Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bend a Knee and Live

"Since 1950 the USA has attacked more than 50 countries. It has bombed 30. It has made more than 50 assassination attempts and succeeded in more than 20 regime changes. The behavioral metaprogram: Be afraid. Be very afraid. Be grateful we have brave men and women in uniform to protect us."

The glare of broadcast lights were exactly what Chairman Foghorn Leghorn, R-CA, had most wanted.  With the solemnity of a hanging judge, he leaned forward and read his prepared remarks.

"Boy, I say, boy, you know Russia has deployed an information army inside television. I say an information army. Some doing the Kremlin’s bidding are given explicit guidelines to obscure the truth by spreading conspiracies that Dick Cheney or the CIA is responsible for everything from 9/11 and anthrax to the downing of Malaysia flight MH17 over Ukraine. Others, like that Larry King fella, are simply paid more than we can pay them, for demonizing the West."

He handed the ball off to to his counterpart in the minority party, Tweety J. Bird, D-OA, who stuffed the ball into his mouth and echoed the words of the distinguished Chairman.

Then the first show trial witness, a "Russian Expert" from a right wing think tank, leaned in and set the context:

"This is not merely an ‘information war’, in other words, but a ‘war on information.' If the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate."

The Chairman opined, "Boy, I say, Boy, you are about to exceed the limit of my medications. But you are right. Their rational arguments are about as sharp as a bowling ball. About as sharp as a bag of wet mice, I'd say."

The second witness, from the Heritage Foundation, told the committee:

"Russian propaganda is corrosive to the image of the United States and to our values. Or as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland described it before this committee on March 4th, “the Kremlin's pervasive propaganda campaign, where is truth is no obstacle.”

"And Russian propaganda is being spread aggressively around the world as we have not seen it since Soviet days. This is not just in Central Asia, and Eastern and Central Europe, but even here in the West. The daily content and commentary from RT and others is often polished and slickly-produced. And it's not like old-fashioned propaganda, aimed solely at making Putin and Russia look good. It's a new kind of propaganda, aimed at sowing doubt about anything having to do with the U.S. and the West, and in a number of countries, unsophisticated audiences are eating it up.

"The unfortunate fact is that the United States government became complacent in the battle for “hearts and minds” in Russia and its neighboring countries after the end of the Cold War. For Instance, the administration’s budget request for 2016 is $751,436 million [$751 billion] for U.S. International Broadcasting. Reportedly, RT has a budget alone of $400 million for its Washington bureau."

The statements lambasting RT from Hillary Clinton and John Kerry are a matter of public record. There were no witnesses called from RT or its viewers and admirers.

We admit to being among those admirers. In that vast desert of content that is television medium, RT offers a fresh perspective. Last week, we loved seeing Richard Heinberg on BoomBust and Steve Keen on the Keiser Report.

For comparison's sake we watched the Friday morning news line up for all the official US propaganda channels, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, and ABC. They all seemed to be saying the same thing, using the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the conviction of the Boston Marathon bomber, the death of a Saddam Hussein confidant, or some other pretext to paint a gloomy picture of Orwellian internal and external threats. The behavioral metaprogram: "Be afraid. Be very afraid. Be grateful we have brave men and women in uniform to protect us. Just do what the authorities tell you and all will be well. Move along, nothing to see here."

No mention is made that one of our glorious, laureled veterans kills him or herself every 22 minutes.

Former reporter Liz Wahl, who resigned RT on camera with a newsy flair, told Congress that she quit because the network was spinning the news to match their political viewpoint.

How odd that is for journalism.
"In the ensuing media blitz, Wahl gave interviews to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, and ABC’s Barbara Walters, among others. Stories about her resignation appeared in news outlets around the world. The New York Daily News credited her with breaking through “the Iron Curtain.” She wrote a feature for Politico entitled “I Was Putin’s Pawn.”

At that same moment, across the continent former RT reporter Abby Martin was sitting in a radio studio telling podcaster Joe Rogan that she had not been controlled or manipulated and that what had attracted her to work at RT was that they were the only ones sending crews to cover Occupy.

Today they are among the very few US news organizations with camera crews on the ground in Doniesk and Gaza, interviewing protestors last week in front of WalMarts, speaking with homeless people in Jeb Bush's Florida, and decoding the financial meltdown in Greece and what it means for the euro.

RT's Lee Camp, a stand-up Bay Area comedian Abby Martin recruited to replace her (she did not like living in Washington), takes no prisoners when criticizing the US government and its media culture. Like Martin, Camp brings in rising comics and artists to underscore RT's theme ‑ we are nobody's patsy. Friday's show linked the familiar face on the twenty dollar bill to the Trail of Tears.

Another point raised in that RT show, which we watched to help us prepare this essay, was that the reason the United States left the World Court in 1986 was because the Court ruled it to be a state sponsor of terrorism. It is why the US refuses to join the World Criminal Court that prosecutes war crimes.

This is not disinformation. Just in the past few years the US backed the "popular" uprising in Egypt and Ukraine and attempted unpopular coups in Venezuela and Ecuador. It destroyed the governments of Iraq, Syria and Libya and has overwhelmed Jordan with refugees. Its surrogate Saudi Arabia is, as you read this, bombing refugee camps and residential districts in Yemen with US-supplied war planes and AWACs, precipitating a human rights disaster.

