Update – Triumph of Terror

Posted an addendum to ‘Triumph of Terror’ published 4-aug-2013 as a result of the discussion in the press today about the new, broader legislation the Harper government is seeking to implement. More than ever it seems that the real triumph of groups like Al-Qaeda has been to outsource their fight to destroy our societies to the very governments we trust to keep us safe. On both sides of the border the security apparat that has grown up is far more effective in crushing our rights than a couple of planes loaded with explosives could have ever been. As in 1984 we have unending wars in distant places with intractable, ever-shifting enemies for unclear objectives. Meanwhile our cities crumble, disease is starting to spread that we thought was under control, and a decent life becomes illusory for a growing number of our people.

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.

Political Impunity and Corruption

Somewhere, lost in a desert waiting to be discovered, is a battered cuneiform tablet with an essay complaining about how corrupt the current leaders are compared with their predecessors. I think about this when reading about a politician resigning from the legislature after a series of remarkably self-serving abuses (there have been a few). Or while under investigation another blandly stating that entitlements are entitlements so there is nothing to apologize for to anyone. Or much closer to home, the continued obsession of Ontario to cover the rural landscape with wind turbines despite any evidence that their power can be utilized (last weekend was a $10 million/day loss to ratepayers) or even afforded. Or what I like to think of as the ‘X-files’ view of government as a front for a group quietly working on some other agenda that will someday be revealed to our collective detriment.

Problem is that laws and codes of conduct are what we agree they are — nothing more. If I hold a raw egg out the window over a sidewalk, say from the second or third story, and drop it… there will be a mess on the sidewalk a few seconds later pretty much every time. There are natural laws — acceleration due to gravity, material strength of the shell and so forth, that dictate the survival of the raw egg. Human behavior is subject to no such clear cut and easily testable laws. Instead, we have culture and laws. And courts to argue the difference.

There is a lot of titter in the press of late about G-20 movements to reduce and eliminate corruption globally. But I suspect that everyone involved all think that corrupt practices are what the other guys do — but what they do is ok. Canadians are sure, for example, that what the Russians or Chinese do is corrupt. That in China, for example, there are no real business contracts but things get done or not based on personal relationships and obligations. Reminds me of what it was like getting consulting work in the Toronto financial services community — without personal ties, forget it.

Over the last weeks there has been mention in the press that some execs in OPG also sit on the boards of some of their suppliers. Or that the old head of the Ontario Liberal party was also the head of a wind turbine company. Is there a relationship between these connections and the obsessiveness by the Ontario government to landscape rural areas with unwanted wind farms? One wonders. But apparently it is not illegal for government execs to favor companies where they have personal financial interests. Is this corruption? Some might think so — others think its just business as usual.

As a taxpayer with little stomach for the long term manipulations of politics (learning what to kiss and when I’m sure) nor the massive personal resources and connections to play the game I can look at this with horror. But the problem with government and politics is that this is how it is played. A line from the play and movie ‘A Man for All Seasons’ comments on Sir Thomas Moore — ‘the first politician since Plato who did not grow wealthy from the bribes and benefits of office’. It is everywhere, not just Zimbabwe.

I suspect that as long as politicians are allowed to make rules that benefit themselves this problem will be with us. The US tries by making folks put their assets in blind trusts while in office to reduce this problem. But with lobbyists and the prospects of where they go after office makes arms length, impartial decisions a fond wish but dubious reality. And I may be wrong but I don’t think Canada even bothers to play this game of pretend.

What makes it worse is that everyone knows this so there is a corresponding culture of impunity — they can do what they want and no one can nay say them. At the worse a few bad days in the Globe and Mail, then back to the trough. Oh, occasionally someone will get tossed under the bus for appearances sake but jail is not a concern it would seem. And for someone with the right connections even that is not much of a factor.

The real miracle, one suspects, is that anything works at all.

Statistical Evidence

The other day there was another medical announcement which indicated that perhaps fat wasn’t so bad after all — seems it is essential for brain development. My wife and I have almost stopped reading these things — whatever is bad for you this week will likely be determined to be good for you next week. We are continually amused by the foods that fall in and out of favour, almost worse than skirt lengths and hairstyles.

