Friday, March 29, 2013

Technologies that might change everything

Straight from the pages of Existence… though sooner than I expected… researchers now claim to have the entire Neanderthal genome in published form, as clear as that of "any person on the street." Okay, start your countdown till someone announces she is pregnant with… That will be a real boat-rocker…

...but there are other events on the near horizon that may be more important to saving our world.

Cynics love to extrapolate while optimists look for game-changers. In my latest novel, I portray both spectra of personalities, each with some strong points to make… though only optimists get to see the most important waves of change coming. Take this year's arrival of reasonably priced and stunningly efficient LED light bulbs, for example. Businesses are already doing whole-building replacements and you should start now in your heavily-lit areas.  They pay for themselves so quickly that fluorescents are hogs, by comparison. Within two years, incandescents and pigtails will be considered bizarre or quaint.

That’s one game-changer.  Another is the rapid fall in prices for solar energy.  Photovoltaics can't yet compete with the plummeting (in the US) price of natural gas, but their economics are surprising cynics and could accelerate soon.

Now comes a bit of news that could matter a lot. And it has to do with the latest wonder material that's getting huge attention in Europe and across the industrialized world.  Graphene… a sheet-like molecular form of carbon, related to graphite, though in the way that a pile of organic sludge is similar to an Opera diva who can pitch a perfect game. I'll leave for another time a listing of the uses being explored, from electronics to biochemistry. But one recent announcement stands out as particularly hopeful.  Using graphene to create ultra-thin membranes, engineers at Lockheed Martin have just announced a newly-developed saltwater filter that could reduce desalinization energy costs by 99 percent.

Desalinization typically involves a sheet of composite (TFC) membrane manufactured from a thin-film layer of polyimide stacked on a porous layer of polysulfone. The problem? The thickness of these membranes requires high pressure to push water through. Lockheed Martin's Perforene filter is made from single atom-thick sheets of graphene. Because the sheets are so thin, water flows through far more easily.

Now if they can solve many problems (like tearing) and bring this on the market soon… our future will look brighter.

== Calling Algernon! Increasing intelligence? Or lobotomizing? ==

Toddlers with iPads... teenagers on FaceBook and iPods... do new electronic media help them learn to think? Or hinder? Studies show that "digital  natives" of the new generation are less agile at divided attention than they think.  Now, in the Atlantic Monthly, comes a fascinating article, The Touchscreen Generation, showing that the landscape is not simple. Electronic media do hold out promise... but it may be a while before we know what works, and what lobotomizes.

Meanwhile, George Dvorsky reports on io9 that by grafting human glial cells into the brains of mice, neuroscientists were able to "sharply enhance" the rodents’ cognitive capacities. These improvements included augmentations to memory, learning, and adaptive conditioning.  Yay Algernon. But the implications go much farther.

Long dismissed as mere support structures for the nourishing and maintenance of all-important neurons, glia have lately been shown to have important direct effects upon information processing and may have played a vital role in the breakout of human intelligence. Human glia are larger and have more fibers than those of lower species.  As to the mouse experiments: human glial progenitor cells were transplanted into each hemisphere of the developing forebrains of newborn mice -- who later acquired new conditional associations and learned tasks significantly more rapidly than did their unengrafted controls. (Glial cells extracted from other rodents had no such effects.)

It gets weirder. "Gap junctions" are connections of astrocytes (a type of glial cell)  to other astrocytes, and even to neurons. Gap junctions in neurons bypass the usual synaptic connection, providing a "short circuit" between cells and function to create high speed networks of signal propagation within some areas of the brain, eyes, heart, and other parts of the body. Gap junctions are sometimes referred to as "electrical synapses."

How-to-Create-a-Mind-cover-347x512Wow.  Amazing stuff.  Yet not quite surprising. For you see I expected something like this. Indeed, the news will excite those who are interested in some science-fictional ideas, for example uplifting animals,  plus enhancing our own intelligence and curing brain disorders. But it will dismay others, e.g. those who hope soon to download their minds into immortal robots.

Ray Kurzweil  and others in the transhumanist community talk about the "connectome"... the number and placement of the synapses that spark and flash with ion transport between the axons and dendrites of a hundred billion neurons.  There may be close to a trillion synapses.  Still, that is a tractable number and if they can be modeled by digital computer cells, then Moore's Law will cross a trillion fast connections easily by 2025, allowing us to create a brain-in-a-box theoretically as capable as a human one.

