Monthly Archives: September 2008

Extremely cynical: the Politics of Fear

I have tried to avoid making the topic of the Big Upshot political. I’ve skirted the line with that recent post about Ukraine and Russia. I admit that. For the most part, I just don’t think that I can do a lot of good in the political sphere. I could write inflammatory, poorly-researched posts about surface issues, but there are lots of those already. I could write well-researched, well thought-out, powerful analyses, but I suspect nobody would read them. So, instead, I try to focus on the humor of science and the humor of living around science.


But this was just too much. ScienceNow at Science Magzine (Arguably the most prestigious publication on the map) posted a piece called “The Politics of Fear.” Not too long ago, The Jester talked about our culture of Fear and Consumption.His opinion is that the fear-memes of that kind prey on our natural responses to scary, threatening things. Evidently, it is more than just speculation. The article over at ScienceNow sums up an article by Okley et. al. called “Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits.” The article correlates genetics, fear responses and political decisions.

The implication is that some people have a more pronounced fear response – they are easier to scare and upset. And this correlates with the person for whom they vote. People who are threatened easily (“Are you threatening me?!”) probably are easier to influence with lies and scary pronouncements in paid TV commercials. Evidently, this is so much the case that they will vote against their own selfish interest.

I’m afraid that I have a hard time not reading this with a very cynical eye. The implication is that it is hopeless to try to have a good political debate (in my naivete, I thought I would see one this election). This scientific result implies that inflammatory, poorly-researched diatribes will win consistently over well-researched, well thought-out, powerful analyses. They will excite different kinds of brains, and I’ll let you guess which are more strongly represented in the general population.

Sorry for the cynicism today. I miss my girl.


New documentary, F.L.O.W, and why bottled water is absurd

F.L.O.W. is a new documentary on water. On Democracy Now Sept. 12 2008, they discussed it and, in particular, the topic of bottled water. When I was in Ukraine, I was told both by locals and by the tour guide that it was not smart to drink the local tap water (unless it was boiled). Ukraine is a whole different situation than in the U.S. We have clean tap water here. The water out of your tap is more tightly regulated and is almost certainly more safe than bottled water. And it is orders of magnitude cheaper.


The oft-quited statistic is that the U.S. alone spent $15 billion on bottled water in 2007. Well, check this out:

“The United Nations Millennium Development Goal for environmental sustainability calls for halving the proportion of people lacking sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. Meeting this goal would require doubling the $15 billion a year that the world currently spends on water supply and sanitation”

With what the U.S. alone spends on bottled water that we don’t need we could alleviate the very real need for half of the world’s population. That, ladies and gentlemen, is shameful.


Ukraine and more biofuels – politics and energy research and development

My mind is on the Ukraine a lot these days. My dear betrothed lives there. For those of you living in a cave, Russia and NATO were having a little tiff over Georgia. Last month, a US official, Richard Holbrooke, predicted that Ukraine would be next. I think the situations are pretty different, and the Guardian agrees. From some reports I heard through the underground grapevine (who can you trust these days?) Georgia tried to expel some ethnic Russians. That’s why Russia stepped in. Or Russia cooked up the story as an excuse after they moved in. Who knows? But Georgia has allies and European ambitions… so we got escalations.

Will Ukraine try to expel its ethnic Russians? Doubtful. It’s a much bigger country with a lot more Russians. Could Russia claim this was happening as an excuse to annex Crimea (where they have navy bases)? Maybe. If Russia tries to annex Crimea for whatever reason, I don’t know what I’ll do.

I’m a scientist, not a soldier. And what side do you fight for? Besides, I don’t speak Russian well at all.


I had a faint notion in the back of my mind of going to Ukraine some day to see if I could start a biofuels R&D business. It’s a fertile country with a huge energy deficit and an underused intelligentsia. It seems like a prime location. But the political situation, clearly, leaves much to be desired.

A company spin out just started up here at the U. of Washington with what seems to be the basic business model that I think could succeed in that kind of environment. Rapid development of new algae strains for fuel production on land or sea. It sounds perfect. The don’t do recombinant genetics, it looks like just forward screening, but I think I would add some splicing if budgets allowed. But I would definitely consider rapid screening using micro-scale systems. How fast can a new algae strain go into production?

