Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Josh Berson's hanging forests of foolishness

DNA studies suggest that hunter-gatherer DNA can get wholly replaced whereas any population which was agriculturally efficient retains at least a strong mT DNA signature in present populations. Thus it does not matter whether agricultural life-styles were worse or better than forager life-styles. The former succeeded in perpetuating genetic lines. The latter didn't unless foraging was given up.

The anthropologist, Josh Berson, has an article in Aeon which looks at urbanization- a comparatively recent phenomenon which, however, we know favors 'subaltern' genetic lines because Pareto power laws operate to thin out the elite as economies of scope and scale gain increasing salience.

He asks

what it is about urbanisation that creates economies of scale? Is it simply the intellectual ferment that comes of proximity to so many of one’s conspecifics?

Intellectual ferment can be utterly useless. Competition and mimetic effects are more intense in cities. 

I’d like to propose two additional factors. First, urbanisation is an extractive phenomenon.

No. Proportionally higher surpluses are extracted from the primary sector in part because the terms of trade move in favor of high value adding manufacturing and services. Urbanization may be redistributive- 'bread and circuses'- for political reasons or else simply because of non-excludable public and 'club' goods and 'Social Capital'.  

Second, urban economies of scale are partly an artefact of how we delimit the object of enquiry – how we draw the line between city and not-city.

No. Urban economies of scale are objective and represented by falling cost curves. They are not a statistical artefact.  

These two phenomena work together.

No they don't. Rent extraction depends on inelasticity. Economies of scope and scale increase elasticity. If you try to extract a rent the thing remains high cost and is killed off by international competition. Thus you can extract a big rent from a protected industry but it is soon so utterly shite that you have to import the stuff. Ultimately, rents diminish so that at the margin the industry gains a benefit from whatever it pays in tax. Otherwise the thing simply dies and you have to import.  

To see how, let’s consider the spatial dynamics of urbanisation.

'Spatial dynamics' is descriptive. It has no analytical power.  There is no Structural Causal Model linking it to economic outcomes.

Newly emerging cities today bear scant resemblance to the compact metropoles of mid-20th-century science fiction.

Because newly emerging cities only exist in shithole countries which are slowly climbing out of Malthusian poverty traps. Shiny Sci Fi 'metropoles' were concerned with futuristic visions of already affluent and advanced cities not shithole countries playing catch up. 

Urban growth is characterised by a dendritic quality, with higher-density areas – growth nuclei – linked together by transport networks surrounded by agricultural land and low-density settlement.

This is also true of rural growth and the growth of forests in a landscape from which humans are absent. 

If you have travelled in parts of the world that are urbanising rapidly, you will have observed how roads become scaffolds for ribbon cities, linear settlements that grow up to serve the needs of the road.

If you come from a country of that description, you are aware that there were significant urban centers located not far from these 'ribbon cities'. Indeed, sometimes the ancient name for the development is revived to point to this heritage.  

In some places, a six-hour journey can feel like an extended tour of tea stalls and auto-repair shops, in which you never leave urban space en route from one city to another – even if, were you to pull over and cut across the ribbon of settlement, you would rapidly find yourself in someone’s fields.

This was also true of H.G Welss's Bromley or the North London where Evelyn Waugh was born.  

(In the US, an absence of public policy to limit sprawl has meant that the ribbon quality persists, save that today the exemplary built form of the ribbon is the big-box store.)

Big box stores are Capitalist. Boo to Capitalism!  

In many parts of the world, urban growth has been driven by informal – or, if you prefer, autonomous – construction, by and large undertaken by migrants from the countryside, with new neighbourhoods struggling for recognition from the municipal government, and the extension of amenities such as running water and sewerage.

Which cost money. If the new neighborhood is cohesive enough to pay for the supply then there is a mutually profitable deal. However, there is a political angle to this.  

This has been the pattern in many parts of Latin America, Africa and South Asia. In other places, growth has been driven by the state. In China, competition between provinces to build ‘Tier 1’ cities has left large parts of the interior dotted with ‘ghost cities’, high-density residential districts with vacancy rates of up to 90 per cent.

The 'ghost cities' represented 'commodity housing' and were a 'store of value'. They are filling up now and served their purpose though there is bound to be a shakeout of the property market. Chinese investors also bought property which they left empty in other parts of the world. Presumably, some of these properties would have been given to children at the time of their marriage. 

