What I’ve started to think about this year and where it is taking me

These are not exactly resolutions, but paths my brain has been wandering down, with the potential for adventures at the other ends of those paths.

Toolkits for shiny toys

Ok, this year most of my time and energy for making has gone into the house, but I feel like I’ve reached a point with electronics where I’ve at least half an idea of what I’m doing and what it might lead to. What I’m working towards is the ability to put together microcontrollers, sensors, and LEDs into a wide range of shiny things and have them behave in a way that’s complicated and visually engaging enough to grab the attention of everyone within sight.

For example, the Fannies, v1.0 are half what I want them to be. I have the knowledge and skills to make them work, and look shiny, but they’re not bomb-proof, nor are they saleable. So, plan for next year is to move from Picaxes to a gruntier microcontroller family, spend more time drawing parts in Sketchup and contracting out manufacturing rather than making them myself, and spend more time reading The Scientist and Engineer’s Guide to Digital Signal Processing (even if I do read a chapter, scratch my head for a while, work out how to implement that particular filter and then discover that I wrote one just like it without knowing the theory, just coz it seemed the obvious way to do it).

And of course, there’s the tension between making the single uber-toy and something that everyone can have. The uber-toy, currently, is the Mitochondrion, version 4. The current design-for-consideration aims to push 200 kb/sec optical bandwidth through seven Amps-worth of LEDs running off twenty batteries. The something for everyone else uses one, maybe two LEDs, but might be affordable for others. Ah, hell, I’ll just do both.

The psychology and sociology of climate change

The big realisation at work this year for me (and plenty of others) is the extent to which climate change is now a problem in the realm of social sciences, not physical sciences. Hell, the fundamental physical science work was mostly done more than ten years ago, with most of the immense amount of work being done now just a case of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s (with the exceptions of ocean acidification, increasing feedbacks in ice sheet melting, and clouds). No, the interesting question is the mismatch between the huge pile of knowledge about the coming changes to the climate and the minimal response at all human levels, personal, cultural, political.

We think of ourselves as good people, and yet we do bad things. Okay, that’s a problem with human nature that goes beyond climate change, but in this context, we all will have blood on our hands. And we’re not good at dealing with that, or even thinking about that, let alone coming up with some solutions. Norgaard’s paper made a big impression on me this year, despite the understated title of Cognitive and behavioural challenges in responding to climate change. There’s a great deal more for me (and plenty of others in the policy world) to find out about, the Degrees of Possiblity workshop in Wellington this month was just the start. I’ve yet to read Stephen Gardner’s paper A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Problem of Moral Corruption but with a title like that, I’m going to have to.

Non-representational theories (or how to get out of the right-wing trap of post-modernism)

Ok, here’s where it gets really abstract, coz I’ve only started thinking about this in the last couple of months. I don’t know much about this, only I’ve a hunch that it’s going to be very important indeed. You might have noticed that post-modernism winds me up something chronic. It’s fine as a tool for literary criticism but of negative value beyond that. The idea that reality is socially-constructed is essentially corrosive to our ability to deal with that reality; the result is that “the modern global Right has operationalised postmodernism as a system of power.” This began with the US neoconservatives, with their wars against an enemy that did not have weapons of mass destruction. The claim that Saddam Hussein had WMDs was not true, but the real point here is that the truth of the claim was not important, it was enough to repeatedly make that claim. Once upon a time, we’d call that claim a lie, but I don’t think that word has a meaning any more. Another symptom is the Tea Party. Obama’s birth certificate, 9/11, death panels, Climategate – the reality no longer matters, because these beliefs have been freed of any connection to any underlying reality.

I think Baudrillard might have mentioned something like this, but not from the perspective of doing anything about it, making him mostly a waste of time. So I find myself reading Thrift and Bérube and Latour, and delving into odd corners of human & cultural geography, where you can find sentences like: “there can be no sense of how meanings and values may emerge from practices and events in the real world, no sense of the ontogensis of sense, no sense of how real the really made-up can be”. I don’t know where this is going to take me but I’m looking for a rapprochement between brute fact and social fact, to quote Bérube. Right now, it makes me scratch my head and wonder what the hell I’m doing and whether I’m wasting my time. It may be that the epistemological tools of power are irrelevant and that it’s just power itself that matters. In that case, I should go and work in finance until I’m rich enough to simply buy my own nation.

