Tag: The Economist

Dogs and the inside of our souls!

The role of dogs in helping young offenders.

In these times of terrible inequality, if there is one thing that has the power to crush a young person’s chances in life it is a criminal record, even a minor one. This is well-known in the UK. For a number of years I was a mentor with what was then called the Prince’s Youth Business Trust (PYBT) and now is just simply called The Prince’s Trust.

What was discovered, courtesy of the PYBT, was that if one taught disadvantaged youngsters the principles of forming and running your own business there were two positive outcomes. The first was that the young person performed much better at job interviews, and increased his or her odds of getting a job offer, and some young persons decided to start their own business; some very successfully so.

Thus with that background it was natural that an article in the US edition of The Economist caught my eye. It was called Pups and perps.

Pups and perps

What has four legs, a wet nose and helps young thugs grow up?

Dec 6th 2014 | LOS ANGELES | From the print edition

WHEN Jordan entered juvenile detention shortly after his 17th birthday, following a conviction for assault and robbery, all he could think about was getting out. The rowdy teenager from Anaheim, California, struggled to control his temper. But when he began working with Lulu, a poodle mix, he got a new leash on life. “I was too busy taking care of the dog to get into fights,” he says.

Jordan was taking part in “Pups and Wards”, a programme that pairs shelter dogs with young inmates. The perps train the pups and, with luck, learn something about personal responsibility. Other programmes allow prisoners to train dogs to be adopted by people with disabilities, such as traumatised veterans. Such training often requires full-time care—but prisoners have plenty of time on their hands.

The Economist article later on reports:

“All the research about the human-animal bond has buoyed these programmes,” says Gennifer Furst, a professor of criminal justice. “We have discovered that prisoners often identify with rescue dogs—they have both experienced trauma—and they are eager to become their protectors.” Crystal Wood, an officer at a maximum-security prison in Lancaster, California, says that several inmates on her yard—who are in prison for life—wept after interacting with dogs. “Many of these guys haven’t seen an animal in decades. It’s been striking to see how much working with a dog has reduced their anxiety levels.”

It was easy to find more information on Professor Gennifer Furst from the William Paterson University website:

Gennifer Furst received her B.A. in psychology (with a sociology minor) from Connecticut College and her M.A. in psychology (with a concentration in evaluation methodology) from Claremont Graduate University. She received her doctorate in criminal justice (with a concentration in corrections) from CUNY Graduate Center.

Dr. Furst is the Department of Sociology’s Criminal Justice Director. Dr. Furst’s research interests focus on issues of incarceration. She published the first national survey of prison-based animal programs in the US. A book based on that work was recently published. Additionally, she is interested in race and the administration of criminal justice, the death penalty, the use of animals in the criminal justice system, and the relationship between drugs and crime.

Read the rest of the good Professor’s background here.

Imagine my pleasure in finding that there is a film Dogs on the Inside and that YouTube carries an official trailer.

As the film website states: “Everyone deserves a second chance.

So if you are motivated to get involved then don’t hesitate to return to the film’s website and read the Get Involved page.

The power of love.
The power of love.

A new NEON light beckons.

A wonderful investment in studying America’s ecology is just starting.

I am indebted to The Economist for including in their issue of the 25th August a story about NEON, something I had previously not heard about.

It was then an easy step to locate the main website for the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON.  (Just an aside that I can’t resist – NEON is such a fabulous acronym that one wonders how much push and shove there was to come up with the full name that also fitted the word ‘NEON’!  Sorry, it’s just me!)

Anyway, back to the plot.  The following video gives a very good idea of the projects aims.  When I watched it, I found it inspiring because it seemed a solid example of how the nation, that is the USA, is starting to recognise that evolving to a new, sustainable way of life has to be  built on good science.  NEON strikes me as excellent science.  You watch the video and see if you come to the same conclusion.

There’s also a comprehensive introduction to the project from which I will republish this,

In an era of dramatic changes in land use and other human activities, we must understand how the biosphere – the living part of earth – is changing in response to human activities. Humans depend on a diverse set of biosphere services and products, including air, water, food, fiber, and fuel. Enhancements or disruptions of these services could alter the quality of human life in many parts of the world.

To help us understand how we can maintain our quality of life on this planet, we must develop a more holistic understanding of how biosphere services and products are interlinked with human impacts. This cannot be investigated using disconnected studies on individual sites or over short periods of observation. Further, existing monitoring programs that collect data to meet natural resource management objectives are not designed to address climate change and other new, complex environmental challenges.

NEON, the first continental-scale ecological observatory, will provide comprehensive data that will allow scientists to address these issues.

