Thursday, March 23, 2006

Doomsayer's Lament: On Peak Oil

Ever heard of "peak oil?"

I just learned about it, and boy-oh-boy - what a downer to my day.

"Peak Oil" is a state where oil production reaches its max, and demand starts to exceed supply. It would be the end of the world as we know it, and we'd be out of gas.

Think $2.40/gallon is a lot to pay? Think about $5. Or $10. Think about how much our lives are wrapped around oil and gas and fossil fuels. Then think about how our whole lives would come crashing down if oil became scarce enough to initiate wars.

Oh wait, maybe it already has...

Fun web sites like Die Off are predicting global apocalypse, while even members of Congress are shouting from the soapbox.

Some folks, especially on the West Coast, are getting ready by planting gardens, walking to work, and installing solar panels on their rooves. When I first started reading about peak oil, a lot of it sounded like Nuclear Winter fall-out shelters and canned food stockpiles in your crazy neighbor's basement.

But then I think about what happened after September 11, when the gas prices spiked and people lined up for miles at the gas station. Or when Katrina struck and gas topped $3/gallon. It doesn't seem to take much to make us jittery.

Some experts say it would take us 10 or 20 years just to get ready for this scenerio - to ween ourselves from oil, restructure our whole way of life, and start planting Victory Gardens - while some say we've already hit peak oil and are on the downward slide.

Makes that Prius look not-so-dorky now, doesn't it?

Who knows? Who can tell for sure? Maybe it's just a bunch of wackos, viewing the first cracks in a falling sky.

But maybe we ought to prepare ourselves for No More Oil - just in case. Maybe I ought to take my Route 66 trip a little sooner than May.

Maybe I should learn how to plant tomatoes.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Idle class for the lazy ass

We work too much.

Duh, right? Who doesn't know that? But what do you do about it?

Or maybe you're one of those rare mutants who actually likes to work.

Not me. I'd much rather have free time, to do my own thing, than sit at work for eight hours every week day. Money isn't as valuable as time. You can't ever get time back.

Thank goodness there's a British chap who thinks like I do. I just finished Tom Hodgkinson's "How to Be Idle" - a great book full of tips and philosophy for those of us who like to sleep late, take long lunches, and take back a pint (or two) among friends.

Hodgkinson organizes the book according to times of the day, and what you could be doing at that time - other than working, of course. He starts off with an 8 a.m. chapter, "Waking Up is Hard to Do," and goes through the day highlighting "Sleeping In" (10 a.m.), "First Drink of the Day" (6 p.m.), "Sex and Idleness" (1 a.m.), and "Party Time" (3 a.m.).

Work is a product of the Industrial Revolution, Hodgkinson says, when capitalist fat cats wanted everyone at work at a certain time, for a certain length, and to produce a certain amount of products. Gone are the days (unless you're a farmer or freelancer) when you could putt around the house, do chores, do whatever trade you worked in, then head to the pub and dream up revolutionary thoughts.

The alarm clock? A whip's crack. The hour lunch period? Indentured mealtime. No drinks on the job? Pure madness.

I like the way this guy thinks.

Idleness is different from laziness, however. Laziness is getting nothing done, while Idleness is getting things done when you're damn well good and ready. Who can't subscribe to that?

And the whole history of Western Civilization since the early 1800s has been an effort to get us to work - often longer and harder. But, Hodgkinson says, it comes at a price. Instead of daydreaming (where good ideas come from) or lying in bed and thinking, we're forced to get up, get dressed, and go to work. All the great thinkers were idle. Jefferson, Einstein - these guys sat and thought. It was guys like Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison who swore off sleep and preached more toil.

I just don't speak their language.

But neither do some other folks. There's a counter-strike brewing against people who think we should sit at our desk all day. Efforts like the Slow Food Movement and endless web sites that make fun of work are popping up. Hodgkinson also founded a magazine, The Idler, that preaches to the idle.

Why do we work so much? Hodgkinson thinks its our consumer culture, making us feel inferior if we don't own the latest and greatest. Unhappy? Buy stuff! Can't afford it? Work harder!

I'd call him a communist, but he probably doesn't have the energy for it. Besides, communism praised the worker, and Hodgkinson doesn't have time for that nonsense.

He's still sleeping.

Thursday, March 9, 2006

God isn't dead; he's us

Imagine making love to yourself.

No, not masturbation. I mean a clone of yourself. Imagine talking to yourself, touching yourself, going to concerts with yourself.

Imagine looking yourself in the eye.

It's creepy to think about, isn't it? Would he/she have the same personality as you, having grown up under different circumstances? What would be the same, besides looks?

This is all stuff I've been thinking about for a short story. Ray Bradbury-like, but with more sex.

