Thursday, October 31, 2013

Vulnerability to climate change map

Here's a map that should depress the hell out of anyone who has been following climate change news.  I am one of those people who has long believed that the manifestations of climate change are most noticeable the closer you get to the poles.  And so I have included reports of last summer's drought in the American Midwest, the floods in central Europe, and more recently I could have included the wildfires in Australia or the storm that smashed into Sweden with hurricane-force winds.

Well, if this map is correct (and there is no reason to believe it isn't) the areas I have believed to be especially ravaged by climate change are in fact the ones in pretty good shape.  My guess that my confusion is based on a perception bias caused by the fact that science gathering and news coverage of the climate crises is just better in places like Sweden and Germany than it is in Sierra Leone.  And considering how dangerous climate change has already become in places like Minnesota, it is frightening to image how bad it must be in Bangladesh.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Neoliberalism's most dangerous flaw

Easily the worst feature of neoliberalism is the insistence that everything must be run by individuals for a profit.  In their world, there are no public goods and nothing worth doing even if it doesn't make anyone a dime.  This viewpoint is wrong to the point of being insane.

The failed econ profession

The economics establishment simply must realize that they are losing their legitimacy.  Of course, that would require a self-awareness not exactly common to the profession.  Ken Galbraith used to say that successful revolutions were mostly about kicking in a rotten door.  Doors don't get much more rotten than the economics taught in our finest schools.  As recently as April, we watched as the brilliant Steven Colbert reduced arguably Harvard's most important economist to an object of ridicule.

Two things prevent the revolution from happening: 1) The economic establishment has a DEEP bench—they hold every important job in the profession so any change must come from outside, and 2) The guys who must kick down the door simply do not have their act together and the theoretical underpinning that Marxism provided from 1848 to 1989 was discredited.  So unfortunately, the crackpot theories of neoliberalism tend to win by default.  Even so, I take joy in watching these smug, arrogant fools crash and burn with their ridiculous ideas.  And as a good Lutheran preacher's kid, I can hope the Reformation in economics is coming soon.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Absolutely necessary—electric trains

This is the sort of idea that we especially like around here.  Trains burning diesel fuels must be replaced if we are ever to get a handle on fossil fuel consumption (both because of peak oil and carbon loading of the atmosphere). Of course, such trains will not be an improvement if the electricity they use is generated by burning coal but the basic idea is still sound.

The real obstacle to plans such as the steel interstate is that the nation claims it does not have the money for big projects.  Perhaps if we called it a war then the budget hawks wouldn't be so hawkish but seriously, I doubt it.  To make a serious dent in carbon emissions, we are going to need 100s of such projects which, in turn, means we simply must update the mechanisms by which such projects are funded.  Mostly, this means we must wrest the control of finance away from the crooks and charlatans who have such a death-like grip on the global money supply.

Steel Interstate Concept

The Steel Interstate System is a core national network of high capacity, grade separated, electrified railroad mainlines. It would realize for railroads what the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System achieved for roads, and would become the backbone for movement of both goods and people in the 21st Century.

The concept for the Steel Interstate System in the U.S. is for a grade separated 2 to 3 track, electrified system accommodating both freight and passenger rail as depicted in the design features of the illustration by Craig Thorpe.

Steel Interstate Design Features (Click to enlarge)

The concept of a Steel Interstate System in the U.S. is analogous to the Interstate Highway System that has been built out over the last 50 years. That has given us a core national network of high-capacity, grade-separated roads that made travel faster and safer than on the old system of U.S. Routes.

Today’s railroads are like the old U.S. Routes – built a long time ago and often seriously under-engineered and lacking in capacity to handle the demands of today’s shipping volumes. Therefore, a dollar of transportation investment made today can often have a bigger impact in increased freight-carrying capacity when invested in rail instead of in more highway lanes.

The railroads have been investing billions of dollars in improved infrastructure, but they are limited in what they can do with internally generated funds from earnings. To restore balance in our national transport network, we need a steel interstate program funded though government-private partnership to create a core network of high-capacity privately owned rail freight corridors for the 21st Century. This same system can be used for passenger rail for medium to short range distances and as a feeder to high speed passenger rail.

This approach would only be used where public benefits exceed public investment cost. But there is another vital consideration. Today in the U.S. our national transportation system is virtually 100% dependent on oil. We need to be planning now to cope with a world without cheap and abundant oil, or without oil at all!

Railroads can be readily electrified, so our Steel Interstate can be powered by whatever fuels (nuclear, coal, solar or renewables) are then being used for electrical generation.

With proper planning over ensuing decades, we can have a core national steel interstate system in place before oil (or natural gas) becomes prohibitively expensive or runs out. Featuring a network of high-capacity, electrified rail lines, it would be the backbone for movement of both goods and passengers in this country.

