December 21, 2012

The End of the World Didn't Happen Today

Just one of many ways to bring it all to an end.
On this day, according to the Mayan Calendar and the hordes of New Age experts who make their living looking for such portents, the world will have ended. Again.

We like the end of the world. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year go into exploring various and sundry ways the world will end - in TV shows, movies, video games, novels, even serious conferences. Asteroid strikes, tsunamis, earthquakes, black holes, rogue planets, expanding suns, supernovae, killer biohazards, the plague, nuclear war, zombie infestations, rogue weather, Chthulu-esque demi-gods, vampires vs. werewolves, strangelets, divine retribution, global flooding, alien invasions, Nemesis, Aphosis, false vacuum phase shifts, brane collisions, it's rather remarkable just how many ways there are to turn out the lights, once and for all.

There's something eminently satisfying about going out with a bang, like the dinosaurs did when an asteroid slammed into the Gulf of Mexico 65 millions years ago. Except they didn't, really. Oh, no doubt there were quite a few dinosaurs for which that fateful collision truly was the end of their world. However, the day after the asteroid, there were still quite a few T-Rexes wandering around - a bit dazed and confused perhaps, but they still managed to successfully take down a stegosaurus or three for breakfast. They were there a week later, and a month ... indeed, by all indications they were still going two or three million years after Game Over.

What ultimately did the dinosaurs in was bad weather. In India the collision of a breakaway piece of Antarctica and the Asian subcontinent had caused the crust to become particular thin over a hot spot region deep within the Earth's core, and it opened up a whole series of volcanoes, initially cooling the atmosphere with all of the sulfur being released, but ultimately warming it again as nickel, normally held deeply within the core of the Earth, made its way in great concentrations to the surface. As it cooled, the nickel provided a critical substrate necessary for the flourishing of a form of methanogen, a methane consuming microbe that generated copious amounts of carbon dioxide. In the end, the planet became too hot for the plants which fed the huge appetites of the stegosaurs which in turn fed the t-rexes, and the giant dinosaurs that needed vast amounts of food to support themselves ultimately ended up starving (or more likely dehydrating) to death. Meanwhile, the much smaller mammals and tiny dinosaurs that could get by on a miniscule fraction of the food survived, the mammals by burrowing and hibernating, the dinosaurs by taking to the air. This happened over the course of two to to three million years, still relatively fast by evolutionary standards, but far from the "death raining from the sky" eye-blink that makes for such good cinematic fodder.

 We like "game over" endings. A good ending makes for a satisfying read, and a poor one, one where too few threads get tied up, makes us feel dissatisfied with the work. You want the villain to be dead at the end - want so that he can't get back up and menace the heroes one more time. You want the prince and princess to get married to resolve that awful teenage-angsty hormone-driven sexual tension, so they can go on happily with the rest of their lives. You want the war to be over. A good story builds tension, and at the end of the narrative that tension needs to be released and resolved. Life as orgasm. Even when the ending is horrific, one where everyone dies a particularly grisly death, the desire for closure is stronger.

Ironically, a part of this has to do with the implicit assumption on the part of the reader that, by hearing the narrative, they will in the end be a survivor. They will be alive to tell the tale, not rotting in an anonymous grave somewhere. The fact is that, every day, it is the end of the world for somebody, but in all but one case, those somebodies are not you.

However, great closures are also critical for societies overall. The US Empire is in decline. It has been for several years. Historians, who are masters of the narrative, are already looking for the smoking gun, the one event that definitively says that the Third Age is over (to borrow from the recent Tolkienesque interest) and the Fourth Age is begun. They're looking for the day that Gollum bit off Frodo's ring to recover his Precious before tumbling, fatally, to his doom in Mt. Doom. (For a man who invented two complete languages, Tolkien was remarkably inept at naming mountains). 

On this day, the bad guys are vanquished, and the good guys can start building something new again. Yet today it's hard to tell what that "something new" is - or rather, it's easy to tell, but hard to chose from the plethora of something new's that are currently in vogue. For the Libertarian, that something new is a society where the intrepid hero defeats the evil government to become a master of his own fortunes. For the Liberal, that "new" is a world where oil is no longer pumped from the earth, where we live in harmony under a benign government of the people, at one with nature in our tree-enshrouded sanctuaries, away from the gun-toting yokels and religious nuts. For the Fundamentalist, the "new" is a world where a benign god looks once more upon His people, bringing them peace and prosperity while the evil unbelievers burn forever in the pits of Hell, in the ultimate of punishments.

Curiously enough, the villains in one person's narrative are the heroes in another. This again brings up the problems of narrative tension. An arbitrary apocalypse in the vast narrative always favors the listener's own tribe in the same way that it favors themselves. Your tribe will remain, if scattered and sorely beleaguered, while the evil tribes will get theirs. Those few that remain will see the wisdom in banding with your tribe and your way of thinking, at least in the main.

However, life is seldom that neat, and endings, when they do come, are seldom swift and absolute. Instead, the visible signs of a transition, a change from one social regime to another, are usually symptomatic of broader but generally less immediately tangible changes. We're hitting resource peaks in the first half of the twenty first century that will have major ramifications for the next three or four hundred years. Climate change will cause various regions to lose or gain economic and hence political power. Our economic system is in flux right now because the foundations of those economies are shifting, both due to the aforementioned resource peaks and to the innovations that we have unleashed in the last century. 

We have an unprecedented degree of understanding both about we do and what we don't know about the universe, and the transition from physical discovery to materials engineering to commercialization is occurring in a breathtakingly short amount of time. Our ability to innovate with our economic systems is also unprecedented, and this in turn means that we can make economic experiments (meaning mistakes - offshoring, anyone) and recover from them within a surprisingly short interval.

Yet the need for narrative is still there, and that is perhaps the challenge of political, social and economic innovators moving forward. For too long the narrative has been that the story is coming to a close, that the survivors will be ones with the greatest amount of money, land socked away up in the mountains, arsenals of heavy machine guns waiting for the coming zombie hordes. What's so disturbing about this particular narrative is that the zombies in question are thinly disguised latte-sipping urban liberals, drinks in one hand full of rotting milk and coffee; the fear being that the world really is coming to an end, the cities with all of these people with their big government regulations and reprehensibly open social policies (women's rights! gay marriage! unions!!!) are going to overwhelm the god-fearing farmers and ranchers of the Real America.

Ironically it is a narrative that's also promulgated by the suburban financiers and senior managers - the ones that may work in downtown New York but have a home in the Hamptons, or that control their empires from Dallas but are driven in by chauffeur from the Park Cities or Lakewood. They too fear the zombies, but in this case the zombies are the undesirables that will drive down home prices, will cause cracks in the illusion of absolute mastery that they maintain around themselves. These are the people most invested in the status quo, the ones that see the visions of sustainability and lower economic inequity as a direct threat against their own wealth and station. They are concerned about the New Money, because New Money often comes from undermining the paradigm that helped establish the Old Money in the first place (which was itself once New Money), and today that New Money is increasingly coming from the young, technically competent engineers, scientists, creatives and advocates who recognize the dangers and limitations of the status quo. At one time, this force was helping to prop up the Old Money, but as times and technologies change, the gulf between these two forces widen.

In a way, the younger generation is shaping its own narrative, one that's increasingly at odds with the status quo. They see the future and are worried by it, which means they are adapting far more quickly to it. A winnowing process is going on, one in which the most salient technologies are enhanced, while the less salient are diminished. Biotechnologies, information science, nano-engineering and alternate energy development are all critical. As a generation they have less use for corporate religion or giant conglomerates - they view businesses simply as vehicles to apply capital to solving problems, and view religion as being increasingly private and self-directed. They drive less, and are far more comfortable working and playing with people that may be thousands of miles away than their predecessors. Their mantra increasingly is that too much power in the hands of anyone - government or business - is bad, and are becoming increasingly proficient with the ability to make decisions collectively with astonishing speed. These people do not respect existing institutions, but instead see them as being relics of another age that are no longer germane to them.

For these people, the end of the world is nowhere in sight, other than as an excuse to throw a good party and an opportunity to remake the world according to their own narrative. To them, this is exhilarating, to others, this is terrifying. In the end, though, they will be the ones writing the next chapters. For now, it is perhaps best to know that this grand story is ... to be continued ... 

