Say you bought a kitchen blender for Rs 2500 ($30). After 3 months, the blender stops working. To avail of the warranty, you need to call the company, negotiate their IVR and also deal with the person who finally speaks with you. They might ask you to come to a location with the appliance leave it there for them to check, perform repairs and ask you to come another day to pick it up.
So much inconvenience!
Given the relatively low price would you be tempted into throwing it away and just getting another one? This time another brand that lasts long enough for you to forget the exact date you bought it.
Now, let us say, you had spent Rs 40,000 ($500) to buy this product would you do the same thing? Would you just throw it away and get another one? I suppose you will suffer the call centre and the travel if needed but you will make sure it is fixed.
Over the last hundred years, the singular focus of every business has been to bring down costs. The only way that they bring down costs is
a) By exploiting every single human that they possibly can. When the exploitation reached their boundaries in the home country, they simply outsourced to places where exploitation was easier – China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India
b) By externalising the cost to the environment that the production of many of these things causes.
A plastic bag is so cheap because none of us have to deal with the actual disposal of the bag. If one was asked to ensure the proper disposal of a plastic bag in such a way that it does not end up in a landfill or ocean, the only option left would be to burn it. I can assure you if you needed to burn every gram of plastic that you bought and inhale the toxic fumes that fill up the air as a result, you would probably just stop buying plastic.
This applies to pretty much everything. Fast fashion, electronic devices, appliances, storage solutions, utensils, furniture, etc. everything is being made cheaper and cheaper so that more and more can be sold.
On the other side, we throw more and more of these things away more frequently.
When I was a kid, there used to be two occasions I would get to buy clothes – my birthday and Diwali. That was it. Now people buy clothes for no reason at all. This is possible because of the low costs. Also, there are only so many clothes that you can wear, so many of them get thrown away almost as soon as they are bought. First, the resources that are put into making the cloth and then the resources to deal with the waste, the environmental footprint is huge.
What was the last thing you repaired?
There was a time, not too long ago, when we would get our clothes fixed if they had a rip. We would get slippers and shoes taken to the cobbler to get them fixed if the sole came off. There used to be an electrical repair shop everywhere for fixing small appliances. These are almost impossible to find now. We just throw out whatever it is and get a new one.
The cheaper things have become the more easily we are willing to throw things out. Then we produce more to replace these.
If you study history it is almost impossible to tell when a civilisation or a city began to die. If you quiz 5 historians you will get 5 different answers.
When did the British Empire end in India?
India gained independence from the British on the 15th August 1947. But…
Truth be told, that was the day the actual handover took place. The discussions on the same had started way back in 1945. The reason those discussions even got tabled was because England had won a pyrrhic victory against the Germans in the Second World War. They were neck-deep in debt to the Americans and had to concede to all American demands after the war. Many American thinkers thought Britain should free India. But…
Some historians say that the First World War had already hollowed out British wealth. Woodrow Wilson already had his hands on the British jugular because of the loans the American public had extended to the British. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in 1919 cemented the demise of the Empire in India. The only reason Gandhi was able to pursue non-violence as a path to independence was because the British had already given up.
I am sorry for that heavy digression. The point is… I am going to make a point.
When the Pandemic started, every white-collar worker continued to work like nothing was even going on. They went about life as usual. Products were launched, sales targets were met, growth was registered, and it was as if the office was totally unnecessary.
The death knell for commercial real estate was sounded.
Now, in New York, for instance, 24% of the real estate is commercial. Mostly offices, these spur other commercial real estate like retail, restaurants, etc. In fact, it is this clustering that gives us the Commercial Business District (CBD) or the beating heart of most modern cities.
If people do not work in these offices, the retail space loses value. If there is no retail or office functioning, who would even go to the CBD?
The pandemic ended, insofar as all of us were not masked up all the time. Most of those workers never returned to the office. Businesses continued to pay the lease, hoping to go back to normal. At some point between 2021 and 2022, offices started shutting down. Leases that came up for renewal were not renewed.
At this point in 2023, it would be safe to say that almost ALL white-collar workers are in some kind of hybrid work mode. Many are still in FULL work-from-home mode and even the slightest suggestion of using the office again results in revolt.
Amazon employees staged a protest this week over the company’s return-to-office mandate. The tech giant doesn’t seem too bothered by it.
“We’re always listening and will continue to do so, but we’re happy with how the first month of having more people back in the office has been,” Amazon spokesperson Brad Glasser told Fortune.
In February, CEO Andy Jassy sent a memo saying remote workers should return to the office on May 1. “We should go back to being in the office together the majority of the time (at least three days per week),” he wrote.
Google recently implemented changes to its hybrid office policy, introducing badge tracking and emphasising the inclusion of attendance in performance reviews. Furthermore, employees who were previously granted approval for remote work may now face a re-evaluation of their remote status.
According to discussions with employees and internal posts on a site called Memegen, Google is experiencing a rising level of apprehension among its staff regarding the extent of management’s control over physical attendance, reported CNBC.
Employees express feeling like they are being treated akin to schoolchildren. Additionally, there is mounting uncertainty among those who relocated to different cities and states after receiving permission to work remotely, as they ponder what the future holds for them.
In almost all of the cases, the companies are demanding a partial return to office ranging from 2 to 4 days a week depending on the organisation.
Safe to say 5 days a week at the office has been bid farewell.
Hybrid work is here to stay
The Work from Home to Work from Office spectrum is born. Everyone seems to only be debating how much time at the office is fair.
Some of this conversation is coming back to how strong the home roots are for many people. A person, originally from Philadelphia may have been working in New York but if their roots back home were strong, the Pandemic would have caused them to return back. This is true for many tech workers. If for 3 years it did not matter that he/she was not in New York, why return?
The cities with the most number of non-natives are beginning to take a hit. None more so than New York.
