Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Decadence Excuse... The Song Sung by All Our Foes.

Stirring the porcelain bowl again, former GOP White House staffer Peggy Noonan offered up the following observation, one that seems worth a little commentary:

"I note here what is to me a mystery. It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, than do our high-IQ professionals, who often seem, in areas outside their immediate field, startlingly dim. I don't know why intellectuals--or cerebralists or eggheads or IQ hegemonists--seem to miss the most obvious things, floating on untethered by common sense.”

What Noonan does here is illustrate a phenomenon we should study carefully and recognize in all of its forms. In fact, it is what all enemies of America and the Enlightenment do... coining fancy rationalizations to explain-away facts that would otherwise have to be acknowledged. Nay, recognized as clear refutations of their entire position.

(Yes, it is more generally a human phenomenon. But I want to address the particularly anti-modernist and anti-American aspects, up front.)

I have several times mentioned the Decadence Rationalization. This is an act that ALL enemies of the Great Experiment, have had to perform, without exception, during every generation for at least 150 years. Indeed, it may be their most commonly shared trait. It goes something like this:

“Americans rich and happy and progressive and dynamic and have way too much fun. They must have traded away something essential and precious in a devil’s bargain, in order to get all that. Clearly, what they have given up was (variously) their sanctity, manhood, character, soul, chance-of salvation, racial purity.... (Details depend on whether you are Osama, a Russian poet, a fundamentalist, Oswald Spengler, Adolf Hitler, or...)”

Some of you will recognize the familiar tunnel vision of the Zero Sum game, a way of viewing life that stood unchallenged in most societies, during nearly all of human history. (And prehistory, for that matter.) The logic of simple tradeoffs. If you win a point, it is because I lost one. If you are good at math, you must be bad at sports. If you are eating, it must have come off of my plate.

The alternative, Positive Sum approach is something that comes less naturally to a human mind, though it’s been making headway. People either grasp it right away, or perhaps they never will, as a matter of deep-down personality. “It is possible for us both to win. Ideally, I will have the satisfaction of winning a little more than my opponents do. But it may be possible for us all to do well, at an accelerating rate.”

See: The Unlikeliness of a Positive Sum Game.

The Positive Sum game is much more than just a simple matter of personality or perspective. The core principle underlying democracy and markets and science, it is also the very foundation of modernism, and fosters the notion of human-built progress. For that trait, above all, it is hated, passionately, by all of the simplistic ideological extremes. And you can see why. Take the quandary of explaining the wealth/happiness/fun/success of contemporary American society.

We’ve seen the Zero Sum rationalization, that Americans paid a stiff price of decadence. The alternative -- the Positive Sum interpretation -- is devastatingly obvious and utterly unbearable. Suppose there was no wretched tradeoff, no fatal surrender of virtue in exchange for decadent pleasure. Then the real reason for all this success must be that we found a better way for human beings to live.

Intolerable. Inconceivable. So, without exception, we see variations of the same tiresome, just-so story, repeated like a hypnotic mantra: ”They are rotten fruit. If we strike Americans a sharp blow, they will whimper and crumble like spoiled, rudderless children.”

It doesn’t matter that we refute the Decadence Rationalization every single generation. (Find one exception. It really is tediously rhythmic and predictable. And it will happen again.) Always, always, it erupts again to snipe and pester us. Because it must.

This time, we got off REALLY cheap. The heroes of flight UA93 stood up from their seats and showed that they were made of the same stuff as their ancestors at Lexington and Gettysburg, flushing away Osama’s version of the decadence scarecrow with abrupt agility and such dramatic decisiveness that their impromptu insurrection really did end that particular war, on the very same day it began. That is, the phase of the war that was really about “terrorism.”

(There have been a dozen or so cockpit door incidents, etc., on planes, since that day, and on EVERY occasion, passengers simply sat on whichever loon was causing a ruckus -- so routinely that the airlines now have standard reward procedures in place. This, plus strengthening and locking the doors themselves, made ALL the difference. And yet, has this changed attitudes toward citizen empowerment? See: The Value and Empowerment of Common Citizens in an Age of Danger.

As for Peggy Noonan? Let’s go back to her excerpt: “I note here what is to me a mystery. It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, than do our high-IQ professionals, who often seem, in areas outside their immediate field, startlingly dim. I don't know why intellectuals--or cerebralists or eggheads or IQ hegemonists--seem to miss the most obvious things, floating on untethered by common sense.”

Yeah. Karl Rove said something similar, about how there can be such a thing as “too much education.” How about that!

Well, let’s not get all hot and bothered, because it really was predictable. They have to come up with their own version of the Decadence Rationalization, after all. Because (as I was among the 1st to point out, at the so-called education level advantage of the GOP over the Democratic Party has recently reversed, in a big way. Hence, the primacy of education, a thing that they once crowed about is suddenly irrelevant, dumped in the trash, along with other obsolete tenets of 20th Century conservatism... fiscal restraint, suspicion towards foreign adventurism, skepticism toward the “discredited utopian fantasy of so-called nation-building”...

...and a few other quaint notions. Like the patriotic willingness of previous elites to at least help pay the cost of wars fought by other peoples’ children.

Ah, how easily we surrender the things of youth.

Oh, but when it comes to education, this kind of two-step reversal is no minor thing! The GOP advantage in this area wasn’t easy for Democrats to overcome. After all, they have long stood up for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, the poor and immigrants. Naturally, those demographic groups laid a heavy statistical burden, dragging down Democratic averages. Democrats have always enjoyed a counterbalancing edge at the other end of the education spectrum, causing a “U-Shaped” education-level effect. But that slight uptick at the postgraduate level was never enough to overcome the statistical tilt caused by urban poor...

... that is, till now. Now the Democrats' advantage at the high end has become so profound that even the neocons can no longer ignore it! Once you get above (on average) three years of college at an Aggie school, GOP support peaks and then starts to plummet, like a rocket. As skill and knowledge climb, so does awareness of the world’s complexity, along with willingness to see past a few polysyllabic nostrums, toward more distant horizons. Horizons of time, of space, of inclusion. Horizons of possibility, for well or ill.

Is Noonan TOTALLY wrong?

Of course not. Obviously, there has always been a core of truth to the so called “egghead effect”! Fads and fashions and limp-wristed hyper intellectualization can reach truly impressive levels of foppish impracticality and smugly addlepated dopiness that make the old French Court look positively -- well -- enlightened by comparison! Take campus postmodernists, for example, who use “textual analysis” to prove that there is no objective reality and thus no such thing as science. What tripe-aholic yertzes! (They are among Karl Rove’s favorite people, for obvious reasons.) Anyone with a dram of sense must acknowledge that such people exist. They certainly are loud enough to be noticed.

Which is what hypocrites like Noonan and Rove count on, a small grain of truth that they then use Big Lie techniques to amplify, in their attempt to discredit the vast and growing demographic that threatens them most -- Americans who have postgraduate degrees! (Or the equivalent in dedicated post-college learning.) A pool of skill and talent larger and more fantastic than any the world has ever seen... blithely dismissed by the Noonans and Roves as “eggheads” (or, in British parlance “boffins”) -- portrayed as specialist, hot-house minds, too high-strung to be trusted outside their expertise, and maybe not even then. Nutty perfessors who are of use in the lab, but far too absurd ever to be allowed near policy.

Stepping back a bit, notice the familiar, “zero-sum” notion of a fateful tradeoff. The brilliant or self-made or well-educated must have sacrificed something essential. Some basic grounding in common sense. Perhaps even their souls.

(How DO they manage these tricks? Out of one side of their mouths, they call New York a city of heroes... then turn and diss every supposedly decadent trait of that capital of Blue State America, including New Yorkers’ “excessive” levels of reading and education. Do they notice or ever acknowledge that the principal American victims of terrorism also happen to be the Americans least afraid of terrorism? Not ever. They cannot. Because it would mean accepting that city as more American than the so-called heartland. But let’s veer back to the topic at hand. The new anti-education, anti-intellect campaign of the far right.)

What this is really about is power, of course. Should those who know a lot have a right thereupon to influence public decision-making? As much as -- say -- those who have a lot?

No -- they maintain -- policy cannot be trusted to scientists, or those who dedicated themselves to self-improvement and learning more about the world. Policy belongs in the hands of those who always had it before the Great Experiment began. Those who were bred to it. Born to it. Who are connected. People of quality.

