Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Poison Poisson

The other day I was eating a sword fish steak and about a third of the way into it I took a bite that tasted like petroleum. I was so shocked that after spitting it out I took another bite as I was in disbelief of what I had just experienced. Unfortunately, it was just as noxious. I spit that bite out too, and after inspecting the rest of it and finding it smelled somewhat like gasoline or tar, I threw it out. My first though was of the 2011 gulf oil spill. Had this fish swam through the slick or possibly eaten other fish that had? I then began to wonder if the part I had already consumed was also tainted, just less so. That got me thinking about all the toxins in our food that we don't even notice.

Better Living Through Chemistry
Yes indeed, nothing says quality of life like Sword Fish a la Kerosene. Poisoned food has got to be one of the most galling of technology's ill effects. Yes I appreciate having affordable gasoline to drive instead of walk when I need to. I also appreciate the many inexpensive products made possible by fossil fuels, but is it really worth the cost? The Ingalls had to work hard and they didn't have an Escalade to drive to the mall in, but they never had to worry about toxic vegetables or mercury tainted tuna either.

You know something is seriously wrong with the system when food that is supposed to be good for you is killing you all in the name of expedience or profit. You might think its all the corporations' fault. That people like BP's CEO and Monsanto's share holders are the ones to blame. But the problem is much bigger and way more complex than that. The entire system and way of life it supports is built on hydrocarbons and the energy and chemical compounds derived from them. If you just stopped pumping oil and mining coal the whole global system would grind to a halt and millions, possibly billions would starve.

The Hydrocarbon Age
Without the energy in hydrocarbons the modern world with its prosperity and plethora of stuff just isn't possible. Before the industrial revolution, if you wanted to do work you had to use human or animal power. This meant there was a limit to how much you could accomplish. Even the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who were able to mobilize large amounts of human and animal power took decades to build the pyramids. Today with the power of hydrocarbons 100 story skyscrapers can be built in a just few years. Factories filled with machines that run on power produced through hydrocarbons make mass production possible. Additionally, goods can be shipped around the world cheaply allowing us to eat fruit out of season and increasing price competition.

But hydrocarbons bring us more than just the energy released by burning them. Far from being just a source of gasoline or electricity generation, hydrocarbons are the source of most of our synthetic compounds. They are used to create everything from plastics to fabric, pesticides to fertilizer. For a more extensive, but by no means exhaustive list click here.

Farming With Hydrocarbons
Global food production is more than its ever been before and each year it increases. This is due in large part to mechanized factory farms growing one crop over huge swaths of land using pertol-powered equipment and very few workers. Natural gas is used to produce anhydrous-ammonia for fertilizer. Most of the herbicides, pesticides and fungicides used to protect the crops from damage are also created from fossil fuels. Without these products and systems there's no way to sustain the current level of food production. In other words ending or even significantly reducing our use of fossil fuels would mean mass starvation.

The use of these systems, particularly the toxins used, is destroying the environment and diminishing its future ability to produce quality food. One way this is happening is by decimating the natural bacteria, earthworms etc. that create fertile soil. By adding only synthetic fertilizers instead of rich organic mater like manure and compost, trace minerals and other vital compounds are not replaced and our food becomes less nutritious. This problem is compounded by monoculture.

The situation fits the definition of a dilemma as there are no good solutions. The system will collapse if these poisonous practices are halted and will continue to kill us and our quality of life if continued. Humans created this mess but they can not fix it anymore than the dog that tracked in mud and chewed up your shoes can mop the floor and by you a new pair of loafers. Humans and their technology are incapable of dealing effectively with these problems. Fortunately there is someone who can - Rev 11:18.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Technology's Broken Promises

Modern living in the electric age.

"Total Electric Living... where electricity does absolutely everything: heats, air conditions, cooks, preserves food, lights, entertains, encourages hobbies, makes it the easiest way ever for you and your family to be happier, healthier, to live fuller lives."
This quote from a Westinghouse brochure gets it half right. Yes electricity can heat, cool, cook, preserve food, light and entertain. However the last part about making it easier to be happier, healthier and lead fuller lives, I don't think so. Polls indicate that today people are less happy than they ever have been. We are not even healthier either. Though the average life expectancy has increased due in large part to technology, diseases like obesity as well as mental illness and anxiety disorders are increasing even more rapidly. If fuller lives means more filled with anxiety, stress and unhealthy eating habits then yes we do lead fuller lives.

Its often comical to look back at how people viewed the promise of technology in the early days of the technological boom. Its understandable that they thought that electrical appliances were going to make life so much better. After all many of these devices were going to free up our time from manual labor, giving us more leisure time to enjoy doing what we truly want with out lives. Now that would have made life better. Unfortunately the extra time freed from doing manual labor was spent doing other types of work.

