Stampede of the unicorns: will a new breed of tech giants burst the bubble?

Stampede of the unicorns: will a new breed of tech giants burst the bubble?
Lyft, which went public on Friday, will soon be joined by Uber, Airbnb and other companies valued over $1bn – and they may be just the animal to burst a bubble
By Dominic Rushe
Mar 30 2019

Five years ago Aileen Lee, founder of Silicon Valley investor Cowboy Ventures, coined the term “unicorn” for a private company valued at more than $1bn. Back then unicorns were almost as rare as their mythical namesakes – just 39 existed, according to Lee. Now there are 334 around the world, worth more than $1tn. And this week some of the very biggest beasts started stampeding towards the public markets.

On Friday Lyft, the ridesharing company, went public on the US stock markets, soaring 21% before ending the day up a more modest 8.7%. The company is now valued at $22bn, creating many new millionaires among the Lyft staff and generating big profits for investors who have backed the business as it has developed.

Soon it is expected to be joined soon by Airbnb, Palantir, Pinterest, Slack, Uber, WeWork and more than 200 other companies, largely in tech, that could raise over $1oobn between them – more money than was raised by the dotcom bubble at the turn of the millennium.

For some that’s a worrying sign. And if there was ever an animal born to burst a bubble, it’s the unicorn.

There is no doubting that the big names coming to market have built impressive profiles and are growing rapidly. More than 30 million people took a Lyft last year and 1.9 million drivers are using its app. Not bad for a six-year-old company.

Many of the names coming to market, notably Lyft, Uber and Airbnb, were part of what was once called “the sharing economy” – a phrase meant to describe a community-based, tech-enabled system for sharing goods and services. It’s a phrase that has gone out of fashion as these increasingly massive companies have come to dominate their sectors.

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Team Human and Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, sees close parallels to the first wave of tech companies to go to public at the turn of the millennium. “What we are looking at is the reaction of traditional corporate capitalism against the sharing economy,” said Rushkoff.

Just as Amazon became the online retailer and Facebook came to dominate social media, “couch-surfing became Airbnb, ridesharing became Uber. It’s capital coming in, establishing monopolies and changing the laws in order to establish a monopolistic foothold,” he said. With all this initial public offering (IPO) cash, competition will once again be killed, he warns.

But Wall Street seems excited. At least for now.

“Investors are familiar with these names, there is a lot of buzz about them and they see the rapid growth. They are doing many of the things that investors like,” said Kathleen Smith, principal at Renaissance Capital, a research firm that specialises in IPOs.

Renaissance reckons there are some 235 IPOs in the wings this year – many of them unicorns – that could raise $100bn between them, eclipsing the $97bn raised by IPOs in 2000.

Back then, when the internet was new, investors also lined up for a piece of the action and then an economic downturn, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and broken business models triggered a huge sell-off. By the time the silicon had settled in October 2002 the Nasdaq-100, home to many of the largest tech companies, had fallen 78% from its peak in March 2000.

Many of today’s biggest tech companies, including Google, eBay and Amazon, can trace their roots back to the dotcom boom. But beside those market-dominating behemoths lie the bones of much-hyped disasters such as and Webvan.


The Lost History of One of the World’s Strangest Science Experiments

[Note:  This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis.  DLH]

The Lost History of One of the World’s Strangest Science Experiments
The hummingbirds were dying. Cockroaches were everywhere. And then Steve Bannon showed up.
By Carl Zimmer
Mar 29 2019

Before dawn on April 4, 1994, Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo slipped across the foothills of Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains. They made their way to a looming monument of geodesic domes and pyramids known as Biosphere 2. The three-acre complex contained a miniature rain forest, a mangrove, a desert and a coral reef — along with seven people who had been sealed inside for a month. 

Ms. Alling and Mr. Van Thillo had recently emerged from a two-year stay in Biosphere 2. Later, after they were arrested, they told reporters that they feared for the safety of the people inside. They were determined to bring the mission to an end.

They pulled open five of Biosphere 2’s doors and broke their seals. As outdoor air rushed in, they made their way to the ventilation system, where they smashed some glass panels.

That break-in effectively marked the end of one of the strangest experiments in the history of science. No one had ever built a sealed ecological world as big as Biosphere 2, and no one had ever survived so long inside one. The project would later be dismissed as a folly and a waste of effort. And yet, 25 years on, it’s an experiment worth rediscovering. Biosphere 2 might have some lessons to offer about managing Biosphere 1 — our planet.