(Want irony? Other than those aforementioned campus postmodernists, what group most intensely fits the image of overly-erudite, elitist snobs? Who, other than the neo-platonist followers of the University of Chicago’s own Leo Strauss, those neoconservative smartypants boys, Kristol, Wolfowitz, Perle and their ilk, so relentlessly sure of themselves. So relentlessly superior. So relentlessly and repeatedly and devastatingly wrong about almost everything.)

No, this latest sally by Noonan and Rove & co is dismally predictable on so many levels, not just as “anti-egghead” populism aimed at their base. No, that would not explain their cabal’s deliberate demolition of the entire Congressional scientific and technical advisory apparatus, depriving the legislative branch of any chance for independent analysis and neutral fact checking. Nor does mere populism explain their campaign of obfuscation, calling it “false consensus” when 90% of scientists demand that attention be paid to something that may threaten our children.

Can self-interest explain it? True, we are in the middle of the greatest kleptocratic raid in the nation’s history. The smartest must know it cannot last. Indeed, it must be dawning on them that , like the great campaign to deny the dangers of tobacco, the anti-science denial of climate change will eventually lead to the assigning of blame.

Nor can any rational reason really explain the open war that these ninnies are waging right now against the intelligence community and United States Officer Corps, the third best-educated clade in our society. The one group standing between us all and a very cold wind. Who could possibly be benefitting, in any lucid way, from that?

No, after going through it all, we can only conclude that we are seeing the Decadence Rationalization playing out, all over again. The same mental acrobatics that have been performed by every enemy of the American Enlightenment, ever since it began.

A contortion of both perception and logic that allows an old-fashioned, zero sum mind to explain to itself how fun and wisdom and learning and practicality and compassion and cooperation and accountability and openness and joyful competitiveness and a myriad other good things (especially fun) can co-exist without equal and counter-balancing cost.

These people sincerely believe what they are saying, folks.

And of course, that’s the scariest part of all.


Rob Perkins said...

Yay. Noonan doesn't understand why certain intellectuals don't understand what ought to be common sense.

Why doesn't this point the obvious to you, David (maybe it does?) that what is happening is a widening of differences in premise, rather than anything more nefarious (or less damaging!)?

I put it to some friends of mine in this way: The reason we can't reach rapprochement on the issue of "gay marriage" (since this was the context of the paragraph you cite) is simply that the two parties are talking well and truly past one another about what marriage is!

This was rejoined to me by someone in favor of it who simply restated her definition of marriage, as though that would justify the whole thing. And countered, again, by the opposite side's definition of marriage. Shouted at one another across the aisle with nary an argument or attempt at compromise.

The cause of legalizing "gay marriage" through the courts was further set back by a 6-3 decision (in blue-as-they-come Washington State!) against the idea that the courts should have a say at all in the issue, again by pointing up, in one of the concurring opinions, how absurd it is to approach the issue differently than the way defined by a legislature, all the while citing scientific reports considered by them, and so forth.

But also, the whole time, sticking firmly to a notion about what "marriage is" accepted by only one side of the issue.

The difference in premise defines *why* Noonan demagogues the way she has there; she sincerely can't understand why otherwise fully lettered and marvelously intelligent individuals reached a conclusion so different from hers.

That difference in premise ("God is...", "Man is...", "Woman is...") is what drives things as devisive as a gridlocked Congress or opposing armies. I think it's evidence of a surrender by Americans, many Americans, to *be* Americans with more importance than they *are* any other thing.

As far as equating it with Rove's statement about "too much education", really, I think too much is read into what I thought was clearly an ascerbic joke. Perhaps correspondence with Noonan, someone who has been critical towards the President in similar ways as David has, about her mystery, and possible answers, would be more fruitful than simply taking 700 words to call her a force against the Enlightenment.

After all, according to Noonan, I'm sure, she is no such thing. Perhaps there is a difference in premise there, as well.

JGF said...

I think you're doing some high powered intellectual over analyzation David.

Attacking the effete intellectual is a time honored technique of authoritarians and worse. Agnew at one end of things, Stalin, Mao and old H at the other end.

In the west it can be a proxy for attacking Jews, other times the concept of 'Jew' and intellectual seem to merge, and other times it's just the intellectuals.

The 'decadence' line is a parallel attack on the same group, not the primary attack.

Noonan is showing her dark side.

Catfish 'n Cod said...

Dear Dr. Brin:

There's a very good reason the very acceptance of playing Positive-Sum games is rejected by Zero-Sum worldviews... and it's one you've pointed out before.

One of the most important Zero-Sum Games, in their estimation, is the Relative Cultural Dominance Game. The object of the game: to have the highest fraction of the human population believe in your worldview!

Since many worldviews are mutually incompatible -- indeed, insist on incompatability rather strongly -- the RCDG is zero-sum for them. If you convert someone to a new worldview, they give up their old one. And since the game is relative, you can't have a positive-sum relationship with another worldview-- that would mean giving up advantage in the overall war to eliminate all other worldviews. (Although you can have a negative-sum relationship -- like that between the Jews and the Muslims.)

Now, positive-sum worldviews can work together. That is, after all, what positive-sum means. They can accelerate each other's growth in the RCDG. They can even coexist in the same person.

Zero-sum worldviews can't -- they don't believe cooperation between worldviews is possible. You believe exactly as I do or you're nothing, they say.

And we all know what happens in a battle between individuals who don't cooperate and teams that do. Every human child learns that in schoolyard play.

So if you accept the existence of a positive-sum worldview, you either must convert your worldview to a positive-sum version... or admit defeat in the Relative Cultural Dominance Game.

THAT is why no zero-sum worldview can accept our existence. There must be an end to the rewards of positive-sum behavior ... because otherwise all zero-sum worldviews lose automatically!

And thus, despite their profound disbelief in any such thing, zero-sum worldviews seem to magically coalesce and conspire against us, using the same arguments and techniques. They each independently come to the same conclusion... a conclusion preordained by their very nature... that they must destroy our worldview in order to survive.

Because time is on our side. If we survive, we eventually win. It's that simple.

Woozle said...

Some attempts at quasi-rational analysis and commentary:
- gay marriage
- Peggy Noonan

Also, DB: has anyone drawn your attention to Campaigns Wikia? It's similar to what I'm trying to do with Issuepedia, but much better publicized (it's a project of Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales); they're managing to actually get some discussion going ;-)

Xactiphyn said...

One of the ironies is Reagan was perhaps the greatest promoter of the Positive Sum approach; his trickle-down theory depended upon it. Noonan probably wrote many of those speeches herself.

(Trickle-Down is, of course, another one of those amplified half-truths and it's failure helps promote Zero Sum ideology on the left.)

Anonymous said...

What Peggy is doing is making an empheral argument about an idea that has been around some time.

It's epheral because it is a dark argument, when taken too seriously - It's no accident that demagogues and dictators have appealed to the forgetten little man.

But since Peggy's success is based in good measure on her personal popularity and her reputation as a nice seeming person, it is hard to address the argument because it is so tied to her and her marketable way of phrasing things.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments about the ultra conservatives and their anti-education stance. I very much abhor many (ok, fine almost *all*) of their activities.

In terms of zero-sum games, I'd like to point out that the left, too, has issues with Decadence Rationalizations. So many of the eco-fringe left are so sure that we are all going to hell in a hand basket, that they want us to return to the agrarian past. Ignoring all the positive modernist advantages...

In your previous entry on the "T" word you compared Climate Change "Deniers" to Tobacco industry lobbyists. I can claim to neither be connected with the Tobacco industry, nor with "big oil". But I've long been a skeptic on the anthropogenic global warming issue. Long before it became a media magnet.

NOTE: I don't say global warming isn't happening, it seems clear that the planet has warmed since the so-called "Little Ice Age".

What I question is the attribution of warming, the alarmist scaremongering, and rampant calls for action. (As an aside we went through this once before in the 1970s when a few climate scientists indicated that we were on a cooling trend caused by pollution, which was whipped into a media frenzy by the enviro-left of a coming Ice Age).

In todays scare a few scientists have managed to publish a series of papers purporting to show that the current temperatures are "unprecedented" and that a rise in CO2 is the cause. The lead paper was Mann/Bradley/Hughes in 1998 - MBH 1998, used as the basis of the IPCC TAR (Third Assesment Report), largely written by Michael Mann et al. What was supposed to be a literature survey by un-biased non-partisan reviewers, got turned on its head and become a self-promotional puff piece for the "clade" of climatologists lead by M.Mann. The famous hockey-stick chart become a poster child of environmental groups the world over.

