Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Archive for the ‘enviroment’ Category

The Big Picture: Fracking, Global Warming, and War

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usa_night

One of the hardest things about trying to keep up with what is going on in the world is that things change. Sometimes very quickly. Yet the model of the world we have in our heads changes a lot more slowly, or not at all in some people. Things that were stable for decades do eventually change, and if we don’t update our mental models to reflect this, our understanding of the world becomes flawed. Frankly most people’s understanding of the world is a more reflection of their prejudices than any true understanding, but still, some of us are trying to make sense out of it all. And in trying to make sense of it all, a huge shift has taken place over the past few years. Illustrated above. That’s the USA from space. See the big lighted splotch near the upper left middle of the image? That’s in North Dakota. How many huge urban areas are there in North Dakota? None. So what the hell is that huge lighted area? That, dear readers, is fracking. More specifically, that’s the Bakken Formation being exploited for oil. Even five years ago the expert opinion was that the Bakken Formation wouldn’t be producing oil any time in the near future, I even blogged about it. Then a breakthrough was made in oil extraction, fracking as it is known, and the Bakken Formation is now a major and expanding oil producer. The lights by the way are excess natural gas simply being burned off.

OK, so what does this mean? I think it means we’re screwed. We were already in trouble, but this is a huge change, and I think it’s going to have some disastrous consequences. First, the huge change part. Remember peak oil? Well, despite decades of expecting peak oil to hit around 2010, it hasn’t. And now, with fracking, peak oil has been put off for decades. And instead of being an oil importing country, the USA will soon be an oil exporting country once again. These are huge changes and futurists must be scrambling to adjust their models and forecasts. Oil is at the centre of modern civilization, so these changes will ripple outwards and affect everything. And yet this huge change in where our civilization is headed is taking place almost unnoticed. That’s a topic for another day, most people miss anything less than sudden catastrophic rates of change. And as a codicil to my following two points, I don’t think much could derail this. Keystone pipeline or no, the fracking accessible oil deposits in North America will get used, they are way too valuable and the oil industry is already the most powerful industry on the planet, weapons possibly excepted. Of course the weapons industry also wants these deposits exploited, since one can’t fight modern high tech wars without oil. And if one is at all familiar with American politics, big oil has huge influence. Not to mention more or less corporate control of the mainstream media, so opposition to massive fracking will be marginalized. Whether we like it or not, oil is going to be the prime mover in the USA for decades to come.

Speaking of opposition to fracking, that’s where the first major problem rears its ugly head. A massive new wave of oil exploitation is going to be the death knell for any serious mitigation of global warming. Just the lights in the image above illustrates that. We’re talking a mind numbing amount of CO2 being added to the atmosphere just from the production of oil in the first place, and then of course that oil will almost inevitably be used in such a way as to also add to the CO2 in the atmosphere. I don’t even blog about global warming any more. The people who are in denial about it are no more rational than people who deny evolution or the Big Bang. Eventually it will get bad enough that maybe something will be done, but by then it will be far too late. Fracking just means it will get worse sooner.

OK, so fracking means global warming is going to destroy civilization even sooner than was feared, there’s something worse than this? Yes, yes there is. War and oil. Or more specifically, it takes oil to build and run tanks. If one has lots of oil, one can build a lot of tanks. Yes, that’s the simple version. Let me try a different approach. The rich of a country come into a huge pile of money. They are urged to spend it on consumer goods or war to make even more money. They already have all the consumer goods they need. War it is! I posit that the USA will do what every imperialistic power in history has done when it came into some profound new source of wealth … go on an orgy or war and conquest. And since the USA has been on an orgy of war and conquest since 1900 at least, it’s just going to get much worse. I think in the 21st century the USA is going to try and reassert western colonial control over the entire world, at the point of a drone if need be. That’s certainly been the path we’ve gone down under Obama.

So, world war and world climate catastrophe all because of some lights in North Dakota? Yeah, that’s pretty much my theory for today. Earth is a strange planet.

PS: The day after I posted this, I got this link in email: Geologist’s provocative study challenges popular assumptions about ‘fracking’ Who knows?

(The above image is by NASA and is Public Domain under US copyright law. Yes, I’m blogging again after a hiatus due to odd events in my life. Future posts will get back to weird history and such, I’m getting all my negatively out on this post. For the moment.)

