Monthly Archives: June 2016

Too big to stop

Supertanker_AbQaiq.jpg

Today, an “almost incident” happened in the local harbor.   A small sailboat was doodling around, seemingly unaware that a huge tanker was coming in.   The tug in front of the tanker gave the traditional get-out-of-the-way-you-idiot five blasts on the horn, and even the tanker gave another five blasts.   We all watched on the dock as this mini drama played out.  The tanker was windward (upwind) of the sailboat on a light wind day, and in that situation, the tanker could have blocked a lot of the wind for the sailboat (which did not have an engine).   As luck would have it, the wind didn’t get blocked, and the sailboat made it out of the way.   But it was a tense few minutes; a slow motion drama that probably scared a few folks in a few places.

A few things came to mind, when seeing this situation.

  1. Big things have large (really large) “time constants,” which humans have a tough time wrapping their heads around.    Tankers and other large ships, even modest sized ones, can’t stop on a dime.   A bit of searching turns up that they take 20 minutes to stop.   If the tanker in the harbor wanted to stop on a dime (or even in a minute), they simply could not have done so.   If that sailboat hadn’t caught some wind, it would have been smashed to bits.
  2. Big (and even man-made) objects can influence their surroundings.  Even the wind (or lack of it) can be affected by such things.
  3. People can be oblivious to seemingly large and slow moving dangers  (anything from zombies, climate change, to big, slow ships!).

Today, everything worked out OK (although I’m sure the skipper got a talking to, from somebody).  But the next time around, luck and the winds might not be in their favor.

This incident speaks to the larger problem of our world, and of our genetic programming.  Until very recently in our species history, we haven’t had to deal with such big objects and big effects, and we generally don’t have to mental tools to intuitively grasp the dangers in such things like big moving ships, asteroids, climate change, and the like.

Questions:

  • What things have you seen in life that fall in to these categories, that you have personally experienced?  Did they change your perspective sufficiently to wise up?
  • Is there any way to train for such things?   Physically being exposed to such things; doing more math problems?

 

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The Tragedy of Technology

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Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world.

The 2015 film Everest is the kind of thing that can make the blood of rational people boil just a slight bit.   It documents the 1996 climbing disaster where 8 people died (caught in a blizzard) while trying to ascend or descend from the summit.   The film is one of many treaties on the subject; the book Into Thin Air gives a more thorough background on it (and yes, there are counterpoint arguments and books on the topic).

The events of that year (and of many other mountaineering disasters) have called into question the commercialization of Everest, and the wisdom of having novice climbers attempt such feats.  The commercialization of Everest (and of climbing it when you have little to no 8000 meter-plus experience) makes you muse on how this state of affairs has come to be, the parallels in other fields of endeavor, and the general outlook of our society on “adventure” and “goals” in general.

For one, the commercialization of Everest climbs makes you realize how much money and its connections have crept into practically every part of life.  You can hire a Sherpa to help you carry stuff up to Everest, have people write pop songs for you (and film a video of you singing it), or even pay for a trip to the edge of space, provided you have enough spare cash laying about.   Yes, there are some regimens that you must go through for some of these ‘adventures’ or ‘experiences’, but in many cases, a lot of the hard work and details that you would normally gather as part of a much longer training process are skipped, and you only get the ‘crash course’ version of things in preparing for them.  If all goes well, you’ll probably be OK, but if things go off script, you’ll be in a world of hurt.   The comment by the ever wise Publilius Syrus,  “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm,” is a perfect summary of this; these “adventures” are the equivalent of giving people the helm in a calm sea.   The mastery that used to come with years of dedication to such pursuits isn’t there, and it can show when the chips are down.

