Thursday, August 25, 2011

An excellent interview with Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat

Alan Sepinwall asks some thought-provoking questions, including why he like to tell Who stories that centre around the Doctor meeting someone when they're a child, and revisiting them through the course of their life:

Moffat: "The series has always been the story of how the companion changes, not how the Doctor changes. The Doctor doesn't change very much. That's always the story."

Sepinwall: "So the childhood meeting is just an easy way to illustrate that, rather than revisiting a former companion years later?"

Moffat: "I like things that force the Doctor to address that he's aging much more slowly than everyone else. I think that's interesting, whether you do it in the simple, cartoony way of him missing an entire growing up, or just seeing Amy and Rory. They're getting married, getting a house, while the Doctor is remaining fundamentally the same, while they grow up around him. Which is why he tries to get out of their lives. It's too hard. "

Making a submission on the Mt Vic flyover takes 15 seconds. The deadline's tomorrow

I just made a submission to the Wellington City Council (my first!) about the proposed massive roading and construction projects that are planned around Mt Victoria, through the tunnel and at the start of Haitaitai. If you're interested or concerned about this issue (and pressed for time), I'd encourage you to submit using the Green Party submission form, which takes about 15 seconds to complete (and then tell people about it).

You can also customise it or make your own independent submission. Here's mine:

I am opposed to the two proposed alterations to the Cobham Drive to Buckle Street transport network.

The basis for my opposition is my assessment that the pattern of private transport usage will not continue to increase (as it has in previous decades). Several international authorities have reported that the price of oil will soon rise, due to the demand for it exceeding the capacity to provide it:

* The International Energy Agency's 2010 World Energy Outlook [1] noted that conventional crude oil production peaked in 2006.

* A report from the US military's Joint Forces Command [2], warned that surplus oil production capacity could disappear by 2012 and there could be serious shortages by 2015 (with significant economic impacts).

As these reports project an operating environment of increasing petrol costs, I conclude that the demand for widened roads will decrease over the next 10 years.

I would prefer this roading and infrastructure funding to be invested in increasing the availability of sustainable public transport (to match an increasing demand).

[1] 2010 World Energy Outlook Executive Summary:
[2] Joint Operating Environment 2010 Report:

If I buy a second computer, will I waste less time?

Seth Godin suggested a way to maximise the amount of productive work I do that's really gotten me thinking: buy a second computer to do all my procrastinatey stuff on (such as flash games, twitter and facebook, and culling my google reader feed).

In accordance with Seth's philosophy of creating ideas that spread, I'm going to selectively quote from his post (Are you making something?):

Let's define work, for a moment, as something you create that has a lasting value in the market. More and more, we're finding it easy to get engaged with activities that feel like work, but aren't. 
One reason for this confusion is that we're often using precisely the same device to do our work as we are to distract ourselves from our work.
Hence this proposal: The two-device solution
Only use your computer for work. 
Have a second device, perhaps an iPad, and use it for games, web commenting, online shopping, networking... (no need to have an argument here about [what constitutes work and what doesn't] ... draw a line, any line.... If you don't like the results from that line, draw a new line).
Now, when you pick up the iPad, you can say to yourself, "break time." And if you find yourself taking a lot of that break time, you've just learned something important.

Seth's argument seems reasonable - but it's really:

a) making me wrestle with my frugality and desire to reduce the amount of resources I use
b) retriggering my compulsive desire to buy a tablet.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If you believed in climate change, would you engage in civil disobedience? #tarsands

This week, concerned citizens are protesting outside the White House to prevent the extraction and transport of tar sands from Canada. This protest could represent the start of a shift in the mindsets of people who are concerned about climate change: a shift towards making it acceptable and expected for us to engage in civil disobedience and passive resistance (in order to change the behaviour of politicians and corporations).

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how the London riots may have spread so effectively because disaffected and unemployed people saw that rioting was something that people like them did. In other words, being able to riot became an acceptable part of the way they saw themselves.

There's currently a two week protest involving passive resistance and civil disobedience occurring outside the White House. One of the organisers, Bill McKibben writes, in a Washington Post editorial (A watershed moment for Obama on climate change - The Washington Post):

Already, more than a thousand people have signed up to be arrested over two weeks beginning Aug. 20 — the biggest display of civil disobedience in the environmental movement in decades and one of the largest nonviolent direct actions since the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle back before Sept. 11.

This is exactly what identity decisions involve: people who share a strong enough belief create an expectation amongst each other about what sort of behaviour is appropriate for people who have that belief. As those expectations become more publicised, the belief (and expectations) have the opportunity to spread.

