Alps drips dipping Rhine

With all honor to Vic, but something else loves the Alps but hates the snow:

After a prolonged summer drought, the bustling traffic at one of the shallowest points on the Rhine ground to a halt for nearly a month late last year, choking off a critical transport artery. The impact damped Germany’s industrial machine, slowing economic growth in the third and fourth quarters. It was the latest sign of how even advanced industrial economies are increasingly fighting the effects of global warming.

and

With its source high in the Swiss Alps, the Rhine snakes 800 miles through the industrial zones of Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands before emptying into the sea at Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port. It serves as a key conduit for manufacturers such as Daimler AG, Robert Bosch GmbH and Bayer AG.

When low water halted shipping this summer, steelmaker Thyssenkrupp AG was forced to delay shipments to customers like automaker Volkswagen AG as it couldn’t get raw materials to a mill in Duisburg.

Though not nearly as important a commercial waterway, we saw this on the Elbe during the summer of 2015. ‘What did we think would happen?’ is being displaced by ‘what do we do now?’ Imagine an average teenager in a ‘borrowed’ car, three drinks more than he’s used to, dashed from the drive-through without paying but not before dinging the BK awning and hitting the highway, sees a patrol car pass in the opposite the direction, hit the lights and squall a U-turn. Our answers in a pinch of what’s best to do next might not be the most trustworthy. If we had planned for this, sure, we probably would have had the drinks but maybe not taken the car so no dine-n-dash, cops or DUI fender scuffs. But we did do all those things, in that order, the lights are flashing and sirens blaring. So what do we do now? Our lines are open, higher-than-normal rates apply.

A Noteful Hope

At the outset of the newest year, with walls incoherently at the center of our discourse as we contemplate how best to keep people out rather how best to help them up, a bit of perspective provides a reminder that we might be mixed up about parts of the story:

For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

It’s from earlier this year in 2018, but read the whole, etc. There is no ‘them’ but there are assumptions and many of ours may be wrong or at least worth re-considering.

Banksy image from the original.

On Bigging, and Failing

Everyone loves an end-of-year top ten list, and we can pick from this Biggest Tech Lies of 2018 almost at random:

5. If we’re bigger, it will create more competition. – Everyone who runs a pseudo-monopoly

The most devastating merger of the year was AT&T and Time-Warner’s unholy union into a media machine with a telecom background operating under an FCC with seemingly no interest in policing anti-competitive practices. We still don’t know what the worst of the consequences will be, but we’ve already seen it strong-arm rival cable providers into paying more for HBO and the shut down of a beloved streaming service that wasn’t too big to fail. When AT&T argued that it needed to be bigger in order to create more competition, no one thought that would mean it just wants to plan a bunch of streaming services that will compete with each other and line AT&T’s pockets no matter which one you choose.

We can argue the legality of big companies merging with big companies until we’re blue in the face, but bigness is one of the biggest problems in the world today. The bigger companies are, the more power they acquire and the more difficult it becomes to hold them accountable. Current antitrust regulations have proven inadequate, and they are even more useless when the FTC is so bad at enforcing them.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are too big to enforce their own policies, Amazon is too big for small businesses to compete against, and telecoms are so big they write laws prohibiting your city from building its own network. Venture capitalists now want to feel that your startup can become either accomplish the impossible feat of toppling one of these giants or that you at least have a solid plan to be acquired by one of the big boys. Bigness doesn’t create competition, it pulls everything into a black hole that’s hostile to consumers and citizens around the world.

It’s practically every problem incarnate, joined as one: Giant companies. By existential ethos, they cannot care about workers, conditions or any negative externalities of the doing of their business. Even the construct ‘big problem’ is itself a kind exacerbated by terminology. In this way, the supposed empirical challenges of capitalism should have actually been understood as a roadmap, as they have been by some, no doubt. But these roads are a leading to a fundamental weakness, a dysfunction in the system itself. It could have been that this way of organizing an economy would work if and only if monopolies and all other rule violations were avoided and all participants observed the rules for the health of the system, if not for the board itself. But the entire endeavor has been predicated instead on getting away with as much transgression as possible. “Tie it up in court for years, damn the torpedoes.” There’s some corollary with ‘Ships being safer kept in the harbor,’ but, we’ll work on that.

Image: Battle of Mobile Bay, by Louis Prang

What does Gilets jaunes mean?

Rumblings on the hustings, the corporate global economic order has Always been predicated on sacrificing the working class. Always:

It’s obvious now, however, that the new model not only weakened the fringes of the proletariat but society as a whole.The paradox is this is not a result of the failure of the globalised economic model but of its success. In recent decades, the French economy, like the European and US economies, has continued to create wealth. We are thus, on average, richer. The problem is at the same time unemployment, insecurity and poverty have also increased. The central question, therefore, is not whether a globalised economy is efficient, but what to do with this model when it fails to create and nurture a coherent society?

