Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Regarding Peak oil

The only thing that has seemed to ease my mind about the fact that we are using oil (a non-renewable resource) at such a prodigious rate is the fact that it is very difficult if not impossible to imagine an industrialized society that doesn't use oil. So we are left with an almost anthropic principle where either there has to be a way to move from a non-renewable society to a renewable one without causing a collapse, or all such societies are a dead end, and therefore most any society that tries to move away from an agrarian system is also a dead end.

I'm not saying that a magic bullet will come out and shoot down all of the problems we're having. But rather that starvation and death are not the inevitable results of peak oil, and that either most of the dire predictions people make about this are wrong, or it won't matter as there is no solution and we were screwed from the invention of the steam engine.

The prediction that I feel is most wrong is the prediction that, as oil begins to run out, people will starve because we will be forced off of the use of fertilizers. In my opinion, the net result of this will not be starvation. There are two end results here: either human and animal labor will again replace that of tractors and fertilizers as it was before, and we will move towards an agrarian economy, or, more likely, petroleum and methane will be repurposed towards agriculture and the price of food will go up (which will cause problems in the third world, but not catastrophic ones).

The thing that people who panic about this don't seem to understand is that it is the knowledge of biology and chemistry what is important here. If people realize that putting ammonia based fertilizers on plants improves their yields by a large factor, then there is almost no scenario in which those fertilizers (or other "organic" ones with similar properties) will not be used. Granted it may result in a higher price for agricultural goods, but considering how little of the oil we use today is directed towards fertilizers, and how great the use of fertilizers improves crop yields, it is much more likely that other activities (such as driving in a single passenger car) will be curbed before activities that feed millions of people are.

The key to eliminating the catastrophic scenarios that peak oil people envision is to change the shape of the available oil curve. Currently, we are in a limited period of "feast" between two large "famine" drop-offs. So the market gets used to a limited, say 50 year, period when oil is dirt cheap stuck between two periods when it is not very cheap or plentiful. It looks very much like a square wave. However, if we find a way to extend the peak, through efficiency or substitution, so that we have more time to find alternative energies, so that it looks more like a "rectangle wave", then there is no crises at all. It's a smooth transition much like the move from steam engine to diesel engine was for railroads.

Of course, if there is no alternative to petroleum, then it doesn't really matter which timeline you're using as you're just buying a small amount of time compared to the point in the future in which we are forced back into a 19th century, or earlier, type of transportation. So there's no use being all worked up about it in that respect as you can't fight it.

Political Monoculture and Utopia

I think many of the problems we as a society are having, with regards to political discourse, all boil down to the idea of Utopia. In essence, every Party out there seems to think they have the answer and that "If mankind would only think the way I do (or at least the way I want them to) everything would be good; maybe even perfect."

The failing with this type of thinking is that you can't have a working society (of humans at least) that is a monoculture. It doesn't even work well for lower organisms like plants or bacteria as the entire group would be susceptible to the same weaknesses and would therefore all be at risk should it encounter something dangerous in the environment.

This same error in thinking appears again and again throughout history, and yet every new year you still have someone claim that "if only you would all live the way I want you to, we'd have Utopia."

In some ways, I think this kind of egoism is necessary, because once in a very long while you find a new idea that works and makes things better for people. But these new ideas will never work perfectly for every individual situation.

In fact, if they did work, I think we'd end up with a rigid society completely incapable of responding to change. A Utopia racing towards the edge of a cliff. Maybe this is how the myth of Atlantis started.

The Good, not the Perfect

"Live and let live" is not, by itself, enough to make a successful society, or even an individual philosophy. The key to recognizing a workable society (as opposed to one that will inevitably crash and burn) is one that conforms to a few basic principles.

1) The society is responsive to change. This principle can, in many ways, stand in for all others as any civilization that has suffered collapse is one that could not (or would not) change to meet the conditions of its environment.

At its core, a system of government that "works" is one that recognizes the need for change when it occurs and can come up with a reaction to that need that it can act upon. I know this seems tautological, but there are many times where a government knows what is bringing it down, but can't fix it, or refuses to acknowledge the threat.

