December 12, 2016
It was in an earlier work, 1759’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that Smith put his finger on the social and psychological impulses that push people to accumulate objects and gadgets. People, he observed, were stuffing their pockets with “little conveniences,” and then buying coats with more pockets to carry even more. By themselves, tweezer cases, elaborate snuff boxes, and other “baubles” might not have much use. But, Smith pointed out, what mattered was that people looked at them as “means of happiness." It was in people’s imagination that these objects became part of a harmonious system and made the pleasures of wealth “grand and beautiful and noble." ... This moral assessment was a giant step towards a more sophisticated understanding of consumption, for it challenged the dominant negative mindset that went back to the ancients. ... Rather than being passive, the consumer is now celebrated for actively adding value and meaning to media and products. ... there have been many prophecies and headlines that predict “peak stuff” and the end of consumerism. ... Such forecasts sound nice but they fail to stand up to the evidence. After all, a lot of consumption in the past was also driven by experiences, such as the delights of pleasure gardens, bazaars, and amusement parks. In the world economy today, services might be growing faster than goods, but that does not mean the number of containers is declining—far from it.
Like many astrophysicists, Sara Seager sometimes has a problem with her perception of scale. Knowing that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, and that each might contain hundreds of billions of stars, can make the lives of astrophysicists and even those closest to them seem insignificant. Their work can also, paradoxically, bolster their sense of themselves. Believing that you alone might answer the question “Are we alone?” requires considerable ego. Astrophysicists are forever toggling between feelings of bigness and smallness, of hubris and humility, depending on whether they’re looking out or within. ... Her area of expertise is the relatively new field of exoplanets: planets that orbit stars other than our sun. More particular, she wants to find an Earthlike exoplanet — a rocky planet of reasonable mass that orbits its star within a temperate “Goldilocks zone” that is not too hot or too cold, which would allow water to remain liquid — and determine that there is life on it. That is as simple as her math gets. ... The vastness of space almost defies conventional measures of distance. Driving the speed limit to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star grouping to the sun, would take 50 million years or so; our fastest current spacecraft would make the trip in a relatively brisk 73,000 years. The next-nearest star is six light-years away. To rocket across our galaxy would take about 23,000 times as long as a trip to Alpha Centauri, or 1.7 billion years, and the Milky Way is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. ... Light or its absence is also the root of something called the transit technique, a newer, more efficient way than radial velocity of finding exoplanets by looking at their stars.
In short, FPAQ—the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers—is OPEC. Formed in 1966, the federation was tasked with taking a business in which few could make a decent living—the price went north to south with the quality of the yield, which went north to south with the quality of the spring—and turning it into a respectable trade. This was accomplished in the classic way: quotas, rules. You control supply, you control price. You limit supply, you raise price. Because Quebec makes 72 percent of the world’s maple syrup, it’s been able to set the price. As of this writing, the commodity is valued at just over $1,300 a barrel, 26 times more expensive than crude. ... By making syrup production seem like a good business instead of just an eccentric survivalist hobby, it has brought a great increase in production, much of it in the U.S. Just like OPEC, which, with its near monopoly, spurred the search for new sources. With oil, it’s the deep deposits reached only by fracking. With syrup, it’s forests in Vermont, New Hampshire, and especially New York State, which, Canadians tell you with a shudder, has three times more maple trees than all of Quebec’s maple farms combined. The French province produces 72 percent of the world supply, but if the Americans ever make the push to self-sufficiency, French Canada is cooked. ... nearly 540,000 gallons of syrup had been stolen—12.5 percent of the Reserve—with a street value of $13.4 million.
In the industries where there’s rapid productivity growth, everybody is freaked out, because what are people going to do after everything gets automated? In the other part of the economy, that second part, health care and education, people are freaked out about, "Oh my God, it’s going to eat the entire budget! It’s going to eat my personal budget. Health care and education is going to be every dollar I make as income, and it’s going to eat the national budget and drive the United States bankrupt!" And everybody in the economy is going to become either a nurse or teacher. It’s really funny, both sides of the economy get polar opposite emotional reactions. ... We are very much not present, in what we would consider to be a healthy way, in education, health care, construction, childcare, senior care. The great twist on that is that second category — that’s most of the GDP. Most of the spending is most of the GDP, and these are the areas where we have not yet been able to crack the code. ... How audacious or insane is it to think that you could bring tech to health care or education? It’s probably 50/50. ... What’s interesting is there are probably more new computer companies in the valley today than there were probably since 1982 — it’s just that the products are all these different shapes, sizes, and descriptions. ... Basically, the entire way we live today is a consequence of the invention of the automobile. Because, before that, people just never went anywhere. Therefore, everything that you travel to is a consequence of the automobile.
If you were able to observe this creature in person, which is hard to do, given that they live in only a few places on earth, you would find it in a family network—a harem—with a dominant stallion watching over mares and their offspring, in groups of 5 to 15. For this to happen, you would have to be in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, China or Russia, the only places the horse lives anymore in the wild. ... You don’t ride the takhi, or stable it, or—pony-like as the horse appears—saddle it up and perch children on it at birthday parties. The horse is too wild for that. While it has been captured and occasionally confined to zoos, it has never been tamed—it is the only truly wild horse in existence. Other horses that are thought of as wild are in fact feral. ... There are roughly 2,000 takhi in the world right now, and the largest number of them live at Hustai National Park, within 60 miles of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.