Friday, January 31, 2014

20% returns? What were they thinking?

Jim Clark, one of the legendary entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley learned something very significant during his days bringing Silicon Graphics to life—if you are in the hardware business, it requires so many rounds of venture capital funding to get all the bugs out that the founder is unlikely to have any stake left in the venture by the time there is anything interesting to sell. Clark would start several more companies—some made a pile of money—but after being forced out at Silicon Graphics, he made damned sure that he never got caught in the hardware trap again.

It looks like a bunch of Germans are discovering Clark's lesson by trying to make start-up profits from ventures that require seriously expensive hardware—hardware that must compete with very expensive hardware already installed. In the case of German wind power, the problem is not that the wind turbines don't work as designed but rather that they cannot provide 20% returns in an economic climate organized by neoliberals.  Of course, the promise of a 20% is utterly insane so it isn't especially important who is organizing the economy.  After all, Bernie Madoff was only promising 14% and he resorted to a Ponzi scheme to keep his operation alive for as long as he did.

After watching hardware ventures crash and burn under ridiculous profit promises for almost four decades, I seriously doubt that any green technology will ever return those sorts of profits.  We will be grateful as a society if something like wind turbines can replace power stations that burn brown coal and so reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere. 20% profits? Who are they kidding? Green ventures like wind power should probably be organized as non-profit ventures that should be considered roaring success stories if they break even selling affordable power to their customers.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

27 JAN 14—70 years since the siege of Leningrad was broken

There are a lot of reasons why we in USA are confused by world events.  But the biggest reason is that we have been told some hideous, ridiculous lies about our history.  Arguably some of the biggest lies surround our relationship with USSR / Russia.  And most of these lies concern WW II.  I would guess that the overwhelming majority of my fellow countrymen do not even know that USSR fought the Germans in WW II—much less than the fact all the biggest battles were fought on the Eastern Front.

In this respect, I was pretty typical of my age group.  I was something of a WW II junkie as an adolescent and read dozens of books about the execution of the war by the 8th AAF.  I knew quite a lot about the differences between the B-24 and the B-17, or the fighting characteristics of the P-47 vs the FW 190.  But I knew almost nothing about the incredible struggles between the USSR and the Germans.  Nothing.

Then on a grey September day in 1972, I found myself bouncing along in a bus in Leningrad trying to understand why they were taking us to see a cemetery.  When we got there, it was quite obvious why we had come.  It was still just a cemetery and everyone was acting uncomfortable the way they do around memorials for the dead, but Piskaryovskoe Memorial Cemetery was HUGE and the tales of suffering that created such a place were utterly ghastly.  There are damn few tales of human suffering that even come close to what the citizens of Leningrad endured during those almost 900 days of German siege.

Vladimir Putin was born to a woman who survived that siege.  He grew up in conditions of abject poverty in a city still reeling from one of the more horrible incidents in human history.  This doesn't explain everything about the man but it explains a LOT.  Just imagine how much easier it would be to deal with Mr. Putin if we in USA knew about the Siege of Leningrad.  In fairness, if the following story is reasonably accurate, the Germans don't know a whole lot more about what it was like to be on the receiving end of the Wehrmacht.

In defense of industrialization

When I wrote Elegant Technology, the working title was The Industrial-Environmental Solution.  I soon discovered that even though most of the world's populations wanted a piece of the wonders that came from the industrial impulse, the hippy versions of environmentalism had rendered the world "industrialization" as positively toxic.  Of course, the environmentalists had a point. Industrialization is a major, if not the sole, cause of many of our most serious environmental dilemmas.  But the hippies soon discovered that the vast majority had no intention of giving up the better life brought about the industrial contributions to medicine, transportation, communications, etc.  Unfortunately, the resulting impasse has meant that most environmental groups have not accomplished much in the past 45 years of hectoring and trying to raise consciousnesses.  I thought the obvious answer to this impasse was to upgrade industrial thinking so it could become an engine for environmental renewal.  Industrial-Environmentalism—what could be more obvious?

After a few encounters where where it was clear my listener thought I was crazy, I (sort of) resigned myself to the idea that intellectually at least, "industrialization" had become a description of evil.  Most people treat the gifts of industrialization as a fact of life so rarely even think about what sorts of operations were necessary to produce the car in their driveway, or whatever.  And because it requires several days to explain all the steps that exist between iron ore and an automobile, most conversations about industrialization usually end right there.

Because it is so rare to hear someone explain the essential nature of industrialization, the following TED talk about the social implications of the "humble" clothes washer is a pure treat for me.  The TED talk itself is embedded at the end.  If you have the eight minutes and the connection, just watch that. Ms. Sterbenz' summation of the talk isn't bad but the real thing is better.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Where have all the flowers gone?

