Can't Spell Fail Without AI

Abstinence is a word that frequently applies to me. Alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, drugs, Facebook, Twitter, Insta, TikTok, Bitcoin, stocks, email on smart phone, and lots more: not for me, thanks. I also semi-abstain from various energy/resource-heavy activities. Part of this tendency may have been shaped by the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie, where characters Indiana Jones and Marion are tied to a post in the rear of a crowd waiting to see the marvels inside the Ark of the Covenant. Indy had the instinct to shut his eyes, and advised Marion to do the same, which spared them and only them. Just because everybody else is doing it is not reason enough.

In this light, I am practically ashamed to admit to using AI for image creation. It’s not like me. On the text-generation side (chat-bots), while I think it’s a pretty neat stunt they’ve pulled off, I am deeply unimpressed by the milquetoast blather that comes out of ChatGPT and its ilk when asked hard questions. When students tried to use AI to submit answers to questions, I could spot the style from across the room (based on simple formatting). It is not too surprising that nothing remarkable comes out, since the chat-bots are designed to construct sentences very much in the style of what it’s parsed in all its input data. They aren’t producing original thoughts, but function more as an averaging content generator.

But images: I’m more impressed—in that it’s more mysterious to me how it works. The parameter space is much larger than for regimented language. Even so, I think it’s actually somewhat similar to language in that images also have structure, and certain things tend to be close to certain other things, as is true for words as well.

When selecting a copyright-free header image for a Do the Math post, I usually have an idea for what I want it to show, and first look for pre-made content. If I can’t find something via a few channels, I now turn to AI, using the Bing interface to Dall-E. Admittedly, I’m no expert at speaking AI, but I still marvel at how inept it can be in forming an image that a 4-year-old would have little trouble picturing if using the same prompt language.

I was planning to do a post illustrating my failures over time, but was dismayed to learn that my past creations have disappeared on the Bing platform (not unique to me). What’s worse, I no longer have prompt language for the ones I kept. The EXIF information in the JPEG files lack any such prompt text. Why is it that the world is still being designed by unpaid interns?

So, this post isn’t all that I hoped it would be, given that loss. But, as with many things in life, I’ll work with what I have.

Continue reading

Views: 2014

Recommended Podcasts

This is a short “bonus” posting about some worthwhile podcasts I have been following lately that might be appreciated by Do the Math readers. I’m not a particularly thorough podcast consumer, often having a spotty relationship even with the ones I enjoy. That said, I’ll start with the most recent, and the one that in fact inspired this posting.

Human Nature Odyssey

Alex Leff has created what I think is a masterpiece in his first “season” of Human Nature Odyssey. The series is an entertaining, engaging treatment of Daniel Quinn’s 1992 book, Ishmael. I read this book and its companions in 2022, finding powerful and important insights that have stuck with me and grown. I highlight these in an account of my reading journey, and later in a dedicated post. Alex brings humorous life to the story in a richly textured production.

I can’t say personally how well the series would work without first reading Ishmael, but I suspect it would still work quite well as a stand-alone experience (Alex intended it to be able to work). I can say that I enjoyed it enough to run through twice. I won’t rule out a third pass—which would be a personal first for any podcast series. So, it receives my highest recommendation. Give it a try, and tell friends and family about it if you enjoy it. No, I am not getting paid or compensated in any way!

Holding the Fire

Dahr Jamail followed his 2020 book The End of Ice with a palliative book together with coauthor Stan Rushworth called We are the Middle of Forever, which presents perspectives from a variety of Indigenous voices within North America (Turtle Island). Holding the Fire expands the effort, in audio form, to an international set of Indigenous people who have wisdom to share. I am struck by the common themes offered by people from such different environments and cultural histories. These commonalities can’t be coincidence, and might light the way for long term success: living on this planet as humble participants within a community of life.

The Great Simplification

I have referenced a few inspirations from this series, by Nate Hagens, in previous posts. Nate talks to leading scholars, thinkers, practitioners, and activists in the world who are engaging with the meta-crisis in various ways. Nate encourages systems thinking that is not ecologically blind, energy blind, materials blind, etc. It is rewarding to learn that others in the world are thinking about these topics, although the number of guests whose narrow focus appears to result in one or another “blindnesses” is its own sort of lesson as to how rare a broad perspective on the meta-crisis is—but Nate gracefully and gently probes some of the blind spots. Besides the regular series (featuring guests), Nate also creates a sidecar “Frankly” series of shorter installments addressing relevant pieces of the puzzle.

