Is the Earth Full?

on Friday, March 9, 2012

I have a few responses to Paul Gilding's talk at TED, where he claims that the earth is "full" and cannot sustain any more economic growth because the natural resources of the planet are being depleted at a rate that is "unsustainable." He claims that for our current level of growth to continue, we would need a planet 1.5 times bigger. The talk puts his total, child-like understanding of the world on full display for all to see. Unfortunately, many in the world seem as naive as he seems to be, and are happy to jump on his bandwagon, donating millions to his organizations (Greenpeace) that continue to pay the guys who come up with fantastically accurate (I'm sure) calculations regarding the necessary size of our planet as they masturbate into a sock in their step-mother's basement.

1. The entire world could live in the state of Texas at the density of current cities.

One hundred years ago, men offered similar advice regarding the supply of hay to feed horses (and the resulting waste-product, poop). We won't ever "run out" of anything -- prices will simply rise as less of any resource is available. Higher prices for horse-feed leads to better ways to travel (without horse feed). The world was "full" if measured one hundred years ago in exactly the same way. There was a finite amount of grass for horses.

Today is no different except that we now use different fuel sources. Did we "run out" of grass for horses? No? How is that possible? The growth in grass consumption and horse ownership was completely unsustainable. But here we are, today, still thriving.

It's not a logical way to look at the problem. If you are running out of garden-onions each summer; what is the solution? There are many. Plant more. Plants that grow closer together. Use garlic instead. But fuel on earth, be it grass or crude oil, is no more limited than what your garden can produce.

Even if we run out of oil tomorrow, we can create more, using plant oils. It will just cost more. And if that isn't enough, we can use bacterial fermentation to create fuel. It's only a matter of cost. Even if that becomes impossible, we can always use solar, wind, water, and nuclear power. They'll just cost more. That's all. And if they cost too much, we simply return to living in dirt-floored huts and using animal dung-fires to cook our meals. Nothing is ever used up. Matter is only converted to energy and vice versa.

2. Technology was not "adapting at the pace required to solve it" when we were running out of horse food either. That's the thing -- no one can see the future of innovation. We can't see the next generation of transport any more than a guy living in 1868 could see modern automobiles in the future of mankind.

It's ridiculous to claim that one can see the future. It's silly to demand changes from others based on naked speculation--especially if those changes are occurring at a pace that suits most people already. If it were not suitable, people would choose other forms of transportation even though their cost is higher. Most people today value a working car and are reasonably sure that climate change will not be as harmful as alarmists are apt to believe.

3. I can't see the future better than anyone else. And that's why I am not advocating changes for other people based on my vision of the future. I think we are all fairly blind to what the distant future will look like, but we can all predict the future of our own lives much better than anyone else--which is why it is foolish, IMO, to imply otherwise. It is foolish to imply that you know what other people should be doing unless you are a god.

If "we have the solutions, and we know what to do," why does anyone imagine that we will not do these things and implement these solutions as the prices of old habits rise? Do you imagine that the world will simply come to a screeching halt if we do not follow the directives of people who claim to "see the future," and can make these miraculous calculations regarding the earth's capacity for human life? Claiming that the earth is "full" is so laughably meaningless that I cannot fathom why anyone would be naive enough to believe it.

If you and another person are on a deserted island, and agree that one half is yours and the other half is his; does it mean that the island is "full" if he begins chopping down trees to build a home? After all, the previous rate of tree-felling was 0% per year. Now it is rising at such an unsustainable rate that if one compares the rate of tree destruction to new tree-growth, the conclusion at which one must arrive is that all tree-cutting must be halted, lest all of the trees be destroyed in the future.

Clearly, this is not how the real world works. This is how the world works to idiots that are apt to aggregate numbers out of context, imagine that they know everything about tree harvesting, home building, and the motives, desires, and future plans for both people on the island, and erroneously conclude that the man on one side will not stop cutting trees until every one of them is dead.

The reality is that he has calculated how many to cut, how many to plant, and how many to use for his own house on his own side of the island. It has nothing to do with your side, and it is not any more reasonable to see his tree-cutting rate and assume you know what the inevitable result will be than it is reasonable to claim that you know that the earth is "full" or that at the current rate of natural resource usage we are headed for disaster.