That leaves software as the tougher nut to crack!  But lets put that aside for now. Kurzweil and others pin their hopes on that grail – the date when Moore’s Law lets a box emulate a trillion synapse connectome.  Supposedly in time to download the true minds of aging Baby Boomers. That is… if synapses are the only important thing going on in a brain.

== Is that all we are? A trillion synapses? ==

At a Singularity Conference I once pointed out to Ray  and some of the other transhumanists that their fervent calculations might be way off regarding how many Moore's Law cycles it will take to have computers capable of emulating a human brain.

There is preliminary evidence that some degree of murky, non-linear (and hence difficult to model) "computation" may take place within neurons, and even surrounding astrocyte, glial or other support cells in a brain. Perhaps hundreds or thousands of bias computations for every synapse flash! Add to this the "gap junction" effects we saw above, offering a myriad paths for info to flow around synapses, and the math changes dramatically. It may take many, many more Moore's Law doublings before we can emulate in silicon the marvel that is a cogent human brain.

That’s bad news for the connectome transcendentalists!  Even if you successfully freeze or plasticize a brain to preserve every synapse for later analysis, you may still lose all the other delicate states within and between cells.

Ah but switch gears now.  Might this news help us enhance the intelligence of animals? Or even enhance our own?  Poul Anderson started the conversation in his epochal novel, Brain Wave. We had better start preparing now.

Oh, then there's this:  mouse neurons, or brain cells, implanted into rats can survive with the rats into old age, twice as long as the life span of the original mice. "The findings are good news for life extension enthusiasts."  Um…. maybe not.

Porfiro(BTW: Those of you who have read Existence know about "Porfirio" the super enhanced rat.  Can I call 'em?  Or what?)

== Science & Tech Miscellany ==

The new Samsung Galaxy S IV, will reportedly include an eye-tracking feature to make it easier to scroll pages without physically touching the screen. Some people will view this as an added convenience.  But gaze tracking may have a dark side.  In any event, you can glimpse where this all may lead in Existence, in Rainbows End and other near future SF.

We aren't in immersive Augmented Reality yet (AR), but the world I've portrayed in science fiction is fast approaching.  See what a difference eight years makes, in scenes outside the Vatican in 2005 and 2013. Prediction... this business of holding your phone over your head, in order to see over a crowd, is cool.  But our Google Glasses will project simple stalks upward to leave our hands free.  We'll have antennae like My Favorite Martian.  And you can see it portrayed vividly by renowned web artist Patrick Farley.

Japan became the first country ever to successfully extract natural gas from underwater deposits of methane hydrate, a frozen gas sometimes referred to as "flammable ice." The breakthrough could be a boon to the energy-poor nation, which imports almost all of its energy. And if the technology proves commercially viable, it could benefit other countries — including Canada, the U.S., Norway, and China — that are also seeking to exploit methane hydrate deposits. Better they should be used this way, than for climate change to simply release them into the atmosphere.  THAT is my nightmare scenario.  And the denialist cult is making the danger more acute, every day.

Physics-of-the-Future-Kaku-Michio-9780307473332$30 million in Google Lunar X-Prizes. That's the initial lure drawing companies and consortia to develop private moon landers/rovers that some hope to launch in 2015, in search of riches like platinum group elements, or Helium 3, or (only in a few polar craters) even water.
 
"We now estimate that if we were to look at 10 of the nearest small stars we would find about four potentially habitable planets, give or take," said Ravi Kopparapu, a post-doctoral researcher in geosciences. "That is a conservative estimate," he added. "There could be more." According to his findings, "The average distance to the nearest potentially habitable planet is about seven light years. That is about half the distance of previous estimates," Kopparapu said. "There are about eight cool stars within 10 light-years, so conservatively, we should expect to find about three Earth-size planets in the habitable zones."

More claims of "meteoritic life"? A team claims to see tiny, electron-microscopic trace fossils of living organisms in a meteorite that fell onto Sri-Lanka.  The group happens to involve core figures in the "panspermia movement," making the "discovery" suspicious… if interesting.

== And even MORE science Miscellany! ==

haasI first saw glimmers of this some years ago. What if every light bulb in the world could also transmit data? At TED Global, Harald Haas demonstrates a device that  flickering the light from a single LED too quick for the human eye to detect can transmit far more data than a cellular tower -- and do it in a way that's more efficient, secure and widespread.