But what got me on all this was that "Mediated" book I just finished by Thomas de Zengotita. In it, Zengotita talks about the "mediated" self, and how flattered we are in today's hyper-media culture. His conclusion is that we are so self-loving that someday, when cloning is possible, we won't hesitate at creating a copy of ourselves to perpetuate us forever. Imagine raising an exact copy of yourself from childhood. Imagine the soccer games, Zengotita says - you think parents are competitive now.

Today, an article on talked about nanotechnology, and how it will actually be living, chemically-controlled pseudo-organisms - not the little robots we think about, zipping through our bloodstream zapping cancer cells.

We'll have created living beings created from nothing but chemicals and matter - the same stuff we're made of (Carl Sagan called it, poetically, "starstuff").

We'll be godlike.

Alan Goldstein, the article's author, says that:
What this all means is that within a generation, biology will face its ultimate identity crisis. Researchers in the field of nanobiotechnology are racing to achieve the complete molecular integration of living and nonliving materials. We will hack into the CPU of life in order to insert new hardware and software. The purpose is to extend the capabilities of biology far beyond the limits imposed by evolution, to integrate the incredible biochemistry of life with the equally spectacular chemistry of nonliving systems like semiconductors and fiber optics. The idea is to hard-wire biology directly into any and every part of the nonliving world where it would be to our benefit. Optoelectronic splices for the vision impaired, micromechanical valves to restore heart function. But the moment we close that nano-switch and allow electron current to flow between living and nonliving matter, we open the nano-door to new forms of living chemistry -- shattering the 'carbon barrier.
Some, like Ray Kurzweil (whose book "The Age of Spiritual Machines" is next on my to-read list), say that all this will happen faster than we think.

And that got me thinking (I wrote about this earlier) about how, in the span of about 70-80 years, we went from horseless carriages to Apollo 11. Imagine what we can do in the next 80 or so years.

Well, we don't have to imagine. Others have done it for us.

Imagine, for instance, if nano-bots began replicating as bacteria do, consuming everything in their path and taking over the world. Not so out-of-this-world, considering some have already thought of it.

Since the Enlightenment we've given the stuff God has given us and totally remade our world in our own image without thinking about how far we should go.

So cloning, and nanotechnology that is actually living organisms made out of nonliving material, are just logical steps in the path we're already traveling. If we're told from childhood "you can be whatever you want to be" - well, why not just start over if we don't like what we've done so far? Why not create a self that is our idealized version of our own self? Why not create, from scratch, beings that will fix everything that's wrong with us from the inside?

I'm skeptical of any "forecasts" of the future. We don't know what could happen in May, let alone 2020. But the givens are there, right in front of us.

I think about "The Matrix" and "Jurrassic Park" when I start reading this stuff - how we've already dreamed up nightmare scenerios where machines (or artificially-created life) take over their masters, Frankenstein-like.

But the things that take over won't be lumbering, hyper-muscular Terminators. No, they might be beings we can't even see with the naked eye.

Who's ready for lunch?

Monday, March 6, 2006

On unpopular art.

So I had a co-worker tell me that the combined revenue from this year's "Best Picture" Academy Award nominees didn't equal "Madagascar," an animated movie release a few years ago (maybe sooner - I forget).

"I guess they don't know what America wants to see," she told me.


I told her that popularity doesn't necessarily make for good art. If that were the case, Britney would be as lauded as the Beatles. As much as I loved the "Spider-Man" movies, I don't think they deserved "Best Picture" nominations - I liked them for what they were: silly, thoughtless summer popcorn movies. Sure, they were "art." And they made a lot of money.

But "Best Picture"?

There are a few "Best Pictures" that did make a bucketload of money. "Braveheart." "Forest Gump." "Titanic." Those were huge movies, and they deserved every award given to them.

To say that "Crash" or "Capote" don't deserve nominations because relatively few people saw them - well, that's silly.

People may not read Will Shakespeare after they graduate high school, but they would still concede he's a great writer. Five hundred years later we're still reading his stuff.

Danielle Steele? Stephen King? Good writers, sure. But centuries-spanning writers? Probably not.

So by my co-worker's reasoning, ol' Bill shouldn't get the credit he gets. Who curls up on a rainy afternoon and reads Shakespeare?

Well, I've thought about it. And so "nobody" turns into "somebody," even if it's just one person.

Good art spans times, generations, philosophies, nations. The racism behind "Crash" can be felt in every country on Earth. The explosions in "Fantastic Four" appeal to a certain people.

But boy - "Fantastic Four" is what "America wants to see," right?

I was taught to beware of sweeping generalities like that. Sure, a majority of Americans saw the summer's action movies. But I wouldn't dare say "everyone" saw them.

Often, great art goes unrecognized in its own time.

The same could be said about this year's nominees. Except they were recognized.

I guess the Oscars aren't enough for some folks.