Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Monkey Trap Nation

Lukas Brezek
A few weeks ago I flew back to Boston from St. Petersburg. Nine time zones is a lot to fly through in a day, especially when flying west. It all adds up to a single very long day that just won't end. When I had left Boston, I set up the boat to stay above freezing using a minimum amount of electric heat, so I expected to find a cold boat, but not a frozen one, in spite of the freezing cold and the snow, which was coming down quite heavily when I landed. But it turned out that while I was away the shore power cable's connection to its socket aboard the boat started arcing and burned, leaving the boat without power. (I was lucky; the boat could have burned down.) I spent an interesting couple of hours finding tools and supplies by flashlight, then stripping and splicing cables to restore power. As I finally went to sleep that night, wrapped in an electric blanket aboard a slowly defrosting boat, I thought to myself: “What have I done?” Sure, I flew to Boston because that's where my boat is, but there has got to be a better reason than that!

The next day I wandered out toward the center of town, and on the way saw an apartment building which had burned down, it turned out, the day before. The building had been heated badly, and the fire was caused by an electric space heater. “Windows” had plywood nailed over them, there were blooms of soot over many of them, and the doors were boarded up and posted “Danger, keep out!” The whole structure seemed to be sagging and caving in on itself. The displaced residents stood around wondering what to do. Ironically, this building happens to be across the street from the local fire station, but you see, the fire station doesn't happen to have any “windows” on the side that faced it, and so the firemen were quite unaware of the blaze right next door and slow to stir to action. I later found out that the fire got so out of hand that they had to call in help from the neighboring town.

Heat, house fires... see, living in Russia, I almost forgot about these things. In St. Petersburg, apartment buildings are heated using waste heat from power plants. Steam is distributed throughout the city using a network of buried pipelines which provide both heat and hot water. Their cost is just the cost of distribution (which is, at this point, mostly a matter of upkeep) since the energy would otherwise be wasted. The buildings are so warm that nobody wears sweaters indoors, and it is usually warm enough to lounge around in lingerie. On day one of a cold spell it can get a bit chilly indoors, but then somebody somewhere gives a giant steam valve a quarter turn, and things are again toasty. On the first day of a warm spell it can get positively sweltering indoors, and people start cracking windows open even though it's still below freezing outside, until somebody somewhere gives that valve a quarter-turn in the opposite direction. If you find this arrangement inefficient, then you must be sketchy on the concept of waste heat. Power plants are heat engines, subject to thermodynamic limits which cause 2/3 to ½ of the energy consumed to be released as waste heat. Now, there is enough heat wasted by all the power plants in the US to heat every single inhabited structure in the entire country, but instead that heat is vented to the atmosphere or used to heat the rivers and the ocean, and then quite a bit of the electricity they generate is wasted using electric space heaters. In turn, these space heaters cause a lot of house fires.

During my stay in St. Petersburg I did not see a single fire or fire engine, or hear a single fire engine siren. Buildings in St. Petersburg do not have fire exits or fire escapes; they don't need them. The place does not burn. The Emergencies Ministry publishes weekly statistics for things such as fires, and they bear out my casual observation. The reason for this is that houses in St. Petersburg are made of nonflammable materials: masonry and, more recently, reinforced concrete, insulated with hard plaster. If you proposed building something out of flammable materials, such as wood or vinyl siding, your project would not be approved. The walls tend to be thick—5 courses of brick or more—to provide both insulation and the thermal mass to hold in heat. Doors are made with a core of steel plate. Thus, the worst that can happen there is an isolated apartment fire.

Here in Boston, however, houses are made of flammable sticks covered in flammable plastic, the walls are kept thin to waste as much heat as possible, and the “windows”... you see, windows are like doors in that they need to both open and to close tightly to avoid leaking heat, with the additional requirement of letting through light. And so, Russian windows are basically doors with glass panes in them, that swing open on hinges. But not in the US, all because of some loon of an Englishman who—back in that country's dim and miserable past when the English were so poor that they couldn't even heat their houses and just sat shivering around a fireplace—decided that “windows” should consist of two empty glass picture frames (square ones) that slide up and down and rattle around in loose-fitting slots, letting through as much air as possible even when shut. The English then started calling normal windows “French windows,” to signal that such continental tendencies would not be tolerated. This curse of an invention then spread to all the other English-speaking countries, including the US.

