Not adding up

In fact, it is adding up. Way too up:

Google has reported that, since 2019, its emissions have grown by 48 percent, an enormous increase that reflects the vast amounts of energy used by artificial intelligence.

A.I. models run a huge number of calculations in short order, taxing computers and driving up energy consumption. “As we further integrate AI into our products, reducing emissions may be challenging due to increasing energy demands,” Google said in its report, released Tuesday. The surge in emissions puts the tech giant further away from its ambitious goal of zeroing out carbon footprint by 2030.

Google is not alone. Microsoft, which is also integrating A.I. into its products, has seen its emissions jump by 30 percent since 2020. It too has a goal of reaching net zero emissions by the end of this decade.

In its report, Google said that it is adopting practices that could dramatically reduce the energy needed to train an A.I. model. It also said that it is using A.I. to tackle climate change in three key ways: by guiding drivers along more fuel-efficient routes; by helping city engineers adjust the timing of stoplights to speed the flow of traffic; and by providing advanced flood warnings to people in more than 80 countries.

Still, the climate impact of A.I. is considerable. Google and Microsoft now have larger carbon footprints than Slovenia.

The marketing hype around A.I. that is far outstripping its current utility also perfectly elides its most profound impact: the electricity required for supercomputing. This gluttonous energy need is hard to overstate – making it very difficult to comprehend – and should be among the primary concerns about A.I., on par with its nefarious effects on news/entertainment, creative pursuits, and surveillance.

So, Siri, is A.I. scary, or just frighteningly impractical?

content /kənˈtɛnt/ • adjective

Whether adjective (in a state of peaceful happiness), verb (soothe), or noun (a state of satisfaction), the appropriate use and pronunciation of ‘content’ is  /kənˈtɛnt/

Ahem. This is known. Don’t be suckered into micro-sizing your efforts into a generic descriptor thereof.

Along the same lines, it should also be apparent that people only need to be as corporate and sanitized as they agree to be.  While in times of deceit this might be construed as a revolutionary act, self-deceit about the meaning and matter of it all can be as devious as any other form. Remember all the space afforded you, the dark nights and struggles before yours that produce the light that warms you now, that allows you to see. There’s a gem of a reminder by Susan Neiman in the NYRB, reassembling the thinking of and about Frantz Fanon:

tribalism is the simplest form of social organization. It takes an act of abstraction to become a universalist; to see the possibility of common dignity in all the weird and gorgeous ways human beings differ is an achievement we’ve forgotten how to celebrate.

Allow yourself to pull away from tendencies not your own.

Image: Author photo, Hudson River sunrise.

Considering the odds

Weird convergence on how we distinguish work vs. labor that slices into entirely new territory when merged with sports gambling:

There is a way to make money, or at least not lose money, gambling on sports, and people who do it. That work involves crunching numbers, diversifying risk, seeking out small inefficiencies; it is, more or less, a job. A friend I spoke to for the story made a bunch of money betting the under on steals for various defense-deficient NBA guards. It’s not glamorous, it’s not juicy, it provides no mondo paydays. It’s barely fun at all. Again: it’s work.

Sports gambling apps do not want people to gamble like that. What they want bettors to do is put money on parlays. Apps push them in that direction constantly, even offering “no-risk parlays” to whet a prospective gambler’s appetite for the harder stuff. When I mentioned slot machine gambling to Dr. Fong, he immediately mentioned the same-game parlay. It’s an inevitable winner for casinos that also looks and feels good for the casual gambler.

In Addiction by Design, Schüll talks to slot machine designers about the process of making an effective slot machine. (They’re all from Australia, for some reason.) They tell her that it’s mostly a matter of feeling—finding a way to build in enough winning to maintain hope in the player, but also enough losing to make it profitable for the casino. It’s pretty nauseating; reading about otherwise sane people succumbing to sophisticated Skinner Boxes is dispiriting, and terrifying.

