The Energy Problem

A former coal-fired power plant in the Canadian Province of Ontario was decommissioned a few years ago and has been mostly dismantled. The site, called Nanticoke, is now home to a solar facility. The new power plant consists of 192,431 solar panels and produces 44 megawatts (MW) of electricity. The old coal plant, at full capacity, produced 4000 megawatts (MW).

Using coal to produce energy has a myriad of drawbacks of course, from the massive air pollution to the degradation of the soils and waterways in places where coal is mined. So replacing coal-burning power with cleaner sources is a good thing.

But 4000 MW is a hell of a lot more than 44 MW! How did Ontario deal with this rather significant shortfall? For one thing technological improvements in the transmission of electricity and the devices that heat, light, and cool our homes have resulted in greater efficiency. Even with growing populations we can do more with less. But that’s not enough.

It turns out that Ontario is heavily invested in nuclear energy. Over half of the electricity generated in the province comes from the Pickering and Darlington Nuclear Power Stations. Their combined capacity is about 6600 MW.

The Green New Deal seems mostly agnostic on the subject of nuclear power. Or maybe that’s not the right word—perhaps “confused” would be better. Right now the world gets about 10% of its electricity from the atom, and in the States the figure is about 20%. How much do we get from solar? About 2% overall.

The transition to “clean” and “carbon-free” or “carbon-neutral” sources of energy will require enormous investments in our existing energy sources. Manufacturing solar panels, building wind turbines, improving efficiency in our buildings, and all the other things we need to do take energy. LOTS of energy. The terrible dilemma we face is that we are going to have to drill for lots more oil and gas and burn lots more fossil fuels in order to wean ourselves off these sources!

Cheap energy is our primary source of wealth. Without abundant, available energy, our economy cannot create the foodstuffs, manufactured goods, and other things like a transportation infrastructure that we must have in order to live. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are dependent on access, by everyone, to adequate sources of energy. And that’s not just for Americans. Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world want a better life, one that they see Americans enjoying. And we enjoy those things because of our energy system which supplies us with inexpensive electricity as well as affordable fuels.

Humans use about 20,000 terawatts (TW) of electricity per year. That’s 20,000,000 gigawatts (GW) or 20,000,000,000 megawatts (MW). Note that this is just ELECTRICITY consumption, not total energy use! (That 6600 MW from the Ontario nuclear plants would be 6.6 GW and 0.0066 TW.) Combustible fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, biofuels, etc.) account for 2/3 of the world’s electrical generation.

The most optimistic estimates for solar energy project to a possible 2700 TW by 2030. That’s 13.5% of current consumption. Where’s the rest supposed to come from?

There are no simple solutions to the energy problem.

On Bullshit, part two

There’s a current course at the University of Washington (INFO 270/BIO 270): “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World.” The two instructors, one an information scientist and the other a biologist, are entirely serious:

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.

There was a time when the idea of a “liberal education” was attractive. That is, you learned a wide range of scholarly subjects in order not only to be informed but to understand how people, over the centuries, have thought about things and expressed themselves. Seeing the world from a variety of perspectives was meant to open the mind and give it a certain flexibility. These days “liberal education” makes certain folks froth at the mouth about left-wing indoctrination. Plus the cost of college has become prohibitive and people who can barely afford to go tend to pick professional majors (business, engineering, health care, etc.) so they can be employed straight away. It is considered frivolous to go to college “just to learn.”

This is unfortunate. Not that I have anything against professional majors—we need geologists and accountants and architects and whatnot. But learning is good, not bad. Good thinking can come out of any course. You don’t have to take Linear Algebra to learn some logic and analytical skills, a good teacher can make any subject rich with intellectual challenges. By that I mean things like guided inquiry, Socratic dialogue, rhetoric and argumentation, and other so-called “critical thinking” activities. There’s no reason why every course on campus can’t be that way.

But schooling is limited in time and space. And students are constrained by money and they have to get the most bang for their buck. So teachers lecture (mostly a waste of time when it comes to retention) and cram as much information into the semester as they can. We think that information is the same as knowledge, but it is not. Knowledge only comes about when we process that information and try to understand it, make sense of it, give it context, and evaluate it. That’s the important part: evaluation.

