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.



Tom O'Dell said...

What sort of supervillain ARE you? You're supposed to have plans for how you'll rise to ultimate power as a result of the global crisis. (And, of course, you must reveal these plans to your helpless victims right before the denouement; this is why I assume you don't have these plans...yet.)

I pretty much agree that Western Civilization is doomed....DOOMED!!!...for the reasons that you cite, plus some others that are related. Probably the most disconcerting is the reliance on manufacturing. I don't mean just traditional manufacturing, but the fact that everything around us is manufactured by other humans. This includes our environment, our food, our social and personal needs, and our perception of reality. You mention the consequences of a food allergy to high fructose corn syrup. But how about the opposite: an inability to process food that occurs in nature without processing?

Chip Overclock said...

Although it is unlikely, I could imagine an SF story in which we could evolved to not be able to eat raw, unprocessed foods.

Evolution still occurs. The ability to process cow's milk is recent evolutionary adaptation which started just a few centuries ago and that is still taking place in the human population. That's why much of the population is lactose intolerant, which is NOT an allergy to milk, but is the lack of the enzyme lactase to break down and use milk protein.

I seem to recall some conjecture that the original function of some vistigial organs like the appendix was to process raw materials that are no longer in our diet, in this case plant matter.

So it's not only possible, it's likely that such evolution has already occurred. (The thing about high fructose corn syrup is a lot more plausible though as a disaster scenario, enough that I lose some sleep over it.)

BTW, there's more than one reason why I have a six-foot-high gun safe in the basement. If you think your government can protect you from man-made or natural disasters, you haven't been paying attention.

Jon said...

Not just milk, but many people are found to have problems with gluten and nightshades... is it because the allergies are more prevalent or because we're better about testing?

HFCS is scary... all the calories, none of the insulin spike... an evil way to mess with one's blood's probably more important to obesity than it gets credit for...

Regarding Peak Oil, there may still be reason to pull oil out of the ground even when it takes more energy than the oil contains: oil is not just energy... it's a highly concentrated, easily transportable, easily stored form of energy. Wind and solar can only be used when nature wants to give you some, but you can use oil whenever you want (once you've pumped it and refined it - perhaps using solar/wind?). Also, it has a great energy density... battery- and solar-powered trans-oceanic airliners are not really feasible in the near future, in contrast to ground transport, which would be more easily converted to electric/battery.

Chip Overclock said...

Your point about the advantages of petro-based fuel is an excellent one. Decades of use as honed the production and distribution system for gasoline to very high efficiency. And as you point out, gasoline itself is both a highly dense and (contrary to movies and television) highly safe energy medium. (A recent episode of Mythbusters addressed this very issue. They couldn't even get diesel or jet fuel to ignite, and you could outrun a burning stream of gasoline at a brisk walk.)

Paul Moorman said...

I didn't realize that Western Civilization started in the 1900's? Large oil consumption started with the mass production of the car and technologists (at least the computer kind) didn't get rolling until the 1970's.

I don't share your pessimism. That's why we have capitalism. And so far the USA is the best at that. That and a generally honest society keeps us light years ahead.

Chip Overclock said...

There is much evidence to suggest that you are right, Paul. I remember when the Club of Rome came out with their book LIMITS TO GROWTH that had dire predictions based on a model that assumed that nothing would change. Of course, over the following decades, everything changed, most of it driven by technology. I expect the same will probably happen to solve our issues with global warming, etc. But despite this, I still maintain hope.

Chip Overclock said...

I cited an economist who wrote about the role the Iowa caucauses play in the promotion of corn as an energy source. I misplaced the original source, but he was likely quoting Gal Luft, energy consultant and former Israeli lieutenant colonel, who advocates killing the Iowa caucauses. Esquire Magazine had an short article about Luft, "Occam's Oilman", by Tim Heffernan in the December 2007 issue (148.6, p. 217).

Anonymous said...

I have been away, or might have commented earlier.

While I appreciate the citation for the ethanol discussion, the energy content and the cost are two different issues. As it happens, both apply in US corn ethanol. Brazilian cane ethanol is about 9 times more energy efficient.

You are correct that peak oil is driven by cost as much as availability, but there is also a real limit on how much there is at any price.

One pedantic note: you appear to
have written "causally" when you meant "casually" for the correlation of food alergies with exposure. Spellcheck would not catch that, but it significantly changes the meaning of the sentence.