(Roughly) Daily

“Total annihilation has a way of sharpening people’s minds”*…

 

War of the Worlds

 

HG Wells was the great modern prophet of apocalypse…

In five fecund years, from 1895 to 1900, he wrote 12 books, including the ‘scientific romances’ that made his name and laid the foundations of modern science fiction — The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man. He paved the way for so much of what came after — the sci-fi of Huxley, Orwell, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, JG Ballard and Michael Crichton, and his books have inspired over 30 films, with The Invisible Man set for another remake this year…

His books — both fiction and non-fiction — are tales of apocalypse, which in the ancient Greek etymology means ‘the unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling’.

What you meet in Wells’ books, again and again, is the violent uncovering of the new, the ripping back of the lace curtain of Victorian customs. Like Ballard, Wells had a sense of how suddenly and utterly things can change, how long familiar and ingrained customs can disappear in a moment. Victorian England must have seemed like it would stay the same forever and ever. And then, suddenly, Queen Victoria is removed ‘like a great paperweight’, and everything is in flux.

Australians are learning that today — how everything we take for granted — homes, food supplies, electricity, water, clean air, even law and order — can be taken from one in an instant. Likewise, The War of the Worlds gave complacent imperial Victorians a sudden sense what it’s like to be conquered and humiliated, to be scrabbling for survival. ‘I felt a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel’…

What can he teach us about our present moment? How can we survive and endure the apocalyptic unravelling of hydrocarbon capitalism, which is what (I suggest) we vividly see happening today. The most important lessons he gave us are (1) take the Long View and (2) don’t turn away from technological innovation, however dangerous and unsettling it is…

Jules Evans (on a return visit, having supplied yesterday’s subject) explains: “What HG Wells can teach us about surviving apocalypse.”

* Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

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As we batten down the hatches, we might recall that it was on this date in 749 that a devastating earthquake struck parts of Palestine and the Transjordan, epicentered in Galilee.  The cities of Tiberias, Beit She’an, Hippos, and Pella were largely destroyed, while many other cities across the Levant were heavily damaged; the casualties numbered in the tens of thousands.

earthquake

Scythopolis (Beit She’an) was one of the cities destroyed in the earthquake of 749

source

 

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before”*…

 

630px-Mnemosine

Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of Memory, c. 100

 

We think of memory as something internal—we remember with our minds (or, for the materialists among us, our brains). But human history is cluttered with attempts to externalize memory by encoding it onto objects and images. We have built models and systems to help us organize, keep track of, and recall information. These techniques are part of what the ancient Greeks called artificial memory. For the Greeks, natural memory encompassed those things a person happened to remember, and artificial memory consisted of recollections a person buttressed through preparation and effort. Artificial memory was a skill that could be learned and improved upon, one that had its own art: the ars memoriae, or art of memory.

The anthropologist Drew Walker reminds us that so-called mnemonic devices are not objects that stand alone but are instead “part of action.” These memory aids cannot fully store information the way writing does; they work only if you have already memorized the related material. Yet even as mere prompts or catalysts, they serve as crucial technologies for preserving and passing on histories, cultural practices, and learned wisdom.

Scholar Lynne Kelly argues that prehistoric and nonliterate cultures relied on memory technologies to preserve their oral traditions, a practice that continues to this day. Australian Aboriginal songlines record memory in short verses that are to be sung at particular places. Knowing the song helps you find your way across the territory—its melodies and rhythms describe the landscape—while its words tell the history of both the people and the land itself, describing, for example, which creator animal built that rocky outcrop or crevasse. Some songlines tell histories that trace back forty thousand years. Many are sacred and cannot be shared with outsiders. The Southern Australian Museum’s 2014 exhibit of the Ngiṉṯaka songline caused significant controversy because some Aṉangu felt the exhibit shared parts of the songline that were meant to be secret and that its curators had not sufficiently consulted with them. While songlines transform large expanses of land into a mnemonic device, other oral cultures have turned to smaller objects—calendar stones, ropes with knots in them, sticks marked with notches—to serve as tables of contents for important stories and information…

Jules Evans reviews mnemotechnics and the visualization of memory– the ways that we remember: “Summon Up Remembrance.”