The Latin verb valere means “to be well, to be strong.” The Romans greeted each other with vale, the imperative form. In English to evaluate means to decide the worth of something, to find the value (health, strength) within it. (The e- prefix in Latin means “out from.”)

But we don’t spend enough time and intellectual energy on evaluation. We usually decide in advance what is bullshit and what isn’t. If you are an engineering major you probably think Art History is pointless. It’s not! It’s about how people see the world and how they decide what is important and how they’ve expressed their feelings and ideas. We all need that sort of thing. If we had more of that we wouldn’t need a course on bullshit because we would know something about truth and authenticity which are fundamental to art.

Scientific types think they are immune to bullshit. They think the scientific method protects them from falling into intellectual holes. That’s crap, of course. Scientists are people, and people are biased. We can’t help it, it’s the way we are made. Social and cognitive biases are present in every human activity. Not to mention that most science is damned expensive and thus scientists are answerable not to the truth but to those footing the bill.

Here’s more from the UW BS guys:

What do we mean, exactly, by bullshit and calling bullshit? As a first approximation:

Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

Calling bullshit is a performative utterance, a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than bullshit alone. You can call bullshit on bullshit, but you can also call bullshit on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.

In this course we will teach you how to spot the former and effectively perform the latter.

All I can say is “bravo” and let’s have more of this sort of thing!

Ultima Thule

‘Thule’ is an ancient Greek word meaning a far northern place. Historians have considered such locales as the Shetland Islands or coastal Norway as the source of the idea. Prince Valiant, Hal Foster’s famous comic-strip hero, is from Thule. The United States Air Force has a base in Greenland (at 76°31′52″N) less than a thousand miles from the North Pole called Thule. The Romans added the modifier ‘Ultima’ (the last or final) and gave us the modern expression meaning “the furthest reaches of the world.”

Nit-picking Latinists will tell you to say OOL-tim-uh tuh-HOO-lay but modern English speakers will likely stick with ULL-tim-uh THOO-lee. In classical Latin you say all the letters (tuh-HOO), you don’t smush the “t” and the “h” together, something inimical to our native tongue. But Cicero (KICK-air-oh) and Caesar (KYE-sar) aren’t around to correct our speech so we can say SIS-er-oh and SEE-zer if we want.

NASA just released their best composite photograph of the farthest object ever explored, a hunk of rock in the Kuiper Belt they’ve dubbed Ultima Thule:


They say it is like a flattened pancake attached to a dented walnut. The Kuiper Belt is a massive circumstellar disk of material that lies outside the orbit of Neptune and extends about two billion miles beyond that. Neptune is 30 AU from the Sun and the Kuiper Belt reaches another 20 AU further. An AU is an Astronomical Unit, that is, the approximate distance of the Earth to the Sun (93 million miles). The Earth is 1 AU from the Sun. Ultima Thule is 44 AU or about 4.1 billion miles away.

When distances are this vast it becomes appropriate to talk about them indirectly in terms of time. The fastest phenomena we know about is light. Light travels 186,000 miles per second, and thus a light-hour is about 670 million miles, a light-day about 16 billion miles, and a light-year almost six trillion miles. Our nearest stellar neighbor other than the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light-years (25 trillion miles) away. ‘Proxima’ is Latin for “closest.”

Ultima Thule is 6.1 light-hours from Earth. The spaceship that photographed it was traveling about 32,000 miles per hour and got within 4,000 miles of the object on the first of this year. New Horizons was launched in 2006! That is an extraordinary feat of navigation. A signal from New Horizons, because of the distance, takes 6.1 hours to return to Earth. A “light-hour” or a “light-year” is really a distance measure, not a time measure. You may remember from high school that distance is rate times time, so the rate (186,000 miles per second) multiplied by time (a second, an hour, or a year) gives you a distance.