And so the Russians heat with waste heat from power plants, build well-insulated houses out of nonflammable materials and sit around in their lingerie even as mercury freezes solid and snow-dunes drift slowly past, while the Americans heat their flammable, badly insulated stick-built houses with oil, gas and electricity, do their best to battle hypothermia and are often forced to choose between turning up the heat and being able to pay for food. Does this mean that the Russians are smart and the Americans stupid? I don't think so. People are people. But there is a cultural difference that's worth pointing out, and it comes down to just one thing: short-term thinking. Historically, the Russians seem to have been less susceptible to the short-termism that afflicts so many Americans. This may be less true now, with the recent hectic pace of development in Russia, but still there is plenty of social inertia causing people to continue to ask and re-ask the same inconvenient question over and over again: “And then what?” (“Ну а потом что?”)

Wouldn't it be nice if short-term decisions had short-term consequences and long-term decisions had long-term consequences? Well, too bad; it's the other way around. Short-term decisions have long-term consequences because they tend to lock you into an arrangement that is beneficial in the short term but detrimental in the long-term. Long-term decisions have short-term consequences because planning for the long term incurs short-term expenses. For example: in the short term, it is cheaper to nail houses together out of sticks and put them up in places far removed from the power plants that could heat them for free, but in the long term the heating bills, the house fires and the expense of keeping up a temporary structure tend to get out of hand. On the other hand, in the long-term, it is cheaper to build houses next to steam mains supplied free of charge by a power plant, out of solid masonry, and with steel plate doors and insulated double-windows (saving on fire alarms, fire escapes and fire departments) but in the short term this is more expensive.

What's worse, the consequences of short-term decision-making are cumulative over time: the long-term consequences of short-term decisions just keep piling up. But people are loathe to admit the errors of their ways, and can rarely be made to accept the consequences of their decisions. Instead, the tendency is to regard these consequences as new, entirely unexpected short-term problems to be solved with more short-term thinking. The result is a tendency to double down on every bad bet, and beyond a certain point the consequences magnify and feed on each other until they add up to an intractable, systemic crisis where no more short-term solutions can be found.

* * *

The monkey trap is, as the name suggests, a device for trapping monkeys. It is ingenuous in its simplicity, and also in the fact that it does not actually trap the monkey at all: it is the monkey that does the trapping. The trap consists of a hollowed-out gourd tied to a tree using a vine. The gourd has an opening just big enough to admit a monkey's paw when it isn't clenched into a fist. Inside is a banana. The monkey reaches inside, grabs the banana, but cannot withdraw it. Even as the hunter approaches to collect it, it cannot bring itself to unclench its fist, let go of the banana and escape. What traps the monkey is the monkey's own internal cost/benefit analysis, which is slanted toward the short term, coupled with its inability to consider the long-term effect of its short-term decisions. It is a perfect metaphor for what has caused the US to go off the rails.

Let us take another look at Russia. St. Petersburg now has a standard of living that compares favorably to many places in the US, including some of its more prosperous cities. Salaries are still considerably lower, but then so are the costs. In Russia, many consumer products, such as clothes, electronics, furniture and all of the other things that can cost almost arbitrary amounts of money, are quite expensive, and few people can afford to own closets full of clothes they hardly ever wear. On the other hand, necessities are quite reasonably priced: housing, education, heath care, communications, transportation and all the other basics are far more affordable. The US is the polar opposite. Here, all sorts of consumer items can be had for next to nothing, but when it comes to the necessities (housing, education, health care, communications and transportation) the norm seems to be to bleed people dry.

With housing, the major issue is that incomes have been falling for decades, but housing prices have only gone up. Housing is a cost, not an investment, because a residence is not a productive asset but a place to eat, sleep and recreate. The obvious long-term solution is to crash the real estate market, bulldoze unpromising suburban subdivisions and revert them to farmland, then build non-flammable apartment buildings next to power plants to provide affordable housing. Next thing you know, everybody suddenly has plenty of disposable income and the economy takes off. But that's long-term thinking, you see; short-term thinking is to prop up ridiculous real estate valuations by buying up defaulted mortgages at face value and hiding them inside the Federal Reserve. And so that's what's being done.

