Tuesday 23 May, 2023

So long, San Francisco?

This shocking photograph on the cover of the FT’s weekend magazine heralded an extraordinary report (which may be behind a paywall, thought I hope not) about the catastrophic decline of San Francisco. It seems to be in the grip of the same kind of downward spiral that hollowed out Detroit in the 1970s — when it became the urban area on which Jay Forrester’s famous modelling study Urban Dynamics was effectively based.

Of course I knew that the city was having problems, despite (or perhaps because of) being just up the road from Silicon Valley, the greatest wealth-creating machine in the history of the world. But I had no idea things were as bad as the article reports. When my late wife Sue and I were there in the 1990s we both felt that, if we had to live permanently in the US, SF was where we would want to be.

Quote of the Day

“One day while Mr. Edison and I were calling on Luther Burbank in California, he asked us to register in his guest book. The book had a column for signature, another for home address, another for occupation and a final one entitled ‘Interested in’. Mr. Edison signed in a few quick but unhurried motions… In the final column he wrote without an instant’s hesitation: ‘Everything'”.

  • Henry Ford on Thomas Edison.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn | String Quartet No. 62, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor” (2nd movement) | Veridis Quartet (Live performance)


Long Read of the Day

The rise of pluto-populism — and its consequences

Long — and very sobering — review by Jonathan Kirshner of Martin Wolf’s recent book on the fraught relationship between capitalism and liberal democracy.

It is hard not to be in agreement—even deeply moved agreement—with Wolf’s diagnoses. And the middle third of this book, “What Went Wrong,” should be required reading for anyone who might underestimate the present danger faced by even long-standing “consolidated democracies.” When it comes to solutions, unfortunately, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism comes up short. Wolf, ever measured, is convincing in making the case for reform over revolution. Although it is tempting to think that deeply ingrained problems require tearing things down, revolutionary movements almost invariably spiral out of control, fall into the hands of ever more radical extremists, and devolve into bloodbaths. Yet it is disheartening that the sensible, reformist agenda of reasonable, practical measures that Wolf outlines already seems beyond the capacity of our politics.

This admirable review-essay provides pretty good support for my feeling that we now need a ‘Theory of Incompetent Systems’ — i.e. ones that cannot fix themselves. If democracies are to survive in any meaningful sense, then radical changes are needed — many of them proposed and argues for by Wolf. But…

Books, etc.

My Observer review of Scott Shapiro’s book:

As we head towards 2030, a terrible realisation is dawning on us – that we have built a world that is critically dependent on a set of technologies that almost nobody understands, and which are also extremely fragile and insecure. Fancy Bear Goes Phishing seeks to tackle both sides of this dilemma: our collective ignorance, on the one hand, and our insecurity on the other. Its author says that he embarked on the project seeking an understanding of just three things. Why is the internet so insecure? How (and why) do the hackers who exploit its vulnerabilities do what they do? And what can be done about it?

In ornithological terms, Scott Shapiro is a pretty rare bird – an eminent legal scholar who is also a geek…

Read on

How extreme heat kills

Andrew Dessler explains how, and in doing so answers a question that for me first came up when I was reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.

When ambient temperatures are in the 80s, sweating supplements sensible heat loss, so we don’t have to sweat much to keep our bodies at the right temperature.

But as temperatures rise and the environmental temperature approaches our body temperature, sensible heat transport becomes less effective and we rely more and more on latent heat transport to get rid of heat. This means we need to sweat more to keep thermoregulated.

As the environmental temperature rises above your body temperature, the direction of the temperature gradient reverses and sensible heat transport begins heating your body. At this point, you need to sweat even more so that the sweat can remove your body’s 100 W plus the heat absorbed from the environment.

“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”: Sweating by itself doesn’t cool you — the sweat has to evaporate. One of the factors that controls this is humidity of the environment…

When the air temperature is high, the body cannot cool itself with sensible heat transfer. And when the humidity is high, the body also cannot cool itself with latent heat transfer (sweating). Under those conditions, people’s core temperatures will rise and even young, healthy people will experience heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or even death. Even if they’re sitting still in the shade, with a fan on them.

My commonplace booklet

The Problem With Counterfeit People

The philosopher Dan Dennett thinks that, with so-called ‘AI’ and chatbots, the tech industry is forging humans.

Which is why we really must stop anthropomorphising chatbots.

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