Later on there’s more detail, as follows,

NEON has partitioned the U. S. into 20 eco-climatic domains, each of which represents different regions of vegetation, landforms, climate, and ecosystem performance. In those domains, NEON will collect site-based data about climate and atmospheresoils and streams and ponds, and a variety of organisms. Additionally, NEON will provide a wealth of regional and national-scale data from airborne observationsand geographical data collected by Federal agencies and processed by NEON to be accessible and useful to the ecological research community. NEON will also manage a long-term multi-site stream experiment and provide a platform for future observations and experiments proposed by the scientific community.

The data collected and generated across NEON’s network – all day, every day, over a period of 30 years — will be synthesized into information products that can be used to describe changes in the nation’s ecosystem through space and time. It will be readily available in many formats to scientists, educators, students, decision makers and the general public.

For some reason I couldn’t find on the NEON website the informative map that was included in The Economist so I grabbed that one, and offer it below:

These eco-climatic domains are fully described here on the NEON website.

The benefits of this fabulous project are described thus, “The data NEON collects and provides will focus on how land use change, climate change and invasive species affect the structure and function of our ecosystems. Obtaining this kind of data over a long-term period is crucial to improving ecological forecast models. The Observatory will enable a virtual network of researchers and environmental managers to collaborate, coordinate research, and address ecological challenges at regional, national and continental scales by providing comparable information across sites and regions.

As they say in business, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it!  So reading in the above the sentence, ‘Obtaining this kind of data over a long-term period is crucial to improving ecological forecast models.‘ is cheering to the soul.

The United States quite rightly gets a huge bashing over it CO2 emissions but to condemn the USA for that and not to applaud this sort of wonderful research is utterly unjustified.  As I have hinted before, America has, more than any other country in the world, the energy to make things better over the coming years.

As Professor Sir Robert Watson highlighted here recently said, ‘… deep cuts in CO2 emissions are possible using innovative technologies without harming economic recovery.’

Amen to that!

The Higgs boson

Clarity of thought courtesy of The Economist

Like many people I had been aware of the hunt for this strange particle, the Higgs boson.  Like many people as well, I suspect, I really didn’t comprehend what it was all about.

Then in The Economist print edition of the July 7th the newspaper’s primary story and leader were about the discovery of the Higgs announced on the 4th July.  The leader, in particular, was both clear and compelling.  I held my breath and asked for permission to republish that leader in Learning from Dogs.

Well the good people from the relevant department at The Economist promptly gave written permission for their leader to be available here for a period of one year.  Thanks team!

oooOOOooo

The Higgs boson

Science’s great leap forward

After decades of searching, physicists have solved one of the mysteries of the universe

Jul 7th 2012 | from the print edition

HISTORICAL events recede in importance with every passing decade. Crises, political and financial, can be seen for the blips on the path of progress that they usually are. Even the horrors of war acquire a patina of unreality. The laws of physics, though, are eternal and universal. Elucidating them is one of the triumphs of mankind. And this week has seen just such a triumphant elucidation.

On July 4th physicists working in Geneva at CERN, the world’s biggest particle-physics laboratory, announced that they had found the Higgs boson. Broadly, particle physics is to the universe what DNA is to life: the hidden principle underlying so much else. Like the uncovering of DNA’s structure by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953, the discovery of the Higgs makes sense of what would otherwise be incomprehensible. Its significance is massive. Literally. Without the Higgs there would be no mass. And without mass, there would be no stars, no planets and no atoms. And certainly no human beings. Indeed, there would be no history. Massless particles are doomed by Einstein’s theory of relativity to travel at the speed of light. That means, for them, that the past, the present and the future are the same thing.

Deus et CERN

Such power to affect the whole universe has led some to dub the Higgs “the God particle”. That, it is not. It does not explain creation itself. But it is nevertheless the most fundamental discovery in physics for decades.

Unlike the structure of DNA, which came as a surprise, the Higgs is a long-expected guest. It was predicted in 1964 by Peter Higgs, a British physicist who was trying to fix a niggle in quantum theory, and independently, in various guises, by five other researchers. And if the Higgs—or something similar—did not exist, then a lot of what physicists think they know about the universe would be wrong.

Physics has two working models of reality. One is Einstein’s general relativity, which deals with space, time and gravity. This is an elegant assembly of interlocking equations that poured out of a single mind a century ago. The other, known as the Standard Model, deals with everything else more messily.

