Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Things I Learned in 2015, A Very Hot Year

The head of the Senate Environment Committee:
If climate is changing, it's because of God, not man.
These are some of the things I learned in the year 2015.

It was the warmest on record, and by a staggering margin.  As of November, no one under 29 years of age had ever lived through a single month that was cooler than its 20th-century average.  

The rainforest in Washington state’s Olympic National Park caught fire for the first time in living memory.  London reached 98F during the hottest July day ever recorded in the U.K.  Miami Beach may have less than 50 years to go before it's completely underwater.  Poison ivy under high carbon conditions is now growing bigger and more toxic.  Warmer temperatures are helping bark beetles destroy thousands of acres of Western pine forest in the US.  In America's Southwest, evergreen trees may virtually disappear in the next century.  Cranberry farmers in Massachusetts are facing warmer springs, higher incidents of fungus and pests and warmer falls; Ocean Spray has begun growing cranberries in New Brunswick, Canada.  Meanwhile, Canadians are losing their reputation as winter people.  

A blue marlin was caught near Catalina Island--1,000 miles north of its typical range.  The shells of pteropods are dissolving due to ocean pH.  Six percent of the world's reefs could disappear before the end of the decade.  Mount Everest’s glaciers are turning into lakes.   If the Quelccaya ice cap in Peru continues to melt at its current rate, it will be gone by 2100.  Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is at its lowest level in 500 years.  There is a“high probability” that the planet’s 26,000 polar bears will suffer a 30% decline in population by 2050 due to the loss of their habitat, which is disappearing at a faster rate than predicted by climate models. (As a small consolation, they can now at least mate with grizzly bears.)  China released a detailed scientific report on climate change that predicted disastrous consequences for its 1.4 billion people, including rising sea levels and the likelihood that more than 80 percent of the permafrost on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau could disappear by the next century.  Glacier retreat in western Asia now threatens China’s water supply.  The International Energy Agency recently reported that the global energy sector emitted as much CO2 in the last 27 years as in all previous years of the Industrial Revolution.  Climate change is slowing down the rate of the earth's rotation.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Environment Committee brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax.  He noted, "It's very, very cold out.  Very unseasonable."  Chris Christie announced, “Hell no,” America shouldn’t lead on climate change.  Ted Cruz said, “If you look at satellite data for the last 18 years, there’s been zero recorded warming.”  Donald Trump said, “I believe in clean air, immaculate air, but I don’t believe in climate change.”  Ben Carson said, “There’s always going to be either cooling or warming going on,” and that “as far as I’m concerned that’s irrelevant.” Marco Rubio said, “I believe climate is changing because there’s never been a moment when the climate is not changing,” but “we’re not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government we’re under wants to do.”  And Carly Fiorina added, “Here we have a bunch of liberals and people in the EPA who are willing to sacrifice other people’s lives, other people’s livelihoods at the altar of their ideology.”  

Mark Twain (or maybe Robert Heinlein) once said, “Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.”  Perhaps they meant that weather is what you get but climate is what you deserve.

Other Stuff I Learned

Hamilton (the musical) is brilliant.  It's one of those Broadway shows where you don't have to worry about hearing the words because you already know them all before you can get a ticket.  By heart.  Just give it a listen.  Then buy Ron Chernow's book, all 860 pages.  There hasn't been a rethinking of the Founding Fathers like this since Charles Beard.  (My homage to the brilliance of Hamilton--the only Founding Father to recognize the Industrial Revolution--is in my September 2013 post, The Founding Fathers as Innovators: Republic 1.0.)

Duke Ellington's version of Rhapsody in Blue is one of the best pieces of music I listened to all year (and One Day University one of the best events I attended).  I downloaded Kasami Washington's The Epic and listened to it three or four times but never quite got swept up the way dozens of reviewers did.  As for the Beatles streaming: meh; I'd about had my fill of the Fab 4 by 1985.  Thanks to Jerry, I did grab Lorraine Feather's New York City Drag and loved that.  Maybe it was just a year for impressive lyrics.
An indulgent audience in Singapore was kind enough
to hold up their copies of Food Foolish.

I read and really enjoyed The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, This Changes Everything: Capitalism and Climate Change, The Turn of the Century, American GodsHallowed Ground, Pulitzer’s Gold, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore, and (better late than never) On Writing Well, a gift from my friend Dave.  

Everyone should read Being Mortal.  

I read and mostly liked The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, The Daughter of Time (finally, Mom), Invisible Men, and The Boston Girl.  I co-wrote and read Food Foolish and liked it, mostly.  