Today, three years after the pandemic emptied office buildings nationwide, Rechler has been forced to reckon with the possibility that the buildings that were worth so much not so long ago may now not even be worth keeping. Corporate tenants are typically locked into multiyear leases, which guarantee stability in the commercial real-estate market for a time. But every month, more leases expire, giving tenants an opportunity to rethink their space, and every day, employers are staring at empty desks. Many companies, which had been trying to squeeze more workers into less space for years, are not renewing. That leaves an office landlord facing hard choices. What should Rechler do, for instance, with 5 Times Square, a million-square-foot building that 20 years ago was a gleaming centerpiece of 42nd Street’s revival? After the departure of its longtime anchor tenant and major renovations, it’s currently close to empty.
Not long ago, real-estate industry leaders were urging the city’s workers to return to their office buildings. Rechler told me in 2020 that it was a “civic responsibility.” They’ve since surrendered to the changed reality. Sometimes tenants are downsizing and upgrading to more expensive spaces; sometimes they are economizing under the guise of offering flexibility. From the landlord’s perspective, motive hardly matters — space is space, and it’s got to be rented. Add in sharp hikes in interest rates, which make refinancing a huge commercial mortgage a potentially ruinous proposition, and you have a crisis that threatens not just the solvency of office buildings but the loans that are attached to them and the banks that hold them and, by extension, the whole economy.
According to Cushman & Wakefield, Manhattan’s office-vacancy rate is around 22 percent, the highest recorded since market tracking began in 1984. When you include sublet space, more than 128 buildings in Manhattan currently list more than 200,000 square feet of space as available for lease, according to data from the firm CoStar. The available space in these buildings alone amounts to more than 52 million square feet: the equivalent of more than 40 skyscrapers the size of the Chrysler Building. Certain areas and building types are particularly endangered — the Garment District lofts once favored by tech start-ups, the generic glass gulch of Third Avenue in the 40s and 50s — but the pain is widely distributed. Many large property owners are now performing triage, trying to determine which buildings are still worth anything like what they paid for them. In Rechler’s case, this reassessment has taken the form of a process he calls “Project Kodak,” after the once mighty film-and-camera company. He classifies buildings that are worth saving as “digital.” The duds he deems “film.” Source: Curbed
And it is not just New York which is in trouble there are also other cities that are in trouble in terms of commercial real estate.
Now the report puts a number to residential losses overall: From mid-2020 to mid-2022, New York City lost 5% of its urban core population, and San Francisco lost 6%.
Although employers are attempting to call remaining workers back into the office, remote and hybrid work has staying power. Today, urban office attendance is still down by 30% from pre-pandemic levels, although numbers vary by city, industry, and neighborhood. For example, workers come into the office about 3.1 days in London per week, while it’s about 3.9 days in Beijing.
But you see it does not end with this. There are restaurants, pubs, and all kinds of retail businesses that depend on the number of people working in a region. If 20% of the people who used to frequent an area disappear consequently a lot of these businesses are forced to shut down. Then people who supply these businesses start to go. So there are several second-order, third-order and even fourth-order effects. Think about the number of cabs that were required in the region earlier and now.
The above graphic also makes me think, the more expats in a city, the harder it has been hit.
So what can they do?
McKinsey predicts a 26% drop in office property values from 2019 to 2030, which is in the ballpark of $800 billion when adjusted for inflation. Again, that’s just a moderate read: In a severe scenario, the consulting company says the plunge could actually be as steep as 42%.
The financial value is one facet of the issue. To be honest, most of the people who will take this hit will be capable of absorbing it. In most cases, it seems like Banks will be left with lots of these properties that have been collateralised. Many of the owners would rather let the banks repossess the property than pay off the loans. So after the sub-prime lending crisis, we might be introduced to the super-prime lending crisis. These would have been considered extremely secure loans!
Cities are trying to redo their buildings to put them to other types of use.
New York City officials announced plans on Thursday to ease the conversion of office buildings to housing and to open manufacturing areas south of Times Square to new residential development, as part of a broader push to reinvent the struggling business district in Midtown Manhattan and address the city’s housing crisis.
The plans, outlined by Mayor Eric Adams at a news conference in a vacant office building, would allow for more housing to be built by rezoning manufacturing areas between 23rd Street and 40th Street from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue. A separate plan focusing on conversions of office buildings into residential could allow for 20,000 new homes, the city estimates.
The problem is architectural. Office buildings are developed with large floor plates spanning thousands of square feet. Turning them into homes means giving each room ventilation, light, water supply, etc Office buildings are essentially floors sheathed in glass on all sides. The only openings are meant for elevators. This is going to be difficult to pull off.
The Death of a City
I am not saying New York is dead. But maybe it is beginning to die. Also, this piece has focused a lot on New York because there is a lot of focus and data about the city. This may be the case for some of the largest cities in the world.
The nature of work is changing and many of the knowledge workers will never ever return to working in the office 5 days a week.
This has caused a significant shift in the demand for office spaces
For many, just being able to avoid the traffic of large cities is reason enough to choose to work from home.
People are also beginning to shift away from large cities.
The ONE thing that the pandemic showed us was that cities are excellent vectors for the transmission of diseases. Cramming 10 million people into 300 square kilometres, like New York does, is how you ensure that diseases spread as fast as possible.
Large cities are falling out of vogue.
What might be the fate of such cities?
Going back to where I started this piece, in hindsight you might find different points or events that served as the beginning of the end. Maybe 2020 is the beginning of the end, maybe it is not. Maybe after all this, it may still bounce back! Perhaps another black swan event might push these cities over the edge.
It is hard to be certain, but it would take a die-hard optimist to imagine a future where these cities grow even larger than the high water mark set in 2020.
Recently while listening to a podcast by Morgan Housel he made the point that in 1920 John Rockefeller was worth as much as 3% of the US GDP. That is like someone being worth USD 700 Billion today. Just for your reference, that is like the wealth of Bernard Arnault, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet and Lary Ellison put together.