Written by unitedcats

February 20, 2013 at 9:38 am

Injured kittens, elections, and worse stuff

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On the way to work today the bus got mired in traffic. Then I saw emergency lights ahead, the police were routing traffic into one lane. Getting closer I saw why. There was an injured kitten in the road, a half grown little stripey guy. One of the cops was standing so as to keep him in the shade. For some reason the sight just about to broke my heart, I cried on and off all day. So much sadness in the world, this just put me over the edge I guess. I hope the little guy made it.

I’ll be glad when the election is over. It’s been one of the uglier elections in my memory, if not the ugliest. I still honestly don’t give a crap who wins, both candidates have aspects that are so so creepy it makes my flesh crawl. Both candidates are a tool of the bankers, militarists, and energy cartel. Obama’s social policy window dressing is a bit better, but living in a theocracy might actually make Americans snap out of their revery. More on point, I think if Superman got elected, we’d still be hosed. America is like a stately old oak tree … completely rotted out inside. It looks majestic, but one of these days there will be a stiff breeze and down it goes. It’s not going to be pretty.

Obama. Barrack “kill list” Obama. I find it more than disturbing that the POTUS maintains a kill list, a list that can and has included Americans. It’s disturbing in and of itself, but that no one is upset about it is just plain scary. Nixon had an enemy’s list, and was excoriated for it; Obama has a kill list, and no one cares? People went wild over non-existent “death panels,” but don’t care that Obama has set himself up as a death panel of one? I am not reassured.

Then we have the rapist’s right’s party. Think about this: We have a Senate candidate Mourdock claiming that a rape  pregnancy was a gift from God and couldn’t be aborted. He said he anguished over this question before coming to that conclusion. I’m a little unclear what he anguished over. He couldn’t have anguished over how he would feel if he were raped and impregnated, since that can’t happen to him. So he must have anguished over how he would feel if he raped and impregnated someone. And he concluded that whoever he, or any man, chooses to rape;  if the woman is impregnated, she must bear the child. The rapist gets to choose, the raped victim doesn’t. Right. Romney endorsed this guy. Ryan holds similar view. This is crazy, a perversion of Christianity, and an example of rape culture. Again, not reassured.

I like Jill Stein, but nothing short of a miracle will get her in the White House. It might make a good science fiction story, or an unlikely Hollywood movie. I think they put Ron Paul back in cryogenic suspension, I don’t know where he went. Probably conveyed to media purgatory. There’s other stuff on ballots. I’m cynical about it all. The special interests have it locked up, even when they lose, they have the lawyers and the money to fix it. Legalized corruption on a scale never before seen in history. See, the USA is still number one! On the other hand, unlike so many people, I’m not going to freak out no matter who gets elected. Whoever gets elected has my support, at least initially. Whoever wins has an unholy mess to contend with, and the last thing America needs now is sore losers. My studied neutrality may only last to the acceptance speech, tomorrow is another day.

Lastly, so as not to be accused of excess negatively, can I envision an encouraging outcome on election day? Yes. Yes I can. I hope the winning candidate sees an injured kitten in the road, and his heart is softened and his mind is cleared, and he gives an acceptance speech that resonates with all Americans, and opens a dialog that begins to heal this fractured land. See, I can still dream.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. Not being used for profit, it’s just such a lovely image, I couldn’t resist. I got it from this site. It’s destruction from Hurricane Sandy. The image says a lot to me. Who is this woman? Where is she going?)

Written by unitedcats

November 5, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Hurricane Sandy and Related News

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This close to the election, everything seems to revolve around the election. At least if one is a hard-core Republican. Or more on point, everything seems to revolve around hating Obama. The bodies weren’t even cold in Benghazi and Romney was heaping criticism on Obama, and he never let up. Odd, I don’t recall the GOP ever criticizing Bush for his military fiascoes, but once Obama was in charge, nothing but criticism. Hurricane Sandy appears to be the same. A Republican governor praises Obama for his prompt and effective response to Hurricane Sandy, and right wing pundits are foaming at the mouth. Classy, real classy. I used to be a Republican, but the party I knew at least acknowledged that we were all Americans, and that it was the politician’s job to work together to run the country.  Now Republicans seem to be trying to outdo themselves at reaching ever more ridiculous levels of partisanship. Granted there are voices on the left falling into the same trap, but I’ve yet to hear any liberals criticizing Obama for helping out a Republican governor. Plenty of them have praised Governor Christie though, I was impressed. Yeah, the storm was a break for Obama, but the Republicans could have handled the situation with far more dignity, instead they made it clear no matter how bad things get, no matter how many Americans die; Obama and the people who support him, tens of millions of Americans, can go f**k themselves. I’ll be glad when the election is over and Romney can move on to being a rodeo clown.