December 12, 2012

Decentralizing Society

Scotland, Germany, Iceland, Denmark, Finland - one by one a very subtle shift is happening in the world, something that I think will become a much bigger factor in the decades ahead. Each of these countries is attempting to achieve energy independence by moving as much of their energy production as possible into renewable power sources. In the examples cited above, the reason for such migration is as much geopolitical as it is concern for the environment - these countries (I'll get to Scotland in a second) are in a situation where they do not have many of their own carbon energy resources, and consequently, are especially dependent upon other countries, ones that historically they have had occasionally disastrous relationships with in the past.

Iceland's an interesting example in several different ways. During the collapse of 2008-2010, Iceland did something unprecedented. Saddled with supposedly safe debt that "exploded" on them, they rejected austerity, arrested and prosecuted the bankers, nationalized the banks, and repudiated their foreign debt as being unpayable. In doing so, they were forced into a situation where they could no longer get letters of credit for huge oil purchases, so they began a crash course in becoming internally sustainable. One of the first things that they did was to re-evaluate their internal energy profiles and recognized that they had a wealth of energy from geothermal and hydroelectric sources - the energy inherent in hot springs, geysers and melts from glaciers. Taking advantage of this, Iceland's renewable energy resources make up 81% of the total energy production from the island country, with the balance coming from North Sea oil.

The economic news and the energy news are not unrelated. The petro-industrial complex is intimately tied into the financial services sector globally, and indeed, many of the aspects of globalization, from outsourcing of jobs to 5,000 mile salads to the explosion of the 0.1% globally in terms of overall wealth owned, are intimately tied to the retrieval, transportation, distribution and consumption of petroleum products. Iceland chose to drop out of that web for a bit, and in the process are beginning to worry financiers in New York, London, Berlin and elsewhere.

Scotland's driver is a growing desire to separate themselves from the political control of London. They have similarly made 100% energy independence a major part of this process, because by no longer being dependent upon the North Sea oil well (which is showing signs of playing out), they end up with much greater autonomy in other matters.

Germany, ironically, is a financial powerhouse, but much of that is built primarily upon engineering services and manufacturing of precision goods. Their overriding concern is maintaining independence from Russia and its oil and natural gas production, and to achieve this they are betting heavily upon solar and hydrothermal technologies.

Moreover, they are treating such energy production in a paradigm shattering way. Their goal is not to replicate oil production, but to look at their infrastructure a piece at a time and figure out how to make each piece effectively fuel itself. Projects there include using genetically modified algaes that not only are especially good at filtering waste water, but that generate energy as a by-product of doing this. The energy produced isn't huge, but it is sufficient to generate the power to run the plant and push some back into the grid.

Similarly, solar panels are becoming so much a part of the German landscape that in many towns there are few roofs that don't have them - and this in a country that has a disproportionately high number of cloudy days. The irony is that Germany is now producing so much power that other countries that are Germany's power grids are becoming overwhelmed because Germany is producing more power than it can use and is dumping that energy downmarket on unprepared grids and bringing these down.

The thing that these countries share is that they are relatively compact, are already affluent, and have strong external (typically security) reasons for achieving such independence. For the US overall, this is generally not the case, and this is frequently an argument given on the part of the petroleum industry and their supporters about why alternative power is such a pie in the sky dream in the US. However, these arguments (when not trying to argue that global warming is only an illusion) usually assume that complete conversion of petroleum to technology X is infeasible because petroleum is far more effective and the infrastructure to upgrade the entire country would be absurdly expensive to replace.

In practice, however, this is where the paradigm of self-supporting infrastructure makes so much sense, and why, in many ways this conversion is already taking place. Forget about total conversion, finding a one-size-fits-all magic bullet (seriously mixed metaphors there) that will replace the petroleum economy overnight is simply not going to happen in the US. What can happen, however, is the notion of making infrastructure self-supporting.

Much of that technology already exists today. You can get an intelligent security monitoring plus power management system for your house for $50/month from cable companies that will let you control the outlets, air system and appliances in your house from an Android or iOS app located anywhere. Throw in the next generation LCD lighting systems, add in a solar collector for your roof, and your house becomes a net neutral environment. Put all the street lights on local solar cells, start tapping into geothermal as well as hydropower, solar PV and wind-powered systems for municipal structures such as government buildings and schools, and these too start disappearing from the grid. Malls, which have traditionally been huge energy sinks, are either being shut down or taking advantage of large expanses of parking spaces to erect solar panels to become self-supporting. Trains, especially light rail and subway, can take advantage of flywheels located in the stations themselves to extract power via induction to slow the trains down, then can then give the same trains an induction based boost to get out of the station, reducing it's overall energy footprint by 60-70%.

The same principle applies increasingly to work. One intriguing trend is the re-tollification of paid-for highways. Municipalities are assessing tools on previously free roads, which is having the unexpected side effect of encouraging telecommuting as employers are forced to question whether having employees do hour-long commutes in order to be in the same office is worth the wage increases that will be needed to cover these commute costs (in effect, most commuting to and from work as well as parking costs have been pushed onto the employees, when this is in fact a requirement imposed by the employers, and employees are pushing back on this).

Similarly, the very technologies that allowed outsourcing - including cloud computing and applications as service - are also increasingly making insourcing more attractive as the pendulum swings in the other direction, because such insourcing is still distributed, but over a more manageable geographic region. Monitoring and troubleshooting as often as not now occurs on distributed systems on the cloud, so having a lot of engineers located in the IT "server" room is now "so 90s" - the room is no longer there, the network admins all have their iPhones and iPads configured to notify them the moment an error condition gets fired, and most of those apps are increasingly running on Amazon or Google or other cloud providers. Managers work from home, marketing people produce ad copy and visuals by collaboration, and most meetings are now down through GoToMeeting or something equivalent.

Why does this matter? Every virtual meeting is five to ten less trips downtown, or perhaps five to ten airline tickets. This puts fewer cars on the road, which decreases the energy footprint. Automated toll systems can also be tied in to financial banking networks and hence audited, making it possible to determine who pays for driving. Insourcing also reduces the number of cargo ships on the seas, each burning hundreds of gallons of oil an hour, and reduces the amount of air traffic.

Yet the argument would be made at this point by those invested in the status quo that fewer shipping or aircraft trips represents that many fewer jobs - fewer airline workers, fewer stevedores, fewer truckers. They're right, of course, it does. And here is where things go all political. Ultimately, something has to give. The future has arrived - all of those labor saving devices, all of those robots, all of the efficiency generating software and infrastructure ultimately implies that the number of hours of meaningful work is in permanent decline. There will be occasional spikes and probably a floor at some point, primarily in the services sector, but even with jobs moving back home you need 1 person for what required 100 a century ago in the manufacturing sector, and increasingly even the financial sector is beginning to look anemic as trading algorithms replace the Masters of the Universe, just as large scale search databases have significantly dented the legal and medical professions.

Ultimately then, the question is how you resolve this fundamental contradiction - providing a means for the distribution of value in a capitalist society to the largest percentage of people when the most traditional mechanism - wage labor - no longer provides that capability. I'll address this issue next week.

December 3, 2012

Moving to Cascadia

It's been a busy couple of months for me, and as happens, this has left me with relatively little time to write (though perhaps too much time surfing Facebook). The election is past, my side won (yay, me?) and as also happens, the national mood has shifted once again to the mundane.  Journalists, I suspect, don't like incumbents winning - they do what they did before they had to go out and stump to save their seat, and as such there is no "news".  Over the years, I've come to realize that the news industry, were it personified, would be a somewhat vacuous blonde babe with a severe case of ADD "Oh, shiny!" - when there is no news, she gets bored and pouts, just to get something into print or fill airwaves or Internet electrons, or whatever the metaphor du jour is for the media, and she has the attention span of a four year old after eating a dozen pixie sticks.

All that aside, I am writing this from a Starbucks in Issaquah, Washington, under cloudy skies, watching the ravens and seagulls squabble over the various leavings. After two and a half years of Maryland, I am once again back home, where we raised my eldest daughter when she was a toddler and I was a young, wet behind the ears programmer who wrote educational game software. Hey, it was all the rage back then, even though I could replicate everything I did back then in Macromedia Director in most browsers nowadays. It was a racket then, I really don't think much has really changed, save that nowadays we spell educational game software as A-P-P-S. and they're delivered on a tablet with about 100,000 times as much processing power as I had available back then.

