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Sunday, January 25, 2015

The media is what lies between you and the information

    The dictionary tells us that the root origins of the word media is the plural of medium and is from the latin word for middle. The plural word media has been taken over to indicate a particular type of medium -- associated with mass media (television, radio, printed or texted material). Thus, within this context, there may be a plural of the plural -- medias.

    No matter how you pull the word apart, it still indicates something that is between. Roots of the concept are really part of what is now called social media. This might be surprising to people who have grown up in the Internet era but not at all surprising to people who grew up in a small town. In medieval times, there was often an official person -- the town crier -- whose job it was to stand on a corner or before a building and call out information considered to be important by the person who paid the town crier. This was often a method of the government to tell people something. More important, both in medieval times as well as small towns, was the town gossip who was an individual through whom information passed from people and groups all over. I am certain that, even in cave dwelling times, there was always a particular person who found out information and passed it along.

    The primary difference between mass media and social media is that mass media is more of a one-to-many spread of information while social media is a many-to-many. One source of information is taken by an individual (or group of individuals) and passed along to a large number of people and that is mass media. Or many people provide information which is collected by one (or more) person that is passed along to as many people as who will listen. In today's world that collection point can be human or electronic.

    All of these are good methods of collecting and distributing information -- but they do not guarantee that it will be GOOD, or valid, information. We see this currently in discussions about existing events. We are often divided -- and very firmly divided -- because the information sources (and associated media) are very different and the people either do not have the time, energy, or desire to research the information themselves to determine.

    So, people decide who they trust and rely on that information. If the media are trustworthy, it works well. If not, they are the sources of the lies and rumors that damage, and sometimes cripple, people and societies.

    The moral of the story is -- make sure you can trust the sources of your information and verify for yourself when you can.

    What media types do you rely on for information and why do you trust them?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Money as Energy: Increasing the pool of money

    In the previous post, I talked about how money is basically an abstraction of the combination of resources, labor, and energy. We are fortunate that we do, presently, have more than adequate amounts of each. Distribution of such, however, is very uneven and, thus, causes areas of poverty, famine, and other physical and social lacks.

    I ended the previous post with the idea that -- although our current problems are more concerned with distribution rather than actual shortages -- the New Age idea of an unlimited pool of money is not currently a reality. Is there anything to be done about that? Is there actually a way that everyone can have more (even with distribution problems)?

    To address that question, it comes back to the three components of money -- resources, labor, and energy. It also requires a fourth "catalyst" which is technology. By using technology, energy can be converted into additional resources and increased labor availability. This argues that energy is the prime limiting factor within economics.

    We can look around at the world and see how the availability of energy (applied via technology) has increased the "wealth" of the world. Farmers, via the use of equipment (using energy and technology to create and energy to keep active), can produce much greater amounts of food than what one person working the ground with manual labor can do. Harvesting of material resources -- trees, ores, fish -- are possible on a much larger scale than a single person could do making use only of manual labor (allowing a hand-built boat and fishing equipment).

    The above paragraph indicates how energy (with technology assistance) can increase the amount of labor. It does NOT increase the amount of resources. But the amount of food for people has been increased -- isn't that an increase in resources? No, it isn't -- because the ecological pyramid has not changed. The amount of base-level food has not increased. The plankton, plants, and other solar-using food plants have not increased. The labor has been used to change the varieties of food harvested and the distribution of the food (from other animals to people). In fact, due to pollution and other side-effects of application of energy to increase labor, the total amount of food resources may go down (decrease in sea life in general, decrease in fish population, decrease in non-human animal population).

    Can energy increase resources available to us? Yes, in two ways. The first is a continuation, and expansion, of what we presently do -- redistribution. We find other, more energy intensive, methods of accessing resources. However, this often has negative environmental effects and is also just speeding up the use of resources. So, although it increases resources available on a short-term basis, it does NOT increase the amount of resource. A second aspect of this (still redistribution) is to bring resources from other places -- the asteroid belt, for example, is a potential area from which to redistribute resources.

    The second method of increasing resources requires much higher levels of energy. Besides the potential of alchemy (changing one element into another -- possible with huge amounts of energy), there are many endothermic reactions possible with increased energy available. Endothermic means "requiring the absorption of heat". Thus, it is possible to convert raw elements into more complex molecules and, finally, into "organic" materials needed for human eating, or use for furniture, or such. This is actually a metamorphosis of resources and not an increase -- but it's "close enough" for our uses.

