Gists VI

Aging Well

TED Talk.

  • 80-year Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life. Scientists eventually expanded their research to include the men’s offspring, who now number 1,300. During the intervening decades, the control groups have expanded.
  • Among the original recruits were eventual President JFK and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.
  • The study revealed close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.
  • Six factors predicted healthy aging: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, enjoying a healthy weight, and a stable marriage.
  • Research also debunked the idea that people’s personalities “set like plaster” by age 30 and cannot be changed
  • “The surprising finding is that our relationships (family, friends, community) and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health. Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”

“Beauty became the aged, not the youthful.”

  • Coda: The key to longer “healthspans” (i.e. quality of life), which is more malleable than lifespan. Permanent 30% calorie restriction.

Enough With This Basic Income Bullshit

Link.

“Basic income comes with the idea that unemployed people know what is best for them, and that without obligations and sanctions they will be more equipped to navigate the labour market. As people are able to keep the money they receive from basic income even if they get a job, the program comes with significant benefits.”

  • “A theoretical solution that is intellectually simplistic, socially perverse, and politically impracticable.”
  • “The social state is in effect an insurance system designed to hedge people against certain risks that for various reasons market-based insurers are unable to cover effectively:” Old age, illness, childbirth and unemployment.
  • The first modern social insurance regime, known as “State Socialism”, was put in place by conservative German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1883 to provide a pension.
  • Social state intervention required because of high criticality (i.e. highly probable, probability multiplied by impact) and market imperfections (moral hazard when someone else bears the risk, insurers refusing to cover high-risk persons)
  • Not enough to pay citizens a monetary benefit, the social state also has to supplement the imperfect market with government-sponsored entities such as hospitals, job agencies, childcare facilities, retirement homes, social centers, etc.
  • In a Fordist economy, governments willing to cover their citizens properly had to choose between two different evils: vouchers (poor performance, inflation) or heavy bureaucracy (e.g. public health, lower quality of service).
  • Arguments: Less jobs and cheaper necessities due to technology, simpler, continuity (i.e. portability of benefits as situations change)
  • The probable outcome is once basic income is in place, the rich ask that other benefits be ended because they cost too much and basic income is sufficient for supporting a social state.
  • France already has a UBI (RSA) that helps 2.5 million annually at a cost of €10 billion. It provides a very modest living, but with a relatively high barrier to entry (paperwork, proving assets, etc.). Was blamed for disincentivizing looking for a job (getting a job does not cut of the entire payment).

“We, the rich, don’t need that basic income. So why not aim it only on the poor, so as to lower our taxes.”

  • The world of the social state is effectively divided into two worlds: social insurance (contributions-based benefits) and welfare (benefits for the needy).
  • It takes a very long time to build social institutions. In France, between the creation of the first fraternal benefit societies to the universal social state took a century and a half! Institutions are built through polarization: it takes a movement of people willing to fight for a big idea over the course of decades.

“But in fact it is impossible to implement; it’s also politically suicidal; nobody’s ready to die for it; and even if it existed, it would probably trigger extraordinary political tension and the highest level of inequality in modern Western history.”

  • Epilogue. A two-year basic income experiment in Finland failed to increase employment.
Golden record

Voyager

  • In 1977, the first computer-controlled spacecrafts ever launched launched. Timed to fly by all four giant planets.
  • Voyager 1 left the solar system in 2013 and is 20 billion kilometres away. Voyager 2, on a different trajectory, is 17 billion kilometres away.
  • Sends back messages from 20 billion kilometres away using a 40-year-old, 12-watt transmitter (about the same power as a fridge lightbulb)! Image processing capabilities built into smart phones have evolved from technology originally developed by Voyager engineers.
  • Carl Sagan led a six-week project to attach gold-plated copper disks, designed to last one billion years, resembling vinyl LPs and played in the same way with a needle.
  • The records include speech, music, sounds and even pictures encoded in the grooves. The selection features everything from Duke Ellington, Chuck Berry, Native American music, Azerbaijani bagpipes to a girls’ initiation song from Zaire; possibly the first world music compilation album. An image of a pregnant woman was rejected by NASA.
  • Took the first detailed pictures of the gas giants; discovered liquid on Europa; new rings and moon around Saturn; ten new moons around Uranus; “pale blue dot” photo of our solar system;
  • Powered by nuclear batteries, both spacecraft are expected to cease operating by 2030
  • voyager.jpl.nasa.gov

Your Smartphone is Marking You Stupid

Link.

