The underlying psychology of Generation Snowflake

An interesting observation in the latest issue of The Atlantic. Its “Study of Studies” sidebar column offers another few pieces of the puzzle on how a worldview of optimism/pessimism emerges in an individual. The first is that if one is pessimistic, one may appear to have a more urgent and serious communication style, and thus be more socially attractive. That seems valid. The other is that…

“Optimism can also beget disappointment [on a personal level]”

The example given here is of a student who hopefully expects a good mark for an essay, but gets a lesser mark. However it references only one short psychology paper. The paper’s 2010 date is ‘pre crisis’ in psychology, and the sample was 77 “students in a psychology class”, so one has to be a little cautious. One class of malnourished and hungover hormone-addled adolescents does not extrapolate well to the general population. The paper cited is: Sweeny and Shepperd, “The Costs of Optimism and the Benefits of Pessimism“, Emotion, Oct. 2010.

Simplistic, then, but the finding rings true. Such a habitual year-on-year pessimism (arising from unrealistic irrational optimism) could easily become ingrained at the personal level, given the right personality types and intelligence level. Certain types of adolescents could later use that habitual approach to shape their early understanding of the larger world.

The study notes that the biggest irrational optimists appear to be aware of the trade-off between ‘happy-go-lucky today / dashed down tomorrow’…

“people seem to be aware of the potential costs of optimism — participants who predicted higher scores before feedback also anticipated experiencing greater disappointment should they perform poorly”

But they’re willing to pay the price. This seems to relate to the idea that the ability to imagine longer time-horizons is a factor in optimism/pessimism. If you can’t really imagine a time more than a few weeks ahead, why worry about the essay that has to be delivered in eight weeks time, at the end of term? It would thus be interesting to see how such findings fit with each student’s time-horizon and intelligence level. Are the less intelligent and more impulsive students more inclined to be irrationally optimistic about their test scores, because they naturally lack a long time-horizon?

But what if this whole process were monstrously delayed, until after leaving the cocoon of education? Consider the changed nature of that cocoon in the late 1990s and 2000s: i) the cultivation of a vapid universal “self-esteem” in schools; ii) the “all must have prizes” (see Melanie Phillips et al) culture, rampant grade inflation, the dumbing down of the curriculum so that low-grade teachers could handle it; iii) the severe curtailment of children’s ‘free range’ engagement with the natural world, their diminishing opportunities to learn how to handle individual autonomous freedom, and also the constant lurid invocation of dire (but statistically highly improbable) dangers set against a pervasive background of political correctness.

In which case the habitual year-on-year pessimism which Sweeny and Shepperd pinpoint would have been delayed in multiple ways over many years, with the most susceptible personality types perhaps being the worst affected. Possibly then contributing to the monstrous temper-tantrums we’ve been suffering recently, as certain large parts (not all) of the Millennial generation finally encounter the real-world after 20-odd years of smothering and cocooning.

Doubtless others have a better handle on the murky depths of these psychologies than I do, and have already said this better than I can in a hasty blog post. For instance, I hear that the new Vox Day book SJW’s Always Double Down has several chapters which make a forensic assessment of the psychology of the loud-but-small activist segment of Generation Snowflake. But it seems to me that some of Sweeny and Shepperd’s ‘thwarted psychology’ of optimism/pessimism may be at the root of their troubles.

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Mapping the global potential for marine aquaculture

Today I encountered a recent robust scoping study “Mapping the global potential for marine aquaculture” published in summary in Nature. I had missed it during my usual summer news hiatus. So my apologies if it’s old news to some readers. The study took two years, and found four million square miles of the earth’s coasts to be very suitable for future sustainable aquaculture.

Here in red are the highest “potential productivity” coastlines, blue less so…

I should note that the authors…

“avoided areas of the ocean that are used for shipping and oil extraction, as well as marine protected areas. We also avoided depths greater than 200 meters, as a proxy for the limitations of cost and current farm technology.”

The authors also issued a different chart in press article summaries, such as the article “Global hotspots for finfish aquaculture”. This appears to shows the industry’s growth potential rather than simple farm productivity potential. Presumably the difference here is that this chart also factors in the local investment eagerness, technology readiness, population pressure, ease of doing business and access to markets? Which would explain why Argentina is blue in the Nature chart and red in this one. And why the seas off Northern Ireland turn from blue to orange. Both are relatively poor places, eager for new industries.