The deeply indebted Chinese property developer Evergrande and its congeners have benefitted from a regulatory environment formulated to encourage urbanisation, selling not-yet-built apartments on spec, pulling in capital from state-backed lenders and enthusiastic investors, and using advance revenue from new projects to pay suppliers from the last round. But, even in China, migrant-led growth has played a role, with autonomous expansion into the agricultural fringe leaving municipal governments struggling to impose order.

Western countries, too, have seen real estate bubbles. Look at Canary Wharf. In 1992 it looked like a White Elephant. Within a decade it had rebounded and has gone from strength to strength.  


Take Pudong, a rapidly urbanising district outside Shanghai. Thirty years ago, Pudong was farmland. Today, parts of it are on their second or third wave of development, with Nike stores sprouting from the ruins of shopping malls. In 2018, when I was revising a book on meat-eating, I spent three months there testing it on students at one of China’s first experiments in liberal education. They were unimpressed, and I spent a lot of time walking the neighbourhood, rewriting in my head. By luck, not five minutes from my home stood an open-air wet market, one of the last of its kind in Shanghai. I took to spending time there every day.

Pudong was once dismissed as a ghost city just as Canary Wharf was dismissed as a white elephant. 

One day, toward the end of my time in Pudong, I took a shortcut through the market. It was four in the afternoon. Ordinarily, the market would be packed with pedestrians and motorbikes. Instead, it was quiet, stalls shuttered, vendors squatting out front. I got halfway down only to find police cordoning off the main laneway. On the far side of the police tape, a man was at work with a plasma torch, taking apart the entrance to a stall. Apparently, the city had been trying to close it for years. But a few months later, I learned the market had simply shifted south, spilling out onto the undeveloped lots that bordered the arterial road.

So the authorities didn't want 'wet markets' stinking up swanky neighborhoods. Smart.  

We’ve seen two kinds of urbanisation, capital-driven and autonomous.

Nope. There is either state led urbanization or there is autonomous urbanization- both require capital.  

Our capital-oriented habits of reasoning

Anthropologists have no such habits.  

tend to obscure the dynamics of autonomous urbanisation. Between 1992 and 2004, with support from the World Bank and a network of foundations committed to promoting economic liberalisation in the developing world, the government of Peru conducted an experiment in granting title to the residents of autonomously settled neighbourhoods in Peru’s cities.

The alternative was that the Government, as title holder, had no control rights whatsoever save at the cost of sending in the bull dozers and risking an insurrection.  

The sponsors’ hypothesis was that regularising title would enhance residents’ access to capital, thus lifting them out of poverty.

People who own slum property sell that shit and use it to move somewhere nice. They then feel ill at ease in their new neighborhood and so work extra hard and take risks till they can sell up and move somewhere nicer. Ultimately they end up 'breaking the hound barrier' living in a mansion guarded by attack dogs. Then they feel lonely and miss the old companionable life of the 'chawl' or tenement.  

This did not happen. What did happen was that residents of neighbourhoods eligible for the programme, who received title to their homes, started working more, in particular outside the home.

As the first step to selling up and moving somewhere nice. 

The authors of a World Bank study of the programme concluded – with no evidence – that this meant that, with title, residents no longer felt the need to stay at home to defend their property.

Previously, they could only 'sell up' for relatively paltry 'key money'. Now they could get the full value of the underlying realty. This sum, together with their savings, meant they could move somewhere nice. 

As the historian Timothy Mitchell has shown, a more plausible explanation stems from the fact that neighbourhoods were selected for the programme on the basis of ease of entry: older, more established neighbourhoods in more secure places went first.

So that the guys from the Government going around handing out property certificates didn't get knifed  

By the conclusion of the study period, one-third of eligible households not yet offered title were in the Quechua-majority highlands town of Huancayo, the area hardest hit by the civil war of the 1980s.

Coz Government servants would shit themselves if told to go do a survey in that area.  


‘Typically,’ Mitchell notes, ‘a squatter neighbourhood was formed by a single village, whose members would plan their relocation collectively in advance … and reproduce the communal associations of the village in the new location.’  The titling programme, the World Bank study acknowledged, weakened these associations. Nonetheless, the programme was held up as a demonstration of the power of liberalisation to promote development.

