Billionaire Boys

Jeff Bezos finally launched his giant penis-ship and got to take a ride into space. Richard Branson beat him to it by a week, but the one-upmanship is in full force. Branson’s craft peaked out at about 50 miles (80 km) above the earth’s surface (mean sea level). In the US of A that’s the dividing line between space and not-space. If you go above 50 miles, you’re an astronaut. In the rest of the world they use the so-called Kármán Line which is about 62 miles up (100 km). Bezos made sure his capsule crossed the 100-km boundary. Twenty kilometers isn’t much, about twelve miles as you can see, but it is a bone of contention. You have to figure these guys need something to argue about. When you have enough money to build your own rocketships there can’t be many things left you haven’t done or paid someone to do for you.

https://www.space.com/blue-origin-jeff-bezos-launch-webcast

I suspect Elon will get in on the act soon and ride a rocket-powered Tesla Model S into space and do a couple of laps around the earth for good measure.

I was seduced by space flight when I was a boy. I was nine-and-a-half when Neil and Buzz walked on the moon and have been a science nerd ever since. I think space exploration is important. I want NASA to operate rovers on Mars and send satellites to Saturn and beyond. There’s so much to learn about our distant neighboring worlds, and so much they can teach us about our own origins.

Sending people into space is an entirely different thing. Unmanned spaceflight is all about the science. Crewed spaceflight is all about the crew—how to keep them alive and functioning at a high level. It’s an enormous barrier to actual exploration. There’s no way human crews could possibly do anything close to what the rovers can do on Mars. It takes too much energy, equipment, and time just to keep the people alive, especially if you expect to get them back home in one piece.

Space exploration is best left to robots. The distances are too great and the environment too unforgiving. Remember that it took the LARGEST ROCKET EVER BUILT to send three guys to the moon for a few days. The moon is only 250 thousand miles away. Mars, at its closest, is 40 million miles away. Next time Elon spouts off about his plans for Mars, just think about those figures and you’ll realize he’s full of shit.

Space travel is what humans are going to do. Some humans, anyway. We aren’t heading out to colonize new worlds on spacefaring arks anytime soon, if ever, so we’ll have to be content with space vacations. They are a bit on the expensive side. The Russians have launched a few space tourists up to the International Space Station. I’ll bet the view is great! Bezos and Branson opted for sub-orbital flights, which are much easier. The ISS is about 250 miles up and it takes quite a bit more thrust to push a rocket into orbit than to just blast it up and let if fall back down.

I’ve no idea whether space travel will actually become affordable. It doesn’t seem likely. But it is going to be a thing. There are a lot of people in the world who have a hell of a lot of disposable money laying around and they are desperate for exciting new adventures. You can’t get a much more exciting new vacation destination than space!

Humans have been launching things into space for decades. The technology is not new. The math is all worked out. These Billionaire Boys—Musk, Branson, Bezos, and their ilk—have the benefit of that vast storehouse of knowledge and experience. They aren’t pioneers. They are building better rockets. They are new and improved rockets, but they are still rockets. They still have to overcome the same physical barriers to get into space. They still have to light off a giant fucking firecracker and blast themselves off the earth. The Vikings made it to North America in a sailboat. Sail power brought people to the Americas for the next 800 years before steam took over. And even with that improvement, a steam-powered boat still had to ride the waves. It took another 100 years before air travel made the journey fundamentally different than it was before.

There is no fundamental breakthrough on the horizon. Humans are still prisoners of their biology and geology. We aren’t going to “beam” anywhere. We’ll have to settle for remote sensing, and even that is subject to the law of physics, namely the speed of light. A radio wave is a light wave and that speed limit means a minimum delay of five minutes when communicating with Mars, for example, and that’s one-way. Space travel is not going to change in our lifetime. There just might be a little more of it.

If these fellows want to spend their billions on their space toys they could at least try to be “green” about it, and I don’t mean “greenbacks.” If they want to be pioneers they can build their rockets with carbon-neutral and net-zero technologies, and power them with green fuels. If you think cars and air conditioners have a big carbon footprint, you’re right. Now think about the carbon footprint of a space vacation industry. Maybe they are already doing such things, and if so, good on them. I know Elon talks a good game, he’s certainly a great salesman, but I don’t know what kind of green commitment his companies actually make. Same for Bezos and Branson. I don’t think Amazon trucks burn natural gas or run on Tesla’s batteries. I don’t think Virgin jets burn bio-diesel.

Maybe they should start there.

