Winter Comes To Lagos

Winter finally arrived in Lagos, with cold temperatures and snow last night. It was not a big snowstorm, but it is still snowing as I type this. The local weather people say we will get 5-8 inches of snow today, in addition to the four or five that came last night. It’s hard to know with weather forecasts these days, as they exaggerate everything. They name every storm so they can talk about it like it is a monster from a 1960’s Japanese monster movie, “Mothra is attacking Lagos with snow and freezing temps!”

I’m a big fan of winter and I like snow, so I look forward to it snowing. I had some errands to run this morning, so I was out at sunup to shovel the truck out and clear the walk. I’m one of those people who enjoys shoveling snow. There is a limit to my enjoyment, but as long as the snow is not three feet deep or super-heavy, I enjoy the exercise and the satisfaction of seeing a clean walk. So, I was out first thing to shovel and then run some errands. I did not see anyone else out and about, so it was more quiet that usual.

That’s something I’ve observed in different parts of the world. When I lived in New Hampshire, the locals all seemed to love shoveling snow, almost as much as they loved complaining. The distinguishing feature of the New England Yankee is complaining about the weather. I recall the first snow storm when I moved to Manchester. I went out at first light to see all my neighbors out shoveling their walks and driveways. By breakfast, all of the walks were clear on my block and most drives were clear as well.

In contrast, Lagos may never clear the snow. My first snowstorm here was my first year, so I was unfamiliar with the local customs. We got a big snowstorm, over 30-inches, and the city was shut down for a week. I drove to the office to shovel the walk and found I was the only person out shoveling his walk. In fact, that whole winter the sidewalks were an obstacle course of frozen boot-prints, patches of ice and snow boulders. In theory, there’s a fine for not shoveling your walk, but I never heard anyone mention it.

That explains a weird thing you see here in Lagos, as well as other vibrant areas. When it snows, the locals walk in the streets. They will do this even when the walks are clear. I think it is just years of conditioning that has turned into a custom. You will see this in the county when it snows. People go out and walk in the streets. Here in Lagos, it means driving gets even more adventurous, as the locals could very well attack you while you are trying to navigate around them on the snow covered streets.

The other thing you see in places like this is how differences in time preference turn up in city planning efforts. My first storm here I learned that no one had bothered to service the city’s snow removal equipment. In fact, much of it was either disabled or missing. I recall that half the plows were either broken or unaccounted for, so snow removal was a comical failure. When your focus is on today, that is you have a high time preference, planning for even predictable eventualities is beyond your scope of interest.

This, of course, is a great way to introduce people to evolutionary concepts regarding human diversity. A thousand generations in a place without snow and inevitably the humans will adapt to a life without snow. It’s not just learned behavior at work. Nature is always tinkering with her creations. As Nick Wade put it, evolution is local, recent and copious. Put people from the real Lagos in a place with variability in the environmental conditions and their biological limitations will be exposed.

Of course, something that seems near universal is the panic that comes before every snowstorm, even in the snowiest places. I went to the market this morning and it was stone silent. The reason is everyone piled in yesterday. I saw this in New England when I lived there, so it is not just an unfamiliarity with snow. This seems to happen everywhere, so maybe the sense of something happening triggers the preparedness instinct in people with low time preference. The itch to prepare always needs to be scratched.

That said, there seems to be a strong desire among some pale folk to never have to deal with winter. I have friends who talk every winter about their desire to move south and never see another snow flake in person. The number of pale retirees in the Sun Belt says a large portion of pale people may be built for winter, but they really hate it. I’ve always found this baffling. I love winter and love the snow. It’s peaceful and beautiful. There’s a simplicity to it that appeals to me. Even in Lagos, I welcome old man winter.

The End Of The Line

The Consumer Electronics Show happened this week in Las Vegas. There was a time when this was an international event, as everyone wanted to see the latest electronic gadgets that were about to hit the market. The pace of change was so quick, every year featured cool new ideas and concepts that promised to alter how we experience our entertainments. There was also the futuristic factor, as companies would preview what cool new technology they were about to bring from the lab to your home.

That’s no longer the case as the consumer electronics business seems to have run out of road, as far as cool new ideas. This is apparent in the troubles Apple is suddenly facing. It makes a cool looking toy, but there’s nothing unique about an iPhone. It does what all the phones do now. The gap between it and the low end brands is not enough to warrant a premium. This is an issue turning up all across the consumer electronics space. There’s just no new technology to make any of it “must have” or any brand unique.

The big new idea this year is 8K TV, which is just becoming a reality. TV makers have made 4K the default now. Everyone hopes these super high resolution TV’s will spark a revolution in both accessory items and the content itself. So far, 4K has not made much of an impact on consumers. It turns out that better resolution does not improve the quality of the content. That was true of HD, but at least those sets looked cool and they were much easier to move around the living room. They also made 80-inch screens possible.

That’s the tell with this stuff. If a new technology has an impact on the consumer, it can first sell at a premium. That was the case with HD television. Middle-class white guys in the suburbs built man caves around their big screen. That did not happen with 4K television as people just ignored it until the price dropped to normal levels. That means the same will happen with 8K. The resolution and sound of the television has reached the point where it is more than good enough for the majority of people.

Manufacturers have known this for a while, which is why they invested heavily in virtual reality. Virtual reality or some other immersive technology is the assumed to be the next step, but people don’t seem to like the idea. VR headsets have been out for a while and they have been a big flop with the public. Part of it is you look like an idiot wearing the things and no one wants to look ridiculous. The experience so far is less virtual reality and more altered reality, like being on hallucinogens.

