Sunday, December 30, 2018
Taking a holiday break
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."
Sunday, December 09, 2018
Uber, Moore's Law and the limits of the technofix
Uber remains a darling of the tech world. It is regarded as a disruptive upstart that recognized the unused capacity of privately-owned automobiles and their owners. It unleashed that capacity on cities worldwide using cellphone technology to provide discount rides to customers, ones who might otherwise have taken traditional taxis or public transportation.
It's a truism that startups burn through money like bonfires burn through tinder. But nine years in after becoming a worldwide company, Uber is still burning cash—$1 billion in the most recent quarter and $4.5 billion altogether in 2017.
To understand how Uber continues to enchant the investment and tech worlds despite its miserable financial record requires a little background. The dominant metaphor in the tech world is Moore's Law. Moore's Law is named for Gordon Moore, a semiconductor pioneer, who noted the doubling of transistors on an integrated circuit about every two years. This rapid progress led to rapid increases in the capabilities of computers in terms of speed, memory and computational power even while prices were coming down dramatically. That progress is also seen in the capabilities of practically everything containing circuits including cellphones, cameras and other digital devices.
Sunday, December 02, 2018
Bayer suffering buyer's remorse for Monsanto acquisition
If only Bayer, the German pharmaceutical and agricultural seed and chemical giant, had bothered to ask around before acquiring the American-based Monsanto Company for $63 billion in cash last June.
Two months later a jury delivered a $289 million award (later reduced to $78 million) to a groundskeeper who claimed his frequent exposure to Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller had given him cancer and that the company covered up the danger. (In 2015 the World Health Organization classified glyphosate, the name of the active ingredient in Roundup, as a probable carcinogen. Glyphosate is one of the most broadly used herbicides in the world.)
There are over 8,000 cases pending against Monsanto in the United States and many more will surely be filed. Bayer's stock has lost $38 billion in value since Bayer acquired Monsanto. The company would have done better putting its $63 billion in cash into a hole in the ground.
Sunday, November 25, 2018
Taking a Thanksgiving holiday break
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Australia's drought, climate change and the future of food
There's a reason that few people are thinking about world grain supplies. Last year saw record worldwide production of grains and record stocks of grains left over.
But this year worldwide production slipped about 2 percent, owing in large part to the plunge in Australia's production caused by an ongoing severe drought. Production is expected to fall 23 percent. Fortunately, in our globalized grain markets, this hasn't affected overall supplies or prices very much as grain stocks are high and supplies are mobile and shipped all over the world as needed.
But Australia is the world's fifth largest wheat exporter, accounting for nearly 9 percent of the total in 2016 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In fact, the top five wheat exporting countries account for 56 percent of world wheat exports. The rest of the world is highly dependent on these exporters to make up the difference between what they grow and what they eat.
Sunday, November 11, 2018
Connected and vulnerable: Climate change, trade wars and the networked world
The increasing connectedness of the global economic system has long been touted as the path to greater prosperity and peaceful relations among nations and their peoples. There's just one hitch: Complex systems have more points of failure and also hidden risks that only surface when something goes wrong.
For example, our dependence on cheap shipping to move commodities and finished goods has resulted in a system vulnerable to environmental disruption, particularly climate change, and to rising political and military tensions.
The extreme drought in Germany last summer, the warmest ever recorded in the country, has resulted in such low water in the Rhine River that shipping has been greatly curtailed. Ships can only be loaded lightly so as to avoid running aground. Consequently, many more barges and other vessels have been pressed into service to carry the lighter but more numerous loads along the river. This has driven up the cost of shipping considerably. In addition, fuel tankers have not been able to reach some river ports resulting in scattered fuel shortages. Some industrial installations along the river have had to reduce operations.
The natural inhabitants of the river have also suffered as die-offs of fish and other marine life have spread along the river.
Sunday, November 04, 2018
Is the "world" actually getting better? Depends on your definition of "world"
A frequent critique of the daily news flow is that it is filled with negative events. This is partly a product of the human nervous system. We react very quickly to perceived threats and more slowly to hope of gain or pleasure. Editors and reporters know what will grab people's attention which is why the old adage—if it bleeds, it leads—still applies.
There are, of course, heartwarming stories about miraculous recoveries from illness and injury, rescued animals, and saintly persons doing amazing charitable acts. And, then there is a sub-genre of the feel-good story which I'll call the you've-been-living-in-opposite-land-things-are-actually-getting-better story.
Now as an antidote to the relentless negativity of the news, this kind of story gets attention. And, sometimes we need to be reminded, for instance, that life expectancy continues to rise, child mortality continues to decline, and smoking remains in decline. Humans are capable of making progress by certain measures.
Sunday, October 28, 2018
Shale oil becomes shale fail (and a nice subsidy for consumers)
I'm tempted to say the following to the writers of two recent pieces (here and here) outlining the continuing negative free cash flow of companies fracking for oil in America: "Tell me something I don't already know."