Print vs. Digital

Remember magazines? Not that they’ve disappeared of course, there are still plenty of them at the checkout counter in the supermarket. Just that, overall, there are a lot fewer print options to consume these days. Newspapers have been in a steady decline for most of my life. The Siskiyou Daily News, for example, is only a daily in its on-line version. In print it is a weekly. That’s probably a good thing as there isn’t much worth reading in there, but it is indicative of the trend.

It is too expensive to print and mail actual paper copies of things. You don’t get owners manuals or instruction guides anymore, those are all on-line. We all know what .pdf documents are and we all have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on our computers.

I have no problem with digital documents or e-books or e-zines or e-news or whatever. I use the internet a lot and I spend much of that time looking for interesting stuff to read. I like to read. I’m a voracious consumer of words.

Mostly I read fiction. I prefer actual, physical books to e-readers. It’s a personal preference, not a moral judgment. Things like Kindle are pretty cool. You can store a lot of books on one of those things and a whole library is suddenly portable. But I am more comfortable with paper so I still buy books made from paper. I’ve got shelves and shelves of books. I’m running out of room as I have literally hundreds of books. I keep telling myself I’m going to buy fewer books and then I buy some more. Since the brick-and-mortar bookstore is increasingly an anachronism, I buy books on-line. Usually I only buy them from independent booksellers (like my favorite bookshop, Ziesings) and try to avoid giving Amazon any more money than I already do.

I used to read an excellent monthly magazine called Earth that was put out by the American Geosciences Institute but they stopped publishing it a few years back. The State of California used to publish a superb monthly called California Geology but they stopped that twenty years ago. The University of California still prints and distributes (for free) a quarterly called California Agriculture which I like, but it used to be a monthly. I suspect it will disappear like all the rest and go entirely digital. The College of Natural Resources at Berkeley sends me a quarterly magazine called Breakthroughs which is always interesting but too short and too infrequent.

I need some good non-fiction print reading material. I like science and technology and I like learning about natural resources. I like stuff about agriculture, mining, and energy. I’m interested in global warming and climate change. Most of the good material on these subjects is on the internet.

Magazines are filled with ads. That’s OK, but I don’t understand why I have to pay a subscription charge. Don’t the ads cover that expense? If they don’t, they should. It is morally reprehensible to PAY for an advertisement! I’m willing to pay a premium for a magazine that doesn’t have ads. I feel the same way about TV. If you pay for TV it should be ad-free. If you are paying for TV (like cable or satellite) that means you are paying for the ads, too. Ridiculous. If there are advertisements then the programming should be free of charge. At least these new streaming services offer you some of that—quality content with a lot less B.S. While we are on the subject of paying for ads, how about all the T-shirts and hats with advertising on them? Does Nike pay us to wear their basketball shorts? No! We have to pay for that privilege. Yikes, what suckers we are.

Capitalism requires an advertising industry. We wouldn’t buy most things that we buy if there were no ads. We have to be admonished repeatedly to get this and get that or else we won’t spend enough money to keep the economy going. It is a really insidious and destructive black art, this advertising thing. Cleverly packaged lies and propaganda burrow themselves into our brains and shape how we see the world. Can anyone actually listen to commercial radio stations these days? I can’t. The advertising is so obnoxious it makes the whole medium repulsive.

But I still need to read. I have to have challenging stuff to chew on. My brain requires regular feeding. I know I could read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times or Foreign Affairs or other weighty stuff but that’s too much opinion. Just because the people spouting the opinions are smart and good writers doesn’t mean they aren’t full of shit.

I need to read but I need reliable stuff. I don’t want Time or People of any of that checkout counter jive. I don’t have enough interest in guns, or horses, or photography, or automobiles, or gardening or any of the other subjects that the specialty hobbyist-type magazines cover. Those are still plentiful on the racks at the supermarket. I’m always amazed at the number of publications devoted to The Old West. Americans have a serious nostalgia problem! (The Ancient Greeks thought nostalgia was a kind of disease, hence the -algia ending which is Greek for “pain.”)

So I have to find some good print material that’s not just a bucket load of opinions dressed up as “analysis.” One man’s analysis is another man’s asshole. Or something like that. Opinions are like assholes—everyone’s got one. There, that’s what I was thinking. It was one of my Dad’s favorite expressions. He thought everyone was an asshole. Or even if they weren’t an actual asshole, they were still full of shit. He was a bit of a difficult fellow as you might imagine.