“You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” he said. “[The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.” — Sean Parker (Facebook ex-president)

  • “People are always put off by the strange power of new technologies. Socrates thought writing would melt the brains of Athenian youths by undermining their ability to memorize. Erasmus cursed the ‘swarm of new books’ plaguing post-Gutenberg Europe. In its infancy, TV was derided as a ‘vast wasteland’.”
  • Because most popular websites and apps don’t charge for access, the internet is financially sustained by attention. Exploiting novelty bias (new things), attention-grabbing red (for notifications), prodding (people get tired of saying “no”), strategically withholding (holding back likes to encourage checking back in), variable rewards (scrolling)
  • Impairs the ability to remember, daydream, think creatively. More vulnerable to anxiety. Similar symptoms as those with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).
  • Addictive through spurts of dopamine — the same neural pathways as gambling and drugs. So tempting a distraction that studies have shown just having a phone nearby (not being used) leads to worse concentration.
  • Parallels with fast food and obesity (i.e. people’s hedonism and lack of self-control)
  • Workers who are habitually interrupted by e-mail become likelier to “self-interrupt” with little procrastination breaks.

“We are divorced from ourselves and from the world — those relationships are now routed through our phones.”

  • Average users look at their phones about 150 times a day. In 2015, average human attention spans have shrunk from 12 to 8 seconds. Between 2006 and 2011, average number of hours American families spent together per month dropped by nearly a third (to 18 hours). In 2019, average American spent 3.5 hours on their phones.
  • In 2019, companies rolled out countermeasures (time tracking, reflection, snoozing notifications)
Coca paste

Cocaine

Link.

  • Manufactured from Coca leaves, which come from four varieties of a South American shrub called Erythroxylaceae that grows just two months a year. It usually grows at between 1,650 and 4,950 feet, in the unusual level of humidity maintained by the Amazon — which exists in very few places outside of the Andes.
  • Indigenous tribes chewed the leaves for millennia before European settlement. In 1855, a German chemist named Friedrich Gaedcke isolated the active alkaloid, benzoylmethylecgonine, and Cocaine quickly became a powerful anesthetic throughout Europe. Plants were transported to Europe, India, Southeast Asia, and even Australia. In the 1920s, the then-Dutch colony of Java was the leading manufacturer.
  • In 1925, the Geneva Convention banning cocaine as an addictive drug
  • Sigmund Freud promoted its use as a therapeutic tonic to cure depression and sexual impotence
  • Leaves are picked, mulched, sprinkled with cement (binding agent), mixed in vats of gasoline (to extract alkaloid from the liquid mix) and ether to produce “nata” (Spanish for buttermilk), solidified with acid, then pressed into a paste, then placed in water and heated (called the “fry up” or fritada) to evaporate the water
  • A ton of coca leaves produces a kilo of the paste. The cost of producing the paste is a few hundred dollars, is sold for around $900, and eventually sold on the streets for more than $100,000
  • In 2015, 81% of coca cultivation was concentrated in five of Colombia’s 32 departments: Nariño, Cauca, Putumayo, and Caquetá, all of which in are in southern Colombia, and in Norte de Santander, which borders Venezuela in northeast Colombia.
  • For cocaine smuggled via sea, the US has “good intelligence, [but] we only have the capacity to get after about 30% of those” shipments
  • Erythroxylum australe, more commonly known as the Australian cocaine shrub, is a plant native to the Northern Territory, Queensland, and northern parts of New South Wales. Its leaves contain 0.8% meteloidine, which is an alkaloid similar to cocaine. Yet aside from a scientific study conducted in 1967, there seems to have been little interest in the plant.
  • The most expensive place to purchase cocaine is Kuwait ($458), Australia is second ($416)

GPS

  • Global Positioning System is the most-used Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), consisting of 31 satellites launched by the US military and made available for civilian and commercial use.
  • Inside each satellite is a high-precision atomic clock, which synchronizes regularly to master control stations on the ground. GPS receivers (e.g. smart phones) pick up time-stamped signal data (from a minimum of four satellites) to triangulate a position
  • Reliance on GPS include the global financial system (automated computer rated, ATM and credit card location data), electrical grids (electricity delivery without power surges), transportation (sea, land), etc.
  • Civil GPS is unencrypted and has no proof-of-origin or authentication. Extremely susceptible to fraud, spoofing (deception), jamming, and cyberattack. Urban density can make indoor localization difficult or even impossible. GPS is also a drain on battery.
  • Encrypted M-Code programming language provides advanced anti-spoofing and anti-jamming capabilities. A $6.2 billion Next-Generation Operational Control System (OCX) being built by Raytheon Technologies is expected to be operational in 2021.
  • FOAM Proof of Location (PoL) uses a distributed, Byzantine fault tolerant (BFT) clock
Kossula

The Last Slave

Link.