Sadly, the math behind the lead paper, and likely subsequent papers from the same working groups, was really quite flawed. Any climate sequence that showed an upturn in the twentieth century got emphasized. Basically the alpgorithms data mined for "hockey stick" shaped results. And not surprisingly they found them. They could have done as well with any random input, stock market prices, noise etc. One particular set of sequences "Bristlecone Pines" became the dominant entry of the hockey stick. (These are based on trees that grow at altitude in very dry climates in the Sierra and Western US) Somehow this become the "global climate temperature signal" -- it's bunk of course.

Check for articles by one of the lead skeptics Steve McIntyre. (Of course there are plenty of comments on the blog, some by rational and some by irrational people).

In summary there are loony tunes people at the extremes of both houses, and rational people will do well to see through to the underlying facts.


Anonymous said...

Robert notes:

"As an aside we went through this once before in the 1970s when a few climate scientists indicated that we were on a cooling trend caused by pollution, which was whipped into a media frenzy by the enviro-left of a coming Ice Age."

You've been misled.

I was in high school during the "ice age" flap.

That's all it was, a flap. There was no "media frenzy." It something that science nerds like me were interested in of course, but to the mainstream it only worth a few silly-season magazine articles and TV specials.

The "enviro-left" was hardly aware of it; they were too busy worrying about nuclear power plants.

This "new ice age" was not blamed on pollution. It was supposed to be a natural cycle.

The amount of evidence for a new ice age, and the concern over what to do about it, were nothing like the evidence or concern over global warming.

It is a false equivalence, a factoid dredged up for use as a talking point by a well-financed propaganda campaign designed to smear concern over climate as irrational fearmongering.


The Global Cooling Myth

And while I'm at it, A Dummies guide to the latest "hockey stick" controversy.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of what you're saying, Dr. Brin, though I think you're reading more into Noonan's piece than's there. I'd attribute it to pandering and general hackery, and the irony of intellectual Republican hacks stirring up anti-intellectual feeling.

And I think you might be interested in this, over at the Washington Monthly, Progressive Realism, Take 2. One of the key points they mention is transparency.

David Brin said...

Catfish, have you posted here before? You are a keeper!

Woozle. I approve of the Issuepedia and all attempts to implement better disputation online. Alas, until I can make dittos, I am too swamped to be much help. But Tallyho! and good luck!

Mark, I agree with you that Ronald Reagan was not INTRINSICALLY an enemy of America and the Enlightenment, the way the Cheneykleps are. Indeed, on those few occasions when he let himself perceive the anti-democratic, anti-enterprise tilt of some followers, he corrected them sharply! Alas, he let himself be flattered into not seeing, far too often. And much worse, like the Bushes, he let his close circle shelter him in a comforting cloud of just-so stories, pushing out conflicting news. That is the thing I most blame him for. NOT some of the crimes attributed by the left. (Most of those seem tepid now, compared to what’s going on. Stuff that RR would have abhorred. If he ever climbed out of the cocoon that surrounded him, he might have become the great man that the nutty right claims that he was. But he never did. It was just too comfy.)

Your other point; trickle-down can and does work? Well, certainly at one level. But it’s much harder to arrange than just saying: “hey rich dudes! Here’s a trillion dollars! Now stimulate the poor with jobs and goodies!” What a load.

The Left should have said, “Fine. Then let us rig the game rules so that we can ensure these funds will be SPENT, instead of applied to the reinforcement of social power. Because that’s the flaw. You give a dollar to a poor person, she will spend it. Give one to Rupert and he’ll spend maybe a nickel! In fact, the richer you are, the less you NEED to spend, therefore, unless you are addicted to gaudy show, the other option is generally chosen... to use your wealth TO BECOME EVEN WEALTHIER.

That, in itself, is not sin, especially if the path to greater wealth remains one of developing and delivering ever-better goods and services, instead of what Adam Smith despised, the passive receipt of rents (or dividends.) Even Warren Buffett, who invented no goods or services, IMPROVED the companies he invested in, actively. THAT is the form of “trickle down” that a true liberal (a follower of Adam Smith and John Locke) can accept best.

Alas, we are being raped by the opposite kind of aristocrat. The more traditional kind. The kind that Smith hated and railed against. The truest enemies of markets and genuine free enterprise. Conspiratorial cabals of kleptocratic would-be feudal lords who aim to reinstate hierarchy, secrecy and coercion-by-right-of-status.

Robert L., I am sorry. You express yourself well, but what you are saying is the utmost and most smoldering doggie poo.

1. If you contend we don’t know enough yet, why aren’t you EVEN ANGRIER than the left is, over right-wing efforts to STYMIE and HAMPER RESEARCH? The utter demolition of independent Congressional scientific advisory capacity was deliberate and thorough. OTSA and every other source of neutral expertise was ZEROED! Is there any explanation other than blind dogmatism and outright treason that could possibly explain such an act?

2. Noonan says scientists should have called a grand conclave to judge climate change. They HAVE held several major conferences which proclaimed OVERWHELMING consensus about human origins... which Crichtonites then counter with the rantings of a few third-raters. What balance!

3. But all right then, let’s have that grand conference! Track the history. Funding has been refused and progress blocked at every level.

4. The Crichtonites are hilarious! Add up the trillion-dollar venial interests who have pushed self-benefiting sabotage of science... then weigh them against a vast and diffuse and eclectic scientific consensus... and it really does look pretty obscene. So a distraction is needed. Hence they create a marvelous conspiracy notion (e.g. in “State of Fear”) of ruthless and powerful eco-freaks with monstrous tools and awesome funding and power, pushing “global warming scare” for their own self-interest. And I gotta ask, um “are you guys really from this planet?” THIS one?”

Yes, human beings are able to contort, and even turn underdogs into oppressors. Witness Israel. And yet... don’t you look at poor little EXXon-Mobil on one side, persecuted my the malevolent and super-powerful, mighty Sierra Club on the other... and feel at least a little embarrassed? WHat, not a little?

(An aside, the US Navy is already researching URGENT how to operate in an ice free Arctic.)

5. Oh but finally there is this. Suppose the Climate Change people are wrong. Say we embark on a costly Manhattan Project to develop higher efficiency products and energy production. Say we frantically subsidize solar and wind until our cities gleam with rooftop collectors. Say we are “kyoto’d” into a panic stricken rush to hybrids and superconductors and doubled research budgets that BENEFIT SOME SCIENTISTS AND ECO-FREAKS!!!!!

...and then find out that it was a mistake. The danger was exaggerated. The oillies weren’t stonewalling suits-bastards, like Big Tobacco, after all, but calm, public-spirited, mature voices of reason. Gawrsh.

Um... well... then... I guess we would have, maybe, hurried that whole efficiency thing a few points faster than... than wise-smart people would be pushing it anyway... even without the threat of Global Warming. Oooh. How terrible.

On the other hand, what if 90% of the atmospheric scientists and climatologists on the planet are right, after all? And let’s suppose the Ruperts and Crichtons and Noonans and Exxons have their way, delaying us until it is simply too late? Leaving the planet screwed, even though we were warned?

(Indeed, the latest pitch from the right? It’s too late, so why bother!! What agility.)

Ah, ahem. Have you ever heard the Puritan sayings, “better safe than sorry”? or “a stitch in time”? or “waste not”? or “don’t foul your own nest”? or... why has nobody but me commented that the liberals are today’s real conservatives?

While the right has gone cloud cuckoo into s spendthrift tizzy, justified (in the end, literally) by the Book of Revelations and an attitude of “What, me worry?”

Dig it. We’ve saved the world before. Ozone was much easier than Greenhouse gases and I do NOT favor the most draconian versions of Kyoto. (“Shiver in the dark” is way too puritanical for me. Paul Ehrlich is the reincarnated Cotton Mather.) STILL, WE FIXED THAT ONE AND WE COULD DO IT AGAIN.

But not while smart guys like Robert are drinking the koolaid served up by the Jim Jones monsters currently in charge.


(Robert, you are clearly smart. Please stay. Fight it out. But also know this. I know the atmospheric scientists involved in this issue. Many of them personally. They are not shills. And they are very scared.

(For example. Climate Change should be MUCH WORSE than it has been. Some years, a mysterious sink seems to have swallowed half the world's CO2 output and only a few theories suggest where. But ALL of those theories warn "the sink can give it BACK, quickly. Maybe overnight.)

Anonymous said...

david could you give some links for this C02 sink stuff - google doesnt link into any recognisable trustworth sources

Anonymous said...

Do any of those theories about the sink involve a large vacuum cleaner-like device in some mad scientist's laboratory? Yay for the eggheads! :-) Oh, wait, I'm probably falling in to that other dangerous camp -- the wishful thinkers.

