Thursday, 31 July 2008
It's always something, isn't it?
Wednesday, 30 July 2008
As an Englishman living in America, where Marmite is hard to come by, I'm all too familiar with the concept of scarcity, but a lack of resource in a local or a particular instance is a very different kettle of fish from absolute scarcity. The Malthusian idea of overpopulation leading to the gobbling up of finite resources has been around for a couple of centuries now and what is remarkable about it is how it has proven so consistently wrong–especially when it tries to lay the blame on the doorstep of civilised, industrial nations. I'll grant you that the image of some future New York where a hundred million people live cheek by jowl in polluted squalor until the oil runs out and then they fall on one another like starving rats as nations go to war over what scraps are left does have a certain dramatic appeal in a Mad Max sort of way, but the real world doesn't and never has worked like that.
Overpopulation is a problem, but only locally in certain, to be blunt, backward parts of the world and even there the problem isn't too many people, but too many tyrants robbing them blind. They don't suffer so much from overpopulation as poverty. A village of a hundred people ruled by a dictator with only enough food for fifty and no way to buy more is "overpopulated". A city of a free ten million that can import more than it needs is not.
Then there is the fact that prosperous, democratic, free-market societies suffer from, if anything underpopulation. Why is another discussion, but this is an objective fact and a real problem for the civilised world.
As for resource depletion, I'm surprised it ever survived Julian Simon's famous bet with Paul Ehrlich that the price of any five metals would fall over the next decade against Ehrlich's argument that we'd all die before the year 2000. People are always making doomwatch predictions of this or that resource running out, but they always fail to come true for two reasons:
First, a failure to understand a simple rule of economics that shows that as a resource becomes scarcer alternatives become more attractive. If oak becomes too dear for ships, then iron becomes economical. If oil costs too much, then biodiesel looks good.
Oil brings us to the second reason. The current flap over fossil fuels is a classic example of confusing capacity with reserves with resources with absolute amounts. In terms of capacity, how much oil we can produce day to day, we are in real trouble. There aren't enough refineries and too many wells are located in unstable or enemy hands while Western governments positively obstruct domestic drilling. If most of our oil came from Europe and North America we'd be laughing, but since it comes from the likes of the Saudis, Hugo Chavez, and Vladimir Putin, we're not so cheerful. On the other hand, we have twenty years of oil in reserve. This doesn't seem like much until you notice that we never had more than twenty years in reserve. Ever. That has nothing to do with how much oil there is, but with how expensive it is to find. As a rule, oil companies look for enough petroleum to last two decades and call it good. As to resources, these are much greater by orders of magnitude with fields from the Irish Sea to the Falklands just waiting to be tapped. Not to mention "dry" wells that are in reality two-thirds full or low quality oil fields that weren't economical to refine until now. Depending on price per barrel and projected technology, we're talking a reasonable estimate of two hundred years worth of oil. When you bring in absolute supply (oil that we suspect might be in an untouched part of the globe, such as the deep ocean or the interior of Asia, but haven't begun even preliminary exploration for), then all bets are off.
Mind you, I'm only talking about oil. When we bring in other fossil fuels that can substitute for oil at the right price, then we have about a thousand years' worth of energy–More if we assume that we aren't burning up all the gas, coal and shale simultaneously. And oil is a special case because we burn it. With other resources that we can recycle or cultivate the picture is even brighter. Add in a really robust power network based on breeder and high-temperature nuclear reactors followed by fusion power and there isn't any resource problem we can't beat by sheer brute force.
All very well, but what about the environment? Again, we do have a problem and again, it is one that is not of the free, wealthy and advanced, but of the oppressed, poor and backward. Historically and today, it is a fact that it is in wealthy, free nations with loads of technology that the environment is of the best quality and farmland is allowed to revert to forest. It is in places like Sudan where people are stripping the land bare and spilling raw chemicals into the sea. It's in Britain that salmon are swimming straight up the Thames through the heart of London while the rivers of Southeast Asia are open sewers. True, the so-called "developed" world may not have as much pristine wilderness as some would like and it rankles my farmboy's heart to see prime soil buried under houses and roads, but frankly I'll take the garden that is the English country over the universal oak forest of 8000 years ago or the wastelands of Soviet-era oil fields any day.
