The glory of the impersonalised, global, marketplace

What’s weird is people complaining about this:

We have a weird relationship with food in this country. Many of us know the calories in an apple and have a specific preference for a caramel hazelnut flat white or type of fried wings in a bucket; very few can say how long it took for the apple to reach their table from the tree (up to a year), where the almond milk for their coffee was produced (California, with 300 litres of water per litre of milk) or how their chicken was killed (gassed in their transport crates). We are obsessed by cookery books, spend vast amounts on diet products and worry when the Deliveroo order will arrive but are less interested in sourcing our produce. We care about Geronimo the alpaca being put down, not the 300 cows killed each week because they are suspected of carrying tuberculosis or where the meat comes from to feed our pets.

We don’t need to know any of this. The entire joy of the marketplace is that we only have to deal with our particular and specific interface with it. What is it that we do in order to gain cash? What is it, among the things that are there, do we wish to spend that cash upon? All that interaction of the other 7 billion people on the planet gets boiled down into how much cash do we get in, what do we have to send out?

To take a different example, one from a little bit in the past. So, sodium streetlamps. Near everyone uses them, at least a bit even if only to lose keys under them when drunk. So, a miracle and vital ingredient is scandium. In tiny, tiny, quantities but it’s – often at least – there. How does that scandium get into that lightbulb?

Who gives a shit is the correct answer. It’s of absolutely no interest – well, OK, some do find it interesting but that’s rather different – to know that it’s (actually, it was) harvested from the runoff of uranium exploitation on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Refined up in Moscow to a 99.999% purity as the oxide. Shipped to Ohio where it is turned into the fluoride as an extra purification step, then the metal, then the iodide. That scandium iodide is then added to a bolus of mercury which is shipped to the actual lightbulb manufacturer. There was, for a time, an alternative route through Japan, where that Russian source replaced extraction from tin slags. This past decade it’s all been a largely internal to China operation.

When you’re walking down the street at night you don’t need to know any of this. Nor that for a decade and change much of this global trade was organised by one single Englishman living in Portugal. Even, for a couple of years, near all of it so organised. This is the entire point of the market system. You only need to know your own interface, you don’t have to try to understand that whole international and global economy. Prices at the interface do all of that for you.

Of course we don’t know where our food comes from. That’s the fucking point.

28 thoughts on “The glory of the impersonalised, global, marketplace”

  1. “We are obsessed by cookery books, spend vast amounts on diet products and worry when the Deliveroo order will arrive …”

    The “we” there being a vanishingly small sub-set of people. So good to know those who “source their food” must be even smaller. Makes you feel the world’s a better place, doesn’t it?

  2. We are obsessed by cookery books, spend vast amounts on diet products and worry when the Deliveroo order will arrive

    I suppose the idea here is that people are inconsistent but taken individually these are hardly universal characteristics.

    Incidentally, this ground.news thing to which you have been linking a good deal recently disguises the source of these extracts so the “we” might make sense to readers of Metrosexual Monthly but fails to resonate with BiS or with me.

    Of course we don’t know where our food comes from.

    Your “we” might work for subscribers to The Pigou Periodical but people who buy from a local butcher rather than a supermarket and who prefer to eat fruit and vegetables in season may take a different line.

  3. Unless there is some sort of Day of the Triffids comet blinding most of the world’s population – who then get wiped out by a plague – why do we need to understand everyone that happens in the world?

  4. “We are obsessed by cookery books, spend vast amounts on diet products and worry when the Deliveroo order will arrive…”

    Nope, nope and nope. None of this applies to me so less of the “We” if you don’t mind. I know where some of my food comes from, I grow it in my garden. I only made a half hearted effort this year but I have a reasonable crop of carrots, peas, tomatoes and beans. A small flock of hens are keeping us and the immediate neighbours supplied with eggs.

  5. Since I do my own cooking, I’m not obsessed by cookery books. If my family come to visit, I take them up to the pub.

    But no, I’ve no idea where my food comes from. During the initial covid panic, when everyone was screaming that the supply system would break down, the only thing I noticed was that the particular type of bread I like was not there to buy when I finished the previous loaf. Of course the shops were packed with the regular loaves.

    The system has now adjusted. My special loaf is now available. So I agree. There’s no need for me to worry.

  6. Knowing where your food comes from:

    “I’ve collected the eggs, Granny. Fourteen today.”

    “Right darlin’. Is that red not laying again?”

    “No Granny.”

    “Tell you what. darlin’. Nip out and wring it’s neck and we’ll have chicken dinners this weekend.”

    “Right, Granny.”

    “And when you’ve plucked and gutted it, go and help your brother muck out the pig sty, will you.”

    Little Jacinda sighs, “Right Granny.”

  7. “So, sodium streetlamps. Near everyone uses them, at least a bit even if only to lose keys under them when drunk. So, a miracle and vital ingredient is scandium. In tiny, tiny, quantities but it’s – often at least – there. How does that scandium get into that lightbulb?”

    Oh, so its your fault we get those god awful sodium lamps imposed on us? The lamps that might as well not be there, the quality of light is so poor.

  8. The no-need-to-know is one of the huge advantages of markets over socialism. Anyhow:

    “Many of us know the calories in an apple” … not me
    “and have a specific preference for a caramel hazelnut flat white” … I don’t buy from coffee shops
    “or type of fried wings in a bucket” … never eaten wings.

