On the shutdown: call out bullshit, then question your own.

As you know by now the US government’s been held hostage by right-wing extremists. These people thought Romney was going to win in a landslide, so reality isn’t their forte. We should absolutely call them out on their bullshit, especially when the result of it is a government shutdown that’s going to cost the American people billions of dollars.

But while you do that, question what bullshit you might hold dear. Because there is some. All of our brains want, more than anything, to be told that we’re right. To be told that our ideas are legitimate, and that anyone who disagrees is immoral, misinformed or somehow inferior to our superior selves.

And we’ve all got personal internet bubbles set up. Facebook filters out people we don’t interact with, you only follow people you like on Twitter and even your Google searches are determined by what Google thinks you like. Our stupid brains love this, but reality becomes increasingly subjective as our filters grow to service them.

Again: only one party decided to use a basic government protocol to hold hostage a law passed years ago by a democratically elected congress and supported by a recently re-elected president. They absolutely deserve the blame here.

But the deeper problem is a cultural inability to agree on what is and isn’t true. This nonsense is only a symptom – albeit a batshit crazy one.

Hey, media: stop letting Apple use you as its PR department.

For all the talk of social media being the future of marketing, one company stands outside it all: Apple. This company’s every move is speculated about constantly on every social network, but how many people follow Apple on Twitter? None; they don’t have a Twitter page.

Apple knows a truth about social networking no supposed social media expert ever talks about: starving the beast is more effective than stuffing it. Information is only powerful if revealed on your terms, and Apple is the master of this.

So much speculation is built up by the time an Apple announcement happens that every journalist and blogger is compelled to write about it, even if they don’t think the actual announcement is that big a deal, because of the time investment they’ve already made.

Speaking of not being that big of a deal: the new iPad. Numbered-names are gone, and the resolution is higher. The device is more powerful. Also: Apple told journalists the post-PC age is here, and they all dutifully wrote that down and published it.

Here’s a hint: new versions of products come out every year, and they’re going to be better than last time. Other companies will copy the feature. It won’t magically connect you with other human beings or make you happier, but advertisements will subtly tell you otherwise.

In other words: Apple is a company making money by selling products. Journalists know not to cover every politician’s press conferences unless there’s reason to think something interesting will happen. It’s high time we did treated Apple the same way.

A version of this article appeared in episode 13 of Technophilia Podcast.

Gas Is Too Cheap

Gas prices are too low. Far, far too low. Within decades we will regret ever charging as little as four dollars a gallon for gas.

Divide global oil reserves by global oil consumption and we’ve got 33 years left.

Oil is a limited resource, and we’re going to run out of it. That’s not some liberal projection; that’s math. That’s reality. We should be preserving the oil we have for essential things, like farming, and restructuring our communities to reflect the coming post-petroleum era.

At the very least we, as a society, need to stop subsidizing fuel prices before our runaway consumption leads to an inevitable disaster.

The Blame Game

Disagree? You’re not alone. Gas prices being too high is the topic de jour in the media right now in America, and everyone is looking for someone to blame.

Some say the problem is jerks in the Middle East, demanding basic human rights and dignity without stopping to think what impact this might have on gas prices. Others say the problem is entirely based on Wall Street, as speculators drive the price higher and higher just to earn more greedy money.

Others, seemingly out of habit, blame Obama. The President can, after all, magically control gas prices; he is only increasing them now out a deep-seated hatred for America.

Regardless of the reason for the price increase, however, I think it’s a good thing prices are rising. Don’t get me wrong: I do have sympathy for working class families hit hard by increasing prices, and the economic recovery is being hindered by the rise. Still, these problems are superficial compared to the ones we’ll face if we let gas prices stay this low for much longer.

Until what we pay for gas accurately reflects the long-term consequences of using gas, we’ve got problems on our hands.

Not What You Think

Before you start ranting in the comments, denying climate change is an issue and stating the wars in Iraq and Libya have nothing to do with oil, know one thing: my argument requires neither that you believe climate science is valid nor that our foreign policy has consequences. It is, and it does, but realizing gas it too cheap requires accepting neither premise.

No, realizing gas is too cheap requires only some basic math.

Don’t believe me? Follow along. I’ve made a few calculations using WolframAlpha, an online tool that can calculate just about anything. Feel free to check the links below to check my work.

