August 16, 2015

Fossil Fuels Require Intelligent Use

The sun's energy is free, but methods of converting this energy into human wealth requires technical ingenuity and cost money. Plants are the most generous energy converters and humans supply labor and skills to grow the most useful plants. Some of the sun's energy has been stored  in the earth's crust as fossil fuels -- coal, oil and natural gas. The carbon in these deposits was captured by plants and animals. To make a complex story simple you can argue that  much of the wealth generated in the 20th century was an expression of the relatively cheap and abundant energy supplied by carbon deposits. Diesel and gasoline fuelled engines, allowed the creation of machines that work for humans, permitted industrial-scale, mechanized agriculture and worldwide transportation system at sea, on land and in the air.

The planet  has carbon stores in many forms and places. In ecological terms, the carbon cycle must be understood and properly managed if long term human survival is desirable. If too much of this carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, climates change and human populations are at risk.  Fossil fuels represent a valuable and finite resource that should be used with restraint and sophisticated understanding. The opposite occurred in the 20th century with the exploitation of fossil fuel in a reckless manner. A major challenge for 21st century humans is to better understand the proper uses of fossil fuels, restrain their use, and control the release of carbon gases into the atmosphere. 

Major changes in the identification of new gas and  oil  fields and changes in methods of extraction have occurred, giving the USA and Canada domestic sources of fossil fuel that may provide current levels of energy for  many more years – longer if use decreases with sensible conservation policies and more efficient energy use. China has a vast resource of shale gas and oil that remains in the ground. The International Energy Agency reported  that to meet the world’s growing need for energy will require more than a $48 trillion in investment between now and 2035. Current spending is $1.6 trillion per year.   The WEA estimate ignores climate change and may be completely wrong. In 2014 the supply of oil exceeded demand and world prices dropped dramatically. The OPEC suppliers  refused to reduce production, so that low prices would force competing countries to reduce their capital expenditures on new and expensive oil well development. Low oil prices means the more fossil fuels can be burned with increased climate change calamities.

Oil pricing has become a frantic interaction of countries with fossil fuels to sell, speculators driven by greed, and consumers who continue to buy petroleum products regardless of price. The consumers exercise little control over the supply and cost of fossil fuels; however, consumers are the only group that could adopt a sensible policy of fossil fuel consumption. Despite many protest groups attacking the oil and gas industry,  little has been accomplished. Protesters usually attack the producers and never accept the blame that the consumers deserve. The final solution to the problems that fossil fuel extraction creates is for consumers to use less. Every responsible citizen needs to pledge a 30% reduction in fossil fuel use immediately and further reductions as alternative energy sources become available.

Canada is a country with large deposit is of fossil fuels and an economy that depends of gas and oil revenues. A healthy debate   slows industrial devolvement with its threat of land and water pollution. The debate is mostly between Canadians who want more oil revenues by building pipelines and coastal ports needed to export gas and oil and Canadians who are committed to protecting the natural environment. Governments, corporations and their investors who receive oil and gas revenues continue to push for more development.

Horodelski stated: "And another worrisome note, some traders are looking at the derivative books and seeing negative signs when it comes to the plummet in oil. You may wish to spend the weekend brushing up on CLOs (collateral loan obligations), CDSs (credit default swaps) and other derivative instruments. Unfortunately, when you try to get some decent research on the size and issues associated with this market you find yourself in the dark, deep web of conspiracy theorists and doom-day seers." 

Reduced oil and gas production and increased cost worldwide would be a long-term benefit for all humans. Reduced consumption reduces air water and land pollution and is a perquisite of controlling climate change. The industrial arguments for providing the energy needs of  increasing populations and promoting economic growth are persuasive and pervasive. The real solution has three components:

1.  Reduced populations

2.  Non fossil fuel energy sources

3.  Economies with no dependence on oil and gas revenues

A  study funded by the UK Energy Research Centre  concluded that the world should forego extracting a third of its oil and half of its gas reserves before 2050…  The majority of the huge coal reserves in China, Russia and the United States should remain unused along with over 260 thousand million barrels oil reserves in the Middle East, equivalent to all of the oil reserves held by Saudi Arabia. The Middle East should also leave over 60% of its gas reserves in the ground. The development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil – oil of a poor quality which is hard to extract – are also found to be inconsistent with efforts to limit climate change. 

