Re: Guest Post - Pessimism

1

I think the cultural narrative is already one of decline. Don't most people in opinion polls say that the next generation will be worse off?


Posted by: Kreskin | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:14 PM
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Well, that's forecasting, which is different than assessing in hindsight. People always think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, so I'd expect a pessimistic forecast has been the norm since they invented handbaskets, and hell.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:17 PM
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Yes---the declinists are probably reacting to our current malaise and aren't thinking so much about the problems in the OP.

2013 might look like the good old days if...
1) gasoline exceeds $10/gallon
2) parents have too much student debt to help pay for their kids' education
3) energy becomes so expensive that air conditioning and air travel are affordable only for the rich
4) many more retirees have to live in poverty


Posted by: Kreskin | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:22 PM
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People always think the world is going to hell in a handbasket
Maybe, in some ways, but there seems to be much more dystopian and apocalyptic fiction nowadays. Fewer Epcot center, United Federation of Planets style futures.


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:22 PM
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3.3: Air travel could be a problem, but I don't see how air conditioning could be a problem without heating being a bigger problem. At least where I am, the energy for air conditioning is a barely noticeable as an expense while heating is a big cost. I don't see how heating costs could rise that much more slowly that AC costs given that you can run a generator with natural gas.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:28 PM
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I'm glad I reread 4 before disagreeing with it! The changes I see in YA literature, recognizing that I read a fair amount but am not at all a completist, mainly hinge on how all the dystopias are set in the future and all metaphorical and whatnot, whereas the trend in the books I read from the early '80s (so ones readily available in the late '80s and early '90s) was to set the dystopia just a few years in the future or maybe even bum bum bum now! Not sure what that says about anything other than YA having strong trends, though.


Posted by: Thorn | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:29 PM
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People always think the world is going to hell in a handbasket

I was thinking about this after I sent the GP to heebie. For myself I think a big motivator for pessimism is a feeling that it's okay to be surprised by unexpected positive developments, but being surprised by unforeseen problems suggests dangerous inattentiveness.

So I spend more time mentally cataloging things which could go wrong, than things which would improve.*

That's part of why the comparison to 1983 was interesting, it forced me to think about all of this things which had improved.

* Chris Smither has a great verse in the song, "Outside In"

"Don't worry 'bout the future, you can't afford the price.
There's madness to the method when you pay the piper twice.
Once when you start to worry,
once again when you begin to take the future on the chin.
I know that you think worry is your ever-faithful friend,
cuz nothin' that you worry over ever happens in the end.
And there might be somethin' to it,
but it sure gets in the way of fun today."


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:29 PM
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I'm glad I reread 4 before disagreeing with it! The changes I see in YA literature, recognizing that I read a fair amount but am not at all a completist, mainly hinge on how all the dystopias are set in the future and all metaphorical and whatnot, whereas the trend in the books I read from the early '80s (so ones readily available in the late '80s and early '90s) was to set the dystopia just a few years in the future or maybe even bum bum bum now!

Not sure what that says about anything other than YA having strong trends, though I'd wager it's something like how kids reading or watching The Hunger Games are thinking about how our current choices could turn into this sad future, whereas kids reading the After the Bomb series in the '80s were reading about how choices that have already been made could totally destroy their world at any moment. I'm not sure which is more likely to push a reader to action vs. despair.


Posted by: Thorn | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:32 PM
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Visible shantytowns, food riots with burning tire roadblocks to keep out the police, epidemics with high mortality, headlines or music blogging composed entirely in Comic Sans, really any one of these things should be sufficient.


At least in the US, the cultural imperative to cheerfulness and optimism will keep many from complaining aloud. The paradoxical exception to maintaing forced good cheer will be steak-lovers who will be treated about the way fox hunters are today.

CZ and France, in contrast, have been widely acknowledged as going to hell in a handbasket forever, but have mediocre grilled meat.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:33 PM
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Brother, can you spare a tire and some kerosene?


Posted by: Kreskin | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:34 PM
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Sorry about the partial duplicate post. I was getting errors and decided to write more.


Posted by: Thorn | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:35 PM
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The risk of nuclear war in 1983 was 0. There was a huge hype to the contrary, advanced for power and profit, which isn't all that dissimilar from what is said and done today about the risk of Salafist terrorism. I'm not sure there's really much change in the 'afraid of things that are unlikely to harm you' category. Employment options are certainly not better now than 30 years ago, especially for people newly out of college, or who didn't/won't go to college.

The food and beer are better, though, and the internet is definitely cool.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:37 PM
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Visible shantytowns, food riots with burning tire roadblocks to keep out the police, epidemics with high mortality, headlines or music blogging composed entirely in Comic Sans, really any one of these things should be sufficient.

So three or four years then? The music blogging thing may take a bit loner, but you won't notice if you're leaving in a Hooverville because you'll only have stolen dial-up and it'll be too slow to bother with.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:40 PM
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There was a close call in 1983.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:40 PM
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12.1 must rely on some very optimistic assumptions about human nature. There was certainly an over-hyped fear of Soviet strength and motivations, but that is a long way from zero risk.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:42 PM
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6/8: Fair enough. I might just have a misguided nostalgia for futures past.


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:44 PM
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Not a long way from zero risk as in 90% risk. I'm trying to saw that the risk was non-zero, not huge.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:45 PM
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16: I think you're absolutely right that dystopia is mainstream now and have no way of gauging how true that was in 1983 since I was busy being three at the time.


Posted by: Thorn | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:45 PM
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Huh, I kinda think 1983 was better than 2013, and I guess I always assumed that was the general perception, but maybe I'm wrong about that.

In 1983, I was growing up in a nice small city near Los Angeles. The public schools were pretty great and there wasn't much crime; kids regularly walked home from school by themselves, or hung out in the park without adult supervision. Most of my classmates lived in single-family homes, and most of their parents were blue- or pink-collar workers (there were several large unionized factories and businesses in the area). My own parents were recent immigrants who had arrived in the country five years earlier, with no money and not much English, and by 1983 had saved up enough to buy a snug yellow-painted home on a nice, tree-lined block.

I don't think any of that -- widespread blue-collar homeownership, reasonable paths for immigrant success, or good working-class community schools -- is nearly as common these days, and they were pretty important to the quality of my life and my preparation for adulthood.

IOW: handbasket, and get off my lawn.


Posted by: jms | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:47 PM
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Global warming is the long pole in the tent. I don't think we are anywhere near the peak of fossil fuel production, and coal in particular seems likely to be with us for a very long time unless we make some drastic changes, which seems unlikely at this point.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:49 PM
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Crime is much lower than it was in 1983. NYC generally is a much richer place than it was then; which is annoying for UMC but not terribly wealthy me at the high end, but is a serious quality of life improvement at the low end.

Stats show that public schools are improving, in terms of results, and improving across the board rather than merely for wealthy kids. My kids were definitely doing more challenging work in elementary school than I was, and we live in a poorer neighborhood than I grew up in.

I kind of think this is all going to fall off a cliff soon for environmental reasons, but it's hard to argue that much has gotten worse since 1983.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:52 PM
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People running daycares no longer get accused of being Satanic pedophiles.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:55 PM
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Be the change you want to see in the world.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:57 PM
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No, it was zero. The idea that it would be launched by humans because Technology was and is a science fiction trope, but the fact was then (as it is now) that nuclear war was in no one's interest, and no one was looking for a way to initiate one.

The close call stories, even where true, are also hype for this reason.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:57 PM
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peak of fossil fuel production, and coal in particular

Disagree. solar electricity continues to drop in price, and electric cars as competition for internal combustion are already viable, even with heavy expensive Li batteries. The big question with global warming will IMO be the effect on food production.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:58 PM
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The close call stories, even where true, are also hype for this reason.

