Sovereign territories

Panama, El Salvador and Ecuador import maize for domestic consumption. They paid in dollarized currencies for imports grown on ghost acres not there and relying on flows of virtual water embedded in the arriving maize. What, in any of this, is “domestic”?

In the same breadth, their governments are told to: promote policies that increase the inflow of remittances but reverse the outflow of skilled talent; mitigate the takeover of sectors by multi-national corporations, but ensure the corporations are better taxed there; and couple more effectively social protection to production, but also undertake the degrowth needed in these unsustainable economies.

“Their” “sectors,” “there”?

“We are not social scientists!”

–When rolling electrical blackouts take place, we ask our friends, the school economists, why.

After a blackout, one of them tells us it was because of all that underinvestment in the transmission grid you get when treating the grid as a public good. During a blackout, another assures us that having to shed load reflects the negative externalities associated with prices not reflecting electricity’s full cost to consumers, who “thus” over-consume and overload power lines.

Before a blackout, a different one says energy deregulation will guarantee the reliability we want because it reflects the Efficient Market Hypothesis–remember, the idea that won a Nobel Prize–where nothing can be better than market prices in reflecting what is known about energy supply and demand, like our willingness to pay for transmission.

To which still another adds: Whether or not there is a blackout at all, rational expectations theory–remember, the idea that won another Nobel Prize–tells us that policy interventions are ineffective anyway.

If we aren’t sufficiently convinced and press our friends about what we should do to prevent blackouts altogether, they tell us not to worry—as long as electricity services are in market equilibrium, with reserve margins optimal, everything is okay.

–But, hey, why ask them at all? The economists will tell you no one listens to them anyway.

“Our energy deregulation was never really tried,” they insist. Society never reallyReally tried thorough-going cost-benefit analysis, economics in law and regulation, market designs engineered for total efficiency, and far greater use of RCTs (as in: Economists are actually society’s plumbers, so please don’t step on our randomized controlled trials!)

And when an economic market design is adopted whole hog, we have the 2021 Texas power and grid debacle: In the view of the Harvard economist who designed it, the energy market “worked as designed.” “It’s not convenient,” he added, “It’s not nice. It’s necessary.”

All of which is a bit like having to believe the Cultural Revolution failed because Madame Mao and the Gang of Four weren’t really given a chance.

–But again not to worry, some are on the side of Good in demonstrating income inequality is increasing and harmfully so. Great–as long as everything is measured in income. Don’t be confused by references to–what are those terms other social scientists keep on using: occupation? class? To be sure, only those on the working left worry about that.

Further reading

Oesch, D. (2022). Contemporary Class Analysis. JRC126506, European Commission, Seville (accessed online on January 19 2022 at

Pastoralisms as a global infrastructure (updated)

If you think stabilization and expansion of herder outputs and outcomes, in particular household livelihoods, are key to pastoralism, then there are varieties of pastoralism. This is because efforts to achieve stable and expanding livelihoods vary with the critical infrastructures upon which they depend for their livestock.

Some pastoralisms depend on roads for herd transport. Others rely on helicopters from time to time. Veterinary health infrastructures have also been variably important and today many pastoralisms depend upon and configure around diverse market infrastructures. Migration infrastructure for those leaving their herder households and remittance infrastructures for those migrants to send income back to those households are also patently evident.

I could go on itemizing the organizing infrastructures, e.g., type and distribution of water points, but the point remains: If you start with the proposition that there is more than one type of really-existing pastoralism, the critical infrastructures do not just empirically affect these pastoralisms, they are fundamentally defined through their different reliances on them.

–Fair enough and important enough. I’ve tried, however, to make the case the variety of pastoralisms themselves should be seen a global infrastructure:

pastoralist systems are, in respects that matter, infrastructural; and since pastoralists and their systems are found worldwide, so too is pastoralism a global infrastructure, and importantly so. . .Pastoralist systems tender the world a key critical service (and have been doing so for a very long time): they, like other globalised/globalising infrastructures, seek to increase process variance in the face of high input variance to achieve low and stable output variance. More, they do so by managing non-measurable uncertainties well beyond the capabilities of formal risk methodologies and in the face of increasing and diversified input variabilities while still facing demands for sustained livelihoods. In this counternarrative, that key service is best understood as foundational to the world economy in times of great uncertainty and complexity.

I need to unpack that paragraph before drawing out what I take to be a new implication for pastoralisms-as-infrastructure.

Start with a common definition of critical infrastructures: Large sociotechnical systems deemed essential for the provision of vital societal services, which conventionally include, but are not limited to, large-scale systems for water, electricity, and transportation.

Pastoralist systems also share, I argue in my paper, a number of specific features that characterize large-scale critical infrastructures–not least of which is the role, practices and processes of real-time operators in managing for system-wide reliability and safety. Reliability professionals are also to be found—centrally so, I argue—in pastoralist systems. As pastoralist systems are found across the world, it is appropriate to view pastoralisms in aggregate as a global infrastructure with its own reliability professionals.

To put the point formally: As with other major globalized or globalizing infrastructures, pastoralist systems seek to increase process variance—think, real-time management strategies and options—in the face of high but unpredictable or uncontrollable input variance so as to achieve low and stable output variance. Task demands are to be matched, at least in real time, by resource capabilities, which if the match occurs is called requisite variety.

–What follows now is a new twist and implication of that argument.

I’ve been reluctant to lay out the following point, because it can be misinterpreted as agreeing with those who see pastoralism writ large as in CRISIS–under attack and disappearing. Of course, such must be happening in some places, if only by the law of large numbers (there being so many pastoralists globally and in so many different places). But I do not see how any declension (fall-and-stall) narrative seizes center-place, as the starting point, in a varieties of pastoralism perspective.

–To see why, think of an infrastructure’s operations across an entire cycle: normal operations (fluctuations within formal or informal bandwidths), disrupted operations (during temporary loss of system services), failed operations (during indefinite loss of service along with destruction of assets), and recovery operations to a new normal. Just as disrupted operations entail timely but not always successful restoration efforts back to normal operations, failed operations entail immediate emergency responses directed to longer-term system recovery (no guarantees here as well).

It’s that “immediate emergency response” that follow from and emerge under conditions of systemwide failure that I want to focus on. I do so because the pastoralist literature with which I am familiar describes systems that have failed or are failing. As far as I am able to tell, herder responses described in this literature might as well not take place given the catastrophic forces of globalization, marketization and worse driving said failures.

The literature on emergency response in other critical infrastructures would in no way stop with that conclusion. The hitherto unimagined disaster is always followed by notable sets of disaster responses, whatever their subsequent efficacy for longer-term system recovery. This observation has to matter to the extent pastoralisms are to be considered an infrastructure in its own right.

–Let’s say then the drylands, steppes or mountain sides undergo a catastrophe, sudden or slowly. Whatever, the area might as well now be all hardscrabble on top and nothing left but hard pan below. Remittances and aid are fast disappearing. There’s no chance of going back to the way it was before.

My point is that to stop an infrastructure’s cycle of operations at system failure is to stop too early and end in exaggeration. When it comes to a large-scale infrastructure, you have to go from failure onto to describe follow-on emergency response, which by the way often include first steps for recovery (e.g., damage assessments and solicitation of longer-term aid). Emergency response is a really-existing phase of operations that requires analysis precisely because the infrastructure has not stopped in its tracks.

(In case it needs saying, there are many fine-grained analyses of pastoralist systems under stress and duress, but rarely–I stand to be corrected–within the frame of an infrastructure’s cycle of operations.)

To return to formal terms, large-scale disasters pose dynamic task demands that are responded to by resource capabilities and the interconnections between these demands and these capabilities are directed to producing the same kind of requisite variety (process variance) sutured together by the reliability professionals during normal and disrupted operations. In this way, an infrastructure emergency is defined as one where the nature and mix of its process variance is the end to be achieve as output stabilization in normal and disrupted operations is no longer viable, now or in the next steps ahead.

–Again: No guarantees of requisite variety, let alone reliable livelihoods in any of this! But here’s why a granular analysis of emergency response matters from within the perspective of the entire cycle of infrastructure operations.

Return to the literatures on infrastructures key to organizing the varieties of pastoralism: the migration infrastructure, the veterinary health infrastructure, the road transport infrastructure, the water points infrastructure, the livestock market and communications infrastructures, the urban arrival (employment) infrastructures for migrants (e.g., the gig economy), and–well, the list goes on, doesn’t it?

But from the perspective of pastoralisms-as-infrastructure, the preceding are part and parcel of the process variance (the requisite variety) of those varieties of pastoralism. Segments of these specific infrastructures are activated or relied upon at different points in the whole cycle of pastoralist operations. Among other things, this means that the primary focus in some infrastructure studies on the distributional impact of sociotechnical infrastructures in need of “constant maintenance and repair” may be missing a very important point.

The important fact is not that these constituent infrastructures are a priori failing or threatening to fail. Rather, the important fact is the real-time but variable role of infrastructure elements in the process variance that drives not only normal and disrupted operations in pastoralisms, but also their failure-induced emergency responses (note the plural).