Long-distance trucks can also be carried on such trains. Though this has been done in Europe for some time, the knee-jerk approach to accommodating trucking growth in the U.S. has always been to build ever more lanes of highway.

The RAIL Solution Steel Interstate Concept Whitepaper was created in 2011.

More information on the Steel Interstate Concept and the North American Steel Interstate Coalition is available on the Steel Interstate Coalition website.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Arctic is melting

Yes, I know.  We are supposed to be concerned about government shutdowns, the software glitches surrounding the rollout over Obamacare, and NSA spying. But compared to the dilemmas posed by climate change, somehow these problems seem so irrelevant.  No we don't know exactly what these high temperatures will lead to but we DO know none of the alternatives will be good.  Moreover, we know that humans are creating these problems.  In theory we could fix things.  In practice, there is very little hope because we are so easily distracted by trivialities.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Does Energiewende have any chance of success?

Energiewende is the name given to Frau Merkel's green energy strategy and not surprisingly, it isn't working very well.  There are many good reasons why this is so but front and center is Germany's problems with the hangover caused by so many failures of Eurozone financial institutions.  Just as in USA, finance is sucking up all of society's loose change.  So the problems the Germans are trying to solve, which are damn near impossible to solve in the first place, are now supposed to be addressed with fewer resources.

While the following critique is certainly worth reading, it is another reminder of Sibelius' famous observation that no one ever built a monument to a critic.  You see, Herr Neubacher, Energiewende is an attempt to solve a problem that simply MUST be solved.  There. Is. No. Alternative.  Yet you think that Energiewende is something that can simply be "ditched."  I don't think so!  Besides, what's the point of only illuminating problems?  The whole idea in life is to propose solutions and as you seem to understand, Energiewende needs plenty of friendly amendments.  And take a deep breath.  Virtually ALL of Germany's green efforts to date have produced an infrastructure that is superb by any international comparisons.  Very little is such a failure that is must be destroyed.  There are genuine successes to build upon.  And there are probably some very good ideas worth trying—if only they are funded properly.

In the interests of the petty real estate speculators

Because the history of the USA is mostly about filling up a continent with immigrants, the dominant economic activity from day one was real estate speculation.  Yes, guys like me like to stress that what made USA unique was its nurturing of invention and inventors, but in the cold light of day I must admit that the foremost economic activity was drawing imaginary lines on the ground and selling the resulting plots.

Unlike the process of perfecting the mass production of steel or inventing the microchip, it doesn't require much genius or capital to get into real estate speculation.  In fact, there wouldn't BE much speculation if it wasn't an activity almost anyone could get into.  Even so, what land is "worth" is usually a function of what someone does with the land and THAT usually requires genius, capital, and in the case of something like agriculture, a lot of hard work.  What this means is that while the number of potential participants in real estate speculation is very large, especially when practiced on a continent-wide scale, there are very few folks who become John Jacob Astor wealthy.

What made the real estate craziness of the early 21st century different was the idea that mortgages could be bundled and sold on Wall Street.  While all real estate bubbles are doomed, this one was especially cursed because this bundling undermined hundreds of years of legal magic that protected the values of land with those lines drawn on it.  Hard to bundle mortgages if every time they change hands, folks have to trek down to the county offices to change the title. So when Wall Street got involved in the business of petty real estate speculation, it caused the bubble to inflate faster and by destroying the legal magic that has given "legitimacy" to the whole enterprise over the years, made the resulting collapse much MUCH messier.

It is easy once in a while to just dismiss the whole affair as a bunch of low-level victimless crimes.  From sales, to the inspectors who assess valuation, to the mortgage lenders, to the legal magicians, real estate attracts some pretty unsavory characters.  If those folks are hurting because they were out trying to corner some greater fraction of unearned wealth, it is hard to muster much sympathy.  But when we look at the collapse of a real estate bubble, we are also talking about folks who are losing their homes, farms, and businesses.  So while we are looking at the destruction of a lot of fake valuations, we are also see the destruction of real wealth.  It is this factor makes the resulting economic catastrophe so long-lasting and nasty.

When the big players on Wall Street got involved in a petty business like real estate, it was a sign that they were running out of ideas.  There was something especially vile about using the sophisticated financial machinery of Wall Street to loan-shark sub-prime mortgages.  The utterly lame response to the crises of 2008 shows pretty clearly that the big boys are still out of ideas.  Of course the reason they are out of ideas in the first place is that they limit their imaginations to get-rich-quick schemes.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Greenspan's got a new book out

Known Ayn Rand acolyte and former Fed Chairman who was at the helm when the gamblers on Wall Street crashed the global economy September 15, 2008, has a new book out to justify his wretched existence.  It's called The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting.  He doesn't even begin to address the destruction of billions of lives his crackpot ideas have caused humanity.  Rather, he thinks he is clearing his name by admitting that markets are not as rational as he once thought.  And water is wet.