What do you mean by "hype"? I'm not sure how something true can be hype.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 12:59 PM
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which is annoying for UMC but not terribly wealthy me at the high end

What annoys you about other people doing OK?


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:02 PM
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24: Saying something won't happen just because it is in no one's interest is what I call a very optimistic assumption about human nature.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:02 PM
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Because they weren't actually close calls. Humans had to look at what the technology was telling them, and make judgments, judgments, which even in hindsight were completely obvious.

A few days ago, the LHOTP story about the bear that was a tree stump was recounted. Was there a close call where Pa was almost eaten by a bear? No, there wasn't.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:02 PM
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30

I think 24 also explains why WW I never happened.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:02 PM
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But what is hype is going around saying The Bear Almost Got Me, or but for the quirky quick thinking of some obscure bureaucrat, the world would have been annihilated.

There's power and profit on both sides of the 'close call' storyline.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:04 PM
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30 is a much pithier version of what I was trying to figure out how to say.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:06 PM
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27: Too much of the city is aimed at a level way above what I can afford -- there are enough crazy-rich people here that, e.g., the number of neighborhoods where I couldn't possibly live has gone way up since I was a kid, and that's part of the reason I spend two hours a day commuting rather than the 40 minutes total my father did. Retail aimed at crazy-rich people has crowded out the sort of places I liked shopping when I was growing up. And so on. This isn't a real hardship, it just makes NYC a slightly less pleasant living environment in that regard than it was in the 70s and early 80s.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:07 PM
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19 was largely my gut reaction as well but I also grew up at that same time in an LA suburb. My reaction might be unduly influenced by "man, Calfornia's really gone downhill".


Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:07 PM
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35

People make bad decisions based on mistaken information very frequently. Both sides thought WW I would be over quickly, for example.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:08 PM
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30 -- Not at all. WWI wasn't a "mistake" of the same kind, in the least. There really *was* a bear, and in real time, decision makers knew it.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:08 PM
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The idea that it would be launched by humans because Technology was and is a science fiction trope
Shall we play a game?


Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:08 PM
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37 made me laugh out loud.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:10 PM
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35: And many of the people making decisions about nuclear weapons were as likely to believe all the bad things scientists were saying about nuclear war as those who own coal mines are to believe the evidence for global warming.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:11 PM
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On the negative side, and this is kind of diffuse get-off-my-lawn-ism, but I do kind of think that bowling-alone style social atomism, kids not being allowed out to play outside, increased mass production of culture, all that sort of thing (shaking cane vaguely into space) has changed for the worse since 1983.

OT: Things that have made me feel old today -- I had a court appearance this afternoon in front of a judge I was unfamiliar with, and when he walked in thought "Hey, he's kind of appealing." I think finding judges attractive is an indicator that I have solidly moved into middle age.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:12 PM
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25: Solar and wind both have serious issues with matching load to available power, not to mention NIMBY problems. And to say electric cars are competitive is wildly optimistic. They'll get there by 2043, but the damage is being done right now.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:13 PM
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35 -- States have a number of people making decisions at multiple layers before deciding whether to go to war. The Germans were wrong to think they could get a quick victory, sure. Were they wrong to think that in order to have a chance of doing so, they would have to strike first?

But, OK, fine. I'll say that it wasn't 0, and that it's the still less than the chances of a major* attack from a Salafist group not infiltrated by the FBI.

* Loser wannabes don't count.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:14 PM
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What? Both sides thought that their military superiority would be sustained after a war in WW I.

In the US, Edward Teller was a senior advisor for decades. Andropov was general secretary in 1983; he had been soviet ambassador to Hungary in 1956. Both of these men had a very tenuous grasp on reality outside of how to maintain power.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:14 PM
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...reasonable paths for immigrant success

I would have guessed that it would be easier being an immigrant in 2013 -- because I would expect less overt racism, and that the internet would make it easier to stay connected to a larger immigrant community and/or family in the country of origin.

But I don't really know.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:14 PM
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Before the housing crash, more people owned homes than in 1983. Might not be true anymore, though.


Posted by: Kreskin | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:16 PM
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Personally I'm willing to agree that the "true" risk of nuclear war in 1983 was very low.

I was thinking about nuclear danger mostly as reflective of the anxieties present in pop culture at the time.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:16 PM
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what would have to happen in the next thirty years for there to be a general consensus that things were going badly

Well-off people begin to face imminent threats to their quality of life from the various problems or, alternatively, solutions to the problems become available that don't cost them much money or effort.


Posted by: Criminally Bulgur | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:16 PM
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The incident in '83 wasn't just about one guy looking at a scope that was giving him bad output. The Russians had good reason to suspect that the US was launching an attack at them at the time, due to the Able Archer military exercises, and general Reagan era saber rattling. Under a high-stress situation like that, its not difficult at all to envision a chain of events whereby mistakes are made, and everything falls to shit.


Posted by: Spike | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:17 PM
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||

I need to get off the internet now that I've chastised a former student for posting an anti-abortion meme. Why. Why would I engage.

|>


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:20 PM
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43 --Yeah, and I think that if you're buying that either of these guys would have ordered a nuclear exchange based on an easily verifiable technical mistake, you're buying hype.

There are a zillion ways you'd be able to tell if the US was getting ready to initiate a nuclear strike. Seeing something on the radar is only one of them, and when you check it against the others, you know immediately that you've got a problem.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:23 PM
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48 -- And better reason to know it wasn't in the process of happening. I mean, sure, they watched, and at different times thought they should look a little closer. But really, mobilizing for war wouldn't have been any easier to hide in 1983 than it would be today.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:26 PM
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Also the general secretary was a paranoid former head of the KGB. Internal incentives to behave reasonably in the USSR were completely absent.

The other point to make is that the US decision to use nuclear weapons in WWII was not a rational cost-benefit assessment, but a byproduct of military-industrial bureaucracy. Along with bad information and bad leaders, I question the ability of an individual's volition to provide a sanity check-- sometimes yes, sometimes no. To be confident that a bureaucratic outcome will be in anyone's interest makes sense on average, but the variance faor any particular decision is huge.

I doubt that more words from me will be convincing, so I'm out.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:28 PM
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(And, of course, the hype I was talking about wasn't really the fear of accidental attack fueled by US warmongery -- but an antecedent step, which was stepping up the warmongery for power and profit, based on a non-existent threat. The same hype was still going on in 1984 -- and it wasn't about an accident, but an evil empire seeking world domination or in the alternative annihilation.)


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:31 PM
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I think the question has to be, better or worse for whom? There are always winners and losers involved with systemic change.

If your wages have been flat for 30 years, gas and housing has gone up at greater than inflationary rates (yea, housing crash, but then you probably went underwater on the equity you did build up), you're getting older and everyone seems to want to "save" the social net, the world probably looks quite a bit different to you than it did to your parents.

On the other hand, it probably feels much more secure now if you're an ibanker.


Posted by: Grumbles | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:31 PM
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We have wonderful friends who bring us food post-baby. Do I need to write thank you notes for meals? I'm writing a bunch right now for physical presents. I'll do it but I sure do hate writing thank you notes.

|>


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:35 PM
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50: Agreed. But that's not the main issue for me. First, for most of the early Cold War (not as much by 1983, I'll admit), thing were run by World War II veterans who, on one side, were demonstrably willing to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians by bombing and on the other side, viewed a war in which they lost 15% of their population as a win.

Second, the logic of deterrence required that there was a way for the nukes to be launched if the head guy gets killed. Both sides had their systems for this and talking about it as a decision made by only two guys is just wrong.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:35 PM
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Bear or tree stump?

