Moonstruck – ephemera 8

For a while after this is over, I’m going to have trouble talking to people in person unless they arrange themselves in rows and columns, like a Zoom call.


Scientists at Arizona State University theorize that lumps in the Earth’s mantle are the remains of Theia, a protoplanet that struck the Earth to form the Moon.

”I like that the boat is stuck”

Sarah Gailey liked that the boat was stuck. She liked that everyone agreed it was a problem, they agreed on the cause of the problem, and they agreed on the solution, which was that the boat needed to get unstuck. “ … we can’t say that it’s a situation that could never occur in a just world, because even in just worlds, things get stuck.”

Big monopoly, big boat, big problem

One of Cory Doctorow’s themes as a blogger is how monopoly is an underlying cause of many societal problems, even those that don’t seem monopoly-related at first. Today he discusses monopoly problems in the Suez Canal, via Matt Stoller.

” … in 2000 the ten biggest shippers controlled 12% of the market, today, it’s more that 82%, and even that number is misleadingly rosy because of alliances among the megashippers that effectively turn them into one company.”

Says Cory: “The Suez crisis illustrates one of the less-appreciated harms of monopoly: all of us are dunderheads at least some of the time. When a single person wields a lot of unchecked power, their follies, errors and blind-spots take on global consequence.”

A by-product of monopoly is that monopolies concentrate power within themselves. A monopolist sees fewer megaships as being more efficient than multiple smaller ships. So when one guy makes a dunderhead mistake, it can tie up 10% of the world’s shipping until that mistake is resolved.

Monopolies are “brittle,” says Cory––small mistakes cascade into catastrophes. We saw that in the pandemic; healthcare monopolists viewed excess capacity as waste, and so when demand surged for healthcare, there was no slack in the system to meet the demand.

Another danger of monopolists is that somebody who’s a genius at one thing might turn out to be a knucklehead on other things. And billionaire knuckleheads are dangerous. Charles Koch was a genius at the petroleum industry but a knucklehead at politics and a climate denialist.

I’ve been listening to the “Fall of Civilizations” podcast, which traces the rise and fall of civilizations, including Roman Britain, the late Bronze Age Collapse, the Vikings of Greenland, the Khmer Empire, and more.

I have listened to four episodes so far, and all but one cites climate change breaking brittle supply chains and infrastructure, exacerbated by warlike neighbors who see weakness and swoop in.

The Khmer Empire episode, published in 2019, makes that point explicitly, and the narrator expresses hope that today’s supply chains are not so brittle. I listened on Sunday, thought about the Big Boat in the Suez, and the pandemic disruptions, and thought, not bloody likely.

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