It's just completely bonkers, irrational, and induces an unnecessary fear of the future in the general public. And it does so by assuming that everyone with a piece of land will simply rape it to death and leave it a desert wasteland, and it assumes that all financial wealth comes at the direct expense of natural resources. It does not.

If you write a digitally distributed book on your computer, where did that piece of financial wealth (the book) come from? Which natural resources did it destroy in order to create that book? If everyone on earth writes a book, would the resulting plethora of book-wealth be an indicator of "unsustainable" financial growth? If you create a poem and keep it memorized in your head, offering to sell it for a dollar to anyone who wants to hear it, did the new poem (a form of wealth) harm anyone? Were natural resources depleted in its creation?

Creating wealth is a process of intelligently organizing the world to make it a better place for human beings. It is not a destructive, careless, or unsustainable tyrant that will eat you alive in your sleep. Creating wealth is a beautiful thing, and it is extremely depressing to see so many people that are so wildly ignorant of the process that they imagine a world where no one can be happy unless the earth implodes upon itself as baby seals drown in shallow pools of industrial waste and crude oil.

Are we designed to eat meat?

on Thursday, March 8, 2012

After reading Michael Pollan's manifesto at the beginning of his book, I wondered to myself why he would favor a diet that is mostly plant-based if he has human health in the forefront of his awareness. A plant-based diet is currently very popular, but I'm not sure that it makes sense, if we logically examine the evolution of plants and animals on earth.

Most plants have developed some method for avoiding consumption by predators, be they insects or mammals wishing to kill and eat them. For most plants, the defense has been to develop some sort of poison, making it especially strong in or near the seed. Mostly, these poisons are effective on insects, but they are effective on us, too. For example, nicotine is an effective insecticide, and has mind altering effects on us as well. It kills insects, and it just fucks us up a little bit. Same for the caffeine that is ubiquitously used in nature to defend seeds from insects. Most notable is the coffee tree's seed.

Some plants are "creative," designing their poisons to work on some animals (the ones that can digest their seeds) and not work on other, smaller animals that cannot digest the seeds. Hot pepper plants do this with capsaicin--mammals detect the chemical and it triggers heat sensing nerves in the mouth. Birds, on the other hand, cannot detect the capsaicin and eat the peppers and their seeds happily, pooping out the seeds as they fly all over the place, with a nice dose of fertilizer mixed in. (Human digestion destroys the seeds).

But almost every plant has some kind of poison to defend itself, and almost every animal has some other method for keeping itself from becoming food--horns, fangs, armor, stealth, camouflage, or an ability to run very fast. So most animals defend without a poison in their flesh, which seems to me to indicate that if we can avoid an animal's other defense mechanisms, its body is likely to be some of the best food available to us (or at least the least psychoactive). Perhaps eating all these plant-based diets is causing us to slowly poison ourselves and die, which seems fitting if you think about the "goal" of the plants we consume--to poison their would-be murderers sufficiently to dissuade them from killing and eating the same type of plant in the future.

And both plant and animal bodies contain vital nutrients that we need in order to live--but we can live either one if we so choose. I think perhaps one of the reasons we do not do very well on a high-meat diet is that modern intake of meat is basically "processing" the animal in the same way that we process wheat to remove the husk, yielding white flour. We process the animal and consume only its muscles--only one part of the animal--and the rest of the plant, and the rest of the animal, both contain nutrients that we now seek out--like omega 3 oils, fiber (which might not be a great idea), enzymes, and so on.

Further, we know that proteins form natural antibiotics (antimicrobial peptides) during digestion. We also know that certain amino acids act as powerful antioxidants that support immune functions. For example l-arginine reverses liver damage in heavily alcoholic rats, and N-acetylcysteine (a form of l-cysteine, and amino acid produced during protein digestion), is a very strong sulfur-based antioxidant that can be used to keep an avocado green, and for general immune-system support. It is also the antidote to Tylenol poisoning, and seems to be helpful for schizophrenics and Alzheimer's patients.  We also know that cysteine and alanine (another amino acid) speed ethanol metabolism and bind to the toxic byproducts of ethanol metabolism (like acetaldehyde, a primary cause of hangover symptoms) in rats.

So why is there such a large focus on plant-based antioxidants? Why are animal-based antioxidants almost completely ignored today? It seems to me that proteins, especially bioavailable proteins, should be a huge focus in a healthy diet. They are anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and help us process poisons (like ethanol) at a faster rate.

