The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
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Saturday, November 27, 2004
◊  Oil Peak?
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ...

OIL PEAK: I lived thru the energy crisis of the mid-1970s and early 1980s, so I can remember gas lines and 50 MPH limits on Interstate highways and chilly houses where thermostats were set at 68. We suddenly became aware just how dependent our comfortable middle-class lives were to a steady supply of cheap oil and gas from foreign countries. By the time of Ronnie Reagan, though, all the energy angst started to fade away like a bad dream. New sources of oil were found throughout the world, cars and factories and appliances got more efficient, and gas stations were open after 6 PM once again. It turned out to be nothing more than a little burp in the process by which the free market economy feeds the American cornucopia.

So we got to 1990 with the energy situation looking pretty good, and then ditto for 2000. It seemed a little bit scary when US oil production started declining in the early 90s, making us more dependent upon foreign oil — the situation that got us into such trouble in 1973 and 1980. But non-OPEC sources right close to home (Canada and Latin America) were filling the gap, so it wasn’t anything to lose sleep about. Another potentially scary thought was that over 25 years had passed since the first energy crisis, and yet we still hadn’t developed any significant alternate sources of energy (and still haven’t as of today). But the big boys seemed to have other things to worry about, so I and a whole lot of other people let the subject pass.

And now here we are, in late 2004, with oil prices hovering in the low $50s per barrel. Another OPEC embargo? No, OPEC is pumping away, valves to the wall. War and terrorism? Yea, here and there – but nothing any worse than in the early 90s. This time, oil output isn’t keeping up with world demand. And that’s a real problem; this time it ain’t a political crisis. It’s a hint that there are natural limits regarding how much oil is practically available in the world, and that we’re going to be dealing more and more with those limits over the coming years.

Excluding a big terrorist incident, it’s very possible that oil prices will settle back down into the $40 – $48 zone for awhile. This is like the first sign of a toothache; you get a little twinge, but then get to ignore it for a while. There is still some new oil to be discovered, and there are still some tricks that can be used to suck out the last drop from existing wells. But ever since about 1985, the world has been using more oil each year than it has discovered. And the trend of discoveries shows a clear downward trend, despite the fact that technologies have gotten better and better over this time (see The Growing Gap chart). The logical conclusion is that oil output cannot continue to grow indefinitely; the day of peaking and then decline may not be that far off.

I did a search on the net and was surprised to find that a lot of people are thinking and talking about this subject right now. Just do a search on “peak oil” or “Hubbert peak” and join the fun. Sure, there are various apocalyptic cranks in the mix, but they are generally British cranks who usually put a fair amount of thought into their crankiness. A surprising number of those cranks are people with experience in the oil industry.

Not surprisingly, the scenarios vary. Some people say the peak will come by 2010. Others say in the 2010-2020 range. The U.S. Energy Information Agency issued a study using 2037 as the “middle scenario” for peaking. Obviously, there are some who don’t think a peak is even in sight. Along with the immediate crash people, these “endless growth” people are off on the extremes of the bell curve. The whole notion that oil production may peak and start declining within the first third of the 21st Century seems to be gaining respectability. You’re going to hear more and more about this issue in the near future. And it’s gonna be important to listen.

Why? Well, our world’s economy is built up around oil, as it has been since about 1950. If the peak comes slowly and gives us lots of warning, the world can adjust by substituting alternate energy sources and developing new ones. Prices will go up and economic growth will slow down because of the costs of the changeover, but by the second half of the 21st Century, America and the world will be better off for it. But if the peak comes too quickly and unexpectedly, there will be lots of angst as prices and unemployment skyrocket, poverty levels rise, oil shortages occur, and a whole lot of people become unhappy. International tensions will flare and resource wars will erupt. We’re talking about something like the Great Depression here (ironically, it could be the 2030’s … 100 years after the last Great Depression). It will be quite a while before stability sets in and progress resumes, such that a new era of energy (including hydrogen, which is clearly NOT ready for prime time right now) will dawn upon the land.