I was disappointed by Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, which was--despite over-the-top blurbs from people I otherwise trust, like Tyler Cowan--ahistorical and inaccurate.  Just a sampling of the sloppy thinking: “Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology.” (That's the dominant narrative from Silicon Valley, but it's wrong.  Consider these minor, non-technical innovations: the university, capital markets, the corporation, the hospital, the city, the US Constitution, venture capital and modern management.  Generally speaking, the innovations that come about through organizing and reorganizing mankind tend to be among the most powerful.)  “New technology tends to come from new ventures—startups.” (Demonstrably wrong.  Someone should have fact-checked this. See here for just one source.  The Entrepreneurial State [see above] also demonstrates that every essential technology in the iPhone was either invented or bankrolled by the military or Federal government.)  

More: “A bad plan is better than no plan.” (Seriously?  This could take some time. . .) “Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.” (Not a single one of the world’s ten most profitable companies enjoys anything like monopoly status.)  “All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.” (Wrong: Ran out of cash.  Bad planning.  Bad execution.  Wrong product.  Wrong timing.  Wrong market. Recession.  Depression.  War.  Ran out of cash, again.  Been there, done that.)  “Success is never accidental.” (Demonstrably wrong.  Peter Thiel might be Exhibit 1, considering he tried and failed to talk Mark Zuckerberg out of selling Facebook to Yahoo for $1 billion--whence eventually came the greater part of Thiel's wealth.  In fact, my definition of a libertarian is someone smart enough to be successful but not wise enough to understand how it actually happened.  Asked another way: why do libertarians always have successful parents and great educations?)  

This book was praised lavishly but needed to be challenged on any number of fronts.  Even the central thesis--that entrepreneurs should focus on creating new things (clumsily stated as "zero to one")--is, well, the definition of what an entrepreneur does.  At least that's what Schumpeter wrote back in 1912.  I am not the only person to notice that this emperor has no clothes.

Despite Thiel's mis-characterization of Monopoly, there are ways to win, so long as you remember that people go to jail.  (This is from the Emirates airline magazine, with no on-line link.)  Jail is the single square landed on most often because there are so many ways to get there.  And, the most common numbers thrown from two dice are 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.  The orange properties--New York, Tennessee and St. James--just happen to be at 6, 8 and 9.  And orange is second only to light blue in income-to-cost.  So now you know where the good neighborhood is.

Stephen Hawking says artificial intelligence could end the human race.  Eric Schmidt says there is nothing to fear.  “Which one of those two people” Gawker asked, “do you think is (a) smarter; and (b) more trustworthy?”   Of 101 “executives, innovators, and thinkers”in Silicon Valley, 8% would like to do away with Facebook and Twitter, 9% would get rid of atomic weapons, and 12% wished the selfie stick had never been invented.  More people died from selfies this year than from shark attacks.  Meanwhile, officials at Yosemite are designating selfie zones to prevent Millennials from falling into rivers and drowning.  The fourth series of Nicholas Carr’s Theses in Tweetform suggested that we need not fear robots until robots fear us, one feels lightest after one clears one’s browser cache, and a bird resembles us most when it flies into a window. The Dark Web ain’t so dark after all.  When polled, 34% of would-be entrepreneurs want to be charismatic individuals like Richard Branson, 33% want to be bold dreamers like Steve Jobs, 26% want to be strategic thinkers like Jeff Bezos, and 7% want to be change makers like Howard Schultz. 

Theranos proved that “break it fast” and “fail often” were not good ideas when it comes to things that puncture our bodies or might need to pass muster with regulators.  It also further reinforces the case against the "cult of the CEO."  In any event, it’s apparently getting harder and harder to quit Stanford and become a billionaire. 

Leonard Nimoy, Yogi Berra, Bill Monbouquette, Jack Larsen, John Nash.  RIP.  Ellie Mae Clampett.  (Well now it's time to say goodbye to Jed and all his kin.)  RIP.

Still this side of death, I don't follow basketball that closely but listen to ESPN radio enough to pick up the chatter.  Does it seem to you that when we talk about the greats, from Michael Jordan to LeBron and Kobe to Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain, that Larry Bird is beginning to slip from the conversation?   That he's fading?  It reminds me just a little of what Bill James wrote about Stan Musial back in 1986.