In summary, we have problems that need solving, some very serious, but with prudence, invention and a willingness to help free and raise up our less fortunate brethren to build their way to prosperity, overpopulation and lack of resources aren't among those for the foreseeable future.
That last part is very important: foreseeable future. One of the real problems we do have today is a tendency on the part of some to make the good hostage to the perfect and demand that solutions be for now and forever or it's worthless. There are seriously those who believe that if you cannot guarantee that, for example, nuclear waste can be stored by us safely for 200,000 years, we should just give up. Given that there is a very real prospect that this "waste" may become a resource within my lifetime to fuel power plants or heal the sick, I'm happy if we can secure the stuff for five hundred years and worry more about keeping our civilisation going. After that, it's time for our descendants to shift their idle selves and look after the next five hundred.
Speaking of the long term, I was also asked about Alan Wiseman's book, which graphically relates how the works of man are transient and how in a surprisingly short time all will become one with Nineveh and Tyre. Again, I don't have time to go into any detail, but I will say that I wasn't impressed by Wiseman's thesis. His scenarios are fun in the same way that a time lapse movie of a rotting apple is fun, but it's a bit pointless. True, if we stop maintaining our buildings and our machines they'll rot and corrode to dust, but as they were built to serve us, so what? If we aren't around, I'm not too bothered about the fate of the Louvre.
Besides, Wiseman is wrong. Decay is widespread, but not universal nor absolute within a reasonable time frame (i.e. In the end, Judgment Day will do for us all no matter what). He tends to cherry pick his examples; focusing on those that support his point and ignoring those that refute it. True, the Golden Gate Bridge won't last more than a century, but it's a steel structure under enormous stresses sitting in the San Francisco Bay. Of course it will rust the moment it stops being painted. On the other hand, I can point to vast libraries and data banks containing a large fraction of our history that sit in converted salt mines in the American Midwest that will be around and legible until the next asteroid impact. Or the tea mug in my hand that could survive a few geological epochs if left in the right place. And I'm not even bringing in various time capsules, microenvironments, and examples of archaeological stasis.
Not a bad set of mementos for a civilisation, if not a species. If you're into that Ozymandias sort of thing. For myself, I prefer the soundest form of earthly posterity, which is to do what I can to make sure we're still here tomorrow and the day after.
Tuesday, 29 July 2008
Fortunately, I live up the top of the hill, so when it inevitably runs amuck I'll have enough time to get the anti-tank missile set up.
Be prepared, I say.
Monday, 28 July 2008
To be fair, it does point out that it doesn't meet safety standards, but that's like saying that crashing into a mountainside in an egg crate is less than optimal.
Sunday, 27 July 2008
Dr John Guillebaud and Dr Pip Hayesalong with the Optimum Population Trust says that British babies cause far too many carbon emissions and advocates that doctors urge Britons to only have two children at most–which is well below the replacement rate and leads to the sort of demographic free fall that Russia, Japan and Italy face.
Save the Planet™; let your race die out.
And so it was, in the fullness of time, before the harvest month of the appointed year, the Child ventured forth - for the first time - to bring the light unto all the world.
He travelled fleet of foot and light of camel, with a small retinue that consisted only of his loyal disciples from the tribe of the Media. He ventured first to the land of the Hindu Kush, where the
Taleban had harboured the viper of al-Qaeda in their bosom, raining terror on all the world.
And the Child spake and the tribes of Nato immediately loosed the Caveats that had previously bound them. And in the great battle that ensued the forces of the light were triumphant. For as long as the Child stood with his arms raised aloft, the enemy suffered great blows and the threat of terror was no more.
Or, if this German reporter's account of meeting Obama in a gym is sincere, maybe parody isn't that far off (emphasis in the original):
He goes and picks up a pair of 16 kilo weights and starts curling them with his left and right arms, 30 repetitions on each side. Then, amazingly, he picks up the 32 kilo weights! Very slowly he lifts them, first 10 curls with his right, then 10 with his left. He breathes deeply in and out and takes a sip of water from his 0,5 litre Evian bottle.