On chilly day in November 1969, I boarded a chartered bus in St. Paul headed for the "protest to end all protests" in Washington DC.  The ticket represented money I did not have and it meant I wouldn't eat much until after Christmas, but somehow I had been convinced that this was the gathering that really would end USA's involvement in Vietnam.  Little did I know that Washington was designed to shrug off futile gestures like this.

A fellow passenger had packed a guitar and somewhere east of Chicago, decided to organize a sing-a-long.  My only previous experience with chartered busses had come as a result of choir trips so I expected that we would soon be rocking the bus.  It turned out that political types weren't much for singing. Few people knew the lyrics past the first line.  After butchering "Where have all the flowers gone," the guitarist tried, "I've been working on the railroad" and then gave up.

I pretty much gave up on folk music as an organizing / political tool after that.  Shortly thereafter, I heard Tom Lehrer's jibe at folk-singing as politics:
So join in the folk-song army,
Guitars are the weapons we bring,
To the fight against ignorance, war, and injustice,
Ready, Aim, Sing!
Having said all this, I am pretty certain I learned almost all the songs Pete Seeger wrote.  And some of them like "We Shall Overcome" gave courage to people in frightening situations.  RIP Pete!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The latest scummy bankster behavior

The World Economic Forum is being held right now in Davos Switzerland.  This gathering of the über Predators is always good for a few "let them eat cake" quotes and this time is no exception.  A guy named Ermotti thinks life is hard enough without folks picking on the moneychangers.  Poor bastard doesn't quite understand why folks don't just LOVE the thieving classes.

Watching these scum start to squirm is satisfying only because we are deprived of seeing them marched off to prisons.  Until we see the return to honest banking, all the other big problems—including climate change—cannot and will not be solved.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A green city organized by grown-ups

After spending the last 10 days being thoroughly depressed thinking about how my fellow countrymen can manage to ignore such an obvious existential threat to their existence as climate change, it was delightful to read about how the small city of Växjö Sweden has gone about solving their own environmental dilemmas.

It is also a reminder that climate change is but a small fraction of the environmental problems we must solve.  It may easily be the biggest but there are other important things to remember—water quality being the most obvious.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Quoting Jeremy Rifkin

Last Wednesday, I created a post called "We still don't get it on climate change." In it, I took a few shots at the climate change conference I attended over the weekend.  Considering how upset I had become last Saturday, I thought I was quite fair and factually-based in my critique.  Unfortunately, it was taken badly by one of the event's organizers who posted the following comment.  It was good enough to promote to a real post.
I don't mind your harsh criticism of what we tried to do on Saturday. I admit we still have so far to go. But for one who has tried to move the Minnesota legislature and my local Utility Co-Ops to consider a feed in tariff policy to move us more quickly toward renewables and establish the kind of local economic shift we need, I am also encouraged by small movements in as you say 'raising awareness.' Moving the Titanic may have been easier. Today for some reason I pulled my 1981 copy of Jeremy Rifkin's "Entropy" which he begins by saying, "Hope is the feeling that what is desired is possible . . . " I guess I am still there. Hoping that we can in some way meet the challenges that we are faced with. I don't know what else to believe in. I know over the years of our friendship my gifts of understanding this problem are not as great as yours and I know there needs to be so much more done, but simply doing nothing I can't abide. So I keep doing what ever I can to get others to join me to make even little steps forward.
- David Bly

Thank you for this.  I am sorry you got upset enough to write a comment but quite honestly, I most certainly did not mean to make my critique personal.  I know you well enough to understand that you worked VERY hard to pull off this event and that goodness knows, your heart is in the right place.

Even so, I am not backing down from my ongoing criticisms of what I call "liberal climate change denialism."  A "liberal denier" is someone who accepts the findings of the scientific community but refuses to accept the implications of those findings.

The most obvious example of this sort of creature is Al Gore.  In his An Inconvenient Truth, he spends the first 80% of his movie using a powerful presentation to point out the dangers of the climate experiment we are conducting.  Any reasonably sentient being would have found this part of the movie frightening and potentially life altering.  Then he winds down this horror show with suggestions of how we can avert this crises.  Among his suggestions was to hang out your laundry.  Seriously, how big a problem can it be if we can solve it with clotheslines?  But just to prove that he clearly doesn't understand the impending catastrophe, he starts traveling the world in a bizjet.  But this is no problem in Al-world because he has purchased carbon offsets—the modern version of indulgences that allowed him to personally have a carbon footprint of a medium-sized Indian village without a trace of guilt.