Since 1950 the USA has attacked more than 50 countries. It has bombed 30. It has made more than 50 assassination attempts and succeeded in more than 20 regime changes.

The US ranks 46th in freedom of the press, just below Romania ‑ one notch above Haiti and 2 notches above Niger.

That, we suppose, is what makes the USA special. If you agree, bend a knee. Putin is wrong. This country is exceptional.

On April 7th we lost one of the great iconoclastic voices of our time, Stan Freberg. Here, in a short tribute, is a radio clip of Freberg, as Ben Franklin, reluctant to sign Thomas Jefferson's petition to the King: FranklinFreberg.mp3


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Mercury Madness

"Sadly, many people with mercury toxicity consult physicians who fail to identify the real cause of their illness and suffering."

  How does one explain the utter insanity of world governments, especially the United States, England, Australia, Japan, and China? Each in their own way seem irreversibly bent on destroying the habitability of Earth as rapidly as possible, generally out of willingness to accept an insane economic logic that places soul-crushing cubicle jobs, fossil fuel extraction and weapons manufacture not just on a par with, but above, real indicators of wealth -- such as soil fertility, water reserves, climate, biodiversity and health.

Surely there are plenty of advisers that tell world leaders that what has been defined as security is nothing remotely resembling real security and that what they seem determined to pursue will take us all over the cliff's edge and plunge first civilization and then humanity into extinction.

Why the confusion?

In 1983, Jerome Nriagu, a geochemist, wrote a book linking lead poisoning to the decline of the Roman empire. He described a syrup called defrutum or sapa, made and kept in lead pots, that was used to sweeten wine and food. He described drinking and bathing water carried in lead pipes and lead used for makeup and jewelry. He calculated the level of lead that wealthy Romans consumed and linked the findings to levels of the metal found in preserved bones. A 2014 follow-up study concluded that Roman tap water had 100 times the lead of nearby natural sources.

Lead is toxic to many organs and tissues, including the brain, heart, bones and kidneys. Symptoms include confusion, headaches, and irritability. Does this explain the fall of the Roman Empire? Probably not entirely, but brain poisoning may have contributed.

Since Nriagu's book, precautions have been taken to remove lead pipes from old water systems and to ban lead additives from paints and gasoline, but lead is not alone in posing these kinds of threats. We live in a soup of manufactured chemicals, few of which have been studied for their long-term public health consequences, especially in combinations. 

Recently, while in Belize, we happened to watch a film documentary on the life of Weston A.V. Price, an early 20th century dentist known primarily for his theories on the relationship between nutrition, dental health, and physical health. Price concluded nearly a century ago that aspects of a modern Western diet (particularly flour, sugar, and modern processed vegetable fats) lead to nutritional deficiencies that are a cause of many health problems.

Price is best known today for lending his name to the Weston A. Price Foundation, co-founded in 1999 by Sally Fallon and nutritionist Mary G. Enig to disseminate this vein of research and a libertarian agenda of promoting farm sales of raw milk and discouraging soy and corn processed foods. Little is mentioned of Price's campaign to ban the use of mercury in dentistry.

If you were to Google "mercury dental amalgam" as we recently did, among the top results would be a link to an official looking website for the National Council Against Health Fraud
(119 Foster Street, Bldg. R, 2nd Floor, Peabody, MA 01960 and its oft-read "Position Paper on Amalgam Fillings."

"The National Council Against Health Fraud believes that amalgam fillings are safe, that anti-amalgam activities endanger public welfare, and that so-called “mercury-free dentistry” is substandard practice."

To Consumers

• There is no logical reason to worry about the safety of amalgam fillings.
• Anyone told that a urine mercury level produced after taking DMPS represents a toxic state is being misled.
• Avoid health professionals who advise you that amalgam fillings cause disease or should be removed as a “preventive measure.”
• Report any such advice to the practitioner’s state licensing board.

To Dental Organizations
• Issue clear and forceful guidelines indicating that unnecessary amalgam removal is unethical and unprofessional and that the diagnosis of mercury toxicity is outside the proper scope of dentistry.
• Issue a position statement about dubious mercury testing

To Dental Licensing Boards

• Practice standards should be based solely on scientifically gathered objective evidence.
• Classify as unprofessional conduct any advice that amalgam fillings are dangerous and therefore should be avoided or removed.
• Ban the use of hair analysis and chelating agents by dentists.
• Ban any advertising of “mercury-free dentistry” which falsely implies that amalgam fillings are dangerous and should therefore be avoided or removed.

Further investigation reveals NCAHF is an astroturf outfit often at odds with Weston Price, and also fond of attacking the chiropractic profession and anyone associated with herbal, holistic or traditional approaches to healing.

Consumer Advocate Tim Bolen writes:

The NCAHF is operating out of a cardboard box in the back room of Bobbie Baratz's Braintree, MA hair removal salon, and has so little money, that Baratz begged members for cash, offering a picture of me (Tim Bolen) as an incentive for contribution.

Court documents show that Baratz and Barrett had set up this case (against chiropracters) to generate  "expert witness" fees for themselves.  Baratz is the current President of the NCAHF.  Barrett is a failed MD who operates the dubious website out of his basement in Allentown. PA.

Turning to actual science, we see that the subject of mercury poisoning from dental fillings (most commonly referred to as "silver fillings") is a very well-researched area, and the results are unsettling. 

