Sunday, September 06, 2015

Global Warming

Let's just discuss global warming for a bit. The science itself is pretty well settled at this point. The earth is indeed warming and human activities are the culprit. CO2 levels in the atmosphere are higher today than they have been in likely millions of years and do act in a greenhouse fashion. The recent increase is strongly correlated with the onset of the industrial revolution and the explosion of the human population. None of this is realistically in doubt.

Although this has been generally known for decades, the global will to do anything to counteract the trend of global warming has been, basically, a dismal failure. The Kyoto protocol, so celebrated in its time (back in the 1990s), was, with all its faults, a wonder of international diplomacy. Yet there were major national polluters who never adopted it at all and others who never acted within its principles in a serious fashion. And the reason for this is obvious. In a competitive world, to ask the nations of the world to voluntarily gear down on their economic engines, is wasted breath at best. Indeed, knowing a little bit about human behavior, it should be obvious that just asking the world to try to cut down on its energy use, is a strategy of minimal efficacy.

To my mind, it kind of like asking a severe diabetic to, y'know, try to cut down on the sweets. That strategy might work on a minority of well-motivated patients, but will far and large be an abject failure. Global warming is just like many modern human diseases - they are problems stemming from human behavior. Granted, they could be fixed by simply changing people's behavior, but that just ain't going to happen. I think that continuing to harp on trying to reduce carbon emissions are well intentioned, but just are not going to cut it. The world's appetite will not slake and the CO2 will continue to rise.

So, why aren't we trying other things? There are plenty of drugs that exist which treat and control diabetes, heck there are even surgeries which may even offer a cure. Sure, most type-2 diabetes is caused by human behavior, but so what? We can treat it by intervening in other ways. Can the same be said about global warming?

Yes! The issue is not that humans are releasing too much CO2 into the atmosphere. The issue is that it stays there and causing too much warming. But there are things we can actively do which can pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it in safe places. This is little different from pulling sugar out of the bloodstream and putting it back into cells where it's safe. For one, a major carbon sink are the world's forests. When trees grow they grab carbon from the air and use it to grow. Granted, stopping active deforestation is the simplest and cheapest way to maintain this carbon sink, but the world could also be actively reforesting millions of acres of unused flatlands. It's so simple, but adding millions of trees to our world would be awesome for our ecology, biodiversity and would suck in billions of tons of CO2 from our atmosphere. Why is this not already being done?

Iron is an excellent fertilizer for ocean algae. With carefully selected ocean sites, we could be dropping tons of cheap iron particles which would create huge algae blooms with loads of carbon dioxide stuck within it. The algae would eventually die and then sink to the ocean floor, taking all of that carbon down with it. This literal carbon sink could keep the carbon safely out of the atmosphere for millennia. There are numerous other hypothesized mechanisms to trap carbon out of our atmosphere. Some are higher tech and may cost more, but are still worth considering. I don't need to list all of them here. If you are truly interested, the internet is available to all for perusal.

Now, managing the carbon is just one side of the equation. The other major variable is simply the heat itself. Even if atmospheric carbon levels remained unchanged, is there something we can do that would cool the Earth? Of course! What killed the dinosaurs? Global climate change set off by a meteorite which on impact released huge amounts of dust into the atmosphere which blocked the Sun's rays and cooled the Earth. It's also been shown that the release of sulfate compounds from volcanic eruptions cause climatic cooling effects. Could this be done artificially? Sure. There have even been more imaginative proposals to modify sunlight by placing mirrors or lenses in orbit.

The bottom line is that global warming is happening. The best solution would be to cut down on our emissions, but that just ain't gonna happen - and even if it did, it's probably too late. The next best thing is to make some alternative interventions. Like in medicine, there may be side effects, but I'd rather brave those than to just allowing global warming to happen.

[Plus, keep an eye on this venture. It's the most reasonable engineered mechanism for fusion power that I have yet to see.]

Friday, June 19, 2015

Matir Issurim

"Using mail-order DNA, they’re tricking yeast cells into producing a substance that’s molecularly identical to milk. And if successful, they’ll turn this milk into cheese. Real cheese. But vegan cheese. Real vegan cheese. That’s the name of the project: Real Vegan Cheese. These hackers want cheese that tastes like the real thing, but they don’t want it coming from an animal."