I'm not certain how accurate this report is. But it claims that Chinese scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. 

Apparently they’re not far from finding them, and when they do, embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation's intelligence by five to 15 IQ points.  It is essentially a variant on the eugenics approach described in Robert Heinlein's BeyondHOrizonBeyond This Horizon in which couples would fertilize a hundred zygotes (embryos) then analyze them and choose one to bring to fruition and birth, a wholly natural child that they might have had anyway, but still with both good and worrisome implications.

A fascinating article, We Aren't the World,  goes into why, after decades of emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism, the sciences of anthropology and psychology still tend to assume uniformity and that people around the world think largely like Americans… who may (according to some metrics) be the weirdest people of all.

President Obama has proposed a bill to allow anyone to unlock a cell phone that they already own.  This should be just the beginning of a trend toward freeing patents and copyrights and other Intellectual Property from the hellish trap they have fallen into.  Instead of serving their original purpose, to end millennia of secrecy and lure creative people into sharing their innovations, they have become tools for constraining and limiting use, even of things that you rightfully own. I do not oppose IP or patents or copyrights!  We do need to remember what they were for. Here's an essay going into some detail.  For even more of the basic concept, see: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 

For decades, "phage therapy" was  a realm of medicine that always seemed to glimmer on the tantalyzing horizon. Pursued mostly by Soviet scientists, the notion was to find viruses that would preferentially infect and kill the kinds of microbes that are parasites on humans. There is even a variety that attacks human cancer cells preferentially. An oncolytic virus is a virus that infects and kills cancer cells without damaging healthy tissue.  In science fiction, the concept of an oncolytic virus was first introduced to the public in Jack Williamson's 1951 novel Dragon's Island. Alas, this field hovered at the edge of proved practicality… until (apparently) right now. In response to encouraging clinical trials. For example, Amgen purchased the oncolytic virus company BioVex for $1 billion in January 2011. And more recent news suggests a phage will soon be attacking melanomas in people.  Hopefully without the results seen in the Hollywood film I Am Legend.


== And finally … ==

V. H. P. Louzada and colleagues appear to be endorsing my kind of human. "Here we propose the use of contrarians to suppress undesired synchronization."  Yes, they are talking about damping wild swings in neuronal networks, but the same wisdom can apply in societies.

See?  I told you folks it was wise to put up with ornery bastards!  Dogmas and polarized “sides” are a sure sign of diminished brain capacity.  Criticize everything. Even your allies. Especially yourself.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Questions I am frequently asked about… (Part IV) Prediction and the Future

Continuing this compilation of questions that I’m frequently asked by interviewers. This time about…

 == THE FUTURE== 

--Your writing touches on the impact of technology upon humanity, and its power to change our daily lives. Can you expand upon that? 

Let me ask you (and the reader) this: have you ever flown through the sky? Or walked into a dark room and made light happen, with the flick of your fingertip? Once upon a time, these were exactly the powers of gods! So why don’t you feel like one? 

Because we gave these powers to everyone, that’s why. Ironically, the moon landings seemed less marvelous because we all shared in the experience via TV. The fantastic images that our space probes have taken of solar system glories would seem magical and almost religiously marvelous if you and I had to sneak into the palace, risking arrest, in order to view them. Or if we had to crack open a wizard’s secret grimoire. 

lordoftherings_wideweb__430x244,1Take the palantir from Lord of the Rings, a crystal window on Gandalf’s desk through which he can explore ideas, gather information, view far-away events and communicate instantly across great distances…there are only three differences between the palantir and your laptop:

(1) The wizards and elfs kept such wonderful things for themselves,

(2) the result was calamity, horrible war and near-loss of everything, 

(3) it sure helped make a romantic story, captivating millions.  

If only you and a dozen other folks were on the internet, able to see far and access all knowledge, we’d all be in awe of you, too! But then.. it wuldn't work so gud.....

As for the future? Get ready to be even more godlike! If we’re lucky, future advances will also be shared with everybody and so you won’t notice! Too bad. But hopefully, we’ll be wise. 

--What is your record as a prognosticator? 

self-deceptionWhen prediction serves as polemic, it nearly always fails. Our prefrontal lobes can probe the future only when they aren’t leashed by dogma. The worst enemy of agile anticipation is our human propensity for comfy self-delusion. 