Of course, Greenspan has not always been a self-admitted fool.  More typical of his reputation in Washington was captured in Bob Woodward's 2001 ball-licker entitled Maestro: Greenspan's Fed and the American Boom.

And if you watch this clip from the Daily Show, keep in mind that this simpleton was one of the most important actors on the global economic stage.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

TPP—naked predation

To be perfectly honest, I don't actually know what it is in the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership.  I am not supposed to know—that is the whole idea of these so-called "free-trade" deals.  But I am quite sure I will hate it—just as I have hated all such neoliberal sludge going back to my last political actions in opposition to NAFTA.  I still have a sample of my thoughts from 1993 over at the Elegant-Technology website.

These trade deals are an affront to everything I believe about how an economy should be organized.  I am a centrist who believes that successful economies are those that are quality mixtures of public and private actions.  You need BOTH.  In my mind, Marxism failed (and will always fail) because the true believers insisted that everything should be decided by the group—and the group had to be guided by political specialists who strove to maintain ideological purity.  The opposite is represented by the Libertarian / Neoliberal extremists who argue that everything should be organized by "private enterprise."  Trade agreements like NAFTA are fatally flawed because they keep outlawing creative options for collective action.  There are big fat books cataloging the disasters of the privitization-of-everything craze of which NAFTA was so large a part.  I consider neoliberalism an ideological disaster on par with the failure that was Marxism.

Back to the present.  The one thing Marxism and neoliberalism share is that they are BOTH manifestations of Predator-Class thinking.  And both fail because they produce shoddy societies.  Marxism gave us Wartburgs and Ladas and the Great Leap Forward.  Neoliberalism gives us bridges that fall down and the deindustrialization of USA.  Well, folks, the planet can no longer support so many devotees of shoddiness and these days, the bad guys are the ones who claim we must always organize our economy to do things on the cheap so that the Predators can live ever more extravagant lives.  Because the only meaningful solutions to the big problems by definition MUST include the economics of the Producers who must build the new green society, neoliberalism's crackpot schemes like the TPP are literally a death sentence for the planet.

see also:
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Will they end public banking with another trade agreement?

Sunday, August 18, 2013
Neoliberalism is just everywhere

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Instinct of Workmanship lives on

I once attended a Veblen conference where academics presented papers on the life and thoughts of TBV.  The mere fact that there are still folks who have university-level jobs while specializing in Veblenian scholarship is, when you think about it, pretty damn amazing.  His status in the eyes of the economics world is virtually non-existent in this age of neoliberalism while he has been relegated to fuddy-duddy status by the sociologists and cultural anthropologists who once found room for his thinking.  One reason for his decline in polite academic society concerns his now politically incorrect idea that humans possess an instinct to do wonderful work.  So there was paper trying to deflect the embarrassment that some at the conference obviously felt when associating with an historical intellectual who shamelessly embraced the idea of human instincts.

Me, I sat and listened in amazement.  After all, The Instinct of Workmanship was Veblen's personal favorite.  I believe it was his best by far.  The central idea of I of W was that force and the threats of force which so many consider central to workplace relationships is simply unnecessary and counterproductive.  It is impossible to overstate the importance of such a notion to all discussions of economics.  Besides, I believe in the instinct of workmanship because I have seen it in action.  All my friends have it in abundance—which is reason #1 why they are my friends.  So as I listened to some fourth-rate academic try to sweep this powerful insight under the rug I could only mutter, "The ONLY people who don't believe in the instinct of workmanship are those who don't have much of it!"

Tonight I watched the Apple presentation of their new fall product line.  I have gotten hooked on these things over the years mostly because it was so much fun to watch Steve Jobs get so excited about how Apple was advancing the state of the computer-building arts with some new device or new way of servicing the customer.  Then there were the graphics.  Apple's most loyal customers were the creative professionals so they had to be impressed.  Apple's graphics department has only world-class practitioners and every slide in their presentation had probably been selected from thousands of interesting possibilities.

Well Jobs is gone but his legacy lives on.  The guys running Apple may not have Jobs charisma but they are still very dedicated to advancing their art.  Apple's business plan is to build devices that are so noticeably better than their competitors offerings that people will pay premium prices for them.  For example, the new iPads only weigh 16 ounces (454 grams) yet have ultra-high definition screens, 64 bit architecture, and a 10 hour battery life squeezed into a case only 7.5 mm (.3 inches) thick.  They run over 450,000 apps.  You can record and edit a high-def video or compose music with this one-pound device.  Amazing.

