Pluralistic: 06 Jan 2021

Today's links

The WELL State of the World (permalink)

For 20 years, members of The WELL (the "Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link," an early, influential online community that I've been on since the late 1980s) ring in the new year with the STATE OF THE WORLD discussion, hosted by Jon Lebkowsky and Bruce Sterling, with a rotating cast of guest-hosts.

SOTW runs on the INKWELL forum, which is readable by the general public – not just those with a login. 2021's has been going since Jan 2 with this year's guest, Malka Older, an sf writer, sociologist and aid worker.

(Non-WELLbeings who want to post to the forum should email with the subject SOTW)

As ever, it's a rollicking, smart, eclectic discussion of a world in flux – and given the craziness of 2020, it's needed more than ever.

Sterling's opening salvo, is (as always), bracing: "The State of the World is best described as 'diseased.'"

"It interests me that the major change-drivers are illness and political upheaval. I've read a lot about earlier eras in which that was so, but the reflex of my contemporaries is that such matters should be subsumed by technological advance."

"Thinking about a list of terms that tell you the speaker is almost certainly bullshitting."

Smart city
Surveillance capitalism

Big Data
Digital Transformation

the Spotify of …the Netflix of …
Content is King
Neoliberalism ruined …
Disrupting the industry
Mobility As a Service
4th Industrial Revolution
Sustainable, Equitable, Inclusive
Machine Learning
Customer first Customer centric Customer experience

agile lean
Cloud as an Innovation Platform
Responsible AI
Edge Computing
Machine Learning
Quantum anything

I've just bookmarked the Inkwell link as part of my morning tab-group, as I do every year.

Food and Climate Change Without the Hot Air (permalink)

Back in 2009, I found the best technical book about climate change I've ever read: David McKay's SUSTAINABLE ENERGY WITHOUT THE HOT AIR:

McKay's book was a first for me: not a popular science book, but a popular engineering book, one that simply parameterized the way that we create and use energy, inviting the reader to draw their own conclusions about the tradeoffs we'd need to make to save our world.

McKay's figures included things like the total number of solar photons that strike the Earth, the total tide-stresses exerted by the moon, the maximum possible efficiency of a plane-shape cylinder through air, etc.

All of these represent the absolute best-case scenarios for various energy usage, production and storage problems, and anyone proposing a climate measure that exceeds these maximums is either ill-informed or actively lying.

That volume, with its lucid prose and superb data-visualizations, begat a whole series. In 2011, there was SUSTAINABLE MATERIALS WITH BOTH EYES OPEN by Julian Allwood and Jonathan Cullen.

SUSTAINABLE MATERIALS adopted McKay's axiom of focusing on making small changes to large causes, rather than large changes to small causes.

Thus it zeroed in on the role that concrete and aluminium production play in emissions, after showing that all other material production amounts to a rounding error when compared to these two factors.

2015 saw the publication of URBAN TRANSPORT WITHOUT THE HOT AIR, which adopts the same "small changes to big causes" approach by focusing on private automobiles (and the urban layouts they demand) as the major driver of emissions.

Author Steven Melia explores the potential – and limits – of buses, bikes, walking, rail, etc, and the role that planning plays in changing private automobile usage, and makes an excellent case that urban design is more important than transit links for reducing car usage.

It's been half a decade since that last HOT AIR book, and now, fantastically, we have a new volume in the series: Sarah Bridle's FOOD AND CLIMATE CHANGE WITHOUT THE HOT AIR.

Bridle's volume is an important addition to the series, and uses a subtler knife – rather than opening with the small change in a big thing, she instead sketches out the emissions associated with a variety of prepared meals, organized by breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner.

All of this is framed around the idea that each human on Earth must rapidly draw down their food emissions to no more than 3kg/day if we're to meet the 1.5'C global warming target.

