Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Weird Times

Something weird is afoot. Has anyone noticed? There’s been a growing feeling of weirdness in the air for at least the last year or two.  The feeling has been elusive; hard to pin down. But it all crystalised for me a couple of evenings ago when I went to watch the latest Ridley Scott blockbuster, The Martian. In this film Matt Damon is a botanist who gets accidentally left on Mars when the rest of the crew on his mission are forced to evacuate during a sand storm. Being a plucky and resourceful chap he figures out various ways to survive with minimal food and other resources as he awaits a rescue which – even if it does come – will take years.

I won’t go into too much detail about what happens in the film. I enjoyed it - even if I did have reservations about whether potatoes would really grow in Martian soil fertilised only by freeze-dried astronaut dung. I took my kids, and they enjoyed it too. But I came away with that curious feeling of weirdness that has been floating around in the ether for the past few years. Perhaps it was the central message of the film. And that central message was that one day we’re all going to Mars. This will be possible thanks to legions of brave planet-hopping scientists who can overcome any obstacle and save the day.

Mind you, nobody has actually asked Mars if we would be welcome there. But that doesn’t really matter: it’s just there for the taking. Elon Musk is actually proposing that the first thing we do when we get there is to nuke the place. This seems a bit rude, but all's fair in the game of colonisation. In fact, you can play colonisation bingo whilst watching The Martian: vast empty landscapes and talk of ‘the first person ever to put a foot here’ – check; a tough guy white male in a vehicle that looks a bit like a caravan heading towards a horizon – check; talk of international laws not applying – check; the line “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!”; American flags – check. Right at the end of the film there’s a whole classroom full of starry-eyed new recruits who have signed up to be planet colonists. The message is clear: we will colonise Mars.

Except we won’t.

There aren’t any manned missions to Mars right now. We haven’t even sent anyone back to the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, in case anyone hadn’t noticed. Getting to Mars is, ahem, rather more challenging and expensive than going to our local moon.

That’s not to say that we won’t ever send anyone to Mars. There’s a Mickey Mouse Mars mission already being dreamed about, and so far over 100,000  people have signed up to volunteer for a cold and lonely death millions of miles away from home. But The Martian gives the causal viewer the impression that we are already doing this kind of thing and that it’s just a matter of political will and the ‘right guys’ being in charge at NASA (and – tellingly – their Chinese equivalent, who are begrudgingly acknowledged in the film (but not those pesky Russians)). 

On the same day I went to see The Martian it was splashed across the news that the UK government had banned hoverboards. Say what? Reading a few of the articles they talked about the kind of board that Marty McFly rode in Back to the Future Part II which is set in, ahem, 2015. I double checked to see if this was not some kind of early April fool’s joke but, no, it didn’t seem to be. How could the government ban something that hadn’t yet been invented? Curious to find out I looked online to see if I could buy one of these hoverboards. Yes – there they were – except they weren’t the kind of thing that Marty McFly would recognise. Instead, it turns out, they are merely a pair of wheels with a central platform that you balance on. There is computer circuitry inside them to stop you falling off them.

Hmm. What about fusion cars that run on banana skins and tin cans? A quick Google search reveals any number of articles that claim this will soon be a reality.

Speaking of cars, what about all those self-driving cars that we were promised? In theory, these might be able to work on the kind of empty and straight roads found in some countries – but would they work, say, where I live in Cornwall? Fuggedaboutit! Most of the roads round here are upgraded sheep tracks first nibbled out in the Bronze Age. They are congested with a variety of motorist fauna, ranging from little old ladies doing about 20mph in first gear, maniacal City traders doing three times the speed limit in their Audis as they drive down from London for a weekend’s surfing, and gigantic lumbering tractors driven by Romanian farmhands too busy sexting to notice they just flattened a cyclist. I’d love to see the software that can predict the random actions of these human variables – some humans simply refuse to behave like robots.

An old lady driving a car. Human variables will never be understood by robotic cars

Oh yes: robots. Where are they all? My mother-in-law said she had a robot cleaner about six years ago, but when I went to have a look at it all she showed me a small circular vacuum cleaner that moved around the floor. It didn’t have arms or legs or a face, and it couldn’t even play chess. "It's definitely a robot," she said. "It says so on the box." Mind you, we are being told repeatedly in the media that robots will take away our jobs.


Three things. First, I doubt that this will be possible for the vast majority of jobs. Artificial Intelligence is only as bright as the collective wisdom of whatever corporation is churning out the job-stealing robots. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across Dmitry Orlov’s concept of Organisational Stupidity but, in a nutshell, it essentially guarantees that any large corporation has a functional intelligence slightly lower than a seaside donkey. This wouldn’t bode well for the IQ levels of those shiny metal automatons. 