But even with all that money at his disposal, he did not have Sunscreen, Tylenol, Anti-biotics, Chemotherapy, Vaccines for smallpox, Insulin for Diabetes, fresh produce in the winter, TV, overseas phone calls, Jets and the list goes on.
The average person can enjoy so much more today than the richest man could a hundred years ago.
This is a well-worn argument used by rich people to show how great the lives of poor people are today.
He also did not have Ozone Hole, antibiotic-resistant diseases, mutating viruses that can three waves of pandemics, AIDS, the obesity epidemic, the diabetes epidemic, processed food that is no good for your health, an inability to enjoy empty unstructured time, climate change, and I am sure the list goes on as well.
It is convenient to paint the world on a constant march forward because of everything that we have. Life was not that inconvenient before these conveniences showed up. It was simpler and arguably better. Only a person who has thrown away their phones and lived in a rural outpost would know.
Everything that we call convenience is the trapping of the modern world that makes you want more and more. The only thing that it successfully gives you is mental illness.
If you go back in history, cities have routinely been burnt to the ground, mostly by humans. The Romans and the Greeks burnt down many cities when they fell in battle. It was a way of exacting revenge on the city. In China and India, the Mongols, and the Mughals, burnt down cities routinely.
Cities have also burnt because they were built stupidly. Over the last thousand years, as cities mushroomed across the world and their populations grew significantly, building was undertaken without thought. Even as recently as 1800, there was no building code, you found an empty plot, you bought it and you built whatever you could afford to build on it.
London has a storied history of burning down. There were two major fires in 1133 and 1212. In the fire of 1212, 3000 people died on London Bridge trying to flee the city.
Lübeck, Utrecht, Bern, Amsterdam, Munich, Gouda, Moscow, Stockholm, Glasgow, Istanbul; between 1000 and 1600 many of these cities burnt partially resulting in the loss of life and property. Often the fire was caused by something stupid and innocuous and it ended up consuming vast parts of the city.
In America, New York has been the subject of many fires and none of them were weather-related.
The fire began on the evening of December 16, 1835, in a five-story warehouse at 25 Merchant Street, now known as Beaver Street, at the intersection of Hanover Street and Wall Street. As it spread, gale-force winds blowing from the northwest towards the East River spread the fire. The conflagration was visible from Philadelphia, approximately 80 miles (130 km) away.
At the time of the fire, major water sources including the East River and the Hudson River were frozen in temperatures as low as −17 °F (−27 °C). Firefighters were forced to drill holes through ice to access water, which later re-froze around the hoses and pipes. Attempts were made to deprive the fire of fuel by demolishing surrounding buildings, but at first there was insufficient gunpowder in Manhattan to use as demolition charges. Later in the evening, a detachment of U.S. Marines and sailors returned at 3 o’clock in the morning, with gunpowder from the Brooklyn Navy Yard and began to blow up buildings in the fire’s path. The Evening Post reported that “The detachment of marines from the navy yard under Lieutenant Reynolds and sailors under Captain Mix rendered the most valuable service, the gun powder brought the magazine at Red Hook was partly under their charge.”
An investigation found that a burst gas pipe which was ignited by a coal stove was the initial source; no blame was assigned.
Benjamin Franklin established one of the first firefighting services in Philadelphia in the 18th century because fires used to break out so often.
Paris was the first city to institute a building code in the 1850s. Part of the reason why most of the buildings in central Paris look uniform.
By the 1950s most countries had a building code. Building codes were introduced, and fire safety became a big thing across the world when building new buildings. Old buildings had to be brought up to meet the code. Materials began to be treated to resist fires. There was a move away from wood for building as well.
This was fixed.
By the 1990s there were only three major urban fires across the world, two of those in Japan caused by a tsunami and an earthquake; compared to 13 in the 1980s.
Then a new phenomenon started to enter the scene at the beginning of this century. Wildfires that turn into urban fires.
2017 – In October, 17 separate fires raged across five counties in Northern California, causing extensive damage in Sonoma and Napa Counties. The fires burned 160,000 acres, destroyed 5,700 buildings, and killed 43. The two largest fires were the Tubbs Fire and Atlas Fire. The city of Santa Rosa, California sustained heavy damage, with over 2,800 buildings destroyed.
2018 – Camp Fire. California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire left at least 81 people dead and torched more than 152,000 acres. The fire burned through the towns of Paradise and Concow and other populated areas including Magelia, CenterVille and Butte Creek Canyons, and destroyed the historic Honey Run Covered Bridge, one of the last three-tier bridges that stood in the United States.
2023 – 2023 Hawaii wildfires. In the most significant wildfire event in Hawaiian history, the city of Lahainasuffered widespread devastation. This fire is believed to have killed up to 80 people, destroying over 2,000 homes, as well as several historic landmarks in Lahaina.
But it was not like New York or Seattle burned down. These were usually small suburban communities or even rural communities that were closer to nature and nobody cared much about them. A few hundred people lost their homes, who cares? I can guarantee you, by October Lahaina will be forgotten as well.
Why the fires?
As I mentioned in my post on the incandescent bulb, wood has a combustion temperature of 350 degrees Celsius. While ambient temperature never reaches that level, it is easy for sparks to far exceed that figure.
Wildfires used to be caused by lightning. Not anymore.
So then what causes the fires to start?
Mostly electricity lines. When you have dry and parched land that is being subjected to high winds, electrical lines can short and produce sparks which may be sufficient to start a fire. Alternatively, a cigarette butt that has not been put out or dry tinder coming in contact with car exhaust which can reach 260 degrees Celsius can start a fire.
This has been happening with uncanny regularity.
There is a price you pay for advancing very early.
The first Utility poles were erected in America for telegraphs back in 1844. The telegraph won the war for Abraham Lincoln. The first electric poles went up in the city of Los Angeles in 1916.
