The Book of Ecclesiastes, as so it has been said, is one of those really odd parts of the Bible.  A bit self contradictory in places, but in general it gives some good guidelines to live by, like the Dhammapada.

Why bring this up?

A recent visit to help someone downsize a house had us going through old papers, books, records, and equipment of someone far closer to the end of life than the start.   It was a sobering experience.   Yes, we all know about “peak everything”, climate change, and the craziness of our financial system.  But that visit, plus JMG’s recent post on the the timescales of the Earth was another nail in the coffin (no pun intended) of the reality of of our short personal time here, and the short time of our civilization.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”


  • Why is it so hard for people in the Western world to accept the reality of their own demise, and the demise of civilization?
  • After the next few downturns, is it possible that we might be more cognizant of these things, and incorporate them into whatever society forms?
  • What concrete events have woken you up to these realities?
  • What have you read that has opened your eyes to the fragility and transience of life and civilization?


Noblesse Oblige

In thinking about leadership, and who will run things in the future, one wonders about that classic phrase, “noblesse oblige” – that the rich and powerful have serious responsibilities, keeping with their privileges.    The classic Wikipedia article on this has an interesting take on this – the concept may be reinforcing the idea of a nobility, and allowing them to exist:

Noblesse oblige, while seeming to impose on the nobility a duty to behave nobly, thereby apparently gives the aristocracy a justification for their privilege. Their argument is “as nobles, we have rights, but we have duties also; so such duties validate our rights.”

OK, we’ve got it; ‘noblesse oblige’ is the obligation part, but it might be a reason for the nobles/elites to stay in power.  This week’s essay is short, because frankly, it seems a bit of a coin toss if an elite that truly believes and acts for the benefit of society is a bad thing or a good thing.

Like it says on the tin, “More questions than answers.”


  • When did noblesse oblige go out of style?
  • Why did it end?
  • Will it come back, in some form, or does it have to die (with attendant pitchforks and torches) before it rises up?
  • Do the elites ever learn?
  • Should we care if there are elites and powerful folks, if they do good work, and lead nobly?
  • If a leader is truly a good one, believes in their mission, and acts accordingly (the casualty rate of nobles who fought in Rome’s wars was higher than regular folks, at least in the beginning), then should we be complaining?   Or does an elite always devolve into a greedy plutocracy?  Seems like it always has, but could this change?



In the public domain;,_c.1806_de_Juan_Antonio_Ribera.jpg

History is filled with some pretty gruesome characters, who have inflicted a great deal of pain and misery on the world.  Many times, people get seduced by power, and as soon as they get hold of power, they never want to let it go.   In order to hold on to it, they’ll stop at nothing.  On the other end of the spectrum, there are most people – folks who don’t want ever increasing power, and would be content to live their own lives, and go about their own business.

There are a small sliver of folks, however, who can lead, and lead quite well, but will only lead when absolutely forced to, and only when circumstances require that they lead.   The historical figures who exemplify this, unfortunately, are relatively limited.

There are only a few in history who seem to have had this trait.  Cinncinatus is the first that comes to mind; in “modern” times George Washington is seen as the “Cinncinatus of the West.” But the list after that is relatively short.  If you asked for a list of dictators, despots, and petty tyrants, you’d probably have no problem in coming up with a dozen.

It would be fantastic if we could make a list of common traits of these great leaders, who abdicate power as soon as they are done, but the list of folks to choose from is seemingly too short.  Narrowing down what makes these almost supernaturally disciplined figures arise, and what upbringing forged them is an interesting question.

We might welcome another Cinncinnatus, to help us in these crazy times.   But they are few and far between, it seems.

  • What makes these figures have the capability to lead,  and the capability of giving up power so readily?  Is this a genetic fluke, or something that can be taught at an early age?
  • Would anyone  from the U.S. (or other democratically controlled, civilian led) military have this discipline?
  • Who would you nominate as a modern day Cinncinatus; someone who achieves power for a short time then gives it up when the job is done?
  • How about from the science fiction or fantasy worlds?   Jean-Luc Picard?   Those who took the One Ring and cast it into the fires of Mount Doom?
  • Is the habit of power harder to kick than heroin?








Intellectual NASCAR

Tonight, the debate between Clinton and Trump was televised.  And, like most television, it was more likely to entertain than to inform.  Many folks have made up their mind already, and all this could do was reinforce what they already decided.

