Saturday, May 20, 2017

"Peak Hats." Social Change and the Coming Demise of Private Cars

For a long time, hats were oversized and expensive status symbols more than tools for protecting people's heads. During the past half century or so, they have nearly disappeared. A similar destiny may befall on private cars, also oversized and expensive status symbols rather than tools for transporting people. With the disappearance of cars, we may see hats coming back. 

If you look at images of people taken before mid 20th century, you'll notice that almost everybody was wearing hats. In those times, people would often wear top hats or bowler hats but, by the 20th century, people started wearing the ubiquitous Fedora hat as you can see in any gangster movie set in the 1920s and 1930s.

But, today, almost nobody wears hats and Fedora-wearing gangsters seem to have disappeared everywhere. The trend is confirmed by a search on Google Ngrams. Here is, for instance, the result for "Fedora hat". You could call what we see here as "peak Fedora" in analogy with the concept of "peak oil"

Searches for other types of hat confirm that we see a relatively recent phenomenon taking place during the second half of the 20th century. For instance, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the last US president to wear a top hat at the inauguration ceremony, in 1961, just as Abraham Lincoln had done, long before. Afterward, hats disappeared from the heads of US presidents, just as of most ordinary people.

So what happened that caused the near disappearance of a clothing item that had been commonplace all over human history? Surely, fashion changes all the time but it is not always just a question of whim. There are often practical reasons: think of the uncomfortable corsets that disappeared in the 1920s, when women became more active in everyday life and needed more practical ways of dressing.

For hats, the story may have been different. A top hat may be a little clumsy to wear but surely it doesn't have the same practical problems of a corset. So, the decline of all kinds of hats probably comes from a different factor: the importance of hats as status symbols.

All over human history, hats have been used to separate the upper classes from the lower ones. In the Western World, it would have been unthinkable for workers or peasants to wear top hats, just as the upper class wouldn't even dream of wearing berets. Wearing or not wearing a certain type of hat was a choice determined by one's social status. So, it is in social factors that we can probably find the explanation for the demise of hats.

The 20th century saw a strong trend toward higher social equality in the Western World, at least for a while. Here are the data for the Gini coefficient for people's incomes (a parameter proportional to economic inequality)

As you see, there occurred something that we could call "peak equality" in the 1960s-1970s. This peak corresponds well to the disappearance of hats. It makes sense: in a society where wealth is reasonably well distributed, excessive display of one's status may be seen as poor taste. Many societies and ideologies that theorize equality have emphasized the concept that everybody, rich or poor, should wear the same kind of hat: think of the clothing that the Chinese wore at the time of the cultural revolution. Then, if everyone wears, say, the Fedora hat, what's the point of wearing it at all? You may as well leave it home. This is probably the main factor that made hats mostly obsolete in the Western World.

But things may be subtler than this. Although in the early 20th century social inequality had become less evident, it still existed. And people are natural hierarchical animals; they need to establish hierarchies. There lies the problem: hats were good status symbols as long as social mobility was low and people were born with a certain social status. In those times, a worker might have been able to afford a top hat, if he really wanted, but wearing it in public would have been unthinkable for him. But, in the 20th century, people had become socially mobile and also geographically mobile while, at the same time, monetary wealth rapidly became the main marker of social status. So, if you saw someone wearing a top hat, was he really rich or was he a cheater? It was hard to say. What was needed was a more robust social marker; something expensive enough that would provide a direct and reliable indication of a person's wealth. And it was found in the 1950s: the private car.

The private car had what was needed to be an excellent status symbol in the new social and economic structure. The shift to suburban life made private cars not anymore a luxury but a necessity. Then, cars were expensive enough that people had to commit a substantial fraction of their budget to buy one. And the industry soon provided a range of models with a price spread that selected buyers according to their financial status. Add to that the clever marketing idea of the "model of the year" and soon buying a car became the way to keep up with the Joneses. It would strain to the budget of suburbanites enough to provide an immediate and reliable signal of what was the income of the owner of a certain model of car.

Just as top hats were oversized and overexpensive for their practical purpose, cars soon became also oversized and overexpensive for their practical purpose. The extravaganza of tailfins was a phenomenon of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but it was not so bad as the present-day fashion of the monstrosities that go under the name of "sport utility vehicles" (SUV). (image source:

SUVs may be seen as a bad case of mechanical obesity, but most cars on the road are overexpensive and underused: they are idle most of the time and they are used only for a small fraction of their load capacity. All of them, so far, had their main reason to exist in the fact that they served their purpose of status symbols. But the situation is rapidly changing: the trends toward social equality changed sign in a phenomenon called "The Great U-Turn" that gradually brought us back to the inequality levels of the 19th century, when people wore top hats. The reasons for this evolution are complex and not completely understood (but there are hints that it is related to fossil fuel depletion) In any case, these epochal changes can't be without consequences for transport.

Society is now splitting in two social classes: the very rich and the very poor; while the middle class is being rapidly squeezed out of existence. Stuck in the suburbs, the poor (the former middle class) desperately need transportation but they don't care anymore about keeping up with the Joneses. It is more a question of survival and any contraption that moves on wheels will do for them. The rich, on their part, don't really need cars to show their wealth. They compete with people in the same social class by means of much more expensive status symbols: mansions, estates, art, private jets, or whatever. For both the rich and the poor, cars cease to be a status symbol and become part of the concept of transportation as a service (TAAS). This concept includes both the traditional public transportation systems, from buses to trains, as well as the new forms of individual transportation made possible by the development of new technologies.

As a consequence of these trends, private cars are going to become as obsolete as top hats. That doesn't mean reversing the inequality trends. The rich will still ride luxurious vehicles, they just won't own them anymore, normally, just like when they travel first class on planes and trains. The poor will use TAAS to the extent they can afford it, otherwise they'll have to walk. That will be a good opportunity to abandon the bloated suburbs of our times and rebuild human-sized cities. The number of running cars will drastically diminish and those that will remain will mostly be of the right size for what they are needed. That means we'll use fewer fossil fuels, we'll reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, and apply a lower pressure on the Earth's ecosystem.

Don't take all this as a praise for social inequality. If it were for me, I would much prefer to live in a world where people are valued for what they give rather than for what they own. But that's not the way our world works, today. There are some ongoing trends that we can't ignore. The demise of the wheeled dinosaurs that have plagued us for such a long time might be quite rapid (a true Seneca Collapse) and that will be a good thing.