And with that, I'm out too.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:36 PM
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55: I'd just send a thank you email, but I'm not sure I'm not rude.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:37 PM
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We have wonderful friends who bring us food post-baby. Do I need to write thank you notes for meals? I'm writing a bunch right now for physical presents. I'll do it but I sure do hate writing thank you notes.

I think you should but that they can totally be by email.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:38 PM
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Pwned!


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:38 PM
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How rude.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:38 PM
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55: Specifically for that, no. The whole point of bringing food to a new parent is to take the load off them when they're so tired they can't function, and so it doesn't make sense to attach any obligation to be polite about it.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:39 PM
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(I mean, I agree that an email is nice, but dropping the ball completely is also okay in this specific situation.)


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:39 PM
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That sounds perfect. I can email people.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:42 PM
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I've always been terrible about thank-you notes, and am horrified in retrospect (given how bad I've been in the past) how much I appreciate getting them.

My college roommate's little brother stayed on our couch for a couple of days when he was in NY for an interview, and wrote a lovely little note thanking us, and it really made me very happy.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:42 PM
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(And my student was incredibly gracious about my pro-choice comment, which relieves the knot in my stomach. Thank god conservative children are indoctrinated to be so deferential to their elders.)


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:43 PM
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In the past, in the future, children vaporized their elders at Carrousel.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:49 PM
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We had a celebrity we knew at the time of baby #3 bring us post-baby food! Nice bottle of wine too ($50- yes, I looked it up.) A thank you email was sufficient.


Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:52 PM
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Also it's hard to know what kind of letter closing to sign off a letter to my mom's friends. I sort of hate all of them.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:53 PM
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Not the friends. I like the friends. I hate all closings, or at least all the ones that spring immediately to mind.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:53 PM
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With only the slightest hate toward you and all you stand for,

Dr. Prof. Geebie


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:54 PM
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71 before seeing 70.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:55 PM
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"Sincerely" is meaningless, but that's a virtue -- no one will notice it, so it's always appropriate.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:55 PM
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I went with:

Hope all's well with you, Heebie-geebie

which has to win some lameness award.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:56 PM
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Objectively 2013 kicks 1983's ass. Personal safety much higher- lower crime rate, safer products. Less prejudice/discrimination- sex, race, orientation. Perception-wise, though, people are convinced that if they let their kid walk down the street a gay Muslim terrorist is going to make them get an abortion.
So what would have to make people think 2043 sucks subjectively even if it doesn't? Probably some actually massive terror attack- dirty bomb or nuclear weapon. People are shitting their pants about what was, in terms of casualties, a few serious bus accidents (the Boston Globe is now in permanent 72 point headline mode, even for non-bombing related news.) They're talking about increased security for everything from 4th of July parades to school plays. So if there were actually a lot of people killed, say equivalent to or exceeding 9/11, people would gladly submit to permanent surveillance and be afraid to do a lot of formerly routine things.
Global warming and food or energy shortages? I think the fact that you specified "educated people in Western industrialized nations" and a 30-year time scale means those still won't be a major issue by then.


Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 1:58 PM
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74: "Hope all's well with you but if it isn't please accept my apologies if I made you sadder by bringing up the possibility of feeling well" is lamer.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 2:02 PM
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Global warming and food or energy shortages? I think the fact that you specified "educated people in Western industrialized nations" and a 30-year time scale means those still won't be a major issue by then.

That's my thought as well -- big issues which lots of people are worrying about, but not yet having much of a day-to-day impact in the US*

The things which I would guess are most likely to be big visible signs of decline are antibiotic-resistant diseases (it's easy to imagine getting to the point where most people know at least one person who was in good health and ended up spending 4-6 weeks in the hospital dealing with a nasty infection) and energy prices.

* [anecdata to the contrary]: when I visited Texas last year people did talk about how parents were discouraged from letting children play outside during the summer because the heat was too high. It wasn't something I'd heard about, and I don't know if the concern was legitimate, but if that became common in the Southwest, I would think of that as a serious decline in quality of life.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 2:07 PM
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78

69: Little baby smiles, Heebie


Posted by: k-sky | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 2:44 PM
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79

I haven't read the comments at all, so I'm probably pwn'd, but IIRC (and I may not, I was a kid at the time) there was a strong sense in the US in 1983 that things had gotten worse than they had been in 1963. I mean not everyone, of course, but the general sense of America/nation/society in decline was pretty strong, not to mention paranoia about nuclear war. There were left-wing and right-wing variants, but both sides shared a general narrative of decline. Now whether that sense was justified at all or not is a different story, but it was there -- "it's morning in America" relied in part on a national zeitgeist that it had been nightime for a while.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if people in 2043 thought that 2013 had been a better time -- personally, I think that the 80s sucked it but it's not at all clear to me that life for most Americans is unambiguously better now than it was in 1983, in many ways it's worse.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 2:47 PM
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80

Unsurprisingly, I agree largely with 19. As to 21, New York City is pretty unambiguously better off than it was in 1983, but for many of the same reasons why the rest of the country is worse off.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:00 PM
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Unsurprisingly, I agree largely with 19.

How would you connect 19 and 79? People were correctly unhappy in 1983 but 2013 is worse, or people were incorrectly unhappy in 1983?


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:05 PM
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I'd say incorrectly unhappy in 1983. Or more precisely that they failed to see the subtle ways in which the future might be even worse, though in subtle ways. Mostly I think people thought too much about high crime and ugly dirty cities, which were kind of visceral symbols of decline, and not enough about whether the middle class as it had existed since 1945 would continue to exist.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:10 PM
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There's a lot of things about the UK now that are absolutely better than 1983. Much of our infrastructure is better, life expectancy is longer, crime is lower, people eat better food, live in generally better maintained houses, travel more, consumer goods are cheaper, there's the internet, and while there's a long way to go you could argue that racism and homophobia are less prevalent, and so on. You could probably also argue that much of popular culture is better. Mainstream TV is certainly better.*

On the other hand, there's a lot to 19 and to general complaints about social mobility, and also the sorts of things LB alludes to in 40.

On social mobility, I think things are certainly worse now than they were then. College and university education is increasingly out of reach of people from poor or working class backgrounds, and the middle-classes are increasingly sharp-elbowed and effective at making sure they keep what they have. Youth unemployment is massive, and our society and political culture is becoming more and more vicious about the young, the immigrant, and the out of work. I look at my own family, and there's just no way my younger relatives could do what I've done. No way. I can't see any increasing living standards or rosy futures for them. Permanent underclass or precarious labour for them.

Our political elites are terrible. Not just nasty venal arseholes, but genuinely fucking stupid as well. It's embarrassing that we are being shat on by idiots. And the mainstream news media is a joke as well.

* although there's certainly less challenging/avant-garde stuff appearing than there was in the early 80s.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:20 PM
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Not just nasty venal arseholes, but genuinely fucking stupid as well. It's embarrassing that we are being shat on by idiots.

Reminds me of:

They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are COLONIZED by wankers. Can't even find a decent culture to be colonized BY. We're ruled by effete assholes. It's a SHITE state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and ALL the fresh air in the world won't make any fucking difference!


Posted by: oudemia | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:28 PM
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Heh heh heh, yeah. Although in this case 'we' means the people of all of the UK, and England in particular since England doesn't have the sort of counter-balance that the Scottish parliament can provide.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:30 PM
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I can't remember 1983 but I can remember 1968. This happens when you get real old. Just kidding.

Moon-landing versus Internet. Transcendence versus immanence. We lost our innocence and idealism, and have internalized the horror but are living the dream. Ain't left no place to run, but no place I'd rather be, anyway. This also happens when you get real old.

Moon-landing versus Internet.

Maybe I will come back with quotes from Lefebvre.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:31 PM
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83 seems basically right for the US as well.* Any argument about "better" or "worse" has got to mean "on net" since there are inevitably big trends that cut both ways.

