Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Kyrgyzstan Kung Fu

If wealthy playboy Bayaman Erkinbayev is to be believed, the recent revolution in Kyrgyzstan owes quite a bit to the prowess of his pupils, trained in the local martial art of Alysh. Looks like successful revolutions depend on more than protest babes (not that I have anything against protest babes.)

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Book Review: Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

I read this book in two days. There are very few books that I can say that about. Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, is one of those rare science fiction novels that is simultaneously a book about Big Ideas and a compelling character study.

The premise is relatively straightforward, and one that fans of Greg Egan's work (specifically Quarantine) will be familiar with. Humanity is suddenly enclosed in a membrane that isolates it from the universe at large. In Quarantine, the membrane encompasses the entire solar system, and is impermeable; it's properties resemble those of a black hole turned inside out. In Spin, the membrane surrounds only the earth, and does not actually prevent anything from leaving. Instead, time inside the volume enclosed by the membrane is drastically slowed down: for every year that passes on the Earth, a hundred million years pass in the universe at large.

The central characters of Spin are as compelling as the innovative plot device. The story is narrated by Tyler Dupree, an everyman physician who, due to his connection with a pair of extraordinary twins, ends up caught in the midst of cultural upheavel caused by the membrane's appearance. One of twins, Jason Lawton, is the scion of wealthy industrialist E.D. (his company manufactures high-altitude balloons; his fortune is truly made when, with the onset of the Spin, the earth's network of communications satellites falls from the sky.) Jason grows up to run Perihelion, the organization charged with understanding the Spin and, if possible, enabling humanities survival beyond it. Jason's twin sister, Diane, reacts to the Spin in a completely different way. Convinced that hers is the last generation of humanity - that she will live to see the Sun swallow the Earth whole - she throws herself into a life religious hedonism that, with time, degenerates into a life of religious fanaticism (the cover blurb says she marries a "sinister cult leader who's forged a new religion out of the fears of the masses", which isn't quite accurate: her husband Simon is basically a good-natured, though slightly dull man of faith who sincerely believes the End of Days has arrived. He is a cult-member, not a cult leader ... I mention this because one of the few disappointments of the book was waiting for that particular sub-plot to pony up with the implied drama, which never came.)

Tyler is child-hood friends with the Lawton twins (his mother was a sort of live-in maid for the Lawton family.) Inevitably, he falls for the beautiful and lively Diane; just as inevitably, he is forced to keep his feelings to himself. Their paths in life diverge, and while Tyler's feelings for Diane are submerged, they never die; they remain in contact throughout. Meanwhile, Jason brings Tyler to work at Perihelion as the staff physician, giving Tyler a privelaged view of humanity's efforts to beat the mysterious Hypotheticals before it's too late.

The first plan is to use the rapid passage of time to the species' advantage. As the sun warms, so does Mars; microbes are sent to the Red Planet, followed by simple plants, followed eventually by colonization effort. A hundred million years pass on Mars before the colonists' arrival, plenty of time for microbes to fix soil nitrogen, and for plants to oxygenate the atmosphere. Thousands of years pass for the Martians - enough time for them to develop a highly advanced bionanotechnology - before, inevitably, the Hypotheticals notice and cover Mars in a similar membrane. The second plan is to use von Neumann probes to explore the galaxy. Once again, a process that would take tens of millions of years is accomplished in what, for earth, amounts to a matter of months.

These two plans illustrate the great strength of Wilson's work: to take the modern, everyday world, give it a tweak in an unexpected direction, and then follow through the logical consequences and implications as far his imagination can take him. Which, I hardly have to add, is quite far. His previous books - namely Darwinia and Chronoliths - seem to use a similar device. It's an honoured science fiction tradition to structure stories this way, especially amongst British authors: virtually everything written by H. G. Wells and John Whyndham used this device.

If you're already a fan of Wilson's work, I probably don't have to tell you to buy this book. If you've never read him before - I hadn't - I suggest you start. The characters are as empathetic as anything in mainstream literature, and the ideas will blow your mind.

DIY Cyborg

An enterprising individual has implanted himself (okay, he got a doctor to do it for him) with an RFID chip.

