Towards a more Medieval Ontario

The CBC today carried a horrifying article reporting on a ‘study’ commissioned by the Ontario Energy Board that recommends Time of Use differentials three to four times the current rates. The reason for this is their concern that consumers are just not getting the message about shifting their usage to more convenient times for the generators. And therefor more incentives must be applied (punishments) to encourage this shift and eliminate the troubling winter morning and evening peak usages. And the report compares Ontario billing with ‘best practices’ — a clear sign that the consultants were working to their own script.

What was interesting about this was that there was not one mention of why there are peaks in usage and whether it is practical for people to shift their loads. A personal example is required — we live in an all-electric house in rural Ontario. We pump our own water and heat the house electrically. We have moved every reasonable load into the cheap periods — my wife jokes about workends as opposed to weekends as this is the only time one can do laundry and baking. We are not nightowls so go to bed at a reasonable time and let the house cool off for best sleeping. During the day we avoid power using activities where possible. But still we need to go to the bathroom and move about — so the water pump runs on occasion. We have a lot of south-facing windows so our passive solar heating is quite good. During a snowstorm the sun is absent so we need to let the baseboards run to stay comfortable and avoid freezing the pipes. We tell ourselves that two sweaters are fashionable.

But this level of societal masochism is clearly not enough for these clowns. They want us to pay dearly for being diurnal and wanting to do things during the day. Good thing we are both retired — if we wrapped our lives around the schedules of work and school we would be even more constrained to use power in the ‘bad’ periods. It would seem to me that the ‘power planners’ have forgotten that our society is based on electric energy and by incentivising us to move away from it we move society back to a different mode of existence. It is like saying that global warming is a good thing and those killer London smogs of half a century ago were desirable and a model for everyone.

In a rural area there is no natural gas (sorry, cows) and trucked in fuel is always expensive — but at least it is not Time of Use metered (like those poor buggers in California). A lot of our neighbors use wood to heat — cheap and sustainable in small quantities although not very clean. If these idiots go forward we will also have to look towards some sort of combustion process to provide our own heat and maybe look to putting in a windmill to pump our water. This will certainly add to the greenhouse gasses and contribute to denuding the area of its trees (like many places in the world where they were forced to burn wood). With the trees gone there will be little to absorb the carbon dioxide and other pollutants that we produce.

We will survive, too bad about the environment. But gradually the trappings of 20th century civilization will be rolled back. Every house will have its fires, maybe we will rediscover candles as a source of light, and I am sure the garage will get turned back into a stable — we can grow oats, but $2/litre gas and even more expensive vehicles will be unobtainable. And non-polluting electric cars?? In your dreams. The prosperous, comfortable world that reliable, clean and affordable electricity made available to the citizens of Ontario and elsewhere will be gone. In its place will be the smoky towns and cities with people picking out their lives on the trash heaps of history. But the Lords of creation — the high party officials and corporate executives will live out their comfortable lives knowing that by refeudalizing soceity they have finally destroyed western civilization. What a waste…

The democracy of leaks

There was an amusing column in today’s New York Times about european reaction to the US comments about Wikileaks — in general they could be summarized as giving lie to statements about core American principles. TV watchers have already seen PBS interviewing two lawyers speculating on how the law could be tweaked to ‘bring the perpetrator to justice’.  And Sarah Palin has been calling for the US to hunt him down. I can hear the CIA kidnap team warming up already. Sieg Heil… you-all.

I have a couple of problems with the whole thing. One, it underscores just how sloppy US security really is — something I gather that China has been exploiting and probably other groups inimical to the US as well. And whistle-blowers generally bring the light of day to things that should be exposed — and is this really different? But the flow of outrage and extreme statements from the land of extraordinary rendition, Homeland Security and other aberrations suggests a refresher course on the difficulties of democracy and American history might be called for. We should remember ‘I do not agree with what you have said but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ and perhaps ‘when people give up freedom for security they soon find they have neither’. And of course the courtroom scene in ‘Man for All Seasons’ where the prospect of tearing down every law to get the devil is  ultimately fatal — as those inconvenient laws also provide our own protection.

But secrecy is unfortunately a necessary part of life — commercial negotiations are generally kept secret until the deal is done, brokerage houses have ‘chinese walls’ between the corporate finance people and the traders, military planners try to keep their ideas secret until needed, and so on. Once the deal is done it becomes history and should eventually become public. Otherwise how will future generations ever know the how and why of key decisions? But governments should have a public strategy for making all this information available once its time sensitivity is expired.

Personally, I have found the leaks refreshing. Its nice to know that our governments view some leaders as cynically as the rest of us. It is sometimes a pity that this level of openness would be destructive to the process of making changes. What other value this has I don’t know. I am more wishing that the US took security a little more seriously. All the blood lust and outrage being expressed will not undo any of it — and these expressions do nothing to improve the image of ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’. That is what sucks about principles — they are nothing if not followed.

Diseconomies of Scale

Today’s New York Times had a fascinating column about the rising debt crisis in the US among state and local governments. And the fear that the imbalances being created are so large that eventually lenders will balk. And this despite legislation in many places to not run a deficit. On this side of the border things are pretty quiet on this issue but the word that Ontario was going to borrow money from someplace to temporarily reduce power rates was ominous.

Governments are in love with the myth that amalgamating services into larger and larger aggregates is a good idea. This idea works when one is producing things — look at cement, corn, steel. But organizations of people don’t scale so nicely. There is a phrase (I think it may be called Brookes Law) from software development that adding people to a late project makes it later. The problem is management span of control and communications overhead. Every person that is added increases the communications and coordination overhead on everyone else. Bureaucracies seek to avoid this problem by setting policy — to provide rules and guidelines so the folks on the layers that actually do something can be effective while reducing the need to consult higher authority. But as organizations get larger, the amount of their resources that must be put into administration grows, I suspect exponentially. And I suspect that the difficulty of providing effective responses and even knowing what is going on also grows. So large organizations employ consultants to tell the bosses what is going on and suggest responses because those self-same bosses are too isolated and have too large a span to be effective any more. And all this command and control is expensive — so the cost of doing anything soars.

This leads organizations to do silly things — like rip out paved roads because the cost of maintaining them is too high or borrow money to pay for pensions or cut spending on education because the cost of jails for those uneducated and under-employed citizens is too much. So things that were routinely done in the past by smaller organizations and communities now become impossible because of the escalating costs.

The power grid is an excellent example — in the past regions were responsible for their own power and there was little interdependency. Now we have this huge and expensive grid so wind turbines in eastern Ontario can be backed up by gas turbines running in Toronto and all interacting in ways so complicated as to be almost impossible to manage. To some extent it is like the problem of computers with multiple processors sharing workloads. As processors are added, the amount of resources used to coordinate with the other processors rises until a point is reached where no work is getting done because all resources are being consumed coordinating this lack of accomplishment with the other processors. Human institutions seem to be working the same way.

So as taxes rise (to cover the rising cost of doing anything) and companies move the jobs elsewhere and workers are left as consumers rather than producers, there is not unreasonable calls to reduce taxes. But it is suggested that tax rates are a symptom of a deeper malady. Human institutions do not scale gracefully and the real solution should be to dissuade ourselves of this need for massive organizations. It is breaking down in front of us — and its not pretty.