Simple Calculations

America consumes 18.6 million barrels of oil a day. That means that, on average, an American consumes 0.06 barrels of oil a day. It takes 16.66 days, or just over half a month, for the average American to use up a barrel of oil.

No problem, right? After all, a 2002 estimate claims world oil reserves total around 1.326 trillion barrels, so there’s a lot of oil to go around yet. Divide world oil reserves by US oil consumption and you’ll find that we’ve got 145 years and 9 months left before we run out of oil.

There’s one obvious problem with that calculation, of course: more countries than America use oil. China consumes 8.2 million barrels of oil a day, for example, and Europe uses 15.39 million barrels a day.

(That’s right: America uses more oil than all of Europe combined, despite Europe containing 286.5 million additional people. USA! USA! USA!)

Anyway: if you add up the oil consumption in China, Europe and America you get 42.28 million barrels of oil a day. How long can the world’s oil reserves hold out against that combined consumption? 64 years and 5 months.

That’s just America, Europe and China combined. Never mind India (2.98 million barrels a day), Latin America (8.089 million barrels a day) or the rest of the world. Take every country out of the picture besides America, Europe and China and we don’t even have 65 years left.

I can reasonably expect to live that long.

Divide global oil reserves by global oil consumption and we’ve got 33 years left.

Most people on earth can expect to live that long.

But wait: there’s more.

All of these figures assume that current oil consumption will remain static in the coming decades. It won’t.

In most countries on Earth oil consumption has been trending upwards for years, even accounting for the decline caused by the recent depression. China and India will see particularly big rises as their economy awakens.

It’s also worth noting that much of the global oil reserves will never actually be extracted for a variety of reasons. Some would take more energy to extract than they would provide, and some are too environmentally risky.

No Easy Answer

So what solution do I offer? I mostly just want people to realize that our current era, of cheap energy, could well be an unusual bubble in global history.

We should probably stop subsidizing sprawl, shifting infrastructure funding away from expressways and toward sidewalks and bike trails. We should certainly re-think any subsidies of the vehicle industries.

More importantly, though, we need to take the need for alternative energy a lot more seriously, because non-renewable energy sources run out by definition. Increasing the tax on gas to help research these alternative could be a step in the right direction, but that might not be politically possible. Our society it built on the assumption of cheap gas, and people won’t give that assumption up until it’s too late.

Why should they? Gas it too cheap for anyone to take the idea of oil running out seriously.

Few things happen without some sort of economic motivation, and at four dollars a gallon people are just barely starting to change their lifestyles. Be it purchasing efficient cars or driving less, or even using a bike instead of driving, change is happening. Any action government takes to reverse this would be a mistake.

Wikileaks Is Inevitable. Is it Good?

Complete access to information isn’t always a good thing; just ask Valerie Plame.

Many of the same people defending WikiLeak’s latest actions, leaking classified US diplomatic cables, were up in arms during the Plame affair. Which is ironic, when you consider it: wasn’t outing Plame as a CIA agent an example of revealing the truth, regardless of consequence?

“But there was a political motivation for the Plame affair,” some might respond.

Wait: WikiLeaks doesn’t have a political motivation?

For a long time the site’s motivation was clear: leaking documents from totalitarian regimes around the world. Much of the media is failing to mention the fact that the intense focus on America is a very recent change for the site. For most of its history Wikileaks primarily strove to increase transparency in states with little to no press freedom at all. The site had no public face; it just made information public.

That changed in 2010, when Julian Assange become the organization’s talking head, and leaking American documents seemingly became the site’s entire purpose. Frustrated staff are leaving WikiLeaks for this very reason, starting their own site at OpenLeaks.org

All of this and more is documented in a recent in-depth report in Vanity Fair. This is a long read, but one with many revelations.

For example: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange threatened to sue The Guardian should it publish cables leaked to it by a disgruntled Wikileaks staff member. That’s right: WikiLeaks, the organization dedicated to leaking protected information, tried to stop The Guardian from publishing information without its approval.

We can discuss the ironies here all we like, but one thing is for sure: secrets being made public in this manner is, so long as the Internet exists, inevitable.

Is it good? I’m not sure.

Diplomacy is certainly going to be tougher in the months ahead – not a comforting prospect in an era of climate change and Iranian mad men pursing the bomb. But, as Congressman Ron Paul points out, the US probably keeps more secrets than it needs to.

