Sunday, November 25, 2007

The End of Civilization as You Know It

It has come to my attention that there are those of you out there that do not believe that Western Civilization will eventually collapse. How you justify this hubris is a mystery to me.

Henry Kissinger once said "Every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed." This seems so obvious that I'm always surprised that others found Dr. Kissinger's quote to be controversial. But for me, to assume otherwise would be to assume that anything wrought by man could be immortal. This is contrary to both physics and history. Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, nothing is immortal.

Even corporations have a natural life span. Sure, General Electric has been around for as long as anyone can remember. But I bet at one time everyone thought the Dutch East India Company would be a permanent fixture, too (and would always pay an 18% dividend). To its credit, it lasted nearly two hundred years, before finally going bankrupt.

If nothing else, you know that in a few billion years or so our sun will run out of fuel. That's just part of the cosmological circle of life. Unless Western Civilization has escaped the grip of the Earth and our Solar System by then, it (and every other civilization on it at the time) is toast. It's not a matter of if, but when.

So it seems a safe bet that Western Civilization will eventually collapse, like every other civilization before it, permanently and irrevocably. It might collapse sooner than that, depending on various other catastrophic scenarios that are fun to ponder, like major asteroid or comet impacts, pandemics, or the super volcano under Yellowstone National Park erupting. On a purely statistical basis, it seems likely that one of those will happen (maybe more than once) long before our sun goes nova.

I think what people are actually saying, though, when they disagree with me, is that Western Civilization will not permanently collapse in their lifetime. This, I might agree with. But I would counter with that it seems almost a sure thing that your little corner of Western Civilization can collapse temporarily, given the right circumstances. This is the lesson of Hurricane Katrina. It was a hard lesson to all involved, but entropy means it is a lot easier to move from order to disorder (like, say, in Baghdad) than from disorder to order (as in New Orleans).

I used to spend my summers as a kid living in a farm house without running water, telephone, or the Internet, only a fireplace for heat, one iffy channel of broadcast television on a good day, and electricity most of the time. (I read a lot, drew water out of a well, and routinely walked around with a firearm.) As a professional, I've stayed in hotels many time zones away, where the tap water was not potable, and where I endured regularly scheduled rolling blackouts that put an end temporarily to elevators and air conditioning. (I also ate a lot of food which I had no idea what it really was, but I sort of liked that part.) These experiences really drove home the fact that the conveniences of modern day life are not evenly distributed, even in these United States.

I'm a fan of author Steven Pressfield. He's probably best known for his golf book The Legend of Bagger Vance because Robert Redford made it into a movie starring Will Smith, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theron. (Yes, I know it's not really about golf.) But if you've read more than one book by Pressfield, you probably already know that he is better known among his fans as an author of well researched historical fiction taking place in ancient Greece.

His book Last of the Amazons is about the siege of the city of Athens by the Amazons and their allies circa fifth century B.C. Greek scholars are still uncertain whether the Amazons, a tribe dominated by fierce woman warriors centered around what is now Eastern Europe, were real or myth. But if they were myth, the ancient Greeks devoted a great deal of time and effort to making bas-reliefs depicting the mythical war between them.

In Pressfield's book, we see Athens right at the early stages of its experimentation with democracy. The fictional Greeks in his book were aware of how fragile this beginning of Western Civilization was, and how easily it could all come tumbling down. Losing the war meant more than just death or enslavement. It meant an end to democracy, the end of the city state, and a return to being a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers living in animal skin huts.

I thought about this a lot while reading Pressfield's book.

When I say that Western Civilization is a house of cards, what I'm saying, in part, is that we shouldn't take civilization, Western or otherwise, for granted. It is fragile and all too easily lost. And once lost, difficult to regain.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Peak Oil and Finding Good Help

I had lunch the other day with Ken, my local Ph.D. in theoretical physics who somehow ended up with a career in telecommunications. He remarked that ethanol fuel wasn't cost effective because without the government subsidies it cost more energy to make than it yielded. This reminded me of the fact that we don't have to actually run out of oil; we just have to run out of oil that takes less energy to extract than it yields. There may be lots of oil left in the ground, waiting for some more cost effective method of extraction.

I'm a fan of the blogs of several economists. One of them wrote the other day that the best way to break the ethanol myth was quit having early caucuses in Iowa. The candidates all go to Iowa and come away with the notion that corn is really important. If we had early caucuses in, I dunno, Colorado, maybe they'd think oil was important. Or toxic waste. Or snow.

Corn isn't even nutritionally that great. Mostly it's sugar and fiber. And we lack the crucial enzymes naturally to break down what amino acids it does have. Which is why you can starve to death eating corn unless it's treated with lye. I think a really interesting thriller would be to have the bulk of the U.S. population develop a food allergy to high fructose corn syrup, rendering all processed food inedible. Not as crazy as it sounds. Mrs. Overclock (a.k.a. Dr. Overclock, Medicine Woman) tells me that the development of food allergies is not well understood, happens suddenly, and is at least anecdotally linked with high exposure.