If anything, these “debates” (micromanaged to the last detail), are essentially “intellectual NASCAR”, where some folks aren’t looking to see the race (and attendant strategies) or the debate issues, but to look for the big gaffe, the big crash, the intellectual-wrapped-around-a-telephone-poll blunder that shows that the other side is ill-equipped to lead, govern, or even put two coherent sentences together.

Frankly, given the rhetoric on both sides, it seems like a waste of time to listen to a few debates.  Politicians, as much as we might dislike many of them, are human beings, and are bound to make mistakes, missteps, and gaffes.  It happens.

There were seven (!) Lincoln-Douglass debates (and they weren’t even presidential ones, at that).  In them, one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other spoke for 90 minutes, and then the other spoke for 30 minutes, as a ‘rejoinder’.   Can you imagine, in this age of twitter and soundbites, any candidate speaking coherently for 90 minutes, and better yet, someone coming back for 60 minutes, or even 30 minutes?

Although the modern format of debates has changed considerably, there are three presidential debates, and only one vice-presidential debate.  My guess is that these won’t change much, we won’t learn much, and at best, the folks who are watching will be looking for the big intellectual car crash, than learning anything new.


  • What sort of debate format would get us to really know the candidates?  How could we make the debates work any better?   How about even small changes, like having the candidates sit down?
  • How many debates should there be?  My guess is one per week (or every two weeks) that had a particular topic to be discussed (the economy, defence, health and education, commerce, the environment) would get us a far deeper understanding of things.
  • Is this entire thesis wrong?  Do the debates tell us things we don’t already know?
  • Have you ever seen a debate and been swayed by the other side’s oratory or arguments?
  • Are debates an anachronism, given the level of information that each candidate gives out and discusses?




Some recent articles in the NY Post had some comments and discussion about the folks returning from that big festival in the desert you might have heard about.  The first article, that says “Burning Man is a cry for help” seems a bit dubious.   I know quite a few “burners” and most of them go there because they actually enjoy the art, enjoy making things, and enjoy the world that they live in.  The bit that spoke volumes, however, is something from that second article, about coming back from Burning Man:

“How do you transition back? You feel fake — you feel like you’re an impostor. I experience depression because I have impostor syndrome — that’s what I suffer for weeks coming back,” says Joanna Nabholz, a mom of three kids under 6 who works in tech and declined to give her age. “You feel like you’re lying to yourself.”

It’s not uncommon for attendees to re-evaluate their raison d’être post-festival.

“You find people who question their job or who quit their corporate environment — some job that’s not their mission,” Kaplan says. “It’s a common story.”

Ah, the proverbial nail on the head.  There is an amazing cognitive dissonance that happens when people see things like that, and then return to their previous lives.   It’s almost like having a near-death experience, and then shrugging it off as a quirk, and going back to the routine you had, ignoring the reality of what you just saw.

As much as I’m not the hugest fan of the fossil fuels and extravaganza of excess that happens in the desert, the ethos of Burning Man does posit a different way of living and viewing the world, and for that, I think it is worth examining.   The local “burns” that happen around the country are a bit more my style; they have far less of an environmental impact, and being smaller (Burning Man is over 50,000 people), they are a bit more “cosy” and are perhaps a little less overwhelming.   As much as there is a lot of valid criticism of Burning Man (who can afford to attend, the environmental impact,  the people who do attend, especially now), Burning Man and their smaller offshoots are trying to come up with different ways of viewing how people and communities can get together and get things done.

Of course, this isn’t all perfect.   Some Burners believe in the techno-utopia (and quite a few folks in attendance hail from the Mecca of the Techno-Utopia, San Francisco); some may believe that all the world needs is the Ten Principles.   But for a start on the way we might live our lives differently, this could be at least an interesting way forward.   This will still have to square with things like Dunbar’s number, resource limitations, the ability of a community stay cohesive in the long haul (Burning Man is not religious or based on family ties, and may not hew to the “Communities that abide” template that has examined the “best practices” in community building).

One laughable comment that needs a bit of skewering, however, is one of the last lines in the second article:

“In a post-apocalyptic world, post-nuclear holocaust, this is the way people can survive.”

Uh, probably not.  Look at any local apocalypse (any war zone) and it probably won’t look anything like a Burning Man camp, and most likely won’t have 50,000 people in a barren desert.  Somebody has been watching a few too many Mad Max movies.


