Sunday, January 16, 2022

Techno-utopia unravelling: Why complexity is no longer solving our problems

When we think of technology, we generally think of machines and gadgets that populate our life. For those in industry, the word may mean a process with many steps for the manufacture of a product—products that include things as complex as a computer and as simple as a potato chip.

For the ancient Greeks the word techne—from which we get technology—referred to what they called the mechanical arts—which in our day would be all of industry and commerce geared toward the practical ends of survival and for the support of other pursuits such as sports and entertainment.

While we watch our technically advanced global society founder as its denizens are once again brought low by another wave of COVID-19, we find ourselves stuck in a loop that tells us we simply need more technology. In this case, we say we need continuous vaccine booster shots. And, of course, we need everyone who hasn't already done so to receive a vaccine of some sort. While there is considerable evidence that vaccines lessen the severity of an infection and therefore reduce the likelihood of hospitalization and death, they neither prevent COVID nor prevent its transmission.

What we cannot fathom is that technology is just as often the source of problems as solutions, and that more technology often creates more problems. The technology that allows anyone with the money to fly across the ocean in less than a day is a pandemic-promoting technology. The technologies that enable transoceanic and transcontinental shipping are pandemic-promoting technologies. Even long-distance car rides allow us to spread infectious diseases to a frightening extent.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, January 16.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

How our miraculous transportation system turns water into brine

"Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

When English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge published those words in 1798, there was no dense network of modern concrete and asphalt roads in Great Britain (or anywhere else) and there were no automobiles or trucks to ride on them. And so, of course, there was no salting of roads in winter.

The excerpt quoted above is from Coleridge's famous poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and refers to the mariner's desperate desire for drinkable water while floating on the ocean.

We as a society are inching closer each year to bringing the ancient mariner's predicament on land because of our practice of salting roads in winter to make them safer for driving. The amount of salt we use for this purpose in the United States has gone from 0.15 metric tons per year in the 1940s to 18 million metric tons annually as of 2017.

The result has been dangerously escalating salt concentrations in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. Some urban bodies of water exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standard for protecting aquatic life by 20 to 30 times. Humans, of course, aren't aquatic life, but the trend in the salinization of surface water is troubling given the important role those waters play in water supplies around the country and the world.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Omicron on the rise: Pandemic as a life lesson for the human species

If we think of a disease as something that is sending us a message that we need to incorporate into our individual and collective lives, we get a much different view of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. So far, our attempts at integrating COVID-19 into our existence have been met with one surprising turn after another. The rapid rise of the Omicron variant is just the latest twist in the pandemic story. And, it follows the rise of the Delta variant which led to a previous new wave of infections.

The Delta variant seemed to increase significantly so-called breakthrough infections, that is, COVID infections in people believed to be fully or partially vaccinated, something which has flummoxed the medical community and public health officials. Still, those receiving a vaccine have far lower rates of hospitalization and mortality than those catching COVID who have not been vaccinated.

We don't yet have enough information to know just how well vaccines will fare against the Omicron variant. One early report is creating concern. Cornell University has closed its main campus in response to a rapid rise in COVID cases caused by the Omicron variant. And, this is a place where 97 percent of the people on campus are said to be "fully vaccinated."

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Human extinction: Are we already too late?

As I was reading Henry Gee's "Humans Are Doomed to Go Extinct," I was reminded of an iconic scene from one of the many "Star Trek" movies. In "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," the ship's captain, James Kirk, rushes to the engine room to discover that his friend Spock is staggering around in a compartment now filled with lethal radiation. Kirk's instinct is to rush in and try to save Spock. But, Kirk is held back by his colleagues in order to prevent the deadly radiation from flooding the entire engineering area.

"He'll die," Kirk says. "He's dead already," one of his colleagues responds, meaning that Spock has already received a fatal dose of radiation. Kirk is too late to save Spock. But it turns out that many fictional characters survive because of Spock's sacrifice.

It does not seem to Henry Gee, however, that any similar heroic sacrifices by one individual or a few will save humankind. The human race is collectively like Spock; it may be walking around, but it is dead already as a species—and the final demise is coming soon by evolutionary standards.

Gee, a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and editor at Nature, writes: "There comes a time in the progress of any species, even ones that seem to be thriving, when extinction will be inevitable, no matter what they might do to avert it."

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

U.S. shale oil and gas forecast: Too good to be true?

Earth scientist David Hughes—who is out with a new skeptical report on the future of U.S. shale oil and gas—has two very important things in common with Michael Burry. Burry is the investor made famous by The Big Short, the book that was later turned into a movie of the same name about the 2008 housing crash.

Both men made calls that contradicted an almost unanimous consensus, and both did so after dogged, painstaking research.

First, let’s look at the latest from Hughes, an update on the U.S. shale oil and gas industry entitled “Shale Reality Check 2021.” Then, we’ll return to his previous prescient call.

“Shale Reality Check 2021” seriously undermines rosy long-term forecasts made by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) for U.S. oil and natural gas from shale deposits. This matters because the EIA’s forecasts are counting on shale for 69 percent of all U.S. oil production from 2020 to 2050 and 77 percent of all U.S. natural gas production in the same period. And, it matters to the world because between 2008 and 2018, growth in U.S. oil production accounted for 73 percent of the entire growth in global supplies. (Oil from shale deposits is properly known as “tight oil,” a type of oil also found in other kinds of rock. Natural gas from shale deposits is typically referred to as “shale gas.”)

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Technology that "empowers the individual" can threaten all of us

Whenever I hear about a new technology that "empowers the individual," I know that one thing is likely to be true about it:  It will soon (if not already) be turned to negative and harmful ends. And yet, we as a society keep falling for the line that somehow every new technology will give us more control over our lives and make us somehow happier, more connected, safer and more powerful (but only in a good way).

It's true that practically any technology can be turned toward harmful ends; we haven't banned knives because they are used both to cut food and kill people. But it is the scale of damage that can be done by an individual that is changing.

Newspaper columnist Molly Ivins used to joke that she was not anti-gun, but pro-knife. In a 1993 column she wrote:

In the first place, you have catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. We'd turn into a whole nation of great runners. Plus, knives don't ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives.

Ivins was getting at the increased scale of damage that can be done by, say, automatic weapons versus a knife.

Guns have been around for centuries and have been made more lethal over time. But their lethality may someday soon seem quaint given the future of "empowerment" that awaits us.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Critical minerals problem: Supply chain issues come to the fore

It seems that all of a sudden there is talk of mineral shortages and two metals which are thought to be plentiful in the Earth's crust, nickel and zinc, have been added to the list of minerals now deemed critical to the United States, a list recently updated by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Partly, the concern is that the United States is not producing enough of its own nickel and zinc to rest easy over the availability of these metals on world markets. Nickel's new status stems in part from its emerging role in electric vehicle batteries. There is only one operating U.S. nickel mine. The situation with zinc is less concerning since there are 14 mines and three smelters.

There has long been concern about Rare Earth Elements (REEs) crucial to the computer and renewable energy infrastructure. Part of the concern is China's domination of the production of these minerals. Chinese mines supplied 55 percent of all REEs mined worldwide in 2020 and its REE refineries produced 85 percent of all refined products.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, November 28.