Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, August 10, 2018

Blog Roundup

1. At Roots of Progress, Jason Crawford explores the transition, during the nineteenth century, away from the use of biological sources for many common materials. (He provides interesting synopses for ivory, fertilizer, fuels for lighting and smelting, and shellac.)

The humpback whale, an unsustainable source of industrial feedstocks, in either sense of the term. (Image via Pixabay.)
These are just a handful of examples. There are many other biomaterials we once relied on -- rubber, silk, leather and furs, straw, beeswax, wood tar, natural inks and dyes -- that have been partially or fully replaced by synthetic or artificial substitutes, especially plastics, that can be derived from mineral sources. They had to be replaced, because the natural sources couldn't keep up with rapidly increasing demand. The only way to ramp up production -- the only way to escape the Malthusian trap and sustain an exponentially increasing population while actually improving everyone's standard of living -- was to find new, more abundant sources of raw materials and new, more efficient processes to create the end products we needed. As you can see from some of these examples, this drive to find substitutes was often conscious and deliberate, motivated by an explicit understanding of the looming resource crisis.

In short, plant and animal materials had become unsustainable. [bold added, link omitted]
His exploration of the very common misuse of that last word is as timely as the rest of his post is interesting.

2. In "Sully vs Sully," the proprietor of You Can and Did Build That compares the book to the movie and finds the former far more profitable in terms of understanding the heroism of Sully Sullenberger, who famously saved all his passengers by landing his aircraft on the Hudson in 2009.
[T]he passionate pursuit of excellence in a career, the commitment to a lifetime of choices directed at acquiring knowledge and improving one's skills, is as far from "selfless" as could be imagined. Sully's choices (including an awareness of his own motivations and self-critical appraisal of his own near misses) represent the creation of a self. Only devotion to one's own chosen goals over the span of decades could result in a man becoming the kind of person, the kind of character or self, who could accomplish what he did on the Hudson. [emphasis in original]
Although I think I rate the movie higher than he does, I found the discussion of the kind of context required to evaluate an action quite enlightening.

3. At New Ideal, Ben Bayer of the Ayn Rand Institute argues that the "Trump-Kim Summit Betrays Victims of Dictatorship." The entire post is worth reading, but I think presenting two paragraphs of it in quick succession might show why. Bayer opens:
In a video that went viral in October 2014, Yeonmi Park gave an emotional speech about her escape from North Korea. She recounts how she was nine years old when she witnessed the public execution of her friend's mother, thirteen when she saw her mother raped as the price for escaping the country, and fourteen when she had to bury her father secretly in China. [links in original]
Later, comes the following after he notes Ayn Rand's commentary about Richard Nixon's 1972 meeting with Mao Zedong:
Every word of this applies to Trump's meeting with Kim. This time the president has not only shaken hands with the dictator but has gone further by calling him "very talented" and a "funny guy" with a "great personality" who "loves his people." Asked whether it was wise to sit down with a killer, the most Trump could bring himself to disparage about Kim was to say "it is a rough situation over there." Asked how Kim could love his people and oppress them, Trump said "he's doing what he's seen done." [links in original]
Regarding Trump's last remark in light of what Yeonmi Park and other North Koreans have "seen done," this is outrageous. That said, Trump doesn't own all of the blame for it. As unprincipled and coarse as he is, Trump is regurgitating (and acting on) the same kind of garbage leftists have spewed about criminals for the past few decades. But the juxtaposition should illustrate how disgusting this stew of determinism and moral relativism really is. Obscene notions left unquestioned lead to obscene actions.

4. At Separate!, Anders Ingemarson takes the impending Supreme Court nomination battle as his cue to consider an interesting question concerning where Americans stand on abortion:
With the range of views being closer to a bell curve than what media talking heads would like us to believe, is there an opportunity for breaking the supposed deadlock and come to some level of mutual understanding? Perhaps not tomorrow, next year or in a decade, but maybe in a generation? [bold added]
This comes after a quick review of American polling data and a look at a couple of historical instances of religious people accommodating scientific discoveries in the West. I'm not as sanguine as he, but he raises good points to remember should Brett Kavanaugh be named to the Supreme Court.

-- CAV


Today: For clarity, added "concerning where Americans stand on abortion" to Item 4.  


Dinwar said...

I read the first article, and am still mulling it over....I think the author makes a mistake.

In the past, "natural" materials were taken and used whole. Ivory was cut off elephant carcasses. Hemp fibers were used to spin rope. Whales were slaughtered for oil.

What we're doing today is fundamentally different. We are basically using biology as part of the manufacturing process. Take corn syrup--we could manufacture it from a variety of products; it's just moving atoms around, after all, and we can do that now. But we use corn because it's cheaper, faster, and easier to allow the plant to process those materials (water, minerals, sunlight) into an intermediate product.

The difference is, in the past we took what we found. Now, we're using biological processes to facilitate or even as integral parts of manufacturing processes. This has an added advantage: Life reproduces, meaning that anything generated via biological processes is going to be available in extremely large quantities (once the process is established). You never hear of "peak corn syrup"; the concept is nonsense. (Bear in mind, this often uses byproducts of other farming processes, meaning we increase productivity AND provide a more constant and reliable source for materials.)

In that sense, I think the push towards farmable products is good. I don't think it's inherently wrong to look to biology to assist in meeting human needs/desires. Biology is part of reality, and it's something we're learning to use.

Gus Van Horn said...


It's good in some contexts, and bad in others. Using corn for motor fuel, for example, is not currently as economical as using petroleum products, and it is diverting corn from other uses, most notably food.

I can't speak for the author, of course, but I don't think he is categorically ruling out such a use for corn. Rather, I think he makes a similar point to the one I did in a column about recycling, which is that there is something other than human flourishing behind many manufacturing decisions based on the idea of "sustainability".