Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Everyone loves Amory

Posted by goatchurch at 4:49 AM
It's an old joke. (I'm a mathematician, by the way.)
An engineer, a physicist, a mathematician, and an economist are spending the night in a motel. After they have all gone to sleep, a fire starts out in the engineer's wastepaper basket. He wakes up, fills a bucket with water, and douses the fire. He creates a big mess on the carpet, but at least solves the problem.

Not too long afterwards, the physicist's wastepaper basket catches fire. He wakes up, whips out his calculator, and determines the precise amount of water needed to extinguish the blaze. He fills the water glass with that exact amount; as the last drop lands, the fire is extinguished.

A bit later, a fire breaks out in the mathematician's wastepaper basket. He wakes up, sees both a bucket and sink, and then goes back to sleep content that the solution is trivial.

When the economist is woken by the smell of burning, he kicks over the wastepaper basket because he is assured that if no one is prepared to make any money out of saving the motel from the flames, then it is better for everyone to see it destroyed.
Recently one of our Mundane-SF contributors justified the unchallenging optimism presented in his story in the following way:
The mode of travel did bug me while writing the story; given a choice between assuming some new magic to keep planes flying in the sky and assuming we retreat to slower/older modes of travel, I decided to go with the first, rather than the second option. The basic rationale (ignoring the usual one of wishful thinking) was this: [1] supply always meets demand, and [2] the demand seems to be for faster and faster modes of travel. With the recent steady drumbeat of good news on energy-efficient transport, perhaps the first option is not too unrealistic.
Extra points for mentioning it; normally something so consistent with prevailing wisdom is not even held up for question.

I, personally, question it. I question it profoundly on the basis that this type of rationale is just an observation which too often masquerades as a natural law immunized from criticism.

In my experience, there are numerous things which are demanded, but which the market won't supply. It's pointless to go into details because the rationale that "supply always meets demand" is the front-line of an interlocking set of fall-back positions. Were I to exhibit a case where supply did not always meet demand -- and thus falsified the claim -- the response would be a combination of the following excuses:
  • Well, what you're demanding is not realistic.

  • What you're demanding is a niche product; nobody else wants it, and the market quite rightly services the majority.

  • You're being impatient. It'll happen in the future once the investment cycle is complete, and it'll phase in just in time.

  • If you think you've got a very good case, why don't you set up your own company and make lots of money manufacturing and selling your idea.
Theoretically, these claims are very difficult to overturn with any evidence, therefore they're weak rather than strong. Newton's law of gravity is strong because it would be falsified as soon as you showed two masses which did not attract one another according to his equation. The final position above, which forms half the definition of the word free in the phrase "Free Market" is unfalsifiable because it boils down to the tautology:
If someone else doesn't do it for you, then you have to do it yourself.
I mean, really, we have to work on a level above these petty moral truisms that bog down any progress.

What's this got to do with Amory Lovins?

Lovins is a dude who set up his own institute, consults for American auto makers, and writes books, such as Winning the Oil Endgame.

Most people oppose my position that we are heading over a cheap energy cliff where life will get a whole lot more interesting, with the world expanding to its proper size, the exurbs being evacuated, and politicians no longer able to solve problems by starting wars. It's a matter of faith that life will continue as-is with ever-longer daily commutes to jobs that are by and large pointless, that traffic jams will get worse, and that Black Friday will remain the cultural highlight of the year.

Such people who do like the world as it is, and disagree with my countervailing choice of predictions (predictions are so all over the place you can take your pick), don't usually have the information to argue, and just say it's wrong, because it is. Look, they say, throughout all of our history each generation has managed to overcome the challenges presented to it. Your father was ugly too, and yet he managed to find a woman to get married. His father the same. And so on and so forth. In fact if you look down any timeline of life, there's always an appearance of triumph over adversity, because those that have failed and died out are not properly represented. Our history necessarily presents a false case for optimism. More representative cases emerge from archeology. You might not like the evidence that there have been die-offs of civilizations from the pinnacle of their achievement, but you have to know about them before you can claim it's not relevant.

I often wind up doing the research for lazy people who know they're right, but don't know why. If you don't want to download and read the book (fully peer reviewed with accurate numbers about how the free market is going wean the United States down to zero oil use by 2050 in the absence of government intervention), you can watch or listen to his lectures which tell you all the information.

Quick summary: It's all done using safe and ultra-light carbon-fibre car bodies which save energy six-fold and ratchet up efficiency because lighter cars mean lighter engines, which means even lighter cars to carry them.

Anyways, those who doubt me can go on and watch these streams and doubt me even more. I don't need to state the case. Save to point out that I scratch a living in the CAM toolmaker industry writing software for cutting molds, and have attended Euromold for about a decade (I'll be there again this week), and it's all news to me. Simple things such as carbon-fibre kayak paddles still cost an absolute fortune. I'll believe in this material once I start seeing it in my everyday life.

Unlike most technologists, Amory Lovins makes actual predictions based on rigorously applying orthodox market economics. This is good. It means his claims are falsifiable, and so they embody information. If the evidence in the next 5 years goes against it, we can legitimately demand a more sophisticated account for the applicability of market economics than that it always supplies.


Blogger Francis Irving said...

This is great!

It means a cap-and-trade system with a hard zero-carbon emissions value by 2050 will cost the economy NOTHING.

This explains Moday's extraordinary CBI report


11/28/2007 09:54:00 AM  
Blogger Monte Davis said...

It would be worth exploring further your point that the "strong carbons" pioneered in the 1960s have yet to break out of specialized niches to become the uber-aluminum confidently predicted in PopSci and PopMech stories back then. For all their impressive raw numbers, they remain a bitch to work with, and less forgiving in important ways than metals or strong plastics.

Ditto for synthetic diamond; we could do great things with it as a bulk engineering material, but it turns out to be really, really hard to grow it as we'd like.

I have hopes for carbon nanotubes, but we should keep in mind that the C siren has led us on before.

11/30/2007 09:06:00 AM  
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