Why we get disoriented in malls

From Wikipedia’s “Gruen transfer” (28 September 2009):

In shopping mall design, the Gruen transfer refers to the moment when consumers respond to “scripted disorientation” cues in the environment. It is named for Austrian architect Victor Gruen (who disavowed such manipulative techniques) …

The Gruen transfer refers to the moment when a consumer enters a shopping mall, and, surrounded by an intentionally confusing layout, loses track of their original intentions. Spatial awareness of their surroundings play a key role, as does the surrounding sound and music. The effect of the transfer is marked by a slower walking pace and glazed eyes.

David Foster Wallace on the problems with postmodern irony

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates. The virtuous always triumph? Ward Cleaver is the prototypical fifties father? “Sure.” Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.

The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.

Energy-efficient washing machines

From Is a Dishwasher a Green Machine?:

To really green up your automatic dishwashing, you should always use the air-drying function, avoid the profligate “rinse hold” setting, wash only full loads, and install the machine far away from your refrigerator.

Just promise that you’ll scrape your dishes instead of pre-rinsing, use the shortest wash cycles possible, and buy phosphate-free detergents – or, if you’re handy with a blender, make your own.

The birth of Geology & gradualism as a paradigm shift from catastrophism

From Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Imagining Abrupt Climate Change : Terraforming Earth” (Amazon Shorts: 31 July 2005):

This view, by the way, was in keeping with a larger and older paradigm called gradualism, the result of a dramatic and controversial paradigm shift of its own from the nineteenth century, one that is still a contested part of our culture wars, having to do with the birth of geology as a field, and its discovery of the immense age of the Earth. Before that, Earth’s history tended to be explained in a kind of Biblical paradigm, in which the Earth was understood to be several thousand years old, because of genealogies in the Bible, so that landscape features tended to be explained by events like Noah’s flood. This kind of “catastrophism” paradigm was what led Josiah Whitney to maintain that Yosemite Valley must have been formed by a cataclysmic earthquake, for instance; there simply hadn’t been time for water and ice to have carved something as hard as granite. It was John Muir who made the gradualist argument for glacial action over millions of years; and the eventual acceptance of his explanation was part of the general shift to gradualist explanations for Earth’s landforms, which also meant there was another time for evolution to have taken place. Gradualism also led by extension to thinking that the various climate regimes of the past had also come about fairly gradually.

What can we use instead of gasoline in cars?

From Popular Mechanics‘ “How far can you drive on a bushel of corn?“:

It is East Kansas Agri-Energy’s ethanol facility, one of 100 or so such heartland garrisons in America’s slowly gathering battle to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. The plant processes about 13 million bushels of corn to produce approximately 36 million gal. of ethanol a year. “That’s enough high-quality motor fuel to replace 55,000 barrels of imported petroleum,” the plant’s manager, Derek Peine, says. …

It takes five barrels of crude oil to produce enough gasoline (nearly 97 gal.) to power a Honda Civic from New York to California. …


E85 is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. … A gallon of E85 has an energy content of about 80,000 BTU, compared to gasoline’s 124,800 BTU. So about 1.56 gal. of E85 takes you as far as 1 gal. of gas.

Case For: Ethanol is an excellent, clean-burning fuel, potentially providing more horsepower than gasoline. In fact, ethanol has a higher octane rating (over 100) and burns cooler than gasoline. However, pure alcohol isn’t volatile enough to get an engine started on cold days, hence E85. …

Cynics claim that it takes more energy to grow corn and distill it into alcohol than you can get out of the alcohol. However, according to the DOE, the growing, fermenting and distillation chain actually results in a surplus of energy that ranges from 34 to 66 percent. Moreover, the carbon dioxide (CO2) that an engine produces started out as atmospheric CO2 that the cornstalk captured during growth, making ethanol greenhouse gas neutral. Recent DOE studies note that using ethanol in blends lowers carbon monoxide (CO) and CO2 emissions substantially. In 2005, burning such blends had the same effect on greenhouse gas emissions as removing 1 million cars from American roads. …

