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.
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.
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.
I’m a chemist, and I love the idea of biofuels. America could do better on the energy production side of things, and biofuels seem like an opportunity. What we need is a replacement for petroleum, but what we have is an agricultural production capacity. Biofuels are also an opportunity for readjustment of markets. Right now, big farm production has pushed the third world out of the agricultural game – they don’t have the technology to produce cheap food. It’s cheaper to ship food from the US than it is to grow it almost anywhere else. Ironically, raising food prices and cutting US subsidies could end up really helping the poor, since they could then make a profit selling the food that they grow for themselves.
Think of it this way: cheap US food means that farming is financially useless in places without massive agribusiness infrastructure. Yet, growing food has been the way people have built their own economies since the advent of agriculture. It’s only recently with industrial farming that it has become necessary to trade factory labor for food.
Now, I hope that it is obvious that this is an oversimplification. The above implies that it’s more complicated than simply making the choice to burn our corn instead or feed the poor. But there is some truth to that, too. The economic reality is that a price increase on food could end up being the best thing ever for poor communities. They can begin to farm their own food and supply their own needs. But if the price goes up faster than the demand can be met by local sources, then people will starve.
When people are going hungry, it is unacceptable to turn corn into fuel. It is unacceptable to be wasteful consumers of corn while our fellow humans contend with food riots. There are new projects on the books. Turning inedible plants and plant waste into liquid transportation fuels feels a lot more reasonable. Congress is investing in these options which I think is a wise move on the part of our legislators.