Sunday, September 27, 2020

Why am I feeling so anxious? The end of modernism arrives

A friend of mine quipped that it is one thing to talk about the end of modernism—as the two of us have been doing for over 25 years—and quite another to live through it. It might seem that such notions are far too abstract to account for the anxiety of our fraught times. But underneath all the disorder we see in our pandemic-plagued economic, social and political lives is the crumbling of key assumptions about what we call modernity, a period of "enlightenment" that has supposedly freed us from the past.

First, let me recount what I regard as four key assumptions of modernism—I've written about them before—which are being demolished every day right before our eyes with the help of an invisible virus.

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn't matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

The next thing I need to remind you is that modernism is as much a religion as any other. In the not-too-distant past, whenever anyone raised questions about its basic tenets—directly or indirectly in one form or another—that person was quickly shushed. If the person persisted, he or she was then shamed. If shaming didn't work, then that person was shunned or even unceremoniously ejected from the party.

Enter COVID-19.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The 'new normal' has been postponed (and probably canceled)

There remains a hope that once we get past the economic and social effects of the pandemic, all of us will be able to return to something resembling normal life before the pandemic—even if it is a "new normal" marked by heightened vigilance and protection against infectious disease and more work at home for office workers as companies realize they don't need to maintain as much expensive office space.

But the date for this recovery to a new normal seems to keep getting postponed. The International Air Transport Association now projects a full recovery in international passenger traffic will take until 2024, a year later than the association projected back in April. The hotel industry will get a bit of a jump on the airline industry with a projected recovery by 2023. The situation is so bad for restaurants that no one seems to be willing to project a date for anything that might be called a recovery.

Office building owners—who are suffering lower rent collections and lease cancellations—seem lucky in comparison with a recovery expected by the end of 2022.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Do we have room for a billion Americans?

As I was reading Matthew Yglesias' piece "The Case for Adding 672 Million More Americans," the Soviet-era designation of Mother Heroine, initiated by Joseph Stalin in 1944, came to mind. Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders gave Mother Heroine medals to mothers who bore and raised 10 or more children. Lesser honors were provided for mothers who bore and raised between five and nine children. There is some mention of additional financial assistance from the state to those with such large families, but I could not find much information on this.

For America's version of Mother Heroines (and Heroes), Yglesias proposes "not just paid leave but financial assistance, preschool and after-care services, reasonable summer programming, and affordable college for all qualified student"—all in order to encourage larger families (which he claims Americans actually want).

Yglesias thinks we need to increase our population so that we will be able to compete with 1.4 billion Chinese. Whether you think competing with the Chinese is important or not, there is a problem with the hidden metaphor that Yglesias is using throughout his piece. He is imagining that the United States of America is like the family room in your home. Normally, you might have two or three members in the room at once, watching television, reading, or munching on snacks. But actually, you could fit 10 or maybe even 15 people in the room comfortably if you rearrange the furniture.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

North Dakota blues: The legacy of fracking

When oil drillers descended on North Dakota en masse a decade ago, state officials and residents generally welcomed them with open arms. A new form of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" for short, would allow an estimated 3 to 4 billion barrels of so-called shale oil to be extracted from the Bakken Formation, some 2 miles below the surface.

The boom that ensued has now turned to bust as oil prices sagged in 2019 and then went into free fall with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The financial fragility of the industry had long been hidden by the willingness of investors to hand over money to drillers in hopes of getting in on the next big energy play. Months before the coronavirus appeared, one former oil CEO calculated that the shale oil and gas industry has destroyed 80 percent of the capital entrusted to it since 2008. Not long after that the capital markets were almost entirely closed to the industry as investor sentiment finally shifted in the wake of financial realities.

The collapse of oil demand in 2020 due to a huge contraction in the world economy associated with the pandemic has increased the pace of bankruptcies. Oil output has also collapsed as the number of new wells needed to keep total production from these short-lived wells from shrinking has declined dramatically as well. Operating rotary rigs in North Dakota plummeted from an average of 48 in August 2019 to just 11 this month.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Is the pandemic causing an exodus from big cities?

