Monthly Archives: June 2015

Don’t tell me

At one of those convention-like events, where companies were in full blow-out party mode (where ice cream and treats were free), this note was found enclosed in a chocolate dipped fortune cookie:

“Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footsteps on the moon.”

It kind of fit in with the event (like most corporate events) where ‘things are going to be OK’ and ‘technology will fix your [medical, in this case] problems’.  Now, this is only once sentence, and the deconstruction of it may seem like a waste of time and electrons, but the underlying sentiment makes me think that the author (a bit of the DuckDuckGo turns up this was penned by Brandt Paul, in a song There’s A World Out There) may live a bit (like many of us) in a world of unreality.   Now, the song seems to be written with some classic romantic lines and American references (it mentions the captain of the football team!), so it can’t be judged that harshly, but the underlying message is something that seems to have come from the core of our idealized culture, with ‘clear skies’, ‘green earth’, and ‘blue water’ (which aren’t clear, green, or blue in many places) – a Never Never Land of unbridled optimism.

It also brings to mind some themes that this blog and others have steadfastly trumpeted.  One, the “Don’t tell me” part immediately made me think of the ‘lets ignore inconvenient facts’ meme that seems to permeate the culture at large, and two, the everpresent trope of ‘footsteps on the moon’, an offshoot of the ever popular “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we [fill in the blank].”  Thirdly, and from an overall perspective, it taps into the meme of ever expanding and ever improving progress.

The point on ‘footprints on the moon’ is the least bothersome.  The possibility of going back to the moon is still real; the Chinese are planning a few moon trips, and might plant some boots there in a few years.   If, for some real and needed reason we needed to go back to the moon, it might be doable (of course, we’d have to do it with Russian engines, or perhaps something from one of the private space programs).   There might be even pretty damn good reasons to go back space (the asteroid threat, which was completely forgotten by me a few weeks ago), but they might be more along the lines of handling real, concrete, and statistically important existential threats, rather than bailing us out of our current predicament.

The other points are ones that are reflexive to most of the world’s operating system – “Don’t tell me bad stuff/reality,” and “we’ll always get better,” and that’s the real tough thing, and probably the most unsettling.   Popular music reflects the culture, of course (being part of it), so again, we can’t lean too hard on Brandt Paul.  My more detailed knowledge of pop music kinda stops aways back, and like most people past a certain age, his music isn’t on my radar.  He is a country singer to boot, so that’s another reason (he’s Canadian, so at least we know he’s probably pretty polite, and was raised to be a decent human being).  In listening the the rest of the song, these  comes up in the lyrics as well:

I wanna do my walkin’ down the road less traveled
Sew my dreams where they won’t unravel
If you play it safe you won’t get nowhere
I can’t stay in here when there’s a world out there

The sentiment and lyrics that follow says to go off the road less traveled, and that’s fine by me.   We are all going to have to go down the less traveled road of a simpler life, with less stuff, less complexity, and less nonsense.  There will always be a  world out there, for sure, but getting to it is going to be a lot harder.  In a strange twist, perhaps it will make future adventures even grander, and life’s victories taste even sweeter.

Rock and roll (and the amped up country music that accompanied it) has mostly preached the endless summer (think the early Beach Boys, of course), and being forever young.   Some artists (Mark Knopfler’s song Telegraph Road, and Bruce Springsteen’s albums Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. come to mind immediately) have told us that life doesn’t always work out for the best, and that hard times can sometimes befall even the strongest.  Something to think about.  Fortune cookies, chocolate coated or not, need more reality, not less.  Every bit of our culture should be telling us life is going to be different, and we should be paying attention.

From the question portion of this week’s blog:

  • What music, for you, reflects our difficult future ahead; what sums up what our life like might be like?  Who ‘gets it’?
  • Who are the peak aware musicians, fine artists, sculptors,  and playwrights?
  • Rock and roll (and the amped up music that surrounds it, of all stripes) may go the way of the dodo as electricity becomes sketchy.   And as travel becomes more difficult (for performers and fans alike), arena rock won’t be around, even with the magic of the Internet and Skype-on-steroids.    What might replace it?   When, like in an inverse Dylan, will we all go acoustic?
  • How will future music refer to our era?