Here’s something which, when I tell people, they generally don’t believe me: I have worked with robots. Yes, I did an MSc. when I was 22 at Warwick University that involved writing code for industrial robots (I never finished it - I'd have rather gnawed off my own hands than end up as an industrial robot programmer). Those robots were used for building cars – you know the ones, they look like they are made of Meccano – and they were as dumb as. If you told it to pick up Part A and place it in Location B all would be fine unless Frank Smith, daydreaming about the girl he met in the pub last night, happened to wander in between Part A and Location B at the wrong moment, whereupon he would find himself unintentionally integrated into the chassis of a Land Rover. Industrial robots are like blind, hypnotised elephants.

Secondly. Assuming they could make intelligent robots that could do everyone’s jobs (or at least a sizeable chunk of them), that would mean those ex-workers would not have an income. Not having an income in an economy based on consumer spending means there would be less consumption and therefore less of an economy. This is already in an advanced stage of happening right now. Adding robots into the mix would be an excellent way to launch a fresh Neo Luddite movement and I can imagine the internet being filled with articles such as ‘101 ways to kill the robot that stole your job’. Thus, to protect themselves from disgruntled humans, the robots would need to be heavily armed and wearing thick armour. Can you imagine Robocop with Ronald McDonald’s face serving your child her Happy Meal? I thought not.

Would you like fries with that, little girl?

Thirdly – if the functional stupidity and economic realities haven’t already killed the robot dream – there is the small matter of specialised high-tech producers and delicate supply chains. Robots need a lot of bits and bobs to make them work. Those bits and bobs tend to come from specialised production plants in other countries operating on just-in-time principles. There’s no slack in the system, it’s all too efficient, so if anything goes wrong then everything goes wrong. And we are now heading into an era when things will tend to go wrong.

But it’s not just robots, self-driving cars, missions to Mars and all the rest of it that is creating this weird feeling (and don’t get me started on 3D printers, Amazon delivery drones, jetpacks, cryogenics, full-mind downloads etc. etc.) – it’s the fact that the collective conscious seems to think that all of these things are part of our lives now, when actual lived experience tells us that they are not. Yes, some of these technological wonders are either theoretically or technically possible at a great cost, but that doesn’t mean you or I get to experience them. So, instead of people acknowledging that nothing about the futuristic version of 2015 has actually come to pass, they exist in a kind of cosy miasma that whispers things ‘out there’ are progressing for the betterment of humankind, even if they can’t see it for themselves.

What, indeed, has changed about our everyday world since, say 1985? Most people will immediately say two things: the Internet and smart phones. And that’s true to a certain extent (although, it was possible to send and receive email in 1985 - I myself had a modem hooked up to my ZX Spectrum - but generally it was only extreme geeks that used it to send one another bits of code and unfunny jokes written in ASCII characters). As a society we’ve since then piled our resources into the tech sector and created a smaller version of the bulky mobile phones of the 1980s, which now come with an integrated mini computer. We could have piled it into renewable energy, conservation and social schemes - but instead we generally piled it into little devices that play videos of kittens. But apart from that, not much has changed compared to how we thought it would change back then. Essentially, we are still living with the inventions of the 19th century, pimped beyond recognition in many cases, but Victorian technology nevertheless. Here’s a short list of some of the things we (the 99.9999%) don’t have:

-       Flying cars (that run on fusion)
-       Jet packs
-       Holidays in space
-       Hover boards that literally hover
-       Intelligent human-like robot servants
-       An affordable cure for cancer
-       Cities on the Moon

Here’s what we do have:

-        -     One billion petrol-powered cars
-     -  2,300 coal fired power stations
-  About 16,000 airliners that burn kerosene
-  An internet and tech sector that gobbles up 1,500 terawatt hours per year (which, incidentally, is the same amount of electricity that was used to light the entire planet in 1985)
-  Smart phones which consume 388 kwh per year (see here)
-  2,271 terrestrial satellites, most of which are used for communications and TV broadcasting
-  Collapsing ecosystems and accelerating resource depletion
-     -  7.3 billion people (compared to 4.8 billion in 1985)
7     - Sky rocketing rates of cancer, diabetes, drug addiction and mental illness 

So, it appears that we’ve entered a kind of weird twilight zone where our unmet expectations of the future we envisaged are being filled by the creative imaginings of the entertainment industry and the popular media. For now these fantasies are being powered by fossil fuels with a high net energy ratio, but that is declining with each passing year. As the per capita availability of energy decreases it will become increasingly hard for people not to notice this reality gap.