Jeremy Rifkin is another good example of a liberal denier. He has a new book out called, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World.  In it, he posits his Five Pillars

The five pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution, as described by Rifkin in his book The Third Industrial Revolution are:
  • Shifting to Renewable Energy: Renewable forms of energy— solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean waves, and biomass— make up the first of the five pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution. While these energies still account for a small percentage of the global energy mix, they are growing rapidly as governments mandate targets and benchmarks for their widespread introduction into the market.
Ah yes, you cannot be a good liberal without believing in the power of mandates to make things better.  I always thought King Canute covered this but apparently not.
  • Deploying Hydrogen and other storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure to store intermittent energies. To maximize renewable energy and to minimize cost it will be necessary to develop storage methods that facilitate the conversion of intermittent supplies of these energy sources into reliable assets. Batteries, differentiated water pumping, and other media, can provide limited storage capacity. There is, however, one storage medium that is widely available and can be relatively efficient. Hydrogen is the universal medium that “stores” all forms of renewable energy to assure that a stable and reliable supply is available for power generation and, equally important, for transport.
Storage?  Ya think Jeremy?  I have never been in any discussion of solar power without the subject of storage coming up and I heard my first conversation in 1957.  Of course a cheap, safe, environmentally-friendly method of electrical storage would change the whole discussion.  Your idea of storing energy as hydrogen sounds expensive, wasteful, and dangerous.  Batteries are out—too expensive and needs resource-constrained chemicals (like lithium).  So you are telling us here that even without an obvious choice for electrical storage, you saying its possibility will lead us to your Third Industrial Revolution.

There are three more pillars but you get the point.  Rifkin went shopping for green technologies and came back with a list.  And this is what he passes off as genius.  Sounds like a guy who would be confused by something from IKEA.  And of course, the economic adjustments necessary to pay for all this is never properly covered.  This is a Wharton man here—he would never rock THAT boat.

You see David, when technology is involved, the opposite of "hope" is sound industrial maintenance.  When you have taken proper care of your car, it starts on a cold morning.  If you haven't, you are reduced to hoping it will start.  The fact that Rifkin would even bring the concept of hope into a technology discussion is a sure sign he is utterly clueless when he is not being obvious.

But you indicate your sympathy for liberal denialism when you take satisfaction in little steps when the subject is climate change.
  • Small steps may have their place in many areas.  Climate change is NOT one of them.  If we are to meaningfully address the climate-change problem, we will have to shut down 90% of the planet's fires in 15 years.  No small steps will accomplish that.
  • Willingness to even suggest small steps shows you don't think the problem is serious.  
  • Finally, David, I didn't join the DFL Party to be a person of small ideas.  We are the people who came up with Medicare, and a bunch of other ideas just as sound.  Read the foundation documents of the Non-Partisan League or the Farmer-Labor Party—no little ideas there.  If the very real possibility that we have triggered the means to destroy the habitability of human life on earth isn't enough to trigger big ideas, what is?

Rich prick writes "Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?" in Wall Street Journal

Yes, they went there. Tom Perkins, founder of venture "capitalist" outfit Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers wrote in Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal:
Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its "one percent," namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the "rich."
From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent.
Digby slathers on the sarcasm: "Because there's very little difference between raising taxes and sending someone to Auchwitz." Then next asks a very interesting question: Why have President Obama and his administration suddenly stopped talking about economic inequality? Really, you just have to go read Digby to enjoy the layer after layer of sarcasm.

Perkins should have kept it zipped. A commenter on the DailyKos diary of Perkin's little op-ed pointed out that in 1996 Perkins was convicted of man slaughter in France after running down a small boat in his large yacht. You just cannot make this stuff up: in his memoir, Perkins reportedly wrote: "I was arrested and tried in a foreign court in a language you don't understand, by judges indifferent - or worse - to justice, represented by an inappropriate lawyer with the negative outcome preordained."

Don't you just feel the pain of a billionaire forced to account for his actions?

But I think the best comment was this observation
We're winning.

They've stopped laughing.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. -- Mahatma Gandhi

Get ready to fight.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Solar is more than photovoltaic cells

A few years ago, Carl Pope of the Sierra Club was busted in front of a Senate hearing when a senator got him to admit that he drove an SUV.  One of the more interesting aspects of the climate change problem is that all threats to the environment are not created equal.  Climate change is clearly an existential crises.  It is caused by activities we humans employ to survive.  Therefore, while we must stop putting CO2 into the environment, we cannot simply stop heating our homes, cooking our foods, and a bunch of other survival activities.

But that doesn't stop so-called "environmentalists" from concocting threats posed by wind turbines that mostly do not exist (bird kills, noise pollution, aesthetics).  Here we see a solar collector that doesn't use rare earths, is built in uninhabitable space, and uses almost no water, but was still held up by folks professing concern for the environment—in this case, the survival of rare turtles.  Like the so-called noise problem of wind turbines, these folks cannot actually prove that building a few mirrors on some desert land will actually harm the turtle, but the mere possibility is enough to slow the development of a technology that we would really like to make work.

