Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

rant on/

Four years, ago, the Daily Mail published an article with the scary title “HALF the world’s wild animals have disappeared in 40 years” [all caps in original just to grab your eyeballs]. This came as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. I blogged on this very topic in my review of Vaclav Smil’s book Harvesting the Biosphere, which observed at the end a 50% decrease in wild mammal populations in the last hundred years. The estimated numbers vary according to which animal population and what time frame are under consideration. For instance, in 2003, CNN reported that only 10% of big ocean fish remain compared to 47 years prior. Predictions indicate that the oceans could be without any fish by midcentury. All this is old news, but it’s difficult to tell what we humans are doing about it other than worsening already horrific trends. The latest disappearing act is flying insects, whose number have decreased by 75% in the last 25 years according to this article in The Guardian. The article says, um, scientists are shocked. I don’t know why; these articles and indicators of impending ecological collapse have been appearing regularly for decades. Similar Malthusian prophesies are far older. Remember colony collapse disorder? Are they surprised it’s happening now, as opposed to the end of the 21st century, safely after nearly everyone now alive is long dead? C’mon, pay attention!

Just a couple days ago, the World Meteorological Association issued a press release indicating that greenhouse gases have surged to a new post-ice age record. Says the press release rather dryly, “The abrupt changes in the atmosphere witnessed in the past 70 years are without precedent.” You don’t say. Even more astoundingly, the popular online news site Engadget had this idiotic headline: “Scientists can’t explain a ‘worrying’ rise in methane levels” (sourcing Professor Euan Nisbet of Royal Holloway University of London). Um, what’s to explain? We’ve been burning the shit out of planetary resources, temperatures are rising, and methane formerly sequestered in frozen tundra and below polar sea floors is seeping out. As I said, old news. How far up his or her ass has any reputable scientist’s head got to be to make such an outta-touch pronouncement? My answer to my own question: suffocation. Engadget made up that dude just for the quote, right? Nope.

Not to draw too direct a connection between these two issues (wildlife disappearances and greenhouse gases — hey, I said pay attention!) because, ya know, reckless conjecture and unproven conclusions (the future hasn’t happened yet, duh, it’s the future, forever telescoping away from us), but a changing ecosystem means evolutionary niches that used to support nature’s profundity are no longer doing so reliably. Plus, we just plain ate a large percentage of the animals or drove them to extinction, fully or nearly (for now). As these articles routinely and tenderly suggest, trends are “worrying” for humans. After all, how are we gonna put seafood on our plates when all the fish have been displaced by plastic?

rant off/

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The scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein and all the people he harassed, bullied, assaulted, molested, and raped has provided occasion for many who had dealings with him to revisit their experiences and wonder what might have been (or not been) had things gone differently, had they acted otherwise in response to his oafish predations. I judge it’s nearly impossible for those outside the Hollywood scene to understand fully the stakes involved (and thus the distorted psychology), but on the other hand, nearly everyone has experience with power imbalances that enable some to get away with exploiting and victimizing others. And because American culture responds to tragedies like a bunch of rubberneckers, the witch hunt has likely only just begun. There’s a better than average chance that, as with icebergs, the significantly larger portion of the problem lies hidden below the surface, as yet undisclosed. Clamor won’t alter much in the end; the dynamics are too ingrained. Still, expect accusations to fly all over the industry, including victim blaming. My strong suspicion is that some folks dodged (actively or passively) becoming victims and paid a price in terms of career success, whereas others fell prey or simply went along (and then stayed largely silent until now) and got some extra consideration out of it. Either way, it undermines one’s sense of self-worth, messing with one’s head for years afterwards. Sometimes there’s no escaping awful circumstance.

Life is messy, right? We all have episodes from our past that we wish we could undo. Hindsight makes the optimal path far more clear than in the moment. Fortunately, I have no crimes among my regrets, but with certain losses, I certainly wish I had known then what I know now (a logical fallacy). Strange that the news cycle has me revisiting my own critical turning points in sympathy with others undoubtedly doing the same.