*Except I'm not sure that our infrastructure is much better.


Posted by: Robert Halford | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:38 PM
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'The destruction of London' was a big theme in the 1890s. And 1980s stuff was reasonably accurate about the direction we've gone; shiny toys for 51% of the (shrinking) plebiscite, precarity for more and more.

I can't put together `lower crime' with the truncated sphere in which children (all pedestrians?) move and have it come out as a finished improvement. But I've been unhappy here before about private luxury and public squalor -- I don't think it's even private luxury unless you specifically get off on the contrast with the outsiders. Gibsonesque -- the Count Zero Gibson -- which is why I think 1980s fiction was right enough. (Ought to reread the Californias trilogy with my quals list behind me. I think we're much worse off ecologically than most people do, because I think we're already way into rearranging arable deckchairs. Oops! Metaphor! And too many dashes ----)


Posted by: clew | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:40 PM
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re: 87

I don't think all of our infrastructure is significantly better, but with the exception of the rail network, I think it's generally as good or a bit better.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:41 PM
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I think we're much worse off ecologically than most people do

There was a headline in the Times sometime in the last few weeks that hit me as something out of The Sheep Look Up; I'm not going to get it perfect, but something like "Drought brought to an end by devastating floods."


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:43 PM
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90: Which is the way they're likely to end, for a bunch of reasons, and it tends to put the actual topsoil somewhere we can't use it. (Behind a dam, in an estuary; usually worse than useless.)

F*ck, I should be out of school and on a goat-farm by now.


Posted by: clew | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:48 PM
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shiny toys for 51% of the (shrinking) plebiscite,

I think the shiny toys are for a lot more than 51%. It may also be true that too high a percentage of people have lives which are increasing precarious, but most of those people get some of the shiny toys as well.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 3:49 PM
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[anecdata to the contrary]: when I visited Texas last year people did talk about how parents were discouraged from letting children play outside during the summer because the heat was too high.

This is somewhat of a concern, when it's in the 100-110° range. Daycare has strict limits about how long they can be outside (I think 15 minutes) at that heat.

For me, the bigger concern is practical: all the playgrounds are way too hot to play on by about 11 am, and stay that way until maybe 4 or 5 in the afternoon. So it's really hard to get the kids out of the house unless you're getting in the water.

(There is a real shortage of indoor places to go, in this town. There's the library, but unless it's story time, the library doesn't really occupy much time.)

OTOH, I don't think this is a new concern, and I don't think it's a big concern for older kids. I certainly played outside all summer long in Florida. It's not quite as temperature-hot, but it's equally unpleasant there.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 4:43 PM
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And I've played soccer and gone jogging all summer long in the Texas heat, as an adult. You sort of feel like you're going to die.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 4:44 PM
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I think finding judges attractive is an indicator that I have solidly moved into middle age.

I regularly complain that the worst thing about aging is fancying old men. This is likely to be even worse in 30 years' time.

I find it hard to see how our children won't be poorer than us.


Posted by: asilon | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 4:47 PM
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Bread is nice. But what I really like are circuses.


Posted by: Spike | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 5:07 PM
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42

But, OK, fine. I'll say that it wasn't 0 ...

I agree that it was low but not zero. My SWAG at the time was 1/10000 per year.

Btw it isn't zero today either (although lower of course).


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 5:37 PM
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We had a celebrity we knew at the time of baby #3 bring us post-baby food!

I'm trying to think of what Cambridge-dwelling celebrity this could have been. OMG, Yo-Yo Ma brought you food?!!


Posted by: Blume | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 5:39 PM
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It's a Malk-erole!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 5:44 PM
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... what would have to happen in the next thirty years for there to be a general consensus that things were going badly and that, generally speaking, educated people in Western industrialized nations were not as well off as they had been in 2013?

Not sure why educated is being specified here.

For general decline I think peak oil could do it. If oil production in 30 years is say half of what it is today I expect that would produce a lot of problems and unhappiness.

For educated people in particular you could get something like the current situation with respect to law school, overproduction, large student debts and not enough good jobs applying much more generally. This is already happening at the bottom end with many students incurring debt they have few prospects of ever repaying. Expanding internet education could eliminate (or devalue) many of the remaining academic jobs.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 5:58 PM
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For signing off to parents' friends, I am fond of "Fondly".


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:05 PM
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Fondling, maybe?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:10 PM
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Everybody in this bar with facial hair has better facial hair than I was capable of growing.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:15 PM
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95:I find it hard to see how our children won't be poorer than us.

Oh, FWIW

Solar Is About To Change Our World ...Lots of comments

As far as I can tell, installed PV solar prices have been falling at 22% per year over the last several years. Those are huge, huge drops in price over a few years.

But the more remarkable data point is that we can expect solar to be cheaper than existing (not new) coal is in just a few years. We can expect some solar to be cheaper than existing coal in 2016. That's when the levelized cost of newly installed PV solar should be cheaper than using an existing coal plant. That's not far away at all.

And then just a few years after that, PV solar could become much, much cheaper than coal. Imagine 10 years at 18% drops in price. Where would the price of PV Solar be then? It will be about 50% of the price of coal.

If economies of scale let it happen in ten years, surely with a Manhattan Project we could do it in 2-5

If ...if...If the oligarchs let it happen. As I have said the problem is not peak oil or global warming, the problem is the politics of inequality.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:16 PM
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Oh and Montana has 2-5 times as much shale oil and gas as previously understood, a report said this week. Or was it North Dakota, Whatever.

And we are developing oil and gas, with new pipelines, instead of solar.

Because there is more money to be made at a concentrated top of the food chain.

Solar will be more distributed in profits, power, independence.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:21 PM
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104

If economies of scale let it happen in ten years, surely with a Manhattan Project we could do it in 2-5

It's all BS, solar isn't going to be cheaper than fossil fuels are currently anytime soon.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:23 PM
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Yeah, the Bakken. The exact location of the western border of which is a big deal: http://missoulanews.bigskypress.com/missoula/beckoning-the-bakken/Content?oid=1753546


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:25 PM
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When a) life expectancy, b) gdp per capita decrease or c) crime rates (esp. violent crime) increase. To 1983 levels.


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:25 PM
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for people in 2043 to think back on 2013 as a better time to have been an educated American?

Relatively minor delays in air travel.


Posted by: America | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:26 PM
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I went to a surprisingly optimistic talk about climate change and geoengineering today. Maybe we're not all gonna die quite yet?


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:30 PM
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Noahpinion from Jan 13 has much the same story about solar, some different sources and details. Lots of comments.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:30 PM
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104: That's not what I've heard from people in the industry.


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:31 PM
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I'm wondering about peak heterosexual mustache.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:31 PM
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for people in 2043 to think back on 2013 as a better time to have been an educated American?

If Plan B is available to 14-year-olds in 2043.


Posted by: Obama Administration | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:34 PM
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110: Yes, we are all gonna die, or a whole lot.

Just like the last Gilded Age, the technological optimists (and I am such) drastically under estimate the politico-social-economic problems.

The rich are some crazy evil bastard motherfuckers, and expect to see a replay of 1914-1945, times ten, in your lifetime.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:34 PM
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Very small mustaches during those years.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:39 PM
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Many people think that the world is getting worse, when by every objective measure it has gotten better.

I think the rate at which people think the future is going to continue to get better has been constantly decreasing. In the immediate post-war years, ideas about the future were wildly utopian. Since then, as the actual rate of improvement has slackened, our perceptions of that rate have also declined. To the point where people perceive a peak either now or in the next several years.


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:43 PM
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117: Are there not more slaves now than at any point in history?


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 6:59 PM
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There are more people now. You really need to use the percentage.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:02 PM
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I'm quite sure that I'm going to like 2043 a whole lot less than I liked 1983.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:04 PM
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And the folks all copacetic about the hundreds of megatons still sitting out there, primed and targeted...