But apparently their message (which has been true for years) needs to be repeated. This is because investors can't seem to understand the significance of what those two pieces make abundantly clear: The shale oil industry in the United States is using investor money to subsidize oil consumers and to line the pockets of top management with no long-term plan to build value.
There is no other conclusion to draw from the fact that free cash flow continues to be wildly negative for those companies most deeply dependent on U.S. shale oil deposits. For those to whom "free cash flow" is a new term, let me explain: It is operating cash flow (that is, cash generated from operations meaning the sale of oil and related products) minus capital expenditures. If this number remains negative for too long for a company or an industry, it's an indication that something is very wrong.
Sunday, October 21, 2018
The risks of synthetic biology in the information society
Knowledge is power. The instructions for making viruses from synthetic strands of DNA are on the internet. And, the strands themselves are available for purchase online. It's called synthetic biology. Right now it's not easy to get the strands you need to make dangerous viruses or to put them together. But it is becoming easier.
That's the issue that exploded concerning the synthetic construction of an thought-to-be extinct horsepox virus. The problem is that the instructions for making horsepox are distressingly useful for constructing a smallpox virus, a virus responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in the 20th century alone until its eradication. Smallpox, you'll recall, was eradicated through a successful worldwide effort led by the World Health Organization. After 1980 it was no longer necessary to vaccinate people against the disease and very few people alive today have been vaccinated against it.
Not surprisingly, an outbreak resulting from, say, the inadvertent or possibly intentional release of a synthetic smallpox virus from a lab could prove devastating worldwide.
Sunday, October 14, 2018
Climate catastrophe: The median is NOT the message
Anyone who has followed the climate change issue in the last 30 years knows that official forecasts provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are quickly upended by developments and have often been obsolete before they were issued.
The latest report from the IPCC is the first, however, to abandon the measured tone of its previous ones and foretell what it considers a climate catastrophe for human civilization unless the world makes an abrupt U-turn and begins dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions almost immediately.
And yet, even this forecast is probably too conservative in its pronouncements. That's according to Michael Mann, a climate researcher whose famous "hockey stick" graph has been central to understanding the rise in global temperatures and has been replicated again and again using other measures of historical worldwide temperatures.
Sunday, October 07, 2018
Taking a short break - No post this week
Sunday, September 30, 2018
U.S. government embraces climate catastrophe, but is it a 'crisis'?
The United States government has now officially embraced climate change as a catastrophe in the making. Only it contends that the catastrophe is now inevitable no matter what humans do...and so, we should do nothing at all since whatever we do won't matter much.
That, at least, was the justification offered for freezing fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles after 2020. For the National Transportation Safety Board which issued a report containing the justification, the phrase "Every little bit helps" has morph into "Every little bit won't matter."
The problem, of course, is that if this becomes the attitude of everyone trying to mitigate climate change, almost nothing will get done.
But the report does highlight one very important problem for those who desperately want to address climate change: Climate change is no longer a "crisis." As French thinker Bruno Latour reminds us in his book Facing Gaia, climate change is not really a "crisis," at least not anymore. A crisis comes and goes. Climate change isn't going anywhere except toward a place which is much worse. It isn't going to pass. It is going to endure.
Sunday, September 23, 2018
The problem with models...is getting stuck on just one
Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, first uttered what must now seem like a well-worn phrase: "The map is not the territory." And yet, I don't think this view has yet been well-incorporated into human culture.
In a time when social media outlets are trying to sort what is "fake" from what is "genuine" or "true," very little thought is being put into what we even mean by "fake," "genuine" or "true." Facebook, for example, has resorted to third-party fact-checkers, a mix of news organizations and fact-checking nonprofits. It is also hiring thousands of new employees to check what it calls "non-news" information posted on Facebook pages.
A lot of checking revolves around whether someone said or did what is claimed. That's not too hard. The next level involves the effect of a policy or position. That's more difficult since some of the policies in question aren't in effect and even for those that are, it is always hard to trace cause and effect from a policy to a specific result.
Sunday, September 16, 2018
'The Expanse' is a story about systemic ruin
"The Expanse" is a popular science fiction television series (based on a book series of the same name) that at first seems to follow a predictable storyline: essentially the Cold War revisited, only in this case with warlike Mars (previously settled by people from Earth) pitted against Earth as the two planets vie over the resources of the asteroid belt (which is a stand-in for today's so-called less developed countries).
But quickly we are drawn into a mystery that implicates a non-state actor with interests so important that that unknown actor has its own warships which are superior to those of Earth and Mars. While I made some fun of "The Expanse" previously for its assumptions about energy, after watching the entire series I've come to appreciate the nuanced manner in which it deals with the systemic risk that unfolds as the story progresses.
