presents more of a blog variant
What follows are more dated drafts, without full polishing, so expect errors in both content and details of execution. For more finished work, please refer to my formal publications page.
The latest rough rants are at current blog.
The content of the following does not reflect the point of view of any known institution (if it does, please let me know; I need to get in contact with them!).
Enjoy the following despite its flaws. Its goal is to improve the quality of lives.
Reflective sort of morning, gloomy with approaching storm. Thinking, as I do from time to time, about what I’ve accomplished during my time on earth. High on that list are several unpublished books, some with scientific thought and others of art. The science isn’t wrong in retrospect, and the writing isn’t as bad as most that do get published, but their problem is that people do not want to hear what they say; humanity really doesn’t want to change. I was raised thinking that was possible, and it was worth trying to put one’s mind to solving big problems. But what is really desired by the overwhelming majority of humans differs no one whit from robins, wishing simply to eat and fight and breed, not, basically, to have to think at all.
In one book, I’ve written in detail of the planetary and personal problems that come from an agriculture based on single crops, supported by deadly chemicals and massive use of petroleum, and of how the food supply could be fixed by paying attention to how nature has evolved to do things, and working with her instead of against her. The problem with acceptance comes from having to respect her, pay attention (including to what impacts one’s behavior has on neighbors, close and distant), reduce waste, and adjust our concepts of property and of who has access to how much. The ideas won’t work without all of the above, and none, since they require work, thought, and change are likely, especially since the biggest paybacks are truly long term, no matter how much more satisfying, beautiful, and sustainable life for all could become by doing so.
In another, I’ve written in detail of the planetary and personal problems that come from too much weight in motion for transportation, beginning with pollution, and ending with dissatisfaction from being stuck in traffic, all of which can be resolved very simply by lightening up, literally. But to accomplish that requires paying attention constantly, being more generally aware, learning how to feel and control machines instead of vaguely guiding them, willingness to interact knowingly more with conditions from weather to physical surfaces, knowing that all travel is expensive in all possible ways, so it should always be taken seriously, and knowing something about how machines themselves work. Again, not bloody likely, no matter how much satisfaction -- not least in the experience of transportation itself, lowered economic costs, and better health would result.
The theme that ties the two together is that all energy use has an impact, as do all forms of action, in proportion to the energy involved, while realizing that mass and energy are indeed interchangeable terms. Most humans do not like dealing with absolute limits, or confronting the possibility that the aboriginal concept of leaving the least trace is the farthest advanced possibility, the one to be most respected.
In the end, it’s folks like Thomas Merton, Albert Schweitzer, and other true religious activists (not religious “leaders”) who tend most often towards being right; one contemplates and does one’s life of service amidst as much quiet as one can find. Funny, however, how my first examples to come to mind managed publication and considerable fame, where I am 0 for 2. Their issues and examples were personal, and the planetary science was a sidelight, even though they both had profound things to say about it. Obviously, I’ve entered the communication process from the wrong end of the telescope, at least so far. Or maybe, however much it hurts, I'm just not their equal. Nevertheless, I still think that the essence of my concepts is more right than the currently dominant paradigms.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in Burning Tower (2005, Pocket Books, NY) flirt with, but do not wholly pursue, a most interesting theme: magic as coming from a more or less fixed pool, so that effects diminish as it is dispersed and used across space, away from its source(s). Many others have pursued a parallel theoretical issue set, i.e., that use of magic is not without consequence, that it has meaningful echoes in the surrounding world, and that associated problems tend to be particularly severe when proper attention is not paid by the user(s) to possible coincident impacts. If one replaces the word “magic” with “petroleum” or “coal”, or other potential sources of power greater than our own, another set of parallels appears, which could gain depth through good stories that make more explicit the considerable interchangeabilities among the terms.
Science, used properly, lets us keep track of some key consequences from release of the more modern and obvious variants of magic. Many current governments, most corporations, and the majority of humans choose to ignore both science and common sense when it comes to creating those inevitable results. Images of executives from Exxon, General Motors, and their governmental stooges like George W. as careless black magicians, frittering away limited resources and releasing damaging demons (like pollution and unnecessary death through excessive weight on highways) are anything but inappropriate. That list, of course, is much larger, and the consequence set far wider, expanding the power of the analogy, and perhaps making the underlying, vital themes more understandable to the number resistant.
