Friday, June 18, 2010

Questioning "Progress"

Readers offered up a spectrum of responses to Questioning "Progress" and the Poverty of our Imagination.

Questioning "Progress" and the Poverty of our Imagination drew quite a variety of reader responses. This is not to say that no progress has been made in the past six decades; the point is to question what the consequences of various strands of "progress" might be.

Now that the Daily Java forum is up and running, I have decided to retire Readers Journal which was all about offering readers a forum. It was time-consuming to maintain, and many of the essayists who contributed have launched their own blogs. I will keep the RJ essays archived, of course.

I encourage everyone who takes the time to write me a comment to cross-post their comment on the Daily Java forum so others can benefit from their insight/experience. It only take a moment to register.

Here are the reader comments on "progress." Make sure you scroll all the way down to the end to see Cindy S.'s BP-related painting and haiku.

Grant P.

I wanted to add a little comment about "progress" as it relates to computers and computer simulations. I work for NASA and my job is to develop mathematical models of how spacecraft behave as they re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. One of the themes I read is that "computing speed doubles every 18 months", which I think is Moore's Law, and that rate of technological advance itself is constantly accelerating. Neither of these hypothesis is true. Personal computer speeds have been hovering around 3 Gflops for years. If the 18 month doubling was true, we should have 12 Gflop PC's right now, which we don't. The same is true about larger computer systems. The way they increase speed nowadays is to go to what is called massively parallel systems where thousands of smaller processors are strung together.

There is very little innovation in our modeling capabilities as well. The computer systems are larger and we have more disk space and memory these days, but the physical models we use were largely developed in the 50's and 60's. I'm guessing that other computer modeling disciplines (weather prediction for instance) are in the same situation. From my experience, the main "innovation" that has happened in computer modeling over the past 30 years is that there is more RAM and disk space on computers nowadays, so we can run bigger simulations but the underlying physical model is largely unchanged.


Debtor's prison's focusing on Minnesota, but happening nationally. You spoke of this some time ago, but in the more generic way of going to jail for being poor. This is straight-up imprisonment--soft-pedalled as we do things today, being jailed for "contempt" or whatever, but the reporter had cases of people jailed "indefinitely" until they pay $300 to the local lumber yard. A life sentence for failure to pay $300??? How can that be anything but full-on debtor's prison? Nor can that necessarily be overblown: market savant Armstrong was imprisoned for "contempt" for 5 years without trial at the Federal level, and remains in prison today, having pled guilty to another charge simply to get a hearing.


How does it work that the government is paying the cost of collection and intimidation for the collection agency?

If they are required to show at court, where their address and financial information is collected, who is later enforcing the judgements against them? Sounds like the governments again.

Are the amounts inflated by 6 year's interest which you were unaware was accruing, legal fees, or other?

If the agencies are successful in stipending wages on the very poor, does this not mean the person will lose their house, not having enough to make the mortgage now that their bank account is closed/raided? Doesn't this change the usual creditor's /bankruptcy line of signority?

The government is paying the incarceration charge much in excess of the debt owed. Would it be cheaper just to have the county pay the agency directly?

How can they pursue individuals without informing them of their legal condition?

Where is the creditor's responsibility for loaning money to dogs and cats and people who could never pay? Don't they realize they would get paid if they lent only to responsible, well-off people who have a history of paying? (classic quote on this in the article)

In another sense, this is a good thing. The more people go to jail the more they realize the level of BS exists there now, and it's no longer for criminals at all. They will also stop taking debt and pay in cash, cutting off lender's profit-model altogether.

Nevertheless, maybe we need a review of your Debtor's Prison articles. People need to be warned. From their point of view, they need to defend themselves by officially going bankrupt and not shirking this and that around the edges, unwilling to face their true condition. It would be the greatest advantage as well, because when you're that poor and compressed, the only thing that can get you out from under is to pay no debts at all.


I can't help but feel the "machine" has sold me some ocean front property in AZ. I recently took a new job in March for a big salary and title (director of IT for a publicly traded company). Somehow leaving my wife and kid early in the morning, sitting in traffic by myself in my BMW, working all day long for people who could care less about me, sitting in traffic on the way home by myself for a 12+ hour day doesn't feel right. I fall asleep on the sofa with the laptop working. I dream about work at night and wake up early in the morning and start checking email.