By the way: we'll also wear hats again.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Make the Anthill Great Again! The Ant Colony and the Human One

Image above: the 1998 movie "AntZ". This post was inspired by a post by Antonio Turiel titled "Of Ants and Men" where he used the example of an ant to discuss the difficulties that humans have to perceive the real problems facing humankind today. Here, I examine again, a little more in depth, the same issue.

Imagine yourself as an ant. What would be your perception of the world? Mainly, it is other ants from the same colony. As an ant, you are nearly blind but you have an excellent sense of smell and most of your sensorial inputs are the pheromones you receive from your sister ants that then you transmit to other ants. This kind of feedback-based pheromone exchange may lead to remarkably complex behaviors. Yet, the colony has no structure that we could see as a brain. If we define "self-consciousness" as the capability of a creature to model itself, the colony doesn't have this capability. It can react to external stimuli, and it can do that fast. But it can't plan for the future. It is the same for single ants: for them, the colony is a set of smells; they don't really perceive it.

Now, zoom back to your condition of a human being reading a blog post. What's your perception of the world? You are probably smarter than the average ant, but, like an ant, your perception of the world is mainly shaped by the pairwise contacts you have with other human beings, members of the same colony. These stimuli are verbal, not olfactory, but the mechanism of transmission and retransmission is the same. Like an ant, you are continuously exposed to stimuli from the media and from social networks that you then retransmit to other humans. This often generates transient bursts of reinforcing feedbacks that may generate rapid, even violent, collective reactions on the part of the whole colony. But the human colony doesn't have a brain, it can react to external stimuli but it can't plan ahead. Those large human colonies called "states" don't show an intelligent behavior; not more than ant colonies do. States explore their environment, compete for resources, occasionally fight each other, at times very destructively. But these are behaviors that ant colonies engage in as well.

Of course, single human beings have abilities that ants lack: they are self-conscious in the sense that they can model their environment and themselves. They even have specific brain structures dedicated to this purpose, such as the "mirror neurons" used to model the behavior of other humans. But all this doesn't seem to affect the behavior of the colony. The sophisticated modeling capabilities of human brains seem to be used mainly to gain an advantage in playing the sexual competition game between individuals. Outside of this realm, most humans probably see their "country" mostly as a semantic entity created by simple messages related to defense and attack. They have no perception of the immense complexity of a giant human colony of tens or hundreds of millions of individuals.

Theoretically, however, the power of the human brain could be applied to the management of the colony. In history, we see the widespread attempt to place a single human being - that is, a single brain - in charge of the activity of the state. That sometimes leads to attempts of planning for the future of the whole colony, but it often backfires creating disasters. A single human brain cannot manage the immense complexity of a human state. Dictators, kings, emperors, and the like are normally just as clueless about the system they are supposed to manage as their subject. Maybe as clueless as the ants of an anthill.

Yet, something changed in recent times. We may see the appearance of "world modeling" in the 1970s as the serendipitous awakening of consciousness in the human colony. Digital computers made it possible to perform studies such as the 1972 "The Limits to Growth" that modeled society on the basis of quantitative data and projected the results to the future. It was the first time in history that society could really plan for the future. In particular, the models identified a phenomenon scarcely known before: it was called "overshoot", the tendency of society to overexploit its resources and then collapse. The models could be used to plan ahead and avoid collapse.

But, as well known, these studies had little or no impact and the world's human colonies continued their blind path toward collapse. This is probably understandable. The emergence of complex structures such as brains is driven by evolutionary competition. Humans developed their large brains as tools for inter-group sexual competition. But states or industrial companies compete by exploiting the available resources as fast as possible. They have no advantage in the capability of planning for the long term, especially when the results of the planning is that they should slow down the exploitation rate. Doing that would only give more chances to their competitors who don't. So, the behavior of human colonies remains dictated by one very simple rule: grow as much as possible and don't care about anything else.

It is the same for ants: eusocial ant colonies have been around for more than 50 million years. If anthills had benefitted from being self-conscious, there was plenty of time for natural selection to create that characteristic. Instead, it seems that the intelligence of both individual ants and of ant colonies is optimized for the survival of the anthill. There is evidence that social insects are less intelligent than their wild counterparts as a result of the colony taking over in many tasks that were once for the individual to deal with. The same phenomenon may be taking place in human colonies: human brains have been shrinking during the past tens of thousands of years. The trend may have been greatly accelerated in recent times by the development of social networks on the Internet.

In the end, it may well be that the evolution of the human species is leading it to develop a eusocial behavior similar to that of social insects such as ants or bees. That would possibly entice an overall reduction of individual intelligence, not completely compensated by an increase in societal intelligence. Eusocial human colonies would keep competing against each other for the available resources as they ar doing now. As a eusocial species, humans might be very successful, just as eusocial ants have been very successful in the insect world. But, on the whole, these eusocial entities would not be self-conscious and wouldn't engage in long term planning

Yet, the future remains impossible to predict: humans are clever monkeys and you never know what they may be able to invent. There may be ways to make the human colony conscious and that would lead to a whole new spectrum of behaviors that, at present, we can only vaguely imagine. For the time being, it seems that we can't do much more than blindly keep at the impossible task of making the anthill great again.

Some references

Ant colony as an emergent phenomenon

The brain of social insects shrinks in size

The social brain hypothesis, Dunbar

The social brain hypothesis doesn't apply to social  nsects

Evolution of Ants starting from early Cretaceous, 100 million years ago. Article by Wilson and Holldobler

On the shrinking human brain.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Apple and the Ant

Antonio Turiel keeps what I think is one of the best blogs in the world (perhaps the best) dedicated to energy and fossil fuels: The Oil Crash. Too bad that, despite the title, the blog is written in Spanish. But if you can read Spanish or are willing to spend some time to decipher a Google translation, then you can truly learn a lot from Tutiel's blog. One of the best recent posts is titled "De hormigas y hombres," that is "Of ants and men". 
Image "Ant man" from the 2015 movie.

Reality can be only what you can perceive and it would seem that nothing can exist - for you - beyond your perception sphere. Out of it, there is the realm of the "unknown unknowns" as defined by Donald Rumsfeld, the "black swans" described by Nassim Taleb. But, in practice, there is a twilight zone in which you can vaguely perceive that "something" exist out there. Some only partly unknown unknown that you perceive enough that you realize you should be worried about it. But you don't know how and why. 