Examples? While no expert, I have in mind the study by Konaka (2021) of what followed armed inter-ethnic conflict among the Samburu and Pokot: namely, establishment of a mobile phone network to help reduce follow-on skirmishes. I also have in mind post-conflict responses in Krätli and Toulmin’s study of farmer-herder conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa (2020, Box 7, p. 78). Not least, I have in mind the literature review and research interviews of D’Angelo (2021; see also Schapendock 2021) on the fraught journeys of migrants to and across the Mediterranean:

An analysis of the experiences of migrants and asylum seekers through each stage of their journeys, including the weeks and months following their arrival in Europe, is however much less developed and tends to focus either on the macro-level (global trends and regional trajectories) or on the very micro-level of highly personal descriptive accounts. Specifically, the current mainstream narrative is one that looks at these people as passive components of large-scale flows, driven by conflicts, migration policies and human smuggling. Even when the personal dimension is brought to the fore, it tends to be in order to depict migrants as victims at the receiving end of external forces. Whilst there is no denying that most of those crossing the Mediterranean experience violence, exploitation and are often deprived of their freedom for considerable periods of time. . . it is also important to recognize and analyse their agency as individuals, as well as the complex sets of local and transnational networks that they own, develop and use before, during and after travelling to Europe.

Yes, to be sure critical infrastructures that define the varieties of pastoralisms are under threat and in some cases the physical systems are fragile or already gone. But pastoralisms-as-infrastructure don’t wither away unless their process variance withers.

Migration from already diverse herder environments (dryland, montane, . . .) occurs in various ways; water is provided by different means; cattle are transported along different routes; markets open and close for different types of livestock, not only here but there and then elsewhere; and so on. This is not meant to be optimism or the permanent promise of adaptive equifinality. It is meant, however, to be realistic and help us better understand why pastoralisms-as-infrastructure may be no more withering away than the oh-so-foreseen withering of the state.

Principal sources

Collins, F.L. (2021). “Geographies of migration I: Platform migration.” Progress in Human Geography 45(4): 866–877.

D’Angelo, A. (2021). “The networked refugee: The role of transnational networks in the journeys across the Mediterranean.” Global Networks 1–13.

Doorn, van N. and D. Vijay (2021). “Gig work as migrant work: The platformization of migration infrastructure.” EPA: Economy and Space: 1-21.

Konaka, S. (2021). “Reconsidering the Resilience of Pastoralism from the Perspective of Reliability: The Case of Conflicts between the Samburu and the Pokot of Kenya, 2004-2009.” Nomadic Peoples, 25(2): 253-277.

Krätli, S. and C. Toulmin (2020). Farmer-Herder Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa? IIED, London.

Roe, E. (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure, STEPS Working Paper 113, STEPS Centre: Brighton, UK.

Schapendonk, J. (2021). “Counter moves. Destabilizing the grand narrative of onward migration and secondary movements in Europe.” International Migration: 1 – 14  DOI:10.1111/imig.12923

Xiang, B. and J. Lindquist (2014). “Migration infrastructure.” International Migration Review 48(1): S122–S148.

See also the earlier blog, “An ecosystem at the intersection of two schools of infrastructure studies.”

Policy palimpsest: concept, examples, and the violence


The notion of “policy palimpsest” arose early on in policy studies, but never gained much traction. Its upshot is that current statements about complex policy issues are the composites of arguments and narratives that have been overwritten across time. Any composite argument rendered off a policy palimpsest reads sensibly—nouns and verbs appear in order and sense-making is achieved—but none of the previous inscriptions or points are pane-clear and whole through the layers, effacements, and erasures. Arguments have been blurred, intertwined and re-assembled for present, at times controverted, purposes.

So, what’s new? We want policy to come to us as instantly recognizable, just as immediately legible as the writing on this page. That instantaneity is the aim of any composite argument; recourse to the analogy of the policy palimpsest is to frustrate that taken-for-granted legibility. The concept of palimpsest insists that policy always comes with fractured backstories and that the backstories provide clues for what could have been or now can be instead.

This means that any policy arguments that are urged on us because of their elegance, simplicity, logical structure or win-win import are perilous. They only wink at the complexity in their policy palimpsests. The analytic challenge is to read any new composite argument with the blurred-away now made visible in order to acknowledge and probe what has been made missing in the composite reading. Once you identify what is missing in the composite but was in the palimpsest being read off (no guarantees here), you identify potential means to recast the complex issue in new, perhaps more tractable ways.

Short example

Turn to the journal, Foreign Affairs, and a much-cited 2014 critique of the failed-states rationale put forth in the Bush Administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy (Mazarr 2014). The Bush Doctrine, not to put too fine a point on it, argued that failed states were an important cause of international terrorism. The Mazarr critique, including a review of the literature at the time of the doctrine’s formulation and later, underscored profound problems with its assumptions.

Yet even if the Mazarr critique and others like it are still true, analysis of the failed-states argument needs to go further, not just to identify what was effaced in the policy palimpsest for terrorism at that time, but also what was effaced in these failed-states critiques which have become part of the very same palimpsest since then.[1]

The most infamous example of what has been erased, at least in academic journals, is the polemical avowal that America deserved 9/11 as a nation and now that it had happened, here was the opportunity for the nation to take the lead in a new rapprochement with the Islamic world. This argument was expunged from the discussion, where “straight-forward” policy arguments since 9/11 have been attempts to bowdlerize its policy palimpsest.

The least recognized erasure, however, but the one that would have been most visible had such an attempt at rapprochement taken place, was the centrality of the following question for international policy jettisoned from the policy horizon at the time of the collapsing twin towers: Where are this century’s new democracies to come from, if not from failed states, including—dare we say—parts of the U.S.?

Longer example

Each sentence in this blog could be said to be a composite made off of all manner of policy and management palimpsests of interest to me. What then am I missing in my own arguments? A great deal, I confess—though I believe this enriches rather than paralyzes analysis. Let me give a more extended example from my own practice.

Several years ago I wrote a potted history of the travails in EU’s CO2 cap-and-trade system, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS):

Upon its inception in 2005 when CO2 emission credits were issued under the ETS, credit prices initially did rise, but it was realized too many credits had been issued when prices declined. (Always bear in mind the theory upon which the ETS was based is that the higher the price of carbon, the fewer the emissions, all else equal.) By 2007 it was conceded that not only had too many credits been issued, but that coal imports into the EU had been rising at the same time. Credits continued to be issued, and by the end of 2009 prices were said to be too low to encourage investment in lowering emissions. Around 2010, computer hacking, cyber-theft and permit fraud occurred coupled with the obvious fact that the low carbon prices were in part due to declining carbon emissions because of increasing use of renewable energy (in other words, success by other means). The recession following the 2008 financial crisis had a depressive effect on credit prices as well. By the end of 2013, the European Parliament had approved a rescue plan for the ETS, including a provision to delay allocation of a third of the credits—even though the market would still likely be oversupplied by 2020, at which point it was thought that the ETS should promote green technological innovation, not just carbon reduction.

When I first presented this, one interlocutor said, “Well, we had to do something like the ETS!” One option is to answer her. Another is to update the history with more fine-grained information on ETS implementation for the period 2005 – 2018. A different option is to bring the history up-to-date since 2018 when I wrote most of the preceding paragraph.

It now seems to me that the paragraph can be substantially recast via the ETS’s policy palimpsest, irrespective of the other options. In this case, the palimpsest is the massed narratives and controversies, past and present, over just what is better for Europe’s environment—a carbon tax, cap-and-trade systems, renewable energy technologies, “net-zero emission” schemes (e.g., carbon capture and storage), a mix of these, some other hybrid, or something altogether different? My challenge is to reread my earlier description with the elements I effaced now visible. To repeat, resurfacing earlier points that are right there in front of me but which I missed is my start in thinking along different lines. (In truth, policy palimpsests invite such foraging.)

–If the composite argument can be viewed as a larger fragment assembled from smaller ones, then my ETS history is punctuated with interruptions blurred out in the name of legibility and readability. The problem, which only later did I understand, is that fragments not only differ by virtue of their content but fragments differ importantly in kind.

There are at least three kinds of “fragments,” small or large: that which awaits finishing or completed, that which survives what once had been finished or completed, and that which is (no longer) finishable or completable. You have a hole in the ground. In one version, it surrounds the foundation upon which a structure will be built. In the second, it surrounds the remaining ruins of a previous structure. In the third, it surrounds what is now nothing: What was there has rotted or eroded away entirely.

By extension, one missing element in my earlier ETS history is the open question about just what kind of (larger) fragment the ETS is. Is it primarily an institutional structure under intermittent construction? Is it partly the ruins left behind by techno-managerial elite and New Class of bureaucrats operating beyond their capacities under the limits on resources and options? Or is the ETS partly a hollow cypher—formally, an empty signifier—for all manner of environmental hopes that are no longer there, e.g., overtaken by the Anthropocene? All of these, or more? Maybe none?

To cut to the quick: The ETS palimpsest is also written over constantly (consider the recent EU proposal for carbon border taxes based on average prices in the ETS). This means, however, more than there is no last word for the ETS. It means being better prepared for the inevitable new interruptions and having to excavate what are now more useful leads and strings to be pulled that had been submerged in the past.

–What do I mean by resurfacing “more useful leads,” “strings to be pulled,” or “ways to recast more tractably”? By way of illustrating, let’s turn from a European example to a global one.

I write this just as COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, has ended. For many whose opinion I respect, it was a failure to do the needful in limiting temperature rise. Let’s also say this is true.

Even then, the crux is not, e.g.: “Thus,” alternative voices were left out and alternative politics side-lined. You can no more essentialize those voices and politics than you can essentialize the conference. (To think you could is like thinking a composite argument essentializes its policy palimpsest.)