And this is the lesson of Ultima Thule. It is really, really, really far away. And in between here and there is a whole lot of nothing. Actually there is a lot of stuff, but weird stuff like solar winds, electromagnetic fields, dark energy, cosmic rays, and whatnot. Not the normal stuff we think of like rocks and water and air. And the other lesson of Ultima Thule is there is not much to it as its diameter is only 18 miles. By comparison the dwarf planet Pluto (New Horizons’ original mission goal) is 1447 miles across.

I’m really impressed by the NASA scientists, engineers, and technicians who pulled off this marvel of exploration. What a journey! Those are moving targets, you know, and the launch pad—Earth—is moving, too. I remember during the heyday of the moon flights critics would often say something like “we can put a man on the moon but we can’t solve world hunger.” Well, yeah. Launching a rocket is mostly an engineering problem. World hunger, poverty, pollution, the exploitation and victimization of persons, the impacts of climate change—the list goes on—are not so amenable to analysis. Those are much more multi-faceted things and touch on the un-quantifiable: human nature, politics, nationalism, philosophy, religion, sociology, history, etc. Economists do an awful lot of math but I’m still suspicious of any field that comes up with half a dozen different reasons for the same damn thing. What we learn to do in one field doesn’t necessarily transfer to another.

But I do think the big problems like how to build a free, just, sustainable world for all of humanity can be attacked even if they can’t be solved in the mathematical sense of the word. Differential equations only have to be approximated to be useful, for example. So solutions don’t have to be comprehensive, they can focus on little pieces at a time, and they can evolve as we learn more. The important thing is to make the effort and not be daunted by the scope of the task. After all we have no place nearby to go to, and the places we can get to aren’t exactly hospitable. I do think we will find life on Mars, but it will not be anything we can relate to, something more like a virus, a mold, or a chemosynthetic hydrothermal vent creature. It will be a opportunity for wonder and excitement, but we’ll still be stuck living here, so in the meantime we ought to do right by our home.

On Bullshit

I came across something called the “bullshit asymmetry principle” on Andrew Gelman’s blog. I don’t understand a lot of stuff there as he is a math whiz at Columbia (professor of statistics) and the discussions are rather advanced. But THIS topic I can wrap my brain around!

The bullshit asymmetry principle is also known as Bandolini’s law and goes like this:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude* bigger than to produce it.

I tend to believe this. The truth is often hard to find. And it is often boring. Or, at least, it contradicts your beliefs or your hopes. The truth occupies a smaller space than the rest of the the stuff out there. There are lots of ways to be wrong. There a few paths that lead to the truth.

And what is the path to the truth? Being wrong! The mistakes, false leads, and dead ends are the signposts that keep you on the path. In science people have to publish their work and let it be ripped apart by other scientists. It’s the essence of the process—you have to find out what’s wrong in order to make it better. But even science suffers from bullshit. People of all stripes are prone to vanity, self-promotion, and stubbornness. Those are good hooks to hang your bullshit hat on.

So how do you counter bullshit? It’s hard, because you have to play the skeptic and go on the offensive. No one likes a whiner, nit-picker, or cynic. Bullshitters know to get their stuff out first because any claim can be made plausible enough to accept conditionally. Most folks take things as true first, then think about them later. That puts the debunker at a disadvantage, time-wise, and then puts them in the position of having to attack, which alienates the bullshitter’s audience.

Perhaps the best weapon against bullshit is more bullshit. That is, if the bullshitter cares not about the truth, why should his or her critic? Fight bullshit with better bullshit! I suppose that’s ultimately self-defeating. The amount of truth in the world is small enough, adding more layers of bullshit won’t help.

If you make a claim, it seems to me, the burden ought to be on you to test the claim and provide some support for it. But it doesn’t work that way. Bullshitters make claims that seem valid, or claims that are stupid but sufficiently intriguing to keep folks interested, but don’t do the legwork. They don’t provide what a reasonable person might consider proof. They leave it to the contrarian to do all the grunt-level stuff. Bullshit just has to feel right, it doesn’t have to be subject to a test. It is a lot easier to mold the world to fit my world view than it is to change my world view when the world intrudes with ugly truths!