So why the move back from Maryland, where there was, arguably, more work for my skills? The laundry list is pretty long, but includes family health issues, the fact that my eldest daughter was going to school here, and a new contract that's at least partly based on the West Coast with a large media company that does a great number of animated movies about princesses. However, there are other reasons, less rational perhaps but arguably of a bigger draw. I grew up as an Air Force brat, and have lived in just about every environment imaginable - the mountainous region of Germany, Alabama's sweltering farmlands, perched aside a mountain in Hawaii, the river bluffs and flat farmland of north-central Illinois, a couple stints in the Appalachians from West Virginia, through Eastern Tennessee and all the way down to Georgia and Florida.

Yet even before I moved there, the Pacific Northwest has already exerted a pull on me, and when I arrived there in 1990, I immediately felt like I was home. I suspect it was because of those early formative years when I was in Germany, where the weather was overcast in the winter, firs and spruce dominated the landscape, and mountains were tall, majestic things that crowned the sky, not just higher hills than average. I've never felt as grounded as I did when I was in the Northwest, almost as if I could feel the solidity of the land around me in my heart. In Maryland I felt curiously adrift, as if there was nothing for my soul to wrap itself around. For someone as rational as I sometimes can be, this may sound perhaps an unusually romantic notion (in the 19th century sense) but I think it's a very real thing.

Yet there are other differences that took me a while to appreciate. Northwesterners are, by and large, quiet, contemplative, introverted, and most especially polite people. Marylanders were friendly, but there is also a tendency there for people in the beltway especially to take on the airs of self-importance and self-promotion that is pretty much a requirement for operating in a highly politically charged environment. Appearances mattered more than skill or talent, conforming to the two flavors of ideology (or the very careful kabuki "neutrality" that was an ideology all of its own). It would have bee all too easy to get sucked into that weird limbo, taking job after job there, but I'm not sure I would have liked what I was becoming.

It's funny. I'm not a religious person, but increasingly I see myself as being a spiritual one. This has nothing to do with the concept of an afterlife. Whether the "spirit" or "soul" survives after death has never been a big concern to me - the "me" will die with my body regardless. Yet what is becoming more pertinent to me is the bigger picture of my role with relationship to the rest of the universe. We do not exist in a self-contained unit - human beings are intrinsically psychically messy, spilling outward from their physical shell with an extended web of relationships, obligations, and temporalities, something that has become only more apparent within the context of social webs and the Internet. There I felt stifled, limited, constrained by expectations and requirements on me that reduced my role to the relevant cog in the machine. It was not the path I wanted to walk, and perhaps it is simply the ticking of that ultimate clock that made me realize that in the end it served only to fulfill some contractor's requirements on a checklist for me to be there, not whether what I was doing was really making any difference (in most cases it was not).

Okay, that's it - no big sweeping surveys of humanity's futures this time around. I'll be posting more regularly (and consistently) from here on out, now that we're no longer in moving limbo. Sometimes it is necessary to concentrate on the local, what's in front of us, and now is that time for me. I'm home.

October 15, 2012

My Inner Neanderthal

I am an introvert, possibly an extreme one. While not necessarily a hermit, I don't generally tend to function well in the world of corporate cubicles or even offices, find it difficult to navigate the vagaries of office politics, and don't tend to define myself in terms of my title or position in the hierarchy. I an a pretty good consultant, perhaps because I'm good at coming into an organization from the outside and seeing the strengths and weaknesses of that organization, but whenever I find myself either willfully or inadvertantly pulled into the maelstrom, there is a primal part of me that screams to get out of there as fast as possible.

The last decade has seen a radical change in the way that we have come to understand the evolution of the human race, largely as a result of our ability to sequence the human genome and see how we have evolved over time by determining when a particularly gene or allelle first appeared.

So, what does this have to do with office politics? It turns out that a curious incident occurred in the human genetic structure about 35,000 years ago - we interbred with aliens. Half a million years before, there was the first great migration of humans out of Africa, probably during a global warming period - food became scarce in East Africa, and some (but not all) of the early hominids stayed put.

Our record of their travels is limited, because the older the fossil record becomes, the more likely that human bones and remains would get destroyed by flooding, burial, wildfires and so forth. This process occurred a number of different times, and each time it would strand a portion of humanity in a different environment - coastlines along the Indian Ocean, on lands such as the British Isles that was only periodically connected to the rest of Europe and so forth.

One of these stranded groups had gone north and west, forming a cultural group that extended from the area around Hungary, along the Volga north to Scandinavia and the Danube east to France and, across a land bridge that formed, to Prydhain, which would in time become the British Isles. When the glaciers came, many of these people died, but the ones that survived adapted, becoming shorter, brawnier of chest, their hair, going from brown-black to red, or to pale white in the Scandinavian regions. They became used to living in snall familial groups, and the survival skills they developed shifted from tribal hunting of large game animals to individual trapping of smaller animals - which meant that the skills that were emphasized tended to stress pre-planning, the development of more sophisticated traps, and long periods in relative isolation. Neanderthal women generally had to be more self sufficient, and both men and women were strong enough to handle many of the more physical activities that such a life demanded.

Over time, isolation started the process of speciation. These early humans adapted to their environment. During cold times, they would hibernate - their heart rate would drop dramatically, they would start metabolizing fat and they would sleep deeply for days on end. Their diet was high in protein (which could be converted to fat) though they did also eat nuts, grains and cold adapted fruits, which changed their dentition. They started communicating tonally - Neanderthal speech was probably more like song, whereas Cro-magnon speech was generally atonal and more consonant driven. They developed tonal musical instruments - nose flutes, for instance, early on as well (and possibly had other tonal instruments that have not survived).

They lived longer - a neanderthal could potentially live to be 140 years old, primarily based upon their hibernation. They could be brilliant improvisationalists, but tended to have poor cultural transmission (probably because the population was never very large). They also likely loved to fight, not out of hatred, but just simply because it was fun. They also partially domesticated animals early on - wolves in particular may have been domesticated first by Neanderthals. They periodically surfaced into conscious awareness, but for the most part probably lived in a timeless world of the subconscious - what people would refer to as a fugue state today.

Around 35,000 years ago, the ice retreated, and the CroMagnons that had been living in Northern Africa, the Middle East and Southern Europe followed. They met the Neanderthals, who had been apart long enough to be very nearly a separate species at that point, and the Neanderthals retreated to increasingly inhospitable areas - the Transcauscasus mountains in Hungary, Wales and the Highlands of Scotland, Finnland, the Basque region of Spain. They may have fought, but they also mated. It may have been that only Neanderthal men mating with Cro-magnon women were fertile while the other combination was not, or it may just be a sampling issue, but few people seem to carry Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, although as much as six percent of the Neanderthal chromosome may have been infused in Cro-Magnon DNA.

A similar phenomenon happened (albeit farther back) in the Far East with Homo Denisovan. It's possible that the Denisovans and the Neanderthal were related, but also just as likely that Denisovans were just similarly cold adapted early hominids that ended up influencing the Melanesians and Australian aboriginals, to the extent that every so often a Melanesian is born with blonde hair, just as speciation had begun with East Asians developing epithelial folds as an adaptation to countering snow covered vistas.

The Neanderthals themselves were effectively absorbed by the Cro-Magnon, but their hybrid children gained both good and bad from both species. These hybrids likely tended to be intelligent, innovative, but not necessarily disciplined, were perhaps more pugnacious and less respectful of authority, preferred clan structures rather than disciplined hierarchies, as often as not had red hair, were argumentative and always loved a good fight, and were unusually gifted as singers. They were also more introverted, moody, and generally more restless around people, often seemed to be "fey-touched", were more easily depressed, and were more heavily influenced by seasonal change. If this sounds a lot like the Scots (and the Irish) this is perhaps not surprising. It is very likely that the Neanderthal population was high here 20,000 to 30,000 years before (and potentially that Neanderthals may actually have survived into more contemporary times, perhaps even 10,000 years before.