I suppose I’ll bite the bullet and join AAAS and subscribe to Science. Scientists are opinionated motherfuckers, and many of them suffer from the Curse of the Smart Person, that is, the inability to believe that they could be wrong. But the process of science tends to weed that stuff out. Ultimately, you have to have evidence in science. You have to have experimental tests of your ideas. That sort of thing is not required in other fields. Imagine if politicians and pundits were held accountable for their claims. In science, you have to be wrong. That is only way the field advances.

Science is pretty expensive. And you get 50 issues per year. About half the material in the magazine is too difficult for me. The articles are often for other experts in the field, not the general reader. I’ll be swimming in reading material. And then I’ll have piles of old magazines that no one will want. Sure, I can just do the on-line thing, but that’s the problem. I don’t really like reading lengthy stuff on-line. I like it in my hands.

Maybe one of my brilliant readers out there can suggest a good magazine or other paper product that I might enjoy. I’m kind of fussy, but open to suggestions.

Thanks for reading. And you can always print out this page if you prefer hard copies!

Lithium

Kurt Cobain launched himself into rock-and-roll immortality with songs like this one. Angst and anger are part-and-parcel of the Western youth experience! Nirvana hit that “chord” perfectly before the sad demise of their front man in 1994.

The song isn’t, on the surface, about depression, but the singer suggests that it is with his melancholy vocals. And most people think the title is a reference to the lithium salts that have been used for centuries to treat such things as bipolar disorder.

Nowadays lithium salts are in big demand because of their use in batteries. Lithium is the lightest of all metals. It is highly reactive and is not found in nature in metallic form but only in compounds. Lithium-ion batteries use mostly lithium cobalt oxide, lithium iron phosphate, or lithium manganese dioxide as the anode. The electrolytes are organic carbonates with lithium-ion complexes. The familiar rechargeable nickel-cadmium battery is cheaper to make, but Li-ion batteries have a higher energy density and operate over a greater range of temperatures.

The electrification of the world’s vehicle fleets will require an enormous investment in the extraction and production of many materials such as copper, nickel, and cobalt. Lithium is one of those and it is near the top of the list. Right now lithium production is mostly from brines. The so-called ABC sources (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile) are underground saltwater lakes. The ion-rich water is brought to the surface and evaporates in large basins called salars. The salts are then mined and processed. Australia and China also have large lithium resources but those are hard rock mines.

Naturally automakers are interested in securing long-term solutions for their lithium supply. Recently General Motors announced their intention to develop the lithium brines along the Salton Sea in California. GM says they will be EV-only by 2035. To do that they’ll need lots of lithium.

The Salton Sea was formed by accident. Colorado River water overflowed its irrigation canals and flooded the ancient lake bed in 1905. Inflows from the Rio Nuevo added to the mix. Over time the salinity and pollution from agricultural and industrial runoff turned the Sea into a toxic wasteland. The only thing happening there now are the geothermal electricity-generating stations. The Salton Trough is bisected by the San Andreas Fault and the area is home to geysers and lava domes (the Salton Buttes).

GM, in partnership with Australian miner CTR Ltd., hopes to develop the Hell’s Kitchen geothermal brine project as a closed-loop system. They envision getting electricity from the geothermal resource to power the extraction of the brine as well as re-injecting the fluid (minus its lithium carbonate) back into the ground. Here’s a diagram:

https://www.cthermal.com/projects

The communities along the Salton Sea are some of the most impoverished in California. The collapse of the recreation economy decades ago and the on-going air pollution crisis in the region (from toxic evaporites along the shrinking shoreline) are a deadly double-whammy. It would be nice to think that commercial development would benefit locals but that sort of “trickle-down” is often just that—a trickle.

It is estimated that 600,000 tonnes of lithium could be produced annually from Salton Sea brines. The market value of that is on the order of several billion dollars.

That’s a hell of a lot of money. I wonder where it will all go?

Hot

Yup. It’s hot.

It’s going to stay hot—unseasonably hot, that is—until and perhaps past The Fourth.

We are used to hot summers here in Siskiyou County, not as hot as Redding or Sacramento and other spots in the Great Central Valley, but hot enough. This week of 100+ temperatures is notable for its high lows. Often in the summer here on the western edge of the Shasta Valley we can see 45-degree swings from day to night. It will be 95ºF in the afternoon and 50ºF in the early morning. When the temperature gets to three digits you can still get nice, cool mid-fifties temperatures to soothe your soul.