*An order of magnitude, in science, is a ten-fold difference. 500 is an order of magnitude larger than 50.

Meteor Man

My favorite winter activity is weather dependent in the extreme. We like to say “if it snows, we goes” and that tells you there is always that big “if” about snowing. It doesn’t always snow. Sometimes we get nothing for days. Even weeks. And if we do get something it is mixed with rain or falls in the wrong spots. Mostly not enough of the damn stuff falls.

“Meteor” is Greek in origin and means “lofty places” and thus is the root for words about atmospheric phenomena. Just ask any meteorologist. All of us who like to ski spend the winter with weather reports. I find myself looking at graphs and willing them to change, turn that 6″ into 10″ and that one foot into two feet.

It’s weird. I used to just ski. Then I learned how to ski in the powder: the soft, freshly-fallen stuff, and the deeper the better. Now I’m a snob. I want the good snow every time. For years I skied on the groomed runs like a normal person before I ventured “off-piste” as we North Americans like to say. Piste is French for a groomed slope, so when you venture off the tracks you are off-piste.

Most of the time you get nothing close to the ideal. People who live near the big world-class resorts in Utah and Colorado, for example, get a lot more opportunities, so I imagine they get the primo stuff more often. But out here in the fringes we are more at the mercy of the snow gods. Alta, near Salt Lake City, averages 500″ of snow in a season and the 2600-acre resort spans elevations from 8500 to 11000 feet. My local mountain gets half the snow in one-tenth the space and the summit is just over 7500 feet above sea level.

I’m not complaining, mind you. I love my little local spot. And there’s another one close by, too. Small-time, small-town skiing has great charms. I can drive for less than an hour and be on the chairlift, for one. Lines and crowds, when they happen, are predictable and manageable, for another. I’ve had the good fortune to ski some fancy places and had some great adventures. But the most fun is when it is close to home and I’ve had my fair share of epic days right here in my back yard.

This obsession with forecasts is a little funny. I’m not out there sniffing the breeze, checking my trick knee and saying “by golly, it’ll snow tomorrow” or anything like that. I love to look at the sky but it isn’t much help. I use the National Weather Service website most of the time! Weather forecasting is a tough business because, well, it’s hard, and people only remember when it’s wrong. They get it right a lot, but that’s like background noise. The blown predictions are the ones that stick with you.

Over the next several weeks I’ll be getting my internet feeds (like this one) and scanning the satellite pictures and whatnot and hoping to see the big numbers and the magic words like “powder alert.” The thing is there are a lot of powder-hounds out there and they flock to the big, famous places. They come out of the woodwork here locally as well, and it can be discouraging to see a hillside tracked out before you have loaded on the chairlift, but it never gets to the Carmaggedon status you see in Tahoe. One of these days I’m going to stay at a place where you don’t have to get in a vehicle, you just step outside of your lodging in your gear and you get a lift ride right to the slopes.

Looking ahead, there’s some promising snow activity predicted for this coming weekend:

ski forecasts

The meteorology-types will be updating things of course and those nice little blue bumps could become big stacks or empty nothings between now and then. Mother Nature will make the call and if she starts shouting I’ll be ready.

Happy New Year (and think snow)!


A startup called Berkeley Brewing Science is using a gene-editing tool knows as CRISPR-Cas9 to make hoppy beer without hops. Hops are very cool, I grow a few varieties in my back yard. They are beautiful plants, bines actually, not vines, as they climb by twining and not by suckers. Commercially the male plants are ruthlessly excluded from production in order to prevent the females from being fertilized. Like sinsemilla pot, the fruits (called cones) become laden with the desired essential oils and are then harvested, dried, and processed. My plants came from rhizomes and most cultivars of hops (Humulus lupulus) are clones and are propagated vegetatively, much like cannabis.