Just one aspect of these concepts falls under the scientific guise of entropy, the dilution of order during transitions, leading in some views to the “heat death of the universe”, or in shorter and more certain order, much of life on our planet.
18 March 2005
600 million is a very large number, impressive for a human use characteristic. That’s what the morning AP report in the newspaper suggested for last year’s airline boardings. As part of an increasing use trend, it is followed with an imputation that such a large number makes a proposed administration budget cut to a mere $3 billion for airport construction somehow more justified.
But let’s take a closer look at that seemingly huge user number. With around 300 million Americans now, and with two entries needed to complete a round trip, 600 million boardings means just one journey by air per citizen per year. Given that, from my own observation of queues, at least 10% of flying is being done by very frequent users, which rapidly cuts into the total of individuals doing air travel, this confirms a contention I read elsewhere that less than half of Americans ever use air travel, just as less than 20% even have obtained a passport.
So why are the non-user majority subsidizing a very acquisitive minority so heavily, in what is so clearly an unequally socialized form of federal funding? $3 billion is also $15 per capita, which translates to nearly $50 per taxpayer, matched by at least that amount that goes to air traffic controllers, and so on. This not to mention the ten-fold higher bailouts given to the “private” operating companies at regular intervals, as their unsustainability causes business-level collapses.
Meanwhile, and once again, just airport construction, one small part of the huge subsidies going to air, is 3 times what beleaguered rail travel gets in the way of governmental help. Rails, if decent passenger service was made more available, would be used by more people, since railroads are basically a more rational form of transportation, being intrinsically more accessible, less wasteful, and more easily made less dangerous to both users and the surrounding environment. Rails get regularly dissed for wrecks with toxic material release, but only imagine what would happen if the same amount of deadly stuff went by either air or highway…
It’s funny how the term “socialism” is thrown around as something to be terrified of by self described “conservatives” in America, especially if railroads are to be involved, yet these same folks have no problem at all with either very public highways, or airports and their even more expensive associated infrastructure. As long as the good stuff goes to them, and somebody else has to pay, preferably through debt for another generation…
7 March 2005
The personal memory perspective: to get away from the local ice smog yesterday, since it was unusually reported to be less polluted near Salt Lake, we took my 31 year old Alfa Romeo out to Antelope Island in the middle of the aforesaid lake, which we'd never gotten to before (the access road was underwater for our early years here), and had a really nice ride, with the top down in the park, good food in Ogden, a couple of hikes, saw lots of bison, and even a few antelope.
Then, the quote of the day:
“ Lord May, president of the U.K.'s most prestigious group of scientists, the Royal Society … criticized Bush and other leaders who are failing to act, calling them ‘modern-day Neros over climate change, fiddling while the world burns’.” Daily Grist, 07 Mar 2005.
And yesterday, I was thoroughly enjoying driving a little faster than the law allows in a truly high performance sports car (others may be statistically faster, but few return more satisfaction, including gas mileage better than 90% of vehicles on the road today). How can the two concerns, of thrill and planetary future, be juxtaposed safely? The answer, as I drove, might be defining elegance as just enough and paying full attention (Kathleen Capels says, "be fully aware"; both are better). I could feel the little increases in gasoline pumping through that elegantly machined injector system when I touched the accelerator and the consequent instantaneous response, just like the response of the unassisted steering (unlike the power stuff, which I have likened accurately to making love through a condom, at best still fun, but not quite the same, no matter how good the technology.) To be able to appreciate either, one cannot carry too much weight, must listen carefully, and be open to feeling. Restraint comes from understanding that too much power cannot be adequately controlled, at any level, and the fearful feeling that comes with its release is truth.
More broadly, some forms of insulation against the vagaries of temperature can be of value both for comfort and reducing wasteful energy use, but attempting to insulate oneself against the consequences of one’s energy or material use is both personally deadening and deadly in the aggregate. In vehicles, it brings with it too much weight, which deadens all responses of the vehicle itself, hiding a bit the fear from power, but giving less in return from it – except damage to others and the world around, which eventually reflects back in unexpected places to the original user.