Red hair, in this case, may be the key. Red hair is rare in humanity - only 2%-3% of people globally have red hair, and even in Europe, that percentage is only about 6%. The places which have the highest concentration of red hair? Scotland, Ireland, the Basque region of Spain and Northeast Italy. While there's a tendency to think of the Norse as having red hair, this was generally true only after the Norse had begun raiding the West coast of Scotland (and intermarrying with the fiery red-heads there). Significantly, these are not far from areas where remains of Neanderthals were found. Red hair is due to the TRPM1 gene, which tends to occur frequently with the DRD4 7R gene. Most people in the world have DRD4 4R instead, but 7R shows up in Neanderthal DNA.

What make several of these areas intriguing is that the linguistic patterns of languages in this region predate the Indo-European waves coming from the Russian Steppes. While little remains of Pictish except for a few place names, those place names are distinctly unusual and don't follow the ancient Prydhain (very early Brythonic or Britannic) forms. While it's pure supposition (I would love to see genetic evidence here), it is possible that the neolithic Picts intermixed with the very early Celtic immigrants, and that these same Picts had Neanderthal ancestors (it's unlikely they were Neanderthals themselves, but there is evidence that this area had been inhabited from well before the last ice ages). Recently, a submerged land bridge has also come to light in the region to the north of the Hebrides that would have stretched, either directly or as a series of islands, all the way to Denmark during both the Ice Ages 12,000 and 14,000 years ago as well as the more intriguing ice age 32,000 years ago (England was also connected directly to the continent at those time), so it is possible in either of those scenarios for Neanderthal hybrids to make their way north, and then from there to travel along the Danube and other rivers directly to the Mediterranean. (The Norse followed the same route 1500-2500 years ago, and it seems to have been a natural trade route through Europe)

There are a few very ancient cultures in Europe that have puzzled historians and ethnographers for years. Three of the more intriguing including the Etruscans, the Scythians, and the Minoans. The Etruscans occupied an empire (Etruria) that at one time spanned from Latium, the future home of Rome, through much of Northern Italy and into parts of Greece and Switzerland. Their language bears some resemblance to the Minoans, and no resemblance to the Indo-European languages that originated in the Indus Valley. Intriguingly, red hair was fairly common among the Etruscans, and that trait manifested itself most famously in the red-haired Julius Caesar, an anomaly in the mostly dark-haired Romans. This hints that Neanderthals-Cro-Magnon hybrids may have settle Etruria from the north before the wave after wave of Mongol-derived inhabitants flooded the region.

Like the Etruscans, the Scythians are also shrouded in some mystery. Their name derives from the use of the Scythe as both a harvest tool and a weapon. It's likely that Scythia was a melting pot - a successive wave of proto-Persians streamed into the region from the south, meeting and intermarrying with the northern hybrids, creating a number of competing "countries" in the region. Among these were the Sarmatians, who lived on the Eastern border of Scythia. The Sarmatians were a semi-nomadic culture, but were unusual in that Sarmatian women were allowed to become warriors (something very rare in the Indo-european cultures), and these women may have ended up becoming the historical basis for the Amazons. Recent unearthed Ukranian burial grounds has proven unequivocably that Sarmatian women were honored as warriors.

Again, the record of the mythical Amazons (and some evidence of the historical Sarmatians) indicated that blonde hair was the norm in this culture, and that both men and women were large of frame and stature and heavily bearded. While no direct evidence for red hair exists here, the physical appearance and beardedness (Mongol beards tend to be slow growing and black) is suggestive. Moreover, some aspects of Sarmatian decoration are similar to those found both in Etruria and the Minoan culture, and again contrary to the pattern of the Indo-European invaders. Even more intriguing is the fact that Neanderthal remains have been found in caves in Croatia (within the same general area as Sarmatia) dating to 32,000 years ago, and Neanderthal suggestive fire sites have been found to 24,000 years ago.

Going on a very speculative limb here, it's possible that there was an arc of Neanderthal "settlements" that stretched up the Danube from the Middle East to Brittany, across the landbridge that crossed the English Channel, and that extended as far west as Ireland. The repeated ice ages and thaws forced the Neanderthals to alternately expand outward or become isolated at various times. As the diapora begun from East Africa up through the Middle East to the Indus Valley, the Neanderthal intermarried in the highlands (where their cold tolerance gave them a distinct advantage) but were defeated in the lowlands. Neanderthal hybrids would have the best of both worlds, physical strength and the deep thought processes that came from the semi-conscious Neanderthals (in the sense that they had comparatively little time sense), and ended up forming pockets in Sarmatia, Etruria, Northern Israel, possibly Mycenae in Greece, Spanish Basque, Brittany and Prydhain.

However, as the Earth warmed (due in part to increasing agricultural outgassing and slash and burn farming), even these descendants of the Neanderthals faced increased pressures. There's some evidence that both the TRPM1 and DRD4 7R genes are declining in the population overall, and may in fact become extinct within the next 200-300 years. On the other hand, the rise of "Silicon" outposts may be reversing this trend somewhat. The rise in Aspergers and high functioning autism (which may in fact be a manifestation of Neanderthal like mental characteristics) in areas like San Francisco, Seattle and Boston coincide handily with the growth in "Geek" populations there - software developers, engineers, artists and so forth. It would be worth doing a genetic study to compare the prevalence of DRD4 7R in those populations as compared to elsewhere in the US.

So, it may very well be that my dislike of offices stems from my Neanderthal heritage. Or it may not, but it's an interesting line of speculation nonetheless.

October 8, 2012

Notes from my Phone #1

Student in India using iPad at school.
After that last megapost, I decided to do a much shorter one on my phone, primarily to test out the Blogger mobile interface. Overall, it seems to work, using an external portable bluetooth keyboard to enter in content.

Today is the start of my post ACA career. I left on a high note, I believe, and am putting the final touches on a business process engine in MarkLogic that should both make things a lot easier for the application developers and make it possible to build workflow management pipelines without too much effort. This works by recognizing that a great deal of "enterprise bus processing" can be expressed as a series of transformations and validations on a given internal document as it moves from one state to the next.
ESBs work on the principle of moving documents around, but I'm coming to realize that by looking at "resources" (internal, abstract documents) as being in a workflow state as part of a workflow graph, you generally don't need to move the document around at all. 

I'm still pulling the pieces together, but if I work it right, I could end up replacing a lot of Java code, Of course, that may not necessarily set well with the people WRITING that Java code,
Interesting piece in the Washington Post this morning, talking of things technical. It seems that kids under the age of ten don't know what a mouse is.  Schools have been scrapping large, bulky desktops for pads with specialized "desktops" for a few years now - not only are they cheaper, but they are usually easy to locate, provide a more intuitive interface, and can go home with students in order to facilitate homework.

Discussions at Norwescon and on online educational forums seem to support this - we're in the midst of a computing revolution in the schools, Haven't investigated this area much yet, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if there's a tablet equivalent of Hypercard waiting in the wings, if not already deployed, More on this soon.

October 7, 2012

So What Comes After the American Dream?

A blacksmith, from the
Assassin's Creed video game..

The American Dream is a remarkably powerful piece of mythology. Stated simple, it is the belief that "If you work hard, if you play by the rules, you will succeed in America." It is so embedded in our national psyche that few in this country, until recently, have questioned it, despite the fact that it actually runs counter to history not only here but abroad as well.

"Work hard and work within the system, and you will be rewarded for your efforts" also sounds like the foundation of modern Capitalism, but again, it is a truism that gets remarkably slippery once you actually try to apply it to the real world. We live in a country where the differences in pay between the wealthiest and the poorest - or even the wealthiest and most of the inhabitants of the country, is astronomical - quite literally. The median income in the United States is about $50,000 for a person with a bachelor's degree. The total wealth of that same person in terms of house, vehicle, investments, etc. as well as income is roughly double that, or $100,000.

The upper echelons of the uber-wealthy start at about the $1 billion dollar mark. To put that into perspective, that's $1,000,000,000 or five orders of magnitude higher. That means that, before taxes, an individual would have to work 100,000 years to get to the same level of income. Given that this is roughly how long as it has taken for human beings to go from living in caves and fighting off saber tooth lions to today, the idea that one can in fact get to be a billionaire by working hard is actually pretty laughable.

You pay taxes. You buy food that continues to rise in price, to the extent that cereal manufactures are faced with the very real problem of being able to get bulkier cereals into their boxes because they have been shaped too thin in order to hide how little you're actually getting. You have to pay for gas that seems to be permanently ensconced around $4 a gallon. You put your kids through school, and then the racket called "higher education". By the end of the year, if you're lucky, you've socked away maybe a few thousand dollars in your savings account, which gets negative real interest (you pay to save).

