One plus one


While we still have time to eat food that we haven’t grown or caught ourselves, it is still possible to go out to small gatherings (eat, drink, and be merry), and sometimes, even be entertained and enlightened at the same time.

This past weekend, some folks in my sphere held a salon, with the topic being Truth.   There were a few presentations, but the most notable and mind blowing was one by a young university mathematician, who clued us in to the workings of mathematics, and of how some proofs are, in some sense, “more equal than others.”

The idea of this was a bit shocking.  There are some mathematical proofs, as Paul Erdős, has said, that are “in the Book;” some that are so elegant that, “if you don’t believe in God, you can at least believe in the Book.”  We’ve all seen beautiful proofs, say, of the infinity of primes, or the Pythagorean theorem, but when math starts to get in nosebleed territory, things can go awry, and awry fast.

In one set of papers shown  (on “Tarksi’s Decidability Problem”),  one paper, in response to another, even refers to the classic line, “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”  Not exactly the stuff you find in high-end academic mathematics papers.  You may not be able to follow the math, but you can certainly follow the vitriol.  That there are controversies in science isn’t new; the theory of continental drift that Wegener put forth wasn’t accepted widely until the middle of the 20th century, and there are other examples as well.  Perhaps what made my eyes go wide (like that of the lecturer at this salon) was that in some fashion (even in spite of things like Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which was known to me) mathematics still had a sense of ‘pureness’ about it.   So long as that some axioms were assumed together, the rest would follow, and  some sort of common knowledge could be arrived at.   Mathematicians, of course, are human, and subject to the same forces as the rest of us, and even the logic of mathematics cannot always survive Flatland, selfishness, and ego.

This all may seem trivial, given what we “know” to be true, regarding our common predicaments.   It does point up, however, that even in something seemingly as abstract and ‘pure’ as mathematics, that there are controversies, and they can get pretty heated at times.

One trick answer, and a few questions:

  • For the record, 1+1 = 2.  Or 10, depending on your counting base!
  • Is this sort of high-altitude mathematical quibbling about how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin any use to us?   The one example that comes to mind is that yes, it may have an incredible impact on us.  If someone could prove (or disprove) some mathematical conjectures regarding prime numbers, this might affect things such as encryption, the backbone of our modern computerized world.
  • Is there any field that is honest about their own biases?   The one that comes to mind is Buddhism; one great quote they’ve got is, “If Science proves us wrong, we will change.”  Any others out there?





Now what?


From Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life

As it says on the tin – “Now what?”

A weekly commentary, like a newspaper editorial, sermon, or any other piece of writing, should make you think about things you don’t normally think about, or give you a new viewpoint on which to think about the world.

We can comment ad nauseum on the various outrageous things in the world (there’s enough to do this every day, of course; the new American administration and its opponents give us all ample fodder).

We can plot data until the cows come home, showing our converging catastrophes in finance, environment, and energy.

We can rail against every injustice, perceived and hidden.

“Now what?”  One might say this the moment one is born; you are going to die, so, “Now what?”  From all of what has been said throughout the doom-o-sphere, it seems that in spite of this mess we are in, the answer is to do something useful; do the best you can; live a life of excellence.   There are lots of folks making the case that things are getting rough, and are about to get rougher.  The point about ‘we should live a life of excellence’ isn’t easy, especially with our modern world distractions.

If something appears on the radar of the world that should be championed, we hope to bring it to light.   If something completely foolish comes up, we should mention it as well.  But doing something good, in spite of the reality that it might just not matter, isn’t so horrible.   As has been said before, Art is Important.   One movie that bring up this attitude, in spite of odds stacked against us:

Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life (with the classic Galaxy Song, and The End Of The Film notes on what is the Meaning Of Life).

There are others of course, but the insanity of life seems to be best viewed through the eyes of comedy.   Yes, we will point out signposts on the way to our demise (hopefully, without the nauseum), but we must remember to laugh a bit about the whole thing.


  • “Now what?”  How do you answer this?
  • When faced with these issues, what keeps you going?
  • What piece of art, writing, music or other that helps you get through these realities?