A “Dutch Uncle” for America

Last week on the Archdruid Report, JMG had a line that really hit hard:

“the US embraced a foreign policy so astonishingly stupid that I’m honestly not sure the English language has adequate resources to describe,”

This made me laugh heartily, but also made me think seriously about what sort of term in the English language could be used to describe such a situation or person.  My ultimate response was to put forth the Sicilian term stunad, which, as alluded to later, isn’t something that translates well unless you are under a full head of steam (and, in honor of Father’s Day, still makes me chuckle a bit, regarding some now-funny interactions with my dad in the kitchen):

Typically, the cry of ‘Stunad!’ is delivered (after a particularly egregious lack of judgement) with a stern but light palm of the hand to the back of a young man’s head with an exasperated father saying, “Have I taught you *nothing*?!!”

Another JMG commenter (Chloe) piped in later, “I suggest “glaikit” in addition? It’s a Scots word expressing sheer gormlessness. It’s not that they don’t understand, but that they aren’t paying enough attention to even realise [sic] there’s something they should be understanding.”

That word might even best “stunad,” for the current description of our current policies and leaders; alas, it might be unpronounceable to some of us.  The critical thing is that a lot of cultures have such a word in the first place – a no-nonsense, simple word that sums up in a few syllables the utter stupidity and ignorance that are causing (or about to cause) massive pain and/or problems.

Some may be puzzled by the slight fixation on words and vocabulary, but the way words are used can have a lot of bearing on how we handle things.  Our own culture seems to have drifted a bit; our “problems” are now “challenges” (and the list of politically correct phrases seems to grow larger every day).   Saint George (Carlin) [on post-traumatic stress disorder], said, “In the first world war, that condition was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves.”  A quick online search will give you the full bit (in video or text), but in typical Saint George fashion, it cuts to the heart of the matter.  The upshot?  We need to start talking in simple words of one and two syllables about our current situation.

The phrase to introduce now, on a related track, is one that my father taught me ages ago as well – the “Dutch Uncle.”   If you are stunad, or glaikit, it is the Dutch Uncle (or Aunt) who is going to be telling you this, and telling you exactly why (in sometimes ego-crushing detail).  It seems to be a really unknown term these days, perhaps because of our feel-good, everything-is-OK-leaning culture.  The purpose of a “Dutch Uncle” in one’s life is to provide sometimes brutal but absolutely necessary feedback in your life.   They still love you, rest assured.  But they also realize that what you are doing/saying/believing currently is not working, and it is best to get your ass in gear, lest you be crushed by forces outside of your control (like reality).   Classic Dutch Uncle commentaries might be along the lines of:

  • “Lose ten pounds.  You are eating too much, and eating crap.  Stop it.”
  • “Stop drinking.  You are going to fail out of school.”
  • “You are acting like an idiot. Apologize NOW.”
  • “The romantic partner you are with is an addict and will pull you down if you keep hanging around them.”
  • “Behavior X is not tolerated in this family.  Shape up or ship out.”

The interesting thing about the concept of the Dutch Uncle is that a) as noted above, few people of heard of it, and b) when the term is finally explained to people, it seems like they have a vague idea of the term, but many can’t even conceive of having someone in their life to actually be that person.

Having the Dutch Uncle talk is generally unpleasant, for sure.  Nobody enjoys being grilled on bad decisions.   From the science fiction world, it can be seen in the civics instructor in Starship Troopers, and in the plan that Paul Redecker proposed to handle the zombie apocalypse in the Studs Terkel oral-history inspired World War ZReality is unpleasant – get used to it, and the faster you get used to it, the better.

