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Ok, I apologize for this week.  A friend of mine generously agreed to teach me 3D computer assisted design on Thursday, and I had a cold last night and just fell asleep after work–so there were only a measly 3 posts this week!  To make up for it, I will put up this week’s sketches tomorrow in a special Sunday post—so tune in then (and bring all of your friends and loved ones too!) but first, here is a rare Saturday post–a weird jeremiad about guilds.

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“Guilds” you are saying,” didn’t those die off in the middle ages? We live in a glistening modern world of opportunities now!”  Actually, guilds didn’t die at all—they have morphed and proliferated in ways both beneficial and detrimental to society.  We should think seriously about this and ask whether the ambiguous benefits of guild outweigh their unfair anti-competitive nature.

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First let’s quickly go back to the Middle Ages when there were two competing ways of learning professional trades.  You could go to a guild, where weird old men made you do sit on a bench and do menial tasks for twenty years while you competed in pointless status games with your cruel peers (and underwent fearsome hazing).  Assuming you survived all of this, you became part of the guild, and participated in its quasi-monopoly on trading fish with the Baltic, making oakum ropes, scrivening, alchemy, accounting, or whatever. Savvy readers will see the roots of the AMA, the Bar Association, and even our great universities and trade schools (and maybe our secondary schools) in this model.

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The other way was the master/apprentice system.  This is now most familiar to us through wizards, kung fu warriors, artists, Jedi, and other fictional characters—which is to say it has not proliferated in the modern world.  A wise master would take a favorite student under his/her wing and teach them the ropes.  This system had the advantage of being better and faster than the guild system—it can truly foster rare genius– but it had all of the Jesus/Peter, Jedi/Sith, father/son problems familiar to us through fiction. Namely the master frequently held on too long, became evil, started giving sermons in the wilderness, or otherwise went bad: or the apprentice decided they did not want to wait but were ready to paint naked ladies instead of mixing paint…or to enchant brooms or to fight the howling serpent gang.

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During the nineteenth century, law and medicine were learned like gunsmithing, coopering, and hat-making: through apprentices.  It worked fine for law but not for medicine (although I am not sure 19th century medicine was worthwhile anyway).   Today we have universities and professional schools controlling all the ways upward in society (provided you have adequate money and have passed through endless mandarin-style standardized tests).  It is making society sclerotic.  Anybody who has spent time in a contemporary office will instantly recognize the parochial narrow-minded professional mindset encountered at every turn.  We have a society made up of narrowly educated reactionaries monopolizing each profession. Time to open things up a bit with a different model.  The apprentice system worked well in the past.  Let’s try it again (and get rid of these smug gate-keeping professional schools in the process).

Nothing could go wrong here!

Nothing could go wrong here!

Frankly I suspect that Doctors alone should have guilds.  It is the only discipline important enough and complicated enough to warrant the stranglehold protectionism of a professional association.  The great medical associations make use of master/apprentice-style relationships later on in a doctor’s training anyway, and they have proven themselves responsible guardians of their sacred trust in numerous other ways.  Lawyers, florists, morticians, artists, clowns, accountants, underwater welders, actuaries and other dodgy modern professionals should compete through the open market. If you want to be a businessman find a businessman and train with him until you know enough to defeat him in open business combat. If you want to be a florist or a computer programmer, find a master florist or a master programmer.  Disciplines like geology and engineering could keep pseudoscientists and frauds out of their ranks with continuing brutal tests.

Nice Digital Serpent!

Nice Digital Serpent!

Of course it is possible that this whole post is merely an angry reaction to troubles in my own extremely subjective profession, art. Contemporary art schools are thoroughly worthless in every way. Back during the 50s and 60s, a bunch of doofy political theorists took over and hijacked art (which has many unpleasant similarities to political theory…but which is not political theory). Art has been a meaningless game of celebrity and identity-politics ever since.  It is sadly devoid of the master craftsman aspect which once made it great. I didn’t learn art at a famous art school.  I learned from a great master painter…who went a bit bonkers and moved off to China to practice veganism and sit on a mountain. That is the way things should be! This business of going to Yale or RISDI needs to be thrown on history’s scrapheap.