Anonymous said...

OK, so Peggy Noonan said "It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, . . ."

I'm surprised that nobody else has pointed out that she obviously also doesn't understand the difference between "apprehension" and "comprehension".

Or maybe she did get it right. People with lower IQs really are more afraid of the true meaning of things, and they really are more afraid of the reality of life (and evolution!).

Anonymous said...

Freeman Dyson was writing about the "Missing C02" problem decades ago. There's an essay on it in From Eros to Gaia.

* * *

Has the ocean acidification problem been mentioned yet?

In brief:

The CO2 we are adding to the atmosphere is making the oceans more acidic.

When they become acid enough to dissolve the shells of phytoplankton, pop goes the ocean's food pyramid. (To mix a metaphor.)

Anonymous said...


Hagel calls Iraq 'replay of Vietnam'

Calling conditions in Iraq "an absolute replay of Vietnam," Sen. Chuck Hagel said Friday that the Pentagon is making a mistake by beefing up American forces in Iraq. U.S. soldiers have become "easy targets" in a country that has descended into "absolute anarchy," the Nebraska Republican and Vietnam combat veteran said in an interview with The World-Herald.

Anonymous said...

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:-
We murder to dissect.

He knew this all before Noonan.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, well a bit stronger reaction than I thought.

Stefan - and I claim you've bought into revisionist history. I too was in high school, and college in the 70's. The "coming Ice age" made the cover of several prominent news magazines, and for a while was quite a buzz. Quoting is quoting the source of the problem. I will give them this, they are a lot better at promoting the scare now than they were then.. :-)

Stefan - what is the average PH of the ocean? Is that acidic or alkaline? How much has the PH changed? At what PH do the "shells of phytoplankton" dissolve? [Extra Bonus Question: What is the range of PH levels that naturally occur in the ocean?]

David B - I am angry at both the left and the right over this issue. We do need to get to the bottom of this, but the extremely politicized opinions of both sides are preventing any meaningful dialogue.

When the "truth" comes out it is Science that loses. Anytime science become politicized, exaggerated etc. We (modernists, progressives etc.) lose.

To say that I have "drunk the Kool Aid" is an ad hominem and does not address the points. I have been following the issue since the late 1980s when Margaret Thatcher first used the 'science' as propaganda to disrupt the position of a coal strike. She was hardly a bastion of left-wing ideology. Nowadays it is a source of personal irritation that the extreme right wing take this cause under their anti-science agenda. I guess they can't be wrong about everything!

The scientists you know may be genuinely concerned, and obviously if the Mann et al people were correct then there would be good reason to be concerned. But the statistics from which they have drawn their conclusions have been shown to be not just wrong, but misguidedly wrong. I'd hardly call Wegman "a third rater", in an independent analysis they found that Mann et al's results were NOT supported by the underlying data. It is their statistics that are doggie poo.

Note that at the "grand conclave" - IPCC TAR - the summary for policymakers was re-written after the scientists had signed off on it (I contend by the actual "third raters"), to change both the meaning and certainty of the conclusions. That 90% concensus is illusory.

I thought I made it clear in my first post, we are in a warming period. Are we warming as much as the alarmists would have us believe? maybe, it is "unprecedented"? probably not. Did we cause it? possible but unlikely.

Please take the time to look into the math behind the hockey stick. The Wegman report is a good place to start.

I guess what I am really recommending is a little critical thinking.


PS. Tangent, I loved those common sense misperceptions, I got 82% Wahoo! in the OkCupid test!

Anonymous said...

The "coming Ice age" made the cover of several prominent news magazines, and for a while was quite a buzz.

Yes, it did, as I noted in my reply. But the "ice age" issue was a flash in the pan that was forgotten within a few years.

Its reemergence now is part of the F.U.D. campaign.

The Royal Society's report on Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

David Brin said...

Robert, you claim to be angry at both sides on this issue. But I see that as a grasp as a glimmer credibility, from a position that has absolutely no credibility, whatsoever.

True, both the far-left and far-right arebiliously anti-science. But with the difference that the far-right controls the entire United States government, all branches, vast funding sources, from EXXON to the R’oil House, and almost every media outlet. The far left is a joke, even within the Democratic party.

You CANNOT get away with combining “we need more research” with anything but outrage toward those who are savagely CUTTING THE RESEARCH! “We need better information” cannot work with “we’ll destroy the entire nonpartisan Congressional advisory apparatus, root and branch, burn the remnants and scatter trhe ashes.”

It does not work. And until you can either reconcile that, or explain it to me, I have no choice but to assume that koolaid (propaganda-loyalty-fetshism) has done this to a good mind.

I note that you have simply shrugged aside 4 out of five of my points. BUT EVERY SINGLE ONE OF ATHEM, ALL BY ITSELF, IS DEVASTATING.

YOU SAY: “I guess they can't be wrong about everything!“

Yeah? Show me one counter-example.

The OLD conservatism had such glimmers of truth. I hated the fact that liberals (while being right that civil rights and sexual liberation and poverty need virous attention) were so unwilling to listen to PRACTICAL suggestions by Barry Goldwater etc, about including work incentives and family incentives in the mix. That dogmatism finally broke under Clinton and we got the immense success of Welfare Reform (and I know I will get HUGE mail from lefties about that!)

But neoconservatism is not about making things work, not even capitalism. Other than possibly tort reform, you cannot name a single endeavor since they took office that actually was aimed at helping small businesses to thrive and drive a vibrant economy, let alone improving the level-playing-field so all girls and boys can compete with maximum vigor, opportunity and creativity. No, the sole recipients of beneficence have been the HALF of the aristocracy that wants feudalism back.

Fortunately, the other half “gets” the Positive Sum Game. They would rather be SLIGHTLY richer than everybody else, in a diamond shaped society that is rising so rapidly we may become demigods.... that conspire to pound society back into a feudal pyramid of traditional privilege that emphasizes RELATIVE wealth, at the expense of lower ABSOLUTE waealth for all.

That is THE common denominator for the neocons policies. And Global Climate disaster fits right in.

Anonymous said...

So Hezbollah and al Qeada are actually the good guys because they are fighting against Paris Hilton's neocon troops?

Or are they actually on the same side as the neocons...props that allow the neocons to wage an endless war?

Anonymous said...

How Stephen McIntyre became the greenhouse skeptics' golden boy.

But the harshest critic of the whole issue is former Wall Street Journal page-one editor, Frank Allen. He now directs the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources in Missoula, Mont. When asked to read the front-page article, he described it to ES&T as a “public disservice” littered with “snide comments” and “unsupported assumptions”. He says he does not understand how the story got past the editors.

“It was a strange story ’cause it had this bizarre undertone of being investigative but it didn’t investigate,” says Allen. “And this piece—what I thought was bothersome about it—it purported to be authoritative, and it’s just full of holes.”

"Full of holes" . . . but good enough for senators, conservative pundits, and glib, aggressive trolls.

Speaking Truthiness to Power . . . what a great gig!

Anonymous said...

Ouch, I apologise for not enumerating my responses. Please hold the Ad Hom attacks, and deal with the science. I have been looking at this long before the right wing wacko's got hold of it.

Your Items:

#1: no arguement, you are absolutely right, the actions of the current right wing are an abomination

#2:my point about the IPCC, the TAR and MBH98 (Hockey Stick) were written by the same people. "Who guards the guards?" Why are they witholding their data and methods?

#3: I don't have any information on this point, other than your #1

#4: I'm not saying there is a conspiracy, I didn't bring up Chrichton (a miserable author IMHO, try reading "Congo" yuck!)

There are many groups whose political interests are aligned with a desire/need for Anthropogenic Global Warming to be true. They all happily jumped on the bandwagon, without checking the facts.

#5: I also didn't bring up Kyoto. It is not a zero sum game. There are better reasons for reducing fossil fuel use, improving efficiencies etc. than the bogus climate change reasoning

You asked for a counter example, and I'm giving you one, this one, AFAIK it's the only one :-).

Did you look at the stats under the MBH98 paper? Did you look at the Wegman report?


Anonymous said...

Stefan - I read the Royal Societies report.

I don't disagree with the concept, it is quite powerful, and if correct a better reason to limit CO2 than climate change.

Perhaps this is the "sink" that David referred to earlier.


Rob Perkins said...

Your other point; trickle-down can and does work? Well, certainly at one level. But it’s much harder to arrange than just saying: “hey rich dudes! Here’s a trillion dollars! Now stimulate the poor with jobs and goodies!” What a load.