This country has had some great Dutch Uncles; most of the folks in the Peak Oil/Peak Resource world have a hefty streak of it in them.   My own view is that some of these Dutch Uncles would make good presidents (however, the likelihood of them being elected is generally low, because people would rather hear “It is morning in America” rather than a sermon).   it would seem that we still need a hefty dose of them, and we should be giving them all the support we can.

From the question portion of this week’s essay:

  • It seems that having a president as a real Dutch Uncle is a long shot.  However, having a Dutch Uncle in other branches of the government is still possible.  Who are our current Dutch Uncles in the congress and courts?  In the media?  In comedy?  Anywhere?
  • Could a Dutch Uncle position be codified?   Science fiction has lead the way in many areas. There was a short science fiction story a long time ago (in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (?)) that had this position codified in an updated Constitution – someone (“Bespeaker of the House,” or “Beadie Eye”) beholden to nobody, whose sole purpose was to root out corruption and malfeasance in our government, and “tell it like it is.”
  • Sometimes a Dutch Uncle will give up, after giving an ultimatum to you.   Has our country passed the point of no return, and are our Dutch Uncles abandoning us?   Have we lost any Dutch Uncles due to fatigue/disgust?
  • What equivalent words are there for ‘Dutch Uncle’ and ‘stunad’ in other cultures?

Why we fight, er, write

There are a gazillion Peak Oil/Peak Everything blogs out there.  Why write another one?

(Insert long thoughtful pause here!  Or the sound of crickets.)

No, seriously.  Why have this published every Monday morning at 6 AM, even if the traffic to this site gets a mere sliver of fraction of the main blogs on the blog roll?

A few good reasons:

  1. Discipline – The coming peaks (and most likely declines) in resources will require us to live quite differently, and in doing so, we’ve all got to stop being lazy, on many levels; from the physical, to the emotional, to the mental.   This could mean losing weight, using a bicycle or public transportation more, learning how to deal with neighbors and coworkers, reducing extraneous expenses, expanding income streams – all things that require you to buckle down and do sometimes (initially) unpleasant things.   By writing every week, this blog is part of a series of changes made in my own life (bicycling, keeping track of expenses, planning ahead) that need to be reinforced.  Writing helps make me more (dare we say the world) ‘proactive’, and rather than passively reading lots of information on the ‘net, it forces me to come up with cogent thoughts, and makes me do more.   It would be great to look back a year from now (if the power is still on, of course; most likely it will be) and see that the discipline took (in this endeavor and others).
  2. Self-Analysis – When you write, it forces to you to take those fleeting thoughts that are in your head, and organize your thoughts into something more reasonable.  Now, this isn’t always possible or possible to do well, but the very process is important.  The modern ‘click-through-links-and-skim’ style of web usage is a lot different when you are writing (this is another reason why my long hand letter writing discipline is also being reinforced).  This leads to…
  3. To be a better writer , you must write! – It’s been said that,  “When learning to write, you should be ready to throw away your first million words,” and this blog is part of that.  Between this blog, typed and long hand letter writing, this my equivalent of training to run a marathon or a century.   A few training runs won’t prepare you for an actual marathon, but a good training regimen over six months will get you to the finish line in some reasonable time!
  4. Awareness – The more folks that write and talk about our Energy/Environment/Economy (the three E’s) problems, the better off we’ll be.  We need to have some serious discussions about these issues.  One monolithic viewpoint (or even ten) won’t work, because of our built-in biases and the like (the podcast You Are Not So Smart is highly recommended for this).   Of course, there are lots of viewpoints, as noted in by Albert Bates in a great graph he did in Charting Collapseniks. 7aCollapseniks.003 There are some crazy folks out there, for sure, and some writers may gets some facts (or calculations) wrong, but getting the general public talking takes some doing.   There are going to be major differences of opinion (and people, like the Ray Kurzweils of the world who seem to think it is all going to be sunshine and roses after we download ourselves into computers), but having people even discuss this stuff is truly critical.  How many people know about the three E’s, and talk about them?   How many people have even heard of more than two people on that map, and have read any of the books by these writers that discuss these things?   If you only hear from people in one quadrant of the map, you might want to expand your horizons a bit and hear what more than one person is saying from the other side of the aisle (or axis).   Being aware of other viewpoints (and their logical reasons and fallacies) is another way of making your own arguments better, of course.
  5. Opening the discourse, and making it more pleasant – Probably the biggest reason for writing here (and hopefully, this is something helpful that can be brought into the fold) is to comment thoughtfully and civilly, both here and in the comments that are made in some of the other bigger blogs.  Guy McPherson did a review on other blogs a few years ago, and although you may not agree with him, he does bring up some good points about the goings on elsewhere on the ‘net and the Peak Everything world.   Alas, there is a bit of hard commentary that goes back and forth on many of the blogs I read, and I sometimes wonder if it is a bit too rough and tumble.  This isn’t just a problem of the Internet of course – people have been rude, ranty, off-topic, and plain outright nasty in the real world since forever, it seems.  My thesis here is that if more people write and comment in a nice and courteous manner, perhaps this will spread not only to other blogs, but other human endeavors as well.   Two weeks ago, for example, hopdavid brought up some good points about someone else’s math being wrong, and a small and civil discussion ensued here.   I learned something new, and hopdavid was pretty even-keeled.  Now, as mentioned in that commentary, it isn’t easy when someone hits your hot-button issues (one of mine- the idiocy of trying to dictate interest rates – I’ll have to see how a future post on that goes!), but it was great to learn something new, and walk away from even a tiny discussion with feeling that the exchange of ideas wasn’t about ego, but about getting to the bottom of  a serious problem.

