Faith in progress

by Henry Farrell on January 30, 2005

“Brad DeLong”: spares me the effort of completing a half-written post about how badly “Gregg Easterbrook”: misses the point of Jared Diamond’s wonderful Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond isn’t arguing that material circumstances trump human inventiveness but that they structure it. Still, there’s another aspect to Easterbrook’s review of Diamond’s new book which is worth discussing. In Easterbrook’s closing paragraph, he says:

bq. Diamond fears our fate was set in motion in antiquity — we’re living off the soil and petroleum bequeathed by the far past, and unless there are profound changes in behavior, all may crash when legacy commodities run out. Oddly, for someone with a background in evolutionary theory, he seems not to consider society’s evolutionary arc. He thinks backward 13,000 years, forward only a decade or two. What might human society be like 13,000 years from now? Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten. Most of the earth may even be returned to primordial stillness, and the whole thing would have happened in the blink of an eye by nature’s standards.

This crystallizes something that I’ve been struggling to articulate for a while. It seems to me that there’s a shared attitude towards science among various right-leaning technophiles (Glenn Reynolds being a paradigmatic example). Roughly speaking, they tend to agree with science when it suggest new possibilities for human beings (the Singularity! nanotechnology! conquering the universe via spaceflight! longer lifespans!) and to strongly disagree with scientific results or prognoses that suggest fundamental limits to human beings’ can-do ability to prevail over their circumstances (global warming, ecological collapse).[1] This comes out very clearly over the course of Easterbrook’s review, where it becomes clear that Easterbrook’s objection isn’t to the specifics of Diamond’s arguments – it’s to the very notion that material limits might determine our collective fate, a contention which Easterbrook bizarrely describes as ‘postmodern’. This faith in boundless possibilities is at best a-scientific, and at worst pseudo-religious feel-good claptrap along the lines of Easterbrook’s previous “muddled”: “attempts”: to reconcile cosmology and religious belief. Of course, it may be true that future discoveries will enable us to leave the Earth, conquer the galaxy, exploit the “infinite resources” of the universe etc. But half-assed appeals to the limitless opportunities of the future aren’t an argument; they’re a statement of faith. It’s a wonder that Easterbrook should have been asked by the NYT to review a serious book; it certainly shouldn’t happen again.

Update: A commenter over at Brad’s points out that Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s wicked corporate satire, The Space Merchants, anticipated Easterbrook’s basic argument over fifty years ago.

bq. The Conservationists were fair game, those wild-eyed zealots who pretended modern civilization was in some way ‘plundering’ our planet. Preposterous stuff. Science is *always* a step ahead of the failure of natural resources. After all, when real meat got scarce we had soyaburgers ready. When oil ran low, technology developed the pedicab.

fn1. While Easterbrook isn’t a global warming skeptic as such, he is skeptical about many of its “adverse consequences”:

The Iraqi elections seem to have been about as successful as could have been hoped, and may represent the last real chance to prevent a full-scale civil war. The pre-election analysis suggests that the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite coalition, will get the biggest share of the votes, but probably not an absolute majority. If so, their leaders will face two immediate choices.

[click to continue…]

Ask and Jeeves answers

by Eszter Hargittai on January 30, 2005

Among other things, my research looks at how people find information online. When I conducted in-person observations of people’s information-seeking behavior on the Web, it was interesting to see how well Ask Jeeves had done in marketing itself as the search engine that answers people’s questions. Even respondents in my study who otherwise relied on Google for almost all of their queries would go to Ask Jeeves to find the answer to the question about what steps they would have to take if they lost their wallet. People would type in their query in the form of a question even though in most cases – and especially if not specified with quotes, which is something few users do – including “what” or “where” in a query does little to improve the results of a search. It was an interesting example of how a search service could position itself in the search engine market by a particular marketing approach. The results to users’ queries on that particular search engine were no better than the results offered by other services, but due to the type of question people turned to that service regardless. Now I have come across something that seems quite unique to Ask Jeeves among the most popular search engines in terms of actual services rendered, for the moment at least.