Bridle tots up a cup of tea, an apple, bacon, a sandwich, a steak, fish and chips, etc, and shows how they fit into this picture. As the reader is drawn through this narrative, the inescapable logic of energy narrows down to an inexorable conclusion: we eat too many animals.

Even leaving aside all questions of animal cruelty and human health, there's no escaping the fact that cow and sheep products, including milk, cannot be central to our diets if our species is to survive.

Other meats – poultry, fish, and pork – are vastly more sustainable, but still must be drawn down in our daily eating in favor of plant-based diets (Bridle's very good on explaining how different methods of animal rearing have different emissions profiles).

Moreover, a huge fraction of our food emissions are the result of the inefficiencies of home cooking: heating up your whole oven to cook a potato or a ready-meal massively increases the emissions relative to the same food at a restaurant where many items are cooked at once.

Finally, waste is a huge contributor to emissions, and household kitchens are the worst culprits by far: while industrial food prep offcuts are sold off as animal feed, household waste (including massive volumes of spoiled food) might end up as compost, or worse, landfill.

Like the other HOT AIR authors, Bridle's clear, nonthreatening, technical language, brilliant data visualizations, and example grounded in our daily experience make this a powerful read.

For all its gentle, moderate language, it comes to a devastating conclusion: our species' survival depends on eating more plants, with more centrally (and efficiently) prepared meals.

As with the other HOT AIR books, we're reminded that climate adaptation means significant changes to our lives – changes as profound as the industrial revolution. Bridle devotes significant language to discussing the social factors involved in such a shift.

It's hard to imagine a better addition to the HOT AIR cannon: a volume that boils a complex, urgent issue into a clear, undeniable set of parameters with equally clear conclusions.

If you want to experiment with Bridle's findings and methods, she's got an excellent "climate stack calculator" that lets you quickly assess the emissions associated with different food.

There's also a free ebook edition of this book; go to whatever ebook store you use and you'll find a copy for $0.00 that you can "buy" and download.

(One more note before I close out: there's another HOT AIR volume, David Nutt's spectacular DRUGS POLICY WITHOUT THE HOT AIR, which had a new edition last year)

(I didn't include it above because while it is an unmissable, essential volume, it doesn't deal with climate change)

Mass court: "I agree" means something (permalink)

Arbitration was created to allow giant companies with equal bargaining power to settle disputes without incurring expensive court battles. So, when IBM and AT&T; struck a deal, they'd agree that instead of going to court, they'd hire a neutral person to decide who was right.

But in the 21st Century, a string of Supreme Court rulings have paved the way for "forced arbitration" – when a company tells its customers or workers that as a condition of doing business, they must give up all the legal protections that come with the right to sue.

Once you've been bound over to arbitration, a company can maim, cheat or murder you and your only recourse is to ask a corporate judge, on the company's payroll, to decide whether you are entitled to compensation.

You will not be surprised to learn that arbitrators overwhelmingly find in favor of the companies that pay their invoices.

We've experienced a quiet epidemic of binding arbitration. Your dentist or physiotherapist probably expects you to sign one. So does your kid's piano teacher. Your ISP. And, of course, your boss.

Corporate America have been plumbing the depths of this accountability-ducking get-out-of-court-free card for years, sneaking arbitration into terms of service and other documents no one ever, ever (ever) reads.

But, at last, we've found the bottom of this pit of despair. Massachusetts's highest court has ruled that a small-print notice that says, "By signing up you agree to the terms and conditions" does not constitute an agreement to arbitrate disputes.

The case concerns Christopher Kauders, who is blind and was illegally denied rides by Uber drivers. Uber's arbitration waiver forces riders to concede to the fiction that drivers are independent contractors, so Uber said Kauders needed to sue the drivers, not Uber.

The court rejected this theory because Uber didn't force Kauders to go to the page with the Terms and Conditions (that no one ever, ever, ever reads) before clicking "I agree."

And yes, that is a very small win, but seriously, at least we've found the bottom.