So, once you do the math and look at how long it will take to save up that first billion, you're now in the 100 million year category. The dinosaurs were still around at that point, and would be for another 40 million years or so, and the continents were still reeling from just having split apart a few billion years before. Now, chances are pretty good that you will drop dead from overwork long before you even get to that first $100K in the bank that's "discretionary savings" - what used to be called wealth.

So, suppose that you don't have those wealthy parents, you have to win at the "lottery economy". What's that? The lottery economy is actually pretty close to the economy we have today. In the simplest example, you buy a ticket and defying all odds, you win the lottery. However, a more subtle form of this is in the entertainment world. You get blessed with a handsome face and hot body (or a pretty face and attractive curves), and then put some work into making those attributes pay off. Or you have a good singing voice, or you play ball very well, or you have a strong sense for acting, or you otherwise have physical attributes and natural talents that can, with a lot of work and effort, get you considered for the big time.

Yet that "big time" is still a lottery. For every supermodel there are 10,000 young women who are as beautiful but didn't have the right qualities for a particular ad campaign or casting call. For every scientific discovery, there are thousands of scientists who struggled with the same problem but didn't have the right samples. For every Michael Jordan, there are thousands of young men who for one reason or another never quite hit the big break.

Now, that doesn't mean that hard work is not important here - it absolutely is. You are trying to prove yourself better than millions of other people, and to do that you have to work hard. Yet ultimately, there is almost invariably a lucky break involved that catapults you out of the unwashed ranks into the ranks of superstardom (and almost always to the very lowest levels even there).

This holds as true in business as it does elsewhere, perhaps more so. If Bill Gates had started Microsoft in 1990, Microsoft would likely be nowhere as successful as it eventually became. Google survived by changing the paradigm of search on the web. Apple did not build the first personal computer, only the  first such computer that was designed as a consumer product. In order for these companies to have done as well as they did (how's that Facebook stock doing for ya?) they had to fill a niche that existed for a very tiny window of time, then had to be ruthless in keeping others from that niche long enough to survive.

A secretary working for Microsoft in 1980 would be a millionaire today if she'd been granted stock options (as most were at that time). Did she materially make a difference in the future of the company? Probably to the extent that any secretary would have. That secretary probably was less important in the scheme of things than a systems programmer twenty years later, but by that time, Microsoft's stocks had plateau'd. The opportunity had passed.

This is especially true for investors, which is the ultimate lottery. How many times have you heard "If I had only bought Apple or Starbucks or Microsoft at the beginning, I'd be rich right now!"? Yet, the reality is that most people have comparatively little discretionary income. A few people get rich by lucking out - picking the right stock at the right time. In most cases, though, the very wealthy get even richer by hiring people to invest in a lot of stocks that might in fact take off, then selling off those that fail early. To do that, you need money to be able to absorb losses while waiting for the hits to happen. You can still lose everything, but because you have the luxury of diversifying your portfolio, in general losses in one area are typically offset by significant gains in another - and if you can then right off those losses as tax write-offs, you're actually not losing all that much money.

There's a certain threshold that separates the wealthy from everyone else. The exact value varies, but currently it's around $10 million dollars. Below $10 million dollars, the drag on wealth from various factor in the economy makes it harder to accumulate wealth. Above $10 million dollars, wealth becomes self-perpetuating - so long as your wealth is reasonably well managed, it will grow with very little risk to the wealthy, because debt works in the person's favor.

In that respect, it's worth thinking about the lottery economy as being a rocket, and that threshold is escape velocity. Any rocket that goes up will ultimately come down, though it may be in a high enough orbit that it will take a while to escape the gravitational well of the earth. However, once it hits escape velocity, the force of gravity acting on it is not enough to pull it into a parabolic orbit, so it is able to go to the moon or be shot out into the solar system.

In some cases, this can be a multistage effort - even if one generation doesn't quite hit that threshold, a success (against less gravity) for the next generation may very well do it. Thus, to become wealthy takes a lot of work and a lot of luck, but to stay wealthy requires simply not doing stupid things, once you're above that magical threshold.

Not doing something stupid unfortunately usually involves not doing something criminal, and that's where things get problematic. Wealth can be used to buy power. That's not a new thought - the wealthy were buying governorships in Rome and were probably buying Ziggurat Rulerships in Mesopotamia. It's usually not hard to find some poor, hard working civil servant that could use a little extra to buy that nice house in the country, and with enough money, you can buy votes or even better vote counts (usually by "helping" your favorite candidate into the office of his choice, at which point he becomes YOUR congressman or member of parliament).

Yet there's also been a fairly long time understanding in the fact that businessmen in general make for poor civic leaders, for the simple reason that being a civic leader means insuring the welfare of the people over who you govern, while being a businessman involves eliciting the maximum amount of profit from an investment. These usually are antithetical goals, because maximizing profits typically requires that you are exploiting all of the available resources within a region as quickly as possible, without necessarily worrying about long term viability, while governing a region is essentially attempting to make it sustainable over the long term, even at the potential cost of short term profits.

Civic institutions and financial institutions move with different frequencies, and have throughout history. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, the church generally played the role of the banker, attempting to gain political power large through control of monetary policy, and political leaders tended to move closer to or farther from the church based largely upon the state's need for money - to pay for troops, supplies, equipment, horses, and weaponry. Both Germany and England broke from the Catholic church in great part because the rise of mercantile trade significantly enriched these country's coffers, and as such they were able to reduce the degree to which papal "strings" could override local autonomy. 

However, one consequence of that was that the mercantilists themselves found themselves in the position the church had occupied - providing money to the state for investment in exploration and colonization in return for increasing political power. In England, a cash hungry monarchy made it possible to buy and sell lordships, and many a minor lord, left with the upkeep of the moldering family mansion and increasingly losing the rents due from tenants on those lands as mobility picked up, were perfectly happy to sell their inherited titles to the highest bidder. Similarly many extinct lineages were bought up (usually with some folderol about service to the crown) by wealthy mercantilists who then used the political power to further their own business agendas.

Civic administrators generally are not interested in empires. They've developed a working equilibrium with the people under their care, and they know the cash inputs and outputs in their domain. Empires are for mercantilists who are seeking to exploit cheap materials and potentially cheap labor in order to maximize profits, and in some cases to build captive markets. When mercantilist pressures are strong (when the merchant class has largely taken control of the political class) you end up with periods of exploration, wars, exploitation and schism.

The problem with the "American Dream", is that it is dependent upon a highly mercantile state where its client states standards of living are farthest apart. As those client states dry up (or become more autonomous), the empire weakens. Resources that had essentially been subsidized due to the high differential between extraction costs and standards of living of the client vs. imperial states begin to become more expensive as the resources get used up and the standards of living equalize, and this in turn manifests as a diminishing standard of living in the host. 

One way of thinking about this is to consider that a business started in 1950, if it manages to survive to 1980, would likely have generated huge dividends over its lifespan. The same business, however, started in 1980, would generate far smaller dividends, accounting for inflation. Most business started in 2010 will likely generate comparatively little in the way of earnings over its lifetime, likely enough to pay for the wages of its employees and materials, but with razor thin profits. This is primarily due to the fact that for most people, discretionary income has diminished as the influence of empire has dropped.

The mercantile class is not immune to this - indeed, they are directly impacted by this. In times past, this typically ends up in an attempt to more directly control the political class in order to continue to steer government policy their way. However, while when standards of living are generally high and the labor class participates in the benefits of the wealth pump that is part and parcel of empire, when standards of living drop for the labor class, resistance builds up to the inequal distribution that tensions rise. In this case, the mercantile class overreaches and attempts to take control of the state directly. This is happening today in Greece, Italy, Spain and elsewhere in Europe, and was one of the big drivers of the Jasmine Spring in 2012 as well as the Occupy movements in the US and elsewhere.

At this stage, the American Dream is dead. There are an insufficient number of "niches" or opportunities for a startup company to grow, and this in turn means that ascending into the lower realms of the wealthy occurs only by "lottery", with that lottery happening less and less often. The wealthy in turn, realizing that their wealth is in danger, start moving it (and themselves) out of the country, away from the political class, in a move very reminiscent of the church during the Reformation. The political class, which derives it's power either directly or indirectly from the people, begins to turn what had been previously "legal" activities (legal in the sense that the financial class had managed to get protections enshrined in law) into "illegal" ones, in order to prevent abuses happening in the future.

