Friday, September 11, 2009

Return to Friday Night Poetry

I haven't done a Friday night poetry posting in some time. I found a poem on the Internet by a Nigerian poet name Ekene Atusiubah. His poem is called "Hercule's Evolution — The Return to the Sacred." It's a long poem so I'm only going to quote the first few lines:

—Home sickness
my present pain
how ill I have become
how home sick
itching for your sea-blue smiles
I remember the silky texture of your flaming white cloak
I thirst now for your fresh milk dear Mother.
I see you now in my inner eye,
peeling melon seeds, boiling yams, chopping
vegetables, slicing meats, mixing spices, painting the moon...

For the full poem, go to Lucis Trust or In the Tracks of Hercules. I'm slowly becoming aware that the Internet makes poetry possible in many areas of the world. Readers and poets seem to be finding one another.

Note: Nigeria has some 511 languages but English is considered the official language, particularly in government, most schools and business. I couldn't find the specific information, but I get the impression most educated people in Nigeria know at least two languages.


Good Politicians Are Fishermen at Heart

I'm reading a biography of FDR by H. W. Brands called Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I'm not sure I like the title but it's an excellent book. Brands tries to explain how FDR became an effective president. He makes clear that Roosevelt was very much his own man with his own ideas with years to learn about his country and with his own thoughts about where it ought to go. I have to spell it out like that because there are biographies that try to minimize Roosevelt's knowledge and abilities. For the record, Roosevelt also had a very fine sense of humor.

In the 1920s, Roosevelt had a houseboat in Florida. He loved to fish and he had a logbook. Brand quotes from it:

This Logbook must be entirely accurate and truth. In putting down weights and numbers of fish, however, the following tables may be used:
2 oz. make 1 logbook pound.
5 logbook pounds make "a large fish."
2 inches make 1 logbook foot.
2 logbook feet make "big as a whale."
Anything above "whale" size may be described as an "icthyosaurus."
(Note: In describing fish that got away, all these measures may be doubled. It is also permitted, when over 30 seconds are required to pull in a fish, to say, "After half an hour's hard fighting...")

The above is from page 167 of Brand's book but he says he got it from An Untold Story: The Roosevelts of Hyde Park by Elliot Roosevelt and James Brough.

I've been around fishermen and boat people. They know how to tell a great story but they're usually good people at heart. No one should underestimate how tough Roosevelt could be but he was a decent man.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

British Petroleum and Solar Roadways

These days it's not easy to know when an oil company is on the level and when they're just engaging in good public relations to keep those oil prices nice and high. The funny thing is I sort of believe in high oil prices. High prices keep everyone a little more honest. And high prices encourages alternative energy.

Look, it's a fact that oil is a finite resource. It is fact established long before global warming that oil is a major source of pollution. It is also a fact that natural gas pollutes less than light sweet crude which pollutes less than heavy crude which pollutes less than tar sands and coal. In the 1970s, long before the evidence for global warming became overwhelming, it was already a good policy to start thinking about alternative energy. That during the 1980s the United States chose to party on as if everything is fine has a great deal to do with our current economic difficulties and the continuing decline of American wages and the loss of jobs overseas. An economy as large as that of the United States cannot be sustained while paying a higher and higher premium for foreign oil.

Now the irony is that I cheer when large oil deposits are found. Why? Because the transition to alternative fuels is going to take time and it's going to require major investment of the energy that now exists.

So it's actually encouraging news that British Petroleum has found a good-size reserve of oil as reported by the Associated Press:
Nearly seven miles below the Gulf of Mexico, oil company BP has tapped into a vast pool of crude after digging the deepest oil well in the world. The Tiber Prospect is expected to rank among the largest petroleum discoveries in the United States, potentially producing half as much crude in a day as Alaska's famous North Slope oil field.

The company's chief of exploration on Wednesday estimated that the Tiber deposit holds between 4 billion and 6 billion barrels of oil equivalent, which includes natural gas. That would be enough to satisfy U.S. demand for crude for nearly one year.

But notice the caveat. It would satisfy U.S. needs for almost a year. Back in the 1930s, geological experts were talking about oil deposits that would last for a few hundred years. Natural gas, alone, was expected to last 500 years.

Those optimistic numbers of long ago have long since faded, partly because the population grew, partly because the uses of oil and natural gas expanded, and partly because the rate of discovery was never sustained over the decades. A year's worth of oil does not mean our oil problems have been exaggerated and that our refineries will soon be awash in oil for decades to come. It means we are acquiring expensive oil off our coasts that will hopefully help with our transition to new energy sources. The new find is in 4,000 feet of water and then down another 35,000 feet through rock. One good hurricane can undo a lot of hard work or at least shut things down for weeks at a time. It's good news but it requires hard-headed thinking to understand what it all means.

The thing people need to understand is that our transition was always going to come. What the early engineers were hoping is that we would use the oil age to find the next generation of energy sources. For a long time we thought fission-based nuclear energy or perhaps fusion energy would be our next big energy source. But that has not come to pass. We know now that there will be no single source of virtually inexhaustible energy. We will need multiple solutions and we will need time to figure what works and time to put various infrastructures in place. Discovering more oil gives us that time.

