Friday, May 04, 2007

Five More Thoughts (Contrarian Bullshit Ed.)

Some time ago, Demosthenes2 wrote a Fray post on three levels of thinking.* It was one of those that stuck with me, and I sure wish I could find a cite for it. As I recall it anyway, level one thinking involved sucking down wholly packaged ideas--usually without chewing--and regurgitating them loudly--often without provocation, at the dinner table. Having moved past dogmatism, the sophomore(ic) level two thinker lives to poke holes in every established manner of thought. Level three had something to do with mature independent blah blah something. That guy does like to go on.

1. Contrarian Bullshit and Statistics
The engineer in me loves to conflate mature analysis to number-crunching--not that you can't lie with statistics or dazzle with pie charts or anything--but low-level thinkers have a tendency to not really weight anything properly, to follow one possible chain of cause and effect and proclaim away as though it were the only important one. And some of the lying trends are sometimes falsifiable, which is a good reason to poke at them. If you don't have the time, and need a rule of thumb, however, the number of links in the causal chain is usually a pretty good depth gauge for the bullshit.

Playing in the real world--or at least the sometimes verisimilitudinous worlds of policy and economics--means that all such chains are hard to follow because you can't control the inputs very well, and you don't understand the initial conditions (damn butterflies with their incessant wing-flapping). More, there are human casualties to the approximations. The fact that lives are quantized does matter, and while you can't account for all the anomalies in any analysis, minimizing the bad consequences of policy is as important as maximizing the good, as Claude Scales has suggested here. (Hippocratic policy beats hypocritical policy.) Acting on models of spherical, frictionless, er, humans with no external forces can have deadly consequences, and simplifying assumptions should be thrown around with great care of the context.

But that doesn't mean that speculation and conjecture can't be interesting and fun. (Especially considering that otherwise it's "work".) Context, as always, is everything.

2. Solar Desalinization
Considering ensemble effects, the whole round earth is a fine place to draw a control volume. If you do a heat balance on the earth, you're really down to four effects: solar radiation absorbed, solar radiation reflected, heat radiated out to space, and heat energy generated at the surface. Your initial condition is the surface temperature at whatever time you call zero. (Since the temperature distribution across the ball of the earth is impressively not flat, it's probably better to draw your control volume as a shell, which means you'll have some boundary conditions too, at the bottom of the crust say: constant temperature or close enough.)

Most people are aware that this is a good-enough way of looking at global temperature balance (some argument about all the factors that change the globe's reflectivity and absorptivity remains), but it's also a limit on how much energy is available to do stuff. There are really only two sources that are not finite: there's mining heat from the earth's mantle (that should last a while), and, whether it's biomass or silicon, there's solar. The cool thing (so to speak) about solar, is that it doesn't really affect the heat balance (unless there's enough spread out to really affect the absorption coefficient). It just gives that energy something to do on the way down its natural path. And what's life anyway, if not a pointless little whirligig kicked up in the dust of the universe's insensate march toward heat death?

I was thinking about fresh water yesterday. Maybe that will cause more wars eventually than the oil will. Wouldn't it be great if we could efficiently desalinize seawater? Wouldn't it be great if that energy was completely renewable? Duh, Keifus: this one is already working, and adding technological steps may make it more controllable, but it sure ain't going to make it more efficient. If we wanted to increase the generation of fresh water, we'd have to lower the reflectivity of the oceans or something, warm up the...

And you thought the butterflies caused trouble!

3. Research and Development
Solar sounds like a good place to sink our research dollars, eh? But who would fund that sort of thing? Having dabbled in the area (I'm supposed to be a professional researcher, my bosses would prefer me to be a professional negotiator, but dabbling in half-ideas is basically what I do), it's my understanding that there was a lot of venture capital sunk into solar power in the seventies, and the technology grew a lot of stigma because it didn't achieve much return very quickly. Plus, oil got cheap again.

By common agreement, solar power needs to drop to about $1 per Watt to become competitive with fossil fuels, and for the time being, you're stuck with either low efficiency or expensive materials. (Ignore, for now, the matter of all that open space you need to gather it.) Cheap, efficient solar? Maybe possible, but at least a decade off, depending on the oil. You can still get funding for solar R&D: aerospace is a driver (you can't carry a jerry can on the back of the shuttle), and the commercial market's slowly getting grown. Looking twenty years out, you'd think that it would be a huge opportunity, given climate change and oil scarcity. Can we count on investors to think in quarter-century time scales? What do you think.