This plaque placed February 5, 1952, by the Department of Water and Power as a part of the commemoration of the 50th year of the resumption of municipal ownership under the control of the Board of Water Commissioners.
The flip side of the story is that many electric poles in America are decades old. Douglas Firs, Jack Pines, Western Red Cedar, and Pacific Silver Firs were used for setting up utility poles and many of them today are 60 to 80 years old.
Even the High Tension infrastructure often built with Iron and Steel, tends to be quite old. The first of these was set up in Germany in 1926. This ageing infrastructure is prone to failure.
And like that, we get the 1000-degree Celsius spark that starts the fire. Thanks to the generally dry air, introducing pockets of extreme heat can create a climate of its own. The small fire heats up the air which moves up and more dry air rushes in the fill the void, which at scale can become a gentle wind that pushes the fire forward. Add trade winds or other such phenomena and we get a fire that is moving at several kilometres per hour.
On the climate front let me assure you we are making zero dent. Even if we’re to take the simplistic explanation of higher CO2 emissions leading to higher temperatures, it is all headed up!
What happened in Lahaina is just a continuation of a trend, it is not new. Only this time the target was a town which is much better known and happens to be one of the larger ones on the island. But the Urban fire is making a return this time from the wild side.
For the last few months close to 33 million acres or about the land area of Greece burnt down in wildfires across Canada. The world knows about this because there was some smoke that wafted over from the Canadian side to the North East United States. The air quality in New York was similar to that of New Delhi on any given winter day.
The fires have not been contained and now…
Officials in the Canadian province of British Columbia have implored tens of thousands of residents to heed warnings and evacuate from areas threatened by “severe and fast-changing” wildfires, and urged “irresponsible” wildfire tourists to stop flying drones in the area.
“We cannot stress strongly enough how critical it is to follow evacuation orders when they are issued,” Bowinn Ma, the province’s minister of emergency management, said on Saturday. “They are a matter of life and death not only for the people in those properties, but also for the first responders who will often go back to try to implore people to leave.”
Several towns and Indigenous communities were evacuated earlier. The exodus from Yellowknife means half the population of the near-Arctic territory has been displaced.
The ongoing fires had caused “terrible loss”, Trudeau told reporters after meeting Yellowknife evacuees on Friday as they arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, with no idea when they may return home.
This weekend, a city called Yellowknife is specifically under threat and fire has surrounded the city from all sides.
Lahaina is perhaps one of the first instances where an entire town got burnt in a matter of a few hours. A power line set off a spark that turned into a blaze. The winds were so strong that hundreds of people could not outrun it and hundreds more had to jump into the water to hold on to life.
The wildfires are turning into urban fires and coming for the cities.
During the Cold War people built bomb shelters because a bombing was considered highly likely. In this case, building a fire shelter might actually be a good idea because such large urban fires might just be inevitable.
People like to talk about cause and effect. Correlation is not causation.
But even causes are not equal.
There are proximate causes and then there are actual causes.
Consider a person who is suffering from alcoholism, the proximate cause is that they keep drinking. The solution would be to stop drinking. Let us shame the person for having no control.
But the actual cause might be genetic or a family history of drinking or stress or some other reason. You need to solve the actual cause to solve the issue, just asking a person to stop drinking is not the solution.
In the case of climate change, our fossil fuel use is often cited as a cause but the actual cause is consumption itself. Fossil fuel or not, if consumption has to keep growing, we will keep increasing the factors that lead to global warming.
I was writing this short post when I came across a news article. Before that some context…
Kota is this educational penal colony where people send their kids to prepare for the IIT-JEE which is the entrance exam for the Indian Institute of Technology. It is akin to getting into the Ivy League. If you get in, you get a lot of resume virtue. But the competition is intense and the pressure is insane. Students at Kota have been known to commit suicide due to extreme pressure. Their preferred method involves hanging by the fan.
So a proximate cause was established and a solution was found.
Worried by a spate of suicides by hanging, the authorities in this coaching hub have taken a desperate measure – ordering hostels to install a spring device on ceiling fans to stop students from taking their lives.
The “anti-suicide measure” was discussed on August 12 at a meeting between Kota officials and other stakeholders. On Wednesday, Deputy Commissioner O.P. Bunkar issued the directions, demanding strict compliance.
If the fans are spring-loaded, hanging oneself would not be possible. Problem solved.
Actual cause be damned.
Here is another example.
Now that generative AI models can produce photorealistic, fake images of child sexual abuse, regulators and child safety advocates are worried that an already-abhorrent practice will spiral further out of control. But lost in this fear is an uncomfortable possibility—that AI-generated child pornography could actually benefit society in the long run by providing a less harmful alternative to the already-massive market for images of child sexual abuse.
Since the invention of the computer we have always had AI and we have never had AI. A calculator that could multiply 2785 and 2329 would have been considered AI in 1900. It was a commonplace machine in 1950. A machine that could compute the next 12 months’ sales based on 17 parameters would have been AI in 1940. In 1980, everyone was using spreadsheets. A device that could have known where you were and summoned a cab to that location would have been AI in 2000. It was normal in 2016 to do that. A machine writing 3000 words based on a prompt is AI today, it will be commonplace tomorrow.
What we consider AI will keep changing because it is a moving goalpost.
Or as Benjamin Evans puts it “AI is anything that is currently not working.”
In the book Range, David Epstein talks about Kind Learning Environments and Wicked Learning Environments.
A kind learning environment is like Chess or the Rubik’s Cube. They might seem like hard problems but at the heart of it are constraints that limit the number of things that can happen. This makes it possible for someone to master these problems given enough time and resources. In other words, it becomes possible to write out algorithms that can solve this.
So a program that can play chess is easy to build.