You didn’t hear any talk about the oil peak during the recent presidential election, but you’re going to hear much blather about it during the next one. It’s time right now to start getting your facts straight, before the Democrats and Republicans warp them all over the map. This is going to be one of the major issues of the second half of this decade.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:37 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
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Just an autumn sketch … over the river and through the woods, to grandmothers house for Thanksgiving? I’m not a big fan of Thanksgiving rituals, especially since I’m a vegetarian. But then again, giving thanks for the good things in your life is never a bad idea. So in that spirit, I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving and a Happy Every Day. Yea, the world ain’t always a very happy place, but you should at least try to find something in every day that you can be just a little bit thankful for. Even if that’s not necessarily my sketches.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:35 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, November 21, 2004
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THE SECOND TIPPING: This will be a side point to my last blog about tipping points (and the meaning of life). I wish I had time to develop this and write a book. It regards the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the history of Christianity. Hey, talk about a tiny pebble tipping the historical apple cart. When you look at the basic facts that most main-line historians would accept about Jesus and his preachings, they hardly set Jesus apart from the many other traveling apocalyptic prophets in Palestine in the First Century. Historical documents indicate that there were many of these preachers, both before and after Jesus. It was something that a lot of guys wanted to do back then – this probably had a lot to do with the Roman invasion and how the Jews were responding to it. You don’t hear much about most of them, e.g. “Honi the Circle Drawer”. And a whole lot more were probably never recorded on stone or paper and have been completely forgotten by history.

In my opinion, Christianity was born and the world was hugely changed because of this fact: an apocalyptic prophet stumbled by accident into a tipping point at a hot corner of the Roman Empire in the early First Century. That prophet turned out to be Jesus of Nazareth. Most of the other apocalyptic prophets of the time, including John the Baptist, flapped their butterfly wings but their effect was lost in breeze. As for Jesus, he got lucky — right time, right place, right things that followed including the whole Resurrection Myth thing. As I’ve said on my web site, I think it was reasonably possible that Jesus lived for a (very) short time after a truncated Passover-Eve crucifixion and was seen alive (if not well) by one of his prophets. That would have been enough to set the minds of oppressed Palestinian Jews on fire, giving early Christianity the impetus it needed to reach its second major tipping point – i.e., when Paul of Tarsus came along. Once Paul joined the mix, the fire was unstoppable (but different).

You could probably do a similar analysis with regard to Moses and Judaism, Mohammed and Islam, Gautama and Buddhism, and other religions. An interesting question would emerge: i.e., just what would the masters say if they could come back today and see what they founded. How much of their personalities, intent and “spirit” filtered through after many centuries of history? My guess is that after they got over the shock of all the institutional and superstitious crap built up in their names (most of them were protesting institutional and superstitious crap), they would agree that their original message could still be found by the true seeker, i.e. by people who could get beyond the simple institutional answers and definitions. The next question would be a very personal one: assuming you did get to the core essence of these prophets, how do you respond to them.

In a nutshell, here’s my response. As to Gautama, I think he’s one really smart cookie who can make you understand life very deeply and show you how to personally deal with it (sort of like the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead; or maybe the Big Lebowski). As to both Moses and Muhammed, they’re the great realists, the political scientists of spirituality. They’re not gonna sugar-coat the world; they want to see the most God-like outcome for real-world struggles, and they’ve got the stomach to keep thinking in those terms after ordering a few thousand (or million) people to die or be cast into hopeless poverty. But as to Jesus – in the end, he’s the person that I could feel great affection for. He’s the guy you could love.

Personally, I’m glad that the tipping points of history tipped in such a way that the essence of Jesus is still with us, however varnished with darkening layers of myth and ritual and superstition (and let’s not even start about those Tim LaHayne novels). Without that radical (and extremely brave) love for humankind which the historical Jesus was all about, the ways of all the other guys (including the Big Lebowski) ultimately come to naught.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:09 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, November 18, 2004
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TIPPED OVER: Thus far, I haven’t spoken much about the “tipping point” concept, which has recently become a fashionable blue-state cliché. Such a progressive, new age idea reminds me too much of Al Gore – especially since his wife is named Tipper. Had Al been elected in 2000, the world probably would be in better shape right now. But some people might have lost their stomachs listening to Tipper Gore as First Lady giving speeches about environmental tipping points. (Still, too bad that Al met a political tipping point in Florida and Washington that year).

Admittedly I didn’t read the book (The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell), but given my background in engineering and economics, I believe that I understand the basic ideas well enough. The tipping point concept is one of those modern, cross-curricular “meta-theories” that some super-bright oddballs stumbled across while playing around with a computer program (much like chaos theory and emergence). In sum, it says that in both physical and social systems, there occur specific times and places where some very small, seemingly random event casts the die and has a very large impact on the system that surrounds it (which could be as small as a dish of water being frozen, or as large as the world economy). If the same event happens just a short while before or after that tipping point, it has relatively little impact and is soon forgotten.