Yet it’s easy to be drawn into this comforting trance. I would love to be able to go to Mars, to ride on a hoverboard and to take my family on an all-inclusive break to a resort on the dusty shores of the Sea of Tranquility. However, I recognise that staking our future on the collective hopes of scientific materialists and their promises of salvation through techno-cornucopian abundance is probably not the wisest choice. Phantoms have a habit of evaporating in daylight, and fantasies of limitless technological achievement must surely do the same thing. 

We might be heading into interesting times, but we likely still have a few more months or years of weird times before us yet.


  1. Adding robots into the mix would be an excellent way to launch a fresh Neo Luddite movement and I can imagine the internet being filled with articles such as ‘101 ways to kill the robot that stole your job’.

    No it wouldn't, because the Internet would be run by robots that would moderate that kind of thing away.

  2. Jason,

    Excellent piece.

    Yes I've had an uneasy feeling about the direction of society for some time now but it's difficult to know what to do about it: join a political party and/or start campaigning, search for a "bugout" location and hide from society, or just try to make the best of the opportunities that are still open to us as individuals?

    On the theme of technological changes since the 1970s/1980s I've been thinking of other things that could be done then but can't be done now:

    Cross the Atlantic in a supersonic passenger jet.
    Cross the channel in a hovercraft.
    Stand a reasonable chance of fixing a fault on your car without having to visit a dealer for a diagnostic session.
    Make an arrangement to meet a friend a week or two in advance without the need for constant updates by text/Whatsapp/social media etc in the intervening period...

    Incidentally, I enjoyed the latest Seat of Mars installment, but didn't comment earlier due to the lack of Internet at our new (temporary) home. I'm currently using a 4G mifi which mysteriously won't go over 3G despite actually being line of sight to the mast, I guess that's the type of progress we've been talking about :-)

    1. Indeed. As Dwig posits below, Nicole Fosse has written an excellent series of essays on the topic of what to do. I agree with practically everything she says.

      As for the 70s - I've noticed recently the meme that the 1970s were the 'bad old days'. According to this, everyone was both racist and sexist, the country was paralysed by strikes all the time and everything was grim and gritty.

      I don't think this was generally true. Of course, no era is 'perfect' but at least the music was 1000x better, families could be relatively well off on one income and you could experience the kind of freedom that today is a distant memory.

      Mind you, the food was lousy and there was random (mostly) football-related violence all over the place - so it wasn't all a bed of roses. That random violence has gone away - for now - but I saw a documentary last night about how it is making a comeback among young people who have put down their smart phones and are fed up with the lousy deal they are being offered. This is one of the things that worries me about Britain - our propensity for mindless fist/knife/iron bar violence against each other. Maybe it would be worse if we all had guns, or maybe not.

  3. I'm a district nurse (hjemmesygeplejerske i Kbh!) and they've given us smartphones and tablets so we can do everything everywhere (except for the stuff we can't do because of the municipality's Jurassic IT system). I spent 2 and a half hours admitting a patient to the hospital today. About 45 minutes of that was examining her and figuring out what needed to be done, which involved a manual blood pressure thingy, a thermometer, and a urine dipstick (non-digital!). The remaining time was spent on my phone, using the dumb function of calling half the GPs in Copenhagen, listening to their answering machines, since they were all on fall holidays, writing all their garbled numbers down on a piece of paper, and repeat, until I found one who was open but too busy to talk to me, so his secretary did the admission for me. If you ask the politicians we have a fancy health care system but: wave of the future my arse.

    1. I feel for you Morgenfrue! It seems like everyone is being given smartphones at the moment to monitor their productivity. I've even been told to install an app when I'm driving (that constantly examines you) otherwise they will put my insurance premium up.

      These days everything is a racket. IT systems firms invade every sector of life, piling on layers of complexity, taking their cut and making life difficult for people on the front line.

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  5. Echo and all,

    "Yes I've had an uneasy feeling about the direction of society for some time now but it's difficult to know what to do about it:"

    Nicole Foss' "Solution Space" series in Automatic Earth addresses that issue pretty systematically. The "punch line" is in Part 5 (, where she directly addresses "what to do about it".

    1. Yes, it's an excellent series. The general point is that at this stage we can't expect governments to do anything but make things worse, so we should focus our efforts on individual and small group solutions - a message I've agreed with for a long time.

    2. Here in rural Petrópolis, things are completely different - in detail - from what you see in Cornwall. Even the social dynamics are completely different.

      But the conclusion is the same: Times are weird. The stories we are telling (and hearing) are unrelated to our actual reality.

      And the conclusion is the same: governments at every level range from irrelevant to destructive, and the only possible solutions are local.

    3. Jose - Petropolis sounds like an interesting place! In what way are things different?

      Over here, even our local Green Party councillor has just voted in favour of building new houses on protected land.