Here is one way that could all look: You watch a game with the app open. It gives you a personalized stream of quick, ever-changing, algorithmically generated bets. It also tracks what you will bet on and what you won’t, and then adjusts to create something akin to a personalized slot machine; the idea is to create an experience that feels good to you. If you are even a little bit inclined toward problem gambling, this will bury itself deep, and it will take your money; it will all be, as it currently is in 30 states, legal. And you can play like this until the government or a medical professional intervenes, or doesn’t. Everyone with any skin in the game—every business interest that sees its fans as a renewable resource—wants that to exist.

Turnip-truck green mixed with $$$-green produces no great good but a whole lot of parting.

Never so much in common as this

Reminiscent of the fabled National Debt clock, Bloomberg Green sports a running, parts per million CO2 counter that clicks up and down at various speeds depending on, well, you can check it out.

Despite some with fancy hats acting interested in horse racing, versus others in famine-plagued refugee camps, there is a great bit of unanimity of experience in our current moment. Some dissonance concerning the effect of heat on the Miami Grand Prix notwithstanding, the inability to escape the unusual effects of global warming unites us all, on a way. Not the good kind, yet still, unity toutefois.

One of the questions is whether this great common crisis may elicit in us urgency for collective action that serves the greater good. And yes, cynicism circles the globe twice every morning before hopefulness pours its first cup. But this forced grouping of everyone with everyone else no matter your station under the banner of This Is Happening kicks our profit-maximizing distraction seeking onto a side street. And you know how people like to browse.

There are many things to see. Maybe you consider picking up something special – like something for someone everyone else.

Apropos-eclipse

Making up things to fight, an interesting use of creative energy – if round is what you like. As we go in circles, we should at least tend the energy fires that are burning behind this particular chase.

God love the MBAs ( someone needs to), but every endeavor is not in need of being maximized for profit. Without the need to be philosophically opposed to financial gain, a re-alignment is in order, especially while we still know those words. Maybe a list of activities deserving special dispensation above net yield is in order – or maybe a reconsideration of ‘net’ and ‘yield’. Proposed exemptions:

Fire protection, water, public safety, health care.

But if we blaspheme bracket these, the human and physical infrastructure underlying them quickly follows: transportation, education, housing, food… the entire edifice of maximizing gains begins to crumble as soon as we grant agency to locking down any of its particular aspects. But we should still consider this! Again, while we can. That sounds like a scare tactic but the degree to which we have internalized the corporate ethos of business should terrify us – and does when/if we step back from it.

And again, it need not be the full socialismso, just set some standards and stick to them.

And if we need to do away with the internet because it’s not profitable, that’s fine. Things were okay before, and in terms of ‘net effect’ it’s really not helping.

Just something to consider when the light goes dim for a few minutes on Monday.

Thoreau’s environmental philosophy of nature

Superb recent* (easy to get an issue or two behind) reflection by John Banville in the NYRB on a new book about how Emerson, Thoreau and William James dealt with loss early in their lives. Note this representative digression on Thoreau that has particular relevance today but also reminds us of one thing more:

Thoreau, too, following his brother’s painful and untimely death, embarked on the program of becoming what he was determined to be. These were hard times in Concord. Eleven days after the loss of John, Thoreau developed symptoms of lockjaw himself, though it soon became apparent that it was only—only!—a sympathetic reaction. This was five days before little Waldo Emerson succumbed to scarlet fever, a disease for which there was no cure at the time. It must have seemed as if the angel of death had pitched his tent in that small New England town and meant to stay.

But for Thoreau there was life still, which behooves us to live it, and live it to its fullest, as Lambert Strether insisted. Who can say what torments of sorrow and bereavement Thoreau had to endure in order to come through to the other side? But come through he did. In March 1842, after that terrible January in which his brother and the Emersons’ child perished, Thoreau, in journal entries and a long letter to Emerson’s sister-in-law Lucy Jackson Brown, set about hauling himself up from the abyss of despair.

“What right have I to grieve,” he writes, “who have not ceased to wonder?” The world—nature—simply will not have it that we should give up our vivacity because others die, have died, will die. “Soon the ice will melt,” he declares, and the blackbird will be singing again along the river where his brother used to walk. “When we look over the fields we are not saddened because these particular flowers or grasses will wither—for their death is the law of new life.” As Richardson parses these sentiments, “Individuals die; nature lives on.”

