After reflecting on it over the vacation, I changed the subtitle of the blog from the old:
"BLOG FOR PRO-BONO RESEARCH ON ENERGY SUPPLY, BIOFUELS, AND ANYTHING ELSE THAT BOTHERS ME..."
which was sort of a hastily assembled laundry list of things I knew I was interested in to
"RISKS TO GLOBAL CIVILIZATION"
which I think better captures what it is that really drives my interest and is much snappier.
Throughout my career, I get passionate about problems in which there's an element of "Things that could Go Wrong in a Really Big Way". In the computer security context, my main claim to fame is research on the spread of computer worms and mitigation thereof. Computer worms have the potential to infect the entire Internet in sub-second times, and then cause major changes in its behavior, which is a completely fascinating fact to me. In my current job, I work on a commercial system to detect malicious websites installing hostile software. But throughout my computer security career, I've not really been motivated by the hackerish desire to understand how to exploit a particular flaw in a particular program, but rather by the implications for an enterprise as a whole, or the Internet as a whole, or society as a whole, of the existence of security vulnerabilities in programs.
Similarly, I got interested in peak oil because it seemed like it posed a credible threat to society as a whole that I wanted to understand better. The tendency of that society as a whole to choose biofuels as the main first response to oil shortages poses a host of secondary challenges to the biosphere and it's ability to continue to support human-kind that I'd also like to understand.
But, my instinct is very much to take a risk management perspective on these things. There are plenty of folks out there (eg the Archdruid) who have made up their minds that the prognosis for our current civilization is certain collapse, but I find that unsupported by the facts. Similarly, there are cornucopians (eg the late Julian Simon) who think that because civilization over the last few hundred years has overcome all challenges, therefore it must overcome all future challenges. This too seems to me an unjustified extrapolation given that we know plenty of past civilizations have collapsed.
Instead, to me, each challenge is to be analyzed on it's own merits in a spirit of risk management. How serious might it be? How likely is it? How soon might it occur? What things will people probably do on their own to mitigate it? If they had additional or better insight, what might they do differently that would mitigate more effectively? What psychological or social factors might prevent them from adopting more effective mitigations?
I think my interest in different threats might change over time as some threats recede in significance while new threats rise in prominence. But I doubt my basic nature will change enough that my interests will stray far outside the domain of "Risks to Global Civilization".
The word "civilization" is in there because, while I love nature and spend a fair amount of time out on my bike or in my kayak in the beautiful areas in Northern California, I haven't found that threats to nature get me very excited unless they also pose a threat to the human order. I didn't become an environmentalist when I was young because I don't have enough of that passion. I have some sense that I should be different in this regard; perhaps if I was more spiritually developed, I'd be less anthropocentric, but I'm not.
It is of course somewhat arrogant and grandiose to tackle such a large, complex, and interdisciplinary subject as "Risks to Global Civilization". Inevitably, there will be screw-ups and cases where I take indefensible positions because I lack the specialized expertise required in some particular area of risk. At the same time, it seems clear to me that there should be some people who worry holistically about global risks to civilization, I'd like to be one of them, no-one is going to be qualified in all the areas required, and a background in physics and computer security is probably about as good as a background in, say, soil science, or macro-economics, or archeology, or petroleum geology, or whatever.
In short, no-one is really qualified to think about these things, and I'm as good as the next PhDified specialist. I'll just have to work on the deficiencies in my background, and do my best to be honest about them in the meantime.