Peering ahead is mostly art. We all have tricks. One of mine is to look for “honey-pot ideas” drawing lots of fad attention. Whatever is fashionable, try to poke at it! Maybe 1 percent of the time you’ll find a trend or possibility that’s been missed. Another method is even simpler: Respect the masses. Nearly all futuristic movies and novels—even sober business forecasts—seem to wallow in the same smug assumption that most people are fools. 

This stereotype led content owners to envision the Internet as only a delivery conduit to sell movies to passive couch potatoes. Even today, many of the social-net and virtual-world companies treat their users like giggling 13-year-olds incapable of expressing more than a sentence at a time. Never gifted with the ability to engage in of actual discourse. All right, maybe that does describe most of our fellow citizens! (Especially the extremes of both right and left.) Still, people will surprise you.  And over the long run, their collective wisdom rises. And in small groups they can be positively brilliant.

A contrarian trick that has served me well is to ponder a coming technology and then imagine, What if everybody gets to use it? In really smart ways? Many of those imaginings have come true. (Readers maintain a Predictions Registry page that tracks hits and misses for my novel Earth.)

--Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future – and why? 

tomorrowsworldI am known widely as an optimist. This is not quite true. What I am is a contrarian. And hence, when I see cynics and despair junkies all around me -- around all of us – screeching simpleminded whines and playground sneers, I am naturally drawn to poking at their lazy models of the world. 

Even if the pessimists and cynics were right... and they aren't... they are totally not being helpful. Their attitude is the quintessence of laziness and voluptuously smug self-indulgence.   A rationalization for indolence. 

Dig it. All hope in the world has been achieved by problem-solvers.  We need more of them. All the can-do pragmatic problem-solvers we can get. 

--In your opinion, are we headed for a dystopic or utopian future? 

Again, people tend to call me a propagandist for optimism, because I occasionally portray society as not totally stupid... or our fellow citizens as something slightly more evolved than sheep.  In fact, I am an optimist only by comparison to the reflexive contempt-for-the-masses that you see in most knee-jerk fiction these days. 

Actually, I’m kind of a gloomy guy. History shows how often and how easily bright beginnings failed, giving way to darkness once again. We have a genius for snatching failure from the jaws of success. It will not surprise me if our present renaissance collapses. If we betray our values for short-term expediency.  It has happened countless times before. 

on-beach-nevil-shute-paperback-cover-artBut Science Fiction fights that trend, even in (the best) dystopias! Our dark warnings poke the ground, finding pitfalls and quicksand just ahead. The topmost warnings - those that seem vivid and convincing - turn into self-preventing prophecies that deeply affect great numbers of people, ensuring that a particular mistake won't happen. Consider stories such as Dr. StrangeloveOn The BeachThe China SyndromeSilent SpringSoylent Green, and so on. These drew attention from millions of people toward possible doomsday scenarios. Millions who became active, fighting for a better future. Were those efforts futile? Or are we here today because of them? 

1984The greatest self-preventing prophecy was surely George Orwell's chilling Nineteen-Eighty Four. Who does not feel girded, inoculated by the metaphors of Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth? Determined to the cause of preventing them ever from coming true? If we manage to preserve freedom and hold all the big-time liars accountable, it will be in no small part thanks to science fiction. 

I just wish more authors would notice what they are a part of...a vast process of error-discover and error-detection that constitutes part of our society's immune system against terrible mistakes. So by all means write warning-dystopias! But try to be original and helpful. You did not invent black leather. Or mirrorshades. And the people may not all be fools. Who knows?  They might actually listen to you… heed your warnings… and thus make you a false prophet. 

Read the story of Jonah.  And then snap out of it!  Your job is to be credible. To help us notice and avert. It is not your task to prove right.

Scare folks with plausible failure modes. Make them worry… and help make it not happen.

 --Is there hope for the future? 

I foresee a 60% chance that we'll eke through the crises ahead and make it to an era when humans become mature and careful planet-managers, instead of frantic over-exploiters. One when we have found solutions to the critical choices before us and passed most of the harsh tests, raising new generations who are both mighty and wise. 

I don't view those odds as "optimistic" at all! Not when the alternatives are horrible. Such probabilities are barely good enough to justify having kids, then using every day to help them become joyful problem-solvers who will be net-benefits to the world. 

