Monthly Archives: April 2016

He who pursued excellence

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(R.I.P., David.  You did good.)

There are many folks that are to be admired in the Peak Everything world; there are some who write with rapier (and sometimes broadsword) wit, some who write with logical precision, and some who “walk the talk” and live up to the ideas that they promulgate.

One person who encompassed many of the these traits was David J.C. MacKay, the author of Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air.   He wrote incredibly clearly on the issue of sustainable energy, and his book is one of the most readable out there on the topic of renewable energy, and the possibility of it powering our world.   One of the items that stands out in my mind is his “kWH/day/person” metric, which translates a lot of energy jargon and varied units into clear numbers that so “apples-to-apples” comparisons can be made on the issues of energy consumption and energy production.   He was also careful not to say “X will save us,” and give a well balanced view of all the options.  His work was so admired that people from all parts of the energy spectrum, from Greenpeace to folks promoting nuclear energy were champions of his work.

He died on Thursday, 14-April-2016.

The links below are about donating in his honor, and about David himself.

https://www.justgiving.com/davidjcmackay

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_J._C._MacKay

You did good, David.   Let’s live up to his work, and pursue excellence as we try to navigate our difficult future.

 

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A year of peakfuture

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Yes, this experiment of writing every week has reached the one year mark.  Feedback has been scant, and readership seemingly light, but yes,  there has been a bumpy increase in readership as time has gone on.

Sometimes, it is difficult to write something new and unique, because it seems much has already been said. There are times, however, when the moment strikes, and the ideas flow.  Some of the most fun and interesting posts have been the ones regarding flags and maps, and interestingly enough, the posts that have gotten the most visits have been the ones that have been more graphical (in keeping with our culture, perhaps), and the ones that have riffed on stories from JMG and JHK.   Some of the top posts in the past year (from mid-April of 2015 to mid-April of 2016):

In thinking about what has attracted people to this far-off corner of the ‘net, and what has made people take notice, it seems that the thesis that Art is Important has some merit.   Now, the basic scrawling and sketching that has been done for this blog (yes, my training was not that of a graphic artist), may have not been up to commercial snuff, but the pages with the most intriguing images (maps and flags) have had the most interest, especially when helping bring to life the stories and worlds of others.

It is certainly worth restating – Art is Important.  It can distill a worldview (albiet sometimes simplistically, and without nuance) that can connect with anyone and everyone.  Now, of course, Art of all kinds has been perverted into propaganda by many folks (Leni Riefentahl’s Triumph of the Will is the poster child for this), and the effect of the flag that almost conquered the world is still pretty powerful (so much so it is banned in Germany).    Like any tool, Art can be wielded for good or not-so-good purposes.   Here is a telling quote, from the creator of the ‘anti’-Triumph of the Will (Why We Fight), Frank Capra:

“…[Triumph of the Will] fired no gun, dropped no bombs. But as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal.”

According to Wikipedia, showing the films to civilians (which was done) was a dicey proposition:

Roosevelt considered this film so important that he ordered it to be distributed in civilian arenas for public viewing. However, some objections were raised against the Why We Fight series because it was so persuasive. Lowell Mellett, the coordinator of government films and aide to Roosevelt, saw the films as dangerous. He was most concerned with the effect the series would have after the war was over and the “hysteria” the films would create in their wake.”

Art can be pretty powerful.

If Art is so powerful, than perhaps our current populace might be awakened by such fare.  The films I.O.U.S.A An Inconvenient Truth, Collapse, What A Way To Go: Life At The End of Empire, and perhaps even The Big Short are all examples where art can sum up the situation we are in.  Yet because of the jadedness and sophistication of modern audiences (at least with respect to manipulation or influence), they may have had limited impact, because of our 24-7 immersion into streaming content and ubiquitous screens.   We are so used to propaganda (and “post-apocalypse porn”), that our built-in filters might reject the flickerings of warnings on tiny screens.   Even the events of 9/11, as horrific as they were, seem to have faded (for many) into the background noise of modern society.   Triumph of the Will, or Why We Fight, if made today, might seem even quaint.