I pointed out to my brother, who gave me that line, that the wealthy don't *give* that extra money away: they *rent it out*, expecting returns on every investment.

David Brin said...

monkyboy... BOTH Hezbollah and Israerl are pawns in a higher-level game. The diff is that Israel knows it and sees no way out.

Rob, you got it. We SO DESPERATELY NEED for the moderate-pragmatist movement (mostly do-something liberals who are not leftists) to rediscover the roots of the word "liberalism" and its founders, Locke and Adam Smith. It may be wrenching. But if neocons can switch from fiscal conservatism to looting and abandon all pridence from their self-definition, then liberals can rediscover the joy of opena dn free markets in which everybody (including poor kids) gets to play!

Specifically, you mentioned "rents". Smith despised them!

True, there is rteal capitalistic use for strategic investment as "market wisdom" forcing competition between companies. The best at this was Warren Buffett. But the right has turned this notion into the sacred heart of enterprise and it most definitely is not.

Inventing. Producing. Improving services. These should have priority under all of the market's rules.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

I afraid I don't quite yet buy into your neofuedal conspiracy theory.

You haven't defined it very well.

Take your comments on Bill Gates over the past few months. You have written he is both:

a. One of the enlightened rich who will fight the good fight.

b. A monopolistic bastard who jammed his crappy products down our throats.

And what about the "little" people in all this? You claim to hate elites, yet all your solutions seem to involve efforts of elites. I don't think the "little" people are as dumb as you think.

Almost 40% of Americans eligible to vote in the last election didn't. Many of those who did vote probably just voted for the same party they always do or just flipped a coin.

I think most people know our current low tax rates and spending more than we earn will lead to problems...but we're just not ready to end the party just yet.

When the bill comes due, we'll stick the wealthy with it...nobody else will be able to afford to pay the bill.

Tony Fisk said...

David Brin said:
If he (Reagan) ever climbed out of the cocoon that surrounded him, he might have become the great man that the nutty right claims that he was. But he never did. It was just too comfy.

and then MonkyBoy said:
Take (Brin's) comments on Bill Gates over the past few months. You have written he is both:
a. One of the enlightened rich who will fight the good fight.
b. A monopolistic bastard who jammed his crappy products down our throats.

(Two words: Steve Ballmer)

To the above I will add the legend of King Canute failing to turn back the waves to show his flattering court that he wasn't omnipotent.

There is a common theme here, that of the middleman. While they're essential for 'making it so' you have to be sure as to what it is they are making so with *your* resources! Psychopaths are adept at presenting 'sunny side up' to the boss and stifling the screams of the underlings.

Canute got it. Reagan usually didn't. Bush either can't or doesn't care. Billy Boy...?

When the bill comes due, we'll stick the wealthy with it.

Seems to be the same 'put it on the tab' mentality displayed by the Nerocons. SOP: I think they've already thought of that one, and don't intend to be around to pick it up.

Rob Perkins said...


I'm left wondering how things are turning out with the ownership economy. Recall the call last year to revamp Social Security, which had it been successful, would have turned every last wage-earner in the United States into a money-landlord, just like the wealthiest of us. If you think about it.

In a certain sense, that's what saving money is supposed to be about, isn't it? Give the money to the bank, they loan it out and pay interest, etc etc.

Now, I opposed the Social Security reform. There was not a worse time for anyone to propose such a thing; no mutual fund with any long term vision has offered more than desperately paltry returns; all of mine are still losing money, and the only reason I'm in them these days is for the employer match.

So, if you don't rent out your extra money, through savings accounts or money markets or fungible securities and futures, what's left for the wealthy to do?

Donations? This has always been a narrowly defined thing. And most of it goes to churches or institutions with narrow rather than wide societal interests, though many of those direct money to things like zero-interest loans or educational pursuits. David's proxy activism ideas certainly fit here.

Taxation? One supposes that with a taxed dollar, the hope of extra economic productivity is exchanged for some larger societal benefit, such as a network of roads, or perhaps even a non fungible one, like support for the arts. But many people oppose taxation on principle, because they believe it corrupts and much of it is wasted thereby.

Each one has advantages, and disadvantages, it seems to me.

Tony Fisk said...

A brief return to the original topic of this post (or part thereof):

Guest blogger at the Planetary Society this week is Neil deGrasse Tyson. His entry finishes on this note:

"I am not yet annoyed by random public encounters. And I might never be. Why? Because my privacy is never invaded: Nobody asks me for my autograph, unless it's to sign one of my books that they happen to be carrying. Nobody asks my favorite color. Or what car I drive.

Without exception, they instead bust forth with a battery of pent-up questions about the nature of the universe. I am not the target of their interest nor am I the object of their affection. The universe is. And they think of me primarily as their personal conduit to the cosmos. What more could an educator hope to be?

And contrary to the stereotype of the college-educated lifetime learner, most of them are laborers. And I am delighted to think of them all as blue-collar intellectuals, which, come to think of it, may be the first time those three words have ever appeared together in a sentence."

So there, Peggy Noonan!

Anonymous said...


I think when the Democrats take back contol of the government they will find all the new powers Bushie gave to the NSA very handy in tracking down all the money the Republicans try to stash overseas.

And so will all the victims of the neocon's war crimes when they sue them for reparations...

Tony Fisk said...

Well, yes. One hopes the Nerocons aren't as clever as they think.

However, poetic justice aside, I'd be very concerned if the 'newly elected' democrats start using those convenient powers...and decide they're too useful to discard.
(actually, they don't seem to have been much practical use whatsoever, but that's not the point. The real point would be for the dems to avoid becoming the monster they'd have just displaced)

Anonymous said...

On the road, but this is David Brin (never take my word for it! ;-)


1. I HATE WORDSWORTH! A bitchy little man whose basic message is "you whipper snappers are all snots!"

2. No cpnflict re Gates. I've said it before. If Jobs had seen sense in the 1980s, we'd all have better computers (by far) and media, and the world's richest man would be ten times as rich and a very scary dude (I hear.)

Gates, in contrast, cornered a market and has used it to deliver absolutely wretched-horrid smolderingly stinky product... but he himself sounds like a nice fellow who "gets" how good the Enlightenment has been to him.

As for Social Security reform, it was an attempt to take the kleptos' half a trillion dollar raid and turn it into a ten trillion $ raid.

THINK! EVEN IF IT HAD BEEN TOTALLY HONEST, new money buying stocks does not go to capital equipment and research. It goes (except for IPOs) into buying up the price of equities already owned by those already in the market. AT BEST it would short term benefit Bushco's class.

But there is so much more. They are not fools. They know climate change is real. They know about several dire scenarios. They are stryggling to reconfigure portfolios and dump dog stocks on "greater fools". SSR would have given them a MANDATED flood of greater fools.

Socialist monsters.

Anonymous said...

The "neocons" aren't conspiring against the electric car. Not unless you define "neocon" as anyone remotely related to Bush. It isn't an accurate label for many of the players out there.

Anyway, the "plot against electric cars" is largely myth. The EV-1 was just a little early, and its plug getting pulled a business decision.

The conspiracy, if there is one, is against higher mileage and pollution standards, such as the ones that California is pushing. Again, the opponents aren't "neocons," but oil companies and car manufacturers. The former want to sell product, the latter don't want to have to retool. (Lazy, shortsighted bastards! The Japanese and Chinese are going to eat them alive. I just hope us taxpayers aren't forced to bail them out.)

* * *

Speaking of portfolios . . .

I live like a grad student in part so I have money to play investment games with.

My rash purchase of mobile home stocks proved painful (come on, hurricanes!) My equally rash purchase of railroads stocks has paid off handsomely. Rash purchase number three, of stock in solar cell firms, looks promising but they're all currently down along with everything else.

Any ideas? Not specific stocks, but sectors where actual investment is called for.

Anyone know who is looking into building non-corn ethanol infrastructure?


Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin suggested I post here:

A Response to "Loose Change" by "Maddox."


Tony Fisk said...

Stefan, we--ell. If you really feel like taking a punt, there's LiftPort. They're still in proof of concept phase and trying to get their hands on $10 billion... on second thought, perhaps not. They're a private company at the moment.
(Not going into arguments about waste of money and falling towers wrapping themselves around the Earth. Run and find out for yourself)

More down to earth, Vision Systems Limited has a nice line in automated pathology units (I know 'cos I worked on them!)

Loose change is total rubbish, but is not proof that there was *no* conspiracy! (although that bit about the dollar bill has got me thinking...*was* someone in 1928 privy to the arts and devices of Nostradamus? ;-)

Anonymous said...