Dieback Insurance

What if the human race were to experience a massive dieback due to ecological collapse? The scenarios are endless: nuclear war, the explosion of a supervolcano, the impact of a comet or an asteroid, plague.... the list goes on. The majority of modern humans would have their fitness dramatically reduced without the support structure of civilization, and it is, indeed, entirely possible that under these circumstances the human species could go extinct. Stephen Baxter explores this rather grim scenario in Evolution, a compelling novel that portrays humanity as a fleeting epiphenomenon, ultimately driven to extinction by its own actions.

The risk of a global civilizational collapse and massive dieback is, in my estimation, rather low. I think it far more likely that humanity (or our posthuman descendants) will end up colonizing the stars. However, the consequences of such a collapse are so great that the risk, however small, should not be ignored. Not all existential risks can be mitigated (for instance, the vacuum energy could spontaneously tunnel into a new ground state, wiping out the entire universe at the speed of light.) Many, however, are amenable to an insurance policy: namely, the preservation of neolithic technologies and social structures.

Stone age societies are remarkably resilient, absent competition by civilized humans. Small, voluntary 'tribes' of enthusiasts could be maintained in the larger national parks, where they would live as hunter gatherers, making their own tools from what they find and honing the skills needed to survive without technology. Contact with the outside world would be largely prohibited and, when it did occur, strictly controlled so as to guard against the threat of contagion if it's plague that finally does the species in. An enthusaist tiring of the neolithic lifestyle would, of course, be permitted to leave, to be replaced by new entrants selected from a pool of trained applicants.

Note that neolithic doesn't mean that they'd be limited to making and using tools existing thousands (or even hundreds) of years ago. Remarkably sophisticated tools can be made, using raw materials naturally available in the environment. Nor would the tribes be limited to neolithic knowledge; there's no reason not to give them access, through clearly marked but protected archives, to the full spectrum of modern science and engineering.

If the next-to-worst case scenario happens (ie, global dieback and total collapse of civilization, accompanied by mass extinctions in the biosphere) these tribes would be there to pick up the pieces. Even if only a single tribe survives to see the other side of the crisis, they'll be enough to rebuild civilization, this time with a clear guide on how to get from the neolithic to the information age in a fraction of the time it originally took and, hopefully, without making the mistakes that led to the dieback in the first place. If, on the other hand, civilization never collapses, then society has invested only the time of a few thousand individuals around the world. The total economic cost is negligible, as any good insurance policy should be.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Shari'a in School (And No, I'm Not Talking About Madrassas)

It's always nice to know that Stalin's useful idiots are still around, even if they have found a new (though as yet unacknowledged) ideological ally. The left has always been willing to serve as a fifth column in the U.S. (and, really, just about everywhere else.) Exhibit A: marketing shari'a to American youth, using PBS, pre-made lesson plans, and textbooks extolling the virtues of Islam. Like Bruce Sterling said, if you own the youth, you own the future. And it looks like a lot of American high schools are selling their youth to CAIR at cut-rate prices.

You have to admit that it would be ironic if, fifty or sixty years after soundly trouncing Islamofascism on the battlefield and forcibly democratizing the Arab world, a large minority of Americans (probably blue staters, who tend not to raise their kids to be explicitly Christian) start converting to Islam. At which point, those evil redneck conservatives from the red states would start to look pretty darn liberal in comparison. I can see it now, a bunch of grey haired Vermonters scratching their heads at the burqas and the modques that have sprouted like mushrooms in their secular hippie paradise, wondering, how the hell did this happen? To which the answer is, you let your kids be indoctrinated in public school into thinking Islam is innocuous ... and then their children started converting, just to piss off their parents, started converting.....

It's the sort of grand historical joke the Great Pumpkin seems to enjoy playing on imperial powers (think of the Romans, who spent decades pummeling the Jews, only to end up worshipping one.)

IP Judo

Normally, I agree with most of what's written in TechCentralStation, but this article, urging the Bush administration to get tough on IP, strikes me as getting it completely wrong. The author, Duane Freese, takes aim at both online music 'theft' and foreign piracy of pharmaceuticals and software. Early in the article, Mr. Freese notes that IP constitues $600 billion of the U.S. economy; later, he rages against losses due to piracy of $13.4 billion, worldwide. The latter figure omits the supposed losses of the pharmaceutical industry, so lets double the figure. That's still only $26.8 billion ... considerable, to be sure, but negligible compared to the size of the industry as a whole.