And people wonder why we cannot seem to make much progress against the carbon loading of the atmosphere.  Collecting energy from deserts is probably one of the better ideas out there.  So blocking progress on this idea seems to be just environmental extremism.  And sadly, many of those so-called "environmentalists" probably drive SUVs because they believe it reflects their back-to-nature mindsets.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Making progress against the dirtiest fuel ever

My university professor of Energy and Public Policy is perhaps the closest thing to a renaissance man I will ever know.  He got his undergraduate degree in math, and a graduate degree in physics on his way towards working in the nuclear power industry.  He soon became concerned about the long-term effects of radiation so went back to school and got a degree in medicine.  But soon he realized that the merely knowing the effects of radiation on the body did not matter all that much and soon found himself in the arena of public policy.  He was a formidable opponent of nuclear power but if you wanted to see his face cloud over, all you had to do was bring up the subject of burning coal because after his long intellectual journey, he had come to the conclusion that coal was the most dangerous fuel source of them all—and he had voluminous evidence to back up his claims.

As a result, whenever I think about the subject of climate change, I think about those classes and come to the conclusion that getting rid of coal from the fuel mix is easily the MOST important goal of anyone remotely concerned about global warming.  Well, folks, it looks like we are finally making progress in this arena because 2013 was NOT a good year for Big Coal.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

We still don't get it on climate change

I am still a little wobbly from my encounter with the local concerned citizens on climate change.  These are people who pretty much understand the science and there were some who had a rudimentary grasp on the policy implications.  But most were good-hearted people content to promote symbolic gestures that would "raise awareness" (my favorite phrase—NOT) of the problem.  For example, the local Unitarians were inviting us to come hear from a guy who had actually walked the route of the proposed XL tar sands pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska.  As someone who swore off symbolic gestures in 1970, I am pretty sure I am going to skip that one.

As regular readers of this blog can attest, I am happy to repot on actions and plans that really do address the way humans choose to power our societies.  And there are societies that have made substantial progress—Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Germany, and others.  But in much of the industrialized world, "progress" on carbon emissions means shutting down local factories and shipping them to some third-world country that is out of sight. And while such actions may solve localized problems like smog and acid rain, they do nothing to solve a planetary problem like carbon overloading of the atmosphere.

Of course, the big problem with CO2 emissions is that they are the chemical outcome of fire—something we actually need to survive.  Therefore progress on climate change means creating meaningful substitutes for fire.  People who act to stop the mechanisms for fire without proposing alternatives are really stuck on stupid.  And unfortunately, the sort of people who can actually create alternatives for fire represent a tiny minority of the human race.  The rest of us can only hope to provide them with the funding and other resources to get on with their work.

Monday, January 20, 2014

An era of failed ideologies

We are trapped in an era of failed ideologies. Capitalism, neo-liberalism, socialism, communism, Marxism, communitarianism, syndicalism have all been tried, and found wanting. None of them have been able to prevent the rise of a new global financial and corporate oligarchy, our slide into new neo-fuedal conditions of political and economic inequalities and inequities, and the destructive exploitation of our biosphere.

The most trenchant critics of these failed ideologies (such as Chris Hedges, Naomi Klein, Sheldon Wolin, Philip Mirowski, Kim Phillips-Fein, and Angus Burgin) have explained how the new oligarchs and their apologists have corrupted, twisted, and shaped the various ideologies to protect and perpetuate their own privileged positions of power.

I believe one of the most important books people should read now (and even re-read) is Lawrence Goodwyn’s  The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, which details the rise and development of the agrarian revolt in the years after the Civil War, and its transformation into the populist movement of the 1890s. In the Introduction (linked to above), Goodwyn observes,
…history does not support the notion that mass protest movements develop because of hard times. Depressed economies or exploitative arrangements of power and privilege may produce lean years or even lean lifetimes for millions of people, but the historical evidence is conclusive that they do not produce mass political insurgency. The simple fact of the matter is that, in ways that affect mind and body, times have been “hard” for most humans throughout human history and for most of that period people have not been in rebellion. Indeed, traditionalists in a number of societies have often pointed in glee to this passivity, choosing to call it “apathy” and citing it as a justification for maintaining things as they are.
This apparent absence of popular vigor is traceable, however, not to apathy but to the very raw materials of history -- that complex of rules, manners, power relationships, and memories that collectively comprise what is called culture. “The masses” do not rebel in instinctive response to hard times and exploitation because they have been culturally organized by their societies not to rebel. They have, instead, been instructed in deference.

A Tale of Two Cities: America's Bipolar Climate Future

Saturday, I did something I claimed I would never do—I went to a climate change conference.  This one was locally organized so I didn't have to fly to Durban or Warsaw.  I live in a college town of 20,000 and almost 1000 people had signed up.  Since one of the colleges was still on winter break, the attendees were mostly active and retired professionals and I am reasonably certain there weren't any climate change deniers on hand.

The keynote speech was given by a man named Paul Douglas who had a fairly long and distinguished career as a Twin Cities weatherman.  Because weather can turn dangerous around here in about 100 nasty ways, the TV weather people come well-educated and well-equipped and usually get about 5 minutes per half hour to do their thing.  Douglas was superb at what he did and so was very well paid for over 20 years on the air.  He was so good that we could ignore the fact that he was kind of a creepy Jesus freak and was silent about climate change during his on-air career.