Silver-mercury amalgam has been used as a filling material for 160 years and has enjoyed the reputation of being an inexpensive, long lasting solution to tooth decay, although the average life span of a silver-mercury amalgam filling is only around five years.

Amalgam literally means mixed with mercury and in the dental sense that is true. Powdered metals and metal compounds consisting of silver, copper, tin and zinc are mixed with about an equal weight of liquid mercury. Three different types of chemical reactions take place within this mixture and the resultant silver-mercury amalgam will set at room temperature and, most importantly, within a few minutes.

Up until recently, it was felt that the mercury stayed within the filling. Now it is known that mercury leaches out every minute of the day. Over the first two years after placement, amalgams release about 34 micrograms of mercury per square centimeter of filling exposed, per day.

A study by Richardson, et al, published in Science of The Total Environment revealed:

Dental amalgam is 50% metallic mercury (Hg) by weight and Hg vapour continuously evolves from in-place dental amalgam, causing increased Hg content with increasing amalgam load in urine, faeces, exhaled breath, saliva, blood, and various organs and tissues including the kidney, pituitary gland, liver, and brain. The Hg content also increases with maternal amalgam load in amniotic fluid, placenta, cord blood, meconium, various foetal tissues including liver, kidney and brain, in colostrum and breast milk. Based on 2001 to 2004 population statistics, 181.1 million Americans carry a grand total of 1.46 billion restored teeth. Children as young as 26 months were recorded as having restored teeth. Past dental practice and recently available data indicate that the majority of these restorations are composed of dental amalgam. Employing recent US population-based statistics on body weight and the frequency of dentally restored tooth surfaces, and recent research on the incremental increase in urinary Hg concentration per amalgam-filled tooth surface, estimates of Hg exposure from amalgam fillings were determined for 5 age groups of the US population. Three specific exposure scenarios were considered, each scenario incrementally reducing the number of tooth surfaces assumed to be restored with amalgam. Based on the least conservative of the scenarios evaluated, it was estimated that some 67.2 million Americans would exceed the Hg dose associated with the reference exposure level (REL) of 0.3 μg/m(3) established by the US Environmental Protection Agency; and 122.3 million Americans would exceed the dose associated with the REL of 0.03 μg/m(3) established by the California Environmental Protection Agency. Exposure estimates are consistent with previous estimates presented by Health Canada in 1995, and amount to 0.2 to 0.4 μg/day per amalgam-filled tooth surface, or 0.5 to 1 μg/day/amalgam-filled tooth, depending on age and other factors.

Chewing foods increases the emissions, dramatically. Every time you chew, mercury vapor is released and quickly finds its way into your bloodstream, where it causes oxidative processes in your tissues. Hot liquids, like coffee, increase the release by thousands of percent, but only for 10 or 15 minutes. Abrasion from chewing gum increases the release of mercury by 150 times.

Dr. Joseph Mercola, a fellow at the American College of Nutrition and member of the International Academy Biological Dentistry and Medicine, explains how mercury affects the body:
"Oxidation is one of the main reasons you develop disease, as well as the primary reason you age. Oxidation in your body leads to inflammation, including inflammation of the lining of your blood vessels. When this occurs, your LDL levels increase as your body attempts to "patch" those damaged vessel walls with cholesterol. LDL is a carrier of cholesterol. This is why people with mercury toxicity have damaged blood vessels, and elevated cholesterol and LDL levels.

"However, oxidation and toxicity can lead to much more than just elevated lipid levels. Mercury in your body can result in a variety of serious neurological, immunological, and endocrinological problems. Mercury not only fuels the flames of inflammation, it also hampers your body's ability to detoxify itself, which makes you even sicker. Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and other neurological diseases have been linked to mercury exposure. Research shows that traces of mercury can cause the type of nerve damage you usually see in Alzheimer's disease.

"Science is now telling us that mercury may very well be a significant factor underlying much chronic disease, and one about which the majority of physicians are completely unaware. It doesn't take much mercury to cause significant stresses in your body.

"Sadly, many people with mercury toxicity consult physicians who fail to identify the real cause of their illness and suffering. They are given bottle after bottle of pills, which merely mask some of the symptoms (at best) and create new imbalances within their bodies, without ever addressing the underlying cause of the problem. Not surprisingly, they fail to get better."

Mercury seen from NASA’s Messenger
spacecraft. Several times a year,
the planet appears to move
backward in the sky, though
it’s just an optical illusion:
Mercury in retrograde.
Half of all dentists in North America have broken away from the pack and stopped using amalgam, but the other half still resist, and will even try to dissuade you if you ask to have your fillings removed. They really don't understand that what they're doing is harmful. They don't question whether the training they worked so hard to get is wrong, and harming their patients.

In their 2014 study, published in journal PNAS, the scientists who studied lead residues in Roman water systems found eerie links in historic concentrations that corresponded to major events in Rome’s history, such as the Gothic Wars in 535CE, Byzantine repairs to Roman aqueducts, and the ninth century Arab sack of Rome. They concluded:

"The Pb [lead] isotope record shows that the discontinuities in the pollution of the Tiber by lead are intimately entwined with the major issues affecting Late Antique Rome and its water distribution system."