    So, with energy, the pool of "money" becomes bigger. Distribution remains a major problem. A larger problem is making sure that the energy is renewable -- we do not want to empty the bank as that would cause widespread catastrophe for the existing economy. The other problems aren't directly concerned with energy-as-money but are related to social, and environmental, responsibility for using it in a life-affirming way.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Economics and the Meaning of Money

    I usually look at the economy as a form of applied sociology. Money is only worth something if people believe that it is worth something. This applies equally to gold and jewels as much as it applies to pieces of paper with people's pictures printed on it. In a similar fashion, money is distributed according to the rules (explicit or implicit) that people decide upon.

    A barter system works when each person (or family) is capable of doing most things needed for survival on their own. They then trade things that they have in excess for things that others have in excess. I give you an extra chicken and you give me a bushel of potatoes. I give you a length of material that I have woven and you give me a chair. Barter is a mixture of labor, materials, difficulty, and time combined into value.

    When each person can NOT do most things they need for survival, the barter system becomes very inconvenient. It is necessary to keep records/charts of equivalences. One type A chair is equal to two meters of cloth. Two type B chairs are equal to one type A chair. Ten chickens are equal to one meter of cloth. This complexity arises out of the need for each family unit to trade for many different types of things. Once this happens, the next step is to equate the value to something in common. Ten seashells represent the value of one chicken. A meter of cloth is equivalent to 100 seashells. Every item of value can be represented by a certain number of seashells. This representation of value is called money.

    Once the value of work and things have been "abstracted" into money, it is very easy to lose sight of real value. The work done by an experienced, talented teacher is probably worth more to society than that of a software developer -- but the software developer probably makes a higher salary. In "capitalistic" societies, the control of money is considered to have value in itself. That is, if I possess one million seashells then I no longer have to produce anything of value myself -- the circumstances (earned and saved, gifted, or inherited) of having the seashells allows me to distribute some portion to other people who then produce the actual value (plus more for me to hold).

    Within "new age" philosophy, it is popular to think that the economy is no longer a "zero sum" game. That is, each and every person, can earn as much money as she/he wants -- that there is not a "fixed pot" of X seashells in the pot and each can have as much as they want without reducing the amount that others are able to have. That's a happy philosophy but is it true?

    Although money makes lots of games possible with the distribution and use -- the basis of money still goes back to production and use. If 100 people each want a fish but there are only 50 fish then the value of each fish will rise until the 50 people who most want a fish have them and the other 50 do not have them. If 100 people want a fish and there are 1000 fish, then the value should (the concept of money makes direct value difficult if not impossible) be equated to that combination of labor, materials, difficulty and time mentioned above. An abundance of resources (fish) causes value to go back to basics.

    Our global economy makes distribution of resources extremely unequal. Most people estimate, however, that there are enough resources (food, labor, energy) to support everyone currently on the planet. The fact that that does not happen is a problem with distribution and allocation. But, there is still a limit. Perhaps at twice the population there would NOT be enough for everyone (in an ideal world). This argues that it is a "fixed pot" -- there is a limit of resources to be distributed. In order to eliminate the fixed pot, it is necessary to get rid of the limitations of resources.

    Is there a way to eliminate the limitations of resources? I will look at that possibility in the next blog.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

What's in a Name: the politics and reality of global climate change

   When scientists discovered that the average temperature of the oceans was increasing, it was picked up by the media as "global warming". While I don't know whether this name was embraced by the scientific community or not, it wasn't a bad name -- at a scientific level. A much better name would have been "global ocean warming" -- for reasons to follow.

   A name is a powerful thing -- attitudes, and historical associations, come along with names. If a highly anti-patriotic thing is NAMED something patriotic then it is easier to associate it with positive, patriotic, meanings. This is just how our brains work -- we associate names with other things connected with the names. Politicians, Public Relations people, and advertising agencies make use of this to a great degree.

   If the word "global warming" is used then it can be MIS-used. If there is a huge snowstorm, it can be used as "evidence" that it is "obviously" NOT warming all over the globe. The more precise, and accurate, the word that is chosen, the more difficult it is to skew the interpretation. As mentioned earlier, it would be more difficult to misinterpret "global ocean warming" -- since a snowstorm is not immediately connected to the ocean (although it is actually true that the ocean warming might directly help the snowstorm to happen).