Like most systems, empires do not die all at once. There is usually an overshoot period, where the resource pump is beginning to dry up - in the US this happened around 1971, when the US was no longer able to rely upon its internal energy and resource stores and so begin importing oil, as well as implicitly pulling out of the Bretton Woods agreements of the mid 1940s. American oil companies had already managed to control many of the major oil producing countries of the world, but one by one these countries have been nationalizing their oil production. Standards of living for the labor and professional classes peaked and began to decline even as the standard of living for the rentier or mercantile classes continued to rise all starting around the same period.

Global oil production peaked in 2005, and has been sitting on a plateau ever since. New oil discoveries are still being made, but the quality of those discoveries is declining, and the cost of exploiting them is rising to a point where there is an insufficient profit motive to be gained. What's more is that at a certain price point, oil becomes too expensive in a deflationary environment for certain levels of economic activity to occur, and so the economy shifts to a lower economic state. Currently economic activity is roughly on par to where it was in 1992, despite a significantly higher population, and there are indications that unless the economy is radically realigned, it will enter back into recession.

The mercantile class is not uniform. At any given time, there is usually an established "old money" class and an emergent "new money" class. The old money was once new money - years or generations ago, the people in this class took advantage of an emerging niche in order to catapult themselves up from the labor class. In this case, that original class emerged in the 1930s, 40s and 50s in the petroleum, chemical processing, munitions, aviation, transportation, real estate and insurance finance industries, all areas that had ties either to supporting the troops during World War II or enabling the buildup of the suburban landscape as the troops were coming home. This was also the period of biggest buildup for the Christian evangelical movement, which can be thought of as Big Religion. These are all empire building industries.

The new money of the mercantile class consists primarily of those industries that are related to information technology and dealing with the consequences of the old money industry - information technology, mobile communication, alternative energy, non-petroleum oriented transportation, biomedical research, nano-materials engineering, as well as alternative publishing and the Internet. These rely upon the complexity of the previous industries, but increasingly are trying to break those dependencies, and this delinking will only increase over time (the primary dependency increasingly is upon rare earths, which may be a critical weakness of these techs).

What differentiates the two is that each ultimately has to do with how the economy is structured. Much of the economy of today is still built around the command and control structures that emulated the military structures that soldiers returning from war were most familiar with, an economy in which labor was at the bottom under a pyramid of increasingly well paid supervisors, managers, vice presidents and CEOs. The person at the top was the equivalent of a four star general. The new money economy, however, is far more distributed, with fewer layers of managers, increasingly with creatives (designers, engineers, artists, writers, programmers, etc.) interacting as separate contracting entities, and consequently far smaller. A lot of management is mediated electronically, and wealth usually tends to be distributed as shares in ventures.

This model requires fewer people - not just slightly fewer, but significantly fewer, and those fewer people generally need to be more competent in their areas of specialty. This doesn't just hold true in software companies - new era automotive production requires far fewer shop workers and smaller facilities, new era energy companies are focused on localized energy production solutions, new era biomedical firms typically have a very small footprint. 3D printers will turn manufacturing into a just in time process, creating only those items that are needed at a given time, which means that the huge wastage that is typical of the old era manufacturing and production ceases to be a problem.

Unfortunately, while this is good in terms of its impact on the planet, it's impact upon the rest of society is not so beneficial, at least in the short term. The new model takes far less capital investment, which means that the velocity of money is slower. There are fewer entry points for unskilled and semi-skilled labor – in the 1960s, it was not uncommon for a career at a big corporation to start in the mailroom. Today, there's no mailroom. Because of the lower capital investment requirements and instantaneous communication capabilities, it is also increasingly common for countries that never made the large "industrial" stage investments to leapfrog countries that did by adopting new technology and building up competence with an Internet connection and mobile computers.

For those within the new model economy, those who succeed are those who stay competent in edge technologies – the expertise you acquired from previous jobs is useful to help establish context, but if you're not constantly learning, you're road kill. However, for many in the old model economy, this is antithetical to the way they learned you learned to do business. A significant portion of the old model economy is based upon management, which becomes increasingly obsolete (you need a thin layer of management, but not the layers upon layers that characterize most Fortune 500 companies). Creatives occupy a fairly minor part of the whole process, and are usually at a low mid-tier of the corporate pyramid, while manufacturing workers are at the bottom.

In a new model economy, manufacturing workers often overlap with creatives, and management exists primarily to manage financing, rather than managing production. Increasingly that funding is crowd sourced, especially for entertainment, software, and other soft products. As 3D printers and similar tech comes into play, however, that may very well change ("Seeking investors to put together line of specialized computerware vests, seeking total investment of $40,000, return at 7%"). Once the initial investment is made (designing the requisite software) then total costs come down to materials costs and shipping. You would probably see a few big "custom manufacturies" that would specialize in economy of scale work with various software driven models, but overall most manufacturing would be component integrators (a model that's already used for computer and mobile device development).

Again, however, one of the big issues that arises here is that such custom manufacturies will not employ a lot of people, and the people they do employ will not be "laborers" in the sense used in the twentieth century, but rather "artisans" – creatives and designers for the most part, or technical maintenance service people intended to keep the manufacturies themselves running.

This is a huge disconnect right now, because many of the people that are currently out of work were people that were in the FIRE sector – finance, insurance and real estate in the 2000s.
These jobs are not coming back for years, if not decades. Management jobs are going away (and have gone away), and the ones that remain will pay less and be far less powerful. Sales jobs are also going away (though marketing will remain, ironically). Accounting jobs have been disappearing for years, as these functions have moved from pushing paper around to moving electronic documents through electronic systems in the "cloud".

I see other areas where jobs are disappearing not because they are no longer necessary, but because they are moving outside of contemporary established boundaries. One of the most obvious is teachers. Teachers are critical in an information oriented society, yet if you pick up any newspaper (or more likely read news on the Internet) there seems to be a cultural war on teachers. Part of our society feels that teachers should only be teaching the basics - readin', writin' and 'rithmatic, and that they should not be teaching anything controversial (history, most forms of science, computers are suspect, etc. - in short, anything that questions the validity of the bible, the manifest destiny narrative of American history, or even critical reasoning). Another part believes that the prevailing narrative is racist and sexist, that too much emphasis is placed on the "basics" and that grading and being critical of students will only stunt the development of their self-esteem. Neither wants to pay for it.

For the most part teachers themselves face rigid curricula, low salaries, limited or non-existent expectation of tenure, high student-teacher ratios, critical parents, expensive certifications, and long days on their feet. Given the crap that they endure, it is perhaps not surprising that many burn out quickly, leaving only either the most idealistic or the least competent over time. 

It's my expectation that education is on the cusp of both a collapse and a revolution. More school districts are shifting to a magnet school approach where different schools are set up with a focus on different areas or disciplines. One school may focus on mathematics and science, another on art, a third on ecological studies, others on literary careers. At the same time, high schools and even middle schools are being structured more like community colleges, relaxing to a certain extent the requirements that a person must have a Master's degree to teach (though they may be supervised by another who does) and treating teaching less as a formal career and more as a chance for people with experience to teach others   about that experience. Put another way - I think the career of "teacher" itself is going away, perhaps in favor of a concept that the Japanese seem to have understood a while ago: Sensei.

A sensei (which translates as both "master" and "teacher") is someone who has achieved a high degree of experience and is now passing that experience along to their pupils. The sensei has more control than a teacher does - they can set their own curricula and can determine success and failure criteria, and can determine when a student succeeds or fails at that criteria. Personally it would make sense for the sensei to also determine when a pupil moves to the next level, and possibly may work with a group of students over the course of the student's tenure at the school.

This will likely occur in the most progressive school districts first, and may become a facet of private instruction as well. I'm not a fan of private schools in general, but I will readily acknowledge that they can act as laboratories for testing such theories of education (magnet schools are another). Similarly, the increasingly confirmed realization that there are in fact several learning styles and that different students respond more or less effectively to each style in consistent ways is pointing towards schooling based less on topic and more on approach - visual and aural learners may best go a more traditional route, tactile and kinetic learners may be more oriented towards a hands on or physical approach, while autodydactic learners may actually set their own curriculum and goals in conjunction with a sensei who acts more as a guide in that respect.