As I generalize this thought process, I can’t help but to wonder as well what might have been had we not, say, (1) split the atom and immediately weaponized the technology, (2) succumbed to various Red Scares scattered around 20th- and 21st-century calendars but instead developed a progressive society worthy of the promise our institutions once embodied, (3) plunged forward out of avarice and shortsightedness by plundering the Earth, and (4) failed to reverse course once the logical conclusion to our aggregate effects on the biosphere was recognized. No utopia would have arisen had we dodged these bullets, of course, but the affairs of men would have been marginally improved, and we might even have survived the 21st century. Such thinking is purely hypothetical and invites a fatalist like me to wonder whether — given our frailty, weakness, and corruption (the human condition being akin to original sin) — we don’t already inhabit the best of all possible worlds.

Isn’t that a horrible thought? A world full of suffering and hardship, serial rapists and murderers, incompetent and venal political leaders, and torture and genocides is the best we can do? We can’t avoid our own worst tendencies? Over long spans of time, cataclysmic earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, superstorms, and meteor strikes already make life on Earth rather precarious, considering that over 99% of all species that once existed are now gone. On balance, we have some remarkable accomplishments, though often purchased with sizeable trade-offs (e.g., slave labor, patriarchal suppression). Still, into the dustbin of history is where we are headed rather sooner than later, having enjoyed only a brief moment in the sun.

Here’s a familiar inspirational phrase from The Bible: the truth shall set you free (John 8:32). Indeed, most of us take it as, um, well, gospel that knowledge and understanding are unqualified goods. However, the information age has turned out to be a mixed blessing. Any clear-eyed view of the the way the world works and its long, tawdry history carries with it an inevitable awareness of injustice, inequity, suffering, and at the extreme end, some truly horrific epaisodes of groups victimizing each other. Some of the earliest bits of recorded history, as distinguished from oral history, are financial — keeping count (or keeping accounts). Today differs not so much in character as in the variety of counts being kept and the sophistication of information gathering.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is one information clearinghouse that slices and dices available data according to a variety of demographic characteristics. The fundamental truth behind such assessments, regardless of the politics involved, is that when comparisons are made between unlike groups, say, between men and women or young and old, one should expect to find differences and indeed be rather surprised if comparisons revealed none. So the question of gender equality in the workplace, or its implied inverse, gender inequality in the workplace, is a form of begging the question, meaning that if one seeks differences, one shall most certainly find them. But those differences are not prima facie evidence of injustice in the sense of the popular meme that women are disadvantaged or otherwise discriminated against in the workplace. Indeed, the raw data can be interpreted according to any number of agendas, thus the phrase “lying with statistics,” and most of us lack the sophistication to contextualize statistics properly, which is to say, free of the emotional bias that plagues modern politics, and more specifically, identity politics.

The fellow who probably ran up against this difficulty the worst is Charles Murray in the aftermath of publication of his book The Bell Curve (1994), which deals with how intelligence manifests differently across demographic groups yet functions as the primary predictor of social outcomes. Murray is particularly well qualified to interpret data and statistics dispassionately, and in true seek-and-find fashion, differences between groups did appear. It is unclear how much his resulting prescriptions for social programs are borne out of data vs. ideology, but most of us are completely at sea wading through the issues without specialized academic training to make sense of the evidence.

More recently, another fellow caught in the crosshairs on issues of difference is James Damore, who was fired from his job at Google after writing what is being called an anti-diversity manifesto (but might be better termed an internal memo) that was leaked and then went viral. The document can be found here. I have not dug deeply into the details, but my impression is that Damore attempted a fairly academic unpacking of the issue of gender differences in the workplace as they conflicted with institutional policy only to face a hard-set ideology that is more RightThink than truth. In Damore’s case, the truth did set him free — free from employment. Even the NY Times recognizes that the Thought Police sprang into action yet again to demand that its pet illusions about society be supported rather than dispelled. These witch hunts and shaming rituals (vigilante justice carried out in the court of public opinion) are occurring with remarkable regularity.