What caused the decline of corporate R&D? Was it economic or was it cultural? Could Bell Labs have existed without a telephone monopoly? Possibly not, but I fear that the investment culture has become short-term (and the intellectual culture has devolved). It's as though that great post-war manufacturing and innovation surplus (that my parents' generation mistook for their deserved way of life) has been slowly cannibalized. Maybe it was inevitable, but it's an article of faith with me that we could have sustained the boom longer if we kept priming the front end, with a better eye on the horizon. Right now, basic R&D gets mostly funded by (1) the military (which doesn't do real basic at all) and (2) by universities, mostly on the government buck. Even though I'm turning anecdote into data here (hi, hipp), not to mention recycling thoughts (a five-trick pony, that's me), I've seen agreement among my more assiduous peers. R&D is a toughie for the level 1 and 2 libertarian types.

4. Foreign owned: who cares?
Oh, but by monopoly or luck, we once did R&D, and by the Good Ford, the U.S. was the king for a while there. It was pointed out to me yesterday that Toyota and Honda are the new saviours of the American auto industry. Evidently, our crumbling manufacturing infrastructure is desirable to those who'd like to develop new markets, and, I presume, the shipping costs are less if they're building cars for American markets in America (who else is dumb enough to buy SUVs en masse?). There's some yellow streak (not that kind) in me that's annoyed that this isn't being done by American manufacturers, but lets face it: 401k or no, I'm no member of the ownership class. I'm not the sort of person that can network his way to success. Sadly, I need a job.

Income inequality is way up (look at the BLS). Level 1 market types say, "hey, the economy's growing, so stop whining," but even while profit creeps up, wages remain stagnant (anecdote + Paul Krugman), and CEO payscales skyrocket unconscionably. So if it's Toyota's providing the yahoos a salary or if it's GM, do I give a shit who the owners are? Not really. In fact, I feel a little kind of good about sticking it to the man.

(Except that I don't think Toyota hires a lot of American scientists.)

5. Electability
Just for the record, I fucking hate politics, but since I'm speaking of oil and vision, wasn't there a guy running for office who actually faked caring about those things sort of convincingly? What was his name again?

I thought Al Gore was all right. Sure, he was a dork (ahem), but he was a hell of a lot less innumerate than his challenger, more aware of the world, and, sighing or not, light years ahead on the articulation scale. Reading about his support for Iraq bombing in hindsight disappoints me, but still, he was the best Pepsi product I can remember. His wife was a scold, but I'd put up with her too if I were Al.

So. Level 1 political thinking: it's the party platform, vote for the team, Yankees suck. Level 2: Supply side contrarianism, issues voting, and--wait--how does voting for the "electable" guy fit in? Is that bullshit too? Look, I supported Kerry in '04, and it was, like most Kerry supporters, not because I loved the guy but because I thought he was the least obviously flawed candidate. Saying that electability is bullshit is likewise bullshit. Electability ain't so much guessing what your fellow citizens will vote for so much as it is guessing who's going to go down easier with the media. The press will crucify the candidate who they can't imagine getting laid in high school. The electable guy or gal is the one that the reporters aren't slavering to deconstruct into a teenage clique. Gore in 2000 got hoisted as the moody chess champ against the avuncular high-functioning retard. No contest.

So in 2008, who's the one most likely to going to sweet-talk the press and provide them free drinks? That's who's electable. And thus is the lowest common denominator reached.

Good night, everyone.

*UPDATE: D2 mentions that it came from an essay by William Golding (yes, that William Golding) called Thinking as a Hobby. I got the levels backwards (figures), but as our Greek friend says, it's definitely a good read.

UPDATE2: Claude pointed out the link. Don't ask with what.


hipparchia said...

hi back!

[i've been contemplating, among other stuff, libertarianisms]

Thy Goddess said...

Gave up thinking as a hobby, took up basket weaving. Very handy. If a thought pops up unexpectedly, I poke my eyes out with braided seagrass, raffia or coil. Love it!

Keifus said...

hippster: was worried for a minute there that I ground your blog to a halt. Looking forward to your take.

goddess: you can only do that twice, though. I've found alcohol can be occasionally effective to keep the little bastards down. Same effect, but slower (and ultimately kind of depressing).


LentenStuffe said...

Coleridge had a clever aphorism and your post reminded me of it:

Until you understand a writer's ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding.

He was once for the Demo-style taxonomies.

Keifus said...

That is a wonderful aphorism.

Mostly, I'd tend to apply Golding's thing to myself (and it's really more a guideline than a rule), but, as you can see, not always. It's worth remembering that tools like that can be a too-easy (unthinking) dismissal of opposing viewpoints.

Claude Scales said...

My "Hippocratic" proposition was in response to IOZ here (scrool down to third comment).

Claude Scales said...

"Scrool"? Egad, am I succumbing to "Freudian finger"?

Keifus said...

Thanks Claude. (I didn't realize that what I said up there was so similar.)


Careful where you point that thing!

hipparchia said...

goddesses possibly have an unlimited supply of eyeballs. also, if your eyeball comes out, you can often just pop it right back into place.

i sorta like claude's hippocratic proposition too. i'd forgotten that particular exchange. appreciated seeing it again.

mzaafuf: mazel fluff

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