...well, isn't that exactly exactly like the normal guy with his collection of automatic rifles who seems so stable and nice...

...until his dog dies and he loses his job and his wife runs off with the plumber...

...and he heads toward the kindergarten.

Are nations more rational then individuals? Maybe, or maybe it is just harder to stress out a nation.

I can't give odds. They ain't fucking zero.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:04 PM
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98- Oh look, it's my kid's boots and the back of my head. Goddamn paparazzi never get my good side.


Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:05 PM
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And maybe a standard error in your estimate of slaves.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:05 PM
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111

Noahpinion from Jan 13 has much the same story about solar, some different sources and details. Lots of comments.

That post links this USG study .

It computes cost assuming a carbon tax. Nevertheless coal and gas come in cheaper than solar (coal 100.1, gas 65.6, solar 144.3). Wind is also substantially cheaper (86.8). And as the page notes dispatchable sources (coal, gas) are more valuable than non-dispatchable sources (solar, wind).


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:09 PM
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Amanda Bynes is Yo Yo Ma?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:10 PM
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"There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today; that is more than double the number of enslaved Africans violently transported across the Atlantic Ocean during the entire history of the transatlantic slave trade. The good news is that this is also the smallest number of slaves enslaved per capita in human history: approximately 390 per 100,000"


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:16 PM
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Math fucking rules, but not in a whipping slaves kind of way.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:18 PM
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Going by percentage probably isn't much comfort if you're one of the slaves.


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:23 PM
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Also, given that we're living in the largest mass extinction event in however many eons, that would seem like an objectionable objective measurement.


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:26 PM
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128: ?

Is the point that if the absolute numbers were not at a peak that would be comforting to a slave?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:40 PM
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the largest mass extinction event

Is this about the Kris Kross guy?


Posted by: Stanley | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:40 PM
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I am also very confused by 129 but I don't even know how to approach it.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 7:40 PM
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We have more LARPers than at any other time in history.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:09 PM
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Larp Trek


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:17 PM
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given that we're living in the largest mass extinction event in however many eons

The largest mass extinction event since the last mass extinction event, perhaps?


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:23 PM
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The largest mass extinction event since the invention of slavery and LARPing.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:27 PM
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In geologic time, the two events are basically simultaneous.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:28 PM
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I'm pretty sure we don't actually know anything about mass extinctions before the current (Phanerozoic) eon. But eons are super-long. There are only like three or four of them.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:32 PM
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Is LARPing understood better?


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:34 PM
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I went to a surprisingly optimistic talk about climate change and geoengineering today. Maybe we're not all gonna die quite yet?
Oh?


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:37 PM
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As for the cost of solar, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, the point at which we should switch to mostly solar is the point at which the cost of solar beats the cost of fossil fuels with externalities priced in (e.g., by a carbon tax), but the point at which we will switch is probably when it beats fossil fuels without externalities priced in, which is a much more difficult goal to reach.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:39 PM
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140: Ken Caldeira was the speaker. He quoted someone-- I forget the name-- who had written something about a billion people dying from climate-change-induced food shortages by the end of the century. Caldeira reviewed some recent work on crop growth that was much more optimistic, arguing that at least on average CO2 fertilization offsets most of the harm from temperature and precipitation changes, and that the availability of more land at high northern latitudes for crop growth can to some extent compensate losses in equatorial regions. The message he repeated several times was (paraphrasing slightly): it seems unlikely that climate change will be so catastrophic that we'll face massive worldwide famines this century; if we do face those famines, it will be a distribution problem caused by a lack of political will to get food to the right places, not by our inability to grow the food.

As with another talk I went to earlier this year, it was also reasonably optimistic about the ability of geoengineering (solar radiation management) to offset the worst effects of global warming, at least compared to talks on the subject I went to several years ago.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:48 PM
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(142 obviously is kind of a caricature of the talk, not only because I'm distilling a one-hour talk down to a single comment but because I was a little distracted during parts of the talk and he didn't seem very well organized in the first place, so I could be missing key parts of the message.)


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:50 PM
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if we do face those famines, it will be a distribution problem caused by a lack of political will to get food to the right places, not by our inability to grow the food.

So, IOW, we will face famines. Got it.


Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:59 PM
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Plus, I got new windows and a high efficiency washer.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 8:59 PM
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Is it a locally sourced washer?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 9:02 PM
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144: Well, yeah. But not because we'll have already made things so bad that they're completely unavoidable! It seemed mildly reassuring, somehow.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 9:02 PM
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Also, entirely because of fear of Megan, I stopped running the water the whole time as I shave.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 9:05 PM
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146: Sears.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 9:07 PM
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147: Yeah, given everything I know currently about climate change, political will, and resource distribution, I think I'd replace "reassuring" with "twisting the knife," unfortunately. But I made the mistake of reading that cheerful Economist article about temperature trends and being very briefly happy, before reading the rebuttals. That said, it doesn't fucking matter in the slightest whether I feel optimistic or pessimistic. Maybe the rest of you have more leverage individually; I don't know.


Posted by: lurid keyaki | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 9:46 PM
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I really am scared of the antibiotic era ending.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in" (9) | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 10:10 PM
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I think the antibiotic thing is overblown, especially in the "OMG no companies will work on it because it's not profitable!" We're working on ones for TB, C. diff, and broad spectrum, and two of those are in collaboration with two separate pharma companies. People are working on it and it's a more tractable problem than cancer (which is also making some progress.)


Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 10:15 PM
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This thread was actually less depressing than I expected.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 10:35 PM
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dispatchable sources (coal, gas) are more valuable than non-dispatchable sources (solar, wind).

This is really the key thing to remember in evaluating the potential of solar, which has indeed declined dramatically in price in recent years but is still significantly more expensive than most other energy sources. It just doesn't make sense to compare coal, which can be used for baseload power generation, to solar, which just can't do that absent some really major breakthroughs in energy storage technology. The more important comparison for coal is natural gas, which has also declined massively in price due to the fracking boom and which can also be used for baseload generation, although historically in the US it usually hasn't been.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05- 1-13 10:42 PM
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83: the trouble with doing this comparison if you're a Brit is that 1983 really was pretty grim. Even higher unemployment and youth unemployment than now. A government that was probably slightly less inept but also slightly more evil. A generally poorer and less tolerant country.

This is particularly true of Embra. The change that I saw in my home town starting from, roughly, the mid-1990s is really striking. In the 80s it was Heroinopolis.

The depressing thing is that we spent the intervening years rising out of the low point of 1983 and now we're plunging right back into it again.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 2:23 AM
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154: see The Baseload Fallacy. http://www.energyscience.org.au/BP16%20BaseLoad.pdf

There are plenty of options for renewable baseload generation. The baseload problem arises if you decide to switch the entire US to photovoltaic alone (because then there's no power at night) but that would be an insane decision. Saying "PV solar can't replace all generation and therefore it's pointless" is the Baseload Fallacy.


Posted by: ajay` | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 2:32 AM
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re: 155

Yeah, 83 was pretty grim. I don't know if youth unemployment in the area I grew up was higher then than it is now, although overall unemployment was certainly worse in 83.

Falkirk (nearest big town to where I grew up) was certainly a shit-hole in 83, and you could definitely argue that it's a much nicer place now. Although I suspect, like a lot of places, life hasn't really improved for those who grew up there [rather than those who moved there to the large private housing estates that surround it, as it's commutable to Glasgow and Edinburgh].


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 4:06 AM
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156

There are plenty of options for renewable baseload generation. The baseload problem arises if you decide to switch the entire US to photovoltaic alone (because then there's no power at night) but that would be an insane decision. Saying "PV solar can't replace all generation and therefore it's pointless" is the Baseload Fallacy.