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Microbeads through a Microscope

Microbeads through a Microscope

Back when I was at school in the 90s there was a breathless sense that we all lived on the threshold of a nanotech revolution.  In the future we would quaff chalices filled with infinitesimal robots and the little machines would devour our cancers and grant us superpowers.  Flash forward to 2015 and what we have instead is microbeads.  These are exactly what they sound like–polyethylene microspheres which have worked their way into consumer goods of every sort.  Microbeads were supposed to “exfoliate” or “microcleanse” or perform some other nebulous pseudoverb dreamed up by marketers.  What they really do instead is abrade microfissures into our gums before passing through the filters of water treatment plants and pouring into the world’s rivers, lakes, and oceans.  In these larger ecosystems, the beads soak up pollutants and are mistaken for eggs by tiny arthropods and fry.  The infernal little spheres are working their way into the food chain and causing havoc.

Ahh...consumer goods!

Ahh…consumer goods!

Ferrebeekeeper believes that technology is the solution to most problems.  This blog often excoriates the powers that be for not moving fast enough to bring us breakthroughs and marvels.  So why are we featuring the troubling story of microbeads?  First (and most-obviously) because technology only works if we all pay close attention and correct errors and problems as they occur.  This is no easy task when dealing with systems as complicated as those seen in biology and ecology.

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More importantly it is a rebuke to the market system.   There is a certain segment of society which continuously holds aloft the market as the final and greatest arbiter of what is right and best.  This seems dangerously misguided.  The market prefers expensive baldness therapy, instantly obsolete cellphones, and microbeads to the expensive and abstract research into fundamental science where real breakthroughs come from. The market is a single shiny gimcrack in our collective box of tricks for dealing with the world, but it should not be mistaken for the toolbox…or the world! Markets are better at making a few charlatans rich then for helping us all understand existence.

Microbeads glowing under UV light inside some little larval water creature

Microbeads glowing under UV light inside some little larval water creature

Let’s remove little beads from our soap and work a bit harder in the nanotech laboratory.  We are not getting any younger and some of those little cancer eating robots might come in handy…provided they are not brought to us at a horrifying markup by Ciba-Geigy (and then end up eating our spleens).  If we do not work a bit harder to correct the excesses within our resource allocation system, we are going to end up with more micro cleanse and less true understanding.

We want nanobots but we need them to work right or the consequences could be unpleasant!

We want nanobots but we need them to work right or the consequences could be unpleasant!

Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

One of the underlying principles of this blog is that we should spend a lot more money and resources on scientific research and exploration in general (and on space research and exploration specifically).   Meanwhile, in the real world, the powers that be are busy chopping down the tree of knowledge by defunding all branches of blue sky research in general (and space research specifically). Market advocates in government assert that, if there is anything worthwhile in space, greedy companies will go there and take it for themselves without government assistance. I tend to take issue with this idea. Markets have a place in science…at the end of ideas when the true research is already well established and the path to making money-grubbing consumer dreck is extremely evident. Avaricious MBAs are unlikely to try anything really bold since they are trained not to move first but to let others take the risk and then come in and refine an already workable idea. The way I have framed this issue is politically expedient for getting my point across (MORE RESEARCH NOW), but it ignores the tangled relationship which government agencies already have with pre-anointed business monopolies and it also short-changes the bold and visionary entrepreneurs who are actually going ahead with wild and exciting space ventures at present.

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge...

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge…

Speaking of which, here is the footage from the latest SpaceX project. Elon Musk and co. were attempting to land the first stage of a commercial Falcon 9 rocket on an unmanned test barge in the ocean. The rocket blasted off to carry a payload to the International Space station. The first stage returned to earth in a controlled fashion. SpaceX planners hoped to land this booster softly on a barge so it could be reused. The idea did not work…yet, but the rocket came really close to landing properly and the footage is truly exciting—like something from the sixties. I wanted you to see this clip because it is spectacular and inspiring, but I also wanted to remind myself that even today—even in the private sector—there are thrilling projects afoot.

