Archive | September 2014

Ebola, Shmeebola?

During the Age of Limits conference, Orren Whiddon asked us for predictions about when the apex of world population might occur and what might affect it. I think I said something about widespread outbreaks of disease caused by failing antibiotics, breakdowns in water management and poor sanitation in large cities. I was thinking about familiar scourges like influenza, malaria and botulism. I couldn’t come up with the word (sheesh) but I think Dan or someone just after me agreed that a pandemic might be in the offing. A few others agreed, too, but John Michael Greer pronounced pandemics to be as unpredictable as asteroids.

To most Americans, except for a few infected doctors being flown back, Ebola is mostly happening waaay over there in hot, crowded Africa, and I suspect that many think that Ebola could never happen here, anyway. Many MSM articles have concentrated on calming fears of another Black Death – because Ebola is not an airborne disease. At ScienceBlogs, while Tara Smith reblogged her Slate article, Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola, Orac took the opportunity to attack Ebola quackery.

Greer is now very, very concerned about Ebola and deep in the comment section of his latest post warns us:

… you’ll want to read up on Ebola, … its early symptoms resemble flu, it can stay latent for up to three weeks, and it spreads from person to person quite well — right now, the number of cases in Africa is doubling every 20 days, which is not the profile of an easily contained virus. Current estimates are that if things continue as they’re going, 1.4 million people will be infected by January 1, 2015; at that rate, we get 2.8 million by January 20, 5.6 million by February 9, 11.2 million by March 1, 22.4 million by March 21, and so on. It doesn’t take all that many more doublings — I’ll leave the number for you as a math exercise — before the total number of infected people passes the total population of the planet.

Now of course it’s not going to infect everyone on the planet; there are geographical barriers to get past, and odds are that the currently very high rate of transmission is being driven by extreme poverty, overcrowding, and poor sanitation. That said, unless something happens fairly quickly, Ebola will spread to East Africa; once it’s there, stopping it from getting to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent will be a very difficult thing; and if that happens, it’s probably a safe bet that over the next five years or so, it’s going to hit the Third World globally and make forays into the more developed countries as well. We are potentially looking at the Black Death of the 21st century, and the easy assurance with which people in the developed world insist, inaccurately, that it’s not something they have to worry about is among the major factors that are driving Ebola toward pandemic status.

I’m glad I didn’t predict an asteroid, but I did start to read up on Ebola.

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) admits that Ebola is out of control, but notes that the primary reason for the spread:

“is more likely to be a result of the combination of dysfunctional health systems, international indifference, high population mobility, local customs, densely populated capitals, and lack of trust in authorities after years of armed conflict. Perhaps most important, Ebola has reached the point where it could establish itself as an endemic infection because of a highly inadequate and late global response.”

It is certainly good that the US doesn’t have a dysfunctional health system in which people have to wait for several hours in a crowded emergency room to get treatment, and equally good that the US doesn’t have high population mobility, densely populated areas and lack of trust in authorities. Otherwise I might be worried.

Laurie Garrett, who released her book The Coming Plague in 1995, writes for Foreign Policy (paywall):

Wake up, fools. What’s going on in West Africa now isn’t [Dan] Brown’s silly Inferno scenario — it’s Steven Soderbergh’s movie Contagion, though without a modicum of its high-tech capacity.

Last week, my brilliant Council on Foreign Relations colleague John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, warned that spread of the virus inside Lagos — which has a population of 22 million — would instantly transform this situation into a worldwide crisis, thanks to the chaos, size, density, and mobility of not only that city but dozens of others in the enormous, oil-rich nation. Add to the Nigerian scenario civil war, national elections, Boko Haram terrorists, and a countrywide doctors’ strike — all of which are real and current — and you have a scenario so overwrought and frightening that I could not have concocted it even when I advised screenwriter Scott Burns on his Contagion script.

Electric Bike Hubs

One of the problems with electric bikes has been that there seemed to be only three ways to get one:

One – Buy a bike with the battery artfully integrated into the frame;

Two – Buy a retrofitted bike with the battery attached somewhere;

Three – Buy a kit from Bionx or Currie, and attach the battery somewhere.

My problem with Option One is that such bikes tend to get too heavy to pedal without the e-drive. Products like the A2B Alva or Octave are attractive, but look like mopeds or light motorcycles. Also they cost three thousand dollars and up.