This means methodologically that one of the first questions to be asked of the conference is: Which COP26 failed? Any such conference is never one thing only, if only because those attending in Glasgow were being themselves in one venue while being other selves in other venues there. At best, we speak from our respective palimpsest strands at this site while from other strands at that site. COP26 was riddled with this kind of intermittence and who’s to say the earlier or later versions between October 31 and November 13 2021 are not its upside? To declare the conference, overall, as a failure (or success for that matter) is to colonize that intermittence.

Which is to say: I’m sure I’ve left a very good deal out in stopping short at COP26 as an overall failure. Just as I did in my history of ETS travails.

Method’s violence

Earlier I said use of the policy palimpsest concept is to remind oneself how complex policy statements that read coherently are actually assembled out of fragments interrupted by missing parts, all of which are smoothed over for legibility and readability purposes

For me, the policy palimpsest optic also serves as a potent reminder of what goes into making a policy palimpsest and composite arguments read off of it: the violence in doing so.

By “effacements and erasures” I include “lacerations” all too often deliberate or willfully ignored rather than unintentional. Each composite argument tries to hide its scars, but what’s missing has been made missing when suturing together the fragments. Or think of it this way: the latest composite arguments read off a longstanding policy palimpsest can have negative seigniorage, i.e., they’re a public currency whose social costs of production may far exceed their face value. This is a major insight.

The typical response to all of this, “Come on , we’re just generalizing from case material!” is no more valid than saying a statistical meta-analysis of mixed findings is tracked by the standard error around something called an average. It’s more complicated than that.

Claiming that over-arching explanations of power, for example, are empirical generalizations made across complex cases too often voids the case-specific diversity of responses and emerging practices of importance for policy and management. Part of our duty of care is to question any over-arching explanation or soft-packaged imaginary that comes masqueraded as a generalization founded in cases when it is nothing more than a highly-edited reading off a policy palimpsest that has long had a life and heft of its own.

[1] More formally, a composite argument is blurred not only by the way it conveys any argument (as if straightforward when actually a concatenation of interrupted fragments), but also by what it doesn’t convey—those elements that are now illegible of appear now interstitially as lacunae, non-sequiturs, slippages, caesurae, and aporias. In these ways, no policy palimpsest is inscribed with the last word; no composite argument from it is indisputable or the authoritative one; each composite argument carries the entire palimpsest with it. Indeed, the palimpsest serves as a brake on isolating any single argument. If a “ready-made” is a mass-produced object elected by an artist for display as a work of art, a policy palimpsest is a “ready-unmade,” one that is also mass-produced but constantly scored over and re-fixed by all manner of people and contingencies.

Time also changes when assembling fragments from different parts of a palimpsest. The composite may appear to be “first-this followed by that-then,” when instead separate fragments are juxtaposed as if, say, one is now read as a textual gloss about time annotating below it fragments about something else. A familiar example is tagging onto today’s major policy composites variants of that phrase, “…in a world threatened by catastrophic climate change.” Any such textual adjacency rejiggers everything below or after it. (I’m thinking here of the Japanese practice of furigana, where a gloss appears above or to the side of the characters being annotated.)

Principal sources

Davis, L. (2019). “Fragmentary or unfinished: Barthes, Joubert, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Flaubert” In: Essays One, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY.

Mazarr, M. (2014). The rise and fall of the failed-state paradigm. Foreign Affairs (January/February): 113-121.

This entry consolidates points (with other references) made in “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” and “COP26 and intermittence.”

Updates and table of key entries by topic area

This week’s blogs: “Sovereign territories” and “‘We are not social scientists!’”

Take one more look: “What the Thai BL series, ‘Bad Buddy,’ has to tell us about societal reset”

(use keyword search function to find others listed below)

Table of key entries

Most Important: “What am I missing?,” “‘What’s missing?’ in this catastrophic earthquake scenario,” “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Power,” “Interconnected?,” “I believe,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “Keeping it complex. . .,” ““Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism in the Anthropocene,” “More on over-complexification,” “Playing it safe, utopia,” “Case-by-case analysis: realism, criteria, virtues,” “Not ‘Why don’t they listen to us?’ but rather: ‘What should we listen for from them. . .’,” “Humanism, by default,” “Mess and reliability: five inter-related propositions,” “Control, surpris’d,” “When good-enough is better: a summary,” “Heuristics as clues,” “First, differentiate!,” “Proposed National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management (longer read),” “Begin, not end, with the radical agenda,” “Policy palimpsest: concept, examples, and the violence

Recasting big policy issues: “Poverty and war,” “It’s war or peace?,”“Second thoughts on income inequality,” “Unbracketing [Inequality],” “Surprising climate change,” “COVID-19,” “Missing racism,” “Healthcare,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene, ” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Culling sustainability,” “In a failed state,” “Revolts,” “A colossal inheritance,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing ‘coordination’,” “Government regulation,” “Economic consequences of having no must-never-happen events in the financial sector,” “What to do when criticisms are spot-on, but the recommendations aren’t,” “Recasting Roosevelt’s New Deal,” “Recasting the policy narrative of labor-substituting technological change,” “Other alternatives,” “Apocalypse and tax havens,” “COP26 and intermittence,” and Longer Reads (below)

More recastings: “Policy narratives,” “America’s and Trump’s,” “Recastings #1,” “When the light at the end of the tunnel is the tunnel,” “Public Policy Analysis, c.1970 – c.2020: In Memoriam?,” “Sound familiar? Here’s why,” “A grammar of policy analysis,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion,” “Policy as magical thinking,” “A different take on ‘traditional agriculture:’ risk-averse v. reliability-seeking,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “Escaping from Hell Is a Right!,” “Global Climate Sprawl,” “Disaster averted is central to pastoralist development,” “Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead,” “It’s war or peace?,” “It’s more top-down and outside-in than bottom-up or inside-out,” “An ecosystem at the intersection of two schools of infrastructure studies,” “Worth repeating I/II (from earlier blogs),” “Worth repeating II/II (from earlier blogs),” “What the Thai BL series, ‘Bad Buddy,’ has to tell us about societal reset,” “Sovereign territories”

Not-knowing and its proxies: “Seeing unknowns,” “Inexperience and central banks,” “Managing inexperience,” “Difficulty at risk and unequal,” “By way of distraction…,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter,” “Humanism, by default,” “Preknown, known, unknown,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations,” “On population increase,”“It’s war or peace?”

Ignorance and uncertainty: “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Optimal ignorance,” “Uncertain superlatives,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Why aren’t they all running away!,” “Yes, ‘risk and uncertainty’ are socially constructed and historicized. Now what? The missing corollary and 3 examples,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Error and Safety,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Mercator’s projection,” “Preknown, known, unknown,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations,” “It’s war or peace?”

Risk, resilience and root causes: “A new standard for societal risk acceptance,” “Easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios and their major implications,” “Risk criteria with respect to asset versus system scenarios,” “Half-way risk,” “Central role of the track record in risk analysis,” “Resilience isn’t what you think,” “Root causes,” “Frau Hitler, again,” “With respect to what?,” “Yes, ‘risk and uncertainty’ are socially constructed and historicized. Now what? The missing corollary and 3 examples,” “Error and Safety,” “Four macro-design principles that matter—and one that can’t—for risk managers and policymakers,” “Managing-ahead for latent risks and latent interconnectivity,” “Can’t we be best anticipatory and resilient at the same time?,” “Safety, like much in democracy and intelligence, is not a noun but an adverb,” “First, differentiate!,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations,” “Changing risk and changing safety are different!”

Regulation: “A few things I’ve learned from the Financial Times on regulation,” “Government regulation,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “An infrastructure’s regulator of record is in real-time recovery from setbacks, always,” “Regulation, deconstructed and reconstructed”

Infrastructures: “The real U.S. infrastructure crisis,” “Innovation,” “Take-home messages,” “Who pays?,” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Catastrophized cascades,” “Healthcare,” “Interconnected,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “Achilles’ heel of high reliability management,” “Where distrust and dread are positive social values,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Government regulation,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Error and Safety,” “Managing-ahead for latent risks and latent interconnectivity,” “What you need to know for Big System Collapse! or not.” “Mercator’s projection,” “Impact-sheds are not managed systems, except when…,” “Changing risk and changing safety are different!,” “An ecosystem at the intersection of two schools of infrastructure studies”

Environment: “New environmental narratives for these times (longer read, consolidated from following entries),” “Nature,” “Tansley’s ecosystem,” “Radical uncertainty and new environmental narratives,” “Eco-labelling recasted,” “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Dining on gin and consommé,” “Culling sustainability,” “Lifecycle modeling of species,” “Better fastthinking in complex times,” Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead,”“What to do when criticisms are spot-on, but the recommendations aren’t,” “An ecosystem at the intersection of two schools of infrastructure studies”

Rural development: “Disaster averted is core to pastoralist development,” “Optimal ignorance,” “Culling sustainability,” “A different take on ‘traditional agriculture:’ risk-averse v. reliability-seeking,” “Misadventures by design,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Next-ism”

Pastoralist development: “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms (longer read),” “Keeping up with pastoralists: A case for ‘Multiplatform pastoralism’ (longer read),” “Pastoralists as avant-garde,” “On population increase,” “Livestock Non-Proliferation Treaty,” “What the Thai BL series, ‘Bad Buddy,’ has to tell us about societal reset,” “Pastoralisms as a global infrastructure”