    4. Dwig

      Thanks for the link, good reading.

      Local government here on the Isle of Thanet would seem to be nearer collapse than central government, which leads me to believe that all I can do is have some plans to attempt to mitigate the worst of the difficulties we will face over the next decades. We're currently looking for a new home, and have already eliminated some areas due to insufficient height above sea level, or proximity to undefended cliffs...

  6. Yeah, I've heard all those stories of our savvy technological progress, too, our ever-increasing IQs and material sophistication. Meanwhile, where I live, few people speak grammatical English, and the coolest new trend is 'adult colouring books'. I wish I was kidding. (This plum is from Tech-Sullen.)

    1. I seriously considered buying one of those books but managed to stop myself just in time. I believe they are so popular because they take people's minds off other things and allow them to create something original (some coloured drawings on a page).

    2. But, Jason! "Something original" is exactly what it is not. It's 'staying inside the lines' -- something IT did very effectively with us in the children's sf classic, A Wrinkle in Time, and by agency of a centralized power that it (IT) requires no leap of imagination at all to compare to the exponentially increasing computerized surveillance of citizens by totalitarian governments over the entire globe. (And 'they' were *forced*, in L'Engles' story -- 'we're' *choosing*.) In one of your replies you remark having read that random violence is making a comeback. Lion tamers tame lions by masturbating them: we've been saturated with pornography. Drugs? Anything you want, in any quantity. (Witness that brothel bozo.) Surgically implanted monitoring chips now are reportedly in the works for all of us. Meanwhile, there's.... 'adult colouring books'. What's next? Curling foetally into babies' cots with dumbtits in our mouths until we're catatonic. --Or 'random violence' making a 'comeback'. (Tech-Sullen)

    3. They are already testing surgically implanted chips in Sweden. Most people seem only too happy to comply.

  7. Dear Jason

    Excellent post.

    Yes there's something in the air, and it's not benign.

    My favourite 'weirdness marker' this week was the statement from the UK government -apropos the impending failure of electricity generation in the winter - that 'electricity production is non-negotiable.' Hmm, planet Earth, are you listening....? A Hitler's Bunker kind of statement: where is that damn division I ordered in?

    I often feel,now that I've woken up in someone else's nightmare. No privacy of communication, hence no freedom of speech and association, and constant lies from officials and media.

    As or the violence, well, I worked with an ex-football hooligan once and he was the most loyal of colleagues, much finer than most of the other slime balls who infested the Guardian advertising department.

    Loyalty meant much to him, he just liked the buzz of a fight. I benefited from his support at risk to his job), but would have hated to annoy him..... Such people are not the very worst in society.

    As a Spaniard, I would say the English don't even begin to have the shadow of an idea about real violence. They lack Fanaticism. That's meant to be a positive comment.

    Thanks for a stimulating and sane bog.


    1. Xabier - there are football hooligans at The Guardian? Seriously, I shouldn't be surprised - I used to work with one at Her Majesty's Treasury - he was a short bald man of about 50; a mild-mannered civil servant during the week, but a ferocious knife-wielding thug at weekends. He was quite a nice chap, generally.

      As for electricity production - they are right: it is non-negotiable. It's just that they don't realise who holds the upper hand in the non-negotiation stakes.

    2. Dear Jason

      Yes, in the Advertising Department, the one that kept the paper afloat through charging the public sector extortionate rates - the refuge of all kinds of rag and bob-tails, like me!

      The journalists like Polly Toynbee looked down their noses at us in the lifts in the horrible old pebble-dash building on the Farringdon Road, now abandoned for King's Place.

      Ever visit the Betsy Trotwood pub over the road? True London. Leaving there did much for my liver: one had to keep up, pint for pint...

      I have to say, he was a splendid chap, loyal to his bones, and would pop in to the National Gallery for 'spiritual uplift' between sales appointments. He paid me the strangest compliment once: 'You remind me of a friend from Norwich: quiet guy, but the most violent man I know.' I hasten to add he had no evidence of this! People take to -or against one - one for all kinds of reasons, mostly irrational.

      I'm longing for a big power cut this winter -marooned here in East Anglia -just to see if it wakes people up: real-time psychological investigation. It would also justify my multi-fuel stove.......

      Keep up the blog: good stuff.


    3. I think working in an office with Polly Toynbee would also make me violent!

  8. Hi Jason,

    I reckon the hard radiation from space would kill anyone foolish enough to step outside of low earth orbit for more than a few months. Mars is unobtainable for that very reason. Countries holding nukes tend to think of them as a talisman of national power - they're not very useful and possibly will be converted to reactor fuels before their eventual demise. Anyway, they're all machines and without constant maintenance, they break down.