As was pointed out by Clay Shirky (and Jared Diamond) in the Blogosphere, you even have cases where collapse seems like a more reasonable course of action. One such case is when a society is forced into a level of complexity that requires a level of specialization that exceeds the resources available. No society is "too big to fail" as size, and distance from the actual work being done, can be a hindrance to the society if the distance is too great or the number of supervisors is more than it can handle.

2) The society responds to the needs of its members. As Frank Herbert put it: "A good ruler need not be a prophet. Nor even godlike. A ruler need only be sensitive. [Good government] does not depend upon laws or precedent, but upon the personal qualities of whoever governs."

This is the flaw with any political philosophy that clings to the past for the sake of continuity: if the people change, but the system of government remains exactly the same, then, if the old government does not meet the needs of the new people, conflict remains inevitable. Of course, this may not be obvious to those in charge; or even if it is noticeable, it may not be desirable for a ruler to recognize the change as it would threaten the ruler's legitimacy.

3) The society must accrue more benefits by belonging, then not belonging. This is not about "bread and circuses" but about recognizing that it is never a choice between being a part of society or being alone, but rather being better than competing societies. If your society is unjust, or too rigid, then people will leave for a society that doesn't force them into a role they don't want, or they will at least stop working as hard as the society whose members are content, and so lose out in competition.

The Bottom Line

People say they want government to be more like private business, but they don't always explain what they mean. The big difference between the two isn't a focus on profit or the level of compensation for the employee, but rather it's about judgement. Middle management (and even employees) are allowed to use their judgement to do their job in a private business (or at least in a smaller private business, large corporations tend to move further away from this). Bureaucracy enforces this standard template on management which they must follow, and in return it gives them blanket immunity from responsibility for decisions. In private management, you can make decisions which bend the rules, as long as you can demonstrate that what you're doing is good for the business.

What this boils down to in American society is this: we have leadership in both parties that is insensitive to the needs of the people. It is no longer of the people; It is of the political class. We also have a political discourse that is ran by egoists who think that they can bring on a Utopia (or bring us back to Utopia, in the case of the more right wing viewpoint). You have major problems if the first thing you do with a new proposal is not to figure out whether or not it will work, but rather you figure out whether or not it is ideologically pure, yet this is how many of our elected officials think.

Additionally, the way we are choose our leaders is increasingly coming down to likability, the ability to attract money, and the candidate's adeptness at diverting blame. What we actually need is a government that can change to meet the needs of its people and the conditions of our society. We need leaders who are interested in actually solving problems and taking responsibility instead of diverting responsibility while clinging to the perks of power. I have no idea what it will take to regenerate our society and its leaders. That's above my pay grade. What I do know is that red meat politics that are only about making sure your "team" wins isn't going to cut it.

The Myopia of Hierarchal Systems

People always seem to focus on the top of an organization, but even when someone is in charge they aren't exactly in control. The person at the top makes the hard decisions, because in our hierarchical system someone has to have that job, but if the people at the bottom don't work, or do their work poorly then even the right plan can fail. But Human society's tendency to focus on the leadership often obscures an important truth: you don't need faith in leaders, you need faith in humanity to "get it right" over the long term. Just try to clear the path in front of you for now, and let the next generation worry about the weather.

History focuses on the individual because it is trying to tell a story, but the amazing thing about civilization isn't just that one person invented the light bulb (for example). It's that we then went and made lightbulbs for everyone in the world. And then we built a better lightbulb and made enough of those for everyone in the world to have the better lightbulbs. In an open society, there's this marvelous self-organizing system in place for us all to break down and improve every part of our lives, and to share those important changes at an almost frightening speed.

Alot of people are skeptical or even afraid of this because they want to believe that there's a plan somewhere, and that someone is in control of the whole thing. This is an understandable throwback to both an earlier time in history, when there was more central control, and to an earlier time in one's own life when there was someone to tell you what to do, and how to live, and decide what was important. But there is no way for a central planner to work when faced with massive numbers of people each of whom have their own needs and wants. The planners would need to be both omniscient and able to make very good decisions in a limited amount of time. Obviously, such a system has never actually existed.