Shortly before five o’clock Obama comes over and sits directly next to my cross-trainer on the mat. First he does 10 sit-ups, then stretches. Then he looks at his watch and says to his bodyguard: “It’s time, let’s go.” Quickly I ask: “Mr. Obama, could I take a photo?”. “Of course!” he answers, before asking my name and coming over to stand next to me.
“My name’s Judith” I reply. "I’m Barack Obama, nice to meet you!” he says, and puts his arm across my shoulder. I put my arm around his hip – wow, he didn’t even sweat! WHAT A MAN!
Compact, I'll grant you, but also clumsy, inaccurate and dangerous. Not surprising that the last time this thing showed up the nimrod shot himself by accident.
Saturday, 26 July 2008
Friday, 25 July 2008
Once so successful a seller that at one time over half the cars in the world a were Model Ts, I thought I knew quite a bit about them until I saw this Top Gear segment that showed off the T's nightmarish controls.
Makes the push-button gearbox on a 1956 Dodge seem tame by comparison.
Thursday, 24 July 2008
I like the logo. Nice touch.
Wednesday, 23 July 2008
Tuesday, 22 July 2008
It involves violating something called sovereignty and subverting an institution called democracy and suddenly the joke isn't so funny and that molehill isn't so small.
The likelihood of this being implemented or heralding a true reform of the welfare state is about that of the above illustration coming to pass.
Monday, 21 July 2008
As lobster lover, I am always delighted by this sort of story. Not only is the owner of the lobster $3000 richer, but we now have a chance to catch the crustacean again so he can meet his date with destiny and a nice bowl of melted butter.
And maybe a loaf of fresh, hot French bread on the side.
And a bottle of decent champagne.
Excuse me, I'm getting a bit peckish.
Isn't capitalism grand?
'100 months to save the planet'I'll start believing this Tommy when it's followed by "So screw the polar bears, the pandas and the whales. We're talking survival and we need to build 50,000 nuclear power plants NOW!"
Sunday, 20 July 2008
Saturday, 19 July 2008
Friday, 18 July 2008
Thursday, 17 July 2008
Someone has got to get those Marvel comics away from these guys or they'll blow the whole defence budget on vibranium shields.
Naturally, Nasa is seriously considering this proposal and... Oh, who am I kidding?
Wednesday, 16 July 2008
Tuesday, 15 July 2008
Nope. Something a bit more along the lines of red-state city folk riding to the rescue of their rural and rust state brethren.
What would it be like, we wondered, if folks who knew tools and innovation left the comfy bright green cities and traveled to the dead mall suburban slums, rustbelt browntowns and climate-smacked farm communities and started helping the locals get the tools they needed. We imagined that it would need an almost missionary fervor, something like the Inquisition (which largely destroyed knowledge) in reverse, a crusade of open sharing, or as Cory promptly dubbed it, the Outquisition.This comes under the heading of Ideas That Need To Cook A Bit Longer. Leaving aside how useful microfinancing and knowledge management systems will be in the face of the apocalypse, it seems as if the authors of Outquisition have a less than realistic picture of who is going to need whose help if civilisation goes up the spout. I've lived in both city and country and I can state quite firmly that in a rebuilding society scenario I'd much rather be in the country as I am now. At the moment, all things being equal, I could ride out the Fall for a good two months before it became anything more than an inconvienience and if I had enough notice I could stretch that to indefinitely–especially if the locals made a pact with the farmers and the small industrial estates that relocated outside the city limits.
Imagine these folks like this passing out free textbooks, running holistic programs for kids, creating local knowledge management systems, launching microfinance projects, mobilebanking and complementary currencies. Helping rural landowners apply climate foresight and farm biodiversity. Building cheap, smart, quality housing for displaced people (not to mention better refugee camps), or an Open Architecture Network for cheap informal rehabs of run-down suburban housing. Hacking together DIY windmills and ad hoc smart grids, communication systems, water treatment systems -- and getting really good atadaptive reuses of outdated infrastructure. In other words, these folks would be redistributing the future at a furious clip.