Thoreau’s essential insight, Richardson writes, “is that we need an anti-anthropomorphic, nature-centred vision of how things are.”

Richardson sees this, along with two other crucial realizations—that “our intellectual connections and our friendships actually matter more than family,” and that despite the deaths of individuals “the natural world as a whole…is fundamentally healthy”—as marking “the sudden emergence of the greatest American voice yet for the natural world, a world including—but not centered on—us.”

Image: author photo, vicinity Alte Elbe Kathewitz

Opportunity Costs

I had a note to write a post about ‘Why the ______ industries collapse’ inspired by a WaPo news story about emus, but this is difficult to ignore and maybe that’s a bigger point:

Trump’s golden façade has been crumbling for years. Since he was elected president, units in his buildings have sold for less than those in their luxury competitors and struggled with vacancies. Condo boards across Manhattan have voted to remove his name from their buildings; in 2019, even the flagship Trump International Hotel and Tower agreed to reduce the size of his name. But Trump’s grift came into sharper focus after New York attorney general Letitia James’s civil lawsuit in late September, which alleges that Trump and his family fraudulently inflated the value of their properties in order to receive favorable loans and, in the process, hundreds of millions of dollars. In mid-February, Justice Arthur Engoron found the Trump Organization guilty, and the judgment, tallied on February 23, totals $454 million with interest. Engoran’s ruling doesn’t permanently bar Trump and his eldest children from running the Trump Organization, but Trump is barred from running any corporation in the state for three years, while his sons Donald Jr. and Eric are barred for two.

How much time and energy has been wasted over the previous nine years on this trash person? You can find these stories practically anywhere these days but he has never been anything but a bullshit con. It’s a reminder that the U.S. is still a very young country,  a creaky constitutional republic that we’re too afraid to tinker with. Maybe in a country that has always been dominated by religious crazies, criminals, and tax cheats, it’s a miracle it took this long to produce its perfect avatar. But there he is.

And we need to move on. There are many, many issues that require urgent attention and from serious people. Be one. Start now.

Tricks

The plague time COVID-19 pandemic underscored the critical importance of outdoor space in urban life. This shift should be  here to stay, with building projects  judged on the merits of their outdoor environments.

Microclimate experts help developers, designers, and urban planners maximize the value of a new building by elevating and activating its exterior assets. But there is even more we can do with existing, no tech strategies like white rooftops:

The meteorological phenomenon of the urban heat island has been well known since giant cities began to emerge in the 19th century. The materials that comprise most city buildings and roads reflect much less solar radiation – and absorb more – than the vegetation they have replaced. They radiate some of that energy in the form of heat into the surrounding air.

The darker the surface, the more the heating. Fresh asphalt reflects only 4 percent of sunlight compared to as much as 25 percent for natural grassland and up to 90 percent for a white surface such as fresh snow.

Most of the roughly 2 percent of the earth’s land surface covered in urban development suffers from some level of urban heating. New York City averages 1-3 degrees C warmer than the surrounding countryside, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – and as much as 12 degrees warmer during some evenings. The effect is so pervasive that some climate skeptics have seriously claimed that global warming is merely an illusion created by thousands of once-rural meteorological stations becoming surrounded by urban development.

Climate change researchers adjust for such measurement bias, so that claim does not stand up. Nonetheless, the effect is real and pervasive. So, argues a recent study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, if dark heat-absorbing surfaces are warming our cities, why not negate the effect by installing white roofs and other light-colored surfaces to reflect back the sun’s rays?

And there are others that seem a lot more kooky than they are – mirrors, concrete roads instead of asphalt, distributed microgrids. We need to get moving with this stuff.

Image: Photo: Twitter @nycCoolRoofs

Natural selection

It’s important to step back for a moment and consider the scrum from which the hype around Artificial Intelligence arises.

Even without casting [m]any aspersions on the tools as they are bandied about – and there ARE documented, purposeful uses for crunching data with super computers, from folding proteins to finding exoplanets; real stuff and revolutionary for these fields – the general rush to embrace AI for all sorts of, let’s say, less purposeful application should be acknowledged.

