Friday, November 28, 2008

Lewis Lapham on the Republican Propaganda Mill

During an argument discussion on the motivations of the vocal wing of the GOP, a friend pointed me to this article by Lewis Lapham in Harper's that dissected the core of the noise machine. In it, he explains why, in the absence of any other conservative weirdness (anti-science, anti-rights, etc.) the collective mind and voice of the Rebublican party turn to increasing the disparity between rich and poor.

In the glut of paper I could find no unifying or fundamental principle except a certain belief that money was good for rich people and bad for poor people. It was the only point on which all the authorities agreed, and no matter where the words were coming from (a report on federal housing, an essay on the payment of Social Security, articles on the sorrow of the slums or the wonder of the U.S. Navy) the authors invariably found the same abiding lesson in the tale—money ennobles rich people, making them strong as well as wise; money corrupts poor people, making them stupid as well as weak.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thaler & Sunstein Look at the Meltdown

The authors of Nudge examine the causes and fixes of the economic meltdown.

Regulators therefore need to help people manage complexity and resist temptation. A potential response to complexity would be to require simplicity - for example, by allowing only the standard 30-year fixed-rate mortgages. This would be a big mistake. Eliminating complexity would stifle innovation. A TiVo is a more complicated product than a VCR, but it is also better.

A superior approach is to improve disclosure. One reason a TiVo is better than a VCR is that it is easier to use. Regulators can reduce the chances of a future meltdown by making it easier to understand financial products. Agg­ressive steps should be taken to imp­rove disclosure - for example, with mortgages, fine-print disclosure should be supplemented by machine-readable files enabling third-party websites to translate hidden details of the terms. Mandatory transparency for investment banks and hedge funds would also help.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Piano in the Woods

Great Things About Old Movies

The Siren selects ten wonderful things about movies from the 20's, 30's and 40's that you just don't see anymore. The comments list about a zillion more, including:

  • Women undressing behind screens
  • Ocean liners
  • Characters named Vane, Vail, Vance
  • Marcel waves
  • "Ecstatic amorality without comeuppance ('Jewel Robbery')"
  • Older character actors
  • Actors with voices
  • Dry wit

(via James Wolcott)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tales from the Meltdown 3

An insightful interview with Bill Janeway on the theoretical underpinnings that enabled the meltdown:

It took two generations of the best and the brightest who were mathematically quick and decided to address themselves to the issues of capital markets. They made it possible to create the greatest mountain of leverage that the world has ever seen. In my own way, I do track it back to the construction of the architecture of modern finance theory, all the way back to Harry Markowitz writing a thesis at the University of Chicago which Milton Friedman didn’t think was economics. He was later convinced to allow Markowitz to get his doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1950. Then we go on through the evolution of modern finance and the work that led to the Nobel prizes, Miller, Modigliani, Scholes and Merton. The core of this grand project was to reconstruct financial economics as a branch of physics. If we could treat the agents, the atoms of the markets, people buying and selling, as if they were molecules, we could apply the same differential equations to finance that describe the behavior of molecules. What that entails is to take as the raw material, time series data, prices and returns, and look at them as the observables generated by processes which are stationary. By this I mean that the distribution of observables, the distribution of prices, is stable over time. So you can look at the statistical attributes like volatility and correlation amongst them, above all liquidity, as stable and mathematically describable. So consequently, you could construct ways to hedge any position by means of a “replicating portfolio” whose statistics would offset the securities you started with. There is a really important book written by a professor at the University of Edinburgh named Donald MacKenzie. He is a sociologist of economics and he went into the field, onto the floor in Chicago and the trading rooms, to do his research. He interviewed everybody and wrote a great book called An Engine Not a Camera. It is an analytical history of the evolution of modern finance theory. Where the title comes from is that modern finance theory was not a camera to capture how the markets worked, but rather an engine to transform them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Latest on NNT