Crazy Town

Jason Bradford, Rob Dietz, and Asher Miller—in association with the Post Carbon Institute—gather (in the same room, no less!) to chew on topics and trends relevant to the meta-crisis.  These are fun conversations, with lots of good-humored jabs at each other.  All three are very insightful, compassionate, and well-informed.  Their episodes on mega-wankers like Elon Musk are entertaining, as part of a series on “Phalse Prophets.”

Doomer Optimism

Finally, I am less familiar with this series except that I was a guest on the recent episode 195. That’s right: they’re approaching 200 episodes. Among other guests, they have had Bill Rees, Daniel Schmachtenberger, John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg and Kate Raworth. While I have not explored this one very thoroughly, I resonate with the title, as I am doomerish when it comes to modernity, while remaining oddly optimistic when it comes to humanity.

This statement brings me back to the Ishmael-based podcast (Human Nature Odyssey) mentioned at the top of this post: we can enact other stories going forward—stories of respect, awe, and reciprocity.

Views: 1266

Fusion Foolery

National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab

Great. The fusion hype is bad enough already. Now its resurgence is going to interrupt the series of posts I’m in the middle of publishing in order for this post to be “timely.”

The first (and much bigger) round of breathless excitement came in December 2022 when the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) announced a (legitimate) breakthrough in achieving fusion: more energy came out of the target than laser energy injected.

At the time, I brushed it off without even reading any articles because I already knew about the NIF’s purpose and limitations, and a few headlines told me everything I needed to know. Who cares how much laser energy went in: how much energy went into creating the laser energy? The laser I used for lunar ranging took 5 kW from the wall plug and delivered 2 W of laser power for a dismal 0.04% efficiency. Such is the cost for shaping ultra-brief pulses: lots of energy is thrown away. The headlines were clearly overblown.

Enough students in my energy class in Spring 2023 asked about the fusion breakthrough (doesn’t that mean we’re done?) that I dug into the details. Even so, I still deemed it unworthy of writing up as a post. But a few days ago, my friend asked me if I was excited about the recent fusion news. I hadn’t heard a peep, but after searching I found a new round of articles based on a second “net gain” laser shot and realized I probably ought to put out a quantitative post on the matter, reminiscent of my blogging origins.

In the end, the NIF fusion accomplishment might be called a stunt.  Stunts explore what we can do (often after an insane amount of preparation, practice, and failure), rather than what’s practical.  Stunts hide the pains and present an appearance of ease and grace, but it’s a show.

Quantitatively, it’s as if you spot a slot machine in a casino that looks very promising. You’re dying to play, because it just feels right—mysteriously appealing to your sense of self. It calls to you. You notice that it takes $2 tokens, but you have none. You go to the window to purchase a token, and are shocked to learn that one $2 token costs $400. Not wanting to look like an uninformed fool, you gulp and buy the token. This slot machine had better live up to its promise! You pull the lever, and surprise! You actually do win! You put in a $2 token and the machine makes very happy noises and flashes lots of lights as it spits out…$3 (and some neutrons, oddly). Queue the headlines! Want to play again?  Actually, this wasn’t your first shot: just the first success after years of trying (but hush!).

Continue reading

Views: 54990

A Reading Journey

Image by G.C. from Pixabay

I intend to resume semi-regular postings in the near term, and am sitting on a couple dozen post ideas in various stages of development. In puzzling out what order I should put them in, I decided to start with something of a meta-post that lays some groundwork for a number of the future entries.

What I have in mind is to recapture my own journey over the last couple of years, which has resulted in an unexpected shift in my emphasis and awareness. By sharing key elements of my own journey, perhaps you can experience something similar. In any case, you might treat it as a belated (bloated?) summer reading list.

Let’s start just by capturing the chronological list, and then I’ll say a few things about the significance of each item.

