Sunday, February 17, 2019

"Which species are we sure we can survive without?" Revisited

Two years ago I asked the question in the title of this piece. Now comes a wide-ranging study that suggests we are about to test that question in a major way.

The study predicts that at the current rate of loss of insect species, 40 percent could be gone "in the next few decades." What is particularly alarming is that this "could trigger wide-ranging cascading effects within several of the world's ecosystems." That means that many other life-forms including other animals and plants could find themselves without what they need to survive in this dangerous game of musical chairs orchestrated by humans. Might we be one of those species?

Insects do much of the crop pollination necessary for food production. A list of crops pollinated by bees is quite long. Humans could survive without these foods, but the nutrition and variety in our diets would be severely limited. And yet there is a greater problem. Outside of agriculture 80 to 95 percent of plant species require animal pollination. Since those plants are the base of every food chain, catastrophic declines in insect populations could lead to a collapse of existing ecosystems. The exact scope and effects of such a collapse cannot be fully anticipated. But it is doubtful humans would be unharmed.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Is a key ingredient humans need to live about to run short?

Phosphorus is essential for all living organisms. So, it's not surprising that humans get their phosphorus from other living organisms, mostly plants, that have absorbed phosphorus from the soil.

The introduction of phosphate fertilizers made it possible to ensure that enough phosphorus for healthy plant growth is available in practically any farmland soils. At first, farmers had access to phosphate fertilizers from bone ash and later from phosphate deposits accumulated from bird and bat guano on certain tropical islands (some of which deposits were 30 feet deep before they were mined and completely exhausted). More recently, phosphates have come from mining rocks rich in phosphorus.

All seemed well for the long term as supplies of the rock phosphates were thought to be hundreds of years at current rates of consumption. But a group of researchers upended the consensus in 2009 forecasting that phosphate production could peak as early as 2030. A peak wouldn't be the end of phosphate production. But it would mark the beginning of an ongoing decline in phosphorus available from mines. This would come as a shock to a world food system accustomed to consistently rising phosphorus supplies needed to feed a growing population.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Will anything slow down the U.S. LNG juggernaut?

It is the legally mandated purpose of a for-profit corporation to make money for its owners and to prioritize that goal above all else. So, it is no surprise that U.S. natural gas producers have been seeking relief from domestic prices that have generally hovered between $2 and $4 per thousand cubic feet for most of this decade.

Qatar Petroleum and Exxon Mobil Corp announced last week that they would be adding to investment in Texas in liquefied natural gas capacity for export from the United States, a move that was described as a response the immense volumes of gas coming from American shale deposits. With so many LNG projects being built and on the drawing board, will anything slow down the U.S. LNG juggernaut?

The fight over U.S. exports of natural gas is long since over. U.S. producers now have the right—like almost all other U.S. producers of commodities or manufactured products—to sell their products to the highest bidder wherever that bidder may be in the world.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Has U.S. shale oil entered a death spiral?

The bad news coming out of the shale oil fields of America could all be put down to slumping oil prices. That is certainly a big factor. But as investment professionals like to say, when the tide goes out, we all find out who's been skinny-dipping.

The pattern of negative news from shale country is not just related to price, however. Oil production, it seems, is being overstated industry-wide by 10 percent and 50 percent in the case of some companies, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The CEO of one of the largest players in the industry, Continental Resources, predicted that growth in shale oil production could fall by 50 percent this year compared to last year. In reality, we should expect worse as the industry for obvious reasons tends to exaggerate its prospects.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The greatest good for the greatest number: A doctrine of acceptable losses

In 1776 philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote a phrase that continues to be central to our modern way of thinking: "[I]t is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong."

That phrase has morphed into the familiar one cited in the title of this piece. Happiness, however, has been reinterpreted first as "good" meaning something which gives pleasure, a move toward a kind of hedonism. "Good" has, however, become associated with "goods," that is, objects which consumers and businesses buy to further their personal and occupational goals.

This drift from the original meaning of what Bentham called his "fundamental axiom" is, in part, why we are addicted to economic growth and the consumerism that derives from it. We believe that "goods" are good for us and so more "goods" will always bring more good in their wake.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, January 20.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Democracy, truth, fallibilism, and the tech overlords

In a recent conversation a friend of mine offered the following: "There would be no need to vote on anything if we knew the truth." That statement has such profound implications that I will only scratch the surface of it here.

First, democracy presupposes that none of us knows the truth. We have our experience, our analyses, our logic and our intuitions, but we don't have the truth with a capital "T." We may reliably report our names to bank tellers. This is a social and legal designation, a definition backed by a birth certificate, driver's license, and other official documents. Even here we are obliged to provide evidence of the truth of our identity to the teller.

But whether it is wise to subsidize electric cars, legalize gambling, or go to war are issues that are far beyond simple social and legal designations. Our information on such topics is always incomplete, conflicting and quite possibly unreliable. We have difficulty verifying through personal observation much of what we are told. And, we are prone to errors of logic and to misinterpretations.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Taking a holiday break

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, January 6.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Drones for Christmas

I'm beginning to think that unmanned aerial vehicles—usually referred to as drones—are going to be next year's must-have Christmas gift after their stunning Christmas-time performance at London's Gatwick Airport.

For those who missed the excitement, mysterious drones appeared at Gatwick last week and shut down the entire airport for three days as security officials could not be certain what threat they posed. Those officials finally deployed "unidentified military technology" to protect the airport, and they have since arrested a man and a woman, neither of whom have been identified.

We might have guessed that giving civilians access to drone technology for fun and profit would lead to problems. After all, their initial use was military for spying on enemies and then assassinating them when desired—extrajudicial killings with a Jetsons-like twist.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Artificial intelligence and the limits of the machine model

In his bestselling book, Up the Organization, former Avis president Robert Townsend captured the problem of automation precisely. Writing at a time when the vast paper systems of corporate America were being transferred to computers, he warned that it was important first to make sure that a company's paper systems are actually effective and accurate. "Otherwise," he quipped, "your new computer will just speed up the mess."

Today, we are faced with a new wave of optimism about the prospects of what is called artificial intelligence (AI). Just to be clear, here is what the originators of that term meant by it:

[T]he basis of the conjecture [about artificial intelligence is] that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.

It is important to parse these words carefully for they will tell you why artificial intelligence as it is currently conceived will very likely "just speed up the mess."