Grass Power

A possible promising crop for biofuel may be a form of Elephant Grass (Miscanthus x giganteus). This tall grass hybrid could yield up to 60 tonnes of biomass per acre. It is currently being tested in Europe. It thrives in northern climates and requires very little fertilizer. It has a low water content so it can be easily harvested at the end of the growing season and simply burned for power. Stephen Long of University of Illinois calculates that if 8% of all the land in Illinois was dedicated to this crop, it could generate half of the electrical needs of the state. It also has little effect on the carbon balance because it simply releases the CO2 when burned that was sequestered when it was growing. The hybrid does not produce seeds so it can’t spread. Further bioengineering could make it even more efficient. Who says I can’t say something positive?

Programmed for Failure

Every time I feel kind of optimistic about the future, I think back to the Roman Empire and realize that it could all end pretty quickly. It may be no accident that civilizations tend to have finite lives and our brains may be responsible. Jared Diamond(in his book Collapse) posits a framework for a society’s demise but he basically believes it is some combination of bad decision making and management that leads to failure. I’m proposing that it may actually be embedded in how our brains work and how it reacts to success. What allows us to build great civilizations may ultimately be responsible for our undoing.

As has been written in countless columns and blogs, manufacturing, software development, clerical work and so forth is being or will soon be outsourced to an offshore location where labour costs are so much lower. Many have argued that the US can retain world dominance by remaining a source of innovation and ideas. However, Thomas Friedman and others have been screaming lately that the US is losing it’s lead in technology and science and American students are falling behind the rest of the world in technical subjects.

The reason is not just that we’ve become lazy or stupid. The Flynn effect shows that average IQ’s have actually been rising every generation and in the recent book Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson argues that video games and popular culture are actually making us smarter. So why is it that we are becoming less intellectual even though we are getting smarter?

I think it is related to the fact that it takes effort to concentrate on something. This effort is not because we’re using more energy. Although it may seem that thinking hard burns more calories, there is in fact little evidence for this. So if there is no metabolic cost then why is it so difficult to think? The reason may be that the brain is a novelty machine that constantly seeks new stimuli. Advertising and marketing people know that they need to change a scene every 10 or 15 seconds in a commercial or people’s attention will be lost. Our brains are designed to wander and seek new stimuli. This constant novelty seeking probably helps in the early stages of a civilization where things need to be built and everyone sees open opportunities for growth.

As a civilization matures, it takes longer and longer for the citizens to acquire and digest the accumulated knowledge required just to keep it running much less advance it. Years of training is necessary before anyone can make a contribution. Given our current comfortable circumstances, there is little incentive to undertake such an ordeal when there are so many other distractions to occupy us. In the past, scholastic learning might have been the most cognitively stimulating thing one could engage in. Now, our lives are filled with leisure activities that are much more interesting and entertaining than what we learn in school. For every high school kid with his nose stuck in an analysis textbook, there are hundreds or thousands of other kids who are playing video games, surfing the web, reading a Harry Potter novel or solving a Sudoku puzzle.

Is there a way out? I’m pessimistic. While it is true that those on the cutting edge are doing very interesting and stimulating things, the journey to get there is so long and arduous that fewer and fewer are likely to take it. No matter how appealing you may make calculus or organic chemistry, they just will never be able to compete with the endless variety of distractions in modern society. There will still be an educated elite but there won’t be enough of them to keep the engine going.

The decline of the US could be very rapid. Even now, much of science and technology is being driven by foreigners. However, as the balance of power starts to shift overseas and the US remains xenophobic, that spigot could be shut off quickly. The incentive to come here will diminish and people may return to their native countries as things decline here accelerating the process.

It may be that the only hope for humanity is to maintain uneven economic development. If the entire world became comfortable simultaneously, it might completely collapse all at once. However, if the decline of the US is accompanied by the rise of China and India then at least some order in the world could be maintained. After a century or so, the US could rise again in a perpetual cycle of localized growth and decay.

Peak Oil Production

We all know that the supply of oil is finite so the big question is how much do we have left. Geophysicist M. King Hubbert created a model of known oil reserves in 1956 and proposed that American oil production would peak between 1967 and 1972. US oil production peaked in 1971 and it’s been downhill ever since. Hubbert died in 1989 but other geologists have applied his theory to global production and predict a peak between 2000 and 2010.