There’s also the fact that virtual reality will probably not work anything like the electronics makers imagine. Human perception is something we know little about and what we think we know we have all wrong. Much of our reality is probably generated by our brains from stimuli that we get through our senses. We’re not living in the matrix, but we are living in a stripped down version of reality. Our brains consumer just what is necessary to build a reality from information stored in our brains that we accumulated in life.

Otherwise, the “new” stuff coming from electronics makers is increasingly ridiculous implementations of things like voice activation. A voice activated parasol was probably fun to design, but it is entirely useless. In fact, voice activated stuff will most likely fail miserably for two reasons. One is the idiocy of it. Just think of how annoying it is to talk to a robot on the phone when dealing with the bank or pharmacist. No matter how good the technology gets, you will always know you are talking to a thing and that feels dumb.

The other factor is privacy. You have to be close to retarded to invite these devices into your home, given what we already know about the tech firms. If the mobile carriers are willing to sell your location data in real-time to anyone who wants to buy it, including criminals, then they will sell your private conversations in real time too. Just as prisoners figure out how to make their cells a private space, the future means the home becomes a technology free area, so people can have an escape from the panopticon.

The end of the road for consumer electronics will no doubt have an impact on video content creation. Something that has gone unnoticed is how the technological revolution transferred billions every year from consumers to the entertainment business, without much change in the content. If anything, the result was more bad content and much more propaganda. The selling of the poz is so over the top now, it is intolerable. That suggests the content makers are ripe for “disruption” as the cool kids say.

A hint of it is in the audio space. It took a while, but the mp3 altered music and spoken word formats. People still listen to talk radio, for example, but the switch to podcasts and live streams is happening quickly. Like evening news shows, terrestrial radio is the thing that appeals to older people. It has no future. In all probability, we are on the cusp of a similar revolution in video content. It will have different contours, but the end result will be a radical change in the economics of entertainment.

Of course the petering out of the consumer electronics revolution will have economic consequences. The PC revolution ran its course, just as we are seeing with home entertainment and mobile phones. At the end, we quickly saw a consolidation and commoditization of the market. No one thinks much about the big name computer makers and in time no one will care who makes their television or smart phone. These household names will either move onto other things or go out of business.

The Risk Of Speed

When it comes to automation, people tend to assume the robots will perform the same tasks as the humans they replace, just with fewer mistakes and fewer days off. While that is true, automation almost always means changing how the work gets done, in order to break it into discrete operations. Instead of a man at a workstation, doing a series of tasks, each task is done as a single event by a single robot. This simplifies the task of automation and reduces the cost of the automation by eliminating variables.

This atomization of the work not only makes the work process more efficient, it changes how the humans have to analyze it. Instead of focusing on the people, they must focus on the process. That’s always part of process improvement, but because the process changes and the variables change, new phenomenon turn up in the process. In statistics, they say quantity has a quality all its own. In automated systems, speed has a quality all its own. Those super fast, super accurate robots change the nature of the process.

Think of the game of table tennis. It is a pretty simple game, in terms of strategy. The players try to trick one another with various tactics like setting up a shot or putting spin on the ball so it is hard to return. Player A will use top spin to force Player B to change how he strikes the ball. At some point Player A will change, thus fooling Player B, who then hits the ball beyond the far edge of the table. Alternatively, one player will make the other player move side to side, increasing the chances of a physical error.

If you are coaching table tennis, it is all about training the human to play against the other human. Now, replace the players with robots. The first thing that changes is the players will not make physical errors. So, the side to side business no longer makes sense. The same is true of using ball spin to induce a physical error. The robots will strike the ball correctly each time. In other words, when you remove human error and human emotion from the game, the strategy of the game has to change as well.

It also means the game changes. For example, the team that makes the first robot player will build it to capitalize on human error. Soon, other teams will replace their humans with robots. At that point, everyone stops trying to exploit human error. Instead, they are trying to make faster robots. If their robots can exceed the physical limits of the other robots, then they win. Soon, there is an arms race between the robot builders to make the fastest robot, in terms of physical response, along with the faster processors.

If you stop and think about what this would look like, it sounds kind of cool at first. The first robots would be slow and stupid, but eventually they would pretty amazing. They would go from amusing to terrifying as the speed of the game would become incomprehensible to humans. The speed, agility and processing power of the machines would have the ball flying through the air near its maximum velocity of 900 miles per hour. The paddles would be made of special material, in order to prevent them from flying apart.

Automating the game of table tennis would first result in removing the strategy of the game that exploits human failure. This would be true of any system that is being automated. System analysis would also change as the speed of the machines would create new points of failure and new challenges, in terms of finding efficiency and a competitive edge. In other words, as the problem solving shifts from the human variable to the engineering issues, system analysis has to change accordingly.

Now, instead of robots playing table tennis, let’s think of something else. Currently, close to 90% of trades in the equities markets are done by robots, which are just computer programs attached to the financial system. These programs have access to financial data throughout the system, which is inputted into their systems and the output is the buy and sell decisions. Teams of smart people called “quants” spend endless hours fine-tuning their programs to make them faster and more efficient at trading equities.