I think we’ll squeak by. Alas, the glorious civilization that may emerge after a century of hard times could be missing some fine treasures… manatees, blue whales, krill, the Amazon Rain Forest, privacy... and every human being who wasn’t immune to Virus X. 

UNIVERSEFAKEI had a thought, lately. Heaven and Hell may not be such bizarre thoughts, after all! Consider our godlike descendants, with power at their fingertips to compute and emulate any reality. They will be able to ‘call up’ simulated versions of people from times past, especially 20th century folk, what with all the data available about us, including photos, video, skin cells in all our old letters and scrap books, etc. What will they do with that power? (See my short story, Stones of Significance.)

Those who helped build the utopia of tomorrow will be remembered, immortalized, in software simulations by our descendants. Those who hindered progress, who obstructed or simply did nothing, will at best not be invited back. At worst, they might be assigned unpleasant roles in software scenarios. Might the old notion of Purgatory have some resurrected relevance, after all? I leave possible extrapolations of this idea to the reader. 

See more articles on: Creating the Future.

-What is humanity’s greatest flaw? 

Humans are essentially self-deluders. The mirror held up by other people helps us to perceive our own errors… though it hurts.  In his poem “To a Louse,” Robert Burns said: 

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as others see us! 
It wad frae monie a blunder free us, 
An’ foolish notion…” 

(“Oh would some power, the gift give us, to see ourselves as other see us. It would from many blunders free us, and foolish notions…”) 

CITOKATE3Or, my own aphorism:
CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error. Too bad it tastes so awful, to be on the receiving end…  so that most of us never even thank our enemies for pointing out our mistakes for us.  Think about that. If criticism is the only way we catch our delusional errors, why do we resent those out there who willingly, eagerly, give us what we need, in order to do better and to be better?

It is a gift economy!  After your foe as heaped upon you a laundry list of things to fix, you should thank him or her... and then return the favor!  Purely (of course) out of the kindness of your heart.

(A side note: look at the end of every book I publish.  There are 50+ names. Pre-readers and critics who helped find errors or slow-patches or inconsistencies.  I don't mind praise, as well.  But it is a lower priority than quality control. Looking at criticism that way is a great tool for success.)

--Would you rather be living 100 years from now, when we’ll presumably have access to so many more answers? 

Is it better to sow than to reap? Jonas Salk said our top job is to be “good ancestors.” If we in this era meet the challenges of our time, then our heirs may have powers that would seem godlike to us — the way we take for granted miracles like flying through the sky or witnessing events far across the globe. If those descendants do turn out to be better, wiser people than us, will they marvel that primitive beings managed so well, the same way we’re awed by the best of our ancestors? I hope so. It’s poignant consolation for not getting to be a demigod. 

--What concerns do you have about the future? 

I am concerned about one thing, above all, understanding how and why humanity escaped (at last) from its old, vicious cycle of feudalism and began a tremendous enlightenment. One that included vital things like science, democracy, human rights and science fiction. I've come to see that openness – especially being receptive to free-flowing criticism -- has been key. Secrecy is the thing that makes every evil far worse than it would have been. It is especially pernicious when practiced by the mighty.

And that is what we'll talk about next time.
==

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David Brin
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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Corn, Ethanol, Farms, Food and the Logic of the Granary

I haven't said much political in a while. Moreover, amid all the talk of budget balancing and sequesters, I'd like to shift attention to a topic that may - at first sight - seem a bit wonkish and detached: farm subsidies.  In fact, they are an area where Blue America remains frightfully ignorant and where the flood of entitlement spending merits closer attention, in times of near bankruptcy.

Are we entering a new era of negotiation?

Amid the flux of rapid change, new alliances and alignments are being made, as we speak.   Some conservative pastors are reversing what had been standard dogma, speaking out for "creation-tending" and action on climate change. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are cautiously easing (even in the wake of Fukushima) their once-rigid opposition toward nuclear power. While Barack Obama and the democrats show flexibility toward cautious offshore drilling, a few Republican legislators showed a willingness to pursue more stringent gas mileage standards and cap-and-trade methods for curbing greenhouse gases.