These non-tipping point situations describe most of the things that we do during our nasty, brutish and short lives. Oh sure, we get plenty of come-ons from fundraisers from PBS and other (hopefully) worthy causes that remind us of the “butterfly over Beijing that causes a hurricane”. That idea was popularized by the Chaos Theory promoters, and says that because the world is such a sensitive thing, even the smallest actions can have effects that build up over time into huge proportions.

The thing to notice, while you wonder whether to get out your checkbook or credit card, is the word “can” – which here implies possibility but no guarantee. Chaos Theory did legitimately point out that our atmosphere and plenty of other things in the world are subject to “recursive” processes, whereby a particular event effects a system over and over again, and those effects get bigger and bigger over time. (E.g., this may be relevant in understanding the physical processes that lead to a heart attack or a stock market collapse). BUT, Chaos Theory admits that there are also plenty of “negative feedback” and “equilibrium return” mechanisms out there that usually keep stuff like this from happening. (If there weren’t, there’d be so many stock market crashes and heart attacks that you couldn’t have a stock market, or any investors to fool around with it). This all leads us to the TIPPING POINT idea – that although most effects are just dampened out and are soon forgotten, once in a very blue moon, a little thing (like that butterfly over Beijing or that gullible PBS donator) truly does change the world.

So, it that good or bad? Well, for most of us schmucks living lives of quiet desperation, it’s a glass half-full. Or not even half-full, really. I suspect that tipping points are pretty rare. And when you’re at one, you may not even know! After all, it’s hard to suspect the paths by which small acts of kindness or meanness could influence the world. Next, throw in the law of unintended consequences – perhaps a small anonymous act of kindness in the 20s or 30s triggered Stalin’s or Hitler’s rise to power! (I can imagine some old, rich matron marveling over a young political activist, so full of energy, surely he will help to make the mother / father-land great once more.) So, don’t look to Beijing Butterflies and Tipping Points to give your life its missing meaning. It might be a long, long wait.

Just what should you turn to in order to find your life’s hidden meaning? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:13 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
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Arg! I think I’ve got the flu — I hope that’s all it is. Really feeling beat. To top it off, I pulled a muscle in the back of my head and neck last week, and it’s only adding to the pleasure of pain and sleepless nights.

So no long essay today. I’m gonna have to say it with a picture. Here’s an abstract of a nice autumn day. About the way that things look to me right now.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:58 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, November 11, 2004
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I saw and read the recent Time Magazine cover story about “The God Gene”. Boy, what a let down! The whole thing should have been just a small article in the science section or a back-page piece regarding “potential philosophic issues that may arise eventually from genetic research ”.

The article centers around a book that a genetic researcher named Dean H. Hamer recently published. Need I tell you what the book’s title is? The book and the Time Magazine article focus on a recent study by Hamer that attempts to link the scores that a group of people got on a “transcendence survey” with a feature of one of their genes. The transcendence survey is just a group of questions that tries to measure just how spacey and mystic you are. Hamer found a feature of a specific gene that statistically correlates with the scores that people in his study group got on the transcendence survey. In other words, if you were in the group and your VMAT2 gene had a certain feature, you were likely to do a little better than if you didn’t have this genetic feature.

Hamer’s study still hasn’t passed the standard scientific peer review process or been replicated by other scientists. Thus, in the science world, his study means just about nothing at present. And even if it does eventually pass muster, it wouldn’t come close to establishing that belief in God is affected by a genetically determined brain process. Hamer’s study, if it is accepted, would just be one of many different studies that would be needed to confirm such a proposition. There are all kinds of unanswered questions yet unresolved; on the one hand, it’s unclear that a person’s transcendence test score correlates with their belief or disbelief in a God (or a “higher power”, to be more generic). On the other, it’s totally up in the air how the VMAT2 gene variation would affect the brain as to encourage the mind to favor the idea of God.

Hamer has some guesses about that, but all they are right now are guesses. They could turn out to be totally false (or more likely, partly false and partly true). And even if the VMAT2 gene is a part of a process that encourages some minds to have a strong feeling about God, there would almost certainly be other genes involved in the process; even the simplest human behavior that is found to have genetic influences is linked to a whole host of different genes doing different things. There’s a whole lot more to be researched before any conclusions can be made.

