Most viruses die
When they are exposed to heat.
Global Warming win.
Recall the immediate aftermath of September 11th, 2001.
The American Nation seemed to come together, united in purpose. First, it was a struggle to understand what we were facing. Was this the beginning of something bigger? Were we witnessing the shattering of civilization? It was also a unity of will – we felt we were all in this together and together we would find our way through. Perhaps it helped that very few of us were actually, directly effected. The nearly 3,000 killed in the attacks was but a drop in the American bucket. Most of us were impacted in some way by the economic fallout, but even New York City was back at it within a week. The larger toll still haunts the police, fire, and rescue workers who were exposed to the toxic dust. Long-term negative impacts are roughly an order-of-magnitude higher than the actual deaths and the pain continues for the friends and family of each one of the victims. But as far as large, life-taking disasters go from a world-wide perspective, this one may have been par for the course.
The reaction of the American government was swift and furious. Within days, Congress authorized generic military force against terrorists and within a month the United States began bombing operations in Afghanistan. Before the end of October, the United States had passed the PATRIOT Act, granting new government powers to react to terrorism and other national threats. Within a year, the U.S. had restructured the Federal apparatus to counter terrorism under a newly-created Department of Homeland Security.
The rub is that these actions, ostensibly reactions to the unexpected attacks, were on the ask list for U.S. enforcement for a decade – at least. The Taliban was already considered a U.S. enemy, even before their support for Osama bin Laden. Provisions of the PATRIOT Act had been in the pipeline since, at least, the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. The crisis of the World Trade Center collapse merely provided the political grease to do a lot of what Federal Law Enforcement and U.S. Foreign Policy already wanted done.
I think about this situation relative to the pandemic crisis of today.
Think back to the early days of the Democratic Primary. The far left had proposals that seemed crazy even for the Democratic half of our country. Proposals like AOC’s Green New Deal and Andrew Yang’s Universal Income were reckoned to be deal-breakers for the vast, political middle of this country. Sure enough, the results from the primary seemed to bear that out. Marginal candidates rapidly dropped away and the powers-that-be lined up behind Joe Biden, seen as a safe and traditional choice. The radical ideas of the progressive extremists were too much.
Or were they? What does the world look like today? Donald Trump’s administration is sending out $1,200 checks to all Americans. Air travel has been all but shut down and gasoline consumption has slowed to a trickle. There was some early jubilance about how the earth recovered within days of the economic shut down that, as far as I can see, was quickly debunked. However, the massive curtailment of the productive economy was just what the left called for as necessary to save the earth from Climate Change. This is not even to mention the “extras” stuffed into the Senate stimulus bill, pushing left-wing pet projects as a price for backing Trump’s initiatives.
It makes me wonder if what we’re seeing here is a case of not letting a good crisis go to waste. Is our government rapidly implementing policies that would be unacceptable under any other circumstances because they know that nobody is going to stand in the way of doing “everything we can” to deal with this virus? Even if these consequences are entirely unintended, will it be possible to put a $2 trillion genie back into the bottle? What are the odds that we’ve already made a sea change in the fundamental course of society, but we just don’t know it yet.
Coming out in 1997, it was a dramatization of the 1985 Carl Sagan novel (of the same name). As such, it’s message has a mixed audience – partially the 80s readership of the immensely popular book, and partially the movie-going audience of the late 90s.
For the latter, one might have expected that in 1997 the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence was within reach. The combination of decades of development in radio telescopes and the exponential explosion in computing power made this seem like an idea whose time had come. While such projects had seen government funding for decades, a scandal of sorts erupted in U.S. House budget discussions in 1993. The result was several privately funded initiatives, and an increase in publicity, a plot point mirrored in the film. Interestingly, a similar funding incident occurred in the late 1970s, with funding being cut in the 1981 budget, concurrent with the writing of the novel. In that case, Sagan personally convinced Sen. Proxmire of the value in the program, restoring government funding.
First off, when I say it is worse than I remember, there are several levels to this. The most obvious, in the opening half-hour to an hour is that as a film, as entertainment, it isn’t great. In particular, the long character introduction where we find young Ellie driven to explore short-wave radio because her mother died when she was young – it just strikes me a too sappy, and a bit non-nonsensical. It is worth noting that, in the book, her mother did not die when she was young.
However, I also didn’t get the full force of the political angle when I watched it as a younger man.
The political message of the film feels right at home today. Those messages are mostly conveyed through the villains of the movie. The first villain is the government scientist and former mentor of our heroine. He is the one responsible for cutting the government funding to the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) project, and says that SETI isn’t “real science.” He seems concerned not only for the taxpayer, but for the general propriety of searching for extra-terrestrial life as well as for the career of our heroine, who should be devoting her talents to something “real.”