The Economist argued that the fall in oil and gas prices is an opportunity for a new approach to fossil fuels:" Most of the time, economic policymaking is about tinkering at the edges. Politicians argue furiously about modest changes to taxes or spending. Once in a while, however, momentous shifts are possible. Bold politicians have seized propitious circumstances to push through reforms that transformed their countries. Such a once-in-a-generation opportunity exists today. The plunging price of oil, coupled with advances in clean energy and conservation, offers politicians around the world the chance to rationalize energy policy. They can get rid of billions of dollars of distorting subsidies, especially for dirty fuels, while shifting taxes towards carbon use. A cheaper, greener and more reliable energy future could be within reach… the reason for optimism is the plunge in energy costs. The price of cleaner forms of energy is also falling and new technology is allowing better management of the consumption of energy, especially electricity.  For decades the big question about energy was whether the world could produce enough of it, in any form and at any cost. Now, suddenly, the challenge should be one of managing abundance. Falling prices provide an opportunity for …cash-strapped developing countries such as India and Indonesia who have bravely begun to cut fuel subsidies, freeing up money to spend on hospitals and schools… That should be just the beginning. Politicians, for the most part, have refused to raise taxes on fossil fuels in recent years, on the grounds that making driving or heating homes more expensive would not only annoy voters but also hurt the economy. With petrol and natural gas getting cheaper by the day, that excuse has gone. Burning fossil fuels harms the health of both the planet and its inhabitants. Taxing carbon would nudge energy firms and consumers towards using cleaner fuels. As fuel prices fall, a carbon tax is becoming less politically daunting." 

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

August 15, 2015

Life and Death

All living creatures die. The way of death is of great interest to humans and in part determines the way of life. Birth is not a choice but dying can be elected as a free and rational choice for a number of reasons. In general, a healthy, modern human will opt for life and will imagine death as an appropriate, peaceful outcome of aging sometime in the distant future. Nevertheless, death may come abruptly, prematurely, unfairly, violently and sometimes cruelly. 

Humans are preoccupied with constructions, beliefs and rituals designed to appease spirits associated with death and provide guidance to survivors. Funeral rituals can be elaborate and prolonged, often specifying the behaviors that are expected of survivors. Death is the acknowledgement among the living often with confusion, fear, screaming and weeping. The crisis of death is that one human has vanished from the group and will never return. If the dead human was loved and valued, then the loss is great and the grief is painful and prolonged.

 Death is the gathering of the kin to grieve, to celebrate, and to fight over inheritance rights and kin status. Beliefs in destinations after death are common and, in the best case, reassure survivors that their loss will be redeemed.

Grief, like love, is a complex of feelings, emotions, memories and thoughts.  Grief inspires the deepest inquiries into the nature and meaning of existence. Even the distress of talking about grief reminds us that this complex of feeling, memories and thought is an important regulator of human affairs. As soon as you care about someone else, you incur the risk of losing him or her. If you become complacent over time, watching the suffering of others who have lost a loved one is a powerful reminder to be more careful. The prospect of grief is so daunting that humans who care for one another are more concerned and cautious in their custodial role, protecting loved ones.  People who have experienced a loss or near-loss will often declare that they became more appreciative of those around them. Pure, pristine grief is our response to death. There is an initial emotional state with "outpouring of emotion". The expression is unmistakable in many cultures - crying, wailing, self-injury and self-neglect. The passionate stage of grief tends to last hours to days.  When a loved one dies, grief is inevitable but the onset may be delayed. A sudden death is especially confusing, hard to believe and impossible to accept. A state of suspended disbelief may last for days or weeks, but sooner or later, grief explodes as the terrible truth is realized with clarity. The emotional expression of grief may be ritualized and dramatized as part of funeral observances. Grief often emerges overtime with sustained dysphoric feelings.

Sadness is a subdued expression of grief that may last for years or even a lifetime.  Sadness is both a feeling of loss and withdrawal from life involvements. There is a gradation of sadness from mildly uncomfortable feelings expressed by poems and little tears to despair. The deep, impenetrable sadness of someone grieving the loss of a person truly loved is one of the hallmarks of sentient life on earth. Some humans do not survive their grief because the sadness is so profound.