Regarding Option Two, I was in a shop a few weeks ago and groaned when I picked up an A2B Kuo, a folding electric bike with lots of features that weighs 40 lbs. The A2B Galvani looks like a bike, but with the hub and battery in the rear, I wonder about the balance. With the hub in front and the battery just above the axle, Xootr claims their e-Swift is perfectly balanced, and it still only weighs 25 lbs.

I never had the time to mess around with Option Three, but now there is an Option Four. A group from MIT called Superpedestrian developed the Copenhagen Wheel, which has both electric motor and batteries entirely contained in a 700c or 26″ rear wheel. The Copenhagen Wheel costs $800 and is available for pre-order. You can put one on your bike, or buy an entire bike.

Another group called FlyKly has a Smart Wheel in 700c, 26″ and 20″ wheels. The Smart Wheel is only for single speed enthusiasts. Although FlyKly has changed hands recently, you can preorder their hub now, also for $800. Delivery starts in October 2014.

A third company, ZeHuS, offers their Wize hub, but only with their own bike or to other manufacturers for now.

In theory this is a great idea. I could use the electric drive wheel for commuting, but swap in the original wheel for short trips or exercise. In practice, I need a 20″ wheel and more than a single speed drive, and I’m not interested in owning a smart phone or tablet just to manage my bike hub.

And of course batteries don’t last forever.

Update 20141020: ZeHuS has acquired FlyKly, and FlyKly’s Smart Wheel has been redesigned to be smaller and lighter. There are complaints on Kickstarter that FlyKly is late delivering their hubs, but that may not be entirely a bad thing.

John and Eric

As I listen to reports that Eric Frein is wearing diapers, smoking Serbian cigarettes and generally having the time of his life eluding about a thousand pursuers in backwoods Pennsylvania, I can’t help but note the irony that after all the dark-skinned people shot by police for no good reason recently it was a white man who shot two state troopers, killing one, for no good reason.

A video reveals John Crawford III in a WalMart, picking out a pellet rifle styled to look like an assault rifle, then casually walking by other shoppers and talking on a cell phone with the rifle mostly pointed at the floor. He spent about a minute at the end of one otherwise unoccupied aisle when police armed with rifles – real rifles – rushed in and shot him without warning, killing him.

Many have noted that Crawford lived in an open carry state. In some open carry states, firearm enthusiasts have made a point of openly carrying real rifles or sidearms to stores and restaurants. Some establishments have asked them to leave, others welcome them. Some open carriers have been challenged by police, but so far none of them have been shot without warning. Except the black guy with the pellet gun. Had Eric Frein been carrying that pellet gun, does anyone doubt that he would have walked out of that WalMart alive?


I ran across a brief interview with avowed libertarian entrepreneur Peter Thiel in MIT Technology Review titled, Technology Stalled in 1970:

The way some pessimists put it is that all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. I would argue that there was never any low-hanging fruit; it was always of intermediate height and the question was, were people reaching for it or not? I’m frustrated because I think technology is progressing slowly, but I’m optimistic because I think it could be going a lot better.

Apparently Thiel has a new book out. I was reminded me of all the flak I got when I blogged about Joseph Tainter’s suggestion that innovation is not characteristic of human history and that we have reached an innovation trough. (For Tainter’s talk on innovation, see the last several minutes of youtubes Part Three and all of Parts Four and Five.)
I news-googled Thiel and found a recent NY Times article about a debate between him and anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber:

… as it happens, the event was conceived less as a cage match than as a friendly meeting of contrarian minds, both of whom happen to think — in seeming contrast to most people in the world — that our supposed age of dizzying innovation is actually an era of technological and intellectual stagnation.

“I find it interesting that Peter and I agree very strongly about 20 percent of everything, and probably disagree just as strongly on the other 80 percent,” Mr Graeber said in an interview before the debate. “But the stuff we do agree on is the stuff no one else agrees with us about.” …

Once upon a time, [Graeber] said, when people imagined the future, they imagined flying cars, teleportation devices and robots who would free them from the need to work. But strangely, none of these things came to pass.