Naturally he has to eat his own words when Ellie finds the message from outer-space. It’s a nice little comeuppance fantasy that so often ruins the storytelling when a piece gets too political. Political “utopian” literature often uses this device – contrive a situation, and then use it as “proof” of your political point.
This part of the politics does seem a bit dated. We are, these days, far more acclimatized to private funding of space science and, particularly, scientific search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Also, because the party of the left is now the party of government, when the left takes on a cause, it’s probably not going to be the government bureaucrat that is the enemy.
Because these days the enemy isn’t just anti-some-science, they are now anti-science through and through.
Enter some more villains acted villainously by Rob Lowe and Gary Busey (can you imagine them, particularly circa 1997, playing anything but thoroughly reprehensible characters?) They play the religious right. Lowe is the main-stream religious/political lobbyist who organizes the government to fight scientific progress. Busey plays the crazy-eyed street preacher who ultimately turns terrorist, and kills villain #1 (the bureaucrat) for some further just desserts.
It is this portrayal of the right as mind-blindingly backwards and downright dangerous that is amplified by today’s political environment. As I said, when I was a young man living in a major urban center, this portrayal of the right did not make much of an impact. The character type met my expectations for villains.
Interestingly, when I first watched the film I figured co-star Matt McConaughey for another villain, perhaps the most insidious of them all. At the time, I may have just hated him because he was pretty. I’ve since come to appreciate him as an actor and, perhaps because of that, now more easily recognize that he is a co-hero in our tale. It is because he is pretty that we know he must be good, I suppose. Also, the fact that he is “religious” is tempered by the fact that he’s DTF on the first date, further tipping us off that he’s not so bad.
His part in the story remains a little bit confusing to me. I suspect part of the problem is that the character is from the book. While parts of the book have been changed and other remain the same, the changes in the characters don’t necessarily track. I think his purpose is to be a bridge between “spirituality” and “science,” making a point of Sagan’s that it is the human spirit that transcends all, whether it is expressed through religion or through scientific inquiry.
That point in the story is undercut, somewhat, by how it is presented in the movie. As occurred in the book, Ellie is hauled before a Congressional Committee which accuses her of, at best, hallucinating and perhaps even faking the other-worldly experience with her machine. In the process, she is forced to ask the world to simply have faith; to believe in her experience despite the lack of evidence, forcing her to come to terms with McConaughey’s professions of faith earlier in the story. Problem is, in the movie, it isn’t necessary. We learn in a exchange of two of the “government” characters that, in fact, the video taken during the episode, although it doesn’t record anything, actually lasts for the 18 hours she claims to have been traveling, not the second or so that the terrestrial witnesses saw. I guess the 1997 had an additional point about the lengths the anti-science folks might go to keep the truth from the rest of us.
But much of this is my observation as the 2017 me. The 1997 me also was disappointed in the movie, and it was primarily this other-worldly experience that did it.
To the 2017 me, this new “science” based spirituality has a particularly sinister meaning. One of the foundations of the SETI project is the Drake Equation.
The essence of the argument is that, we that we can plug in values for each of the terms and come up with a number of intelligent civilizations that are “out there,” and that number is frequently startlingly large. Author Michael Chrichton delivered a speech wherein he described this all far better than I can, but essentially while some of these equation terms (in particularly the first three) can be estimated within a reasonable range, the remaining terms are pure guesswork. Producing a large number says nothing about its reliability, and the conceit of saying “even if we are off by a factor of…” only provides an illusion of increased reliability. Are you off by a factor of <whatever that number is.> Are you off my thousands of orders of magnitude beyond that? You have no way of knowing.
The equation was created in the 1960s and was used to justify the SETI project. Contact is one of many efforts to push it forward in the popular consciousness. And successful the push has been. Variations of the equation have permeated all walks of life. I once sat through a marketing meeting where investment in new product development was justified this way. “The [X] market is a $40 billion-a-year industry, and if f represents the fraction of … we can expect a minimum of $2 million per year return on our investment.”
And, of course, a riff on this equation has been at the core of the Global Warming/Climate Change movement from its beginning. It’s a little different. The “equations” of Global Warming modeling are mindbogglingly complex, but like the simpler version have a range of inputs from the known, to the estimatable, and on to the pure conjecture. Fiddling with these inputs produces a range of possible futures, from the boringly benign to the catastrophic. Then, since the catastrophic is one possibility, we can than assign a fractional probability to it to come to the the inescapable conclusion – isn’t it worth spending millions to avoid trillions in future consequences, even if there is only one chance in a thousand that we’re right on the trillions?
Chrichton’s article makes the case, as I said, far better than I could. In particular, this perverted version of science is particularly suited for starting from your preferred conclusions, and then showing how “probable” those conclusions may be.
The good news – if we do make contact with an advanced alien civilization, they will almost certainly be able to fix our Global Warming problems for us.
Wherein I share my personal experiences with “green” lighting along with commentary on the political aspects of the light bulb ban.