Nassim Taleb is really pessimistic. Unfortunately, he has a track record of being really insightful about recent events, so he may (or may not) be correct in his pessimism. In this clip, he and Benoit Mandelbrot discuss the turbulent nature of the financial system:

And here, in a low volume clip, he talks about his hedge fund, Universa, which has had a very good year:

RIP Viridian Design Movement 1999-2008

Pope-Emperor Bruce Sterling declares the movement dead, four years ahead of schedule. The online movement was launched by the online/email publication of the Viridian Design Manifesto, a document incribed with the movement's own incept date of 2012. It was intended as a counterbalance to the austerity-driven green movement then popular, and substituted an esthetic of sexy, high design green. As Cory Doctorow puts it, the Manifesto held:

That the world was under serious threat due to anthropogenic global warming, andThat the answer wasn't to live simply, but rather to use better technology to help us make better choices and conduct our lives in a better way

These two ideas are incredibly inspiring, and have served as a powerful antidote against the Three Stupidities of Global Warming:

There is no global warming, or if there is, it's natural
  • The only answer to global warming is to live in log cabins, unplug your fridge and never get on another airplane
  • Global warming is inevitable, so let's go buy some more Hummers and pass the
    spotted owl omelette, wouldya?

    1. The Stupidities are, at root, counsels of despair. They rely on denialism, or hold humanity to an impossible standard (witness the goofball commenters to my post about entertaining your children with a single bucket of water on a hot day who immediately leapt in to characterize this as a sin against the very planet, since water is precious and shouldn't be wasted by splashing around in the summer), or throw up their hands and give up.

      The Last Viridian Email offers up both a summation of the movement and a suggestion for prioritizing one's stuff into four important categories:

        1. Beautiful things.
        2. Emotionally important things.
        3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
        4. Everything else.

      "Everything else" will be by far the largest category. Anything you have not touched, or seen, or thought about in a year -- this very likely belongs in "everything else."

      You should document these things. Take their pictures, their identifying makers' marks, barcodes, whatever, so that you can get them off eBay or Amazon if, for some weird reason, you ever need them again. Store those digital pictures somewhere safe -- along with all your other increasingly valuable, life-central digital data. Back them up both onsite and offsite.

      Then remove them from your time and space.

      Also, get a multitool, so as to be as useful and personally effective as possible.

      Full text:

      The Last Viridian Note
      By Bruce Sterling

      Recent events have clearly established that the character of the times has changed. The Viridian Design Movement was founded in distant 1999. After the years transpiring – various disasters, wars, financial collapses and a major change in political tone – the world has become a different place.

      It remains only to close the Viridian episode gracefully, and to conclude with a few meditative suggestions.

      As I explained in the first Viridian speech, any design movement – social movements of any kind, really – should be designed with an explicit expiration date. The year 2012 would have been the extreme to which Viridian could have persisted. Since the course of history has grown quite jittery, this longer term was spared us.

      Some Viridian principles can be lightly re-phrased, buffed-up and likely made of practical use in days to come. Others are period notions to be gently tossed into the cultural compost. I could try to describe which are which – but that's a proper job for someone younger.

      I'm following current events with keen interest. There's never been a better time for major political and financial interventions in the green space. However, Viridian List is about design interventions, it was not about politics or finance, so a decent reticence is in order at this juncture.

      I would like to cordially thank Viridian readers and contributors and advisors for their patience and their generous help over nine years. I hope you feel you derived some benefit from it. I did my best with the effort, I learned a lot by it, and I'm pleased with how it turned out.

      I can't say what Viridian may have done for you; that's up to you to judge. Since this is last Viridian note, however, I'd like to describe what Viridian did for me.

      Since the halcyon days of 1999 my life has changed radically.

      Rather than "thinking globally and acting locally," as in the old futurist theme, I now live and think glocally. I once had a stable, settled life within a single city, state and nation. Nowadays, I divide my time between three different polities: the United States, the European Union and the Balkans. With various junkets elsewhere.