Catastrophe and crisis: “Catastrophized cascades,” “Jorie Graham’s systemcide,” “The shame of it all,” “Next-ism,” “The future is the mess we’re in now,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Escaping from Hell Is a Right!,” “Good messes to be had from their catastrophism,” “What you need to know for Big System Collapse! or not,” “Apocalypse and tax havens”

More mess, good and bad: “Mess and reliability: five inter-related propositions,” “A different take on the traffic mess,” “Happiness: The mess,” “Who pays?,” “Misadventures by design,” “. . .and raise my taxes!,” “Top-of-the-list thinking,” “Take-home messages,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “The New Normal is managing not just negative setbacks but also positive ones,” “Good messes to be had from their catastrophism,” “Can’t we be best anticipatory and resilient at the same time?,” “The good mess in no single, right reading and in the many (more or less) wrong ones,” “Predicting the future,” “Planning, with a difference”

Betterment and good-enough: “Betterment as ‘yes-but’ through ‘yes-and’,” “It’s better between the James brothers,” “Good-enoughs,” “Good-enough dreamers,” “Professional, amateur, apprentice; Or, As good as the fingernails of Manet,” “‘at sea,’ ‘from on high’,” “Betterment (continued),” “Better fastthinking in complex times,” “Humanism, by default,” “Good-enough criticism,” “When good-enough is better: a summary,” “What to do when policy articles keep ending where they should’ve started,” “Heuristics as clues,” “For the sake of betterment: Positive functions of social dread, blind-spots and complication,” “Reliably good enough?”

Policy palimpsests and composite arguments: “Take home messages,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion,” “Reflection and sensibility,” “Recasting the policy narrative of labor-substituting technological change,” “Policy palimpsest: concept, examples, and the violence,” and other Longer Reads (below)

Economism: “Economism,” “Keep it simple?,” “Loose ends, #1” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “The missing drop of realism,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “Makes the gorge rise.” “Other alternatives,” “‘We are not social scientists!’”

Methods (for analyzing narrative, risk, triangulation, others): “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing ‘coordination,’” “Policy narratives,”“A new standard for societal risk acceptance,” “Easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios and their major implications,” “Risk criteria with respect to asset versus system scenarios,” “Half-way risk,” “Eco-labelling recasted,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “The missing drop of realism,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “New benchmark metrics for major risk and uncertainty,” “One ‘why’ and four ‘how’s’ to recasting complex policy and management problems,” “Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead,” “Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “On population increase,” “The policy analysis toolkit and complexity”

Longer Reads: “Ammons and regulation,” “The next Constitutional Convention,” “Recalibrating Politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for André Malraux,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “A consultant’s diary,” “A different take on The Great Confinement,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “New environmental narratives for these times (consolidated from Environment entries),” “New benchmark metrics for major risk and uncertainty (consolidated from entries for Risk, resilience and root causes),” “One ‘why’ and four ‘how’s’ to recasting complex policy and management problems (consolidated from earlier entries),” “Pastoralists and. Pastoralisms,” “Proposed National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management”

Something less complex?: “Red in tooth and claw,” “What kdrama has taught me,” “The irony of it all,” “Dining on gin and consommé,” “Five questions everyone should want to answer,” “Distracted anti-utopians,” “Sallies out and sees,” “It’s as if,” “Proof-positive that international irrationality is socially constructed. . .,” “Coulda, shoulda, woulda,” “Siding with the wall,Which of these old lists still makes sense?,” “Kids’ lit?”

What the Thai BL series, “Bad Buddy,” has to tell us about societal reset

“Reset” is a popular word now for our “starting over” (as if from clean slate) or “starting again” (as if restarting from where we are). But there are other ways to think about “reset” as it applies to wider societal issues.

One is unfamiliar to readers of this blog: the current response to a Thai BL (Boys’ Love), “Bad Buddy.” It’s a twelve episode series, now moving to the 11th “cursed” episode. BLs, like other Asian dramas, are full of tropes, one of which is: things must get worse in the next to the last episode (just) in order to get better at last.

–I’m not going to describe the history of BL tv series (they’re not Greek boy’s love or pedophilia), nor how Thai series differ from BLs in Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, or more recently South Korea, which themselves differ. For those interested, the sinkhole of web-links awaits you (by the time you get to the history of socialist China’s censorship of BLs and their current wink-wink “bromances,” you’ll have learned a great deal).

What I want to focus on here is one major response of YouTube viewers to “Bad Buddy” (with its millions and millions of episode views and tens and tens of thousand episode comments): This series represents, right now, a “reset” of Thai BLs.

I want to argue that the “reset” talked about in YouTube comments (at least those in English) is an optic through which to think about calls to reset specific contemporary politics and society.

–One of the first things “Bad Buddy” viewers comment about is the great acting and chemistry of the two male leads, Ohm and Nanon. Just say it’s astrophysical. The higher-quality of storyline, filming and direction, original sound track, and pacing are also singled out for note. All and more are clear in Episode 5’s lead-up to roof-top scene, where in the language of many Asian dramas Ohm confesses his feelings and they kiss.

–That last sentence in no way conveys the intensity of what we viewers actually saw and what that embrace conveyed. There is something very fitting in the reset being triggered the moment Ohm utters a mai (“no”) unlike any before.

One convention of many BLs has been that these be straight actors kissing according to a storyline written by a female author for a largely female audience–where the kiss would more often than not be two sets of closed lips compressed momentarily together. Not so in “Bad Buddy”! (See for yourselves in the link for last segment of Episode 5 below.)

Other BL conventions have also been bumped out of the way by “Bad Buddy.” Most invidious to international viewers has been the question of “who’s the top, who’s the bottom?” or husband/wifey in the relationship. “Bad Buddy” makes it clear the protagonists see themselves as boyfriends. Nor is there’s the usual, “He’s the only guy I’d ever love.” Nor are the females cyphers for funny or incidental as is so often the case.

I could go on about why I’m such a fan, but suffice it to say: At the time of writing, many of the viewers of this series agree they are witnessing what they take to be a bigger reset of cultural conventions at least in the BL industry.

–Now I shift the register and talk about my views of their views.

It seems to me that this type of “reset” is not one of resetting Thai society views of LGBTQ+ communities there or elsewhere. Nor is the reset one of setting a gold standard or benchmark for future BL tv series.

The reset I take away from the comments–that is, the reset I believe I’m witnessing through to Episode 10–is more akin to shaking the kaleidoscope of BL conventions and then making a new twist. The different colored shards—those conventions and tropes—don’t disappear but are being reconfigure anew. YouTube viewers of “Bad Buddy” are recording, participating in and energizing just such a reset. In more conventional terms, expectations are notably changing and viewers are managing the changes and those expectations.

–So what?

For someone living in the United States at the start of 2022, the economy is narrativized almost always into top and bottom. The top shafts the bottom; rich and poor are all having to take it up the ass. A lifelong Democrat/Republican, this is the first time ever voting for someone like Trump/Obama. This drama of ours is cursed to end early. The notion that top and bottom could be “friends,” that the other half aren’t funny or incidental, that even when we’re fucked up and down, it’s complicated, and that even if society can’t be twisted, our major representations and conventions can be to make them work better–well, that’s one imaginary too far in the US, it seems to me.

If so, then I take the positive upshot to be: Focus on kaleidoscopes that can be twisted. (This is what “Bad Buddy” does for me.) Two examples as far away from BLs but ready, I believe, for a “Bad Buddy” reset will have to be illustrative

Once you refocus, philanthropy needn’t be viewed as the city’s rich helping the city’s poor; urban-generated remittances needn’t be seen as one set of family member helping other family member elsewhere. Both philanthropy and remittances twist into something else when it’s “urban citizenship”–its duties and responsibilities–that come into better view through these very transactions.

Another example. A more traditional configuration of dryland herds as assets is being twisted into a newer configuration of herds as global environmental liabilities. One consequence of the latest twist is to exclude pastoralists from being considered part of the near-global asset boom in rising prices of stock, bonds and real-estate. At some point in the further twisting ahead of what patently is a kaleidoscope of very different configurations of herd assets and liabilities, it will be clear that a big question was missed in the earlier twist: Who benefited when public attention was distracted by reclassifying cattle as global environmental liabilities from recognizing instead that their owners/managers were and (continue to be) entrapped in capitalist asset bubbles, and on a global scale?

Principal source

Episode 5, last segment (subtitled), of “Bad Buddy”:

Worth repeating II/II

More on: control; differentiation; knowing and its borders; dread and betterment; crises; revolts; not-knowing; lifecycle modeling; yes-but and yes-and; coordination; interconnectivity; and keeping it simple (from earlier blogs)

More on control

Like the poverty premium, where poor people have to pay more for key services (insurance, credit, energy, shelter), people seeking full control of uncertain task environments pay a “control premium”: Control strategies cost them—and us of course—more than would be the case were they able to cope ahead or manage the uncertainty. When their control excesses make the lives of others difficult or worse, this isn’t an externality to be corrected by taxing them or having the rest of us bribe them to become better uncertainty managers. Instead, their controlling behavior shifts the costs onto us. They might as well be demanding money with menaces from us.

Here’s a different analogy to reinforce the point. Compare algorithmic decisionmaking (ADM) and the current technology for gene editing known by the acronym, CRISPR. When it comes to ADM, the worry is that we don’t know how the algorithm works. What’s happening, we ask, because of the cultural biases imported via the original data into the algorithm? As for CRISPR, the worry is that, even when we know that this rather that gene is being edited, we’re still not sure it’s the right thing to do.