Not so this heat wave. It’s not dropping below 65ºF and in fact was almost 70ºF on our back patio this morning. If you don’t have A/C you need that big cooling drop so you can open up the house and get the hot, stifling overnight air out and the refreshing dawn air in. We are lucky and have excellent cooling, but we remember those days when we didn’t. If, god forbid, there was a power outage then we’d have to go back to our old rituals. Unfortunately the cooling would not be sufficient. I hope all my friends out there in hot places are doing OK!

Just a side note: the metric system blew it on temperature scale. You know it is hot when you go from 99 to 100 in Fahrenheit. In Celsius you go from 37 to 38! Boring. No one cares if you have a 99-degree fever but they get concerned if you hit 100. Fahrenheit has a nice, intuitive feel. Going from two digits to three just seems better. The same can be said for 100-mph. You know you’re rocking when you blast out of the nineties. It’s just not as exciting if it’s in kph, going from 160 to 161.

So, is climate change to blame? Is this heat wave evidence for global warming?

It’s easy to say “yes” but not all questions are meant to be answered in simple, binary fashion.

When scientists study things like gases they use statistical mechanics. This discipline (invented by an American, Josiah Willard Gibbs) views a gas as a gigantic ensemble of countless billions upon billions of molecules. Individual molecules are not important. The vast majority of molecules in the gas may be rising due to added heat for example, but any one particular molecule might be taking its own path. The mathematics of statistical mechanics smears out all those variations and makes probabilistic descriptions of the behavior of the whole mass. It’s the only way to accurately account for things.

Temperature, for example, is an average. If you knew the kinetic energy of every molecule of water in your teapot, you’d find that some were greater than others. Some molecules would be rushing about in a great frenzy, others languidly meandering. But by averaging that energy over the entire collection of molecules you can get a useful number—the temperature—that tells us something about the state of the system.

Just like our one lone molecule that is plunging downward when most of its buddies are racing upward from the added heat, any one particular weather event can be “disconnected” from the global climate. That is, even if humans had never added an ounce of carbon to the atmosphere, we could still get extreme weather events.

This is an extreme weather event. Climate science says we should see an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events.

If I reach into a box of hot air molecules, there’s a good chance the one I grab and measure will have a high kinetic energy. In fact, most of the ones I check with my instruments will confirm my observation. The gas is heating up and the molecules are getting energized and the whole mass is rising and pushing on the roof of the box. But I can still imagine the possibility that I will reach in a find a “cool” molecule that is not playing well with others! The odds of that occurrence are lower, much lower, but they are not zero. (Never mind that I can’t reach in and touch molecules, it’s just what Einstein would call gedanken, or thought-experiment.)

So is our Pacific Northwest Extreme Heat Wave the result of anthropogenic (human-made) carbon in the atmosphere? Is Global Warming the cause? Is it evidence of Climate Change?

Probably.

I told you that statistical mechanics was “probabilistic.” So are climate models. They are models after all, and we know that the map is not the territory. The climate is one thing, the models are another. The models are what we use to describe the global system, and if they are robust and have a good correspondence with the empirical evidence, we use them to make forecasts.

It turns out that the models are good. The great Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, described the greenhouse effect in 1896 and postulated that the burning of fossil fuels by humans could raise global temperatures. That famous reactionary, Edward Teller, he of H-bomb fame (infamy?), spoke in 1959 about the possibility of melting the icecaps due to global warming. (Naturally he promoted nuclear energy as the alternative to fossil fuels.) The most famous climatologist, Charles Keeling, he of the Keeling Curve, was given the President’s National Medal of Science by none other than George W. Bush! Here’s what the award says:

“For his pioneering and fundamental research on atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide, the basis for understanding global carbon cycle and global warming.”

https://www.nsf.gov/od/nms/recip_details.jsp?recip_id=191

We all know what a snowflake liberal “Dubya” was!

So, yes.

Global warming and climate change are real phenomena. The models are good. They are giving us solid information to make decisions with. The political choices facing our society are one thing. The facts are quite another.

It’s no comfort. Whether this heat wave is a sure sign of climate change or not doesn’t make us any less hot.

But if we are looking for a “new normal” we’ve found it. We know there will be an increasing number of extreme weather events. That’s a fact. The next extreme event might not be a direct result of global warming, but you can bet there will be another, and it will be sooner than it ought to be.

Maybe that will get us to agree on some possible solutions.

Thirteen billion, anyone?

A 58-year old billionaire by the name of Gautam Adani reportedly lost $13B last week. His fortune plunged from $78B to a mere $65B.