Are USAnian empire hawks crazier than their Roman counterparts, or is it just their teeth talking?
mercury dental filling
<img src="" alt="mercury dental filling" border="0" style="max-width:100%; min-width:300px; margin: 0 auto 20px auto; 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sewchar Surfers

-->   On a recent visit to the Caribbean we happened to ask our waiter, who, as it turned out, was the owner of the small outdoor restaurant where we sipped our coffee, what local hotels did with their sewage. We were in a developing country and the regulatory framework for enforcement of such things as wastewater management had not kept up with tourism development. 
"Well," he said, pausing as if to consider how much to share with us, "the wealthier hotels may hire trucks to haul it away but that is very expensive. Most just put in a pipe." He pointed to the ocean.

It does not escape his notice, or ours, that the more tourists arrive, the more sewage will find its way onto the white sandy beaches where we can see surfers waxing their boards. That won't be good for tourism. The more surfers return home with intestinal infections or skin rashes, the less likely they will be putting raves up on Trip Advisor or WannaSurf. The lack of sewage enforcement is killing the tourism the local government desperately wants.

We have a permaculture solution  take that sewage and pyrolyze it. For remote  power, a good pyrolysis kit plus installation runs about 20 percent of the cost solar cells or wind turbines. In a place where the standard source of electricity is stand-alone or regional diesel electric generators, sewage-to-biochar serves two problems at the same time: surplus wastes and shortage of electricity.

Actually, it solves many more, because the biochar being produced can then cascade through a sequence of solutions as it moves through water filtration, silage conditioning, feed supplements that eliminate the genesis of disastrous, antibiotic-resistant-bacteria through overuse of pharmaceutical supplements for livestock, and finally  on exiting the back end of the livestock – sweeten compost and rejuvenate soils.

But how permacultural is it to turn a nutrient rich asset like humanure into biochar instead of composting it directly? To answer that question we looked to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal, Biology and Fertility of Soils [Soil biochemical activities and the geometric mean of enzyme activities after application of sewage sludge and sewage sludge biochar to soil, Biol Fertil Soils (2012) 48:511-517; DOI 10.1007/s00374-011-0644-3]. 

The authors, J. Paz-Ferreiro, G. Gascó, B. Gutiérrez, and A. Méndez are in the ag and mining schools of Comunidad de Madrid-Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM Madrid). They first wondered whether pyrolyzing the waste would eliminate the problem of heavy metals, which is one of the things that makes sewage problematic as a soil fertilizer. In 2005 Mendoz and Gascó showed that turning raw sewage into biochar indeed arrested the solubility of heavy metals. It also reduced the cost associated with transportation of sewage sludge.

Paz-Ferreiro brought the team new expertise in measuring key microbial reactions involved in soil nutrient cycling. Rather than focus on soil chemistry, the team wanted to know how sewage and biochared sewage contribute to soil fertility, and that meant understanding soil biology.
Biochar from sewage and raw sewage sludges were added to soil at a rate of 4% and 8%. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that "the application of high doses of sewage sludge is harmful for the soil microorganisms resulting in a decrease in soil quality," but "sewage sludge biochar has the potential to improve several soil physical and chemical properties (organic matter content and available water content), while decreasing the solubilization of heavy metals from soil."

What is not answered is our original question: what is the comparison of composted sludge versus pyrolyzed sludge? It seems likely to us that while composted sludge would retain many useful nutrients that are volatized when sewage is pyrolyzed – and unless captured by elaborate gas-scrubbers – the benefit of those nutrients to the soil may be outweighed by the heavy metals that are toxic to the soil microbiota and have the potential to move up the food chain to become toxic to us, as well. Moreover, on a large scale such as municipal treatment, composting has to be a major undertaking, involving energy imports for transportation and large processing facilities. If the same end result of soil fertility enhancement can be qualitatively achieved without composting, the pyrolytic loss of some nitrogen and other elements might be forgiven.

Paz-Ferreiro's group showed the potential to use pyrolysis to transform sewage sludge into a material that can enhance soil biochemical activities without simultaneously spreading dangerous pollutants. That is yet another biochar solution. For hotels and restaurants going into places that have neither sewage plants nor power grids, it is potentially a huge blessing. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Biochar Moment

photo by Doug Clayton
We are meeting with government officials of X country. X has a serious dilemma, one which is not uncommon in this era, and which will become the norm for most countries very soon. X is throwing vast sums — 60 billion this year — into finding oil.

It does not consider the dilemma of what happens if it finds the oil and then cannot drill and sell it because to do so would be counterproductive to survival of life on the planet. It does not consider what might happen if it were extraordinarily lucky in its exploration and happened upon such great wealth that it attracted the interest of militarily powerful and ambitious neighbors. It does not consider the potential downside of a boom and bust cycle a favorable discovery of any size would augur, or the destruction of indigenous culture, endangered species or fragile habitats. It just wants the oil, for its own sake. It is like the truck driver on a long distance haul across Texas after midnight. It is locked into the white stripe, in the groove, doing whatever comes next, without much thought or planning.

We tell the government officials that we can provide more power than they need, at a tenth of the cost of the oil, and we can do it from feedstocks they consider wastes, and we can use processes that net sequester greenhouse gases at each step, with a lifecycle cost that is high in the black, low capital outlay and quick return on investment. Oh, and it arrests global warming, deepens soils, saves water and increases biodiversity.