Our obligation to "society."

on Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Where does our "society" begin and end? Are we not obligated to England and their infrastructure, schools, security, roads, capital, and so on? And what about the men and women that moved to this nation from foreign lands? Are they not indebted to the roads and schools that they were raised with? Shouldn't we be paying taxes to myriad foreign-governments because many Americans depended upon their infrastructure to become wealthy?

If something magical happened when the United States was formed, why didn't that magic happen when Texas was formed, or New York City was formed? Both have their own governments; what makes their founding any different than that of the United States?

If we would like to claim that we are obligated to the society that came before us, we must define the word "society" before anyone can hope to understand our meaning. And in defining the term we will find difficulty unless we plan to include the entire world in our circe-jerk of obligation, or unless we wish to draw an arbitrary line at our federal border, which implies that non-Americans' lives are worth less than American lives, because otherwise we would be paying taxes to support them, too, as our morality demands of us regarding other Americans.

None of us would be where we are today without the support of thousands of years to progress all over the world, but that doesn't justify an obligation to an artificial construct (society) that is inherently elitist. Americans agreeing to become obligated to each other is a bit like the Rockefeller family saying the same of anyone with their last name. We are Americans in name only, and we are the richest and most powerful nation on earth. From the outside, a desire to support fellow Americans seems as patently cold and greedy as an internal discussions by one of the world's most powerful families to collude to do the same.

Drawing lines in the sand and creating an "us vs them" mentality doesn't help, as much as we intuitively feel that it is beneficial. It's human nature to support our own kind, but we must realize that "our own kind," must morally include the entire world (unless we accept elitism). And if you're not about to give away 80% of your yearly income (an American in "poverty" is richer than 80% of the world) to support the dying-masses on planet earth, you are just as evil as the "rich" here in our home country. Their excuse is ultimately the same as your excuse. Any defense you can offer will be just as effective if used to defend "greed" on Wall Street, or the desire of wealthy Americans to keep what they earn.

This type of reasoning is what led me to examine this world-view in depth, and think about other ways to help the world. I've discovered that helping each other out doesn't mean what we think it means.

We are not islands that exist independently of other human beings, but we cannot place ourselves into groups without excluding other, equally valued, human beings from our elite group. The logically conclusion of this line of reasoning is that each human being must be given his or her own sovereignty, and respected enough to make his or her own decisions--the same freedom, respect, and dignity that nation-states are today (mostly) permitted.

Six Things Rich People Don't Need to Stop Saying

on Monday, March 5, 2012

It is so viscerally frustrating to listen to intelligent men, with good hearts and intentions speak about money without understanding what wealth is, or where it comes from.

The following statement is wrong. It assumes that there is a limited amount of wealth in the world, and that we are all fighting for a piece of a fixed pie:

"It's like setting a jar of moonshine on the floor of a boxcar full of 10 hobos and saying, "Now fight for it!" Sure, in the bloody aftermath you can say to each of the losers, "Hey, you could have had it if you'd fought harder!" and that's true on an individual level. But not collectively -- you knew goddamned well that nine hobos weren't getting any hooch that night."

This reasoning is extremely common, but it is about as rational as claiming that not all backyard-gardeners can grow tomatoes (create wealth). Certainly all persons who are not handicapped (mentally or otherwise) are capable of growing some amount of vegetables, and gardeners who grow a huge amount are not harming their neighbors. They are helping their neighbors by bringing more food into the world, lowering the price of food; lowering the cost of living for everyone else.

The difference between tomato-growing and Wall-Street trading is only that most people do not understand why trading is useful to other people, but can easily see why farming is helpful to other people.

Further, most people don't understand what they mean by "rich." If they mean "more (or better) stuff than other people," then certainly not everyone can be rich. But if they mean "lots of stuff compared to five years ago," certainly everyone can accomplish that. It would be more accurate to say "anyone can create wealth; anyone can become wealthier over time." And that would certainly be a true statement.

"'You have your job because of a rich person.'
This is true, I suppose, if that rich person inherited their money and you are personally working for them as a gardener. But if you are working at a Toyota factory, your paycheck doesn't come from under the mattress of the owner of the company. That money came from lots and lots of regular Joes who bought Toyota cars. The guys in suits are just middlemen between the supply and the demand."