The light-bulb has been banned. In case you hadn’t notice, as of January first of this year, the manufacture of incandescent light bulbs is banned in the United States for 40W and 60W bulbs. Larger sizes have been banned for a year (75W) or two (100W).
My own experience with replacement bulbs is limited to compact florescent (CFL), which still more-or-less represents the state-of-the art in replacements. LEDs are becoming more viable, but they are still far more expensive and are acknowledged to have some development work before they are the replacement-light-bulb-of-choice.
And I don’t like them.
The quality of the light is poor. Replacing my dining room light bulbs with CFLs results in all of my food having a sickly green hue. According to one light bulb maker, who will make an expensive alternative incandescent bulb (complying with the new laws), “We’re addicted to color of incandescents, unless you were born yesterday,” [Larry] Birnbaum continued. “Your body is used to it. When you put on something different, the body reacts to it, and you get irritated.”
For a relation of mine, who has a history of vision difficulties, the light from CFL bulbs cause her pain. Larry Birnbaum’s website, perhaps a little self-servingly, lists a number of health issues caused by exposure to florescent lighting. Which is not even to mention that the light bulbs themselves are hazardous waste.
But it’s all for our own good as well as for the good of the earth, right?
I am not convinced that I am saving any energy.
First, I believe the amount of waste is overstated. The idea is that traditional incandescent convert a significant portion of their energy to heat, which is wasted energy. Living in a northern climate, as I do, the amount of heat wasted is considerable lower than advocates calculate. While keeping warm with light bulbs is hardly an efficient home heating strategy, it’s probably not so much worse in the margins than the alternatives (particularly in older homes). The fact is, during the winter months, much of the energy I would save in converting to CFLs is made up by an increased requirement for heating fuel.
Second, the restrictions on use of CFLs cover nearly all of my uses of light bulbs. They are not to be used in three-way or dimmable fixtures. They can’t be used in lights with motion activation switches. They should only be placed in fixtures where they are held vertically. This covers 100% of the lighting in my home. But to the extent I am willing to ignore one or more of the rules, they are not to be used in lights that are frequently turned off and on.
As a result, the lights that I do replace with CFLs (mostly in the warmer months), are fixtures that I can leave on all day. So I’ve replaced a 60W incandescent with a 13W CFL, but I’m running that 13W for 10-12 hours per day instead of 3-4. The energy savings is much less than advertised.
But wait, there’s more. As it turns out, I do not replace my 60W incandescents with 13W CFLs. While the package says the two products put out the same amount of light, my own experience suggests that an incandescent bulb needs to be replaced with about double the “equivalent” bulb to get a similar effect on lighting. I don’t know why this is. It seems that CFLs are brighter at the source (looking straight into the light, they seem brighter), but the reflected light off of other items in the room is less. It would be interesting to see if my gut feeling can be backed up by measurements, but for now I’m stuck just doubling the “equivalent” light bulb size if I want a similar amount of light (albeit in that sickly green color).
Of course, I can’t just double the size, because that is not how light bulbs scale. For a 40W bulb, I need to use 23 W replacement (100W “equivalent”). For my standard, the 60W bulb, I need to use a 40W (150W “equivalent”). I also have my concerns on the usage side of this equation. The fixture where I’ve replaced two 60W incandescent with two 40W CFLs should be, despite an increase in light, producing considerable less heat at a 33% reduction in power draw. Yet, when I turn on the lights (particularly if they are already warm), I can hear arcing in the light switch. Even when I tried 100W incandescents in that same fixture (which didn’t work, too much heat) I didn’t have this problem. It seems that they are pulling a lot more current than the bulbs that they replace, or even any traditional bulbs that could conceivably be put into that fixture.
So instead of running 60W bulbs for 3-4 hours per day, I run 40W bulbs 10-12 hours per day. This calculation means I’m doubling the amount of energy that I’m consuming per bulb that I replace with the “green” CFL.
But that’s OK. Why? Because the purpose of the law isn’t really to save the planet, or to save me money. The purpose, according to some, is to help the profit margins the light bulb manufacturers, who had difficulty making money on low-cost incandescent light bulbs. By forcing consumers into technologically more complex products which, by the way, cost a factor of 20X more, light bulb producers hope to increase their profits. This is how the law sailed through congress back in 2007 with the strong support of industry, but attracting very little attention otherwise.
For now, most consumers still have their traditional light bulbs and continue to use them, although perhaps as few as 40% realize that their product of choice has been legislated out of existence. If 100W bulbs are anything to go by, stores may continue to stock 40W and 60W bulbs for up to a year or more as the existing stocks are run down. Many are hopeful that this additional year will see new advances in LED technology, solving the health issues, the use issues (dimming, on-off cycling, etc.), the light quality, and the cost issues – particularly once consumer spending is pushed into new development.
If not, I hope you have been stocking up.