New Unscripted: Expedition to Antarctica

The new episode of my interview podcast Unscripted focuses on Patricia Yager, professor of marine sciences, and her recent experience co-leading a research expedition to the Amundsen Sea Polynya in western Antarctica.

While many research projects on the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration were focused on sea level rise and the physical processes related to the melting, Yager served as co-chief scientist and lead P.I. on the project Artemis, designed to better understand the impact of melting glaciers and ice shelves on the coastal ocean’s biological productivity.

“The glaciers are not melting because the air temperature is warm,” Yager said in the interview. “The glaciers are melting because the ocean is warm.”

Listen to the interview on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts and subscribe to Unscripted.

All of a piece

photo of freize

In an era/moment/day when fascism is ascendant, it’s a great time to declare which side you are on.

And while that may seem like an obvious statement of alliance with open society, pro-democracy forces, it’s just as important to note those who continue to declare their allegiance to authoritarian white nationalism:

Richard Donoghue, who took over as acting deputy attorney general after Barr left his job in December 2020, also testified that DOJ officials went so far as to tell the White House that Trump’s efforts to get the Department of Justice to parrot his fraud claims were an attempt to outright corrupt the election.

“I recall towards the end saying, ‘What you’re proposing is nothing less than the United States Justice Department meddling in the outcome of the presidential election,’ ” Donoghue testified.

In spite of the day’s dramatic revelations, it seems likely that House Republicans and the rest of the party will continue to rally around the former president, and even Democratic representatives seemed to acknowledge as much. “It’s a reminder that there was a period of time in the days and weeks after Jan. 6 when everybody who now defends the president, and embraces the lie, understood exactly what had happened and in some cases was apparently ashamed of their role,” Rep. Tom Malinowski said. “It was striking to hear—not surprising, but striking—to hear the former president’s attorney general say, finally, that it was all ‘bullshit.’ ”

Believe people when they tell you who they are, who repeatedly remind you that they don’t care about fair elections, are happy to attack the weak and oppressed, who believe that ‘freedom’ refers to theirs and not yours. There is no light between polite Republican voters and outright fascists, and they are not sorry about that in any way, shape, or form. If they were, we would know by now. Instead they remind us again and again: they are one and the same.

We also should note the enormous cowardice of all these so-called patriots who stormed the capitol – as well as those who egged them on and continue to do so – but when they fail and are called out on it, refuse to stand by their BS principles. Plead innocence, hide and refuse to take responsibility for their own dangerous behavior when faced with any consequences whatsoever. Honor? Dignity? Integrity? Forget it, with these people.

Image: Author photo of ’30’s era public art frieze in the fascist style, Rome.

If it woes, it leads

We’re backing into the climate future/present with woes leading the way. It’s the perfect media framing and supports the status quo – yes everything is awful. We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas, let’s see how we can keep cheap gas going a little bit longer. It’s this way, in part, because ALL of the progress is boring. For instance, wide bandgap:

Silicon and silicon carbide are useful in electronics because they are semiconductors: They can switch between being electrical conductors, as metals are, and insulators, as most plastics are. This ability makes semiconductors the key materials in transistors — the fundamental building blocks of modern electronics.

Silicon carbide differs from silicon in that it has a wide bandgap, meaning that it requires more energy to switch between the two states. Wide bandgap, or WBG, semiconductors are advantageous in power electronics because they can move more power more efficiently.

Silicon carbide is the senior citizen of WBGs, having been under development as a transistor material for decades. In that time, engineers have started using younger upstart WBG materials, like gallium nitride, or GaN. In the 1980s, researchers used gallium nitride to create the world’s first bright blue LEDs. Blue light comprises high-energy photons; gallium nitride, with its wide bandgap, was the first semiconductor that could practically produce photons with the sufficient energy. In 2014, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for that innovation, which became ubiquitous in devices like TV screens and light bulbs.

Lately, researchers have started using gallium nitride to improve power electronics. The material reached commercial fruition over the past few years in adapters for charging phones and computers. These adapters are smaller, lighter, faster-charging and more efficient than traditional ones that use silicon transistors.

“A typical charger that you buy for your computer is 90 percent efficient,” said Jim Witham, chief executive of GaN Systems, a Canadian company that supplied the transistors in Apple’s gallium-nitride laptop chargers, which were released last fall. “Gallium nitride is 98 percent efficient. You can cut power losses by four times.”