Our beloved author makes two errors here. First, he mistakenly seems to believe that Toyota cars fall from the sky; that multibillion dollar companies run themselves. Second, he fails to understand the value of a middleman. This is similar to claiming that a vendor at your farmer's market is just a guy in overalls acting as a middleman between you and mother nature; without him, after all, you could have just picked the tomatoes yourself! The reality is that creating wealth (tomatoes, cars) takes much more than hard work--it requires planning, intelligence, risk, and organization. The process of creating wealth is the process of organizing the world around you into something more valuable. The tomato-farmer creates food, literally from thin air, by tilling soil, applying fertilizer, keeping pests away, and so on. In the same way, the men and women that run the Toyota company organize metal, plastic, rubber and wood into beautiful machines that make our lives better.

" people don't make the world go around. It takes everybody."

It no more "takes everybody" to create wealth than it "takes everybody" to farm tomatoes in your backyard and walk to the farmer's market. It is easy to believe that because you were born into a world with "free" roads and schools, that all members of a society are indebted to its current and future members for providing these "gifts," for which everyone pays (primarily wealthy people pay). This is exactly the same logic as would be used in claiming that your children are forever indebted to a burglar who breaks into your home, steals half of your things, and uses the money to build a shitty school down the street (where half the kids don't learn to read), and threatens you so forcefully that you are compelled to enroll your children in his school and allow him to break into your home once a year for the rest of your life. Clearly, insisting that anyone owes the burglar a solid, and that no one would be educated without him, is a severely misguided idea.

"...the second part is this idea that asking the rich to pitch in is "punishing" them.
So, Rich Guy, let me explain this as calmly and logically as I can:
Are you fucking 6 years old? Do you still think mom made you clean up your room because she was mean? In the adult world, we get asked to do things because shit needs to get done. It has nothing to do with fairness, it has nothing to do with judging you. It has nothing to do with you at all. There's a whole world out there, with people who need helping and projects that need accomplishing.
You're only being asked to pitch in because you have the resources. You're not a tall person who us dwarfs are jealously trying to cut down to size. You're a tall person being asked to get something down from a very tall shelf because nobody else can fucking reach it."

So, you economically illiterate fuckwad, let me explain this to you as simply and plainly as I can. How many tomatoes do you think your hard working, tomato-growing-genius of a neighbor will grow next year if he knows that at harvest time,  all of the neighborhood's tomatoes will be annonomously dumped into a large bin, and rationed out equally to each neighbor according to their needs? Do you imagine that perhaps he might be the slightest bit encouraged to stop growing tomatoes at all? Asking him to reach something on a high shelf is very different than handcuffing all of the tall people and parading them around town, marching them into places with high shelves at gunpoint, yelling at them, and bemoaning their height as they perform these tasks. Further, using a tall-person and short-person analogy completely ignores the reality of wealth creation. Wealth does not fall from the sky. Your neighbor does not have a large tomato harvest because he is lucky, per se. And those extra tomatoes do nothing to harm anyone around him--quite the opposite--the more tomatoes he grows, the lower the price of his neighbors' food supply.

So to use a tall-man analogy is deviously misleading--it implies that wealthy men are rich only because they are lucky, and it implies that they are therefore obligated to help neighbors retrieve things from high places at gunpoint. Even if we use the tomato-farming analogy, a prolific farmer is no more obligated to help his neighbors at gunpoint than you are obligated to use all of your money to help starving kids in Africa. If you imagine that this sort of logic stops at international borders, or that African lives are worth less than those of your relatively wealthy neighbors, living in one of the richest nations on earth, I can't imagine why.

Wealthy men in your own country should be permitted the possibility of saving their tomato harvests for later, just as you are permitted to save your dollars and are not forced at gunpoint to send them all to Ethiopia to "get things from high places" for those less fortunate that yourself.

