Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013—well, that was interesting

The defining image of 2013 has certainly got to be the picture of Pres. Obama yukking it up at Nelson Mandela's funeral.  The last president to actually use some presidential power was probably Nixon.  These days, a president is like a third-rate quarterback who calls the play sent in to him and is terrified to change it.  He doesn't run the economy, he has no influence on foreign policy, he has no control over a legislative agenda.  So his role is to dress up and read his script—and mind his manners for ceremonial occasions.  That he couldn't stay serious for the length of a memorial to one of the more significant figures in African history speaks volumes of how utterly bored he is with his role as puppet.

Notice here how little has changed in at least 40 years.  Of course, that should not come as a surprise—most of the "news" these days concerns the coming and goings of the Leisure Classes—finance and politics, sports and warfare, fashion and entertainment, and the never-ending pursuit of more perfect forms of uselessness.  In the world of the Leisure Classes, any change more profound than a new dance or hairstyle is to be systematically shunned.  If there is any change, it is usually a reversion to some infinitely irrelevant mediocrity.  For example, the political and economic discussions of the first 13 years of the 20th century were several order of magnitude more interesting and important than in the first 13 of the 21st.

Yet even in these days of Leisure Class ennui, they still have the capacity to astonish and entertain.  The Snowden leaks are revealing just what the country bought with its billions spent on "intelligence."  What it bought was the ability to track every phone call and keystroke of every computer on the planet.  Unfortunately, except for scamming the financial markets or keeping up on the sex lives of ex wives, no one seems know why anyone would actually want to collect that enormous pile of data.  But gossip is considered a Leisure Class virtue and snooping around on one neighbors is the essence of gossip so apparently just collecting the pile is an end in itself.

Then there is the matter of a new Pope.  As someone who comes from a clan that pretty much decided to ignore popes since 1517, I am bit detached from how important it is for the Catholic Church to occasionally burp forth someone who is willing to represent someone other than the super-rich right wing thugs that usually dominate discussions.  His most recent shocker was criticizing the beliefs in trickle-down economics.  Not surprisingly, the USA Catholic Right is going ballistic.  The Catholic Church is predisposed institutionally towards a profoundly conservative bent so we can reasonably predict that Francis represents a temporary flicker of light in a very dark place.  No one ever went bust betting on the darkness when the subject is Catholicism.

If more of the same-old from the Leisure Classes was all that happened in 2013, New Year's Eve would be appropriately spent getting roaring drunk.  Fortunately, the Producing Classes had a year that suggests we might not be forever stuck on stupid.

The Tesla Model S.  Whenever I am ghosting down the road late at night swaddled in fine leathers, late Beethoven quartets playing on the too-good-for-my-ears sound system, a climate system coddling me within a fraction of a degree of whatever I specify as perfect, I understand at a primal level why folks were never going to voluntarily give up the internal-combustion engine automobile.  No one in their right mind would trade a Lexus LS for a Nissan Leaf.  Then came the Model S.  Suddenly, that perfect audio environment of an LS sounds like a factory by comparison, that too-smooth-to-be-real V-8 is like a tractor compared to an electric motor, etc.  In the light of a Model S it seems that folks will someday very soon wonder why they ever put up with the fumes and smells, and the mechanical unreliability, of the gasoline-powered car.

Graphene.  If the Producer Classes have an occupation that drives all notions of prosperity and progress, it is clearly the material science folks.  And 2013 provided an example of just what research into graphene can accomplish when the South Koreans announced they had fabricated a super-capacitor from the stuff.  The idea that there is a method for safe, cheap, and reliable electrical storage that can be made from one of the cheapest and most abundant elements on earth is so wonderful, I keep re-reading the article to make sure someone hasn't changed the outcome.

Commodity-priced PV cells.  For years I have wondered how folks were ever going to adjust to the end of the Age of Petroleum.  Now the answer seems to perfectly simple—they'll just go out and buy some solar cells.  Solar cells became so cheap in 2013 they actually triggered trade wars.  In fact, 2/3rds of all solar installations worldwide have occurred in the last 2.5 years.  For the first time in my life, the end of the age of petroleum will not be some enormous trauma but will instead provoke a global sigh of relief.

So Happy New Year.  It is TIME to ignore the fools that have frightened us for so long and start planning for a much better future.

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