Suppose we had a CRISPR for ADM, i.e., we could go into the algorithm and excise cultural bias. But even then we’d worry about, e.g., what is bias to some is not to others. For that matter, is there any doubt whatsoever that a new mechanism promising greater control in addressing one worry won’t produce another worry, equally if not more important? Control cannot answer the questions control poses.

So what? It’s hard to believe, for example, that all the talk about artificial intelligence (AI) “controlling” behavior will not need to be far more differentiated and contextualized, when it comes to really-existing policy and management implications. Consider underwater oil and gas exploration. Alarms produced by autonomous systems can and do often turn out to be false alarms occurring under already turbulent task conditions at sea. Indeed, operating at a higher level of autonomy and having to cope with indiscriminate false alarms may no longer permit the real-time operators to revert, just-in-time, to lower levels of autonomy, e.g., managing via more manual operations, as and when nothing else works in the context under consideration.

More on differentiation

When I and others call for better recognition and accommodation of complexity, we mean the complex as well as the uncertain, unfinished and conflicted must be particularized and contextualized if we are to analyze and to manage case-by-granular-case.

When I and others say we need more findings that can be replicated across a range of cases, we are calling for identification not only of emerging better practices across cases, but also of greater equifinality: finding multiple but different pathways to achieve similar objectives, given case diversity.

What I and others mean by calling for greater collaboration is not just more teamwork or working with more and different stakeholders, but that team members and stakeholders “bring the system into the room” for the purposes of making the services in question reliable and safe.

When I and others call for more system integration, we mean the need to recouple the decoupled activities in ways that better mimic but can never reproduce the coupled nature of the wider system environment.

When I and others call for more flexibility, we mean the need for greater maneuverability across different performance modes in the face of changing system volatility and options to respond to those changes. (“Only the middle road does not lead to Rome,” said composer, Arnold Schoenberg.)

Where we need more experimentation, we do not mean more adaptive learning, when the systemwide error ends up being the last systemwide trial destroying survival.

While others talk about risks in a system’s hazardous components, we point to different systemwide reliability standards and only then, to the different risks and uncertainties that follow from different standards.

More on knowing and its borders

If we start with the commonplace that analysis and deliberation center around what is known or not, then the boundaries of the known blur not only into the unknown, but also into the preknown. The latter is the preexisting knowledge that one is born into and “takes for granted.”

In his essay, “The Well-Informed Citizen,” Alfred Schütz, the sociologist, describes it this way:

The zone of things taken for granted may be defined as that sector of the world which, in connection with the theoretical or the practical problem we are concerned with at a given time, does not seem to need further inquiry, although we do not have clear and distinct insight into and understanding of its structure. What is taken for granted is, until invalidation, believed to be simply “given” and “given-as-it-appears-to-me”–that is, as I or others whom I trust have experienced and interpreted it. It is this zone of things taken for granted within which we have to find our bearings. All our possible questioning for the unknown arises only within such a world of supposedly preknown things, and presupposes its existence.

One consequence of ignoring the preknown, known and unknown have blurred borders is this: We end up acting as if it does not matter that it takes preknowing and knowing enough to avoid entering into the unstudied conditions of the unknown. If Schütz is right, the preknown is where we “find our bearings” with respect to the known and unknown.

What does this mean? It turns out that all this talk about “unintended consequences of human action” is itself unintentionally simplistic. “Unintended,” when the preknown is an invisible platform that lets us find our bearings so that other factors in the known and unknown carry the weight of argument about “unintended consequences”? “Consequences,” rather than intercalated knowing, preknowing and not-knowing chalked up to contingency and exigency?

“Unintended consequences of human action” is a coherent phrase only by missing the rest of that overwritten palimpsest, called “human action,” off of which the phrase is cobbled together and read.

More on dread and betterment

Widespread fear and dread, so criticized by 18th century Enlighteners, have positive social functions that serve Enlightenment goals of bettering human conditions.

The large-scale systems for betterment—whether defined around markets at one end or social protections at the other—are managed in large part because of widespread societal dread over what happens when they aren’t managed reliably and safely. Critical infrastructures for energy, water and healthcare (among others) are so essential that they mustn’t fail, even when (especially when) they have to change. That they do fail, and materially so, increases the very real sense that it’s too costly not to manage them.

We of course are meant to wonder at the perversity of this. But that is the function of this dread, isn’t it? Namely: to push us further in probing what it means to privilege social and individual reliability and safety over other values and desires. We are meant to ask: What would it look like in world where such reliability and safety are not so privileged?

For the answer is altogether evident: Most of the planet lives in that world of unreliability and little safety. We’re meant to ask—precisely because the answer is that clear. Hunting and gathering societies may be the most sustainable for the Anthropocene, but I do not remember any hunter-gatherer in Botswana in the early 1970s who didn’t want to quit that that way of life for something safer and more reliable.

More on crises

But, you insist, what’s happening today are global crises for which we do not have deep knowledge or skills or better practices. Quite the opposite, you press: Exceptional circumstances give rise to extraordinary threats and thus to emergency measures which necessarily end up as precedents for first-ever policies.

I suggest you might want to think more about the italicized terms, as each puts you (and us) at the very limits of human comprehension, infrastructure reliability and hazard management, and the societal values driving policy, management and their regulation. To insist as many are doing that climate change, for example, is uniquely global, uniquely long-term and uniquely irreversible is to assert it is uniquely ununderstandable.

For any conclusion that these are unprecedented times in altogether uncharted waters is itself the artefact and by-product of having no default option when at the limits of thinking and comprehending the way we do. Existential threats call for all manner of response, some of which are well beyond those confined to analysis and management.

One under-acknowledged response is appealing to the background condition for taking action when analysis and management are confronted by the incomprehensible or unpredictable. Humans have always been many-sided, and so must our responses be, where that background condition of having many sides inherently frames the action we take. The challenge is to disclose those other sides with which to make the issue more tractable to analysis and management (no guarantees here).

Conventional risk analysts and crisis managers are quick to counter: “What do you mean we are one-sided? Good managers and analysts are always looking at the many sides of an issue and, in fact, we pride ourselves in seeking to bridge incompatible positions—and never more so than when the prospect of disaster raises the stakes!”

But there is no “middle” to bridge or compromise over when you and we are at or beyond the limits of comprehension; you have to default to something other than analysis or management as usually understood, if only to recast the intractable into something more tractable so as to re-engage analyzing and managing.

More on revolts

For Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 18th century German Enlightener, the point is not for the sculptor or painter to portray a violent event at its climax, when visualizing a single moment. Better to choose a moment before or after the apex of destruction, so as to allow the viewers’ imaginations freer rein over what is to come. That way, Lessing argues, the narrative continues in an arc of reflection that is not cut short by any climax’s overpowering intensity:

since the works of both the painter and the sculptor are created not merely to be given a glance but to be contemplated. . .it is evident that the single moment and the point of view from which the whole scene is presented cannot be chosen with too great a regard for its effect. But only that which allows the imagination free play [freies Spiel] is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imagination, the more must think we see. In the full trajectory of an effect, no point is less suitable for this than its climax. There is nothing beyond this, and to present to the eye what is most extreme is to bind the wings of fancy and constrain it, since it cannot. . .shun[ ] the visible fullness already presented as a limit beyond which it cannot go.

Rather, the moment chosen should be pregnant—fruitful, suggestive—of possibilities that are not foreclosed because imagination has been arrested by catastrophizing the worse. Instead of picturing Ajax at the height of his rage and slaughter, better he be depicted afterwards in the full realization of what he has done and in the despair leading him to what must come next.

One problem with today’s crisis scenarios of a violent Anthropocene is a preoccupation with a visualized climax. Obviously, post-apocalypse can be pictured as even deadlier. But the point holds: In today’s scenarios, the worst is imagined and imagination stalls there—like shining deer at night—with the glare of it all.

But the truth of the matter is that before or after the climax, thought (not just imagination) is still at work. Before, in the sense of thinking about the roads not taken; after, in terms of the what-ifs ahead. In fact, today’s unrelieved stream of crisis scenarios is itself proof of imaginations’ inability to let a prophesied climax do all the talking.

Where does this leave us?

Basically, it’s better to focus on crisis and catastrophe before or after they have happened rather than to be in the grip of their climaxes. For all we know, the Occupy Movement, Yellow Vests Movement, Hong Kong protests, the Extinction Rebellion and more were the apex of reaction. Any disappointment that one or more have not culminated into revolution or other “far-reaching substantive change” is one scenario only—which on reflection may not be the most fruitful, suggestive moment to focus on anyway, let alone be overawed by. The whole purpose of revolt may be revolts (in plural).

More on not-knowing

Assume you know nothing of the brain’s structure or neuroscience. Assume then your brain is a chamber initially holding two kinds of spaces: filled spaces of what you know and empty spaces for what you do not know. Suppose, also, that at times each filled space emanates a beam of bright light that, when combined with beams of light from the other filled spaces, produce a brilliance so intense in the brain that the only shapes left visible are the dark cavities that this concentrated light did not reach.

Suppose the reverse also happens (this proposed famously by psychoanalyst, W.R. Bion): Each empty space emanates at other times a penetrating beam of darkness so absorbing that, when combined with the blackening beams from other empty spaces, the only shapes left visible are the lighted cavities the dense blackness did not reach.

Now step back and consider. Think of the dark cavities that persist even in the lighted glare of what your brain knows as what it really doesn’t know, while the lighted cavities that persist in the blackness of what your brain doesn’t know are what it actually does know.

