Monthly Archives: March 2016

On investing

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This week’s key picture is from Wikimedia commons, and shows a few things that are quite relevant to the current commentary.

Investing, that is, putting your excess resources into something worthwhile in this crazy mixed up world can be a difficult thing.

In the traditional flatland world, you take your excess money, put it into a mutual or index fund, and sit back and relax while the money builds slowly, so that when you ‘retire’, you have money to live off of, and can enjoy your sunset years.  Or you invest your money, and use it to buy a house, go on vacation, buy shiny trinkets or whatever suits your fancy.  People have asked me about investing (based on a short diversion on Wall Street), and my general response is that investing in yourself (learning something, staying healthy), your community, and your own business is probably better than any other sort of traditional investment that you could come up with.   Yes, it is still important to put money away for a rainy day, as the industrial world will still trundle on for a long time, but real wealth, as many will tell you, isn’t the sum total of your bank account and possessions.

This investment strategy is multi-fold.  In investing in yourself, your community, and so on, you invest in real things that nobody can take away from you.  Learn a language, a set of useful skills (be wary of spending thousands for a ‘degree’!); learning how to defend yourself,  making a true community – all of those things can’t be easily taken away, and reside within you.

Investing in this manner also avoids the issue of investing in companies/the stock market which is full of questionable companies and worldviews.   For example, investing in Google/Apple/Uber/Facebook might give you great returns, but their business model might prey upon the weakest in society, and be part of our industrial society which is trashing the planet.  Yes, by some traditional measures, these companies might be labeled as ‘ethical’, but they are generally heavily involved in our crazy modern society.    This investment strategy helps avoid the stress caused by cognitive dissonance – put your money where your mouth is!

One other investment (as referenced in the photo, with a green plant) – land, can be a great investment, but only if it is productive in a sustainable way.  Chris Martenson had a great comment on this on a podcast a few months ago.  It is one thing to buy a house, but another to buy a homestead, where the land can help feed you.

None of this information is new, nor is any of it groundbreaking.  However, it is important that we tell ourselves, and others, that there is another path.

Questions:

  • What do you invest in, and why?
  • Are there things you don’t invest in for ethical and/or moral reasons?
  • What are your investment suggestions, given the world of crazy that we live in these days?

 

 

 

 

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On interest rates

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(Yes, we will be using the ‘blivet’ to highlight today’s discussion on interest rates, inspired by Dmitry Orlov’s post “The Future is Blivets”.)

Many gigabytes have been spilled on the bizarro world that is upon us in the economic realm, that of interest rates – and more specifically, negative interest rates.   In this economic situation you actually lose money when you put it in a bank.   As mentioned in this short article (which uses the term bizarro as well):

In short, negative rates can make saving money seem foolish, while borrowing can become epically attractive.

This interest rate, by the way, is something that a central bank comes up with – it isn’t something that appears due to the ‘invisible hand of the market’.

The entire situation is a bit odd, for two reasons. One, it highlights the fact, that in our “capitalistic” system, the most important number for business decisions and investments (the risk free interest rate) is set by a central authority (very much like the central planners in the old USSR).   Not very capitalistic.

The second is that the quote highlights (and does so numerically!) that “saving money will be foolish… and borrowing [would be] attractive.”

If there was ever an indication that this culture has gone off the rails, it is this.  Saving, prudence, conservation, long-term thinking – is being run out of town, squashed, and otherwise banished to the far corners.   It is one thing to ignore climate data, or other indications that our world is decaying.   Somehow, I can almost accept the idea that people can ignore data, and state that the information they are getting is fudged, inaccurate, or rigged.  It is part of our nature, to ignore bad data, and things we don’t like.   But it is another to mathematically declare that no, we won’t be planning for the future, and to set in stone (at least in Europe, and soon to be in the US) that yes, down is up, black is white, and yes, you have to run as fast as you can to stay in one place.