If you read the book The Money Game, which was written in the 1960’s, it presciently predicted the rise of the machines in the financial markets. What was clear to smart people at the dawn of the robot age, but not clear to most people, is the old systems regulating and controlling markets would not hold up to automation. It took the Black Monday crash of 1987 for everyone to realize that the controls had to change in order to accommodate the new robot players in the financial system.

In the 2000’s, the rise of high speed trading algorithms and large scale trading models eventually broke the system again. The emergence of the so-called “flash-crash” was entirely due to speed. While the first phase of automation removed the normal human checks on trading, resulting in runaway selling, the next phase of automation allowed for bad human decisions, like errors in trading algorithms, to be implemented so quickly, the systems could not respond. The result was erroneous sell-offs.

That brings us to the current market volatility. The decline itself is getting all of the attention, mostly for marketing and political reasons. The dullards in the media know how to sell gloom and they like blaming bad news on Trump. Historically, this bear market is not important. Whether it is called a correction or a bear market, the numbers are not all that significant. We’ve seen much worse. No one is jumping from their office windows and the public is not banging the sell button on the investment account.

What’s unique about this market is the weirdness. There is sustained volatility, but also a sustained decline, that does not appear to correlate to factors in the economy or in the financial system. The tiniest bit of news can cause wild swings. Apple announced what everyone should have known by now, that their toys are not selling as well as in the past, and the market takes a big tumble. Apple shares dropped 10% in minutes. Of course, this ripples to the rest of the market in seconds as well.

What could be happening is the next phase of automation. The speed and complexity of the algorithms are no longer comprehensible by the humans involved in the system. Like our table tennis playing robots, a level of speed and complexity passes the event horizon of humans to comprehend. Watching the robots play table tennis would be like watching a whirl of stars, beautiful, but impossible for the mind to fathom. Similarly, the new market dynamics may be reaching the limits of human regulators to fathom.

This is not to imply that the robot traders have become aware and are now taking control of the system from humans. That would be interesting, but the robots are still relatively dumb. Instead, they have reached levels of efficiency and speed that exceeds our ability to model properly. The result is the wild volatility and the seemingly irrational behavior of the markets. Put another way, this is the age of basic ideas implemented so fast and with such efficiency, they become irrational to their human creators.

2019 Predictions

Most of the predictions for the coming year have something about Trump and his agenda, as he faces a divided Congress. What will be revealed is the Congress is not so divided after all, as both parties will boldly lock shields to thwart the Trump agenda. The House will spend the year issuing subpoenas and holding hearings so their more clownish elements can perform for the cameras. The Senate will go on strike, doing nothing other than quietly pushing through Trump’s appointments to the Federal bench.

The Mueller probe will take a different turn in 2019. Now that it has been established as a semi-permanent oversight office, charged with keeping Trump from doing anything, the cover-up of the FBI subversion will be completed. All Congressional inquiries will end and the IG reports will contain nothing. Team Mueller will then turn to watching everyone working in the White House to make sure nothing can be done without the approval of official Washington. Team Mueller will be the shadow cabinet going forward.

The race to see who succeeds Trump in 2020 will be where the action is as the Democrats start to get serious about building their field. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris will be working the donor circuit, using exploratory committees to help build their brands in early states. The Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary are just 13 months away. Elizabeth Warren will turn out to be Howard Dean in a dress, as her campaign will make a lot of noise in the media, but not appeal to actual voters.

Because the Democrats will be shifting their focus to winning the White House in 2020, the censorship trend will take a different turn, as the tech giants begin to censor the Left. Look for the social media companies to begin cracking down on the BernieBro wing, in an effort to boost the standing of party approved candidates. Suddenly, groups like Antifa are going to find themselves without the protection they have enjoyed. They were always corporate tools, they just never knew it. In 2019, they find out who signs their checks.

The volatile bear market will continue as the financial world adjusts to some big new realities. One is the white retirement will quicken, slowing the flow of cash into retirement funds. Second, the Fed will continue to unwind its positions, thus raising the value of cash, while managing a mild deflation in asset values. Home prices will start to fall in certain markets and categories. The great demographic turnover has begun and the financial world will begin learning why no one cares about the Mexican stock market.

The world will start to notice that the Chinese economy cannot transition to one reliant on domestic demand fast enough to avoid a correction. China built its economy on currency manipulation and exploiting loopholes in global trade arrangements. Those loopholes are now closing. The Fed and ECB are much less tolerant of currency manipulation. The transition to a more normal economic model will require breaking more than a few iron rice bowls. That means China will get more authoritarian in the near term.

Theresa May will not get her fake Brexit bill through the Commons. Instead, there will be a second referendum later in the year so the Brits can vote correctly this time. The original deadline will be suspended pending the outcome of the new referendum, which will be rigged to make sure the remain side wins. Theresa May’s government will fall and new elections will be held. All concerned will accept a Tory defeat as the price that must be paid in order to defend British democracy.

On the Continent, populist unrest will give momentum to the Three Seas Initiative as part of a corrective to the European project. This year will see two camps emerge with one favoring the decentralized model championed by Poland and another camp favoring a centralized model with Germany in charge. The irony of the decentralized model being favored by all of the former communist nations will not be lost on anyone. The great test for both camps is their approach to immigration, which is becoming untenable.

Cord cutting will begin to have a real impact on the sports entertainment business. The rapid growth of American sports was driven by television money. That television money came from the cable monopolies that were given the right to tax households for content they would not otherwise purchase. Cord cutting and the demographic changes mean fewer households willing to pay the Hollywood jizya. This is the year when college and professional sports leagues begin to feel the pinch.