I don’t think I am wasting my time.

18 thoughts on “What I’ve started to think about this year and where it is taking me

  1. I think part of how “the modern global Right has operationalised postmodernism as a system of power” is due to egos and operating on incomplete information. I see that people are put in a position and a culture where it’s more valuable to one’s personal status to be boldly wrong about something than to exclaim “actually, I don’t know the details about that, let me get back to you”. Instead it seems politicians, when they have a camera placed in their face, need to save face and say the thing that everyone else who’s operating on incomplete information wants them to say.

    Basically, I’m agreeing with you and saying we should all become rich, buy our own island nations, and have beach raves with tropical cocktails.

    1. Thing is, information is always incomplete. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk usefully about reality.

      Anyway, can I mount my island nation on tracks so I can park it near work? Otherwise the commute will be a bugger.

      1. Yeah, I thought of that as I was writing my reply. Information will always be incomplete, but I guess making that uncertainty known in political press releases doesn’t convey decisiveness/confidence. Also, Strunk & White’s writing book (that I’m currently reading) implies something similar in terms of what coveys ideas better in writing… if you couch everything in possibilities (“probably”, “could”, “might”) then the message becomes lost.

        I’ll earn the money for one of the islands by inventing the domestic teleporter, so that cover your commuting issue.

    2. Island Paradise

      [W]e should all become rich, buy our own island nations, and have beach raves with tropical cocktails.

      So, basically, partying like the end of the world is nigh until swept away by the tide washing over the island? 🙂

      (I can’t help thinking that “rich enough to own an island” is going to become more prestigious when it requires building the island higher and higher each year.)

      Ewen

      PS: I think most people value the appearance of confidence over correctness (in themselves and others). Politicians are just more likely to be filmed appearing to be confident, while incorrect, so it’s more visible. Personally I blame the 30-second soundbite, and its modern descendant, the 10-second soundbite.

      1. Re: Island Paradise

        Yeah – I guess that politicians probably get forced into answering difficult questions and the press takes the bit that’s the most catchy and certain sounding.

        Also, I know many think the seasteading is bunk, but floating islands would avoid the rising sea-levels issue 😉

        1. Re: Island Paradise

          That would solve ‘s issue of the commute too: anchor the floating island to a sky hook, and it’ll pass by your work conveniently each morning. (Getting home in the evening is left as an exercise for the reader….)

          Ewen

  2. Seems to me that the media has a lot to do with catalysing how real the made-up can be, at least since it was possible to get a message to a large number of people without actually providing them with the factual basis for that message.

    If you can get people to believe your crap, it becomes truth.

    Plz collect your red shirt at the door.

    1. PS the power relations behind who gets what message – do they count as epistomological tools of power, or as power itself?

      And in the end, does that matter?

    2. That’s presuming social fact takes priority over brute fact. Just because people may be suckered into believing that vaccines cause autism, doesn’t mean that they do.

      Anyway, that red shirt is a bit tight and doesn’t seem very practical. I’m going to get very cold wearing it.

      1. It doesn’t mean that they do, but in application, if enough people believe it there will be a measurable drop in vaccinations – the end result is the same as if it had been proven to be true.

        (only with more internet wanking)

        I should probably have said ‘truth in effect’ to be more clear. I can’t think of many instances where brute fact has taken priority over strongly-held and widely-believed social fact. But then, I’m kind of biased.

      1. Something for everyone else

        Marketing recommend you rename that mode “random play”, and legal suggest you include a warning that it not be used by (or near) epileptics. Otherwise you appear ready for market 🙂

        Ewen

          1. Re: Something for everyone else

            Marketing says “depends on your target market”. Judging by weekend observations vomiting appears popular amongst some youth.

            Ewen

  3. yeah, years ago I realised that we had technical solutions, but they were not being implemented, and would not be, due to what was in our heads, and that to save the world we really had to hack the insides of our heads; this is part of the process that led me to focus on (and write about) epistemology, consciousness, language, belief and the nature of reality and how they interact.

    pick my brains about this stuff someday…

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