      The 400-year-old Westphalian System doesn't approve of my lifestyle, although it's increasingly common, especially among people half my age. It's stressful to live glocally. Not that I myself feel stressed by this. As long as I've got broadband, I'm perfectly at ease with the fact that my position on the planet's surface is arbitrary. It's the nation-state system that is visibly stressed by these changes – it's freaking out over currency flows, migration through airports, offshoring, and similar phenomena.

      I know that, by the cultural standards of the 20th century, my newfangled glocal lifestyle ought to bother me. I ought to feel deracinated, and I should suffer from culture shock, and I should stoically endure the mournful silence and exile of a writer torn from the kindly matrix of his national culture. A traditional story.

      However, I've been at this life for years now; I really tried; the traditional regret is just not happening. Clearly the existence of the net has obliterated many former operational difficulties.
      Furthermore, my sensibility no longer operates in that 20th-century framework. That's become an archaic way to feel, and I just can't get there from here.

      Living on the entire planet at once is no longer a major challenge. It's got its practical drawbacks, but I'm much more perturbed about contemporary indignities such as airport terrorspaces, ATM surchanges and the open banditry of cellphone roaming. This is what's troublesome. The rest of it, I'm rather at ease about. Unless I'm physically restrained by some bureaucracy, I don't think I'm going to stop this glocally nomadic life. I live on the Earth. The Earth is a planet. This fact is okay. I am living in truth.

      Another major change came through my consumption habits. It pains me to see certain people still trying to live in hairshirt-green fashion – purportedly mindful, and thrifty and modest. I used to tolerate this eccentricity, but now that panicked bankers and venture capitalists are also trying to cling like leeches to every last shred of their wealth, I can finally see it as actively pernicious.

      Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism. Like the New Age mystic echo of Judaeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn't do or say anything conceptually novel – nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.

      My personal relations to goods and services – especially goods – have been revolutionized since 1999. Let me try your patience by describing this change in some detail, because it really is a different mode of being in the world.

      My design book SHAPING THINGS, which is very Viridian without coughing up that fact in a hairball, talks a lot about material objects as frozen social relationships within space and time. This conceptual approach may sound peculiar and alien, but it can be re-phrased in a simpler way.

      What is "sustainability?" Sustainable practices navigate successfully through time and space, while others crack up and vanish. So basically, the sustainable is about time – time and space. You need to re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.

      In earlier, less technically advanced eras, this approach would have been far-fetched. Material goods were inherently difficult to produce, find, and ship. They were rare and precious. They were closely associated with social prestige. Without important material signifiers such as wedding china, family silver, portraits, a coach-house, a trousseau and so forth, you were advertising your lack of substance to your neighbors. If you failed to surround yourself with a thick material barrier, you were inviting social abuse and possible police suspicion. So it made pragmatic sense to cling to heirlooms, renew all major purchases promptly, and visibly keep up with the Joneses.

      That era is dying. It's not only dying, but the assumptions behind that form of material culture are very dangerous. These objects can no longer protect you from want, from humiliation – in fact they are causes of humiliation, as anyone with a McMansion crammed with Chinese-made goods and an unsellable SUV has now learned at great cost.

      Furthermore, many of these objects can damage you personally. The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.

      It's not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.
      Do not "economize." Please. That is not the point. The economy is clearly insane. Even its champions are terrified by it now. It's melting the North Pole. So "economization" is not your friend. Cheapness can be value-less. Voluntary simplicity is, furthermore, boring. Less can become too much work.

      The items that you use incessantly, the items you employ every day, the normal, boring goods that don't seem luxurious or romantic: these are the critical ones. They are truly central. The everyday object is the monarch of all objects. It's in your time most, it's in your space most. It is "where it is at," and it is "what is going on."