One acre of corn can produce 300 gal. of ethanol per growing season. So, in order to replace that 200 billion gal. of petroleum products, American farmers would need to dedicate 675 million acres, or 71 percent of the nation’s 938 million acres of farmland, to growing feedstock. Clearly, ethanol alone won’t kick our fossil fuel dependence–unless we want to replace our oil imports with food imports. …


Fuels for diesel engines made from sources other than petroleum are known as biodiesel. Among the common sources are vegetable oils, rendered chicken fat and used fry oil. …

Case For: Modern diesel engines can run on 100 percent biodiesel with little degradation in performance compared to petrodiesel because the BTU content of both fuels is similar–120,000 to 130,000 BTU per gallon. In addition, biodiesel burns cleaner than petrodiesel, with reduced emissions. Unlike petrodiesel, biodiesel molecules are oxygen-bearing, and partially support their own combustion.

According to the DOE, pure biodiesel reduces CO emissions by more than 75 percent over petroleum diesel. A blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petrodiesel, sold as B20, reduces CO2 emissions by around 15 percent.

Case Against: Pure biodiesel, B100, costs about $3.50–roughly a dollar more per gallon than petrodiesel. And, in low temperatures, higher-concentration blends–B30, B100–turn into waxy solids and do not flow. Special additives or fuel warmers are needed to prevent fuel waxing. …


Case For: Vehicles that operate only on electricity require no warmup, run almost silently and have excellent performance up to the limit of their range. Also, electric cars are cheap to “refuel.” At the average price of 10 cents per kwh, it costs around 2 cents per mile. …

A strong appeal of the electric car–and of a hybrid when it’s running on electricity–is that it produces no tailpipe emissions. Even when emissions created by power plants are factored in, electric vehicles emit less than 10 percent of the pollution of an internal-combustion car.

Case Against: Pure electric cars still have limited range, typically no more than 100 to 120 miles. In addition, electrics suffer from slow charging, which, in effect, reduces their usability….

And then there’s the environmental cost. Only 2.3 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from renewable resources; about half is generated in coal-burning plants.


Hydrogen is the most abundant element on Earth, forming part of many chemical compounds. Pure hydrogen can be made by electrolysis–passing electricity through water. This liberates the oxygen, which can be used for many industrial purposes. Most hydrogen currently is made from petroleum.

Case For: Though hydrogen can fuel a modified internal-combustion engine, most see hydrogen as a way to power fuel cells to move cars electrically. The only byproduct of a hydrogen fuel cell is water.

Case Against: … And, despite the chemical simplicity of electrolysis, producing hydrogen is expensive and energy consuming. It takes about 17 kwh of electricity, which costs about $1.70, to make just 100 cu. ft. of hydrogen. That amount would power a fuel cell vehicle for about 20 miles.

Zombie ships adrift off the shore of Africa

From “Happiness: The Chinese zombie ships of West Africa“:

We’re in the big African Queen inflatable, cruising alongside an anchored trawler. It’s more rust than metal – the ship is rotting away. The foredeck is covered in broken machinery. The fish deck is littered with frayed cables, and the mast lies horizontally, hanging over the starboard side. A large rusty Chinese character hangs on railings above the bridge, facing forward. It reads ‘happiness’. …

Moff turns the boat, taking us to another of the rusting fishing vessels, 70 nautical miles (130km) off the coast of Guinea, West Africa. We had been told this was where old pirate fishing boats were left at anchor, abandoned. We didn’t expect to find living people on board the dying ships. …

We head away, going with the current, which was purple and green with the dregs of spilled fuel. Throughout the afternoon, I keep noticing just how dirty the water is, with oil and fragments of plastic.

We arrive at Long way 08, which is in line for refuelling. This trawler is in a poor state, with the hull covered in masses of good-sized shellfish.

Four young Chinese crewman meet us with smiles and welcomes. They tell us that some of them have been on board for 2 years, non-stop. The trawler itself has been out here for eight years, and would probably be kept going for another six or so, or as long it lasted.