In any economics course, one of the most basic things you assume in all of your modeling (like gravity, or that you can’t go faster than the speed of light), is that there is a non-negative risk-free interest rate, because it would be insane to pay people who you are loaning money to, and it would be crazy to put your hard-earned resources and work (money) in a bank and expect to pay for the privilege.  Obviously, this insanity is on the verge of becoming real policy  throughout the world.  Is it no wonder that people think the world is headed for a crackup?

Questions:

  • How does stuff like this even happen?
  • At what point does the system go off the rails, given this kind of thinking?
  • If interest rates were truly negative, say, -5%, how would you react?  What would you do with your cash?

 

 

 

The Importance of Art (Mr. Robot)

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(Yes, another lead picture that is red on black).

As has been discussed previously, and in many other places in the blogosphere, it is readily apparent that the population, as a whole, isn’t listening too well to the warnings and pronouncements by those who are warning about the coming train wrecks in the environment, energy, and economy.   In a nutshell – reality is ignored, and fantasy (mostly) reigns supreme.

In the exasperation of such information and idiocy, it is sometimes good to take a break; try and take a deep breath, and relax.   Upon the recommendation of a fellow techie (who suggested watching it for its technical veracity), my very rare passive time in front of a television screen was directed to USA Network’s Mr. Robot.   Rather than relaxing me, what was received was yet another lesson in why Art is important.

A bit about the series Mr. RobotMr. Robot follows one uber-savvy computer wizard with a healthy dose of social anxiety disorder, and his interactions with his peers, friends, neighbors, hacking targets, and the group of hacktivists he works with.   Although the series is well done, especially from a technical standpoint (the technical consultants to the series should be given some sort of award; many films and movies get the whole hacker/computer thing quite wrong – these folks get it right – real Linux; real commands!), the real amazement and joy in watching Mr. Robot was the discussion about reality of our world.  The series is well done in other ways; there are shades of gray, instead of black and white classic tropes, but for me the series hits hard when it comes to reality.

You may or may not be a gold bug, for example, but early on in the series, Christian Slater’s character says,

Money hasn’t been real since we got off the gold standard. It’s become virtual software. The operating system of our world. And we are on the verge of taking down this virtual reality.

Now, those of you who think that the gold standard is a barbarous relic may be correct in some sense.  Gold may not pay dividends, you can’t eat it – the list is long.   This essay isn’t about the gold standard. But the critical part of the quote is that money isn’t real now, and this is one of the pillars of our troubles – reality has been ignored.

There are a few who picked up on this; but it isn’t important that a few people write about the departure from the gold standard.   If there is something to emphasize in that brief quote, it is in that simple word standard – some sort of unchangeable metric that can’t be fiddled with, faked, or fooled.    If our currency was backed by kilowatt-hours, kilocalories, oil, timber, beaver pelts, cigarettes, or any other such physical realities, it would have shaped our way of life (and perhaps outlook) significantly differently since that fateful day in 1971 (ironically, almost near the peak of US oil production).   If anything in our collective technically driven Western culture has done so immensely well, it is to ignore reality.   Now, a false criticism may be leveled here – our technical society does really well with reality; Google metrics track our searches; we are able to measure emotions with things such functional MRI and PET scans; and our knowledge of some physical and mathematical constants is measured within many significant figures.  But this isn’t doing well with reality; it is doing well with small discrete facts.   Our overall ability to look at the entire system, as an entire species and as societies has tragically and repeatedly been incredibly poor.

Christian Slater’s character later states,

Is any of it real? I mean, look at this, look at it! A world built on fantasy! Synthetic emotions in the form of pills! Psychological warfare in the form of advertising! Mind altering chemicals in the form of food! Brainwashing seminars in the form of media! Controlled isolated bubbles in the form of social networks. Real? You want to talk about reality? We haven’t lived in anything remotely close to it since the turn of the century! We turned it off, took out the batteries, snacked on a bag of GMOs, while we tossed the remnants into the ever expanding dumpster of the human condition. We live in branded houses, trademarked by corporations, built on bipolar numbers, jumping up and down on digital displays, hypnotizing us into the biggest slumber mankind has ever seen. You’d have to dig pretty deep, kiddo, before you can find anything real. We live in a kingdom of bullshit, that even you have lived in for far too long.

