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I’ve written elsewhere about how The Economist doesn’t understand climate change. In their science section and the occasional editorial they stress the need for massive and urgent action, but their thinking is not joined up. Their general editorial stance remains that economic growth is the greatest good, every new fossil fuel discovery is a boon, and that largely business-as-usual politics is either desirable or inevitable.

One passage from a recent special report on France demonstrates the chasm between their enthusiasms and what is necessary for a sustainable world:

The word “factory” does not do justice to Bugatti’s state-of-the-art production site in the shadow of the forest-clad Vosges mountains in eastern France. There is no grease or grime around the assembly line. The floor is a shimmering white gloss. The airy space feels more like a museum of modern art, gleaming eight-litre engines displayed like so many design exhibits. Workers wear white gloves, as if handling treasures. In fact, they are building the world’s fastest supercar.

A Milanese engineer, Ettore Bugatti, founded a car factory in this corner of France in 1909. Germany’s Volkswagen, which later bought the brand, chose Bugatti’s historic French site to develop the Veyron, a car designed to combine elegance and speed. The French factory turned out every one of these luxury record-breaking cars after their launch in 2005. This year Bugatti unveiled a successor, the Chiron, which pushes the limits of physics and sleek design further still. The car reaches 100km (62 miles) an hour in two-and-a-half seconds and has a starting price of €2.4m. Christophe Piochon, head of the French plant, compares the exquisite craftsmanship that goes into the construction of a Bugatti car to haute couture.

This schoolboy hard-on for a product that embodies everything that is putting humanity in peril is both telling and depressing. There’s a pretty strong case that nobody should be allowed to be rich enough to own a €2.4m car. Most people in that position are probably corporate executives, and there is little reason to believe they deserve it. It does not seem that the people who are given such lavish compensation produce that level of value for their employers, and even if they did it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should get to keep it for themselves.

Beyond the issues of economic inequality, there is the fundamental inappropriateness of the technology itself. Car racing is spectacularly pointless in itself, but a race track is essentially the only suitable venue for such a vehicle. Having people driving them around city streets as status symbols demonstrates much about what’s sick in our culture.

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I see enormous appeal in Google’s new advanced protection system for accounts. It requires a physical token to access your account, adds further screening of attachments, and has a much tougher account recovery process for anybody who legitimately loses access to their own account. It augments the security provided by their two-factor smartphone app by reducing the risk of someone using an attack against your phone as a way to steal the second factor.

Two problems are keeping me from signing up right away. First, it requires that you buy a Bluetooth token as well as a USB token. I much prefer to avoid wireless communications if possible, and I don’t want a delicate device that needs regular battery charging to carry around. The two tokens together cost about $50, and as an extra pain the Bluetooth token seems to be a pair to order via Amazon in Canada. Second, it forces you to access your account through Google’s Chrome browser, which seems unnecessarily restrictive and monopolistic.

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Astrology maddens me, especially when generally rational people treat is as harmless fun. Back in 2006, I said: “astrology is utter nonsense, and … human life in general would be better if everyone could completely and finally reject it as bunk”.

I just learned another way in which the practice goes beyond being a harmless form of entertainment. Not only have people with way too much power sometimes put credence in it (Ronald Reagan is a frightening example), but apparently having an “unfavourable astrological chart” is a sufficient impediment in the Indian marriage market as to justify specialist dating sites for those thus afflicted. Including horoscope details in matching algorithms is similarly questionable.

Richard Dawkins was right to note that “a constellation is of no more significance than a patch of curiously shaped damp on the bathroom ceiling” as each is “a miscellaneous set of stars all at different distances from us, which have no connection with each other except that they constitute a (meaningless) pattern when seen from a certain (not particularly special) place in the galaxy (here)”.

If people remain unable to internalize that, it doesn’t leave one with a lot of hope that we will do better on more important matters.

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There are some comparatively convincing arguments for why fossil fuel divestment can’t do much to limit the severity of climate change, at least in terms of the direct effects from institutions selling their shares.

One important one is that people buying and selling stocks, and the changing value of the stocks, doesn’t directly profit or harm the company involved. A secondary market in shares is necessary to make IPOs possible, but once a company has gone public, it raises the money for big new fossil fuel projects in other ways, such as borrowing from banks.