In a day and age where so much information (too much information, as it turns out) is available to us to guide our thinking, one might hope for careful, rational analysis and critical thinking. However, trends point to the reverse: a return to tribalism, xenophobia, scapegoating, and victimization. There is also a victimization Olympics at work, with identity groups vying for imaginary medals awarded to whoever’s got it worst. I’m no Pollyanna when it comes to the notion that all men are brothers and, shucks, can’t we all just get along? That’s not our nature. But the marked indifference of the natural world to our suffering as it besets us with drought, fire, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like (and this was just the last week!) might seem like the perfect opportunity to find within ourselves a little grace and recognize our common struggles in the world rather than add to them.

rant on/

As the next in an as-yet unnumbered series of Storms of the Century (I predict more than a dozen at least) is poised to strike nearly the entirety of the State of Florida, we know with confidence from prior experience, recent and not so recent, that any lessons we might take regarding how human habitation situated along or near coastlines vulnerable to extreme weather events, now occurring with increasing frequency and vehemence, will remain intransigently unlearned. Instead, we’ll begin rebuilding on the very same sites as soon as construction labor and resources can be mustered and deployed. Happened in New Orleans and New Jersey; is about to happen in Houston; and will certainly happen all across Florida — even the fragile Florida Keys. I mean, shit, we can’t do without The Magic Kingdom and other attractions in the central-Florida tourist mecca, now can we?

This predictable spin around the dance floor might look like a tragicomic circus waltz (e.g., The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze), or even out-of-tune, lopsided calliope music from the carousel, except that positioning ourselves right back in harm’s way would be better characterized as a danse macabre. I dub it the Builder’s Waltz, which could also be the Rebuilder’s Rumba, the Catastrophe Tango, the Demolition Jive … take your pick.

Obstinate refusal to apprehend reality as it slams into us is celebrated as virtue these days. Can’t lose hope even as dark forces coalesce all around us, right? Was it always so? Still, an inkling might be dawning on some addle-brained deniers that perhaps science-informed global warming and climate change news might actually be about something with real-world impact, such as dramatic reduction of oil refinery output or a lost citrus crop. So much for illusions of business as usual continuing unhindered into the foreseeable future. Instead, our future looks more like dominoes lined up to fall — like the line of hurricanes formed in the Atlantic. Good luck hunkering down and weathering once-in-a-lifetime storms that just keep coming. And rebuilding the same things in the same places, well, just let it go, man, ’cuz it’s already gone.

rant off/

From the not-really-surprising-news category comes a New Scientist report earlier this month that the entire world was irradiated by follow-on effects of the Fukushima disaster. Perhaps it’s exactly as the article states: the equivalent of one X-ray. I can’t know with certainty, nor can bupkis be done about it by the typical Earth inhabitant (or the atypical inhabitant, I might add). Also earlier this month, a tunnel collapse at the Dept. of Energy’s Hanford nuclear waste storage site in Washington State gave everyone a start regarding possible or potential nearby release of radiation. Similar to Fukushima, I judge there is little by way of trust regarding accurate news or disclosure and fuck all anyone can do about any of it.

I’m far too convinced of collapse by now to worry too much about these Tinkerbells, knowing full well that what’s to come will be worse by many magnitudes of order when the firecrackers start popping due to inaction and inevitability. Could be years or decades away still; but as with other aspects of collapse, who knows precisely when? Risky energy plant operations and nuclear waste disposal issues promise to be with us for a very long time indeed. Makes it astonishing to think that we plunged full-steam ahead without realistic (i.e., politically acceptable) plans to contain the problems before creating them. Further, nuclear power is still not economically viable without substantial government subsidy. The likelihood of abandonment of this technological boondoggle seems pretty remote, though perhaps not as remote as the enormous expense of decommissioning all the sites currently operating.