With my old, lighter-weight than almost anything newer, convertible, one knows throughout one’s body how much energy one has released, and all too much about what others around are. There is no question. No sane person would take one on the real energy suckers of driving, either really long road trips or through crowded commutes. 200 miles is a long day, but well filled. One is more fully alive at every moment; no need for in-vehicle alternative entertainment (which to me is a literally insane concept for any form of traveling—if one doesn’t want to pay attention to moving, stay home!)
Funny thing, though, that the 40mph rule I found on our long train trip last April as the maximum speed that one can fully appreciate landscape also applied in the car. Above that, one gets only vignettes, even though they can be edifying too. More ammo for the bike folks, I know. And then, one learns even more from walking, especially when one stops at interesting points.
10-Feb-05 Utah and its dominant Mormon church are hell on smokers, but why do they ignore idling vehicles? If they think smoking is dangerous, and without doubt it is, would they be more willing to sit in a closed garage with a truck or a smoker? If they are routine idlers, and so many are, perhaps they should try that comparison themselves, especially if they are not willing to change their wasteful and dangerous ways… If they do recognize the relative difference in danger, why do they ignore what they are doing to themselves and their downwind neighbors? 2-Feb-05
Once again the cry comes to the Utah legislature to be “visionary” and dump billions more into the highway system that is killing us all. This state has a convenient size for a bit of math, because each billion translates directly into $1,000 per taxpayer. The last binge of building, for the 2002 Olympics, tied up traffic for years around Salt Lake City, and set each of us, personally, back more than $3,000. Was it worth it, especially for those of us who got stuck with our share of the cost, but rarely go there? Even for those who do, with only 3 years since “completion” the same “planners” going back for more of the same? When that highway system, nationwide, kills more Americans every single month than have been killed by all the terrorists that have ever attacked this country put together?
Suppose there was an alternative that could get a person around the state three or more times as fast as by road, could move freight for a small fraction of the fuel as trucks require, do both with notably increased comfort, dramatically reduced pollution, noise, and occupation of space, and make property or injury accidents front page newsworthy rather than commonplace?
Weirdly, that alternative preceded paved roads, and still runs alongside the major ones. But ever since Eisenhower, invading Germany, found the Nazi autobahns to be convenient for his attacks, and twistedly imported them to the U.S. for “defense”, railroads have been sucking hind tit for funding. That went so far as paying for the initial construction of the Interstate system with money gained from taxing – railway passengers!
In fact, rails have been so efficient that their managers and the government have been stealing astonishing amounts from them pretty much since the first locomotive pulled a train out of the station. We’ve made such a tradition of taking from them, rather than helping them do the job that they could, that we assume they can’t do anything well.
What old is not always what’s worst. Where rails have gotten some help, as in parts of Japan, the bullet trains have carried literally billions of passengers at speeds three times those possible in practice on American highways, with over 50 years of operation during which their worst injury has been a sprained ankle.
In terms of government helping forms of transportation, the airlines got more direct handouts just in the year following their use to destroy the Twin Towers than Amtrak has gotten during its entire existence. Truckers whine about their high taxes, but those taxes pay only about 5 percent of the current damage they do each year to roadways, let alone the pollution, delays, and injuries they cause to those who must share the public highways with them. Many think fuel is too expensive -- and there is absolutely no question that those who distribute it steal obscene amounts of money from those who use it -- but taxes on it cover but a small fraction of its costs to society. Not least among these is our, at least in Utah, ever worsening air quality.
And who out there, unless drugged by Prozac or the like, or otherwise isolated from the reality of the situation, actually likes using those pricey and deadly roadways anymore? Is it really fun to wait indeterminately at traffic lights, then despite paying so much for hundreds of horsepower, accelerate at rate a bicyclist can easily beat? If one does use a vehicle to move fast, what happens, even if one doesn’t get killed or hurt anyone (hints: “aggressive driving”, speeding tickets, insurance revocation…)? And this ever slowing and more frustrating system is where we want to pour still more dollars?
Yes, rails as they now are have many problems, but virtually every one comes from not enough money, and/or what has been given being put into the wrong places. How safe, for example, would flying become if public roads crossed runways at grade level, like they routinely do rails in America?