Compare now the two sets: initially, filled/empty and afterwards, lighted/darkened. The archipelago of densely lighted and densely dark need not correspond to the original filled and empty spaces. That is, your brain thought it knew some things which it now sees it didn’t know; and some of what it thought it didn’t know is shown now to be what it knew all along.

This thought experiment suggests that our brains, in order to move from “not-knowing” to “seeing the unknown” requires at least moving from what we thought we knew or didn’t (those filled and empty spaces) closer to what we actually do and do not know (its cluster of lighted and darkened cavities).

If so, then this is the question: Why would anyone believe that you can shift from looking onto unknowns without knowing they are there (the notorious unknow-unknowns) to seeing unknowns in the Anthropocene and knowing it, if you have not demonstrated beforehand the realization that you didn’t know what you thought you knew, you did know more than you initially thought, or both? A track record in doing so, combined with the risk/uncertainty discriminations in earlier sections, are key to developing new policy optics for the Anthropocene.

More on lifecycle modeling

Say you are involved in modeling the lifecycle of a threatened or endangered species. You and your colleagues rightly start out ambitious by aiming to develop and then integrate sub-models for species reproduction; movements between areas; and mortality rates. It doesn’t take much time, however, to confirm that not only do pertinent data not exist, but modeling uncertainties and errors work against integrating the sub-models into a comprehensive lifecycle model (LCM).

Thereafter with more time and funding, you and your colleagues develop much reduced versions—LCM1, LCM2 and currently LCM3—each bringing to light further refinements and significant methodological and data issues. You embark on developing LCM4 in the hopes that the research team—funding always being an issue—is moving closer to identifying management interventions for the species. The many technical reports (now approaching 50 in number) produced during the years of research track the refinements, improvements, insights and difficulties in modeling species reproduction, movement and survival rates. The peer-reviewed literature on lifecycle models has, however, been advanced in the view of many outside experts by team’s research.

Unfortunately and for various unexpected reasons, none of the reports identify modeling and data uncertainties in a way that they can be contrasted to the uncertainties and errors made in the existing comprehensive model for managing said species.

What “comprehensive model,” you ask? Didn’t I just say there was no comprehensive lifecycle model? It turns out that, during the years of the modeling research, real-time interagency staff and scientists continued making decisions for the management of the species. In effect, they served as platform for integrating research findings and other evidence for real-time decisionmaking. Humans, the quintessential soft factors, are the only “integrated comprehensive model” we will have for some time to come wherever in the Anthropocene.

It’s true that from time to time the consequences of these interagency management actions found their way into a technical report, but even here modeling uncertainties took priority over management: “Though it is tempting to interpret declines in estimated [mortality] as evidence of management success, models of population dynamics are required to disentangle. . .

You’d think that the burden of proof has been on the modelers to demonstrate that reliance on lifecycle models would lead to better results compared to the next best alternative of interagency deliberations of scientists and support staff. Researchers say we’re not there yet.

But, not to worry: The judge who mandated the research in the first place asserted way back when: “All experts agree that application of a lifecycle model is the accepted method for evaluating the effects of an action upon a populations growth rate.” This means all we need do is assume management isn’t improving faster than the modeling. And what could make more sense in reality than doing what is so needed in theory?

More on yes-but and yes-and

A great deal of US politics and policy is caught up in the yes’s and no’s of pros versus cons, advantages versus disadvantages, and costs versus benefits. But there has never been consensus on making these their own either/or. Lionel Trilling, the literary critic, famously said of 19th century American writers “they contained both the yes and the no of their culture”. For Robert Frost, the poet, neither exists in its own right—“yes and no are almost never ideas by themselves”.

The ethnographer and writer, Michel Leiris, writes about the need “to merge the yes and the no.” “Between yes and no” is the title of an early essay by Camus. Nietzsche “said no to life as long as it was easy, but yes when it took on the form of the impossible”. The work of Elizabeth Bishop was “perhaps more a quiet no than a great big yes,” according to another poet. More severe, “Herman Melville praised Nathaniel Hawthorne: ‘He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie’”, records the critic, Christopher Ricks, who then asks: “But what about saying, ‘Yes, but…?’”

Ricks is spot-on. In the same way as dark energy and dark matter are said to make up the vast portion of the universe, politics, policy and management are grasped only because—not in spite—of the not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience, all around and in between.

A character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives asks: “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?” That is difficult to answer, Bolaño describes:

And I saw two boys, one awake and the other asleep, and the one who was asleep said don’t worry, Amadeo, we’ll find Cesarea for you even if we have to look under every stone in the north…And I insisted: don’t do it for me. And the one who was asleep…said: we’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it. Were they joking? Weren’t they joking?…and then I said: boys, is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Simonel.

Bolaño’s translator (Natasha Wimmer) asks, did this Simonel mean “Absolutely”? For my part, I’d like to think simonel insists “yes” and “no” matter when followed by “but” or “and,” the first as a caution and the second as encouragement. To admit this is to be open to alternatives when yes and no aren’t: “Yes or no; or provide an alternative,” as emergency managers are put it.

More on coordination

I come from a policy analysis and management training with little good to say about calls for “more effective coordination.” When having nothing more to say but feeling compelled to recommend something, then comes the “what we need is more effective coordination.” Who can be against effective coordination? Though called for without a tincture of what to do, step by step and in real time. Like gold in seawater, coordination is impressive, but pointing that out is of scant use.

I’m not the only one who hesitates reading further when the document gets to the part where death and disaster are credited to “the lack of coordination.” When I read criticisms that blame deaths or injuries in a disaster on the “lack of coordination,” I expect to see answers to two immediate questions: (1) can it be demonstrated that the lack of coordination did not arise because the responders knew—or thought so at the time—that they were undertaking activities just as urgent; and (2) can we conclude that the event in question would (not could, should, might or perhaps) have been better responded to had it not been handled the way it was (the classic counterfactual)? Rarely, I find, are answers even attempted, let alone provided. (The counterfactual often has a twofold would. The sociologist, Raymond Aron, ask critics of decisionmakers: “What would you do, in their place, and how would you do it?”)

Such detail is of course difficult to summon, but that it is so rarely attempted leaves us to wonder just whose inexperience is revealed—the responders criticized or the callers for more coordination. Obviously, the more detailed the future scenario, the more likely it will fall short of what actually happens in the face of so much contingency; but how else to face uncertainty in the future than to demand details? For that matter, predicting the future is difficult precisely for the same reasons learning from the past is: Both require stability in objectives, institutional memory, multiple reserves in case something goes wrong, and low environmental uncertainty, among others. Should the obvious need restating, we already knew this even before acknowledging we’re in the Anthropocene.

More on interconnectivity

If there were ever a term in need of greater differentiation, granularity and detail, it is “interconnected” (as in interconnected critical infrastructures).

Our research on a Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) of the US Coast Guard (USCG) found at least five major kinds of “interconnected” at work having sharp differences in the VTS’s real-time operations:

  • Interoperability: Like the textbook interoperable energy utility (where electricity is crucial for the natural gas operations and vice versa), the VTS manages both vessel traffic and the regulated waterways that the vessels use (where managing the water ways affects management of the vessels and vice versa);
  • Shared control variables: Water flows are a major control variable not just for VTS navigation purposes, but also for other infrastructures (most notably large water supplies and hydropower systems). This means that unexpected changes in how one infrastructure manages water flows can affect the management of the water flows by the other infrastructures (indeed, inter-infrastructural coordination around shared control variables was reported to us);
  • Combined cycle of infrastructure operations: The USCG has a range of missions and operations, two of which are the VTS and the SAR (Search and Rescue) units. VTS combines with SAR to represent stages of this infrastructure’s operational cycle—normal operations and disrupted operations (VTS) along with failure and recovery (SAR). Not only are normal operations of the VTS already inter-infrastructural (by virtue of the shared control variables), but also the USCG’s Command and Control mission, including that for SAR, has an incident command facility and function for inter-infrastructural coordination during system failure and recovery;
  • Variety of real-time configurations of interconnectivity: The VTS manages by virtue of resorting to a variety of interconnections with the vessels concerned. When VTS management of a common pool resource (the waterways) on behalf of inter-related users is disrupted or fails (e.g., because of defect in VTS communications), the interconnection configuration defaults over to the reciprocal one of vessel-to-vessel communication; and
  • Inter-organizational linkages: USCG operations, including a VTS, are not only linked with other infrastructures through reliance on the Global Positioning System (GPS), but the Coast Guard’s position within the Department of Homeland Security makes it strategically located with respect to focusing on GPS vulnerabilities and strengths when it comes to the nation’s cyber-infrastructure.

Further detailing is easy to sketch, but the point remains: Once differentiated interconnectivities are taken as the serious, really-existing starting point, we better understand how some major approaches to risk management of critical infrastructures can be so misleading.

What could seem more reasonable, for example, than a focus on system chokepoints when it comes to risk assessment and management at an interconnected critical infrastructure level? And the most obvious way to do that is by focusing the attention on where major infrastructures intersect or are adjacent to each other, correct? Wrong.

It’s wiser is to focus on how spatially adjacent or collocated structures and facilities are actually managed within their respective infrastructure systems. It is possible that a system’s chokepoint may be elsewhere than at any site of collocated facilities, and that the element collocated could be lost without its respective system flipping into failure. Just because elements from two or more infrastructures are spatially adjacent does not mean automatically mean those infrastructures have “to coordinate” unless, say, shared control variables are involved or interoperability challenged.