   Of late, the dialog has mostly changed to that of "global climate change". This is associated with the effect of "global ocean warming" -- but it seems to have been easier to migrate to this phrase than to expand upon the "global warming" media phrase. It is a reasonable phrase and much more difficult to subvert by politicians as there IS (unfortunately) increasing indications of global changes in the climate.

   The other part of the "discussion" (actually more of a taking of sides) -- beyond whether or not global climate change is happening -- is whether it has been caused by human activities. It will be impossible to totally prove this as that would require comparing two parallel worlds -- one world where changes in energy use and other human activities took place in a timely manner and comparing that to our current world.

   When historical evidence is examined, it shows how, and when, such global changes in climate have occurred before. This evidence does give us some ideas as to how various components (Carbon Dioxide in atmosphere, Ozone levels, water levels, average temperature, etc.) work together to change the climate and it does indicate how ongoing, present, changes are likely to affect climate. Politicians are correct that climate change has occurred many times over history. However, the rate of change of factors that have been occurring over the past 100 years has only been found in association with large scale catastrophes (huge volcano eruptions, widespread biologic changes, and so forth).

   This rapid change is the most scary part of global climate change. Humans are very adaptable. In fact, a great name for the species would be homo adaptabilis. If a desert turned into a a wetland over a period of a couple hundred years, people would adapt. In fact, much of the Sahara desert was once a tropical forest at one time (but the change was much, much slower). If the coastline disappears under water an inch a year, people will adapt. That is our current goal -- to slow down the rate of global climate change to allow people to move from one place to another, to allow changes in basic crops grown in an area, to allow people to change housing and energy use, and so forth.

   But, all of this is still an exercise in the dangers of allowing the media to choose a phrase to describe something. Insist on precision in descriptions. Refuse to use labels that are obviously inaccurate -- reverse it by saying "the so-called xxxxxxx". When a debate arises where one side is labeled as "pro-AAAAA" then insist that the other side be called "anti-AAAAA" rather than "pro-BBBBB"

   What misuses of labels have been the most upsetting for you?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Fracking: what's the big deal?

Fracking is talked about a lot nowadays -- mostly heatedly and almost always in a binary fashion (YES/Good or NO/Bad). What is fracking all about?

When we think of drilling for some liquid substance, what first comes to mind is something similar to putting a straw into an underground reservoir. Some may include the idea of a bunch of very wet sand, where the liquid is dispersed through the area but freely available.

Both of these were probably true for the earliest wells. A hole was pierced in the soil and it either hit an area of liquid (water, oil, also natural gas -- which is not liquid but, in this case, has the important properties of a liquid) or it was able to find an area that the liquid could collect in from the surrounding area.  For water, this is called the aquifer. For water and other "liquids" (including natural gas), this ability to collect from the surrounding area is making use of a quality called "permeability" -- the ease of movement of liquids/gases through solids.

Pool are pools. It is a matter of finding them and using them. Permeability decreases as the area gets deeper because of the weight of the earth above. Greater pressure lowers the permeability of the surrounding area.

As we make use of more of our natural reservoirs of water, oil, and other liquid/gas resources, it is harder to find easy-to-use locations. Isolated pools become deeper (or underwater) and smaller (making them less economically possible to exploit). Natural permeability occurs more towards the surface and is harder to find. Thus, there is the desire to go where we have not gone before (national parks, wilderness, and beneath beds of water) and to promote artificial permeability.

Finally, you say, we get to fracking. Fracking is the process of breaking up the surrounding rock and creating permeability where none (or little) existed before. Early fracking mainly used explosives to break up the ground underneath. Although it usually worked, it was not very effective because of the irregularity of the fissures (or cracks) created and because, if it was deep, those cracks were likely to close back up from the pressure.

The modern practice of fracking usually involves hydrologic pressure. A liquid (often water) is injected into the well under great pressure and this causes the surrounding area to crack. Additives are put into the liquid to help keep the cracks open (thus, allowing permeability) after the pressure is removed. One method is called "acid etching" where an acid makes "grooves" in the cracks as they expand leaving little furrows when pressure is removed. This is done to make access to reserves more possible.