Regarding your quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson and "blue-collar intellectuals"; I've been seeing a bit more often these days a strange dichotomy, in a way. Strictly anecdotal, mind you, but I think the Information Technology field in particular has almost forced a revival in interest int eh "self-made man", even while there is a still greater push for even more higher-education learning.

For example a recent post over at Homeland Stupidity ( discusses "hacking" (by the real definition, not by the "cracking" definition it is often mistaken to mean) discussing the deep interest many who deal with computers have in learning pretty much for learnings sake. I myself have virtually no college education (about enough for an Associates, but not in all the right courses to actually get the degree) and pretty much discovered along the way that college courses simply taught me neither anything that I didn't already know nor the true skills I really need in to do a great job. They may teach me how to memorize (the most useless skill in an ever-changing field) but they never really bother teaching you how to research. Frnakly every test, especially in an IT field, should be open book because finding answers quickly and efficiently is a far greater test of the skills you'll really use.

At any rate, my point is only that I agree greatly that those of us who are self-taught, especially in this particular industry, are more and more often bieng viewed as very valuable resources. In a way a 4-year degree means less because of the very folks who are out there doing it without any degrees and the educational industry's response has been to push for even higher level degrees. Competition in action, in a way, but seeing a greater interest in the "common man" to learn on their own because so very many resources are now more readily available to us (I thank Providence every day for the internet!)

So here's a toast, then, to blue-collar intellectuals, even if we aren't all blue collared. ;) And here's to everyone who recognizes that they are not "sheeple" and that raising all of our own interests and education regardless of preferred method is in no way a zero-sum game. I'm glad to see this kind of revival and allowing even the "uneducated" to recognize they aren't really so uneducated after all. (And another toast to some of the self-educated Americans who made it all so noticeable to begin with, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison to name only two of so very, very many.)

Rob Perkins said...

As to the idea that "blue collar" people are also life learners, curious about things, I'm not terribly surprised.

I also didn't take it as Noonan's point that (highest-education != common sense) was somehow the same as her saying that non-ivory-tower types didn't pursue their own education.

*I'm* a self-taught computer professional, and since leaving college through dropping out I've dabbled in ancient koine Greek, the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, comparative religion, politics, local and county law, administration of non-profit corporations, and automobile repair, just to start what could be a very long list.

I know artisans who read voraciously, a dentist who can't keep his hands off of IT topics, they fascinate him so much, pharma salesmen who lead in churches, *that* list goes on as well, and frustrates me when I see people strawmanning things which are not the point.

Not to mention the arrogance of claiming to coin the term "blue collar intellectual"

Anonymous said...

And even if the warming we are seeing now IS natural . . . how can pumping a known greenhouse gas into the atmosphere not make it WORSE?

* * *

One of the fallback positions that greenhouse skeptics take is to enthuse about how increased CO2 will make plants grow faster. You know: "Think of upside! Everyone likes plants and warm weather!"

It has been known for decades that CO2 makes certain plants, including maize, more vulnerable to drought. It has also been known that some plants benefit better than others. Weeds for example. And poison ivy.

Just today, this new bit of joy:

Food-crop Yields In Future Greenhouse-gas onditions Lower Than Expected

"Open-air field trials involving five major food crops grown under carbon-dioxide levels projected for the future are harvesting dramatically less bounty than those raised in earlier greenhouse and other enclosed test conditions -- and scientists warn that global food supplies could be at risk without changes in production strategies."

Of course, this won't keep the pundits, trolls, and politicians from using this spurious bullet point.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

I found your explaination of Bill Gates as hero and villan pretty lame. Do you really believe what you wrote?

Another problem I have with your conspiracy theory is that many of the actors have opposing interests...

Oil Industry<-->Car and Airline Industries one example.

All the debt the neocons are building up will eventually force a massive devaluation of the dollar.

Anyone holding dollar-denominated assets will suffer.

I think your neofeudalists have already begun to attack each other.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem with the electric car- the reason the EV1 was a failure, and electric cars will continue to fail for the forseeable future- is range.

The EV1 had a 70 mile range. Even the extremely expensive Tesla can only go 250 miles on a charge- and then you're stuck charging the car for hours.

They're fine if you live in a densely populated part of the country, and never drive beyond a limited range of your home. If you only use your car to commute around Orange County, or the longest road trip you take is New York to Boston, maybe. But if you live in the western part of the country, where I've spent my life, they're not practical. Want to do a day trip from Sioux Falls to Minneapolis? You can't. Want to get from Albuquerque to Denver? Too bad.

Until you can go 500-1000 miles on a night's charge, or can pull into a station and "flash charge" the batteries in a few minutes, electric cars aren't going to get off the ground.

Anonymous said...

"Why not pay a subsidy to grow corn or wheat or something and turn it into ethanol?"

Rob, have you been asleep the last year or so? :-)

Corn-state politicians are pushing hard for making ethanol the alternative fuel of choice. There is already a requirement, at least in some states, for gasoline to have a certain percent of ethanol. This was a political decision.

The problem is, the energy benefit is very low, because corn requires a lot of water and fertilizer . . . petroleum based fertilizer!

The net benefit is very low; some say it is negative.

There is interest in using other plants as a source of ethanol. Quick-growing weeds that don't need much irrigation or fertilizer would be ideal.

Anonymous said...


Without oil...will the culture of war that exists in the Middle East last?

The U.S. military is currently burning up 15% of America's domestic oil production and refining capacity in the fight to, um, er, make America energy independent?

Without oil...the culture of war will end everywhere...

Tony Fisk said...

In appealing to her audience, Noonan was inferring that common people had lower IQs than professionals. I considered that insulting, and merely pointed out Tyson's comment to demonstrate that people aren't inherently stupid or pig-ignorant. There's a hoary old definition of a PhD as being someone who knows everything about nothing. With that in mind, Noonan's 'mystery' isn't so astonishing: folk in general have a wider focus of interests than specialists.

Which is leading back into GAR vs FIBM vs WOC territory again...

With the principles of IT evolving so rapidly, I agree that there is an incentive to keep yourself informed. I do have a degree from over 20 years ago but, while the concepts still apply, the specifics are woefully antiquated. Furthermore, I've learned not to depend solely on my employer offerings, which, if offered at all, are usually attuned to the needs of today's projects which rely on yesterday's technology. (Of course, you need to know how to do the job at hand, but you also need to judge what technologies are going to last).
A good reference book is a better resource than a high priced 'certification course' that is valid only until the next release of the OS.

Speaking of self learning, and to add a little more grist for the topics under discussion (now and previously), do go check out this week's New Scientist (if only for the cover!):
- a rethink of what really happened to that self destruct mode culture on Easter Island (someone had fun with the front cover!)
- forget Tesla. How about a green car that runs on... water!?
- the usual collection of interesting odds and ends

Anonymous said...


There were plenty of wars before oil. There will be plenty of wars after. For examples...
The Army's M-1 Abrams Main Battle Tank has a gas turbine engine... while it runs best on jet fuel, it can use any liquid that burns: Kerosine, Gasoline, Diesel, Grain Alchohol, Wood Alchohol... The Navy's Burke class destroyers use similar engines.

Of course, you can always go lower tech... the record for miles per day (by a military unit) was set by the Mongol hordes on horseback.

On a lighter note: I do about 30 miles a day by car for my commute... I would gladly go for a electric car that could make that distance at 65mph.

Rob Perkins said...

No, I gathered that Noonan's offering was that workaday people had more common sense, not less intelligence; I don't equate high intelligence with the ability to function in what I think is a university tenure system in need of significant repair. I dimly recall a study of IQ test results from decades ago that showed distributions of highly intelligent people in blue collar jobs.

Anonymous said...

Bliss was it that dawn to be alive
To be young, was very heaven!

Tony Fisk said...

@Rob: It might have been her intention, but it wasn't what she said:
"I note here what is to me a mystery. It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, than do our high-IQ professionals, who often seem, in areas outside their immediate field, startlingly dim."

Meanwhile, Tyson has an update in which a janitor asks him a simple question. I feel that the answer given is as illuminating as the fact that the question was asked at all!
(*this* is decadence? Ha!)

...and 'More Perfect' sounds like an interesting site for an arena.

Rob Perkins said...

Heh. Sorry. I retract.

Anonymous said...

There were plenty of wars before oil.

You got me there, Hawker. If the U.S. has to revive the horse's a fair bet we will have to look for enemies closer to home, though.

On electric cars, I still think the biggest obstacle is our aging power grid. Imagine if, during the recent heatwave, with our grid already straining...200 million cars and trucks were plugged into it...lights out!