Interesting project and so clearly to be the food of the future. Making meat and animal byproducts like milk in the lab has clear benefits in the long run in simple terms like financial costs and environmental preservation. It'll just be quicker and easier with better quality control to make this stuff in vitro than with actual animals. With advances in food science what they produce may be indistinguishable from the natural version. It also has the added benefit of limiting the cruelty to animals, which is an endemic problem in modern factory farming. In the future it will be bizarre and backwards to eat something that comes from actual, unsanitary animals.

But besides all the above benefits, what will it do to the kosher food industry? Is it meaningful to talk about the kashrut of single cells or the byproducts of micro-organisms? If the whole world will be eating foods made from GMO bacteria or yeast - what exactly would ever not be kosher?

Perhaps it is in this way that the midrash about pigs one day becoming kosher will actually come true.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Shabbos in a Pepper Shaker

Found this product recently. Interesting idea, but it also emphasizes one of the greatest incidental benefits from shabbos observance in modern times.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Is Belief a Jewish Notion?

Gary Gutting: You say you’re a naturalist and deny that there are any supernatural beings, yet you’re a practicing Jew and deny that you’re an atheist. What’s going on here? What’s a God that’s not a supernatural being?

Howard Wettstein: Let’s begin with a distinction between participation in a practice and the activity of theorizing, philosophically and otherwise, about the practice. Even an advanced and creative mathematician need not have views about, say, the metaphysical status of numbers. Richard Feynman, the great physicist, is rumored to have said that he lived among the numbers, that he was intimate with them. However, he had no views about their metaphysical status; he was highly skeptical about philosophers’ inquiries into such things. He had trouble, or so I imagine, understanding what was at stake in the question of whether the concept of existence had application to such abstractions. Feynman had no worries about whether he was really thinking about numbers. But “existence” was another thing.

It is this distinction between participation and theorizing that seems to me relevant to religious life.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Philosopher of the Week

This is my favorite modern Jewish philosopher this week: Samuel Lebens. I came across his work actually by accident just recently, but what I've seen so far appears intriguing. [It doesn't hurt that he kind of looks like Ted Mosby and has a great English accent.] I thought it was worth sharing, especially given the paucity of jblog material lately.

He also has separate paper which I found rather interesting about  the epistemology of religious experience, which I quote below:

"My intention in belittling the role of belief isn't to adopt the fashionable desire to replace Orthodox Judaism with orthopraxy. [...]I claim that that epistemology places very little emphasis on classical propositional belief and is generally much more interested in attitudes, postures, make-belief, and non-propositional knowledge. Orthodox Judaism, indeed religion, so conceived is at once more demanding – because it asks for much more than mere belief and practice – and more human –in that it embraces attitudes and emotions that more autistic conceptions of religion ignore."
The paper is worth reading in full and I linked to it above. It gives a rather different perspective on traditional Jewish belief and behaviors and how propositional beliefs, though he surely considers them critical, are hardly the focus and are in fact among the weakest points of contact for those invested in religious life. He argues that "make-believing" that certain ideas are true is important than merely holding certain propositions to be factual. Worth a read, check it out.
I'm going to read more of his material when I have some time.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Where is Everybody?

Where is everybody? I know I've been out of the loop for awhile, but I was just checking out how things were going recently in the old jblogosphere and it seems like all of the old skeptic blogs have gone silent or have closed. Basically all my links to other blogs from this site go to places where the blog no longer exists or hasn't had a recent post in years. Why?

Did all the angst, confusion and cognitive dissonance that had been brewing from the crash of modernity and orthodoxy just dry up? Are all the issues resolved and have those old bloggers simply lost interest? Was the community held together by a couple of heavy bloggers like Mis-nagid or Godol Hador and once they moved on the other people left as well? Or did the party move elsewhere and nobody left directions?

I get it that hashing and rehashing issues is unfulfilling and ultimately boring, but was there no curious young people around to keep the conversation fresh? Or not enough of those who were willing to delve deeper into these issues to come out with something more productive on the other end? Maybe those deeper delvers went and became the founders of sites like (a very good site by the way, which I recommend), with a much more professional appearance compared to the casual coffee shop-like venue of a personal blog.

I thought that a few years ago the "Orthoprax" were getting all this attention from rabbinic articles and published papers. Not good attention, mind you, but attention nonetheless. Presumably, the goals of those articles were to quash orthoprax sentiments among the ranks - and if so, perhaps the quiet out there is evidence of their apparent success.

As for me, my time of relative blog silence coincided with much novel busyness in my personal life. This did not leave much time for metaphysical introspection, much less for an involved blogging hobby. But that's just me - where did everybody else go?

Come back.