But all that changed when he came out on global warming at the Huffington Post 03/29/2012 in an article entitled A Message From a Republican Meteorologist on Climate Change. So our keynote speech was delivered by someone who has only acknowledged the evidence of climate change for less then two years.  As someone who has believed the evidence since James Hansen gave his famous presentation to Congress in 1988, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect.

What we got was the sort of smooth presentation one would expect from someone who has been in front of TV cameras for decades.  In fact much of the evidence and charts he presented has shown up on this blog over the last few years.  Even so, I found the experience profoundly creepy because his presentation was directed at the sort of Jesus-wants-you-to-be-an-idiot Republicans like he had been until only recently.  And while I have no trouble understanding why he would craft such a presentation, it was utterly inappropriate for the setting.  I certainly did not need to hear a rehash of the obvious evidence of climate change larded with quotes from Ronald Reagan.

I left the conference and went home to shovel snow.  And I have been wondering ever since whether there is any value in trying to convert his crowd to a greater understanding of the science.  My initial feeling is, "Why bother?"  As a friend once taught me long ago, "Never debate fools—they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience."  Furthermore, the big issues associated with climate change are essentially elite matters.  Tea-Party types are not going to invent new forms of electrical storage, smarter grids, or more efficient solar collectors anyway—so why should we care what opinions they hold?

All in all, I found the whole experience quite troubling.  I suppose Paul Douglas is doing good work—it's just that I am pretty sure I don't want to see it in action.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

France under the Socialists

The idea that Francois Hollande is anything but a neoliberal hack was dispelled at his most recent press conference.  But in fact anyone could have seen this coming even before Hollande's election as French President.  During the election campaign, Dominique de Villepin, the French politician best known for his impassioned plea at the UN to avoid the USA invasion of Iraq, haughtily told Hollande that his Socialist promises were worthless because they would soon encounter market realities.  And they have.

The Socialists are in a box.  The EU is sort of a left-wing wet dream, after all, and it is EU neoliberalism that is being enforced in France.  Not that Socialist economics were all that exciting to begin with but they are utterly meaningless so long as all the important economic decisions have been given over to the European Central Bank.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Backsliding on climate change

The climate change "debate" is essentially absurd.  On one hand, you have the real climate which is obviously changing and for well-documented reasons.  On the other hand, you have C- hacks who have figured out how to make a living pretending that none of this is so.  This should be the greatest intellectual rim-rocking, slam-dunk of all time.

Yet it is not.  While it is damn difficult to deny that the Australian Open is currently being played in dangerous 108°F (42°C) heat (and a million other fine examples), it is much easier for everyone to deny that they are the problem.  Some of the biggest carbon footprints belong to people like Al Gore who professes a deep and abiding concern for the climate.  And so the deniers win—not because they have any good science on their sides but because everyone is willing to believe any remotely plausible explanation for why they don't need to change how they live.

Of course, the vast majority of humans don't have a lot of options for change because the only way we will ever have better options for reducing carbon emissions is through collective action.  Unfortunately, that well has been thoroughly poisoned by the ninnies who believe collective action is best defined by using police power to enforce drug and sex laws.  Start talking collective action and most folks need only a few nanoseconds to come up with a good example for why such talk usually leads to very bad outcomes.  Denial wins because after a couple of centuries of crackpot collectivism, denial is institutionally embedded in most societies.  I mean, how can mere science and obvious reality combat THAT.

And so the beat goes on.  The USA cranks out more CO2.  The EU makes it extra difficult for even countries with programs to reduce CO2 to make a difference.  The investment community has little interest in long-term projects and CO2 reduction is the ultimate long-term project.  International trade agreements are crafted with strong enforcement mechanisms for everything BUT the environment.  And we aren't even talking about the economic forces that have huge vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

Unfortunately, all this institutional denial doesn't change reality and the Antarctic glaciers really ARE melting right now.  But those events are a long ways away.  And so denial grows in the breasts of most humans until it is their house that is destroyed.  Because in the end, most people find science deeply annoying—as annoying as Sheldon Cooper on "The Big Bang Theory."

Thursday, January 16, 2014

NOW, China decides to become concerned with the environment

There is something incredibly sad about China and her pollution problems.  The easiest and best time to address the creation of pollution is when the infrastructure is first being built.  Once it is up, changing the composition of the output is very expensive and often nearly impossible.  So China has created environmental disasters with mostly brand-new equipment—and now thinks it is time to address them.  No!  The time was when that equipment was purchased and installed in the first place.

In Jan 1993, I gave a speech introducing Elegant Technology to the American Economic Association conference in Anaheim CA.  In it I made the following important, (I think) observation.

