Dispatches: Friday 06/Aug/21

I picked up a new Moleskine notebook the other day. They make wonderfully tactile notebooks. They just feel right. I also like to start my year in September. In fact, I consider the year to be about three parts. There’s September through Christmas, then after new year to summer, then summer and back around again. Maybe I spent too much time in academic institutions during my formative years and my head is still in that shape of calendar. It fits how I think about the year. There’s summer, which is holidays, nice weather (hopefully), unwinding, being outside. Then you settle down for autumn, make plans, get ready for the big mid-winter festival (to the max), then you’re into a post fun doldrum and heading for spring. So that’s why I bought myself a new mid-year moleskine diary. Because my year starts next month.

This is the best definition of self-driving I’ve seen, from Alex Roy:

Can I sleep in it?

That’s it. That’s the test. Pick a vehicle. Can you get in, pick a destination and safely go to sleep? If yes, it’s self-driving. If no, it’s not.

 L. Cassius ille, quem populus Romanus verissimum et sapientissimum iudicem putabat, identidem in causis quaerere solebat, cui bono fuisset?

 Lucius Cassius, whom the Roman people used to regard as a most honest and most wise judge, was in the habit of asking time and again in lawsuits: “to whom might it be for a benefit?”

CiceroPro Roscio Amerino


‘Cui Bono?’ (Literally ‘To whom is it a benefit?’, or more often, who benefits?) is often a good question to ask, but not always. It can help to point towards an answer, but it’s not deductive – just because someone benefits doesn’t mean they caused it to happen. This article is worth a read, and contains related concepts like Cui podesta? (who profits?) and cui malo? (who suffers?).

An important caveat to keep in mind is that while ‘cui bono’ is a beneficial rule of thumb to use, it should not be viewed as a principle that is guaranteed to lead you to the right conclusion. Rather, the principle of cui bono is useful for abductive reasoning, which allows us to find the most likely explanation for a set of observations, but, unlike deductive reasoning, it doesn’t lead us to an explanation that is necessarily the right one.

For example, it’s possible that the person who could benefit the most from a certain course of action was uninvolved with it. An example of this is the fact that even though fish could likely benefit from rising sea levels, it would be wrong to assume that they’re the ones responsible for this issue.

Overall, while ‘cui bono’ can point you in the right direction in some cases, it’s important to remember that this principle does not suggest that those who stand to gain the most from something are necessarily the ones that are responsible for it. Rather, it simply suggests that those who stand to gain from something are more likely to be responsible for it.

The Guardian has an excellent long read on 60 Years of Climate Change and the warnings that were missed:

In August 1974, the CIA produced a study on “climatological research as it pertains to intelligence problems”. The diagnosis was dramatic. It warned of the emergence of a new era of weird weather, leading to political unrest and mass migration (which, in turn, would cause more unrest). The new era the agency imagined wasn’t necessarily one of hotter temperatures; the CIA had heard from scientists warning of global cooling as well as warming. But the direction in which the thermometer was travelling wasn’t their immediate concern; it was the political impact. They knew that the so-called “little ice age”, a series of cold snaps between, roughly, 1350 and 1850, had brought not only drought and famine, but also war – and so could these new climatic changes.

“The climate change began in 1960,” the report’s first page informs us, “but no one, including the climatologists, recognised it.” Crop failures in the Soviet Union and India in the early 1960s had been attributed to standard unlucky weather. The US shipped grain to India and the Soviets killed off livestock to eat, “and premier Nikita Khrushchev was quietly deposed”.

But, the report argued, the world ignored this warning, as the global population continued to grow and states made massive investments in energy, technology and medicine.

Meanwhile, the weird weather rolled on, shifting to a collection of west African countries just below the Sahara. People in Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad “became the first victims of the climate change”, the report argued, but their suffering was masked by other struggles – or the richer parts of the world simply weren’t paying attention. As the effects of climate change started to spread to other parts of the world, the early 1970s saw reports of droughts, crop failures and floods from Burma, Pakistan, North Korea, Costa Rica, Honduras, Japan, Manila, Ecuador, USSR, China, India and the US. But few people seemed willing to see a pattern: “The headlines from around the world told a story still not fully understood or one we don’t want to face,” the report said.

This claim that no one was paying attention was not entirely fair. Some scientists had been talking about the issue for a while. It had been in newspapers and on television, and was even mentioned in a speech by US president Lyndon Johnson in 1965. A few months before the CIA report was issued, the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, had addressed the UN under a banner of applying science to “the problems that science has helped to create”, including his worry that the poorest nations were now threatened with “the possibility of climatic changes in the monsoon belt and perhaps throughout the world”.

Still, the report’s authors had a point: climate change wasn’t getting the attention it could have, and there was a lack of urgency in discussions. There was no large public outcry, nor did anyone seem to be trying to generate one

Conclusion: “When climate fear starts to grip, it is worth remembering that we have knowledge that offers us a chance to act. We could, all too easily, be sitting around thinking: “The weather’s a bit weird today. Again.””

At least we know what’s going wrong. Perhaps we need a dose of nihilism to help us get focused on solving the problem, suggests Wendy Syfret over on Refinery29 – “How A Meaningless Life Can Make You Truly Happy”:

A dissolution of individualism feels key to this current generation of activism. As systems that formerly offered meaning have eroded, people haven’t crumbled with them. And while vast numbers of us have watched our aspirations around employment, home ownership and financial security dim, we’ve taken the opportunity to challenge the status quo together, rather than attempt a last-chance grab for ourselves.For those championing issues such as (but not limited to) racial justice, real climate solutions, the end of police violence, and investment in secure housing, priorities are firmly fixed on the populace over the individual. By challenging and dismantling existing structures that may in some cases personally serve us, we’re throwing away fantasies of our own importance to allow space for new ideas that reach further than our own front yards.

From that perspective, riding a bike, investing money in clean banks and retirement funds, voting against high-income tax breaks, attending protests over work, passing up jobs in well-paying but morally dubious industries and calling out sexism, racism and classism in private spaces are, in a way, acts of nihilism. Acts we partake in not because they make us happy but because we know our happiness alone ultimately doesn’t matter. If we are pointless, so are our selfish pursuits.

Photo: Abandoned amusement, boating pond, Tramore, Waterford.