Here I must issue a spoiler alert for those who have not seen the series and wish to see it unhindered by foreknowledge of the plot.
Sunday, September 09, 2018
A kinder, gentler GMO; what could possibly go wrong?
The so-called CRISPR technique for editing the genes of plants and animals is being hailed as a more acceptable face of genetic engineering. After all, it doesn't rely on the insertion of genes from one species into another—which is what previous techniques allowed and what alarmed critics.
No, this technique can cut out precisely an offending gene and let the cell sew things up like new afterwards. No chance of strange interspecies complications. No random mutations created by gene guns that can never shoot straight by design. Just a little editing of an existing gene to subtract what we do not want from a plant or animal (including ourselves).
Hence, the breathless coverage.
But as with practically every biologically driven endeavor these days, we are forgetting first principles as explained by pioneering ecologist Garrett Hardin who tells us that "[t]he science of ecology is founded on this generalization: We can never do merely one thing."
Sunday, September 02, 2018
Climate change, water and the infrastructure problem
I was watching an episode of the science-fiction noir thriller "The Expanse" recently. Set hundreds of years in the future, the United Nations has now become the world government and its main rival is Mars, a former Earth colony. The UN is still in New York City and a new fancier UN building is now tucked safely behind a vast seawall that protects the city from rising water resulting from climate change.
It's a world that looks like an extension of our own, but one that has survived the twin existential threats of climate change and resource depletion. But will it be so easy to update our infrastructure to overcome these threats?
The naive notion that we can, for example, "just use more air conditioning" as the globe warms betrays a perplexing misunderstanding of what we face. Even if one ignores the insanity of burning more climate-warming fossil fuels to make electricity for more air-conditioning, there is the embedded assumption that our current infrastructure with only minor modifications will withstand the pressures placed upon it in a future transformed by climate change and other depredations.
Sunday, August 26, 2018
Seawalls for oil refineries and other ironies of climate change adaptation
A friend of mine includes a saying with each of his emails that goes like this: "It shouldn’t be easier to imagine the end of civilization than the end of air conditioning." But in most depictions of the end of civilization at the cinema these days, the air conditioning (or heat, if it is winter) is going full blast until the very moment of civilization's demise.
What he is alluding to, of course, is that we can't imagine ourselves giving up much of anything even in the face of the biggest man-made threat to human survival ever, namely, climate change. To make sure that we don't have to, the oil industry is championing a plan that will use federal money to build a seawall along the Texas coast in order to protect—you guessed it—oil refineries, a large number of which are located near the water's edge.
It will protect a lot of other stuff as well. But the irony is not lost on the reporter of the linked piece who in droll understatement writes: "But the idea of taxpayers around the country paying to protect refineries worth billions, and in a state where top politicians still dispute climate change's validity, doesn't sit well with some."
Sunday, August 19, 2018
Artificial intelligence, fake images and crumbling trust in our narratives
In a piece I wrote in 2014 I opined, "If you want to corrupt a people, corrupt the language." I added, "Once it becomes impossible to say the truth with the language we have, it will ultimately be impossible for us to adapt and survive."
In that piece I was complaining about what I dubbed "oil Newspeak," an Orwellian lexicon created by the oil industry to deceive policymakers, investors and the public.
Of course, back then I concerned myself only with words. But with the increasing power of artificial intelligence (AI) enhanced software which is now available to average computer users, practically anyone can alter and/or create images and audio recordings that seem real, but which are entirely concocted. It means that comedian Richard Pryor's famous line—"Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?"—may very well morph from a joke into a serious question.
Sunday, August 12, 2018
Climate, politics and the narrow vision of futurists
Most people know the tale of the blind men and the elephant. Each describes a part of the elephant. The elephant is said to be like a pillar by the blind man touching the elephant's leg. The one touching the elephant's tail says the elephant is like a rope and so on.
Now, let's substitute so-called futurists for blind men in this tale and you get something even less reliable. Futurists are the soothsayers of our age. Of course, futurists have eyes to see at least. But they, like the blind men, almost never see the whole picture.
And, in this case they are giving us a description of something that is not even there for them to examine. The future doesn't exist. It's a mere concept. Unlike the blind men, futurists aren't really describing part of a whole.
Sunday, August 05, 2018
Eternity, nature, society and the absurd fantasies of the rich
Professor and author Douglas Rushkoff recently wrote about a group of wealthy individuals who paid him to answer questions about how to manage their lives after what they believe will be the collapse of society. He only knew at the time he was engaged that the group wanted to talk about the future of technology.
Rushkoff afterwards explained that the group assumed they would need armed guards after this collapse to defend themselves. But they rightly wondered in a collapsed society how they could even control such guards. What would they pay those guards with when the normal forms of payment ceased to mean anything? Would the guards organize against them?