The washing machine is a good example of a nice piece of technology that freed us from work that was time consuming and could be classified as drudgery. It along with the vacuum cleaner and dishwasher certainly gave house wives more time, but how was that times used? In general standards of cleanliness went up requiring just as much time to be spent on cleaning. No increase in leisure time there. In fact despite all the extra time freed up by technology making tasks easier throughout the home and economy, work weeks are longer, vacations shorter and in most households both husband and wife work outside the home. Today we actually have less leisure time than when the Westinghouse brochure was published. On the other hand we do have more material prosperity. Its as though as a society we have opted for more stuff rather than more time, or put another way we have become more materialistic, seeking to find fulfillment in the acquisition of stuff.

The poor choice of how to use this extra capacity created by the electronic world pictured in the brochure has lead to the time crunched, anxious, unhealthy lifestyle most people lead today. Really which is better: laborious household chores performed with family and home cooked meals or sitting hunched over a computer for 40+ hours per week, eating fast food and leaving our children to be raised by strangers. Is destroying our bodies with stress, bad food and bad posture really worth the McMansion and large screen TV? Are children really happier with all the toys and video games they could want, but little or no time to spend talking, bonding and being taught by their parents? The hard work we used to do as a part of daily life kept us fit and trim. Now we have to pay a gym to run in place and move metal plates up and down to keep healthy. As I have indicated before technology is a wondrous thing, but in the aggregate we are no better off, may be even worse off.

These facts leads me to the conclusion that technology per se is not the problem, but rather its how we choose to use it. After all technology at its core is just an enabler. It can enable us to do good things or it can enable us to do stupid or even evil things. It seems to me that the modern world we live in was created in large part by the unwise use of technology guided by a materialistic philosophy where we value things over people and progress over happiness. That's why I'd trade it all for a little house on the prairie where hard work, good food and a slower pace of life would be paradise by comparison.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Fragile World

Tower of Cards
Complexity Creates Fragility
As technology increases our capability it also increases our vulnerability. This has become painfully obvious in the financial sector. Technology used in the financial system from computer automated trading, blamed for the Flash Crash, to complex investment instruments developed by Quants have created a very fragile financial environment. This highlights the danger of increased complexity as much as it does greed. The greater the complexity the easier it is to make a mistake. Now add greed to the mix and it becomes likely that mistakes will be deliberately ignored or worse the complexity will be used to cover them up.

The a fore mentioned financial innovations aside even money itself is technology. I don't even necessarily mean the digital money we carry in our wallets or the bits and bytes exchanged over the net, but rather even the concept of currency is technology. Money is an abstraction we place on top of things of real value. So instead of trading pigs for plumbing the hog farmer can sell his pork on the open market in exchange for money, then pay some of it to the plumber for his labor. This works great when the money supply is stable, but what happens when the supply of money suddenly shrinks. Now the hog farmer can't sell his pork which then means he can't pay the plumber who obviously won't be able to by any pork and you end up in a depression. The plumber wants to work and the hog farmer has pork to sell, but there's not enough money to facilitate the exchange. This is an over simplified example but you get the idea. The complexity of money creates dependence and dependence creates vulnerability.

Dependence Makes Us Vulnerable
Consider a more accessible example, the electric elevator. How many buildings over five stories do you think there would be without elevators? Not many. Being able to be whisked up 100 floors in a few seconds makes it possible to go vertical thus saving real estate space in congested cities. That's great, but what happens if there's a black out and you're on the 100th floor? Now imagine the countless other pieces of technology that we count on every day. Your car, ATMs, communication devices, just-in-time inventory at the grocery store. We just expect these things to work, and when they don't we often find ourselves with no backup plan. 

Sometimes when these things stop working its short lived and the damage is minimal. If your car breaks you can borrow a friend's. If the ATM is down you just use another one or wait till its fixed. If your cell phone dies you can recharge it. But what if the outage is larger and lasts longer. What if its not just one of these things that goes down, but instead the whole system goes down. What then?

System Collapse
You might think an event that could bring down the entire system is very unlikely. And you'd be right, sort of. At any given moment it is extremely unlikely, however eventually it is almost inevitable. There have even been events that have occurred in the not so distant past that could cause such a widespread outage. One such event was the solar storm of 1859. Back then the only technology that was damaged was telegraph wires. Read some of these reports from telegraph operators and imagine the damage that would take place today if such a storm were to occur.

