Sunday, January 19, 2020

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 26.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

'Soylent yellow': Is artificial protein really a solution to food production?

The 1973 dystopian science fiction film "Soylent Green" is set in the year 2022, just one year after a nonfictional Finnish company hopes to begin selling an artificially produced yellow protein-laden flour created by bacteria that the company says will revolutionize food production.

The flour is derived from vats of yellow bacteria whose fermentation process create a yellow protein that when dried looks like flour. That yellow flour contains 50 percent protein, 20 to 25 percent carbohydrates and 5 to 10 percent fat. This basic foodstuff can then presumably be turned into products such as meat substitutes, bread products and filler in myriad foods needing a protein boost.

The entire process takes place indoors and the company claims that it dramatically reduces the amount of water, land and other resources needed to grow or raise the equivalent amount of protein using modern farming techniques.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Iran, energy and war

The American obsession with Iran is about oil and natural gas. If these two resources had been absent, it is hard to imagine such an intense American focus on the country from the time of a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-backed coup of Iran's elected government in 1953 to today. The Foreign Policy magazine piece linked above is based on declassified CIA documents and summarizes the coup this way: "Known as Operation Ajax, the CIA plot was ultimately about oil."

This should come as no surprise. Iran was an oil power back in 1953 and it remains one today. Iran is presumed to have the third largest oil reserves in the world and the second largest natural gas reserves. Even if the numbers cited are somewhat inflated, Iran's reserves are not small, and the country is likely to play a large role in world energy markets for many years to come.

The recent escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran because of the U.S. assassination of a prominent, popular and by all accounts highly effective Iranian general will allow the advocates of war to trot out all manner of excuses for such a war: terrorism, regime change, the credibility of the United States, Iran's nonexistent nuclear weapons, and the United States' geostrategic posture vis-à-vis big power rivals such as Russia and China. (Does anyone really know what the last one means?)

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Epistemological divide: How we live in two different worlds of understanding

Epistemology is the study of how we know things. All of us cycle between two main ways of knowing in our modern culture: 1) the rational, reductionist way and 2) the holistic, relational, intuitive way. By far the most dominant way is the rational, reductionist way and our institutions, scientific, economic, financial and organizational are governed by this way of thinking.

For the reductionist thinker, everything in the universe is made up of parts. If we can understand the parts, we can understand the whole. Depending on the field, the physical world is nothing but atoms and molecules and the social world is nothing but self-maximizing, rational actors. The reductionist view is very powerful and filled with "nothing but" statements. It never occurs to the thoroughgoing reductionist that the idea of "parts" is merely a mental construct.

In our everyday relationships with friends and family, in our nonrational pursuits in music and the arts, in our religious lives, we tend toward the second way of thinking, holistic, relational and intuitive.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Ocean floor mining: What could possibly go wrong?

A recent article on undersea mining in The Atlantic brought back a detailed childhood memory. When I was in fifth grade, my class put on a sort of mini science fair and performance art program for parents. My project focused on the prospect of mining the oceans. I drew a large mural-like color illustration showing a submarine stationed just above the seabed where it hoovered up minerals with large hoses. 

The submarine had wide pipes running from it to the surface where a ship received the nodules of ore gathered by the hoses. During my presentation the classroom was dark, and my mural was illuminated using three small articulating lamps turned on and off by a classmate as I went through the distinct phases of the mining operations in a room meant to mimic the dark and foreboding deep.

It turns out these many years later that my cursory research into ocean mining as a fifth-grader yielded a roughly accurate portrayal of what is about to happen in the oceans starting early in the coming decade. The world's nations may conclude a treaty governing undersea mining through the auspices of the United Nations as early as next year. Once that is concluded, large scale mining of ocean bottoms is expected to begin.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Taking a short break - no post this week or next

I'm taking a short break from posting this week and next. I expect to post again on Sunday, December 22.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Economists and climate change: Building castles in the sky

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said that "the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable." Unfortunately, when some economists turn their sights on the economics of climate change, their unreliable methods imperil not just the economic life of humankind but its very existence.

I have written previously about this phenomenon in 2007 about how economists underestimate the critical importance of small (by economic value) but critical parts of the economy such as agriculture, forestry, and energy and in 2012 about how unsuited our current infrastructure is to the unfolding climate.

The trouble is that against all evidence, some climate economists keep building castles in the sky. Nobel Prize winner William Nordhaus is among the most prominent economists working on climate change and its economic effects. In short, Nordhaus, who is mentioned both in my 2007 and 2012 pieces, tells us not to worry too much about climate change. It will be cheaper to adapt to it than to prevent it or slow it down.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Imagination, STEM and Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi, author of the international bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, explains that the title of her book came from her diary in which she kept track of activities that were no longer allowed in post-revolutionary Iran, but which people engaged in as a form of resistance. One of those activities was reading Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, Lolita, about a middle-aged professor of literature who finds himself sexually pursuing a 12-year-old girl—a tale that is not exactly consistent with Islamic revolutionary clerical sensibilities.

Nafisi spoke recently to a small gathering I attended at the home of a friend about her life, her writings and her fears for American democracy. She shared her concerns that warning signs are all around signaling the decline of democratic life in her adopted country. She did so in part by invoking a recurrent theme in the academic world to which she belongs. That world contains two cultures which seem forever split, the sciences and the humanities.

The craze over so-called STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—in education policy and practice has devalued the development of individual imagination which Nafisi regards as the cornerstone of an educated mind. Instead, cultivation of the imagination is replaced with the notion of a "race" against the Chinese and other commercial rivals to dominate world markets with new, domestically developed technologies.

Sunday, November 17, 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, November 24. Regular readers will note that I've had to take more breaks from posting this fall than I have in a very long time. This is due to an exceptional consulting and writing workload.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Air-conditioning the outside—really

Qatar is both a country and a peninsula which juts out about 100 miles into the Persian Gulf. It is precisely this geography which makes it both one of the hottest and muggiest places on Earth. The average daily high in mid-summer is 108 degrees F (42 degrees C).

With temperatures now exceeding those averages on a regular basis and nighttime temperatures hovering in the 90s in summer, Qatar has begun working on making the outside cooler.

It had to come. As climate change continues to move temperatures up worldwide, those places that were already hot are getting hotter—and unlivable.

Workers on a U.S. military base in Qatar must now follow strict rest regimens so as not to endanger their well-being on hot days. The Washington Post reports:

The U.S. Air Force calls very hot days “black flag days” and limits exposure of troops stationed at al-Udeid Air Base. Personnel conducting patrols or aircraft maintenance work for 20 minutes, then rest for 40 minutes and drink two bottles of water an hour. People doing heavy work in the fire department or aircraft repair may work for only 10 minutes at a time, followed by 50 minutes of rest, according to a spokesman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.