    We live in such a fragile environment down here that no one doubts that weird times are afoot. It is not as if every week or two new extreme weather records are being set. There is another one broken today: Total fire ban declared in Tasmania as record temperatures forecast.

    I dunno, really I just try and buckle down and get on with the job of forging a new future whilst still living in the past - it is not an easy balance to get right at all. Mind you, having access to champagne yeast for the country wines here never ceases to amaze me. If supplies ever look like they're getting thin on the ground - I'll innoculate the orchard with the stuff - it's probably escaped anyway.

    Oooo! I liked the Spectrum ZX (I thought it had some sort of ZX-81 moniker or something like that? Those days are a bit hazy now), I seem to recall that it had the game Asteroids on it? Good fun stuff - playing the video games taught me that gambling is a waste of time and energy. I ended up with a Commodore 64 and yes - just to truly and seriously geek it up a bit - I still recall the days of the old BBS networks too.

    Robots are boring - sorry, but I'm more impressed now with other technology like pumps - now that's a useful technology. I'd be a bit nervous to hear what an artificial intelligence would have to say to us anyway - you have to admit that it would be a bit unnerving?

    Anyway, I’m off now to purchase one of the forgotten resources that is really truly amazing to have access to – whilst everyone else thinks of it as a waste product – a cubic metre of manure. It’s only when we wake up from our slumber and realise just how crucial that stuff is that we’ll find that we are unable to move it around in any great quantity! :-)!



    1. Hi Chris,

      That's very synchronous - I have bought both champagne yeast and a pump this week. The yeast was for the cider (plus some red wine yeast for my elderberry wine, and some brewing yeast for 40 pints of IPA) - and the pump is for the central heating system to replace a broken one. Which leads me onto the fact that it seems impossible to get hold of a plumber these days. You'd think that it would be easy, given that they earn so much money. But they are not interested in replacing worn out pumps - they want bigger jobs. And so I'm fitting it myself. The benefit of YouTube etc at this point in time is that you can learn an awful lot very easily.

      It's a lovely pump. Made by Grundfos in Denmark. The precision engineering is a joy.

      As for computers - you're thinking of the ZX81, which had only 1kb of RAM. The Spectrum had a whopping 48k - but you could do a lot with that 48k. These days computers have thousands of times that computing power, which had led to a massive decrease in efficient coding.

      Have fun with your compost. Here, there's been a truly colossal dump of kelp on the beach following a storm. Seriously, it's five foot deep in places and spreads for about five miles. I've been loading up the trailer and spreading it on the land - just like they've been doing here since the Bronze Age.

    2. Hi Jason,

      That's because essentially, despite being continents apart we share much the same concerns. Incidentally you have great advantages with that seaweed and also I wonder about the issue of salt here in the long term - although I know how to produce it if I had access to sea water (which I don't). Sugar is perhaps a bit easier for me though.

      Well done with the elderberry wine - I've tried that and it is good stuff, although my mates used the flowers. Do you know if the berries have any uses as I tend to let the birds get them. You have to admit that the plant has a poor reputation?

      Grundfos makes excellent pumps especially for hot water transfer so I second your opinion. I have two of them here in action: One on the hydronic radiators and the other on the solar drain back hot water panels. They seem very reliable and even though they are quite large they use only 75W each on the highest speed setting which is next to nothing. Pumping water uses surprisingly little electrical energy –as long as you are not trying to lift the water too high (beyond about 40m the energy required is quite massive).

      Oh yeah of course, now I'm just showing my age - of course the Spectrum was colour video output too, whilst the ZX81 - which I still drooled over - was only black and white (I recall playing defender on that machine back in the day). I recall it did have a very dodgy looking keyboard too...

      Yeah, computer programmers are slack nowadays and most of them have never even heard of machine language. Mate I could Peek and Poke my way back in the day with the best of them and memory maps - what fun stuff those limited resources produced. That sounded a bit too nerdy for me I was slightly transported back to the: Datarock - Computer Camp Love rock song. It's not all the Prodigy down here you know! :-)!

      Oh well, back to the land of the less silly. By the way that photo - she is one bad grandma! It is almost as if she is giving what is colloquially known as stink eye.



    3. Funny thing is, all that seaweed was gone this morning. Possibly millions of tonnes of it, simply vanished in the night, taken away again silently by the sea.

      Elderberry - are you kidding me? It has multiple uses in herbal medicine and a long history of use with magic. The blossom makes an excellent champagne wine n the spring and the leaves are used as antibiotics. Even the wood is good to burn. But - yeah - most people don't respect it :)

      Yes - ZX81s were pretty lame but also good fun at the time. I'd forgotten they were black and white. Peeking and poking - hehe - I used to write my own games in BASIC and send them off to magazines.