Speaking of Hurricane Sandy, or Superstorm Sandy as some are calling it, it was quite the storm. At least 90 dead in the USA, far more in the Caribbean. It wasn’t a super powerful storm, but it was super huge, one of the biggest hurricanes on record, it affected 24 states in the USA and numerous nations in the Carribean. Sandy wasn’t unprecedented, but it was certainly unusual. It’s already on track to be the second most damaging USA East Coast hurricane ever. Still, several times a century a storm like this can be expected to hit New York. And the frequency will be going up as the tropical seas get warmer. The real damage was caused by the storm surge. A storm surge is a pile of water pushed ahead of a storm by winds, surges of over 30 feet have been recorded. Think a tide thirty feet high. Not a pretty sight, storm surges are the big killer in hurricanes and cyclones. On the plus side, they can be prevented. A storm surge killed thousands in Holland in 1953, giant coastal defenses were built to prevent it happening again. Such were suggested for New York long ago, the idea is being revisited in the aftermath of Sandy. We’ll see.

A discussion of Sandy wouldn’t be complete without some mention of global warming. Was Sandy caused by global warming? It’s impossible to say, global warming is about climate, not weather. A fact that global climate change deniers conveniently ignore pretty much every time there is a severe snowstorm somewhere. Granted plenty of global warming activists are claiming that Sandy is clear proof of global warming. I feel their frustration, the globe increasingly is having the kind of extreme weather events that global warming predicts, the fact that it’s not possible to conclusively say that a particular event was caused by global warming is very difficult to explain to people who want to resist science they don’t approve of. However, even if global warming didn’t cause Sandy, it made it worse. That seems to be pretty clear to the climatologists. And at least it got the topic back on the news, that’s a good thing. Good for everyone except the coal and oil industry, sadly they own a lot of think tanks, politicians, and journalists … and they’re not afraid to use them.

In other Sandy  news, a Brazilian model, Nana Gouvea, thought it would make a nice backdrop for a photo shoot. One pic helpfully posted above. Her pics went viral. She got heaps of criticism and outrage. Granted it is a tasteless and tacky thing to do. On the other hand, she got tons of publicity. No harm, no foul. It’s not like she’s aspiring for political office, and she didn’t actually hurt anyone. I think it’s a clever idea. Ya, people are outraged. So what? On a scale of one to ten when it comes to outrageous items in the news, this is a zero. There’s tons of sleaze and crime every day far more deserving of outrage than a tasteless photo shoot. Priorities people, priorities. Heck, as my friend Steve Burke said: “Some guys will be seeing the damage for the first time thanks to these photos.”

Have a great weekend everyone!

(The above images are claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law, they aren’t being used for profit and are central to illustrating the post. I don’t know who to credit the top one to, the second I assume is owned by Ms Noumea herself. Since I linked to her site and praised her photo shoot, hopefully that’s attribution enough. It would be nice if someday copyright law could be re-written to reflect reality, alas industry is easily the slowest element in a culture to adapt to changing times, and often uses its influence to impeded progress.  Another blog post for another day.)

Sliming Towards Babylon

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I’ve been involved in a  work project the past four days that has kept me tired and covered in sawdust. Neither is terribly conducive to blogging. I did get one post sort of written, but it stalled. So here I am, churning out a random post. Well, not entirely random I suppose. In fact generating a post by random would just yield gibberish in virtually all cases. No, these are the disjointed and tired thoughts of an aging hominid on the surface of an unremarkable planet orbiting an unremarkable star. OK, mostly gibberish.

Well, Romney looks like he’s going down in flames. He can’t even make a joke anymore without getting pilloried. He does seem to have a way of putting his foot in his mouth. I’m back to my original 2012 election analysis of some time ago, The Repubs will field a weak candidate because no one in their right mind wants to take on Obama. And the Repubs are also paying for four years of obstructionism; I mean, for four years, if Obama did it, they were agin it. Their programmed core voters of course all know Obama is a socialist who is destroying the country, the same way Liberal core voters think Obama is some sort of liberal humanitarian, but to win the election the Republicans needed to appeal to middle of the road voters and just in general people who don’t strongly identify with either party. And not only have the Repubs failed to do this, they seem to have gone out of their way to alienate a number of demographics. Right now I’m calling the election for Obama.