Of course, in some of these cases, what we're seeing is another example of "leaders" following the public, rather than the other way around.  Still, after the century's first decade (the Nasty Oughts) featured intransigent Culture War,  is it possible we are witnessing a gradual return to the other, classic American pattern?  That of even-tempered pragmatism? Finally shaking off a bad case of Future Shock that swept America, along with that fearsome "2" in the millennium column.  I guess we'll find out, if (as predicted by my friend, the renowned business pundit John Mauldin) Democrats and republicans astonish everyone with a sensible compromise budget deal.

If so, it has to be only the beginning. After immigration reform and modest sensibility on assault weapons, there are some other sticky matters badly in need of a fresh look.

(Note: this posting is an updating of a "classic" that got a lot of buzz some years ago.)

The History and Common Sense of Farm Subsidies... and What Happened

Let's zero in on one area where logic and pragmatism have been in short supply -- the question of farm subsidies, and how they lately spurred a giant biofuels industry -- one that could have been set up sensibly, but for the simplemindedness of all sides, leaving in place little more than a wasteful scam.

image.axdFirst a little history, of the biblical kind. Remember Joseph? He of the technicolor coat, who wandered into Egypt and interpreted a Pharaoh's dream? Seven fat cows, followed by seven skinny ones.  These, Joseph announced, forecast a time of bumper harvests, followed by one of devastating famine. That is, unless sufficient stocks were bought and stored away. Which the forewarned Pharaoh did, whereupon he ultimately thanked Joseph for saving the nation.

Historians now verify that the Egyptian state used to do this sort of thing often, in a routine and simple way. Whenever crops grew abundant and grain prices were low, the government bought and stored grain, both assisting farmers hit by low prices and creating a stockpiled reserve. When supplies ran thin and prices ran high, the caches were opened and stores sold, softening price swings, letting both farmers and consumers have a little predictability in life. Any resulting profit to the government helped to maintain to the granaries. A simple system. Everyone benefited. Farmers weren't bankrupted by too-good harvest years. The people weren't starved and taken advantage of in lean times. Taxpayers got their money's worth. The state's useful role paid for itself.

Now, there were a few special circumstances that helped Pharoanic Egypt master this trick. The dry climate allowed grain storage for extended periods. Also, there are a few things that simple-minded kingdoms do really well, such as repeating the same working pattern, over and over. Pivotally, those ancient farmers did not have a powerful voting bloc, able to sway government policy and alter the arrangement in shortsighted ways -- a failure mode of later, more sophisticated nations.

dust1Take the U.S. Great Depression, a time when urban populations went hungry, while farmers poured excess milk into sewers, because the price was too low to be worth shipping. Under the New Deal, various methods were tried, for helping rural populations hard beset by market ructions... as well as dust bowls, foreclosures, bank failures, disease and bad land mismanagement. Some of the solutions -- e.g. roads, schools, electrification, farm-science and thousands of farm bureau offices, subsidized post, phone and internet -- seem proper tasks for government, even from a conservative perspective. (Now, that is; though all of these sensible measures were bitterly fought by the same shortsighted folks who today equate FDR with Satan.)

Notably, urban taxpayers never demanded payback for a cent of all that rural infrastructural support -- a tradition that continues today, as rivers of tax dollars continue to flow from Blue to Red. Nor should they. (Nor should rural folk brag about how "independent" they are.) We need each other. E pluribus unum.

How did Farm Policy Leave Common Sense Behind?

Infrastructure is an easy decision, but how to damp those pesky swings in market price? Of course, a direct approach for achieving rural assistance, and one that involves the most market-meddling, has been direct farm subsidy payments and price supports. And, way back in the 1930s, the first recourse looked pretty darn traditional. The government simply bought up extra food and gave it to poor people. Some of the grain and milk got turned into storable items, like flour and cheese, to serve as a national reserve before getting recycled through food stamps and school lunch programs. And, yes, the government bought grains when they were cheap and sold them later, when the price was high. All very logical. Almost Egyptian.

Food Politics cover smallOnly progress follows progress. With all that education and infrastructure and investment, farmers got a whole lot better at their business. There came a time when US agriculturalists could not be stopped from producing too much! Domestically, at least, there was no longer a "famine" side of the cycle, for the government to dump its stockpiles into. And sure, the government tried making this a win-win by sending massive amounts of food overseas, as foreign aid. But, while some of this was genuinely life-saving, we now know that another result was -- just as often -- to undermine local agricultural systems and wreck a developing nation's ability to feed itself. Beware of unforeseen consequences.