The most important topic


number_one_q(As always, a question…)

In writing last weeks essay, a reference was made to the great writing being done over at Decline Of The Empire.   Dave Cohen pulls no punches, and has countless examples of how, a species, we are essentially driving into a wall.   Other people have come along and said, “Oh, but wait, X will save us, “, or “all we need is Y and…” but he’ll have none of it.  The evidence is pretty strong.  A few others who see the realities of things share similar worldviews, but with different shades of anger, resignation, and yes, even humor.

It makes me think that the most important topic that we should be talking about isn’t energy efficiency, new technologies, or ways to mitigate greenhouse gases.  In fact, the things we really should be talking about are things like psychology and sociology.   There’s day to day versions of this, as discussed previously.   But talking about psychology and sociology isn’t very pleasant, and looking at one’s own species can be a tough thing.

In his recent commentary, Cohen has this to say:

With our foolish species, it is always the same. Humans hope for a bright future as they whistle in the dark. Grinspoon writes that there is a “dim and growing” cognizance of human effects on the planet.

Dim? Yes. Hardly discernable, in fact. Growing? There is no empirical evidence whatsoever that human self-awareness is growing. None. Zero, nadda, zip.

“Accurate self-perception” is the one thing humans are not capable of.

Well, there are at least a few data points – Dave himself, and a few other folks.


  • What would it take for more people to actually have more Dave-like self-perception, or John Michael Greer-like logicalness about things?
  • This question keeps coming back to me; we can understand quite readily why people want to reject reality (it is easier!), but how is it that so few of us don’t reject it?  Why do some of us take the road less traveled?  The question is still fascinating to me.
  • Could this worldview be spread?  Will we be vilified for even thinking that we might be able to spread that kind of reality-based worldview?  Not saying that we’ll be able to stop the coming freight train of reality – just, could more than a few of us be aware as things imploded?

Bonus find, this week;  The big picture of all of doom-dom.




Climate Denial


There’s a great podcast this week on Radio Ecoshock, and it covers a lot of how we deny climate change (among many other things in our lives):

There’s an embedded video in the link, of a TED talk on optimism bias.  Ironically, the T in TED stands for Technology, and many of the folks in the technology world, in spite of their knowledge of climate change, deny that we won’t be able to solve things *with* technology.

The talk brings up some interesting elements, and goes back to the Flatland thesis, over at Decline of the Empire.   More and more, it becomes more apparent that no matter what our technological solutions and smart people might come up with, we are still left with human biases and faults.   The data keeps coming in, and it doesn’t look too good.

Not much more to say on this particular topic that hasn’t been already been said.

Kind of weird, when you belong to a species that is this bizarre and destined for a spectacular crackup.




Things are getting better


For the holidays, someone sent me this link:

The upshot of this link was that there were five things that were getting better in time; poverty (less), literacy (more), health (child mortality down, vaccinations up), freedom (more democracy), and education (more).   Yay, science and technology!  Yay, Progress!

As mentioned to the sender of the link, this is all fine, well, and dandy.   Who could complain?   My initial reaction was to look at these charts, starting at 1800, and consider these charts (from; world energy consumption, and per capita energy consumption:



See any correlations?   These are the kinds of things that should make anyone who is looking at the first “Things are getting better” charts consider why things are actually getting better.  Perhaps, more importantly, the very definition of “better” should also be examined in more detail.

For one, we have been able to get more of that better “stuff” because we have had energy slaves (close to 150 of them, working 24/7, and possibly even more if you are an American), and many of those gains can be attributed to clean water, telecommunications, and the spread of knowledge, all made possible by cheap fossil fuels.  Any reasonable person knows that these cheap fossil fuels are going away; so, it isn’t hard to think that those gains won’t be swept away as well.   Without cheap fossil fuels, much of these gains (and those energy slaves) will be going away.  Yes, we may have some renewables, and yes, we may keep some of our technology; radio, some basic knowledge like the germ theory of disease, the ability to make simple antibiotics and so on, but really advanced technologies (semiconductor fabrication plants, launching of communication and weather satellites, for example) may not be viable.  As cheap energy and the complex infrastructure that comes with it goes away, we will lose those things, no matter how useful they may be (yes, that means even possibly you, Internet).  We may keep some levels of 1960s technology for a while, even, but my guess is that some technologies won’t be able to be maintained for more than a few decades. The best description of the world we might inhabit might be JMG’s well thought out Retrotopia.  Things will be a bit more low tech, but our lives might actually be considered better.