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

My first job when I left college was working as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—“the nation’s attic” where great hoards of objects from our collective past have been (and continue to be) carefully squirreled away for the edification of future generations.  A miniscule percentage of the museum’s collection is on display and the rest gathers dust in enormous WWII era aircraft hangers outside Washington DC where all sorts of jackhammers, graphite urns, failed rocket cars, threshing machines, whalebone bustles, (and everything else) are stored.

I honestly couldn't find any photos of vintage machines that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw...

I honestly couldn’t find any photo of a vintage machine that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw…

On my first trip to the storage facility in Suitland, I eagerly ran up to the nearest Quonset hut to peek inside. The giant building was filled with pointy overly complicated machines which did not make any sense to the untrained eye.  One typical device had been hauled outside to be cleaned.  Looming in the sunlight, it looked like an extra from a Steven King movie.  It was about 8 feet tall and was made of gray steel with big dangerous foot pedals and alarming fly wheels.  A person operating the monstrosity would lean into a whirling maw of metal gouges, hooks, and razor sharp metal spikes.  Since it dated back to the end of the nineteenth century, there were no safety features: a moment of inattention would cause the machine’s operator to lose various fingers, hands, or feet.  I was transfixed—what amazing purpose did this hellish device serve?  The senior curator and I shuffled through the index cards till we found its acquisition/accession code:  it was a machine from a long defunct factory in Waterbury which was designed to make tiny metal buckles!

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Whenever I lament the state of the contemporary world economy, I think back to that hulking buckle-maker and I imagine what it would be like to work on it ten hours a day (pretty much like dancing a complicated quadrille with a demon).  Thank goodness that horrible…thing… is in a museum and my livelihood does not involve years spent slaving over it in fear and tedium!  Today, automation becomes more and more prevalent and the majority of the world’s goods are being made by fewer and fewer people.    Industrial jobs are being outsourced to poor workers in the developing world, but even in China, Bangladesh, and the world’s worst sweatshops, the excesses of the industrial revolution are gradually being tamed.

I am bringing this up because I want to look forward into the economic future.  Even today, we could work 15 hours a week and have the same standard of living, but we don’t because, well… nobody knows.  Your pointless job of ordering widgets, looking at meaningless spreadsheets, and pushing awful HR papers around will be gone in 50 years and belong in a museum’s never-looked-at storage room (along with that gougetastic buckle-maker of yesteryear).   But what stupid thing will we be doing instead?

Assuming history isn't cyclical...

Assuming history isn’t cyclical…

I have lots of jobs and do lots of things, but my main source of income is working as an administrative drudge for the development office of a prestigious private university.  Development is a euphemism for asking people for money—particularly rich people (who are more generous than you might think—as evinced by the sorts of large charitable gifts they give major universities). One of my occasional duties is to help staff special events.  In such a capacity (i.e. as a footman/attendant who handed out brochures and nametags), I attended a financial math event about a month ago. Almost everyone in the room was a successful Wall Street financial employee with a comprehensive background in liberal arts as well as a high powered math degree.

The keynote speaker was a young financier who became vastly wealthy in the hedge fund world. He gave a conscientious lecture about his qualms concerning his industry. Basically, according to the speaker, most (or all) hedge fund managers suggest to potential clients that a 15% return per year is the likely upshot of investing in their hedge funds—even though, if such a thing were possible, the money created by hedge funds would quickly surpass all of the riches created by the remainder of all other enterprises (it’s amazing how a few extra points add up).  The speaker then explained the basic tenets of the industry (sadly I was too busy pillaging the immense cheese platter to listen attentively) and presented his conclusion:  the hedge fund industry does not add 15% per year every year and it is unable to do so.  Not even close. Many of its supposed gains are illusory.

"Maybe just a few slices...wait, what was that about how to get rich?"