Naturally, they are incredulous.

Surely we are trying to sell them snake oil, what we propose is illegal, or there is some neglected externality in our calculus that makes our proposal fall apart once exposed to serious scrutiny.

We say, no, actually. We have already vetted all these steps we propose. They follow a simple formula that has no secrets, no privacy, no confidentiality contracts, and anyone could replicate them in whole or part if they so desire. We list our tool kit: biochar, ecovillage design, permaculture, holistic management, keyline water systems, native agroforestry, alley cropping cell divisions, constructed wetlands and chinampas, leaf protein extraction, bioenergy crops that first produce food, and productive, satisfying and fun things for people to be doing together.

We say that if we do this, and others do also, we can stop destructive climate change without worrying about the outcome of the Paris climate talks in December, the obstructionist control of legislators, or the collapse of global Ponzinomic finance. It is justified solely by energy 5 times cheaper than solar cells and better, nutrient dense food, produced without all the costs of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and fertilizers. It solves so many seemingly intractable problems simultaneously that once set in motion it will never be arrested. It will create a garden planet.

The officials are both non-plused and unwaivering. They use all the standard cop-outs: buck-passing to higher authority, decrying the state of the legal system, urging we wait for a more politically attuned administration and perhaps spend that interim working for its election; and suggesting the need for further study.

No matter, whether the Paris outcome is fair or foul; whether the price of oil goes up north of $100 again or south to new lows below $25; whether governments come or governments go. Weather drives this market. The wise will look towards shelter. Once this package is readily available, and the expense is more than justified by immediate returns, the product will sell. Little, short of catastrophic economic collapse, can stop it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


"Virtual solutions can seem very virtuous when a metaproblem is resource depletion."

In our previous post we delved into the Socratic dialog known as The Laches, as told by Plato. The Laches ends in aporia, or an unresolved bit of logic.

While we can give Socrates his point — that to predict the future you need to observe and analyze the patterns of the past — we concluded that courage as a virtue has more to do with choices you make or don't make in the present, since you have no chance of changing the past and have only hope or fear to guide you in changing the future. We concluded that both hope and fear have appropriate roles.

There is a logical fallacy that arises in all of this, one we are heir to simply because of how our brains work. In logic, the fallacy is known as  positive recency, because people tend to predict the same outcome as the last similar event. We know the sun rises every day so we assume it will rise again tomorrow. But there are also Black Swan events. If a large enough asteroid were to strike the Earth today, the sun would not rise tomorrow. It would still be there, but none of us would be able to observe it. Night would continue.

This is what happened when the 6-mile-wide Chicxulub asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago.  The dinosaurs did not see it coming.

It occurs to us that a great many very intelligent people who normally do quite well — one could even say spectacularly well — at predicting trends in culture, business, and science, fail to observe the rare rogue event coming their way that will change everything. Silicon Valley in particular, but equally New York, London, Davos and Dubai are populated with such people. Many are the early adopters — the ones whose Tesla Model S P85D can already drive itself.  Insofar as a few are "trendsetters" or determiners of whom shall occupy high seats in government and commerce, this blind spot augurs ill.

Take, for instance, Peter Diamandis. His book with Steven Kotler, Abundance, rocketed to the top of bestseller lists in 2012 when it drew together many technology trends and predicted we will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp. The authors picked four forces — exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, technophilanthropy and crowdsourcing — as coming together in the next decade to solve our biggest problems of water, food, energy, healthcare, education, and freedom.

Diamandis and Kotler have teamed up again on a new book, Bold, that takes this a step farther, showing how 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, networks and sensors, and synthetic biology will bring into reality the fantastical future dreamed by humans since the dawn of the industrial era.

Starting in the real world with just $15,000, Diamandis leverged new internet power to launch 15 companies, including Singularity University, XPRIZE, Space Adventures Ltd., and Human Longevity, Inc. He has since become known as the prime technophilanthropist. He is worth billions of dollars, much of it thanks to his knack for crowd-sourced audacious enterprises (perk: a Selfie from space with the Earth as backdrop).

According to Diamandis, humans are destined, very shortly, to solve every major challenge that faces us, simply by virtue of Moore's Law and the exponential growth of our capacity to affect the world around us.

Diamandis correctly saw the internet as a Black Swan, and jumped on it. Now he is drunk with its power. So much so, he cannot see the next Swan.

The Black Swan he would have seen coming had he paused to read The Party's Over or Limits to Growth, is peak oil, and with it, peak finance, peak civilization, peak population, and peak technophilanthropy.

Many of the technologies that Diamandis is relying upon to leapfrog over government and business inertia and put billions of people into unprecedented security and prosperity are virtual. That can seem very virtuous when a metaproblem is resource depletion. If we can simply dispense with hardcover magazines, newspapers and books, for instance, we can save forests of paper and acres of ink.

The neglected externalities were internalized in Limits to Growth in 1971, however: energy and pollution. To go all-digital requires electricity. Data centers consume 1 to 2% of the world’s electricity already, most of that powered by coal and fracked gas. Currently, every GB of wireless data passing through a smart phone burns through 19 kWh of electricity. The average iPhone uses 388 kWh per year, slightly more than EPA’s top rated Energy Star refrigerator. There are 6 to 8 billion smart phones, doubling every couple of years. Each desktop console annually uses roughly the energy it takes a 25-mile-per-gallon car to travel more than 4,500 miles. There are 2 billion of those, and they are multiplying a lot faster than automobiles and refrigerators.