The second item to consider from those graphs above are that the metrics themselves don’t tell us anything about the quality of life that people are leading, or the quality of the things that are being measured.   Yes, you can measure “poverty” in dollar amounts, but nobody seems to want to consider or measure the poverty of modern life, when things like good relationships, community, purpose and meaning are brought up.  Yes, it is good that extreme poverty is being reduced; this means things like sanitation, clean water, and vaccinations are becoming more widespread.   But certainly, this is due to the increased amount of energy that has come with the increased use of fossil fuels.  Very few of us want to trade comfortable middle (or upper middle) class lives for lives of relative poverty, but relative wealth will be decreasing in the future as cheap fossil fuels become more scarce.

When considering the education and literacy graphs, we should also be asking ourselves how much “better” our “advanced” secondary and post-secondary education actually is.   Are people smarter, and making better decisions because they have gone to high school, college, or grad school?   Yes, Snopes makes the point that this may not be true, but certainly the ability of students to do complex calculations, or make critical analyses is subject to extensive and vocal debate.  Considering the rise in educational costs, certainly, the efficiency of our educational system has most definitely been lowered, especially in the United States.   Literacy has been on the increase because people aren’t in subsistence lifestyles, and when you are in subsistence mode, expanded literacy isn’t high on your list of priorities.  With some modicum of effort, it will probably be worth it for people to have the basics of readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic.   But will people in a de-industrialized future require knowledge of computer programming, algorithms, advanced mathematics, exotic high energy physics, gender studies, advanced neurobiochemistry, anthropology, hotel chain administration, and sports management?   Yes, those topics may still be of interest to a few wealthier individuals, but for most people, they will be irrelevant.  If computers aren’t used in daily lives, who will care about programming them, and how much of an impediment will it be to daily life for most people not to know about those topics?  The new skills people will be learning (carpentry, husbandry, boat building, fishing, farming, practical electronics and radio, low-tech medicine) will be more useful, yet on this chart, they would not register.  If anything, as people learn those skills, they will become more resilient, independent, and better adapted to a changing world.

The last item on the list is a touchy one – democracy.   Yes, those plots show that more people are living under “democracy”, but as much as one hates to put it in quotes, one has to wonder what sort of “democracy” those of us actually have.   Are these true democracies, or are they just for show?  The late and great George Carlin, quoted here before, sums it up nicely (full transcript is here) in his bit on the “American dream.”   In theory, yes, we have a democracy, but more and more people are realizing that no, they don’t have a say, and a few folks have even written it up in investment advice, and had some commentary by the business press.  According to some, we are more likely living in a plutonomy. Maybe, maybe not, but when analyses like these are made by banks, one has to wonder.   Will the Internet lead to more democracy?  Or not?

My final take on  these “things are getting better” graphs is that yes, some things are getting better, but the final question will be for how long can these “better” things be sustained?  Anybody can stay up for hours on end, powered by coffee or amphetamines, but is that sustainable?  Likewise, the measurement of “better” is a tricky one.  Is measuring wealth in financial terms the only way to measure the goodness of our lives?


  • What do you think of these “better” graphs?
  • Which one do you think will start to reverse first?
  • Do you think it will be possible that although some of these metrics will “fall” in value, we will have better lives?  Which of these metrics is the most inflated or warped, with respect to reality?
  • One thing not shown here is “GDP” (nor its relation to debt).  By the official measure, an increase in GDP happens when an oil spill occurs, since it the “economy” is boosted when you have to clean it up.   Does this make any sense?
  • There are alternate measures of a health of society; instead of GDP, there is Gross National Happiness; can this be measured in any realistic way?
  • Looking at the per capita consumption of energy, if we exclude things like oil, natural gas, and nuclear, we might get back to a 1910 level of energy consumption, but with the knowledge we have now.  Perhaps we wind up somewhere between steampunk and dieselpunk?