We now know that exercising moderately for 150 minutes a week gives us a 31% lower risk of dying prematurely than those who don't exercise at all.  But the sweet spot is 450 minutes per week--about an hour a day--which improves our chances to 39%.  That's 150 minutes per week for a 31% improvement, and another 300 minutes weekly for 8% more.  Over 40 years, option B would represent 433 days of exercise to move from 31% to 39%.  (If I could reduce that to years I could show you a payback!  Unfortunately. . .)  My guess is that a smart marketeer could say a lot of good things about people who choose option A, and a lot of interesting things about those who choose option B.  Of course, 2015 brought all kinds of diet and health news, much of which will be reversed in 2016.  For instance, eating bacon may prolong your life, a glass of red wine is equal to an hour in the gym--and you can run, but you can't outrun obesity.  I still think Michael Pollan has the corner on diet wisdom:--"eat food, not too much, mostly plants"--and Harry at Younger Next Year has the goods on general life wisdom (as I wrote in 2007 here). 

I never heard my grandparents pine for a time before the automobile.  I never heard my parents pine for a time before the television.  Never have I read about those treasured moments when “we had to walk everywhere” or “we sat staring at the radio.”  But me, I pine for a time before the smartphone.  That’s not to say I don’t love my smartphone.  But there was a time before it became a part of our anatomy, and the people who remember it that way are aging, and the ability to recreate that time becomes more difficult every day.   I am certain that the smartphone has cost me parts of my attention span, some of my ability to think deeply, much of my willingness to be bored, my posture and my mood, and all of the important quiet time when my synapses were connecting and I didn’t vibrate existentially.  I know that I have lost these things; if you are 29 or younger--like a month below temperature average--you may never know what you have lost.

Which for some reason reminds me of David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon.  How's the water?

And speaking of things lost, there are plenty of people who will never know the joy of buying and owning a music album, and won’t care.  You can stream Sgt. Pepper, but you still can't sit and admire the album cover.

In 1940, the Capitol Theatre in Singapore became the first movie theater in the country to install air conditioning.  I wrote it up in 2011 as a short vignette for Weathermakers to the World but we couldn’t quite fit it in:
On February 1, 1940, the Capitol Theatre in Singapore opened its doors with 1,000 new upholstered seats and “a ton of cool, clean, dehumidified air pouring into the cinema every minute.”  Owner Joe Fisher also became one of the first in Singapore to install a Carrier cabinet unit in his home, taking the opportunity to advertise the company’s 50J unit as part of his promotion for an air-conditioned showing of The Wizard of Oz.
I had a conference this year in Singapore and I remembered this lost vignette.  With a little research, I found to my delight that 1) the Capitol Theater still existed, 2) had just been renovated, and 3) was just a few blocks from my hotel.  Thanks to friend and local Kim P, we talked our way into a tour.  It was pretty exciting, if only to me, and certainly stands as my geekiest moment of 2015.

The mechanisms underneath allow these seats to rotate under the floor, creating a perfectly flat surface for banquets, etc.
Also during my 2015 travels, I got to see a little bit of the Industrial Revolution in my own backyard, and more of it at the Smithsonian.  

Speaking of conferences, I am still astounded by the number of presentations I see, sometimes by very accomplished speakers, where one or more of their “slides” is introduced with the warning, “Some of you may have trouble reading this.  I apologize.”  How about this: Fix the slide.

Two friends have movies out, or coming out.  Nat Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea was a fantastic read, and now Ron Howard has turned it into a movie.  And coming along early next year is Michael Tougias’s The Finest Hours.  Bring your raincoat.

David Brooks made an important distinction between resumé virtues and eulogy virtues that I liked.  One is what you bring to the marketplace and are encouraged to hone tirelessly.  The other is what people remember after you are gone.  It reminded me that--though I’ve been in many a graveyard in my genealogical pursuits--I have yet to read “He stayed late at work” or “She ignored her children all weekend to get the reports done” on anyone’s gravestone.

In 1975 I read The Population Bomb and was scared to death by the specter of overpopulation and coming famine.  Forty years later, companies in developed countries are running out of workers, customers or both.  We may not have enough people to keep the world economy growing.  The only thing that will save the US economy is immigration.  Almost as ironic as climate change, eh?

And that may not matter because, National Geographic reports, scientists have identified a form of resistance present in both meat animals and people that does not respond to the “last-ditch drug colistin.”  As the article says, “this is very bad news.”  Incidentally, there's an emerging theory that it was just 14,000 years ago that a human species went extinct, one of our near-cousins who didn't make the cut.  It happens.

But let me end on a happier note: no snow yet in Boston.  In fact, temperatures over the Christmas holiday are forecast to be over 60F and will most certainly break a record.  Should be perfect for Christmas shopping.

Oh.  Wait.