One of the prevailing narratives of our time is that we are innovating our way into the future at break-neck speed. It’s just dizzying how quickly the world around us is changing. Technology is this juggernaut that gets ever bigger, ever faster, and all we need to do is hold on for the wild ride into the infinitely cool. Problems get solved faster than we can blink.
But I’m going to claim that this is an old, outdated narrative. I think we have a tendency to latch onto a story of humanity that we find appealing or flattering, and stick with it long past its expiration date. Many readers at this point, in fact, may think that it’s sheer lunacy for me to challenge such an obvious truth about the world we live in. Perhaps this will encourage said souls to read on—eager to witness a spectacular failure as I attempt to pull off this seemingly impossible stunt.
The (slightly overstated) claim is that no major new inventions have come to bear in my 45-year lifespan. The 45 years prior, however, were chock-full of monumental breakthroughs.
Yes, that’s my chicken atop my car.
A little over two years ago, my wife and I entered a new phase of life in two respects: we got three chickens, and we got a plug-in hybrid vehicle. They have more in common than I would have thought. We see flagging performance in both (egg-laying and battery capacity). We knew the chickens would only last/live for something like 4 years. It’s looking like the EV battery may be similar! Both are happiest pipkining around: plodding about at a leisurely pace. And perhaps like some children, they both disappoint us at times, but we are fond of them all the same. They’re good girls, we tell ourselves.
It may come as no surprise to you that I’ve been collecting data (yes, on both “experiments,” but I’ll spare you egg masses and laying schedules). It takes a little time to do, but recording/resetting the trip meter for every charge, noting charge time and energy delivered, and convincing the wife to go along does pay off, as you will hopefully be convinced.
From the data, I see that the battery capacity is at about 85% of its original condition. While extrapolation is highly risky, it would seem that I can expect zero capacity on the scale of six years, based on its accelerating decline. At this point, we have put about 500 full-cycle-equivalent charges on the battery in about 700 charge events (just shy of one per day, typically about 70% depth). So perhaps it’s not surprising: few batteries can withstand more than 1–2000 charge cycles before giving out.
Want to see some data?
For some light summer amusement, I thought I would share a map I made a while back to satisfy my curiosity. I’ve had the plot in my office for several years and occasionally think to pull it out for visitors I suspect will enjoy it. I usually just hand it to them and let them puzzle over its meaning before I explain anything. It’s not meant to be an IQ test—although doubtless some feel that way—but rather a chance to delight in self discovery. I “discovered” the 7-24-25 Pythagorean triangle the other day quite by accident while constructing a relativity problem and was delighted by the find—even though Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of other sets wholly unknown to me. Likewise, I “discovered” Saturn as a 15-year-old on a summer night with a small telescope just poking around an unfamiliar sky. I danced around the yard in delight. My point is that discovery is personal, even if not original.
So here’s a chance to discover what the map is meant to convey. I’ll naturally explain later.
I started Do the Math in 2011 as a way to reach a larger audience than a handful of students every year or two in an energy course at UCSD. I had (and still have) deep concerns about the assumptions we make as a society based on our fossil fuel trajectory over the last century or so. Trying to steer policy from the top seemed a losing proposition: feckless politicians hew to their constituents’ desires via a mechanism we call democracy, so why not try to get people on board directly?
I never imagined creating a blog that would get millions of pageviews, although this by itself falls well short of having an impact on a grand scale. But I figured I owed it to myself to reach as many as I might. What I have found is that a select few seem to share my concerns. And some vocal contributors to comments strongly disagree that we need to worry (why then make the seemingly wasted effort to respond to—in their eyes—doomsaying kooks if in fact we need not be concerned?). But most people simply don’t care enough to tune in. They’ve learned to ignore prognostications of any flavor, perhaps. Lately, even fewer people are entertaining ideas of resource limits owing to increased global oil production (led almost entirely by U.S. shale oil) and a recovering economy.
But I think there is something more fundamental going on here. I think we’re dealing with personality traits cooked into human nature. Are we capable of mitigating a far-off potential calamity via proactive efforts decades ahead of a putative crisis? In this post, I’ll use some survey data suggesting that we may be in trouble.
I should have done it right the first time. I now realize that I’m hungry for a tiny bit more information in relation to personality type. I have had almost 500 responses to the previous query (see previous post, below). The results are fascinating. I have added two quick questions that will give me a fair bit of insight into some key systematic issues.
Even if you have answered the poll already, I would appreciate a quick moment of your time to answer two additional questions (click here). It requires very little time: especially if you responded to the first survey request.
If you did not respond to the first survey, please do this one.
Instructions appear on the survey page for how to determine your Myers-Briggs type, if you do not already know it. Thanks for your patience, and look for a post in mid-April with the jaw-dropping results.
I have a new post written up, but thought that before I release it I should get some delicious new data.
To that end, please take this single-question bare-bones survey (link decommissioned; see this post) about your personality type. There are sixteen choices in a drop-down menu according to the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator. If you do not already know your type, you can find free online versions. While I have no particular affinity for this specific one, it may be good for the sake of uniformity that you go take this one. It’s 72 yes/no questions (should take 5–10 minutes).