A wicked learning environment is like the stock market. Nobody can predict what can happen because there are so many variables that just cannot be predicted. So many that you may not even know. How will the sentiment of millions of participants in the market change based on all of the news flowing in from various fronts? You cannot just write an algorithm that can solve which way the market will move.
To master the kind learning environment you just need a lot of volume of inputs and speed. If you can make a billion calculations a second, no person can beat you at chess.
Wicked problems require depth and quality. These require nuanced understanding. It also requires the ability to connect various threads or ideas together to be able to arrive at a singular insight. This is what we call intuition. You need depth of thought and quality of output. That is what really makes “intelligence”.
AI has always been about Volume and Speed.
What we call AI today is only capable of dealing with Brute Force calculation. It can deal with a massive volume of input at ever greater speeds while using tens of thousands of times the power required by the human brain.
What human intelligence can provide you is Deep Insight by threading together disparate concepts and arriving at something new.
Recursive calculations did not give us the theory of relativity, it took a conceptual leap beyond what we knew.
Our undoing isn’t AI outsmarting us. Our undoing is our increasing unwillingness to repose greater faith in human intelligence.
Incandescence is the emission of electromagnetic radiation (including visible light) from a hot body as a result of its high temperature. The term derives from the Latin verb incandescere, to glow white.
Incandescence is a thermal phenomenon but at times it can produce light. If you take iron and toss it into a fire, when you take it out it glows. It is emitting electromagnetic waves that are also in the visible spectrum. Everything that is hot glows in the Infrared spectrum.
If the material has low conductivity or high resistance, it will produce heat which makes the material incandescent. Iron does not resist electricity in fact it is a great conductor. We measure Electrical Resistivity in Ohm-meter or the resistance offered by every meter of the material.
The higher the resistivity, the tighter the noose. Thus higher voltage is required to push the charge across which causes heat generation (think of it like friction).
Iron has an electrical resistivity of 0.97X10-8 Ohm-meter or 0.0000000097 Ohm-meter. Wood by comparison has a resistance of 10000 Ohm-meter. Electrical resistance produces heat and if anything is sufficiently hot, it glows.
The problem with wood is that it has a combustion temperature of about 350 C. At that temperature, it will catch fire, so while it will glow, it will burn as well.
The challenge was finding a material with such high resistance that it would glow when electricity passed through it but at the same time a high enough melting/combustion temperature that it would not melt or burst into flames.
Benjamin Franklin is often cited as one of the first people to experiment with electricity with the kite-flying experiments in 1767. By 1800 Alessandro Volta has created the first battery. People started experimenting with electricity thanks to the battery.
While Thomas Edison is often credited with the invention of the bulb, he was perhaps the last to stand on the shoulders of several giants.
In 1802, Humphry Davy invented the first electric light. He experimented with electricity and invented an electric battery. When he connected wires to his battery and a piece of carbon, the carbon glowed, producing light. His invention was known as the Electric Arc lamp. And while it produced light, it didn’t produce it for long and was much too bright for practical use.
Over the next seven decades, other inventors also created “light bulbs” but no designs emerged for commercial application. More notably, in 1840, British scientist Warren de la Rue enclosed a coiled platinum filament in a vacuum tube and passed an electric current through it. The design was based on the concept that the high melting point of platinum would allow it to operate at high temperatures and that the evacuated chamber would contain fewer gas molecules to react with the platinum, improving its longevity. Although an efficient design, the cost of the platinum made it impractical for commercial production.
In 1850 an English physicist named Joseph Wilson Swan created a “light bulb” by enclosing carbonized paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb. And by 1860 he had a working prototype, but the lack of a good vacuum and an adequate supply of electricity resulted in a bulb whose lifetime was much too short to be considered an effective producer of light. However, in the 1870’s better vacuum pumps became available and Swan continued experiments on light bulbs. In 1878, Swan developed a longer lasting light bulb using a treated cotton thread that also removed the problem of early bulb blackening.
Then Edison came along with this cotton and linen filament bulb in 1878. It was in 1906 that the patent for the tungsten filament bulb was filed by General Electric. The bulb that went on to light up the world.
The journey of 100 years was to find a filament that would light up enough and last long enough. The search for Tungsten was also to make sure that the light bulb lasts longer.
By the 1920s the bulbs had become so efficient that they were not dying.
The Centennial Light was originally a 30-watt (or 60-watt) bulb, but is now very dim, emitting about the same light as a 4-watt nightlight. The hand-blown, carbon-filament common light bulb was invented by Adolphe Chaillet, a French engineer who filed a patent for this technology. It was manufactured in Shelby, Ohio, by the Shelby Electric Company in the late 1890s; many just like it still exist and can be found functioning.
According to Zylpha Bernal Beck, the bulb was donated to the Fire Department by her father, Dennis Bernal, in 1901. Bernal owned the Livermore Power and Water Company and donated the bulb to the fire station when he sold the company. That story has been supported by firefighter volunteers of that era.
Evidence suggests that the bulb has hung in at least four locations. It was originally hung in 1901 in a hose cart house on L Street, then moved to a garage in downtown Livermore used by the fire and police departments. When the fire department consolidated, it was moved again to a newly constructed City Hall that housed the unified department.
Retired Deputy Fire Chief Tom Bramell wrote a history of the bulb. It is titled “A Million Hours of Service”.
The pendant light at Fire Station #6 in which the bulb is installed.
In 1976, the fire department moved to Fire Station #6 with the bulb; the bulb socket’s cord was severed for fear that unscrewing the bulb could damage it. It was deprived of electricity for only 22 minutes during the transfer, which was made in a specially designed box and with full firetruck escort. An electrician was on hand to install the bulb into the new fire station’s emergency generator. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not stated that the short delay would not mar the bulb’s continuous burning record. Since that move, the bulb has run continuously on an uninterruptible power supply; previously it had only been off the grid for short periods of time (e.g. a week in 1937 for a renovation and the odd power outage). In 2001, the bulb’s 100th birthday was celebrated with a community barbecue and live music.