One way to perceive the unperceivable is to imagine yourself as someone or something who/which faces a similar plight, but one that you can understand. The task of understanding dimensions beyond the third for creatures like us, who live in a three-dimensional world, was beautifully described by Edwin Abbott in "Flatland," a story set in a purely two-dimensional world.

Another metaphor for the difficulty we have in understanding some concepts is that of ants or other social insects: splendidly organized creatures but very limited in their capabilities as single members of the group. Do ants understand that they are part of an ant colony? Probably not; they only perceive other ants. The colony is an emergent phenomenon that no single ant or group of ants ever planned or even perceived. 

In his post on ants and men, Antonio Turiel describes a metaphor that starts from another characteristic of ants, their very poor eyesight. That serves to underline another kind of human limitation: the inability of seeing beyond the narrow limits of what we see and hear in the media. Turiel describes an "ant-man" who has good smelling abilities but cannot see beyond a very short distance ahead. This ant-man is more intelligent than a regular ant and can plan ahead, even by sophisticated ways of reasoning. But he lacks the capability of seeing above himself at any distance. 

Let's assume that this ant-man smells an apple. He knows that the apple exists and he moves in the direction that makes the smell stronger, knowing that he is getting closer and closer to it. But, at some moment, he finds that, bizarrely, the smell starts diminishing while no apple is perceived by the ant-man's antennas or mandibles. So, the ant-man embarks in a series of scanning strategies to try to find the apple; first going linearly up and down, then moving in a spiral, and more. But he cannot find the apple for the simple reason that it is above him, hanging from the branch of a tree. Eventually, the ant-man dies of starvation. 

Here is an excerpt from Turiel's post (translated from Spanish):

"The metaphor of the ant-man is useful for us to illustrate the dilemma that the Western Societies have been facing lately: the lack of dimensional of the debate. During the past two years, we saw several countries engaging in a crucial elections, always with just two choices: the Greek Referendum, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump... Last week-end, it was France's turn, with the competition between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. The winner was the former, with great solace of the financial markets and of the European Commission. In all these cases, a society that sees its way of life in danger, a society that knows it is being slowly but inexorably moving toward collapse, looks for new directions to move. In the same way as the ant-man of our story, society first moves following straight lines; initially in the classic alternative of left and right, but being those lines totally discredited (as in France, where neither the Socialist party nor the conservative UPM reached the second turn in the elections) people start looking for new directions. It is not casual that all this succession of elections that we have been discussing were choices among two alternatives: it is a movement between two extreme points, it is a straight line search. It is the most banal strategy, but the way in which our society has been working up to now. There was no need of anything more complex." <..>

"There will come a time, as desperation spreads among the dispossessed middle classes, when this linear movement between two opposing and equally useless options will be abandoned and a spiral movement will begin, probably when the level of abstention is so high that it will destroy the legitimacy of two-choice elections. Arriving at this point, desperate solutions will be pushed by the dire conditions of the majority of the population. We commented on this point recently when discussing the end of growth: more than a quarter of the Spanish population is at risk of poverty and exclusion, and that when GDP saw two years of growth, unlike other countries around us. The whole possibility of getting out of the hole in which we find ourselves is that growth continues and at a good pace, but that is a chimera."

And there we are: totally unable to conceive the real terms of the problem. Nobody realizes that behind everything that's happening around us there is a physical problem: the deadly combination of resource depletion and ecosystem disruption. Our society is an emergent phenomenon which we cannot really perceive, full of unknown unknowns and our desperate two-dimensional search of something that will save us is hopeless: left or right, it doesn't matter. We are blind like ants unable to see the apple hanging from a tree above them.

Read Turiel's whole post (in Spanish) on "The Oil Crash"

Monday, May 8, 2017

Go Electric, Young Man! The Story of the Electric Fiat "500"

The Fiat "500," manufactured from 1957 to 1975 was a true prodigy of engineering and it left a deep impression on popular culture in many countries. Above, driven by "Lupin Sansei" (ルパン三世), a Japanese Manga character created by Monkey Punch. In this post, I describe how we transformed one of these old cars to run on electric power.

Some ten years ago, myself and my friend Pietro Cambi had the weird idea of "retrofitting" Pietro's old Fiat 500, turning it into an electric car. To understand why we embarked in such a task, you have to consider that we were (and are) both "peak oilers"; but also we were (and are) both Italian and the Fiat 500 is a car that has a peculiar fascination for Italians. Nobody in Italy can forget how the 500 motorized Italians in the 1950s, at the time of the "Economic Miracle". For Italians, the Fiat 500 carries the same fascination that the French have for their "R4", the Germans for their VW "Beetle" and the Russian for their "T34" (this last one not exactly a car, though). 

So, we put this idea into practice in 2007 and it worked. It was, actually, rather easy. An electric car is so much simpler than a car powered by a combustion engine. Just look at the difference: 

You see? The internal combustion engine is a mess of pipes, cables, valves, and all sort of strange things. The electric motor is just what you see: a cylinder with a small fan on top. That's it. To make things even simpler for us, we took a motor of the same rated power (12kW) as the old engine and we connected it to the gearbox. In reality, a smaller motor would have been more than enough. Then, if we had been able to create something more sophisticated, we wouldn't have needed a gearbox, we could have connected the motor (better still, two motors) directly to the wheels. More efficient and even simpler. 

For more technical detail, you can see a post of mine on "The Oil Drum". We added lithium-polymer batteries and a control system. The result was a wonderful little car that ran very nicely with a range of nearly 100 km. It aroused a lot of interest, as you can see in this picture (h/t Chantal, professional model who kindly accepted to pose with the 500)

It also aroused some interest with politicians and we tried to have the government approve a law that favored the electric retrofitting of old cars. It didn't work; the law was rejected, also because the Communists (yes, there were Communists in the Italian parliament, at that time) voted against it. Apparently, they thought that the working class should only take the bus. 

Apart from the diehard Communists in parliament, our attempt to create a retrofitting industry was probably doomed from the beginning. We expected some resistance to the idea, but we were not fully prepared to the howls of disgust we received, directed at the concept of retrofitting and reusing old cars. Apparently, a rule of life is that prosperity comes from building as many toys as possible and discarding them as fast as possible (and he who dies with the most toys, wins). Repairing or refitting old toys is not contemplated by the rules, even though that would save energy and resources. Only subversives, madmen, and peak oilers could ever think of such a thing. 