One of Lenny Bruce's most famous bits is "Eat, Sleep and Crap," which identifies the origin of civilization in the creation of agreements:

"Let's see. I tell you what we'll do. We'll have a vote. We'll sleep in Area A. Is that cool?"

"OK, good."

"We'll eat in Area B. Good?"


"We'll throw a crap in area C. Good?"

The idea that we negotiate the rules by which we conduct our affairs – rather than having them crammed down our throats – is the cornerstone of what it means to be in a free society.

Democratically elected legislators create the rules by which we live: you can't sell poison as food, or maim people through negligence or malice.

Binding arbitration yanks those rules out from under us: "By being stupid enough to click this link, you agree that I'm allowed to come over to your house, punch your grandmother, wear your underwear, make long distance calls and eat all the food in your fridge."

The normalization of binding arbitration – the normalization of surrendering your legal rights in favor of a corporate judge who always sides with the house – is a grotesque, slow-motion train wreck for the very idea of a free and just society.

Congress bans "little green men" (permalink)

A terrifying aspect of last summer's uprising in Portland and elsewhere was the spectacle of anonymous federal police, bearing neither insignia nor identification, snatching people off the street and disappearing them.

These were "little green men" – a term from the Russian annexation of Crimea, when Russian soldiers adopted the pretence of being local militias of Ukrainians who wanted to secede and dressed in generic uniforms while seizing Ukrainian territory.

America's little green men come from the zoo of specialized federal police agencies created by dick-measuring bureaucrats and petty official who each created their own federal force to act as a kind of honor guard.

Barely trained, growing at the rate of 2500 cops/year, these microforces now outnumber the ATF, mostly trained at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. They are cursorily overseen and largely unaccountable. They are mired in continuous scandal.

Almost none of them have permanent chiefs, because that requires senate approval, and NRA lobbyists scuttle every single nominee as being soft on guns, including Chuck Canterbury, former head of the notorious gun-grabbers the Fraternal Order of Police.

Last week, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, an epic shitshow in which the US military was again handed an effectively bottomless budget. Moreover, Democratic congressional leadership squandered an opportunity to tie $2000 relief payments to its passage.

But there is one tiny light of positivity in the NDAA trashfire: thanks to a bipartisan amendment, the NDAA requires the badly trained, badly overseen, unaccountable federal cops who snatch people off the streets to identify themselves.

This is the most minuscule of victories, obviously, and the fact that we needed a law that requires heavily armed government goons to tell you who they are and which agency they work for before they disappear you like a Pinochet death-squad is disgusting.

But you know what's worse than needing to pass this kind of legislation? Needing to pass it…and not passing it.

It's not much, but it's a win, and we should take it.

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago NZ police broke the law when they raided investigative journalist’s home

#5yrsago Someone at the Chaos Communications Congress inserted a poem into at least 30 million servers’ logfiles

#5yrsago Bernie Sanders on small money donations vs sucking up to billionaires

#5yrsago Weapons of Math Destruction: how Big Data threatens democracy

#5yrsago Charter schools are turning into the next subprime mortgages

#5yrsago New York Public Library does the public domain right

#5yrsago The annual WELL State of the World, with Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky

#1yrago Permitting the growth of monopolies is a form of government censorship

#1yrago The estranged anarchist daughter of the Republican gerrymandering mastermind inherited and dumped all his files

#1yrago Republican New York State Assembly leader publishes anti-drunk driving PSA shortly before drunkenly crashing a state-owned car

#1yrago Massive Cambridge Analytica leak reveals global election manipulation: Malaysia, Kenya and Brazil

#1yrago Everything you wanted to know about money-laundering but were afraid to ask

#1yrago Machine learning is innately conservative and wants you to either act like everyone else, or never change

#1yrago Podcast: Science fiction and the unforeseeable future: In the 2020s, let’s imagine better things

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Boing Boing (, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 502 words (95720 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 26)

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When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla