A number of factors came together in my mind this morning when I saw a comment on Farcebook. The individual was complaining about the retrograde progress being made in Ontario with the Green Energy program and the soaring price of power — the suggestion was that they were working hard to turn Ontario into a 3rd world province.

But on reflection I saw that there was some truth to this, and not just here. We are surrounded by initiatives that seek to redefine what used to be universal public services. What was once provided at a loss to some users but sustained because of the widespread public benefit derived — universal mail service, rural electrification, health care services and so forth.

And in the US it would appear that it is even worse — the civil war continues, not South vs North but 19th century values vs 21st. Social security, children’s aid, medicare, free public education (to say nothing of science and exploration) are all under attack. Socialist freeloaders and worse… what is odd is that in so many places those leading the charge claim to be religious fundamentalists — one wonders if they ever read the words of their founder about taking care of those around us?

There is this odd mantra that government services must make a profit — and if they cannot, outsource them to someone (no doubt well connected) who will. So costs go up and public services go down and the ghost is raised that if this austerity is not pursued, why in 20, 40 or more years the ‘system’ will be in trouble — so we have to act now and take things away from YOU.

In an odd sense this is all a logical extension of what used to be called the ME generation — narcissism so extensive that it has become the fabric of the culture. And all those folks being harmed by outsourcing, layoffs and soaring economic inequality — ‘tough’ seems to be the mantra. One might only point out to these people when they take a break from kicking others while they are down that these displaced people are the foundation of social instability. Ask the tsar how well that worked, or the Weimar Germans… or the rising pool of unemployed and underemployed in the US or Canada.

Peephole Optimization — Making Things Worse One Improvement at a Time

Been a while since I had much to say on this forum. My indignant sputters over the decline and fall of practically everyone has found ample outlet in the various news sources I read. And besides, why kick? No one is listening…

But today, Cold Air Online Facebook – Cold Air Onlineposted a link to Facebook for an article in another blog Blowing It On The Wind that brought a whole bunch of things together. My response was:

It actually does make perfect sense. What we have is an example of what in software development is called peephole optimization. One looks at a very small part of the overall program and makes changes to optimize it against some criteria — calculated speed of execution, storage use, etc. But because of the narrowness of the view, the overall destructiveness of the changes are not seen — in that the overall program runs much slower or perhaps doesn’t produce the intended results. Human systems are rife with these kinds of errors — in healthcare, to reduce costs, services are consolidated into larger and larger catchment areas – regional and then no doubt provincial hospitals. So costs go down, but overall results are worse because sick people must be transported further and by more expensive means. And more die in transit. So costs for running the hospital are lower but overall costs and public results are much worse. Horrah! This green energy stuff is very much the same — wonderful solutions to very narrowly defined criteria but overall almost everyone is net much worse off. Now what problem were we trying to solve? If it was poverty among the well connected, likely addresses. For everyone else maybe not so much.

This is the problem — we are surrounded by governments and businesses trying to optimize their processes to (hopefully) improve services and (even more hopefully) reduce costs. So they enlist the help of specialists to target items for improvement — but, as far as I have seen, show little interest in looking at the broader picture or for that matter even checking up afterwards to see if the results were achieved, and if so, at what cost?

Getting a liberal arts education, in the traditional sense, has very much fallen out of fashion. Instead, people are urged to study what at one time would have been considered very industry-specific skill sets (programs that were once funded by companies) instead of broader based programs. One no longer studies the philosophy of science but how xyz enterprises maximizes shareholder value by ignoring customer complaints. And so on. Looking at the big picture is very much a subversive view that must be stamped out.

So we have a case in Ontario where a previous conservative government, in the interest of achieving cost savings through economies of scale, embarked on a wholesale program of forced municipal consolidations. Where I live was one so affected — our little municipality was amalgamated with a shore-based area that has little time or money for our concerns. But because we are so different from them we have fewer services and higher costs. And our transportation issues all wind up in the lap of the Province, who are obsessed with the not inconsiderable issues of Toronto and have no attention for us — so the ferry service that we all depend on has been crippled this year because a needed upgrade for one of the other services was allowed to fall through the cracks. And the upgrade to end loading docks that would alleviate the slow strangulation of island farms has languished for over two decades and has no believable target for implementation. But we can no longer do it ourselves…

