Monday, November 26, 2007

Five More Thoughts (Velvet Jones Ed.)

"Are you a female high school dropout, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five?...Are you tired of lying around in bed all day with nothing to do? Well. you never need get up again, because in six short weeks I can train you to be high paying ho...Just think-fifteen hundred dollars a week, without even leading the comfort of your own bedroom.. Sound too good to be true? Just send for my new book... "--The Velvet Jones School of Technology (Saturday Night Live)

1. The stupidest shit I've heard all week.
You know, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, I really do. I was coming home late enough last night to catch Marketplace on NPR, only to hear an administration whore selling me eternal prosperity. "Believe it or not," David Frum tells us, "the proven oil reserves of the United States today are virtually identical to what they were in 1973." On his blog, he was good enough to correct that he actually misremembered 1930, because hey, this is serious.

Frum, for the record, isn't talking about the same proven oil reserves, because, you, know, that would defy one of the most obvious laws of physics. No, we have different proven reserves now, and to prove them, we keep moving out into the Gulf of Mexico, to Alaska, and assorted other deep dangerous spots. But geography keeps spreading out indefinitely, just ask the six and a half billion of us, where exactly now? Those oil resevoirs discovered by Jed Clampett were depleted decades ago. The rate of oil production, if it hasn't peaked, is likely close to peaking, and the consumption of oil sure hasn't declined. But don't worry, Dave is confident those clever engineers will think of something.

But just for fun, let's look at 1973 1930, and try to imagine oil demand back then, compared to now. There was not yet a mechanized world war that butchered a generation, not yet a highway system, not yet an industrialized China, and you could still pull crude out of Texas. The fact that petroleum is pushing $100 per barrel right now should tell a (cough) economic pragmatist something about the indefinitude of the black goo. This guy's job was to sell policy, everyone. We live with it every day.

2. If you think pimpin' ain't easy, try being a ho.
It never ceases to annoy me to hear noodlehead pundits talk about "highly educated professionals." That phrase is code for lawyers and managers and dentists (and pundits), but there are a bunch of professionals that fall through the craze. These are the same guys (lookin' at you Friedman) that cry out for more science and engineering education to help us think our way out of a half century's worth of shortsighted economic policy. I have some sympathy with their wish, partly because I like the idea of a society that measures success in understanding how things work better than one that measures it in the ability to network, and we do have some technical challenges looming, but it's not like it's an employee's paradise out there for budding techies. Professional engineers and scientists-- those that don't want to manage--have pretty serious foreign pressures, whether from the underpaid EB1 or H-1B types working their way through American companies and graduate schools (more power to 'em, I say), or the outsourcing of every type of technical industry to Asia (even the spiffy new ones). Considering the training and the technological expertise society allegedly requires, the pimps seem to be the ones getting all the money. And as professionals, there sure as shit ain't no overtime for scientists. So I make a point to take a little of mine from the man. Doing this.

How would you spend eternity?
"For well over forty years, he had been refining what he thought of as the Perfect Day. Thirty years ago he got it right, and he'd pretty much stuck to it since then. Up at the crack of ten, dress and down to the saloon for breakfast, a double prarie oyster: two raw eggs in a double shot of bourbon. Thus fortified, he strolled three blocks to the barbershop for a hot towel and a shave...Noon would find him standing at the bar, drinking slowly, getting the right edge for siesta. When he woke up at five, lunch of pig's knuckles and pickled eggs...After dinner began the important work of the day: serious poker with the other regulars..." --from The Golden Globe by John Varley.

Granted, I probably wouldn't use my Perfect Day getting loaded and hustling rubes, but doing technical work only to the extent it inspires me sounds like it would be pretty sweet. It's all about the balance after all.

3. Life on the government teat
I'm disheartened about my career. The way this game works is that I have to sell some proposal to a funding agency (i.e., the government), and it has to be so damn attractive that they can't help but give us the money to do it. Anyone who's written a proposal knows the extent to which they're science fiction, often much more about fantastic hopes than what you actually believe. So it goes.