There are two primary problems with fracking. First, it requires a lot of liquid to achieve fracking. While that didn't use to be looked at as a problem -- with global climate change and uncertain icepacks and rains and overused aquifers it is quite a problem nowadays. I don't know the exact proportion of water to newly accessible liquid (you wouldn't normally use this technique for water wells, obviously) but there is a lot of water used. In addition, the additives put into water may not be either environmentally or health beneficial and those additives will find their way into the surrounding area.

The second problem is that the cracking of the earth is indiscriminate -- it does not JUST allow the desired liquid/gas to pool together. If there are pockets of water and gas or oil nearby, the fracking is likely to allow the mixing of such -- and causing health and environmental problems with use of the water.

The first problem might be addressable with new techniques (air fracking, perhaps, with environmentally safe additives) but the second problem is inherent to the process.

The only real method of eliminating the need for fracking to access dwindling natural reserves is to use alternate energy/base material sources.

What are your thoughts about fracking?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Why aren't studies steady? The problems with studies on humans.

     If you don't like the results of a study ... wait for the next study. It appears that the results from studies involving people vary drastically from study to study ... and they do. At one time butter is bad and margarine is good and then, later, margarine is bad and butter is better (not necessarily good). Fats are bad. No, the right fats are good. Olive oils are the right fats. No, more polyunsaturated fats are even better. Why do studies that involve humans vary in their results so much?

     There are quite a few reasons why it is difficult to have consistent results from studies of humans. Some are inherent problems. Some are political problems. And a large number of problems arise from the way studies are reported in the media rather the actual study. In other words, a study may be done very well and present results that are interesting but not conclusive -- but some specific parts are taken up by the media as "startling results". What are the problems with studies?

  • People are not mice. Many studies on health effects are done with mice, or guinea pigs, or monkeys, or chimpanzees, or some other more easily studied animal. In addition, many studies may make use of one gender but generalize to both genders. It is rather obvious that, for the best results, use of humans of the appropriate category must be used. Why isn't this the case?

    Cost. People want to be paid (in money or value) to participate in studies. Animals can be purchased -- and, until some group starts recognizing what is being done to them, can be treated with the least care needed.

    Morality. Except in certain situations (such as Nazi Germany where psychopaths had full permission to experiment) it is not acceptable to put people's lives at risk. This is associated with control groups where they are NOT treated the same as the group which is being tested as well as with the groups being treated with undetermined results.

  • Patience. It takes TIME to determine what long-term results are. Of course, it doesn't take much time for an immediately lethal poison to be known but most substances aren't as immediate in effect. Taking longer periods of time means results are delayed. It also increases the costs of the study.

    Two types of studies of this nature are longitudinal and cross-generational. One examines individuals for substantial portions of their lives and the other examines the effects from parent to child to grandchild. Humans have pretty long lives (unless stopped by disease, accident, or violence) and this also leads to use of shorter lived animals as subjects.

  • Control groups. A control group is simple in concept but much harder to create and use. The idea is that one group has the variation (tries a medicine, eats a food, does an exercise, endures environmental conditions, ...) and the other does not. Comparing the results of the two groups is hoped to be able to isolate the effects of the specific effect being studied.

    A huge difficulty is that it is impossible to prevent the confusion of combinations of variables. You are testing item A. It turns out that A does one thing in the presence of items B and C. It does another, different, thing in the presence of items C and D -- and it may even do something else in the presence of B and D. If B, C, and D are all known and defined then useful results may still be obtained -- but often they are not. These combinatorial variables are unknown -- but they can drastically affect the results. Two of these variables involve environment and genetics.

    Environmental variables. What is the effect of electricity in a house or city? In modern society, it is impossible to eliminate -- and, if taken to a part of the world where electricity is NOT present, other variables will exist. What is the effect of plastics? What are the effects of pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics in the food? While these can be minimized, they cannot be eliminated. What about specific pollutants in the air? And so forth.

    Genetics. Leading up to the next bullet item on correlation versus causation, I once read a statistical study on smoking and cancer rates in various countries of the world. It turned out that countries with the greatest amount of smoking had among the lowest amounts of cancer. The effect of smoking depended upon the population. (It didn't get a lot of media attention since the outcome was not politically popular.) A homogenous (identical in nature) population is needed for studies and sets of identical octuplets are hard to find.