But on a larger scale, you don't just need to have faith in a market, or a political system, or even in our leaders. You need to have faith that the people around you are also struggling to make their part of the world a little better than they found it. Price is just a number, and money is just little pieces of metal or paper. The true measure of a society is in the way the human energy that money represents is distributed. If we are working towards our own personal pleasures, and trying to fit as many worthless trivialities as we can into our lives, then we are going to inevitably bankrupt our futures. But if we take the resolve to improve our world, even by a small amount, and multiply it by the millions or billions of people, then the result will be much more than could be accomplished by even the best leaders.

Politics & Cognitive Limits

Politicians are (probably) not your neighbors, even when you think they are.

The human mind is set up to deal with social relationships up to a small community level. After that the mind loses track of the important people and relationships. Even in large cities, things get broken down into neighborhoods or blocks or suburbs so that there is an area that you are relatively familiar with and may know lots of people, and then you cross over a boundary and you may as well be on the other side of the world.

Politics, like many other human endeavors, actually piggybacks off of the human mind's ability to track relationships. This is why those people interested in politics are expected to know about certain key players (like "Who the President is" or "who your representative is"), but you are not expected to know the representatives of another state unless they are politically powerful (like Speaker of the House or something).

What strikes me as really odd about what happened in the 20th Century is that even though the population pretty much doubled from 1950-2000, and tripled from 1900-2000, the number of national politicians remained roughly static. So people should have felt much less connection to their leaders by the end of the century, as they were getting much less equal representation. But due to mass media, the opposite effect happened, and for alot of the population (especially those who watched TV or listened to their politicians on the radio), it was almost like they moved into their neighborhood.

The ability for leaders to communicate personally increased even more with the addition of the internet and email, where you could get a personal (or at least personalized) response from a leader in almost the same way you could from one of your friends; even though they really don't know who you are or anything about you. I know this same thing could be said about other celebrities, but the point is that 1) this illusion is almost enough for some leaders to get votes based solely on how quickly they pick up on the new media instead of being based on any kind of political viewpoint at all, and 2) there no longer has to be any kind of BS filter, which can be a bad thing if the politician is simply lying through their teeth or is putting out completely meaningless fluff messages and never bothers to take a stand on any issue at all.

I know I'm not the first (or the last) person to point this out. People have gone on to talk about an ideological echo chamber being put in place where no opposing ideas are even heard. What bothers me most about this however, isn't the quality of messages being sent from politician to voter, but the trap where, not only does a voter start to feel like the politician is someone living in their neighborhood that they have a connection to, but the politicians themselves actually start to feel that just by being on CNN, or putting out a Twitter message, and having people respond to it, and then getting an opinion poll put out that they suddenly have interacted with a million (or more) voters on a meaningful level.

It's getting to the point where our entire policy, foreign and domestic, is being mediated through whatever can fit on a TV or a computer screen, and where opinion polls and messages from the relatively small number of people who care and have the time to respond to a single issue are the only form of communication between the leadership and the people in our country. Accurate polls can be an important tool, but they only ask certain questions: questions that the person doing the polling care about.

But it's the unasked poll questions that turn into tomorrows big problem. Our political landscape is becoming hyperfocused on a small number of issues. Our leaders (not just political, but business as well) are being spoon fed information through a small set of mediated devices or by their subordinates who have their own filters that depend often on defense from political attack or on defusing blame.

The answer is not always online

Psychology has told us time and again that the majority of interpersonal communication is non-verbal. Most important Scientific discoveries focus on gradual changes over time that are dependent upon having people on the ground taking regular observations and reporting their findings. Political and business institutions have become increasingly non-personal. Media and business cycles have become shorter and shorter, and yet leaders are given a greater illusion of control because they can literally make decisions from anywhere, at any time of day, and have this massive amounts of leveraged information at their fingertips. Moreover, the people under them feel more connected than ever because of this same technology.

I am not saying that the connections people make online are meaningless. There are people I have talked to on a regular basis over the internet that I feel are much closer to me than some of the people in my neighborhood whom I have never met. The problem is that this connection can override other important messages and I don't think it used to before the technology was available.