There is a tendency for humans to want to live forever when things are going well. The idea of immortality appeals to the young and healthy. Most observers stipulate that they would only want to live on as a youthful, healthy person. The idea of reaching 90 years of age and then extending life for another 100 years is not so appealing. Thus, younger people tend be more interested in immortality than older people, although there are always exceptions. Older people want to be rejuvenated. The grand view of life on earth does not place individual values first but the places the continuation and evolution of life first. Individuals die so that younger individuals can replace them. Life goes on. Living creatures are programmed to die. Individual cells die both in a programmed mode and an incidental or accidental mode. Programmed cell death is essential for the survival of whole organisms. Cells that become immortal run amok, proliferate relentlessly and kill the host. Immortal cell growth is referred to as cancer.

The longest lifespan is determined in advance and the challenge of survival is to live through the maximum time permitted. The slow deterioration, aging, proceeds in gradual steps. Aging and disease merge inevitably as the deterioration of the body provides more opportunity for disease processes to flourish. Because aging is programmed, there is some interest among life scientists to discover how to prolong life. There are tantalizing clues to the mechanisms behind the aging processes, but attempts to alter this process may have adverse consequences. Cancer cells, for example, have escaped aging and are immortal. The reason that cancer cells kill you is that they keep reproducing when they should stop. Programmed cell death is one of the basic strategies of getting trillions of cells to live together in a cooperative enterprise. You can extend this insight to populations of animals of planet earth. If all the humans and all the animals became longer lived, then you all have to stop reproducing or all would perish in an unprecedented population explosion.

 Death is understood as the cessation of breathing and of heart beating. Death is also understood as deep sleep, the lack of movement, the lack of response to words, gestures, and touches. Death is the distress that living people experience when they witness the cessation of living movements in another human and view the rigidity of a corpse. Death has become more abstract in hospitals where detailed measurements and monitoring of vital functions are available. Death can be anticipated by the measurement of body chemistry, by monitoring the function of vital organs and by applying statistics gathered about the natural course of diseases.  Information about disease processes is linked to individual and group concepts about the “quality of life.” The challenge is pursue treatments that promise improved quality and duration of life without accepting futile treatments that just prolong suffering.  Discussions about the inevitability of death are now more common and decisions about offering or withholding treatment are now linked to understanding disease processes and they way they cause death. Death can now be determined as brain damage with the permanent loss of consciousness. The rest of the body can be intact and functioning well. What every neurologist knows is that if a small lesion is made in the ascending reticular activating system of the medulla oblongata or midbrain, consciousness is lost and may never be regained.

This view is practical - consciousness can be destroyed by damage to specific and tiny areas of the old brain. The brain often swells in head-injured patients and compress its own blood supply. A patient may be an otherwise healthy, attractive teenager with a head injury who looks quite viable, but if perfusion scans of the brain show no blood supply to the cerebral hemispheres, the recovery of consciousness and sentient functions is unlikely and death is declared. The emergence of free, individualistic, affluent societies is associated with the disappearance of elaborate death rituals and well-specified roles for each community member to play. Funerals are often perfunctory or omitted and dead bodies pass through impersonal, professional hands leaving survivors with thoughts and feelings disconnected from any experience that might make the death of another more real and more acceptable.  Acceptance of death for what it is– the end of an individual life - is difficult to achieve but once there, we can more or less live peaceably with the idea. We have no obligation to like the truth. Acceptance is quite different from liking.

Since life involves suffering, there are times when death seems an attractive way out. The Japanese Samurai tradition advocated killing oneself in a deliberate ritualistic manner as an honorable and correct choice when adverse circumstances prevail.  Voluntary death becomes a noble act that requires courage and skill and a formal acknowledgement of the ephemeral essence of all life. In a less noble fashion, Japanese Kamikaze pilots during the Second World War volunteered for suicide missions just as suicide bombers today wear dynamite vests and kill others as they kill themselves.

In the romantic western tradition, killing oneself has sometimes been viewed as a legitimate lover's response to the loss of his or her beloved and an understandable response to a major loss of investment, power or prestige. Self-inflicted death is also acceptable to avoid capture, imprisonment or torture. Selecting the right time of death is also a freedom often denied to the terminally ill. A person with advanced cancer who suffers every day with no hope of recovery will decide that the experience is too unpleasant; it is time to leave. It is easy to argue that dying is a legitimate choice among choices for a free sentient being, but in many countries today, distant moral authorities and laws ban self-inflicted death under any circumstance. 