Lets start with filesharing. Mr. Freese argues, correctly, that it's pointless trying to take out individual file-sharers. Instead, he recommends focusing on commerical networks (one would assume he means Sharman Networks' Kaazaa.) Great idea ... sue the companies that actually make revenue through advertising, with the result that freeware such as Ares and Gnutella will step in to fill the niche. The recording industry could probably get money out of Sharman, but there's no money at all in the other software. Filesharing, frankly, is here to stay. No one's going to buy an iPod with 40 gigs of storage, and then shell out $10,000 to fill it ... and storage is only getting cheaper. Musicians would do well to look upon filesharing as free marketing, and make their money at live shows (which is where most of their money is made, anyways.) A similar argument applies to movies: sure, people might download them, but actually going to the theatre with friends is a social experience, difficult to replicate in front of the warm glow of your computer monitor.

So we can dispense with the argument that filesharing constitutes theft. What about the foreign piracy of pharmaceuticals and software?

This is trickier. Mr. Freese argues, essentially, for trade sanctions against countries that refuse to respect IP. "You don't want to pay full price for PhotoShop? Fine, we're not going to buy your bananas." This strikes me as, frankly, silly: American consumers will get to pay more for bananas, while Brazilian software companies will carry right on pirating PhotoShop (especially now that the banana growers aren't making as much money.) Even assuming the government caves to U.S. pressure, many of them (particularly Brazil) are likely to encourage the development of open source software, for the simple reason that they cannot afford to pay American prices for commercial software. As for pharmaceuticals, well, that's what black markets are for. If a fly-by-night company will sell you AIDS pills for $10 a bottle, and GlaxoSmithKline wants $500, a poverty-stricken third worlder is going to go with the fly-by-night, issues of quality control be damned.

Trade wars aren't the answer, here. The answer, I would argue, is more free trade. Get involved in a trade war, and those very foreign markets the IP companies want opened will just close down, exactly what the pirates want. Push for free trade, and the locals will, gradually, get richer. They'll be more willing to spend money to get brand-name drugs with guaranteed high quality, more willing to shell out for a legitimate, high-quality DVD in place of a pirated copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy with scratchy sound and a grainy picture.

CEOs love to moan about how their corporations are getting screwed over by those who refuse to respect intellectual property. In truth, many of them are weeping all the way to the bank: piracy isn't bankrupting corporations everywhere you look, it's just shaving a little off of their profit margins. The recording industry, for instance, is not in the red; it's profits just aren't quite as high as they were a few years ago. It's not possible to give a meaningul estimate of how much they're actually losing, as there's no 1:1 correspondance between, say, a song downloaded and a song bought. If I download a song, does that mean I would have bought it if the downloading option hadn't been available? Maybe. But nine times out of ten, I wouldn't have. Similarly, if an African villager whose wordly possessions consist of one scrawny goat and a patch of hardscrabble land hadn't been able to buy his three-month supply of AIDS meds for $10, it doesn't mean that he would have shrugged his shoulders and paid $500 instead. More likely, he just would have died.

If corporations are having a hard time selling their IP products, they might want to consider that, just maybe, they're charging too much. They also might want to reconsider just what it is, exactly, that they're selling: it's not, as so many of them think, the information. Rather, it's the quality of that information, whether in terms of clarity (high quality DVD vs. shitty pirated DVD), experience (going to a concert with friends vs. listening to the artist on your iPod), convenience (having a song download quickly, with a minimum of time spent trying to find it, and the confidence that it will actually be the whole song vs. the user-beware P2P environment) or quality (a bottle of AIDS meds guaranteed to do what the bottle says vs. a bottle that might do nothing or even make you sicker.) Users will pay a premium for all these services. Not all users, maybe, but some and, I think, enough that the corporations - and the artists, scientists, engineers, and computer programmers they represent - will be able to turn a profit and maybe even make a living from what it is they do.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Interview with Adrian Bowyer

Adrian Bowyer (that would be the University of Bath researcher working on making a self-replicating fab out of a rapid-prototype device) has an interview over at Non-Tech City.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Army Tries to Raise Morale, Airforce Captain Outraged

So the Purrfect Angelz are sent on a USO tour to boost the morale of the boys in Iraq, and a female Air Force captain feels compelled to speak out against the show. Speaking, not in her official capacity but as an 'outraged woman', Sharon Kibiloski is outraged that the army would allow such a debauched show to take place. This raises the question of what Capt. Kibiloski 's doing speaking in anything but an official capacity. I can't remember ever having heard a soldier say, "Speaking, not in my official capacity, but as an outraged man...." Guess the rules are different when you get to use the clean bathroom.