A huge category mistake is committed when conflating (1) the unfolding and interrelated consequences on life, property and markets of, say, a hazardous liquids pipeline explosion on adjacent populations and property and (2) the explosion’s consequences for the interconnected critical infrastructures for those hazardous liquids, in terms of not just these pipelines and associated refineries, but also just as significantly the electricity and water infrastructures that the former depends upon in real time.

Why does differentiating the two “systems” matter? To equate the relevant system definition with the spread and interaction of knock-on population-and-property consequences of failure (Cf) is to identify as a problem the lack of systemwide management of Cf. But the infrastructures are anything but unmanaged in real time, including their interconnections.

More on keeping it simple

Again: Not to worry, we’ll scale up later. Later on, presses the happy-talk, we’ll relax assumptions and add realism. Don’t bother the details; we know how to reduce overpopulation (just don’t have babies!) and save the environment (just don’t cut down the trees!). Just keep fossil fuel in the ground, now! So much of the just-do-this! suffocates in its own fat: This time it’s different; we do know where to start; leave the complications for later.

The problem with “start simple and then scale up” is that each scale/level is complex in its own right, regardless of their interconnectivities. The map smooths out a fractal shoreline; to start simple and scale up makes as much sense as trying to pinpoint the shoreline through the eye of a needle. Yet during my policy analysis career I’ve witnessed the 20-page policy brief reduced to the five- page memo into a fifteen-minute PowerPoint presentation into the three-minute elevator speech into the tweet and now the search for just the right meme. This too, they said, was keeping it simple. What next on the syllabus: Telepathy? The knowing look in 10 seconds or less? But, not to worry: Just Keep It Simple. No problem pissing on your shoes: It’s only a light shower! Wrong. We make cuckoo clocks without the bird-shit, but that’s about the extent of it. Complex, again, is about as simple as it gets these days.

Long-terms, short-terms and short-termism in the Anthropocene

So much of what we hear and read sounds like short-termism. Why aren’t more people taking the long-term seriously? What’s with all this short-term thinking that avoids or willfully ignores the drivers of Anthropocene crises?

Think of short-termism as the preoccupation with a present differentiated as in: right now, now this hour, now today, or some such nearer term. Long-termism is the preoccupation with a past or future outside the confines of that presentism. Just as minutes, hours, days and weeks are conventionalized units, so too past and futures are denominated into decades, centuries, millennia, and so on.

Equally important, the latter long-terms are almost all further differentiated. British historians are apt to talk about the long 19th century as a less arbitrary unit running roughly from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Some Western historians are also apt to talk about short 20th century running from 1914 (the start of World War I) to 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall). Whether broad generalizations based in any of these versions of the 19th or 20th centuries are a kind of short-termism or long-termism depends on whom you ask and the trends or patterns they take for the points being made by their periodization.

–If so, you then can think of the “preoccupation” side of preoccupation-with as short-termism or long-termism roughly independent of the “with” side, the object of which can and is denominated in different ways.

For example, short-termism for me is captured by: “Our inability to forecast the future is the mess we are in right now.” Long-termism, in turn, is captured by: “In the long-run there is just another short-run.” Both views are consistent much of this blog.

But you, the reader, come with different preoccupations-with. Yours may be more akin to: “There is every reason to believe the present can’t continue this way indefinitely.” Or your preoccupation with a longer term is more in line with: “It isn’t a question of if it will happen but when it happens.” Other long/short/ism orientations are possible (e.g., those “middle-range views”), but these illustrative four are sufficient to make the following case.

–It seems to me that when it comes to complex policy and management crises it is not the “long term versus short term,” but rather some crises are pegged to or differentiated by more than one of these orientations. Take the healthcare crisis, at least as I understand it in the US.

Start with “the present rise in healthcare costs can’t continue this way indefinitely”. Now rescript the healthcare crisis through the other three orientations: “The current crisis in healthcare is that we can’t predict future healthcare needs with the kind of specificity we need for taking effective action now”; “Healthcare continues to be characterized by seriatim hardware and digital upheavals, one after another”; and “It’s not if, but when the next pandemic of an unknown virus will happen.”

In this rescripting, “the healthcare crisis” not only reflects multiple but different orientations are at work but also a major way the passage of time is differentiated and tracked (i.e., “the COVID pandemic has been its own healthcare crisis”).

–Another implication is subtler but more important for rethinking the complaint about short-termism with respect to crises: In all four orientations, the future is a hypothesis we have yet to finish with. Hypothesis? A core urgency moves to the fore when we focus on the nature of the present in any orientation: Where, specifically, does “not-knowing the present” come into play in each of the four?

Whatever the specific answer, one point is clear: Conventional short-termism—the present matters more than the future, period—requires more certainty and confidence than warrantable for the hypothesis. That there are more orientations–and competing preoccupations–than my four ones serves to nail home this point further.

The virtue of center-staging not-knowing is to remind those preoccupied with variously denominated short-terms and long-terms that predicting the future can be difficult precisely for the same reasons learning from the past is: Both require stability in objectives, institutional memory, fall-back reserves in case something goes wrong, and low environmental uncertainty, among others. But we are in the Anthropocene: none of these conditions prevail.

–Did I say “the virtue of center-staging not-knowing”? For many, the absence of preconditions for predicting the future and learning from the past is outright negative. For me, it is positive to start from the fact that not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty are as variable as each is.

This becomes clear when we move to the more granular case level. Some regional climate change modeling is of such a high resolution today that model results can be and are in some cases disaggregated in ways of use to critical infrastructures. For example, it’s now possible to project estimates for rising sea-levels, storm surges and inland flooding in, say, 20-year increments to better reflect already existing near- and longer-term cycles for infrastructure depreciation and forward investments, among others. The latter can be updated in light of the projections from the former. Do such modeling results reduce the pre-existing uncertainties related to depreciation and investment cycles? No. Do modeling results increase confidence that action with respect to these cycles can be taken nevertheless? Now: possibly.

Worth repeating I/II

More updates on: innovation, constructed reality, apocalypticism, market failures, neoliberalism, policy palimpsest, and traffic congestion (from earlier blogs)

More on innovation in unstudied conditions
What good is trial and error learning when a system’s massive error means no trials possible afterwards? You do not want to push an infrastructure’s control operators into prolonged unstudied conditions and then wonder why they aren’t reliable.

Some think otherwise. “First off,” the project designer tells us, “I’m always working in unstudied conditions. Every major project, I’ve got to make all manner of assumptions.” I counter: The challenge of project designers is to find out what are the better practices for starting off complex project designs. Here I mean the really-existing practices that have emerged and been modified over a run of different cases and shown to be more effective for design implementation.

“Yet how can a field or discipline grow if it doesn’t move into unstudied conditions by doing something the first time…” This is often stated as established fact. But here too better practices are to be first searched for. Indeed where they aren’t found, then, yes, systemwide innovation should not be undertaken if it reduces options, increases task environment volatility, and diminishes maneuverability across real-time complex system operations.

“But, there always has to be someone who does something for the very first first-time!” At this point, Dutch bluntness is called for: “The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate this is indeed the very first time.” This is a planet of 7 plus billion, after all.

“But still,” the economists press: “What about the critical role of innovation in the economy!” Well, yes, but so too are the infrastructures critical upon which the innovation economy depend. To treat innovation as more important than the infrastructures (without whose reliability there wouldn’t be most innovations) risks Mercator’s projection: It distorts by over-enlarging the already large.

Innovationists don’t see it that way. The risks they take end up the price few of the rest of us ever thought we’d have to pay.

More on constructed reality that constructs
Say you are on one of the upper floors of a skyscraper, looking out onto the fall morning. That is Reality I: You are the observing subject looking out at reality. After a point, you realize that spot in the distance is actually a plane headed toward you in the World Trade Center. That is Reality II: You become the object of reality, in that grip of the real, and no longer just observer.

There is, however, Reality III. This is of the air traffic controllers during 9/11. Neither the observer of the first reality nor the object of second, these professionals achieved the unprecedented without incident that day. They were instructed to land all commercial and general aviation aircraft in the United States—some 4,500 aircraft—and did so.

Without overdrawing the point, so too do we demand seeing that professionals land those water, electricity, transportation, telecommunications, and many more critical services every day without major incident.

More on apocalypticism
The ecologists and environmentalists I’ve worked with by and large insist that more things go straight-out, hair-raisingly wrong than they go right. It is easier to mismanage an ecosystem than it is to manage it. Ecosystem collapse is more certain than ecosystem sustainability; negative externalities are to be expected, positive ones not. Probabilities of cascading failure in large technical systems are primed to flip to 1.0 in no time flat.

Where pastoralist cattle numbers are rising, it must be because of “a tragedy of the commons.” Where resource extraction is going up, it must be because of “globalization.” We must manage the planet’s resources better, but no one can expect technology to help us. Economic growth is never a sufficient condition for improving the environment, while economic growth’s irreversible impacts on the environment are always a sufficient condition for precaution. Except, however, when failure is not an option! So much is uncertain that anything is possible, and “thus” everything must be at risk. Whatever humans touch they make worse, this Barry Commoner’s Third Law of Ecology.