In science news, scientists have been studying how slime mould might take over the world. Helpful illustration above. Yes, scientists really did cover a globe with agar and corn flakes to see how a slime mould would spread. For those unfamiliar with slime mould, it’s a mould that grows branches in search of food. Is there any practical use for this research, or are scientists just wasting money? Of course there is! People who think scientists should study useful things are idiots. Idiots in the sense that their opinion shows they know dipsquat about science. There’s nothing stupider than someone who holds an opinion about something they are ignorant about. Why is it idiocy? Because there’s simply no way to tell in advance what research may lead to useful advances. In this case scientists are interested in slime mould’s pathfinding ability, and this research someday might contribute to designing transportation systems. That’s a pretty practical application from growing mould on a globe.

Speaking of the global scene, the chances of war have gone down, though it’s still ugly. And it’s already war, so I mean a bigger war. It is fascinating to me how we have drifted from being more or less at peace to being in constant war. In the eighties if a US serviceman died overseas, it was front page news. Now they die all the time and no one cares. (Political posturing doesn’t count.) Syria is in full armed insurrection. It’s not really a civil war, but the media’s use of war terminology is muddy at best. Ahmadinejad showed that his international diplomacy skills are on par with Romney’s. A lot of what he says makes perfect sense, but if he’d leave out the egregious insults to Israel and Jews he’d make a lot more headway on the world scene. His term is almost up, that should be interesting. Afghanistan: We’ve surrendered to the Taliban, but aren’t going to admit it until after the election. IE all joint training and exercises with the Afghan army have been halted. It’s over folks.

BS aside, world drought and climate changes are the elephants in the room. My contacts in the Midwest say they’ve never seen anything like it before. There’s been serious global drought issues for a number of years now, and it may get worse. Arctic ice is at unprecedented lows this fall as well. World wide bacon shortage unavoidable at this point. Some sort of secret plot of Obama’s no doubt. I think humanity may survive, but the global civilization we have built has foundations of sand. And a Wind is Rising.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is being used for educational purposes. The fine scientist who holds the copyright: Professor Adam Adamatzky. I’ll end with a science nerd joke: We don’t allow faster than light neutrinos in here, said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.)

Into the Desert I Go

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I’m off for a long awaited trip to the desert. I need this so much I could spit. Aren’t male figures of speech so delightfully colourful? I will return next week sometime. Well, someone will return, hopefully not the stressed out person I am now, I’m leaving him in the desert. Somewhere near this old mining structure. I slept on top of it in the 1970s, it was connected to the hill then. It got kind of windy during the night so the two friends who were with me wimped out and retreated to the tunnel we were camped in. It was a nice comfy tunnel. I’ll take lots of pictures on my trip and will post any interesting ones when I return.

I’m going to be making more posts on the dripping misogyny the Christian right seems to have decided to self-immolate itself with. At this point I’m hoping that the Republicans will make “legitimate rape” part of their party platform, because some of these folks don’t seem to realize just how far afield they have strayed from anything resembling common humanity. Let alone Jesus’s teachings. For the record, anyone who would deny a woman who was impregnated by a rapist  an abortion is sick in the head. Let me repeat that, anyone who would deny a woman who was impregnated by a rapist an abortion  is sick in the head. The people people who claim that such is justified are people who are revealing their true colours. And they are not baby lovers, they are people who think women are no more than breeding sows whose only purpose in life is to crank out babies. This is not a pro-life position, this is “I am a medieval fuck who thinks all women are sluts who should be punished when they they get pregnant” position. Yes, gentle reader, I feel rather strongly about this.

Hopefully the US won’t invade Syria while I’m out in the desert. Still, it would mean plenty of blog fodder when I get back. Hopefully the US won’t invade Syria ever, but I’m not optimistic on that score. Invading countries is what we do. Then we pretend to nation build before going on to wrecking the next country. Kinda like Bain Capital but on a grander scale. I’m not very optimistic about the state of the world, but long time readers know that. Heck, even short time readers can glean that from a post or two. I’m back to thinking that a major regional war is in the offing in the Middle east, even a world war is possible at this point. Expect posts on that when I return.

I’ll be posting more on global warming as well. It’s been a few years since my last foray into that false scientific controversy. I tend to avoid false controversies, like that over Evolution or the Big Bang, because there’s almost no point. Those who reject science generally aren’t terribly amenable to debate on same. Still, fun to be had. And one never knows, I might learn something. It’s been known to happen. There’s also posts on Venus and the various probes planned for it. Mars has been getting all the luvin lately, but Venus is due for some strokes.

