Sunday, June 27, 2010

Laughs for doomers

Boris Yelnikoff is a self-described "Nobel-level thinker" who feels beseiged by "microbes," one of his many terms for people who don't see "the big picture." And, what's the big picture? He tells us in the first five minutes of Woody Allen's latest movie, "Whatever Works," when he says, "On the whole, I'm sorry to say, we're a failed species."

Yelnikoff, played by Larry David, is an aging former Columbia University physics professor who has divorced his wife, moved to a dingy (but affordable) New York apartment, and taken up teaching chess to children to support himself. While the movie doesn't explicitly tackle the many converging catastrophes of the 21st century--there is exactly one mention of global warming--it does provide a catharsis for one's doomerish side as we laugh at Yelnikoff's misanthropic pessimism and his general ability to be a killjoy. We even get a treatment of the concept of entropy that elicits laughs. Now that's a true doomer's delight!

The failed species remark indicates promise that the movie will provide laughs for doomers. This is confirmed in what is really an opening monologue in which Yelnikoff warns the audience as follows:
I'm not a likeable guy. Charm has never been a priority with me. And just so you know, this is not the feel-good movie of the year. So if you're one of those idiots who needs to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage....What the hell does it all mean anyhow? Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

That such a character could be the basis for a comedy is a testament to the genius of Allen. That this character could be the conduit for catharsis for the peak oil- and climate change-obsessed is a minor blessing. Yelnikoff tells us in the opening monologue that the daily news is enough to drive one to suicide as it did his father:

My father committed suicide because the morning newspapers depressed him. And could you blame him? With the horror and corruption and ignorance and poverty and genocide and AlDS and global warming and terrorism..."The horror," Kurtz said at the end of Heart of Darkness. "The horror." Lucky Kurtz didn't have the Times delivered in the jungle, then he'd see some horror. But what do you do? You read about some massacre in Darfur or some school bus gets blown up, and you go, "Oh, my God, the horror!" And then you turn the page and finish your eggs from free-range chickens.

Yelnikoff also demonstrates frustration you can believe in. How many times a day (or times a minute if you are watching any cable newscast) do the peak oil- and climate change-obsessed among us want to yell out, "You idiot, you moron, you imbecile!" Most of us are too polite to say it, so Yelnikoff says it for us (for various doomer- and non-doomer-related reasons) over and over again.

The continuing spark for the comedy in "Whatever Works" comes from Yelnikoff's liaison with a young, beautiful runaway from Mississippi. Desperate for food and shelter she accosts him in front of his apartment one evening and convinces him to let her in. She ends up staying, and eventually (spoiler alert), they marry. It doesn't last. But Yelnikoff is resigned in the proper entropic way: "The universe is winding down. Why shouldn't we?"

In the end, however, as is appropriate for a comedy, love conquers all, and the main characters land in fulfilling, if not necessarily traditional, love relationships. The film also examines the role of chance in life, an issue discussed frequently on this blog in both the financial and natural worlds. The film's focus, of course, is on chance in our love lives.

The movie never seems to have gained wide release, probably in part because it takes so many jabs at gun advocates and Christian fundamentalists--two of the main characters are fundamentalists from the South--and probably because of its relentlessly doomerish main character.

I recommend more than one viewing to get the full cathartic effects, and also because you won't catch all the jokes the first time through. If you are among the peak oil- or climate change-obsessed, how can you resist a film that uses Heisenberg's Uncertainy Principle and the fate of the ancient Mayans as setups for jokes?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Memo to Kurzweil: The human-machine hybrid already happened and the results are pretty scary

Modern people ridicule the search for the mythical fountain of youth, a search that has preoccupied our forebears through many generations. Still, even today claims that human progress will accelerate so fast in the next few of decades that immortality will become a fact are taken seriously by people at the highest levels of society.

The latest version of the fountain of youth comes from a group who believe that a merger between humans and machines in the near future in ways that are not currently possible to foresee will enable a type of life everlasting. This belief comes out of a movement for which the most famous proponent is probably Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil, an entrepreneur, inventor, and writer, believes that no later than 2045, we will build machines that are smarter than humans. These machines will in turn build even smarter machines. Technological progress will proceed at a rate that represents the end of the human era and the beginning of one shared by humans and machines joined together and producing unimaginably rapid technological change. He and others refer to this point of transition as the technological singularity. This change, he believes, will enable humanity to overcome all of its most pressing problems: disease, hunger, climate change, resource scarcity, and, of course, death.

Part of the trouble with Kurzweil's ideas is that they seem to ignore history. People who are heavily involved in the computer industry as Kurzweil is often believe that they are helping to create a new era, a complete break from the past. But in this case history would tell us one very important thing. Humans have long been joined to machines. Yes, the machines started out simple: a plow, a compass, a sail, a waterwheel, and a windmill are all examples. But even these simple machines vastly altered the relationship of humans with nature and each other.

With the advent of fossil fuels the power of machines increased greatly. And, the division of labor which this development allowed increased the rate of technological innovation. This cycle has repeated itself as more fuel was added to an ever finer division of labor. So great has the power of humans on planet Earth become that sociologist William Catton Jr. dubbed the new form of man "homo colossus," a vigorous human-machine hybrid.