  1. Energy and Human Ambitions textbook; especially Epilogue; Appendix D.5 and D.6
  2. Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
  3. Human Exceptionalism (Do the Math post)
  4. Daniel Schmachtenberger on The Great Simplification
  5. Daniel Quinn’s books: Ishmael; The Story of B; My Ishmael; Beyond Civilization
  6. Post-Ishmael Do the Math posts (Sticks; Love; Cults and a Story)
  7. An Inconvenient Apocalypse, by Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen
  8. We Are the Middle of Forever by Dahr Jamail and Stan Rushworth
  9. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  10. The Myth of Human Supremacy by Derrick Jensen
  11. Bitter Harvest by Lisi Krall
  12. Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira

Continue reading

Views: 3568

Keeping Up On Appearances

Over the last year or so, a number of audio/video productions have accumulated in which I have had an opportunity to express my evolving thoughts. Being challenged in the art of self promotion (Do the Math is the closest I come to social media), I tend not to link to everything that comes along. Yet, I recognize that some readers may value pointers to these other formats. So this brief post is an aggregation of recent appearances, to put it all in one place, arranged by context. Still feels a little gross.

The first—and most recent—pair of links relates to the latest Do the Math post on The Simple Story of Civilization. This post started as one page on a bedside note pad, scribbled by coincidence the night before a scheduled podcast interview with Hart Hagan. Although I did not connect the two, I did mention the outline to Hart when we began the zoom session, in case he found it interesting. To my surprise, he launched the conversation with a rough run-through of the script. Here is the video chat:

Shortly after this recording, I wrote up and released the post—which inspired Nate Hagens to record a targeted “Frankly” that follows the thread of the post:

About a year prior to this, I dropped in on the Crazy Town podcast trio on a road trip, and recorded this episode with them (also can try this link). It was a fun discussion about physical limits and what features future success must have (I did link this previously on Do the Math). Update 2023.02.21: In the initial posting, I forgot to include this podcast episode (51) from Breaking Down: Collapse from September of 2021.

Early in 2022, Nate Hagens included me on his new podcast called The Great Simplification, as episode 18. I am pleased to be in such good company: the other guests on the podcast have been insightful and thought-provoking. In episode 18, Nate and I explore physical limits to growth—echoing some of the foundational posts of the Do the Math blog.

Update 2023.02.21: Hart Hagan recently did a second podcast interview with me:

The next video is a relatively high production-value interview by the UC San Diego Division of Physical Sciences about my free textbook. (I put this up before, but also include here for completeness.)

This next pair relates to my involvement in the formation of the Planetary Limits Academic Network (PLAN; see post about it here). First I’ll point to a radio interview of myself and PLAN co-founder Melody LeHew, in which we discuss the predicament, and what PLAN might do in this context. Next is a video interview for Scientists’ Warning along with PLAN instigator Ben McCall, in which we address the challenges associated with radical change in our academic trajectories:

So I think that’s all I want to point out here. Anyway, I hope at least some of these provide value.

Oh—here’s something else that came along after I made this posting: it’s a joint interview of myself and Ugo Bardi on the topic of collapse.

Views: 3125

Holiday Haikus

I’m no poet, preferring prose for its clarity and completeness. So please forgive this amateur attempt to capture two opposing views on planetary limits in haiku form. One gracefully respects constraints, while the other…well, you’ll see.

Just as in haiku
Earth imposes hard limits
We must live within

And in the red corner:

It’s preposterous
To think that human imagination is lim…

Buzzer. Disqualified. Nice try. And the winner is…

Wishing you peace and meaning this holiday season.

Views: 3233

A Random Fix to Polarization

From the New York Times; 2022-11-13

Following the midterm elections in the U.S. this week, the punditry is ablaze with stories about how voters have rejected the lies, spoken out about abortion, indicated that this inflation spike is not a primary concern, and that perhaps we are finally shaking off this fever-dream and turning a corner.

Really? By what margin? The mere fact that the balance of power has taken so long to determine (still not settled in the House, as of this writing) indicates to me that we are not collectively on the same page about these issues. The main story, to me, is that the deep polarization pattern continues to stymie our political system.

I have an idea that could make a huge difference. It’s an idea that has essentially no hope of gaining traction—especially since: who the hell am I? But I will put it out there all the same. Maybe others will see the logic.

Continue reading

Views: 3603

Limits to Economic Growth

Readers of Do the Math will be familiar with my line of argument that economic growth as we know it is destined to end. It was the second post of the whole series, and the basis for one of the more popular posts recounting a conversation I had with an economist. I also adapted the same reasoning into Chapter 2 of my recent textbook. Already, I sound like a broken record. Yet I write this update to announce the publication of this idea in a “real” article in Nature Physics. Unfortunately, Nature Physics does not allow open access for Comments, but this Share link should allow you to read the content without a subscription. If the link does not work, here is a link to the PDF. Anyway, that’s all. Please share with anyone you think may be interested.