As always – more questions-

  1. Why do you write?
  2. How do you keep yourself disciplined, for writing, or any other long term task?   This isn’t some request for one particular self-help book (or series of them),  but a request for real-world strategies you have used.
  3. In thinking about the last point above, what Peak Oil blogs or sites have the most civil place for discussions, without too much name calling?

Questions With The Elders

The tagline of this blog is ‘More questions than answers.’  The reason this is important is that there are lots of people with great visions of the future, but we need to be able question these worldviews, each other, and ourselves in order to find the best truth we can.    If someone gets angry while asking questions, or starts responding with a series of well known logical fallacies, it is time to raise an eyebrow or two, and perhaps consider that the worldview given might be more based on emotion or ego rather than fact.   If anything will screw things up more than the posited future we face, it might be a mix of those things added into the mix.

Tonight, while listening to my elders around a living room after dinner, a lot of discussion came up about the world, and the usual complaints and reasons for the way things were trotted out.   Of course, many anecdotes were related (some sad and funny) and a few theories were put forth on why the way things were in our modern world.  There was a lot of collected wisdom in the room, and it was good to hear from people with a sense of history; folks born in the 1940s (technically not Boomers, born before the war ended), who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s from mostly ethnic/immigrant backgrounds, and who have seen the world change radically.   Luckily, they are still energetic enough to relate to their grandkids, yet all were very concerned about the world those grandkids are currently growing up in.

Growing up for them was a different experience; cheap oil and a booming US economy made their outlook more like Tomorrowland more than Mad Max.  But, as time progressed, they saw lots of changes, and their own kids grew up in a tougher environment.   One wage earner wasn’t enough, and mothers didn’t stay at home; there’s no need to elaborate that things changed in the US and elsewhere, suffice to say that things didn’t get better for most Americans as the new century rolled around.    It’s great to listen them talk about these things, because they have about a quarter century on me, and can see a larger arc of history (a neighbor who recently passed was part of the 100+ club, and talking to her was amazing as well).

A few questions were put to my elders, in the hope (careful with the hopium pipe!) that they might have some insight into things that might have been missed in my generally less-than-fantastic-future worldview:

  • (My general favorite) If you had lunch with the President (or the governor of your state; someone high up the political food chain), what would you ask them, or what would you want to discuss with them?  Do you think they would listen earnestly, or are all politicians just going to ‘be politicians’ and say things like, ‘we should look in to that, yes…’
  • Who do you want to run for President, even if they aren’t running?
  • What do you want to pass on to your grandkids?  What skills or lessons do you want to share?
  • When did things start to go wrong in our world?
  • How do you see things winding up?
  • Who is responsible for this mess we find ourselves in?  In the immortal words of the Talking Heads, “How did I [we] get here?”
  • What would you suggest a young person today do?
  • There are a lot of things (gay marriage, single parenting) that were frowned upon in your day; what might be the next “taboo” thing to fall by the wayside?