See also “It’s a memory technique, a sort of mental map”*…

* Steven Wright

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As we stroll down memory lane, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that President Dwight D, Eisenhower made his farewell address on a national television broadcast.  Perhaps most famously, Eisenhower, the only general to be elected president in the 20th century, used the speech to warn the nation against the corrupting influence of what he described as the “military-industrial complex.”

But he also used the occasion to urge a long view of our America and its citizen’s responsibilities:

As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

250px-eisenhower_farewell source

 

“Commodities tend to zig when the equity markets zag”*…

 

Screen Shot 2020-01-13 at 11.11.12 AM

 

On the subject of things– things that matter, whether we are active investors or not– that we might (to our peril) take for granted…

There are plenty of expensive assets in the world today. The past decade of loose monetary policy and central bank money dumps have created the infamous “bubble in everything”. This is one reason we now have the bizarrely yo-yoing investment environment that we do, in which everything from risky stocks to safe gold is rising at the same time.

But one thing has remained reliably cheap — commodities. While the US equity market, which keeps ratcheting up to new highs, is almost as expensive as in the past 150 years, commodities are about as cheap relative to stocks as they’ve been in the past century.

Part of this is natural — and structural…

And yet, having watched the last big demand-driven oil spike in 2008, as well as the more financially driven price spike in 2011-12, which eventually came undone when central bankers pulled back on quantitative easing, I think it’s unwise to assume that we have entered a permanent bear market in commodities — at least not yet…

… if commodity prices did rise, there would be myriad ramifications. You would start to see the heads of petro states further emboldened, and populist nationalism increase globally — inflation in food and fuel prices hits the poor hardest, encouraging political volatility. That could, in turn, create new trade turmoil and the sort of disruption that the markets are currently discounting.

On the upside, though, demand for commodities is price elastic — once prices go too high, demand always falls. The cycle of replacing one source of energy with another has been playing out for hundreds of years, and continues. In an ideal world, the next commodities bubble, whenever it comes, could help us make what might be the final shift — away from fossil fuels and towards renewables.

The estimable Rana Foroohar explains there are many reasons for the US dollar to weaken, which would (among other drivers) cause commodity prices to rise: “Commodities may not stay cheap forever.”

* legendary investor Jim Rogers

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As we contemplate cycles, we might rejoice that it was on this date in 1605 that El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha ( or The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha— aka Don Quixote), the masterwork of Miguel de Cervantes (and of the Spanish Golden Age) was first published.

Original title page

 

Written by LW

January 16, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Oh how wrong we were to think immortality meant never dying”*…

 

quantum-simulation_1024

Quantum simulation (Verresen et al., Nature Physics, 2019)

 

Further (in a fashion) to yesterday’s post…

Nothing lasts forever. Humans, planets, stars, galaxies, maybe even the Universe itself, everything has an expiration date. But things in the quantum realm don’t always follow the rules. Scientists have found that quasiparticles in quantum systems could be effectively immortal.

That doesn’t mean they don’t decay, which is reassuring. But once these quasiparticles have decayed, they are able to reorganise themselves back into existence, possibly ad infinitum.

This seemingly flies right in the face of the second law of thermodynamics, which asserts that entropy in an isolated system can only move in an increasing direction: things can only break down, not build back up again.

Of course, quantum physics can get weird with the rules; but even quantum scientists didn’t know quasiparticles were weird in this particular manner…

Maybe some things are forever.  More at “Scientists Find Evidence a Strange Group of Quantum Particles Are Basically Immortal.”

Read the underlying Nature Physics article, by physicist Ruben Verresen and his team at the Technical University of Munich and the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, here.

* Gerard Way

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As we ponder perpetuity, we might send carefully-deduced birthday greetings to Richard Bevan Braithwaite; he was born on this date in 1900.  A Cambridge don who specialized in the philosophy of science, he focused on the logical features common to all sciences.  Braithwaite was concerned with the impact of science on our beliefs about the world and the appropriate responses to that impact.  He was especially interested in probability (and its applications in decision theory and games theory) and in the statistical sciences.  He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1946 to 1947, and was a Fellow of the British Academy.