Again – the departure from reality is brought front and center.

Although Mr. Robot doesn’t deeply delve into the world of climate change (that’s the job of Cli-Fi!), what this piece of television art does do is bring up the realities of money, debt, and the precariousness of our modern world, and best of all – the lack of reality that we all live with.  If Art does anything for us, it does that most important thing- show us that.   Art may not be able to calculate things to the Nth decimal place, but Art shows us what is important, in the larger sense.  All the engineering and scientific analyses over the past years seem to have done very little in convincing the world of anything.  Art can illuminate; Art can tell stories that make us want to know the truth.  It may be that Art (in the form of music) can even reduce cognitive dissonance , that handmaiden in the ability to ignore reality.

Art is important, and probably more important than most of us (engineers and scientists especially) would like to think.

Questions for this week:

  • Is art (or Art!) important in your life?  Why?
  • Do you think art can do the things that science and engineering can’t?
  • “Without art, we’d be ants.”  Any objections to this?
  • Koyaanisqatsi (discussed last week) and Mr. Robot are completely different; but both show us a reality that we don’t usually like to consider.   Any other pieces of art (music, theater, film) that have shown reality well (The Big Short is another recent favorite)?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koyaanisqatsi

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The film Koyaanisqatsi (the first of a trilogy) was made in 1982; the film Baraka (made by Koyaanisqatsi’s cinematographer) was made ten years later.   There are are series of films that have followed in the same vein; one of the latest is Samsara (2011).   The only one I’ve seen in full are Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka, but from the trailers of the other films, it seems that they are cut from the same cloth; absolutely beautiful and with stunning cinematography, and an underlying message that the modern world is just not quite right, and in fact, crazy.

The term ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is a Hopi word that means ‘life out of balance’, or ‘a state of life that calls for another way of living’, and at the end of the film, a translation of some Hopi prophecies appears:

  • “If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.”
  • “Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.”
  • “A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.”

Pretty powerful stuff, and it makes you wonder if there is something to prophecy in general (you can easily decipher what some of these things are).

The essential message remains – we are in a world ‘out of balance’.   These films do a great job of summing things up; one of the greatest things about them is the lack of dialogue.  One of the director’s comments (on Koyaanisqatsi) rings even more true today:

“…it’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live. If one lives in this world, the globalised world of high technology, all one can see is one layer of commodity piled upon another.”

This fits in with a lot of us in the Peak Everything world have been saying for years; we live in a world that has so surpassed rational thought (if that is possible, for humans to have rational thoughts!) that it is even hard to describe, with most of us being part of this crazy world.  Yes, as writers/bloggers/zine publishers, we try our best, but it may be possible that our language can’t contain words for what is happening.  A bit ironic, yes, as this is a written piece, but maybe like a two-dimensional shadow of the three-dimensional object, those of us in Flatland (and don’t forget the excellent set of essays on Flatland at Decline of Empire), we can only hint at this higher dimensional issue, which is outside of our monkey brain’s capability to process.

So, where does that leave us?

In re-reading the Flatland essays over at DOTE, there is a video by George Marshall (who wrote Don’t Even Think About It – Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change), and he mentions “telling new narratives and stories” in order for us to start convincing others of the reality of climate change.   It seems that a lot of ink (virtual and otherwise) has been expended in trying to convince people that yeah, things are pretty horrific, and we’d better get our collective asses in gear.

Perhaps films (and ironically, the ones without dialogue, made by beings whose hallmark feature is language) are one way of telling these stories.  Our language (and rhetoric of the age) does seem to be broken and unable to communicate reality.   I’m not holding my breath.   But perhaps it is worth a shot.

Questions:

  • What would you put in your own modern day Koyaanisqatsi film?  Pictures of people on their iDevices on the subway?   More rockets blowing up (from Elon Musk)?   A Steve Jobs or Mark Z presentation?
  • In as much I’m allergic to technofixes as JHK is allergic to conspiracy theories – would uber-high-tech things such as direct mind to mind connection capability help transmit these memes, or would we just use them for porn, as we have for all other technologies?
  • Are there any other options for helping people understand our predicament?