And following the recent US elections there has been a spate of columns arguing for or against political campaigns that were based on ‘big data’ — statistical analysis of voters, their preferences, sensitivities and associated variables. Should the candidate part their hair on the right? How many votes will this pick up or loose? Ad nausea.

And medicine argues that by associating numbers with anecdotes about patient conditions and treatment responses they have become ‘evidence-based’. And treatments based on statistics are more valid than the old anecdotal approach — even though the underlying physiological mechanisms are no more understood than before.

There are, of course, the endless streams of meta-analysis where someone has collected the results of a whole population of studies and by suitable manipulation and data filtering declared that the real results of those studies were different than previously claimed.

Recently those of us on Amherst Island were treated to another example of this approach. Health Canada, assisted by a number of wind industry folks and fellow travellers (love that phrase from the 1950’s that loosely suggests unindited co-conspirators). No peer review, no involvement in the process of the protest groups or people who were not disbelievers. The media trumpeted that there were no health issues found. The report was a bit more nuanced — they did not talk to anyone who abandoned their homes. Those who were still there having problems (which were called ‘annoyances’) and found to have elevated stress hormones were told that this was due to being annoyed. So we had a case where ‘A’ (wind turbine noise) => ‘B’ (being annoyed by it) was somehow divorced from ‘C’ (biological markers of stress) but they did find that the people who were having problems did have the biological markers. My head hurts.

The global problem with all of this is that various attributes about the real world are sampled and subject to some analytical massaging. Then the proponent announces that the samples collected allow them to declare that the world works in a certain way and based on their study they could be sure that if certain things were done there would be specific desirable results. But no biological mechanism. I guess in a way what is happening is that various markers for a path through the unknown wilderness have been identified and marked on a map. These markers are connected to form a map — then the map is declared to be the territory. And confusion results.

I guess it is just very human to look for shorthand frameworks for explaining a large and complicated world. But it troubles me that there is so little humility about the extent of our knowlege. It is as though the classic phrase ‘only fools are absolutely certain of their facts’ were a broad and general statement about humanity as a whole. I hope not but it is hard to ignore.

Shift Overload

This afternoon yet another exhausted train crew were unwilling participants in a derailment and subsequent fire. The poor people in that part of Saskatchewan are concerned., I have read no news of the crew or whether this was yet another track fault or someone snoozed through a signal.

A recent article in the news indicated that train crews, due to the random scheduling of their work, are often exhausted and can fall asleep at the controls. A study had been under way by Transport Canada but was killed — the rail union carried it on to conclusion. Some decades ago train crews worked a scheduled shift but under the new and improved management they are scheduled without warning on an almost random, rotating basis. SO few have the luxury of a decent nights sleep.

Almost three decades ago, when I took over management of a 24×7 datacenter operation, I made a point of reading everything I could find about the issues of staffing this type of operation. What I found was a population of research that indicated it took almost two weeks before a person stabilized on a particular time schedule. So I tried to find people who liked to work nights to staff my datacenter and did not inflict the evil of rotating schedules on my staff.

But I found that I am the lost soul crying in the wilderness. While commercial aviation flight crews have proscribed hours — the occasional air tragedy shows that this is widely abused. Train crews, hospital staff and many others find themselves in this fix. Before she retired, my wife was working part time at the local hospital — her schedule was two days on days, three days off, two days on nights (12 hour shifts), rinse, repeat. Plus being available to come in for any shifts that may come up short — if she was really exhausted I would bring her to work and collect the body afterwards. No one seemed interested as to whether this exhausted person could actually do the work. The depressing part is that there was nothing unusual about how abusive this schedule was — and had there been a problem I am sure that the ‘system’ would have burned her personally rather than looking at how people were scheduled. And from looking at how my son–in-law and daughter-in-law are scheduled, this seems totally mainstream.

The problem I have with this is that all these people are in positions of public safety. If they made a mistake then people might die. But that risk seems ok — by adopting a staff scheduling model that spreads the people very thin and makes wild assumptions about their ability to cope while exhausted. In a sense they have individually accepted that this is how they are expected to work — but if something goes wrong they personally will be liable. We have seen this model many times before. It is the private profit, public risk model. By refusing to staff and schedule at levels that would maximize worker capabilities, these groups are increasing their profits at the expense of public harm should one of these over-tired employees fail at a critical moment. Lac Megantic was just an example — the potential is everywhere.

