August 30th, 2007

#529: Random mumbling about junk

I was thinking a bit about technology.

In his book High Justice Jerry Pournelle discusses an orbital factory being able to make silicon crystals of such purity that ICs made from them had fostered the ability to make pocket-sized calculators with "hundreds of words of memory".

Then I look at my admittedly obsolete Palm IIIvx, with its 8 megabytes of memory, and laugh. 8,192 kilobytes of memory is slightly more than "hundreds of words" unless all the words are really long ones.

The nice thing about using "words" as a measurement of memory is how non-specific it is. What kind of word? In computer parlance a word is 32 bits, ie four bytes. (A double word is 64 bits or eight bytes.) But the book was written in 1974, and I don't know if that jargon had been invented yet.

The book itself is based on the usual Malthusian, Club of Rome dystopian foundation: everything is running out, the population bomb has exploded, and crime and misery are the norm: welcome to Shit City. Lots of SF novels from 1972-1980 were like that.

Back then it seemed obvious that things were only going to get worse as time went on; ignoring the possibility that the human race would enter resource starvation before the decade was out, a lot of people thought that World War III was just around the corner, and it was all going to go up in a puff of radioactive fallout anyway.

There may be an interesting essay in that: might that kind of thinking have led to the kind of morals we see today? The sexual revolution et al? "If it feels good, do it" because tomorrow we die? I don't know.

But of course, Malthus and the Club of Rome were both wrong. First off, doomsayers never take the advance of technology into account. They can't; it's unpredictable. But second, they tend to favor the idea of a static economy--one in which things don't change regardless of influences, or "forcings", if you will. This is the kind of thought which leads people to think that increasing the minimum wage won't have any effect on job creation, among other things.

It is true that a population will expand--and rapidly--to the capacity of its environment, and quite possibly beyond. But humans don't work like mice or cattle or parakeets; humans can choose whether to breed or not, and humans can change the food supply and do other things to effect their environment. Malthus' basic mistake was in assuming that humans would breed like mice rather than like humans.

The Club of Rome didn't--couldn't--take advancing technology into consideration; but apparently they assumed that the supply of raw materials was fixed at whatever maximum they chose, not considering the fact that other supplies of raw materials could be (and, almost inevitably, would be) found.

And, in fact, both were wrong. Malthus' famines failed to appear. The Club of Rome predicted that we'd start running out of stuff in the 1980s, and it's 2007 and things are going strong.

The Club of Rome didn't figure economics into their equations: as resources get harder to exploit, they become more expensive. The more expensive they are, the lower demand for them is. And in any event their predictions were based on mathematical models, and mathematics has no inherent reality. (See also "computer models of global warming".)

In particular I recall seeing an article in a newspaper, sometime in the late 1970s, that we only had "thirty years of oil left". I remember also seeing that we had 400 years of coal left.

Let's assume it was 1979 that I saw that article. That was 28 years ago. Do we only have two years' worth of oil left in the world?

Of course not. If we did, gasoline would cost $50 per gallon (or more) and we'd all be driving golf carts.

Earth does not have infinite resources; that much is true. But the crust of the planet is a minimum of 6 miles thick, up to a typical maximum of 25 miles thick, and a couple of atypical peaks at 37 and 43 miles thick (the Andes and Himilayas, respectively). In all, it's about 1% of the Earth's volume.

Which is a hell of a lot of resources for one puny race.

I'm not talking about oil; it's safest to assume that the supply of oil is finite and that we can exhaust it even at current usage. We should be careful with it. But what about the minerals?

Iron and aluminum are recyclable. Once you've finished the Coke in that aluminum can, you can melt the can and turn it into engine blocks or siding or a billion other useful things. The same goes for iron, and in fact most steel mills want and need scrap iron. The other minerals we mine are also recyclable, with the exception of U-235--and we can always build breeder reactors if we decide to switch to all-nuclear power (which would be wise, IMHO, but that's a point for another time).

The fact that we don't recycle a lot of stuff doesn't mean we can't...and only the fact that recycling is economically inviable most of the time keeps us from doing it. If we are indeed "running out" of critical resources, you can expect the price of those resources to rise to the point that recycling becomes profitable...and then everyone will be doing it.

In Victorian England, rags were routinely recycled--they were about as valuable as aluminum cans are today--because rags were used in the making of paper. Now we make paper from wood pulp and "rag bond" is very expensive, special paper; and for everyday use you can buy recycled paper if that's your bag. These days some people supplement their income by dumpster diving for scrap aluminum, which they then sell to recyclers. Everyone makes a profit on the deal; and none of it would happen if there wasn't money in it.