Rushkoff provides a compelling analysis of a group of frightened wealthy men trying to escape the troubles of this world while alive and wishing to leave a decaying body behind when the time comes and transfer their consciousness digitally into a computer. (I've written about consciousness and computers previously.)
Sunday, July 29, 2018
Saudi retreat on oil IPO highlights dearth of reliable information on world oil reserves
Since late 2016 the financial media has been abuzz about what would likely be the biggest initial public offering (IPO) ever: The sale of 5 percent of the world's largest oil company, Saudi Aramco, which is wholly owned by the government of Saudi Arabia. The IPO with its required disclosures would shed light on the inner workings of the company for the first time since it was nationalized in 1980 and lead to independent verification of its oil reserves and other assets.
It would be a large first step in unmasking the murky world of national oil companies (NOCs), the reserves of which are thought to represent 90 percent of the world's total reserves of oil and natural gas according to one estimate.
With estimates that Saudi Aramco is worth $2 trillion, the sale of 5 percent to public shareholders potentially represents $100 billion, a valuation that would make such an IPO an all-time record and result in roughly $1 billion in fees for the lucky bankers handling the deal.
Sunday, July 22, 2018
Taking a short break - No post this week
Sunday, July 15, 2018
"In Praise of Idleness" Revisited
Last week a new acquaintance displayed mild astonishment at the volume of my writing. He asked me how I come up with ideas for my pieces. I had to pause to think about that since my process has become more of a reflex that anything else.
My answer was that I have the luxury of time. Despite the heightened pace of my life since moving to Washington, D.C., I continue to leave many hours unscheduled so that I can read, think and write.
I am reminded of Bertrand Russell's 1932 essay entitled "In Praise of Idleness" which critiqued the modern obsession with labor in the age of the machine and with production as an end in itself.
Much of the work in wealthy countries now, however, is in the service industries. Service jobs have always been around, but not as much as they are today. Yet strangely, in an age where a smaller and smaller proportion of the population produces the actual physical objects of life—work that in the past has been associated with long hours of physical labor and repetitive drudgery—many of those engaged in the professions, managerial work, and other white-collar jobs have seen their workday expand almost without limit. We receive emails from workplace colleagues and clients at all hours, sometimes with tasks that must be performed immediately. A dinner with a lawyer friend last week was interrupted by an email from a client who needed a memo that evening for the next morning.
Sunday, July 08, 2018
10 years after the oil price spike: Is peak oil a process rather than a moment?
Ten years ago this week—July 11, 2008 to be exact—the price of a barrel of oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange hit an intraday high of $147.27, its highest price ever. By the following autumn the world economy was in shambles and the price of oil was tumbling. The oil price eventually bottomed out around $34 per barrel in mid-February the following year.
Oil prices started 2002 around $20 per barrel and then rose almost continuously until mid-2008. As they rose, the world's best known critic of peak oil* prognostications, Daniel Yergin, began to look so foolish for having predicted ample supplies for decades to come that his firm finally reversed itself in mid-2008 and began to forecast higher prices. That should have been read as a contrarian signal; just two months later the oil bull market ended.
Peak oil thinkers at the time believed that their forecast of a nearby all-time peak in the rate of world oil production had been fulfilled. The official numbers seemed to confirm this. Petroleum geologist Kenneth Deffeyes' had made a half-serious prediction that Thanksgiving Day 2005 would mark the all-time high for production. Production of crude oil including lease condensate (which is the definition of oil) was slightly more than 74 million barrels per day (mbpd) in December 2005, but thereafter declined.
Sunday, July 01, 2018
Is the decline of coal a national security problem?
As the Trump administration seeks to resuscitate the moribund American coal industry, it has decided to invoke "national security" as the justification for a plan to subsidize coal-fired power plants.
Three things are notable about the administration's proposal. First, invoking "national security" has become a favored tool for getting around existing regulations, precedents and the Constitution. It's also handy for labeling one's opponents as unpatriotic in order to avoid a genuine discussion of the true purpose of a proposed action. Second, the coal industry used to be the one attacking renewable energy sources as too expensive to stand on their own without subsidies. As the cost of renewable energy has continued to plummet, the tables are now turning.
Third, the move has united an unlikely coalition in opposition that includes the oil and gas industry, anti-nuclear activists (since nuclear power plants are included in the subsidy plan), environmentalists and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which is dominated by Trump appointees. It takes amazingly bad policy to get an alliance like this together.
Sunday, June 24, 2018
OPEC production increase shows it's still fighting U.S. shale oil
It felt like opposite day as traders bid up the price of oil last week even as OPEC announced an increase in oil production that should have sent prices downward. The cartel decided it had room to move because of outages in Venezuela, Libya and Angola amounting to 2.8 million barrels per day (mbpd). The increase apparently wasn't as much as traders had expected.