    BUT
    “very few can say how long it took for the apple to reach their table from the tree”: I can tell you – as long as it takes to stroll from the bottom of our kitchen garden to our kitchen.

  9. Those sodium lights seemed to do strange things to colour, making streets look surreal, slightly off. Sometimes verging on the disturbing.

    Walking under them for a period also seemed to be tiring.

    Not a big fan of those things.

  10. “Nah, sodium’s the older stuff. You’re complaining about LEDs, the newer replacement…..”

    No, LEDs are good. Its the sodium lamps that were god awful. Enough light to see not to bump into large objects, and thats it.

  11. Ducy McDuckface, that’s because they emit monochromatic light (actually two closely spaced frequencies if I’m remembering correctly). But they provide more luminance for the same power than the alternatives at the time, also less poles, foundations, etc – as usual the civil works component is very expensive, being able to halve the number of poles you need for freeway lighting is a big deal. Yeah, looked weird, but did the job.

    If I’m talking complete shit I’m sure someone will point it out.

  12. ‘… very few can say how long it took for the apple to reach their table from the tree (up to a year), ‘

    No. Apples along with other fruit and veg are placed in storage for periods of up to two year or more. This is so gluts don’t lead to wastage, low yield seasons don’t lead to significant shortage and supply can be all year round rather than just after harvest time.

    Perhaps ‘we’ know more about where our food comes from many of ‘we’ having lived in the countryside away from metropolitan disconnect with the real World.

  13. Many big companies do take an interest in their supply chains, in order to assure provision. For example you can buy widgets from Supplier A or Supplier B, but if they both get their widgets from Importer C then you still have a single point of failure.

    All those car companies that can’t get chips for their fancy electronics are just starting to take an interest in their supply chains.

  14. “All those car companies that can’t get chips for their fancy electronics are just starting to take an interest in their supply chains.”

    More like – there’s only one company that supplies the particular chip because it’s still under patent. You can substitute a different chip, but that requires a redesign of the rest of the system, and a rewrite of the software involved. This is not the work of a day.

  15. Dearieme – It’s not an advantage of markets over socialism, it’s the prime feature. In that markets process ever changing information all the time with any one person (even worse – bureaucrat) trying to organise things. Socialism just cannot do it. Ever.

  16. Incidentally, this ground.news thing to which you have been linking a good deal recently disguises the source of these extracts so the “we” might make sense to readers of Metrosexual Monthly but fails to resonate with BiS or with me.

    It’s pretty clear from their page that it’s from The Times (where I’d already read and commented on it’s silliness). Does it allow you to read the article without a sub?

  17. And yet when I shoot and butcher my own dinner, it’s this sort of “we” that jumps up and down in disgust and wails at me that I’m a sick murderering bastard. I don’t even bother to engage in debate any more, they are too thick to bother with.

  18. As said, sodium lights have a narrow spectrum in the orange so astronomers can relatively easily filter it out. Not so with modern high intensity LED lights. So light pollution is now far worse.

  19. That was one great thing about moving to France. Saying goodbye to sodium streetlighting. Coming back after a year I realised how depressing it was. Back to brown night skies. Damn shame that Spain uses so much of it but at least there’s big areas of the country unlit. SE of England there’s nowhere to hide from the shit.

  20. Tim mentions mercury. Wasn’t mercury what they used to use in the 50s? Bright but with slight green tinge.

  21. TG, BiC, BiS

    Light pollution is unnecessary if decent quality cut off lighting is used. It is far more economic while providing more light at ground level.

  22. The rare earths in lightbulbs – other than incandescents and LEDs – are there to change that mercury vapour colour. They’re all – CFL, halide, sodium, fluorescent – using varying amounts of mercury with bits added to tune the light.

  23. SE of England there’s nowhere to hide from the shit.

    What, still? Just about everywhere I travel in the Midlands and East Anglia has converted to LEDs. Just a few out the way places and the odd street here and there still orange. I would have thought the right-on SE would have been first.

    Oddly enough my street (and the surrounding few) still had mercury vapour streetlamps; they’d never modernised to Low Pressure Sodium. A very attractive soft, warm-white light that had good reach. When they swapped in the LEDs it was cold, glaring and harsh with poor reach. So walking is a mix of being blinded then left in the dark. They weren’t properly shielded either, so examples way down the street still shine into my upstairs windows (luckily pretty dimly).

    The choice to use daylight balanced LEDs for night lighting was daft, and has caused a lot of problems for wildlife. It should have been a warmer light.

  24. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    I loved that sodium lighting. Seeing in pure black and white.

    Some of the streets in BiG City still use gas lighting, for some reason. Something I didn’t notice for years, until I noticed it.

  25. Haven’t been back to the UK for 5 years now. (Probably never will) So what the Isle of Rain, Fat Ugly Women & Yellow Lines Round Everything looks like these days is a pleasant mystery. You could have polka-dot street lights for all I care.

    When I was doing a lot of overnight driving to avoid the heat I took to wearing yellow tinted glasses. They do seem to make the dark lighter. Or maybe up the contrast. Added benefit’s they take the sting out of oncoming headlights, particularly the bastard blue ones krautmobiles seem to favour.

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