On the evening of May 20, 2013, the general public witnessed, through a dedicated webcam, that the bulb had apparently burned out. The next morning, an electrician was called in to confirm its status. It was determined that the bulb had not burned out when the dedicated power supply was bypassed, using an extension cord. The power supply was found to have been faulty. Approximately 9 hours and 45 minutes had passed before the light was reestablished.
The bulb is cared for by the Centennial Light Bulb Committee, a partnership of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department, Livermore Heritage Guild, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, and Sandia National Laboratories. The Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department plans to house and maintain the bulb for the rest of its life, regardless of length. When it does go out, they have no plans for it, although Ripley’s Believe it or Not! has requested it for their museum.
This would have been a massive blow to capitalism. How can you continue to make money if people don’t keep changing their bulbs? And like that, an electric bulb cartel called Pheobus was born.
The Phoebus cartel was an international cartel that controlled the manufacture and sale of incandescent light bulbs in much of Europe and North America between 1925–1939. The cartel took over market territories and lowered the useful life of such bulbs, which falsely claimed to raise their efficiency and output. Corporations based in Europe and the United States, including Osram, General Electric, Associated Electrical Industries, and Philips, incorporated the cartel on January 15, 1925 in Geneva, as Phœbus S.A. Compagnie Industrielle pour le Développement de l’Éclairage (French for “Phoebus plc Industrial Company for the Development of Lighting”). Although the group had intended the cartel to last for thirty years (1925 to 1955), it ceased operations in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. Following its dissolution, light bulbs continued to be sold at the 1,000 hour life standardized by the cartel.
For more than half a century they destroyed the planet through this planned obsolescence which could have been entirely avoided.
But thankfully technology moved on. Over the years, newer standards of lighting have emerged and as you can see in the chart below, each step has been a move towards greater power efficiency. The amount of light produced by a light source is measured in Lumens. As you can see, the wattage needed or the energy needed to produce the same amount of light has been consistently declining.
The world has been switching to LED for a fairly long time also because LEDs have a longer standard lifespan (50,000 hours) than that of the incandescent bulb. While the lifespan deficit was an engineered catastrophe the efficiency deficit was a technological shortcoming.
Einstein won the Nobel Prize for discovering the photo-electric effect where light is converted to electricity which helps run the entire solar power industry today. The LED is the reverse where electricity is converted to light. Discovered in 1907 by a scientist in Marconi Labs, certain materials like silicon carbide were found to light up when electricity is passed through it.
The incandescent bulb should have been phased out a decade ago. But as I mentioned, Capitalism for the win!
Then last week.
The Department of Energy (DOE) rules around lightbulbs have long been a lightning rod of sorts in American politics. Former president Barack Obama tried to phase out inefficient bulbs, but his successor Donald Trump scrapped the policy. The Biden Administration brought the plan back on track and, starting today (Aug. 1), the sale of energy inefficient lightbulbs will be banned in the US.
A new minimum standard for lightbulbs has been set at 45 lumens—or brightness—per watt. Retailers can’t sell bulbs that don’t meet the criteria, though households can continue using existing bulbs.
Most traditional incandescent and halogen bulbs won’t make the cut.
But wait up, it is not like LEDs are great for the environment. The most common LEDs use Gallium Arsenide Phosphide. Just by hearing the name of that compound you know it is not going to bio-degrade into fertilizer for plants.
So yeah! This is an end of an era to move towards a more efficient lighting solution but also perhaps a more environmentally unfriendly solution when it comes time to lay the LED to rest.
Ted Lasso is a show on Apple TV about an American College Football coach who is recruited to coach an English Premier League soccer team. The new owner acquires the team as a part of her divorce settlement and wants to destroy it because she thinks the football team is the only thing her ex-husband cherished.
Ted Lasso is a man who does not understand football, but he understands people. Coaches are not recruited to teach players how to play football they are recruited to teach players how to play together and he knows that. To the consternation of the owner, he turns the team around.
If you looked at Ted’s resumé, there would be no reason to pick him. His achievement, he turned around a small college team in the mid-western United States.
Just for contrast, let us take the resumé of Anderson who has coached AC Milan, Manchester United and Liverpool. During his stint, none of these teams won any major trophies.
Given these two resumés, the choice would always be Anderson.
The real-world parallel would be –
Ted worked at First Point Consulting and built a great team and had a small roster of happy clients.
Anderson worked at Accenture, McKinsey and Bain Consulting.
Who would you pick? Anderson would get picked even if he had been just shining shoes at all three places.
Resumé virtues are things that would look good on a resume. They are also things that nobody would ever remember you for. Their sole purpose is to make you look good as a candidate. Also, often it is possible to acquire a lot of resumé virtue through underhanded ways.
The most famous of these is William Shockley, a supervisor, who did none of the work on the transistor at the Bell Labs but managed to sneak in his name as an inventor and received the Nobel Prize for it.
Invented the Transistor at Bell Labs, Nobel Laureate – Great Resumé!
Shockley Semiconductors failed because he was a horrible manager and everyone he recruited kept leaving. They went on to found Intel.
He was then appointed a tenured professor at Stanford University. He went on to tarnish his name there as a great supporter of Eugenics.
Great resumé, horrible person.
When William Shockley died, he was estranged from his entire family and friends. His children claimed to have learnt about his death from the obituary section of the newspaper. Safe to say, he did not have many Eulogy virtues. Things that people will actually remember you for.
We have trained an entire generation of people to collect resumé virtues. Even as a student they intern at companies not because they want to but because it will look good on a resumé. Maybe they could have helped a friend during that time and it might have made them a better person? Maybe… But who the hell is going to recruit you for that?
Most large entities use something called the ATS or the Application Tracking System which scans resumés for keywords. They would not even surface the resumés that do not have the appropriate keywords.