Is this really a world that we want for ourselves or our children?

Making change from climate change — or not.

Of late there has been a flurry of opinions thrown about regarding different capitalistic models to profit from climate change. Ostensibly, if we pick the right model, we can both make money and save the planet. Right…

Similarly, in Ontario, we have a government announcing that they were intent on having 20,000 megawatts of the provincial power supply provided by ‘renewables’ — which is interesting considering that currently the published generation capability is 27,000 megawatts — 12,000 is nuclear and 8,000 is hydroelectric. Today the Province was using 17,000 megawatts and there was very little wind. But rural areas are going to be carpet-bombed with these huge pinwheels over their strenuous objections. And so far the bulk of the power produced has to be dumped at fire sale prices. And to protect the grid, the power authority has been granted the ability to pay the wind folks for not generating power based on what they could have produced if we could have used it. No, I am not making this up…

Guess the problem of saving the planet has gotten tangled up with the need for the ‘right’ people to make money off it. Reducing emissions has become entangled with pricing ‘carbon’ and produced trade-able certificates that can be bought and sold for a profit. Similarly, Enron introduced a model for electricity markets where one speculated on future power prices to protect ones’ costs — interesting that Ontario is still very quietly trying to pursue that model. May have something to do with having Enron as advisers on how to make the Ontario power system ‘modern’…

The climate has been changing since the Earth first coalesced from the dust of the solar system. Change is perhaps the only constant. Every week one reads about some new relationship being discovered that influences climate. It ranges from shifts in the orbit and planetary orientation to the sun, through variations in solar cycles, to emission of gasses that trap infrared and conspire to produce a greenhouse effect — Venus is an extreme case. These gasses include carbon dioxide — the result of human respiration and combustion processes and methane — the result of animal flatulence, permafrost decomposition and clathrate decomposition. The latter is due to methane seeps on the ocean floor that crystallize as vast field of solids under deep sea pressures and temperatures. Problem is that as the seas warm this stuff is turning to gas and joining the party. Human emissions from fires, transportation and industry are part of the problem — but only part.

Now I am reasonably sure that industrial civilization, striving to burn anything they could get their hands on, have been big contributors to this mess. But since we are not the largest contributor it is only hubris that would lead us to suggest that any one series of actions would ‘save the planet’. We fuss about not having made accurate predictions about ISIS and yet they used the internet to spread their propaganda and had lots of folks watching them. How accurate do we really think our ideas of how the climate is changing and what, specifically, we can do to influence this — given that the atmosphere is a complex product of the actions of a very complicated global system [of which I think we have at best a few guesses but no real grasp] and the action of a large pile of people who do things for their own reasons.

I am inclined to think that the best thing we can do is worry about how to help all those people who are being affected by climate change. And develop strategies for how to adapt to a warmer and drier/wetter world (depending upon where you live). And leave the ‘who’s fault is it’ and who will pay discussions for the lawyers in a later and hopefully smarter time. Burning less is always a good idea. Those petrochemicals are likely far more valuable as feedstocks for chemical synthesis. And ethanol… give me a break. Putting ethanol in gasoline was an idea from the 1930s to improve farm income in the Depression. That we do it now to save the planet is ludicrous — infernal combustion engines run more poorly on it than without. If the goal was to reduce GHG than this really is not a solution.

My concern is that with climate change we are on the brink of the largest forced migrations in human history. And putting up the concertina wire to discourage immigration simply magnifies the eventual problems. So we will chase the ghost of emission credits, alternate technologies and so forth. But one suspects that the climate will continue to change regardless.

Meanwhile, the real elephant in the room is there are just too many people. We are the ultimate invasive species. Look at where we have been — we cut down all the trees, drink all the water and dig up everything that might be profitable. And when we have wrecked that place we move on. I have seen sober analysis that suggests if there were 1 billion people the Earth could absorb whatever we do. But 7 billion or 9 billion or more? We are rapidly over-running the carrying capacity of spaceship Earth. The real climate change problem is that this invasive species (us) is consuming the planet — we need to control our numbers or go elsewhere or both. Personally, I would vote for going elsewhere — just basic monkey curiosity if nothing else. I want to see our species go to the stars — nothing else will be enough.