That's the secret that eludes a lot of people: the profit motive is essential. Never expect people to do things "because it's right". It may make more sense to recycle aluminum than it does to meet your demand solely by mining, but no one is going to waste time on it if it costs them something. But since the recycler can pay $0.30 (say) per pound for scrap aluminum and sell it for (say) $0.35 per pound, it's worth his while to pay others for what they collect, and then bale the stuff for sale to companies which want or need scrap aluminum. As long as scrap aluminum costs less than--or about the same as--"virgin" aluminum, there'll be a market for it and everyone will make money. The instant scrap aluminum costs more than virgin aluminum, though, the deal's off, and no one will want scrap aluminum no matter how environmentally friendly it is to recycle the stuff.

The same is true for all recyclable materials--and nearly everything is recyclable, because atoms don't wear out. Plastic, like metal, can be melted and re-shaped into other materials; the polymer chains can be "cracked" and recombined with catalysts to form other materials if you don't care about costs. Even asphalt could be "mined" for organic chemicals; it's basically tar and gravel, and tar is what's left when you're finished extracting gasoline and diesel and a billion other useful chemicals from crude oil.

So Malthus and the Club of Rome were wrong. We're not running out of everything; we're not even close, because--at least from here--it looks to me as if they assumed that current supply was the total supply.

Malthus' assertions uncritically assumed a logarithmic expansion of humanity: ten people today equals a hundred tomorrow, and that means a ten thousand next week, and a billion the week after.

But as countries industrialize, their birth rates drop--and so most of the population increase in the world is being driven by third world nations. The answer? Help them industrialize; that will lower birth rates everywhere.

The end result of that would be a peak world population somewhere in the eight or nine billion range. That sounds like a lot--nine billion is 150% of the current population--but consider this:

The entire population of the world could live comfortably in Texas. It would mean Texas would be a super-city, but every single person in the world would have plenty of elbow room and there would be no overcrowding. (How one supplies energy, water, food, sewage treatment, etc, is left as an exercise for the student.)

Something like four percent of the United States has been developed. That's everything: houses, factories, hotels, streets, golf courses, highways, skating rinks, parking lots, airports, everything. (US Dept of Agriculture figures, 2000.) (Farm fields are included in "undeveloped" land.)

We're not going to choke, drown, or starve ourselves, folks.

* * *

I'm out of smart words again. More later when the word bag has a chance to refill itself.

#530: It's Thursday

...and so I am periodically checking AnimeSuki to see if KissSub has posted Lovely Complex episode 21 yet.

* * *

Oh, this is good: apparently the New York Times has made a slight error in quoting the Declaration of Independence and attributing the quote to the Constitution of the United States:
It is an eminently good thing that the anti-suicide measure would require medical specialists to keep track of veterans found to be high risks for suicide. But that’s to care for them as human beings, under that other constitutional right — to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Emphasis mine, hoo-raw.

Personally, now I think I understand why and how the anti-gun lobby completely misses the Second Amendment of the Constitution; they're not even reading the right document, at least half the time. (Rush Limbaugh says that if liberals interpreted the 2nd Amendment the way they interpret the rest of the Constitution, we'd all be required to carry firearms at all times.)

Or perhaps that's not it at all. Maybe they think that--because the Constitution is a "living, breathing document"--that other historical papers are part of it. I notice that every time there is a discussion of illegal immigration in this country, the enscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty is mentioned: "Give us your tired, your poor...."

It's a stupid mistake for an editor at the major newspaper in the United States to make.

(Via.)

* * *

And as far as that goes--the Constitution being a "living, breathing document"--that's a pretty creepy image:


Brains.

* * *

Dad's boats are getting donated to some charity, and they're coming today to pick them up.

The boats are old. The sailboat is 31-32 years old. The power boat is vintage 1986. In aggregate we could sell them for maybe $2000, if we were lucky; the market for power boats is somewhat depressed due to the rather high gas prices we currently enjoy. And the sailboat, I am told, has an issue with its keel, and needs repair before it can be used.

The sailboat hasn't been in the water since 1994; the power boat hasn't been used for several years at least. Yes, theoretically, we could sell them; but it's easier to donate them and take the tax write-off than it is to spend time and money getting them usable again in order to sell them--and selling them in late August would be a neat trick in any event.

Anyway, I had to go grease the bearings. A five-minute job, you say; and you would be right if it was anyone else doing it.

I had to go buy grease for my grease gun, because I used up the last of the grease when I put the tie rod ends on the red Escort. There were three people in front of me at the auto parts store; the people at the head of the line were trying to return something they'd bought more than three months ago without a receipt. Argh. They were there when I entered the store; I browsed around a bit, looking for a few odds and ends in addition to what I had come for...and even so, I waited another ten minutes when I was ready to check out. Drive home, load the grease gun, and then...five minutes later, job is done.