In France, as in all western countries, we have gone in a few decades from a system that economically, politically and culturally integrates the majority into an unequal society that, by creating ever more wealth, benefits only the already wealthy.

The change is not down to a conspiracy, a wish to cast aside the poor, but to a model where employment is increasingly polarised. This comes with a new social geography: employment and wealth have become more and more concentrated in the big cities. The deindustrialised regions, rural areas, small and medium-size towns are less and less dynamic. But it is in these places – in “peripheral France” (one could also talk of peripheral America or peripheral Britain) – that many working-class people live. Thus, for the first time, “workers” no longer live in areas where employment is created, giving rise to a social and cultural shock.

Switch out France périphérique for the Rust Belt. They are interchangeable, except that the former has not, as yet, voted straight fascist and retains the habit of taking to the street – as well as tearing up parts of it to throw at the police. It’s how different cultures tackle the same problem: the left-behindness, debt, low pay, high taxes, inequality, and ignorance upon which the limited successes of late capitalism depend. It’s certainly not pleasant, but people have long-understood this and attempted to warn us from the dragons – Dr. K, Joe Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty – nor it is unrelated to the bizarre vortex we’ve been documenting here for ten(!) years. And the Gilets jaunes are not solving this problem. But they are making us look, and we’re not even used to that.

Image: Author photo of a different type of inundation, near Pont Neuf, 2016

Expensive solutions: having two drivetrains

While at first, this may appear to be an innocent discussion about plug-in hybrids versus straight electric vehicles, it turns out to be, you guessed it, a terrific metaphor:

Another challenge for automakers is that hybrids are relatively complicated, with widely varying ranges. Some can travel only on electrons, while others never do. Electric vehicles, meanwhile, can be measured on two simple metrics: miles per charge and price.

“It’s just a much more simple story,” said Tal at UC Davis. His team’s research has shown that people are far more ignorant about plug-in hybrids than fully electric vehicles. In general, he said, shoppers don’t spend much time deciding which car to buy—most effort goes into finding the best price for the model they’ve already set their mind on.

The death of the hybrid, while seemingly inevitable, may be a long and slow. A spike in gas prices in the next few years may even draw it out. “I can see them having a role until 2040,” Tal said. “But the problem will always be [that] it’s a more expensive solution having two drivetrains.”

We are absolutely lousy with other expensive-because-they-are-redundant solutions, and some (private schools, for-profit hospitals and health insurance) do triple the damage we can afford for the pain and pound of flesh they exact from the commonwealth. Reality shows seem cheap because [some]people think they don’t have/need writers. Roads and highways seem far more convenient that public transportation somehow, even at 0-miles-per-hour in rush hour that’s really two. Fb is free, see it doesn’t cost anything!

Hatred for irony remains an untapped and unfortunately renewable-into-infinity resource.

Changing the neighborhood

WITH all the courting, cajoling, promises of [decades of] tax breaks and free land and infrastructure upgrades that we see towns and localities using to persuade the tech giants to relocate in and resuscitate moribund burgs large, medium and small, it turns out we could all learn a thing or two from Berlin:

Campaigners in a bohemian district of Berlin are celebrating after the internet giant Google abandoned strongly opposed plans to open a large campus there. The US firm had planned to set up an incubator for startup companies in Kreuzberg, one of the older districts in the west of the capital.

But the company’s German spokesman Ralf Bremer announced on Wednesday that the 3,000 m2 (3,590 square-yard) space – planned to host offices, cafes and communal work areas – would instead go to two local humanitarian associations.

Bremer did not say if local resistance to the plans over the past two years had played a part in the change of heart, although he had told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper that Google does not allow protests to dictate its actions.

“The struggle pays off,” tweeted GloReiche Nachbarschaft, one of the groups opposed to the Kreuzberg campus plan and part of the “Fuck off Google” campaign.

Some campaigners objected to what they described as Google’s “evil” corporate practices, such as tax evasion and the unethical use of personal data. Some opposed the gentrification of the district, which might price many people out of the area.

As we see everywhere, gentrification is a tricky thing to fight off. It helps if you can summon the power to think well and high of yourself, to defend your neighborhoods from a position of strength. An earlier article this past May lays out it pretty clearly:

“I’m not saying [Google] don’t have to come here, but they have to realise they are part of something that is really frightening people … If such a big enterprise wants to join the most cool, the most rebellious, the most creative neighbourhood in Berlin – perhaps in Europe – then there must be a way they can contribute to saving the neighbourhood,” Schmidt says.

Bravi, Kreuzberg!

Image: Author photo, Brandenburg Tor

A.I., A.I., captain!

Joseph Stiglitz, he of former World Bankiness, haver of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics who warned that globalization was taking place at the behest international conglomerates rather than “forces,” now comes to light his hair on fire present similar cautions about Artificial Intelligence:

“Artificial intelligence and robotisation have the potential to increase the productivity of the economy and, in principle, that could make everybody better off,” he says. “But only if they are well managed.”