McKibben describes the belief here:

The issue is simple: We want the president to block construction of Keystone XL, a pipeline that would carry oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta down to the Gulf of Mexico. We have, not surprisingly, concerns about potential spills and environmental degradation from construction of the pipeline. But those tar sands are also the second-largest pool of carbon in the atmosphere, behind only the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. If we tap into them in a big way, NASA climatologist James Hansen explained in a paper issued this summer, the emissions would mean it’s “essentially game over” for the climate.

I note that these protests haven't gotten much media coverage yet.  I'm fascinated to see what happens if they do.

You can view some interviews with the protesters here:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The #londonriots have made it socially acceptable to riot now. At least every once in a while.

Rioting isn't a rational decision. It's an identity decision based on what you believe people like you would do. People in England have changed their beliefs about  rioting. Seeing people similar to themselves doing it caused the rioting to spread in the way it did.

The upshot: It’s now OK to riot. At least every once in a while.

How to believe it's OK to riot

I like to think that I make rational decisions, where I weigh up the pros and cons of doing something before I take action.

But there’s another theory that explains how I decide whether to do something: that before I take action I consult an ideal self-image and ask myself:

What would someone like me do in this situation?

No reasons, no accounting for what’s in my best interests, no concern for consequences.

Just: Is this something a person like me would do?

And despite the fact that I like to think I make rational decisions, I’ve seen evidence that I often make ‘identity decisions’. Some recent examples:
  • Lots of my friends were linking to Penny Red's article about the riots, ‘Panic on the streets of London’, so I decided to read it – and now I’m linking to it too.
  • People on a politics blog I lurk on became actively commenting about how ignoring a regular commentator’s posts was improving their reading experience, so I began ignoring him too (and found my reading experience marginally improved, but felt guilty I was succumbing to some sort of peer pressure / ostracism)

Identity decisions can explain a lot about the way the riots in England spread they way they did. To over-simplify, the thought process of a potential rioter would go: I’m watching people like me riot. … People like me riot.

It's okay for people like me to riot.

How to spread the belief that it's OK to riot

The second contributing factor to the spread of the riots is here: Scientists discover tipping point for the spread of ideas 
Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always (and rapidly) be adopted by the majority of the society.  
As an example, the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt appear to exhibit a similar process, according to Szymanski. “In those countries, dictators who were in power for decades were suddenly overthrown in just a few weeks.”  
“As agents of change start to convince more and more people, the situation begins to change,” Sreenivasan said. “People begin to question their own views at first and then completely adopt the new view to spread it even further….”
If you’re making an identity decision, you’re more likely to do something if you think people like you would do it:

People like me riot. People who are young, frustrated, or bored … we riot.

That’s a fairly precise population to spread a belief through. And it helped that this belief was being transmitted 24 hours a day on TV, radio, and every form of social media available.

You can see a demonstration of these two things combining here:

To use some of my ten-dollar words, the boundary of what is permissible has been expanded.

But really: It’s now OK to riot. At least every once in a while.

At the moment, this may be a temporary belief. If it becomes entrenched, though, the default way that people respond to situations of frustration, boredom, or to having persistent, intractable social problems that have been created over decades being ignored by authorities may change fundamentally. The key quote from Penny Red:

In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:
"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?" 
"Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you." 
Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’ 
There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.

A final aside

It’s important to point out that I’m not commenting on the underlying reasons for why the riots happened – just why they spread. To take one final quote from Penny Red’s post:

Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school.

I'm who Penny Red is talking about. I haven't watched much footage or read much commentary about the reasons for the riots. I don't live in England and I have a privileged upbringing. From my point of view, it seems there are AT LEAST seven conflicting or collaborating explanations circulating about why people wanted to riot:

  • A reaction to police mishandling of a shooting
  • Disrespect for authority after corruption scandals affecting politicians, the police and the media
  • Resentment from austerity imposed on the poor while the rich get away with benefiting from crashing the global financial system
  • Decades of joblessness and destruction of community
  • A permissive society
  • People have always rioted
  • Rioting gains attention where peaceful demonstrations have failed
  • Opportunists taking advantage to loot or cause chaos
This post is not commenting on that.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Ask yourself this: Have you meddled with the primal forces of the universe lately?

Network is an amazing script and an amazing movie. Reading this article at Daily Kos (Daily Kos: "Network" and Our Current Epistemic Crisis) reminded me of my favourite moment in a film filled with great speeches, great silences, and amazing performances.