The idea for Biosphere 2 emerged on a New Mexico ranch in the early 1970s. The residents of Synergia Ranch — who split their time between experimental theater, farming and furniture-making — saw themselves as picking up the pieces from the wreckage of civilization. “Western civilization isn’t simply dying,” the co-founder, John Allen, once said. “It’s dead. We are probing into its ruins to take whatever is useful for the building of the new civilization to replace it.”

They began dreaming of merging ecology and technology into a new form. They gained the support of Ed Bass, the scion of a wealthy Texas family who became chairman of a company called Space Biospheres Ventures. In 1984, the company announced it was going to build an airtight structure inside of which ecosystems would thrive, supplying a group of people with air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat.

As Biosphere 2 took shape in the desert, it racked up headlines (“Desert Dreamers Build a Man-Made World” reported this newspaper). In an interview with Discover magazine, Carl Hodges, a University of Arizona scientist, predicted it might turn out to be “the most significant scientific project of all time.” The ABC News program “Prime Time Live” suggested that it might “save the world.”

The project, as fanciful as it sounded, had deep roots. Scientists coined the word “biosphere” in the 1800s, and in 1926, the Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky published a book dedicated to the concept. To Vernadsky, the biosphere was the self-sustaining ecological web of life that formed a skin on the planet.

It was a powerful image, one that inspired later ecologists to create small glass globes full of water, algae and little invertebrates. Soviet scientists, investigating ways to keep cosmonauts alive in space, lived for up to six months in experimental chambers where they breathed oxygen from algae and ate hydroponic crops.

Biosphere 2 would be a gigantic leap beyond those creations. Its plans called for 3,800 species of plants and animals, including hummingbirds and lemur-like primates called bush babies. Wastewater would get purified as it was pumped through soil, where microbes would remove contaminants.

The idea of building a world — one free of pollution and other woes of the late-20th-century Earth — proved irresistible. The night before the mission began, Space Biospheres Ventures hosted a dance party for 2,000 people, including Woody Harrelson and Timothy Leary. On the morning of Sept. 26, 1991, eight Biospherians, Ms. Alling and Mr. Van Thillo among them, paraded in front of the press wearing blue jumpsuits that looked like surplus costumes from “Star Trek VI.” After the airlock was shut, they waved to the cameras from behind the glass.

It was a smart media strategy for a company planning on making money on their science. Tourists were coming by the thousands to walk the perimeter of Biosphere 2. The inventions that went into its creations could lead to lucrative patents for water purifiers and data management systems. Mr. Allen and his team envisioned biospheres built to order. By 1995, they hoped to put one in orbit, and perhaps eventually build biospheres on the moon and Mars.

Back on Earth, however, the news coming out of Biosphere 2 was decidedly less cosmic. Two weeks into the mission, a Biospherian named Jane Poynter sliced off the tip of her finger in a rice-threshing machine. The mission’s doctor, Roy Walford, reattached it, but he later decided she needed to go to a hospital for more surgery.

A few hours later, Ms. Poynter went back inside. She brought with her a duffel bag supplied by Biosphere 2’s management, packed with supplies such as computer parts and color film. Reporters would learn of that surreptitious delivery only months later.


New Climate Books Stress We Are Already Far Down The Road To A Different Earth

New Climate Books Stress We Are Already Far Down The Road To A Different Earth
By Adam Frank
Mar 25 2019

It was a telling moment: David Wallace-Wells, author of the new book The Uninhabitable Earth, was making an appearance on MSNBC’s talk show Morning Joe. He took viewers through scientific projections for drowned cities, death by heat stroke and a massive, endless refugee crisis — due to climate change. As the interview closed, one of the show’s hosts, Willie Geist, looked to Wallace-Wells and said, “Let’s end on some hope.”

The disconnect speaks volumes about where we are now relative to climate change. With his new book, which has quickly become a bestseller, Wallace-Wells wants to be the firefighter telling you your house is going up in flames right now. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming’s perspective can be neatly summed up through its opening line: “It’s worse, much worse, than you think.” Geist, standing in for all of us, seems stunned by the scale and urgency of the problem and wants to hear something that will make him feel better.

Feeling better is definitely not what’s going happen if you read The Uninhabitable Earth or a second new book on climate change, Losing Earth: A Recent History by Nathaniel Rich. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read both of them. We humans, and our project of civilization, are entering new territory with the climate change we’ve driven — and both books offer valuable perspectives if we’re committed to being adult enough to face the future.

When climate scientists use their models to project forward, they see a spread of possible changes in the average temperature of the planet. Over the next century or so, the predicted temperature increase ranges from about two degrees to an upper limit of about eight degrees. Which path Earth takes depends on its innate sensitivity to the carbon dioxide we’re dumping into the atmosphere combined with — and most important — our own decisions about how much more carbon dioxide to add.

