Sunday, May 19, 2024

Yet more boondoggles: Extracting carbon dioxide from the air, mining asteroids

The dictionary doesn't quite do justice to the word "boondoggle" according to author Dmitri Orlov, best known for his book Reinventing Collapse. A contemporary boondoggle must not only be wasteful, it should, if possible, also create additional problems that can only be addressed by yet more boondoggles. (This does NOT preclude boondoggles from being profitable for certain insiders.)

In Orlov's universe, such boondoggles dissipate the wealth and vitality of a society until it collapses. But if executed properly, boondoggles first grind down society without actually collapsing it. When the collapse finally does comes, it is like "falling out of a ground-floor window." In the collapsenik lexicon, this is what passes for a soft landing.

Two important boondoggles were in the news recently: a big set of machines that extract carbon dioxide from the air and companies formed to mine asteroids.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Dr. Seuss and the weight-loss drug craze

As the weight-loss drug craze has taken off, I couldn't help thinking of a story my mother read to me when I was a child called "The Sneetches". The story was written by famed children's author Dr. Seuss.

The key character in "The Sneetches" is a huckster named Sylvester McMonkey McBean. The shrewd McBean observes that Sneetches—yellowish, flightless, bird-like creatures—come in two types: those with stars on their bellies and those without. The star-belly Sneetches consider themselves superior to those without. McBean brings in a machine that will attach a star to the belly of any Sneetch—for a price, of course. He does brisk business as all the Sneetches without stars line up to get theirs.

Once the star-belly Sneetches find out what's happening, they are aghast. They can no longer tell for certain which Sneetches are true star-belly Sneetches and which are imposters. McBean has a solution. It's a star-off machine which the congenital star-belly Sneetches flock to in order to re-establish their position of superiority in Sneetch society.

You can pretty much guess what comes next: The newly minted star-belly Sneetches rush to have the stars taken off their bellies in order to keep up with the original star-belly Sneetches who are now starless. But, of course, that's not the end of it. The whole society of Sneetches proceeds to cycle back and forth between the two machines, chasing the now elusive and ever-changing mark (or unmark) of status until the Sneetches are all penniless. McBean moves on. But in true Dr. Seuss fashion, the Sneetches realize that stars are not all that important and decide to live in harmony and equality for star-belly and non-star-belly Sneetches alike.

Getting back to diet drugs, the most important thing you need to know about these drugs is that you must continue to take them in order keep weight off. I feel that Sylvester McMonkey McBean must be in the wings somewhere.

Sunday, May 05, 2024

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Presidential immunity and the 'Dark Age Ahead'

When author Jane Jacobs published Dark Age Ahead in 2004, she was already seeing the signs of a dark age emerging. The prerequisites for such an age are a relentless decline in accountability and transparency across society. The most troubling sign of such a decline is not that we forget how to structure and run a robust society, but that we forget that we forgot. In such a case there is no attempt to rediscover the pillars of a healthy polity because there is no memory that there ever was one.

Last week at the U.S. Supreme Court lack of accountability and forgetting that we have forgotten seemed to be on display during oral arguments regarding whether a U.S. president should be immune from criminal prosecution after the president leaves office. (U.S. Department of Justice policy already forbids prosecution of a sitting president.) At least some members of the court seemed to forget that they forgot that no president of the United States has ever before been criminally prosecuted, that is, until now. Presidential immunity is a solution looking for a problem that has simply not existed historically. There has been no rash of prosecutions of former presidents that needs to be addressed. The universe of problem presidents is one in 235 years. One justice opined that the Court in making its decision would be "writing for the ages." If only this justice and some of the others knew something about "the ages" for which they are writing.

As many commentators registered shock that the Supreme Court is entertaining the possibility that the U.S. president ought to have immunity from criminal prosecution even after leaving office, they were missing the overall context. Many presidents of the United States have successfully avoided accountability for illegal acts performed while in office and probably will in the future. President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal comes to mind. Nixon, of course, was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford before Nixon was ever indicted. President Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra Affair is another example. The independent counsel in the case concluded there was not sufficient evidence to charge Reagan.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Are your Cheerios impairing your fertility?

I've decided to rename the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I now think a better name is the Agency for Fertility and Population Decline. I say this after reports that the EPA is thinking about adding even more chlormequat to our diet by allowing American farmers to spray this plant growth regulator—which is linked to reproductive damage in animals—on food crops such as barley, oats, wheat, and triticale. According to Wikipedia, chlormequat "can cause stem thickening, reduced stem height, additional root development, plant dwarfing, and increase chlorophyll concentration." All of this is useful in keeping the plant upright for easier harvesting and for making it more productive.

That sounds good until you learn that chlormequat has been found in the urine of 80 percent of those tested and that that number has been rising in recent years. Where is the chlormequat coming from? In part, it's coming from imported grains and animal products from countries that already allow the use of chlormequat on food crops. It may also be coming from American grain farms that are using chlormequat illicitly—that is, until the EPA makes it legal.