The obvious notion that industrial societies must have industrial environmentalism is the remaining and most rational alternative. The need for elegant technology assumes that:
1. Humans cause pollution.
2. Humans are conscious beings.
3. Pollution is caused by the conscious acts of these humans.
4. The more difficult the act of humans, the more planning it takes.
5. The truly difficult pollution problems are caused by acts of significant planning and design.

Therefore, pollution is a function of design.

That China has made all the same mistakes the rest of the industrialized world made is completely understandable.  As Veblen pointed out, the desire for status emulation is extremely powerful.  Even so, it is very tempting to look at the country's decision-makers and scream, "What the hell were you thinking?  There is absolutely NO advantage to copying stupidity."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Fed plans to become even more evil

Anyone who holds out the hope that with the coming of Janet Yellen, the Fed is somehow going to become more enlightened may want to read the following two stories to get a grasp on how unlikely this is.

The first article summarizes a study done by a couple of Fed hacks who come to the conclusion that interest rates could be higher without affecting business investment.  They look at the zero-rate interbank interest-rate climate over the past few years and note (correctly) that very little borrowing has happened in the real economy as a result.

Well, duh!  We have known for a century now that while the Fed can slow down or even destroy parts of the real economy by raising interest rates, lowering them will not automatically repair the damage.  When I took economics, this phenomenon was called pushing on a string.  What our Fed staff "economists" have merely shown is that the institutionalized usury in place between 1980 and 2008 destroyed so much of the real economy that it doesn't matter all that much where interest rates are now because there is no reason to borrow anyway. Bottom line, the "intellectual" foundations for raising interest rates are being laid.  Of course, this will be catastrophic and the new babe will be blamed.

Which leads to the second article.  The big moneychangers seem worried that Ms. Yellen may wander off the reservation.  So the they have installed a purveyor of the conventional "wisdom" in her old job.  The guy's name is Stanley Fisher and if that name doesn't scare you to death, it should.  As the article states, "Fischer was Ben Bernanke's thesis advisor at MIT, probably the world's best economics department, and advised other famous economists like ECB Chief Mario Draghi and Harvard's Greg Mankiw."  There is bunch more celebratory horseshit but needless to say, this guy ranks up there with Milton Friedman as one of the major architects of our current economic mess.  And his appointment should be read as a clear signal that things will continue to get worse for the vast majority of the earth's inhabitants.

Both articles discuss the worst aspects of monetary policy as if they were good ideas.  It is the conventional wisdom after all.  It is also the reason the global economy is suck on stupid.  Readers beware.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Chomsky on TPP

In the fictional account of the protests against NAFTA / WTO, a movie called the Battle of Seattle, one protagonist asks (somewhat rhetorically) "How do you stop people who will stop at nothing?"  Good. Damn. Question!

Not satisfied with running all the world's governments and cornering the world's wealth, the Neoliberals behind those trade agreements have decided there are a few gaps in their organized plunder they intend to close.  And so we have the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  And like those previous agreements, there are things they want to stop.  Because these agreements tend to be negotiated in secret, we do not know all the details but I am under the impression that one of the progressive loopholes they intend to close is the possibility for publicly-owned banks like the State Bank of North Dakota.

The reason this is believable in that these trade agreements have as their main goal the privatization of absolutely everything.  In the days of the Marxists, the goal was to collectivize all decisions.  That was a monumental failure.  It was just far too extreme.  After all, there are things that should be subject to collective decision-making just as there are things that should be left to individual initiative.  The problem with agreements like TPP is that they insist that all decisions should be reserved to the private sector—an idea as preposterous as anything the Marxists ever dreamed up.

I say this because I believe that the only way we will ever address a big problem like climate change is to have an aggressive, publicly-controled development bank that would be as large and powerful as the Fed or the European Central Bank—combined.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Is there a role for hydrogen powered fuel-cell cars?

Well, it looks like Toyota is about to find out.

As someone who has been fascinated by hydrogen and the wonders of devices like fuel cells for over 50 years, I will admit that I spent at least two decades preaching how the future was going to see the carbon-based economy replaced by a hydrogen one.  It is actually a plausible scenario except for one major problem—even if hydrogen-powered cars could be made practical, reliable, and safe, building up the vast necessary refueling infrastructure was going to be so expensive that even IF the energy giants wanted to do it, it was probably way too expensive to sell to the Exxon / BP / etc./ shareholders.

Toyota has so many top-flight engineers that their main problem is keeping them engaged.  There are only so many refinements possible to a gasoline-fueled Corolla, after all.  So they have decided that refueling is not their problem but making a fuel-celled car worthy of a Toyota badge is.  This is an example of grown-ups with skills doing something they do very well.  At the end of this short article is a small clip of Toyota doing cold-weather testing in Yellowknife.