That’s a lot of money. The annual budget for the State of California runs on the order of $200B. California is the most populous state, with nearly 40,000,000 people, and the third-largest in area, about 169,000 square miles. Imagine having enough money to cover one-third of the state budget.

Imagine being able to weather a loss of THIRTEEN BILLION DOLLARS.

More than half of the world’s working population makes less than $10,000 per year. About one-third make over $10,000/yr but less than $100,000/yr. (Personal note: I’m in that group.) About 12% make over $100,000/yr but less than $1,000,000/yr. Two percent are millionaires.

They have a term for rich people: ultra-high net worth individuals. These people are worth $30,000,000 or more. They comprise zero-point-zero-zero-two percent (0.002%) of the world. (Figures from Global Inequality .org) A billionaire like Gautam Adani, even at his low point of only $65B is worth as much as two thousand thirty-million types.

Friedrich Engels is not a popular fellow these days, with his and his buddy Karl Marx’ critique of capitalism having been crushed by history. But Engels said something interesting about free market ideologies, claiming that they would lead to a world made up of “millionaires and paupers.” That was in 1844!

The commies proved they didn’t know shit about running a country. Or taking care of their people. But they could at least see that capitalism was not sustainable. We can see it, too. We know that the wealth gap is tearing our society apart. We can watch Jeff Bezos launch himself into space in his very own rocket while his workers struggle to make ends meet.

What would I do with $13B? I suppose I’d be like Bezos’ ex-wife, the novelist McKenzie Scott, and give a lot of it away. She’s donated over $2B to charities and is still one of the wealthiest people in the world. I don’t want a helicopter or a solid gold tub or any of that. I’d probably settle for some really expensive bourbon. And get all my clothes made for me. I’d be Mr. Bespoke. I suppose I could buy Idaho or something. Seems like $13B would go a long way in Idaho.

The USA is the world’s wealthiest nation, but it also has the most—by far—of the world’s millionaires and billionaires. We have a top-heavy income structure. The top one percent of the people own over forty percent of the nation’s wealth. In fact, Americans are not as well-off as they like to think. Median income means that half the people make more, and half the people make less. Our median income is about $66,000. That’s lower than Switzerland, Australia, Belgium, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, Ireland, France, and the United Kingdom. (All of those countries have some form of socialized medical care and relatively generous old age pensions, I should note.)

With increasing automation and our corporations chasing lower labor costs with maniacal devotion I should expect we will see a steady loss of jobs. Oh, there will be plenty of work to do, but the wages will be too low. There will be fewer opportunities even for people with education and skills. Energy costs will ultimately put the brakes on a lot of development, thus increasing unemployment and enlarging the wealth gap. Like I said, Jeff Bezos has his very own rocket. Poor folks will have to be content with underfunded public transportation.

Anyway, I don’t have the answers. But I think we need to put our heads together about it. Scientists like to chase down The Mysteries of the Universe and I have no problem with that. But I don’t think those problems are actually solvable. I like to think social and economic problems are more solvable. That is, there may not be a particular solution or a clear fix, but I’ll bet there are a hell of a lot of ways things could be improved!

The Ministry for the Future

I don’t read book reviews any more. I don’t typically write them much, either.

One thing I’ve decided is that I won’t write negative reviews. They are too easy. And they serve no purpose, other than to make the critic feel good about him- or herself.

A good piece of criticism should open your eyes. The critic’s job is not to say “this is good” or “this is bad” but to say “hey, take a look!” Only a tiny amount of the art created in this world gets an opportunity to be reviewed. Most writers, for example, labor in obscurity and are lucky if they get any decent remuneration* for their efforts. Most of the books sold in the world are written by a very small minority of the world’s writers. We need more writers and a greater variety of books, not more works by the same writers, even if those writers are good at what they do.

Kim Stanley Robinson is an accomplished (and even famous) writer of science fiction. Right there, in that sentence, I perpetuate the problem with book reviews. Why should Mr. Robinson be pigeon-holed as a science fiction writer? Can’t we just call him a novelist? Genres—like romance, Western, fantasy, etc.—are just marketing categories. The folks who sell the stuff have to have ways of separating the customers from their money and labels make that easier.

But they are unfair to the creator of the work. Octavia Butler once said “I write about exceptional people. It just happens to be called science fiction.” Kurt Vonnegut started his career as a science fiction writer and worked like crazy to shake off that label because he felt it limited his audience. He was right. He became a famous literary lion, but he still wrote science fiction even if he didn’t want it to be called that.

The Ministry for the Future is about our world right now. It is set in the very near future on this Earth and is populated by characters that act and talk like real people.