In Losing Earth, Rich wants us to understand how policymakers learned of, and then ignored, the grave risks these paths represent for our future. In The Uninhabitable Earth, Wallace-Wells wants us to understand just how bad that future may get.

The point for humanity is that with every degree of warming, we get further from the kind of world we grew up in. For Wallace-Wells this is not just a matter of where you can go skiing in 2040. The Uninhabitable Earth focuses on the potent cascades that flow through the entirety of the complex human-environmental interaction we call “civilization.” So, when Wallace-Wells talks of economic impacts, he cites a study linking 3.7 degrees of warming to over $550 trillion of climate-related damage. Since $550 trillion is twice today’s global wealth, the conclusion is that eventually rebuilding from the “n-th” superstorm will stop. We’ll just abandon our cities or live within the ruin. The Uninhabitable Earth also gives us similar visions of rising hunger and conflict. If today’s refugee problems are straining political systems (the Syrian crisis created 1 million homeless people), Wallace-Wells asks us to imagine a global politics when more than 200 million climate refugees are on the move (a U.N. projection for 2050).

The picture The Uninhabitable Earth paints is unsparingly bleak. But is it correct?

Prediction is difficult, as Yogi Berra noted, especially about the future. One criticism of the book is that it favors worst-case scenarios. Indeed, when it comes to extrapolating the human impacts of climate change, researchers must rely on separate models of the planet, its ecosystems and, say, human economic behavior. Each has its uncertainties and each yields not one river-like line for the future but, instead, a spreading delta of possibilities. When the models are combined, the uncertainties compound, making risk-assessment a difficult task. For a scientist like myself, that means we have more possible futures than the one described in The Uninhabitable Earth.


In blow to climate, coal plants emitted more than ever in 2018

In blow to climate, coal plants emitted more than ever in 2018
“We are headed for disaster, and nobody seems to be able to slow things down,” a Stanford University professor said.
By Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis
Mar 25 2019

Global energy experts released grim findings Monday, saying that not only are planet-warming carbon-dioxide emissions still increasing, but the world’s growing thirst for energy has led to higher emissions from coal-fired power plants than ever before.

Energy demand around the world grew by 2.3 percent over the past year, marking the most rapid increase in a decade, according to the report from the International Energy Agency. To meet that demand, largely fueled by a booming economy, countries turned to an array of sources, including renewables.

But nothing filled the void quite like fossil fuels, which satisfied nearly 70 percent of the skyrocketing electricity demand, according to the agency, which analyzes energy trends on behalf of 30 member countries, including the United States.

In particular, a fleet of relatively young coal plants located in Asia, with decades to go on their lifetimes, led the way toward a record for emissions from coal fired power plants — exceeding 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide “for the first time,” the agency said. In Asia, “average plants are only 12 years old, decades younger than their average economic lifetime of around 40 years,” the agency found.

As a result, greenhouse-gas emissions from the use of energy — by far their largest source — surged in 2018, reaching an record high of 33.1 billion tons. Emissions showed 1.7 percent growth, well above the average since 2010. The growth in global emissions in 2018 alone was “equivalent to the total emissions from international aviation,” the body found.

Monday’s report underscores an unnerving truth about the world’s collective efforts to combat climate change: Even as renewable energy rapidly expands, many countries — including the United States and China — are nevertheless still turning to fossil fuels to satisfy ever-growing energy demand.

“Very worrisome” is how Michael Mehling, deputy director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described Monday’s findings.

“To me, all this reflects the fact that climate policies around the globe, despite some limited pockets of progress, remain woefully inadequate,” he said in an email. “They’re not even robust enough to offset the increased emissions from economic expansion, especially in the developing world, let alone to spur decarbonization at levels commensurate with the temperature stabilization goals we’ve committed to under the Paris Agreement.” 

Mehling questioned whether the Paris climate agreement — the 2015 global accord in which countries vowed to slash their carbon emissions — has the capacity to compel nations to live up to their promises and ramp up climate action over time.

“This will require overcoming the persistent barriers that have prevented greater progress in the past,” Mehling said.

Overcoming those barriers is complicated, as the agency report makes clear.

China, for instance, satisfied a demand for more energy last year with some new generation from renewables. But it relied far more on natural gas, coal and oil. In India, about half of all new demand was similarly met by coal-fired power plants.

In the United States, by contrast, coal is declining — but most of the increase in demand for energy in this country was nonetheless fueled by the burning of natural gas, rather than renewable energy. Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal does when it is burned, but it’s still a fossil fuel and still causes significant emissions.

Granted, there’s some slight good news in the new report, in that as renewables and natural gas have grown, coal has a smaller share of the energy pie overall.