The Standard Model, a product of many minds, incorporates the three fundamental forces that are not gravity (electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), and also a menagerie of apparently indivisible particles: quarks, of which protons and neutrons, and thus atomic nuclei, are made; electrons that orbit those nuclei; and more rarefied beasts such as muons and neutrinos. Without the Higgs, the maths which holds this edifice together would disintegrate.

Finding the Higgs, though, made looking for needles in haystacks seem simple. The discovery eventually came about using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a machine at CERN that sends bunches of protons round a ring 27km in circumference, in opposite directions, at close to the speed of light, so that they collide head on. The faster the protons are moving, the more energy they have. When they collide, this energy is converted into other particles (Einstein’s E=mc2), which then decay into yet more particles. What these decay particles are depends on what was created in the original collision, but unfortunately there is no unique pattern that shouts “Higgs!” The search, therefore, has been for small deviations from what would be seen if there were no Higgs. That is one reason it took so long.

Another was that no one knew how much the Higgs would weigh, and therefore how fast the protons needed to be travelling to make it. Finding the Higgs was thus a question of looking at lots of different energy levels, and ruling each out in turn until the seekers found what they were looking for.

Queerer than we can suppose?

For physicists, the Higgs is merely the LHC’s aperitif. They hope the machine will now produce other particles—ones that the Standard Model does not predict, and which might account for some strange stuff called “dark matter”.

Astronomers know dark matter abounds in the universe, but cannot yet explain it. Both theory and observation suggest that “normal” matter (the atom-making particles described by the Standard Model) is only about 4% of the total stuff of creation. Almost three-quarters of the universe is something completely obscure, dubbed “dark energy”. The rest, 22% or so, is matter of some sort, but a sort that can be detected only from its gravity. It forms a giant lattice that permeates space and controls the position of galaxies made of visible matter (see article). It also stops those galaxies spinning themselves apart. Physicists hope that it is the product of one of the post-Standard Model theories they have dreamed up while waiting for the Higgs. Now, they will be able to find out.

For non-physicists, the importance of finding the Higgs belongs to the realm of understanding rather than utility. It adds to the sum of human knowledge—but it may never change lives as DNA or relativity have. Within 40 years, Einstein’s theories paved the way for the Manhattan Project and the scourge of nuclear weapons. The deciphering of DNA has led directly to many of the benefits of modern medicine and agriculture. The last really useful subatomic particle to be discovered, though, was the neutron in 1932. Particles found subsequently are too hard to make, and too short-lived to be useful.

This helps explain why, even at this moment of triumph, particle physics is a fragile endeavour. Gone are the days when physicists, having given politicians the atom bomb, strode confidently around the corridors of power. Today they are supplicants in a world where money is tight. The LHC, sustained by a consortium that was originally European but is now global, cost about $10 billion to build.

That is still a relatively small amount, though, to pay for knowing how things really work, and no form of science reaches deeper into reality than particle physics. As J.B.S. Haldane, a polymathic British scientist, once put it, the universe may be not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. Yet given the chance, particle physicists will give it a run for its money.

Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2012. All rights reserved.

oooOOOooo

Before signing off on this very important step forward for physics, here are a couple of footnotes.

First, here’s a video of the announcement that was widely shown on the 4th.

Secondly, the BBC News website had a really good piece on the 12th July written by their science correspondent, Quentin Cooper, called Higgs: What was left unsaid. Here’s a flavour taken from the early part of the article,

So that’s it, search over, Higgs boson found. Almost 50 years after physicist Peter Higgs first theorised it was out there, public elementary number one has finally been captured in the data from two detectors at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. Case closed. Champagne popped. Boson nova danced.

If only. That handily simplified and heavily fictionalised telling of the tale has helped transform a spectacular scientific success story into one that is also global front page news. Without it the 4 July announcement might not have generated such a frenzy of coverage and so many claims about it being a historic milestone for our species. One particle physicist only half jokingly told me that in future the date may come to be celebrated as Higgs Day, rather than anything to do with American independence.

Don’t get me wrong. What has happened at Cern represents a magnificent accomplishment; big science at its biggest and boldest. And it’s fantastic that it has been perceived and received as being of such importance. It’s just that there is more to the story from the very beginning right through to the, probably false, ending.

For starters, as Peter Higgs himself acknowledges, he was just one of several scientists who came up with the mechanism which predicted the particle which bears his name, but the others rarely get a mention*. As to the finish – well, as small children are fond of saying, are we there yet? There is very strong evidence that the LHC teams have found a new elementary particle, but while this is exciting it is far less clear that what they’ve detected is the fabled Higgs. If it is, it seems curiously lighter than expected and more work is needed to explain away the discrepancy. If it’s not, then the experimentalists and theorists are going to be even busier trying to see if it can be shoehorned into the current Standard Model of particle physics. Either way, it’s not exactly conclusive.

