Nukes, prestige and dime-store psychology

The bang was big. In  16 July 1945, humans got to start using the power of the sun. First to fry people, but then – and this is not understood enough – with the hope (okay, maybe it was a bit of a fig-leaf) of the “peaceful use of nuclear explosions”. What’s this, you say? Yes, for tunnels, canals, artificial harbours. All covered in Scott Kirsch’s “Proving Ground”.

And in the late 1960s, after 20 plus years of prestige it started to go wrong… By 1975, the awful “environmentalists” had spoiled everything. Three Mile Island was a late kick in the teeth.

And, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway point out in their 2010 “Merchants of Doubt” – the big beasts behind the campaigns of denial (against ozone depletion, acid rain, the tobacco-lung disease link, let alone climate) were … nuclear physicists.

It’s covered nicely by Myanna Lahsen in (e.g.) Experiences of modernity in the greenhouse: A cultural analysis of a physicist ‘‘trio’’ supporting the backlash against global warming

There’s also an examination of Swedish denialists that mentions their masculinity-
A Green fatwa? Climate change as a threat to the masculinity of industrial modernity

Basically, as Chris Freeman puts it in this article

“The prestige of science in general and of physics in particular ha[d] probably never been higher.”
(Freeman, 1996:28)

And that prestige was stolen from them. By the ozone/SST thing, by oil spills and by a loat of other “scares”.  They would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those pesky kids…

For contra view, see this –

Friday, Eli wrote about recent papers by Myanna Lahsen, and Naomi Oresekes, Erik Conway and Matthew Shindell about the Marshall Institute’s founders, William Nierenberg, Robert Jastrow and Fredrick Seitz. Lahsen came to the conclusion that after retiring these three attacked climate science and scientists to make up for a loss of status. Oreskes and Conway thought not, in Eli’s word’s
But at about that time, the director of GISS, Robert Jastrow, concluded that the days of generous NASA support for planetary studies were numbered, and he thus began to direct institutional resources towards Earth applications.
The Marshall trio pushed the line that climate scientists are in it for the $$. Nierenberg, Seitz and Jastrow were simply reflecting on what they had done.

Beating nukes into plowshares

I thought I was cynical enough.  Nope, not by a gazillion miles.  Turns out both the US and the Russians were keen on using nukes for peace.  Some of this I knew, but I didn’t realise it was quite so extensive…

“Project Plowshare was the overall United States term for the development of operation plowshare
techniques to use nuclear explosives for peaceful construction purposes. It was the US portion of what are called Peaceful Nuclear Explosions (PNE).”




And the Australian connection – from Scott Kirsch’s 2005 book “Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving”

proving grounds by scott kirsch

The line from Stalin to Putin

This from the Big issue in the North 16-22 May

Charlotte Hobson, author of The Vanishing Futurist was asked “Can you draw a line between Stalin and Putin?
And she replied

Varlam Shalamov, the great chronicler of Stalin’s gulag observed that it was the mindset of the common criminals that dominated the camps – and by extension the whole country. Amoral, brutal and primitive, this mentality terrorised and crushed the millions of ordinary citizens who passed through the camps as thoroughly as any physical hardship. Under Brezhnev it quietly spread and flourished; under Yeltsin it revealed itself; but under Putin it has found a new confidence.


Review of Vanishing Futurist in Grauniad.

Thrashing thrashing

Ah, we have so many ways of distracting ourselves. Most of us do, anyway.
I quite like this (though a brain is not a computer!)

It is the same with a computer cache: there will be a hierarchy – from super-fast memory in the microprocessor itself all the way down to a hard drive (slow) and offsite backup (very slow). To speed things up, the computer will copy the data it needs for the current task into a fast cache. If the task needs to be switched too often, the machine will spend all its time copying data for one task into the cache, only to switch tasks, wipe the cache and fill it with something new. At the limit, nothing will be achieved. [Peter] Denning described this regrettable state of affairs as “thrashing.”

Harford, T. 2016. An algorithm for getting through your to-do list. Financial Times Magazine, August 6/7, p.45.

In other word, what we all know – one thing at a fucking time, if you can, room of one’s own etc.


Video: What is absorptive capacity?

And here is the script that I more or less stumbled through.

So, what is absorptive capacity?

According to the seminal 1990 article by Cohen and Levinthal it’s “a firm’s ability to recognize the value of new information, assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends”

Extending this, Zahra and George (2002) say it is ‘‘is a set of organizational routines and strategic processes by which firms acquire, assimilate, transform, and exploit knowledge for the purpose of value creation.’’

They break that down into potential absorptive capacity – around acquiring and assimilating and realized absorptive capacity – around transforming and exploiting. Too much of the later – from routinising, can lead to a competence trap, but I’m digressing…

There’s also “relative absorptive capacity” – which firm has more, but I’m digressing…

It’s tied up with notions of innovation, organisational learning (natch), dynamic capabilities, competence traps, deliberative learning, knowledge management combinative capabilities and a bunch of other interesting terms.

Ways to think about it

Don’t think of a sponge though – that is too passive a metaphor. So is a bunch of keys that would “unlock” other knowledge.
It’s much messier, more fluid and iterative than that, and as Aribi, A. and Dupouet point out it is a non-linear process with feedback loops within and between the stages.

There are lots and lots of unanswered research questions for the capitalists, check out Volberda et al. 2010 for a nice listing. But

What are the barriers for social movement organisations?

  • They don’t want or “need” to learn (our old friend the smugosphere)
  • They have pitiful or absent knowledge management structures
  • They have a high turn-over of personnel
  • They are up to their neck in alligators, and have forgotten that they came to drain the swamp

Things you should read

Aribi, A. and Dupouet, O. 2016.Absorptive capacity: a non-linear process. Knowledge Management Research & Practice, Vol. 14, pp.15-26.

Gebauer, H. Worch, H and Truffer, B. 2012. Absorptive capacity, learning processes and combinative capabilities as determinants of strategic innovation. European Management Journal, Vol. 30, pp.57-73.

Jimenez-Barrionuevo, M, Garcia-Morales, V. and Molina, L. 2011. Validation of an instrument to measure absorptive capacity. Technovation. Vol. 31, pp.190-202.

Lichtenthaler, U., 2009. Absorptive capacity, environmental turbulence, and the complementarity of organizational learning processes. Academy of Management Journal 52 (4), 822–846.

Murovec, N., Prodan, I., 2009. Absorptive capacity, its determinants, and influence on innovation output: cross-cultural validation of the structural model. Technovation 29, 859–872.

Todorova, G., & Durisin, B. (2007). Absorptive capacity: Valuing a reconceptualization. Academy of Management Review, 32(3), 774–786.

Volberda, H., Foss N. and Lyles, M. 2010. Perspective – absorbing the concept of absorptive capacity: how to realize its potential in the organization field. Organization Science Vol. 21,(4), pp. 931–951.