With education, the monkey trap was assembled in stages. First, the value of a college education was inflated to the point where only college graduates could get the remaining good jobs. Next, college education was pronounced a birthright, and financial aid was extended to make it universally accessible, on terms that amount to a lifetime of indentured servitude. Next, the price of higher education was inflated out of all proportion to its value, to cash in on the bonanza of free government-guaranteed money. And so now we have a ridiculously overpriced higher education system that is considered mandatory even though for most people earning a degree no longer guarantees an income sufficient to repay the loans. The obvious solution is to do away with the now meaningless college degrees and fall back on certificates, licenses, apprenticeships and other ways of getting people directly into the workplace. But that's long-term thinking, you see; short-term thinking is to make higher education even more mandatory, but somewhat more affordable, by automating it: instead of an actual lecture hall, students are now treated to a virtual experience of listening to a talking head robo-prof over the Internet from the comfort of their parents' basement. The only two subjects that can be taught using this method are test-taking and masturbation.

I could make a similar argument with respect to health care, communications and transportation. Perhaps I will do so next week. Or perhaps you've caught on already. I hope that this will be enough to make you allergic to short-termism.

* * *

But who, you might ask, are the monkeys? Well, that's the funny bit (at least to me). The real monkeys are the people running the system: the people who think they have it made. You see, they can't let go of the banana inside the gourd, because holding onto it gives them power. They are all the people who benefit outlandishly from the current system of bleeding the system dry: the college administrators, the health care administrators, the various managers who make six figures and beyond, and who are all lavishly rewarded for bringing in good quarterly and year-end results, a.k.a. short-term thinking. They think that holding onto that banana inside the gourd for another round will make them even better off. But I believe they are wrong.

Their prize “banana,” expressed in financial terms, consists of stocks (propped up by endless quantitative easing), bonds (issued by a bankrupt government drowning in debt), real estate (which will have to be protected by a private army as the land lapses into chaos), and cash (fiat currency, subject to sudden bouts of hyperinflation). Where are they going to escape to with all this loot? Costa Gringa? El Gringador? The fabled kingdom of Abu Gringadabi? Once the abovementioned pieces of paper all turn out to be worthless, they may not get too far beyond “¡Sus papeles, por favor!” You destroyed your own country; what do you plan to do with ours? Or are they going to construct a luxury artificial island anchored on some shoal in the middle of the ocean and live there? If so, whose navy is going to protect them from the pirates who will show up and say: “What nice island you have! You want something bad to happen to it?” (They only watched the dubbed version of that movie, and something got lost in translation.)

You see, their short-term thinking is... short-termist, enough said, while their long-term thinking is mostly a work of fantasy. You don't want to be like them, do you? In that case, stop thinking for the short term! Oh, and if you do get stuck in a monkey trap: let go the banana, withdraw your paw, hold the gourd hole-down and shake out the banana, grab the banana, run up a tree and eat the banana while, optionally, making eye contact with the hunter. Got that?

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Luciddreams said...

excellent Dimitri! Thank you.

Also, I'd never heard of the "monkey trap," but I've hard of something similar for Racoons. It works on the same principle. However, applying that to humans (and Americans especially) is a brilliant metaphor for short term thinking.

Not all Americans are retarded however. Many of us have woken up to Permaculture principles and are using them to build a future for our children. Pending Gaia doesn't flush us out to sea for being stupid chemical making monkeys. I recently wrote a blog called "The End of BAU" that you may find interesting. I think it proves that some of us know how to think in the long term.


Anonymous said...

In addition, let me specify the most important reason of the Soviet collapse. Yes, it was the monkey trap.
The banana was oil, and the gourd was Western Siberia, the giant cold swamp, full of oil, which size is equivalent to 1/4 of all US territory.
Exploration of Western Siberia in 1965-1980 was the biggest public works project in history.
In modern US dollars it was a many-trillion project. Hundreds of new towns and cities, tens of thousands of kilometers of roads and pipelines were built in previously unliveable places.
Result was an economical overload and disbalance. (oil and gas was only 4% of Soviet export in 1950, 15% - in 1970 and more than 50% in 1980s).
In 1980s the Saudis increased extraction, the oil prices falls, and Soviet export income became too small to cover that disbalance. That was the main reason of Soviet bankruptcy and collapse.
Modern Russia still holds on that banana, but it became more and more gnawed.