15 January 2005
Woken this morning, as usual of late, by packs of neighbors’ imprisoned outdoor dogs barking and pathetically howling an hour before first useful light. Barking remains an alarm call for those of us with hearing left and houses not perfectly insulated. Even the best part of the beauty of native howling has been lost in these cruelly treated, so-called pets. I can’t blame the animals for complaining of their fate, but I can think of more satisfying ways to start a day than having to listen to one more set of whining that I can do nothing about. It is made even worse here, because what sets them off usually already was intrusively obnoxious, being some form of excessively noisy machine.
Because I was awake, and needed more informative sounds, I did catch the last bits of one of non-commercial radio’s versions of infomercials, this one by an outfit amusingly calling itself “time of useful consciousness”, from the period between start of oxygen deprivation and passing out, when a pilot can still save a plane. Their guest was the self-appointed “mad cowboy”, an ex-rancher who was exhibiting particularly spectacular misunderstandings of both basic nutrition and the interpretation of scientific experiments.
Science is both a central part of contemporary life and a sadly unappreciated mode of thought, by most of its practitioners and public alike. It, aside from some very simple particulars in physics and chemistry, is neither perfectly accurate nor are its theories unchanging. Humans want certainty, joining and dying over religions, none of which have solid proof, nor can they. Lessons about their limitations from history remain as, or perhaps even more, ignored than those in scientific observation and interpretation. Unfortunately, even for those who do know that science has changed its beliefs and/or that uncertainty is at its very heart, desire remains that current views are somehow absolutes, that today’s observers have finally gotten it exactly right, as for whatever religion locals are buying into at the moment.
At least science does test its results, or the better part does, whether by intellect or in the field. The longer I examine the latter, the fewer differences I find with the former. There are always assumptions and inadequacies in the examinations, with concomitant resulting misinterpretations. Samples are neither large enough or run long enough, and the testing tools always have less exactitude than their designers would like to admit. Beginning definitions are inherently vague, due to limits in language and human thought, so outcomes cannot be pure either. If these limits are not properly discussed, the results cannot be fairly interpreted.
Of course, most folks don’t want to do the work, either in preparation of reports (the scientific priesthood wishes to maintain their illusion of worth, so they get paid accordingly) or in the appreciation of their limiting meaning. And, of course, in paradoxical compensation, the limits are seized upon by opponents of understandings, limited as they may be, that are important, such as the deadly and unnecessarily debilitating effects of so many of human industrial activities, along with bad choices by medical and other social practitioners, along with lifestyle choices.
Understanding takes work, and truth is only approximate. There are jokers out there, from tsunamis to volcanoes to even more likely idiotic military actions, and so many subtler things, that take even the best prepared unawares sometimes. Nature accepts this, however uncomfortably at the individual level. But we can still improve the odds, although only by appreciating that conclusions are at best imperfect and assuredly subject to change from ongoing, more careful observation and analyses, if we survive long enough to do them. It’s work though, not least separating out the active and passive lying about already inadequate data and conclusions from it.
People need to realize just how shaky and vague science is, but reflect at the same time that it’s still the best decision making tool we have. Faith may have its utility among human-to-human interactions, and to a perhaps equal degree for our machines (it is nice to believe that one’s brakes will work when applied). Faith is far less useful when applied to many interactions with our planet (and for those brakes, which will only work adequately under a quite variable set of circumstances, like how slippery it is under the tires). It is nice, though, to maintain faith that days will indeed get longer, and eventually warmer, after the winter solstice…but even those are not absolute guarantees in this universe.
11 January 2005
Arguments over ATVs, snowmobiles, and highway congestion all will not be resolved until both government and the public think just a bit more about America’s legal and moral basis. We are all familiar with “all men are created equal”, which is a darned good underlying basis for dealing with one another, even with its linguistic gender problem. However, in the 21st century, two vital correlates must be added to that previously simpler basis: “all machines are not created equal”, and “no human with a machine is equal to one without a machine”. These are woefully ignored in most people’s active thinking, however much they should agree that they are perfectly common sense. The first correlate may be illustrated by what happens when a bicycle, or even an SUV, confronts a semi-truck. The second applies even when machines don’t work, which is when the people without one have at least a momentary advantage. Once folks more deeply appreciate these obvious truths, much else falls more readily into place about land use and other contemporary societal problems.