So while I have lost most of my youthful enthusiasm for hydrogen vehicles, I am still VERY curious to see how this experiment turns out!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

It was 42°F today in southern Minnesota

I had a friend visit me on Saturday to watch some football.  This being Minnesota, the conversation soon turned to the weather.  This friend was especially well suited to discuss the topic as he had been the producer of the weather reports for a local network affiliate in the 1980s.  So my question to him was, "Weren't January cold snaps much worse back when you were doing the weather—or have I just become an old curmudgeon?"  I was assured that indeed the weather was much colder in the 1970s and 80s, my memory was still working fine, and the clowns who are insisting that this latest cold snap is proof that global warming is a hoax are the one who are getting it backwards.

This AP article pretty much confirms what we remembered.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

More biofuel progress

Last August, I created a post about some significant bioengineering experiments at the University of Minnesota.  I have long been skeptical about the promises of bioengineering, living as I do in the corn /ethanol belt.  But even though I am convinced that corn-based ethanol is perhaps the craziest idea in human history, my visit to this microwave-assisted pyrolysis micro-algae project convinced me I should at least keep an open mind about fuels derived from algae grown in waste water.

History teaches us that breakthrough inventions tend to happen when a lot of folks are convinced a project are worth pursuing.  So I was pleased to discover this description of another algae-based project in the Smithsonian Magazine.  I wish everyone well—after all it may be impossible to eliminate the need for all liquid fuels.  However, I also know that there is a minefield of real-world problems between a good idea and a good product.

Saturday toons 11 JAN 14

Friday, January 10, 2014

Renweables don't solve everything

One of the primary reasons for developing renewable energy is that fuel costs pose significant problems for the real economy.  Not only does a person (country, world) have to come up with some form of income to pay for these costs, but the fuel products are burned which means this problem is essentially never-ending.  In theory, with renewables folks should be able to plug this perpetual drain on their incomes.

In theory.  Spain and Portugal have done almost everything right when it comes to getting a handle on their energy costs.  Yet their economies are a freaking disaster.  Turns out predatory, finance capitalism can overwhelm even the best executed plans of the Producer Classes.  Anyone who doesn't believe the Leisure Classes are EVIL should look at this story.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Reducing a carbon footprint is harder than it looks

All that German effort to go green got a major setback in 2013. My explanation is that they are trying to do too many things at the same time.  It's bad enough that they were trying to replace coal fired plants without also suddenly trying to phase out nuclear as well.  After Fukushima, the highly organized anti-nuke forces pounced (and one can hardly blame them.)  But it would have probably been better to phase their nukes out over 20 years because something is going to have to provide baseload generation.  If it isn't nuclear, it will be burning brown coal.

The truth is, even the Germans don't know how to replace fire-based electrical generation.  And while it should be possible to run a society on wind and PV, a society with infrastructure designed to get power on demand will have serious problems converting to intermittent energy supplies.  Of course, a cheap and reliable electrical storage scheme would make that problem disappear in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Any jackass can kick down the barn

Just like I grew out of My Weekly Reader in fourth grade, I grew out of CBS news in 1982.  Television is a damn inefficient way to get news anyway and after a couple of years of the Reagan administration, I had come to the conclusion that I could do without the cheap sensationalism, the sloppy reporting, and the historical illiteracy of the so-called Tiffany Network's "news" department.  So I am not especially surprised to learn that even by the degraded standards of CBS, they are breaking new records for bullshit "journalism."

I wouldn't even bother to comment on their latest efforts except that Sunday night, they decided to trash the subject of clean / green tech.  Regular readers of this blog know this subject is near and dear to my heart—mostly because I absolutely believe that we simply cannot solve the big problems like climate change and the end of the Petroleum Age without $trillions of investment in new and improved infrastructure.  Fixing these problems will require massive amounts of hard work, inventive genius, and a tight embrace of the Instinct of Workmanship.  Even then, solving such massive problems will be a close thing.

What we absolutely do NOT need is a bunch of cheap sensationalistic mouth-breathers telling us that because this will be hard and there will be setbacks, we should not even try.  Even worse, we just saw a major "news" organization claim that the very methods this country used to industrialize in the first place should no longer be tried because industrial capitalism is not politically respectable in today's world of Leisure Class uselessness.  Industrialization made us rich in the first place but according to CBS, this sort of wealth through hard work is no longer respectable.  Garbage thinking from garbage people!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

It's cold! (Update, not really!)

This weekend, we put a new battery in one of the cars.  It was still starting but we were facing a prediction for -20°F (-29°C) this morning and had some serious reasons for wanting the car to fire.  Besides, the old battery was nearing eight years old so why push our luck?  There is nothing magical about -20°F. It's just that when I was a kid, that was the temp that provoked my mother into full worry-wart status.

So this morning it was an almost balmy -7°F.  This barely qualifies as winter.  Of course the car started—it would have with the old battery! But to hear the climate-change deniers over at Fox tell it, this mild cold snap is reason enough to discredit all the science and scientists who are working to give us a realistic description of what is happening to the atmosphere.