I would bet that the main practical problems will be political. A dollar can go a lot farther in Ukraine, but not if it gets taxed at the 40% tariff rate. And if government dissolves, then where is a company that depends on a laissez-faire tax system and a free energy market? Because those would be pretty important to this company.

You know… that could be an issue here.


The End of Hob: Dresden Codak, IEEE and the Singularity

The Hob Series at Dresden Codak seems to have resolved. I can tell you that it is a good story because I am still thinking about it. It’s funny that it would resolve today. Coincidentally, I was thinking about the Simpsons quote which I remember imperfectly:

Flanders‘ son: “What do taxes pay for, Daddy?”

Ned Flanders: “Why, taxes pay for all kinds of things! Roads, sunshine, the air we breathe, and all those people who just don’t feel like workin’, lord love em’.”

So, here’s the question (mostly hypothetical): If we could make a largely automated system that could provide basic needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, basic medical needs) to everyone with only 1% of the worlds population working (a volunteer force, effectively) would that be a good thing? There would still be lots of places for people to have gainful employment – entertainment, service, luxury goods, etc. But nobody would have to work at all if they didn’t feel like it. Would it be a better world, or a worse one?

When I was younger, I thought that would be a better world. I am not so sure any more. Utopia seems a lot more oppressive than it used to.


Dresden Codak’s Hob is a 24 page graphic novella. The author, Aaron Diaz, explores themes of futurism and psychology. The way he weaves his characters’ subtle family drama and childhood baggage into the story is quite remarkable. Of the whole story, this quote struck me as most poetic “[the thinking machines] can give you anything you want, save relevance.”

The futurist vision is the new synthesis of occult dreams and new science. The promise is whole new worlds and the time to explore them. Infinite wealth and immortality.

It is as abhorrent to some as it is seductive to others. IEEE spectrum wrote up a while issue on it; it’s not as fringe as you might think. They call it the Singularity. Will we ‘evolve’ to become one with machines? Will organic humans still be relevant? Relevance is the question on my mind when I read this. What makes people relevant?

I think it’s different from the things that make people “good” or “worthy” or “interesting.” Those don’t have the same grim connotation. People can lack any of those qualities and still we would keep them around. But what about irrelevance?

They say the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. That’s why I don’t trust Utopia anymore. I’m not sure that many of us could survive not being needed.


More biofuels musings

I wrote up a little piece a bit ago on the complexities of the food-or-fuelchoice implied in the manufacture of biofuels.


Richard Jones at wrote about biofuels a while back (Driving on sunshine). He has returned to the matter more recently. “It seems that some of the drawbacks were more easy to anticipate than others. What’s sobering about the whole episode, though, is that it does show how complicated things can get when science, politics and economics get closely coupled in situations needing urgent action in the face of major uncertainties.”

I love biofuels in principle. The idea that we could use the agricultural technology of the whole of human history to power the most modern inventions seems appropriate. But the economics are complicated. There is always switchgrass which promises to make use of otherwise useless land. And there’s algae on which I did my high school science project. There you can use huge regions of the ocean to produce energy. That won’t have unintended consequences.

In any case, I think there could be a future in biofuels. If it raises the value of agriculture, then we can see more agriculture. I think that could be a good thing for people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Traditionally, agriculture was how cultures developed themselves. That seems like a worthy subject for development. I’m not sure right now, though. Corn ethanol, for instance, barely breaks even on the energy balance.

What that means (in simplified terms) is that you burn a gallon of gasoline to grow, process, and transport a gallon of corn ethanol. Ethanol is “green” except if you burned a gallon of petrol to get it. In that case it is utterly useless in energy terms. It makes a job or two, but you might as well pay people to not grow corn. Some of you might remember the discussion of the lucrative possibilities in getting paid to not grow corn in Catch 22. More recently: “Acreage Reduction Programs (ARP) paid farmers to set aside an amount of land on which they would not grow corn.”

Anyhoo, I have a dissertation to write and a second job to pay the bills. I wish I could believe that greenwashed fuels were the solution to the energy crisis.