This month both American Scientist and Technology Review have book reviews of James Howard Kunstler’s book ‘THE LONG EMERGENCY: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Kunstler’s thesis is that the 20th century defied Malthus because we have been living on cheap oil but when it does run out we will be in big trouble. He argues that all alternative sources of energy like solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, hydrogen are a pipe dream that won’t even come close to replacing oil. He believes that the depletion of oil will lead to social unrest and upheaval of the likes we’ve never seen before. The 14th century with the black death and all was pretty bad so this is really saying something.

The events of the past few weeks has sent me into a “The World is Going to End” kind of mood so I’m rather susceptible to this message. However, I think that we still have a chance to save ourselves. Conservation measures could prolong the supply of oil for say another century. This would buy us time to bring all alternative energy sources online. We will probably have to depend on nuclear power for much of it. If we’re really lucky, we might get fusion to work in 50 years but that will also bring it’s own set of problems. We will have to use bio-derived fuels for plastic and to power airplanes. However, our current unstainable American standard of living will decline. How far it drops is up to us.

Pitch perception and beyond

American symphony orchestras tune their instruments to A 440 Hz (in Europe they tend to go a little sharper with A 444Hz). However, no instrument produces a single frequency. Instead, they tune their instruments so that it sounds like an A. Humans can do this quite easily but if you were to look at the spectrum you would see a mess of frequencies. If you removed the fundamental frequency and just listened to the harmonics of a sound you would still identify the pitch you hear as that of the fundamental. It has always been quite puzzling as to how the brain does it. In this week’s issue of Nature, a group from Johns Hopkins reports that it has found neurons in the auditory cortex of the marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) that respond to pitch, the way a human responds. These neurons will fire when the animal is presented with the pure tone fundamental or a set of harmonics without the fundamental.

This is without a doubt a very nice and illuminating piece of work but I wouldn’t say it was surprising. Ever since Hubel and Wiesel discovered orientation selective neurons in the visual cortex in the late fifties and early sixties, much of systems neuroscience has been driven to providing more and more exotic stimuli and looking for neurons that respond to them. Given the data from the past forty years, I would venture that for anything which we can sense, perceive or ideate, there exists some neuron who’s activity is directly correlated to that thing. That is not to say there is just one neuron that responds to some given concept. The other lesson we learned from Hubel and Wiesel is that neurons are broadly tuned over some category. Thus, for any type of perception there will be a population of active neurons.

By any type of perception, I mean all aspects of a thought. So if you are viewing a Cezanne landscape for example, there will be neurons responding to primitive elements like shapes, lines, colours and so forth. Simultaneously, there will be other neurons that respond only to more specific things like a coloured square or to a pair of adjacent coloured squares. Then there will be neurons that respond just to trees or houses and if you know enough about art just to Cezanne paintings. What we don’t know is what sorts of neural architectures and learning rules can give rise to such behaviour and how all this cacophony of activity gets sorted out. While there are some candidate ideas floating around, the jury is definitely still out.

Aquarium of the Americas

My favourite aquarium was the one in New Orleans. It had the most spectacular jelly fish display I have ever seen. I use the past tense because CNN reports that most of the sea creatures have died because of the power loss which shut down the water oxygenation systems. A few of the animals like the 250 pound sea turtle, the white alligator, birds, sea dragons and sea otters have survived. Another loss in this major tragedy.

Agriculture’s downside

Brad De Long has posted an opinion piece from Jared Diamond arguing that agriculture, which displaced hunting and gathering as the means for sustenance, was actually humanity’s greatest mistake. The article contends that agriculture promotes a much larger population with a lower quality of life for most people except for a dominating elite. In a recent post, I argued that welfare could be considered compensation for eliminating the right to forage. According to Diamond, that would hardly be a fair deal.

Fragility of civilization

The disaster unfolding before our eyes is even more troubling because it could have been mitigated in so many ways. I don’t need to add anything more to the disbelief and anger spreading across the nation but it is hard not to. Among the many lessons to be drawn is that we are just a few days away from a complete breakdown of civil society. If ever there was an argument that government serves an essential role then this is it. It is quite clear who was able to get out and who was not. To blame the victims for their predicament is beyond reproach. If a city gives a mandatory evacuation order it must also provide a means for evacuation and resources for the evacuees. I can only hope that this tragedy will make us reevaluate what a just and fair civilization really means. Given that “values” was an issue in the last election I will quote directly from the bible:

The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such concern. Proverbs 29:7