And finally, what do you think a productive tomato-farmer (wealthy person) is doing, exactly, as they labor to produce huge amounts of food for the neighborhood? Does that not count as getting shit done? Do we, in the adult world, do things, or do we "get asked" to do things? Does it somehow make more sense for your neighbor to dictate to you what he needs and demand that you do it? Does it somehow invalidate the prolific-grower's accomplishments (feeding the neighborhood) if he does not offer up all of his tomatoes free of charge? Is it so hard to see that the focused and productive work that generates useful things (cars, tomatoes), regardless of motivation, is supporting the greater good? Is it so hard to see how wealthy people automatically contribute to society? How they automatically, accidentally, and even soullessly contribute the the general welfare of everyone around them, even if their only motivation is a personal desire to retire and sail around the world for the rest of their lives? Is it not clear that if they have avoided polluting the environment or harming others, they have identified a need, and filled it?

"In other words, you don't "own" shit. The entire concept of owning anything, be it a hunk of land or a house or a fucking sandwich, exists purely because other people pay other armed men to protect it. Without society, all of your brave, individual talents and efforts won't buy you a bucket of farts."

Mr. Cracked actually manages to say something meaningful and correct here, but drops the ball with his last sentence. Yes, we don't actually own anything; the government effectively owns everything within its borders, if you really think about it , but that does not lead to the conclusion that "society" is the same thing as a military to protect our borders, police to enforce property laws, and courts settling disputes. The only things necessary for a civil society is exactly that -- peace and property rights. The rest of it is a bunch of hogwash, and if you're tempted to continue down this disgusting rabbit-hole, please do explain why your neighbors are obligated to treat you like a family member, so that you can buy Pop-Tarts and sugar water, but you are not obligated to pay any mind to the millions of starving children that suffer and die every day. Did you forget that 40% of the world lives on less than $2.00 per day, you greedy, ignorant asshole? If you are to claim that only Americans should be obligated to other Americans, why not continue, and claim that Texans should bear no obligation to Iowans, and still further, to demand that New Yorkers not be burdened with poor decisions made in Los Angeles?

You cannot have your cake and eat it too--if you support your own freedom to choose if you will attempt to help the miserable, starving, dying masses of the world... or buy another flat-screen TV for your man-cave, you must also logically conclude that we should all have the same freedom regardless of the location, or citizenship, or height, of suffering human beings.

Large medical studies are not a good idea.

on Thursday, March 1, 2012

In response to NoahSD's excellent blog-post, where Noah first makes clear that the human body is wondrously complex, and we understand relatively little about its intricate, convoluted inner-workings, and explains that large, randomized, double-blind studies are our best hope in separating effective medical treatments from placebo-inducing quackery. Notably, he compares self-experimentation and anecdotal evidence to a poker player that wins after a short session (statistically meaningless sample) and concludes that his playing style is profitable. I have some objections to these lines of reasoning:

I have a few criticisms. Large, randomized, double-blind studies would be a good idea only if all human beings were sufficiently identical. Large studies are best suited to identical machines, but they are poorly suited to test machines (or animals) with a large variability. (This is one reason that in animal studies, rats with identical genes are tested.)

In examining exactly why large trials are not a good fit for human research, it is important to keep the stated goal of the AMA in the forefront of our awareness. They control what is taught at medical schools, and their goal is to increase the wages of medical doctors. Objectively speaking, what is the best way to increase the wages of doctors? As I see it, there are a few ways, but the subject is so tainted with propaganda and morality that it is almost impossible to consider them in any even remotely objective manner. To make this more palatable, let us consider an analogy; imagine that patients are in fact automobiles, and doctors are auto-mechanics:

1. Is it a good idea to accept only the treatments that work for all cars, in general? Or is it best to tailor repairs (treatments) to each individual type of car? A study that finds 5W-30 motor-oil as most effective for preventing engine wear would not apply to engines designed to accept a different grade, even if large studies show that the oil is effective for 75% of engines. We make a fundamental error in assuming that all human bodies are the same machine. They could easily be as different (and similar) as the myriad makes and models of modern cars. Because we are all “human” does not, per se, make us the same, any more than all “cars” require the same replacement parts.

2. If mechanics were somehow able to garner a monopoly on the education of auto-mechanics, with their only goal being to (regardless of morality) increase their wages, do you imagine that they would train mechanics to teach their customers to avoid riding their brakes? Would they train them to change their oil regularly? Would they train mechanics to instruct their customers to fuel their cars with high-quality gasoline of the correct octane level? I think not–I think, were their goal to make money, they would focus only on repairs necessary, and ignore any and all preventative measures.