Thomas Homer-Dixon, the Canadian student of complex systems and author of The Upside of Down, wrote in his 2006 book that "September 11 and Katrina won't be the last time we walk out of our cities."

Today, many big-city dwellers appear to be seeking refuge in less crowded towns and rural landscapes. The wealthy, at least, are seeking "bugout" homes away from major cities as places to ride out the pandemic, the economic downturn and the civil unrest that are gripping the world. Beyond news reports, I've heard from friends that homes are being snapped up in eastern Washington state and New York's Hudson Valley by coastal city dwellers looking for a refuge in turbulent times.

It's not just residents who are leaving. The New York Times reports that retail restaurant and merchandise chains are exiting Manhattan because it is "unsustainable." New York City no longer teams with tourists, and its office towers are largely empty. That makes for empty streets with few customers for the city's many retail establishments. This story is being repeated in other major cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and St. Louis.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Wireless charging: A colossal waste of energy

It turns out the cellphone industry believes its customers just can't be bothered with setting their phones in charging cradles or worse yet, actually plugging a charging cord into a phone. Users can now simply place a phone on top of a wireless charging pad to get their phones topped up.

For the privilege of being extra lazy these users of wireless charging expend up to 47 percent more energy to charge their phones, something that if widely adopted would require dozens of new power plants across the globe to accommodate.

Everything wireless seems like magic, and it is essentially sold as magic. It's also sold as freedom, freedom from those pesky cords that limit where you can use your electronic devices. But the freedom is illusory. We are simply shackling ourselves ever more tightly to an addictive device that is contributing to an unsustainable fossil fueled way of life which is bound to crumble dramatically if we do not alter course.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Evictions, tenants and the fragility of a "correlated" world

As eviction moratoriums around the United States come to an end, it is expected that landlords will begin evicting nonpaying tenants en masse. Eviction by itself is an unremarkable phenomenon in America. Some 900,000 per year have been occurring routinely in the last several years affecting about 2.3 million people annually.

The scale this time is different. No one knows exactly how things will play out in the United States (or elsewhere for that matter). But, barring new moratoriums on eviction one estimate suggests 23 million people will be subject to eviction by the end of September, more than 10 times the number for an entire year.

Where all those households would go is a puzzling question as the limited space in facilities for the homeless could never hold them. And, given the continuing coronavirus pandemic, those facilities that are observing proper social distancing have had to limit their capacity.

Perhaps the U.S. Congress will come to its senses and pass aid for renters just as it has done for businesses. I am doubtful about such prospects.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Climate and architecture

Someone once quipped that nowadays the purpose of architecture schools is to graduate tortured geniuses who design one-of-a-kind buildings which have no relationship to their surroundings. There is a lot to analyze in that observation, but I am going to focus on "no relationship to their surroundings."

Prior to the invention of air-conditioning, architects had to figure out ways to keep people cool and ventilated through design rather than through the action of refrigerants and compressors. I can remember walking into an upscale late 19th century home with an open tower just off the foyer, a foyer connected by large openings to the rest of the house. To stay cool, the residents would simply open the windows. The hot air would flow upward into the tower and rush out the open windows at the top, thus pulling air in through the ground floor windows. This created a constant internal breeze in the heat of the summer.

Other methods of beating the heat included:

  1. Single-room-width homes which promoted cross-ventilation when owners opened windows on each side.
  2. Wraparound porches which shield the interior from the sun and allow open windows even during rainstorms.
  3. Tall ceilings that allow hot air to rise above the people in the room.
  4. Sleeping porches for outside sleeping, sometimes screened in. (My boyhood home had one of these just off my parents' second-floor bedroom.)
  5. Transom windows which allow circulation between rooms when the doors are closed (popular in apartment houses and hotels).