Take the Afghanistan war for example. The person making decisions about the war can give a speech about it, and have it show up on CNN. They can go on the web and update their Facebook or Twitter telling the voter even more about how they feel or think on the topic. And the voters can read this and feel connected to the politician in a way they couldn't during, say World War I. They can even give a reply over the internet and the politician may even read it and feel connected to some of their voters in a way that leaders in the 1910s couldn't have felt.

But the person over there getting shot at or killing other people isn't involved in the loop at all. For that matter, with the use of these flying drones, even the person shooting at other people isn't directly on the ground dealing with the consequences of the war. In 1911, a person may read a news story about the war, but that would be given less weight than what letters back home would have to say. For that matter, the sense of real life community was stronger, and the numbers of people who are non-military that were still involved in the war was much greater, so you may have a neighbor or relative who was over there, or who had a son over there fighting. And their opinions would also weigh much more heavily than that of a story in a newspaper, or a stump speech by a political supporter of the President.

Because of this feeling that the President, or any other media personality, is somehow a part of our neighborhood, they're suddenly given equal weight with people who actually are in our community. It may knit us together as a nation, but I think it is blinding us to the fact that a large amount of our people and energy is being spent on something that we have no actual real life connection to anymore. We're turning into a blind elephant charging around and trying to find our way. The entire process is becoming something impersonal and therefore inhuman, and it's being glossed over by this market mentality where "have a nice day" and "screw you" can be uttered in the same impersonal corporate memo-speak that can keep the actual message from registering if you're not paying attention.

Amateur versus Professional Politicos

And in many ways, this is getting worse as so many of our demagogues are giving government service a bad name while at the same time pushing more of the tasks that government is doing for us onto mercenaries, contractors, and other proxies. I think our country needs more of its citizens out there acting in the real world, and bringing their personal experiences back into the community. We need less professionals and more volunteers and amateurs or we're going to get blinded by mass media and Big Corporate interests that don't align with the people who are paying the actual costs in war, or in any other large government endeavor.

What bothers me even more, and I'm a middle class computer professional, is this trend towards middle manager computerized views of problem solving. You can even see it on TV where "the answer" suddenly comes from some computer or lab or special effect somewhere and we just plug it in and it's all solved in time for the commercial break at the top of the hour. Real life solutions are often messy. They often involve getting dirty and doing some actual, dare I say it, hard work, and yet the people who are making the decisions, and the people reporting on the decisions, and the people voting on the decisions often have a desk job, and a college degree, and probably don't know how to drive a forklift, or a jack hammer, or know the business end of a shovel or an M-16. Even though we as a country have gained alot of wealth and power, we're losing something important.

And I know it has always been that way to some extent, but now there's so much money involved that there's no way even an actual middle class (or even, less than middle class) person can get elected to national office. If you don't have 6 figures in your bank account, and haven't made friends with lots of people who are lawyers and who also have at least that many figures in their bank account, you can't even buy a seat at the table. I know there're people who are reading this and thinking "my politician/cherished media celebrity is different" and that's complete BS. Maybe some of them learned about hard work a long time ago, but by the time they've made enough money to buy their way into politics, they've long since left that behind. It's almost become a feature of our political system where the only people who can get elected are those who are doing something in the interests of people with lots and lots of money.

And I'm not talking about socialism or communism or any other "-ism." I'm talking about how any important decision that affects the lives of ordinary people has to be greased by payoffs to the interests of one group or another with a big pile of money. We're being dominated by a market mentality. America is being run by people who are insulated from any of the negative consequences of any decision we make, and we have to pay them to make even the smallest of changes in our political system. There is something very wrong with this.

Limits of Reasonable Decision-making

One of the more interesting things to come out of recent cognitive psychology research is that the way human beings use reason and logic is much different from how we originally believed it was. When people believe they are making a decision using reason, cognitive science has shown that they have quite often already have decided what they were going to do using other brain functions, and are simply using reason to justify this decision. Obviously, this makes sense to anyone who has ever wondered why mathematical proofs work the way they do, or how the scientific method could be applied if you didn't already use non-rational thinking beforehand to come up with the experiment you wanted to perform.