It remains the case that dispatchable sources of power are worth more than non-dispatchable sources and that this should be taken into account when comparing their costs.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 4:37 AM
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Looking at neighborhoods, I'd say where I live was a little bit worse in 1983, and the nearby shopping district was MUCH worse -- literally a brothel or smutty bookstore every couple of blocks. Of course, then by the late '80s, things had gotten worse still with the whole [CIA and rightist-manufactured] crack epidemic. Then things were really looking up for awhile, and now it is depressed again after the housing crash.

I was driving around the city yesterday for a work function and it was somewhat shocking to realize just how much new residential construction is going on right now. In all the fancier, densely-populated areas of the city there are multiple large rental and condo developments going up. You'd think it was 2005 or something. And it really only slacked off around here for about 2.5 years. Weird.


Posted by: Natilo Paennim | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 5:40 AM
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Haven't people always* been expecting the end of the world? We're familiar with the scientific arguments that it's imminent because a lot of them have been made within living memory, but Thomas Malthus was making his arguments before that, and religious arguments that the end is nigh have been taken seriously here and there ever since about 33 AD.

* "always": in Western cultures, I guess, I don't know about elsewhere so much.


Posted by: Cyrus | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 6:40 AM
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religious arguments that the end is nigh have been taken seriously here and there ever since about 33 AD.

Since well before that, eh?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 6:45 AM
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I wanted to add this to the discussion of Charley's 12:

In the early '80s a friend and I were discussing the impending failure of the Soviet Union, which we agreed was more-or-less inevitable. I viewed this eventuality with dread. My take was that the resulting instability would radically increase the likelihood of nuclear war, but he disagreed. I'm still not sure why I was wrong.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 6:54 AM
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162: You weren't necessarily wrong. It's possible that the likelihood of nuclear war did greatly increase without resulting in nuclear war. It's not like we had a gauge on the wall at the Pentagon reading "Current Likelihood of Nuclear War".

(Or was there...?)


Posted by: Stanley | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:02 AM
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I do think the decline in social fairness (a catchall term for social mobility, income inequality, and greater instability for people on the bottom) is an important way in which we're worse off than 1983. And comparing the state of the environment, or environmentalism as a movement, today to 1983 is a mixed bag at best. (Things are getting better in some ways but not others? Things are getting better, but not quickly enough to prevent catastrophe?) Overall, yes, I'd agree that things are better today than they were 30 years ago, and as I said above I'm skeptical of eschatology, but that's no reason to ignore the things that aren't better.

Also, I was confused by 162. "I'm still not sure why I was wrong." - do you mean you aren't sure why your prediction didn't come true and nuclear war became a non-issue? Or do you mean you aren't sure how you came up with your prediction in the first place?

I could believe that the failure of the Soviet Union, would make nuclear war more likely in the short term. Instability in general makes war more likely in general. I'd have a hard time coming up with a reason to believe that it's still more likely once you get past that danger zone, though.


Posted by: Cyrus | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:05 AM
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Haven't people always been expecting the end of the world?

There's a line of argument that typically follows from this statement* that pisses me off: "The doom-and-gloomers are always wrong."

In fact, the doom-and-gloomers are often right. And even Malthus was correct in his assessment of history. He just had no way of knowing that technological advancement was going to overturn a pattern he had correctly discerned that had lasted through the entirety of human history.

Those who mock Malthus** tend to be technological triumphalists and Econ 101 adherents with a limited sense of history. There's no iron law of history that guarantees economic growth, and we are not at the end of history.

*I'm not accusing Cyrus of making that argument.
**Again, I'm not pointing fingers.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:05 AM
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It's not like we had a gauge on the wall at the Pentagon reading "Current Likelihood of Nuclear War".

Well, it isn't at the pentagon.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:09 AM
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I haven't read the whole thread so this may have been said already, but being old enough to remember the late 70s, there was a strong cultural narrative about inevitable decline.

This included both impending environmental collapse and general social disintegration.

The movie Mad Max illustrates the general sense of decay fairly well. Unlike most comparable movies, Mad Max didn't posit a nuclear war or any similar catastrophe in order to explain why the near future was a post-apocalyptic wasteland*, it just took for granted that the audience would accept that things would turn out this way.

*The Road Warrior a few years later did play the "WW3 destroyed civilization" card, however. Maybe that's an indication that attitudes had already changed by the early 80s?


Posted by: AcademicLurker | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:10 AM
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163, 164 - The fall of the Soviet Union, as it played out in the real world, lends credence to Charley's argument in 12, and (again, in the way that events actually occurred) I don't think there was an interlude during that transition in which nuclear war was a serious risk. So, to answer 164.2: Events offer a strong argument against my opinion, but I'm still puzzled at why history played out the way it did.

I still don't agree with Charley, though. His argument sounds to me like a variant on the fallacy that I attempt to identify in 165. People really are pretty goddam stupid and are entirely willing to engage in massive destruction. I don't know what they were saying on the Soviet side, but in the U.S., people in positions of authority were entirely serious about planning for, and downplaying the necessarily catastrophic consequences of, global nuclear war.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:17 AM
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In my word there's a recognition that we don't know where the Soviet stockpiles of smallpox, anthrax, etc. ended up, and that some of them are most likely still in Kazakhstan under unknown supervision. No one seems all that worried about it because it's hard to imagine that these things would be useful in more than a Japan-subway-scale terrorist attack, even though we spend a lot of time using "bioterrorism" and "biowarfare" as justifications for why research is useful. Just because it's hard to imagine it, doesn't mean it couldn't happen. It's hard to imagine it because it hasn't happened yet.

Soviet bioweapons facility in Kazakhstan DID release smallpox accidentally in 1971, and only ten people got infected. Most of them were vaccinated though...


Posted by: Cryptic ned | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:24 AM
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In fact, the doom-and-gloomers are often right.

For sort of soft and squishy values of "often right." The really nasty predictions haven't come true. Mass starvation due to overpopulation hasn't happened and looks unlikely to happen (not that there haven't been famines, but they aren't due to overpopulation and they have generally been limited in to relatively small areas) and that was a big one for a long time. I guess some of the fears of what a future war might hold circa 1900 came true in a pretty apocalyptic way, so that's one point in favor. The closest to a contemporary doom-and-gloom scenario that seems to be accurate is the mass extinction we are in the middle of. Other than that I'm not seeing 'often right' as very well justified. The big fears of my youth have all turned out to be wrong (again, excepting the mass extinction). No nuclear holocaust, no ice age, no global pandemic. Also no Jesus showing up to kill everyone except 144,000 righteous people, which is a relief.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:33 AM
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Doomsayers aren't always wrong, but you have to look beyond the 'doom is coming' message to see what their causation mechanism is. Doom through divine intervention -- a second coming, something like Sodom & Gomorrah -- or through massive Soviet attack, in the 80s, across the north German plain: plainly wrong, and so plainly wrong that one is justified in looking at alternative explanations for the doomsayers' motivation. No, required to look.

Doom through climate change, or inability to keep up with population growth, death of bees: jury is still out, but imo predictions made in good faith.

I'm willing to put accidental nuclear war down below killer bee infestation, and I think the notion that the Soviets then, or the Iranians now, were so insane as to be undeterrable was awfully convenient for people who wanted the power/profit that comes from fearmongering of a certain kind.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:34 AM
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Ironically catching up on this thread while waiting for some data on anti-Orthopox compounds to load...
166- I think the calibration on the Doomsday clock is a bit off. It's currently closer to midnight than at any time during the 1960s?


Posted by: SP | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:35 AM
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168,169. A combination of money from the outside to clean up, and a sense of responsibility by the people in charge of the weapons, I think. Maybe a continuously-intact control apparatus, I'm honestly not sure. People like Viktor Bout stole unsecured weapons in bulk, nothing more sophisticated than conventional missiles.