It seems the way Apple intends to justify its premium prices is to package their most popular software with all their devices.  For example, you can now create a coffee-table photo book on their freaking iPhone—that used to be a pretty big deal on their desktops.  It was only a few years ago that I made some of those books for some especially generous donors to a preservation society I was part of.  Everyone was impressed including the donors.  Now on a smart-phone!  And just to show we desktop folks will not be forgotten, there's a new version of OSX that fixes some of the more glaring problems of Dictation—the speech to text application I hope to master.  Again for no cost.

Anyway, it was delightful to see again what is possible when folks are allowed to indulge their instincts of workmanship.  These are truly remarkable devices designed by a company that has the money to spend on excellence and the desire to spend it on making their products more useful.  Folks who believe that one of the routes to true value is to avoid making things on the cheap.  Apple is proof that the Producer strategies are still the best.

Now imagine what would happen if we allowed this obsession with excellence to tackle the big problems like climate change.  Because if we do not and let the folks with slumlord mentalities continue to run things, we will ruin the planet.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Renewables teething problems

As anyone old enough to remember paying $2600 for a 40 meg hard drive can tell you, coming early to a technology party can be very, very expensive.  And so it is with Germany's experiment with green energy.  To get where she is, Germany had to subsidize the R & D and production of the green equipment and then subsidize the installation of that equipment.  Not surprisingly, German green energy is some of the most expensive in the world. And not so surprisingly, those who have trouble paying for that expensive electricity are not happy about this state of affairs—especially when they can look around and see solar panels now selling so cheaply that those low prices are actually triggering trade disputes.

Those with a meaningful grasp of how technology develops see nothing remotely surprising about Germany's green economic dilemmas.  She wanted to lead the way for a wide assortment of reasons and is now paying the bills for being early adapters.  There ARE advantages for being first which is why folks still fight over patents, but that is of little consolation to the poor Germans who can barely feed themselves after paying the electrical bill.  The obvious solution would be for Germany to now subsidize electrical rates for its low-income customers.  Whether or not this is politically possible in today's conservative landscape is anyone's guess.  Germany has already promised to underwrite its inept and corrupt banking sector so is probably feeling apprehensive about now promising to add energy subsidies to its already expensive welfare state.

But pay attention folks.  Being second (fourth, tenth, etc.) to the technology party is only an advantage if the problems encountered by the leaders are studied very carefully.  Of course, cheap solar panels change the whole game in highly significant ways but there are still problems of integrating an energy system that produces power intermittently with a grid that requires and has supplied power on demand for several generations.

It should be noted that even with all the teething problem of Germany's attempts to redesign her society to run on renewable power sources, the polls still show that her citizens still support the effort by wide margins.  It seems like the plan to include a wide swath of her middle class in the investment and installation of much of the green infrastructure has paid handsome political dividends.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Euro crises is far from over

In spite of the lack of headline news, the economic depression that continues to hammer much of the Euro-zone keeps rolling on.  Of course, this comes as absolutely unsurprising for two rock-solid reasons; 1) The policies of austerity can ONLY make things worse for the same reasons that blood-letting never cured anyone, and 2) Economic problems never solve themselves.

What is so astonishing to those of us who have never lived in a country with active and successful Socialist political parties is how easily Europe's left has been seduced by the austerian arguments of the bankster classes.  Like the Democrats in USA, they have been content to putter around in their own garden of political correctness while they assume the big economic decisions are being attended to in responsible ways guided by the science of economics.

So because the mainstream parties refuse to address the big subjects like "why money creation must result in public debt" or "why exactly should monetary policy be set by central bankers who are allowed to operate outside of political constraints" they are rapidly losing their followings.  New political groupings are beginning to emerge but as the article below points out, there are some strange bedfellows joining forces.

Of course, when viewed through the lens of Veblen's business-industry dichotomy, the groupings are not strange at all.  Interestingly, the essay below claims in the headlines that big business is joining up with increasingly radicalized Italian youth while the text claims it's the captains of industry—so we can assume the writer is most certainly ignorant of Veblen's insights.  But as the economic crises in Europe grinds on because the banksters and their flunkies in government and academe refuse to open their eyes to the insanity of the austerian starvation cure, the rest of us who are forced to try to get the community's necessary work done with ever fewer resources may eventually find each other politically.  Maybe!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The final garbage dump?

I once heard a serious scientist explain that one of the "solutions" to the carbon loading of the atmosphere was an organized system to "sequester" the carbon in the oceans.  It was if he was arguing that compared to the skies, the oceans are so vast that little harm could come of his crackpot proposal.

Like all such cheap band-aid "solutions," this proposal seriously undervalued the oceans as a resource, underestimated the almost limitless opportunities for producing CO2, while sidestepping the only real solution to pollution—don't cause the problem in the first place.