“What happened to the second half of the 20th century?” Mr. Graeber asked. His answer is that it was deliberately short-circuited by a “ruling-class freak-out,” as “all this space-age stuff was seen as a threat to social control.” …

[Thiel] didn’t blame any ruling-class freakout, [but] did see a loss of nerve and sclerotic bureaucracies. He cited the anarchist slogan “Act as if you are already free,” and praised initiatives like SpaceX, the private space technology company started by his fellow PayPal founder, Elon Musk. “We’re not going to get to Mars by having endless debates,” he said. “We’re going to get to Mars by trying to get to Mars.”

I have a copy of Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years floating around my apartment, and I guess I should read it.

The Rule of Three, the Allure of Seven

In Eliezer Judkowsy’s fan fiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, the politically astute wizard Lucius Malfoy reveals to his heir, Draco, “the Rule of Three, which was that any plot which required more than three different things to happen would never work in real life.” Draco’s stern but supportive father then, “further explained that since only a fool would attempt a plot that was as complicated as possible, the real limit was two.”

There are lots of Rules of Three, but Judkowsky, a very inventive writer known in fanfiction as Less Wrong, probably invented this one about evil plots. Still it makes sense that the more complicated a plot, or conspiracy, the less likely that it will succeed. And in some cases success requires that the plot never become common knowledge, so the more conspirators necessary, the lower the chances of secrecy.

Complication involves more than the number of steps, of course. I used to rehearse plays where dozens of actors performed thousands of lines and hundreds of stage directions on cue every night with nary a stumble. Sometimes we had an orchestra for singing and dancing, too. Theatre is a sort of a conspiracy to influence the audience, and everyone in a production is deathly afraid of falling short at that effort. Over the course of rehearsals, we become a highly invested conspiracy-of-the-willing.

So some conspiracies-of-the-willing are easy to believe. In his Xanth novels, Piers Anthony wrote about the Adult Conspiracy in which adults concealed the truth about sex from children. In certain circles we talk about oil company hacks like Daniel Yergin as if they were part of a conspiracy to deny energy depletion, and in other circles we talk similarly about Senator James Inhofe and climate change. Clearly the mainstream media is carefully managing the release of information to benefit a de facto oligarchy. But that sort of conspiracy is vastly different from the type where men in black suits are responsible for everything that happens.

These MIB conspiracies are seductive, except that to be successful they become so intricate as to beggar belief. For years Rush Limbaugh ran the rumor that the Clintons had arranged the death of their former colleague and aide, Vince Foster. His listeners wanted to believe anything bad about the Clintons. Many people follow stories about UFOs, chemtrails, Obama’s birth certificate and the like because, well, “the truth is out there.”

In the non-fiction world, we often look to Occam’s Razor to distinguish between conspiracies that might be true and conspiracies that we want to be true. John Michael Greer recently reminded his readers of his book, The UFO Phenomenon, where he argues that most UFO sightings seemed to correspond with the Air Force testing new equipment.

A few days ago, Dmitry Orlov reposted an article by Paul Craig Roberts, called 9/11 After 13 years. Roberts’ article is a litany of suspicions and conspiracy theories about the attacks on the World Trade Center, the framing of Osama bin Laden, the anthrax letters and the Patriot Act legislation, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the reported killing of bin Laden. Roberts claims that the Seal Team that pretended to kill an already dead bin Laden were all sent to their deaths soon afterwards, but someone claiming to be ‘the Shooter’ was interviewed by Esquire last year about his crummy retirement package.

I happened to also run across Roberts as a coauthor of what Econbrowser’s Menzie Chinn calls, The Stupidest Paragraph in Perhaps the Stupidest Article Ever Written. Several economists have taken that article to task. and many have criticized coauthor John Williams of Shadow Government Statistics. Shadowstats was a pet website of Matt Savinar, who used to run Life After the Oil Crash before he shut that down to start North Bay Astrology.

As World Trade Center Building #7 was not struck by a jet, and thus was not supplied with a potent accelerant, its unchecked burning, structural failure and collapse has become a focal point of 911 conspiracy theories. One video of the ultimate collapse of the 47 story WTC 7 looks strikingly similar to videos of controlled demolition, leading many to conclude that it could only be a controlled demolition.