      It takes a while to get this through your head, because it's the opposite of the legendry of shopping. However: the things that you use every day should be the best-designed things you can get. For instance, you cannot possibly spend too much money on a bed – (assuming you have a regular bed, which in point of fact I do not). You're spending a third of your lifetime in a bed. Your bed might be sagging, ugly, groaning and infested with dust mites, because you are used to that situation and cannot see it. That calamity might escape your conscious notice. See it. Replace it.

      Sell – even give away– anything you never use. Fancy ball gowns, tuxedos, beautiful shoes wrapped in bubblepak that you never wear, useless Christmas gifts from well-meaning relatives, junk that you inherited. Sell that stuff. Take the money, get a real bed. Get radically improved everyday things.

      The same goes for a working chair. Notice it. Take action. Bad chairs can seriously injure you from repetitive stresses. Get a decent ergonomic chair. Someone may accuse you of "indulging yourself" because you possess a chair that functions properly. This guy is a reactionary. He is useless to futurity. Listen carefully to whatever else he says, and do the opposite. You will benefit greatly.

      Expensive clothing is generally designed to make you look like an aristocrat who can afford couture. Unless you are a celebrity on professional display, forget this consumer theatricality. You should buy relatively-expensive clothing that is ergonomic, high-performance and sturdy.
      Anything placed next to your skin for long periods is of high priority. Shoes are notorious sources of pain and stress and subjected to great mechanical wear. You really need to work on selecting these – yes, on "shopping for shoes." You should spend more time on shoes than you do on cars, unless you're in a car during pretty much every waking moment. In which case, God help you.
      I strongly recommend that you carry a multitool. There are dozens of species of these remarkable devices now, and for good reason. Do not show them off in a beltpack, because this marks you as a poorly-socialized geek. Keep your multitool hidden in the same discreet way that you would any other set of keys.

      That's because a multitool IS a set of keys. It's a set of possible creative interventions in your immediate material environment. That is why you want a multitool. They are empowering.
      A multitool changes your perceptions of the world. Since you lack your previous untooled learned-helplessness, you will slowly find yourself becoming more capable and more observant. If you have pocket-scissors, you will notice loose threads; if you have a small knife you will notice bad packaging; if you have a file you will notice flashing, metallic burrs, and bad joinery. If you have tweezers you can help injured children, while if you have a pen, you will take notes. Tools in your space, saving your time. A multitool is a design education.

      As a further important development, you will become known to your friends and colleagues as someone who is capable, useful and resourceful, rather than someone who is helpless, frustrated and visibly lacking in options. You should aspire to this better condition.

      Do not lug around an enormous toolchest or a full set of post-earthquake gear unless you are Stewart Brand. Furthermore, unless you are a professional emergency worker, you can abstain from post-apocalyptic "bug-out bags" and omnicompetent heaps of survivalist rations. Do not stock the fort with tiresome, life-consuming, freeze-dried everything, unless you can clearly sense the visible approach of some massive, non-theoretical civil disorder. The clearest way to know that one of these is coming is that the rich people have left your area. If that's the case, then, sure, go befriend the police and prepare to knuckle down.

      Now to confront the possessions you already have. This will require serious design work, and this will be painful. It is a good idea to get a friend or several friends to help you.
      You will need to divide your current possessions into four major categories.

      1. Beautiful things.
      2. Emotionally important things.
      3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
      4. Everything else

      "Everything else" will be by far the largest category. Anything you have not touched, or seen, or thought about in a year – this very likely belongs in "everything else."

      You should document these things. Take their pictures, their identifying makers' marks, barcodes, whatever, so that you can get them off eBay or Amazon if, for some weird reason, you ever need them again. Store those digital pictures somewhere safe – along with all your other increasingly valuable, life-central digital data. Back them up both onsite and offsite.
      Then remove them from your time and space. "Everything else" should not be in your immediate environment, sucking up your energy and reducing your opportunities. It should become a fond memory, or become reduced to data.

      It may belong to you, but it does not belong with you. You weren't born with it. You won't be buried with it. It needs to be out of the space-time vicinity. You are not its archivist or quartermaster. Stop serving that unpaid role.

