Back to basics

A couple of weeks ago, as most of the family was struggling with an epic [1] influenza season our family welcomed its newest member:

Luckily my wife was not afflicted at the time and semi-modern wonders of overdosed [2] self-medication saved the day and night for me as well, and we had a great birth experience with the wonderful folks at the Family Birth Centre of Angliss Hospital.

Witnessing the birth of another life is a pretty awesome experience; nothing compares, really. The days after, however, were a bit foggy and remain fuzzy in memory – apparently full-on flu, medicated or not, does not go well with tons of chores that need to be done, older children that must be looked after and the inevitable sleep deprivation. It was all about climbing uncomfortably down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and we’re not back up yet.

Still, as I am sporadically regaining some higher brain functions, I wanted to quickly check up on what’s going on with this blog again; you may recall that earlier this year I implied that I’d write in this blog more often and do fewer book reviews.

Then I promptly followed that up with some book reviews and long stretches of silence, so that went well.

Writing any of the dozens of ideas into an actual post somehow always gets pushed down the priority stack. It does not appear this will change anytime in the near-term future, so to make partial amends I shall really briefly cover some topics here in a very abbreviated form – just a couple of paragraphs each.

Property in Melbourne firmly in bubble territory

There is a great Australian housing bubble here, which is about to burst over the next little while. The situation is significantly worse right here Victoria/Melbourne than other parts of the country; here all the fundamentals are heading towards the “crash” signs [4]. The stock levels are skyrocketing (record high and over double compared to 2 years ago) while sales are tanking (42% below 5-year average), clearance rates lackluster and net mortgage base growth negative – and the building completions and approvals alike are still at very high levels.

Even the MSM (mainstream media) sentiment, who are usually entirely dominated by permabulls, is turning increasingly sour though not quite there in accepting the obvious yet. I think this is a necessary prerequisite to wake up the hordes of investors who bought into the promise of doubling house prices every 7 years. Many of them are about to realize their negatively geared properties will not only not double over the next 7 years or even keep with inflation, but may in fact lose value (and the way they’re built, partially disintegrate as well). It’s going to be a very cold shower for many, and the gradual price decline Melbourne has been in over the past 18 months (-7% YoY) can very easily turn into a full-fledged crash. The next couple of years will be very interesting in the Melbourne property market. Don’t buy now.

Welcome to the era of scarcity industrialism

I am borrowing the term from John Greer; he uses the term scarcity industrialism to describe the next era of our civilization, an era that is defined by diminishing resources and their increasing scarcity. Immediately, not much will change aside from price fluctuations – but over just a couple of decades, there’ll be tremendous changes as it becomes increasingly clear we are pushing the planet’s limits and beyond them on a number of fronts. In a market economy, approaching and meeting the limits will be manifest by volatile and sometimes rapidly increasing prices, as has been happening with things like oil (and food, too, but due to slightly different reasons).

Scarcity industrialism may last for the next 100 or 200 years, and will by no means be a sustainable development – but for a number of reasons, it’s a necessary step. After all, neither we nor our grandchildren will see a truly sustainably society. Prepare for much more emphasis on all kinds of calls and action for efficiency (but most of all energy-related), vastly improved recycling (things like urban mining) out of necessity and increased relocalization to name just a few megatrends.

Climate change went from being a problem to a predicament

After the shall we say less-than-stellar results of the recent UN Rio 20 Conference on Sustainable Development, even the most optimistic observer should by now understand the world is not going to (be able to) do a damn thing to limit carbon emissions in time to prevent catastrophic climate change. I say catastrophic, because dangerous climate change is already here; just read the news of the ongoing heat waves, floods, fires and droughts and you’ll find out what early climate change looks like.

What is a difference between a problem and a predicament, one may ask. For one explanation, see here, but the gist of it is that unlike a problem, a predicament does not have a solution – we can merely choose how we respond to it, but we cannot solve it.

Which is where I think climate change is today; we can only choose how to respond to the ongoing and coming change. It’s not about throwing in the towel on attempts to limit emissions but we need to acknowledge that significant adaptation – adaptation that is likely to result in massive population, infrastructure and agricultural shifts and restructuring (optimistically, maybe something like this, maybe somehow else) – are required just to survive.