The problem? Apparently, she's offended that the military is trying to appeal to the 18-25 male demographic in its ranks - you know, as in the vast majority of enlisted soldiers - with a quartet of scantily clad on-stage temptresses. She's offended that the show doesn't appeal to everyone, especially women (solution: don't go see it.) She's worried that soldiers will leave the show so horny they can't control themselves, and might sexually harass their female comrades (solution: charge the idiots that do. Especially if they're dumb enough to make a pass at you: you're a freaking Captain.)

Sheesh, lady, lighten up. You join an organization composed primarily of males - an organization that, until recently, was composed exclusively of males, and has a corresponding set of traditions and habits - and you pretty much have to learn to be one of the guys. That includes taking off-color jokes in stride, and it includes letting the boys in uniform be reminded, every once in a while, of just what it is they're fighting for. I mean, they're in a war zone. Every day could be their last. And you're worried they might get turned on by a little USO T&A? Get your priorities straight. I'd think you'd have more pressing concerns, such as the possibility that - on the off chance USO takes you seriously, and bans future shows - you'll be fingered as the culprit by a country full of horny, homesick troops. And, you know, that could make for some really uncomfortable conversation in the Officer's Mess.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Latest From the Honourable Members

The deficit this year was supposed to be $2.2 billion. Instead, it's $6 billion. Apparently $3.8 billion is an 'accounting difference'.

Another Reason Note to Worry About Peak Oil

Even if my prior musings regarding the abiotic theory of the origins of oil are completely off base, this new development may well render the depletion of oil a moot point. If you're too lazy to read the whole thing, the essence is this: researchers at Sandia have developed a photocatalytic device (ie, powered by the sun) to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The planet's not likely to run out of water any time soon.

No Sushi For You!

I realize this is old news, but I just encountered it recently so I'm blogging it anyways.

Apparently, the McGuinty Liberals just backed down from a proposed regulation that would outlaw fresh sushi. Now, don't get me wrong. I like seeing governments back down. It teaches them humility, which is good for their blackened souls. However, the story absolutely begs the question, Why the hell would they try to pass such a law in the first place? Hmm, lets see ... on the one hand, you have a lot of Torontonians who love sushi. On the other hand, you have a lot of Torontonians who vote Liberal. The Liberals had already managed to piss off the entire province with their Health Care 'Premium' (which isn't a tax!) Basically the only people in the whole damn province who might vote Liberal in the next provincial election live in the 416 and the 905. And then the government turns around and tries to regulate real sushi out of existence.

You know, for the first few months of this administration, I used to actually get mad about their ham-handed stunts. Now I just think it's funny. If they keep this up, it'll be a decade or more before the Liberals have a snowballs' chance in Texas of getting back in to office.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Book Review: Fab, by Neil Gershenfeld

After reading the first chapter of this book, it was late and time to go to bed. Reluctantly, I put the book away, turned off the light, and spent the next three hours unable to sleep because of the storm of thoughts it had set off in my brain.

Fab is about how to build things. More than that, though: it's about how - sooner than most of us who think of such things expect - anyone will be able to manufacture almost anything in their garage. The centrepiece of Fab is what Gershenfeld calls the 'fab lab', or fabrication laboratory. It's a combination of computer, 3D printers, laser cutters, and assorted other machine tools for working with almost any material, ranging from wood to plastic to metal. Load in the right software, and a fab lab can build, well, pretty well anything you want it to build; even if it can't build it all in one piece, it can build the components, which can then be assembled.

The interesting thing is that a fab lab can - at least theoretically - build another fab lab. This has, to put it mildly, big implications.

The bulk of the book is divided between introductory pieces on the working elements of a fab lab - subtractive and additive manufacturing, sensors, interfaces, engineering software - and case studies of what actual people have done with the prototype fab labs that Gershenfeld's Centre for Bits and Atoms has set up around the world. One such concerned an art student who made herself a 'screaming bag'; another, a Norwegian herdsman who designed and deployed a wireless network for monitoring sheep and reindeer; yet another an Indian village that built measurement devices to test the quality of milk. Note that none of these people were professional engineers, nor did they have any sort of formal technical education. Not only can fab labs manufacture damn near anything, but ordinary people can use them to do so.