If one squints hard (this is the largest I could find the map), then looking at it from a UK perspective I can see a good potential for the coast of Wales around Aberystwyth (a useful boost to a primarily tourism-and-agricultural economy), and strong potential for Northern Ireland albeit at a distance perhaps some tens of miles out. Still, the UK has cracked working at that distance re: the North Sea experience, so it’s not impossible. As someone in the UK, looking forward to a prosperous globally-trading post-Brexit UK circa 2022, those orange splotches off our coast are good to see.

But it’s rather surprising that all of Scandinavia and Greenland and northern Canada have no potential, given all the hoo-ha about greenhouse warming. Yet even with their coastlines off the menu, and even if backward and somewhat corrupt nations such as Argentina (the fat red bit, off South America) can’t get their act together, the report’s authors suggest there is so much potential that such losses may not matter…

“If aquaculture were developed in only the most productive areas, the oceans could theoretically produce the same amount of seafood that is currently caught by all of the world’s wild-caught fisheries [currently 92m tons per year, a figure interestingly “unchanged for the past two decades”], using less than 0.015% of the total ocean surface – a combined area the size of Lake Michigan.”

And that’s with existing technology. But we can probably factor in new ‘blue’ industry things such as: shoals of untethered AI-powered sensors; autonomous aquatic drones; and tele-presence ‘sea-shepherd’ robots. Possibly also breakthroughs in fish-stock feed types and pollution-eating nano-meshes. In that case there may soon come a time when we basically just close the oceans to trawler fishing for 30 years or more, allowing an incredible recovery.

New documentary: The New Fire

The New Fire is a cinema documentary on the promise of nuclear fission via new reactor types. The 84-minute documentary has just been given its premiere at the Heartland Film Festival 2017…

“The New Fire is as optimistic as its title suggests. There is a new fire ready to light the way forward in the United States, and that fire is engineered by bright millennials and fuelled by nuclear fission. The film does a fantastic job explaining complex topics to the audience without ever condescending. The complexities of engineering challenges faced by nuclear physicists is laid bare in simplistic explanations and beautifully rendered animated segments that illustrate how the various designs for different reactors work.”

Equally optimistically, the movie is set to screen on the campus of U.C. ‘no free speech here’ Berkeley on 16th November 2017. Expect howling mobs of eco-worriers outside the venue, although the film does hype up the climate alarmism to ridiculous levels so perhaps they’ll be pacified by that.

The film’s website — which needs a “high-res press stills / press pack” section added, for magazine editors.

For those who want to delve deeper into the topic, I see there’s a new primer book from Cambridge University Press, Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century. Although with a poor choice of cover picture, showing an antiquated lightbulb which undercuts the book’s future-facing theme.

With all of this, my first question is not “can it work”, but “can it work in a world of terrorists” who will seek to turn such technologies to deadly ends? Small sites packed full of nuclear waste, strung all across the planet and at remote locations with low staffing levels, does not seem like a good scenario to me, re: acceptance by both the public and security services.

Still, I guess we now have to think about off-world uses as well. Such as bases on the Moon, colonies on Mars, spaceships inside hollowed-out asteroids. Possibly also large undersea / sunken offshore aquaculture bases. Presumably such reactors would be far safer there, re: the terrorist threat.

Seeing the wood for the trees

A new study in the journal Science ($) claims to have detected… “increases current estimates of global forest cover by at least 9%”, by using new “high resolution satellite images covering more than 200,000 half-hectare-sized plots” in dryland areas.

“The extent of forest area in dryland habitats, which occupy more than 40% of Earth’s land surface, is uncertain compared with that in other biomes. Bastin et al. provide a global estimate of forest extent in drylands, calculated from high-resolution satellite images covering more than 200,000 plots. Forests in drylands are much more extensive than previously reported and cover a total area similar to that of tropical rainforests or boreal forests. This increases estimates of global forest cover by at least 9%”

Sounds like very good news. But I suppose there are three niggling questions here, which immediately spring to mind.

1) Is that 9% figure within the margin of variability for a sample of 200,000 one-acre plots, from an area as massive as whole of the Earth’s dryland tree-growing areas? I mean, if you made a basic Earth model in 3D and pointed a virtual camera at 200,000 random plots, what would be the variability of the results arising simply from chance? Could I re-run it with different samples, multiple times, and then pick one result from a range of -10% to +20%?

2) What proportion of this tree cover has always been there, hiding in plain sight? And to what extent is this 9% figure measuring the carbon fertilisation effect, the ‘global greening’?

3) What part of the 9% is measuring the ‘leafing out’ of the massive tree-planting efforts in the developing world? A chart from the paper, published on a short Science blog post, sort-of-helps with that, but not much…

My hunch would be that a large chunk of of the 9% is natural re-greening in Africa and Russia, plus the huge levels of tree planting in Asia which is now ‘leafing out’ in a manner which makes the saplings visible on high-res satellite images.