The room erupted in angry muttering.  The richest and most generous financier (who was not the keynote speaker but many, many times wealthier) leaped up and began to assail the underlying assertions of the speaker.  In addition to his wealth, this particular financier also had a…forceful personality.  He reputedly owns a giant baronial estate in Connecticut where he emulates the lifestyle of an Edwardian grandee—complete with a downstairs staff that is not the supposed to look him in the eye!   He launched into a tirade which included the following metaphor for the financial industry.

Finance, said the wealthiest financier in the room, is a means by which society apportions resources to the sectors most in need of them.  It is like the blood.  The blood carries oxygen away from the lungs and carries waste products to the kidneys. When a person eats a meal, the blood rushes to the stomach and then subsequently rushes digested nutrients away from the intestines.  When a person runs, the blood rushes oxygen to the legs and carries off the bi-products of muscle labor.  When a person is about to make love the blood rushes to the… and there the great financier trailed off, while everyone in the room started tittering or furiously gesturing for the microphone (which I, in my tattered jacket, dutifully rushed over to them).

The financial mathematicians talked angrily for a while about how critical their industry is to making civilization run and then the last speaker angrily added that people who do not like banks, brokerages, or financial companies are free not to use them.  Then they left (leaving the cheese and cured meats almost untouched by anyone save me).  I noticed the keynote speaker’s scruples did not keep him from jumping into a chauffeured midnight blue Maybach limousine (the cheapest model of which has a base price of $344,000.00) which had been idling by the curb.

This car is stupid. Why not buy weird art?

In this age of anti-Wall Street protests, I have been thinking about the wealthy financier’s metaphor and I feel that it was apt. The financial markets are indeed supposed to deliver capital to medical research, nanotechnology firms, or to the construction industry–just as blood is meant to rush nutrients to the pancreas or to the biceps when needed.  Blood however is not supposed to build a 50 room mansion on Long Island and then buy a private jet and a dozen cigarette boats. Society’s resources are being misallocated. Our blood is bad! When I related the whole metaphor to a clever friend he likened the current state of investment banking to leukemia or some sort of esoteric metastasizing blood-borne cancer that takes over the resources of an entire body to build a useless self-sustaining tumor that then destroys the body.

So, what do we do about this cancer?

I don’t like regulations.  I feel that America has too many already.  People who are rich and powerful can afford to follow asinine bureaucratic rules by means of large teams of experts (or they can subvert or change the rules with help from their politician buddies). The same friend who likened investment banking to a cancer is a securities lawyer!  He described just a handful of the astringent requirements already laid upon the industry and they were profoundly onerous. If complex regulation were a solution to Wall Street’s excesses, it already would have kicked in.

In a certain sense it may be that the snide Wall Street guy at my event who closed the evening by telling the protesters not to use banks or corporations was right. Such a thing is already happening.  Investors are waking up to the illusory nature of the wares hawked by investment banks and huge financial firms.  I was at a development event for the business school of the university earlier this week.  The dean privately confided (to a room with 700 people) that his most talented graduates were heading towards smaller private equity firms rather than the overexposed and hated bulge bracket investment banks. In an ecosystem where the wolves are too much stronger than the sheep, they eat all of the sheep and then starve.  Newer smaller predators take their place.  This is beginning to happen. And so a new cycle begins.

But I’m not sure that just talking about the finance sector is satisfactory after the havoc that sector has caused.

Our representative democracy may have been subverted by wealthy and powerful clicks, but it is still a democracy.  Be sure to vote against any incumbents even if you are voting against your interests.  And last of all, to you protesters out there:  I’m not sure I like your drum circles or the way you dress.  Your point is ill-defined and badly articulated…but it is still a good point.  I believe you are gradually having an effect on public opinion and public discourse (even if media companies owned by billionaires say otherwise). The blood is bad! Keep on telling everyone! Such is your right in the land of the free.  But while you are doing so please be careful and be safe.  Keep your heads un-truncheoned. These bad times pass away and society will need you all to run the next generation of companies that private equity is only just starting to finance.

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