It was Braithwaite’s poker that Ludwig Wittgenstein reportedly brandished at Karl Popper during their confrontation at a Moral Sciences Club meeting in Braithwaite’s rooms in King’s College. The implement subsequently disappeared. (See here.)

 source

 

“Nothing happens until something moves”*…

 

Universe

 

What determines our fate? To the Stoic Greek philosophers, fate is the external product of divine will, ‘the thread of your destiny’. To transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, it is an inward matter of self-determination, of ‘what a man thinks of himself’. To modern cosmologists, fate is something else entirely: a sweeping, impersonal physical process that can be boiled down into a single, momentous number known as the Hubble Constant.

The Hubble Constant can be defined simply as the rate at which the Universe is expanding, a measure of how quickly the space between galaxies is stretching apart. The slightest interpretation exposes a web of complexity encased within that seeming simplicity, however. Extrapolating the expansion process backward implies that all the galaxies we can observe originated together at some point in the past – emerging from a Big Bang – and that the Universe has a finite age. Extrapolating forward presents two starkly opposed futures, either an endless era of expansion and dissipation or an eventual turnabout that will wipe out the current order and begin the process anew.

That’s a lot of emotional and intellectual weight resting on one small number…

How scientists pinned a single number on all of existence: “Fate of the Universe.”

[Readers might remember that the Big Bang wasn’t always an accepted paradigm— and that on-going research continues to surface challenges.]

* Albert Einstein

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As we center ourselves, we might spare a thought for Kurt Friedrich Gödel; he died on this date in 1978.  A  logician, mathematician, and philosopher, he is considered (along with Aristotle, Alfred Tarski— whose birthday this also is– and Gottlob Frege) to be one of the most important logicians in history.  Gödel had an immense impact upon scientific and philosophical thinking in the 20th century.  He is, perhaps, best remembered for his Incompleteness Theorems, which led to (among other important results) Alan Turing’s insights into computational theory.

Kurt Gödel’s achievement in modern logic is singular and monumental – indeed it is more than a monument, it is a landmark which will remain visible far in space and time. … The subject of logic has certainly completely changed its nature and possibilities with Gödel’s achievement.                  — John von Neumann

kurt_gödel source

 

“I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but I liken myself to the robber barons”*…

 

shkreli

 

In the spirit of the Razzies and the “Golden Fleece Award,” The Lown Institute initiated “The Shkreli Awards”…

A top ten list of the worst examples of profiteering and dysfunction in health care, named for Martin Shkreli, the price-hiking “pharma bro” that everyone loves to hate…

Nominees for the Shkreli Awards are compiled by Lown Institute staff with input from readers of Lown Weekly. Winners are determined by an esteemed panel of patient activists, clinicians, health policy experts, and journalists…

Browse the list of 2019’s (genuinely astounding, but sadly all-too-real) “winners” here.  Also see the 2018 and 2017 winners.

* Martin Shkreli

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As think healing thoughts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1854 that Anthony Fass, a Philadelphia piano maker, was awarded the first U.S. patent (#11062) for an accordion.  (An older patent existed in Europe, issued in Vienna in 1829 to Cyrill Demian.)

“Music helps set a romantic mood. Imagine her surprise when you say, ‘We don’t need a stereo – I have an accordion’.”  – Martin Mull

“A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.”  – Tom Waits

accordion_patent source

 

“The science which feeds men is worth at least as much as the one which teaches how to kill them”*…

 

Food revolution

 

We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.I know some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I believe it comes in the nick of time…

Scientists are replacing crops and livestock with food made from microbes and water. It may save humanity’s bacon: “Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet.”

* French epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

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As we dig in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1943 that an official of the Meats Division of the wartime Office of Price Administration (OPA) announced that, for the duration of World War II, frankfurters (or ‘hot dogs’) would be replaced with “Victory Sausages,” in which a substantial proportion of the meat in those sausages would itself be replaced with “an unspecified amount of soybean meal or some other substitute.”

Victory was achieved; but it was not, in this dimension in any case, sweet.

meat-340x499 source

 

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