  • Nonfiction book Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston — author of Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • The book is based on three months of interviews with a man named Cudjo Lewis — or Kossula, his original name — the last survivor of the last slave ship to land on American shores. Unpublished in 1931 due to concerns over Africans’ involvement in the slave trade; finally published in 2018.
  • Kossula was captured at age 19 in now-Benin by warriors from the neighboring Dahomian tribe, marched to a West African stockade (or barracoon), and along with around 120 others sold.
  • In 1860, shipped aboard the Clotilda, captained by William Foster and commissioned by three Alabama brothers. Smuggled into the US under the cover of darkness as the international slave trade had been illegal at that point for 50 years. No one was ever punished.
  • Cudjo worked as a slave on the docks of the Alabama River before being freed in 1865 and living for another 70 years: through Reconstruction, the resurgent oppression of Jim Crow rule, the beginning of the Depression.

How the ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Color Wheel Explains Humanity

Link.

  • White: Peace through order. What is the right thing to do?
    Examples: Catholic church, fascist regimes, Superman, Ozymandias (Watchmen), Marge Simpson
  • Blue: Perfection through knowledge. What makes the most sense?
    Examples: Universities, Ravenclaw (Harry Potter), Merlin, Spock, Lisa Simpson
  • Black: Satisfaction through ruthlessness. Black is amoral, not immoral, since it doesn’t believe in morality. What will benefit me the most?
    Examples: Hedge funds, totalitarian dictatorship, Han Solo, Jerry/George/Elaine (Seinfeld), Slytherin (Harry Potter), Bart Simpson.
  • Red: Freedom through action. Live in the moment. What do I feel like doing?
    Examples: Arts collective, Burning Man, anarchy, Wile E. Coyote, Romeo and Juliet, Kramer (Seinfeld), Homer Simpson
  • Green: Harmony through acceptance. Nature, wisdom, stoicism, taoism, and destiny. What is harmonious?
    Examples: Native Americans, hippies, aikido, Yoda, Guinan

Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant

Link.

“The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul.”

  • In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by century’s end technology would have advanced sufficiently to achieve a 15-hour work week. Possible, but instead used to make people work more.
  • Between 1910 and 2000, the number of industrial workers has collapsed and been replaced with professional workers — who now represent 3/4 of the workforce.
  • Rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free people to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations — plus the administrative and technical support jobs. Add a host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working! These are all bullshit jobs.
  • “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen.”
  • Inefficient communist/socialist states manufactured jobs for people. Not unlike Soviet workers, people work 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper but are effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted.
  • Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive populations with free time on their hands is a threat to stability. That work is a moral value in itself, and anyone not willing to work (like everybody else) deserves nothing.
  • “Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Neither does the task really need to be done.”
  • Most lawyers: utterly meaningless, contributes nothing to the world, and should not really exist.
  • If 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call ‘the market’ reflects what they think is useful or important (e.g. lawyers), not anybody else (e.g. poets).
  • “This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment?”
  • There seems a general rule that the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it (e.g. nurses, teachers, garbage collectors). Perversely there is a broad sense that this is the way things should be (e.g. resentment towards teachers who strike for more pay).
  • “Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3–4 hour days.”

The (Decentralized) Gig Economy

Link.

  • Fiction
  • “We’re pointless argument vegetables growing in walled gardens, harvested for the benefit of robots that serve us ads. Corporations are organisms, not city-states; they signal to each other via markets; they build interfaces into human social protocols through brand identities; they occupy slots in our Dunbar rings.”
  • “The internet is an ocean that we invent as we explore it. The deeper we dive, the more we become cryptozoologists, or crypto-ichthyologists, or even crypto-theologists… I apologize if this seems fragmented. My brain has been addled by the casino reward schedule of social media. It is both a cliche and a fact that I cannot focus on anything for more than three minutes. That’s half true, I read pdfs of outlandish philosophers, but I do it while frantically checking for notifications.”
  • “Dayjob” contracts is like making money: the video game — but not enough to live off
  • The jobs come to their executors through a variety of channels; text message, social media, email, and anonymous robot dialers. They are cryptographically signed and executed on the blockchain and paid in cryptocurrency. You cannot ask for a dayjob, they can only come to you. The more you complete, the higher your reputation, the more jobs and higher payouts.

Four Functions of Markets

Link.

Incentives and outcomes.