It took most of a cartridge of grease, too, because I have a tiny little grease gun that uses the mini grease cartridges. So the next time I want to grease something (*cough* Cherokee *cough*) I'm going to have to load it again. *sigh*

End total: over an hour to do a five-minute job. WTF.

* * *

I can't believe how thoroughly disgusted I was by the Gainax-trainwreck ending of I"s, and Gainax didn't even have anything to do with it. But I haven't bothered to look at the supplemental material, and I haven't looked at the two OVAs yet, either.

My biggest fear is that I'll get to the end of the manga and find out that ending was actually canon. That would make me ill.

* * *

And because this coming weekend is Labor Day weekend, gas is $3.20 per gallon here in Crete. Argh etc.

Well, it'll be more than that next spring, so I might as well get used to it. It'll be more each successive spring until someone finally starts building a couple of freaking refineries in the US. But don't hold your breath waiting for that shit to happen.

We're spending more on building ethanol plants than we are on increasing refinery capacity, which is fricking stupid. Ethanol is not going to replace enough gasoline to be worth it, and the only reason it's such a growth industry right now is because the government is subsidizing it. Yes, oil costs a lot; but the biggest chunk of the price of gas is the cost of refining the oil into usable chemicals, and you need a refinery to do that--and the US is currently using 100% of its refinery capacity all the time.

Next thing you know we'll be importing gasoline from Mexico. Mark my words.

* * *

I wonder if others have this problem.

On a day like today, when I have the day off and want to get something done, I'll get up and have breakfast, then try to get going on whatever the task du jour is.

...and then I have to stop and hit the can.

It's like getting up and moving prompts my colon to kick into high gear or something. Work! The natural laxative!

--but it's not really funny; it's irritating as hell. It wouldn't bother me so much if I wasn't in the habit of hitting the bathroom anyway before starting on something. And it doesn't happen right away. Normally it'll wait until I've gotten all the tools out and made a start on the job, and then:

Gut: Erm, excuse me.
Brain: What??
G: Gotta go.
B: We were just in the bathroom. Why didn't you say anything?
G: Well, I didn't know we were going to go outside. I thought I had time.
B: Can't you wait?
G: Er, not really.
B: If you could wait then, why can't you wait now?
G: Because.
[pause]
B: That's it? "Because"?
G: What do you want? I'm a tube!
B: Oh my God I hate you.

...and then I have to put everything away and close and lock everything before I can go inside and answer the call of nature. Sometimes (only "sometimes") I can get Mom to come outside and watch everything while I go inside, but I'm not about to leave everything open so some asshat can just casually stride up the driveway and relive me of hundreds of dollars' worth of tools.

Some useless piece of trash helped himself to all the dimes and quarters in my red car a few months ago after one of the doors had been left unlocked, and he left his BO on my upholstery, the fucker. So I do my best to make sure everything is secure when I'm not around.

I hope the buttplug really needed that change for something like cigarettes. It'll serve him right when he has to tow around a little oxygen cylinder in order to breathe.

* * *

caller: I think that murdering the homeless would be wrong. It's--
host: Oh yeah? Well, you're old! What the hell would you know about living in our modern society anyway?
C: But--
H: "But" nothing! Shut up, you old bag! Next caller.
C2: Hello? Is this the number I dial to get a Super Slice-o-matic?
H: Get the hell off my show, you buttplug!

...this little exchange is from the legendary movie Captain Fantastic, made by me and some friends of mine in 1991. I remembered it at work the other night and I could not stop laughing.

No, I never get punchy when working overnights. Not at all.

#531: Error messages

WTF

This is why everything NASA does costs so much:
A series of intermittent fault messages delayed PMA-3's relocation by about an hour when three of the 16 bolts securing the docking port in place returned errors. But Mission Control determined that the glitch would not impact the relocation or the Harmony node's installation later this year.
What kind of bolt returns a freaking error message?

Why on off Earth do they need bolts with self-freaking-diagnostics?

That sounds like a load of overly-complex crap to me, the kind of hyper-techno-overload that results--among other things--in a shuttle turnaround process which takes months and requires 20,000 engineers and technicians to accomplish. (And costs a billion dollars per flight.)

It's why we're not going to go back to the Moon before 2019; "good enough" isn't good enough for NASA. Forget rebuilding the Saturn V; we need an all new booster with computer-enhanced nuts! We need computer diagnostics on every last freaking component in order to ensure everyone's district gets in on the gravy train safety! Never mind that the new booster will have only 80% of the payload of a Saturn V and cost 3x as much in adjusted dollars.

Faugh! Save me from NASA and their stupid crap!