Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ye Gods, We Hardly Knew Ye

The forum discussion following an article on AlterNet a few days ago got me to thinking about science and technology and how we humans show a marked tendency to abuse them. In particular, our overreliance on technology to solve all our problems puts us in the same moral category as the drug-addicted; the mindset (if a little bit is good, more is better) is exactly the same. When we don’t get the desired results, we tend to kick it up a notch, creating endless cycles of bad choices to wipe out the ill effects of previous bad choices. In the end it’s a zero-sum game.

To avoid any confusion about the differences between science and technology, suffice to say that science is more about the process of discovery, of proving or disproving any given theory. On the other hand, technology is more about practical applications of science, of putting scientific discoveries—through innovation and invention—into practice.

(It’s a popular misconception that science and technology will save us from the long-term unintended consequences of past scientific and technological pursuits, despite contraindications that we humans are about to be buried under the rubble of science and technology gone awry. The trouble, of course, is that the solution to one problem begets many more problems, all or none of which might or might not be related to the original problem. One can argue, not too logically, that we need more technology to deal with the problems we already have, but new technology would only bring new problems—amply demonstrated by every technological advance throughout recorded history—so that argument quickly falls apart.

By now you’re probably thinking I’m a Luddite. Maybe I am. But you should know that I’m also an avid sci-fi fan, and that I find science and technology deeply interesting and endlessly fascinating; nothing does more to kindle the fires of imagination and unleash the creative mind than to immerse oneself in the myriad possibilities of things yet to be discovered.

Where sci-tech and I part company is the way in which the discoveries attributable to sci-tech are, too often, ruthlessly exploited by commercial interests for no other purpose than to create wealth. Gone are the days when people did things because things needed doing; now, few people do anything unless they stand to make a buck. Not an absolute, but close enough.

Clever though we are we seem incapable of learning that an ability to do something is not sufficient reason, by itself, to go ahead and do it. In practice, doing anything without a clear understanding of short- and long-term consequences is the moral equivalent of leaping before you look.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the fields of genetic engineering, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, where indiscriminate applications of these particular kinds of technology pose very real dangers of running out of control. Thanks to genetically modified crops that threaten agriculture, and a combination of overused antibiotics, widespread use of artificial fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides, and the irradiation of meat, fruit and vegetables, most of the world’s food supply in now at risk, as is most of the world’s potable water.

No one knows the full extent of the dangers that lie in wait for unwary technophiles and all the rest of humanity as the ruthless exploiters of science and technology make new inroads into unexplored territory, boldly going where no man has gone before, with nary a backward glance or critical thought about possible—or even probable—outcomes.

Has the cleverness of our inventions put us all in peril? Have we humans become the engineers of our own destruction? Or are we engineering something completely different, perhaps the next stage of human evolution? Sensing imminent extinction, might not scientists seek to create new life forms capable of preserving human intelligence and knowledge, acquired over millennia, under conditions that no human could survive?

Humans lacking intelligence and knowledge are little more than naked apes and therefore are—on an evolutionary scale—no more worthy of survival than, say, dodos or pterodactyls or a termite colony. In fact, when it comes to survival, humans lacking intelligence and knowledge are vastly inferior to apes. Thus, intelligence and knowledge and their preservation and perpetuation are the important things; humans not so much.

Picture a distant future in which nanotech life forms directed by artificial intelligence gather periodically in enclaves to pay tribute and swear obeisance to their human creators, that mysterious race of super-beings whose sudden disappearance from Gaia gave rise to new mythologies and became the stuff of a new wave of religious dogma.

And might not future children of the gods utter, in moments of extreme religious fervor and devotion, this simple prayer for salvation: Ye Gods, we hardly knew ye, but please, we beg ye, save us from ourselves?

Then again, maybe artificial intelligence is smarter than that.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

And the Winner is . . .

Prior to writing and publishing Petey’s Pipeline Blog, I wrote and published Petey’s Pipeline E-zine. The “articles” section of the e-zine, Random Ramblings & Miscellaneous Musings, was the precursor—the prototype, if you will—of Petey’s Pipeline Blog. And, as some—but not all—of you know, Petey is the personification of the acronym PT, which stands for Perfect Text, the name of my Web site.

It’s fair to say that I don’t report the news, I comment on the news. Anything pertaining to environmental, social, political, economic, and cultural subjects is in play and potential grist for my mill.

From a personal standpoint, half the fun of blogging derives from commenting on specific topics and sharing my opinions with readers who can opt to agree or disagree and post comments accordingly. Of course, if my opinions were worth anything, people would actually pay me for them.

The other half of the fun comes from prognosticating about future events based on current or emerging trends, then waiting for those trends to play out and events to unfold to see if my predictions have merit. Sometimes I call ‘em right, sometimes I don’t. To be sure, Allison DuBois has a better track record than I do, but then, my premonitions don’t come to me in dreams; I have to process a lot of information before something takes shape.

Except for cases of self-fulfilling prophecies, making predictions is a dicey game at best. In some respects predicting is a lot like a game of poker, except that it’s almost impossible to influence the outcome of the game. For instance, you can’t bluff the outcome of a prediction the same way you can bluff a poker hand. You can’t up the ante, you can’t raise the bet; you get one call, and if you call it wrong, you lose. No big deal unless the fate of the world hangs on the outcome of your prediction.