Yet the fact that it’s still growing strongly contradicts what scientists have said about what’s needed to curb climate warming. In a major report last year the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that global emissions would have to be cut nearly in half, by 2030, to preserve a chance of holding the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

That would require extremely fast annual reductions in emissions — but instead, the world is still marking record highs.

And when it comes to coal use, that same report found that to limit temperatures to 1.5 degrees C, it would have to decline by as much as 78 percent in just over 10 years. Again, coal emissions are still rising.

Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, said the substantial growth of wind and solar energy detailed in Monday’s report was overshadowed by the world’s ongoing reliance on fossil fuels.

“The growth in fossils is still greater than all the increases in renewables,” Jackson said, adding that few countries are living up to the pledges they made as part of the Paris climate accord. “What’s discouraging is that emissions in the U.S. and Europe are going up, too. Someone has to decrease their emissions significantly for us to have any hope of meeting the Paris commitments.”


800 scientists say it’s time to abandon “statistical significance”

800 scientists say it’s time to abandon “statistical significance”
P-values and “statistical significance” are widely misunderstood. Here’s what they actually mean. 
By Brian Resnick
Mar 22 2019

For too long, many scientists’ careers have been built around the pursuit of a single statistic: p<.05. 

In many scientific disciplines, that’s the threshold beyond which study results can be declared “statistically significant,” which is often interpreted to mean that it’s unlikely the results were a fluke, a result of random chance. 

Though this isn’t what it actually means in practice. “Statistical significance” is too often misunderstood — and misused. That’s why a trio of scientists writing in Naturethis week are calling “for the entire concept of statistical significance to be abandoned.” 

Their biggest argument: “Statistically significant” or “not statistically significant” is too often easily misinterpreted to mean either “the study worked” or “the study did not work.” A “true” effect can sometimes yield a p-value of greater than .05. And we know from recent years that science is rife with false-positive studies that achieved values of less than .05 (read my explainer on the replication crisis in social sciencefor more). 

The Nature commentary authors argue that the math is not the problem. Instead, it’s human psychology. Bucketing results into “statistically significant” and “statistically non-significant,” they write, leads to a too black-and-white approach to scrutinizing science. 

More than 800 other scientists and statisticians across the world have signed on to this manifesto. For now, it seems more like a provocative argument than the start of a real sea change. “Nature,” for one, “is not seeking to change how it considers statistical analysis in evaluation of papers at this time,” the journal noted. 

But the tides may be rising against “statistical significance.” This isn’t the first time scientists and statisticians have challenged the status quo. In 2016, I wrote about how a large group of them called for raising the threshold to .005, making it much harder to call a result “statistically significant.” (Concurrently, with the Nature commentary, the journal The American Statistician devoted an entire issue to the problem of “statistical significance.”) There’s a wide recognition that p-values can be problematic. 

I suspect this proposal will be heavily debated (as is everything in science). At least this latest call for radical change does highlight an important fact plaguing science: Statistical significance is widely misunderstood. Let me walk you through it. I think it will help you understand this debate better, and help you see that there are a lot more ways to judge the merits of a scientific finding than p-values.

Wait, what is a p-value? What’s statistical significance?

Even the simplest definitions of p-values tend to get complicated, so bear with me as I break it down.

When researchers calculate a p-value, they’re putting to the test what’s known as the null hypothesis. First thing to know: This is not a test of the question the experimenter most desperately wants to answer. 

Let’s say the experimenter really wants to know if eating one bar of chocolate a day leads to weight loss. To test that, they assign 50 participants to eat one bar of chocolate a day. Another 50 are commanded to abstain from the delicious stuff. Both groups are weighed before the experiment and then after, and their average weight change is compared. 

The null hypothesis is the devil’s advocate argument. It states there is no difference in the weight loss of the chocolate eaters versus the chocolate abstainers. 

Rejecting the null is a major hurdle scientists need to clear to prove their hypothesis. If the null stands, it means they haven’t eliminated a major alternative explanation for their results. And what is science if not a process of narrowing down explanations?

So how do they rule out the null? They calculate some statistics.

The researcher basically asks: How ridiculous would it be to believe the null hypothesis is the true answer, given the results we’re seeing? 

Rejecting the null is kind of like the “innocent until proven guilty” principle in court cases, Regina Nuzzo, a mathematics professor at Gallaudet University, explained. In court, you start off with the assumption that the defendant is innocent. Then you start looking at the evidence: the bloody knife with his fingerprints on it, his history of violence, eyewitness accounts. As the evidence mounts, that presumption of innocence starts to look naive. At a certain point, jurors get the feeling, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is not innocent. 