Here’s the thing – these ships seldom, or ever, visit a port. They’re re-supplied, refuelled, re-crewed and transhipped (unloaded) at sea. The owners and crews don’t seem to do any basic maintenance, apart from keeping the engine and winches running. There’s no glass in the portholes, and the masts are a mess of useless wiring. These floating deathtraps don’t carry any proper safety gear – on one boat, I saw the half-barrel case of an inflatable liferaft being used to store a net. …

We move to the second ship, where again, a bunch of friendly young guys have been sitting at anchor for two months, waiting technical help and a new crew. Their engine doesn’t work, and they no safety gear or radio. They can, however, run their watermaker, for desalinating seawater. Lines of drying fish hang over the deck, but they’re running out of other food, and are often forced to signal other fishing boats for help. Like everyone else, their future is uncertain. …

… we talk to the chirpy Guinean fisheries observer on their vessel. He’s very chatty, and tells us what is going on – that the other trawler was basically being dumped here. He says that the Chinese boats were in poor shape generally, and that last year, one had sunk, taking 14 crew with it. What are conditions like on this boat? He shrugs: “Not good. But I have to have a job.” …

Later, as we drop some supplies to the engine-less trawler, we see one of the crew hauling himself along on a rope, while standing on a small raft. It’s bizarre sight, but this is how they get between the two decrepit vessels. …

Earlier in the day – before the graveyard of zombie trawlers, fisheries inspectors had told us of where the fish actually goes. Caught by the Chinese and other trawlers, it’s transhipped to several different vessels. ‘High value’ stock goes to Las Palmas, in the Canaries and off to the dinner tables of Europe. The ‘dirt’ fish is transhipped to Africa. The Chinese fishermen, it seems, barely get a look in. ‘Happiness’ indeed.

Feral cities of the future

From Richard J. Norton’s “Feral cities – The New Strategic Environment” (Naval War College Review: Autumn, 2003):

Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power. Such cities have been routinely imagined in apocalyptic movies and in certain science-fiction genres, where they are often portrayed as gigantic versions of T. S. Eliot’s Rat’s Alley. Yet this city would still be globally connected. It would possess at least a modicum of commercial linkages, and some of its inhabitants would have access to the world’s most modern communication and computing technologies. It would, in effect, be a feral city.

The putative “feral city” is (or would be) a metropolis with a population of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.

In a feral city social services are all but nonexistent, and the vast majority of the city’s occupants have no access to even the most basic health or security assistance. There is no social safety net. Human security is for the most part a matter of individual initiative. Yet a feral city does not descend into complete, random chaos. Some elements, be they criminals, armed resistance groups, clans, tribes, or neighborhood associations, exert various degrees of control over portions of the city. Intercity, city-state, and even international commercial transactions occur, but corruption, avarice, and violence are their hallmarks. A feral city experiences massive levels of disease and creates enough pollution to qualify as an international environmental disaster zone. Most feral cities would suffer from massive urban hypertrophy, covering vast expanses of land. The city’s structures range from once-great buildings symbolic of state power to the meanest shantytowns and slums. Yet even under these conditions, these cities continue to grow, and the majority of occupants do not voluntarily leave.

Feral cities would exert an almost magnetic influence on terrorist organizations. Such megalopolises will provide exceptionally safe havens for armed resistance groups, especially those having cultural affinity with at least one sizable segment of the city’s population. The efficacy and portability of the most modern computing and communication systems allow the activities of a worldwide terrorist, criminal, or predatory and corrupt commercial network to be coordinated and directed with equipment easily obtained on the open market and packed into a minivan. The vast size of a feral city, with its buildings, other structures, and subterranean spaces, would offer nearly perfect protection from overhead sensors, whether satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles. The city’s population represents for such entities a ready source of recruits and a built-in intelligence network. Collecting human intelligence against them in this environment is likely to be a daunting task. Should the city contain airport or seaport facilities, such an organization would be able to import and export a variety of items. The feral city environment will actually make it easier for an armed resistance group that does not already have connections with criminal organizations to make them. The linkage between such groups, once thought to be rather unlikely, is now so commonplace as to elicit no comment.