Fair warning: this is a massive spoiler - not in terms of plot but in terms of the film's emotional flow.

Newscaster Howard Beale has been giving a series of riveting, rabble-rousing speeches on his TV show. Ratings are soaring.

During one speech, he rips into a take-over deal where a Saudi Arabian conglomerate will buy out the TV network he works for. The chair of the company that owns the network, Arthur Jensen, asks Howard to meet him and discuss Howard's latest speech.

Watch the video. It's about 5 minutes long. Here's the transcript:

You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it!! Is that clear?! You think you've merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back!

It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance!

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples.

There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels.

It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU WILL ATONE!

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy.

There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state -- Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do.

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business.

The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.

And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality -- one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

Eaarth: 11 ways to prepare for, adapt to, and live with climate change

We need to build the architecture for the world that comes next, says Bill McKibben, in his book Eaarth. He's talking about the fact that pretty fundamental changes are already happening in Earth's climate, and that we need to do what we can to limit that damage.

The 'architecture' McKibben is talking about are the social and economic changes that we're going to need to make in the way we live our lives on a world that's not longer quite as supportive or forgiving of us. It's the shift from a culture of growth, huge scales, speed and the search for new-ness to a culture that's durable and stable. In McKibben's words:

The economy that has defined our Western world is like a  racehorse, fleet and showy, bred for speed, with narrow, tapered legs; tap it on the haunch, and it accelerates down the back stretch. But don't put it on the track where the rain has turned things muddy; know that even a small bump in its path will break its stride and quite likely snap that thin and speedy leg. 
The racehorse, like our economy, has been optimised for one thing only: pure burning swiftness.
What we need to do, even while we're in the saddle, is transform our racehorse into a workhorse - into something dependable, even-tempered, long-lasting, uncomplaining. Won't go fast, will go long; won't win the laurel, will carry the day. 
The high praise for a workhorse is "she's steady." "She can pull." We're talking walk or trot or jog, not canter or gallop. 
Our time has been marked by ever-increasing speed - paddle-wheeler to locomotive to aireplane to rocket, Model T to Formula 1. 
Can you imagine slower?
McKibben makes the case that we need a slower, more durable and robust economy, one that's more local and community focused by exploring how the international systems we use to get our fuel and food are now 'too big to fail' ... which means they're too big, because they're basically guaranteed to fail quite a few times over the next 15 years, and the shocks for us each time that happens are going to be painful.

These are messages that I've heard a few times before. The difference is that now I'm on a kick to convert the stuff I read (especially ideas with huge implications) into specific practical actions that I can take. (*)

* Obviously, I'm doing that with the idea that if other
 people also do it to then it adds up to something.

11 ways to live with and adapt to climate change

The basic ideas that McKibben puts forth are that we need to massively drop our energy consumption and put less stress on our food supply (by being able to make up any shortfalls ourselves).

Extrapolating from the stuff he talks about in the second haalf of Eaarth, I've come up with some initial steps I'll need to take in the short term and the medium term (none of them should be particularly surprising). I'm going to add to this plan as I keep reading about this stuff.

In the short-term:

Switch all of the light bulbs in my apartment to energy efficient bulbs: either LED or CFLs (Welcome to |

Increase the amount of vegetarian meals I eat during the week by one. I'm already eating one or two, and I feel like I can comfortably push that up to two or three meals a week.

Start gardening (even the tiniest amount). This isn't a skill I'm comfortable with but it seems smart to start thinking about it.

Downsize and declutter. I cannot thank Jennifer enough for breaking me of my pack-rat habit. By owning less stuff (that's more precious to me), I can actually find the things I want. Incidentally, I can also live in a smaller place which is (a) cheaper, and (b) easier to insulate and heat.

Make sure that the power company we're using doesn't use coal as a source of energy. Investigation and possible switching companies is required.

Join a group like or Coal Action Network (Coal Action Network Aotearoa | leave it in the ground). Actively campaigning against the use of coal in energy generation is starting to seem like a very very effective use of time and money (but I'll be investigating this more).

Wherever possible, car pool or use public transport. I'm also keen to get a bike.

In the medium term:

Start moving towards energy self-sufficiency (or at least generating part of the energy I need, myself). Solar-powered hot water seems to be a pretty established technology.

Look at solar panels more general, and check out the state of wind-generators.

In the longer term:

McKibben picks de-urbanisation as becoming a growing trend. I need to keep an eye on the costs and benefits of living in particular locations, and be prepared to shift lifestyles slightly if required - for instance, move to the country or flatting/living communally again.