Finally, this is the year when serious questions about the authenticity of the Facebook business model go mainstream. For years, everyone has accepted their word, as far the number of users looking at ads on the site. Every six months they have to apologize for another “bug” in the metrics that overstated their claims. No one really knows how many humans actually use the site and advertisers have no way to know if humans really view their ads. This year people begin to wonder if Facebook is on the level.

Year In Review

This is the time of year when lazy writers post about the comings and goings of the previous year, usually in the form of a listicle. “The top-10 events of the past year” is a column that used to turn up in every newspaper at least once. Then you have the predictions for the coming year, which no one ever mentions as part of their year in review posts. With technology being what it is, you would think a new genre of year-end post would be the review of futures past type of post, but that has not happened.

There is some utility in looking at these things. It’s a lot like reading old articles about the glorious future of the 1990’s. It is a good reminder that most of the things we think are important turn out to be not so important. You look at some of the predictions from last year and wonder why anyone cared to mention it. Of course, you also wonder why no one mentioned what happens to be important right now. How many forecasters predicted a budget fight between Trump and his own party over wall funding?

Looking at your own past predictions is a bit humbling, which is probably why no one does it as a part of their year-end posting. Here is my post from last year with my crystal ball forecast for the upcoming year. I’m not a fan of the listicle, so it is written in the normal format. Looking back on it, maybe a list is not such a terrible thing to do for these sorts of posts. It does make it easier to read. That said, the very worst people write listicles, so I just can’t bring myself to do it. One has to keep up appearances.

So, how’d I do?

Well, I got the DACA stuff mostly right. The part I got wrong is that Trump would just drop the whole thing, rather than let the program expire unnoticed. Instead, he and his new boy-toy, Lindsey Graham are talking about trading 700,000 green cards to invaders in exchange for a down payment on his wall. In fact, Trump has gotten nothing from Congress with regards to immigration, so on that score I can only give myself a solid “C+” for getting close, but over estimating Trump’s political skill.

A similar thing is true with the Mueller probe. I got the easy part right. The farcical nature of the thing is now plain to everyone. Even the Democrats have stopped yapping about Russian collusion. The mask has dropped and they are clear about it being a way to hobble Trump. That’s not entirely true, as it is mostly a way to cover-up the Obama effort to subvert the last presidential election. I got the midterms right too, but that was so easy, so I’m not sure it’s worth grading.

I did nail the gene editing stuff. The Chinese may have used the new technology to “fix” the DNA of an embryo. That’s the claim, at least, but none of it has been independently verified. The Chinese will lie about anything, as it is a bandit culture. What has been released to the public that can be verified looks legitimate. Even if it proves to be false, it does reveal a willingness to do it by China, which has the West thinking about how to get past the ethics of it so it can be done here as well. Welcome to the future.

One thing I got very right is the continued growth of nationalist and populist parties in Europe. It is easy to forget that the smart people were all talking about the populist wave having crested last year, so going the other way was a bold prediction. Not only have the populists displayed staying power, new movements from the Left are turning up. The Yellow Vest thing in France is much more of a leftists cause, especially in Paris, than a right-wing phenomenon. That’s something to watch for next year.

Another thing I got very right is the IPO for Saudi Aramco. It’s funny to think that was a big news item last year. It’s a great example of how something we think is important in the moment turns out to be easily forgotten. Alternatively, it is a good example of something the mass media is instructed to forget, once the news turns ugly. Notice how no one talks about our second greatest ally in the world these days. A shrewd analyst might be thinking of a way to bet against the Saudis surviving next year.

What really mattered?

The dogs that were not barking last year, like the aggressive censorship of dissidents and the absolute failure of the Trump administration, have turned out to be the most important stories of 2018. This time last year most people thought the Left was starting to run out of steam with their Nazi hunting, but that turned out to be wrong. The move to a Chinese style censorship regime actually took a big leap forward. Similarly, people thought Trump was settling into the job, but it turned out he was getting worse at it.

If one were to honestly characterize 2018, it would be as the year that even cynical dissidents were shocked at the number of masks dropping. This year we learned that Congress is so frightened of Silicon Valley, that it is fair to say the real power base in the empire is in San Francisco. Similarly, Congress is so frightened of the intelligence agencies, they have become the Praetorian Guard of the empire. A shrewd analyst may be thinking that 2019 is the year we dispense with democracy altogether.

In Defense of Error

The other day, I followed a back and forth on Twitter between two smart people and one of them pointed out that the other had been wrong about the issue in the past. The details are not important as nothing serious ever gets discussed on Twitter, but what struck me is how even smart people can resort to this sort of score keeping. In the context of an internet exchange, it is about as sensible as claiming the other guy has cooties. It’s just a childish way of dismissing an argument or criticism without examining it.

It is a form of the fallacy of the undistributed middle. Someone could have a great record of being right about a topic, but those past predictions have little or even no connection to the current prediction. A gambler can get on a great roll at the craps table. It does not mean he’ll keep winning. This also means that the legendary loser at craps can win once in a while too. That’s the way it is with intellectual endeavors. You will get a lot wrong, but you can get a lot right too. Intellectual advancement is the story of trial and error.

Anyway, it got me thinking about something that turns up a lot on the dissident right. That is the quest to purify one’s past. It seems that a lot of people feel they should be ashamed of having been a libertarian or an unthinking conservative, who listened to Rush Limbaugh and voted Republican. Often you hear people talk about their journey to this side of the great divide as an awakening. It’s not a terrible way to frame it, as it certainly feels that way when you are going through it.