Do take the simple step of clicking here and read the BBC piece in full.

Well done, Mr. Peter Higgs and all those very persistent scientists associated with the Large Hadron Collider; I suspect we haven’t heard the last of this!

And ‘thank you’ to The Economist.

One smart brain!

An interesting year for America!

Whatever the outcome of the US elections, a real change is desperately needed.

I stay neutral in terms of American party politics.  As a ‘alien resident’, otherwise known as a Green Card holder, I am not eligible to vote anyway plus I readily admit to neither following nor understanding American politics.

But the focus on the late Ernest Callenbach’s words the last two days on Learning from Dogs has left me feeling pretty uncertain about the future for the USA.  In reading those words, despite the many elements of hope and optimism that Callenbach engenders, it is difficult not to feel the scale of the challenges facing this great nation.  Take these words toward the end of Callenbach’s essay,

Since I wrote Ecotopia, I have become less confident of humans’ political ability to act on commonsense, shared values. Our era has become one of spectacular polarization, with folly multiplying on every hand. That is the way empires crumble: they are taken over by looter elites, who sooner or later cause collapse. But then new games become possible, and with luck Ecotopia might be among them.

Humans tend to try to manage things: land, structures, even rivers. We spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and treasure in imposing our will on nature, on preexisting or inherited structures, dreaming of permanent solutions, monuments to our ambitions and dreams. But in periods of slack, decline, or collapse, our abilities no longer suffice for all this management. We have to let things go.

I have subscribed to the print version of The Economist for many years.  Indeed, it is the only broad-reaching newspaper that I read on a regular basis.  So in the last edition (May 12th), I couldn’t ignore the interesting position taken by Lexington under the title of Declinism resurgent. [NB. Not sure if you will be able to access that link without a subscription, Ed.]

The sub-heading sets the theme – The election campaign encourages America to feel worse about itself than it needs to

The third paragraph reads thus,

America is prone to bouts of “declinism”. In the 1980s the country was in a funk about the rise of Japan and its own vanishing competitiveness. Another bout was bound to follow China’s rise, two grinding wars and the deep recession of 2008. The gloom is nourished by a fountain of declinist literature. In “Time to Start Thinking” Ed Luce of the Financial Times ponders an America “in descent”. Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of Brookings claim in a book on America’s politics (reviewed here two weeks ago) that “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”.

Immediately followed by,

Yet anyone who prefers their glass half-full can find grounds for optimism. The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner has just landed in Washington, DC. It will be decades before China can make such a machine. The IMF is predicting average growth of over 2% for 2012 and 2013, not meteoric but not bad for a mature economy. America has a young workforce, with plenty of skilled people knocking at the door to come in. It still has more of the world’s best universities than any other country. It is the world’s largest producer of natural gas and its biggest food exporter. Amid the gloom, the economy is getting “Better, Stronger, Faster”, argues Daniel Gross, in a book of that name published this week.

Lexington then concludes,

The binary illusion

People tend to think in black and white. America is either in decline or it is ordained to be for ever the world’s greatest nation. Government is either paralysed or it is running amok, stifling liberty and enterprise and snuffing out the American dream. The election campaign accentuates the negative and sharpens this binary illusion. The Republicans say that Mr Obama is leading America into socialised serfdom; the Democrats retort that Mr Romney would restore the conditions that caused the recession. Little wonder that, according to polls, most voters do not believe that either man has a clear plan for fixing the economy.

Charles Dickens said of the United States that if its citizens were to be believed America “always is depressed, and always is stagnated, and always is at an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise.” On a variety of objective measures, it is in an awful mess right now. And yet America of all countries still has plenty of grounds to hope for a better future, despite its underperforming politics, and no matter who triumphs in November.

So  a different perspective than the one articulated by Ernest Callenbach.  But whatever the political result later in this year’s US presidential elections, if that new government doesn’t address the need for urgent attention to what mankind is doing to Planet Earth then the rest of the political agenda will become increasingly irrelevant.

I’ll close with that old saying, “Will the last person to leave Planet Earth, please turn the lights off!

What’s the weather like, honey?

A couple of articles about our weather prospects.

Let me start with a recent report from Environmental Research Web, part of IOP Publishing.

Nov 24, 2011

Extreme weather will strike as climate change takes hold, IPCC warns

From the Guardian

Heavier rainfall, fiercer storms and intensifying droughts are likely to strike the world in the coming decades as climate change takes effect, the world’s leading climate scientists said on Friday.