Acceptance, in part, comes from the full participation in the death of another, caring for the body, calling kin and friends together to share stories and ritual observances, crying, preparing the body for burial, and disposing of the body in a meaningful way. Anthropologists continue to discover evidence of hominin ritualistic burials thousands of years ago that show care and attention in placing the body, covering the body with flowers and leaving gifts and tools. The attention to burial is an expression of the survivors feeling of loss and their continuing need to care for themselves. Death in a group is a reminder to all that each person is vulnerable. Grieving, in the best case, enhances the survivor’s awareness of the value of others. In grief, there are intense moment of feeling the great paradox of being alone and yet, needing to be together.

From my selfish point of view, aging, sickness and death are bad ideas. If someone were responsible for these bad ideas, I would seek them out and complain.  I find it odd when people believe in an interactive God who kills a bunch of nice people in a plane crash and their relatives gather to address this "merciful god" and ask for his blessings. They sue the airline and praise God. If God had a known address, I think I would sue God as well.

Acceptance is realizing that there is no complaints department in the universe. I accept that death is the end of individual consciousness and the contents of one mind vanish. No personal biographical information is transmitted to another brain, young or old. No soul goes to heaven. There is no heaven. There is no hell. 

The person who dies lives on in the minds of the people who knew him or her. It is the survivors who create the stories that keep the deceased person alive. They archive letters, photos and other artifacts. Sometimes, the survivors say the person has been reborn and celebrate a child who will carry on in the mindset of the deceased. Sometimes, the survivors say that the person has gone for an extended vacation in an unknown location, all expenses paid by God, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses or some other philanthropist in the sky.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason MD

August 8, 2015

Misunderstanding Mind & Body

For forty years, I have been reading books and articles on how the “mind has limitless powers to heal.” Books, magazine articles and television reports recycle old material often presenting the same old stuff as new exciting discoveries. Forty years ago these ideas were more appealing to me and I pursued them in my professional and personal life. But they have become irrelevant fantasies and obstacles to understanding mind-body interactions. Ideas about the healing mind involve a set of misunderstandings, fantasy and human narcissism which leads people to claim more ability and more control than they actually have.

Life is difficult, and you can argue that a little fantasy and narcissism offers solace to people who might otherwise despair. I was browsing popular magazines in the local library and choose one example from a Canadian magazine directed to women. I am not citing the article because it is a generic repetition of similar articles published in many magazines. The article begins with a story of a woman who had a breast cancer removed and survived 20 years without a recurrence. Long term survivors of cancer are expected in the normal distribution of cancer outcomes. This survivor claims that positive thinking and meditation were responsible for her survival. This is a narcissistic claim that gives the survivor and her audience a feeling of security that cannot be substantiated. The article does not mention other women who practiced positive thinking and meditation who died of their cancers. They are more numerous than the survivors.

I advocate positive thinking and meditation but do not expect these strategies to cure diseases such as cancer. Cancers are abnormal growths of cells that have mutated genes and fail to respond to the usual controls over cell behavior and replication. Cell mutations are deeply imbedded in an ancient matrix of life determinants that cannot be easily altered. Some cancers do not progress because the mutated cells are not aggressive and may be destroyed by defenses that routinely destroy abnormal cells.

The survivors are lucky, not superior beings with superior mental abilities. The article talks about ‘using the mind to change body chemistry.” The problem with this talk is that there is no understanding of how body-mind works. You live inside your mind. It is incorrect to claim that you can use your mind as if you were outside of mind. It is more correct to state that your mind can use you. Since you are inside your mind, you experience a monitor image of your body that shrinks and expands in your consciousness, depending on what is going on inside. The connection between body and mind is the brain. The brain is the organ of the mind.

To be completely correct, we have to admit that brain is inside the mind. To speak pragmatically, we have to join bodybrainmind into the whole entity that it is. We can claim that body events are brain events are mind events.

The chemistry of bodybrainmind is implicit in mind. Every action, every reaction of bodybrainmind involves changes in the way the whole system works. Many of these changes can be understood in terms of physiology, chemistry and genetics. This is not news. Exercise, for example, changes bodybrainmind and some of these changes are beneficial. Women who exercise regularly have a lower incidence of breast cancer and depression; they tend to be both healthier and more successful in life endeavors. The human bodybrainmind evolved in natural environments where exercise was mandatory and physical fitness had survival value. In contrast, the modern woman who eats too much and exercises too little gains weight and may become anxious and depressed. She may develop many diseases, including breast cancer. She is not a survivor until she returns to the habits of her ancient ancestors. When she eats less food, changes food selection to fruits and vegetables and works physically everyday, she thinks, feels and acts better. At the same time, she decreases her risk of developing a fatal disease.