For those of us with elders who we have known for a long time – what do you ask them about, when discussing the Long Emergency future?   What sort of sage advice can they give?  Can they give any useful advice, with the fact that they grew up in a time of generally increasing wealth?   Do we have to talk to the centenarians (those who lived through the Great Depression) instead?

Why we should not go to space

This may seem like heresy for an engineer, and for someone who grew up surrounded by the space program in general, but this thought needs to be raised – perhaps mankind shouldn’t go into space, at least not for a long time.   Our current predicaments in energy, environment, and fiances are the result of some very human foibles, and we certainly haven’t come up with good ways to handle them.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t *explore* space (with robots); it is just that there are a series of reasons why using immense amount of resources to get into space may not be too profitable in the near (or far term), given the way humanity deals with problems.

Here are a few points to consider:

1) It is expensive, and the future benefits from human spaceflight may be negligible, given the vast amount of sums and resources that are put into it.  Yes, we do get spinoffs, but that could have been gotten in other endeavors as well.  The pornography and gambling industries have been a driver of many technologies  (VCRs, online games. robotics); should we support them to improve all sorts of needed technologies?

2) Mankind will be exporting the same-old-same-old worldviews.  Unless only perfect (or near perfect humans) are allowed to emigrate to space, the worldviews of the old world will continue.   Is this a good idea?

3) As a corollary to item 2, when people get their hands on ’empowering’ technologies such as airplanes, they can do some pretty nasty things.  Likewise, technologies that would allow cheap spaceflight would also allow some pretty spectacular disasters.  Altering the orbits of asteroids for mining purposes could be done for immense profits, but also could be done to create amazingly destructive weapons of mass destruction.     Even robotic missions to mine the asteroids could be co-opted for nefarious purposes.   These issues aren’t due to the fact that we can’t make things perfectly; imperfection is inherent in all human endeavors.  It is just that the magnitude of failures can have far greater impacts.   Thinking about the kinetic energy in an asteroid 100 m wide moving at kilometer-per-second velocities is beyond most people.  It isn’t like having a plane go into a building; an asteroid impact can put enough dust in the atmosphere comparable to that of a small or medium sized nuclear exchange.

4) The idea of colonizing Mars or other places as a ‘backup’ Earth is a pipe dream.    Terraforming Mars (probably the most viable candidate for terraforming) would take centuries, if not longer, and a minimum viable population for breeding would require far too many resources.  Could we put a research station on Mars?  Perhaps.  Could we put a self-sustaining colony there, in the next twenty years, before our energy and resource situation gets dire?  My guess is not, and the burden is on the proponents of the plan to show that a self-sustaining colony could be created.   The Mars Direct plan may be great for exploration, but for a self supporting colony?

5) Space is really, really, inhospitable, as this Do The Math article sums up nicely.  Some of the commentary there echoes some of these arguments.   The science fiction worlds we’ve been shown and accustomed to, unfortunately, have almost no bearing in reality, and so the concept of going to and settling space has been warped for a very long time.   Just like the premise of interstellar flight, the problems of space travel and colonization are magnitudes different than any other endeavor.

6) A detour into space will use up precious resources, both physical and societal, that will detract from the serious problems here on Earth.   Ignoring those problems, thinking that we’ll go to space to “build better worlds” won’t get us a better place to live for even at tiny fraction of our population.   We do need to concentrate on fixing this world, or in the least (depending on your view of NTHE) getting a handle on the mess we’ve made here.

The Corvins might do something interesting one day, but then again, they might not.

Any more reasons why we shouldn’t go?