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Holy Han Blue! It is already time for the color of the year for 2020!  How did it get to be so late?  The color of the year is obviously a Pantone publicity stunt…and yet, in a fashion-market/artworld way, it tracks larger socioeconomic factors.  During boom times the colors are all coral, gold, and claret; when the economy falls into the abyss they become asphalt, storm clouds, and lunar regolith.  This year’s color is a flashing warning signal.  The 2020 color of the year, Classic Blue, is an ancient neutral middle level cobalt blue.  It looks exactly like what a court geomancer would pick to sooth a mad emperor…just before the realm explodes into civil war. Or. in the ugly patter of finance, this color looks like an inverted yield curve just before the sell-off.  It is a deeply conservative color pretending to have some pizzazz (similar to “Blue Iris”, the color of 2008).

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This is one of the results I got trying to image search this color.

It is worthwhile though, to note how the professional flacks at Pantone talk about this depressing reactionary selection.  They speak very carefully to forestall any criticism that it is, well, a depressing reactionary selection.  Although blue has represented melancholia to artists, poets, and designers  for four centuries (or longer), Leatrice Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, which apparently researches and advises companies on human responses to color said, “I think that’s kind of an older generation reaction.” So Pantone wants you to know that if you dislike the ugly neutral blue which they chose for the coming recession, you are old and out of touch. They also note that this is not a subtle endorsement of the Democratic Party (apparently, like every large business in the country, they enthusiastically endorse and promote the fascist Republican party).

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But politics and economics aside, what do we make of Classic Blue? Blue is not actually the top color on my personal list, but it is good for neutral backgrounds and for blending in. Dark blues like “classic blue” don’t show dirt as badly as some colors.  Classic blue might be good for a daily table cloth or a bathroom mat or a shower curtain.  It would be lovely for a twilight sky around a pleasure garden (although Pantone isn’t marketing it for that, as far as I could tell from their blather).  The real color of 2020 should be chaotic darkness shot through with nauseating flecks of painful brightness, like somebody smashed a sorcerer’s crystal (or like a riot after the teargas).  I recognize that Pantone is hard pressed to choose a perfect color to match that, but, as always they have done as well as possible in trying circumstances.  Any bets yet for the color of the year for 2021?

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Once again, it is time to head back to the wild forest cwms of my ancestral homeland.  I will feed LG some corn, walk the golden fields and green forests, and visit my mother’s kinfolks who dwell on the other side of some truly hospitable mountains.  It is going to be lovely. Brooklyn’s urban lifestyle is nonpareil, but sometimes one must escape Flatbush for a bit.

Of course abandoning the old blogstead is not without peril! As soon as Ferrebeekeeper announced these travel plans, economic indicators started blinking red and the market began screaming in protest.  Evidently, without Ferrebeekeeper’s weekly posts, the yield curve inverts and the world economy comes undone.

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A chilling macro vision of the future?

Therefore, I am once again turning over the reins of Ferrebeekeeper to the experienced hands of Dan Claymore, the great speculative fiction visionary whose soon-to-be-released sci-fi epic stares unblinkingly at the wonders and horrors of our AI future.  Perhaps he will elaborate on these dark prognostications in some of his posts, or maybe he will take you back to the fish markets of Tokyo, or to the sketchbook of Japan’s greatest movie director, or to places yet unknown.

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A chilling macro vision of the future?

At any rate, I am sure he will take you on a soaring journey…of the mind.  Also, he will have to bear sole responsible for the world economy for a week.  So please give a hearty welcome to Dan Claymore! Make sure to comment a lot (oh, and please let him know if you have deep connections to the world of science fiction publishing).  I will see you in a week!

Highlander

Dan Claymore? (photo citation needed)

Yesterday Ferrebeekeeper described the Luddite movement, an anti-technology workers’ revolt which occurred near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The revolt centered on the idea that labor-saving machines destroy jobs, a concept which economists decry as the “Luddite fallacy.” Most Neoclassical economists believe that, even if machines cause job losses in certain industries, such losses are more than offset by the attendant fall in prices for consumers.  The history of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution has borne this idea out, as more and more goods have become available to wider and wider markets.  The history of first world nations reflects a sort of anti-Luddite narrative:  farmers are not needed to plough the lands because of greater agricultural productivity so they go to work in factories.  Factories then become more productive thanks to machines and cheap competition so the factory workers become tertiary sector employees.  The tertiary sector consists of service jobs where employees do not necessarily make or produce anything tangible but instead offer support, experience, or knowledge—for example nurses, lawyers, waste-disposal professionals, casino employees, courtesans, financiers and such like (some economists posit that there is a quaternary sector of scientists, professors, computer geniuses, artists, and bloggers—the creative sector—but we needn’t get into that here).