      Beautiful things are important. If they're truly beautiful, they should be so beautiful that you are showing them to people. They should be on display: you should be sharing their beauty with others. Your pride in these things should enhance your life, your sense of taste and perhaps your social standing.

      They're not really that beautiful? Then they're not really beautiful. Take a picture of them, tag them, remove them elsewhere.

      Emotionally important things. All of us have sentimental keepsakes that we can't bear to part with. We also have many other objects which simply provoke a panicky sense of potential loss – they don't help us to establish who we are, or to become the person we want to be. They subject us to emotional blackmail.

      Is this keepsake so very important that you would want to share its story with your friends, your children, your grandchildren? Or are you just using this clutter as emotional insulation, so as to protect yourself from knowing yourself better?

      Think about that. Take a picture. You might want to write the story down. Then – yes – away with it.

      You are not "losing things" by these acts of material hygiene. You are gaining time, health, light and space. Also, the basic quality of your daily life will certainly soar. Because the benefits of good design will accrue to you where they matter – in the everyday.

      Not in Oz or in some museum vitrine. In the every day. For sustainability, it is every day that matters. Not green Manhattan Projects, green moon shots, green New Years' resolutions, or wild scifi speculations. Those are for dabblers and amateurs. The sustainable is about the every day.
      Now for category three, tools and appliances. They're not beautiful and you are not emotionally attached to them. So they should be held to keen technical standards.

      Is your home a museum? Do you have curatorial skills? If not, then entropy is attacking everything in there. Stuff breaks, ages, rusts, wears out, decays. Entropy is an inherent property of time and space. Understand this fact. Expect this. The laws of physics are all right, they should not provoke anguished spasms of denial.

      You will be told that you should "make do" with broken or semi-broken tools, devices and appliances. Unless you are in prison or genuinely crushed by poverty, do not do this. This advice is wicked.

      This material culture of today is not sustainable. Most of the things you own are almost certainly made to 20th century standards, which are very bad. If we stick with the malignant possessions we already have, through some hairshirt notion of thrift, then we are going to be baling seawater. This will not do.

      You should be planning, expecting, desiring to live among material surroundings created, manufactured, distributed, through radically different methods from today's. It is your moral duty to aid this transformative process. This means you should encourage the best industrial design.

      Get excellent tools and appliances. Not a hundred bad, cheap, easy ones. Get the genuinely good ones. Work at it. Pay some attention here, do not neglect the issue by imagining yourself to be serenely "non-materialistic." There is nothing more "materialistic" than doing the same household job five times because your tools suck. Do not allow yourself to be trapped in time-sucking black holes of mechanical dysfunction. That is not civilized.

      Now for a brief homily on tools and appliances of especial Viridian interest: the experimental ones. The world is full of complicated, time-sucking, partially-functional beta-rollout gizmos. Some are fun to mess with; fun in life is important. Others are whimsical; whimsy is okay. Eagerly collecting semifunctional gadgets because they are shiny-shiny, this activity is not the worst thing in the world. However, it can become a vice. If you are going to wrangle with unstable, poorly-defined, avant-garde tech objects, then you really need to wrangle them. Get good at doing it.

      Good experiments are well-designed experiments. Real experiments need a theory. They need something to prove or disprove. Experiments need to be slotted into some larger context of research, and their results need to be communicated to other practitioners. That's what makes them true "experiments" instead of private fetishes.

      If you're buying weird tech gizmos, you need to know what you are trying to prove by that. You also need to tell other people useful things about it. If you are truly experimenting, then you are doing something praiseworthy. You may be wasting some space and time, but you'll be saving space and time for others less adventurous. Good.

      If you're becoming a techie magpie packrat who never leaves your couch – that's not good. Forget the shiny gadget. You need to look in the shiny mirror.

      So. This approach seems to be working for me. More or less. I'm not urging you to do any of this right away. Do not jump up from the screen right now and go reform your entire material circumstances. That resolve will not last. Because it's not sustainable.