And that’s that, time to pack and get the flock out of here. I’ll be impressed if anyone can identity the location in the picture. It’s in Nevada near a ghost town. The image is being used legally as it is not being used for profit. Credit and copyright: OldBlueWebDesigns.com

Have a great weekend everyone!

Written by unitedcats

August 22, 2012 at 9:08 am

Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima … what do they have in common?

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All three were nuclear accidents? True enough. Not what I’m looking for though. The Japanese government report on the Fukushima nuclear accident was released a few days ago. It clearly laid out the cause of the still smouldering Fukushima nuclear disaster: Human error. This is what I was looking for, in both prior nuclear accidents, human error was a huge part of the problem. This isn’t terribly surprising, in numerous industrial accidents human error was a major contributor. The Texas City Disaster. The Piper Alpha Fire. The Exxon Valdez spill. Bhopal. I could go on but I think I made my point, human error is often a major contributory factor in industrial accidents. And that’s being generous I am sure, I’ve yet to find a major industrial accident that didn’t have some component of human error. It’s not surprising. There are so any things that can go wrong with any complex system, some of them unforeseeable, that sooner or later someone is going to make a mistake or mistakes that lead to catastrophe.

I don’t think this is really debatable. Even airliners, where we have spent enormous (and largely successful) efforts to make safe, still sometimes crash. It’s just now been determined that the Air France jet that flew into the Atlantic a few years ago could have recovered had the crew acted correctly. People sometimes make bad calls in a crisis, that’s not ever going to change. The point here is that no matter how well designed something is; no matter how many safeguards, alarms, and back-ups it has; sooner or later someone or someones are going to bypass them all and cause a problem. And this of course applies to nuclear power plants, which are certainly as complicated as airliners. And we now have three “crashed” nuclear power plants, and it is 100% certain it will happen again. No matter how much they learn from Fukushima, it will happen again.

This is a problem. A big problem. A problem the nuclear industry and most of the world’s governments don’t want anyone to know about. It’s a problem because when an airliner crashes, a factory blows up, a ship sinks, etc., the damages are generally local and containable. Chernobyl badly contaminated 1,000 square miles, seriously contaminated thousands more, caused problems thousands of miles away, eventually spreading fallout all over the Northern Hemisphere. There’s every reason to believe that the damage from Fukushima will be at least that extensive. This is serious damage on a global scale from a single industrial accident. When a  plane crashes or a factory blows up a few hundred people are killed, but ultimately the damages are limited in geography and over time. The worst fallout (Cesium 137, Strontium 90)  from a nuclear accident has a half life of 30 years, which means it might be decades or centuries before the worst contaminated areas are safe again.

Which leads into the second major problem with nuclear accidents. We don’t really know how much damage they cause. Some people say Chernobyl only killed 28 people, most experts put the total at around 10,000. Some experts peg it at over 100,000. And in both of the last estimates, non-fatal cancers are estimated at about ten times the number of fatal cases. Basically one can find “expert opinion” for pretty much any level of death and cancer one wants. How do us worms know? Well, the cigarette industry had no trouble finding “expert opinion” saying cigarettes were more or less harmless for decades after the issue was settled as far as scientists were concerned. The nuclear industry is just as well funded as the cigarette industry, it’s far more difficult to do research on the topic, and it’s very easy to manipulate the data to get any result one wants. And unlike the cigarette industry, the nuclear industry has friends in big government and big military everywhere. In other words, when some government or industry spokesman claims that nuclear energy is “safe,” it should be taken with a large dose of salt.

My only real point here is that the safety of the nuclear industry has been wildly exaggerated, usually by comparing apples to oranges. There isn’t any really comparable industry. What other kind of industrial installation in the worst case scenario can render everything within 15-20 miles uninhabitable for decades, and cause thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) of cases of cancer over an entire continent, if not an entire hemisphere? And how close is the gentle reader to the nearest nuclear power plant anyhow?

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. I’m not sure who to credit it too,  but  got it from this fine site. It’s an image from the abandoned town of Prypiat near Chernobyl. I chose it because it is a beautiful and haunting image.)