      As for the Prodigy ... I remember seeing a band called Kangaroo Moon when I was over your way (well, in Byron Bay, actually). It was outdoor at a little venue with great food - one of the better evenings of my life. I think they are still going.

  9. I think you've got your words on the pulse of the weirdness rather perfectly in this piece. Technotriumphalism is the Koolaid that's been swallowed by optimistic society. Meanwhile NASA has been slowly going out of business, selling off property, getting rid of the shuttle, grounding the manned program, paying the Russians to shuttle our astronauts back and forth to the space station, and now we're going to Mars! People will believe anything that sounds technotriumphalistesque. To prove that we are going to mars we sent Matt Damon there and rescued him apparently.

    All of these delusions of technological grandeur are made real via our space phone portals into the virtualscape that has become more real for most people than the sun rising and setting everyday is. I think that's the most pernicious aspect of the iphone/face palm's an enabler in societies belief the scientist can do anything and technology will progress us onto a seat in Mars. The iphone is pretty spiffy. I just got one a couple of months ago. Up till then I had a dumb phone. It's spiffy, but it won't grow potatoes or apples for you. It will however enable you to waste a lot of your time on nothing of any consequence.

    Yet here I am, a strange 21st century fusion of machine and man. I landscape for a living now. I use small engines to cut grass and blow debris around (because that's what people in America will mostly pay for with respect to their "landscapes" which are actually just yards). Somehow running a business that revolves around cutting your grass has necessitated my need for an iphone, complete with wireless keyboard and wireless headphones for communication purposes. I have a mobile communication port in my truck so that I can efficiently communicate with my clients. I have a younger clientele and everybody just shy of geriatric prefers texting to talking (which is why I got the keyboard...I can't stand pecking on that damn iphone). I need the headphones so that I can answer the phone when new clients call and I'm driving my truck, or on a lawn mower. Fortunately I'm beginning to shed the need for small engines as I'm being paid for some permaculture design and bamboo work...slowly. Hopefully one day soon I'll be able to stop cutting grass.

    All of this energy we waste on that terrible artifact of the suburban arrangement known as a yard.

    Anyways, great essay Jason. I think you pointed a light at the pernicious zeitgeist that's been hiding in the crawlspace of the collective unconscious, and it was refreshing for me to read it. It helped me understand the weirdness just a bit more.

    1. Funnily enough I just spent the day cutting my field with a petrol lawnmower I inherited from my dad. It had sat outside for five years and wouldn't start. I took it in for repair and they gave it a new carburettor and a few other things. I must say, it's a joy to cut back the thistles - the scythe is useful but the petroleum machine is certainly a lot easier.

      As for iPhones etc - they're just shiny toys. I've got one, and tend to just use it for photos and texts. It's starting to get really annoying, however, with its constant request for software updates. I'm looking forward to when they become unfashionable and people start speaking to one another again.

  10. Re the Mars thing, I have a friend who reads a website called gizmodo which is a technoporn site. He sends me all sorts of links, most of which seem to be about technologies that are expected to come online in about 20 years. One of them was about a contest to use 3D printing for mars missions. The winning fantasy in the contest was a proposal to send 3d printers to mars, along with robots and the robots would then supervise the building of shelters for real humans using Martian soil as the printing material. I'm sure I am not getting all the details right but what does it matter. The whole idea seems totally out of touch with reality. First of all, if you have robots good enough to scamper around the surface of Mars, why send humans who need to have shelter built for them? Just send robots and they can operate without shelters. Save a whole lot of money that way. And speaking of money, does anyone have any idea how expensive it is to send humans to Mars, or machinery? Seems to me that the Mars thing, the Mars movie and movies in general are primarily a subtle form of propaganda to keep our minds off the fact that a capitalist economy needs exponential growth and cannot survive in an environment where resources are shrinking and financiers cannot make the economy expand strictly on the basis of schemes that do not involve material goods.
    As for self-driving cars, the technology seems to be reasonably mature. I talked to a Google employee who drove/rode one to work. Google employees were able to check out self-driving cars for a few days at a time and use them to drive/ride to work. His commute was about an hour. He lives in Berkeley and Google is across the bay somewhere in the sprawl south of San Francisco. The drive involves mostly stretches of five lane freeway which can be scary even for humans. On the plus side, a self driving car has a lot more info than a human. There are cameras on the roof pointing both forward and backward and sideways and the computer does not daydream or try to get something out of the back seat or drink coffee or have any of the other distractions that humans do. It would appear that the technology is market ready and yet, it is not on the market yet. Problems with self-driving cars seem to be more legal and practical than technological. For instance, they introduce all sorts of legal issues, like who is at fault if the self driving car gets into an accident? Do I sue Google or do I sue the driver? Do I have to be in the driver's seat so I can override the computer if need be, or can I crawl into the back seat and take a nap? And like regular cars, self-driving cars still need energy to operate in a real-world environment. They will not solve the problem of declining energy supplies. Oh, I forgot, fusion reactors with electricity to cheap to meter. Forever twenty years out and 5 billion dollars to build, but never mind. The important thing is to dream.