I think this is important, not just as a peek under the hood into how the brain works, but as an opportunity to recognize the limits of logic and reason in order to better evaluate how we use these tools. And I don't mean in the postmodern deconstructive "everything has biases" sense, but rather as a way to take the limits of reason into account so we can understand when the tool is, and is not, appropriate and stop leading ourselves into contradictory circles.

Reason's tainted past

The first thing that I believe people need to understand about logic and reason is that it was not developed as a way to seek higher knowledge. Reason was developed as a way for primitive man to win arguments. One person in the group thinks they are being stalked by wild bears. Another one doesn't think they are bears, and backs this up by pointing out that they are in Northern Africa and bears don't live here. Person #2 wins the argument—at least until they are both eaten by lost and confused bears who managed to swim the Mediterranean and are now very, very hungry.

This little story is there to illustrate a few points:

1) Any chain of reason is inherently biased in favor of the person making the argument (so reason is not this inherently impartial participant in the debate).

2) The person who is using reason is unable to see the holes in their logic without someone else there to make counter arguments. I know all of of those fans of the dialectic are saying "yeah, but the truth can still be found", and I will explain why they aren't completely right, so bear with me.

3) In order for humans to use reason, there generally has to be an argument in the first place. This may not seem important at first glance, since human beings generally have enough differences of opinion that reason will kick in at some point in most endeavors, but the problem is that there are times when we should be employing reason to check up on things, but we don't do so because everyone in the group already assumes that something is true. So reason is not, in fact, consistently applied to human knowledge due to inherent problems in the way that humans employ reason.

4) Reason (and especially logic) is only good at demonstrating an argument is internally consistent. It should not be used as a substitute for empirical data. This substitution is still made on a regular basis because the human brain still assumes that you are trying to win an argument and not that you are trying to reach for the actual truth.

This can often be seen in political or social debates over things like global warming, the theory of evolution, vaccines causing horrible disease, etc., where one person is continually trying to deliver a rhetorical ninja kick and then believes that because they just made a "reasonable" point that somehow the entire apparatus they are attacking should then collapse into a pile of dust. What they don't want to understand is that a lot of these theories have been hit by sledgehammers and wrecking balls of reason for decades (if not centuries) by minds as sharp as theirs, and yet they still stand. This is because they are supported by fact.

5) Reasonable arguments are not always the emotionally satisfying ones which means that, right or wrong, they are often ignored unless they are augmented by something that is emotionally satisfying. People in public policy understand this intuitively about large issues. A picture of a starving child in Africa, coupled with statistics about how there are thousands of others like her, is always worth more than the sum total of either the picture or the facts separately.

But this is true even with more mundane issues. Time and again, I have solved a math problem or a computer problem and even though I know I have applied the rules so that the answer should be correct by all standards of reason, my mind will not be convinced unless I go back and demonstrate the solution by plugging the answer in, or by running the computer program to make sure it works. While this is prudent, because there are times when I miss something, the bottom line is that your brain itself doesn't trust reason to always come up with the correct answer. There are also many cases where you stop reasoning about a problem, even when you should continue, because you are emotionally satisfied that you have the answer and aren't able to continue to reason without difficulty.

6) All systems of logic are based on certain assumptions (called axioms) that you must assume are true in order to use the system. These axioms can not all be verified to be true using the system itself, or the system would be either incomplete, or inconsistent (see "Gödel's incompleteness theorems" and "Liar's Paradox" for more details). This isn't really important in terms of cognitive limits to reason, or in fact to most everyday uses of logic, but rather it is a way of demonstrating that logic itself can prove that there are things that logic can't prove or disprove. This is not to reject logic as a tool of understanding the world, but rather to recognize that there are questions (both sensible and non-sensible) that you can conceive of which do not have an answer. All of this could partly be an example of 4) logic is no substitute for data, but I also believe that this limit shows why humans don't depend upon logic to make all of their decisions: it takes too long and the result can't be guaranteed to demonstrate a viable solution at the end of it.

At this point, the obvious question is Where is he going with all this?