These people face an extraordinary existential threat, that of climate change and global warming. Isn’t it funny that we call the book science fiction? There’s no fiction in that premise! Humanity is, right now, facing a global crisis that threatens our existence. That’s news, man. That’s not make-believe!

What Robinson does beautifully in The Ministry for the Future is create a fictional response to this crisis. His characters take action. And the story plays out within these actions and their consequences. The book manages to be hopeful and inspiring while at the same time acknowledging, even embracing, the daunting nature of the challenge facing civilization. Humans are flawed creatures and societies perpetuate inequality and injustice, something the novel does not shy away from. It is neither a utopian nor a dystopian book, but rather one that looks directly and honestly into the heart of things and tries to map a way out for all of us.

I want to say “hey, take a look” at The Ministry for the Future! It is a thoroughly provocative read as well as a marvelously entertaining one. It takes a lot of skill, as a writer, to get the reader engaged in the story and the characters and yet at the same time challenge the reader with difficult and uncomfortable notions.

I read fiction, mostly. Every once in a while a non-fiction book comes along that I have to read (like Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization: A History), but mostly I like novels. I find that fiction writers have more freedom to express themselves and thus, oddly, get closer to the truth! If you want to understand 19th-century England, for example, you’d get a better sense of the times by reading Charles Dickens than from most historical tomes. That’s because Dickens wrote about people and what the world did to them. He wasn’t objective. He didn’t have a thesis to defend. He wrote to entertain but because of his sensitivity and humanity the great issues of the day, particularly poverty and social justice, came alive in his stories.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future accomplishes something similar. It works as an adventure story, even a suspense thriller, but it is also has an urgency and immediacy that makes it something larger and better than just another science fiction novel.

I think you should take a look.

*remuneration means “payment” and should not be confused with the similar renumeration which means “recounting” (the second word is frequently and incorrectly used in place of the first word)

Do Cowboys Dream of Electric Trucks?

The most popular vehicle in the United States of America is the Ford pickup, specifically the F-series. Ford Motor Company is adding an all-electric version of the F-150 to their fleet, called Lightning. You can go to the Ford website and place an order for the 2021 model.

Electric vehicles (“EVs” to the cool kids) are big business. All the major automakers in the world are committed to electrifying their offerings, with some going so far as to renounce internal combustion engines entirely. Not to mention the host of startups and newer outfits (like Tesla) emerging as players in the global marketplace.

I live in a place where the diesel-powered pickup is more than just a vehicle. It’s a way of life. It’s a cultural and political statement. Ranchers and farmers do a lot of hauling and towing and other jobs requiring a powerful, multipurpose machine that is only partly a means of conveyance. Builders, for the most part, drive fancy pickups with utility racks. They can hardly go to work without them. Recreation-minded folks like to haul boats and trailers. They like to go off-roading. They like their rigs big and powerful.

But lots of folks around here do none of those things and yet still drive large pickup trucks. They go back and forth to Wal-Mart and Starbucks with them. They go shopping in Medford. They never leave the pavement and in fact hardly get their trucks dirty. But they’d react in horror if you suggested they’d be better off driving a Honda Civic!

There are a million EVs on the road in this country. By 2030 there will be at least 15 million and maybe even as many as 20 million. That’s still a small portion of the 250 million total vehicles that will be out there, but the adoption rate will likely keep growing.

EVs were weird cars for weirdos when I was a kid. Now we have Tesla and EVs have become the hip, stylish alternative even if they haven’t quite cracked the middle-class market. They remind me of the Macintosh computer which made Dells and HPs and other Windows machines look positively stodgy. Like the Mac, Teslas are still a bit spendy for most folks.

Enter Ford Motor Company. Ford is a behemoth. Ford accounts for 5-6% of all the vehicles in the world. It’s bigger than Detroit’s other behemoth, GM. Only Toyota and VW sell more cars and trucks than Ford.

Ford isn’t getting rid of its diesel and gas-powered pickups. The Lightning is an addition to their lineup, not a replacement for existing models, at least not yet. But Ford is betting big on the EV momentum. They’ve promoted the Lightning as a work truck, making it competitive with existing fuel-burners in payload, towing, engine power and torque. It will be a four-door five-seater with full-time 4WD and all the other bells and whistles expected in 21st century vehicles. Obviously the big drawback with EVs is range, but Ford is betting that most people will realize that 90% or more of their truck use will be close to home. Moreover, charging networks are popping up all over, and with phone apps directing you to the nearest one, long-haul trips will become more practical. Not to mention home-charging will be an option as well.