Ten years have passed. From then, some more retrofitting attempts have been made, some again with the Fiat 500. And the lower cost of batteries has made the task much less expensive than it was in 2007. Still, retrofitting remains a very marginal industry where only a minuscule number of enthusiasts are engaged. 

You may call this result a failure but, rethinking about this story, I think we still did something good. One good result was to demonstrate how simple and practical an electric vehicle could be in an age when there were very few electric cars available. Of course, we were not the only ones who proposed electric prototypes; there were many others. But we added our little bit to a movement of ideas that was leading to something. Then, there came Elon Musk and his Tesla; the electric car is not anymore a toy for hippies, it is a serious commercial and industrial product, moving onward to conquer the market. 

More than all, I think that what we did was a step in a direction which we ourselves couldn't fully perceive at the time. We had this idea that a car needed not to be a huge, smelly, inefficient, destructive monster but it could be something simple, small, friendly, and unprepossessing (see below, Pietro Cambi driving the 500 in the Cathedral Square, in Florence)

Taken to its extreme consequences, the idea of a small and friendly car becomes something that has little to do with the concept of "car" as it was intended up to now. Add to it a GPS positioning system, make full use of the intelligent electronic systems we have nowadays, and we have a completely new paradigm. The car is not anymore a car, but just an element of a "TAAS" (transportation as a service) system, where we don't own cars, we share them. That's the direction in which we are going. And we are going there using electric cars. 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Clepsydra

It looks like I became a character in a comic book!

Last year, I gave a talk in Basel, invited by the "Nature Addicts Fund". I spoke about several subjects, but one that seems to have had an impact was my description of how complex systems tend to dissipate energy potentials as fast as possible. I used the metaphor of the "hourglass," based on the "Self-Organized Criticality" model developed by Per Bak and others. A model that explains a lot of how and why collapses occur.

You can find a document about the whole Basel meeting at this link. Below, the two pages dealing with my talk. Note that they use the beautiful name of "clepsydra" for an object normally called "hourglass". Literally, clepsydra means "thief of water" and it refers to ancient water clocks.

To read the text below, enlarge the images by clicking on them.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Decline of the West: Left or Right, It Doesn't Matter

The auditorium of Fiesole, near Florence, Italy. A monster of glass and concrete, it was announced almost 15 years ago but it was never completed and probably never will be. It can be seen as a metaphor of the decline of the West: if there are no more resources to produce or to distribute goods, the whole economy grinds to a halt. 

In a previous post, Miguel Martinez examined the retreat from Moscow of Napoleon's army as a metaphor for the decline of the Left in the West. Martinez notes how the Left has normally emphasized the redistribution of the goods produced by the economy but that, nowadays, the resource crisis makes it impossible to produce enough goods to distribute. It is just like when the soldiers of Napoleon's army found little or nothing to plunder after that they had conquered Moscow.

In practice, the plight of the Right is not different from that of the Left. Traditionally, the Right emphasized production rather than redistribution. But these are two sides of the same coin: the gradual depletion of resources and the increasing ecosystem disruption make it impossible to produce goods at the same low costs as it was easy to do decades ago. The attempt of Donald Trump to restart coal production in the US is similar to the plight of Napoleon's soldiers marching in the snow during their retreat from Moscow. The only choices available to them were either to plunder cities that they had no capability to conquer or to redistribute spoils that they had not been able to plunder. Right or Left, they were are going nowhere. It is the same for us.

I think these concepts can be illustrated by the story of a building in the city where I live, Fiesole, on a hill near Florence, in Italy. In 2003, the mayor  announced the plan of building a large auditorium which he described as an "absolute necessity for the town." There followed a debate where many local residents (including myself) noted that the city may have needed an auditorium but that the proposed one was way too large. 

As you may imagine, our protests were swamped in howls of disdain. We were accused of a "nimby" attitude and told that the new auditorium would bring jobs for the inhabitants of Fiesole, money for shop owners, and turn Fiesole into an internationally known cultural center. In any case, it would mean economic growth and how could anyone be against that? 

So, the auditorium was built. It was even enlarged with the progress of the construction until it was supposed to be able to seat 312 people.  The only problem: it was never completed. Today, only the outer walls and the roof stand (and they say that the roof leaks). The reason is said to be that the city ran out of money, which is probably true, but I also think that the builders themselves, at some point, looked at what they were doing and they gasped in awe. I can imagine them asking each other something like. "'what the hell are we doing here? This thing is too damn big." I can imagine the same moment of awe for the soldiers and the commanders of Napoleon's army in Moscow, "What the hell are we doing here? It is getting damn cold."

Just as Russia was too big for Napoleon to conquer, the auditorium of Fiesole is too big for the size of the city. Imagine building New York's Metropolitan Opera House in Mount Carroll, Illinois, and you get the right feeling. Fiesole is a small town on top of a hill and it doesn't have enough hotel rooms to host the kind of events that would need a hall with 300+ seats. Bringing people there from other locations is not a solution, either. There are wholly insufficient parking facilities nearby; using buses would be slow and expensive and, anyway, full size buses couldn't negotiate the sharp turns in the roads around the Auditorium. Given these conditions, who would ever need this auditorium when there are literally dozens more convenient ones in nearby Florence? If the auditorium of Fiesole were ever to be completed, what could be done with it? Maybe we could paint it in white and have people come to look at the elephant of the city zoo. 

Doesn't this story really feel like Napoleon's invasion of Russia? Yes, Napoleon was caught in a bubble scheme of his own making where he had to keep fighting and winning bigger and bigger battles in order to have more spoils to redistribute. Eventually, the bubble had to burst. The Western economic system has been caught in the same kind of bubble, although not based on military actions (not completely, at least). Rather, it is a bubble of construction and redistribution that's bursting right now. 

So, today, walking in front of the concrete and glass giant in a square of the small town of Fiesole, one is nearly overwhelmed by a thought: how could people make such an absurd error? Surely there was money involved but, for what I can say, it was mostly done in good faith by people who really believed that the city needed such a thing  (1) (and, if you care to know, the mayor who started the whole thing was a former member of the Communist party). But it didn't matter: the Right would have done exactly the same. It was just like for Napoleon's soldiers who took the road to Moscow, convinced that they were going toward glory and riches. Looking at the errors of the past we can always learn one thing: that we never learn from the errors of the past (2). 