Even though oil prices have drifted upward from the punishing levels of three years ago, OPEC is still interested in undermining the shale oil industry (properly called "tight oil") in the United States which it perceives as a threat to OPEC's ability to control prices. So, it is no surprise that OPEC has chosen to increase output in the wake of lost production elsewhere. OPEC does not want prices to reach levels that would actually make the tight oil industry's cash flow positive.
You read that correctly. The industry as a whole has been free cash flow negative even when oil was over $100 per barrel. Free cash flow equals cash flow from operations minus capital expenditures required for operations. This means that tight oil drillers are not generating enough cash from selling the oil they're currently producing to pay for exploration and development of new reserves. The only thing allowing continued exploitation of U.S. tight oil deposits has been a continuous influx of investment capital seeking relatively high returns in an era of zero interest rate policies. Tight oil drillers aren't building value; they are merely consuming capital as they lure investors with unrealistic claims about potential reserves. (Some analysts have likened the situation to a Ponzi scheme.)
Sunday, June 17, 2018
Leaked U.N. climate change report shows inverted thinking on growth
The Reuters news service managed a genuine journalistic coup by getting an advance copy of a U.N. climate change report not due out until October. Given what the report says—it's dire—and the fact that the climate isn't going to stop changing while the report gets reviewed, somebody decided to get the ball rolling.
Reuters has so far chosen not to make the entire draft available. But from its reporting we can see already the contradictory thinking that remains a barrier to facing up to climate change, to wit:
Global warming is on course to exceed the most stringent goal set in the Paris agreement by around 2040, threatening economic growth...
This kind of thinking is so obviously inverted, and yet the inversion is entirely invisible to most people. While it may be true that global warming threatens economic growth, it is far more salient to say that economic growth threatens us with global warming.
Sunday, June 10, 2018
Plato's dream and our modern nightmare
In a recent conversation a friend of mine described our modern understanding of the world around us as a conspiracy theory of the grandest proportions.
We posit theories which tell us that the phenomena we witness are merely ephemera resulting from an underlying structure of whirring particles—not even atoms anymore, but subatomic particles in such categories as bosons, leptons and quarks. This conspiracy gives us the theater that is our everyday experience, experience that cannot be explained in its own terms, but must be understood to be the result of forces hidden from our eyes and ultimately from all our other senses. The surface of things cannot be trusted.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato gave us the first version of such a world in his theory of forms. Everything in our everyday existence is a pale imitation of ideal forms in the real world, he said. The perfect tiger exists in a different dreamlike realm where it offers a template for an actual tiger. The perfect chair in this other realm acts in a similar way. Our world is not the real one, but a mere ghost orchestrated by the real world which we can never know directly.
Sunday, June 03, 2018
Taking a short break - No post this week
Sunday, May 27, 2018
The toxic price of convenience
As many as 110 million Americans may be drinking water contaminated by a toxic class of chemicals that according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are used in "stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs)."
The chemicals, referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, were detected by EPA-mandated testing of U.S. water supplies between 2013 and 2015. The full results of that testing have not been made public. An analysis done by the Environmental Working Group using available data uncovered the widespread contamination. The group's analysis was released last week.
Firefighting foams are a major source of the contamination, primarily from their release during routine training drills at both civilian and military airports. But the desire of consumers for nonstick pans and stain- and water-repellent clothing and carpets brings direct contact with the toxic chemicals.
Sunday, May 20, 2018
Genes, synecdoche and the possibility of editing ourselves
Margaret Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake depicts the evolution and aftermath of a bioengineered global catastrophe. Whether Atwood at the time was privy to insider knowledge that genetic alteration would become easy to do and ubiquitous or whether she just thought it would make a good premise for a novel, I do not know.
What we have now, however, is a world moving ever forward toward what is being called the democratization of genetic engineering or biohacking for short. Anyone with a credit card and a mailing address can now order their own genetic engineering kit. Meanwhile, in major research laboratories around the world visits from awed reporters are bringing the possibility of fabulous advances in medicine to the attention of the public.
Some 6,000 diseases are thought to be linked to our genetic structure. Could these diseases not only be prevented in newly forming humans in utero, but also cured on the fly in fully fledged humans through means that alter their DNA? The preliminary answer is possibly.
Sunday, May 13, 2018
America's 'Cadillac Desert': Is there a substitute for fresh water?
Thirty years after Marc Reisner penned Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water his prophesy is being fulfilled. As the chalky rings which mark previous higher water levels around Colorado River reservoirs grow ever wider, Grist reports that major disputes are now afoot over the remaining water supply.
Modern economists have long told us not to worry about resource scarcity. Higher prices will bring on new supplies whenever resource supplies decline. And, if a resource truly is becoming unobtainable, then we'll always find a substitute.
When I hear this, I often counter: "There is certainly some truth to what you are saying. But, please tell me what the substitute for potable water will be." The response is usually to change the subject—for the obvious reason that there is no substitute.