Gentlemen may be particularly interested in the "benefits" of consuming chlormequat with their morning Cheerios. These include delayed onset of puberty accompanied by reduced prostate size, reduced sperm motility, and decreased testosterone. For prospective mothers and their offspring the "benefits" include "adverse effects on postnatal health, including hypoglycemia, hyperlipidemia, and hyperproteinemia seven days after birth compared with controls." Yes, these are animal studies. But last time I checked, humans are animals.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Why we call it climate change

There were two pieces of recent news which highlight why what was once most often referred to as global warming is now called climate change. Yes, the globe is heating up. But effects vary depending on where you live for various reasons.

First, a report from India calls out problems with the criteria used by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) to issue a heatwave warning: The criteria do NOT consider humidity, only temperature. Anyone who lives in a hot climate or any climate that includes hot summer days knows that humidity can make a huge difference in whether one can stay cool in hot weather. It turns out that the IMD criteria fail to recognize that temperatures below what is considered a heatwave may be just as dangerous to human health when humidity is high and even be downright life-threatening. In short, India is already experiencing conditions that at times are at or near the limits of human suvivability.

The vast majority of humans—even with an unlimited supply of water—would likely die after a few hours in conditions that exceed 95 degrees in very high humidity, what is called wet-bulb temperatures because they represent a wet towel around the bulb of a thermometer.  This web-bulb temperature is supposed to mimic the way that humans cool themselves through perspiration. At very high humidity, it becomes hard to get perspiration on the skin to evaporate which is what allows for cooling of the body. It's why a handheld or electric fan helps cool the body because it speeds up evaporation.

Sunday, April 07, 2024

The short-circuiting of societal feedback mechanisms

Both societies and individuals rely on feedback mechanisms to function. For example, humans balance on one foot not by rigidly holding the leg and foot steady. Rather, they constantly slightly shift their weight to keep upright. If they close their eyes, however, they have less feedback, and it becomes harder to maintain balance.

Now, the stakes are somewhat higher when you drive a car, but the principle is the same. When driving, you don't simply hold the wheel in one position. That would eventually send you off the road or into another car. Instead, based on visual feedback from the lines painted on the road and the positions of other vehicles, you steer your car, making frequent slight adjustments to keep you on the road, in your lane and away from collisions.

If, on the other hand, you were forced to drive with a paper bag over your head, you'd lack all that feedback and you'd be lucky if you only ended up going off the road into a ditch.

But our situation as a civilization is so much worse than that. Collectively, most of us are "drivers" of our civilization who have bags over our heads without understanding that we have bags over our heads. At least a lone driver of a car quickly realizes he or she is in trouble when the car hits another car or goes into a ditch. Collectively, as actors in our broader civilization, we are getting feedback that all is well, or at least well enough, that we don't need to make any drastic changes in our way of life. It's as if someone is beaming a false virtual reality to us inside the bag. And, that is a good metaphor for what's actually happening.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Biofortification: The latest technical fix for depleted soils

Many health-conscious people already know that the nutrient value of foods has been dropping since the introduction of industrial agriculture. The causes include loss of nutrient-rich topsoil due to erosion brought on by frequent plowing and therefore loosening of the soil. Farmers also often fail to plant cover crops to hold soil in place when the growing season is over. Another cause is the reduction in the biological diversity and density of the soil brought on both by frequent plowing and by the constant barrage of synthetic chemicals, both fertilizers and pesticides, used in industrial agriculture.

Now, the same people who brought you the industrial food system want to bring you biofortification, a term which refers to a set of approaches to boost nutrients in food—nutrients lost due to the very techniques used in industrial agriculture.

It should come as no surprise that one approach being discussed is genetic engineering of crops to increase nutrient levels. For those of us who find the idea of yet more genetically modified crops in the food supply unappetizing as well as dangerous, there is an alternative. This one encourages conventional plant breeding, the rebuilding of soil, and the planting of a more diverse set of crops. The reasoning is that part of the nutrition problem is that people don't get a rounded diet that includes the diversity of foods which have the diversity of nutrients their bodies need. (This piece in The Guardian provides a reasonably good summary of the discourse around biofortification.)

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Why don't humans respond to extinction-level risks?

The perils that threaten the continuity of human civilization are so obvious that it is puzzling that so little is being done to counter these perils. In fact, much is being done to hasten their arrival. Climate change, nuclear war, toxic pollution leading to complete loss of human fertility, solar storms and electromagnetic pulse weapons that could take down the entire electric grid, designer viruses against which none of us have defenses, and energy and resource depletion are just some of the extinction-level risks that we face.

Now, none of these possibilities are certain to wipe out humanity altogether. But they might very well end modern technical civilization and leave behind only a few scattered groups of humans around the globe. And, then there is the recent hoopla about artificial intelligence (AI) taking over the world and extinguishing human beings or, at least making decisions without consideration for whether those decisions will lead to the demise of the human race. What the hoopla actually seems to be about is what people will do with AI, making this an all-too-human disaster rather than merely a technological one.

Given all that is known about these threats, what is stopping human societies from taking definitive action to prevent them? Let me offer a few ideas:

Sunday, February 25, 2024

No post this week - Taking an EXTENDED break

A crush of consulting work has prevented me from finding time to reflect and write, and it will remain that way for the next month. Therefore, I'm taking an extended break and expect to post again on Sunday, March 24.