So it's a bit irritating to read silly articles like this (in the Guardian of all places):
BP has reopened the debate on when the "peak oil" supply will be reached by announcing a big new discovery in the Gulf of Mexico which some believe could be as large as the Forties, the biggest field ever found in the North Sea.

What the people of the industrialized world need to understand is this: if we had not been discovering new oil in the last thirty years, oil production would be dropping like a rock. At the same time, the disturbing trend for decades has been smaller and smaller oil discoveries around the world. The two exceptions, which were not easily accessible forty years ago, have been deep offshore oil rigs and exploration in the arctic. Both areas are hard to get to and expensive to develop. Depending on them is not good economic policy or good social policy. While I celebrate the extra time such discoveries give us, it is time that should not be wasted on profoundly dysfunctional public relations games.

Of course alternative energy is sometimes responsible for hype that goes in the other direction. An outfit in San Diego promises a home based contraption that can produce ethanol if you'll pluck down a nice $10,000 and take delivery of winery and brewery wastes, etc., etc. Robert Rapier of The Oil Drum has written a skeptical article.

Here's another idea that technically is feasible. The real question is whether solar roadways makes economic sense:
The Solar Roadway™ is a series of structurally-engineered solar panels that are driven upon. The idea is to replace all current petroleum-based asphalt roads, parking lots, and driveways with Solar Road Panels™ that collect and store solar energy to be used by our homes and businesses. This renewable energy replaces the need for the current fossil fuels used for the generation of electricity. This, in turn, cuts greenhouse gases literally in half.

I have no idea if a road system made of tough and rigorous solar panels makes any sense. The price tag is a little sobering: $48/sq. foot. The idea of making our highways serve a second function as solar panels has been around at least since the 1970s. But these guys are either really good con artists, delusional or brilliant. But I hope they at least get some seed money to show us what they really are or what they really can do.

Now I can visualize all kinds of problems with alternative energy. We've already seen the U.S. government blunder by underwriting too much corn ethanol which almost takes as much energy to produce as it gives us. We don't really have the right cars yet to use ethanol and we saw a sharp spike in food prices around the world. Clearly we have to think about these things. And clearly, if we are being honest with ourselves, we're going to hit dead ends at the research level.

But we've been doing research for almost 300 years, since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Research is fairly cheap. If things begin to work, you move forward. If too many problems develop, you look for alternatives. So I hope someone pays for a few parking lots made of the solar roadways material. Let's see if it works.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Intelligence and Education: Richard Nisbett Says the Evironment Matters

If you're a parent and wonder if you can do something to help your child succeed in the world, the answer is: you usually can. Richard E. Nisbett has written a book called Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count. Nisbett admits that he once leaned more towards the hereditarian view of intelligence but changed his mind as an increasing body of research shows that while some intelligence is inherited, the dominant influence is the environment.

Here's an excerpt from a book review by Jim Holt in The New York Times:
...Nisbett bridles at the hereditarian claim that I.Q. is 75 to 85 percent heritable; the real figure, he thinks, is less than 50 percent. [Hereditarian] estimates come from comparing the I.Q.’s of blood relatives — identical twins, fraternal twins, siblings — growing up in different adoptive families. But there is a snare here. As Nisbett observes, “adoptive families, like Tolstoy’s happy families, are all alike.” Not only are they more affluent than average, they also tend to give children lots of cognitive stimulation. Thus data from them yield erroneously high estimates of I.Q. heritability. (Think: if we all grew up in exactly the same environment, I.Q. differences would appear to be 100 percent genetic.)

Holt gives a reasonably fair review though I wish he had mentioned that there is something of a revolution going on in biology. It seems living organisms, including ourselves, are much more influenced by the environment than we previously thought. Genes are very important but they are not the whole story.

I highly recommend Nisbett's book. Science has had a bias for a hundred years that probably stems from 19th century beliefs that were never properly examined and never properly laid to rest.

One of the results Nisbett talks about is how everyone's I.Q. has been rising for the past 70 years or so. That would hardly make sense unless the environment matters. There are many statistical observations like this that bring into question what I would call the hard hereditarian view. Another one is that the I.Q. gap between blacks and whites grows from kindergarten to the end of high school. And then shrinks over the next four years for those blacks who go to college. As the poets say, "something is obviously going on."

One thing to keep in mind is that attributing things to genes is easy, sometimes too easy. The reality—as we are learning more and more all the time—is always more complex. People do vary but they are far more malleable than many people are willing to admit. All of this is consistent with the latest brain research which shows that the brain is highly adaptable and far more intricate than we realized. Our brain doesn't even finish developing until our late twenties. Even then, our brains keep changing for the rest of our lives. And whether we are six years old or sixty years old we're discovering that the old adage: use or lose it applies to the brain as well. I like that Nisbett takes the trouble to explore some of that complexity.

A preview of Nisbett's book can be found on Google books for those who can't afford it. But it's a book worth buying.