What really grabbed me about this book was how soon this technology is likely to be out there. People like K. Eric Drexler have been talking about self-reproducing, molecular manufacturing machines for twenty years now. The technology has become a science fiction staple, as ubiquotous in any serious treatment of the future as computers and space ships. The assumption, however, has always been that we'll need reasonably mature nanotech in order to make these things; Fab shows that, on the contrary, we can make them right now, using existing technology. They won't build spaceships out of pure diamond, but they'll build damn near anything else, including (as noted above) other fabs. And if a fab can reproduce itself, it can also repair itself, and - logically - incrementally upgrade itself.

Eventually, then, fabs will be nanotech-enabled (and able to make those super-cool diamond spaceships); in the meantime, however, we'll have a good twenty or thirty years to learn how to use these things. This is probably a good thing, because the proliferation of fabs - odds are they'll be everywhere within a decade or so - is going to cause one hell of a shock to the economy. The sheer range of what it's possible to make with a fab, and the fact that once you have one all you need are raw materials (dirt cheap) and blueprints (P2P, anyone?), and you can see how large sectors of the manufacturing industry are going to go tits up.

Fab wasn't perfect, the my problems with it were quite minor. Like most engineers, Gershenfeld spends a lot of time explaining the nitty-gritty, and not a lot speculating about the large-scale implications of the technology. Which is fine, really; the point of the book is to show us all what can be done right now, not to engage in hand-waving pronouncements. Still, in the chapter titled 'Future', he spends half of it discussing von Neumann and the machines named for him. The material is relevent, of course, but it really does belong in a different, earlier chapter. The other - minor - problem I had was with some of the case studies, some of which didn't directly concern use of a fab lab, but rather the use of CAD tools in general in contexts they weren't intended for. But then, fab labs are new, and there probably aren't that many examples to draw on as of yet.

In the end, this was an informative and occasionally even entertaining read, an eye-opening guide to a world-changing technology that most of the species hasn't even heard of yet.

As an interesting addendum, I found a post on EurekAlert! today, concerning researchers at the University of Bath who are looking into getting working, refrigerator-sized household fabricators onto the market within four years. It's spreading.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Madness, Genius, & Chemistry

An interesting essay over at kiro5hin, concerning the effects on society - specifically the effects on its creative potential - of medicating psychological illness out of existence. The thesis is that when the threshold of mental illness is defined downwards, and the new crazy (those with depression, dysthemia, ADD/ADHD, etc) are put on drugs, we run the risk of squashing creative genius. There's something to this, I think: I have a schizophrenic friend who's always finding excuses to go off his meds, as he says it feels like his brain's made of porridge when he's on them.

On the other hand, however, the vast majority of people - and that includes the mentally ill - are not, and will never be, creative geniuses. They're just normal people, with jobs, friends, families. The benefits these people might get from being psychologically abnormal are somewhat dubious, measured next to the detrimental effects upon their careers and the pain their illnesses can cause not just them, but their loved ones. That said, I've always thought putting kids on speed so they won't get bored when the teacher's droning on about fractions is an idea that comes somewhere between misguided and criminal. Still, putting an adult on SSRIs when they're consistently, needlessly miserable is very much a good thing, if it improves their lives.

However, the point about creative squashing chemistry stands. There's something about the image of a happy, wholly sane and stable artist that just strikes me as deeply, horribly wrong.

But no one is ever forced to take their meds. Even people with disorders far more serious than dysthemia (like my aforementioned friend) can choose not to. I think, however, that it's a salient point that the choice exists at all. In the past, if you were crazy, then that was it. You were crazy, end of story. Either you died young, or became an artist of some sort, or (often) both. Happiness wasn't an option that was presented to you. These days, however, the young artist is offered a choice by society, one similar to the choice offered Achilles: a life of mundane, medicated contentment that will never amount to anything particularly memorable, or a life wracked by mental pain and occasional derangement that gives a shot at greatness.

No doubt many will choose the former. Others, however, will choose to suffer for their art, and their art may be the better for it, as they will have chosen that state instead of having it forced upon them by the great genetic crapshoot.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Hitler Was a Great Man!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Microwave Foundries

This seems like a valuable addition to any personal fabrication system.