The good news is that smart devices are not just becoming smarter; they are becoming more efficient — less wasteful of energy in both manufacture (embodied cost) and use. The bad news is the Khazzoom–Brookes postulate to Jevons' Paradox – the more efficient energy use becomes, the more energy we consume.

Bryan Walsh, writing for Time in 2013 said:
In 1995, you might have had a desktop computer and perhaps a game system. In 2000, maybe you had a laptop and a basic cell phone. By 2009, you had a laptop and a wireless-connected smartphone. Today you may well have a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet and a streaming device for your digital TV. The even more connected might be wearing a Fitbit tracker, writing notes with a wi-fi-enabled Livescribe pen and tracking their runs with a GPS watch.

But users of the wireless cloud are likely to grow from 42.8 million people in 2008 to nearly 1 billion in 2014 — and that’s just the beginning, as smartphones spread from the developed to the developing world. We already have a gigantic digital cloud, and it’s only going to get bigger.

Primavera De Filippi is a technophile of the Diamondis generation. As we all shapeshift, at dazzling speed by evolutionary norms, into cyberverse amphibians, what will become of our orphaned social structures and our cherished notions of laws, national identity and earning an honest living by the sweat of one's brow? At a conference on Internet and Society last April, De Filippi described the architecture of the Ethereum:
What is Ethereum? Can this technology actually support the establishment of a utopian, free, and decentralized society? Or could it instead promote a more dystopian vision of society – or even a Skynet?

Well, if Bitcoin is a decentralized cryptocurrency, Ethereum is the platform upon which a decentralized cryptocurrency can be built. Some have defined it as “cryptocurrency 2.0”, but actually, it is much more than that.

Just like Bitcoin, Ethereum implements a decentralized database, a system of digital tokens, and an encryption scheme. But it also implements a Turing-complete scripting language, which makes it possible for anyone to deploy an application directly on the blockchain. So, instead of adding new features to the Bitcoin protocol, Ethereum took a step back and actually removed all features from the blockchain, in order to make it easier for users to build their own applications by implementing only the features they need as an extra layer on top of the blockchain.

Therefore, just as Bitcoin marked the establishment of a decentralized cryptocurrency that subsists independently of any government or financial institution, Ethereum could potentially lead to the deployment of decentralized applications that operate autonomously on the blockchain.

In fact, Ethereum not only makes it very easy to deploy alternative cryptocurrencies, but also to set up decentralized communications systems (like BitMessage), alternative social media (like Twister), or online storage (like Dropbox) in a completely decentralized way, therefore not controlled by any third party. Given that there is no centralized third party to interact with, the interactions between applications and users are regulated by the code of these applications.


This leads to the most interesting aspect of Ethereum, which is the concept of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. Basically, these are a more sophisticated kind of smart contract, with a constitution that stipulates the rules of governance for the organization, and with a system of equity allowing users to invest in the organization by purchasing shares.


First of all, they are autonomous in the sense that once they’ve been created on the blockchain, they no longer need their creators, nor are they under any obligation to respond to, or be responsible of any requests made by them.

Secondly, they are self-sufficient in that they charge users for the services they provide in order to pay others for the resources they need (such as bandwidth and processing power).

Finally, they are decentralized, since they do not subsist on a specific server, but instead are encoded into the blockchain (which is distributed to the entire network), and their code is executed in a decentralized manner by every node of the network.

These characteristics make them extremely difficult to regulate because there is no single entity which has control over them. In addition, given the self-enforcing properties of their code, they might actually challenge some of the most basic principles of our legal system.


Perhaps the Distributed Autonomous Organization itself should be held liable for its own actions. But then we encounter an ever bigger problem in terms of law enforcement. It is virtually impossible to recover damages or to obtain an injunction unless these measures have been specifically encoded into the contract/constitution of the organization.

So, we find ourselves in a state of legal limbo, as we cannot rely on traditional legal means to regulate the code of this technology. The question is: do we actually need to?

The supporters of Ethereum would argue that we don’t. In fact, if Bitcoin was designed as a decentralized alternative to counteract the corruption and inefficiency of the financial system, then Ethereum constitutes a decentralized alternative to the legal system as a whole! This refers to the somewhat anarchic idea of decentralized law, where everyone is free to implement their own rules within their own contracts, creating an interconnected system of rules interacting with each other in a reliably predictable way and not dependent on trust between parties.

Of course, the flipside is that Ethereum could potentially be taken over by big corporations, financial institutions, or even by the State, in an attempt to recreate the same economic system and political order that we have today – except that this time, it would be much more difficult to escape from that system.  This could lead to the establishment of a totalitarian society that is (almost exclusively) regulated by self-enforcing contracts, which establish the rules that everyone must abide by, without any constitutional constraints.

Sigh. And yes, this is precisely what we see when the Drone King, liege of Lockheed, gives robots an order to cause harm to nonspecific humans at a wedding party or funeral in Pakistan. It violates Asimov's First Law. It sets a dangerous precedent. As robot AI becomes more powerful, this bit of bad code has been grandfathered in. Do robots have legal rights, the way corporations do? De Filippi says, yes — if not already than soon; and not just human rights, but superhuman rights, such as the code to kill with impunity.