Sunday, May 06, 2018
Information overload, sustainability, and the emerging organization
Nafeez Ahmed, an exceptional journalist who writes at the intersection of resources and society, understands the complexity of the ecological predicament we humans face. In a piece he wrote last year, Ahmed asserted that our current arrangements are approaching a convulsive crisis point. One reason for this is as follows:
[T]he system faces a crisis of information overload, and an inability to meaningfully process the information available into actionable knowledge that can advance an adaptive response.
If he's right, is there anything we can do? The short answer is maybe. The great human ecologist William Catton pointed out in his 2009 book Bottleneck that the mass media has become a conduit for propagating bad or at least inconclusive information. In short, the feedback we humans need in order to run our society in a sustainable way is dangerously lacking.
But what if we could reorganize society to better handle the information available and act on that information quickly, decisively and appropriately? Management consultant and author John Hagel may be able to shed some light on this. (Regular readers will recall that I was channeling Hagel in last week's piece.)
Sunday, April 29, 2018
Is the CEO obsolete? A look at the emerging organization
Recently, the writer of a guest editorial in The Guardian Weekly proposed a solution to what ails the world's business schools: Shut them down. The author, Martin Parker, claims there are 13,000 business schools on the planet and he says that's 13,000 too many. He says the reason he knows a total shutdown is the only remedy that will actually work is that he's taught in business schools for the last 20 years.
His detailed critique covers a lot of territory, but I found one part of it particularly interesting in light of what I've been reading lately. Parker wrote: "If we want those in power to become more responsible, then we must stop teaching students that heroic transformational leaders are the answer to every problem[.]"
At first blush it seems as if we need more such leaders. But I think the point here is the same point which management consultant and author John Hagel is making in his book, The Power of Pull: This kind of thinking leads to passivity rather than the creative engagement which our society so desperately needs.
Hagel explains that what he calls "scalable" collaboration and learning are now the essential ingredients to have broad impact on society.
Sunday, April 22, 2018
The global village and the surveillance society
Media savant Marshall McLuhan coined the term "global village" in 1962 in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy. Today, we take the concept of an electronically connected global population with instant access to practically every plugged-in person on the planet as a fact of life.
We often see our global village as a force for good, creating understanding and binding people across cultures regardless of distance. McLuhan saw the downside as well. In his book he notes:
Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.
It turns out that the global village has many key similarities to an actual village or small town. Fellow villagers and small town neighbors are much more likely to know about each other's personal lives (often including many of the intimate details) than those who live in a large city. The anonymity and privacy today which so many prize and enjoy in the big city is quickly being eroded in the new surveillance economy. Living in the global village can now subject us to the same kind of scrutiny which those in small towns and villages have long been accustomed.
Sunday, April 15, 2018
Fake news, algorithmic sentinels, and facts from the future
The suggestion that social media outlets need to police so-called "fake news" rings true on its face. Who wants to read news coverage known to be false? But what rates as "fake news" will be harder to define than we think.
And, putting algorithms in charge of policing those vast information flows claiming to be news will almost certainly not solve the problem. In a piece reflecting on artificial intelligence (AI) on the 50th anniversary of the release of the film, "2001: A Space Odyssey" writer Michael Benson tells us that "[d]emocracy depends on a shared consensual reality."
Well, actually everything we do in groups, whether it's democracy or going to a hockey game, depends on shared consensual reality. And, therein lies the problem. We are now in a fight not over opinions concerning the import of agreed upon facts, but over the consensus itself—whether scientific findings can be trusted, whether corporate-owned media can be believed, whether "objective" reporting is even possible, whether the history we were taught is indeed the "true" history of our country and our world.
Sunday, April 08, 2018
Migrant caravan: Foreshadowing the future and reflecting the present
The march of hundreds of Central American migrants through Mexico has inflamed tensions between the Trump administration and the Mexican government and focused attention on the United States' southern border.
The ostensible reasons for the march are familiar: The migrants were fleeing corruption, social and political turmoil, and lack of opportunity in their home countries. Many were from Honduras which suffered a coup in 2009 that continues to divide the country politically including during the last election in which supporters of the challenger to the incumbent president claim their candidate was cheated out of a win.
All of this reminded me of Jean Raspail's novel The Camp of the Saints. In it, impoverished Indians seized hundreds of ships docked in their harbors and set sail to find a better place to live. (The book was published in 1973 when many believed that millions of Indians and other Asians would likely starve in the coming decades due to poor agricultural yields. The full effects of the so-called Green Revolution still lay ahead.)
Sunday, April 01, 2018
Silent spring revisited: New worries and the human future
A precipitous decline in bird populations in France suggests that the silent spring foretold by Rachel Carson more than 50 years ago in her book of that name may yet arrive. The proximate cause of the 33 percent decline in avian populations noted by French researchers over the last 15 years is lack of food.