Well, to begin with, I am not saying that we've reached the "death of reason", but I am saying that, especially in the realms of politics and philosophy, we need to reexamine what we think we are doing when we make decisions based on reason. Reasonable discussion can not, and never will, be guaranteed to come up with either an abstract truth or a usable way forward. There are times when it will fail. This is because argument is always made by human beings and human beings, at their core, are not rational creatures. Rather, they come into an argument knowing the "answer" and then use a chain of reason to support this. Even if one side manages to kick the chain of reason out from under the other side, this does not prove that either side is right (or even that one side is closer to the truth than the other), it just shows that one side is better at making an argument. So in the ideal universe of reason, you can probably make the claim to finding some sort of truth using the dialectic, but until we reach a point where reason can be used without the reasoners bringing in their own bias, we can not find this truth solely using reason and argument.

One upshot of all of this is the realization that you can not, in fact, convince most of your opponents in an argument using reason alone. This is because they are not making their argument from a position of reason (and neither are you). Which means that, no matter how hard you kick at their support, in the end it is the emotional part of their brain that decides when to give up. This is why debating on the internet for reasons other than personal enjoyment or enlightenment is a completely wasted effort.

Please note, I am not making an attack on Scientific or Mathematical truths here. These areas of human inquiry have developed a system to counterbalance these biases that, while not perfect, works well enough. But Science and Mathematics also assume a level of doubt that is not going to be applicable to Politics or Ethics. You can't be expected to make workable political decisions using the political science equivalent of a double blind study since 1) you don't have the resources to do this on a large scale, and 2) the timescale of decision-making prevents you from taking the time you would need to guarantee certainty. Ethics has these same problems as it works with a human timescale and is forced into justifying a decision without having all of the data you would need to gain absolute certainty.

The bottom line is that I am not making an argument in support of "shoot from the hip" kind of decision-making. I am not saying we should be doing it this way, I am merely pointing out that most decisions are already made this way, even though the people involved in the decision may believe otherwise. And the only way to combat this is to recognize that we don't know everything we think we know. We are always assuming things that back up our point of view, even when we think we are not, and that impeccable logic will not give us the emotionally satisfying result that we need in order to move forward with a decision.

Gay Marriage and Social Conservatism

In my opinion, the conflict between Conservative Christianity and gay rights basically boils down to a conflict over whether you believe homosexuality is biologically based or not. I do not think it is simply a case of close minded bigotry (though there are probably some bigots in most groups of people), but I think the reality is that a belief that homosexuality is innate is simply incompatible with literal interpretations of the Bible. In fact, it's almost on the level that the Theory of Evolution is incompatible with the literal belief that the world was created in 6 days.

If you look at the text of the bible, homosexuality is taboo. There really isn't much wriggle room there. If you accept that sexual orientation is innate, then you are left with a situation where a person is forced by their nature to struggle continually with desires that cannot be met. Up until early adulthood, this could just simply be described as going through puberty. However, conservative religious views have an outlet for these desires: marriage. Unfortunately that outlet is for heterosexuals only.
Going further, if you look at the biblical treatment of homosexuality, especially in the Old Testament, you are left with a situation where God went around smiting whole cities that supposedly went gay, and yet if homosexuality is biological, like hair color or height, then you are left with a dilemma since no one would want to worship a God that smites people because they have red hair or are over six feet tall. It wouldn't be defensible.

So what we have with denominations that take a more literal interpretation of the Bible is a situation where the theology hasn't really caught up to society yet, much like Catholicism used to be towards Theory of Evolution, or of a Heliocentric solar system. And so people who are in those denominations are basically in a situation where if someone says, "I'm gay, but I don't think I have a choice about it," you are literally putting them in a situation where they have to choose between acceptance of you, or acceptance of their faith, and most of them choose to continue to believe in their religion.

First Post

Hello, I have no idea if anyone is actually reading this. If you are, I hope not to bore you too much.

The plan is basically just put crap up their and see what sticks. I suppose I could consider this something of a Pensieve, so ideas and feedback (via email) are welcome, but not required. I don't have the time to bother with the flame wars that inevitable result from posting anything remotely political, so I don't think I will have comments.

I intend to have sections on Cooking ideas, Music, and Political Philosophy. Considering the backlog I have, I think I've just given out the reverse order of appearance. Oh well.