In commercial atomic reactors in the Tennessee Valley, generating electric power to feed our appetite for consumer electronics, robots are today fabricating components of nuclear weapons. They were expressly commanded to do that by the Drone King, in violation of Eisenhower's entire Atoms for Peace program, to say nothing of a half-century's accumulated international accords on nonproliferation. Robots with the knowledge of how to make such weapons are dangerous, are they not? In another software generation, or two, they could become Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. What then?

While the technoutopians do not see the swans of peak energy gliding in from the bulrushes, the people who put trust in and give power to machines of evil design also do not foresee what kind of coded evolutions are being unleashed.

We can only hope that Swan #2 (peak everything) takes out Swan #1 (Moore's Law) — browning out those distributed data centers, before it is too late. Call it retrofuturism, or neoLuddism, we are there. Good advice: don't put all your BitCoins in that basket.

Saturday, March 7, 2015


"Strategically, it comes down to a choice between playing the fear card and playing the hope card, although they are not mutually exclusive."

  Lately we have been pondering the strategies by which aware people have been approaching the existential threat posed by climate change. It makes little sense to squander time on strategies that are doomed to fail, so we periodically have to ask ourselves whether time devoted to our raging, reinventing and reframing is well spent.

For the past many years we have taken an "all of the above" approach to climate change mitigation advice, according equal weight to the exasperating processes of negotiations and to mass arrests.

On the one hand we engage in ritualized complexity at weeks-long United Nations meetings trying to consense on binding codes of conduct. On the other we cheer at street demonstrations and listen to pep talks from celebrities telling us how we need to modify our lifestyles, green up, conserve.

For many years we have held out the enticing prospect of ecovillages, with progressively more satisfying iterations, until by now many of the actual real-world experiments are able to provide decades of valuable data on best practices. Each decade the number of conferences on alternate energy, holistic management and restoration ecology seems jump by an order of magnitude.

At the same time, we are confronted with inexorable progress by the dark side, evidenced by that growing body of science on arctic methane releases and the odds of near term human extinction; macroeconomic assumptions tilting the gameboard towards delay; and neurobiological impediments like confirmation bias, stranded ethics, lost investment psychology, and impaired discount rate.

Rather than exposit on all of these, we oversimplify and say, strategically, it comes down to a choice between playing the fear card and playing the hope card, although they are not mutually exclusive, or even opposites.

We sometimes wonder if, by advocating rapid climate healing using regarianism and permaculture, biochar and agroforestry we are not dispensing hopium. Are we selling indulgences? All you have to do is flip a switch and voila! civilization is transformed to meet our needs for food (including grass-fed beef), clean energy, enchanting shelter and right livelihood while net sequestering gigatons of greenhouse gases and returning Earth to extra innings of the comfortable Holocene.

And yet we know it is not that simple. All the biochar in the world will not save us from the exponential function applied to the pleasure principle and human fecundity. Fukushima and all the stockpiled MIRVed warheads held by Israel and North Korea will not simply go away even if the UNFCCC agrees in Paris to keep the Koch Brothers' coal in the ground on penalty of extradition to The Hague and internment in Spandau.

Humans still have a lot to answer for if we are going to have realistic hope of dodging Mother Nature's swinging bat.

In The Laches, Plato reconstructed a dialog that Socrates had with two well-respected generals. The generals, Laches and Nicias, had been asked by some distinguished citizens of Athens, Lysimachus and Melesias, whether young men should be taught armored combat in school. One said they should, the other said it gave them nothing of value. It was the same kind of argument parents may have today over whether their children should be allowed to play with war toys.

Socrates told these distinguished military men he wanted to first inquire, since they were both expert in the art of fighting with armor, which of them was an expert in the soul of youth since that is the end product they seek. He asks one of them to define a particular virtue of the battlefield, courage. 

The general defines a man of courage as one who does not run away from an enemy. Socrates explains that this definition does not cover all the cases of courage so the general then defines courage as "an endurance of the soul." Socrates continues to press. The general narrows his definition to a "wise endurance of the soul." Socrates mocks his definition by showing to him that courage is actually closer to a foolish endurance of the soul.

At this point, the other general attempts to define courage. He defines courage as a kind of wisdom, or as "knowledge of the grounds for fear and hope."

Socrates: We hold that the dreadful are things that cause fear, and the safely ventured are those that do not; and fear is caused not by past or present, but by expected evils: for fear is expectation of coming evil. You are of the same mind with us in this, are you not, Laches?

Laches: Yes, entirely so, Socrates.

Socrates: So there you have our view, Nicias, —that coming evils are to be dreaded, and things not evil, or good things, that are to come are to be safely dared. Would you describe them in this way, or in some other?

Nicias: I would describe them in this way.

Socrates: And the knowledge of these things is what you term courage?

Nicias: Precisely.

Socrates: There is still a third point on which we must see if you are in agreement with us.

Nicias: What point is that?

Socrates: I will tell you. It seems to your friend and me that, to take the various subjects of knowledge, there is not one knowledge of how a thing has happened in the past, another of how things are happening in the present, and another of how a thing that has not yet happened might or will happen most favorably in the future, but it is the same knowledge throughout. For example, in the case of health, it is medicine always and alone that surveys present, past, and future processes alike; and farming is in the same position as regards the productions of the earth. And in matters of war; I am sure you yourselves will bear me out when I say that here generalship makes the best forecasts on the whole, and particularly of future results, and is the mistress rather than the servant of the seer's art, because it knows better what is happening or about to happen in the operations of war; whence the law ordains that the general shall give orders to the seer, and not the seer to the general. May we say this, Laches?