  • Correlation versus causation. This is understood by scientists doing studies but easily distorted by politicians, business owners, groups, or media people who have a bias towards a particular result. Causation means the variable causes the result. If I hit my toe with a hammer it will be bruised (or broken). This is true if any toe hit by any hammer causes these results. The effects can be changed -- a hammer hitting a toe that is shielded by a steel-toed boot is NOT hurt (but it also means the toe of the foot is not actually hit).

    Some people are allergic to monosodium glutamate (MSG). Some are not. So, MSG AND allergic people cause a particular effect but MSG AND non-allergic affect does NOT cause the effect. This is verifiable contributory causation.

    Everyone who drinks water will eventually die. Does drinking water cause people to die? No (unless, of course, the water is contaminated), but this is the type of (often statistical) result that biased groups enjoy mis-interpreting and reporting.

  • Binary Results. People like simple results. They like "yes" or "no". They do not like long combinations of possibilities. So, a report that says "butter is bad" is much easier to distribute than a report that says "butter, in combination with lack of exercise and excessive refined carbohydrates and a genetic tendency towards high cholesterol, can contribute to high blood pressure".

    Properly done studies rarely have simple results.

So, in summary, it is difficult to create a useful, consistent study on the effects of anything with people. Even if done properly, it is difficult to give results without also giving all of the controlled variables along with the result.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The 1% and the former "trickle down" pyramid

Once upon a time, when there was a lot less disparity between the rich and the poor in the US, an idea was proposed to justify giving more tax breaks to the rich. This idea was called the "trickle down" theory. Note that this blog concentrates on income inequality -- wealth inequality has parallel workings.

At heart, the trickle down theory was an economic pyramid and is the basis of the concept of regulated capitalism. However, the main word in that sentence is regulated. The idea is that the people with the most money generate more money which is distributed (in lesser amounts per person) to a larger set of people, who then generate more money which is distributed (in lesser amounts than the people of the second level) to an even larger set of people. At the bottom of the pyramid are the people who are unemployed or are working for whatever they can get paid and not die.

The original pyramid for the "trickle down" idea worked rather like this (note that these numbers are all just examples):

1 person earns $1,000,000/year
3 people each earn   $500,000/year
6 people each earn   $300,000/year
10 people each earn $200,000/year
25 people each earn $100,000/year
55 people each earn $40,000/year

This forms a pool of 100 people. In total, they earn $11,000,000/year. The top earner gets 25 times as much as the lowest paid earner. and the top 20 people (20%) make 57% of the total money (leaving 43% to the lower 80 people (80%). The top earner gets about 9% of the total.

However, in order for this distribution to hold, it is necessary to have laws and regulations that keep redistributing money to the rest of the people according to their wealth. In the 1980s, it became politically popular in the US to think that if the rich were allowed to accumulate more money then there would be more money to distribute -- or "trickle down" -- to the rest of the population. That started a process of steadily increasing tax loopholes and favored treatments, lower (if paid) tax rates, substantially lower wages (based on pre-inflation 1985 dollars), and concentration of wealth which led to a new structure such as the following (once again, these are made up numbers -- the real ones are different but not better):

1 person earns $5,000,000/year
3 people each earn $300,000/year
6 people each earn $200,000/year
10 people each earn $125,000/year
25 people each earn $60,000/year
55 people each earn $22,000/year

Once again, this is a pool of 100 people and, together, they earn $11,000,000/year.

However, this time the top accumulator (no longer calling them an earner) gets 227 times as much as the lowest paid earner. The top 20 people (20%) have increased their total to 76% of the $11,000,000 but look carefully (this type of statistical use is often in political advertisements) -- the 19% below the top 1% are actually earning LESS than they used to. The top accumulator now controls 45% of the total money pool.

This is a situation where the top accumulators redistribute the earnings of the lower rich, middle class, and working poor to give to themselves. I call this distribution the "splash over" economic theory -- or a vivid, real, example of unregulated capitalism. You fill up the top and some of the excess splashes over to the bottom.

This was the situation in the "Gilded Age" in the 1800s. It was shifted, for individuals, with reforms such as the creation of income tax toward the turn of the century -- and it was shifted, for businesses, with "New Deal" reforms that came out of recovery from the Great Depression.

And, at the root of it all, the voters carry the responsibility.