Written by unitedcats

July 9, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Industrialization, War, and Politics: Trifecta of Doom

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I read a lot of history, especially military history. And I am convinced at this point that one truism about history is indeed true: “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” If anything it doesn’t go far enough, war and politics have been inextricably intertwined since the beginning. People with political ambitions routinely use war to gain power. They range from brilliant military minds like Julius Caesar, to shameless opportunists like Teddy Roosevelt. The one thing they all have in common is a perfect willingness to kill to get more political power. Pause for reflection.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I wouldn’t want to have a boss who was willing to kill to get what they wanted, let alone a political leader. And of course it’s entirely debatable on a case by case basis if such leaders do more good than harm. Still, for every “good” leader one can pull from the annals of history dozens of incompetent or evil leaders. Incompetence slips in there because being willing to use military accomplishments to gain political power doesn’t require any military skill whatsoever. Again, one can easily pull from the annals of history endless examples of military leaders who got their positions through politics … and performed catastrophically badly when called upon to actually lead armies and fleets in battle. In other words, this horrible intertwining does a disservice to both politicians and military leaders. Granted this is not an original observation, just something that fuels my lack of faith in human governing institutions in general.

In other words, studying history can be really depressing. Moving right along however, there’s a recent fly in this ointment that makes it a lot worse. Living in the lap of luxury and consumption (comparatively speaking historically,) modern people forget that throughout most of history the entire human race was fantastically poor compared to today. In most times and places the vast majority of people for all practical purposes slaved their lives away growing food, up until the late Middle Ages at the very least. And this widespread poverty had at least one very positive effect. It limited the race’s ability to wage war.

And these were very real limits. Typically throughout history an army was a few thousand men at most, a few tens of thousands on rare occaisions. Even then the majority of people who fought in wars were peasant conscripts who only served a few months a year, as they had to both plant and harvest the crops. Thus the armies that did exist were very much limited in both their mobility and their ability to wreak widespread destruction. Certainly cities and even civilizations were destroyed, but these were the exception. Today tiny handfuls of military persons can rain destruction down on people on the other side of the planet. And modern armies can number in the millions, something inconceivable even as late as the mid nineteenth century. The destruction wrought by modern armies makes was of the past look trivial in comparison. Millions dead, entire countries laid to waste. And the destructive power available to modern armies (not to mention insurgents and non-state actors) continues to grow.

So already I’m finding that I see little to be optimistic about in humanity’s future. And if these aspects of the human condition weren’t bad enough, modern propaganda is vastly more effective than the propaganda of old. Science applied to advertising has multiplied the power to do evil the same way science applied to warfare has done. And as a final icing on this cake of doom, scientists are once again raising alarm about the health of the planet’s ecosystem and the catastrophic effects human activity is having upon it.

We’re not really an intelligent species. Convince me otherwise.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s central to illustrating the post, isn’t being used for profit, and arguably is an historically important image. Credit and copyright: Some anonymous Russian photographer during World War Two. It’s an image taken during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two, though to be fair it may be a staged image. It does show the destruction of the city though.)

Written by unitedcats

June 14, 2012 at 2:45 pm

The Evil Out There

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Well, I was disappointed that no one identified the image on the first post. How are we supposed to defend ourselves against aliens if we can’t even identify the fictional threats? Oh well. OK, this is the post about why I don’t think the first explorers  the stars should be allowed to return home. It sounds harsh, but as I said before, they could bring home something much worse than syphilis.

What could be worse than syphilis? Who knows. That’s my first point, when experimenting with one’s only habitable planet, some experiments shouldn’t be performed. Like pumping the atmosphere full of CO2 and methane, but I digress. And in the early stages of exploring nearby stars, why take the risk that a sample return could be malignant? Humans have done terrible damage to isolated ecosystems on Earth through accidental biological contamination, and Earth in a galactic sense is definitely an isolated ecosystem. It’s not had to imagine that some alien organism or bacteria could wreak havoc on Earth, as countless sci-fi movies and books attest.

It’s easy to imagine pests such as we have on Earth, and that alone is sufficient reason to be very cautious about anyone coming home from the stars. Then of course there is the alien invader and/or parasite genre. The former is not likely to happen, the later seems very unlikely. Still, why take the chance? We are talking about the human race and Earth here. There’s no harm done if no one comes home from the stars. As for invaders, the idea is so anthropomorphic that it hardly bears mentioning. A superior intelligence could destroy humanity without going to all the trouble to sending in invading armies, and an alien race capable of actually infiltrating human society is again pretty much by definition one we would be helpless against.