Sadly the paper itself is behind a paywall, so it’s difficult to ask the above questions of it. But, effectively, it appears humanity has discovered the equivalent of ‘another Amazon’ sucking down a whole lot of carbon — something which hasn’t yet been fed into the greenhouse warming models.

Moisture Harvesters for all?

I’m not easily impressed by reports of some newly invented uber-box, but a new paper in Science reveals an amazing little device from MIT: “Water harvesting from air with metal-organic frameworks powered by natural sunlight”

“… an efficient process for capturing and delivering water from air, especially at low humidity levels (down to 20%), has not [yet] been developed. We report the design and demonstration of a device based on porous metal-organic framework-801 [Zr6O4(OH)4(fumarate)6] that captures water from the atmosphere at ambient conditions using low-grade heat from natural sunlight below one sun (1 kW per square meter). This device is capable of harvesting 2.8 liters of water [5 British pints] per kilogram of MOF daily at relative humidity levels as low as 20%, and requires no additional input of energy.”

Sadly the Science paper is behind a paywall. But ScienceDaily has a good write-up.

At present, the device…

* is still only a working prototype. The “proof of concept harvester leaves much room for improvement”. But… “Rooftop tests at MIT confirmed that the device works in real-world conditions.”

* needs a mesh pad made… “of zirconium metal and adipic acid”.

* might work best when there’s direct sunlight to warm it.

* it looks like it would need to work with a bug screen and anti-fungals in a real-world deployment. Flies and mites can come in very small sizes, and in a dry environment would be attracted by the moisture: would a fine-meshed bug-screen let enough moisture in overnight?

Apparently zirconium cost about $14 per pound in 2010, according to figures I found, so it is not some incredibly rare metal. It’s also durable in the presence of moisture, since it’s apparently used to cap dental fillings. “Adipic acid” is also common, annually produced in the billions of pounds as a precursor in making nylon. It doesn’t melt before 152 degrees centigrade. The working device used about two pounds of the mixture in a pad. How long the pad remains viable isn’t stated, but the materials sound durable. If the pad can be made to last six months in a desert summer before gumming up its latices with microscopic fungi or other similar blockages, and the starter box costs $95, then it’ll sell like hot cakes. Or, in this case, like hot boxes.

As with all such world-changing devices, we probably want to be alert to unintended consequences of mass deployment as early in the development process as possible. Especially in terms of drinking water with a trace of zirconium or aluminium. Think: the Ancient Romans and their lead water pipes, for instance. But some nano-mesh or other would presumably filter unwanted metal traces out of the water.

But it looks good, very good. And is also well-timed, in terms of offering a simple technology that could help nudge along measures such as a green wall along the southern edge of the Sahara, or even help to water the smallholdings of the coming billions in Africa. It’s also simple like-a-bicycle, which means there should be lots of opportunities for home-brew tinkerer iterations of the sort that took humanity from the ungainly old Penny Farthing and ‘boneshaker’ bicycles to the perfected modern Safety Bicycle form we know today. For instance, might it be possible to block fungi colonisation of the mesh by using light, since apparently “Blue light (470 nm) effectively inhibits bacterial and fungal growth”?

Is Africa about to see mass starvation again? Not on present trends.

According to a new end-of-year FAO report “Crop Prospects and Food Situation”

“Global cereal production in 2016 received a further boost, owing to generally favourable growing conditions for the crops harvested later in the season.”

That’s great, and adds to boosts from a host of other factors. Obviously the FAO can’t commit climate heresy by saying so, but you have to suspect this may be a result of the positive effects of global warming and the global greening that arises from it.

There are some interesting insights into Africa in the report, and unlike most international reports the figures are sound. Since the agricultural inputs and outputs are hard for corrupt regional statistics-fiddlers to manipulate, unlike many educational and development aid outcomes, or things like wildlife counts.

There’s one especially positive set of statistics. In the west many people will casually assume that Western Africa and the Sahel nations are mostly desert. But now these nations are…

“about to achieve record production of cereals” in 2017 and rice is also doing well… “growing conditions have also proven conducive across Northern Hemisphere Africa, where the rice output is seen at a fresh peak of 19.8 million tonnes”

While back in the European Union, curiously…

“Significant production declines are estimated in the European Union, with the wheat output falling by 16.5 million tonnes on a yearly basis”.