1. There was a certain method in this madness. A parking lot was built downhill and it might have provided a sufficient number of parking spaces for the auditorium, even though it still remained off-limits to full size buses. But to get to the auditorium from that parking lot one needs to walk up a long flight of steep stairs. So, the idea was to build an escalator to take people uphill but, as you may imagine, it was a grand plan that turned out to be too expensive. Even grander and more expensive was the idea to build a cableway that would have taken people to Fiesole from the valley below, where new hotels would be built. That would have been coupled with a special train service from Florence's central train station. These ideas were more or less equivalent to think that Napoleon's armies could advance into Siberia after having taken Moscow, until they would conquer Vladivostok, on the other side of Eurasia.

2. Evidence that people haven't learned anything from past mistakes comes from the plans for a new airport in Florence. A new oversized project that aims at increasing the number of tourists coming to Florence, all in the name of Growth. Apparently, nine million tourists per year are not enough for Florence. Do we think this number will keep growing forever? 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Are Trump's Climate Policies Backfiring?

Data from a recent Gallup poll. Something is moving in the climate wars and science seems to be winning.

Trump's presidency is generating a backfire in beliefs on climate change. A recent Gallup poll went somewhat unnoticed in the great noise of the 100 days date, but it shows a consistent increase in the belief that climate change is real, it is caused by human actions, and it is dangerous. See the figure above, and also this one:

In an earlier post, I had defined the situation with the public opinion as "trench warfare in the climate wars", with neither side being able to gain a significant advantage over the other. But now, with Trump president, the deadlock seems to be over. The Gallup polls never reported such a clear majority of Americans seeing the climate situation in the right terms.

So, what's going on? I can think that Trump's heavy hand in punishing climate science and climate scientists is correctly perceived by the public as ideologically minded and dangerous - and many Americans don't like it. Scientists are seen as the victims of a political persecution and that is causing an increase of trust in science.

The situation may evolve even more in favor of climate science as Donald Trump becomes less and less popular. A significant fraction of Americans are still trusting him, but that trust may soon wear out as Trump's policies fail. They have to fail since they are based on two fundamental errors that have to do with physics, which is impervious to manipulation by politics. The first error is that climate change and ecosystem disruption are not important factors in the economy. The second is that mineral resources are still abundant and that the decline of the production of fossil fuels can be reversed. Because of these fundamental flaws, whatever Trump does will be a disaster, even assuming that he manages to avoid making some truly colossal strategic mistake in the international arena. Trump seriously risks to be remembered as the worst president in American history.

The decline and fall of Donald Trump could generate a long-lasting bad reputation for climate science denial. Unfortunately, there is little to be happy about that; the damage that Trump can manage to do to science and to the ecosystem even in just a few years of presidency will be very hard to reverse - if at all possible. And it is known how the public opinion is volatile and sensible to PR campaigns. A new scandal such as "Climategate" or a fortunate denial meme such as the "pause" could bring things back to the starting line. In any case, the climate change question is so polarized by now that the hardcore Trump supporters will never be convinced of the reality of climate change, not even when the their homes are swamped by the sea. 

But let's not be too pessimistic. At least for now, things are going in the right direction. And it could be worse! (even California's drought seems to be over)

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Man of Steel and the Man of Plastic

A Post by Kelebek (Miguel Martinez)

(From "Chimeras" - Miguel Martinez was born in Mexico and is currently resident in Italy. Another post of him on Cassandra's legacy is available here )

This post is extremely dense of concepts and ideas and it may not be easy to evaluate by a non-Italian reader. Yet, I think it is extremely valuable for its approach that tries to examine the historical roots of how, in modern times, the Eastern/Soviet/Russian art has moved in different directions from those that the Western/European/American art has taken. All art is, basically, political in the sense that it proposes a certain view of the world. What we call "propaganda" is a form of art, not different than many others, although more direct in its attempt of presenting a specific view of the world. This post is translated from Italian, the boldface sentences are from the original. 

We are wearily trying to understand the question of the relation of our times with those of the "Age of Steel" and its remarkable disappearance. Konstantin Aleksejevic Vasiliev was a Soviet artist who died at 34 in 1976.

Above, you see how he painted the departure of the Soviet soldiers for the Great Patriotic War against the Nazi invaders, in 1941.

The three figures are the men, the woman, and the young girl (but in many similar paintings we find a young boy). It is a triplet that has a specific birthdate: the French Revolution, when the Nation takes the place of God and of the King as Sovereign.

It is good to remember that it is a modern and revolutionary vision, in fact, the first great modern vision.

The new metaphysical entity is a family, biologically built and based on the gender separation with a double sacrifice: blood for the males, sons for the females.

The second element is anonymity. In practice, we see only one of the soldiers' faces and we can think that this face is representative of all the others of the marching group that we may imagine as extending all the way to the horizon, characterized by two colors - red and gray - that represent both the foundry and the battlefield.

On a side, this fact guarantees the infinite reproducibility and substitutability of each single element of the group of soldiers, as a sort of immense assembling chain. The first world war, and the subsequent footnotes (Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism, second world war) obviously needed this illusion in order not to transform this industrial mass slaughter into nihilism.

We know that what concretely makes individuals distinguishable is their physical and psychological weaknesses, that in this painting are totally invisible. Vasiliev was painting after the arrival of the TV age, but there is nothing here of the television intimacy, the attention to the individual sympathy of the guest whom we (virtually) accept in our home, nor, either, the interactive intimacy of the Internet age.

The Man of Steel, who is only seen from a distance - in parades, on monuments, in factories - is not supposed to seduce but, in the Age of Plastics, seduction is the first social obligation: those who don't even try are condemned from the start.

In place of personal eccentricities, the Man of Steel wears a mask, that is also a model. One always wants to be the way one is portrayed, it is not by chance that the Steel Age was the "age of forging" metals, character, the physical built, the New Man.

Often, the task is really successful. There exist a true existential difference between the 1942 Soviet eigtheen-year old boy and the boy of the same age in Padua, Italy, in 2012.

The current intimacy, founded on closeness, is an endless chatting. Moments of silence in TV are simply inconceivable.

In the painting by Konstantin Vasiliev, we can imagine the sounds of thunder or of the boots, but not of voices - the Man of Steel doesn't speak. At best, although not in this painting, he sings.

The Man of Steel always lives a dramatic adventure, but he never plays games; there is here an abyss between his contact with that and that - for instance - of the people who practice extreme sports in our times.