There’s some more exotic possibilities. In fact, considering that everywhere we look in the Universe we find stuff we never expected, it’s pretty safe to say that we will find exotic hazards out there. An idea I have been toying with, what if what we think of as “life” isn’t really life? Or maybe more accurately, maybe there is a form of life out there so radially different than us and so radically superior to us that we can’t imagine it. Maybe DNA based life is an evolutionary dead end, and will be quickly supplanted if it ever encounters other life. Only our isolation in a star system has kept our primitive form of life around. We may be no more than the Lord Howe Stick Insects of the galaxy.

Lastly there are the unknown psychological effects of star travel. For all we know there is something about the Solar System that makes us uniquely human, and that leaving the Solar System will do something totally unpredictable to the human psyche. Granted that seems unlikely, but the truth is that “unlikely” is a judgment call based on our common experience. While it is certainly scientific to assume that the conditions for healthy human psychology are universal, it’s an assumption that should be tested without putting Earth at risk.

Frankly I think the same case can be made for the first human visitors to Mars, but I think many would consider that paranoid. In most cases I would agree that minimizing the risks is the way to go, but when the consequences might be devastating to life on Earth, there’s no harm in shooting for zero risk. Fortunately the hurdles of getting the first explorers back from the stars are so large that the problem is unlikely to come up, if ever.

Then again, I’ve often thought: If aliens exist and the hurdles of interstellar travel are surmountable … they are already here.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s from The Outer Limits, credit and copyright: ABC. I am not making a profit from it, and I urge everyone to go out and buy the DVD. It’s the episode where some alien poison gas spewing plants are brought back to earth and begin to multiply out of control. Finally a rainstorm  destroys them. So many aliens are destroyed by water, from Triffids to the Wicked Witch of the West. Sadly the real deal will not be so vulnerable.)

Written by unitedcats

April 28, 2012 at 9:20 am

Ball’s Pyramid and the Miracle of the Tree Lobster

with 5 comments

Our story starts on Lord Howe Island. This is a small island between Australia and New Zealand. It was settled in 1834, used as a whaling station, then an exporter of the indigenous Kentia Palm (Imaged above,) and since World War Two tourism has played an increasing role on the island. When originally settled, as well as a cool palm tree, Lord Howe Island also had the largest insect in the world, the Lord Howe Stick Insect. It was as large as the human hand, 12 cm long, and was called a Tree Lobster by the locals. Then, in 1918, disaster struck. A tramp steamer ran aground on the island, some black rats escaped, and within two years the Lord Howe Stick Insect was no more. One of numerous unique island species wiped out by the spread of rodents and such throughout the South Pacific, its passing almost unnoticed at the time I am sure.

Now we fast forward to Ball’s Pyramid in the early 1960s. Ball’s Pyramid is 13 miles from Lord Howe Island, a volcanic spire jutting from the sea. At 562 metres (1,844 ft) high it is the tallest such volcanic stack in the world. And despite its rugged appearance, there is vegetation growing in every sheltered crack and crevice going all the way to the top. In the early 1960s a few groups of intrepid climbers did make it to the top. And on the way noticed a few recently Dead Lord Howe Stick Insects. They were mountain climbers, not naturalists, so they didn’t investigate any further.

Fast forward to 2001 when two naturalists decided to take a closer look. And making their way to the island, they found a single bush in a crack in the rock with some suspiciously large insect dropping under it. The Tree Lobster was nocturnal, so they returned after dark with flashlights and to their delight found dozens of Lord Howe Stick Insects happily cavorting under the bush. Figuratively speaking. Subsequent searches found that they lived only under this one bush on the island. Dropped by a bird, let loose by a fisherman, who knows, but somehow the Lord Howe Stick Insect had survived under this one remote bush for more than eighty years after it was eaten to extinction on Lord Howe Island.

Well, now what? Scientists and government officials spent two years pondering this, they wanted to preserve the insect, but didn’t want to risk wiping out its only remaining wild population. Yes, the Australian government was involved at this point, times had changed since 1918. In 2003 the scientists returned, and took two and only two pairs of insects. One pair was given to one of Australia’s foremost insect collectors, and the other pair to a naturalist at the Melbourne Zoo.

Well, the insect collector’s pair died within a week. The ones in the zoo started off well, laid a bunch of eggs, but then they too began to decline. Eve (yes, human’s can be annoyingly unimaginative sometimes) was near death when her caretaker whipped up a  concoction of nectar and calcium that proved to be a life saver, within hours she went from near death to cavorting. And the rest is history, while only the first 30 of her eggs were fertile, it was enough, and today there are hundreds of Lord Howe Stick Insects living happily in captivity.