I worked hard and had to pay my way through college. My parents didn't have much money and I was going to be the one to "make it". I've gone that extra mile for each job I've held and have advanced rapidly for my efforts. The higher I climb, the less rewarding the work and the more I question the sanity of the system.

Now at 32, I'm in the worst physical shape of my life (I'm one of those weird people who loses weight when stressed). I don't get to spend as much time with my family and friends as I would like. But I have a BMW and can buy any toy I want (most of which go unused). I am supposedly the american dream come true. $200k a year but I have to trade my health, my family, and ultimately my happiness for it. Seems reasonable? Not when framed in those terms but from everyone else's perspective I am living the dream.

Somehow we've gotten this way of life very very wrong. Endless supplies of pleasure does not equate to happiness. I would even argue that it ultimately corrupts and corrodes one's soul.

My happiest moments are playing with my son in the park, not cashing that check or handing out my business card with my title on it. Working on the exit plan to do more of former and less of the latter.


RE: What Is Our Weakest Link? (June 10, 2010):
You hit the nail on the head with #3.(A deep, pervasive preference for fantasy over hard reality.) i would argue that this is at the root of numbers 1, 2 and 4.

1.Collectively wanting to be fooled is what makes the "democratic" system hummm.

2.Buying into the dream of fabulous riches - a constant fantasy/ distraction - only props up the elites who generate the dream to begin with. it justifies the morally questionable, coutner-productive motive/ability to concentrate wealth/power in the hands of a few. the poor who resent the rich also seem to revere them, and aspire to be among them, instead of discovering the wealth in being self-sufficient etc. which i know you know quite a good deal about....

4. lastly, debt is an off shoot of #2, and in it's worst form, is one big act of pretending (childish fantasy).

Of course i wouldn't be finished with my commentary until i pointed out how the fantasy culture we've come to know/ live is a mere consequence of the fossil fuel age. because fossil fuel actually does deliver, using relatively simple technology, we have been granted a fundamental wish on a widespread scale: massive mobility with little (negligible) personal energy expended - compare pushing a car/train/plane with riding in one. Look at the massive shift from labour intensive farming (less than a hundred years ago) to the current urban&suburban populations now. the dream is that this be normal, and last forever.

One thing we often forget when fantasizing about our own technological would-be utopia, is that for all our progress, the number of utterly impoverished people in the world (shanty towns, slums, camps, ghettos etc.) is greater than in all of history - about 2 billion with less than $2 a day (okay it's a not-too-researched figure, but i've heard it in many contexts).

The fantasy is that the global industrial project (the fossil fuel experiment of the 20th century, and counting) will one day become the rising tide that floats all boats. But how long will we buy this tripe? Interestingly it may be the real rise in sea levels thanks to climate change that will break the trance. but many will take their fantasies to their graves. Is this perhaps what the Buddhists call illusion?

Peter N.

I wanted you to know that today’s blog made me think of the concept of Progress: and how when I was about 9 or 10 I saw Things To Come, and how during this part (about ½ way through this segment link below), there is a revolt against Progress…when I first saw this as a child ( I am a boober and I saw this in the late 60’s on an obscure TV channel), this scene and the speech given gave me goose had never before occurred to me to ask what progress was, or to question whether it was really good for us or not…this scenario, in which comfortable, well fed people living underground would question their lot was so different than the hippie drop-out back-to-nature variation of this theme, in that these were people who were part of the mainstream (their mainstream, at least),but the rebel leader’s words still are moving to me even today:

"What is this Progress? What is the good of all this Progress, onward and onward? We demand a halt, a rest. Progress is not living. It should only be the preparation for living. They stage the old Greek tragedy again, where the father offers up his daughter to the evil gods. The old slavism has taken a new name. Is Man never to rest, never to be free?"

At any rate, it is an interesting clip about 10 minutes long (1936). Could H.G. Wells have forseen hundreds of millions of people being bombarded by billion dollar drug company ads to take drugs to feel better for every pain or symptom? Huxley would certainly have understood! Video games, Ipads and Iphones, technology controlled by a few elites who dictate all messages?