Oil isn't easily's a unique fuel.

Anonymous said...

I doubt in the future wars will be over oil.

They'll be over water.

But on the subject of conspiracies, there's more than one kind of conspiracy. And some can come about just through people doing what they think is in their own best interests, not meeting in smoke-filled rooms or even really coordinating. For our example, the electric car.

Electric cars had a few technical problems, especially in regards to batteries. Those aren't gone, but there's been a lot of advances in battery tech in the past decade. But that's not all that kept them back. There were a lot of factors.

The oil companies obviously have no interest in promoting alternative fuels, except enough for PR purposes. Why should they? They've been making record profits with their current business model, even when oil was a lot cheaper than it is now.

The car companies have a lot of sunk costs in production of internal combustion cars. There's a lot of advances they could put into cars then and now, but haven't. Mainly because of cost. Why, they figure, should they put in an extra $50 part just to make the car use less gas? It'd jack up the end cost, and there wasn't much demand. At least back when gas was under $2 a gallon. And they didn't have any incentives from government to make their cars run better, CAFE standards haven't gone up in forever, even under Clinton. I don't know what his excuse was. Probably "gas is cheap, why bother?"

But gas isn't cheap now. And isn't going to be in the future. And there's proven demand for things like hybrids. Though things like Hummers still sell well, and make more profit for the car companies, I suspect.

So before, with no proof of demand and cheap gas, a CEO could probably have gotten sued for spending too much on something like electric cars. Most CEOs of public companies are required by law to try and raise the stock price as much as possible. And Wall Street doesn't think in decades, it barely thinks in quarters. Spend too much on something like electric cars, especially back when gas was cheap, and you could find yourself booted out of a job, or sued.

And the American public didn't care, SUVs were selling like crazy, gas was cheap, and Al Gore hadn't made a movie yet. All of the environmental costs of SUVs and such haven't ever been included in the price at the pump, they've been shunted off to goverment agencies like the EPA and under our taxes, which the Republicans can then rant about to get some votes. Handy how that works out.

And so the deck was stacked against electric cars. All without requiring any smoke-filled rooms. Not to say there weren't any, but the simpler explanation is usually (though not always) right. Just people all doing what they think is in their short term best interest, and totally screwing up the long term.

And that's one of the reasons I favor more active (intelligently active) government, because "the market" isn't ever going to put the costs of burning coal or gas on the people doing it. And the government can help make incentives to get people moving on problems before they become crises. Why oh why didn't Clinton put any effort into raising CAFE standards and making them apply to all cars, not just "fleets"?

Anonymous said...

The Tesla looks fantastic and i hope it sells really well

But the range problem is still the elephant in the room for all electric cars.

Someone up stream said they would keep 2 cars one for short trips one for long - your richer than me obvioulsy.

my car is only used for about 30 miles a day commuting ,but and its a BIG but one of the things i have a car for is if, with no warning, I suddently need to drive 500 miles I can
(think sick relative, evacuation, sudden desire to head west...)

unitll i can recharge an electic car as quickly and easily i can a gas one i am not buying, and neither will millions of others.

Anonymous said...

Recharging on the go would be easy. You just have a 'batter cartridge' that gets removed and replaced with a charged one at the refuelling station. They then charge up that one, and swap it into a car a few hours later.

Of course, the fuelling station would need to do quality control on the batteries and take them out of circulation for recycling after a couple of years (or whatever - what's the life of a battery these days?).

For those that wish to keep hold of their "brand new" batteries, perhaps they could remove it and stick it in the trunk, and buy a "used" one for swapping from the fuel station. If people look at batteries with the same mindset as they look at gas - who knows exactly the quality of what's put in the tank. Anyway, the car should be able to interface with the batteries and let the driver know how many charges they've had.

It doesn't even take much infrastructure or imagination to put this kind of idea into practice.

Anonymous said...


Once again, I have to disagree.

Do you have any idea how much power is generated by the 20+ million barrels of oil America burns each day?

America would need to build 5000 nuclear power plants plus the additional grid to replace oil as our transportation power a cost of around $10 trillion.

No easy task for a country with $8.5 trillion in debt and going in the hole an additional $600 billion each year.

Anonymous said...

I ... pretty much discovered along the way that college courses simply taught me neither anything that I didn't already know nor the true skills I really need in to do a great job.

I couldn't disagree more. Without serious education, I could learn to do a pretty good job (and do in a number of fields that aren't my own) - but to do a great job, I need a lot of the sort of theory that should be taught in college. To take two IT based examples, database normalisation and code optimisation.

They may teach me how to memorize (the most useless skill in an ever-changing field) but they never really bother teaching you how to research.

At least in my university experience, you were expected to learn to research in order to do the work. And there were ways of learning.

As for memorising, underlying principles of IT really haven't changed much in the past 20 years. Architectures have changed, packages and frontends have changed a lot - but database design hasn't changed that much, and the principles of code optimisation are also fairly static (if not as necessary as they used to be).

To take one obvious example, with tools like Access, any idiot can make a database. However, anyone who can't make databases in Second Normal Form (like some ex-cow-orkers of mine who couldn't manage 1NF) without resorting to books should not be claiming to be skilled at designing databases. And I don't care how much SQL they can look up and how cleverly they can code it to pull things out of their monstrous datbase.

Some principles of IT should be at such a level that anyone working in the field no more needs to be able to look them up than someone examined on working on a building site should be reminded to wear a hard hat. And such principles of IT rather than the individual apps should be what a degree level education teaches - the underlying principles, with the actual direct application left as an excercise.

(Besides, it's very hard to look up design principles and other seemingly abstract stuff in the middle of an exam).

Frnakly every test, especially in an IT field, should be open book because finding answers quickly and efficiently is a far greater test of the skills you'll really use.

And that assumes that the main goal of education should be to prepare you for the workplace. And that the skills you recognise yourself using in the workplace are the ones you actually use.

Degree level education should be about learning to think and learning underlying and abstract factors. Technical education directly relevant to the subject is another matter (although very useful).

Anonymous said...

Stefan Jones said...

"There is interest in using other plants as a source of ethanol. Quick-growing weeds that don't need much irrigation or fertilizer would be ideal."

You mean like Hemp? Ooops, chalk up another casualty in the growing ever-stupider "War on Drugs".

I still couldn't disagree with you more. Formal education has it's place and it works well enough for some, but frankly college NEVER taught me "learning to think and learning underlying and abstract factors." I've learned far more from reading and self-education than any formal education ever hoped to achieve.

You may find some who have not learned some of those basic concepts, but frankly I have never found college to be the deciding factor for who does and does not know the most useful concepts required in this field nor who has critical thinking skills. In fact I've found it more likely that college-educated and "certified" individuals (most especially in a jack-of-all-trades field like Systems Administration) are far more rigid in thier approach being less likely to do the kind of out-of-box thinking often needed to find problems, troubleshoot them and work around them.

When all is said and done I've found our formal education standards in this country to be far more about rote learning and standardization then it is about creativity and critical thinking. Especially so at the pre-college level. I think Mr. Gatto has nailed it pretty well ( in pointing out some of the fallacies we've fallen to in education in this country.

In the meantime if you want to continue limiting yourself to only those with a college education for the folks you work with, go right ahead. I prefer to keep my options open.

Anonymous said...


Your math is WAY off.

20 million barrels of oil is the equivalent of 34 million MWh; an average new nuclear plant can produce 1.5 GW, and, if we assume it operates 24 hours a day, it can therefore produce 36 GWh of electricity per day, or the equivalent of approximately 21,200 barrels of oil daily. That's a little under a thousand reactors.... HOWEVER...

Electrical and hydrogen-based cars use energy much more efficiently than oil-based cars (which waste most of their energy output in heat anyway)- four to five times as efficiently, actually. And nuclear isn't the only clean and efficient source of energy- the untapped wind reserves of the midwest could easily handle 200,000 windmills- at 1.5 MW each, that's the equivalent of 200 nuclear reactors. The startup costs (turbines, land, infrastructure, hydrogen distilleries for storage and transport) for such a wind system would be around $300 billion, but a typical new windmill is designed for a century of steady operation with regular maintainence. A few hundred nuclear reactors, a thousand wind farms, a network of hydrogen distilleries and storage systems... together, such a system could be built for between $1-2 trillion and could guarantee America's energy independence for the forseeable future. $1-2 trillion is probably the same as we'll spend on this Iraq boondoggle before all is said and done.

Anonymous said...