Rising sea levels will increase the vulnerability of coastal areas, and the increase in “extreme weather events” will wipe billions off national economies and destroy lives, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body of the world’s leading climate scientists convened by the United Nations.

Later on the article includes this,

Simon Brown, climate extremes research manager at theHadley Centre, the climate research unit of the UK’s Met Office, said: “This focus of the IPCC on extremes is very welcome as less emphasis has traditionally been given to these phenomena which are very likely to be the means by which ordinary people first experience climate change. Human susceptibility to weather mainly arises through extreme weather events so it is appropriate that we focus on these which, should they change for the worse, would have wide-ranging and significant consequences. This review will be very helpful in progressing the science by bringing together a wide range of studies – not just on the physical weather aspects of climate extremes but also on how we might adapt and respond to their changes in the future.”

Now I turn to last week’s Economist newspaper.

Climate change

The sad road from Kyoto to Durban

The latest UN climate summit says much about why the world is failing to tackle global warming

Dec 3rd 2011 | from the print edition

IN HARD times governments are consumed by short-term problems. But this does not mean the archetypal long-term problem, climate change, has gone away. Science continues to support the case for curbing greenhouse-gas emissions so as to minimise the risks of catastrophe. Meanwhile it is clear how wretchedly the world is failing to do so. Even if countries honour their promises, the UN reckons that by 2020 emissions will exceed the trajectory for keeping warming under 2°C by up to 11 gigatonnes. That is equivalent to more than double the emissions of every car, bus and truck in 2005.

The concluding paragraph reads,

No one should imagine such a deal would turn the tide on climate change. That tide will rise, and countries will need to adapt to a lot of warming. But by acknowledging that everybody has a responsibility to act, it would represent progress.

‘Countries will need to adapt to a lot of warming.’  Tomorrow, I will publish a recent essay on TomDispatch.  As a taster the opening paragraph is,

The good news? While 2010 tied for the warmest year on record, 2011 — according to the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) — is likely to come in 10th once November and December temperatures are tallied. In part, this is evidently due to an especially strong La Niña cooling event in the Pacific.  On the other hand, with 2011 in the top ten despite La Niña, 13 of the warmest years since such record-keeping began have occurred in the last 15 years.  Think of that as an uncomfortably hot cluster.

We live in interesting times.

The Greatest Crash – footnote

The story that could run for an awfully long time!

I rather revealed my newness as a US resident by posting my review of David Kauders’ book The Greatest Crash over 2 days last week,  one of them being Thanksgiving Day.  Despite that 1,895 people viewed my review which was entitled The end of an era.

A week has now passed since that review.  I was curious to see what sorts of headlines had been making the news in the last 7 days.  It’s just a random trawl through those items that have captured my attention.

Let’s start with the Financial Times, November 27th,

The eurozone really has only days to avoid collapse

By Wolfgang Münchau

In virtually all the debates about the eurozone I have been engaged in, someone usually makes the point that it is only when things get bad enough, the politicians finally act – eurobond, debt monetisation, quantitative easing, whatever. I am not so sure. The argument ignores the problem of acute collective action.

Last week, the crisis reached a new qualitative stage. With the spectacular flop of the German bond auction and the alarming rise in short-term rates in Spain and Italy, the government bond market across the eurozone has ceased to function.

Wolfgang concludes his article thus,

Italy’s disastrous bond auction on Friday tells us time is running out. The eurozone has 10 days at most.

Then my print copy of The Economist that arrived on the 26th had this lurid cover page,

Unless Germany and the ECB move quickly, the single currency’s collapse is looming

The leader article contains this paragraph,

Past financial crises show that this downward spiral can be arrested only by bold policies to regain market confidence. But Europe’s policymakers seem unable or unwilling to be bold enough. The much-ballyhooed leveraging of the euro-zone rescue fund agreed on in October is going nowhere. Euro-zone leaders have become adept at talking up grand long-term plans to safeguard their currency—more intrusive fiscal supervision, new treaties to advance political integration. But they offer almost no ideas for containing today’s conflagration.

and a few paragraphs later, this,

This cannot go on for much longer. Without a dramatic change of heart by the ECB and by European leaders, the single currency could break up within weeks. Any number of events, from the failure of a big bank to the collapse of a government to more dud bond auctions, could cause its demise. In the last week of January, Italy must refinance more than €30 billion ($40 billion) of bonds. If the markets balk, and the ECB refuses to blink, the world’s third-biggest sovereign borrower could be pushed into default.