These newsbits and events also reminded me of the despair I felt in 1986 on the heels of the Chernobyl disaster. Maybe in hindsight it’s not such a horrible thing to cede entire districts to nature for a period of several hundred years as what some have called exclusion or sacrifice zones. Absent human presence, such regions demonstrate remarkable resilience and profundity in a relatively short time. Still, it boggles the mind, doesn’t it, to think of two exclusion zones now, Chernobyl and Fukushima, where no one should go until, at the very least, the radioactive half-life has expired? Interestingly, that light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, seems to be telescoping even farther away from the date of the disaster, a somewhat predictable shifting of the goalposts. I’d conjecture that’s because contamination has not yet ceased and is actually ongoing, but again, what do I know?

On a lighter note, all this also put me in mind of the hardiness of various foodstuffs. God knows we consume loads of crap that can hardly be called food anymore, from shelf-stable fruit juices and bakery items (e.g., Twinkies) that never go bad to not-cheese used by Taco Bell and nearly every burger joint in existence to McDonald’s burgers and fries that refuse to spoil even when left out for months to test that very thing. It give me considerable pause to consider that foodstuff half-lives have been radically and unnaturally extended by creating abominable Frankenfoods that beggar the imagination. For example, strawberries and tomatoes used to be known to spoil rather quickly and thus couldn’t withstand long supply lines from farm to table; nor were they available year round. Rather sensibly, people grew their own when they could. Today’s fruits and veggies still spoil, but interventions undertaken to extend their stability have frequently come at the expense of taste and nutrition. Organic and heirloom markets have sprung up to fill those niches, which suggest the true cost of growing and distributing everyday foods that will not survive a nuclear holocaust.

I picked up a copy of Daniel Siegel’s book Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human (2017) to read and supplement my ongoing preoccupation with human consciousness. Siegel’s writing is the source of considerable frustration. Now about 90 pp. into the book (I am considering putting it aside), he has committed several grammatical errors (where are book editors these days?), doesn’t really know how to use a comma properly, and doesn’t write in recognizable paragraph form. He has a bad habit of posing questions to suggest the answers he wants to give and drops constant hints of something soon to be explored like news broadcasts that tease the next segment. He also deploys a tired, worn metaphor that readers are on a journey of discovery with him, embarked on a path, exploring a subject, etc. Yecch. (A couple Amazon reviews also note that grayish type on parchment (cream) paper poses a legibility problem due to poor contrast even in good light — undoubtedly not really Siegel’s fault.)

Siegel’s writing is also irritatingly circular, casting and recasting the same sentences in repetitious series of assertions that have me wondering frequently, “Haven’t I already read this?” Here are a couple examples:

When energy flows inside your body, can you sense its movement, how it changes moment by moment?

then only three sentences later

Energy, and energy-as-information, can be felt in your mental experience as it emerges moment by moment. [p. 52]

Another example:

Seeing these many facets of mind as emergent properties of energy and information flow helps link the inner and inter aspect of mind seamlessly.

then later in the same paragraph

In other words, mind seen this way could be in what seems like two places at once as inner and inter are part of one interconnected, undivided system. [p. 53]

This is definitely a bug, not a feature. I suspect the book could easily be condensed from 330 pp. to less than 200 pp. if the writing weren’t so self-indulgent of the author. Indeed, while I recognize a healthy dose of repetition is an integral part of narrative form (especially in music), Siegel’s relentless repetition feels like propaganda 101, where guileless insistence (of lies or merely the preferred story one seeks to plant in the public sphere) wears down the reader rather than convinces him or her. This is also marketing 101 (e.g., Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Budweiser, etc. continuing to advertise what are by now exceedingly well-established brands).

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As I read into Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock and learn more about antiquity, it becomes clear that weather conditions on Earth were far more hostile then (say, 15,000 years ago) than now. Looking way, way back into millions of years ago, scientists have plotted global average temperature and atmospheric carbon, mostly using ice cores as I understand it, yielding this graph:

co2-levels-over-time1

I’ve seen this graph before, which is often used by climate change deniers to show a lack of correlation between carbon and temperature. That’s not what concerns me. Instead, the amazing thing is how temperature careens up and down quickly (in geological time) between two limits, 12°C and 22°C, and forms steady states known at Ice Age Earth and Hot House Earth. According to the graph, we’re close to the lower limit. It’s worth noting that because of the extremely long timescale, the graph is considerably smoothed.