So the idea arose simply to pay farmers not to produce on some of their land. On occasion this has been done, in some countries, by purchasing some of the farmland outright, leaving it fallow or converting it to other uses, even parks. Farmers benefit from higher prices or collateral value for their land. Farmers also get higher income from their crops, since less land is in production overall. And taxpayers get something tangible, in return for this help. They get that land. It can be banked, just like that Egyptian grain. Only much better-preserved and with ecological benefits, too,

farmSubsidiesBut then, we are a nation where political power was deliberately tilted, from the beginning, toward rural states. And, as one might expect, there came pressure for change. It began to occur to clever people that governments can be arm-twisted into giving, without getting anything in return. (After all, look at the dams and highways and schools.) So, polemical tricks were used. For government to buy land and surplus produce was "socialistic." On the other hand, simply paying farmers to keep their land, but not to grow anything on it, well, that somehow made sense and was not socialistic at all!

This is an old, old argument, and I am neither qualified, nor interested in getting down to the actual fight over farm supports, per se. Or the way giant agribusinesses now collect the lion's share of subsidies that were designed to preserve family farms. Or the way opponents of socialism nevertheless have managed to rationalize demanding that the taxpayers' government never get anything direct and tangible, in return! (Socializing and externalizing costs while privatizing profits -- that's the new version of "capitalism." And Adam Smith is spinning in his grave.)

Only let's get back to Joseph; note how the second half of the ancient cycle is now almost completely missing. When the government used to stabilize low prices by buying something material (grain or land) it acquired a palpable reserve that it could then use in emergencies, or sell when prices were high. But, today, there are no large federal stocks of food pouring forth to ease the skyrocketing supermarket prices, nor stocks of reserved land being nurtured in fallow-recovery, or else offered to young, suburban couples to try their hand, as new farming pioneers. Nor are the direct-payment subsidies being cut back, now that floods of profit are pouring into agribusiness.

It is no longer a matter of cycle balancing. It is an entitlement.  Indeed, one sees some very "non-egyptian" things going on... like a US government hurrying to fill the National Strategic Petroleum Reserve with high priced oil. The same government that (does anybody at all recall?) sold out of the reserve, years ago, when prices were low.  Buy high and sell low.  Very "non-egyptian," indeed.

(Note, that particular scandal happened under the George W. Bush Administration, when this article first posted. Nor was it alone.  The Bushes sold off most of the US helium reserve - to friends at low prices - and now a helium scarcity is growing dire. We all need to become better at detecting such scams.)

What Does Any Of This Have To Do With Biofeuls And Ethanol?

Good question. 
But first, let's have some more historical perspective, provided (in 2008) by economic analyst John Mauldin:

"North America has experienced great weather for the last 18 consecutive years, which, combined with other improvements in agriculture, has resulted in abundant crops. According to Donald Coxe, chief strategist of Harris Investment Management , you have to go back 800 years to find a period of such favorable weather for so long a time. Yet food stocks in corn, wheat, rice, etc. are dangerously low. We are just one bad weather season from a potential worldwide food disaster. And Dennis Gartman has been pointing out almost daily how far behind US farmers are in getting their corn crops planted, due to bad weather:" Further. “… the corn crop really is behind schedule. Corn is not like wheat. Wheat can survive drought; it can survive cold; wheat, as we were taught by our mentor, Mr. Melvin Ford, many years ago, is a weed. It is an amazing, resilient plant. But corn is temperamental; it needs rain when it needs rain; it needs dry conditions when it needs dry conditions. It needs to not be hit by early season frost, or it will suffer, and it needs a rather archly set number of days to grow. Each day lost at the front end of the planting/growing season puts pressure upon the corn plant to finish its job before the autumn frosts, and puts increased soybean acreage and decreased corn acreage before us. Meanwhile, ranchers are reducing their herds, as they cannot afford to feed them due to high grain prices.The same thing is happening with chickens. This means sometime this fall supplies of meat of all types are going to be reduced. Maybe someone will point out that using corn to produce ethanol has the unwanted and unintended consequence of driving up food prices all over the world."

As usual, economic wisdom from one of the best analysts in our generation. (Note that in the years since, our US grain belt has been struck by a devastating, multi-year drought.)