Anonymous said...

(addition to previous comment)
Western Siberia project may be called a long-term thinking: such giant investments require dozens of years to return.
But in short-term it made USSR economically very vulnerable.
And even more long-term thinking requires to ask "and then what?", as Western Siberian resources are finite.

Brian Rich said...

I'm not sure that the value of a college education has been elevated so much in the U.S.
Rather, the value of a high school education has been made increasingly worthless. So students are learning in college what they could have learned much sooner.

Nate H said...

That was very well stated Dmitri. The bill is about to come due on decades of increasingly short term decisions, and we are not physically nor psychologically prepared.


steve said...

Ahh Dimitry, welcome to short terminism, perpetual until terminal. Glad to hear the boat is ok, and you sound as you are doing well. Here on the west coast our pacific continues its great heat sink work of moderating the effects of temperature extremes. The well thinking solutions you propose make to much sense and would infringe on the the sense of entitlement and "me" so prevalent today.

Andrew Brown said...

Those big masonry buildings are great as long as the steam is moving. But mighty cold when it's not - like for instance, in a time of decreasing access to resources. I recall being in Almaty in the mid 90's, when the eagerly awaited Oct 15 switch on of the heat was bumped back to Nov 1st because the Uzbeks were being uncooperative about the gas pipeline. Here's another good example of short-termism. When the weather got cold the gas pressure would plummet because everyone had their stoves on and open, so then in order to cook everyone took out their electric hot plates and kettles and browned out the electricity grid. Then, cold was effectively democratized except for the very poor and very rich who could burn the apple orchards in the foothills for warmth. Obviously, this energy crunch could have been handled differently, but that's always the big question, isn't it -- whether we'll do it well or poorly.

onething said...

I sometimes wonder how your audience takes the relentless comparison between Russian life and American. As a lifelong Russophile, I keep these things secret, although some of what you mention I was unaware of, such as the heating of city buildings. I have an acquired taste for the Russian personality and I'm lonely without it.

When I moved to the South about twenty years ago and they started letting the Russians out, a family moved in across the street. The wife came over one day when I was outside, and said "I want to be your friend." No American over five would say such a thing. This is a charming combination: open like children yet very sharp mentally.
My husband's flat in Crimea has 18 inch thick stone for walls.

Anonymous said...

hahahaha... "El Gringador"

Glenn said...

Neighborhood heating of masonry buildings with waste heat is not unique to Russia. 40 years ago I stayed with friends in Aarhus, Denmark, which had exactly the same arrangement, though the houses were detached single units rather than massive apartment blocks.

Our very well insulated stick built shack in the woods is heated by firewood cut off our land. But then, city people and country people live differently.

One problem in the the U.S. is that this has become confused. We build stand alone houses in cities, trying to make them into suburbs, and the cities sprawl and require a car, or public transit more costly than the tax base to get anywhere. Then we build houses in the country and try to live in them like city people, plugged into power and water and driving to town every day for jobs, school and food shopping.

We still drive more than I like, but we are improving every year.

Puzzler said...

When in Russia on business one winter I remarked on how hot my host's apartment was and they said they just open the window to regulate it. So I dubbed it the Russian Thermostat, which they didn't understand as they'd never seen a thermostat.

justjohn said...

Good article, lots to think about. But I think you are being a little too hard on the development of these things. The US didn't get to rebuild cities after WW2, I'm guessing this was done in St Petersburg after the long siege?

Which decade would it make sense to rip out the wood/coal/oil/gas/water/phone/fiber infrastructure and re-do it "correctly"?

I'm writing this on an East Lansing college campus that uses co-generation. And the capitol city next door offers steam heat, but only has six residential customers - 48000 water customers, there must be a reason people don't take it. (average steam bill is $71/month - not much free here in the US) They do sell $9 million of steam to commercial and industrial users.

jphilip said...

I can't believe that the Russians don't insulate their buildings walls. We've done that in the UK since the 1920s and lets face it we don't even try to insulate our homes very well (sash windows, etc.) I also expect that a lot of the older St. Petersburg structures have wooden insides and roofs.