    "During the aurora of August 28th, the intensity of the current evolved from it varied very much, being at times no stronger than an ordinary battery, and then, suddenly changing the poles of the magnets, it would sweep through them, charging them to their utmost capacity, and compelling a cessation of work while it continued.     On the morning of September 2d, at my request, the Philadelphia operator detached his battery, mine being already off. We then worked with each other at intervals as long as the auroral current continued, which varied from thirty to ninety seconds. During these working intervals we exchanged messages with much satisfaction, and we worked more steadily when the batteries were off than when they were attached.     On the night of August 28th the batteries were attached, and on breaking the circuit there were seen not only sparks (that do not appear in the normal condition of a working line), but at intervals regular streams of fire,which, had they been permitted to last more than an instant, would certainly have fused the platinum points of the key, and the helices became so hot that the hand could not be kept on them. These effects could not have been produced by the batteries." 
E. W. CULGAN, Telegraph Manager at Pittsburg, Pa.
    "On the evening of August 28th I had great difficulty in working the line to Richmond, Va. It seemed as if there was a storm at Richmond. I therefore abandoned that wire, and tried to work the northern wire, but met with the same difficulty. For five or ten minutes I would have no trouble; then the current would change, and become so weak that it could hardly be felt. It would then gradually change to a "ground" so strong that I could not lift the magnet. The aurora disappeared at a little after ten o'clock, after which we had no difficulty. During the auroral display, I was calling Richmond, and had one hand on the iron plate. Happening to lean towards the sounder, which is against the wall, my forehead grazed a ground wire. Immediately I received a very severe electric shock, which stunned me for an instant. An old man who was sitting facing me, and but a few feet distant, said that he saw a spark of fire jump from my forehead to the sounder." 
FREDERICK W. ROYCETelegraph Operator at Washington, D. C.
A storm like this today would fry satellites and electric grids over entire continents. One report estimates the damage would be around $1 trillion dollars. According to NASA 2012-2013 could see a solar storm of similar size. Are you prepared to be without power for days or weeks? You won't just be missing TV or your hair dryer. Water gets pumped from your well or the city with electric pumps. Fuel in underground tanks likewise requires electric pumps. Imagine traffic with no operating street lights. When ATMs and card readers shut down where will you get the money you need to exchange for life's necessities. If gas can't be pumped to run the trucks, how long will it be before those just-in-time inventory store shelves go bare, and how long before the frozen food in the refrigerators begins to thaw. Within hours people could  begin to panic as survival becomes a mounting concern. What in 1859 had been just a dazzling light show and curiosity, causing at worst a few burned telegraph lines and shocked operators would be a global cataclysm today.

This is just one possible scenario among many. There are also vulnerabilities to more earthbound natural disasters and even man made disasters. As technology continues to advance increasing our capability we become more dependent and the risks increase. In so many ways we are dependent not just on technological hardware but the processes and ways of life that have grown up around them.

Division of Labor
By division of labor, I don't mean the government department. No, I mean the way we all specialize in one trade or another with no one doing everything for themselves. There has been such a division for thousands of years, but it keeps increasing and exponentially so. This is beneficial because it makes it possible for someone to really progress in their field of study or craft. For example my being a computer programmer is only possible because I don't have to worry about growing my own food, sewing my own clothes, or building my own house. Its really this division of labor that is largely responsible for our current level of technology and prosperity as it frees up many people to do things beyond providing food and shelter.

Yet this also make us vulnerable. If I never acquire experience growing my own food I am now dependent on those that do. That's fine as long as they are willing and able to provide, but what happens if the system fails. Will I be able to just walk out in my suburban 1/10th acre and plant enough vegetables to live on? Not likely. Even if you had sufficient land, some suggest an acre for a family of four, you wouldn't have the experience to be successful. Likely it would take you 8-10 years to acquire the knowledge and skill necessary just to scrape by.

Plan B
It seems to me technology is a blessing and a curse. It obviously has many benefits, but there is a danger that often goes unnoticed. I like to keep aware of these dangers and look for ways to be prepared in case those things that always just work, someday just don't. Do you have a plan B to fall back on if the system goes down? Do you even have the knowledge and ability to implement a plan B? The best time to think about it is before disaster strikes - Prov 22:3.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Best Things in Life Are Free


Rural setting, country, simple living, farm

"The best things in life are nearest:  Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you.  Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life."  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

As the quote above eloquently states, the things that make us truly happy are very simple. For me being close to nature and my loved ones without the anxiety and constant distractions of technology is when I am most content. So why then is the majority of mankind pursuing material wealth and the stuff that it buys. The endless process of buying, using, storing and paying for stuff can give people the illusion of purpose or success, but it will never bring true joy and contentment. 

Some of the most unhappy people in the world are those that have achieved this materialistic definition of success (1 Tim 6:9,10). I believe this is because having achieved their goals they can no longer hope that if they just get [X] they will finally be happy. Those that have not yet grabbed a hold of the brass ring don't realize its just a round piece of metal and at the same time they can still find purpose in working to attain it.