So, then, let's bring in ethanol.

cornIn recent years, a heavy and generous federal subsidy has created a vast corn-to-ethanol industry whose effects are causing a lot of public debate. Environmentalists claim that it takes more than a gallon of imported oil to actually create a gallon of ethanol fuel. The greenhouse gas benefits are negligible and possibly negative. According to Mauldin, the price and energy balance would be much better if we imported Brazillian sugar cane, which seems made for ethanol production. But farmers in Idaho apparently have a veto over anything sensible like that.

Of course, never mind the blatant silliness of pouring food into our gas tanks, while poor people around the world riot over skyrocketing prices and we, here, feel a sharp pinch in the store.  Clearly, we are witnessing democracy at its almost-worst. (Wherein hypocritical oligarchs who keep citing the infamous "largesse" diss upon the common citizen, are by far the worst offenders.)

Today, the special interests are vast and well-entrenched, so don't expect them to enter into negotiations to find a logical way out of this mess. Indignant rationalizations abound, and every person seems convinced that their own version of government-suckling is not socialism. It is patriotism.

The Situation in 2013


As I updated this article, studies have revealed that much of the shine is coming off of America's love affair with ethanol.  (Well, the GOP's love affair, as ethanol allowed the party to offer an "alternative" that both sounded plausible and poured billions toward their friends.)

Now, things are changing, and not just because scientific studies show ethanol fuels to be at-best a breakeven proposition, doing nothing for energy independence or reduction of environmental damage.  Beyond that - according to a New York Times report, "Nearly 10 percent of the nation’s ethanol plants have stopped production over the past year, in part because the drought that has ravaged much of the nation’s crops pushed commodity prices so high that ethanol has become too expensive to produce. A dip in gasoline consumption has compounded the industry’s problem by reducing the demand for ethanol."  Advanced biofuels from waste like corn stalks and wood chips have also yet to reach commercial-level production as some had predicted they would by now.    

The Right Way to Apply Hard Liquor...

But now I plan to surprise you. I will speak up not only for government price intervention to help farmers, but also for subsidized biofuel alcohol!
Though not as it is being done today.

Perhaps it is time to take a look back at the Egyptians of old, and go back to the root of the problem, so to speak. Farmers (especially giant agribusinesses) do not deserve automatic subsidies as some kind of birthright. On the other hand, the ancients were onto something. We are all better off if farmers are cushioned from wild market swings and get the kind of predictability that can let them invest in what is, after all, a business vital to us all.

Back when the New Dealers and Great Society folks tried to balance the cycles by buying cheap-excess bumper crops and storing for lean days, they ran into a problem. A vast, continental nation can only store up so much grain and cheese. In part, the move to simple cash grants came out of despair over how to do the job effectively, the Egyptian way.

But here is where alcohol comes in! Because alcohol can be stored.

In fact, it can be stocked away indefinitely, cheaply and beautifully.What was done poorly under Lyndon Johnson... turning excess farm production into mountains of wasted cheese... can now be accomplished logically and efficiently.... if we make biofuel ethanol a seasonal or occasional way to absorb and store, and later use, surges in excess grain production.

What should we do?  Let the ethanol subsidy go away. It is an insane market interference, choosing a market winner and a dumb one, at that.The money could be far better used making up for years of deliberately-sabotaged research into energy independence. Stop the gasohol mandate now!  But don't shut down the gasohol plants completely.

The-Politics-of-Food-Supply-Winders-Bill-9780300139242Instead, let the taxpayers buy excess corn whenever its price is worrisomely low, convert the surplus into storable form, and sell the alcohol later, when the price seems right. That is the exact equivalent of the Pharaoh's storehouse. And let the government's profit go to maintaining this reserve capacity, when it is un-needed. 

We need to stop thinking of ethanol as an alternative to imported oil. That's just silly and a crutch for those diverting us from real solutions for energy independence. Nevertheless, ethanol can be viewed as a wonderful way to store the excess produce of America's fertile fields, in a form that will be easily convertible, at some future date, into fuel or money... and thus even back into food.

And yes, chuckle at the image that is brought to mind.  Nearly all of the American founders - especially George Washington - distilled their own moonshine. It often served as cash and currency for farmers, when money was scarce. Alcohol flows through our national blood, in a sense.  And if we view it properly, it can answer the modernized Riddle of Joseph, offering a way to damp the waste of fat years and help us prepare for the lean one that will surely come.