In some ways I find this thread connected with colleagues' complaints on their difficulty finding competent technical people. Welcome to our (near) future. I worked at a university for years, and we followed the "engineer production" curve closely. It's been cyclic for many many decades. A guy I used to work with when I was at a national lab always said that the big U.S. Department of Energy labs (with whom we worked closely) were a welfare program for physicists, because it was likely we'd need physicists for reasons of national security, and if we needed them, we couldn't wait a generation for the system to create them. I'm wondering if something similar is going to happen with the Information Economy. We're going to find out that we need to artificially stimulate the production of engineers because we can't tolerate the latency in the manufacturing process. This is a case where free markets don't really work. (Adam Smith didn't believe free markets totally worked either.)

Another friend of mine passed along an article in the WSJ Online where Dow Chemical got into trouble with its biggest customers by daring to suggest that maybe we should be saving oil to make important stuff like plastic, instead of burning it up. They had to backpedal when auto makers said "increase mileage -- are you crazy?!?"

To to link the threads even more, the friend who passed along that article was a technologist with multiple college degrees who left a high paying job with a large telecommunications equipment manufacturer to become a mail clerk in a civil service job for his city government. He was disgusted and just wanted to have an 8-5 job where he could turn his brain off. Another old friend of mine who is my age left the same company a few years ago to enter the police academy, a decision that while I have no desire to emulate, I never the less greatly admire. Now he's a sargeant in the police department, training other officers. These guys aren't reflected in the unemployment statistics, because they aren't unemployed; they just bailed out of the technology domain out of disgust.

I admit that seeing simularities between finding competant software engineers and peak oil may seem kind of twisted. But oil and software engineers both are resources that are not easily found or produced. In some dark part of my mind, I'm kind of looking forward to the collapse of Western Civilization. I'm pretty convinced it's all built on a house of cards, requiring cheap energy and lots of technologists to keep it running, both of which we're exhausting (in all senses). I am confident I won't survive the collapse, but what the hell, it'll at least be interesting.

One thing for sure -- upper management will find a way to blame the engineers for all of it.


There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Some friends and I have been talking about peak oil and the implications of actually finding a cheap, plentiful alternative energy source.

I'm not a global warming expert (although I have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express), but the role greenhouse gasses play is that they increase the retention of the ambient heat that we generate. Instead of letting it be emitted as infrared into space, they reflect it back or store it as heating and emit it back. The CO2 itself doesn't generate any heat itself, it just traps the heat we create (hence the name "greenhouse" gas). So global warming is an issue of ambient heat generation AND our inability to dissipate it because of greenhouse gasses.

The role that energy production and its use plays in heat generation is covered in the second law of thermodynamics which deals with entropy. All energy is, over time, broken down into unusable heat, because the entropy (disorder) of all physical systems increase over time. Meaning: every single bit of energy we generate and use eventually turns into heat. It may be a multi-step process, but as you drive your car down the road, your engine (electric or gasoline) generates heat; your tires generate heat from friction with the road; your car generates heat from friction with the air; the refinery that made the gasoline generated heat in its production. It all becomes heat. You can't get around this: it's the way the Flying Spaghetti Monster built the universe in his/her/its/their infinite wisdom. "Heat death" is pretty much the ultimate end of everything. When we're dead and buried, as we rot we generate heat, as our bodies release their stored chemical energy.

If we have some form of really cheap, really easily had energy, such that our energy production and use really increases, our heat generation rises by exactly that same amount. Greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere means that heat gets trapped instead of being radiated away as IR. But even if we didn't have any greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, there is a physical limit to how much heat can be generated away per unit time. Basically, cheap available energy means we eventually cook ourselves to death. Literally.

Are there ways around this? It's been seriously suggested we build giant lasers that would somehow (this part is really unclear to me) radiate waste heat into space. I can imagine an SF story where we fry some passing alien craft and start an interplanetary war.

This has been proposed even for space craft with large power plants, since the only way to get rid of heat in space is by radiation; neither convection nor conduction works because there's no material to which to convect or conduct, like air or water. This is one of the reasons the Space Shuttle has big honking radiators built into the cargo bay doors and why they have to open them up when in orbit, even if they're not using the cargo bay. Their waste heat has no where else to go. This also places a physical limit to how much energy the Shuttle can expend, and how big a Shuttle we can build.

Quoting Robert Heinlein: TANSTAAFL. Cheap energy means increased heat production. In a way it just moves the problem somewhere else.

If you think about it, what is oil or coal? It's stored chemical energy. Where did the energy come from? From plants, and maybe some dinosaurs, that lived, ate, and grew millions of years ago. Because no system is 100% efficient, those plants (and dinosaurs) consumed a LOT more stored chemical energy, in the form of plants, dinosaurs, and soil and chemicals that once was plants and dinosaurs and rocks, than they created. Today we're taking advantage of a process that began millions of years ago, and that we cannot replicate. We can't make more oil because, besides the fact that we're impatient and can't wait millions of years (hence we invade small middle eastern dictatorships), the natural resources that went into making the oil, the incredibly rich biosphere, doesn't exist anymore. It went into making the oil that we DO have right now. Pretty much a one-way process.

Just like entropy and heat death.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


We all have guilty pleasures. I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER is one of mine. Now the LOLinator lets you can enjoy any web site through an LOLcats filter, including this one.