The cool thing about an electric truck is that it is a mobile power plant. The batteries store a lot of electricity. You can go out in the woods or to a remote job site and have AC power plugs aplenty. In fact, the Lightning can power your home for short periods in the event of a power outage! Ford says its truck can offload up to 9.6 kilowatts. Sure beats firing up that loud, smelly generator.

The EV has gone mainstream. It’s no longer for hippies, enviros, liberals, and snowflakes. Ford is about as All-American as you can get. The F-150 is thoroughly manly, and no one will question your patriotism if you drive one.

As Ford’s CEO Jim Farley put it recently:

“There are lots of flavors of soda, but there’s only one Coke, and there’ll be lots of electric pickup trucks, but only one F-150.”

https://www.theverge.com/2021/5/19/22442777/ford-f-150-lightning-electric-truck-specs-price

So, do cowboys dream of electric trucks?

Leaves of Grass

Poking around in the back lot I found a couple of grassy visitors.

The first one is in the same genus as the famous Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa praetensis). It is called Bulbous Bluegrass (Poa bulbosa) and looks like this:

https://calphotos.berkeley.edu/cgi/img_query?enlarge=0000+0000+0411+0213

Like its more famous cousin Poa bulbosa is not native to North America. Despite that it is widespread and found all over the West. It is perennial, has a high drought tolerance, and produces a lot of seed, but is not a particularly good forage crop.

The other species I identified goes by the rather curious name of Ripgut Brome (Bromus diandrus). It looks like this:

https://calphotos.berkeley.edu/cgi/img_query?enlarge=0000+0000+1104+0339

Bromus diandrus is also an introduced grass and widespread in the West. It is an annual and the young plants apparently provide good forage but the mature plant has stiff bristles (“awns”) that can irritate livestock. There are a large number of bromes or bromegrasses (genus Bromus) in the temperate regions of the world. California has a native variety called, appropriately, California Brome (Bromus carinatus).

My botanic investigations were aided by the “Field Guide to Common California Rangeland and Pasture Plants” put out by UC ANR (University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources). Here’s what that looks like:

You can download a free .pdf copy of the guide from here. I used to think identifying grasses was next to impossible. Flowers and trees are much easier, but grasses are certainly do-able.

There are a whole bunch of other invaders and even a few natives in the jumble of weeds and ground covers that currently over-run the back lot. If I identify any of them I’ll let you know!

The photos of the plants are from CalPhotos at UC Berkeley.

A Natural Man

Go in to any supermarket and you will find shelves and shelves of stuff displaying the tag “all-natural.” We think that “natural” things are better then “synthetic” or “artificial” or, heaven-forbid, “man-made” things.

That’s nonsense, of course. First of all, what exactly do we mean by “natural?” After all, petroleum is natural. It is organic, in the sense that it is made from once-living things. But no one would consider petroleum products like plastics to be natural. It’s a good thing we have all that plastic, though, because our natural cheeses and natural meats and natural vegetables have to be wrapped in the stuff so they can arrive in our refrigerators still fresh!

People claim that vaccination is not natural. The Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines are both made from RNA. What could be more natural than nucleic acids? All living things have nucleic acids in them. Stimulating an immune response by the body is the most natural of all healing methods. Herbalists claim their potions improve the body’s immune system. Bully for them. I’d like to see them immunize people against viral diseases. I’m sure echinacea works great against polio and smallpox.

There’s an outfit called Pandora—not the music service—that sells jewelry. They are a big, international company. They recently decided not to sell “natural” diamonds any more. They will replace them with synthetics, that is, lab-created stones.

This is a good thing. Diamond mining comes with a whole host of social and environmental problems. We’ve all heard about “blood diamonds.” Perhaps you saw the Leonardo di Caprio movie Blood Diamond. Let’s just say we all know that many, many poor and impoverished people are made poorer and more impoverished by our society’s insatiable need for the perfect stone.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A lab-created diamond is made from the same material as a “natural” diamond. They are just as beautiful. You cannot distinguish the synthetic stone from the “real” one. Of course, there will always be those who insist on the authentic, Earth-grown diamond, precisely because it is not made by the hands of men but by Mother Nature.

I would tell those folks to go out and ask Mother Nature for some broccoli. Seriously. You won’t find broccoli growing wild anywhere. Broccoli is a product of human patience and ingenuity. The source plant is natural, but the cultivated plant, the one we buy in the grocery store, is not. (It is still good for you, of course.)