Null hypothesis testing follows a similar logic: If there are huge and consistent weight differences between the chocolate eaters and chocolate abstainers, the null hypothesis — that there are no weight differences — starts to look silly and you can reject it.


Russia wants to cut itself off from the global internet. Here’s what that really means.

Russia wants to cut itself off from the global internet. Here’s what that really means.
The plan is going to be tricky to pull off, both technically and politically, but the Kremlin has set its sights on self-sufficiency.
By Charlotte Jee
Mar 21 2019

In the next two weeks, Russia is planning to attempt something no other country has tried before. It’s going to test whether it can disconnect from the rest of the world electronically while keeping the internet running for its citizens. This means it will have to reroute all its data internally, rather than relying on servers abroad.

The test is key to a proposed “sovereign internet” law currently working its way through Russia’s government. It looks likely to be eventually voted through and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, though it has stalled in parliament for now.

Pulling an iron curtain down over the internet is a simple idea, but don’t be fooled: it’s a fiendishly difficult technical challenge to get right. It is also going to be very expensive. The project’s initial cost has been set at $38 million by Russia’s financial watchdog, but it’s likely to require far more funding than that. One of the authors of the plan has said it’ll be more like $304 million, Bloomberg reports, but even that figure, industry experts say, won’t be enough to get the system up and running, let alone maintain it.

Not only that, but it has already proved deeply unpopular with the general public. An estimated 15,000 people took to the streets in Moscow earlier this month to protest the law, one of the biggest demonstrations in years.

Operation disconnect

So how will Russia actually disconnect itself from the global internet? “It is unclear what the ‘disconnect test’ might entail,” says Andrew Sullivan, president and CEO of the Internet Society. All we know is that if it passes, the new law will require the nation’s internet service providers (ISPs) to use only exchange points inside the country that are approved by Russia’s telecoms regulator, Roskomnadzor.

These exchange points are where internet service providers connect with each other. It’s where their cabling meets at physical locations to exchange traffic. These locations are overseen by organizations known as internet exchange providers (IXPs). Russia’s largest IXP is in Moscow, connecting cities in Russia’s east but also Riga in neighboring Latvia.

MSK-IX, as this exchange point is known, is one of the world’s largest. It connects over 500 different ISPs and handles over 140 gigabits of throughput during peak hours on weekdays. There are six other internet exchange points in Russia, spanning most of its 11 time zones. Many ISPs also use exchanges that are physically located in neighboring countries or that are owned by foreign companies. These would now be off limits. Once this stage is completed, it would provide Russia with a literal, physical “on/off switch” to decide whether its internet is shielded from the outside world or kept open.

What’s in a name?

As well as rerouting its ISPs, Russia will also have to unplug from the global domain name system (DNS) so traffic cannot be rerouted through any exchange points that are not inside Russia.

The DNS is basically a phone book for the internet: when you type, for example, “” into your browser, your computer uses the DNS to translate this domain name into an IP address, which identifies the correct server on the internet to send the request. If one server won’t respond to a request, another will step in. Traffic behaves rather like water—it will seek any gap it can to flow through.

“The creators of the DNS wanted to create a system able to work even when bits of it stopped working, regardless of whether the decision to break parts of it was deliberate or accidental,” says Brad Karp, a computer scientist at University College London. This in-built resilience in the underlying structure of the internet will make Russia’s plan even harder to carry out.

The actual mechanics of the DNS are operated by a wide variety of organizations, but a majority of the “root servers,” which are its foundational layer, are run by groups in the US. Russia sees this as a strategic weakness and wants to create its own alternative, setting up an entire new network of its own root servers.

“An alternate DNS can be used to create an alternate reality for the majority of Russian internet users,” says Ameet Naik, an expert on internet monitoring for the software company ThousandEyes. “Whoever controls this directory controls the internet.” Thus, if Russia can create its own DNS, it will have at least a semblance of control over the internet within its borders.

This won’t be easy, says Sullivan. It will involve configuring tens of thousands of systems, and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to identify all the different access points citizens use to get online (their laptops, smartphones, iPads, and so on). Some of them will be using servers abroad, such as Google’s Public DNS, which Russia simply won’t be able to replicate—so the connection will fail when a Russian user tries to access them.


David Holmgren: A Baby Boomers’ Apology

[Note:  This item comes from friend Steve Schear.  DLH]

David Holmgren: A Baby Boomers’ Apology
By David Holmgren
Mar 15 2019

There are days, though all too scarce, when very nice surprises come my way. Case in point: yesterday I received a mail from David Holmgren after a long period of radio silence. Australia’s David is one of the fathers of permaculture, along with Bill Mollison, for those few who don’t know him. They first started writing about the concept in the 1970s and never stopped.