The example referenced at the start is good in that to optimize the favored power sources the suppliers of baseline power are being hurt. The net result is its all more expensive than it should be. But even this is an example — power generation is only a small fraction of overall greenhouse gas production. I tend to think of the long lines of cars and trucks slowly crawling across Toronto because road construction to address growing business volumes has been a political football. And the ‘affordable’ suburbs have no practical public transit that would allow people to reach their jobs. So TTC continues to mean ‘Take The Car’ as opposed to anything that addresses the problem. Oh, did I mention that they shut the system down on weekends to do maintenance, because the hours of system shutdown (it only runs 18 hours a day) are too inconvenient for the service organizations? But that is another rant…

I guess that at the core is a very human tendency to focus on what they want to see and ignore the messy details around it. This is magnified by an even more human trait to look at the short term and leave the long term to someone else. A recent news item — ‘petrolium company researchers in the 1970s noticed that their businesses were accelerating greenhouse gas accumulation that would lead to global warming — but their work was suppressed’. Why should anyone be surprised? While a philosopher might have suggested that the vast resources of the company could have gone to helping development of non-combustion driven transportation so the vast chemical productions from petroleum could continue, burning it all makes more sense in a short term, take the money and run environment.

Part of the scientific method is to formulate a hypothesis based on observation, then test that hypothesis to see if the predicted results are achieved. The political and business processes appear to be different in that there is no testing. Or if there is, the scope is very tightly defined so no inconvenient facts get swept into the results.

Here in rural Ontario, we are the dubious recipients of more and more wind plants, producing power that we cannot use, being harmed by soaring power prices we cannot afford. And when this stress makes us keel over, we have a long trip to the hospital, because service to the people who need it was not one of the optimization criteria used by the Province. I hope we live through it…


This morning I watched ‘Valentino’s Ghost: Framing the Arab Image’, a documentary on Al Jazeera. It covered the history of interactions between Europe and the Middle East — the invasions and conquests by Spain, France and England of different parts of the African North Coast and Middle East. The shameful history of the US and Iran. And of course Israel and Palestine. It is not pretty and it did make me wonder — what do we really know? How much of what is in the press is true and how much is just spin and illusion? And more to the point, if other countries were invading you, driving you from your homes, killing your families and taking your resources — what would you do? And how would you feel towards them?

There was a quote I heard a while back, from the first head of the CIA who remarked that if the average person in the street had any idea of what was going on then he had not done his job.

Not much to say, really. Just the thought that when situations are looked at from other perspectives sometimes it is difficult to believe our self-righteous rhetoric. And wonder how we can get beyond this state?

Public Services

Once upon a time, governments in the US and Canada embarked on programs to provide services to their citizens that were felt to be essential for all citizens but otherwise unlikely to be profitable for private enterprise. Rural electrification comes to mind. Municipal water supplies, mail, highway construction, even public health programs. As a former Canadian Prime Minister opined — ‘governments do what (only) governments can do’. I chose to interpret this as to mean that nation building sometimes means that government services may not be uniformly profitable when provided for every citizen but the effect of those services will benefit all.

That was then. Now it seems that the rule is profit must be derived from everyone. If servicing them is not profitable then they are simply cut off or made to pay steep costs unrelated to those of their fellow citizens in more fortunate areas. So we have the mail services being consolidated to group public dumping sites (regional mail boxes), rural electric power rates a multiple of what urban denizens pay, transportation being reduced to private car or nothing as rail and bus services are rolled back outside urban areas. And while governments have lots of money to spend bombing some poor slob on the other side of the planet, they have little to repair roads, build transit or operate hospitals in rural areas. The mantra is ‘economies of scale’ (which they do not understand), so it is seen as better to consolidate services into a mega-hospital in Toronto and shutdown the regional ERs. If the patient dies on the four hour drive then think of the money we saved…

I sometimes think that the MBA disease — how much money did we make this afternoon, and who cares what that did for long term prospects, has infected society from top to bottom. Long term planning is sacrificed for short term gains, however minor. Look at the last election — the ruling party in Ontario blew 1 billion dollars in cancellation fees by shutting down two regional power plant constructions to save a few parliamentary seats. That they are building a replacement plant within eyesight of this author next to an idled power plant is beyond belief — transmission losses pushing the output 200km suggests the original siting near point of need made sense. Besides, Ontario has a growing power surplus that is costing us all dearly and is projected to continue doubling costs every five or six years. Other than government employees, who would want to live in such a place?