Industrial Robots installed at Kia Motors' Slovakian plant by Hyundai Heavy Industries

Since the dawn of the Industrial era, this progression has worked admirably for creating economic progress.  And, during that time, machines have been constantly improving.  Whereas the horseless carriage once put horses, hostlers, and livery stables out of work but provided automakers with jobs, then robot arms and mechanized welding units came along to supplant those auto-workers.  The displaced autoworkers all had to go out and become radiologists, actuaries, sex-workers, and restaurateurs.  Now, however, machines are becoming sophisticated enough to invade the tertiary sector.  Subtle computer programs are proving superior to trained (overworked) radiologists at finding the tiniest nascent tumors.  Accountants are being replaced by Turbo-tax and Quickbooks. Weird Japanese scientists have built robots which…um make sushi and pour drinks. It seems like this trend is going to gobble up a great many service jobs in the near future from all strata of society.

A world where machines are able to replace white-collar workers would mean the hollowing out of the middle class.  The international corporations and plutocrats making software, robots, and automated factories would become extravagantly rich while the rest of would have to struggle to find niches the machines haven’t taken over. A huge economic slump would grip the developed world–as average consumers became unable to buy the goods turned out by those factories.  Hmm, that seems awfully familiar.

"But the Roomba is my friend."

So are the Luddites finally correct?  Should we go out and smash our computers and Roombas? Well… it isn’t like we can stop what we are doing.  To move forward in science and manufacturing we are going to need better thinking machines.  At some point these machines will be better at thinking then we are…and they will also be better than us at making machines.  That point will be the technological singularity and it seems that we are on that path, unable to turn back.  Perhaps we will end up with a race of omniscient omnipotent servants (yay!).  Perhaps we will combine with machines and become mighty cyborgs.  Perhaps we will end up as housepets or as a mountain of skulls the robots walk on and laugh at.  I don’t know.  Nobody does. Yikes! How did this essay about a nineteenth century protest movement take us to this destination?

Welcome to Utopia--Beep!

In the mean time, it would be useful if people would talk more about what we want from our technology and how we can get there.  The fact that having better machines is currently splitting society into some dysfunctional Edwardian plutocracy is disquieting.  It means we are not thinking hard enough or using our imaginations.  We should start doing so now…while we are still allowed to!

Vampyroteuthis infernalis (from http://www.itsnature.org/sea/other/vampire-squid/)

As you probably know, the financial firm Goldman Sachs has been famously compared to a mollusk.  During the bleakest depths of the great recession (assuming we are finally past such troubles) Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote, “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”  Naturally, the unbelievably rich bankers were offended and the aggrieved and bombastic spokesman for the bank Lucas Van Praag, hilariously missed the point of the insult by correctly pointing out that vampire squid are actually very small and harmless to humans.  Since then, the vampire squid has become the de facto mascot of Goldman Sachs and now represents the bank in political cartoons the same way Uncle Sam appears as the United States or a dragon represents China. The Goldman Sachs squid is usually portrayed as a giant squid dressed up in gothic garb and sporting a vampire’s voracious mien.

Gothic Squid: the reason nobody had a good job for the last three years?

Goldman Sachs indeed deserves such opprobrium for crafting shell-game style derivatives and credit default swaps which helped bring about the recession (while making the bank richer) but what did the actual vampire squid do? The real victim of the quotation was this fascinating oddity of a cephalopod which shares similarities between squids and octopuses and thus merits placement in its own unique taxonomic order, the Vampyromorphida. As Van Praag observed, vampire squid are indeed quite small: they seldom exceed 6 inches (15 cm) with another 6 inches for their tentacles.  Although they have eight arms, like octopuses, the creatures additionally possess unique retractile sensory filaments and immense blue-red eyes to help them apprehend their black surroundings. They have two light-sensitive photo-receptors on their head and their bodies are covered with photophores, specialized organs capable of producing light.  The photophores at the tips of the arms are larger than the rest and appear as white spots. Vampire squid use these photophores to communicate, to dazzle predators, to hypnotize prey, and to hide themselves by mimicking ambient surface light.