The tragedy of this state of affairs is partially brought on by technology, which allows people to do things “safely” that would otherwise be seen as risky, and a culture that seems to prize (as Guy McPherson would put it) “go faster” as its topmost goal.  The “go faster” idea has even morphed into “be the youngest person to do X”, where X may be something that requires maturity and good judgement to complete the task at hand.  Yes, it is possible for young people to be mature and level headed, but to attempt some thing as a stunt to primarily sell a book or story to the media is insane (for every story of a Laura Dekker sailing around the world there is another Jessica Dubroff dying while flying a Cessna cross-country, or Abby Sunderland, who cost Australian taxpayers over $A 200K in rescue fees).    In a strange way, technology allows people (using technologies such as GPS, autopilots, and satellite/cell phones) to attempt such feats at younger and younger ages, but also allows them to attempt such tasks when there is no good reason for doing so.  Yes, there is something to be said that many young people are coddled a bit too much, and are insulated from the reality of the world.  Sailing solo (which can be a useful skill) is great, but to actively pursue a course of action (like sailing for days and weeks on end solo) which has little margin for error is foolhardy.  When you get down to it, it can even be considered illegal, and not for trivial, bureaucratic reasons.

The main complaint here is not so much that people are doing these things at all, but the base reasons behind doing them don’t meet any standard for real usefulness.   Why are these people doing these actions, and taking these risks?  Ego?  Some sort of New Age “self-actualization?”  If you are escaping from a truly dangerous situation, and have no other options, than these sorts of stories are more understandable (stories of escape during wartime, for example).  Technology (and the corresponding technology-derived social and traditional media that can generate financial support) can allow these sorts of ego-driven fantasies to happen, but is this what our society needs?   What about the immense amount of resources (again, fueled by those with money) that are expended in these (quite literal) ego trips?

Climbing the world’s highest peaks, skiing to the North and South Poles to write books and become a ‘motivational speaker’ seem rather selfish and trivial, unless they have some more noble and underlying mission.  For example, working at the South Pole, or climbing mountains for serious scientific study can get you to these places, and seem better uses of society’s limited material resources.  There are plenty of challenges, problems that need solving, and predicaments that need navigating in this world, and adventures do not need to be half a world away.   Defending the rights of people in your own backyard; keeping your friends, family, and community together; limiting the influence of technology on our lives – these are all noble causes that deserve more time and energy than these empty ego-driven pursuits.

On Dying

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The humor site Cracked may have some off beat articles (the “photoplasty”contests sometimes have a bit much too much adolescent humor), but the articles written from the perspective of people in odd positions are ones that are enjoyed the most, and make you think about some very atypical worlds.  Typically, they are titled along the lines of “N realities/ of doing/having/being X.”

A recent article was titled, “5 Realities Of Life When You Know You’re Going To Die.”

It is a odd read, having something like this in a humor magazine/humor site, but many comedians have come to grips with death and dying, and all the realities that the topic entails.

Some of the five points the article makes:

  1. Cancer Doesn’t Care Who You Are
  2. Life Goes On, Right Up Until It Doesn’t
  3. People With Terminal Cancer Are Often Ignored By Both Charities And Researchers
  4. You’re Expected To Play The Part Of The Inspirational Hero
  5. People Assume You Did Something To Deserve It

It is pretty sobering stuff, and given that practically everyone knows someone who has had (or died) from cancer, it is “surprising that these things are surprising.”  Most of us know folks who have lived ‘good clean lives’ and have cancer, and those who have lived the “wrong” kind of life, and survived for a long time.

If we were to extend this to the climate change reality that seems to be denied by many, what would this essay look like, and what would its headings be?  Here are some suggestions for “5 Realities of Life When You Know About Abrupt Climate Change and A Strong Possibility of Near Term Human Extinction”:

  1. Climate change doesn’t care that you drive a Prius (in fact, it is worse when you do drive one), or have solar panels on your roof.
  2. People who criticize you can be very blind to data.
  3. People who espouse the reality of abrupt climate change are ignored by both governments and researchers.
  4. You are expected to believe that technology or an inspirational “we can do it attitude” will save us.
  5. People assume you are negative all the time, and have a death wish, or subscribe to a death cult.

Any more comments on the realities of knowing the strong evidence for  a big die-off in our future?