Then on Sunday, 27th, MISH’s Trend Analysis blogsite reveals,

ICAP Plc, the world’s largest inter-dealer broker (one that carries out transactions for financial institutions rather than private individuals), is now Testing Trades In Greek Drachma Against Dollar, Euro

ICAP Plc is preparing its electronic trading platforms for Greece’s potential exit from the euro and a return to the drachma, senior executives at the inter-dealer broker said Sunday.

ICAP is the latest firm to disclose such preparations, joining the growing ranks of banks, governments and other key players in the global financial system whose officials are worried enough about the stability of the common currency to be making contingency plans for a possible break-up.

Then Bloomberg published an article by Peter Boone and Simon Johnson, the latter of Baseline Scenario fame, that opened as follows,

Investors sent Europe’s politicians a painful message last week whenGermany had a seriously disappointing government bond auction. It was unable to sell more than a third of the benchmark 10-year bonds it had sought to auction off on Nov. 23, and interest rates on 30-year German debt rose from 2.61 percent to 2.83 percent. The message? Germany is no longer a safe haven.

and concluded,

Ultimately, an integrated currency area may remain in Europe, albeit with fewer countries and more fiscal centralization. The Germans will force the weaker countries out of the euro area or, more likely, Germany and some others will leave the euro to form their own currency. The euro zone could be expanded again later, but only after much deeper political, economic and fiscal integration.

Tragedy awaits. European politicians are likely to stall until markets force a chaotic end upon them. Let’s hope they are planning quietly to keep disorder from turning into chaos.

Finally, on the 29th the BBC News website carried details of the Autumn Statement made by British Chancellor, George Osborne, to Parliament.

Osborne confirms pay and jobs pain as growth slows

Chancellor George Osborne has said public sector pay rises will be capped at 1% for two years, as he lowered growth forecasts for the UK economy.

The number of public sector jobs set to be lost by 2017 has also been revised up from 400,000 to 710,000.

Borrowing and unemployment are set to be higher than forecast and spending cuts to carry on to 2017, he admitted.

Just look at that figure of public sector job losses – 710,000!

Well that’s more than enough from me but it does surely endorse the opening views that David Kauders expounded in his book, as carried in my review, and reproduced here,

Starting with the first sentence, David sets out the core problem;

This book argues that it is impossible to expand the financial system much further.

expanding this a few paragraphs later,

This is the financial system limit: lack of new borrowing plus excessive weight of debt obligations from past borrowing combine to slow economies down. This is the barrier whichever way policy makers turn. It is like the lid on a boiling kettle. Enough steam can lift it for a while but it always snaps back into place. The financial system limit is a roadblock preventing growth.

A few pages later in this opening chapter ‘The roadblock preventing growth‘ this limit is explained thus,

Policy contradictions also show us that the financial system has reached a roadblock. The glaring conflict between bailout and austerity is at the core. Each bailout or stimulus requires creation of more credit, leading to false financial speculation, and for a short while markets recover their poise. The threat of inflation returns. Later, bad debts rise, the markets tumble again and a new crisis emerges. Austerity, the alternative policy, cuts spending thereby cutting the immediate level of economic activity and bringing economic decline more quickly than the stimulus alternative. Whichever way they turn, the authorities are damned.

You can understand why I called this Post a ‘footnote’ not an endnote.

Future shock

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy

I am going to refer to some ideas before explaining from whom they came, and when.

Try this: the term “future shock” is defined as a certain psychological state of individuals and entire societies. The shortest definition for the term is a personal perception of “too much change in too short a period of time”.

Or try this: society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving them disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” – future shocked. It was stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of the future shock.

Stay with me a little longer as I pose a few questions.  How do you feel at the moment?  Slightly unsure of where the world is going right now? Feeling a little unsettled?

Why those questions?  With the Dow Jones index heading down through 11,130 (at the time of writing on the 8th) and ‘chaos across markets’ headlines all over the place these are very unsettling times

Last week’s edition of The Economist had five pages about the present uncertain times in the USA.

August 6th, 2011

Here’s a quote from an article entitled,

Six years into a lost decade

The numbers keep being revised inexorably downwards

The rough news did not end there. The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) revised its numbers back through the recession, revealing a downturn more serious than previously understood. The BEA’s first estimate of output in the fourth quarter of 2008, published in January of 2009, showed a contraction of 3.8%, later revised to a 6.8% drop. The new numbers change the figure yet again, to a shocking 8.9% fall in GDP. For 2009 as a whole, the American economy shrank by 3.5% rather than the previously reported 2.6%. American output has yet to reattain its 2007 peak. On a per-person basis, inflation-adjusted GDP stands at virtually the same level as in the second quarter of 2005. America is six years into a lost decade. [my emphasis]

So back to those comments about  ‘future shock’.  They come from a gentleman known across the world for his writings as a futurist, Alvin Toffler.  His website is here and there is a good review of the man and his works on Wikipedia.