In practical terms, the birds are not being poisoned as they were in Rachel Carson's day. Rather, their main sources of food, insects, are dropping like, well, flies. The ultimate cause is overuse of pesticides related mostly to agriculture, pesticides which are working all too well in keeping insect populations in check.
Described as "an ecological catastrophe," the decline in bird populations has reached 66 and 70 percent for some species; and the decline is not just in agricultural areas, but also in forested areas outside of agricultural zones.
The findings are not that surprising given previous reports of declines in insect populations of up to 76 percent over that last 27 years in Germany.
Sunday, March 25, 2018
Driverless cars and bodiless brains
The death of a pedestrian during a test drive of a driverless vehicle (even as a backup human sat in the driver's seat) calls into question not just the technology—which didn't seem to detect the pedestrian crossing a busy roadway and therefore didn't brake or swerve—but also the notion that driving is nothing more than a set of instructions that can be carried out by a machine.
The surprised backup driver seemed to have confidence in the inventors of driverless cars as he was looking down at his computer briefly just before impact.
Certainly, a real human driver might have hit this pedestrian who was crossing a busy street at night with her bicycle. But, of course, as a friend of mine pointed out, there is a big difference in the public mind between a human driver hitting and killing a pedestrian and a robot killing one. If the incident had involved a human driver in a regular car, it would probably only have been reported locally.
But the real story is "robot kills human." Even worse, it happened as a seemingly helpless human backup driver looked on. The optics are the absolute worst imaginable for the driverless car industry.
Sunday, March 18, 2018
The troubling realities of our energy transition
I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world's energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.
Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.
The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.
I hadn't included hydroelectricity in my list, I told the group, which would add another 2.5 percent to the renewable energy category. But hydro, I explained, would be growing only very slowly since most of the world's best dam sites have been taken.
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Taking a short break - No post this week
Sunday, March 04, 2018
United States as energy exporter: Is it "fake news"?
Much of the media coverage of the American energy industry implies that America has become a vast and growing exporter of energy to the rest of the world and that this has created a sort of "energy dominance" for the country on the world stage.
Whether such reports qualify as so-called "fake news" depends very much on three things: 1) How one defines "fake news," 2) whether writers of such reports qualify the words "imports" and "exports" with the word "net" and 3) which energy sources they are discussing.
In this case let's define "fake news" as claims that official, publicly available statistics show plainly to be false. By that criterion anyone who claims that the United States is a net energy exporter would certainly be guilty of propagating "fake news."
Energy statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that in November 2017 (the most recent month for which figures are available) the United States had net imports 329.5 trillion BTUs of energy in all its forms.* That's down from a peak of 2.74 quadrillion BTUs in August 2006, something that is certainly a turnabout from the previous trend. But all claims that the United States is a net energy exporter must be labeled as unequivocally false.
It turns out, however, that most people making misleading claims about America's energy situation don't actually say or write things which are technically false. What they do is use language which intentionally or unintentionally misleads the reader or listener.
Sunday, February 25, 2018
Climate change: The feel-good catastrophe
Last week my newly adopted home of Washington, D.C. had two back-to-back days of summer in the middle of winter. The first day the temperature reached 78 degrees (when the high is normally 48 degrees). That was a new record. The next day the high was 82 degrees (normally 49 degrees). Not surprisingly, that was a record, too.
People were walking the streets in T-shirts and shorts. Last week's balmy interlude felt like those late spring days which provide a preview of the summer ahead. Everyone was telling me I had to get outside so I could to take advantage of such great weather—which I did.
But the long walk I took on day one was not a particularly happy one. As most of the rest of the Washingtonians I encountered were experiencing the feel-good part of the feel-good catastrophe called climate change, I was experiencing the catastrophe part.
Sunday, February 18, 2018
LNG comes to Boston, a harbinger of the future?
The most curious natural gas story of the year so far comes out of Boston and seems to have echoes of a deepening Russia-related scandal in Washington. A liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker bearing natural gas produced in part in Russia delivered its cargo to the Boston area for insertion into the natural gas pipeline system there. Apparently, the Russian company that supplied some of the gas may fall under U.S. sanctions against the financing and importation of Russian goods.
One of the many ironies of the delivery is that the United States is simultaneously importing LNG in one place even as it exports LNG from another. (I'll explain later why this may become a more frequent occurrence in the years ahead.)
The hue and cry from the natural gas partisans blamed Boston's predicament on the lack of pipelines to carry growing gas production from the nearby Marcellus and Utica shale deposits to needy Bostonians whose gas supplies had been depleted by a deep winter freeze.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
The stock market swoon and our hatred of (some kinds of) volatility
The steepest one-day point drop in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average last week shook stock investors into an awareness that all is not sweetness and light in the financial markets. The sudden downside stock market volatility had been preceded by the breathless upside volatility of a months-long melt-up—one that had financial gurus outbidding each other to increase their targets for major stock indices. (See here and here.) Investors, too, felt that heaven had arrived on Earth, at least financial heaven.