Neoliberalism (i.e. privatization, laissez faire) is just a set of social heuristics:

  1. That markets are in general the most capable institution for organizing human affairs
  2. Use of market or market-like institutions should be maximized — unless strong reasons to the contrary
  3. Other institutions, including the state, should take a supportive, even subservient role: filling in gaps (“safety net”), addressing “market failures” that are presumed to be rare rather than pervasive, and only when a high burden of proof has been met. Any other intervention is a “distortion” to be avoided at all costs.
  • From 1980 until the 2008 financial crisis was a neoliberal era, and an undead neoliberal era (i.e. changing views but little actually changed) since
  • Markets should be diminished, not eliminated

I. Information processors

  • Massively decentralized calculating system for allocating and distributing resources. Individuals (e.g. households, firms) do not need knowledge of the overall system (e.g. farms, distribution). No central tabulator is required because any unit’s choice to purchase puts upward pressure on prices which, in theory, ripple immediately to everyone; the choice to produce and sell has the opposite effect.
  • Widely dispersed information about preferences and abundance are continuously summarized in a price vector while goods and services flow between units with no central coordination at all.
  • “Needs” are represented by purchasing power, which under inequality allocates resources not to where they are most needed, but to the richest.
  • If producers or consumers have market power, they can rig the computation towards self-serving, socially destructive ends.
  • Even under conditions of near equality, markets declines as they move from real commodities — which really are subject to diverse, widely dispersed preferences and availabilities — to more abstract settings (e.g. financial capital, health insurance) with low preference diversity (e.g. making money, getting well) and information is more asymmetrical (i.e. professionals know more). Works well for groceries, but distorted for luxury New York real-estate.
  • Remarkable how, despite a lot of consolidation and predation, a massive range of goods and services gets produced and distributed across huge geographies, among consumers with extraordinarily heterogeneous requirements, so efficiently under market institutions.

II. Naturalize outcomes, defusing social conflict

  • Every market creates winners and losers, often arbitrarily, and will require some means of legitimating those actions, of preventing the natural and inevitable unhappiness of losers from translating into attacks on the system
  • With market forces (i.e. the “invisible hand”) it’s not obvious who decided the outcomes, or that there is meaningfully such a “who” at all
  • With no party to blame, anger cannot be focused. But if the public perceives markets as rigged (e.g. GFC bailouts, growing awareness of inequality across geography/race/sex/profession), market losers will think of themselves as victims of the upper-class rather than misfortune.
  • A market’s failure to shield outcomes from political contestation is the collapse of the legitimacy of a neoliberal order
  • “Democratic legitimacy” as an alternative is insufficient. Losers often blame the government instead of the will of the people. Majority decisions against minorities are often immoral (e.g. colonialism). Need to improve democratic institutions so that outcomes are more universally perceived as legitimate (i.e. trust the government, follow rules).

III. Flip resource utilization incentives

  • People’s incentives are usually to hoard utilization of resources they possess (i.e. your car sits idle most of the time) to avoid depreciation (wear and tear, damage) and give convenience (car is available when you want to drive)
  • Markets flip these incentives (e.g. Airbnb spare room, driving Uber), creating work (listing, preparing) and reducing idle time
  • Better for the environment (e.g. less, shared cars), but can be offset by logistical costs (e.g. shipping from China)
  • Often comes at a cost in resilience — underutilized “redundant” resources are less likely to fail or become unavailable all at once. The balance redundancy and efficiency.
  • Human resources moved from reciprocity (bartering in small communities) to independent competitive businesses. Time becomes money, incentivizing the “opportunity costs” of working more.
  • Shift of burden from consumers to producers dramatically increasing economic activity, and therefore prosperity
  • Left alone, consumers want only occasionally. But producers produce most efficiently when they produce consistently and at scale. With the help of marketing (and macroeconomic policy), they strive to engineer want for the goods they efficiently produce.
  • A treadmill many of us hope to escape, but not completely. Better off in a world where our incentives are to seek to do one another favors, rather than a world where we have to beg for favors.
  • Government (as the only provider) does not share these incentives, leading to bad experiences (e.g. DMV)
  • The state should employ salespeople to serve as bridges between busy, distracted citizens and the governments who might serve them — such as helping businesses and people manage compliance and regulation (e.g. health codes, taxes). Regulation is for the common good so everyone loses if they are discouraged (difficult, expensive). Professions that manage compliance (law, accounting, finance, construction) should become public-sector institutions.
  • Car dealerships hire specialists to render the bureaucracy of a loan application almost invisible to customers, because they have an interest in the purchases overcoming that burden helps to enable. Government actors should face similar incentives. City Hall should invite you in and offer you a coffee to discuss your business, just like a salesman at the car dealership.