The choice that remains in terms of reducing emissions is one of choosing between a catastrophe and what could be called an extinction event for most people. Way to go, humans.

On dematerialization and our online lives

By and large, dematerialization – replacing material products (like CDs, books or DVDs) with digital ones (like music and movie downloads and e-books) – should be a good thing; it allows for more efficient distribution, theoretically provides more fair opportunities and by reducing physical products, one saves resources – maybe; I don’t know if anyone’s actually tried to holistically calculate e.g. how many books one needs to buy on a Kindle before it’s more environmentally friendly than buying physical books. For the sake of the argument, however, let’s assume dematerialized services save resources.

Turns out, however, that dematerialization also saves jobs – in that fewer are required as you chip away the middlemen, the distribution chain, the brick-and-mortar stores etc. And not only that, but many are utterly reliant on the underlying online infrastructure, the user devices and in some cases even single corporate entities for their very existence. With ever-increasing portions of our lives archived and spent on things online, I think we should demand better governance of our data than is currently offered by the likes of Google & Facebook.

I, for one, would pay to get dramatically better Terms of Service on many of the online services I use.

It’ll take 10 or 20 years before the economic debate gets where it should be today

Anyone not living in a cave will have heard of the global economic woes over the past few years. Unfortunately, the dominating rhetoric is still firmly in the camp of how to get the economy to grow again, because economic growth will save us all. Sidestepping that irony – effects & externalities of economic growth are, after all, killing us all – there is a complete and utter failure to even contemplate the options what we should do if and when it turns out the economy has pretty much reached the peak and will never grow in a sustained fashion again.

Not that the equation is unsolvable; money and debt are mostly just immaterial things and on a theoretical level the wealth/debt situation is easily nullified and we could get on with building a system that works (I’m not even going to say works better, because by now it’s abundantly clear the global financial system is well and truly broken). Either that or the 100k super-rich people could just pay off everyone’s debts to quite literally buy us some time to fix that particular mess.

Instead of the politicians bickering about who’s going to pay for what bailout and how much “austerity” to require the recipients of such aid, how to stimulate economic growth etc, I would much rather see them question their undying belief on the necessity or even possibility of infinite growth. Unfortunately, with ubiquitous lack of such debate in the right places, I predict it’ll take a decade or two of stagnant or sputtering growth for the discourse to get where it needs to go.

Where resilience is needed, stressed and brittle systems abounds

As we facing a number of discontinuity events produced by the climate change (and resulting things such as crop failures), failure of economic growth and the worsening resource constraints, we sorely need resilience from all the systems we rely on. Yet, most of them – from health care and energy to transportation and agriculture – have been driven to an extremely brittle state in the name of economic efficiency. As a result, the systems are under extreme stress even under the best of days and all it takes is a minor disruption to drive them into complete failure, with most not handling failure very well.

How do yo think a system – be it a hospital, electricity grid or monoculture farming – that operates at the limit of its capacity under everyday circumstances will cope with a disaster? Not well, that’s how.

City vs Country

For a long time, part of me/us has wanted to move to the countryside. We’ve always lived in a big(-ish) city and generally loved it; the availability of services, the atmosphere, the variety, the sights, the opportunities, the non-stop events etc etc. At the same time, I feel drawn – occasionally irresistibly so – to the countryside; I would really like to enjoy forests and bushwalking more, own a piece of land and grow more of our food than is currently possible, reduce our reliance on supplied services like electricity (even toying with the idea of going off-grid), live in cleaner air and generally lead a little bit “simpler” life.

I am not delusional though; not living in a big city more often than not means somewhat counterintuitively less exercise and more reliance on cars for transportation (this is maybe the single biggest negative of living truly in the countryside) instead of public transport or bikes or walking; the smaller places don’t even have walking paths, nor are there parks or aquatic centres or theatres or good cafes or many things we greatly enjoy in the city. And for general wellbeing, I do want basic services like healthcare to be reasonably available. So considering all that, I’m not looking to move to the outback; instead, ‘countryside’ in this context means any place with less than, say, 200,000 people.

Before any such shift can be realized, however, I’d need a job I am allowed to do mostly remotely – or a remote job.