Re. weakest link:
We live in a university (and large community college) town Charles and I can attest to the furniture waste you describe. Two things amaze me. First that many students feel compelled to buy (or can afford) new chairs, couches, computer desks every school year and second, they pitch them unceremoniously to the curb when they still have utility value. I am working at just such a desk at the moment and my living room contains a nice "rescued" couch that probably came from some parent or grandparent and only survived this long because it appears to have been made in the sixties. One thing I've noticed though is the quality (and availability) of the discards has dropped significantly over the last couple of years. I wonder why? (he asks rhetorically). Also and sadly, much of the stuff has been treated poorly or mindlessly trashed before (or soon after) it hits the curb.

These issues of waste go directly to our over consumption of energy and resources. If everything lasted longer and was easier and more cost effective to repair there would be less pollution, landfill, debt and keeping up with the Jones's consumerism. You are dead on with respect to the complexity of autos costing our society ridiculous sums of money. Do we really need the distraction of an entertainment centre? Do we really need GPS when a simple map will suffice? Heated seats? Dual air? Heated headlamps, wipers, back up cameras, tires that tells us to add air, side view mirrors that cost ten times more than some of the junkers we used to drive in high school, computers controlling everything?

I drive a sixteen year old Suburban which I pretty much maintain myself and has been a totally reliable ride (pulling a trailer across Canada and the US, hauling my son's amps, moving tons of stuff). Now the gas mileage is terrible but I don't drive it everyday, or to the corner store to get milk, in fact I can go four or five days without using it so it all balances out. Plus no fancy electronics (other than very early generation electronic TBI), an engine I can see and do a complete tune-up on myself, seating comfort for my aging back, a real bumper and best of all no monthly payment. I am 54 and have no intention of ever replacing it barring something unforeseen resulting in disappearance, destruction or the government legislating me off the road. The mechanic I go to (when I have to) loves it, while disparaging the newer models which cost more than fifty thousand dollars. I wonder how many of them will still be on the road 16 years from now?

Oh and Linden Lab (Second Life) laying off workers? You just made my day.

Ken R.

Excellent article yesterday, really enjoyed it. It is shocking the amount of changes I have seen in this country over the last 25+ years, if I had to pick a weakest link I would say our overall health, spiritual, mental,emotional,physical etc is in serious decline. As we continue to stop aligning ourselves with nature's or whatever we should call the "higher powers" principles/laws, our decline will continue I believe. As a species we have and continue to exploit the natural resources of this beautiful planet and ever day another species becomes extinct due to our overreach.
The only hope we have I believe is if real moral based leadership somehow returns. If not, we have a rough road ahead. I am not being "negative", a doomer or whatever other convenient logo orthodoxy likes to call people like me, I am just trying to live in reality.

John D.

A corollary to the "weakest link" in consumer goods is "forced (or planned) obsolescence." My eight-year old computer was on its last legs for a variety of reasons, so I replaced it with a new one.

I now have to buy a new printer even though my five-year old printer was in fine shape because the printer manufacturer, HP, stopped supporting it by not providing the drivers needed for the new operating system (Win7) to make it work. (My computer guru said he could unload Win7 and install XP but that the time/cost would equal another new machine.)

Almost approaches a double bah-humbug.


One point: It's not bad engineering, it's the best engineering money can buy. When a gizmo fails we buy another. Planned obsolescence has been a massive success from the point of view of short term profit, which is of course the only "reasonable" point of view due to corporate structure. This entire system is nothing but a massive conglomeration of weak links. There are so many it is impossible to predict which will fail first, and which one will initiate the domino effect that brings down all the rest.


Here's something to think about when it comes to "progress" in the last fifty years - the guitar you are shown holding on your blogsite was invented by Les Paul in the late 30's - he took it to Gibson and they weren't interested in making it. Then Leo Fender came out with the Telecaster (actually first called the Broadcaster) in 1949 and it was a big success, so Gibson changed their mind about the Les Paul. Both these guitars are STILL two of the premier instruments in popular music of all styles after over 60 years, and haven't changed a bit - the heck with MIDI, computer simulators, and all that junk. All you need is a Les Paul or Tele, a cable, and a good old fashioned TUBE AMP! (I am lucky to have three old ones).

My Fender Precision Bass came out in 1951 and is still, along with the Fender Jazz bass, one of the two most used basses in popular music. The other thing is, those Gibsons and Fenders of the 50's were so well made that they still play well today. How many appliances, instruments, etc. that you can buy today will still be in good operating condition in 50 - 60 years? Something to think about.