IV. Launder history

  • Hide details surrounding the provenance of commodities, contributing to the interchangeability or fungibility of commodities. An apple is an apple wherever it was grown.
  • Exchangeable to the degree that one makes the product cheaper, which we prefer. But can hide unethical practices (e.g. child labor, environmental damage), which if brought to light, might impact satisfaction and future purchases. Nobody wants to see how their sausage was made.
  • The producer has an incentive to ensure that, however dynamic and heterogenous the details of production, the consumer’s experience is uniform.
  • Most of us are fond of animals but do not become vegetarians. If we were required to personally kill the animals we eat, many of us would enjoy our carnivore lifestyle quite a bit less. Markets offer abstraction allowing people to enjoy more things and be, in a sense, richer.
  • Modern production processes are complicated, involving a many stages and circumstances, each of which involves tradeoffs, conflicts, and shades of gray. If we tried as individuals to police all that, we’d do a poor job in an ethical sense and make ourselves poor in a practical sense. Instead we outsource the ethical choices to state regulation and so long as commodities are produced and sold in legal markets, every purchase comes with a dollop of absolution.
  • Choices will be more effective when they are collectively enforced, rather than if we tried to rely on more perfectly individualized consumer judgments — which is impractical
  • If markets launder history too well, that short-circuits the capacity of democratic politics to insist upon ethical production, as voters are shielded from the truth but enjoy the benefits of lower prices.

Covid Privatization Disasters (Australia)

Link.

Instead of stockpiling useful things and skills, neoliberalism stockpiled wealth in private hands.

  • Systemic consequences of neoliberalism promoted by the Labor Party since the 1980s. Promises of public savings through increased efficiency never eventuated. The quality of publicly underwritten, for-profit services declined while regulatory frameworks governing minimum standards played a desperate game of catchup. Basic needs and infrastructure like water, roads, and public transport are handed to private firms, services decline while prices rise and administration becomes more complex.
  • Successive Liberal governments have promoted marketization with mechanisms such as a “privatization bonus” rewarding state governments’ sale of private assets with federal funds.
  • Second wave of infections traced in large part to breaches of quarantine security outsourced by the state government to private firms. Recruited through WhatsApp, employed as private contractors with minimal rights, not trained properly, and not supplied with adequate PPE (personal protective equipment).
  • For-profit aged care relies on casual workers with few rights, who work at multiple facilities. During the pandemic advertised jobs for facilities with confirmed cases. The primary responsibility is federal, but operational costs are deliberately under-met by government leaving private providers short by about a fifth of daily costs per bed. This built-in squeeze means that operators are forced to drive down job security and conditions while increasing the scale of operations and reducing amenities and maintenance to regulated minimums.
  • A race to the bottom leading to a minimum of 3.5 square meters of aggregate habitable communal space in residential aged care…meanwhile CSRIO stipulates almost double the space for free-range hens.
  • Feedback loop where the guaranteed profit of these new privatized monopolies attracts lobbying of large funds (e.g. superannuation) for more similar “investible products” that benefit lots of voters in the short-term
  • Financial waste. Wonthaggi Desalination Plant barely used but the government pays $650 million per year as per the $19 billion contract. The canceled East West Link included a $1 billion cancellation fee, which was paid! The CityLink toll was extended 11 years to 2045, allowing tolls to rise 4.25% per annum until 2029.
  • Melbourne’s public transport was privatized in 1999, with the promise that state subsidies would decline over time to zero; but by 2004, an additional $2.3 billion in subsidies over five years. In 2014, Connex and Metro received over $1 billion apiece — but service quality fell as trains regularly bypassed stations to meet efficiency targets (loophole leading to worse outcomes).
  • Port of Melbourne was sold in order to “recycle” assets, pay down state debt, and fund new spending. It was purchased by wealth funds run by the government, which sold bonds to the private sector — artificially increasing value by guaranteeing its monopoly status. Using the proceeds of the sale, the state government purchased its own bonds back from the private sector, paying around $4–5 billion to lower its own debt. Victoria paid its own debt by creating sovereign debt. Now owned by the for-profit Lonsdale Consortium.
  • Declining services force governments to set up Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), benchmarking standards, and regulations — incentivizing private providers to find loopholes to “game the rules” for maximum profit. An economic agenda that was supposed to cut red tape and reduce expenditure has resulted in bureaucracy and wasteful spending.
  • As economist Steve Keen has shown, the cost-cutting logic of privatization privileges short-term profit over long-term planning, draining society’s ability to respond to crises. Victoria used to have a hospital designed to treat infectious diseases, but it was closed in 1996.
  • Privatization and austerity are “zombie economics” — dead ideas that still walk among us.

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Interesting.

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