That said we build in masonry the American standard of matchwood and plasterboard with a tar paper roof isn't good for much other than garden sheds.

There are also trade offs with district heating;
it reduces the efficiency of your power station because your cold sink is peoples heated rooms not the Russian winter.
And it means that the power station needs to be in the centre of town; not so bad with Gas, but Coal and arghh Nuclear thanks but no thanks.

Also it is not free, the steam pipes still need to be maintained, the steam pumped around the system, and I take it the electric company has a right to access your home to check/repair the system. I assume that they pay for heating as part of their electric bill.

And lets face it district heating is not remotely possible under the ultimate renewable paradigm (save geothermal).

I view the Russian investment if were to be made today would be medium term not long term.

Shadowfax said...

In BC here our claim to building fame are "blue tarp condos"Crap made out of particle board and tar paper,usually leaking and rotting within 2 years.
As a boatbuilder I am astounded particle board and construction are used in the same sentence,and could never buy what is considered a house here.

Shadowfax said...

The shore power connector is the source of most fires on a boat,either from the plug to socket connection getting loose or the wires terminated on the back of the ship's receptacle getting loose in the back.
There is a new plug with a built in temperature sensor that cuts power off when over temp is sensed but I havn't seen any used yet.Not much you can do but ensure enough slack in cable and some strain relief with a rope to help keep it in place.It is reccomended to tighten wires in back of socket every year but that doesn't help what happened to you.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

The comparison is apt, except that our particular monkeys walk around... in chain gangs.

The hunter doesn't need to trap each one individually; the ones who won't reach into the trap will still ride merrily along into the pot.

Collapse is "one for all of us, like victory." (один на всех, как победа.)

Greylopht said...

Epic, of course when I got to the bottom I had to say the Gringo thing to ma best friend. We both agreed where they are going...

Gringuanamo of course. :P

Because they are all Bat s*** crazy.

Keep up the great work, much love.

cmaukonen said...

You nailed it for sure.

vera said...

Ha. Someone finally mentions America's crappy windows. When the first sash window fell on my head after I immigrated -- and not the first time either -- I should have seen the writing on the wall and bailed! :-)

But Dmitry, what about collapse? You are undermining your own story. A collapse that only lasts a couple of decades isn't much of a collapse, nah?

Patrick said...

Your opening paragraph really resonated with me. I was recently returning home from a few days in Costa Rica, visiting a friend there. The time between connecting flights was short, and getting through customs, immigration, bag re-check, etc. in Florida took some time. Standing in the long security line, I realized I wasn't going to make it to the gate in time. So I ran up the line, asking people people if they were on the flight to Detroit, and, if not, can I take cuts? People waved me forward. As I rushed to take my shoes and belt off, and empty my pockets, one wag remarked, "Imagine being in a hurry to get to Detroit!"

Hmm. As much as I get sick of people making fun of Detroit (which is much more complicated situation & place than the simple post-apocalyptic picture most people paint it as), the guy had a point. Costa Rica=government health care, good climate that requires very little home heating (exc. in the highest parts of the mountains), no armed forces to fund, fairly low crime. Detroit=miserable winter weather, no free health care, high murder rate, underfunded schools, on and on.

So what was my response to the guy joking about my urgency to make my plane to Detroit? "That's where my wife is!"

Bill said...

Here on the West Coast of the American Experimental Laboratory, we build from "matchsticks and tarpaper" for a good reason: earthquakes.

I've seen what happens to heavy stone/brick/masonry buildings when the earth starts moving, and it doesn't leave much in the way of survivors.

But then again, here, we don't need much in the way of climate control. From Tijuana to Vancouver, snow is an exceptionally rare event. We can afford to build glorified tents and sell 'em to suckers for a million bucks a pop.

What we can't afford to do in the long term is build said supertents where there's no water, but that's a discussion for another time.

William Hunter Duncan said...

That was so much fun. Thanks for that.

Butch said...

Didn't George W Bush buy a massive spread in Uruguay? Also loads of Yanks haveland in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Not, however, a functional strategy for 350,000,000 Americans.

Slavito said...

Great article, Dmitry! I think there's a saying that goes along the lines of "there is nothing more permanent than a temporary solution".