I commented at Club Orlov that in the CNN video that Roberts cited, architect Richard Gage speaks about the many WTC 7 columns that failed, but never addresses the very unusual transfer and cantilever structure supporting the lower floors of WTC 7 over the Consolidated Edison power station. I am not an engineer but I at least understand that WTC 7 was not a redundant structure with a forest of axially-bearing columns. Such a structure is much more resistant to cascading failure than cantilevered columns or columns resting on transfer beams, themselves resting on a few frames.

I also noted that from a non-technical viewpoint, taking down WTC 1 & 2 – the famous Twin Towers – was the visceral image the hijackers wanted, and was seen around the world. There certainly was a conspiracy to damage the towers, and I suspect Saudi Arabia provided funding. But what reward, I asked, justified the risk of smuggling thermite explosives into the relatively obscure WTC 7? And if taking down WTC 7 made sense, why did they not take down the taller building at 3 World Financial Center, or that entire neighboring complex as well?

Is the theory that conspirators knew that substantial debris would hit WTC 7 and cause fires, and that they knew the fire fighters would have no water, so they could demolish it with impunity? Or is the theory that conspirators were so dumb that they planned to take down a building that may have been completely undamaged had the debris fallen somewhere else?

The only answer I got – from another commenter – was bluster and the logical fallacy of Shifting the Burden of Proof.

As I see it three different things happened: intelligence briefings were ignored, flight crews were overcome by fanatics and jets were flown into three out of four targets. And that would be hard to believe if it hadn’t happened. To believe that countless more actors were involved smuggling and installing thermite and detonators in three enormous buildings invokes the Razor if not the Rule of Three.

I’m not claiming that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz wouldn’t do something like that; I simply don’t believe they were competent enough to conceive of it, pull it off and keep it a secret. They clearly took advantage of it, though. Whether bin Laden was really behind it or not is another matter. Whether he was really killed in Pakistan is another matter, too. Either of those could have been faked.

We in the Peak Oil community frequently cite Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies. We talk about collapse as the logical extension of energy depletion, not the result of a conspiracy. We talk about Climate Change as the logical result of the runaway release of carbon, not chemtrails. So why do we need to resort to conspiracy theories to explain one event in which citizens of an oil-rich region push back against an oil-based empire?

At the Age of Limits conference, John Michael Greer reiterated his opinion that believing in an impending apocalypse is a mark of hubris, a desire to feel that we are so special that the world will end with us. I feel the same way about conspiracy theories. We like to feel that a conspiracy is out to get us because it is easier than realizing that the world is ridiculously complex and that while we may be in the way of larger forces, we are practically insignificant to them.


I’m going to forego discussing the failure of the recent US wars manifesting in the provocative beheadings by ISIS/ISIL, the tensions between NATO and Russia manifesting in Ukraine, and racial profiling by police manifesting almost everywhere to discuss the important issue of celebrity nude photos. Zbigniew Brzeziński called such issues tittytainment:

Brzezinski suggested that “tittytainment,” a mix of physical and psychological methods, be used to control people’s frustration and predictable protests. He then explained the term as being a portmanteau fused from titty and entertainment, alluding to the sleeping and lethargic effect that is produced when a baby is breastfed.

A lot of VIPs – very important pundits – are searching for just the right tone in discussing the hacking and releasing of intimate selfies taken by various performers and their lovers. For some (as in this youtube of Jon Stewart taking down Mika Brzeziński) the answer is – and always will be – abstinence. If you don’t want people to see you with a penis in your eye, well then don’t pose with a penis in your eye. Others say that anyone should be able to pose with a penis in their eye, and have confidence that only the person that owns the penis will ever see the photo. 

I am reminded of a time when I felt violated. A much younger version of myself was living in an apartment, but had just taken a job a few hundred miles away. I packed my bags and left them in the car, then took a nap before the drive. When I got up, someone had smashed my side window and taken all my stuff.

It was certainly a theft, but the police told me that it was not a safe neighborhood, and that I should never leave stuff in the car unattended. I still felt like a victim, but kind of a naive victim. I still believe that no one should break my window and take my stuff out of my car, but I learned that you cannot leave valuable stuff in the car or someone is likely to steal it. And then you’ll have to drive all night with cold air rushing in where your window used to be.

So I suppose that’s how I feel about celebrity nude photos. No one should hack into the cloud and take your intimate pictures – but the chances are that if you do take photos of yourself naked and/or having sex, someone is likely to get their hands on them and post them. Then you’ll have to explain to everyone why a penis was in your eye.