So why make beer without hops? For one, hops are thirsty. It is estimated that 100 billion liters (100 GL) of water are needed annually for the U.S. crop. For perspective, the harbor at Sydney in Australia holds about 500 GL of water. In fact, that amount, 500 Gigaliters, is known as a “sydharb” (thank you Wolfram Alpha). And people think Austin Sendek‘s “hella-” prefix (as in the Earth has a mass of six hellagrams) is silly.

Imagine doing something environmentally friendly like reducing water use with a technology that greens love to hate, gene-editing! Certainly that is not the only reason to make beer without hops. The main reason, I expect, is to increase the brewer’s control over the product. Hops introduce a lot of variability and even the small craft brewers want consistent flavors even if they aren’t as paranoid as those who oversee something like Budweiser.

One of the features of modern life is increased quality control. The drugs we buy today at the pharmacy are cleaner and purer than drugs have ever been. Our food supply is far more predictable and much safer than ever before. Even the recent E. coil—Romaine lettuce scare affected only a few dozen people in a nation of 340 million. And it was unusual in that the CDC could NOT trace the source of the infection. Usually they can track that stuff down. We are so spoiled by quality control that we reject pharmaceuticals in favor of “natural herbs” and we crave “authentic” and “local” foods instead of mass-produced ones. This despite no evidence that the modern stuff is unhealthier and the “retro” stuff is healthier. If you slap a picture of a farmer in overalls next to a happy cow on your cheese package people will pay extra.

An article in Nature Communications (Industrial brewing yeast engineered for the production of primary flavor determinants in hopped beer by CM Denby, RA Li, et. al.,) has this wonderful line:

While historic consumer trepidation towards genetically engineered foods is of concern for widespread adoption, the general increase in consumer acceptance of such foods when tied to increased sustainability is encouraging.

I’d say cost and taste matter more, but this works, too. The beer produced in the study quoted above apparently compared favorably to hoppy commercial beers like Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo IPA. But taster panels, even trained ones, display a lot of variation so we’ll see what happens with actual beer consumers. I expect they’ll be quaffing pints of the stuff sooner than they’ll realize. I’ve no problem with such beers, no one says you actually have to use hops. If you think about it, the malt already contains the precursors of the chemicals that create hop flavors! The gene-editing allows the new yeast to activate bio-synthesis pathways to produce geraniol and linalool which are naturally-occurring terpene alcohols present in many, many aromatic fruits, flowers, and other plant parts.

The researchers used gene sequences from basil (Ocimum basilicum) and a mint (Mentha citrata) to engineer a brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) to produce more of the desired geraniol and linalool during fermentation, enough for tasters to perceive as hop flavors in the finished beer. Obviously hops themselves are more complex than just these two molecules, and create, presumably, a broader taste palate. But this kind of application is only just beginning and I expect that brewers will have a much larger yeast toolkit very soon. As a homebrewer I have access to at least three dozen commercial-grade yeast strains in both liquid and powder form for a relatively low cost where there were only a handful thirty years ago, and nowhere near the quality.

I blogged about CRISPR a while ago (you say “crisper” just like it looks) and I’m pretty much squarely in the camp of the GMO-enthusiasts. I’ve no fear of Dr. Frankenstein. There’s a fellow recently who claims he’s made CRISPR-modified babies although some don’t believe him. Regardless, it is a chilling thought. Few would be opposed to gene editing that helped a baby overcome a birth defect and thrive rather than suffer. But such things are hard to draw boundaries around, and the general feeling is that experimenting on humans is at least ethically dubious, if not entirely barbaric. We are facing those questions now as bioengineering is mainstream stuff, not science fiction. The boundary lines will blur quickly when take-home GMO kits are available at Rite-Aid, and I don’t think that’s as far away as we want to believe.

In the meantime I hope the folks at Berkeley Brewing Science can cook up a homebrewer’s version of their no-hops-needed yeast. I’d love to try it.