I know in my my case, I still remember when it dawned on me that the Bush people were serious about the spreading democracy stuff. From 2001 until 2005, I was quite confident that the democracy talk was mostly public relations. It was a way to troll the Left, by using their language as a justification for Afghanistan and Iraq. What was really going to happen is the CIA would find a friendly strong man to take over as an authoritarian. We’d install our guy and that would be that.

Even during the election with the purple finger stuff, I was quite confident it was just a show for domestic consumption. Then, it became clear they really thought they could turn Iraq into a European style democracy that would be an ally to Israel and help with the coming war with Iran. The scales fell from my eyes and I quickly moved from thinking the neocons were wrong to thinking they were crazy. Bill Kristol was just as deranged as the guys talking about the invisible imam and the end times.

Now, I take solace in knowing that I was not the only one to make this error. Tucker Carlson often talks about how he supported the war on terror and then realized it was going to be a catastrophe. John Derbyshire has written about his regret for having gone along with something he always sensed was a bad idea. Lots of smart and skeptical people were fooled by the Bush gang, so I don’t lose sleep over it. The neocons are very good at turning virtues into vices. It is their nature.

The thing is though, I’ve always thought the two best things to happen to our side are the Bush years and the Obama years. For men of my generation, the Bush year opened our eyes about the reality of the Buckley Right. Whatever the Buckley project was at the start, by the 1990’s it became a vehicle to undermine heritage America, every bit as toxic and dangerous as Progressivism. The Obama years created more race realists that an army of Charles Murrays and Steve Sailers.

The point is, mistakes have consequences, but they are often a necessary intermediate step in discovery. This is true of science and technology and it is true in the evolution of culture and society. The bungling of guys like Richard Spencer, which set off the aggressive campaign of censorship and de-platforming, has opened a lot of eyes, especially on our side, to the realities facing us. If the alt-right had been more prudent early on, the battle lines would not be so clear now.

A point I made on RamZPaul’s Christmas special was that the aggressive censorship and the fallout from it will make us better in the long run. James Edwards did not seem to like that point, but I am right about this. This is not a game you win by mastering the other side’s rules. There are no rules, just force. Our side will be better as we learn how to navigate around the searchlights, armed patrols and ideological enforcers. The path to victory is not in the appeal to their virtue, but the exploitation of their vices.

In a way, the dissident right is the result of error. Much of the skepticism that defines this side of the great divide is the result of having been wrong about a great many things, especially the integrity of the people in charge. Just as science and technology are the story of error, whatever comes next is going to be the result of many mistakes. It’s what an awakening is, when you think about it. It is that point when you realize you have been wrong about important things and begin to figure out the right answers.

Vertical Thinking

Some time ago, someone sent me a link to a news story about vertical farming, which is a form of urban agriculture. Here is the Wiki on it and here are some news stories about it here, here and here. Amusingly, when you dig into the subject, you find that the growth of vertical farming can be credited to marijuana growers, who used hydroponic farming to grow weed outside the prying eyes of the man. Big agriculture is now jumping into the business, as a way to both cut labor cost, but also transportation costs.

The cost drivers for food production have always been labor, land and transportation, so farmers have always looked to technology to mechanize their process and increase the yield per acre. Getting the result to market, on the other hand, has always been controlled by distance. Farmers are way outside the city and the customers are in the city. Things like motorized transport and refrigeration have had the strange result of increasing the distance between farm and table. Most city dwellers have never seen a farm.

Vertical farming not only allows for greater yield per acre, you just keep growing up, it also allows for the distance between farm and table to collapse. Vertical farms are just buildings using hydroponics and can be as tall as you like. Almost every city has an excess of abandoned warehouse and factory space. Those spaces, in theory, can be turned into vertical farms. The area around them could literally be turned into farmer’s markets, where the locals can buy their food from the farmer.

The other twist on this is the growing of food in a building, rather than out on the land, makes automation easier. Having robots roaming around the countryside sounds like fun, but robots break, so that means people roaming the countryside to fix the robots. In contrast, an automated warehouse requires just a few people to maintain the robots, relatively speaking. A Japanese firm has built a vertical lettuce farm that is entirely automated. It is a robot vertical farm that is commercially viable.

It’s not much a jump in thought to imagine where this can lead. This method of food production means that cities could become independent of the countryside, maybe even become agricultural centers. That means the interdependence of rural and urban that is enforced and regulated by government could be be broken. That does not mean cities would break from from the countryside, but it means they could survive, at least, if order breaks down and government is no longer able to maintain the balance.

The science fiction scenario is not such a big leap, if vertical farming can be what the industry thinks it can be in a few decades. The cosmopolitans who run the cities and control finance and trade, would move to seal off the cities from the countryside. Inside we get the Brave New World of Huxley, while outside we get the depopulated countryside of John the Savage. The cities would be connected by hyper loops built by Elon Musk. Port cities will be where goods and services enter the system from overseas.

As John Derbyshire remarked at the most recent Mencken conference, the future imagined by Huxley is not only more likely than that imagined by Orwell, it is right around the corner. Cities may not become entirely self-sufficient in the next generation, but the world of work and want is possibly coming to a close in the West. A lot can happen between now and the glorious future, like a plague or an unforeseen financial collapse that upends social order, but the future imagined by Huxley is visible on the horizon.