I would like to see if anyone can find cheese in its natural setting. You can’t, of course. Cheese is manufactured by people. But it qualifies as one of those so-called natural foods. And don’t get me started on milk. Humans are the only species that consumes the milk of other species. Milk is the food for baby cows and baby goats and baby sheep and etc. But we suck that stuff down, either in its (mostly) pure form or as butter, cheese, yogurt, kefir, ice cream, you name it. Totally natural, man.

Essential oils are all the rage. To get essential oils, you have to process a plant. Typically they are crushed and the extracted liquids are then distilled to get the oil. Distillation is the same process we use to make booze. And gasoline. Totally natural, man.

Humans are products of nature so human-made products are natural, too. At this point the word natural is almost meaningless.

I say Lou Rawls knew what he was talking about:

(Music and Lyrics by Sandy Baron and Bobby Hebb)

Fill ‘er up!

I buy Chevron gas. Mostly out of habit and convenience. I don’t drive a lot so I don’t pay much attention to gas prices. I walked to work for 25 years so commute costs were pretty low! Mainly, I don’t drive that much, so my household budget doesn’t take much of a hit when it comes to fuel for the vehicles.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in how the whole thing works. Our world-wide energy system, that is. I was in high school in 1973 when the Arab Oil Embargo hit. Americans suddenly discovered their interdependence with the rest of the world. That stimulated domestic crude production and the new Mother Lode was Alaska. The pipeline was built from 1975-77 and I remember having classmates tell me their dads went north to find work. My dad was a pipefitter and had worked on crews in the local oil refineries. Humble Oil, soon to be Exxon, built the newest refinery in California literally in our back yard in Benicia in 1968, converting the old military property that abutted the town boundary. The Bay Area is a major oil and oil products hub, with California crude delivered by pipeline, out-of-state crude via rail, and international crude from oil tanker fleets. Much of what is refined into automotive and aviation gasoline for Northern California comes from the Chevron refinery in Richmond.

Here’s what’s happening at the Chevron terminal today (from vesselfinder.com):

The three orange dots are oil tankers. Polar Discovery flies a US flag and is part of a fleet of five owned by Polar Tankers, a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips.

The Polar Tanker fleet consists of five Endeavour Class tankers—the Polar Endeavour, Polar Resolution, Polar Discovery, Polar Adventure and Polar Enterprise—designed specifically for the twice-monthly 2,500 to 5,000-mile round-trip from Valdez, Alaska, to Washington, California, and Hawaii.

https://alaska.conocophillips.com/who-we-are/alaska-operations/polar-tankers-us-west-coast/

Polar Discovery left Valdez on the 24th of April. It is about 1800 nautical miles from there to San Francisco Bay and these big boats make about 14 knots. Polar Discovery and her sister ships were built between 2002 and 2006 and are double-hulled. The Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 was a time of reckoning for the crude oil shipping business in the U.S. and companies had to upgrade their fleets in response. Polar Discovery is 273 m long (896 feet) and 46 m (151 feet) in the beam and can carry close to a million barrels of crude oil.

The Chevron refinery can process about 250,000 barrels per day. All of their supply is ship borne. The Florida Voyager, moored alongside, is another U.S.-flagged tanker owned by Chevron. Its journey began in Singapore, one of the busiest ports in the world and another major oil hub. Although the island nation has no oil of its own, it has huge storage and refining complexes and all the oil majors do business there. They get most of their supply from the Middle East. The Axel Spirit, the other tanker, flies a Bahamian flag and arrived from Long Beach, that after a journey across the Pacific from Russia.

Here’s a picture of Polar Discovery:

Oil tankers are like red blood cells. And the shipping lanes are like blood vessels. To keep our society’s heart beating, the blood has to flow. Crude oil is the stuff that makes everything go. The next time you are pumping gas, think about Alaska, Singapore & the Middle East, and Russia. We are all tied together by our need for primary energy.

We all know the consequences for our over-reliance on fossil fuels: pollution, environmental degradation, and global warming. Not to mention the myriad of economic and geo-political issues created by the tensions between oil-haves and oil-have-nots. Since we will continue to need these natural resources even as we transition to newer, cleaner energy sources, it behooves us to use them wisely. In fact, we won’t be able to create a new energy and transportation infrastructure without using vast amounts of crude oil, natural gas, and coal in the interim, and some uses will never be replaced by alternatives. Expect nuclear power to make a comeback for those needs that current renewable resources can’t yet supply.

Filling our tanks costs us a lot—and not just in dollars.