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This past Thursday was an occasion of protest for many immigrant laborers who did not show up to work. Presumably, this action was in response to recent executive attacks on immigrants and hoped to demonstrate how businesses would suffer without immigrant labor doing jobs Americans frequently do not want. Tensions between the ownership and laboring classes have a long, tawdry history I cannot begin to summarize. As with other contextual failures, I daresay the general public believes incorrectly that such conflicts date from the 19th century when formal sociopolitical theories like Marxism were published, which intersect heavily with labor economics. An only slightly better understanding is that the labor movement commenced in the United Kingdom some fifty years after the Industrial Revolution began, such as with the Luddites. I pause to remind that the most basic, enduring, and abhorrent labor relationship, extending back millennia, is slavery, which ended in the U.S. only 152 years ago but continues even today in slightly revised forms around the globe.

Thursday’s work stoppage was a faint echo of general strikes and unionism from the middle of the 20th century. Gains in wages and benefits, working conditions, and negotiating position transferred some power from owners to laborers during that period, but today, laborers must sense they are back on their heels, defending conditions fought for by their grandparents but ultimately losing considerable ground. Of course, I’m sympathetic to labor, considering I’m not in the ownership class. (It’s all about perspective.) I must also admit, however, to once quitting a job after only one day that was simply too, well, laborious. I had that option at the time, though it ultimately led nearly to bankruptcy for me — a life lesson that continues to inform my attitudes. As I survey the scene today, however, I suspect many laborers — immigrants and native-born Americans alike — have the unenviable choice of accepting difficult, strenuous labor for low pay or being unemployed. Gradual reduction of demand for labor has two main causes: globalization and automation.

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Stray links build up over time without my being able to handle them adequately, so I have for some time wanted a way of purging them. I am aware of other bloggers who curate and aggregate links with short commentaries quite well, but I have difficulty making my remarks pithy and punchy. That said, here are a few that I’m ready to purge in this first attempt to dispose of a few links from by backlog.

Skyfarm Fantasies

Futurists have offered myriad visions of technologies that have no hope of being implemented, from flying cars to 5-hour workweeks to space elevators. The newest pipe dream is the Urban Skyfarm, a roughly 30-story tree-like structure with 24 acres of space using solar panels and hydroponics to grow food close to the point of consumption. Utopian engineering such as this crops up frequently (pun intended) and may be fun to contemplate, but in the U.S. at least, we can’t even build high-speed rail, and that technology is already well established elsewhere. I suppose that’s why cities such as Seoul and Singapore, straining to make everything vertical for lack of horizontal space, are the logical test sites.

Leaving Nashville

The City of Nashville is using public funds to buy homeless people bus tickets to leave town and go be poor somewhere else. Media spin is that the city is “helping people in need,” but it’s obviously a NIMBY response to a social problem city officials and residents (not everyone, but enough) would rather not have to address more humanely. How long before cities begin completing with each other in numbers of people they can ship off to other cities? Call it the circle of life when the homeless start gaming the programs, revisiting multiple cities in an endless circuit.

Revisioneering

Over at Rough Type, Nick Carr points to an article in The Nation entitled “Instagram and the Fantasy of of Mastery,” which argues that a variety of technologies now give “artists” the illusion of skill, merit, and vision by enabling work to be easily executed using prefab templates and stylistic filters. For instance, in pop music, the industry standard is to auto-tune everyone’s singing to hide imperfections. Carr’s summary probably is better than the article itself and shows us the logical endpoint of production art in various media undertaken without the difficult work necessary to develop true mastery.