There were, as I recall, three major factors that doomed the EV-1:

1) Range/power. I recall a test drive written up in the San Diego paper, in which the driver was trying to make his way out of the San Fernando Valley in a cold rain at night. With the wipers going, and the heater and headlights on, the car was barely making headway up the steep hills - and the range indicator was dropping steadily...

2) The cost of maintenance. If your battery pack went bad, the cost of getting a new one was horrendous, even with much of the cost still being borne by GM (due to factor #3).

3) GM didn't sell the EV-1 - it leased them. There was no way you could possibly wind up owning your little electric car, because the company that made them refused to ever sell them. When GM decided the experiment was over, all the drivers were forced to return their cars, without so much as a purchase option.

Now, as to the commuting concept. I currently live about 30 miles away from where I work, meaning that even if I don't drive my car anywhere except work and back, I need a range between recharges of at least 60 miles - and this must be independent of terrain, traffic, temperature, and other variables (which may or may not begin with T). The Tesla might fit that bill - the EV-1 would have been a complete failure for my purposes.

Further, we recently moved back to the Tacoma, WA, area, from San Diego - a distance of some 1250 miles. Had the Tesla been available at the time, this would have required us to either rent a car trailer (and another gas-burner to haul it with - our truck was pulling a trailer of household goods at the time), or stop every 250 miles or so and spend four hours recharging the silly thing (which would have meant at least tripling the cost of the move, since we would have needed to rent motel rooms to sleep in rather than just driving).

Assuming the cost of the Tesla will be within reach for a lower-middle-class guy like me, it would be ideal for my current commute. However, should we find it necessary to move again, the car might wind up being too expensive to keep...

Now, as to the "global cooling" controversy: I am old enough to remember that one. It was pushed by a small number of scientists, whose model was based on a statistical analysis of temperature trends over the past several million years, not an analysis of real-world temperature and climate shifts. By the historical model, we're about two hundred years overdue for the next glaciation. However, as was pointed out at the time, the model was excessively simplistic, failing to take into account such factors as variability in solar output and relative arrangements of continents (when they're pretty evenly spread out, as they are today, it tends to have a moderating effect on global temperatures). Global Cooling was popularized at the time because you could put up these dramatic pictures of a glacially-locked New York City on your magazine covers, and sell a few dozen more copies to the ignorant (and, as some of you may recall, that was when the Cult of the Ignorant was at its height, even greater than today - when the Age of Aquarius was supposed to give great intuitional insight to the Enlightened...).

Global Warming, on the other hand, uses analysis of actual temperature changes, noting that the rate of increase has accelerated since we started dumping massive quantities of CO, CO2, and other such gases into the atmosphere. And the anthropogenic hypothesis, while it may well be correct, doesn't need to be the explanation in order to make moderation of those quantities a good idea. Even if it's a long-term natural trend, doesn't it make sense to do whatever we can to slow the process down??

Anonymous said...


I think you are putting too happy a face on the cost to convert America to electric cars.

Electric cars may or may not be more efficient than gas powered cars, but you lose a considerable amount of electrical power transmitting it...oil doesn't have that problem.

Almost 90% of America's goods are shipped via trucks...I have yet to see a design for an electrical truck that can haul tons of goods over a mountain pass.

Windmills in the MidWest may sound good, but on calm days, does the MidWest just stay home?

As for cost...200,000,000 vehicles converted to electrical power at, say, $10,000 a pop comes to $2 trillion...and you haven't even produced any power yet...

Xactiphyn said...

Baby steps, Monkey. Baby steps.

IMHO the number one advantage of electric cars is they put the car on the power grid and thus decoupling the car from the power source. This means any efficiency and advance we can make in power production instantly becomes available to our transportation system as well. (Light rail also has this advantage.)

But we don't have to convert all existing cars. I'd be quite happy to take twenty years to get just half way there. As long as we are moving forward we are doing good.

Anonymous said...

Bizarre science news:

25% of humans have personality-altering brain parasites.

Common cat parasite affects human brains

LONDON, Aug. 2 (UPI) -- U.S. researchers say more than a quarter of the world's population is infected with a feline parasite related to malaria and which causes personality changes.

The Toxoplasma-gondii is spread by cats to humans and other animal species, including rats, and can lead to suicidal tendencies, said Dr. Kevin Lafferty, of the University of California at Santa Barbara in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biology.

"In populations where this parasite is very common, mass personality modification could result in cultural change," Lafferty wrote.

His study said about 7 percent of Britain's population had the parasite in their brains, while almost 70 percent of people in Brazil were affected.

Lafferty wrote that an infected rat's behavior changes and becomes more active, less cautious and therefore more likely to be caught by a cat.

I'm going to be especially careful not to let my dog eat cat crap in the future . . .

Anonymous said...

Monkey: an electrical vehical that can haul tonnes of goods up a mountain pass?
I'll give you a clue; it goes "choo-choo"
Have you seen the percentage of fatal accidents on North American roads caused by big trucks?
We built a continent-spanning rail infrastructure for a reason; abandoning it is probably going to be viewed as one of the worst domestic mistakes of the 20th century.

Stefan: Spooky story, especially since it's nearly the reverse of the microbe in our host's short story "The Changing Plague"

Anonymous said...

Stock tip:

Freight railroads.

They're still running, and doing a booming business, and if fuel prices go up will do even more. They are mature businesses and pay dividends.

I bought stock in Union Pacific and a railroad car manufacturer last year and am rather pleased.

* * *

It wouldn't be hard to come up with a test and a cure for those brain parasites.

Sci-Fi scenario:

A country manages to wipe it out. Next generation grows up . . . different. Votes the governing party out of office, loses interest in soccer, and changes religious affiliation en masse.

Anonymous said...


There' a big difference between a few billionaries and hipsters driving electric cars and even just 1% of Americans driving them.

As these past few weeks have shown...America's electric grid is maxxed out. Even a modest expansion of it would cost many billions of dollars.

Then you have the cost of the tools and training to have enough mechanics to service them.

I think we can see the downside to democracy and capitalism here. To make the switch to electric cars profitable, you'd need to do it all at once...economies of scale and all that.

What you need is Emperor Gore ordering America to convert.

Anonymous said...

I was talking about what university should do, not what it actually does do in all (or even most) cases. I tend to reflexively assume that it does because mine did for almost all of us - but then my alma mater has a reasonable claim to be the best university in the world (particularly at undergraduate level). I am not an American. And I'm well aware of how good some non-university educated people can be (although one of my friends who did fit this category has just got herself a PhD). My comment was a critique of the curriculums at universities as much as saying that university education > non-university education. (It really should be - but that's another story).

If you want to spin things off into discussions about education, I'm quite happy to - but know the educational systems of Britain rather than the US. (And most of what I know is second hand - I'm interested in almost anything, and my girlfriend is both a professional teacher and near the end of her MTeach).

MadMac said...

Dear Dr. Brin:

I have been reading your blog for a year now, and it has changed my perspective more thoroughly than your books have. I hope it flatters you to know that "Uplift" and "Earth" kept me awake at night worrying over your characters, and your blog has helped me find my center after the 2000 coup knocked me off balance. While I need to thank you for growing my mind for the past quarter-century, I must tell you that this post has generated a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance.

It seems to me that the essence of your blog has been a call to revel in the complex and to repudiate the polar. Thanks to this call, I have managed to cultivate optimism and resolve in these dark times. Now, if you'll forgive my pointing out tarnish on my idol, I fear that you have succumbed to the same dis-ease that Noonan has fallen prey to.

In your June 18 blog, you debunked "The Bottomless Well" by Peter Huber and Mark P. Mills as overenthusiastic Positive-Sum Gain. This was masterful analysis, in my opinion, but it also shows that this Zero/Positive Sum Gain axis is just as nebulous as the left/right schism.

Furthermore, I must assert another opinion: that we as a nation are still living off the dividends of an inevitable zero-sum gain. We have stolen a continent from native people and other, weaker, conquerors--and are now drinking the dregs of that draught. Now I understand that many still trapped in a left-right polarization might seek to write off this opinion, and I lack the eloquence that you possess to support this idea (i.e., your exposition about the Cherokees in "Startide Rising" helped this concept to erupt in my brain.) Nevertheless, I cannot help aligning myself with those who cry about the bill coming due.

One of the main difficulties in being a writer is managing to produce consistently. I understand that a theme was needed in order to respond to Noonan's ludicrosity, and simplicity is necessary in order to keep the edges from fraying. But I want you to know that, thanks to you teaching me how to think, I have to express that the Decadance Excuse should definitely not be written off this lightly--it would be a disservice to the enlightenment.