The death of the oceans seems especially remote to people like me who live in the center of a continent and must engage in some expensive travel to even see an ocean.  The link between my electrical consumption with a danger to something so vast doesn't seem immediately obvious.  Seafood is but a TINY fraction of my diet so its disappearance would cause me no hardship.  But pay attention fellow landlubbers—the health of the oceans is important to us in many ways so even things we never see are critical to our lives.  The most obvious example is how ocean currents and temperatures impact our weather but there are many others.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Solar starts to win economically

I have long argued that the only effective way to change a person's mind or behavior is to give them a better alternative.  In fact, I am convinced that without an alternative, laws, social pressures, political movements, etc. will change absolutely nothing.

So now we see how quickly solar cells have changed the economic landscape once they became affordable to regular people.  Economically, they border on magic.  The usual scenario is when someone buys a piece of technology, the costs have only begin.  With PV cells, you buy the technology and it immediately starts giving you something of value.

For a guy my age, I find this fact hard to comprehend even if I have been a solar booster since I saw my first PV cell in the late 1950s.  Of course, part of my problem is that PV cells have been so expensive for so long (roughly $75 per watt when I first looked) that I have devoted a significant fraction of my thinking over the years to radical power consumption shrinkage combined with public subsidies to cover the costs of renewables.  I look forward to adjusting my thinking—mostly because such adjustments bring me real joy.

Perhaps the best part about the widespread adoption of PV cells is that FINALLY we can end the age of coal.  If we never burn another piece of that most dirty fuel it will be only step one in a meaningful solution to carbon loading of the atmosphere.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Moving it around—green energy relies on upgraded grids

One of the key components to the realization of green / mostly-electric society is a better distribution system.  Not only must electricity get moved from windy and sunny sites to where it is needed but most storage strategies rely on movement as well.  The main problem is that moving electricity very far involves significant loss. And then there is the problem that big distribution schemes means big towers that many find offensively ugly.

I once heard a speaker claim the most famous person in the future will be whoever figures out a way to create low-loss electrical distribution—suggesting that the next Bill Gates will have expertise in material sciences.

Not surprisingly, the Germans are leading the way in confronting the problems of distributing green energy.  The rest of us can only wish them luck.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Riksbank Prize—the economics profession celebrates its fools

Considering the almost never-ending list of major economic catastrophes that afflict the planet, it would seem that the Riksbank Prize (Nobel) committee should consider suspending their award out of sheer embarrassment.  I mean, what exactly must go further wrong before they decide that maybe, just maybe, the folks they have been giving the prizes to are crazy.

Well, it didn't happen this year.  They managed to find some more neoliberal crackpots that have managed to hide their bullshit beneath some fancy-sounding theories and good-looking math.  This is apparently enough (according to the Riksbank jurors) to make folks forget that their economics will lead to neofeudalism, slavery, child labor, massive unemployment, environmental catastrophes and the rest of lovely manifestations of backward economic thinking.

The whole Riksbank / Nobel charade was designed to single out economics as somehow more scientific than the rest of the social sciences.  This is clearly a lie—real science recognizes errors and seeks to correct them.  This is why science makes progress while other forms of thinking do not.  How any thinking that deliberately seeks to bring back 19th century capitalism can been considered scientific is a mystery.  But then, the Riksbank Prize isn't designed to reward scientific progress—it is designed to put a "scientific" gloss on some ugly and evil ideology.  The prizes of 2013 do just that.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Predator classes defend their crimes

Anyone who has seen the phalanx of robocops surrounding the gatherings of high finance will not be the least bit surprised by the following stories.  Yes, the moneychangers are mostly protected by their myths and the idea that they are privy to the secrets of prosperity.  But when that doesn't work, they will readily resort to naked force—they didn't invent the sheriff sales last week, after all.

It should also be noted that the financiers don't confine their use of force to foreclosure auctions.  There is ample evidence that they will involve the nation's military to enforce their predation.  The Nye commission investigating the corrupt practices that led the USA to involve itself in WW I came to the conclusion that one of the primary reasons was to protect the interests of the Morgan Bank—which stood to lose a fortune if France and England were to lose.  Smedley Butler in his "War is a Racket" claimed that a large part of his military career had been spent providing muscle for Wall Street.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Republican War on Christmas

Over on DailyKos, GreenMother posted How to Think Ahead, or: What the GOP is really asking for, following to its logical conclusions the inevitable result of Republican policies and the GOP's recent actions.
....we hit the debt ceiling. 22 million veterans fail to receive their retirement checks and their disability compensation. Millions fail to receive their Social Security. Thousands of government workers are now furloughed indefinitely and the stocks crash. Basically the GOP wants to take us through the insanity that occurred in Greece and Spain....