A Dumbass New Law, Brought to You by Dumbass Politicians

This is a horrible idea. Forcing educational institutions to buy expensive licenses in order to access freely available content. Outlawing 'parasitic' VoIP. Coercing ISPs into kicking off a subscriber if a content company so much as insinuates that said subscriber is getting access to copyrighted content (in effect, making it easier to prosecute file sharing than it is to stop child porn. Priorities, people.)

None of this shocks me. The recording industry is scared shitless of anything new that it doesn't own. At the same time the Canadian government - like governments everywhere, I suppose -tends toward the control-freak mentality, so it's no surprise that they'd grasp at any pretext to crack down on internet use, and damn the collateral damage.

The sad thing is, I'm really more amused than angered by this. Reason being, it doesn't particularly worry me. Not that I think the legislation won't pass - at the very least, I imagine a watered-down version will get through quite handily - it's that I can't see it being even minimally effective. One word, people: encryption. It's simple, really. Just lock everything down using a decent RSA algorithm, make it prohibitively expensive for the authorities to take a peek at what you're up to, and the law becomes impossible to enforce. Set up private darknets, accessible only to people vouched for by existing members who know them personally, and impenetrable to anyone else. Such inscrutable networks already exist. One of my friends already uses one, and swears by it (I haven't bothered yet. I'm cheap.)

Of course, none of this would be necessary if content were reasonably priced, given the low and dropping costs of storage and distribution. $0.05 per song would be entirely reasonable. But perhaps its a little much to expect content industries to adapt to changing technology ... it's not like we live in a capitalist economy or anything.

As a concluding note, if any of this strikes you as it does me - namely, as wrong-headed foolishness or (less charitably) cynical opportunism, communicate your displeasure to the following individuals:

Industry Minister David Emerson: Emerson.D@parl.gc.ca
Heritage Minister Liza Frulla: Frulla.L@parl.gc.ca
Toronto MP Sarmite Bulte: sarmite.d.bulte@rogers.com

(I didn't bother gathering contact info for the Canadian recording industry association, because there's only one way to communicate your displeasure with a corporate entity: don't buy their shit.)

The Extinction Cycle

Two physicists at UC Berkeley claim to have uncovered a suspciously regular cycle of mass extinctions stretching back the Cambrian explosion. Apparently, an extinction event occurs every 62 million years or so (which, as Arthur Chrenkoff notes, makes us about 5 million years overdue.) The scientists involved make some guesses as to the possible cause of these periodic extinctions: comet showers brought on by the sun's orbit through the galaxy, or a cycle of mass volcanism. Apparently there's even some evidence for catastophic volcanism around the time the dinosaurs bit the dust.

My guess, though, is that neither of those explanations will turn out to be right. My geuss - based on nothing more than a hunch - is that the cycle is an epiphenomenon inherent to living systems, the same way market crashes are inherent to stock markets. Ecologies are massively complex, dynamically metastable systems: a small perturbation might do nothing, but it might also throw the entire system into a new metastable state. The transitional period is the mass extinction.

Now, the perturbation might well be an external factor - a comet impact, for instance - or it might be internal, like the evolution of a new species. What happened billions of years ago when the first bacteria learned how to turn sunlight into energy, and as a result started polluting the atmosphere with oxygen? Oxygen is highly reactive, and severely toxic to the anaerobic bacteria that - up to then - had dominated the planet. Similarly, what happened to other species when eyes were first developed? From our perspective, these developments were necessary and probably inevitable; at the time, they were catastrophic.

Note that the two broad classes of explanation - external versus internal factors - are not mutually exclusive. I have a feeling, however, that the internal factors will turn out to account for much of the observed periodicity, though, like I said, that's just a hunch.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Peak Oil, or 'Peak Oil'?

While doing the dishes today, I randomly asked myself, "Self, what's the evidence that oil is a fossil fuel?" I remember reading somewhere - I think in New Scientist - that there was a theory that oil was produced by populations of deep crust-dwelling bacteria, extremophiles that ate rock and excreted oil as a byproduct. But I couldn't find the article. Instead, after spending some quality time with google, I found this article attacking the whole concept of peak oil and selling the abiotic theory in its place. The money quote:

The Wall Street Journal article previously cited noted that it "would take a pretty big pile of dead dinosaurs to account for the estimated 660 billion barrels of oil in the [Middle East]." I don't know what the precise dinosaur-carcass-to-barrel-of-oil conversion rate is, but it does seem like it would take a hell of a lot of dead dinosaurs. Even if we generously allow that a single dinosaur could yield 5 barrels of oil (an absurd notion, but let's play along for now), more than 130 billion dinosaurs would have had to be simultaneously entombed in just one small region of the world. But were there really hundreds of billions of dinosaurs roaming the earth? If so, then one wonders why there is all this talk now of overpopulation and scarce resources, when all we are currently dealing with is a few billion humans populating the same earth.