So what now? No one is quite sure. It would be nice to re-establish them on Lord Howe Island. It would however require wiping out the rats on the island. That’s the easy part. Then they have to convince the islanders that a six inch creepy crawly living with them on the island would be a good thing. The Melbourne Zoo has launched a PR campaign to that effect. Will it be successful? Would you want these guys running around your yard at night?

The clincher, the Lord Howe Stick Insect has an extremely unusual behaviour. They apparently form mating pairs, foraging and sleeping together for life. How could anyone resist?

(Palm photo credit and copyright: Black Diamond Images Ball’s Pyramid photo credit and copyright: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Lord Howe Stick Insect credit and copyright: Rod Morris. This was an instant post, written in about an hour. I just think it’s a incredibly cool story, makes me wonder what is hiding out in other hidden corners of the globe.)

Written by unitedcats

March 8, 2012 at 10:09 am

Cougars to Korans to American Exceptionalism, Straw Vulcan Logic Illustrated

with 5 comments

Is that a lovely? That’s California Fish and Game Commission President Daniel Richards posing with a cougar he recently killed in Idaho. He claims it was in self defence. OK, that was a joke. He killed (and reportedly ate) the cougar in a  perfectly legal hunt in Idaho. This has caused a storm of protest and calls for his resignation in California, where such hunts are illegal. Mr Richards says the hunt was legal, it was on his own time, and is no different than, say, any other California state official travelling to Nevada to go gambling, which is also illegal in California. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that Mr Richards is an insensitive  idiot. Now don’t get me wrong, I support hunting and fishing when well regulated, the alternative is much uglier. And while I’m not a big fan of trophy hunting, within reason I don’t have a problem with it. I would prefer that trophy hunters be limited to hand weapons like spears and knives. I mean come on guys, if you have to kill a big animal to prove you have stones, do it like a man. Any  a**hat can shoot a cat in a tree. Bring down a cougar or  a bear with a spear, and I’ll buy you a drink dude. Or have one in your memory at least.

I digress. Suffice it to say that any state official careless enough to allow a public picture of himself grinning like a loon while he pursues an activity that the majority of his employers disagree with, an activity he is sworn to prevent in his state, is an idiot. Yes, as a state official he is working for the voters of California. That he doesn’t understand, or is pretending not to understand, that letting a picture like this hit the airwaves would cause some major backlash, is mind blowing to me.

The point here, is that Mr Richard’s attitude is an excellent example of Vulcan logic. Because what he did was legal, he’s basically claiming that anyone who gets upset isn’t being logical, therefore he can ignore them. People do react emotionally to stuff, and anyone who has lived on Earth for more than a few weeks should understand that. Anyone who completely disregarded the emotions of people in their personal life pretty quickly wouldn’t have any friends, or at least they would have just strange stunted friendships. Now for the record I am not saying that every time someone gets upset at a public official’s actions it means they were wrong. I am saying that to claim that your actions are defensible because “people shouldn’t rationally get upset by this” is in and of itself a profoundly irrational argument. People are creatures of emotion, and to pretend otherwise isn’t rational.

And we come to a similar situation in Afghanistan. Despite the fact that there is ample evidence that defacing the Koran violates a core value of many or most of the Afghan people, many Americans in and out of politics and the media act surprised every time something like this happens and cluck cluck about how “irrational” their response is. With simply zero empathy for how they would respond in a  similar situation. If a Muslim Army had occupied the USA for a decade, waging war against the Tea Party the whole time, and the charred remains of the Star Spangled Banner flag was found in a  trash pit outside a Saudi military base, many Americans would go ballistic. The point is that the burning of the Korans, and allowing Afghans to find out, was a sign of either mind numbing incompetence on the part of some Americans … or mind numbing indifference.

The meta point I am dancing around here is that the attitude of many Americans about this Koran issue is simply a reflection of the fact that they think we are the good guys with the superior values, and our values trump theirs. This is the colonial mind set or cultural imperialism or American exceptionalism … or just plain old fashioned being arrogant and condescending. Claiming one is “helping” people by invading their country and installing a government of our liking is bizarre enough, claiming that trampling on their values at the same time is “no big deal” is beyond bizarre, it’s insane.

And frankly, my current theory is that imperialism is a disease. And the USA has a raging case of it.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and at this point is definitely an historically important image. My opinion on the topic? I say to Mr Richards: “Good shot! However, this picture shows you are too stupid, arrogant, and insensitive to hold public office, do us all a favour and resign.”)

PS: Have a great weekend everyone!

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