Investigate (or instigate) schemes to establish communally owned power generators.

Previous posts about Eaarth
multi-dimensional: Eaarth: A first look at our new planet
multi-dimensional: Eaarth: the problem with climate change is the little things

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Eaarth: the problem with climate change is the little things

I'm about to dive into the third part of Eaarth - Bill McKibben's appraisal of the current state of climate change, how the Earth has already changed, and how we might have to adapt and change our lifestyles in response. Part 3 is all about that issue, but before I go there I just wanted to note two thoughts that McKibben has repeatedly emphasised in the first half of his book.

1. Climate change has already happened

McKibben describes how almost all commentators on climate change talk about how we have to do something or else our children and our grandchildren will face the consequences of our inaction. It's a powerful emotional and moral argument, but McKibben says it's bullshit. The time for action was 20 years ago: we are the children and grandchildren who are facing the consequences of inaction.

2. Infrastructure is going to be a big problem

In Part 2 of Eaarth, McKibben describes the many ways in which our civilisation is butting up against our planet's limits. He wrote this in 2009/2010, and the recession is very much part of the landscape of the book. With limited money, decisions about how to prioritise spending are going to become more and more painful. We're not just talking about building a series of barriers to protect Venice or the Netherlands, or the repairs to New Orleans or the reconstruction of Haiti after it was hit by four hurricanes in a row. It's the little things: like flooding causes burst pipes and collapsed bridges, so a country's transport budget has to get split between emergency repairs and road maintenance. That if powerful storms hit with increasing regularity and force, and keep blowing the roof off your building, eventually your insurance premiums are going to go up.

This is a book filled with little details, human-level stories, and extracts from recent news articles that have pretty huge implications. I'm finding it fascinating

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Eaarth: A first look at our new planet

There's a reason Bill McKibben's book 'eaarth' has an extra 'a' in the title.(*)  He wants to vividly demonstrate that climate change has already happened. He's saying that we now live on a new planet,  Eaarth: a planet that looks superficially similar to the Earth we grew up on but one that's becoming an increasingly hostile place to support human life.

(*) McKibbon is the founder of, which advocates 
that the safe level of carbon in the Earth's atmosphere
 is 350 parts per million (ppm). Above that level, 
and the effects of global warming become more 
and more likely to be activated.(**)

(**) Our atmosphere's already at 391 ppm.

McKibben wants to make the point that "the planet on which our civilisation evolved no longer exists", and that we've travelled to our new planet propelled by a huge burst of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide. McKibben spend the first chapter of his book demonstrating the increasingly hostile environment of our new planet by quoting news article after news article. I've reproduced three of the ones that hit home hardest with me, here:

Maldives May Relocate Due to Global Warming: "Mohamed Nasheed, the island nation’s new president, has announced a plan to buy a new homeland, just in case his sinking country completely disappears."

Kiribati Islanders Seek Land to Buy as Rising Seas Threaten - Bloomberg: "Kiribati, a Pacific island-nation in danger of being submerged because of global warming, may purchase land elsewhere to relocate its people, President Anote Tong said"

No more drought: it's a 'permanent dry' - Climate Watch - "DROUGHT will become a redundant term as Australia plans for a permanently drier future, according to the nation's urban water industries chief.

And climate experts yesterday predicted the present drought would continue, signalling a cruel summer for farmers and sparking fears of higher food prices.

'The urban water industry has decided the inflows of the past will never return,' Water Services Association of Australia executive director Ross Young said. 'We are trying to avoid the term 'drought' and saying this is the new reality.'"

Even the IMF is starting to get peak oil « The Standard: "Like the warning from the American military — by 2015 there are likely to be “serious shortages” in oil supply. Like the warnings from the German military, Lloyds of London, the IEA and others (reviewed in a report from our own Parliamentary library). Now we can add the IMF to the list:

WSJ: IMF: “Increased Scarcity” Ahead For Oil Markets

Governments should brace for “increased scarcity” in global oil markets and the risk of additional sharp price spikes in the coming years, the International Monetary Fund warned Thursday. …"

It's fascinating stuff, and I'm looking forward to reading and digging into this more. Next up, McKibben's going to examine the various ways in which we've exceeded the limitations of our planet, and then he's going to talk about a new economic model.

You might want to check out this really excellent (20 minute) talk by Naomi Klein, too. She takes the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill as her starting point, and discusses how and why people can fail to make wise long-term decisions.