Alvin Toffler, born 1928

Toffler’s book, Future Shock, from 1970 was prescient in forecasting …. well here’s how it is written on Wikipedia,

Toffler argues that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society“. This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving them disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” – future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of the future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he also popularized the term “information overload.”

But there’s an aspect that wasn’t even on the horizon when Toffler was writing that book in the late 60s – the end of growth.  That is creating a whole new level of change and ‘information overload’, in my opinion.

Just a few days ago, I reviewed the Paul Gilding book The Great Disruption.  I quoted this extract from the very start of the book,

This means things are going to change.  Not because we will choose change out of philosophical or political preference, but because if we don’t transform our society and economy, we risk social and economic collapse and the descent into chaos.  The science on this is now clear and accepted by any rational observer.  While an initial look at the public debate may suggest controversy, any serious examination of the peer-reviewed conclusions of leading science bodies shows the core direction we are heading in is now clear.  Things do not look good.

These challenges and the facts  behind them are well-known by experts and leaders around the world, and have been for decades.  But despite this understanding, that we would at some point pass the limits to growth, it has been continually filed away to the back of our mind and the back of our drawers, with the label “Interesting – For Consideration Later” prominently attached.  Well, later has arrived.

Indeed, ‘later’ has arrived.  The ‘future’ is now here!

Watch the first 10 minutes of the Future Shock film made back in 1972 and ponder.

The following four parts are easily found on YouTube.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Reinhold Niebuhr

Chernobly, Fukushima and change.

From out of darkness has to come the dawn

One side effect of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Northern Japan on the 11th March causing an explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power station is that the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster is much more a news item than I suspect it might have been.

The nuclear accident at Chernobyl in Russia occurred on the 26th April, 1986, twenty-five years ago today.  One major difference between the two disasters was, of course, how they were reported.

Here’s a small extract from a fuller article in The Financial Times published on the 19th April written by Tony Barber who was in Russia those 25 years ago.

Twenty-five years after the explosion at the Ukrainian facility, I vividly recall every detail of those terrible days of April 1986. I was a 26-year-old foreign correspondent working in Moscow for Reuters news agency. On Friday, April 25, I flew to Kiev to spend a couple of days with Rhona, an ebullient Scottish friend who was teaching at the city’s university under a British Council programme. I was the only western journalist in Kiev that weekend.

While we caroused the night away, extraordinary events were unfolding 130km to the north. Technicians were conducting experiments that involved the disabling of automatic shutdown mechanisms at the plant’s fourth reactor. After a tremendous power surge, the reactor blew up at 1.23am on Saturday, April 26.

Except for high-ranking Communist party officials, the KGB and a number of scientists, doctors and fire-fighters, no one in the Soviet Union, let alone the wider world, knew anything about this. Soviet habits of secrecy and deception kept millions of people in the dark even as radiation spread across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and beyond.

Certainly the disaster in Japan was widely broadcast across the world without any delays or restraints.  But the thrust of this Post today is to point out what, in the end, will have to be understood by the majority of the world’s peoples and their representatives in power.  That is that our dependence, our love affair, with cheap carbon-based energy has to come to an end, and soon.

On the 26th March, The Economist published a briefing on nuclear power entitled, When the steam clears.  As with so many of this newspaper’s essays, it was very well written [I am a subscriber to The Economist; have been for years.]  Here’s a taste of the article,

When last year a volcano closed the skies over Europe and a blown-out oil-rig turned the Gulf of Mexico black, there was no widespread enthusiasm for giving up oil or air travel. But nuclear power is much less fundamental to the workings of the world than petrol or aeroplanes. Nuclear reactors generate only 14% of the world’s electricity, and with a median age of about 27 years (see chart) and a typical design life of 40 a lot are nearing retirement. Although the world is eager to fly and thirsts for oil, it has had little appetite for new nuclear power for the past quarter of a century.

And towards the end of the article, this,

Distressing though it is, the crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi is not in itself a reason for the world to change energy policy. The public-health effects seem likely, in the long run, to be small. Coal, with its emissions of sulphur, mercury and soot, will continue to kill far more people per kilowatt hour than nuclear does. But as an opportunity to reflect it may be welcome.  [my italics]

Power of hope

We need a continued growing awareness of the craziness of using coal and oil as primary sources of energy, and from that awareness a growing political pressure for change.  Change that recognises that mankind’s present energy strategies of continuing to pump carbon-based gases into the atmosphere are insane; pure and simple.