Another is that — while the proven reserves owned by companies like ExxonMobil are vast and can do considerable climate damage — sovereign countries have much larger reserves:

There are responses to these objectives, mainly in terms of how divestment is meant to gradually shift investor sentiment. Divestment is based on a financial as well as a moral case: if we really are going to control climate change, we can’t burn most of the world’s remaining coal, oil, and gas. As such, it makes no sense to develop big new projects, since we can’t even use all the resources in projects that have already been built. If it helps to spread that idea, divestment will have been worthwhile.

It might even help reduce the value of Saudi Aramco itself and the magnitude of its future investments, given that the firm is expected to be partly privatized in the near future.

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Seagulls

2017-10-19

in Photo of the day

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I suppose it’s at least as old as the letter, but communications anxiety (COMANX) has some notable features. Whenever one feels it is possible that a psychologically difficult message will arrive via any medium — whether it’s by mail, telephone, email, text, or Facebook — it sets up the mind to be constantly apprehensive. Every moment of time that passes is either one where such a message is received, or where you’re still waiting.

One option, which I think is frequently healthy, is to limit the time periods in which electronic messages can become known to you, especially when it comes to asynchronous forms of communication like email and Facebook. There is still anxiety associated with the knowledge of being disconnected and the apprehension of the waiting message queue, but to my mind it’s way less stressful than trying to do other things when a message could literally make itself known to you in a fraction of any passing second. (This is one reason why the ‘phone’ part of an iPhone is very stressful, and airplane mode is a blessing for the anxious.)

In the end, even going to live in the Burmese jungle (“You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”) is only a partial remedy to living in fear of the message that could come: the rejection, the admonishment, the confirmation of bad news, the doomed appeal for help.

As is so often the case in modern life, each of us is left with Margaret Atwood’s six options for dealing with the apocalypse: Protect Yourself, Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame, Bear Witness, and Go About Your Life.

When you decide to protect yourself, please ask: “At what cost to others?”

We can all destroy ourselves by abandoning self-care activities, but check mentally that your “partying” activities are mitigating rather than multiplying your stressors.

Blame can be important in two ways. One is for the historian, and it’s the eventual recognition that something which was done was a great evil. The other has the power to avert the evil if it is applied with speedy effectiveness. Using blame to control people is complicated and risky, you may harm them for no reason, and you may not make them behave as you wish.

Helping others is a universal good as far as I’m concerned, but you must be mindful about what is help and what isn’t and the limits of your understanding. The other night, I saw a raccoon up in a tree in the park north of Ontario’s legislature. A bunch of gawkers with lights and cameras were watching this raccoon and discussing what they ought to do to help it. This is a creature that lives on garbage, dodging terrifying bright-eyed fast-moving lethal monsters (cars), but which is nonetheless in no need of human help in a tree. Short version: don’t assume that what would seem like “help” to you in your imagined version of another being’s situation as definitely being the thing that should be done. Humility is important, especially in the apocalypse.

Bearing witness is inevitable, at least if you are emotionally sensitive enough to have any understanding of what I mean by communications anxiety. The day you start to catalog forms of anxiety is a bit of a watershed moment. Anything in your life that has led you to develop a sophisticated catalog system is probably something that will be important to you for as long as your consciousness holds together.

Go About Your Life: but how?

COMANX is a form of fear of the future, of what’s still in the darkness ahead of you. Trying to stay awake, eyes peeled, looking ahead will unmetaphorically and entirely really kill you until you die and very quickly. If anxiety is something present enough for you to categorize and you live in the modern world, you already have strategies for dealing with the challenges of constant connectivity through multiple means.

Aside to people currently worried about me: a flipside of our society’s attraction to what is happening right now can be an inability to have appropriate compassion for people describing events long-past. It seems urgent and pressing to you because it’s new information, but you shouldn’t necessarily dramatically reinterpret how you see a person or dramatically change your behaviour. It would be much better to find someone currently in distress and give them loving, compassionate, nurturing attention. (Not me please! I would prefer to have some space for a while.)

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