You see the GOP can't think ahead at all, not in terms of steps nor in terms of time, so that they cannot conceive that when they punish what they consider the mooching poor--which would be the indigent, the military retirees, the disabled veteran, the disabled citizen, the surviving spouse or children, and the elderly--that somehow all these individual punishments (deprivation of money) happens in a vacuum.

....With elderly relatives that might be receiving retirement, SSI and Disability payments--which is entirely possible, along with annuity payments for loved ones that gave the ultimate sacrifice--ALL THAT MONEY JUST DISAPPEARS.

It doesn't just disappear from our hands, it disappears from our local economies. Suddenly money that pays for utilities, groceries, prescription drugs, pet food or service animal food, for school lunches or college books and tuition is just gone.

....With the increased strain on the economy, the low confidence in it by investors, a new round of lay offs starts up, right around Thanksgiving. Millions of people simply have nothing to fall back on at all. Their retirements are gone, their disability is gone, everything is simply gone. This reduces the need for goods and services because who has money to buy diddley shit during times like that?

....So what happens to ...the normal Christmas holiday season[?] ...Who can buy gifts when everyone is so concerned with food and heating their homes, if they still have homes?

Carbon budgets

Perhaps the thing that bothers me most about the climate change debate is the complete lack of urgency.  For some reason, even those who understand the science seem unimpressed by how little time we have to change our habits of life to conform to a world where fire is really no longer an option.  For example, in the following piece we are told that if we don't change business as usual, we will exceed the 3.6°F (2°C) target by 2040.  For most people, this seems like a long time away and certainly doesn't require our attention like the subject of what we will eat for dinner tonight.

So here's a message from those of us who have built things: Everything takes longer that it seems like it should.  If, for example, we decide that we must replace domestic air travel with high-speed electric rail systems, we should get started laying track this week if we expect it to replace a system as large as domestic air transport by 2040.  In fact, when you add in all the delays in funding and opposition from the NIMBYs, greedheads, and vested interests—it probably would have been a good idea to start laying new track about 15 years ago.

This little bit of reality is why I get so frustrated with the well-meaning who assume that if we could only get our political decision-making in line, the problems would be solved.  Yes it's a start but it would only be a start.  You still have to build the new systems and GET THEM TO WORK.

My other hope was that we could build the new green / solar society with the fuels we still have.  Since we have already passed Peak Oil and are looking at less than 27 years to rebuild our civilizations, this solution looks increasingly impossible with each passing day.  The time for position papers and global conferences for the concerned has passed.  The time for laying track and building net-zero houses is now or never.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Nate Silver writes about the power of statistics

I have a weird passion—I love the subject of statistics.  When I was at the University of Minnesota, it was possible to get a BS degree from the College of Liberal Arts (instead of a BA) if you took the stats sequence which included three quarters at the upperclass level and one quarter at the graduate level.  UM was VERY proud of its role in introducing statistics to the social sciences.  The psyche department had developed a wildly profitable test called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory in 1943 that used regression analysis.  In those days, the math was done on slide rules.  Because the military found the test useful, it became so widely used, it is a rare American who hasn't taken the test at least once.  The UM collects royalties to this day.

So here's the scene I stumbled into.  The social science departments at UM believed in their bones that stats were the key to fame and fortune.  On the other side of the campus, the computer science department had become a feeder system for the area manufacturers such as Honeywell, Control Data, and Cray so were also full of themselves.  The social science guys hated doing regression analysis on slide rules.  Someone had written a piece of software called the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences that did the necessary computations in seconds rather than months.  So the Social Sciences had managed to get their hands on an IBM 360, the computer jockeys got everything working, and someone like me got to play with a world-class computer for a $5 / quarter lab fee.  I mean, what wasn't to love?

The problem with this academic circle-jerk was that a whole bunch of people came to believe that you could generate questions almost at random and if you asked them to a well-selected sample, math would discover the meaningful questions and math would discover the important correlations between them.  You could look at a question with no historical background, no experience, and no expertise and still find important answers because, by gum, you had an IBM 360 by your side.

While stats are so powerful they literally form a new branch of epistemology, they are far more likely to be used to confuse and deceive. But even when stats are used by people who are genuinely trying to understand their world, there are just folks who do it better than others.  And probably the most elite practitioner in the world of stats these days is Nate Silver—who has written a new book on how to tell the difference between important data and the noise.  When Silver argues that "that we frequently go wrong in many areas when we adopt a single model or approach to a problem, when an evolving, flexible, multiple-input, probabilistic approach would serve us better" it comes as music to me because this is why I argue that heterodox economics is always superior to orthodox economics and that the most important habit of thought is evolution or continuous improvement.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Iceland—five years on

Five years ago today, Iceland became the first casualty of the financial crash of 2008.  These last five years have been a time of great uncertainty for the Icelanders.  They have been put on a terrorist watchlist. They had two referenda.  They have elected a left government and have now thrown it out. And yet by comparison to some other lands that got in the way of the financial crash of 2008, like Ireland, they have been amazingly fortunate.