Succumbing to the lure of forecasting future events leaves one open to the inevitable barrage of verbal insults hurled by insensitive skeptics and others incapable of thinking outside the mainstream of conventional wisdom. Dare to venture out onto the prognosticator’s precarious limb and you’ll soon become intimately familiar with terms such as bonkers, fruitcake, nutcase, and whack job if you’re frequently wrong. Add freaky and scary to that list if you’re not.

The following excerpts, culled from various past issues of Petey’s Pipeline E-zine that were published between September, 2005 and June, 2006, originated in editorials and articles that I wrote for the e-zine. Some of these predictions are uncanny in their accuracy, while others stray somewhat wide of the mark. I have no explanations or excuses for why things turn out the way they do, and I have no means of forcing a particular outcome. Things are what they are.

Muddling Along (Issue #15, 9/19/05)

“Back in January I predicted that gasoline prices would top $3 per gallon before the end of this year. That prophecy was fulfilled by mid-summer in the Bay Area and in most other areas of the country post-Katrina. What's next? When pumping and refining capacity comes back on-line in the Gulf region, look for gas prices to decline slightly, but don't be surprised if they don't get down to where they were before Katrina's rampage. Then, in the spring of next year (2006), look for prices to start climbing again, hitting $3.50 per gallon by Labor Day. Expect $4 per gallon gasoline by mid-to-late summer of 2007, $6 per gallon by late summer of 2010.”

Okay, my timing was a little off on this one, but the dollar amounts were traveling in the predicted direction. On an accuracy scale of 1‒10, I’d rate this one a 6.

Sane Fiscal Policy or Grand Delusion? (Issue #16, 10/03/05)

“A shortage of living-wage jobs and increasing real estate prices team up to swell the legions of homeless. It may well be impossible to get an accurate count of the number of homeless people in the U.S., but one thing is certain; the real estate bubble has added to the numbers. The inevitable bursting of the real estate bubble will only add to the misery.”

The real estate bubble did burst in 2007. Need I say more? Gave this one a 10.

Speculating in Real Estate (Issue #22, 1/02/06)

“As long as populations continue to grow there will be a demand for additional housing. But when normal demand, low interest rates, double-digit percentages of annual appreciation and perceived opportunity converge, the dynamics of real estate investing change dramatically. Add creative financing strategies to the mix and you have a formula for huge profits—or a financial disaster.”

Huge profits and a financial disaster. Gave this one a 10, also.

Wheels of Progress (Issue #30, 5/01/06)

“International airlines will be among the early casualties. Most of them are already facing financial difficulties, and it can only get worse. Of course, this will surely spell disaster for the aircraft industry and all businesses that supply it or in some way benefit from it.”

Airlines are feeling the pain, which is beginning to ripple across the aircraft industry. Because it’s not fully realized, I rated this prediction a 7.

Business After Peak Oil (Issue #31, 5/15/06)

“Global demand for oil is on the increase; so are gasoline prices. In spite of this people still buy heavy, gas-wasting SUVs and high-performance vehicles with performance capabilities they'll never tap into. People still drive everywhere they go. Yet they bitch, relentlessly, about high gasoline prices, as if their own behavior has nothing to do with it.”

Not so much a prediction as straight observation, so I didn’t rate it.

If there’s a point to foretelling the future, it primarily has to do with raising people’s level of awareness to help prevent them from being blindsided by otherwise sudden unexpected changes to the status quo. And if there’s a point to telling you this, it’s to draw your attention to the fact that I call ‘em like I see ‘em, and that, for the most part, I make good calls.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Did anyone else notice the curious lack of coverage of Dennis Kucinich’s Articles of Impeachment against President Bush, on Monday, in the mainstream media? Nothing on network news broadcasts on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday; nothing in The Oregonian on those days, either. Finally, on Thursday, The Oregonian saw fit to devote slightly less than eight column-inches to the subject below the fold on page A3.

Meanwhile, above the fold on page A5 of the same issue of our favorite non-news newspaper, The Oregonian’s editors devoted 13 ½ column-inches to regurgitating (or is that re-regurgitating?) the ONDCP Drug Czar John Walter’s anti-pot propaganda for the umpteenth time. Hey, that story is just as lame—and just as wrong—now as it was the first time they told it. Some things never change.

But some things do change, and it seems that our once-trusted news media are among them. It was only a few years ago that news media were beside themselves over President Clinton’s impeachment. The story dominated headlines, garnered extensive coverage, and dragged on for weeks. Neither the news media nor the people who rely on them for daily doses of current events could get enough of it. In retrospect, I think that, as far as the press and most of the people were concerned, it was more about Clinton’s sexual improprieties than it was about Clinton lying to Congress.

And don’t let us forget Watergate. When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story some 35 years ago, the news media went berserk. From the break-in investigation to the identification and capture of the burglars to the hearings to the eventual impeachment and resignation of President “I am not a crook” Nixon, the ever-present press never once shirked its duty, never once let the American people forget exactly what the press is for. The media buzz went on for months, making or breaking the careers and reputations of countless media and beltway insiders, capturing daily the attention of news junkies from dawn to dark and late into the night.

How times have changed. Today, those whose mission is to collect and disseminate the news seem less concerned about delivering real news and more concerned with not reporting anything that might reflect badly on the Bush Administration. Their intent seems to be to deflect public attention away from important matters to inconsequential things, thus allowing a corrupt and inept government to continue its plundering of national treasures.

Are the news media complicit in Bush’s ongoing efforts to destroy all that is good about America? My guess is they are. Or, maybe, the media’s apparent disregard for real news is just another symptom of the general malaise that travels hand-in-hand with entropy as it brings the forward progress of our once-great nation to a screeching halt.