What is Truth?

A story in the Globe and Mail about issues with TFW (temporary foreign worker) usage brought to mind a fundamental question — what is ‘truth’? For years we have seen stories in the media about the cutbacks in actual reporting and the increased reliance on central news agencies to supply our daily fixes. My wife and I find it mildly amusing to watch how a story propagates through the various online media — somewhat like the old joke about nerve transmission rates in dinosaurs (historic and corporate).

With most issues we are besieged with opinions about things — more how we should feel about them than what they are. Climate change is a good example but there are many, many others. With a little reflection it occurs that our reading habits orbit around the style of writing and editorial slant of the news services. I read the New York Times and the Globe, not the Sun (and not because I don’t like looking at scantily dressed females…) and never Fox (or is it faux?). Sorry, my tastes are showing…

It may be that ‘truth’ is a terribly difficult thing to pin down when it comes to human affairs. Physical things are different — simple math is sufficient, for example, to calculate the amount of energy released when a big rock slams into the planet at orbital speeds. But with people — particularly how people see the world around them and their relationship to it, it is much messier.

Research tells us that the vision process is filtered through the brain regions for memory — so what we see is to some extent controlled by our experience and cultural rules. Two people of wildly different social backgrounds, perhaps, for example, a wealthy Chinese person and a marginalized Detroiter, could see the same scene and describe it very differently. Or see the same circumstances and formulate very different thoughts about what can and should be done, if anything. So it is probably not unreasonable to think that if these two individuals were writing a news story it might be very different — a third party might not even recognize the two stories as being about the same event. And I would suggest that in the end the flavor of the story would govern how we responded to it based on whether it resonated or jarred our own sensibilities. Indeed I suspect that what we chose as our sources of information about the world is likely governed by precisely those kinds of factors.

Then we need to layer onto this mess the idea that the filtering process of news generation would emphasize some items and ignore others — and likely create a few more because it seemed artistically right to do so. A cynic would refer to this as embroidering on the ‘truth’ or worse. Or perhaps improving on the ‘truthiness’ of the story. In one episode of Babylon 5, a scifi TV series, a character used the term ‘realfact’ to describe events as they actually occurred. And ‘goodfacts’ for events as supportive of the current government talking points — the ‘spin’ du jour. Corporations shovel out many of them as well, by the way.

As I have gotten older and seen more of the world and heard differing descriptions of events, I find it is harder to be judgmental about many things. Deliberately reading a multiplicity of news sources is a quick way to get there… Al Jazerra, NHK news, Pravda and the New York Times sometimes see very different worlds. What makes it harder is that sometimes one of the actors flatly refuses to explain their reasons for things in recognizable terms. Why is China seemingly working so hard to destroy the culture of the Uyghirs and Tibetans? Or the mess in Ukraine? (Though I confess that in these cases it is more for the quietness of my spirit and intellectual curiosity than anything else.) Or, closer to home, why is the Ontario government so obsessed with covering the landscape with huge wind turbines over the protests of the residents and a demonstrated inability to use the power? This one matters to me — there are five of the things across the channel and the threat of 37 more surrounding me on this little island. And as a retiree our power bill is the second largest cost, rising more rapidly than taxes [freezing in the dark is so unattractive…].

And so, being aware that I am surrounded by a shifting sea of ‘goodfacts’ and probably would not recognize a ‘realfact’ if it hit me in the nose. I suspect that in the old days peoples’ world horizons were much smaller — video from the other side of the planet really changes appearances. News stories about these distant places were much easier to mentally reframe when it was largely an act of imagination, I am sure. Some of the old reportage was probably true. Some of the current stuff is too. Damned if I know how to tell which is which if I have no personal experiences to compare it with. Did we ever? Anyhow it seems the answer if we want one to the question ‘what is truth’ is ‘a beautiful flower than smells bad’. It is truely depressing how many things that applies to.