After years of steady gains—with only the occasional drop—stock and bond market investors had gotten used to narrow swings in price that didn't disturb their sleep. In fact, whenever the stock (or bond market) looked like it might crash, the world's central banks offered reassurance both in words and deeds. The deeds included unprecedented buying of bonds (which kept interest rates low) and in some cases the purchase of stocks. The Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank are two central banks which buoyed stocks through purchases though they bought stocks for different reasons.
Sunday, February 04, 2018
Ruin is forever (revisited): Why your death isn't as bad as that of all humankind
It should be obvious that the death of an individual human being isn't as bad as the death of all humankind. But that's only true if you accept the following premise laid out by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his upcoming book, Skin in the Game:
I have a finite shelf life; humanity should have an infinite duration. Or I am renewable, not humanity or the ecosystem.
The quotation actually comes from a draft version of one chapter available here. The book is not yet out.
But what does this mean in practical terms? The simple answer is that human societies should not engage in activities which risk destroying all of humanity. Nuclear war comes to mind. And, most, if not all, people recognize that a nuclear war would not only result in unthinkably large immediate casualties, but also might threaten all life on Earth with a years-long nuclear winter.
Sunday, January 28, 2018
Who will drink the last glass of water in Cape Town?
Because Cape Town sits between picturesque beaches and mountains, it is a favored travel destination. And, its weather during the summer is described as "almost too perfect." That's in part because it rains very little in the summer in this second most populous city in South Africa.
|Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink|
Trouble is, starting in 2015 the rainy season never arrived. One year, then two years and now three years of extreme drought have brought the city's water supplies almost to exhaustion. Barring extraordinary rains or even more draconian cutbacks in water usage than have already occurred, Cape Town officials say they will have to turn off water to most household taps and businesses sometime in April. They're calling it "Day Zero." Hospitals and essential public facilities will be exempt. Most residents would have to line up at designated water supply stations for a daily allocation of 25 liters.
Sunday, January 21, 2018
The energy of Bitcoin, the information economy and the (possible) decentralization of the world
The near vertical rise and fall in price of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin in recent months has been accompanied by reporting about the energy used to run the Bitcoin network. The amount is enormous, more than enough to supply the entire country of Ireland.
Many other cryptocurrencies operate under less energy-intensive designs. But the more than 1,000 other digital coins beyond Bitcoin certainly use a considerable amount of energy though there is no overall estimate I'm aware of. (For the technically minded, here is a discussion of two popular methods associated with validating transactions, one of which is considerably less energy-intensive.)
We'd like to think that the information economy of which these newfangled currencies are part bears lightly on the broader environment. But as I pointed out in my piece "The Unbearable Lightness of Information," much of what happens in the information economy is simply focused on extracting more resources more quickly to create more goods and services for more customers. The physical economy isn't disappearing. It is merely being exploited more completely using digital information.
Sunday, January 14, 2018
Protagoras and the Anthropocene: Can man still be the measure of all things?
The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras is famous for his saying that man is the measure of all things. Though we don't know much about Protagoras or his written work except for quotations appearing in other ancient works, the general view is that Protagoras was the father of moral relativism in philosophy.
Protagoras's complete statement has been translated as follows: "Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that [or "how"] they are, and of things that are not, that [or "how"] they are not." It is unlikely that Protagoras believed that physical truths about the natural world such as the freezing point of water depended on one's personal standpoint.
But under Protagoras's tutelage in matters of values, we are left only with the measuring instrument called "man" (or more inclusively "humans"). In the age of the Anthropocene—that still-not-official geologic age in which humans are designated as the most potent geologic force on the planet—those issues thought to relate solely to the lives of humans do NOT, it turns out, relate simply to humans.
Sunday, January 07, 2018
Hawaii's existential choice: Tourism, food and survival
Hawaiians used to feed themselves quite easily on this island paradise. With the arrival of Europeans and Americans came European and American ideas about plantation agriculture. Hawaii became a producer of coffee, sugar, pineapple, papaya, rice and other plantation crops.
While destroying Hawaii's diverse food system, the growers created a prosperous agricultural trading economy with mainland markets as customers. But competition from low-cost producers elsewhere has more recently devastated that economy. The last remaining sugar plantation closed in 2016.
The decline of the previously large sugar and pineapple industries now make Hawaii much more dependent on tourism as a source of income. Tourists are Hawaii's largest industry. They spent $15.6 billion in 2016 on vacations there representing about 18.5 percent of the total economy. That certainly underestimates their importance as many additional support services are needed to maintain the businesses that service the tourists.