In competition for use of public or private lands, the simple occupation of territory during a day’s use underlines some of the inherent differences suggested by these basic philosophical (and should be legal) correlates, even without considering differing effects from noise or weight. Hikers and cross country skiers typically reach out 5 miles or less from their daily starting point, but ATVs or snowmobiles routinely extend outwards 10 times or more as far, while making a swath at least three times as wide as they are move over that much greater distance.
Even if one believes the unlikely claim that an unassisted human has a similar effect during each contact with wildlife or the earth as one adding a machine to their capabilities, any user of 30 times the territory during an equal period is going to have at least 30 times the contacts as the unassisted, so will have 30 times the total effect. This difference is simply indisputable, no matter how much industries or investors in their products might wish it away. If we all could just grasp these absolutely straightforward differences, and apply differential restraints (including user fees) accordingly, land use patterns would instantly become more fair and more sustainable, while conflicts would fade.
Yes, care by any land user does make a difference, but that part comes back under the original principle of all men being created equal. Stupidity is basically constant across all classes of land users (as verified by most careful observers’ experience), but stupidity enhanced by machines, because of their greater capability for mayhem, creates much more deleterious results in practice.
More complex calculations indicate that the added weight and power multiplies by another 10 times, or more, overall impacts from humans aided by petroleum-fueled devices. Increasing overall impacts will vary according to the weight and power involved. This additional principle applies on the highway as well as off, with the heavier the machine, the greater the damage done, in a frightful number of ways. There are quite a few vested interests not wanting us to consider this, but avoiding looking at a set of facts does not make them any less true.
Across too many areas of life, current rules treat all users as equal, when in fact, even without considering differences following creation among humans [could almost anyone realistically be equal to Shaq O’Neil on the basketball court, or to Einstein on the blackboard?], the much greater differences among machines are being ignored, along with combinations of people and machines, to the detriment of all. The result is death and injury of all too many. Wyoming, for one, calls itself the equality state, but does not that mean equality of opportunity for humans, not machines?
5 January 2005
“A report to the World Bank prepared by Professor Peter Newman and Associate Professor Jeffrey Kenworthy of Murdoch University in Perth found that cities that emphasise public transport use, walking, and cycling are financially better off and actually spend less of their wealth on transportation costs. Those cities pouring money into freeways, by contrast, use up to 17% of their wealth on transportation costs. Cities that came out best in their analysis, such as Zurich, Copenhagen, Stockholm – all very wealthy capitals – are spending only 4 or 5% of their wealth on transport, and yet they’re the cities putting their wealth into public transport.” Mike Smith. 2004. “Heavy duty: the crucial role of infrastructure planning in Australia’s move toward sustainability.” Ecos 121(Sept-Oct):10-13.
I suspect they may underestimate that difference, because of the personal cost of transport also falls in those cities. People either don’t have to own cars at all, or at least use them far less, so they can last longer as well as cost less to run. Cars have been the single greatest expense during much of my life; they are second for most folks.
While walking and meditating on the quote, I thought first of the circa $3 billion spent on Salt Lake City’s freeways in preparing for the recent Olympics there, which approaches $3,000 per taxpayer in Utah. I have gotten practically nothing useful from that investment of public funds, but could have gained a whole lot more, as could most people in the area, by putting the same amount into public transport. The more one invests in the latter, the better the marginal return – as nodes to the system increase, so does its usefulness, and as comfort and/or speed increase, so does the likelihood of ridership.
Then I got to thinking about time along with efficiency. In operation over any given distance, efficiency is defined by energy consumed per passenger, which in turn is defined by system weight primarily and speed secondarily. To that needs to be added construction energy use, to which materials will be connected so straightforwardly they can effectively ignored in calculation. The positive elements are length that the parts of the system survive. In all cases, freeways suck, being exceedingly costly to construct and very short lived, with the elements (e.g., cars) moving on them likewise, as well as being very heavy relative to their loads. Subways do cost even more to build, of course, but protected then as they are from the elements, they tend to last a very long time indeed.