Questions:

  • Will there be another Triumph of the Will (TOTW) for the modern age, describing the coming mess we are in, to a point where people actually wake up?   TOTW sparked the US Army to call in Frank Capra; is it possible for another Frank Capra to rise up, and tell the important stories that need to be told?
  • As noted above – are we too sophisticated for mere films to influence us?
  • If virtual reality technology becomes ubiquitous and adopted quickly, perhaps a new medium such as VR, focusing on the nitty gritty of post-apocalyptic life might wake people up.   Or will this become an art house VR topic?
  • Has a film or documentary changed your life?  Which one(s)?  How?
  • What else should we be discussing here at peakfuture?

Thanks to all the readers out there in cyberspace.  A great deal has been learned this year, and yes, even some of my opinions have been modified.  Keep the comments coming.  The writing here may be a bit spotty at times, but as JMG mentioned, you need to write a lot before you get really good at it (something like a million words, or so, he reckoned).  Well, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and all that.

(one year cupcake attribution)

US Navy smartens up

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It is rare these days that things in the news, especially from large government organizations, can make you think somewhere, someone is thinking, but this recent tidbit made me think all isn’t lost.  From one of the many articles on the subject:

“We went away from celestial navigation because computers are great,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Rogers, the deputy chairman of the academy’s Department of Seamanship and Navigation. “The problem is,” he added, “there’s no backup.”

Among the fleet, the Navy ended all training in celestial navigation in 2006, said Lt. Cmdr. Kate Meadows, a Navy spokeswoman. Then officers’ training returned in 2011 for ship navigators, she said. And officials are now rebuilding the program for enlisted ranks; it’s expected to begin next fall.

This is truly a welcome development; it seems that the hacking (of GPS) really has made people wake up.

Now, this isn’t the only time that the US military has been ahead of the curve.  The effect of climate upon the things that the military might have to face were also discussed a few years ago, and brought up in its quadrennial review. Again, another welcome change in worldview from a large organization.

It isn’t always that the services are forward thinking.  Sometimes, it takes a bit more than a theoretical nudge to get things going, and to learn some of the old ways.  The TOPGUN program, for example, was instituted after a disturbing drop in the kill ratio of fighter pilots during the Vietnam War.   One wonders if the US military is quietly looking over things like the US financial system, or other infrastructure issues, and making contingency plans based on the realities that many of us in the Peak Everything world see.

The US Navy still has a lot invested in aircraft carriers, which the War Nerd and others have said is not a good idea, so it isn’t like a wave (no pun intended) of free thinkers and out-of-the-box leaders has risen to the top of the command structure.  But it is welcome nonetheless.  Perhaps after a temporary (manmade or natural) GPS outage, the sextant will show its utility, and therefore, other retro technologies will come back online.

Slide rules, anyone?

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(My father’s lightsaber, sliderule; an elegant calculating machine, for a more civilized age…)

Questions:

  • Why would the US Navy be so forward thinking on navigation, but not on the issue of aircraft carriers?  Is it just that the sunk cost (in reputation and dollars) of carriers is too high?
  • Will we need to lose a carrier (or two) before this thinking changes?  We are still building new carriers, believe it or not.
  • What other things should the US military be relearning?  The use of paper artillery tables and calculations?  Morse code?  Radios with vacuum tubes?
  • How does a big institution realize things like the reality of climate change, but miss others, such as the carrier vulnerability problem?
  • What can be done to make sure large organizations like the US military are more nimble and responsive to fast moving problems?