Reading the Search Engine Watch blog I found out that using Ask Jeeves can cut down on the number of clicks required to find the answers to simple factual questions. Ask Jeeves will now give you a little box with the answers to some of your questions without having to click through to one of the results for the information. For example, wondering about this year’s date for Passover, I typed in when is Passover in 2005 and was given the exact info right there by Jeeves. (Yes, of course it’s enough to type in passover 2005 to get the same result, I was just playing along.) The service seems to cater to more popular forms of information. It will give you information about some celebrity birthdays (e.g. walter matthau birthday) and the names of Academy Award winners (up until 2002 for now, e.g. academy award best actress 2002), but it won’t display the names of Nobel Prize winners directly (e.g. see results for chemistry nobel prize 2002). It will be interesting to see to what other topical domains they expand the service (some geographical information is also available this way already). For now, other search services such as Google and Yahoo require additional clicks to find answers to the above questions. Perhaps in time they will come out with their versions of instant responses.[1]

fn1. Yes, I realize that Google has been supplying answers to some questions directly for a while. That’s what Kieran relied on in this post.

All the blood in the world, and then some

by Kieran Healy on January 30, 2005

First let me say that this calculation is probably wrong. But one of Brad DeLong’s “One Hundred Interesting Math Calculations”: asks “How Much Blood is there in the World?”: (How much _human_ blood, that is.) The answer assumes that the average person has about a gallon of blood in them, which is a tad low, I think — it’s more like 9.5 to 10.5 pints per person. But let’s keep it at a gallon. The answer is about 8 x 108 cubic feet of blood, which is less than you might think: as Brad says, “All the human blood in the world could be stuffed into a cube less than one-thousand feet on a side.”

But who can visualize a cube a thousand feet long on a side? As a person with a “sociological interest”: in blood, I like the calculation, but I need to translate it into the “standard SI unit of volume”: applicable to this case, namely the “Olympic-size swimming pool”: My goal is to do the conversion using only Google.

Brad gives us the 8 x 108 cubic feet number. An Olympic pool measures 50 x 20 x 2 meters, which gives us 2000 cubic meters or 2 x 106 liters. So we have a units problem. But Google knows that 2 x 106 liters is 528,344.102 US gallons. Google also knows that this is equivalent to 706,293.746 cubic feet. And so it will be no surprise to learn that Google has no trouble calculating that 8 x 108 cubic feet divided by 706,293.746 cubic feet is 1,132.6732. Roughly speaking, all the human blood in the world would fit into about eleven hundred Olympic-sized swimming pools.

According to the National Blood Data Resource Center, about 15 million pints of blood are collected each year in the United States. That’s equivalent to just over three and a half Olympic pools. Blood is a renewable resource, of course, in that you make more of it when you lose some. Over the course of a year the U.S. blood system controls the allocation of roughly 0.31 percent of all the blood in the world. Unless the glass of wine I’m having has caused me to make a mistake somewhere.

Bravo Charles

by Belle Waring on January 30, 2005

A big hooray for Obsidian Wings’ Charles Bird. Recent revelations that some of the strangest allegations of mistreatment at Guantanamo were true has caused him to re-examine his trust in the Bush administration’s good intentions:

When this piece by the Mirror came out, I dismissed it. To me, it still remains implausible that “a diet of foul water and food up to 10 years out-of-date left inmates malnourished”. However, one of the claims that I ridiculed in the Mirror was this:

Prisoners who had never seen an “unveiled” woman before would be forced to watch as the hookers touched their own naked bodies.

The men would return distraught. One said an American girl had smeared menstrual blood across his face in an act of humiliation.

Now that this allegation has been confirmed by an ex-army sergeant, Charles has to face an ugly conclusion:

This report, in addition to earlier statements by FBI agents, tells me one thing: I’ve been chumped. Detainees have not been treated humanely. Those officials at Gitmo who have stated that detainees were treated humanely have either lied or were duped.

I hate to set you up for more disappointment, Charles, but I’m afraid further reflection is likely to incline you to “lied.”

N.B. Some of his links are not working; I’ll update this with more links later…