Friday, February 12, 2010

Extrapolation without Bounds

If this goes on….

“The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” - Kenneth Watt, Ecologist -1970

This is not a post about the global warming controversy. This is about what happens when data is analyzed and a line is drawn erroneously into the future. Just for size if we look at the statistics for average height in industrial countries over the last 100 years and draw a line through the data we will find that the average person will be 6’-4” at the end of the century. This is big news. Mattress manufacturers and car designers will need to prepare now for larger humans. You don’t want to be left behind when a trend takes off.

I’m being facetious (I can’t help it, facetious is my middle name). This type of scenario really happens. In the 80s and 90s natural gas production looked like it was going through the roof. This was a byproduct of the trend that said we would run out oil. (We will never actually run out of oil. Oil will just become the new gold or diamond market. I’m thinking about stockpiling some 10W40 now for my future anniversary gifts.) The industry said, “Look, with all that natural gas we are going to need a shed load of tankers.” Tanker production went into high gear to try to match that future extrapolated natural gas data point. Well, natural gas didn’t follow the projected trajectory and the tanker industry was caught napping. They over produced. Let’s just say that you could probably get your hands on an LNG tanker fairly cheap if you were in the market.

All trends are unsustainable. I’ll reference my last post – the trend that job creation causes more job creation. Higher demand for limited resources causes inflation and that will kill the trend. We exist in a finite system and resources will be the governor. What about population growth? Population cannot continue at previous rates, we will either run out of room or food first. (It may be time to try to reverse the average height trend – if everyone were smaller we could fit more people and eat less food, hmmm…) With many trends all that needs to be done is announce that there is a trend. The last thirty years have produced a variety of ominous population reports. To some degree that is all it took. The population of most industrialized nations have leveled off and Japan has been going negative for a few years. Current estimates has the world population reaching a plateau of about 9 billion. (Still way too many, but nothing a nice plague won’t fix. Fortunately or unfortunately the planet has self-healing capabilities. Go Gaia!)

Look at the Internet stock surge of the late 90s. All that was needed was for one federal reserve chairman (I won’t name names) to announce that the trend was all just an illusion. He might as well have said ‘the emperor has no clothes’.

Beware of the trend. Nothing is certain but death and taxes (and I have my doubts about taxes).

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Which came first the Chicken or the Causality Dilemma?

The chicken or the egg reference is a metaphor about a subject that has a circular cause and effect. More jobs cause more consumption, which requires more production, which creates more jobs. This is not to be confused with a ‘Catch-22’, which is if you really need something you will only get it if you don’t need it.

Philosophers throughout the ages have been perplexed by this kind of circular reasoning. (I think they enjoy being perplexed, it keeps them in business.) Just as most men should stop and ask for directions, these philosophers should have stopped and asked a scientist for direction. A scientist will show you that there are natural starts to these loops and that there are feedbacks from these loops that will cause them to stop.

Let’s take the jobs example. More jobs don’t come out of thin air. If you are a Democrat, you raise taxes and use the taxes to jumpstart new jobs. If you are a Republican, you start a war. (Yes, I’m generalizing, but Generals just ain’t happy unless they’ve got a war.) Both scenarios create new jobs that in turn increase consumption, which will force an increase in production, creating the need for even more jobs. This cannot go on forever. One natural feedback from the loop is with more consumption come higher demand. Higher demand for limited resources causes inflation. Then the ‘guvmint’ steps in again and raises interest rates, which stops consumption. Done right, things plateau into a steady state. Done wrong and you are back where you started or worse.

You are probably saying, ‘what about the chicken?’ I’m sure Hawking could explain this better, but here goes. The chicken that we all know and love (mmm chicken) hasn’t always been that chicken. From a breeding point of view that chicken used to be living wild in the jungle. From an evolutionary point of view that chicken was a proto-chicken. That chicken before breeding was not Colonel Sanders chicken and the Perdue family wouldn’t give it the time of day. That chicken did lay an egg, out of which hatched a bred chicken one-step closer to what we know. Therefore, here is the order of events; wild chicken, well-bred egg, well-bred chicken. Somebody is going to ask, ‘where did the wild chicken come from?’ Hint: proto-chicken. Now the proto-chicken (imagine heavy eyebrows and an ability to swing through the trees) was distinctly different. Let’s all put on our ‘Mutations Happen’ tee-shirt. Mutations are a regular occurrence; the really nasty mutations don’t survive. The minor mutations, the ones that actually give an organism a leg up in the evolutionary arms race (wings race?) do survive and get passed on to new generations. To recap: proto-chicken, mutant egg, wild chicken, well-bred egg, well-bred chicken. (It doesn’t even begin to start or end there – where do you think chicken fingers come from? {shudder})

The next time you are in a conversation with someone and they pose the rhetorical aforementioned question just cut them off mid sentence and say ‘egg!’ They will be puzzled long enough for you to escape.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Moral obligation to seed the universe?

In a PhysOrg.org article posted on Feb 9th 2010 (http://www.physorg.com/news184915200.html), Professor Michael Mautner suggests that "seeding the universe with life is not just an option, it’s our moral obligation". Let's just start by saying that this is a wee bit anthropocentric.

I'm not sure where to go with this, the concept provides more fodder for discussion than I can do justice.

What flavor of morality are we talking about? It doesn't sound very neighborly. In a nutshell, Mautner says that seeding the universe can be accomplished through a process of "directed panspermia". (Panspermia, what a great word, I should change my blog name) Specialized spacecraft containing bacteria and simple multicellular organisms would be sent to specific potentially fertile planets. In the words of Bill Cosby's Noah - "RIGHT!"

It's not that I don't believe that it could be accomplished. I'm sure it could, but should it be? This smacks of cultural superiority. My tribe-culture-nation is the most spectacular gift to humankind, therefore we will spread to every corner, at whatever the cost. I hope you can see where this is going. 100 people were asked, "Name a culture that was destroyed due to another culture's 'Manifest Destiny'?" The top ten answers are on the board. Survey says!

Actually why don't we send our bacteria out into the universe, maybe even some freeze dried embryos. I'm sure that the life forms on the destination planets would appreciate some snacks from space.