Kurzweil tells us that the human-machine hybrid he foresees is different. It will have powers that are many orders of magnitude beyond that of current humans. Again, he seems to ignore history. The introduction of fossil fuels, a concentrated, versatile, and (until recently) plentiful energy resource gave humans capabilities that are indeed orders of magnitude greater than those living in the pre-fossil fuel era. Think of the horsepower of a human, 1.2 horsepower for brief periods and 0.1 horsepower on a sustained basis. Compare that to the horsepower of a jet aircraft, for instance, the Airbus A380 with a cruising speed of 647 mph and four engines rated at 280,000 lbs. of total thrust. Where 550 ft-lbs/second equals one horsepower, this results in 1.72 hp/lb of thrust or 481,600 horsepower--in other words, several orders of magnitude greater than what a human can do with muscle power.

Of course, Kurzweil predicts that humans will perform this feat all over again in the area of intelligence giving humans access to intellectual abilities "trillions of times" greater than those we have today through a physical merger with intelligent machines. Here is a quote from the website for Kurzweil's book, The Singularity is Near:
We will be able to assume different bodies and take on a range of personae at will. In practical terms, human aging and illness will be reversed; pollution will be stopped; world hunger and poverty will be solved. Nanotechnology will make it possible to create virtually any physical product using inexpensive information processes and will ultimately turn even death into a soluble problem.

If you believe Kurzweil is correct about the vast expansion of human capabilities in the future, you must also believe that doing the same thing all over again--that is, increasing the power of humans by several orders of magnitude--will bring about different results than the previous fossil fuel driven increase. (I am reminded of the old joke that doing that same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.) The powers given to us by fossil fuels have put us on the path to ecological suicide due to climate change; soil depletion; fisheries depletion; deforestation; toxic pollution of the air, water and land; and ironically, depletion of fossil fuels which have enabled humans temporarily to overshoot by a wide margin the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth. But Kurzweil tells us that the results are sure to be better in the upcoming orders-of-magnitude ramp up in human power that he foresees.

The basic facts of biology and the record of history already tell us that Kurzweil's dream is a mere fantasy. While we should laud the man for his many important contributions to society--omnifont optical character recognition, text-to-speech and musical instrument synthesizers, and speech recognition software--we should also be wary of his bizarre vision of the future. It is not the content of that vision that should worry us so much as the meta-message it is sending to so many in our society: Sit back and let the technocratic elite solve all of our problems. After all, they've done such a good job so far!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The addict's excuse

As I read Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's letter to President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking them to reconsider a six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling, I was reminded of a Wendell Berry essay I read several years ago.

In "Word and Flesh" Berry wrote, "The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent on what is wrong. But that is the addict's excuse, and we know that it will not do." Or do we? The Gulf of Mexico is currently experiencing the human equivalent of metastasizing cancer, and the governor of Louisiana proposes that the activities which resulted in that cancer be resumed immediately even as BP's underwater gusher continues to flow into the gulf. The picture that comes to mind is one of a smoker who, having had his cancerous voicebox removed, immediately resumes smoking through his tracheotomy, a permanent opening in the throat made necessary by the operation. It is a repulsive, grotesque, and yet darkly humorous image.

We are that patient. And, it is as if Jindal, in the role of our physician, is prescribing post-operative cigarettes to prevent any nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Make no mistake. The symptoms will be severe when the inevitable withdrawal from oil arrives. Even now one little-noticed side effect of the deepwater drilling moratorium is that new deepwater natural gas wells, wells essential to keeping domestic supplies in balance, are also not being drilled. Perhaps as early as this fall, the entire country will feel the effects of the tragedy in the gulf in the form of higher natural gas prices. Liquid natural gas ports are limited in North America, and so we won't be able to import our way out of trouble as we do with oil.

Of course, Jindal feels he must show concern for the oil and gas industry. That industry not only buys influence among Gulf coast legislators and governors to ensure their pliability, but it also employs a sizable workforce in the region. It is a mark of how thoroughly corrupt our system of government has become and how tenuous our fossil fuel system is that Jindal didn't even have the decency to wait for the leak to be plugged before speaking out.

The prudent course for the previously discussed cancer patient would be to attend smoking cessation classes and learn to live without. For us as a society when it comes to oil, there will be no going cold turkey; nor would it be advisable to do so. Too many critical functions would collapse. But as regulators and the U. S. Congress look for ways to avoid a similar calamity in the future, we can, as Wendell Berry suggests, begin to solve the problem of oil addiction without them. We can change our habits in ways so often listed across the Internet and in books, magazines and newspapers: walking, bicycling, riding public transportation, buying and growing food locally, keeping our bodies warm instead of the entire house, and so on.

The failure of our vaunted technology to plug the blown out oil well at the bottom of the gulf some six weeks after it began leaking ought to be a warning about the limits of that technology. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the combination of large corporations, government and technology can be counted on to provide the solutions to our major resource and environmental problems. If the failure of technology currently on display in the Gulf of Mexico and the now widely reported collusion between the oil industry and federal regulators don't convince you of this, nothing will.