Dave calls himself “permaculture co-originator” these days. Hmm. Someone says: “one of the pioneers of modern ecological thinking”. That’s better. No doubt there. These guys taught many many thousands of people how to be self-sufficient. Permaculture is a simple but intricate approach to making sure that the life in your garden or backyard, and thereby your own life, moves towards balance.

My face to face history with David is limited, we spent some time together on two occasions only, I think, in 2012 a day at his home (farm) in Australia and in 2015 -a week- in Penguin, Tasmania at a permaculture conference where the Automatic Earth’s Nicole Foss was one of the key speakers along with Dave. Still, despite the limited time together I see him as a good and dear friend, simply because he’s such a kind and gracious and wise man. 

In his mail, David asked if I would publish this article, which he originally posted on his own site just yesterday under the name “The Apology: From Baby Boomers To The Handicapped Generations”. I went for a shorter title (it’s just our format), but of course I will.

Dave has been an avid reader of the Automatic Earth for the past 11 years, we sort of keep his feet on the ground when they’re not planted and soaking in that same ground: “Reading TAE has helped me keep up to date..”

In light of the children’s climate protests today, which I have yet to voice my qualms about (and I have a few), it only makes sense to put into words a baby boomer’s apology. To have that phrased by someone with the intellect and integrity of David should have everyone sit up and pay attention, if you ask me. And perhaps it would be good if more people would try and do the same: apologize to those kids.

Here’s my formidable friend David Holmgren: 

David Holmgren: It is time for us baby boomers to honestly acknowledge what we did and didn’t do with the gifts given to us by our forebears and be clear about our legacy with which we have saddled the next and succeeding generations.

By ‘baby boomers’ I mean those of us born in the affluent nations of the western world between 1945 and 1965. In these countries, the majority of the population became middle class beneficiaries of mass affluence. I think of the high birth rate of those times as a product of collective optimism about the future, and the abundant and cheap resources to support growing families.

By many measures, the benefits of global industrial civilisation peaked in our youth, but for most middle class baby boomers of the affluent countries, the continuing experience of those benefits has tended to blind us to the constriction of opportunities faced by the next generations: unaffordable housing and land access, ecological overshoot and climate chaos amongst a host of other challenges.

I am a white middle class man born in 1955 in Australia, one of the richest nations of the ‘western world’ in the middle of the baby boom, so I consider myself well placed to articulate an apology on behalf of my generation.

In the life of a baby boomer born in 1950 and dying in 2025 (a premature death according to the expectations of our generation), the best half the world’s endowment of oil – the potent resource that made industrial civilisation possible – will have been burnt. This is tens of millions of years of stored sunlight from a special geological epoch of extraordinary biological productivity. Beyond our basic needs, we have been the recipients of manufactured wants and desires. To varying degrees, we have also suffered the innumerable downsides, addictions and alienations that have come with fossil-fuelled consumer capitalism.

It is also true that our generation has used the genie of fossil fuels to create wonders of technology, organisation and art, and a diversity of lifestyles and ideas. Some of the unintended consequences of our way of life, ranging from antibiotic resistance to bubble economics, should have been obvious, while others, such as the depression epidemic in rich countries, were harder to foresee. Our travel around the world has broadened our minds, but global tourism has contaminated the amazing diversity of nature and traditional cultures at an accelerating pace. We have the excuse that innovations always have pluses and minuses, but it seems we have got a larger share of the pluses and handballed more of the minuses to the world’s poorest countries and to our children and grandchildren.

We were the first generation to have the clear scientific evidence that emergent global civilisation was on an unsustainable path that would precipitate an unravelling of both nature and society through the 21st century. Although climate chaos was a less obvious outcome than the no-brainer of resource depletion, international recognition of the reality of climate change came way back in 1988, just as we were beginning to get our hands on the levers of power, and we have presided over decades of policies that have accelerated the problem.

It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD

It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD
The Iraq war faceplant damaged the reputation of the press. Russiagate just destroyed it
By Matt Taibbi
Mar 23 2019

Note to readers: in light of news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation is complete, I’m releasing this chapter of Hate Inc. early, with a few new details added up top.

Nobody wants to hear this, but news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is headed home without issuing new charges is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media. 

As has long been rumored, the former FBI chief’s independent probe will result in multiple indictments and convictions, but no “presidency-wrecking” conspiracy charges, or anything that would meet the layman’s definition of “collusion” with Russia. 

With the caveat that even this news might somehow turn out to be botched, the key detail in the many stories about the end of the Mueller investigation was best expressed by the New York Times: 

A senior Justice Department official said that Mr. Mueller would not recommend new indictments.