So the roads and bridges are crumbling, ferry services where they have been too cheap to build bridges is struggling while strangling the economic development of the serviced areas. The towns that once had thriving local industries are dying all around us. Government policy it seems is that instead of 25 local dairy farms there are 2 or 3 because the one place they can sell their milk doesn’t like diverse suppliers — too much paperwork. And the variety of local cheeses is replaced by mega-corp bland products — made in multi-ton batches and predictable though flavorless.

A long time ago I ran into a comment that said, in effect, that all politics are local. The reason the leaders of large aggregates of people seem so unresponsive is that the world looks different from there. At that distance the issues of large pools of people merge and vanish. And besides, how can they keep track? Probably means that our ideas of government are wrong. Democracy works when the population is small enough that the leaders have a chance of knowing the electorate — like the Scandinavian countries. In Canada even the provincial aggregates are too large — the Premier, surrounded as she is with Toronto, just cannot imagine anything other that the big city. Rural areas get the hindmost, so to speak.

And looking at the costs of fixing what the big cities have now — the numbers are almost science fiction. No place in the budget for that. And besides, if a few potholes did go away, how many votes would that garner? The reality is that the infrastructure, like our society, is just falling apart from neglect. I am now wondering what it will take for people to start just walking away from it?

Schumacher was right. Small is beautiful — it is affordable, maintainable and likely governable. But as long as our leaders are infected with the disease that clamors bigger, bigger, bigger, ever more, our ability to live in a functional environment becomes ever more distant.

System scalability — a classic fail (again)

A very long time ago a firm I worked at decided to deploy a new, distributed application to the traders. And in keeping with all the latest ideas the application code was loaded from a common server connected to the trade floor. The idea was simple — code changes would be done to the one copy on the server so anytime anyone signed in they would get the latest and of course greatest…

There was, of course, a small catch in this idea. While loading an application like this from the server is fairly quick, 100 more or less simultaneous logons are a different matter. It took hours and there was serious talk of having some poor clerk come in at 4am to sign on all the workstations so by the time everyone got in their machine was ready to go. It was, I confess, fun to watch the very smart development team confront the fact (with some help) that their clever idea was actually pretty costly.

From talking to my brother-in-law over the weekend it sounds like the medical records system he is required to use for charting was designed by some of the same folk. Logon is 15-20 minutes (this is a doctor sitting there waiting for the system to respond, remember). Record changes takes minutes. The day starts early and ends late due to the ponderousness of the whole application and the multiple layers of signon security built in. Didn’t ask if a chart could be shared — I am almost afraid of the answer.

Problem is that computers are really poor at sharing anything but very good at faking it. Easy to forget, especially in these days of applications with little bits spread all over the landscape. And on local networks, no matter how fast, transfers happen one bit at a time.

The old and much maligned mainframe systems did one thing right — their design sacrificed pretty much everything that slowed down processing and allowed applications to shovel data through at great rates. But these systems required a real understanding of what was going on to design and operate. Not quite as light and fluffy as todays GUI (gooey?) development tools that emphasize simplicity and cute effects for down to the bone functionality.

So we save money on building the code, pat ourselves on the back for what a contemporary, glossy system we have built. And force the highly skilled and not inexpensive people who have to use it to fiddle while waiting for someone’s cleverness to work. Guess this is another case of cost cutting at the wrong end — somehow it seems to me that lifecycle costs for all those high priced users would have been a better optimization target than development. But then they did have a few massive fails getting it off the ground to begin with. Glad the sales folk and the well-connected consulting house management made their commissions. Looks like the rest of us will be paying for this for years.

Forward Into the Past

Thought crossed my mind today, somewhere between the news flier touting propane appliances as the latest ‘green’ technology and the ‘science’ article questioning why people persist in the controversial strategy of even considering nuclear power — that perhaps we should simply declare that the 19th century was really the best of all times and that we are rolling everything back to then. Finish the job of dismantling the grid, stop commercial airplanes and cars, continue to do nothing to hold back the return of highways to the dirt, no more vaccinations — disease is good and culls the population, and so on. Just think… Steam Punk as prescience.