So, don’t waste your money on Hamer’s book. The title (yes, the book is called “The God Gene”) promises very much and delivers almost nothing. As to the Time Mag article, well, it may be worth a walk down to the library, but not much more than that. The fact that scientists are interested in linking the historical and cross-cultural tendency of humans to believe in a transcendent power to genetics and brain chemical processes does make you stop and think — even if it’s way to early to conclude that there is such a connection. The Time article did bring up some important “what if” points that should interest philosophers and theologians, even the amateur ones like me. Does the existence of a physical process that points our minds in the direction of God count as evidence of God’s design in the world? Or is that physical process a Darwinian survival thing, with no logical need to posit the existence of the delusion that it causes?

One interesting side point that does come out of this discussion is the indication that the brain does have physical processes that can produce good moods, “oceanic feelings”, and inner peace. Studies on the brains of people who are able to deeply meditate (which I was once able to do but lately have lost the touch) have illuminated the chemical and electrical processes that lead up to the meditative sense that all is well. So maybe mystical meditation experiences aren’t really a sign of God’s existence, as John of the Cross and other great mystics thought. But hey, if you can find a way to use it to make your life better, then why not? Good old American pragmatism at work! But the mystic might respond to the American pragmatic that the only way to get your mind to release the chemicals that cause inner peace is to believe in God in the first place. Hmmmm, the problem of faith goes on, with or without DNA.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:49 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, November 7, 2004
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Just a recent scene from my drive home. The days are growing shorter and colder; daylight savings time is over. The mood is melancholy. Hopes for another spring and summer, with their long, sunny days, are far off in the distance, like the twinkling stars in the cold night.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:44 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, November 5, 2004
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DISUNITED STATES:

I’ve got the right to say “I told you so”. Politically, I consider myself to be an independent semi-liberal, or perhaps a liberal-sympathizing moderate. So, this blog is a more-or-less liberal blog, even if it’s not always political. This past Tuesday evening (Election Day), most of the high-volume political blogs (like Daily Kos, Wonkette, Andrew Sullivan, Eschaton, etc.) had latched on to some dubious exit poll numbers published in Slate around 3 pm; these numbers bode well for Kerry. A feeling of euphoria had developed across liberal cyberspace by 4 pm; voter turnout was up, the stock market was down, and the end of the W era seemed in sight. Pollster John Zogby released his final prediction at 5 pm saying that Kerry would gain over 300 electoral votes that night – quite enough to make him the 44th President. By 7 pm, Kerry and campaign manager Bob Shrum were working on a victory speech (not that Shrum had written many of them in his time).



But if you checked out my blog that evening – and admittedly, almost no one did – you could have read what turned out to have been the truth. Kerry was on his way to defeat. It took another 8 hours or so for that to sink in amidst the liberal optimists.



I’m still pondering what it all means. Are we really a divided nation, two nations with irreconcilable visions of the future? Or was Kerry’s defeat just another melange of incidental factors that don’t really add up to anything significant, as with most elections?



Unfortunately, I think there is something to the blue zone versus red zone notion. I myself mostly agree with the true-blue New York Times agenda, i.e. that a certain amount of government involvement in our lives is a necessary evil, e.g. to make affordable health care widely available; and that it’s best to find ways to make government work better rather than to throw it out; that religious belief is fine, but don’t mix it with government activities (e.g., no prayer in the classroom – although I myself liked the short-lived compromise of having a moment of quiet meditation each morning); and furthermore, that gays should be allowed to form family units and raise kids, so long as they love their kids and take good care of them; and finally, that our foreign policy must be based on alliances and not on go-it-alone strategies. And it scares me just how much the red zone people seem to revile these ideas.



It also saddens me that the heartland folk just can’t see the sense and the long-term vision behind all of this, especially in a world of increasingly scarce resources. Personally, I like most of the heartland folk that I’ve interacted with. The other day I had a chat with a guy who still farms land out in western New Jersey; he told me that he voted for Mr. Bush because Bush seemed like the more honorable and morally-grounded person. I didn’t take any offense at his opinion; instead I admired his concern for the inner values of whomsoever should be our leader. It was typical of the common sense, no-BS approach of Middle America. If you were out there driving silly and got your car stuck in a ditch, they’d come with chains to tow you out. And then they wouldn’t take the money that you offered them in thanks. Something like that actually happened to me once. It saddens me to think that people like this can’t agree that gays were put here by God and not by The Devil, but do agree that most any war that the President wants to fight is a good war.



There ain’t gonna be any quick way of healing this division. Maybe Mr. Bush will grow up and forsake some of the growing acclaim from his supporters so as to heal the divisions and take account of both the New York Times and the Fox News agendas. I truly hope so. But for now, I’m not holding my breath (but neither am I applying for citizenship in Belgium or Denmark, tempting as it sometimes seems).