In the world of current events, the government's editorial minions are getting a lot of shit these days (see #1), but it's hard to say how much responsibility they bear for expressing dumb opinons, even when they're paid to. Yes, you had your Friedmans and your Sullivans and two dozen other people arguing badly and unseriously for war. Is it their fault they won the argument, or is it ours for falling for it? Here's a comment I read recently, by someone named kia, regarding everyone's favorite glibertarian cutie. It really hit me where I live.

"I find something particularly grating about McArdle. I think it's a quality that Jonah Goldberg also has: the ability to be knowingly and serenely bogus...I must assume that the people who feed them do not care about their utter lack of credibility. The people McArdle and Goldberg work for do not need these tools to have credibility. They do not need credibility themselves; they've got power....[S]hredding the pretensions of their paid mouthpieces is service to truth."

In other words, a lot of these tools write specious opinion because hey, it's a living. If you can actually be sincere that's great, but it's not really necessary if you want to pay the bills. Maybe they should write science proposals.

I call myself a technical whore because I frequently find myself learning on the fly some field that I have no background in, but I'm a "scientist" and if you need an expert in X, then I'm your man. I do my best, and to be fair, we do usually sell a team with talented subcontractors, but I still find myself in the uncomfortable situation of pretending to depth when I'm really dabbling. It takes some effort to silence my conscienceso that I can tell my audience exactly what it wants to hear.

4. You write pretty well...for a scientist
Maybe that mile-wide, inch-deep background would be good for science reporting. I half-promised Mike some more of that sort of thing for quiblit. I want to do a piece on cellular automata, which is cool shit that I don't do, and a piece on thermoacoustics, which is cool shit that I do do. The second one should be easy, because I have a robust supply of reports and presentations to cover the glossy aspects of it. If it's already understandable enough to get the suits to nod their heads, then all I have left to worry about is making it interesting.

Some of the pioneering work in that field is done at Los Alamos National Lab, on the government dime, and they've published a textbook on the subject that is pretty approachable. I keep meaning to really go through it in detail, but they paint a great picture in the early pages all by themselves, amazingly without any help from me. This is not uncommon (especially the no help from me part). Scientists spend a lot of time communicating--the internet was staked out by nerds, after all. Being successful at this means that you're constantly selling, pitching, and explaining. To other geeks, to your clueless bosses, to investors, to funding agencies. Eventually even the antisocial eggheads get decent at it. I've said before that I get away with being a slackass because I write better than my peers, but the truth is, everybody in this field has to be a part-time writer.

5. FIVE thoughts? I'm happy when I just have one.
Writers, like scientists (even technical whores), tend to specialize. They develop a voice or two that they're good at, work up some common themes, and their fans value it until it gets old (at which point we either criticize them for changing and selling out or criticize them for staying the same and boring us). Too often, you can see people get set in their ways, get tenure, and eventually stop learning. Brain-eater is something that can happen to aging novelists, those guys who can't repeat the brilliant successes of their younger days. (Bloat, though it may not seem like it, is a similar disease. It's taking too long to say the thing we all got the first time.) Bloggers and other opinion geeks burn out too, and another reason I feel an occasional pang when I mock the Brookses and the Broders is that they write like they're operating at about a thousand columns past immolation.

I'm pretty well convinced that most of us only have so much material, although the capacity varies widely between individuals. Some people--some of the people here even--seem to have more viewpoints and stories than they can dispense in a lifetime, and you simply impress the hell out of me. For the rest of us earnest hacks, it's probably better to have a settle on a system than to rely on the world-moving insights that are floating inside your head. Daily anecdotes can keep the wheels turning, following the news, or writing book reviews. I guess one important trick is to keep new information feeding in, to observe well, and keep fishing thoughts back out. It also seems wise to keep picking off the crusty ones before they block up the works. Unlike oil, brainpower is sustainable, at least for a while.

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