  • What do you think of Burning Man?
  • What are some of the best things that have come out of it?  The worst?
  • Which of the “Ten Principles” might be carried forward into the future?
  • Have we reached “Peak Burn”, where tickets have become far too expensive, and too many turnkey camps have appeared?




The usefulness of small disasters


In reflecting on some minor glitches in these past few weeks, it can be a good thing to reflect on the usefulness of these very glitches (sometimes called small disasters when you are in the thick of things).  Of course, it isn’t fun to have to deal with a wonky computer and email, a broken vehicle or flat tire, small financial losses, and so on, but these events can prove beneficial in the long run, if only to reinforce the idea that we should never get too comfortable.   If you’ve ever changed a flat tire at night and in the rain, you know that not having a flashlight or rainjacket can be the difference between an inconvenience and a miserable experience.  Small disasters give us reminders that a bit of preparation or work ahead of time can prevent them from becoming larger ones.  Small disasters and glitches are good reminders that Mr. Murphy lurks in all human endeavors, and a bit of preparedness and firewalling of important elements in your life (and the life of communities and nations).

Some small “disasters” that have gone unheeded have more likely than not caused greater trouble down the road, and conversely, disasters that have made people pay attention have more likely than not helped prevent larger troubles.

In the category of unheeded small disasters, the incident at Three Mile Island and a host of other small nuclear accidents should have been a telling indicator that nuclear power (as implemented) was an is unsafe in its current form, and that we should either get serious about how we use nuclear power, or abandon it completely.  Of course, most of the world hasn’t, and incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima have continued, getting worse as time goes on.

In the category of ‘heeded’ small disasters (and some of those disaster weren’t so small), the abolition of chemical warfare (mostly heeded by major powers) after World War One, and the elimination of CFCs that were destroying the ozone seem like things that had enough impetus to reverse course, or at least put a large damper on certain developments.  The examples are numerous on both sides, and you can find them everywhere.

The sad part about the inevitable ignoring small disasters (or not accepting smaller amounts of pain) is that the inevitable bigger shock that comes along when not accepting or permitting small amounts of pain is likely to feel worse.  Also, handling larger disasters can sometimes be impossible, as the problem can be too big to solve.

There are a few examples of this that haven’t yet born fruit, but my suspicion is that these unheeded and “underhandled” situations are going to make life really miserable for many people quite soon.

One is the decision by the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates artificially low for so long.   Interest rates (the risk free interest rate, most specifically) is one of the key elements in a financial system, and by artificially keeping it low, the Fed has blown multiple asset bubbles of immense proportions.  Money is incredibly cheap, and as interest rates are low, too much money is chasing crazy ideas and projects.  The bubbles in real estate and stocks are still being inflated, and when these bubbles pop, it is going to be tough sledding for many folks (who thought housing prices, even in metro areas, only ‘went up’).   If we had accepted the true pain and mis-allocation in 1999, 2008, rather than propping things up, yes, things would have been hard. But now, that things have gone so out of whack, the resulting crash will hurt a lot more.  A few small disasters might have made people wise up.

The second is the issue about Peak Oil itself, and our society’s inability to come to grips with the energy issue.  After a few oil embargoes, and a few wars in the Middle East, the United States and others should have seen the signs, and actually gotten its act together regarding energy policy, and its dependence on foreign oil.  Yes, things might have cost more, but in the long run, we might have been in better shape.  Now, it is to too late to change course, and the end result will be a bit of a mess.

The odd thing is, these sorts of mini-disasters happen to individual people all the time.  People can learn from these mini disasters (ask the folks who survived Katrina or Sandy), but it seems larger institutions rarely do so.  Folks in places such as the Fed still think they are omniscient, and that they can control the levers which make the economy hum along, even when disasters have started to oscillate to the point of being out of control, or too big to correct.

Kinda sad, but that is the problem with not handling small disasters, and letting them grow to larger ones.   You may that ignoring a problem turns it into a much larger one down the road!


  • Personally, have small disasters made you wise up?  Does the disaster have to really hit you hard, or can you pay attention after a ‘close call’?
  • How big does a disaster have to be before one ‘wises up’?  How do you even measure such a thing (personally)?
  • Why do we still have this disconnect (avoidance behavior) in our philosophical worldview?
  • What tragedies and disasters have been ignored by society?  Which ones have been illuminated, and tamed?