After all, the 19th century robber barons appear to be the model of the ideal contemporary citizen. Social services? A wasteful excess — besides, no one worth taking care of does not have the means to hire their own doctors. Who cares about the others. Not worth mentioning anyhow. Climate change? A myth — besides, there are those ski resorts in Antarctica to consider now that Whistler is getting rain. And if we cut wages enough then maybe our suits and gowns can be tailored here rather than in Hong Kong. And it will be easier to get domestics.

And look at how much money can be made by keeping the world in a perpetual state of regional wars. And provides a sink for the surplus lower classes. The security services will keep the rabble away from the estates anyhow.

And I am sure there will always be some aviation — got to have some way of getting the produce in from South America now that California is going back to desert. Too bad we were so successful in killing off local agriculture. But we can sell all that abandoned land around the wind plants to folks from away and they will bring in their own coolies to till it. As for the huge pile of people in the cities? Heck, they will find ways to cope. After all, ‘Soylent Green’ provided a model.

The kernel of truth in all this is that the strength of the 19th century, as practised in the industrial US anyhow, was that it was as locally self-sufficient as possible. Bringing stuff from away was difficult and expensive so people made due with what was available. Houses used local materials and were designed to suit local conditions, not fashion statements from somewhere else. The local machine shop and pottery made what you needed as did the local woodwright. And most food was local too. Self-reliance, a traditional virtue I think we have largely forgotten.

Nice fantasy. But tough to do when there are sooooo many people and even more to come. Problem is that coping with the world we are making will just not work by rolling back the clock. 21st century problems require 21st century solutions. After all, at one time gasoline was considered too dangerous to use, but we learned. Supporting huge piles of people simply requires huge amounts of power — and there are very few choices available to produce it. We need to stop whining and do some engineering — or the road back to the 19th century will not be pretty.

Fire Good

The New York Times had an interesting article about biofuels this morning. The suggestion was that this approach was a losing proposition over the long haul with a growing population. So to move away from carbon different approaches were advised. The comments, for the most part, were typical as well — most were still stuck in the reality of a fire-based society and were more prepared to argue the different forms of fuel that step back and look at the big picture.

But I see it a bit differently and am perhaps a bit more pessimistic. My comment:

“‘Fire good…’ one of our ancestors must have acclaimed a long time ago. Yep, still doing it — just got a lot more creative about forming the fuel. Cut it down, dig it up, grow it and weave into baskets before burning… all pretty much the same. The rub is that there are more of us so using the atmosphere as an intermediary carbon store is not going to reduce levels. And the problem is that ‘biofuels’ are costly to produce — by substituting technology for time. Lets face it, fire is biological solar power releasing the energy captured by plants over time. Its virtue is energy storage in a stable form.

So sure, we can come up with technological equivalents for natural processes but the basic issue of more people makes this a losing proposition. And it diverts resources from other uses.

The challenge is how to live (or not) an energy-intensive lifestyle without burning stuff to do it. The key is storage and transmission of power and coming to terms with other forms of generation. Just changing the brand of what we put in the tank is not going to do it, regardless of how much their advocates claim.”

Think about it, really. Coal, oil, wood, gas are all carbon compounds produced at the end of some process that started with photosynthesis a long time ago. With the exception of wood, pretty much everything else requires heat and pressure over a very long time to transform the original biomatter into the present forms. But essentially it is just biological solar power. Sunlight transformed into a material that is burned to release the captured energy through a chemical reaction and return the bound carbon into the air — to be picked up by a photosynthetic organism someplace and recycled. The air is just an intermediate store in the whole process. Recycled… is that not the point of ‘renewable’ energy anyhow?

Problem is that the arc of our civilization is based on consuming more and more energy as we use technology to leverage our existence away from our primitive fore-bearers. Sitting here in the house writing on my computer, radio playing in the background, heating system keeping me warm, etc — probably using more energy every day than my distant ancestor in a cave used in his lifetime.