Hmmm. Now how I come I never thought of that?

If the abiotic theory is right - and it does match the observed date set better, given that wells have been known to fill back up again - it throws a lot of things into a completely different light. Suddenly our evil western way of life doesn't look quite so unsustainable. Oil is still finite in the abiotic theory, but in the same way that sand is finite.

Oh, and regarding the actual evidence that oil is produced by fossils: couldn't seem to find that. Seems the theory was presented by some Russian 250 odd years ago, and hasn't actually been tested since. No one saw the point, I geuss. Appropriately enough, the abiotic theory originates with Soviet scientist Nikolai Kudryavtsev, who proposed it way back in 1951.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Superman is a Dick ... Maybe It's Because He Can't Get Laid

When I first found this page, I thought it had to be a parody. Before long I realized it wasn't ... no man alive could have the patience to make this many fake covers. The gentleman responsible seems to think Superman's awful behaviour is because he hates himself. My theory? I think Larry Niven's right. It's pent up sexual energy.

Friday, March 04, 2005

One thing I've often wondered about is why so many people on welfare are, to put it politely, overweight. Well, not so much how as that's pretty obvious (eat a lot and don't move), as how they can afford to be fat. Leftists often remark on how difficult it is to survive on the paltry sums we dole out to them, but if this were true then one might expect them to be, well, not fat. I have some experience with poverty myself, not too long ago. I lost about 10 pounds in a month (since regained: I make no claims to a healthy lifestyle), simply because I couldn't afford to eat properly, and had to walk everywhere I went.

Am I stereotyping? Perhaps. But then, I grew up in rural Ontario, where there's a lot of welfare, and a lot of fat women collecting it. Why do I say women, one might ask, and not men? Simple observation. Most of the welfare collecting men are, in my experience, positively scrawny. I make no claims to statistical evidence, hear - I don't even know if studies have been done - but rely only on my own experience, which I freely admit may be flawed.

Weight isn't the real issue I want to discuss, though. It's children. Specifically, the children of welfare recipients.

At the moment, the government's policy is to increase a mother's welfare benefits whenever she has a baby. The warm and fuzzy rational for this is that, as babies are expensive, the family will require more money in order to properly care for it. This is fairly intuitive, and I have to say that at least one mother of my experience put that money to good use, raising a brood of children (in excess of eight: I lost count, after a while) who were amongst the nicest, brightest, and all-around most well-rounded people I have ever met. But (and you just knew that but was coming), this is sadly atypical.

What tends to happen instead is that these women realize that the only way they can make more money is by having more kids. So they spread their legs for anyone who comes by, specifically in order to get pregnant and increase the size of their monthly pogie. Some start while still in high school, dropping out to become full-time government supported baby factories; this is, indeed, their stated life goal. I am not exagerating here: I have known people like this, who saw no moral problems at all with it.

This shouldn't surprise anyone with a basic understanding of economics and human nature (which really come down to the same thing, in the end.) Incentives matter, after all, and if you give people enough of an incentive to do nothing but breed - especially when they have no marketable skills - that's exactly what they'll do.

There main problem here is that the kids tend to get shafted. There's nothing stopping the mother from using the money for whatever she sees fit, so that what should go to diapers and baby powder goes to booze and smokes. Now, if the mother is really horrible, her kids get taken away (and hopefully they're not permanently handicapped by fetal alcohol syndrome and malnutrition.) At which point she gets pregnant again, just to keep the cheques rolling in, and the whole cycle continues....

Some of the kids at my high school had mothers like this. Not so bad that they were taken away from them, but they still showed up reeking of cat piss, and their behaviour often spoke of some serious brain damage somewhere along the line. Needless to say they were ostracized, not just by the 'popular' kids, but by everyone (except others like them.) Many went on to support themselves with welfare, seeing government handouts as a right. Others went on to jail. Very, very few went on to rise above their humble origins.