The Times tried to soften the emotional blow for the millions of Americans trained in these years to place hopes for the overturn of the Trump presidency in Mueller. Nobody even pretended it was supposed to be a fact-finding mission, instead of an act of faith. 

The Special Prosecutor literally became a religious figure during the last few years, with votive candles sold in his image and Saturday Night Live cast members singing “All I Want for Christmas is You” to him featuring the rhymey line: “Mueller please come through, because the only option is a coup.” 

The Times story today tried to preserve Santa Mueller’s reputation, noting Trump’s Attorney General William Barr’s reaction was an “endorsement” of the fineness of Mueller’s work:

In an apparent endorsement of an investigation that Mr. Trump has relentlessly attacked as a “witch hunt,” Mr. Barr said Justice Department officials never had to intervene to keep Mr. Mueller from taking an inappropriate or unwarranted step.

Mueller, in other words, never stepped out of the bounds of his job description. But could the same be said for the news media? 

For those anxious to keep the dream alive, the Times published its usual graphic of Trump-Russia “contacts,” inviting readers to keep making connections. But in a separate piece by Peter Baker, the paper noted the Mueller news had dire consequences for the press:

It will be a reckoning for President Trump, to be sure, but also for Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, for Congress, for Democrats, for Republicans, for the news media and, yes, for the system as a whole…

This is a damning page one admission by the Times. Despite the connect-the-dots graphic in its other story, and despite the astonishing, emotion-laden editorial the paper also ran suggesting “We don’t need to read the Mueller report” because we know Trump is guilty, Baker at least began the work of preparing Times readers for a hard question: “Have journalists connected too many dots that do not really add up?” 

The paper was signaling it understood there would now be questions about whether or not news outlets like itself made galactic errors by betting heavily on a new, politicized approach, trying to be true to “history’s judgment” on top of the hard-enough job of just being true. Worse, in a brutal irony everyone should have seen coming, the press has now handed Trump the mother of campaign issues heading into 2020. 

Nothing Trump is accused of from now on by the press will be believed by huge chunks of the population, a group that (perhaps thanks to this story) is now larger than his original base. As Baker notes, a full 50.3% of respondents in a poll conducted this month said they agree with Trump the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt.”

Stories have been coming out for some time now hinting Mueller’s final report might leave audiences “disappointed,” as if a President not being a foreign spy could somehow be bad news. 

Openly using such language has, all along, been an indictment. Imagine how tone-deaf you’d have to be to not realize it makes you look bad, when news does not match audience expectations you raised. To be unaware of this is mind-boggling, the journalistic equivalent of walking outside without pants. 

There will be people protesting: the Mueller report doesn’t prove anything! What about the 37 indictments? The convictions? The Trump tower revelations? The lies! The meeting with Don, Jr.? The financial matters! There’s an ongoing grand jury investigation, and possible sealed indictments, and the House will still investigate, and…

Stop. Just stop. Any journalist who goes there is making it worse.


Digital photography begins its next chapter with radical changes

[Note:  This item comes from friend Steve Schear.  DLH]

Digital photography begins its next chapter with radical changes
Computational photography remakes phone photos, while Canon and Nikon embrace the camera design of the future.
Dec 19 2018

Digital photography has changed a lot over the past two decades, with clunky DSLRs giving way to sleek smartphones. Over the next 10 years, expect a similar evolution as the science behind the art changes. 

Much of the technology in use today represents the breakthroughs of the first generation of digital cameras. Film was stripped away and digital image sensors took its place, but much of the rest of the camera — things like lenses, shutters, autofocus systems — often stayed largely the same. Manufacturers centered camera designs on the single, fleeting snap of the shutter. 

Now two big trends are reshaping our expectations of digital photography. Computational photography, which uses computing technology to improve photos, vaults over the limits of smartphone camera hardware to produce impressive shots. And the “mirrorless” movement, which drops hardware once necessary for film and elevates the image sensor’s importance, overhauls the mechanics of traditional cameras. Old assumptions about optics are being reconsidered — or discarded — as computer processing takes over. 

“Cameras will change more in the next 10 years than in the past 10,” said Lau Nørgaard, vice president of research and development at Phase One, a Danish company that makes ultra-premium 151-megapixel medium-format cameras costing $52,000 apiece. 

The changes will matter to all of us, not simply professional photographers on fashion shoots. New technology will mean better everyday snapshots and new creative possibilities for enthusiasts. Everything — selfies, landscapes and family portraits — will simply look better. 

Computational photography

For much of camera history, bigger meant better. A larger frame of film could capture more image detail, but that meant a bigger camera body. Bigger lenses offered more detail, but that meant more weight. 