But with more people and each of them using more energy that is a lot of carbon that used to sit in the ground floating around and contributing to global climate change by absorbing heat directly. The problem is burning stuff to release energy, not so much IMHO the form of the carbon source being burned. So biofuels are really a diversion — we have been using biofuels all along, are just substituting technology (and consuming some of the released energy) to hasten the process. More people, more burning stuff, more crud in the air… not a good direction. (Take that, tar sands…)

The problem is really storage and transmission. A jug of gasoline or a pile of coal is a lot of stored energy sitting there. While it has been suggested (in the article for sure – a factor of 50) that solar panels were a far more efficient way to convert sunlight into power we don’t have a good way to save it for later. Even pushing it to the other side of the country is not without losses — and they do mount up. Losses upping the voltage, passing through the wires, dropping it to a safe level at the other end. There are a variety of views as to how much gets lost end to end — I have seen as low as 9% (how hydro grosses up our usage) to as high as 30% (Lawrence-Livermore Labs US energy flows). The reality is out there somewhere. One suspects that by making every larger and more interconnected grids we are making it worse [think one grid to rule them all…]. And like most things bigger is more brittle and harder to manage. Try telling that to politicians infatuated with ‘economies of scale’.

There is another problem to mention as an aside — our fire-based civilization (many of them, really) is a 24 hour beast. In the past life was driven by the sun unless you were very rich — the day started when the sun came up and wound down at the other end. Still, consider the lifecycle of someone using the sun for power, extended, most inefficiently, by energy storage into the night. Adding wind really doesn’t change much — the wind blows when it blows, not when you need the power it is producing. (And wind is driven by temperature differences globally — wonder how that will change as the planet continues to warm?) And backing all this ‘renewable’ power up with gas generators that have to run all the time to be ready and warm when needed isn’t as much a solution as a sort of slight of hand. We pretend the power is non-carbon but its an illusion, even ignoring the industrial processes and material needed to make huge swaths of solar panels and towering concrete, steel and fibreglass wind turbines. The natural gas keeps being burned day and night and the exhaust bubbles into the air.

What is the solution? Wish I knew — but it is probably electric in some form. Don’t think 9 billion people are going to go back to agrarian societies subsistence-farming their local patch of land. And neither will huge cities work well if the lights, heat and water all go off at sunset. To say nothing of the 1,000 mile oxcart run to bring in food. So there is still a need for large scale power storage and transmission. The later is less of a problem if generation and use are more localized — fewer extension cords and points of failure. Problem is some poor city-dweller is going to have to accept a power facility down the block. Sorry about that.

As I see it the big problem areas are mobile sources of power — cars, trucks and especially aviation. There are solutions for boats, mostly because they are almost small cities and adding tons is less of a problem. And rail has been electric for a long time in some places. Bullet trains are all electric, diesel locomotives are really electric with their own oil-fired dynamos (still burning stuff). Steam locomotives died out mostly because they had no way to recycle the water — a problem in many areas (and getting worse).

Personally, I would love to have an electric car. A lot simpler than the beast parked in the driveway [a small truck]. But I use that thing at most two or three times a week — ok because the gas just sits there and the starting energy in the lead-acid battery persists long enough. If it were much longer even that would be problematic. Most electric storage doesn’t work anywhere near as well and its heavy so the amount that can be carried is reduced [think amount of energy and the weight of the storage to hold it]. So even the best have a far shorter range than the beast with a full tank of gas and take a lot longer to recharge. Industry has used electric trucks in plants for a long time — but I don’t know anyone who is even trying to do a delivery van with batteries. Its all the same problem — energy storage.

So meanwhile, once again in my humble opinion, all this work at carbon capture and alternate biofuels is just a waste. Even if we succeed in some of these processes the growing population dooms us. Getting out of this mess without making an unlikely societal transform is only going to happen if we find new ways of producing and storing energy that don’t require burning things — its not a contest that burning chunks is bad but liquids are good [or somesuch]. May even have to face our fears about nuclear and perhaps admit that the first generation plants were not so good (although statistically enormously better than the alternatives — the fear is not based on what did happen, only what could have).

In a sense it is a far bigger challenge than going to the moon. And it will be hard. But like that latter effort the real benefit will be what we learn along the way. Would be encouraging to see more movement in that direction and less on making burning stuff even more inefficient. But so far, not so much.