We know that this paintings shows the greatest anti-fascist movement in history, seen from the viewpoint of the protagonists. If that wasn't anti-fascism, the very term becomes meaningless.

Yet, any contemporary observer will probably see something fascist in this image.

“Fascist” intended as a sort of global definition, is not necessarily referred to Mussolini's experience. The Italian patriots had the specific problem of never having had a hearth to defend.

D’Annunzio the exhibitionists of Fiume, who enjoyed smothering their cigars on other people's tables [1] are somehow closer to the modern sensibility than the anonymous heroes of Vasiliev, who are neither bold nor daring.

In the modern Fascism, there survives an element of the Age of Steel, but that is linked to a humankind that belongs completely to the Age of Plastics.

Here is a fascinating example, in this case from a fiercely neo-fascist group Forza Nuova.

Don't consider the words for a moment and just look at the image, including the details: the green background and the light. (the text in Italian says "Italy needs sons, not homosexuals")

Konstantin Vasiliev portraits, in the end, a threatened family.

Forza Nuova, in this poster, portraits a threatened family.

In both, there is a connection between family and country.

But, in the first case, the threat is the total annihilation and enslavement; in the second, a few small legislative adjustments that - besides - won't directly affect the family that we presume to be threatened.

But the essential difference is in the seductive engagement of the family shown by Forza Nuova: it is their fully plastic and flexible individuality that we are called to love.

And, if you think about that, the people of the poster by Forza Nuova have faces that are a hundred times more false and unreal than those in the painting by Vasiliev.

[1] Martinez alludes here to an episode that occurred after the end of the first world war when the Italian poet and politician Gabriele D'Annunzio led a militia of war veterans to occupy the city of Rijeka (known as "Fiume" in Italian) in Croatia, claiming that it was part of the Italian state, The story lasted for a couple of years until the rebels were chased away by Italian regular troops. It made a lot of noise and it may have been seen as a prototype of the Fascist "March on Rome" of a couple of years later. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Great Retreat from Moscow

From the Blog "Kelebek" by Miguel MartinezPosted on 

Miguel Martinez was born in Mexico and is presently living in Florence, Italy. He is a polymath and a polyglot, interested in history, politics, culture, literature, and much more. His blog is titled "Kelebek", "butterfly" in Turkish. In this post, Miguel takes the retreat of Napoleon's armies from Moscow as a paradigm for the present conditions of society, and of "the Left" in particular. We are retreating, but nobody seems to have realized that and "Le Pen's Grenadiers will not reduce the distribution of wood or food, no matter how cold it will get." The post is written from an Italian perspective; for the non-Italian reader it may help to know that Matteo Salvini (described as leading "paratroopers" in the post) is the leader of the extreme right "Lega Nord" Italian political party. The boldface and Italics sentences are in the original. Translated and slightly adapted by UB.

by Miguel Martinez

On Sep 14, 1812, Napoleon entered Moscow.
It was the culmination of his Empire which had never reached such an extension in the Eastern Europe. It was also one of the rare occasions when a foreign leader had managed to occupy the Russian Capital, a feat that would never be repeated again.

So, simply by growing, Napoleon destroyed everything he had built and he caused the death by freezing of some 400,000 of his devout soldiers.

It is difficult to find a better example today of the destiny of the West.
A commenter to the Kelebek blog, Mirkhond, writes about the French elections:
“Unfortunately, the growing impoverishment of ever larger sectors of the European society surely doesn't help in generating trust for the Left who appears to be worried only about gay marriages. That gives space to Le Pen and others like her.
It is a diffuse kind of reasoning that reveals, and at the same time masks, a truth.
Let's start from what goes wrong when a single person makes a mistake. We can say, "Renzi didn't understand...."
But "the Left" is composed by millions of people in a whole continent. They don't make a mistake, they are the victims of history.
Let's go back to the image of the retraite de Russie.

Let's try to see it in this way.
The Left redistributes. It redistributes what capitalism plunders from nature, from the rest of humankind, and from future generations. Ayn Rand and other aficionados of universal destruction wrote brilliant criticism of the parasitic nature of the Left.
We haven't yet arrived to the showdown, but are already in the deflating phase of this immense bubble. More or less everyone today, except perhaps in India, where they still have to understand the point, would underwrite the simple statement, "I think my son will have a worse time than me"

In short, we have to manage the Retreat.
The Retreat is not a prophecy. We have been doing that for decades (many mark 1974 as the decisive date, but the concept is enormously complex). Not surprisingly, these are the same decades of the disorientation of the Left everywhere in the world.
Now, in the Retreat, there is little to redistribute, except for medals - Even Napoleon had coined medals expressly to remember the Retreat:

Not by chance, the principal activity of the Left today is the redistribution of medals. Be careful not to use the term "negro", try to free an Italian prisoner in Turkey (and how many Tunisian prisoners are there in Italy, for whom nobody says anything?). Scream because on Facebook someone said something unpleasant to someone else, celebrate because a multinational hires as manager a paraplegic lesbian.
Plenty of people go wild for these things as if the problem were the lesbian girl and not the multinational. These hysterical reactions make the Left feel important and these hysterical people feel that they are defending the Western values. It is a game that makes everyone happy. 
On a more serious plane, there is the nationalistic proposal. The rest of the world may well retreat, we won't. We will keep following the path of progress, developing, building factories, being 20th century, in short.
Le Pen's Grenadiers will not reduce the distribution of wood or food, no matter how cold it will get.

This proposal is not without a certain logic, at least until we keep believing in growth, progress, and the bubble. And since the Left cannot cast doubt on these absolute truths, their reactions become as neurotic and irrational as those of the Right. 
But if instead we were to doubt these very assumptions, we would immediately see the limits of the answers given by Le Pen's grenadiers, Salvini's paratroopers, or Trump's Marines 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Evil leaders: what makes their brain work?

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) led the Italian government from 1922 to 1943. During the final years of his career, he made a series of truly colossal mistakes that led to disaster for Italy and for him, personally. Was Mussolini mad? An idiot? Or brain damaged? We cannot say for sure, but the problem with the way the minds of leaders function seems to be more and more important in our times.

An evident trend that we observe in history is that, in times of crisis, strong leaders tend to take over and assume all powers. It has happened with the Romans, whose government system moved from democracy to a military dictatorship managed by emperors. It seems to be happening to us, too, with more and more power being concentrated in the hands of the man (rarely the woman) at the top of the government's hierarchy.

