Saturday, December 31, 2016

the muse of human extinction and other new year's thoughts

Richard Posner, that curiously coldblooded judge, wrote a book in 2004 that considered the economics and law of human catastrophes. It was reviewed in Slate, from which I take this precis of one of his thought experiments.
“Consider the possibility that atomic particles, colliding in a powerful accelerator such as Brookhaven Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, could reassemble themselves into a compressed object called a stranglet that would destroy the world. Posner sets out to "monetize" the costs and benefits of this "extremely unlikely" disaster. He estimates "the cost of extinction of the human race" at $600 trillion and the annual probability of such a disaster at 1 in 10 million.”
The six hundred trillion dollar figure is  absurd and … almost touching. What Posner has stumbled onto is one of the theological conundrums of economics, much like the scholastic chestnut about whether God could create a rock that he couldn’t lift.  The scholastic chestnut was a way of parsing the logic of divine omnipotence. The six hundred trillion dollars is a way of parsing the limit of money and the economics attached to it, since a dollar without a human being to use it is surely a worthless dollar, one whose material carrier has suddenly lost all significance.
Since, with the election of Donald Trump, we are postponing for another four years any confrontation with the global disaster of climate change, we might want to start considering that six hundred trillion dollars as a sort of black hole:  the hole into which the Holocene disappeared.  I’m going to have a hard time, obviously, reading papers or thinking about “politics” over the next four years – since the headlines will be so many cocked guns placed at my ‘privileged’ head – and I can’t think I’m alone in this dilemma. Watching America under Trump will be much like cleaning up a public restroom stall that has been visited by a succession of drunks the night before. Or substitute your own image of overwhelming visceral disgust.  But I nominate for the muse of this epoch that mythical, mystical 600 trillion dollars, that impossible self-annulling sum. Someday, it will be as plain as the Jehovah’s writing on the walls of the King of Babylon: Even billionaires won’t be able to enjoy their tax breaks when we are all extinct.

And with that… Happy new years! 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Coming back to L'america

Going to France on Aer Lingus was a gas. Returning from France on Aer Lingus was, unfortunately, less gaseous. Or more, if I count my stomach. On our flight to, the plane was half empty. On our flight back, it was full of Irish moms who thought it was cute when their three or six year olds woke you up over the mid-Atlantic at what your body clock claimed was two o’clock a.m. It was like that.
In front of me, though, something interesting happened. Two guys sat down, and they quickly revealed themselves to be Bouvard and Pecuchet. The one, who I mentally nicknamed yeahyeahyeah for his habit of saying same when he allowed his seatmate to speak, began by recapping news events and quickly drifted into a soliloquy that lasted, I believe, for around three hours. He was obviously a Ted talk waiting to happen. His topics included his awesome college record, people he had met, the Spanish American war explained, how to invest, how Facebook is an awesome company, how to buy furniture, the nature of mathematics and intuition, and amazing facts you could cull from Wikipedia about ancient Greece. There wasn’t a conventional wisdom cliché that he didn’t leap at – from the fact that the Internet is about the “democratisation of knowledge” to the fact that our intuitions evolved before our mathematics did. It was as if he had swallowed the complete works of Malcolm Gladwell and was experiencing a bad case of hangover. His seatmate, who I nicknamed right right right for his habit of muttering this when yeahyeahyeah was on this or that spiel, was very impressed by the fount he found himself seated next to, and shared his own feelings about investment, buying furniture, the meaning of Trump, American foreign policy in the age of McKinley, and the whole evolution of life and mathematics conundrum. Yeahyeahyeah had one of those very male voices that cover all the crevices in audible space – he didn’t yell, but somehow his voice stuck out like a sore thumb (one that stuck itself in my ear) in the aircraft as we were all trying to find the kind of idiot movie or tv show that would lull away the tiresome hours. After this went on for literally hours, I began to develop a sort of admiration for yeahyeahyeah. Yes, 2017 will be a Trump imprinted disaster, but as long as there is a yeahyeahyeah around, it can be processed and made into an op ed; the world of cliché, mansplaining and sottise will endure. Florida may flood, and civil rights disappear, but Malcolm Gladwellism will reign, eternal, a Platonic form (Plato was born in ancient Athens, and form is one of his philosophical terms, which comes out of a story he told about a cave that proved that humans are shadows. It turns out that modern science has overturned this theory).  

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...