This could end up absorbing a lot of people who have been otherwise displaced job-wise, especially those later in their careers, and also provides a means for transmission of skills, values, and standards that currently doesn't exist. It may also go a long way towards providing a certain degree of fulfillment for the sensei - in creating "professional teachers" our society has robbed itself of the opportunity for people to pass on the knowledge they've learned, something that I think is an invaluable part of the cycle of life. But it does require that we seriously re-evaluate our current command and control educational system and recognize that it is not meeting the needs of anyone.

Another area where I think we'll see a revival is in the "trades", less from the standpoint of construction and more from the standpoint of maintenance and increasingly "deconstruction". The housing collapse caused a temporary glut of tradesmen on the market, but one consequence of the increasingly iliquid economy is that people are generally not moving around as much, staying in their houses longer, and consequently needing more support for plumbing, electrical work and housing extensions. In at least informal surveys I've conducted, most tradespeople have more than enough work now, and there's increasingly shortages of skilled tradespeople in some areas (Mike Rowe, of Discovery Channels' Dirty Jobs, has found this as well, to the extent that he's begun promoting the warning that we have too few people entering into the "dirty jobs" to replace those that are now retiring). Similarly, the "deconstruction" or salvage business is increasingly booming as houses and commercial real estate is being decommissioned and "unbuilt".

Similarly, I think that you're beginning to see the revival of many apparently extinct professions - from iron smithing to dressmaking (cosplay) to customized cooking and baking. These are boutique professions right now targeting a niche market that is too small, too quirky or too esoteric for large companies, but nonetheless has a demand. The irony is that while these items may be priced higher than mass produced goods, as global resource demands put pressures on extended supply chains, such artisan products may actually end up becoming more affordable than less customized ones. 

So, to wrap up a long essay, what does come after the American Dream? Perhaps something more sane. The dream of growth has ended. Already businesses are restructuring away from the massive military juggernaut corporations to far more ephemeral virtual companies, the サラリーマン or Sarariman (the Japanese transliteration of "salaryman") has gone from being the norm to being a quaint reminder of another time, and many of the jobs that were dependent upon economic growth and empire wealth pumps are going away.

In a way, I'm not really shedding many tears for those jobs - they were high stress, dehumanizing, politically poisonous and ultimately harmful. The new economy model jobs are not in general as lucrative for a few, but may ultimately provide a far more livable wage for many. They will force a change in the way that we account for the total lifecycle cost of a manufactured good or service, will likely reduce the amount of waste we are producing in order to "mass-produce", and overall will be more geared towards sustaining the economy rather than growing it. As with any large scale societal changes it will take time, and there will be a lot of resistance from the existing stakeholders. However, resource limitations, demographics, and the general vectors of the global economy ultimately are all aligned against the status quo remaining such.

Perhaps the new dream should be this: "I lived my life content, improved the lives of others, taught what I knew, and leave the world in better shape than I found it." I can live with that. 

October 6, 2012

Time and Introversion

Today's my decompression day. I have learned, over the years, how to be "on" - how to interact with people, get things done, appear (hopefully) professional and competent and even navigate political minefields, but I can't do it for extended periods of time without needing to periodically decompress or else I go into stress overload.

Decompression is a quiet day, possibly at a coffeeshop, focusing on writing or drawing or just catching up on the news. It's not a vacation - there's little travel involved (if I can possibly help it), I'm not going off to a museum or a movie or some event, because in general in all of those I have to deal with people, have to work to someone else's agenda, and always have to be conscious of budget and time, neither of which I have in abundance.

Perhaps that's what lies at the heart of introversion. The extrovert is VERY conscious, if by conscious you mean aware of the passing of time. Most extroverts that I know have their lives scheduled to an extreme, they get bored easily, and overall they are impatient - they can hear the ticking of the clock and hate "wasting time" or waiting. 

The introvert on the other hand is disconnected from time. She (just to keep pronouns clear) focuses on the task at hand, the book being read (or written), the creation of the drawing on the page, the encoded sky castle in her mind. Time ... jumps ... 8:15 ... 10:45 ... 3:15 already? 

The extrovert wants to know exactly how long a task will take, down to the minute if possible. The introvert will tell him that it will take as long as it takes, not a moment less. To the introvert, this is a reasonable statement ... to the extrovert it is an affront, because he cannot conceive that someone would not know going in exactly how long something will take to do, and therefore the introvert is being impudent.

We live in an extroverted world, with the corporation perhaps the ultimate extroverted edifice. In a corporation, the primary task is coordination - most meetings exist not to design but to review, to communicate to managers the information necessary to make a decision. In a dysfunctional corporation (which seems to be the norm) the process of actual design and creation are largely peripheral, and increasingly are done by external entities - freelancers, contractors, consultants - those that can disengage from the endless rounds of meetings and political posturing to actually get something done. 

Since the overwhelming bulk of creatives are introverts, this means that over time introverts get pushed farther and farther from the center of power and decision making. Yet the impact of this is that introverts get excluded from the ranks of power, or if they manage to push themselves into the fray, are most often overwhelmed (and consequently excluded) by their louder, more impulsive, more extroverted colleagues. This is probably why so many corporations seem to be so shallow - there are few deep thinkers there, few people actually taking the long perspective and working towards insuring that what is created will survive beyond the next quarter.

Over time, I think this may spell the ruin of corporate capitalism. Already, the introverts are withdrawing, finding their own kind, in many cases preparing for this event. Trying to find a culture that is more timeless, less fixated upon the clock and more upon the task at hand, one attuned to the natural rhythms of the world, not the vibrations of cesium atoms by a ruby laser. Trying, perhaps, to become human again.