Laches: We may.

Socrates: Well now, do you agree with us, Nicias, that the same knowledge has comprehension of the same things, whether future, present, or past?

Nicias: I do, for that is my own opinion, Socrates.


Socrates: Then courage is knowledge not merely of what is to be dreaded and what dared, for it comprehends goods and evils not merely in the future, but also in the present and the past and in any stage, like the other kinds of knowledge.

Nicias: Apparently.

Socrates: So the answer that you gave us, Nicias, covers only about a third part of courage; whereas our question was of what courage is as a whole. And now it appears, on your own showing, that courage is knowledge not merely of what is to be dreaded and what dared, but practically a knowledge concerning all goods and evils at every stage; such is your present account of what courage must be. What do you say to this new version, Nicias?

Nicias: I accept it, Socrates.

Socrates: Now do you think, my excellent friend, there could be anything wanting to the virtue of a man who knew all good things, and all about their production in the present, the future, and the past, and all about evil things likewise? Do you suppose that such a man could be lacking in temperance, or justice, and holiness, when he alone has the gift of taking due precaution, in his dealings with gods and men, as regards what is to be dreaded and what is not, and of procuring good things, owing to his knowledge of the right behavior towards them?

Nicias: I think, Socrates, there is something in what you say.

Socrates: Hence what you now describe, Nicias, will be not a part but the whole of virtue. … Thus we have failed to discover, Nicias, what courage really is.

Nicias: Evidently.

— Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 8 translated by W.R.M. Lamb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1955).

As we can see from these passages, the question came around to whether courage was something to be cultivated, and assuming it was, whether one could separate fear and hope for the future from fear and hope from the past or present. Socrates said there was no separation. We wonder.

We can do little about our present and nothing about our past, so fear and hope for them is useless. Fear and hope for the future are of a different quality. More than ways of looking, they are ways of motivating to action. Socrates and the generals place them on equal footing.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst  
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats, The Second Coming, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

The question Socrates seemed on the verge of asking, but did not, was what to think of a person "who knew all good things, and all about their production in the present, the future, and the past, and all about evil things likewise" but fails to use his or her gift to take due precaution or procure good things. We can surmise that Socrates and the others would have thought such a person to be without courage, although not necessarily without other virtues, and perhaps that would have resolved the philosophical impasse in the discourse.

Coming back to our question, we might reframe this to ask, are we more likely to bend the arc of civilization towards sustainability by instilling fear of the consequences of remaining on our present trajectory as it proceeds from the known past or by offering a vision of a path forward — a believable story, no matter how long the odds against it becoming reality?

Plato ends his narrative without resolving the philosophical point. In the Greek philosophy, that would have been called aporia, a neutral ending. We come out similarly with our approach, which could best be described as carrot and stick. They both seem equal motivators. It is just a bit sad that collectively we seem to need a good lashing from the stick before we venture to take a nibble at the carrot.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Mayan Stone

"The stone was a building stone from Uxbantun, the Mayan pyramid city complex that sprawled all over these hills 1600 years ago."

  We are in a part of the world where internet is still an exotic intruder. That is both a comfort and a bane, depending on whether you wish to rest or blog.

We noticed, beside a rabbit cage, a squared stone that Chris put there for children and short people to get up to see or feed the rabbits. The stone was a building stone from Uxbantun, the Mayan pyramid city complex that sprawled all over these hills 1600 years ago.

None of the buildings here now are made from these stones, although they are abundant and protrude from the ground here and there, because they are antiquities and protected. A stool borrowed for children and rabbits seems a fair use.

This stone has an indentation on one side, under a layer of moss. The indentation is smooth, so one is inclined to attribute it to one or both of two agencies — people and water. Perhaps in a prior millennium it was a step up the side of a pyramid, or a steep hill, and the trodding of feet over centuries wore down this valley.

Or perhaps, left untended for many more centuries than it was used, it fell into a place where the heavy seasonal rains gathered a waterfall and pounded mercilessly on it until the falling water carved the valley.

This second explanation makes more sense because of two other clues. Just above the depression, leading to the far edge, the valley narrows into a rounded crevice about the breadth of a finger. That is not something feet would make, although rain could, despite the absence of any apparent flaw in the stone.

The other clue is the appearance of a second, lesser valley on the adjacent facet of the stone, as if, by some intervening act of nature, it had been rotated 90 degrees and then subjected to the same erosive force for centuries more.

The stone has memories. It displays to anyone who makes an inquiry such as ours the badges of its service to ancient Maya and timeless rains. It wears its moss like a bandage covering the mysterious wound. And when, 1600 years beyond this gasoline crack of history, there are no more hairless apes, it will still be slowly changing its shape, undoing the aesthetic strikes of its ancient artists.

The notion of collapse was likely unimagined by the stonecutters who carved this rock, whose tools were forged at the epicenter of rising empire. We, having watched this pattern repeat for 6000 years, can imagine it, but we can barely conceive what kind of world will be here 1600 years from now.




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