Several things made it better for the Icelanders.  They had their own currency.  They have vast renewable energy resources such as hydro and geothermal.  They have a highly literate populace that is politically pretty sophisticated.  Their culture did not overvalue banking so they were suspicious of the go-go bankers even before they failed.

Still these five years have been miserable for many people.  And the flaws in banking that caused the crash of 2008 have not only NOT been fixed, most of them have gotten considerably worse.

A look back—first by Deutsche Welle and then by The Guardian—two sources that have been pretty sympathetic to the banksters and the stories they have told since 2008.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Fukushima: Japan sends aid call to the world community

Yesterday, I started getting a large (for me) number of hits from a site in Germany about Fukushima.  Turns out that they were coming from a very sober site dedicated to economics.  This worried me a bit because I haven't been following Fukushima as closely as the subject deserves.  Worse, the post they were linking to was from March 28, 2012 a year and a half ago.  When I looked at my post again, it made perfect sense because I had embedded a German-language (with captioning) documentary clip about a Fukushima engineer who was trying his best every day to figure out what to do next.  He was doing this even though his work is killing him with radiation poisoning.

This is different—the Japanese are calling out for help.  The folks who can build Lexus and bullet trains are admitting they cannot solve this problem by themselves.  The Japanese are famously proud of their self-sufficiency.  They would't be asking for help unless they were utterly overwhelmed.  This, folks, is scary stuff.  And surprise, surprise, some of this disaster has been caused by Tepco trying to fix things on the cheap.  Well, Mr. Abe, you wanted to stimulate your economy—here's a good reason to spend a LOT of money.

Anyway, the site that sent me those page views has a compelling story to tell.  I am extremely flattered to be mentioned in association with such important journalism.  Here it is, translated by Google (which does a damn fine job with German.)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Punishers Want To Run The Country or We Are All Tipped Waitstaff Now

The other day, Eschaton pointed to an article by which uses the example of tipping in restaurants to explain the Republican / conservative mind, The Punishers Want To Run The Country or We Are All Tipped Waitstaff Now. Just in case you missed it, the article was -- is inspired by the correct phrase here? Perhaps reaction to is better, but that phrase fails to catch the brilliance of its creation -- the screed of Fox Business Network -- asshole is definitely the correct word here, though his proper title is economic journalist, an abuse of the English language if ever there was one -- Stuart Varney, who was asked about federal government employees, and just let his inner ghoul speak: "I want to punish these people." (Honest to God, Varney said that, live, on TV; you really should watch it to see for yourself the truly reptilian psychopath lurking in Varney's bleak soul. No wonder Fox news viewers are exhibiting pathologies of cumulative brain damage.) 

To give you the brief synopsis, though I urge you to go read the entire article, there is an owner of a very nice, upscale restaurant who he felt that" tipping overvalued the work the waiter was doing and undervalued the work the back of the house staff did," so he eliminated tipping. To his surprise and amazement, he found that there were certain personality types customers who became infuriated that they could no longer tip, because "they actively enjoyed imagining using the threat of the withheld tip to punish bad service."

Now, if you have read Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, you will immediately recognize that what this unsuspecting restauranteur had run up against was a classic example of "the predatory temperament... which have to do with ownership... and the subsidiary functions concerned with acquisition and accumulation" (which Veblen discusses in Chapter Nine - The Conservation of Archaic Traits. But since most people have not read Veblen, perhaps
The Republican Party at this point in time is entirely made up of Punishers who think they are entitled to treat the government--and especially the government of Barack Obama--as waiters who need to be shown their place.  This should surprise no one.  At heart the entire Republican Party is made up of winners and losers and they are united in just one thing: they think that money is the only way to tell who is who. If you have money, you use that to distinguish yourself from the losers and to demonstrate your superiority by punishing them further.  If you are a loser--a worker, for example, or have no health insurance (say) your job as a Republican is to take your status as a given, accept it, and turn around and get your jollies kicking someone else farther down the line.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Ikea to start selling solar panels at UK stores

This is a solar story with all the great elements.  It is proof positive that solar has moved out of the experimental stage.  For years I have advised people to follow the Home Depot rule "Don't buy any technology until they start selling it in places—like Home Depot—used to dealing with the problems of the general public."  Well, Ikea certainly qualifies.  This is really a big deal because MOST Ikea customers are barely qualified to assemble a desk much less install solar panels on a roof and hooking them into the electrical systems—no matter how reliable or cost effective the panels themselves may be.  After all, I once heard someone describe assembling a couple of Ikea kitchen cabinets as an "ordeal."