We could therefore do a rough equation of transportation cost per unit distance as [weight of elements plus system construction energy (including elements)] divided by [number of passengers plus length of system operation].
One of the factors also not mentioned by the study above is the effective investment in system development. The amount that goes into advertising alone for personal surface vehicles could pay for intensive creativity for public alternatives. Too little investment is now made in that sector, especially given the obvious potential payoff suggested above. Take probably the key problem, interaction with other surface traffic, which so endangers both systems, public and private, as in Salt Lake’s TRAX ("light" rail) occasionally getting a fool trying to cross in front of it, and always having to deal with slowness created by the obese flow around it. True alternatives are little developed, like using aerial trams above the gridlock, with most public transport thinking still stuck in grossly overweight and outdated possibilities, with remarkably little attention paid to more modern materials and related opportunities. Because elevated trains failed a century ago from being too clumsy and noisy due to their weight does not limit the near skies’ potential.
On a seemingly very different issue, funding has been a greater degree of different than most folks anticipate, and quite dangerously so. Recent issues of Science magazine retain their news format across most fields, but the advertisements and help wanted portions are overwhelmingly focused on biotechnology. These have to reflect money flows, not least those stolen from taxpayers.
Unlike transportation, biotech gets its dollars from a diverse pool, with budgets equally dispersed. Much comes under various rubrics of “health”, so receives little question as to nefariousness. Vocal critics who might consider the morality of wiping out life on earth, or even just humans, are in large numbers tightly focused on such irrelevancies (except to the individuals whose lives are ruined by their arrogant views) as abortion and fetal tissue use. That focus is encouraged, to say the least, by the industrial types who think they can profit from chemical manipulation of life, or who do so just by processing taxpayer money.
The list of good that biotech has done is a very small one indeed. Cranking out new drugs should be seen in light of recent recalls of Vioxx and related survival issues with Bextra. These were outcomes of chemically related thinking about biological systems. The more narrowly focused outcomes of “purer” biotech are less likely to have their user-specific problems (at least as quickly) caught because of the smaller populations, with overall greater issues, that are involved. Damage has to emerge from the exceedingly complex background of other possible causes. So some do look good; their direct booby prizes, present with all drugs, but logically more likely with a construct counter to evolutionary exposure, haven’t revealed themselves obviously enough yet.
However, out there in the wider environment we have an ever-increasing sophistication in creation and application of loose-cannon biologically active materials, doing truly insane things like having reproductively capable plants and animals making known to be powerful medicines – which have notable side effects even on appropriate patients for them, let alone those who don’t need them. The parallel of funding for biotech to the popularity of books and even more widely utilized entertainments (e.g., movies and games) longing for the return of magic to daily life should be striking. Unfortunately, the dangers from biotech are far larger than those magicians ever imagined. The brooms that Mickey Mouse released in the iconic Fantasia animation were nothing compared to what twisting the internal chemistry of life can reproduce, from viruses upwards in size.
3 January 2005
Looking through a review by Elizabeth Kolbert, in the 29 November 2004 New Yorker, of a new biography of Max Weber, I ran across a description of his “protestant ethic” as derived in part from Calvin predestination theory, and flashed on a similarity of that to the early Nordic fatalism. In both, the goal was that one did the right (often difficult) thing whether or not one would be rewarded for it, either presently or in an afterlife. The unaware protestant updates led to blind material greed, not much of an improvement over the earlier Viking violence, especially when paired, as it has of late, with an apparent ability to deliver carnage at a distance, so as to seemingly avoid hurt for those who ordered it.
Perseverance without thinking in each case, along with an assumption of lack of personal responsibility for effects on one’s surroundings, is a likely downside for both thought patterns. At least the Vikings had more interesting gods than Calvin did. The early Christian message of love, responsibility, and consequent rewards would have been attractive to those in an overtly brutal world, as was Joseph Smith’s earliest LDS restatement in an as brutal industrial age, a time suffused with degraded Calvinism. But Smith, like most past (and present) generations of Christians got caught up in personal power trips and silly (at least to outsiders) fantasies, where whole system responsibilities fell by the wayside, and are replaced by fiercely narrow definitions of “morality” that require so much less thought and personal effort, from which the most recent American election was just one more piece of destructive fallout.
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