Keep going, science.

Stare decisis

The previous three Supreme Court Justice nominees – Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barret – knowingly lied in their confirmation hearings.

From an archived Artforum preview:

Through October 15, New York’s Museum of Sex hosts Barcelona-based artist Laia Abril’s exhibition “On Abortion: And the Repercussions of Lack of Access.” One chapter of her larger project “A History of Misogyny,” “On Abortion” chronicles obstacles to reproductive choice in across the world. Abril employs a documentary mode common to conceptual art, drawing on the testimonies of individuals who were denied care. She pairs black-and-white photographic portraits of her subjects with typed statements and evidentiary images of their struggles, such as maps of their travels to neighboring countries for health care and photos of shadowy waiting rooms and plum pits (as one woman describes the size of her fetus). The subjects include Françoise, a septuagenarian Frenchwoman who performed five thousand clandestine abortions from the ’70s to the ’90s, to three Chinese women—identified by their initials ZWF, FJ, and GYL—whose abortions and sterilizations were forced upon them. Abril also uses the photographic grid format to depict the desperate measures people have taken to end pregnancy throughout history, from herbal mixtures to the coat hanger method. Alongside Abril’s work, curator Lissa Rivera exhibits birth-control artifacts from the Museum of Sex holdings and gynecological tools from the Burns Archive, a private collection in Manhattan devoted to medical photography and objects from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The sober nature of Abril’s exhibition sharply contrasts with the spectacular format of the MoSex shows directly above and below hers—on webcam models and fin de siècle stag films, respectively. Still, on a recent busy Friday night at the museum, “On Abortion” invited quiet contemplation from a busy crowd.

In January and February, the two-part show “Abortion Is Normal” was mounted at the downtown galleries Eva Presenhuber and Arsenal Contemporary Art. Conceived as a fundraiser for Downtown for Democracy, a liberal super PAC, the show donated its proceeds to Planned Parenthood and efforts to support voter education on reproductive rights. Curated by Project for Empty Space Newark cofounders Rebecca Pauline Jampol and Jasmine Wahi and co-organized by Marilyn Minter, Gina Nanni, Laurie Simmons, and Sandy Tait, the show brought together over fifty diverse artists—several with blue-chip appeal, like Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman. While the title polemically defined reproductive rights as normal healthcare, the works on view approached bodily and sexual autonomy in various ways, oscillating in attitude between anger, celebration, and grief. Carrie Mae Weems’s photograph The Broken, See Duchamp, 2012–16, depicts the artist in a spread-eagled posture reminiscent of Etant donnés; Hayv Kahraman’s paintings of fair-skinned, dark-haired women, punctuated with woven bits of canvas, suggest the fracturing and mending potentials of art in the wake of traumas related to sexual violation and migration. Jane Kaplowitz’s painted portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg lionize the Supreme Court Justice, while Jon Kessler’s multimedia collage Birmingham, 2019, mourns the victims of the 1998 bombing of an Alabama abortion clinic by the terrorist Eric Rudolph.

Image: Hayv Kahraman, Barricade 1, 2018, oil on linen, 50 x 78 x 3”.

Making climate reduction technologies sexy

Or… sexier than ape cartoons.

My head, it shakes. Because no matter how seriously and soberly one might approach the financial dilemma of bringing promising technologies to maturity by broad investments, there are always hand-scrawled love notes, or pictures of pictures, or the newest version of L.H.O.O.Q., not to mention instant toothbrush delivery schemes to entice the ridiculously wealthy or even the passingly prosperous. It’s a problem:

Tony Fadell, who spent most of his career trying to turn emerging technologies into mainstream products as an executive at Apple and founder of Nest, said that even as the world faces the risks of climate change, money is flooding into less urgent developments in cryptocurrency, the so-called metaverse and the digital art collections sold as NFTs. Last year, venture capitalists invested $11.9 billion in renewable energy globally, compared with $30.1 billion in cryptocurrency and blockchain, according to PitchBook.

Of the $106 billion invested by venture capitalists in European startups last year, just 4% went into energy investments, according to PitchBook.

“We need to get real,” said Fadell, who now lives in Paris and has proposed ideas on energy policy to the French government. “Too many people are investing in the things that are not going to fix our existential problems. They are just investing in fast money.”