September 1, 2012

We Buried Grandmother Treewalker Today

We buried Grandmother Treewalker near the roots of the Arcology, an area that's become known as the Faerie Mound because it resembles the burial mounds of the early British peoples. Her grave plaque is made not of stone but of wood, a Celtic pentacle carved into the wood itself that in time will grow out again. As I wandered along the roots, I saw other such memorials - Christian crosses, Pagan pentacles, Stars of David, the Taoist Wheel and Crescent Moon and Stars, some like my grandmother's light tan wood marker where the wood had most recently been cut, others old enough that the tree had shaped the symbols into a new layer of bark. More than a few of the newer markers had a stylized iterated fractal tree as their symbol of choice - the People of the Trees. That described us of the Arc very well.
Grandmother Treewalker had been born a century before, more or less. and though she had been failing for some time, she would still talk in her thin, cracking voice about the world when she was a child to me and Ilise, the two youngest of her great grand-daughters. It was a strange world, one filled with great wonders and even greater horrors, and for all that some of it sounded like magick we were all of us taught from when we were in diapers that magick comes at a great price, and the more powerful the magick, the more awful that price. Slipping past Grandmother's fresh grave, I followed the wood and earthen wall widdershins upward in a spiral, the great tree of the mound having been shaped by countless hands so that the roots of the ancient Douglas Fir formed a natural staircase following a spiral to the top, clutching the bottled ink made from squid ink and carbon black, my crow quill pen and penknife, and the first Journal that is mine and mine alone, as Grandma Treewalker bade me.
My name is Alanna Selkirk Treewalker, and I am the Chronicler of the Seatlc Arc of the People of the Trees, as was my Grandmother, Kirstin Atlee Treewalker, before me. There is, within the Arc, a library with her books and those of her predecessor, as well as histories, chronicles, and scientific works that could be salvaged, but she, like I, preferred to actually write out here in the open, overlooking the Pujiet Sond. At the top of the mound, a branch of the great tree had been cozened into becoming a table for her to write  on, and many hours did I sit there once she became too old and blind to write and transcribe her words, or later, when she would sit mute, would capture those memories or impressions that I had in her journals. Today, I would start to write my own chapter.
Once, my grandmother said, Seatlc was not an island as it is today, but rather was an isthmus that trapped a lake, with only single channel between the lake and the Sond. Three million people lived in this area, a number I can scarce credit - there are four hundred of us in the Seatlc Arc, another three hundred in the Tekoma Arc, a little more than two hundred in the RedMound Arc. The moot we had when I was twelve (and my twin sister was first pledged to the son of the Healer of the Tekoma Arc) brought eleven hundred people together, and it seemed frightening to see so many gathered in one place and time. Grandmother believed that there were less than one million people in the world today, though she could no longer be sure. There were eight thousand million when she was born, though surely this was an exaggeration.
But I wander. Once there was a great peoples called the Merkantl in a land that stretched so far that one could walk for weeks from our shores before getting to the other side. They built great cities, like the city that would eventually become the ruins of Seatlc that I could see even here from the mound - a few of its buildings rusted towers of iron emerging from the Sond itself to the West. The people that built this empire were proud and arrogant and wealthy, their power coming from digging out an oil from the earth that caused their carts to run without horses, allowed them to fly vast metal birds through the sky, and made it possible for them to carry foods from the other side of the world on boats far larger than the Arc. Yet the more they used that earth oil, the hotter the air itself became, and the more poisoned the land, and even as they used it they never questioned that perhaps, one day, the magic oil would run out.
As a child, grandmother Treewalker witnessed the sundering of the Merkantl into many smaller nations - the Fedrated Republics of Markantl, Applesha, the Merkan Union, Tekasis, many others, as well as the nation of Cascadia, of which Seatlc and Fratsisko were a part. And even then they warred upon themselves, even as the ships stopped traveling for fear of being sunk, even as the metal birds were grounded for lack of fuel, even as people abandoned their magical carts for lighter ones that horses could pull. The sky was filled with dirigibles and balloons that took less far less fuel and were easier to make, yet even then the wars went on, and every year the glaciers melted away and the seas rose. At first they built retaining walls and pumps, but when my grandmother was a young mother herself, the weight of the new water and the warming seas caused gasses into the sea to start bubbling, and one day, a part of the contintental shelf off the aushengtn coast gave way, and created a wave more than 200 feet high. The wave scoured away Vancufr to the North, bounced, and rolled into the Puigit Sond, submerging much of Seattl, forming a channel that cut Seattle off from the mainland, and destroying much of Limpia and Tekoma the south.
Yet still the Earth was not done with my forebears, for the earthquake that caused the wave was enough to awaken Mother Rani, the volcano to the south. It exploded, sending hot rock, mud and lava North and East, destroying what was left of Tekoma and the cities between them and what would become the Red Mound peoples. Had this happened earlier, when the magic still existed, grandmother believed that the cities could have rebuilt, but the world was fallen on hard times, and there was little help. Many succumbed to illness as the magic medicines that had kept diseases at bay ran out, and as those who could secure more chose instead to use them as a source of power over others. Soon people were starving as the crops parched year after year and the boats and carts stopped coming, and many more died. Others left - going south and east and north, and in time most were never heard from again. This had been made worse by the genetically modified crops that "expired" without producing viable seeds and polluting the seed stocks, or that produced poisonous crops that produced gorgeous grains, fruits and vegetables that were lethal when consumed over months. 
Yet for all this devastation our corner of the world was spared much of the worst of what happened elsewhere - as civilization collapsed, those who had benefited most from it had for a while managed to keep an island of technology around them, but in the end when the infrastructure collapsed far enough that maintaining this island became impossible, they were in many ways the least prepared for what would happen next. For a while, society went through a succession of "strongmen" - warlords, often from the guards of these wealthy men and women who turned on their employers and killed the burgeoning aristocracy to become the next logical successors. Without a responsibility to society, these strongmen abandoned the nuclear power plants that had been sitting idle for lack of radioactive fuel, letting the hundreds of thousands of rods of waste rods go unattended until eventually their pools evaporated, their cladding were eaten away, and they became nuclear waste zones that poisoned the land for millions of square miles.
People tried to adapt, but change was happening faster than even humans could adapt to. Grandmother said that for a while things had begun looking up - society had actually fallen faster than the available energy, and there was something of a rebound, one built upon the remnants of the original technology and culture - but this was a temporary reprieve because the atmosphere was still getting hotter, though at a slower rate than before. Populations were pushed north, ecosystems began collapsing in earnest as heat and storms began to take their toll, and the rise of the oceans, almost imperceptible in the twentieth century, was now well on its way to levels rising at a dozen feet a year. The toxic mix of submerging cities hit fragile oceanic fish stocks, and for a while, significant portions of the ocean could support little more than jellyfish and algae. In time, most ships still plying the oceans were built of wood, because the deep draft tankers and container shifts could no longer find ports, and the global economy collapsed as the highways of the sea went empty. Seatlc had been a major port city, but after the devastation of Mother Rani and the flood, rebuilding the ports was no longer important (though we would eventually rebuild the ports for our own purposes).
Ironically, this may have saved the few who remained here. Resource wars - especially wars for untainted water - raged across much of the world. Rising sea levels contaminated freshwater stocks everywhere, while sufficiently high aquifers that had been drained decades before did not have enough time to refill, and the technology for desalting water disappeared along with all too much else. The heat and overfarming, in turn, caused the collapse of the Merkantl Midwest as well as places like the Ukirane in Russkva. While this was a problem in the Puijit Sond as well, it had always had a different ecology than much of the rest of the world, and was primarily hit by a barrage of heavy rains for years on end coming off Nippon. Yet for all that, life had become hard, and the population collapsed.
In time, the weather finally changed, reaching a tipping point where there was no longer enough of a stimulus coming from human activity to force heat into the atmosphere. Storms had been building close to the end of that period, until eventually much of the Northern Hemisphere was under a continuous, long lived storm.  For months upon months it rained and the winds howled sometimes in excess of two hundred miles an hour, as energy that had been building up high in the atmosphere began to reground itself. Cities that had survived the ravages of excess heat, rising sea levels, salinated water and neglect collapsed in these near permanent hurricanes, and in many places the people who survived did so only by burrowing down in the lea sides of mountains, or by adapting to the environment. 
In Seatlc, the response to the storms was the construction of the first arcology. Because most of the Pujuit Sond sat between two mountain ranges, the storms were considerably tempered. The earliest of the arcologists built a living city from trees shaped by the last magic of the jentists, ones that were wide-based with deep roots and able to be shaped into dwellings that could absorb the worst of the winds, and that, still living, were able to withstand the ravages of fresh and salt-water. These were built into the hills of the island that had once been an isthmus, and extended down to far enough underground to use the island as a natural filtration system. Around it other trees built up around the arcology, keeping it hidden, with the burial mind anchoring it on the south end. For a while, the Arcology was able to support a few thousand people, and similar arcologies were built into the earthen banks near the remnants of Red Mound, within the hardened mud and lava of the now quiescent Mother Rani, and along the foothills of the Limpic mountains, usually in the intervals between the major blows of the Great Storm.
When the Great Storm finally ended, little of the old world remained. People survived elsewhere - periodically we get small ships that by luck, hard work or miracle made it through the storm mostly intact, but the message the sea peoples bring is always the same - pockets of humanity has survived, but little of its civilization. I was born during the Great Storm, the world that my Grandmother spoke of is wondrous strange and terrible, but to me it is just a story. Still, even that story is not yet at an end - those from the North are reporting that it has begun to snow again in places that haven't seen snow in a century, snowing heavily, and the world is far cooler today than it was before the Great Storm. Grandmother told me that she thinks that the Great Storm was the correcting factor for not just a few hundred years of industrial development but more than twelve thousand years of human habitation keeping the world moving away from the sun actually undergoing a long term cooling trend, and that the response to that will be a new ice age.  This is a problem that my great grandchildren will face - already, we can see the glaciers forming in the far distance, and the mountains remain snow-covered even in summer, and every year winter has lasted long than the year before it.
Yet today it is pleasantly warm, and there is a gentle breeze coming from the south. From the Mound of the Dead beneath the Spirit Tree of the Arcology, I can see the fisherfolk gathering fish and shellfish, men and women alike wearing loincloths and little else, mothers with young babies suckling even as they gather the day's catch. Farther up island are the fields for growing berries, potatoes and wild rice, strains recovered from research seed banks and organic farms that had escaped the worst of the death seeds. We glean most of this by hand with simple tools that would have not been out of place 3,000 years before, and we are all to conscious of how fragile the world still is. The world goes on and we survive, chastened and more humble. 
I dip my pen into the dark brown ink, touch it to the hand-made rag paper, and begin to write.