There is one problem with all of this, whether it is self-sufficient cities run by robots or the future imagined by Huxley. That is, what would be the point? Ruling elites have the population they need to rule. They always seek to reduce that which is not useful to their grip on power. The proliferation of birth control is simply eugenics with a happy face. The societies to the South are sending their excess population north because they don’t want them. Every African potentate will tell you. He has too many Africans.

In the robot cities of the future, most of the people would serve no purpose, so they could be expelled out of the city or recycled for their mineral content in the vertical farms. At some point, the only useful people to the ruling elite would be the guards, who defend the city from the outlanders and expel excess people. Some jobs can never be automated, at least not in foreseeable future, so cities would still have people, just not a lot of them. The logical result of that is much smaller cities, but that becomes self-defeating.

Just play out the dynamics of the imaginary world of self-sufficient cities run by robots and it becomes ridiculous in a hurry. The expulsion of people drives up the population of outlanders and drives down the population of cosmopolitans. To keep from being overrun, the number of guards needed by the city must go up. The self-sufficient cities run by robots eventually become armed camps for no other purpose than to guard the vertical farms and give the ruling class someone over whom to rule. It’s pointless.

Of course, there is another side to the question. That is, what’s the point of living in the world imagined by Huxley. That is the thing Derbyshire noted in his talk. People prefer Orwell, because his future seems like it has a point. There is a reason to live. In the Brave New World, life is consumption and fornication floating in an ether of soma, the opioid-like narcotic freely available in Huxley’s future. That’s what makes it so unpleasant for modern readers. Life without purpose is not utopian. It is dystopian..

As we get closer to that world and drug addiction rates spiral upward, suicide rates climb higher and now life expectancy is declining, it suggests there is a stop between here and Huxley’s imagined future. That’s death. Humans, at least Europeans, are not built for captivity. This reality is probably what is driving the migrant invasions. What’s the point of defending your lands when you have no reason to get up in the morning? People don’t defend land. They defend the life that can be built and lived on that land.

Request For Failure

I was out drinking with a former co-worker the other day and he had with him a RFP, which stands for a “Request For Proposal.” When he and I worked together, handling RFP’s was a regular part of the job. In other parts of my work career, I was on the other end, helping craft these things. As a result, I’ve had the misfortune to have read hundreds, maybe thousands of the documents. After a while, you lose track. As is the case with most of them, this one was poorly written, with some hilarious errors and omissions.

For those unfamiliar with the RFP, which is sometimes called a request for quote or even a request for information, it is a document companies produce when they wish to buy a capital product or service. In theory, the document describes the item or service, the conditions that have to be met in order to be considered and the process by which the company intends to evaluate potential vendors. These are popular in government and large corporate environments. Here’s a useful overview for those interested.

Not having had to field one of these for a while, I’d forgotten just how dumb it is to try and do business via this process. If an organization or government is buying a well defined product or a commodity item, it makes sense, but for something like a complex service, then it is a recipe for failure. Even in the case of well-defined item like a machine tool, I’ve seen RFP’s that appear to be written by enemies of the issuing company. The people creating the document use it to impress their boss, rather than make a sound purchase.

In the case of the one my buddy had with him, it was missing key information, like what it is the company actually does and why it is they are buying the service. Worse yet, it was written by a consultant. Even after having been away from this stuff for a long time, I can spot the greasy fingerprints of the consultant. Every industry has these creatures and they are always the same. I’m probably being unfair, as I’m sure there are some who are honest and conscientious, but most are just grifters, who prey on the stupid.

Anyway, we got to talking about why it is this stupid way of buying stuff persists, despite the fact that it often ends in tears. You don’t have to be in the business world very long to notice that good companies have strong relationships with both their customers and vendors. They cultivate their vendor relationships, just as they cultivate their customer relationships. They train their vendors to be conscientious and to think of themselves as partners in the enterprise. That way, the vendor becomes an asset to the business.

I think if I were going to write a business book on how to buy stuff, the first rule I’d have is never use an RFP. The second rule I’d have is make sure to visit the vendor’s facility and ask for the nickle tour before making a purchase. If they have a business culture that fits your business culture, or even better, one you strive to cultivate, then you will have a good working relationship with that vendor. If on the other hand, the vendor is running a sweatshop where the employees are miserable, that will show up in their service.

Another thing that I’ve seen often, and it always shows up in RFP’s for a service, is that the prospective customer starts off by lying to the prospective vendors. It’s the strangest thing, but I’ve seen it a lot. For example, salesmen are often trained to ask about a budget for the project. That way, they can gauge how serious the prospect is about actually doing the deal. Countless times, I’ve seen companies lie about their budget or simply refuse to disclose it. The result is they waste everyone’s time, including their own.

Similarly, salesmen are trained to find the motivators. If a company is buying a new five axis machine for their manufacturing facility, they are expecting to spend a lot of money for the machine and the training. They are not doing this on a whim. They have identified a serious problem or a serious opportunity. As a result, they are willing to invest a lot of money to address it. That’s important information that will help get the right machine and vendor, but the company will often hide that from the vendor, like it is a state secret.

Back to the book idea, the third and fourth rule for buying any big ticket item would be to quantify the return on investment and set a budget. Make that part of the purchasing narrative by disclosing it to the pool of vendors. Most likely, the guy you select will look at your reasoning and find additional opportunities for you to turn the purchase into an investment. Again, this is something I always see successful companies do for themselves and for their clients. It’s why they attract strong people and vendors.