If anything, the last thing we'd expect from the city would be missionaries intent on redistributing the future. More likely it would be cold, starving hordes wanting to redistribute my larder. Ever been in the city when the basic services get knocked out by an earthquake or some other disaster? A couple of years ago a windstorm blasted through the vicinity of Chez Szondy and the worst that happened was that a lot of people had to go without store-bought bread for a fortnight while they fell back on generators and woodstoves to keep light and warmth while the roads were cleared and power lines repaired. A city, however, relies on a massive influx of goods on a daily basis just to feed itself. Stop deliveries for a day and the grocery shelves are empty. Stop them for a week and you have riots on your hands. Holistic programmes for kids don't do you much good in that situation. You need the Army and a brigade of engineers to make sure the would-be missionaries don't face the question of whether they starve to death before typhoid sets in.
"Comfy, green cities", my eye.
Monday, 14 July 2008
Who cares about Derek Zoolander anyway? The man has only one look, for Christ's sake! Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigra? They're the same face! Doesn't anybody notice this? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!
I feel Mugatu's pain. Reading reviews of "Midnight", the Doctor Who episode that aired in the US on Friday, I keep having the feeling that I must have a television that receives broadcasts from an alternate dimension. It's been called the best episode of this series, Davies' finest work, a classic, a brilliant claustrophobic gem and God knows what else.
Let's just step back a bit. We are talking about the episode where the Doctor leaves the dreadful Donna on the sun deck of an interstellar resort sometime in the future while he goes on a day trip in a tour bus only to have an alien "something" rip the driver's cabin off and possess one of the passengers, which causes the other tourists to descend into snarling paranoia? That the one?
No, can't be. That was, in technical terms, a steaming load of poo. We'll pass over Davies' standard missteps, such as the strange idea that, no matter what time period, people in the future will dress in 21st century clothes; the gratuitous homosexual reference; the collection of "realistic" characters treated with patent condescension by the writer who don't fit the setting or story at all, "moments" that has bloody all to do with the plot and just bring it crashing to a halt; or this season's annoying teasers for the Big Secret later on that no one will give a toss about when All Is Revealed. The story itself has enough in it to loathe and, amazingly, I wasn't the one to cast the first stone this time (In my defence, we only had it on because my daughter was in the room and I refused to watch Spongebob Squarepants, which I now regret). As the storyline about people fearing what they don't understand and turning into savages unfolded my wife, who has acted in and directed dozens of stage adaptations of the Twilight Zone in Seattle and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, pointed at the screen and said "It's 'The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street!'"
I couldn't help but agree, except that, heavy handed as Rod Serling had been half a century ago, at least he wrote dialogue for his characters while Davies, apparently went in for (bad) improv with everyone shouting "Stop it!" for half an hour interposed with thespian depths not plumbed since The Blair Witch Project. Then the creepy bit of demonic, sorry, "alien" possession occurred (why should one be any more likely than the other?) and the possessed person (with the appalling name of "Sky") starts repeating what everyone else is saying to her (*cough* Buffy *cough*). Many a review called this a tour de force of acting, though my better half just snorted and said, "Great! Now we're getting first year drama school exercises." And she knows from whence she speaks.
This was the highlight of an episode that wasn't helped by the fact that it merely demonstrated how weak David Tennant's Doctor is compared to previous incarnations. This 10th incarnation can't even control a busload of emotional cripples while Tom Baker's could silence a gaggle of homicidal telepathic priestesses with a glower and a glib word.
It was, however, marked by the new series' trademark of the action pushing forward at a furious pace to cover the fact that the actual plot doesn't move at all, but this this at least covers the fact that a) in the end, the Doctor does absolutely nothing and b) the panicky loudmouth who wanted to shove the possessed woman out the airlock was right all along.
Still, I must give Russell T points for a good moral: "If it looks dangerous, then it probably is, so kill it quick before it gets another shot in."
I don't think that's quite what Mr. Serling had in mind.