There are reasons for this trend. Human society, as it is nowadays, doesn't seem to show any sign of collective intelligence. It is not a "brain," it can't plan for the future, it just stumbles onward, exploiting what's available. So, in a certain way, it makes sense to put a real brain in charge. The human brain is the most complex thing we know in the whole universe and it is not unreasonable to hope that it could manage society better than a mob.

The problem is that, sometimes, the brain at the top is not so good, actually it may be horribly bad. Like in the movie "Frankenstein Junior," even with the best of good will, we may put abnormal brains inside society's head. Dictators, emperors, warlords, big men, generalissimos, strongmen, tycoons, and the like often indulge in killing, torturing, and oppressing their subjects, as well as in engaging in unprovoked and ruinous wars, in addition to being sexual perverts. The final result is that they are often described as the prototypical evil madman character of comics or movies, complete with bloody eyes, wicked smile, and Satanic laughing.

But simply defining leaders as "mad" or "evil" doesn't tell us what makes their minds tick. Could some of them be truly insane? Maybe brain-damaged? Or is it just a kind of personality that propels them to the position they occupy? These are very difficult questions because it is impossible to diagnose mental illness from one person's public behavior and public statements. Doing that is, correctly, even considered unethical for professionals (even though it is done all the time in the political debate).

Here, I am not claiming to be saying anything definitive on this subject, but I think we can learn a lot if we examine the well known case of Benito Mussolini, the Italian "Duce" from 1922 to 1943, as an example of a behavior that can be seen as insane and, also, rather typical for dictators and absolute rulers.

The mistakes that Benito Mussolini made during the last stages of his career of prime minister of Italy were truly colossal, including declaring war on the United States in 1941. Let me give you a less well known but highly significant example. In October 1940, the Italian army attacked Greece from Albania, a story that I discussed in a previous post. That implied having to cross the Epirus mountains in winter and how in the world could anyone think that it was a good idea? Unsurprisingly, the result was a military disaster with the Italian troops suffering heavy losses while stuck in the mud and the snow of the Epirus mountains during the 1940-41 winter, until the Germans came to the rescue - sensibly- in the following Spring. In a certain sense, the campaign was successful for the Axis because eventually Greece had to surrender. But it was also a tremendous waste of military resources that could have been used by Italy for the war effort against the British in North Africa. The blunder in Greece may have been a major factor in the Italian defeat in WWII.

The interesting point about this campaign is that we have the minutes of the government reunions that led to the ill-fated decision of attacking Greece. These documents don't seem to be available on line, but they are reported by Mario Cervi in his 1969 book "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" (translated into English as "The Hollow Legions"). It is clear from the minutes that it was Mussolini, and Mussolini alone, who pushed for starting the attack at the beginning of Winter. During a reunion held on Oct 15, 1940, the Duce is reported to have said the date for the attack on Greece had been set by him and that "it cannot be postponed, not even of one hour." No reason was given for having chosen this specific date and none of the various generals and high level officers present at the reunion dared to object and to say that it would have been better to wait for spring to come. The impression is that Italy was led by a bumbling idiot surrounded by yes-men and the results were consistent with this impression.

What made Mussolini behave in this way? There is the possibility that his brain was not functioning well. We know that Mussolini suffered from syphilis and that it is an illness that can lead to brain damage. But a biopsy was performed on a fragment of his brain after his death, in 1945, and the results were reasonably clear: no trace of brain damage. It was the functional brain of a 62 year old man, as Mussolini was at the time of his death.

Mussolini is one of the very few cases of high level political leaders for whom we have hard evidence of the presence or absence brain damage. The quintessential evil dictator, Adolf Hitler, is said to have been suffering from Parkinson or other neurological problems, but that cannot be proven since his body was burned to ashes after his suicide, in 1945. After the surrender of Germany, several Nazi leaders were examined in search for neurological problems and, for one of them, Robert Ley, a post-mortem examination revealed a certain degree of physical damage to the frontal lobes. Whether that was the cause of his cruel behavior, however, is debatable.

That's more or less what we have. It doesn't prove that evil leaders never suffer of brain damage but the case of Mussolini tells us that dictators are not necessarily insane or evil in the way comics or movie characters are described. Rather, they are best described as persons who suffer from a "narcissistic personality disorder" (NPD). That syndrome describes their vindictive, paranoid, and cruel behavior, but also their ability of finding followers and becoming popular. So, it may be that the NPD syndrome is not really a "disorder" but, rather, something functional for becoming a leader.

There lies the problem: even in a democracy, a politician's first priority is being elected and that's a very different skill than that needed for leading a country. An NPD affected ruler may not be necessarily evil, but he (very rarely she) will be almost certainly incompetent. It happens not just in politics, but also in business. I could also cite the names of some scientists who seem to be affected by NPD. They are often incompetents, but they may achieve a certain degree of success by means of their social skills that allow them to accumulate research grants and attract smart collaborators. (Fortunately, they can't jail and torture their opponents!)

The problem with this situation is that, everywhere in the world, NPD affected individuals aim at obtaining high level government positions and often they succeed. Then, ruling a whole country gives them plenty of chances to be not just incompetents, but the kind of person that we describe as "criminally incompetent." The kind of disaster that can result may be illustrated, again, by Mussolini's case. During the Greek campaign the Duce ordered the Italian Air Force to "destroy all Greek cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants" as reported by Cervi and by Davide Conti in his "L'occupazione italiana dei Balcani" (2008). Fortunately, the Italian air force of the time was not able to carry out this order. But what would happen if a similar order were given today by a leader who can control atomic weapons?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

How to talk about climate change at a party

This is a real conversation that took place a few days ago although, of course, the words that I report here can't be exactly what we said. The protagonists are me and an acquaintance of mine. Imagine us holding glasses while at a party. 

Her: Ugo, did you hear what Trump is doing? He wants to destroy the climate data!

Me: I heard something about that.

Her. But it is awful! How can they allow him to do that? Destroying the work of the climate scientists!

Me. You know this joke about Trump? The one that goes, "What happens when Donald Trump takes Viagra?"

Her. Ugo, you keep joking all the time. But don't you work in this field? Why don't you tell me what you are really thinking about climate change?

Me (looking somber). It is a long story.

Her. Seriously, I want to know what you think.

Me. Really?