We need more of these examples:

Science Daily

University of Minnesota researchers are a key step closer to making renewable petroleum fuels using bacteria, sunlight and carbon dioxide.

Scientific American magazine

As the world continues to grapple with energy-related pollution and poverty, can innovation help?

The clock is ticking, as I wrote here a few days ago.

Mau Piailug

A Pacific master navigator sails into the sunset

The Economist, for me, is one of the great newspapers of our time.  I have often referred to it on Learning from Dogs.

Last Saturday’s edition (July 24th – 30th 2010) carried a most beautiful obituary about Mau Piailug who in 1976 demonstrated that ancient seafarers could indeed have voyaged from Hawaii to Tahiti, a distance of some 2,500 miles, before the age of compasses, sextants or charts.  Here is an extract from that obituary (you may need to register to view it):

As a Micronesian he did not know the waters or the winds round Tahiti, far south-east. But he had an image of Tahiti in his head. He knew that if he aimed for that image, he would not get lost. And he never did. More than 2,000 miles out, a flock of small white terns skimmed past the Hokule’a heading for the still invisible Mataiva Atoll, next to Tahiti. Mau knew then that the voyage was almost over.

On that month-long trip he carried no compass, sextant or charts. He was not against modern instruments on principle. A compass could occasionally be useful in daylight; and, at least in old age, he wore a chunky watch. But Mau did not operate on latitude, longitude, angles, or mathematical calculations of any kind. He walked, and sailed, under an arching web of stars moving slowly east to west from their rising to their setting points, and knew them so well—more than 100 of them by name, and their associated stars by colour, light and habit—that he seemed to hold a whole cosmos in his head, with himself, determined, stocky and unassuming, at the nub of the celestial action.

Mau Piailug creating model of his canoe - Steve Thomas Photo

Here’s an extract from the website Suite101.com:

Mau Piailug was born in 1932 on Satawal, a tiny Pacific island no wider than a mile in Micronesia. When he was still a little baby, his grandfather put him in a tide pool as though he were putting him in a cradle. There the sea gently rocked him back and forth with the rhythm of the tides.

When Mau was six, his grandfather began to teach him about navigation. He started by telling him about the stars; the grandfather made a star compass out of a circle of coral rocks, and in the center he put a little canoe he had made of palm fronds. Then he explained how the stars rose in the sky and traveled from east to west.

As he grew older, Mau spent his evenings in the canoe house. There he asked the elders to teach him about navigation. In this way, and with his grandfather’s help, he learned the paths of more than a hundred stars. He also learned that when clouds covered the sky, he could use the direction of the ocean waves to guide the canoe. He could also follow the birds toward land when they headed home in the evening, and he studied the creatures of the sea, for in times of trouble they, too, could help him find land.

A film was made about Mau called The Last Navigator.  Do click on the link and read more about what Steve ‘learnt’ from Mau – here’s a closing taste:

It has been nearly fifteen years since I first met Piailug. In that time I have been blessed with relative fame and prosperity – an eventuality, by the way, that Piailug foretold to me. As I look back, I am impressed now by the twin qualities in the man that impressed me then: his generosity and his courage. Piailug took me into his family, assumed responsibility for my material and political well-being, and taught me his navigation without reserve. The knowledge he gave me about navigation is considered priceless in his culture. The knowledge he gave me about myself, I have come to see, is priceless as well. I often think of Piailug, and the fierceness and determination with which he defends a way of life he knows will die as the wise elders died. He has the courage to live and teach and voyage in spite of the certain knowledge that his struggle can never stem the tide of Westernization, which will change the character of his archipelago and may well eliminate the very role of the navigator as steward of his island’s sustenance and keeper of the flame of cultural knowledge.

Mau - asleep in the waves

A remarkable man.

By Paul Handover

Bananas and common sense!

This is more than about the problems with Toyota.

The Economist is a newspaper.  It was first published in September 1843 which, of itself, makes it a notable newspaper.  Many years ago, more than I can recall just now, I became a subscriber to the newsprint version of this weekly paper.  It has become such a companion, so to speak, that when I left the UK in September 2008 to come to Mexico I made arrangements to continue receiving The Economist each week.

However, the Mexican postal system, despite being thoroughly reliable, is rather slow and, rather logically if you muse on it, the postman always only delivers when there is more than one item.  Thus the particular copy of The Economist that carried the story about Toyota arrived late and with three other editions!

Let me turn to the point of this article.

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