And high-speed broadband. That, for now, is not negotiable 😉

Not appreciating a common event is bullshit

People say that you don’t appreciate something that is a common occurrence. Like good weather; that you tend to take it for granted if you always have good weather. Or good health. Or good food. Or good whatever.

YMMV of course, but personally I think that’s such a load of bullshit. Every sunny day I am thankful for the weather, every single day I am thankful for the relative health of our family and the good food we can enjoy and the general level of safety & wellbeing of where we are; maybe it comes from the realization that there will be some tough times ahead of us globally, or maybe it’s a personal trait. Regardless, it is possible to genuinely appreciate seemingly everyday things.

Why do folks like Accenture get to define “best” practices?

The business world is full of topics to launch a tirade against, but here’s another one that occasionally really bugs me; the so-called “best practices”. Best is putting it pretty strongly. First of all, it’s by definition not possible to benchmark your way to the top.

Second, if and when a company truly has developed ‘best’ practices in a given dimension of their business, it will probably be considered a source of competitive advantage for them. Because if it won’t, what’s the whole point of copying them? And if – when – it will, does anyone really think they’ll let Accenture or any other consulting company in to analyze their unique competitive advantages and then tell the world all about them? I don’t think so.

There is a way to transfer this knowledge, but it comes in the form of people like Tim Cook switching companies, not from the consultants. (Which is not to say they’re completely useless – even the so-called ‘best practices’ are probably good mediocre practices so if all you have are bad practices, you’ll likely be better off)

Go organic

I’ve long been a proponent of organic farming for many reasons; it’s far less damaging to the environment, improves soil health, requires less fossil fuel input, produces food with better nutritional quality, handles droughts better and is often better for the local economy [3]. In other words, all features contributing to local resilience and thus a Very Good Thing. Really the only downsides are availability and cost – and both should improve going forward; increasing fertilizer and fuel costs matter less to organic than traditional growers and buying local, you can cut off middlemen and further help keep the cost differential low or (particularly in the future) non-existent.

Am I becoming an ex-geek?

For much of my adult life, I have considered myself somewhat of a geek (for better and worse). I’ve always loved to tinker with technology, compile my own kernels and what not. Over the past years, however, increasingly not so much; other priorities have taken over – for example, no longer do I want to spend days or weeks configuring my phone to just my liking. The fact that I use and love my iPhone rather than an Android device is probably telling.

Interestingly, I am becoming both less and more demanding at the same time – let’s call it selective. I don’t want to have to waste time to get things to work, but I also have zero patience for things not working, or – particularly in terms of IT – working fast enough. As a result, personally configured home PC is a must, as is an SSD drive (hard disks nowadays drive me nuts) and enough memory. As a result of setting the bar high enough, my lowly work laptop has driven me close to insanity / destructive behavior a number of times. So some things I’m extremely picky about; on the other hand, I could hardly care less about some other things, like 3D TVs. The 15 -years-ago-semi-audiophile-me would also kill me if he saw the Sony system I get by just fine with now.

Does a geek need to be a geek about everything or is it ok to be selective?

Footnotes:

[1] Ok, it may not actually be epic, but it is still pretty bad.

[2] Did you know over-the-counter ibuprofen packages come with a safe dosage margin of over 150%? (i.e more than double)

[3] Worldwatch institute: Crop Yields Expand, but Nutrition Is Left Behind, Biochemical Institute, University of Texas: Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What Is the Evidence?, Rodale Institute: Farming Systems Trial

[4] MacroBusiness: Mad Melbourne

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3 Responses to Back to basics

  1. Heikki says:

    1. Considering the first point (just born a baby) I cannot understand how you got time to analyze so many topics that I in a household of two retired persons hardly can find time to read.
    2. At this age I supposingly should be very pessimistic but anyway I would vote for “problem” against “predicament” in today’s world. At least we would be on that side if everybody would understand that it is my problem – not their problem.

  2. sim says:

    1) Well the points weren’t exactly analyzed over the past weeks, but rather cobbled together from drafts done earlier.

    2) Here’s another good article related to that; http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719 – if we still consider it a problem, the solution involves taking on the energy companies maintaining the status quo, and doing it fast. Not an easy task.

  3. Obakesan says:

    I reckon you should write more often and more succinctly. Lots of good points in there, difficult to digest.

    Hope the family gets better soon

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