This—realism, anxiety, existential panic, dog-whistle alarmism—rarely displays the slightest intimation or whiff of possibility that the decades of environmental advances since the 1960s have been a noble experiment. Nor is it a surprise that if you spread environmental practices worldwide—e.g., plant more trees!—you spread tree diseases worldwide and such. Nor is there a scintilla of recognition that their exhortations to get us to do the right thing pale before the record of really-existing humans with real problems in real time who routinely do not follow orders, even in the most totalitarian of regimes.

So where does their Next-Is-Worse leave us? It’s certainly easier to understand why “the environmental movement”—holding these views as many of its members appear to do—is itself blamed for failing to stop or otherwise mitigate anthropogenic climate change or species extinction and biodiversity loss.

–-“Actually-existing capitalism is a catastrophe”? Catastrophism to be about anything has to be about the end, as in: It ends in fire, our institutions explode and burn—or in ice, our institutions seize up, implode finally and entirely. Always-late capitalism, on the other hand, is about ensuring that things going its way do not end any time soon (i.e., ensuring that in the long run there’s just another short run). You’d be right in saying the engine of always-late capitalism is to generate seriatim uncertainties on which and from which to speculate and make money. (The irony is extreme, however: “[T]he revolution does not know the secret of the future, but proceeds in the same manner as capitalism, exploiting every opening that presents itself”—Georges Sorel, French political philosopher.)

More on market failures
Economists tell us there are four principal types of market failure: public goods, externalities, asymmetric information, and market power. They do not talk about the fifth type, the one where efficient markets actually cause market failure by destroying the infrastructure underlying and stabilizing markets and their allocative activities.

Consider here the 2010 flash crash of the U.S. stock market. Subsequent investigations found that market transactions happened so quickly and were so numerous under conditions of high-frequency trading and collocated servers that a point came when no liquidity was left to meet proffered transactions. Liquidity dried up and with it, price discovery. ‘‘Liquidity in a high-speed world is not a given: market design and market structure must ensure that liquidity provision arises continuously in a highly fragmented, highly interconnected trading environment,’’ as a report by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) put it for the crash. Here, efficiencies realized through high transaction speeds worked against a market infrastructure that would have operated reliably otherwise.

The economist counters by asserting, ‘‘Obviously the market was not efficient because the full costs of reliability were not internalized.’’ But my point remains: Market failure under standard normal conditions of efficiency say nothing about anything so fundamental as infrastructure reliability as foundational to economic efficiency.

–The research challenge is to identify under what conditions does the fifth market failure arise empirically. Until that is done, the better part of wisdom—the better part of government regulation—would be to assume fully efficient markets are low-performance markets when the stabilizing market infrastructure underlying them is prone to this type of market failure. Put positively, highly reliable markets are productive and sufficiently efficient when the underlying market infrastructure is not prone to the destabilizing fifth type of market failure.

But what, then, is “prone”? Low-performing market infrastructure results from the vigorous pursuit of self-interest and efficiencies that hobble real-time market infrastructure operators in choosing strategies that ensure longer-term high reliability of the market infrastructure. (Consider the notion of “competitiveness,” which is nothing more than the red-meat economism of cost slashing, whatever the effects on labor productivity or economic efficiency.)

There is another way to put the point: High reliability management of critical infrastructures does not mean those infrastructures are to run at 100% full capacity. Quite the reverse. High reliability requires the respective infrastructures not work full throttle: Positive redundancy or fallback assets and options—what the economists’ mis-identified “excess capacity”—are needed in case of sudden loss of running assets and facilities, the loss of which would threaten infrastructure-wide reliability and, with it, price discovery. To accept that “every system is stretched to operate at its capacity” may well be the worst threat to an infrastructure and its economic contributions.

–In this view, critical infrastructures are economically most reliably productive when full capacity is not the long-term operating goal. Where so, efficiency no longer serves as a benchmark for economic performance. Rather, we must expect the gap between actual capacity and full capacity in the economy to be greater under a high reliability standard, where the follow-on impacts for the allocation and distribution of services are investments in having a long term. In particular, people typically think of real-time economic stability in comparison to the past. How stable before is the retrospective view. Prospectively, however, that economy is only as reliable as the next downturn ahead. Economic growth has prospective reliability to the extent critical infrastructures and their link to productivity are the driver. This means the relationship between the economic short run and long run changes with the development of infrastructure and mandates for their reliability.

More on the neoliberal status quo
We hear much about those stopped up short by “the unimaginability of any alternative to the neoliberal status quo.” (At the risk of anachronism, here’s Theodor Adorno, the left theorist and critic, in 1956: “The horror is that for the first time we live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one.”) Surely, though, that’s a glove pulled inside-out. Isn’t it better to say neoliberalism generates so much contingency and uncertainty that it undermines a conventionally understood “status quo’?

There is no place that fixes (both senses of the word) our understanding or unease. It’s the status quo as full-stop-stable that is unimaginable. Or to put the same point from a direction some insist is imaginable: “A crisis is defined as ‘stable’ if neither side has or perceives an incentive to use weapons of nuclear weapons first out of the fear that the other side is about to do so.”

That is, more of us are in the margins than we know, and that is where we best belong. As if we could ever rely on policymakers and public managers to know where the status quo is!

More on policy palimpsest
The philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, writes in The Big Transcript:

In a story it says: “After he said that he left her, as he had done the day before.” If I am asked whether I understand this sentence, there’s no easy answer. It’s an English sentence and in that respect I understand it. I would know, for instance, how one could use this sentence. I could come up with a context of my own for it. And yet I don’t understand it in the same way I would understand it if I had read the story up to that point. (Cf language-games.) [7e]

Replace “if I had read the story” with “if I had read the palimpsest,” and you get the point about policy palimpsest. The spaces in between the words, “After he said that he left her, as he had done the day before,” are just as important, if not more so, than the actual words read in the sense that the spaces signify all that has been left out. Not to see this is a failure of understanding what you are reading.

How so? Immediately after the above quote, Wittgenstein asks us to think of the sentence as if it were a painting:

What does it mean to understand a painted picture? Here too there is understanding and a failure to understand! And here too ‘understanding’ and ‘failure to understand’ can mean different things. –The picture represents an arrangement of objects in space, but I am incapable of seeing a part of the picture three-dimensionally; rather, in that part I see only patches of the picture. . .[M]aybe I know all of the objects, but – in another sense – don’t understand how they’re arranged. [7e]

So too we understand the words in a composite argument but fail to understand the three-dimensionality of the palimpsest from which the composite has been patched together and arranged.

In actuality, each composite implies that three-dimensionality. It does so by having rearranged the palimpsest’s elements-with-effacements from different contexts into, literally, the straight lines we call sentences. These linear, sequential and continuous expressions are in fact the twisted and turning meshes of interrupted time and space. The challenge for better understanding is to read each composite argument as tethering the entire policy palimpsest to it. Analysis in such a world is like fly-fishing, where the artificial fly cast onto the water’s surface is already hooked to what is out of sight for what seems not to be there.

More on traffic congestion
The minute you take the significance of the car to be something other than the source of traffic congestion; the minute you see how luck matters in that congestion;. . .

the minute you know it’s a miracle there aren’t more agencies and groups fighting over stewardship rights in better addressing traffic congestion;. . .

the minute you see that no one is going to compensate you for being stuck in traffic, that life is sometimes unfair because other parts of it aren’t, and that situations, like congestion, can be improved, though not for very long; . . .

the minute you see that the traffic jam is the herd behavior of a people intent on imitating others; the minute you see that those strategies and arguments in favor of reducing congestion (privatization of public infrastructure, congestion tolls, full-cost pricing of cars) lead to pressures to increase wealth and thus economic growth and along with it having more cars;. . .

. . .that is the minute you start to rethink traffic congestion.

Kids’ lit?

Have you been struck by how good children’s books are today compared to, well let me say it, journal articles on the same topics? Granted, awful children’s books are published, but nothing like the carve-outs we get from the expertocratic commentariat. That sigh from the editor of an economics journal of long ago is hammering on and on: “Close to a thousand manuscripts a year–and I swear that the profession would be better off if most of them hadn’t been written, and certainly if most of them hadn’t been published”.

–I liked reading Bill Peet’s 1970 The Wump World to my son (Dr. Seuss’s eco-scary The Lorax was published a year later), and I’m giving it to my grand-daughters. I know no better illustration of our cratered planet and where hope fits in. There is the touch of amateur in all this, but in that old sense true democracy started with amateurs ready to be apprentices. In a way journal articles can’t, children’s books let me say to myself, “I’m still here.”

–In the absence of footnoting kids’ lit in our articles, I’m tempted to read something like the following in between their lines:

Nearly two decades ago, our Wile E. Coyote economy ran off the cliff but has managed to run in place without looking down ever since. . .While in the netherworld below, two armies battle in the dark. One the legion of Dementors with their trillions in wealth destruction. The other Mad Hatters, who believe the worst possible thing you can do when things get dark is to save for when things go worse and the best possible thing to do is to spend wads of money you don’t have. . .

But, then again, children have a finer eye than the contempt of adults. . .

–Speaking of whom, if we are the ones demanding more and more from governments by way of better services and value, then the kids’ section of the public library is probably one place in your city doing that. Even with shock-jock budget cuts (and more cuts. . . ), this room is an incandescent, bespoke part of the public sphere.

No guarantees it will continue, of course. But we too are here and it’s a shame to pigeon-hole this as kids’ lit.

Principal source

Osterweil, V. (2021). “Money for nothing: the more complex crypto seems, the higher the pyramid schemes can go.” Real Life (accessed online on December 3 2021 at