R.I.P Phil Everly

One of the musical greats passed Jan. 3.  The Everly brothers were so innovative and their harmonies so sweet, they influenced a couple of generations of musicians who would follow including the Beatles, Paul Simon, and Graham Nash.  They were the musician's musicians.  They have been covered by the greats.  They were especially popular in Britain so it was fun to see how the Guardian reported Phil's death.

Much of their popularity was due to the fact they gave love and longing a sound track.  This was especially true of Dream, Dream, Dream,

Monday, January 6, 2014

It's cold!

Monday, January 6, 2014, the governor of the State of Minnesota has closed all the schools because of the cold.  This doesn't happen often.  But I haven't heard anyone complain about the decision.  It's -19°F (-29°C) right now with a wind chill of -34°F (-37°C).  This is dangerous stuff and no one wants to lose a child at a bus stop.  In fact, no one really wants to find out how well the busses work at this temperature.

When I was doing research on the childhood conditions facing the Veblen family in those early settlement days, I was reminded of just how savage the weather was.  Thorstein's sister wrote about how their mother would pin mittens to the children's sleeves so they wouldn't accidentally fall off during the night.  Homes did not have central heating so while it was toasty in the rooms with stoves, it got seriously cold in the rest of the house.  And a couple of times a day it was necessary to care for the animals.  Just keeping them in water was a major undertaking.

So while it has not been this nasty-cold for about 20 years around here, it doesn't require much of a memory to recall when things were a whole lot worse.  Back in the 1970s, we had some brutal winters.  Cars still had carburetors and were VERY difficult to start.  Before Gore-Tex and Thinsulite, clothes were not very warm.  But it was also colder.  This current outbreak of extreme weather is very unlikely to break any records.  Talked with an old college roommate yesterday who grew up outside of International Falls.  When told temps were expected to fall in the -40°F range this morning, he snorted, "For the first week in January, that's pretty mild!"

So even on a day when the governor closes the schools to keep the children warm and safe inside, there is still plenty of evidence that the planet is getting warmer.  Now for anyone who has to go out in this weather to get necessary work accomplished, the fact that it is a few degrees warmer than the winters of the 1880s is not much comfort.  But for those who do not absolutely have to go outside, be careful, hunker down, and get caught up on some reading.  Winter is what makes us who we are.

And for those of us who survived a few winters in western North Dakota, someone who tells it like it is.

Friday, January 3, 2014

When the left abandons economics

One of my new year's resolutions is to stop being shocked whenever I discover that when it comes to economics, most of my best friends are neoliberal swine.  Best example is fine couple who once worked in Sen Mondale's office.  Over the years, they have indicated strong support for the whole neocon / neoliberal agenda from the invasion of Iraq to privatizing social security.  And for a long time I just assumed that they fell in with a bad crowd during the Reagan years and have not recovered.  Then it dawned on me a few months back while listening to Obama spout neoliberal garbage about the national debt, my friends could still be good "liberal" democrats.  It's MY problem if I keep confusing liberals for people who should be able to easily spout the economic reasons for supporting the New Deal agenda.

Veblen told us why government types eventually agree on the big topics—they're good members of the Leisure Classes.  For example, Veblen pointed out the main thing the whole class can agree on and that is the PROPER way to "earn" a living is through force and fraud.  Exactly how do good Leisure Class politicians call for jailing the banksters?  The answer is, They don't!  The problems with corruption on Wall Street are perfectly excusable so long as the politicians get a cut of the fraud.

This problem is not new nor is it confined to USA.  Here's the money quotes from Ms. Johnstone's article below:
French industry is vanishing, with factory shutdowns week after week.  Taxes on low income citizens are going up, to save the banks and the euro. Disillusion with the European Union is growing. EU rules exclude any serious effort to improve the French economy. Meanwhile, politicians on the left and the right continue their empty speeches, full of clichés about “human rights” – largely as an excuse to go to war in the Middle East or rant against China and Russia. The approval rating of President Hollande has sunk to 15%. However people vote, they get the same policies, made in EU.
Europeans are less and less enthusiastic about the EU as it ruins their economies and robs them of all democratic power over the economy. They can vote for gay marriage, but not for the slightest Keynesian measure, much less socialism.
Sounds like Chris Hedges pointing out that there is no way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs.

But it is worse than that.  When the various Labor parties around the world embraced Marxism, they were simply buying a set of ideas that sounded pro-Producing Classes but were profoundly Leisure Class.  The fact that the Marxist states produced vile garbage shows you cannot have Marxism and high-quality goods simultaneously.  The only serious political movement that had a true Producer agenda was the Greenback / Populist / Non-Partisan League / Framer-Labor Party in the USA midwest and west.  (Yes my Canadian friends, I DO know about the Socreds and yes, they most certainly qualify.)

While it isn't necessary that the Producing classes take over politics (which is almost impossible to imagine anyway), to have a Green future, a Producing Class agenda is necessary.  And of course, the key to having a significant Producer agenda is to take control of monetary policy.  Give us a development bank and the Leisure Classes can have the rest.