Along with nuclear weapons, another export that is carefully controlled by Russia is good jet engines, which China would love to buy. As far as I can tell, this traffic does not exist either. So I think that the explanation is that the collapse affected ordinary people and consumer goods more than military systems.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:42 AM
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168

... I don't know what they were saying on the Soviet side, but in the U.S., people in positions of authority were entirely serious about planning for, and downplaying the necessarily catastrophic consequences of, global nuclear war.

The people at the top were against nuclear war.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:50 AM
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169, 170: A few responses:

1 - A lot of doom and gloom is averted because we heed the warnings of the doom-and-gloomers. If global warming turns out to be non-catastrophic, it will be because we decide to act, and not because climate science is incorrect. And it is by no means inevitable that we're going to act (or so I argue).

2 - The anti-doom-and-gloom argument is often employed in circumstances involving something less than global catastrophe. The Great Moderation didn't turn out to be so great after all, but guys like Dean Baker and Nouriel Roubini - and even Warren Buffett - were mocked for predicting doom and gloom in that area, because doom-and-gloomers are always wrong. Those anti-war folks in 2003 were similarly disdained for having failed to appreciate the way democracy was ascendant and essentially inevitable in the Middle East, once we gave it a little nudge.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:58 AM
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175 was intended as a response to 170, and 171, not 169 and 170.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 7:59 AM
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175.1: My favorite example of this is the ozone hole.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:04 AM
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The people at the top were against nuclear war.

This seems either wrong or trivially correct. Nobody favors massive global war if there's a perceived alternative. There has nonetheless been massive global war.

In my youth, people at the very top of the American hierarchy publicly stated that war-fears were overstated not because war was unlikely, but because war wouldn't be so bad. George HW Bush, for example, was certainly an adherent of the doctrine of "limited nuclear war." And JFK, especially according to recent accounts, sat around a table with people gaming out strategies in which everyone understood nuclear war to be one of the viable options.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:10 AM
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178.1 -- Ok, sure, but there were lots of perceived alternatives in the 1980s, and no reason to think that there would not continue to be, for the foreseeable future.

I would draw a serious distinction between the 80s and the early 60s in this regard. I think people on both sides looked into the abyss in 1962, and flinched.

GHWB was, like his predecessor, an adherent of the doctrine of huge transfers from the Treasury to corporations that supported his faction.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:20 AM
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Why have annihilation when you can kill a few nuns in El Salvador, fund terrorists in Nicaragua, sell advanced weaponry to Al Qaeda? And shovel money by the wheelbarrowload to your friends?


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:22 AM
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I think people on both sides looked into the abyss in 1962, and flinched.

I think that is also true, as opposed to any abstract thinking about deterrence. That's why I think the risk is real. You have to have leaders actually go stand and stare down at the abyss every so often.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:22 AM
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And the glorious conquest of Grenada!


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:30 AM
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GHWB was, like his predecessor, an adherent of the doctrine of huge transfers from the Treasury to corporations that supported his faction.

You seem to view the undeniable influence of the military-industrial complex as an argument against the risk of global war. Borrowing from lw's 30, your theory explains why major financial institutions weren't permitted to drive themselves off a cliff.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:32 AM
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Soviet bioweapons facility in Kazakhstan DID release smallpox accidentally in 1971, and only ten people got infected. Most of them were vaccinated though...

And again in Sverdlovsk in 1979. Someone forgot to replace an air filter on an extractor fan and a plume of weaponised anthrax spread across the city. About 100 dead. The Party official who helped cover it up by claiming it was "bad meat" did it so well that it kickstarted his career. His name? Boris Yeltsin.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:37 AM
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I'd be interested in a study of where the architects of that disaster are, five years on. Richer than ever isn't beyond the realm of possibility. (We certainly know they're not in jail). They're not dying of radiation poisoning.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:37 AM
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185 -> 183.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:38 AM
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another export that is carefully controlled by Russia is good jet engines, which China would love to buy.

China does buy them, for all its (otherwise homemade) fighter aircraft.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:39 AM
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I'd be interested in a study of where the architects of that disaster are, five years on.

Some of them are still in work; some have been publicly humiliated; see here for details.http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1877351_1877350_1877319,00.html


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:42 AM
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A system with some person in charge, rather than an autonomous bureaucracy, would likely behave according to 179 or 180. It is not clear to me whether or not the systems responsible for major decisions now have a person at the steering wheel or not. (launch an attack? runaway predatory credit?)

It is this uncertainty that makes me object to the definite claim of 0 probablity of an accident because it would be too costly. Examples of US conservative idiocy do not address this uncertainty.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:52 AM
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187. I believe that China gets jets that are a generation behind the best, not the most current ones.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 8:53 AM
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The thing that scared me about the possibility of accidental nuclear war in the 80s was that I understood that both sides were attempting to detect attack from the other side and respond immediately before the initial attack hit -- exactly the Petrov scenario. Anything that has to happen fast involves a limited number of decisionmakers, under time pressure, and that's how mistakes happen: the "99 Luftballons" nuclear war.

I never particularly worried that anyone was going to initiate a massive nuclear attack purposefully, but mistakes seemed very possible.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 9:01 AM
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War launching is certainly more centralized that economy destroying.

But, ok, I'm off the zero -- as to accidents, which, after all, wasn't the dominant narrative in 1983 (any more than in the 20 years since Strangelove/FailSafe) -- but not at all surprised that in the event, humans were able to tell the difference between a system malfunction and an actual attack.

Back to today: how afraid are you of fatal home invasion? Tragically, they exist; our friend's own grandfather was a victim of one quite recently. So, yes, it's not zero probablilty, and the costs to the victim (and his/her family) are unacceptably high. But I think even having on the radar as a 'how satisfied are you with life' factor is giving in to hype.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 9:17 AM
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190: ah, fair enough. Yes, that seems to be the case. The J-10's running powerplants from a decade ago.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 9:18 AM
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(Certainly, the Reagan administration and its many boosters had no reason to advance the 'the chances of accident are increasing because we're making the Russians think we might just do this' line, which is a dominant element in the 'near miss' narratives.)


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 9:19 AM
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192.1 Unless you built the system that launches an attack, I do not understand where you find the confidence, but tastes differ. I basically do not care about the dominant narrative for my personal worries.

192.3 Totally unconcerned. But I keep track of local crime, and live in a neighborhood where most violence is between acquaintances. I would feel differently if I still had a cache of drugs at home.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 9:24 AM
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The chances of home invasion can be estimated from actual data. Nuclear wars are less common, which, while fortunate, makes for larger error bars.


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 9:28 AM
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I don't know how sane the Russian leadership has been, but we've used them once and had people high up argue for their use multiple other times. Not against another nuclear power, of course. Beyond accidents and miscalculations, our Air Force seems to be a Christian Fundamentalist organization.


Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 9:31 AM
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183

You seem to view the undeniable influence of the military-industrial complex as an argument against the risk of global war. Borrowing from lw's 30, your theory explains why major financial institutions weren't permitted to drive themselves off a cliff.

I haven't agreed with Charley overall about this (if 192 is saying that he was ignoring the possibility of nuclear war started by accident, then, comity), but there are big problems with this comparison. The bankers could have reasonably have assumed the government would bail them out to prevent the worst-case scenario, as they in fact did. Even without that, the odds of truly severe personal consequences for the bankers were not high. Neither of those are true of the people who had their finger on the button. Basically, this is why analogies are banned.


Posted by: Cyrus | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 9:38 AM
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When a huckster tells me that his magic potion -- only 29.95, if you buy a case today -- will purge my system of the toxins I'm taking in, I don't have to have grown the food myself to become suspicious that the whole thing is a scam.