An illustration of the vampire squid by Citron

Vampire squid live in the benthic depths of the ocean 2,000-3,000 feet (600-900 meters) below sea level. They “fly” through their habitat by means of ear-like fins which project from their mantle. To deal with the inhospitable conditions of such depths, they have large gills and hemocyanin-rich blue blood.  Much like ground-water dwelling catfish mentioned in a previous post, their velvety/slimy skin is oxygen permeable in order to exploit the precious oxygen to the maximum extent.  To quote Wikipedia “The animals have weak musculature but maintain agility and buoyancy with little effort thanks to sophisticated statocysts (balancing organs akin to a human’s inner ear) and ammonium-rich gelatinous tissues closely matching the density of the surrounding seawater.”

Ballooning defensive behavior (photo by R. Flood)

Unlike most cephalopods, Vampire Squid lack ink sacs (which would be of little use in the nearly lightless depths).  To make up for the loss, they possess sacs of brightly bioluminescent mucous which they squirt out at predators to dazzle and confuse them.  Such a defense costs the squid dear and is only undertaken as a measure of last resort.  Additionally when confronted by predators, the vampire squid can inflate its webbing to appear bigger (as in the photo above). The squid pray on larval fish, copepods, prawns, cnidarians, and other deep sea arthropods.  They are eaten by deep sea fish and by deep diving marine mammals like whales, seals, and sea lions. Little is known of their reproductive cycle although young squid pass through various stages of morphologic form possessing first one set of fins, then two sets of fins, and then one again.

In summarizing the year which is passing, the bleak, dreadful, and meretricious aspects of human affairs leap to prominence (this is not the full thesis of this essay—please keep reading despite this dire opening).  Two thousand ten AD was so filled with earthquakes, insurgencies, layoff announcements, fat stupid North Korean heirs, Snookis, LeBron Jameses, oil spills, and every other sort of malediction–both major and trivial–that it seems like some latter-day lack-wit Pandora must have found another ornate casket.

"Is that a shiny box? I wonder if it has jewels in it? Or even more publicity? I better just peep inside."

Please take heart!  There is not yet a pressing need to reread Revelations or start building an ark.  Distortions of perspective are responsible for making the problems and failures (and minutiae) of 2010 loom up larger in our vision than the real successes and breakthroughs.  First and most importantly, we are still too close to 2010 to understand what was truly important.  Second, the people who produce newspapers, websites, and TV shows realize there is more money in showing Kim Kardashian making a face than in explaining magnetic anisotropy in individual molecules.

The single-molecule magnet Mn4O3Cl4(O2CCH2CH3)3(pyridine)3 crystallizes in pairs held together by hydrogen bonds between chlorine and hydrogen atoms (Mn = green, O = yellow, N = blue, Cl = red, C and H = gray). Seriously! It could cause data storage technology to leap forward!

Looking backwards for examples from the past helps clarify how distorted our view of a year is as it ends.  At the end of 1969 every commenter was writing about Hamburger Hill, My Lai, Altamont, underground nuclear testing, Ted Kennedy’s driving, the Manson murders, and how we were losing the cold war.  Most people didn’t notice WalMart incorporating as “WalMart stores”, or the Stonewall Riots (events which were subsequently realized to be important). Only a very few computer scientists knew that the first Arpanet link had gone live in California and the first messages had started bouncing back and forth across what would evolve into the internet. Nobody of that time really understood the ramifications of such a development.  Imagine trying to explain the internet or Walmart to someone in 1969! Then imagine going even further back to the disastrous year of 1837 when messages were first sent between remote locations electronically and explaining the modern network of communications.

Maybe 1969 was a funny choice to illustrate my point....

