism’ perhaps. You know it’s happened when you hear, say, John Humphrys on the today programme say something like, “Well we now know that Russian interference in the US election apparently influenced the outcome.”

That’s how Truthism is done. The ‘now’ in “We now know that …” implies that solid evidence of Russian interference has been laid bare since the election – although nothing of any kind has actually been turned up barring a few Facebook ads from Russia-based accounts, which addressed issues not candidates and which almost nobody in the US even saw.

Similarly, while the word ‘apparently’ confers a tone of impartiality, it serves to reinforce the preceding Truthism (i.e. that Russian interference was substantial, not merely a silly story) by immediately shifting attention to whether it affected the election result.

”Like any orthodoxy worth its salt, the religion of the Russian hack depends not on evidence but on ex cathedra pronouncements on the part of authoritative institutions and their overlords.”
(LRB 4 January 2018)

What America really needs is a genuine Emperor’s New Clothes moment where some wholesome, freckled, toothy kid in a baseball cap pipes up: “Hey everyone, there ain’t no Russkis! We just ended up being given a choice between two utterly grotesque presidential candidates and we elected the simple-bad one when we were supposed to pick the smart-bad one!”

The next best thing would be for some publications on both sides of the political spectrum to start laying Russiagate to rest. In the UK, at least, the London Review of Books’ first issue of 2018 has deftly unpicked Russiagate in a piece entitled What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking.

Russiagate Truthism is likely to prove counter-productive, not because it is propaganda but because it is bad propaganda. Even not-very-switched-on people don’t feel they’ve seen any proof of the interference. Despite being assiduously pushed by the mainstream media, Russiagate risks making the governments of the UK and US (do any other countries care about it?) look ridiculous.


All across our green and pleasant land, we hear, people are upping sticks and heading east. East to the lands of the rising sun. East where opportunity still knocks and trade flows freely. East to Paris. East to Bonn. East to Europe.

It’s Brexodus. People and companies leaving the UK because they believe that Bexit will make them uncompetitive or unwelcome here, or both. Or – to go by the examples given in Naked Capitalism’s latest report on the dire progress of Britain’s deluded Brexiteer negotiating team – it’s ‘Techsodus’.

Tech companies can’t find enough home-grown talent to grow themselves in places like London’s silicone roundabout – which I used to peel across on a motorcycle 30 years ago when it was still just dirty tarmac and fag butts. Smart IT euro-dudes have jumped at the chance to live in London and take the offered jobs. But Brexit will nix the UK as a worthwhile career option in a self-perpetuating spiral of work restrictions and departing employers. The euro-dudes can simply remain chez eux while ‘our’ jobs transfer across the channel to them.

Leavers argue that this is precisely the opportunity plucky Britannia needs. To forge a dynamic, sovereign, digital training sector to supply our own dynamic, sovereign, silicone industry. Well we could. But it will take three to five years to turn around. Why do pro-leavers think that employers – who can base their businesses anywhere in the world with electricity and broadband – are going to stay put and stagnate while they wait?

At least digital businesses have the advantage of mobility. What the clowns in charge of Brexit are threatening to let happen to UK motor manufacturing is truly frightening.

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?

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?