In this context you have companies talk about culture fit. You have an entire category of startups called HR-Tech who promise to provide you with candidates who are the best “fit” for the company while at the same time employing algorithms to screen resumés more effectively.
Who is even looking at the human behind the resumé?
You cannot possibly have people go through three filters which are purely based on resumé virtues and then expect it to surface the great people suddenly!
The entire system is upside down. The incentives are all wrong. You take a person who has a decade of experience and then whittle that down to a bunch of keywords. You talk about cultural fit but that is the last thing you look for.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I can assure you it starts with ditching the resumé.
If you watched the latest Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part 1, you certainly got out of the theatre thinking when is Part 2 coming? The answer is even Tom Cruise does not know. It has been put on hold.
Say you wish to make a movie.
A story writer needs to write out the entire story. You can ramble on for 30 pages in a story about the background and other details, you cannot have a 30-minute narration in the visual medium. That story needs to be adapted to a visual format where screenwriters come into play.
The screenplay is then broken into scenes and storyboards are created. Then someone has to write the dialogues that go into every scene.
A director takes this and based on his/her visual interpretation asks the actors to act the part. The whole thing goes into editing where the editors can look at the entire footage and decide what can be left out or pruned to make the storytelling that much more crisp.
If this were a show, there is an added layer of continuity. The characters have been developed to have their unique persona and the writers know their personalities, their quirks, and their past. They can weave that into the story to keep them consistent. The writers start thinking like the character and build them accordingly.
In Hollywood, every creative enterprise is almost like a company with each of these individuals playing being a shareholder in the final product.
Before streaming, movies used to have a theatrical release, a CD release and a cable release. With shows, they used to be released on the networks that produced them but then were sold to other networks through syndication. Each time the producer made money from the resale of the content, the creators would get paid their share. This is known as residual income.
According to a report by Marketplace, the cast started receiving syndication residuals once the show ended in 2004. The cast retained the rights to these profits after season 9 and 10 of the show, which is when they started earning $1 million per episode. All Friends cast members — Courtney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry — receive 2 percent of the syndication income, which is about $20 million for each person per year, USA Today reports.
Obviously, not every show sees the same level of success and not everyone can make that kind of residual income. While the news tends to highlight the incomes that the cast members can generate, the creators also partake in the residual income.
Do screenwriters get residuals? Yes, screenwriters receive residual income. Film writers get 1.2% of the total distributor’s income and TV writers get $27,245 for the story and teleplay credit for the 2019-2020 season.
But these numbers are just a base. Writers can get more based on DVD sales and reruns overtime.
Yes, screenwriters get paid residuals from there past work. But only credited writers on produced projects see any type of return. If the film or tv show was never made but you might have gotten paid for your work but no residual money will follow.
You need to credited with at least one of the following credits to be able to receive residuals.
Unlike an actor, a writer might end up working on several projects which may never go into production. So there is already a certain amount of gamble involved here because what the studio might decide to do is not in your hands and the reasons for cancellation can have nothing to do with the script.
I loved ‘National Treasure’ when it was released. Incredible writing combined with research of history. But the third instalment never went through…
Plans for another entry into the series were halted after the release of the sequel in 2007. The reason was simple – Disney was finding it difficult to capitalize on National Treasure the way they cashed in on movie franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
On its own, the franchise was doing fine, just that when it was compared with Pirates and Marvel, it could not generate similar revenue. But obviously, it would not appeal to the dumb. You had to know and/or care about history to love National Treasure. No fault of the writers. As if to emphasise my point Barbie made more money than Oppenheimer.
In the case of a movie, the income distribution is quite simple. It is all about the box office returns. In the case of Television, it was Ronald Reagan (yeah, the president) who negotiated residuals for TV shows as well as the President of the Screen Actors Guild in 1952.
The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) was formed in 1933 and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) was formed in 1954. These are some of the oldest unions in America and they were formed at a time when wealth inequality had not got to the point where the large business (read studios) could arm-twist the workers into abandoning their unions. They did not have the capital or the political might to blow these guys away. The WGA was formed as TV become more prevalent.
As the cost of living has changed over the years, the Actors and Writers have managed to escape living at minimum wages because of these unions and each time they have wanted to renegotiate their contracts they have been forced to go on strike. As you can see the issues have been pretty much the same.
The WGAE and WGAW negotiate contracts in unison as well as launch strike actions simultaneously.
On average, there is one strike a decade. Same for SAG as well.
Technology seems to change once a decade and they must strike to make it fair.
But the world has changed in the last 10 years and more heavily since the pandemic.
Streaming has slowly been chipping away at Cable TV and Cinema. There is a huge catalogue available for just $10 and you can choose anything you want. The only reason to subscribe to cable is live sports and even that is moving a streaming model. Linear Television has been on a decline and many of the smaller movies had a hard time making box office returns.
The adoption of streaming jumped during the lockdowns. The Pandemic eviscerated box office income. Movies from Marvel have struggled at the Box Office. Further, networks have used movies such as Black Widow as bait to attract more users to their services. Scarlet Johansson took Disney to court about the direct-to-streaming release of the movie, denying her any box office income. Disney settled the case.
The streaming income is also a lot more complicated. When you pay $10 and go watch a movie at a theatre, the income from that is clear. And that is merely the beginning of the problem.
Even in the TV paradigm, the number of viewers who would tune into a show would determine when the show was aired and the viewership also helped determine the ad revenue that TV stations were able to generate from the show. The makers of the show would be able to negotiate income based on the viewership generated.
Streaming companies are secretive about the show viewership. They are unwilling to share these numbers which then makes the entire process of paying any residual very opaque. With TV viewership, the TRP figures were public. Not the case with streaming.