And I've found myself wondering: why does our society encourage this? Why do we have what is, in effect, a breeding program optimized to bring out the very worst of humanity? It was bad enough in the early twentieth, when states around the world used eugenics programs to try and breed a master race. Is it really necessary to try and do the exact opposite? I mean, here we have a situation where one woman on welfare will single-handedly pop out ten kids - none of whom are likely to be particularly well-adjusted to society - while it will take, what, five middle-class families to produce the same number of kids with a better chance of maturing into productive citizens. Citizens who, it might be added, are going to be either supporting that first group through taxes (whether its welfare or the prison system.)

Now, I'm not about to suggest ending welfare completely. Clearly, their are cases where a little bit of tax-supported charity can make a lot of difference for the better. Let's face it: shit happens. Kids are young and stupid and careless, and sometimes that combination results in a pregnant 16 year old. A situation like that calls for a little bit of compassion. At the same time, it hardly makes sense to encourage people to have kids when, by definition, they are financially incapable of supporting them.

So here's my proposal: loans. Why not say, "Look, if you don't want to abort the kid, and you can't bare to put it up for adoption, we'll help you raise it. $1000/month for five years, interest free until the kid's in high school."If she gets a job at some point, once the kid's old enough that she doesn't have to watch it anymore, she still gets the loan. The catch, though, is that this is a one-time thing. If she's silly enough to get pregnant again society will not pay for her little darling, on the theory that once is a mistake, but twice is intentional.

I can see a lot of upsides to this (obviously, or I wouldn't have gone on at such length. Kudos if you got this far.) Most obviously, it removes the economic incentive to breed at society's expense. Logically, less welfare-children would result. At the same time, it removes the disincentive to work: conventional welfare cuts back benefits if the recipient gets a job, and given that most jobs that your typical welfare recipient can qualify for don't pay much better than welfare does, and are rather less pleasant than sitting on your ass watching Survivor reruns, there isn't much reason for them to work. With a loan, the mother has that money plus (if she's smart) whatever she earns from a job, and is able to provide her child with a much better economic start in life. Since society gets the money back much of the hostility towards welfare queens - a lot of which rubs off on their kids - is bound to be neutralized.

There's really no difference between this and a student loan. Both are investments by society in human capital. If a graduate has to spend six years after graduation paying for their education, then why shouldn't young mothers spend an equivalent amount of time paying society back for its investment in their kids?

Speaking of the Decadence of the West....

What about this little number from France? 66 defendants - 27 of them women - stand accused of a child sex ring of epic proportions. Some of them were allegedly whoring out their own children for a pack of smokes.

People like this are why God invented ebola.

The Curse on the Stone

What do floods, foot-and-mouth disease, and football have in common? A 1069 word curse from the 16th century, engraved on a 14-tonne granite boulder by Carlisle artist Gordon Young. The string of misfortunes have befallen the town since the Cursing Stone was installed at the centre of the city, and the city council is considering having it destroyed. Yet more proof that one does not lightly fuck with Old Gods.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

2005 Wish List, Item 1

A Transmetropolitan movie. With Patrick Stewart as Spider Jerusalem. Now how cool would that be? He even likes the idea. Not only would I watch this movie, I'd even pay to see it. And I don't say that about a lot of movies.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

An Arizona School Board's Call to Prayer

I couldn't resist blogging this. Seems that a parent in Arizona has noticed that his kid's curriculum is, shall we say, somewhat biased in favor of Islam. The faculty probably see it as an opportunity to be politically correct. The Muslims no doubt see it as an opportunity to proselytize. Same thing as with environmentalism and science curriculums, really. As usual, the kids get caught in the middle, and many won't realize whether they're being fed bullshit (or sanitized pap that dwells on nice poetry while conveniently omitting the slave status of women) until they're older; others won't realize it's bullshit at all.

Hopefully this stays in Arizona. Something tells me it won't get much further; if parents start complaining that their schools' religion classes are being used as Islamic recruiting centers, there's gonna be a lot of board members not getting re-elected the next term. Still, I think this does show the dangers inherent in letting teachers teach whatever they damn well please, regardless of parents' wishes. Great when you're trying to keep creationism out of the science curriculum, not so hot when the teachers decide to help people who want your daughter to willingly wrap a hijab around her head.