The other thing that always turns up in RFP’s is the underlying assumption that the person who wrote the thing is a genius. The specifications will be hilariously narrow, which results in the request being for an exact copy of what they have now, but newer. My suspicion has been that there is a correlation between the level of specificity and the lack of understanding of the problem to be solved by the purchase. Smart companies buy products and services to solve problems. Stupid companies tick boxes on forms.

Again, this circles back to cultivating relationships with vendors. The RFP that spawned this post was obviously the result of some serious business problem the company needs to solve. The trouble is the RFP so thoroughly obscures it, no vendor will be able to identify the problem, so they will not be able to solve it. Instead, they will answer the RFP in a way they think gets them into the next round. In other words the purchasing process moves from problem solving to a long drawn out game of liar’s poker.

That would be another chapter in my book on buying stuff. This actually applies to every aspect of life, not just business. If you have a problem to solve, make that the starting point for proposals. Unless you have a monopoly or an exotic niche, you have competitors who are solving the same problems. One of them may have come up with a great solution and his vendor may be willing to sell that idea to you. Even better, the competitor of that vendor may have an even better solution. Smart people spend money to solve problems.

Thoughts On Sportsball

The Federal government won convictions on three of its cases against the sneaker pimps working behalf of the apparel company Adidas. The case is a strange one in that the FBI invested a lot of time into surveying and wiretapping some famous basketball coaches, as well as some senior company executives. Yet, they have narrowed their focus to some small fish and two executives. It’s one of those cases that probably reveals things about our age for what is not happening, than for what is actually happening in the courtroom.

For those unfamiliar with American college basketball, here’s some background.

Men’s college basketball is probably the most corrupt sport in America. It used to be that boxing was the dirtiest sport, but interest in it has collapsed to the point where it is probably no longer worth the trouble for the criminally inclined. Basketball, on the other hand, is a big money sport with lots of public interest. Like boxing, the talent tends to be unsophisticated and dull-witted, so they are easy to corrupt. There’s also a culture in the sport that tolerates hustlers and conmen. In fact, they are often celebrated.

Strangely, the corruption is not driven by the money coming in the front door, from ticket sales and player contracts. The corruption is driven by the money that comes through the back door, in the form of sneaker agents, apparel companies and the youth development leagues. The business model for sneaker companies is simple. They want black kids buying their sneakers. Since Americans worship black people and youth culture, whatever black kids like, gets bought by Americans and then the people of the provinces.

To that end, the sneaker companies are always looking to sign young basketball stars to represent their brand. They also want college programs, where many of the stars start to become famous, wearing their shoes. The result is the sneaker companies operate complex webs of street agents who bribe kids and their families to sign off-the-books contracts, so they can be guided to the college programs on the payroll of the sneaker company paying the street agent. It’s institutional bribery that has been normalized.

With that as background, it is a mystery as to why the Feds decided to go after these guys, when they have been turning a blind eye to it for decades. The corruption in college basketball is so well known that some of the notorious street agents, who bribe players on behalf of sneaker companies have become institutions. The agent for LeBron James has become very rich just because he got lucky and signed the biggest star in the sport when he was in high school. There are lots of guys hoping to win that lottery.

In other words, the Feds could have been arresting people for decades, but they didn’t and then all of a sudden they went after Adidas. Now, maybe that is just bureaucratic inertia, but what makes this strange is the limited scope thus far. The company executives involved were handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. Given the nature of the sport, that means they probably had a budget of millions to use to bribe players and coaches. That money did not fall from the sky. It came from the company.

Everyone familiar with corporate accounting knows there is no account for bribery in the G&A expenses. Adidas is a publicly traded company, which means they have to follow strict accounting standards. That means there are people in their finance department who have been involved in fraud for a long time. It certainly means C-level managers were aware of the activities and approved it. The FBI could easily take down the whole company if they started to dig around in the books. They certainly have probable cause.

Then there is the strange fact that there have been no plea discussions. The people have not been offered a plea deal and no one has offered to talk. Again, the Adidas executives were not operating alone. They have bigger fish to trade for their freedom. The assistant coaches that have been charged can easily hand over their bosses, who are all famous people. The Feds love putting famous people in jail, because it gets them on TV, but in this case the Feds are strangely uninterested in leveraging what they have to get big fish.

Now, like most people reading this, I have limited interest in basketball. What’s intrigued me about this case is all of the dogs not barking. I can accept that the Feds just ignored the issue for years, because their political bosses put things like terrorism and the drug war as top priorities. Still, the Feds have time to hassle citizens for all sorts of stupid and petty things. It’s not like they are actually doing anything about drug crime and terrorism, other than putting on a show for the public. They could have been on this years ago.

Putting that aside, the real mystery is why they have not bothered to expand this case to the most obvious places. If we’re going to assume that the Feds are lazy so they go after low hanging fruit, then why are they not picking these big juicy plumbs that are right in front of them? Similarly, if sloth is the reason behind their lack of action for decades, why did they bother going to trial, when they could have offered these guys a deal? It’s one of those times where the answer to one question contradicts the answer to something else.

The reason this intrigues me is I think it reveals something about the entire system that most people just suspect. That is, the level of incompetence is much worse that even the harshest critics assert. We’ve seen glimpses of this in the FBI scandal. These people are supposed to be the elite, yet they bungled the simplest of tasks. That means down the line, the quality of personnel is even lower. The reason this sneaker case does not make a lot of sense is because the people running it just time-serving hacks.