Views: 9214

Finally, a PLAN

A few years back, I was contacted by Ben McCall—a chemist then at the University of Illinois—about forming a network of academics concerned about the larger challenges facing humanity. The idea was that a number of scattered scholars in various random disciplines might be well aware of limits to growth, energy, and capacity of ecosystems to accommodate human activities, but isolated from each other and within unsympathetic or at least poorly-aligned departments. I identified strongly with this condition and sense of isolation.  For instance, although physicists and astrophysicists have tools relevant to assessing our current predicament, few apply their skills at this level, working instead on deep but narrow questions—as I myself have done for years.  Yet, if we botch civilization, will that type of work survive or have meaning?  Many departments and professional societies therefore lack the community and collaborative opportunities for folks who want to contribute to a higher-level dialog about humanity’s choices.

So Ben pulled together a group of five individuals from a broad range of academic fields to nucleate a network so that we might find kindred spirits and build a diverse academic family united by a shared sense that the trajectory of the human endeavor is not viable, and will come to a bad end if not acknowledged and addressed. By banding together, we would hope to stimulate collaborations and develop ideas that otherwise would be unlikely to emerge. It’s like the setup to many jokes: an astrophysicist, anthropologist, and cognitive scientist walk into a bar. What happens next? What compelling insights and research projects might emerge?

We plodded along for a number of years, constrained by so many other pulls in life. But we have emerged from the long gestation having formed the Planetary Limits Academic Network (PLAN; PLANetwork; planet work; lots of ways to play on the name). Do we have a plan? Sort-of.

Step 1 was to write a perspective piece that presents our take on the modern world and its existential challenges. This recently emerged as a paper entitled: Modernity is Incompatible with Planetary Limits: Developing a PLAN for the Future. I hope you will take some time to read the piece. Do the Math readers will recognize a number of tidbits from ideas presented on the blog.

Step 2 was to create a website, which is at planetarylimits.net. It’s not professionally constructed (you get what you pay for), but should serve to get the network off the ground.

Step 3 is recruitment. We have two roles for the website:

  1. Subscriber: For those who would like occasional updates on what PLAN is doing and access to some of the (eventual) website content.
  2. Member: For active academics/scholars who are engaged in production of scholarly work (peer-reviewed publications, for instance) and could potentially collaborate in scholarly pursuits relating to PLAN interests. It does not matter if these individuals have not published in this space before: that’s part of what PLAN aims to change.

A third role of Collaborator is available for committed members who intend to be active contributors to new “scholarly” products, and will be able to (eventually) search for and contact other Collaborators based on concerns, field of study, and other criteria.

So please visit the site and consider joining as a subscriber (anyone) or applying for membership (active scholars). As we are just starting, early members will have opportunities to define and steer the course of PLAN.

So far, PLAN has attracted a fantastic set of big-picture thinkers from a number of fields.  It is a community I can’t wait to get to know better.  I feel like I have found my people!

Views: 5337

Crazy Town Podcast

Crazy Town Podcast Logo

If you’ve enjoyed Do the Math even just a little bit over the years, you have Asher Miller to thank, in part. Asher is the Executive Director of the Post Carbon Institute, whose work I had been following for a few years when I reached out in 2011. I reported that I was going to be passing through their neighborhood, and asked if they would be up for a meeting. I spent a few hours with Asher, and he encouraged me to commit some of my ideas and analyses to writing, suggesting a blog format that could be re-posted to the Energy Bulletin, which is now Resilience.org.

So I took his advice. Within a month, I created Do the Math, and the Energy Bulletin promptly picked up my first post on Galactic Scale Energy, which then found its way to reddit. Thus, within a few days of publishing my first blog post, I had hit the 100,000 page view mark. That strong start—and even the fact that it started at all—is due in no small measure to Asher’s encouragement, suggestion, and the close connection between PCI and the Energy Bulletin.

Fast-forward a decade, and I again was set to pass through PCI’s (relocated) haunt. I again reached out to Asher, who suggested that I stop in for a podcast recording of Crazy Town, which he does with Jason Bradford (PCI Board President; on his farm) and Rob Dietz (PCI Program Director). We had a fun time together, and an enjoyable conversation, which you can listen to on your podcast app of choice by clicking this link, or you could try this semi-permanent link to the “bonus” episode in question.

Views: 3429