Getting the fuck away from a slum or shitty little 'village community' does indeed promote development. Failure to do so leads to mental fucking retardation.  


The dendritic character of urbanisation is nothing new. When you walk through London, you can read the history of multinucleate expansion in the change in character at the boundaries between adjoining districts – these are the points where distinct villages grew until they fused.

Some villages did grow but none maintained their original character. Others went extinct as the Lord of the Manor decided to convert that patch of land into a market garden or pleasure ground or a healthful colony for wealthy merchants etc. etc. Most districts have Anglo-Saxon names- Kensington was Cynesige's farm, Fulham was Fulla's hamlet. But the Anglo-Saxon's were conquered and turned into serfs. They did not have the power to decide what happened to the land. The Squire might decide it was more profitable to raise sheep- hence the phrase 'sheep eat men'. 

But today, the dendritic pattern is more salient, in part because urbanisation is unfolding faster than in the past, and in part because satellite imaging and other technologies of remote sensing afford us a synoptic, if sometimes misleading, view of Earth’s surface.

If this guy loves 'dendritic pattern' so much, why does he not marry it? 

Characterising the spatial dimensionality of urbanisation

as opposed to what? Cities exist in space. What other fucking dimensionality could they have?  

– the degree to which cities, as they grow, diverge in shape from the perimeter-minimising convex polygons you encountered in elementary geometry –

a circle minimizes perimeter. Fuck is this guy talking about? 

is an area of active research.

by smart people. Anthropologists wanking over 'dendritic patterns' are a waste of time.

But you do not need a precise estimate of dimensionality

fuck does that mean? Is the guy talking about fractal dimensionality? But, if there is a fractal process then you need a precise estimate for your model. If you are not talking about fractals then there are only three dimensions. You don't have to estimate them. 

to observe, just looking at satellite images of night-time illumination in densely settled parts of Earth, that the edges of large conurbations bear comparison to coastlines – they have a certain fractal or self-similar quality. Involutions, divergences from convexity, give rise to new series of such divergences at a more localised scale. Dendrites ramify, their branch points often growing into new nuclei, new centres of radiation.

Either the thing is a fractal process or it only looks like one. Still, for the purpose of some specific simulation, you can model it in that way. But your model will be shite unless you have a very precise estimator for fractal dimensionality.  

Today, remote imaging is served by a broad array of state-sponsored and commercial satellite programmes, including low-cost CubeSats, which trade higher resolution for increased coverage. Still, as the geographer Noam Levin and colleagues explain in a recent review, ‘it is not straightforward to find a single optimal threshold that can accurately delineate both large cities and small cities simultaneously’ – either you capture the large cities but lose the smaller ones, or you capture the towns but overestimate large cities. The thresholding problem is complicated by variation in standards for urban lighting, and the recent shift from sodium vapour to LED-based lighting has introduced new challenges.

Who the fuck cares whether geographers have a tough time classifying things? It is a different matter that, as a matter of practical politics,  we may want our own neighborhood to be rezoned or reclassified. Maybe some geographer can provide useful testimony in this connection. But that is mere window dressing.

Nonetheless, satellite imaging of night-time illumination has found a host of applications, including the estimation of GDP, the mapping of meteorological disasters,

ley-lines linking hell mouths and centers of vampiric activity 

the monitoring of armed conflicts – and, to return to where we started, the estimation of epidemiological risk: the disruption to animal circadian rhythms caused by artificial night-time lighting has been implicated in cancer, obesity and depression, among other forms of debility.

not to mention fluoride in the water supply which is causing the depletion of our precious bodily essence. 

One thing that remote sensing has made clear is

that it is useless if used by useless people 

the extent to which cities draw on resources at a regional scale – fresh water, clean air, agricultural productivity – without experiencing short-term negative feedback.

Nonsense! As density of population increases measures have to be taken to keep water fresh- i.e. prevent your neighbor pissing in it- keep air fresh- i.e. prevent your neighbor hanging up decomposing cats all over the place- and maintaining agricultural productivity by keeping pigs or goats or whatever from just gobbling up everything in sight.

For a while, rapidly growing cities can externalise the costs of growth

No they can't. They have to enforce rules right from the outset otherwise everybody gets very very sick or runs away.  

– and thus exhibit economies of scale, when the demands on the broader region are left off the balance sheet.

