May 132003

Let’s see what we’ve got in the ol’ mailbag…

An anonymous “family member” of the late Ty Longley, who doesn’t specify whether he has in mind the nuclear, the extended, the Family of Headbangers, or the Family of Man, takes exception to my discussion of Mr. Longley’s alleged second career:

Um, dude, I am a family member of Ty’s and can personally attest, that he is not the “Tybo” in porn. First of all, try searching under the porn name Tybo on the internet….it’s a chic [sic].

Le Freak, c’est chic! But fair enough, especially since my original source was a porn blog — like you were expecting The New York Times. I take Mr. Member’s advice, and plug “Tybo” and “porn” into Google, noting with alarm that my own item is the first entry. Eventually I happen on this, which is a bit sketchy, but it looks like the right Ty Bo, since the dates, 1999-2000, coincide with the dates in my source. Trouble is, the URL includes “gender=m,” so I’m willing to wager this is not a chic we’re discussing. And really, what female porn star in her right mind would call herself “Ty Bo” anyway?

Until further notice, then, God of the Machine regrets that we are unable to regret the error.

On a more serious note, Casey Fahy (scroll down a bit, and, um, dude, get some permalinks) wants to know why I doubt the story about turning turkey guts into Texas tea. Presumably I would believe it if only I, like Casey, were an optimist. Why am I not an optimist? Take it away, Ambrose Bierce:

Optimism, n. The doctrine, or belief, that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong. It is held with greatest tenacity by those most accustomed to the mischance of falling into adversity, and is most acceptably expounded with the grin that apes a smile. Being a blind faith, it is inaccessible to the light of disproof — an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death. It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.

Let’s see, where was I? Oh yes, turkey guts. Well, I’m not a chemist, and neither is Casey, but Greg Hlatky is, and he’s read the patent. At any rate, the merits of this particular claim, which appear to be small, are beside the point. This is a matter not of optimism or pessimism, but of epistemology. Every day interested parties, like our “tall, well-tanned entrepreneur” of the Discover story, make pie-in-the-sky claims whose technical merits most of us are utterly unqualified to judge, even if we’re willing to do a lot of homework. You therefore have three choices. Door #1: Ask one or several people who might know and take their word for it (my choice in this case, by trusting Hlatky, but not always available). Door #2: Accept them out of hand. Door #3: Reject them out of hand. Rejection is provisional: you can always change your mind later if more evidence comes in. You’ve wait-listed the claim, so to speak. Acceptance is a different matter. No matter what private reservations you may harbor at the time, your brain files away the “fact” that, for instance, we can make oil out of turkey guts, and six months later you’ve forgotten what your doubts were, if you ever had them. A vast amount of error can be traced to this sort of “optimism.”

(Update: Gregory Hlatky, himself, comments.)

  11 Responses to “Mail Call”

  1. How about cow gas? Or, more plentiful still, politician gas? Optimism won’t fill the tank.

  2. OK, Aaron, we agree that we are neither of us qualified to comment on the scientific validity of the claims made by Dr. Turkey Guts. However, my optimism is, itself, provisional. The claims made by these entrepreneurs, which seem able to be validated by a demonstration that is easily done within a very short amount of time, are not thicketed behind a blind of "in the future" clauses and "when we have that last gasket tightened or lever jiggered" caveats. They claim to a reputable publication that the process is up and running right now, and they cite quite specific quantities of oil produced by very specific materials. They produce for the investigating journalist a sample of the oil their process has produced. Now, unless this whole thing is a fraud begging in a publication to be busted by the feds, rather than snaking around looking for gullible investors in the shadows, there must be something to it. And, unless the journalist and publication that carried the story is gullible enough to be taken in by a bald-faced charlatan with a claim that has scam written all over it (unless it’s true), the journalist did his homework and the story checked out. So my optimism is based on a belief that a scam of this magnitude, if scam it is, doesn’t seek the glare of lights and that the checks and balances of journalistic standards don’t fall prey quite so easily to providing free PR for scam-artists. (Wait a minute… what am I thinking?!? You may have a point.)