John Paul Jones, the bass player for Led Zeppelin was asked where he got his beautiful 1962 Fender Jazz Bass in an interview. He said "I bought it from a music shop - it'd been hanging on the wall for about three months". All those years of making hit music, and he used one bass. Imagine if you bought a car in 1962 and were still driving it now?

Harun's comment was directed at my entry on housing but the underlying cause--exponentially rising debt-- is one consequence of financial "progress"

Harun I.

RE: What We Know (and Don't Want to Know) About Housing:
Reading yesterday’s article I see you eloquently and articulately state that we are complicit because we are all interested persons now. But as I look at the numbers I cannot help but think: none of this “wealth” existed in the first place, and, deflation or the disappearance of this fraudulent wealth is a cure and not the crisis.

My intent is to engage in a perceptual shift exercise. If someone, with our knowledge and consent, counterfeited a one hundred dollar note and handed it to us to spend but when we attempted to exchange it for goods or services we were told it was no good, would we consider for a moment that we lost $100? Would we consider it a problem?

If we are to get to the core of the problem so that we might have a chance of a viable solution we must stop confusing cause and effect, crisis and cure. Is deflation (an attempt to return to normalcy) the crisis or is it the inflation that comes beforehand? Is too much debt the cause or the effect of a monetary system that requires debt expansion to create money to "grow" the economy?

Even Irving Fisher had a problem with accurately using language to describe reality:

"...In the great booms and depressions, each of the above named factors (over production, underconsumption, over capacity, price dislocation, over confidence, over investment, over saving etc.) has played a subordinate role as compared with two dominant factors, namely, over indebtedness to start with and deflation following soon after;… where any of the other factors do become conspicuous, they are often merely effects or symptoms of these two." [Emphasis is mine]. (Irving Fisher, 1933, p. 341)

Mr. Fisher places in the psyche, probably unintentionally, that the "great booms" are good and the depressions are the crisis. I would assert that jumping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet, sans parachute, is the crisis and hitting the ground and meeting almost certain death is merely a consequence.

If we replace “great booms” with “great illusions” and “depressions” with “reality” a perceptual shift occurs. When someone like Mr. Mendoza says:

"Lesson 1: Fiscal stimulus is a band-aid. We need – now and for the next two years –massive government spending to support the unemployed and prevent the implosion of state and local governments. Beyond that, spending will not stimulate anything."

…And we substitute “stimulus” and “spending” for what it is in our context – debt -- then we see how convoluted this statement is. To transcribe:

Lesson 1: “Debt” is a band-aid. We need – now and for the next two years –massive government “debt” to support the unemployed and prevent the implosion of state and local governments. Beyond that, “debt” will not stimulate anything.

Socrates would not be impressed with such logic.

When a country has savings, stimulus is not debt related but in this context it most certainly is.

As long as we continue to communicate with language that represents that the illusion was “real” the longer people will persist in the notion that they lost something when in reality all they have lost is the illusion. If not conclusions like Mr. Mendoza’s:

Lesson 2: Deflation (reality) must be halted and reversed (back to illusion), and the credit (debt) system restarted. (parenthesis is mine).

...will continue to be taken seriously.

Such language causes us to misunderstand living within our means as “austerity”. It causes well-educated men to believe that when the physical economy cannot support the financial economy all we have to do is to borrow from people who have no money and lend to them at the same time -- and that such insanity will somehow workout over time.

As Chris Martenson points out, the monetary system is the problem. However, in my opinion, this perceptual shift will not gain traction until the consequences of its collapse are deeply felt.

While those who have over-indebted themselves, individually and nationally, may acutely feel the sting of losing material things, the only thing that has been lost is the self-inflicted delusion that wealth can be amassed by borrowing money that can never be repaid. The illusion, this "miracle of modern banking" has had its part in the expansion of population, however, as the illusion recedes it is being replaced by an imposing reality that the physical economy in developed countries cannot support their population. Perhaps this reality is the most tragic but nonetheless necessary to help us realign our perceptions with reality. The longer we insist on using language that confuses cause and effect, crisis and cure the longer and more unpleasant this realignment will be.

And while this may seem like esoteric philosophical meanderings, all things we do begin in thought; it was erred thinking that has brought about the present reality.

RE: the PB oil spill--one consequence of progress in oil exploration--Cindy S. made this painting and penned the accompanying haiku: is now open for aggregating our collective intelligence. New Posts.

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