After decades of artificial sweeteners, fabrics, food, and foliage, and of course the accompanying, devastation of health impacts and pollution from plastics, PCBs, and many more, a noticeable shift toward the all-natural, hand-selected, bespoke, organic, non-invasive ensued, at least in the marketing materials. This acknowledgement, more human-centered, initially had a kind of desperate last-gasp tone to it that morphed into a realm of preference, if not elevated choice. Thanks, branding!

But it was more than that, and the shift itself coincided with a growing awareness about the dangers of this fakeness and its seamless integration into the activities as well as the mindset that led to and accelerated global warming.

So, now – if you’re keeping score at home – because some of our overlord disruptors in Silicon Valley need to get in on the ground floor of the next new thing, we’re ready to reek further devastation on the information and images we use to navigate the world. It’s not enough to use the verb ‘consume.’ Once we began to use the word and consider ourselves consumers and now just customers instead of citizens, students, patrons, whatever, everything else became easier. And by everything else, I refer to most things unpleasant, empty, lesser, vapid, wasteful of your time, and detrimental to your heart. Yes, doesn’t that sound quaint. Your heart, come now! C’est drôle.

It’s not that the next new thing could destroy us, but that we are so happy to play our part in the destruction. Suddenly we’re helpless to watch another dynamic seize control of how we navigate the physical world as humans. You need not be an AI skeptic to be a tiny bit underwhelmed by that prospect.

The next new thing after this (not investment advice!) will surely consist of selling us back the key to imagination(tm) we somehow lost because everything is fake.

We worry about AI taking jobs but do our part in cheer-leading the takeover, in wonder no less at the ease with which it all happens and the productivity gains sure to follow. In this senseless meandering from one shiny thing to the next, AI might appear to be just another trend we might try, even get used to. Meanwhile, our only job ever has been to discern not the good from the bad, but the real from the fake.

Natural selection, by humans. Darwin should have been more specific.

And by the way, I’m not at all amused by the extent to which this all rhymes with the original rationale I presented for the green blog, oh so [no that] many years ago.

Roiling the Newness

Recent NYRB piece on the poets Ida Vitale and Tomasz Różycki—of Uruguay and Poland, respectively, is deserving of elevation and you, dear reader, deserving of its riches:

“Poetry,” Ida Vitale remarks in the essay included in her new collection, “like death, perhaps, is surrounded by explanations.” Now living again in Montevideo, Uruguay, where she was born in 1923, Vitale can take poetry’s prestige for granted. Over the past century or more Latin America has commanded a world stage: the writings of César Vallejo, Jorge Luis Borges, and Pablo Neruda, among others, hardly require explanation or defense. Her own cohort, the Generation of 1945 (the “Generación Crítica”), was instrumental in keeping Montevideo abreast of cosmopolitan developments in literature, theater, and critical theory. Vitale has received numerous prizes in Uruguay, Mexico, Spain, and France, as well as the rank of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters of France in 2021. Yet her first selection of poems in English translation (over seventy years’ worth of work, presented in reverse chronological order) contains just one brief manifesto, “Poems in Search of the Initiated,” registering a delicate protest against the diminished readership for poetry:

The challenges awaiting a less confident reader may include unusual verbal constructions, not worn out by use, and a richer vocabulary. These are not impossible to face. The pleasure of enthusiastic decipherment releases a mysterious energy that moves not only the pages of poetry, but also the world’s great prose.

Mystery, Vitale notes, is “that which is reserved for the mystai, the initiated,” and “on the other hand…leads us to the idea of ministry.” But in a democratic age—or, more accurately, an age when democracy is teetering toward authoritarianism—“the initiated” evokes the specter of an elite despised on all sides: “rarefied poetry for the few, almost for specialists.”

Speak, dear authors. Everyone needs to be intrepid about everything, and that definitely includes reading and writing, but also looking at sculpture and paintings, watching dance performance. Hearing poetry.

If we are what we pretend to be, as Uncle Kurt, it’s past time to get serious about that.

Image: Author photo with Mrs. G in the old part of an old city.