    1. I still maintain that self-driving cars wouldn't work here because a lot of driving here involves human interaction. You need to have eye contact with other drivers and good judgement about when to pull out. These are things that computers can't be programmed with.

      Saying that, I have a friend in Spain who has a self-driving vehicle. He uses it when he goes to the bar at night and it brings him home no matter how many he's had. It's not very hi-tech and it eats carrots, although it does also fertilise his land.

    2. I suspect that self-driving cars would work as well or as poorly in the UK as here in California. One of the things I was trying to get out of the Google engineer was legal issues of self driving cars. He had no idea what they were. Engineers tend not to think about these things.
      Your comment made me think of various problems related to self-driving cars like the ones you mentioned of negotiating who goes next at an intersection. Back in Wisconsin we had ice and snow on the roads in the winter and a whole new set of driving skills come into play. The speeds you travel are reduced and the distance you keep from other cars is increased. When your car starts sliding, you avoid the brakes. You also don't brake when you see a big snow pile. You accelerate to bust through it. People instinctively learn these things and change their driving behavior. Cars have to be programmed for these conditions not all of which the programmers may have thought of.
      And then there are moral or ethical decisions that would be difficult for a computer to make. If a squirrel runs out in front of your car, do you brake and risk being rear ended by another car or do you run over the squirrel? If the car in front of you suddenly stops, do you rear end it or pull off to the side to avoid it but risk running into a bicyclist? I imagine the software can improve over time, but of course, in real life there are always new challenges that you have never experienced before, like running into a fog bank at high speed where you no longer can see the road, or having a big truck pass you by and spraying icy slush all over your windshield, momentarily blinding you. I am guessing under such conditions, the car's cameras would all become useless and you would have to drive in manual. But if the car was driving itself when it got blinded by flying slush, could you get it into manual mode fast enough? Who knows. Perhaps this is why self driving cars are not yet in production.

    3. Exactly - the legal and moral issues are complicated and, in any case, who gets to decide on them? In your example, a squirrel runs out into the road. Theoretically the recognition software could identify it as a squirrel and decide the risk of running it over is worth it compared to the risk of getting rear-ended. But what if it's Halloween and a kid dressed as a squirrel runs out? A human would no doubt be able to put it into context in an instant and slam on the brakes. But a computer ...?

  11. Just a thought… In the "old days", Mars was the source of alien invaders in "War of the Worlds." There was an automatic reflex in society--if it's strange (alien?) kill it before it kills you.

    Now, the meme seems to be--if it's strange (alien?) exploit it ruthlessly so that Musk or his like can make a few more dollars.

    1. WotW then.

      "The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one."

      And now.

      "The chances of anyone going to Mars are a million to one."

  12. Haha. And then this pops up.

  13. What if when the cameras got covered with slush you were busy facebooking because the car drives itself and it's no longer socially necessary for you to pay attention to the road. Wait...that's already not socially necessary and people already aren't paying attention. Shit!!! Maybe that's an argument for self driving cars.

    1. Or what if mischievous hackers in Chechnya got in and screwed up all the command systems, or local kids pain gunned the sensors, or people started putting bombs in them and driving them into long-distance targets, or used them to ferry around trafficked women and kids, or used them to maliciously run people down in targeted killings or ... well, we could go on all day.

  14. Nicely put; fwiw - here's my take on The Martian

    1. Thanks for that - synecdoche is a useful new word for me :)

  15. Two comments on another excellent post. First on the robots, I've become pretty convinced that this is mostly hype, a way to separate potential investors from their money for little return.

    Automation has been displacing workers for decades, and will continue to do so, so its not total hype. However, as you implied with the population figures, the world is currently in a labor glut. You just don't get big advances in labor saving technology in the middle of a labor glut. Its cheaper and easier to just use the really cheap human labor. This has been the pattern through centuries of history. Add to that a lack of global growth, to the point where companies are sitting on pile of cash for lack of investment opportunities, and you probably won't get a lot of automation displacing jobs. Mass unemployment is being created the old fashioned way, via a labor glut and a lack of capital investment.