Her. Absolutely. Tell me what's going on.

Me (after having taken a deep breath). The situation is out of control. The amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are larger than any value seen in the past 10 million years and it keeps rising. The icecaps are melting, droughts are destroying agriculture in the tropical regions, extreme weather phenomena are on the rise. Temperatures are rising and the commitments to keep the increase below two degrees are insufficient. In addition, we are in the middle of a mass extinction, destroying the fertile soil, poisoning everything, running out of mineral resources, and the planet is overpopulated.

Her ....................

Me ...................

Her. I read that we'll soon be able to colonize other planets, is that true?

Me. ........

She walks away, glass in hand.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The dark side of the Internet: the "Quantum Code" scam and its implications

The alleged financial tycoon "Michael Crawford," together with his assistant, "Tasha," peddling the products of the "Quantum Code" company. You can find the whole movie at Go ahead, click on it, it won't harm your computer. It is a fascinating trip into the depths of human gullibility. And it explains a lot about how communication really works. 

The debate on any issue is normally framed on the concept that facts matter. It is also called the "information deficit model" and it says that if you provide people with the right kind of information, say, about climate science, they will understand it and act accordingly. I don't think I have to tell you that it doesn't work like that. There are many examples of this, but some are truly luminous, such as this one by "Quantum Code." 

This clip is truly amazing: it is all based on greed and on the concept that happiness is based on conspicuous consumption. Over and over, you are shown all the perks of being filthy rich: a personal jet plane, big cars, jewels, expensive watches and, yes, a nice looking, uniformed personal assistant, Tasha, who looks totally subservient to her boss and ready to do anything for him. This clip is not just a scam, it is a work of art in its own right. Art, after all, is mostly based on some kind of make-believe process and when we watch a play by Shakespeare we don't worry about whether Hamlet is a historical character or not. 

The same is true, here, for the alleged financial tycoon "Michael Crawford." He is a purely fictional character, like Hamlet or Captain America. That's clear from the very first sentence that you hear in the clip: "my name is Michael Crawford, yes that guy you might have read about on Forbes and other financial magazines." It takes about one minute to verify that there doesn't exist anyone with that name who's described on Forbes as a financial tycoon of any kind. 

Maybe a lot of people, out there, are unable to use search engines for debunking this kind of stories. Still, anyone should be wary when hearing "Michael Crawford" telling them that he wants to make them millionaires in exchange for nothing, out of pure philanthropy. Don't they have a grandmother who told them that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch"? To say nothing of the gaping holes in the whole idea. For instance, we are told that the software engineers of Quantum Code "make millions of dollars every year" using the code that they developed. If they can do that, why would they keep working for Quantum Code?

So, how would anyone believe in this so transparent scam? But for everything that exists, there has to be a reason for it to exist and this clip is a wonderful demonstration of how the messenger trumps the message in terms of effectiveness. The whole show is based on the quiet assurance of the actor playing "Michael Crawford". He is smooth, self-confident, a convincing fatherly figure.

Clearly, you are asked to believe the messenger, not the message. After all, it is what's normally done in politics. You vote for the candidates whom you think you can trust. And trust comes from consistency. The poor vote for the rich, as it happened for Donald Trump, not on the basis of facts or rational considerations. They do that because the personality of the chosen candidate is consistent with the fact that he (rarely she) is rich.

Note how, clearly, the fact that this clip is so easily debunked is not a bug; it is a feature (*). The script of the clip was thought from the beginning as a sucker's bait. Evidently, they want suckers and they make sure that those who fall for the trap are suckers. Later on in the clip, they ask people to pay $250 to open an account with them and I suppose that's how they make money.

But there is something strange, here. Won't they get a better success if they were a little more subtle? Why do they immediately give away the game and screen out everyone who has even a modest ability to verify facts? The trick, here, seems to be that scamming works according to special rules. Apparently, making the scam highly transparent triggers some kind of a short circuit in some people's mind. It makes them think something like, "if this guy is a scammer, why should he make the scam so obvious? Therefore, it cannot be a scam.

Strange but true. I have seen this mechanism at play many times with the story of the alleged nuclear device called the E-Cat. The many gaping holes in the narrative of this pretended energy breakthrough are consistently interpreted by believers as part of a grand strategy by the inventor to maintain secrecy about his invention. Howlers in the narrative make it more believable, not less! This is the main reason why "debunking" almost never works.

Maybe these considerations are sufficient to explain the Quantum Code story: nothing more than an average scam, although a little more transparent and aggressive than others. I don't know how much the clip may have cost to its developers, but if they manage to catch a few thousands of people who are willing to pay $250, then they can make a nice profit on their investment. Perhaps, just a few hundreds would be enough to get even. The site exists also in Italian and in other languages and is backed by an aggressive e-mailing campaign. I am sure they get a good number of contacts.

Yet, I keep thinking that there may be more to this story than just pulling a fast one on suckers. You know how the Internet works today. You are "profiled" and you are fed messages that you are supposed to be interested in. And that you are supposed to believe. So, my impression is that the Quantum Code scam is not so much about having some people paying a little money. Rather, the value of the whole enterprise may be in creating a list of "A-grade suckers" that they can sell to others. It is a list of people who are not just highly gullible, but also greedy and who have enough money to be able and willing to pay $250 for a scam. They are perfect targets for scammers everywhere. 

This list of A-grade suckers may also have a value for research purposes. How gullible are people on the average? Which fraction of the population would fall for such an obvious scam as this one? I am sure that there are government agencies who need this kind of data to calibrate their propaganda and for them it would be no problem to create this scam as a probe to launch on the Internet. The people on the list would also be a great asset for creating a political movement: they are natural born believers.

In the end, we always face the same problem: we create wonderful gadgets that we think will help us to make things better. And then we discover that, no, they are making things worse. That's the case also for the Internet. It was supposed to favor the free diffusion of information and, in some ways, it does. And that it would bring democracy by making people better informed. But we are discovering that there is a dark side to this capability: the manipulation of information that creates scams, disinformation, fake news, and all the rest. Where that will lead us remains to be seen, but the current omens are not so good (and we are still waiting for the "Internet of things" to appear!).

(*) Telling a lie from the very beginning may be described as the  "blue lie" strategy as described and explained in this article by Jeremy Adam Smith. Blue lies are statements that you know are false or at least very uncertain, but that you profess to believe - or maybe believe for real - in order to show that you belong to the tribe.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)