Beyond the impact of AI on work, Stiglitz sees more insidious forces at play. Armed with AI, tech firms can extract meaning from the data we hand over when we search, buy and message our friends. It is used ostensibly to deliver a more personalised service. That is one perspective. Another is that our data is used against us.

“These new tech giants are raising very deep issues about privacy and the ability to exploit ordinary people that were never present in earlier eras of monopoly power,” says Stiglitz. “Beforehand, you could raise the price. Now you can target particular individuals by exploiting their information.”

It is the potential for datasets to be combined that most worries Stiglitz. For example, retailers can now track customers via their smartphones as they move around stores and can gather data on what catches their eye and which displays they walk straight past.

The data farming of which we are all willing seeds know no boundaries, recognizes no politics and sees only profits. Shaded with the camouflage of complexity, it is a winning hand. Are we up for the ‘boring overwhelming’ of taking on the Tech giants? Wait, let me come in again…

Image: Warehouse operated by Amazon, via The Guardian

Mining industry elected Prime Minister of Australia

Much less of an exaggeration than it sounds:

The fate of Australia’s embattled Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is likely to be decided within hours as rivals seek enough signatures to force a vote on his leadership.

Amid a flurry of ministerial resignations Thursday, Turnbull said he would call a special meeting of the governing Liberal party at noon on Friday only if his main challenger — right-wing populist Peter Dutton — can gather enough signatures on a petition.

Just Monday, Turnbull abandoned a modest effort to reduce energy emissions under pressure from conservatives in his party. And yesterday, those same conservatives just missed toppling his government. Hmm:

Australia’s resistance to addressing climate change — by limiting emissions in particular — is well documented. Turnbull could yet be turned out of office as rivals rally support for another challenge as soon as Thursday. If that happens, he will be the third Australian prime minister in the past decade to lose the position over a climate dispute.

Despite the country’s reputation for progressiveness on gun control, health care and wages, its energy politics seem forever doomed to devolve into a circus. Experts point to many reasons, from partisanship to personality conflicts, but the root of the problem may be tied to the land.

“The Europeans think we’re crazy,” she added. “Who’s got more solar, who’s got more tidal power than us? It just goes to show the strength of that particular group.”

The trend of hyper-partisanship has not helped. Just as climate and energy issues in the United States create a toxic divide, with many on the right opposing anything the left supports — including well-established science — any mention of emissions control tends to create an anaphylactic reaction among Australian conservatives.

The arguments differ. Some make a case for free markets, despite subsidies granted to fossil fuel companies, or they say action works only when all nations act. Others, like Turnbull’s opponents this time, emphasize local priorities such as reduced energy prices for consumers.

The Aristocrats!

Under Turnbull, a former investment banker and a moderate, the Australian government has increased its support for fossil fuel extraction projects, failed to meet goals set under the Paris climate agreement, and shied away from challenging the consumption status quo even as the Great Barrier Reef bleaches toward oblivion.

Darren Saunders, a cancer biologist in Australia, spoke for many in a popular tweet that said, “It’s incredibly hard to describe how utterly sad it feels to be a scientist and dad in a country being dictated to by a small group of science-denying clowns putting their own short-term political gain over the long-term public interest.”

Which of these underlying conditions don’t we share with the Aussies? Show your work.

Image: Coral bleaching at Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef, via

Elevation of Silicon Valley

The lowest point in San Jose is 13 feet below sea level and though it has its high points, I agree that the tech boom is probably done. The way in which profits are squeezed from marginal web apps has gone the way of wide brim ties for the moment, and though Musk remains a hero at the major news outlets there seems to be only shadow chasing for the big start-up fashion show funding carnival that was all the rage until the lights came on. And despite the hype, even autonomous vehicles appear to be circling back to their original question: how?

BUT… the economy is… booming? Okay, the business news will all turn negative as we reach full employment and wages go up because anything that is good for workers must be bad. The captains of cronyism continue their long-term project of undermining capitalism from within. Now they’ll have pay higher wages or else. I kid. Will the know-nothings in power begin to learn to love the tariffs as they slingshot back at US? How many socialists will take the oath of office after November? Can capitalism be crippled without putting representative democracy in traction, too? This is to say nothing of the boiling racism at the heart of every policy question from immigration to the environment to voting rights.

Okay, enough vacation. Everybody back to work.

Image: Author photo from a somewhat great height.

Following the facts to where they lead

Via LGM, the approaching 200th birthday of Karl Marx is indeed a moment to digress upon the notion that Marx was right about a lot of things:

The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.

Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.

We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.

Also true that quite a number of people are afraid to even delve into Marx because ‘Marx,’ which is it’s own quiet little brand of pathetic. Add ‘closing books you’ve never opened’ to the long list of epithets at the heart of our ignorance. Plenty of ills have flowed out of his ideas, but the posture of critique about all of this madness is one we cannot afford to be afraid of.

Image: Marx welcoming pedestrians in his birthplace of Trier.