      Instead, I am urging you to think hard about it. Tuck it into the back of your mind. Contemplate it. The day is going to come, it will come, when you suddenly find your comfortable habits disrupted.

      That could be a new job, a transfer to a new city, a marriage, the birth or departure of a child. It could be a death in the family: we are mortal, they happen. Moments like these are part of the human condition. Suddenly you will find yourself facing a yawning door and a whole bunch of empty boxes. That is the moment in which you should launch this sudden, much-considered coup. Seize that moment on the barricades, liberate yourself, and establish a new and sustainable constitution.

      But – you may well ask – what if I backslide into the ancien regime? Well, there is a form of hygiene workable here as well. Every time you move some new object into your time and space – buy it, receive it as a gift, inherit it, whatever – remove some equivalent object.
      That discipline is not as hard as it sounds. As the design of your immediate surroundings improves, it'll become obvious to you that more and more of these time-sucking barnacles are just not up to your standards. They're ugly, or they're broken, or they're obsolete, or they are visible emblems of nasty, uncivilized material processes.

      Their blissful absence from your life makes new time and space for something better for you – and for the changed world you want to live to see.

      So: that summarizes it. Forgive the Pope-Emperor this last comprehensive sermon; it is what I learned by doing all this, and you won't be troubled henceforth.

      Now. If you've read this far, you're a diehard. So you may be interested in my next, post-Viridian, project. And yes, of course I have one. It's not so direct, confrontational and strident as the Viridian Movement; instead, it suits a guy of my increasingly scholastic and professorial temperament.

      Viridian "imaginary products" were always a major theme of ours, and, since I'm both a science fiction writer and a design critic, I want to do some innovative work in this space – yes, the realm of imaginary products. Conceptual designs; imaginary designs; critical designs; fantastic and impossible designs.

      This new effort of mine is a scholarly work exploring material culture, use-value, ethics, and the relationship between materiality and the imagination. However, since nobody's easily interested in that huge, grandiose topic, I'm disguising it as a nifty and attractive gadget book. I plan to call it "The User's Guide to Imaginary Gadgets."

      My first step in composing this new book is to methodically survey the space of all possible imaginary gadgets. It's rather like the exploratory work of "Dead Media Project."

      I'm not yet sure what form this new research effort will take. There will likely be a mailing list. I may be turning my Wired blog into something of a gadget site. There might be a wiki or a social network, depending on who wants to help me, and what they want out of that effort. Still: "design fiction," "critical design," "futurist scenario design," and the personal, individual, pocket-and-purse sized approach to postindustriality: this is something I need to know a lot more about.

      If you want to play, send email.

      Bruce Sterling bruces [at]

      Originally distributed to the Viridian email list and at the Viridian Design web site.

      Sunday, November 16, 2008

      God Says Yes to Me

      God Says Yes to Me
      by Kaylin Haught

      I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
      and she said yes
      I asked her if it was okay to be short
      and she said it sure is
      I asked her if I could wear nail polish
      or not wear nail polish
      and she said honey
      she calls me that sometimes
      she said you can do just exactly
      what you want to
      Thanks God I said
      And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
      my letters
      Sweetcakes God said
      who knows where she picked that up
      what I'm telling you is
      Yes Yes Yes

      Monday, November 10, 2008

      Holy Sh*t

      Meanwhile, at the Holy Sepulchre, peace and brotherhood reign, as always.

      Or not.

      Monday, November 03, 2008

      The Return of Water-Based Shipping

      The US could realize substantial savings in shipping costs if it maximized its use of domestic water shipping. The reason: fuel efficiency per ton.

      One gallon of diesel pulls one ton of cargo 59 miles by truck, 202 miles by train and 514 miles by canal barge, Ms. Mantello said. A single barge can carry 3,000 tons, enough to replace 100 trucks.

      One More Day

      One more day until change begins.