And I’m also making a prediction or two. First, John Kerry will be the last Democratic nominee for the Presidency for a long, long time who hails from a blue state. Over the past 40 years, the only Democrats who were voted into the White House have come from red states. The only kind of Democrat who the heartland folk seem to listen to is the kind who grew up with them and still lives amidst them.



Second prediction: Hilary Clinton ain’t got a chance in the 2008 primaries. She’s definitely too blue now; you can’t go home again to red-land.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:56 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, November 1, 2004
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Eve of Reckoning: Tomorrow it finally happens. America goes to the polls to pick its Great Leader for the next four years. I’m predicting (not so confidently) that George W. Bush will be re-elected. Sorry about that, Kerry fans; I myself wish that the tall guy from Massachusetts could have made an underdog comeback like the Boston Red Sox did last month. But at heart, America today is a conservative and fearful nation, a nation that thinks it has too much to lose, a nation that sticks with the tried and true even when the tried and true ain’t so true after all.

One Sunday ago, a British newspaper called The Guardian ran a piece about our election by a fellow named Charlie Brooker. In it, Mr Brooker expressed the following sentiment: “On November 2, the entire civilised world will be praying, praying Bush loses. And Sod’s law dictates he’ll probably win, thereby disproving the exiofstence of God once and for all. The world will endure four more years of idiocy, arrogance and unwarranted bloodshed …”

I myself don’t think that Bush’s reelection will mean the death of God, even though Bush’s brand of religious sentiment makes atheism look awfully good. And I’m not so sure that we’re in for another four years of idiocy, arrogance and unwarranted bloodshed either. I do agree that we’ve had too much of all of those things since Mr. Bush took office in 2001. But even though Mr. Bush will probably emerge victorious tomorrow, it won’t be by much. John Kerry’s efforts over the past 12 or 15 months won’t scatter to the winds of history, as with Mondale and Dukakis and McGovern (and Howard Dean, had he run). Kerry did a pretty darn good job of putting a voice to the discontent that a lot of thinking Americans have these days about GWB and his vision for America.

Bush has been running the country as one big adolescent rebellion against his father. Tom Friedman had an on-point article in the Sunday New York Times about George Herbert Walker Bush. Like many people, I wasn’t very impressed by Old Man Bush back in the early 90s. But looking back, it turns out that the Elder Bush made some pretty good decisions, especially his multi-lateral approach to the Kuwait invasion and his raising taxes at a time when taxes needed to be raised. The old guy did the right thing, like most of the great Presidents did, but just didn’t have the knack for making it look good (and so we replaced him with someone who often did the wrong thing, but had the knack to make it look great).

Obviously, Baby Bush couldn’t bring himself to ask our allies for help in Iraq, nor to raise taxes (or avoid an unnecessary tax cut) even if the nation’s well-being truly required that. The little guy grew up in Texas and obviously believes all those Lone Star / Lone Ranger myths. Yea, just what you’d expect for the son of a New England Brahmin family transplanted by the lure of oil $$$.

I’m sure that Mr. Kerry has made GWB sweat a lot over the past few weeks, and that he’ll be sweating for a few more hours tomorrow night. Let’s hope that Mr. Bush takes it all to heart. Let’s hope that he asks himself why America wouldn’t give him a mandate. He can’t say that he got just what befell his daddy; Kerry and Nader don’t have 1/3 the moxie of the Clinton / Perot duo. Nope, he’s gonna have to face himself in the mirror alone and ask, just what does the nation expect of me? Just what can I do to truly make things better, now that I don’t have to worry about re-election? Why did I almost get beat by a guy with pretty much the same philosophies that my father had, and with just about the same charisma level?

Remember this: every vote cast for Kerry tomorrow is a vote for the younger Mister Bush to GROW UP, to realize that his father was mostly right after all. We all have to go thru that sort of thing sooner or later. It’s finally time for GWB to face the moment of truth.

I hope that John Kerry lives to become as much of an institution in the Senate as Ted Kennedy has. He deserves to be remembered with much honor for what he did this year. As with his service in Vietnam, he took up a cause that couldn’t be won, but ultimately helped the nation to face some greater truths. I’m hoping that once the dust finally settles and George W. Bush is re-crowned king, the Big W will realize that it’s time to stop playing cowboy and to truly step into the shoes of the great men who preceded him (and challenged him).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:21 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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