The trade journal AgriMoney attributes this trend to urbanisation and afforestation of the countryside, and it affects many other crops such as potatoes. According to this trade journal…

“the downward trend in EU crop area [increases] as towns and forests expand, a decline which stretches back to the 1990s.”

The decline may also be something to do with the ageing and declining demographics of the continent, I’d guess? Old people tend to eat less, in aggregate. This rather startling comparison between the EU and the Sahel evokes the surreal image of a future starving elderly Italian pensioner opening their Christmas food aid parcel, to find it stamped: “From the people of Mali”.

But seriously, the FOA report of course reveals hotspots of food stress in the southern hemisphere part of Africa. These are almost all due to the expected local areas of El Nino‑induced drought, but sometimes to socialist politics or some vicious (usually religious) insurgency. Though it can’t be long now before some journalists start lazily eliding the droughts with global warming.

The FAO’s report suggests that the main serious problem areas for 2017 are:

* Malawi where the corn crops failed repeatedly, and where 6.5 million people sound like they could use some regular subsidised corn supplies as food aid in 2017;

* The basket-case nation of Zimbabwe will likely see even more hardship in 2017, with the FOA saying the nation’s dire politics and the 2016 drought will place a biggest-ever 4.07 million people at risk due to severe food shortages. The FAO talks ominously of “large declines” in its cereal production.

* Localised droughts in the far south of the island of Madagascar “have resulted” [in] “up to 850,000 people requiring emergency assistance”, though the rice production there actually increased. It seems unclear if food aid is still needed, or if the local government can keep handling it.

* There is even western media talk of possible problems in a couple of war-torn and inaccessible towns of relatively prosperous Nigeria, following some recently NGO press releases. But the government there rejects the tin-rattling rhetoric being used: “Nigeria accuses aid groups of exaggerating hunger crisis”, stating that…

“aid agencies had been attempting “to whip up a non-existent fear of mass starvation.”

…in order to bring in funds at Christmas. Food prices are high at present in Nigeria due to some exporting, but the Nigerian government’s complaint is clearly supported by the above FOA report which states that…

“above‑average cereal harvests are expected [for 2017] in most coastal countries including Nigeria where the aggregate cereal output is forecast to remain close to last year’s above‑average level.”

* The Horn of Africa is generally stressed, and major food aid may be needed in the spring in some war-torn parts of it such as parts of Sudan and Somalia, but The World Bank is saying of places such as Ethiopia that…

“Economic growth remained at a respectable 8% in 2015/16, which is impressive especially compared to previous drought situations … said Carolyn Turk, World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan.” … “growth momentum will still remain and since 2016 rains arrived as expected, the recent drought will not likely affect Ethiopia’s medium-term economic growth.” (my emphasis)

Overall, the central and southern parts of Africa appear to have coped relatively well with the El Nino‑induced droughts, the worst in several decades, which have in places provided a bitter ‘stress test’ of Africa’s continuing development and growth. From my reading of the FOA report it seems that, with some relatively modest and targeted food aid in early 2017, the dozen or so very real hardship spots in Africa should pull through without mass starvation. None of these hotspots have arisen due to global warming.

The largest ongoing real risk in 2017 appears to me to be a Venezuela-style systemic collapse in Zimbabwe, and a few conflict zones.

There are reasons for optimism, beyond the next few months. Africa’s weather and rains in the south should be back to normal in 2017, and there are now plans and money on the table to try to make future African droughts even more survivable. Such as:

* grain marketing boards made to work in such a way that everyone can see exactly where any corruption or price-fixing is.

* better management of water access, better access to Africa’s huge river systems for generally increased water supply.

* better long-term weather forecasting of drought, and seed distribution systems that enable small farmers to switch crops quickly in response.

* better access to market prices and trends, via a farmer’s mobile phone, encouraging the sort of businesses literacy that will make swopping to drought-resistant crops easier.

* free or very cheap school meals.

* large national grain reserves (such as those held by Morocco and Zambia).

* reserve government funds, held in corruption-free escrow in dollars — for quickly buying and shipping emergency grain to short-term food not-spots and refugee camps. Such as that currently being deployed by Kenya to help people hit by drought.

* better roads for quick transportation of aid, which will also offer more efficient transport of crops to market.

* drought-resistant and GMO crops.

* simply bringing more land under the plough, as Africa’s population grows and young workers are available, thus boosting overall local production.

* increased open access to global markets, such as the UK after Brexit, opening up the possibility of having rows of high-value crop types growing alongside staple crops.

* cutting bio-fuels production, through which the West diverts a significant part of its field crops to make motor fuel. A reduction in bio-fuels would generally decrease global food prices.