My guess is that Ikea will be providing more detailed installation manuals than their typical pictograph instructions.  In fact, they will probably recommend professional installers.  Even so, solar is well on its way towards being a normal player in the energy mix.  I have been waiting a very long time for this day.

Ocean acidification

Air pollution is always a smaller problem than water pollution—mostly because the air is cleansed by the water that falls from the skies.  I have assumed that it wasn't going to take long for CO2 in the atmosphere to become carbonic acid in the water supplies.  Only last Saturday the 14th, I linked to an incredibly well-done piece in the Seattle Times on what happens when CO2 goes to sea.  Today's piece is on the same subject only from The Guardian.

Got into a "debate" this week with someone who has decided that because fracking has been so "successful," we don't have to worry our pretty little minds about Peak Oil.  Now for anyone who actually learned what Hubbard wrote about Peak Oil, fracking is proof positive that Peak Oil HAS ALREADY OCCURRED.  And that's the problem with debating the deniers—they have such an amazingly confused set of ideas involved with a subject such as Peak Oil, it would require several hours just to get the terms of the debate agreed upon.  Or as Mark Twain was reported to have said, "Never debate with the ignorant—they drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience."

So no, I am not expecting that proof that CO2 emissions are destroying the oceans will change any minds in the camps of the deniers.  But for those of us who stayed awake in high school chemistry class, this new evidence merely confirms that science still works.

Friday, October 4, 2013

My computer is back from its shutdown

It seems to work just fine.  And it didn't cost a dime to fix (other than a drive to Minneapolis.)  I was looking at a $425 fix which is enough money to wonder if a four-year-old computer was worth repairing.  Turns out the video card was shutting down—as designed—because it was overheating.  These iMacs are so nice because they can run without a fan BUT that means the air passages must operate like new.  Mine had gotten dusty—I figure I was losing 40% of my intake air flow.  So on a suggestion from MicroCenter's tech support, I cleaned the air vents, lowered the brightness of the display, and simplified my desktop.  This afternoon, I ran a full-screen hi-def .mkv movie for around 90 minutes.  A week ago, this very operation shut down my computer abruptly after 25 minutes with a need for a hard reboot to get started again.

These problems surfaced when I upgraded my OS to 10.8.5.  My iMac now has this program called Dictation—it was the reason I was willing to try another OS (I started installing new OS at system 6—nine systems upgrades ago).  It is a voice to text program that reportedly works well (the learning curve starts today).  It is a desktop version of the iPhone's ever popular Siri which several friends just swear by.  It works mostly because the major processing activity takes place at some big-brother Apple computer—I'd worry about privacy issues but when it comes to my writing, that horse left the barn many years ago.  We will see.  As someone who never learned touch-typing, just getting text written out is more work than it should be.  On the other hand, organizing my thoughts verbally is quite a different skill than the way I write.  It would be nice if I can make this work.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pit stop

Nothing like a little computer glitch to take me out of the game.  It isn't serious and I hope things get back to normal soon but getting along with a strange back-up computer, no matter how well it works, it still a bit disorientating.  Doing a blog post every day WILL turn a man into creature of habit and those habits are not especially easy to disrupt.

Our carbon-footprint-reducing house projects did not make a lot of progress this summer. My partner broke her arm this spring so was MIA for couple of months.  She is critical because she is the painter.  I have a bunch of relevant homeowner skills but painting is NOT one of them.  Then we decided to rescue windows that had been varnished instead of just painting them.  This involved a lot of tedious hand sanding, bleaching out black water stains, and sanding some more.  Of course, the side facing out still had to be painted so we were actually doing a two-toned finish job.  It was more like performing a careful restoration on a valued old piece of furniture than rebuilding some 55-year-old windows that had suffered from neglect and Minnesota winters.  We have been especially happy with 3M's line of green sandpaper and the low-gloss, low-volitile, water-based, clear, urethane version of spar varnish.  They look great but we will see if we really fixed the infiltration problems.  This obviously doesn't fix the problem of a poorly-performing weather envelope but it's a start.  And it's alright that we haven't rushed into the big insulation fixes because getting it right is more important that doing it now.

It is probably a good thing that I have had these distractions over the past few days because when I watch utter morons actually shut down the government because they can no longer win elections, I am reduced to sputtering rage.  Not good for the ticker, and not good for my writing.  I like to think of myself as a reasonable, rational man and the shutdown of a democratic government over a triviality like beginning to address much needed reforms of health-care delivery is not a rational or reasonable thing to do.  Besides, Charles Pierce has it covered better than me anyway.