Streaming services charge $10 and give you access to a whole catalogue of shows and movies – tens of thousands of them. Say you watched 100 shows during the month, each should get a revenue share of 10 cents. Their biggest selling point was NO ADS. If you spent $10 million making a show and were to recover the cost 10 cents at a time, you need 100 million views to recover the cost. Netflix has 230 million users and not every show is viewed by half of them. It is easy to declare that every show is yet to recoup the cost of production, especially when you are not duty-bound to share viewership figures.
Jason Belleville (Home Economics): “I wrote on the first season of Cobra Kai, which is one of the biggest shows in Netflix history. I think I have more money in my pockets right now than any residuals I’ve seen from that. I also was an executive producer of a show for Netflix called Sneakerheads, which was a smaller show, but it premiered No. 1 one in a bunch of countries for a little while. I have yet to see $1 from that. And I was a writer and EP on that, in comparison. Some of them [broadcast shows he worked on] you can still get some money from but obviously, it’s not like it was. But there’s always a steady trickle that comes in to remind you that you once worked, right? The [residual] formats for cable and for networks are clear and transparent. Whether they’re as much as we want them to be or not, they’re at least something that you can rely on. Whereas, some of these YouTube shows, these [shows licensed to] Netflix. This whole strike is about having money you can rely on through the years so you can pay for your mortgage, you can take care of your kids, as opposed to opening an envelope and going ‘oh, it’s a nickel this time.’”
Sarah Sokolovic (Big Little Lies, Homeland): “I can tell you the money I made from residuals dropped in 2015 to less than half in 2018. And the funny thing about it was I was on two, Emmy-award winning shows. It’s not on the side of the individual producers, of course. It’s really about the studios making sure that the basic contract has things in place so that actors like me benefit from their work residually over time. There was a time when I was traveling out of the country, so I had to have my mail forwarded to my mother. She was helping me with deposits, physical checks at the time. She opens a check and she goes, ‘Sarah, it’s three cents’. I said yes. She said it actually costs more to mail it.’”
In addition to this, companies like Amazon, Netflix and Apple have deep pockets and they have often got that way by enriching a few. Typically such companies would not even miss a beat handing out cheques to the tune of $100 million to the CEO but they have been told by their doctors writing cheques for $10,000 to a group of writers could result in the development of arthritis around their wrists. Hence due to medical considerations, they avoid doing this.
It is a clash of these cultures that is causing the current strikes.
On the one hand, some people are like you get paid for work you did in the past???!!!
And it is how it should be as well. The creation is the result of the effort of many individuals and their creativity and it should not be appropriated only by those who were able to finance it. Truthfully speaking if this was the case in every industry, you would not have the kind of income inequality that you see today.
Construction workers being able to benefit from the long-term use of what they were able to put together, would that not be a different world to live in?
On the other hand, the fact that people worked on award-winning productions and netted cents as residual pay also shows how streaming is being used to change the maths of what these people can make.
So think of this a bit like you slog for 2 years and get into Harvard and get the $400,000 education hoping that job offers would come pouring in. You are appointed the CEO of a company and you are told that your company is doing incredibly well and it did so well that you will get minimum wage. That is the kind of situation many of these people find themselves in.
And so they went on strike.
The SAG strike could have been avoided but the catch was the use of AI to render the likeness of the actors.
When Paul Walker died during the shooting of Fast and Furious, they made his brother step in and rendered the actors’ faces on him to finish out the movie. For the first time in the film industry, a dead man finished his movie. Now studios can claim ownership of characters and render them through AI. Most of the latest instalment of Indiana Jones was done with CGI. Can Disney cut Harrison Ford out completely next time and render it with AI?
For background actors, they might get hired for half a day and if the director decides that he wants another take, that actor might be called back and get paid once more for the retake. With AI, once a take has been done, the next shot can be rendered using AI instead of having to call back the actor.
Think of voice actors who do voices for animated movies, inanimate items, etc. They are most certainly going to go out of work with AI. The catch is that most of the AI would have been trained very much on their voices.
Is it not Ironic that Hollywood kept making movies about AI taking over the planet and now they are the ones who are the first to capitulate to AI?
So how is this going to end?
Receiving positive feedback from Wall Street since the WGA went on strike May 2, Warner Bros Discovery, Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Paramount and others have become determined to “break the WGA,” as one studio exec blatantly put it.
To do so, the studios and the AMPTP believe that by October most writers will be running out of money after five months on the picket lines and no work.
“The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” a studio executive told Deadline. Acknowledging the cold-as-ice approach, several other sources reiterated the statement. One insider called it “a cruel but necessary evil.”
The big-name actors won’t be hurt much by a 6-month long strike. Also, they can’t do much work without the writers. But for the minor actors and especially for the writers, it might become increasingly difficult to hang around striking for long.
On the flip side, the switch to the streaming model also means that the studios are not really immune. Consumers pay month on month. They pay because they expect new content to show up, all the back catalogue is the cherry on the cake. This means that consumers could cut off their subscriptions in the blink of an eye if the catalogue stagnates. Can they really go an entire quarter with anaemic releases?
Apple TV for instance releases one of two shows a week. They are already down to two a month. Netflix will be increasingly pumping international content and reality TV.
Disney releases have been painfully slowed down and they are in fact courting a buyer for their India business; rumoured to be either Jio or Tata. There are even rumours of Apple being courted to buy Disney Studios. Disney had no plans in place for a world beyond Avengers. The interest in Marvel movies has cratered since Avengers ended. In addition to that they lost John Lasseter due to allegations of sexual misconduct who was almost singularly responsible for the rise of Pixar and the re-emergence of Disney Animation.
Apple needs a lot of content for the Vision Pro that it will be launching in 2024 and Laurene Powell Jobs is one of the biggest shareholders in both companies.
One bad quarter is all it will take to set the cats amongst the pigeons.
No matter which way this goes the power structures are on the verge of shifting. If the guilds buckle, they may never be able to negotiate a better deal. If the studios buckle, they may always be left renegotiating.