Another angle to this is that this case reveals the cultural rot of the American empire. The appeal of professional sport is to see men compete in mock battles on a level playing field, abiding by transparent rules. The governing bodies are supposed to make sure the field remains level and the rules transparent. That’s sportsmanship. The state is supposed to step in clean up the business if the governing body is corrupt or simply needs help policing their sport. It’s why casinos have a strong relationship with law enforcement.

Yet, we have a sport that is flagrantly and openly corrupt and no one says anything about it or tries to do anything about it. As we see with this Adidas case, it would be very easy to pop dozens of coaches and even more sneaker company executives. A handful of high profile people going to prison is the sort of thing that reminds everyone else of the need to maintain high standards. As the Chinese say, sometimes you kill some chickens to scare the monkeys. Imprison a few sneaker executive to keep the rest of them motivated.

One final thought, as I have gone on too long about this. The political class is now moaning about the fact that the public has lost faith in institutions. They never think that maybe their unwillingness to enforce the people’s laws could be the reason. They never mention the flagrant disregard for the spirit of the law throughout the elite. Most Americans are sports fans and every day they are reminded that the Cloud People have no respect for the rules. Eventually, the message does sink in and the Dirt People follow suit.

Death In The Afternoon

I had to put the cat down on Saturday afternoon. It was a sad thing, of course, as it always is when you have to say goodbye to a pet. The cat was diagnosed as a diabetic a few weeks back, which is not unusual with dogs and cats these days. It is a treatable condition, that is easier to manage in animals than humans. Your animal is not going to cheat on its diet or forget to take its insulin. With a little discipline and the willingness to master a few medical skills, you can manage a diabetic pet with little trouble.

On Friday night, the cat took a turn for the worse, so I went into the vet not entirely sure what to expect. They took blood and sent me home with some instructions. I figured they were humoring me, so I spent the night making my peace with what I expected was coming. The next day I learned, after further examination, that the cat had a rare type of cancer that was the real cause of the diabetes. They found tumors on his pancreas, which is not treatable, so I made the decision to put the poor thing out of his suffering.

While waiting to see the vet on Saturday, a woman I know came into the office. She was there to say goodbye to her dog. Apparently they called her with the bad news and she came into to complete the process. That was my guess anyway. The girl at the desk seemed to know what to do, despite the fact the woman was sobbing uncontrollably. She sat down on the bench next to me. Out of instinct, I guess, I don’t know, I slid over and put my arm around her. She collapsed against me into a mess of tears and wailing.

I don’t know what it is, but the sound of a woman crying touches some unexamined part of my being. It’s crazy, I’m sure, but that sound reminds me why a man is willing to fight another man to the death or leave his lands to sack the city of some bastard who insulted his people. My grandfather always said that a man protects those who need protection and defends those who need defending. Maybe that’s all there is to it and the sound of a woman crying just triggers those lessons I heard a million times as a kid.

There was nothing I could do for her, obviously, other than to be a shoulder to cry on, as she waited to say goodbye to her dog. Sitting there, being kind to a neighbor, my burden felt a bit lighter. There are always others worse off than you. That’s something I always try to keep in the front of mind. My life is not a walk in the park, but it is not an endless stream of misery either. Most people, it seems, carry around a lot more baggage than me, or they are less able to carry the load than me. Either way, I’m a pretty lucky guy.

Coming home, alone with my thoughts, I thought about how serendipity had intervened to make a tough situation a bit less difficult. My first pet, as an adult, was a cat. Growing up, we had dogs, so I had a bias against cats. The women I was dating at the time thought I needed a pet and she suggested a cat. I was skeptical about the whole thing, but a man does what he must at that age, so I got a cat. It turned out that cats are just like dogs, in that they are what you make of them. Me and the cat went on great adventures together.

At the end of his time, he got sick and I did the back and forth with the vet as you do with pets. It was new to me as an adult, so I got caught up in the process, thinking that there was a potentially good result. When it was time to put an end to it all, I struggled with the decision. I just couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye. Then one night the cat staggered down the hall with his old toy in his mouth. He could barely walk, but to the very end he was going to be all the cat he was ever going to be. I was quite touching.

That night, I could not help but think that maybe I just learned a great truth. That cat was just a cat, but he was never cheated. Who knows what goes on in the head of a pet, but they are here to be our pets. It is literally what they are made for and they are that fully and completely. We lose sight of that as people. Our point in life is to use all of our time completely. There are no do overs or restarts. You just have the time you have and you better use all of it being all the you possible. Life is for living. Don’t cheat yourself.

Perhaps that’s why we keep pets. Long ago, domesticating dogs for work or allowing cats to live among us to keep down the rodent population made practical sense. Keeping animals solely as pets has no obvious purpose, other than to make the time we have more enjoyable. Maybe seeing these little critters come into the world and become their purpose fully and completely makes understanding our own purpose easier. It’s a lot easier to grasp the purpose of a dog or cat than the purpose of that crazy relative in the family.

I will say, that this time was a bit more difficult than other last trips to the vet. I’ve had a lot of animals over the years. Some were better than others. This was a good one. Just about every post I’ve written was done with him lying behind the keyboard. Every podcast was done with him lying next to the microphone. For over a dozen years he was a comforting fixture in my life. He was there at the door when I got home and at the door when I went off to work every day. As pets go, he was a good one and I will miss him.