Even so-called ESG funds and investor movements run the risk of becoming fads, passing, allowing a regression toward the mean, also know as same old, same old. Governments have to do more to leverage current investments and attract new. But there also has to be some boring seriousness to guide the reckless speculation, as contradictory as that sounds. Otherwise, we’re still speculating alright, on something.

Image: Not a new version. Duchamp would be kicking himself

Re-enforcing the Supply lines

So… one man’s colossal miscalculation is another man’s a planet’s sped-up timeline for addressing climate change? I’m not trying not to see it that way, and energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins doesn’t need to convince me. But the winds are at somebody’s back:

Lovins, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has been one of the world’s leading advocates and innovators of energy conservation for 50 years. He wrote his first paper on climate change while at Oxford in 1968, and in 1976 he offered Jimmy Carter’s government a blueprint for how to triple energy efficiency and get off oil and coal within 40 years. In the years since there is barely a major industry or government that he and his Rocky Mountain Institute have not advised.
But for much of that time efficiency was seen as a bit of an ugly sister, rather dull compared with a massive transition to renewables and other new technologies. Now, he hopes, its time may have come. Lovins is arguing for the mass insulation of buildings alongside a vast acceleration of renewables. “We should crank [them] up with wartime urgency. There should be far more emphasis on efficiency,” he says.
He sees Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine as an outrage, but possibly also a step towards solving the climate crisis and a way to save trillions of dollars. “He has managed to bring about all the outcomes that he most feared, but he may inadvertently have put the energy transition and climate solutions into a higher gear. Whether or not we end up in a recession because of the disruption, [Putin’s war] may prove to be a great thing for climate economics.”

As he explains, solar and wind are among the cheapest bulk power sources, and Putin’s authoritarian misadventure has put energy externalities in the center of the frame.

Again, it’s the boringest, not-technology solutions that have the greatest effect. And there’s a lot to reckon with in what he says about nuclear:

The most energy-inefficient design of all, he says, may be nuclear power, which is heavily subsidised, costly and pushed by a politically powerful lobby. Using it to address shortages of electricity or to counter climate change, he argues, is like offering starving people rice and caviar when it’s far cheaper and easier to give just rice.

The socialization of capitalism

New York Magazine takes us on a tour of what lays beyond, after the capitalism runs out. That may sound hippie and/or conspiratorial, but facts is facts and the entire game has changed:

Making matters even weirder, contemporary capitalism’s dominant shareholders have no direct interest in the success or failure of the firms they own. All returns on their holdings get passed down the investment chain to their clients — households, governments, and corporations. Asset managers make their money off of their clients’ fees, not their firms’ returns. This diagram may make the hydraulics of the system more legible:

[cool graphic]

Of course, an asset manager that delivered consistently poor returns would attract few clients. And asset managers’ fees are calculated as a percentage of the current value of their clients’ assets. Nevertheless, add a fee-based business model to asset managers’ universal portfolios, and their interest in the performance of any individual firm they own becomes extraordinarily attenuated — even when they are the single largest shareholder of that firm (which is very often the case)!

This is not how capitalism is supposed to work in theory. And it isn’t how corporate governance has ever before worked in practice. To the political economist Benjamin Braun, the contemporary structure of corporate ownership is so novel and consequential as to mark a new era in economic history, the age of “asset-manager capitalism.”

Braun’s papers on this subject are fascinating, and nerds will want to read them in full. Mere dorks, however, may be content to consider the following four ways the rise of asset managers challenges conventional wisdom about how capitalism functions — and how it might be changed.

Cool graphic and the rest at the link. Removing market competition from the equation renders many of the other legacy levers moot. Even the ESG stratagem takes on a different tenor – what does promoting efficiency even mean when the owners of the means of production no longer prevail – when/if we default (curious wording) to a dirigiste model. They, ESG pressure campaigns may become more effective. Because frankly, christian soldiers, that’s what they’re talking about.

The dated conversation

People are shocked! “Shocked” at gas prices. How long have we been having this conversation? Corollary – how long have we been avoiding this conversation?

Obviously, everyone and their mother is mad, mad, mad about the high price of gas, in part because Americans now are back to driving just about as much as they did before the pandemic. We’re not going to the office, but we’re not staying home. From Virginia to Colorado, drivers are liable to pull up to the pump and be greeted with a sticker of Joe Biden, pointing at their total: “I DID THAT!”