    Second, on the automated cars, that is actually feasible if they completely replace manually operated cars. Nearly all the problems as you pointed out come from having to navigate around human drivers. If there are no human drivers, that is all the cars are automated, and you pretty much just have to deal with terrain (roads) and weather. Even twisting, curving roads could potentially be handled by GPS, though the weather is more of a problem (probably solved by having the cars just shut down and not function in really bad weather). By the way you do have automated passenger rail and its becoming increasingly common.

    There is a case for putting everyone in an automated cars, due to greatly decreased accidents, though driving will be much slower than people are used to. It also solves most of the parking problem. Busses and especially rail are still much more efficient in terms of fuel and road space, though I suspect that if we ever got automated motor vehicles they would become small vans that picked up and dropped off passengers on demand, with the lack of human drivers meaning they could operate near-continuously, only stopping for fuel and maintenance. Peak oil and ecological considerations are probably going to put an end to mass ownership and operation of individual motor vehicles, though the process of getting there could be very messy.

    1. Out of the places I know well, IMO self-driving vehicles on all types of roads (not just motorways) could and would work in Denmark and maybe Sweden. As for the UK, Spain, Italy, all third world nations and even places like France and Germany ... I have a hard time imagining it (and I have a pretty riotous imagination). We are simply too anarchic.

      My father-in-law - who is Italian - was recently over to visit even expressed that the driving conditions and unwritten rules over here are 'astounding' even to him.

  16. I don't think self-driving cars would work out even if the technical hurdles to them operating in the real world were overcome, because in the UK at least, and in the USA, cars aren't just a way of getting from A to B, and often that's not even the main point.
    No, it is a way of carving out your own little bubble of space that you can pretend is private out of the public sphere. For the small price of your annual vehicle excise duty you can park a van outside and put all the stuff you don't have space for in the house. A bit like a mobile garden shed in many ways.
    I'd be curious to know why you think contemporary Denmark and Sweden in particular have such an authoritarian mindset? I got a little of that from your "Path to Odin's Lake" but don't fully understand it yet.

    1. It's not a case of authoritarianism in Denmark, it's more a case of the fact that the country as a whole is 'progress minded' to the point where any silly scheme can be suggested and 99% of people will think it's a great idea even if it means sacrifices for themselves. Add in the fact that the roads are generally straight, well-maintained and with very little traffic and I could see it being implemented there relatively easily.

      Incidentally - when I was a newspaper editor there - I received a phone call from the office of Shimon Peres (i.e. ex Israeli president) who demanded that we go and meet him immediately in a hotel in Copenhagen. I sent the deputy editor down and she was subjected to a long one-way PR dictation from the former president (under conditions of heavy security) about how a project that would make all cars in Israel and Denmark electric by ... I forget the year but it could well have been 2015.

      My colleague wasn't allowed to ask questions and we had to get the copy approved before printing it. This was all over the press soon after about how Denmark's cars were all going to be powered by wind.

      I was over there recently and didn't notice any electric cars, but I could have been mistaken.

      Incidentally, after the encounter, the deputy editor, a young Irish woman, asked me not to send her out to any more hotel rooms to meet 'creepy old men'.

    2. Oh, and a quick Google search later (from Bloomberg 2013):

      Better Place LLC, the electric car venture backed by Israel’s President Shimon Peres as a way to wean the world off oil dependence, will shut down after failing to attract new investments.

      Better Place, which in January 2012 started its first commercial roll-out with 100 electric cars to Israeli customers, filed a motion for liquidation with the Lod district court today, according to an e-mailed statement from the company. Billionaire Idan Ofer’s Israel Corp., the largest investor in the company with an about 30 percent stake, said in a separate statement its board decided against the investment.

      “This is a difficult day for all of us,” said Dan Cohen, the company’s third CEO in just under a year. “Unfortunately, after a year’s commercial operation, it was clear to us that despite many satisfied customers, the wider public take-up would not be sufficient and that the support from the car producers was not forthcoming.”

      The car’s low performance and relatively high price compared with conventional vehicles proved too big a hurdle as Better Place, founded by former SAP AG executive Shai Agassi, failed to attract enough customers. The Palo Alto, California-based startup was in partnership with Renault SA to build and operate electric-car charging networks and battery-exchanging stations and had raised $750 million since it was founded five years ago.

  17. I had just, not five minutes prior to happening across your excellent article, alluded to the weirdness of the last couple of years to my partner. That alone to me is testament to the weirdness of our times.

    1. Yes, things are getting weird. aren't they? Funnily enough, after I wrote the above post 'Back to the Future Day' happened. The newspapers all lined up to say how prescient the film was ... yet I watched it that evening (well, my kids wanted to see it) and as far as I could see they got almost nothing right. Where are all the flying cars, self-fitting clothes, holograms, flying skateboards etc etc? Hmmm...

    2. You might enjoy this Back to the Future II spoof


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