Just remember to be honest and answer for the person you are, rather than the person you may aspire to be (if different).
And don’t forget in your excitement to indicate the outcome on my lighting-fast survey (link decommissioned; new survey here).
I’ll let you know what it’s all about shortly.
Theo Leggett of the BBC interviewed me in late January as part of a program asking: “Can the World Get Richer Forever?” You can listen to the show here. My part begins about eleven minutes in.
I was also asked to contribute some short text for the write-up (same as first link above), but apparently Theo was unable to get contributions from all participants, so wrote the piece himself. But here is what I sent him. I was asked to answer the question:
Can the World Get Richer Forever?
Shame on you for even asking. Of course not. At present population levels, we are putting unprecedented pressure on finite resources. We are conducting a grand-scale, unauthorized experiment on the 4.5 billion-year-old planet. The fact that we have not hit the bounds in a few generations of outrageous growth should not be taken as evidence for our long-haul prospects. We live like kings today, on the backs of roughly 100 energy slaves each (human metabolism is 100 Watts, but Americans enjoy 10,000 W of continuous power). Our richness is very much tied to surplus energy availability, and that so far has been a story of finite fossil fuels. But even under solar power, we can’t continue our track record of 3% energy growth per year for even several hundred years! Global physical limits—thermodynamic, energy return on energy invested, finite arable land, water, fisheries, climate change, etc.—are all asserting themselves to remind us that nature doesn’t care about our dreams. The other point to make is that even if we capped physical growth due to finite resources, we cannot expect to continue getting richer indefinitely. This would necessarily take the form of non-physical exchanges of utility/worth, but to keep growing these activities would have to eventually utterly dominate the economy—rendering the finite and essential resources effectively free. And tell me how that makes sense.
(you’ll see larger later)
I’ve been maintaining “radio silence” for a while—mostly on account of an overflowing plate and several new new hats I wear. All the while, I have received a steady stream of e-mail thanking me for Do the Math, asking if I’m still alive, and if so: what do I make of the changing oil situation? Do I still think peak oil is a thing?
Let’s start with the big picture view.
I was wrong about everything. Oil is not a finite resource: never was and never will be. We will employ new technologies and innovate our way into essentially perpetual fossil energy. We’ve only scratched the surface in exploration: there are giant deposits (countless new Saudi-Arabia-scale fields) yet to be discovered). The shale oil tells us so—and it won’t stop there. Shale first, then slate, marble, granite: just squeeze the frack out of rocks and we’ll get oil. Meanwhile, whole new continents are being discovered, rich with resources. The most recent was hiding behind Australia. And naturally it doesn’t stop there. We have now discovered thousands of planets just a hop away, most of which are likely to contain fossil fuels of their own. So game over for the resource limits crowd, yeah?
It’s a bit off-topic for the series, but I can’t even go to Google now without being reminded of the World Cup and soccer this, soccer that. (Apologies to non-Americans who know the sport as football—but don’t get me started on football!) I have often wondered: given characteristic low score values, is soccer anything more than Poisson noise? When discussing this with colleagues, one pointed me to this XKCD comic, reproduced at right.
Any random process that produces discrete events in some time interval, with uniform probability per unit time follows a Poisson distribution. When the number of events becomes large, the distribution tends toward a Gaussian (normal) distribution.
My thesis is that soccer is an amalgam of random processes whose net effect produces rare events—those more-or-less unpredictable events spread more-or-less uniformly in time. Whether a good or bad bounce off the bar, a goal keeper who may or may not prevent a goal, a referee who may or may not see an illegal action, a pass that may or may not be intercepted, and on and on: the game is full of random, unpredictable events. So I expect soccer to behave similarly to a Poisson process and follow a Poisson distribution. By extension, I will claim that the attention devoted to the World Cup is founded on flimsy numerology and might even be called a tremendous waste of time and money.
Normally I allow comments on Do the Math for ten days after each post. I’ve tackled some controversial topics and stirred up emotional responses. Yet I predict that the outrage generated by my insinuation that watching soccer is a waste of time will absolutely dwarf the reactions to my saying that we may not be looking at a space-faring future, or that indeed we may face collapse of civilization. To the extent that this (untested) prediction is true, it would seem that soccer is more important than the fate of the world, in the eyes of many. Scary, if true. [After reconsideration, I enabled comments, but I won't have time to vet and respond with my usual level of attention.]
But getting back to soccer numerology, my question becomes: given a final score (which is taken to be the ultimate “truth” of the match) how likely is it that the victor is actually a better team?
A colleague pointed me toward an article in the LA Times last week, which lays out a plan to remove financial incentives legally bestowed on solar photovoltaics (PV) to the detriment of utility power companies. The plan is spearheaded by the Koch brothers and their political action group, Americans for Prosperity.
In summary, they target two laws that give a big boost to solar: net metering, and renewable mandates. Both impart crucial advantages to solar installations that can change the economics by a large factor.