A look back at 2011 suggests an interesting counterfactual: What if, facing those high prices, we had made changes on the demand side instead? Believe it or not, this was what some people thought might happen. President Barack Obama took that moment (and the conditions created by the auto bailout) to set new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, known as CAFE, which put in place ambitious fuel efficiency goals for automakers. “Slowly but surely Detroit is shifting its attention from SUVs to cars,” All Things Considered reported in March of that year.

You won’t believe what happened next! It’s all ugh. I don’t wish anybody ill on this point. It’s certainly not enjoyable to being filling up on $4.39 per gallon multiple times in a week, but come on. The conversation about more roads all-the-time, living rilly rilly far from work, school, shopping goes back quite a bit farther than 2011. It’s not just smaller cars but a whole suite of living conditions that continue to be – ta-da! – unworkable, which should be the new unsustainable. The larger unworkable situation – sprawl, mostly non-existent public transit, and yes, gigantic vehicles – makes $4 gas that much more painful, as well as Groundhog Day all over and over again.

[You] Make it stop.

Tales from the crypt(o)

NBA commentator Jeff Van Gundy’s well-placed, near-extemporaneous “back at the crypt” comment notwithstanding, ubiquitous references to crypto currency range from annoying to cloying. Everything about digital money is either scammy or… that seems to be mostly it. Scammy neatly encompasses the over-hyped, Ponzi-schemed, last-one-in nature of the the collection of binary data that necessarily requires us to put all the usual finance-related terms in quotes: “ownership” “collateral” “token” “transaction.” You could go on.

And besides the obvious downsides of NFT’s – from terrific money-laundering possibilities to the proliferation of really bad art – we’d be remiss in not noting crypto’s climate impacts:

Crypto’s overall climate impact remains massive, with certain currencies swallowing up entire nations’ worth of processing power from individual computing units and data centers—much of whose power comes from fossil fuels. The most common form of cryptocurrency mining, proof of work, requires a massive amount of processing power. Alternative mining methods have a mixed track record so far, with some ostensibly “sustainable” mining systems still requiring significant amounts of dirty or clean power. And transacting any tokens across the blockchain, whether an NFT or a Litecoin, sucks up the collective energy feeding into the transaction, no matter the product at hand. One estimate claims that a single NFT trade across the much-used Ethereum blockchain uses enough energy that could power an entire house for several days. And this is all so the buyer can have bragging rights about “owning” an image.

Celebrities who are selling NFTs and also claim to care about the environment: What are you doing? Whatever it is, there sure are a lot of you. Here’s a list—surely incomplete—of luminaries who brand themselves as climate-conscious yet have also been hawking NFTs in some form or the other, ensuring this bizarre digital culture product will linger in the public discourse while possibly ruining the art world, the planet, and our collective sanity.

Not even-close-to-exhaustive list of scam-adjacent proponents at the link. Yes, engaging in yet another form of workaround for doing not the things we need to do about global warming: what are we doing? The climate question at the center of everything, that we’ve been needing to ask for decades, that we still need to answer.

Image: the crypt in question

Abundance of scarcity

That’s where we are now, or one of the places, so sayeth Matt Levine:

Basically it is easy, using blockchain technology, to create scarce claims. You could I suppose use this technology to create scarce claims to scarce resources: You could put, like, housing deeds or shares of corporate ownership or cargo-container manifests on the blockchain. This would — people have argued for years — have benefits in terms of efficiency and legibility and tradability. It would create value by improving the processes by which real-world assets are transferred and allocated. Classic financial-services stuff. Nobody talks that much about this anymore.

Instead, people like to use blockchain technology to create scarce claims to abundant, or infinite, resources. There is absolutely no shortage of JPEGs, they are infinitely reproducible more or less for free, but that means — or meant — that you couldn’t become a millionaire by having good taste in JPEGs. But now people can create a unique non-fungible token representing ownership of a JPEG and use it as a status symbol or a speculative asset. Nobody will pay you for a number in your computer’s memory, but people will pay you for a scarce number in your computer’s memory.

Stop shaking your head – it’ll hurt your neck. Or just wait.

Theoretical normal person: If you could do a thing that wasn’t just bad for but ruinous to your country’s political system – but it was very good for your profits, would you do it?
Our actual media: Do what?

Such is our national media paralyzed on the question of how to cover Biden, how to normalize authoritarian white nationalism and get Trump back. Ratings are down and they’re in a bad way, which means they’ll gladly put us [all] in a worse one to keep the eyeballs rolling in and the clicks coming.

It’s really something.