Time will reveal whether WikiLeaks results in a more open world, a less peaceful world or both. The web made these leaks inevitable; humanity decides their impact.

People Talking Without Speaking: The Ignored Disaster

Sitting in front a computer. That’s what I do lately.

It’s what most of us do lately.

Learn the conventions of the web. Tweet it. Like it. Digg it. Write a snappy headline or no one will read it. Stay on top of the trends. It doesn’t matter whether that’s true or not; give people the surface. Don’t confuse, engage.

Give the people what they want.

Meanwhile, in the real world, suffering exists for very complicated reasons. People in Pakistan continue to recover from the flood, but you wouldn’t know it from Digg or Twitter. It’s not as sexy a disaster as hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, I suppose, so we don’t talk about it.

Maybe the problem is that Pakistan is too complicated. Right now a poor man is turning turning to Islamic extremists for help. Is that because his democratically elected government is corrupt, or because years of military rule means civic institutions lack the resources to properly care for people?

Or, considering what a mess much of New Orleans still is, does government really even matter in this context?

All questions worth asking, but regardless that man is going to find a way to feed himself and his family. That’s what people in hard situations do: they find a way. That’s the human spirit.

But from here I can’t understand that spirt. Sitting in front of a screen everything is blurry. To me, that person is an abstraction; another hypothetical chip I can throw at an argument no one is listening to.

People talking without speaking; people hearing without listening. And I’m a part of it.

I sincerely believe the world is becoming a better place for the web’s existence, but I fear we’re becoming too simple in the process. We need to find a way to bring complicated arguments to the web, or we’re going to drown in the sheer volume of our simplistic statements.

This isn’t some abstraction; real people are being overlooked because of our inability to process complex information. Let me know if you have any ideas, but I’ve got to get back to work now.

Donate to UNICEF’s efforts in Pakistan.

‘Grapes of Wrath’ and the Great Recession

It’s difficult to think of anything new to say about The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s masterpiece. But recently I, after years of Kathy insisting I do so, got around to reading it. I couldn’t help but notice a few things relevant to the here and now, and seeing as I have a computer I figured I’d post them on the Internet.

Our Recession is Lame

Yeah, housing prices are low. Some people don’t have jobs, and many are spending less than they’d like.

Very few American children are starving to death, however.

To even compare the economic events of the past few years to the Great Depression is, I think, insulting to those who actually lived through it. Our modern unemployment rate, hovering around 10 percent, certainly leaves something to be desired; it is, however, minor when compared to the 25 percent rate nationwide in the 1930s.

Comparisons between our modern recession and the great depression seem even more foolish if you imerse yourself in Steinbeck’s epic, where entire families wander from town to town in hopes of finding a single day’s work.

Many today are without work, yes, but the vast majority of them wouldn’t even consider physical labor as a way to feed their family. Far better to collect unemployment until something comfortable comes along.

Okies/Illegal Immigrants

But you know who is willing to do physical labor? Illegal immigrants. Steinbeck’s description of depression-era “Okies” to me almost perfectly mirrors the modern illegal immigrant.

Both leave everything they’ve known behind to build a better life for family, both are more than willing to work hard to do so and both are generally regarded with suspicion–even anger–by the people they are working for. Depended on and despised.

The fact that these Okies were in the country changes nothing. Californians in Steinbeck’s novel are determined to define the incoming white American masses as outsiders, so they do so. Much of the rhetoric they use to describe these outsiders parellels contemporary to the point where it’s easy to mistake one for the other.


Al and Tom Joad both understand cars. They can drive them, they can repair them and they can tell when something’s going wrong with them. Many older individuals, however, seem to have no comprehension of how these machines work–despite depending on them.

Sounds familar? It does to me, because computers simply make sense to me. Almost every day, however, I help someone who–though depending on a computer to make a living–has almost no idea how they work.

I suppose the point I’m making here is that new technology, to the young, is normal.

This is an enormous advantage, career-wise. I’ve no doubt that Al eventually found his way into a garage and made a decent living. Likewise, I’m not worried about my employment prospects so long as there are people who can’t find their googles and as such think they have a virus.

Someday, however, my skills will be obsolete. Young people who understand future technology will infuriate me.

Barnes and Noble, Borders, Buy.com.