We need more Dionysian Science

Michelle and I just finished reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. It was good. He can get a little rambling at times, but overall it was entertaining and enjoyable. The book follows the relationships between people and four plants, through history. The four plants are: apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. It pairs with them four desires, respectively: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. The connections are more than a little tenuous, but the histories are certainly worth examining. The apple chapter in particular has inspired me to learn more about hard cider (since it turns out that’s largely what Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman’s apples were used for, all across 19th century America). And who can resist an examination of cannabis’s relationship with humans, written at least partially while stoned?

One theme Pollan has touched on repeatedly, in this book and his others, is the competition between Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in nature and society. Apollo representing order and control, Dionysus wildness and chaos, both being utterly necessary for civilization to be dynamic and persistent, for knowledge to increase and broaden through time. E.g. our Apollonian monocultures of Russet Burbank potatoes are vulnerable because of their uniformity, but are also productive and economically efficient. The Andean potato farmers of antiquity grew dozens of different varieties in different micro climates, all the while allowing the plants to hybridize with the local wild potatoes, maintaining a possibly less productive, but certainly more diverse and robust system of potato cultivation, in which new biological innovation was constantly taking place, and in which the farmers were well protected against catastrophic collapse in any one year… unlike the potato farmers of Ireland in the 1840s. The potato chapter in particular focuses largely on a very recent interaction with the potato: the introduction of a genetically engineered variety called the “New Leaf” by Monsanto, that produces Bt toxin to guard the plant against the Colorado potato beetle and other insect pests. Continue reading We need more Dionysian Science

Too big to fail is too big, period

With the collapse of Bear Stearns and the US automakers and airlines tanking, and the prospect of a trillion dollar bailout of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and who knows how many other large lenders, all because they are, putatively, “too big to fail” (by which is meant, obviously, not that they are so large as to be incapable of failing, but that they are so large as to make the consequences of their failing worse than the immediate, visible consequences of bailing them out), I’ve started wondering if perhaps what we really need is an update to our anti-trust laws, to the effect of: if you’re too big to fail, you’re just plain too big.

Instead of allowing corporate juggernauts to form, and then eventually being “forced” to save them from their own follies, why not just keep these captains of industry small enough that we never need to save them. The Feds already have to approve the bigger mergers and acquisitions – they already have this power by-and-large. Keeping our companies a little smaller would increase competition, and diversity within the corporate ecology of our markets. GM doesn’t want to make fuel efficient cars? Fine – their small-cars division can spin off and do its own thing. Sink or swim in its competition with Toyota, while GM itself just sinks, into an ever shrinking ocean of $150 oil.

Instead, we give taxpayer cash to large companies that have made bad business decisions, and absolve them of their obligations to pay the pensions they promised to their lifelong employees. We inflate the dollar and erode both our spending power, and our savings, while simultaneously crippling the long term competitiveness of our biggest industries. I don’t think the marginal increase in productivity from economies of scale that happens between being a $20 billion company and a $40 billion company is really worth it, if it means we’re all eventually on the hook for bailing out the $40 billion company, when we wouldn’t have to shovel mountains of cash at the two $20 billion companies… one of which might actually have made some good business decisions.

Imagine no mines

Imagine a world in which nothing is mined, where all the mineral resources we will ever need as a society have been extracted, and circulate perpetually in the economy, being endlessly transformed from finished goods into raw materials, and back again, with nothing input except renewable energy. This is a world of increasing material efficiency, and static population, in which standard of living is not defined by quantity of materials consumed. Buildings are de-constructed and re-assembled. They are designed with this in mind. Acid mine drainage is a thing of the past, and the mountaintops of West Virginia have regrown their deciduous veneer. Landfills are systematically emptied, and the copious resources placed within them by previous generations are re-organized into their useful constituent parts.

In response to What comes after green?

Who cares about guns?

Amy’s Salon is meeting tonight, talking about the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold the 2nd amendment in Washington, D.C. I did a bit of reading on the subject, and (regrettably) I agree with Scalia:

“Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.”

Continue reading Who cares about guns?

Meta-reinventing the sacred, yet again

Michelle and Jeremy and I went to a talk entitled Sacred Science at Caltech last night put on by the The Skeptics Society, it was part of Suart Kauffman’s book tour for Reinventing the Sacred. It was okay, but it could have been great. If you’re interested, he gave essentially the same talk at Beyond Belief in December (41 minutes long).

His purpose seemed to be to outline a semi-formal proof that atheistic humans are justified in reinventing the sacred for themselves as something which is wholly naturalistic, and that doing so has great value. I agree, but I’ve agreed for years. I guess some atheists haven’t yet come to this conclusion. This is the same conversation that we ended up in at Amy’s Salon a couple of months ago, and I’m always like “Yes, YES already, so let’s just get on with reinventing it, instead of continuing to try and convince ourselves that we should do it. It’s a meta conversation. We’re talking about talking about what we think should be revered. Are we afraid that we won’t be able to come to any kind of common ground, and that just having the conversation will somehow splinter us into even smaller non-theistic sects?
Continue reading Meta-reinventing the sacred, yet again

Science Framed at Caltech

Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet came to Caltech and gave SASS talk on Monday night, and ran a science media messaging workshop entitled Speaking Science Bootcamp all day Tuesday. It was great. Anybody who’s getting a PhD in science should go through at least that much communication training, and if they’re in an area that has policy implications, or they have any interest whatsoever in doing outreach or communication of science, they should have a week long course on the same material.
Continue reading Science Framed at Caltech

Our Drought Aware Shower

Water rates in all of the SoCal MWD are going up this summer by 15-30%.  Drought has been declared.  There’s talk of Lake Mead being completely dry by 2021, and our shower has decided to conserve water.  It refuses to stay on for more than a few seconds at a time, strongly suggesting that you conserve water.  At first this might seem annoying, but long showers have been a guilty pleasure of mine, and I actually don’t mind getting some backtalk from the plumbing. Continue reading Our Drought Aware Shower

How important is local food?

From a purely climatic point of view.

Assuming the following:

  1. For each calorie of food you consume, the equivalent of 9 additional calories worth of gas were burned to get the food to your plate (this is industrial food production).
  2. You eat 2000 calories per day.
  3. Your car gets 30 miles per gallon.
  4. Each gallon of gas contains the equivalent of 30,000 calories worth of energy. Continue reading How important is local food?

Freeman Dyson on Climate

The futurist and physicist Freeman Dyson wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books on Climate Change. He’s a very (very) bright guy, but I think he is wrong. Actually, I think that the whole framing of the climate issue in the media, in the government, and possibly in many scientific circles, is wrong. Continue reading Freeman Dyson on Climate