Similarly, the scientific and technology breakthroughs of this year will be important long after the frothy jetsam of pop-culture has drifted away and the rubble of contemporary disasters has been cleaned up. This was the year that humankind first created artificial life (albeit of a rudimentary sort).  The National Ignition Facility’s project to build a star in a jar came several steps closer to completion.  The Japanese successfully launched a solar sail in interplanetary space.  Nanotechnology, stem-cell biology, robotics, and innumerable other fields took steps forward. And those are the things we know about–probably other groundbreaking discoveries are not widely known or even comprehensible.  The time traveler attempting to describe 2051 or 2183 is most likely going to be dealing in ideas outlandish to us.

I hope you don’t think this defense of 2010 is teleological (or that looking back at the present from an imaginary future is specious).  With all of the tin-pot dictators, outsourcing, environmental devastation, and reality TV, it is easy to lose track of our real progress and our actual achievements.  Science and technology (along with social and political breakthroughs that we so far missed) can provide a way for humanists not to be disappointed by 2010.  It is now up to people of intellect, imagination, and conscience to bear out the potential of the year’s embryonic innovations.

Whether this was worthy year for humanity (or the drab disappointment it currently seems like) has yet to be decided by the future and what we do with it.   In the mean time, kindly accept my heartfelt wishes for a very happy new year.

Close observation of this image will make you feel better about our current financial situation and about the moral progress of our nation.

The Panic of 1837 was one of the worst financial crises to ever hit the United States of America (at the time it was the worst).  It brought a five year recession in its wake.  Gloom mongers (and even hard-headed realists) believed that the nation would never recover its prosperity.

During the 1830s there was an immense boom of real estate speculation focused on public lands which were being sold off to buyers with political connections.  Huge fortunes could be made by reselling this land to railroad companies and canal builders who were rushing forward with competing projects.  The individual states were complicit with this mania, sinking vast amounts of public money into a diverse array of infrastructure projects both good and bad.

A "wildcat" three dollar banknote issued by a Michigan Bank for some sort of "Safety Fund" in 1837

Through various vetoes and political maneuvers President Andrew Jackson had successfully engineered the demise of the Second Bank of the United States (which was unable to renew its charter in 1832).  A great rash of new banks and investment companies sprang up throughout the 1830’s to supplant the bank.  Rather than paying off their debts and refinancing new projects, these financial houses anticipated greater profits from investing borrowed capital in the booming land speculations.  Because of this apparent national prosperity, the balance of trade shifted.  America, previously an exporter, was suddenly importing more goods than it was selling.  In anticipation of the huge profits, American states and corporations (and wealthy individuals) were borrowing money from European banks.  Additionally,  the world’s climate was changing in the 1830s.  An unusually cold era marked by intense volcanic activity and by an anomalous paucity of sunspots (the Dalton minimum) was coming to an end.  As environmental conditions changed, crops failed in 1835 and in 1837.

All of these factors were topped off by disastrous executive meddling.  The Specie Circular Act was an executive order issued summarily by Andrew Jackson in 1836 (during his last year in office) and carried out by his unfortunate successor. It required payment for all government land to be in gold or silver.  Jackson anticipated that the nation’s coffers would fill up with precious metals (he apparently did not trust paper money).  But people did not and could not pay.  The bubble burst.  Over 600 banks failed and the cotton market completely collapsed.  Eight states partially or wholly failed and even the Federal government was unable to discharge its debts.  Trade stood still as business confidence evaporated entirely.  Food riots shook the country.  Unemployment and hardship were the watchwords of the time.  The whole sad affair was exacerbated by economic calamity overseas: European bankers, suffering from their own setbacks, curtailed lending.  It was not until 1842 that the economy began to recover.

"I have no money and cannot get any work."

Strangely enough, the grim era between 1837 and 1842 witnessed tremendous technical innovations which would reshape the nation and the world.  In 1837 Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph, which he successfully tested on January 6th 1838 at the Speedwell near Morristown, New Jersey–thus inventing the telecommunications industry.  Crawford Williamson Long used ether for the first time on March 30, 1842 to remove a tumor from the neck of a patient and usher in a new era of surgery.  In Europe a German chemist invented artificial fertilizer while James Nasmyth perfected the steam hammer (which made it much easier to build large machines).  Morse’s accomplishments and those of his fellow inventors are remembered.  The failures of the rapacious bankers, greedy speculators, and incompetent politicians have been forgotten by everyone except for historians.

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