That was my lived experience in 1983, and the lived experience of pretty much everyone I knew at the time. Maybe we were unreasonably naive about the likelihood of humans recognizing the difference between a technical malfunction and an actual attack -- which wouldn't just show up on one instrument, but would have a thousand other indicators -- but I still don't think so.

This is why I think the analogies to WWI and the financial crisis fail: people did what they did actually knowing more or less what was going on -- they may have been mistaken about the implications of things, or may have been taken in by intentional deceptions -- this is nothing like seeing a radar show missiles from a country where none of the military bases are on any kind of heightened security, where the Vice President is out kissing babies, where none of the moles are finding any chatter, etc etc etc., especially where the incentive to act on the misinformation is quite low.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 9:39 AM
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Feed your pessimism. Someone was paid to write this: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/02/fashion/williamsburg.html


Posted by: Alex | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 9:40 AM
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199.3 is kind of a mess. Let's look at the beginning of WWI. The Archduke really was dead, Austria really was going to initiate some punitive action on Serbia, and the Russians really were going to react to that militarily. Germany really was bound to aid Austria -- they could have decided not to do so, but thought it would be to their advantage nonetheless. They were mistaken about the future, no doubt about it. But not about the present.

The German general staff had figured out that in a two front war, they needed to mobilize on a particular schedule, and strike France first, via Belgium, to have their best shot at a quick victory. While wrong about the future, they were right about the present, especially as France began its own mobilization around the same time as the German mobilization. Wrong about the future, but it would not have been possible to predict the Marne one way or the other.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 9:55 AM
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Basically, this is why analogies are banned.

Fair enough. I think the financial crisis was primarily an unintended consequence of free-market ideology, and that Cold War ideology made analogous miscalculations possible in that era. But yeah, it's the sort of analogy that's rightly regarded with suspicion.

I don't see, however, that anyone has really addressed the Cuban Missile Crisis at all. Is the argument that the crisis was all hype? My understanding of the relevant history is that, as more information becomes available, it becomes more apparent that we were really close to war. Am I a victim of the hype Charley describes in 12? Was the missile crisis really a non-event, catastrophe-wise?


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:02 AM
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in the event, humans were able to tell the difference between a system malfunction and an actual attack.

Mm. Hasn't it come down to a single person who chose not to follow the algorithm? More than once, and once intertied with Y2K?


Posted by: clew | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:03 AM
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I agree with 191. On the Russian side there were too many people authorized to make strikes, and too little time built in for making the decision. My understanding is that a big part of the problem was that the Soviets needed to match the US response time, but had worse technology so needed to decide very quickly. Certainly odds peaked at the Cuban missile crisis, and were never that high afterwards. But I'd guess that the odds were higher than other civilization ending events (e.g. a Chicxulub sized meteor, supervolcano, etc.).


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:21 AM
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I don't think the Cuban Missile Crisis was hype.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:33 AM
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Sorry 204 was me. New hard drive means all my defaults have disappeared.


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in." (9) | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:34 AM
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199.1 is again a description of an interaction between individuals. I view the machinery for launching a cold war attack as basically an automated system with minimal human input. It is possible that this view is mistaken, but more examples of failed human judgement don't address this question. Examples that nobody has brought up are Fukushima, Chernobyl, Bhopal. The point about orderly unwinding after 1990 is a good one; as I said, I think that looking at other technologies where information is more complete is the way to approach that. (jets or missiles, seen as central by the KGB, or biological weapons, less so)

For whatever it's worth, I see rhetoric about Iran or N Korea by contemporary US warmongers as something totally distinct, more like simple fraud. I am not at all concerned, though I might feel differently if I lived in Seoul. In my mind, thinking about cold war accidents is a technical not political discussion, but the specs of the systems are classified. I don't know that much about Cuba, beyond the presence of a Soviet missile there and the mobilization of an armed US bomber group, so can't say much.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:38 AM
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203 -- And I always find my keys the last place I look.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:39 AM
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208: Reasoning from "there never was an accidental nuclear war" to "So there couldn't have been a significant risk of it" seems flawed.

You don't have to find your keys the last place you look -- one time you might not find them at all, in which case the last place you looked would be where you gave up, rather than where you found your keys. Likewise, the fact that some person guessed right and didn't start a war on every actual close call we had doesn't mean that it's a certainty that that was going to happen.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:44 AM
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I don't understand 207. Isn't Seoul getting nuked exactly the worry? How can it be fraud and something that might worry you if you lived in Seoul?


Posted by: Unfoggetarian: "Pause endlessly, then go in." (9) | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:47 AM
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It's not a concern for the US because N Korea is technically very weak. It is a concern very close to their border.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:48 AM
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I think if Seoul was nuked the US would be rather more than oncerned, so the threat is a concern to it. Me, I's also be mildly worried if I were Japanese.


Posted by: chris y | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:51 AM
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Seoul getting nuked is not a concern for the US?


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:52 AM
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If I were Japanese, I'd be very impressed with how well I've learned to speak English.


Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:52 AM
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It also doesn't mean that there wasn't someone else who would've had an opportunity to make a call.

I didn't know anything about the Russian systems, obviously, in 1983. And only knew as much about our system as one might glean from smoking weed every now and again with Minuteman guys (when I was a garbage man, we shared a dump with a recreation area for the local missile base, and I'd regularly meet their guys) but it didn't seem as automatic as dystopian SF would have it.

I think, though, that 'guessed right' underestimates how likely a person would be to think that a technical malfunction was a technical malfunction. (Pretty likely, given the other evidence).


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 10:53 AM
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200: Come now:

While waiting at the cash register, I picked up a pair of argyle wool socks from a nearby wicker basket and asked, "Are your socks local?" The salesman self-consciously said no. I returned the socks like an organic farmer who has learned that a friend has named her child Monsanto.

"Are your socks local" is an impressively succinct take on a stale bit.


Posted by: k-sky | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 11:25 AM
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194

... we're making the Russians think we might just do this' line ...

Actually it was mostly the liberals who were promoting the idea that the Reagan administration was likely to start a nuclear war.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 5:42 PM
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202

I don't see, however, that anyone has really addressed the Cuban Missile Crisis at all. ...

Unclear how relevant it is to the chances of war in 1983.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 5:45 PM
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The baseload problem arises if you decide to switch the entire US to photovoltaic alone (because then there's no power at night) but that would be an insane decision.

Well, right. That's all I was saying. I'm well aware that there are renewable options for baseload power.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 05- 2-13 6:26 PM
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Hasn't it come down to a single person who chose not to follow the algorithm? More than once, and once intertied with Y2K?

Three obvious cases come to mind.

1) A Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear torpedo in 1963 comes under harassing attack from a US warship dropping grenades. Unknown to the US, the sub is unable to distinguish grenades from depth charges, and has orders for nuclear release in the event of an attack.
Soviet doctrine dictates that the captain and the political officer must authorise any nuclear attack. On this ship, though, the two of them have agreed unofficially that the first officer must also give his OK before launch. The captain and the political officer both agree that the explosions they can hear outside their hull constitute an attack, and decide to launch. The first officer, however, disagrees and reminds them of their (entirely unofficial and illegal) agreement to give him a veto on a launch. They agree not to launch.

2) At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, the MI6 case officer handling the high-level Soviet mole Oleg Penkovsky receives a warning signal from Penkovsky - a silent phone call - that the two of them have agreed will only be used if a nuclear launch order has been given. The case officer decides, for reasons he never disclosed, not to relay this warning to his superiors.

3) Boris Yeltsin is woken up at 3.15 am in 1997 with the news that a US missile (actually a Norwegian sounding rocket) has been detected heading over the pole for Moscow. He decides to ignore it.


Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 05- 3-13 6:40 AM
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