New mechanics would come to see their jobs as repair specialists, only, with no obligation to inquire as to why some customers’ brake-pads wore out prematurely. Instead they would blame it on genetics, or manufacturing defects (make and model).

Additionally, if consumers began experimenting on their own, and anecdotally discovered that using 10W-40 as the engine became older helped to prevent engine-death, would mechanics listen, or would they tell customers that such evidence is not valid unless millions of old cars are tested? And would there be any encouragement or support from professional mechanics to test this theory? Why would there be? Keeping engines alive longer with a simple solution lowers the income of auto mechanics–they won’t be repairing and replacing as many engines. The error here is three-fold:

1. There is an assumption that all people are (mostly) identical. The truth may well be that we are widely divergent (just like cars) and huge studies do indeed identify workable cures, but do not find the best cure. They only find cures that work for all makes and models, ignoring repairs specific to individuals.

2. There is an assumption that the AMA’s stated goal (increasing wages for doctors) is not a reality; assuming that morality comes first in setting the course for future doctors.

3. There is an assumption that any attention will be paid to cheap solutions, or preventative measures.

Additionally, the analogy to poker is not appropriate, because the edge enjoyed by a drug in changing the outcome of the experiment is many magnitudes greater than a professional poker player.

A good poker player may enjoy a 3% edge in affecting the outcome of a single hand; a good drug (or treatment) may enjoy a 90% chance in successfully affecting the health or mood of a random human body.
In this way, we can see that even a single person, experimenting with a huge edge can arrive at statistically significant results. And the confounding variable involved in self-experimentation can be mitigated to a very large degree. Generally, when one thinks about natural remedies and self-medication with herbs or supplements, we imagine that the experimenter expects the remedies to work. That is not necessarily the case.

Most often, I think, we don’t really expect herbs and supplements to work, and are surprised when they do. (This has been my experience; most don’t work). In this way we can see that the placebo effect should not be expected to confound results at all; if anything we should see a nocebo effect, where the efficacy of treatments is negatively impacted, because natural cures are generally expected to be ineffective.

"Large sample size, double blind, placebo controlled, randomized. If something is proven by a study that has all of those characteristics, it’s probably true."

If you took a random sample of one million cars that all suffered from the same problem; perhaps they all have wheels that have fallen off unexpectedly, and tried to cure the problem with a new drug, a certain type of improved lug nut, what do you imagine we would be able to determine from this study?

Even if the mechanics installing the new lug nuts don’t know which are the new type and which are standard, control lug nuts, and if the cars are sufficiently randomized into two statistically identical groups, we should expect to find that the treatment is effective for some percentage of cars–they no longer experience the original problem (wheels falling off).

But for the remainder of cars, they will be no better off than before. Perhaps their wheels will fall off even more often, because the new lugs fit normal cars but not Ferraris and BMWs.

We could end up finding a treatment that improves the problem for say, 60% of cars (patients), but will have failed to understand the problem. And this is what we see, today, with many treatments used in modern medicine. If one antibiotic doesn’t work, try another, and another, and another, until the infection goes away. If it doesn’t go away, we can’t help you. Same for antidepressant drugs, which are foisted upon patients in a very similar manner.

This is a bit like throwing lug nuts at automobiles with loose wheels. It may eventually work, but it is much less effective than examining the wheels, determining which size they require, and installing the proper hardware.

Large scale studies are doing us a disservice in this way, by moving away from personalized solutions, moving away from truly understanding the problem, and moving away from innovative solutions that are custom tailored to individuals. The situation is further complicated if the best lug nuts for are standard issue and available ubiquitously, and the improved lugs are titanium or rare earth metals that are patented and cost much more. In the later case, the financially rewarding path for drug companies (lug manufacturers) would be to promote the expensive, patented solution and to ignore the cheap, ubiquitous solution. I think this is what happens all too often today; there are simple solutions to many medical problems that are largely ignored by the medical community, most often because there exist no large, randomized trials that support them. Large trials are not necessary in generating innovative solutions to medical problems, and in my opinion, can easy be counter-productive.

If doctors are prone to throwing random lug-nuts at broken cars visiting their shops, why do we consider it ignorant for common people to begin throwing random treatments at their own bodies, especially when they are harmless, most don't work, solutions are often discovered, and statistically valid results can often be obtained, with limited confounding variables?