Comedy can be a powerful force for teaching people the harsh realities of life.  Perhaps Cracked can tackle this topic (although it has tackled a few climate change topics in the past).   Or are some topics too dark for even a comedy site?

What other taboo subjects could Cracked tackle?   The presidency of Donald Trump? The coming defeat and destruction of American supercarriers in the next “hot war?”  How the next financial collapse might make The Great Depression look like a walk in the park?

The picture(s) worth a thousand words

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One of the myriads of problems (or predicaments, depending on perspective) we have in the Camp o’ Doom and Gloom is that many people in our modern world don’t want to read long treatises on Why Things Are Wrong.  The Archdruid and Dmitry Orlov, to their credit, have written long treatises, and have got many who pay attention to them, but certainly not enough to sway the tide. As many a survey has found, the capacity of “college educated” people to make logical arguments, read longer pieces of analysis, or even handle simple math has declined precipitously.

Other media, such as film (and yes, there are some good ones, as noted previously), can help spread the word of reality, but film/documentaries can suffer the same fate as long essays, and once the lights go on again, the worldview it promulgates can vanish.  Yes, people can discuss a good documentary for days after seeing it, but there is precious little to take with you other than a feeling, and the admonition to tell people to “see this film/documentary!”  Another sad issue is that documentaries can start to use to same tricks as propaganda, with swelling violins, piano and other methods to sell their worldview.

My curiosity on this topic made me wonder – when you need to tell people about the coming glitches in the world, how can you distill this down to one picture or two?   A picture of a crying Native American may pull at the heartstrings, but a graph is probably the most effective way of getting things across.  These are the graphs/data nominated for my “top N big picture” graphs/plots to show people that “No, things aren’t normal, and are not getting better.”

  1. This is the classic – the CO2 in the atmosphere.  Debated widely, it is still disturbing. Humans have NEVER lived on a planet with this level of CO2, and the rate of increase is far faster than most of the things we rely on can adapt to easily:

380px-Carbon_Dioxide_400kyr.png

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_in_Earth’s_atmosphere

2 (a and b). On a related note – the sea ice coverage in the past 35+ years in the Arctic has taken a precipitous dive, probably due to the pesky heating caused by all that CO2.  The probability of data being outside that +/-2 sigma range is 4.4%.  Two graphs are presented here; the data from 1979 to the present, showing where the current data point is, and the second, showing the lowest ice extent in 2012.   One wonders when we’ll get to zero.  This year, maybe not.  In two?  In five?

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http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/charctic-interactive-sea-ice-graph/

3. On the financial front, which is something people have a good handle on, there are a few interesting plots to show.  One, our federal debt, as a percentage of GDP (this is being generous of course – who knows how GDP is calculated, or if it even matters).

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_debt_of_the_United_States

The fact that interest rates are at an all-time low, boosting prices of housing, equities, and all else under the sun should be another disturbing plot to see.   When (or if, depending on your view) these rates go up (as they need to), the debt we will need to repay will get even larger.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interest_rate

4. Fisheries decline.   Looks like the EROEI of fishing, like that of oil, is also decreasing.   Not a pretty picture.fishing-graph-2-e1369965317625.jpg

http://eatingjellyfish.com/?p=3743

http://eatingjellyfish.com/?p=6389

Questions:

  • What are your favorite pictures, graphs or charts showing Things As They Are, rather than Things As They Might Be For Those Addicted to Hopium?
  • There are some sites that show happy data;  for example, rates of literacy have increased, and GDP has also increased in a dizzying fashion.   What are your favorite graphs there?  Any correlation with Peak Oil?  One wonders when cheap energy goes away, if work hours, inequality, and the like will increase…
  • One of the unfortunate things is that graph data can be manipulated in a way that distorts reality.  Which graphs have you found, that in spite of supporting your arguments, are not well done – so much so, that they distract from your argument?  For example, the derivatives market, although tempting to add here, is a bit misleading, but is still growing larger, and is still scary as heck.