That said, I don't think you're giving the whole picture. Lest our audience jumps on the next plane to St-Petersburg, they should probably be told about month- (or, occasionally, two-month-) long hot water service interruptions... in the summer that are pretty much standard in all buildings in St. Petersburg. The childhood memory of my heating buckets and buckets of water to be carried to the bathtub (for a whole day, pretty much) is both lasting and vivid.

But that part aside, how would you evaluate the current state of infrastructure in Russia? For years, I've been reading about the coming collapse of all kinds Soviet-built structures -- highways, bridges, buildings, etc -- but very few such incidents (apart from the falling planes, which, I must admit, are tragic) seem to have actually occurred. On the other hand, Montreal, where I've lived for about a decade, seems to have one emergency after another: water main breaks that flood THE ENTIRE DOWNTOWN AREA with freezing water, gigantic sinkholes opening in the middle of Sherbrooke Street (the equivalent of Fifth Avenue in NYC), collapsing overpasses, chunks of concrete falling on cars in tunnels, bricks falling off a hotel building and killing customers in a downtown sushi restaurant, and so on and so forth. This kind of entertainment is now almost weekly.

Is the same happening in St.Petersburg and we just don't hear about it or are North American cities actually in a worse shape?

Derek said...

You need to rewire your shore power connections with 'Smartplugs' (which I just did in the last couple of weeks). An amazing improvement over the standard crappy and ancient twist-lock design. http://www.smartplug.com/

Stay warm otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Regarding higher education in Russia, my wife tralked to a Russian girlfriend the other day and she said that (my wife has not been back home in Russia since she left in 1995) private universities and colleges have mushroomed since she emigrated and for example during tests the students photocopy tests with smartphones and send them to outsiders who google all the answers and send them back. This is ignored by the said iniversities who are only interested in collecting fees. So education there has become a scam. My wife and I then wondered about the problem with hiring Russian engineers for critical infratrutcture like bridges under such circumstances or airplane construction engineers who actually know nothing. Scary prospect. Reminds one of currnet building of infrastructure in China.

Unknown said...

We use waste heat from power plants to heat homes in Minneapolis. I am not sure about other cities. My uncle was a steam fitter for U of Minn. and he gave me a subterranian tour of the the steam system. I rode a little cart through tunnels 100 feet below the city. Very interesting and the temperature in the tunnels was about 90 degrees with a subzero outside temp.

D.Mitchell said...

The way you describe Russia is how I wish my country were. I'm sure I would not be happy if it were such a way, but wow. Why can't I live in a country that thinks about things?

br said...

Actually, downtown Detroit utilizes a steam heat system. You can check out detroitthermal.com for more info & a map is curious.

Terry T said...

"...Russian windows are basically doors with glass panes in them, that swing open on hinges. But not in the US, all because of some loon of an Englishman who—back in that country's dim and miserable past when the English were so poor that they couldn't even heat their houses and just sat shivering around a fireplace—decided that “windows” should consist of two empty glass picture frames (square ones) that slide up and down and rattle around in loose-fitting slots, letting through as much air as possible even when shut."

That's the funniest and most accurate assessment of American Frustrating Fenestrations I've ever read. It's a keeper. And you didn't even mention the part about the modern phony plastic muntin bars, that everyone pretends are real!

Related to that, even where these windows had useful function, like in our northern Ohio schools (the tops lower down to let summer heat escape from the high-ceilinged rooms), no one knows how to operate them anymore, what with a whole generation of people raised on air conditioning.

Likewise, we are rapidly tearing down these wonderful thick masonry buildings (construction consistent with 500 year life spans) in favor of 35 year inflatable detention centers that we call schools.

No one even knows to recognize things of Long Term Value even when it hits them in the face. And so it gets mindlessly destroyed so as to fill the pockets of the local pols in the short term. And nobody seems to notice.

As Frank Zappa sized it up, "Everything we've got here's American made, It's a little bit cheesy but it's nicely displayed." All but the American made part, that is.

Apparently, Andre Agassi's ads for Cannon, "Image Is Everything" has become reality in the public mind.

Thus Karl Rove claims that they, as leaders of an empire, create reality- as the rest of us are expected to live in one giant advertisement often referred to as a "culture."

No wonder suicide rates are so high!