I have met people who practiced yoga and meditation and tried their best to think positively, but they ate too much food, exercised too little and developed food-related diseases. They failed to achieve the biological requirements for long-term health. While it may be true that meditation is a superb method of studying your own consciousness and can lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate and generate a feeling of well-being, all the benefits can be reversed quickly – just drink some coffee, eat the wrong food and drive home through traffic.

From The Human Brain in Health and Disease by Stephen Gislason MD

August 3, 2015

Social Intelligence

Social organization is basic to animal life. Insect societies are remarkably coherent and suggest human organization even more than many mammalian societies. Coherent social organization is achieved by a meta-brain. Many individual brains are coordinated in a network of interacting individuals. Human invention is incremental and innovations spread from human to human because the two central tendencies of humans are to copy and compete. One of the functions of social organization is the distribution of individuals in spacetime and the regulation of their interactions. Humans are used to social regulation through speech and rules and tend to overlook the more basic and pervasive social controllers that operate from innate properties in the brain.

Animal societies are organized around activities such as mating, rearing the young, foraging, hunting, resting and seeking protection. Mammalian social organization varies with the habitat, food supply, and habits of the animal. In primate groups, individual animals are locked into in complex sets of social and kinship networks. The kin group is the most prevalent basic unit of organization and has a genetic basis. Intelligence is organized around interactions with others. Modern humans belong to many groups of different size and importance and will create a hierarchy of allegiance characterized by shifting loyalties and even reversals of allegiance. Tracking allegiances is a major task for intelligence and some people are obviously more gifted than others. Humans evaluate and compete with each other in a continuous negotiation that involves strategy, criticism, conflict, and overt battles.

Visual information gathering is dominant in primates and specialized area of the cortex a devoted to evaluating what others are doing. Neurons in the inferotemporal cortex of macaques respond to faces and hand gestures and some neuronal groups are tuned to specific behaviors. The most basic intelligence modules identify individuals by appearance and behavior and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of association with other individuals. Smart people are better leaders because they are better evaluators of the behavior and intentions of other members of their group and are more accurate in responding strategically to challenges from their subordinates.

The brain systems that evaluate others are not used in self-evaluation. It is easy to argue that humans, like other primates, are mostly interactive creatures, pre-occupied with what others are doing; humans have little or no cognitive ability for self-evaluation. One human relies on others to evaluate behavior and therefore, human society has built in multiple and complex evaluative procedures that operate daily as external controls.

The innate rules of association built into the brain pertain to small groups and tend to become dysfunctional when individuals try to relate as members of large and anonymous groups. Large groups are still controlled by individuals and small groups with limited ability. Enlarging organizations rely on repeating modular structures controlled from above. A large corporation has many repeating subunits linked and administered by a central office that is controlled by a small group of executive officers and directors. As the corporation grows, the executive officers do not become more intelligent, better informed and more expansive. Indeed executives in growing corporations usually become isolated in their immediate social groups and have difficulty grasping issues beyond their immediate local group and self-interest. "IQ" is a handy short form for overall intelligence and IQ scores could be considered as approximate measurements of a number of underlying abilities. Comprehensive IQ testing would go far beyond the relatively selective IQ tests in common use.

Comprehensive testing would evaluate at least eight critical domains of mental ability:

The ability to live in a group, to cooperate with others and, at the same time, to compete successfully for status, privileges, resources and mates.

The ability to recognize what is really going on out there in diverse situations and to act appropriately.

Information processing ability including the ability to find, evaluate and apply knowledge relevant to completing real world tasks.
The ability to navigate through different environments and to move skillfully with minimal risk of injury or death.

The ability to send and receive communications with language and other expressive modalities such as mime, singing, dancing, rhythm, drawing, sculpture, model-making, playing musical instruments.

The ability to design, make and use tools effectively.

The ability to set goals, sequence, plan and implement strategies

The ability to self-evaluate and correct behavior, ideas and strategies when they are not working.

From Intelligence and Learning by Stephen Gislason