Too Poor to Shop

The NY Post reported over the summer that many Americans are too poor to shop except for necessities. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Retailers have blamed the weather, slow job growth and millennials for their poor results this past year, but a new study claims that more than 20 percent of Americans are simply too poor to shop.

These 26 million Americans are juggling two to three jobs, earning just around $27,000 a year and supporting two to four children — and exist largely under the radar, according to America’s Research Group, which has been tracking consumer shopping trends since 1979.

Current population in the U.S. is around 325 million. Twenty percent of that number is 65 million; twenty-six million is 8 percent. Pretty basic math, but I guess NY Post is not to be trusted to report even simple things accurately. Maybe it’s 20% of U.S. households. I dunno and can’t be bothered to check. Either way, that’s a pretty damning statistic considering the U.S. stock market continues to set new all-time highs — an economic recovery not shared with average Americans. Indeed, here are a few additional newsbits and links stolen ruthlessly from theeconomiccollapseblog.com:

  • The number of Americans that are living in concentrated areas of high poverty has doubled since the year 2000.
  • In 2007, about one out of every eight children in America was on food stamps. Today, that number is one out of every five.
  • 46 million Americans use food banks each year, and lines start forming at some U.S. food banks as early as 6:30 in the morning because people want to get something before the food supplies run out.
  • The number of homeless children in the U.S. has increased by 60 percent over the past six years.
  • According to Poverty USA, 1.6 million American children slept in a homeless shelter or some other form of emergency housing last year.

For further context, theeconomiccollapseblog also points to “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans” in The Atlantic, which reports, among other things, that fully 47% of Americans would struggle to scrape together a mere $400 in an emergency.

How do such folks respond to the national shopping frenzy kicking off in a few days with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Charitable Sunday, and Cyber Monday? I suggest everyone stay home.

Caveat: Apologies for this overlong post, which random visitors (nearly the only kind I have besides the spambots) may find rather challenging.

The puzzle of consciousness, mind, identity, self, psyche, soul, etc. is an extraordinarily fascinating subject. We use various terms, but they all revolve around a unitary property and yet come from different approaches, methodologies, and philosophies. The term mind is probably the most generic; I tend to use consciousness interchangeably and more often. Scientific American has a entire section of its website devoted to the mind, with subsections on Behavior & Society, Cognition, Mental Health, Neurological Health, and Neuroscience. (Top-level navigation offers links to these sections: The Sciences, Mind, Health, Tech, Sustainability, Education, Video, Podcasts, Blogs, and Store.) I doubt I will explore very deeply because science favors the materialist approach, which I believe misses the forest through the trees. However, the presence of this area of inquiry right at the top of the page indicates how much attention and research the mind/consciousness is currently receiving.

A guest blog at Scientific American by Adam Bear entitled “What Neuroscience Says about Free Will” makes the fashionable argument (these days) that free will doesn’t exist. The blog/article is disclaimed: “The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.” I find that a little weaselly. Because the subject is still wide open to interpretation and debate, Scientific American should simply offer conflicting points of view without worry. Bear’s arguments rest on the mind’s ability to revise and redate experience occurring within the frame of a few milliseconds to allow for processing time, also known as the postdictive illusion (the opposite of predictive). I wrote about this topic more than four years ago here. Yet another discussion is found here. I admit to being irritated that the questions and conclusions stem from a series of assumptions, primarily that whatever free will is must occur solely in consciousness (whatever that is) as opposed to originating in the subconscious and subsequently transferring into consciousness. Admittedly, we use these two categories — consciousness and the subconscious — to account for the rather limited amount of processing that makes it all the way into awareness vs. the significant amount that remains hidden or submerged. A secondary assumption, the broader project of neuroscience in fact, is that, like free will, consciousness is housed somewhere in the brain or its categorical functions. Thus, fruitful inquiry results from seeking its root, seed, or seat as though the narrative constructed by the mind, the stream of consciousness, were on display to an inner observer or imp in what Daniel Dennett years ago called the Cartesian Theater. That time-worn conceit is the so-called ghost in the machine. (more…)