 

 

The Most Good You Can Do… Sorta

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(Asteroid mining, not so much; asteroid deflection, yes)

There’s a recent book I picked up, The Most Good You Can Do, by Peter Singer.  While the effective altruism idea is attractive, and makes a lot of sense (what is the biggest effect you can get with limited resources?), there were some parts of it that made me wonder if the author really thought things all the way through.   The overall efficiency idea of Singer’s is an excellent one – and perhaps one we should take to heart regarding the environment.  This has been raised by Without the Hot Air book, and should be read by all who really want to do something productive in this realm.  For example, it is counterproductive taking a few airplane trips a year if you are trying to recycle religiously, and pointless to unplug your “vampire” power supplies if you are driving to work with underinflated tires.   As Tom Murphy’s blog states – Do The Math!

One of the concepts in the book is that if you want to work on Wall Street to give away a great deal of money later, that’s a rational and good way to think about how to give the most, and most efficiently.  If modern capitalism can create more “benefits” than harm, then by all means – become a capitalist (and give most of your fortune away, of course).   This isn’t an academic question, of course – many of us are given opportunities to make a great deal of money, if only we would compromise on some “small things.”  Singer makes some great arguments for (and against), this practice, but in the end, he does a bit of handwaving and says capitalism is here to stay, so we might as well make the most of it.

This analysis is flawed, at its base, however, as Guy McPherson and many others have said, “If you really think that the environment is less important than the economy, try holding your breath while you count your money.” The argument being made here is that it is quite counterproductive to work in a field (Wall Street hedge funds, high frequency trading, exotic derivatives  – all the province of technical/engineer types who regularly get hired by financial firms, who could be doing better elsewhere) where the net product will bring the environment and system to a crashing halt, even if you are giving a good chunk of your money “efficiently.”   Also, raising living standards to include things like an American diet, the stress of commuting, sitting in chairs for hours at a time – are these things really making everyone’s lives better?

Singer praises folks like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – men who made fortunes (and are giving them away), but at the core, what they are doing (and have done) is and was inherently bad for our overall planet’s long term health.   The PC revolution was built on increasingly powerful Microsoft operating systems (requiring faster processors, and more resources), rather than efficient and far more secure open-source paths (Linux, anyone)?   Coca-Cola (and the ‘foods’ of its ilk) are part and parcel of our obesity and diabetes epidemics, which in the long run, makes people’s “lives” more miserable.   Would these things be considered ‘good’ in the long run, even though they make a lot of money?   Likewise, the folks who want us to build cheap and clean nuclear power to counteract or limit global warming (some from the green movement) are looking at the short to medium term benefits, rather than the longer term effects, which can’t be compensated for in any manner (the loss of our entire biosphere, and the long-term effects of nuclear wastes, which still haven’t been made safe, after all these years).

At one point in the book, the issue of climate change does come up, but it seems to be downplayed a bit, as if all the data weren’t in yet.  This seems a bit odd to me, for Singer does make great points about a vegetarian diet (to alleviate animal suffering, and which is good for the environment), avoiding nuclear war, and even the seemingly strange (but quite important) idea of helping Earth avoid asteroid impacts (with many cheap and efficient robots, not humans, of course).   It is ironic, that this last element, avoiding an asteroid impact, is given a lot of ink in the book, yet capitalism seems to get off the hook earlier on.   Singer also misdirects a bit, when stating that we have ‘peace in North America’, but the cost of that is due to us ‘outsourcing’ this violence to other parts of the world, which we have plundered of treasure and resources.  It is easy to be at peace when you are fat and kept entertained.   Our “North American peace” (not so peaceful if you are in Mexico, of course) is built on a pretty rickety structure.   As Jenny Holzer has written, “People won’t behave if they have nothing to lose.”

Overall, Singer’s book is a good one, and thought provoking.

Questions for this week:

  • What do you think of Singer’s arguments?
  • Can anyone tell me why high frequency trading is important?   Or complex derivatives?
  • Should engineers take an oath like the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take, to ‘First, Do No Harm,’ in order to stem the brain drain to Wall Street?