Nonsense! So long as the city pays for the water being piped in or the food being brought in then there is no externality. Even if the Emperor is extracting resources pitilessly, he may be providing protection from more evil form of tyranny or banditry. 

The dendritic quality of urban growth goes some way to explaining how this could happen.

The growth of a tree has a dendritic quality. It can't explain shit. 

Cities do not bloom across the surface of Earth like dandelions across a field.

They would do so on a Christaller space with no mountains and rivers and oceans.  

Rather, they spread like mycelia, maximising their contact surface with their milieu and, by extension, maximising opportunities to pull in resources from less densely populated – and often, less politically influential – parts.

Anthropologists may spread like mycelia, but because they are useless they can't 'pull resources' from anything save worthless University Departments. 

Nowhere is this pattern clearer than with food. Cities consume one to two orders of magnitude more food energy than other kinds of inhabited space – but they tend to play a limited role in producing this energy.

Rubbish! Without Cities, agricultural productivity would have stagnated.  

A society where everyone kept a hand in the basic work of getting a living from the Sun would be more resilient

No. It would have featured a large starving segment which would have lower immunity to diseases. Plagues would wipe out half the population on a periodic basis. More urbanized people would conquer and enslave or demographically replace people who 'kept a hand in the basic work' of getting a living from the Sun or the Moon or the fairies at the bottom of the garden.  

What if we put food autonomy at the centre of urban design?

Hydroponics? Cool. But after one or two such designs are implemented everybody will lose interest. The designers will end up in academia.  

In fact, what if we learned to see cities as vegetative surfaces with hyphae of structure embedded in them, rather than the reverse?

What if we learned to see anthropologists have shit for brains? What if that has already happened? What if this cretin's supervisors were laughing at him behind his back?  

These vegetative surfaces could not be gardens or farms, nor could they be like greenhouses or precision vertical farms. The strategy underlying all of these is one of simplification in the service of scale: you select the things you want to grow, then you create a biome consisting of just those things.

Which is perfectly sensible.  

But recent events suggest we have exceeded the limits of marginal return to scale.

This cretin means 'marginal returns to scale are negative'. What he has written is 'there is no limit to marginal returns to scale' which is the precise opposite of what he meant.  

The pattern I have in mind would privilege not scale, but topological complexity.

Economies of scope and scale increase topological complexity. Different horizontal processes are being put in closer proximity through vertical and lateral operations. However, because externalities are now internalized, information compressibility increases- i.e. Kolmogorov complexity decreases. 

It would depend on a supple grasp of the allelopathic interactions that are essential to how living things organise themselves in ensembles – the chemical signalling pathways by which plants and their fungal and microbial symbiotes coordinate interests to allow a range of taxa to flourish in concert.

What would be the outcome of this 'supple grasp'. The answer is you would wander around Wall Street or watch Bloomberg while visualizing Corporations as giant carnivorous plants like a guy on an acid trip. You may also become incontinent. People will assume you are an Anthropologist. They may then insist you follow tribal custom and drink deeply of their urine in between scouring the streets for dog turds to devour so as to rise to the rank of Shaman. 

The work of fashioning such a biome would bear comparison to that undertaken by the first human colonists of Australia, who used fire to create a landscape conducive to foraging – more nudging than cultivating.

But fires broke out in any case.  

But it would have a vertical element. Tending these – what to call them? hanging forests? – would be a basic feature of urban life and not the remit of invisible low-wage specialists.

This guy is desperate to get out of Anthropology so as to go tend 'hanging forests' for a high wage. Why not become a barista instead?  

A society where everyone was obliged to keep a hand in the basic work of getting a living from the Sun would be more resilient – you’d never want for models of the most essential forms of skill. And no one would be denied access to green spaces.

Unlike what happens now. I tried to go to Hyde Park the other day. The Queen, Gor' Bless 'er, kicked me in the crotch and said 'fuck off you disgusting low-wage specialist. You are denied access to green spaces. I have ordered my Beefeaters to go dig up your garden and pour cement over it. I am a very evil Neo-Liberal. Ask an Anthropologist. They have studied the matter. Everybody laughs at them and thinks they've got shit for brains, but actually they are really really smart. Seriously, dude. I'm not lying. Just look at the dendritic forms displayed by Satellite imagery. Everything will become clear to you if you taken enough ayahausca or peyote or whatever.' 

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