  3. Yes, you can make oil out of turkey guts. That isn’t the question. The question is whether the process is efficient and scalable; otherwise nobody ought to give a damn. The (provisional) answer is: no.

    On the matter of the reliability of journalists in scientific matters I have nothing to add.

  4. Straight from the horse’s mouth.

  5. Eichra’s link provides a useful context for determining the efficiency of the business model. I agree, Aaron, that there is no way this approach can compete with existing petroleum infrastructures in terms of the bottom line, the centralized raw material access, the simplified supply lines, etc. But that’s not the whole context here. It seems to me the best application of this science is an offset to the cost of waste disposal, a cost that would be borne anyway by certain industries such as poultry processing plants. If they can add a bit of expense to processing waste, avoid the economic repercussions of downstream pollution, and end up with a petroleum product that can make back the costs involved in waste disposal, the model seems to have much more promise. Again, not as a replacement for the existing system, but as an offset to existing costs. Otherwise, the problem is much the same as that faced by recycling. It’s obviously much cheaper (in terms of energy and resources) to make paper, plastic and metals using centralized raw material sources and the most direct supply lines of said raw materials than to send hundreds of thousands of noisy recycling trucks to hundreds of millions of homes to collect billions of hand-sorted items of refuse and then route them all back to recycling plants. But since the disposal of offal presents certain unavoidable costs to food processing plants and other manufacturers in that category, this idea seems like an efficient way to offset costs of already centralized raw material sources, and supplement petroleum supplies simultaneously. In that context, it makes sense, I think.

  6. 2 points.
    Good thing the inventors and innovators of the past didn’t have your attitude. The first computers filled rooms – not too scaleable. Now you can buy 40 gigs of memory for 99 bucks. I guess scaleable was in the cards.

    The world works on optimism. When we run out of it, we go to war in order to fill the tank with turkey gas. The ball is fair until it goes foul, not the other way around.

  7. "Tim": Great to hear from you. But I think you are confusing the attitude of the inventor for whom I agree optimism is essential with the attitude of the observer, which ought to be quite different.

    Casey: It is true that the ancillary benefit of waste disposal makes the model more attractive. But you and I are still in no position to judge it on the merits.

  8. OK, Aaron. But I still see that glass half-full of light-grade petroleum instead of full of turkey guts, and at a price that should make piling those turkey guts someplace else seem to be a waste of money and a yucky use of space, seem worthy of credulity if only on the merits of good ol’ American ingenuity — that killing two birds with one stone innovativeness. My abiding optimisim in American ingenuity is based on its own long track record. It’s just the sort of thing our market-driven checks and balances, which both drive and test innovations against the almighty profit motive, that makes such things possible and, in a sense, inevitable. After all, Rockefeller stepped in some tar and thought it might have a better use than mucking up folks’ shoes…

  9. One thing has been bugging me during this whole discussion. You guys seem to think that there are huge piles of guts around every turkey farm waiting for some productive use to be found for them. I dont think so. Cheap dog and cat food is made from just this kind of stuff. Some of it contains feathers as the protein source–it also has sawdust too, by the way. Recycled sheep brains gave us Mad Cow disease, remember. Sheep guts are recycled too. So when we have wind and solar as a renewable energy source to develop, why would anyone want to use turkey guts? I dont get it. Using soy beans as a source of energy would make more sense–you can produce alot more faster and easier than turkey guts. nd they are not making a "petroleum" product from them either–a fuel source perhaps. But Websters tells me petroleum is a by product of oil from the ground.

  10. Okay, this has nothing to do with turkey guts or optimism, but with the earlier item in this post…

    And really, what female porn star in her right mind would call herself "Ty Bo" anyway?

    Well, what female in her right mind would allow herself to be called "Bo Derek"? I remember when the movie "10" first came out (yes, I am that goddam old), I was looking at the credits in the ad to see who was playing that juicy-looking babe in the poster (I knew it wasn’t Julie Andrews), and I kept wondering who this "Bo Derek" guy was. I’d heard of Bo Hopkins and Bo Swenson…

  11. Bo knows, I suppose.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>