Computational photography, which runs on powerful processors, will change that paradigm. And that’s good news because most of us rely on our phones for taking pictures. 

Perhaps some of the most advanced computational photography available now is in Google’s Pixel 3 phone, which arrived in October. Here’s some of what it can do: 

• Combine up to nine frames into a single shot with a technology called HDR+ that captures details in both dark shadows and bright highlights.
• Monitor how much your hands shake the photo so it can snap shots during fleeting moments of stillness.
• Compare multiple shots of photos to find the ones where people aren’t blinking or suffering from awkward facial expressions.
• Brighten the parts of the image where it detects humans and slightly smooths skin to make subjects look better.
• Zoom in better by capturing more data about the scene from multiple shots and and using artificial intelligence technology that predicts how best to expand an image.
• Photograph in dim conditions by merging multiple shots through a technology called Night Sight.

Isaac Reynolds, Google’s Pixel camera product manager, says his company’s product underscores a fundamental change in what we think cameras are. Much of the Pixel 3’s performance and features come not from the lens and sensor but from software running on the phone’s chip that processes and combines multiple frames into one photo.

“You’re seeing a redefinition of what a camera is,” Reynolds said. “The Pixel 3 is one of the most software-based cameras in the world.” 

Seeing in 3D

It’s all pretty radical compared with a shutter flipping open for a moment so photons can change the chemistry of film. And it’s only the beginning. 

Two years ago, the iPhone 7 started using two cameras side by side, which lets the phone judge just how far away each element of the scene is. The phone’s computing hardware then constructs a 3D-infused layer of information called a “depth map” in which each pixel of a photo holds both color and spatial information. 

Initially, Apple used the technology to re-create a style used in portrait photography that requires expensive camera lenses. Those lenses could shoot a shallow depth of field that focused on the subject but left the background an undistracting blur. Apple used software to do the blurring. 

The depth map has more to offer. With Lightroom, Adobe’s widely used photo editing and cataloging software, you now can adjust an iPhone photo based on that 3D information. For example, you can selectively brighten shadowed subjects in the foreground while leaving a bright background unchanged.


Bug Scientists Squash ‘Insect Apocalypse’ Paper

Bug Scientists Squash ‘Insect Apocalypse’ Paper
By Maddie Stone
Mar 22 2019

Last month, an alarming scientific paper warned that over 40 percent of all insect species are in decline. News of an impending “insectageddon”—a world either devoid of insects or plagued with pests—was broadcast far and wide by the media. There’s just one problem: Entomologists don’t buy it.

There’s no doubt that many insects are in trouble, and that human activity has a lot to do with it. But the idea that insects as a whole will soon be gone isn’t supported by the paper, which features systemic biases and data limitations, according to two recent response letters. 

Both of those responses call out methodological issues with the paper, which was a meta-analysis of studies that track insect populations around the world. To see if they could tease out any global trends, the study authors from the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland searched the online database Web of Science for the keywords “insect,” “decline,” and “survey.” As critics have pointed out, these terms immediately limit the scope of analysis to studies that spot a negative trend (and to those included in the searched papers’ citations, per the meta-analysis’s methodology).

Another issue with the analysis was that of the 73 papers that fit the search criteria, the vast majority were in North America or Europe. While the authors freely admit this limitation, in their conclusions they justify making global extrapolations about insect declines—including that a third of insect species are threatened with extinction, and 41 percent are declining—because the root causes the analysis points to, agricultural intensification and agro-chemical pollutants, are problems the world over.

To a trio of UK-based biologists at the University of York and Cardiff University, this doesn’t pass the smell test. “Trying to extrapolate from population or biomass declines over several decades, or from threatened species lists, in ‘developed’ temperate zone countries to, say, 100‐year species‐level extinctions of undescribed endemics confined to the precipitous eastern flanks of the Andes does not wash,” these critics wrote in Global Change Biology earlier this month.

Finnish biologists at the University of Jyväskylä, writing in Rethinking Ecology this week, called out other issues, including the fact that local extinctions reported in some of the studies aren’t easily extrapolated to a broader scale, and at least one instance in which insects with the conservation designation “data deficient” were lumped in with those designated “vulnerable” and thus assumed to be declining when we can’t be sure.

These authors also had some backseat editorial criticisms, taking issue with the paper’s use of words like “shocking” and “dreadful.” Frankly, though, the paper’s alarmed tone does speak some truth. The whole point of the analysis was that many studies have reported precipitous declines in regional insect numbers, trends that have been tied to everything from agriculture to climate change. And the idea that we’ve pushed even a fraction of the world’s insects into irreversible decline is arguably awful, even if it isn’t 40 percent awful, or insect apocalypse awful.