The end of the road trip


Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Amboy (California, USA), Hist. Route 66 — 2012 — 1” / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Last week, we brought up the  idea that traditional holiday pilgrimages will stop or be severely curtailed when air travel (and travel in general) becomes more expensive.    To expand upon this – what happens when our very roads start to become difficult to use easily?

It is a trope that appears in a great many films – the road trip.   With hot air balloons, windmills on the horizon, and fantastic weather, with filmed-from-helicopter/drone footage and inspirational music.   There’s a huge list of road trip stories; most of them have been set in the 20th century, when road travel was cheap and easy.

Roads aren’t going away tomorrow, nor are automobiles.   They won’t go away this year, or the next.  But at some point, a combination of expense, weather, fuel costs, economy, and such will make the roads less of an escape, and more of a piece of infrastructure that becomes less and less reliable, and less safe.

Like cheap air travel, modern highway systems, here and abroad, have given the average person the capability to go a few hundred miles for very little.   Roads are useful things, but the expense of maintaining them is large, no matter where the funding comes from.   This is mentioned because a bit of searching turns up some different views on how subsidized public roads are by the government.  Some claim that they are subsidized heavily and others.   It isn’t quite clear to me what the situation is; take a look at, or others , here, here, here, here, and here.  It is a bit confusing, but the net result is the same – someone pays a lot of money to have functional roads.   Plus, the utilization of each road is different, so figuring out who really pays can be a bit daunting.   At some point, however, no matter who pays for them, we won’t be able to maintain them in the manner that we’ve done in the past.   The conversion of some roads in Michigan to gravel is well known, and is probably the bellwether for this sort of thinking.


  • When do you think road trips will become passe, or at least too expensive for ‘regular folks’ to do?
  • Will they be replaced by something else?   Long train trips; long sea-going voyages along the coast?   When youth want to experience freedom from home, what will they do?
  • How many roads will disappear/become unpassable due to weather/climate/sea level rise issues?
  • What will happen to the superhighway system?  How long will it be maintained?   One metric might be ‘how long will I-95 be usable, from Maine to Florida?’  Or should the metric be how long before more unused roads are abandoned, if not explicitly, then by neglect or underfunding?   Roads in parts of rural Vermont, for example, might start to deteriorate so much that they become unpassable at certain times of the year, or altogether.
  • When might we see true banditry on the roads?  Where might this start to happen first?
  • If our society becomes more security conscious, and state borders become more difficult to traverse, will this put an end to the road trip, just on psychological grounds, or will we accept it like we accept tolls on toll roads?


The alternate world of the holidays


Going home for the holidays,  for many of us,  involves extended travel by planes, trains and automobiles.  In our current world, this involves no more than fueling up the car, buying a ticket, and showing up to a terminal or airport at the right time.   Because of this ability to travel to easily, relatively cheaply, and quickly, it means some of the family can live a half a continent away, take a half a day for travel, and be in their hometown on the same day they left.

This is great while it lasts, but at some point, whether it be due to fuel shortages, political unrest, weather strangeness, or some other gumming up of the works, this sort of travel ( as well any other non-essential kinds) may become almost non-existent.   This has happened before, of course – before rapid and cheap air travel, going cross country took days (by train), and going across an ocean took weeks.    Families lived a lot closer, if they wanted to be, you know, close.


  • Now that we’ve spread out so much, what will happen, as these conveniences slip away?   Will families give up on moving apart for work, school and leisure?   Or will our self-centeredness still be so strong that we move away anyway?   Moving, in general, will entail a lot more resources, and trust on where you are going.
  • The World Made By Hand novels had travel being incredibly difficult, and people not moving much at all, but this may have been to the times (war, pestilence, unrest).  Given that world, after it settled down a bit, what would be a reasonable travel radius/time/distance?
  • If a modicum of telecommunications still exists (i.e. private radio/telephone, Internet of some sort), how much will this change the equation?