The Autumnal Bookshelf

We are enjoying a spectacular fall here in our little nook in the State of Jefferson. The temperature drops at night, flirting with frost, but the afternoons are still warm enough for t-shirts and shorts. The colors, albeit our limited Western versions, have been out for weeks and show no sign of abating. The riding has been sublime. Our local trail haven is hardly used and we have it mostly to ourselves on our twice-weekly mountain bike jaunts, a bunch hearty and (we hope) hardy oldsters fighting off old age. It’s shoveling sand on the beach, but it’s fun and good for us.

My mind needs the workout as well. I should say my mind-body nexus craves multiple inputs. I need to wheeze from over-exertion and reel from trippy fictions in at least equal measure. Just about everything I read is fiction and I define fiction as anything without footnotes. I love a good history tome and I expect lots of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Otherwise it is just bullshit. It might be interesting, well-written bullshit, but still bullshit. I figure if you are going to all that trouble to make bullshit then quit faking it and call it fiction.

In the mail coming any day is the second volume (The Man Who Went Up in Smoke) of the Martin Beck series of police procedurals by Per Wahlöö and Maj Söwall. That completes my collection. These are from late-60s to mid-70s Sweden and have a taut, just-the-facts-ma’am style. The laconic protagonist tosses in a bit of wry humor, but he’s mostly a grim fellow doing a grim fellow’s job, that of chasing down murderers. Equally grim, but in an entirely different vein, are John le Carré’s spy thrillers. Found one I didn’t have (Our Kind of Traitor, 2010) and polished it off. He’s getting crankier in his later years but he’s just as sharp and entertaining. The Cold War was grist for his mill for a long time, now he’s more interested in rogue financiers, Russian mobsters, and Englishmen who sell out their country while serving it.

One of my all-time favorite books was recently returned to me and so I had to re-read it. Nothing can prepare you for Jack Womack, but Elvissey (1993) is probably his most accessible creation. It is part of a six-novel series about a near-future corporate-dominated dystopian America, but that’s just the setting. Womack’s voice is unique and his characters use a peculiar argot coupled with syntactic inversions that are both funny and unsettling. It reminds you a little of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange but is its own thing. The novel can be read alone or as part of the larger work. Another writer with a great ear is Mark Twain and I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after I finished Elvissey. It had been decades since I’d opened it and it was a lot of fun. Both novels concern themselves with the American South, with ante-bellum Missouri the focus for Twain, an alternate-past post-WWII Mississippi for Womack.

Awaiting consumption is Jim Thompson’s The Alcoholics (1953). He’s always good for a brisk descent into hell, but unlike le Carré his hells are confined to small towns and lonely places. The globe-trotters in le Carré could just as easily be playing tennis in Antigua as they could be listening to wiretaps in Berlin. Thompson’s lead players are losers and psychopaths, le Carré’s are professionals and renaissance men; but both love grifters and con artists.

There aren’t many novels about the Korean War and I came across Pat Frank’s Hold Back the Night which was made into a movie with John Payne in 1956. I also picked up Frank’s Forbidden Area, also from 1956. Much of the fiction from this era is short, compact, and suspenseful, qualities I appreciate. There are many outstanding novelists working today but I find the trend toward longer and larger books less appealing. If you can’t say it in under three hundred pages you are probably trying too hard.

Speaking of contemporary stuff, I also just finished Gold Fame Citrus (2015) from Clare Vaye Watkins. It’s what they call “cli-fi” these days, short for “climate fiction” which assumes global warming catastrophe scenarios come true. In this case a perfectly plausible massive drought sweeps across the American Southwest as well as most of California and Nevada. A compelling story and good characters kept me engaged despite the overtly literary indulgences peppered throughout the narrative. This is one of the things I prefer about straight genre fiction—fewer opportunities for folderol and jibber-jabber. Editors were more slash-prone back in the day, it seems, now they are more encouraging and accepting. I like to read a lot of books and I get worn out if they take too long. Short & sweet and cut-to-the-chase is more my style.

Also on the soon-to-be-read shelf are another cli-fi, this one from Paolo Bacigalupi called The Water Knife, and Paula Hawkins‘ neo-noir The Girl on the Train which was made into a movie with Emily Blunt. Both were published in 2015.

So—what’s on your autumnal bookshelf?