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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Self driving cars



Are we really sure that we want self driving cars.  In fact, are we sure we want a car that has any connection to the Internet.  There are some pretty strong arguments against both self driving cars and against cars which are connected to the Internet (so that software updates can automatically be fed into the car computer).

Just recently there have been some pretty serious hacks.  The NHS (National Heath service of the UK) was taken down and here in New Zealand we just had a program on our National Radio about the hacking of electrical power line companies.  You would have thought that if there were systems with the very best of protection, it would be these.  Perhaps they did have excellent protection but were hacked anyway.

Imagine the chaos if we had even 10% of our cars connected to the Internet when someone managed to hack the system.

Then there is the secret servicees of the United Staes and the so called 5 Eyes.  In America it is illegal for these institutions to spy on American citizens but they do it anyway.  The also hoover up every phone call and e-mail from the rest of the world.  Even having a car which is connected to the internet, never mind self driving, gives these institutions yet another window into the private life of all of us.  And don't give me the argument that if you are not doing anything wrong you have nothing to fear.  That arument is so discredited that it doesn't even justify wasting a paragraph explaining the its falacy.


Suppose, for the sake of the argument the car company has developed a new software program for the electric car I am driving.  No problem.  I will go to my home computer, download the upgrade on to a flash drive, take it to my car and plug it in to the flash drive socket provided.  Besides, I may want to wait a year to let the early adapters test it out before installing it.  The computer world if rife with tales of new computer programs that don't work.

Suppose I need navigation.  I will simply take my cell phone and put it on the Velcro patch on the dash board.
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As for self driving, let me ink out a scenario for you.
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You have a daughter - the apple of your eye.  You insisted that she learn to drive on a gear shift car since you are a little old fashion and value the old skills.  However since she got her license, she has never driven.  You gave her a self driving car for her birthday and she loves it.  Today she is off to a show in the next town with her boyfriend.  ETA 30 minutes.  What do you think she is doing for that half hour.  

She is snogging in the back seat with her boyfriend going at highway speed  when some sort of computer glitch or hack demands that she take the wheel and manage th brakes and accelerator.  You fill in the rest.

I have a strong feeling that an electric car manufacturer who advertises that his cars are not self driving and have no connection to the Internet would have a strong selling point.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The folly of GM crops

I'm not going to go into various esoteric subjects such as the chance of human created genes jumping to other unrelated species or the chance of wiping out whole species which we consider pests but who's function in their ecology we don't fully understand (possible with CRISPR).  This blog looks at the folly of past agricultural advances and the harm they have caused and hence the folly of increasing food production even more.

Despite the propaganda of the large companies promoting GM crops, their aim is not to relieve human suffering and provide food for the starving masses. (surprise surprise)  It turns out that we already are producing enough food to feed everyone in the world quite adequately.  Their aim is to accumulate more of the wealth of the world to themselves and is just one more manifestation of the growing wealth inequality that we see everywhere.

 As they accumulate more of the world's wealth, the very people they say they are working for become poorer and less able to afford to feed themselves. So what are the down sides of producing more food.

Malthus, the much maligned, stated that populations increases exponentially; ie 1,2,4,8,16 ......, while food production increases arithmetically; ie 1,2,3,4,5 ...... In reality, populations such as humans which lack predators are limited by starvation. A possibly more useful way of stating the principle, with apologies to Parkinson is that Population expands to use up any advance in food production*.

Richard Dawkins on P391 of his excellent book The Greatest Show on Earth stated it succinctly and I quote.  "If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."  One would hope that humans who, at least individually, show a modicum of foresight might learn to show collective foresight.

Malthus didn't count on various technical advances we would make in food production ever since we left the hunter gatherer life style but was completely correct. Each increase in food production has been used up by population increase. The recent, much vaunted green revolution which started around the 1960's was the latest of such jumps in food production and gave India and some other countries, a few decades without starvation. A recent estimate is that there are now 700m more people on earth due to this latest green revolution.Link
So with a few delays, Malthus has proven to be completely correct.

What he didn't know is how our knowledge of contraception would advance. It has often been observed that when populations reach a fairly high level of economic well being, birth rate falls. Everyone is mystified by this and explains that women are delaying having babies as they pursue a career; people are not having any children so that they can enjoy the fruits of their labor and so forth. 

No argument there but how do you think they are avoiding having children. Abstinence??? I don't think so!! Abstinence went out of fashion more than half a century ago. One of the reasons for not having children (not often stated) is so you can enjoy non-abstinence uninterrupted. The simple fact of the matter is that with a certain level of economic development, contraception becomes affordable. 

The proof of this is a number of countries which have made contraception affordable before they achieved a western level of development. They did it by subsidizing contraception and lo and behold their birth rate fell. Of course, with birth rate under control, per capita economic development is much more likely. There are less mouths to eat up  advances in productivity.

While we are at it, lets look at the most recent  green revolutions that began in the 60's. The Yield of a number of grain crops was greatly increased. Some reports say production was tripled. This production was achieved by careful selective breeding but the new varieties only fulfilled their potential with irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides and  insecticides. Despite being free of starvation for a number of decades. the change was not an unmitigated success. Part of the dark side has been:

   a) mining of the water table to provide water for the new, highly productive varieties, lowering it disastrously, notably in China and India,
   b) accessing deeper layers of water which are contaminated with arsenic, notably in Bangladesh and parts of India,
   c) Pesticide pollution of aquifers, which along with arsenic contamination has led to a greatly increased incidence of cancer, especially in Bangladesh and parts of India
   d) salination of soils, rendering them unfit for agriculture.
   e) more land in production pushing nature and her free provision of food, fuel, fiber, medicine waste disposal and clean water further into a corner*.

*(you would have thought that land would have been taken out of production due to higher yields.- go figure)

   f) production of greatly increased grain yield but with less vitamins and minerals per kg of grain than in traditional varieties resulting in nutrient malnutrition,
   g) huge loss of a genetic diversity as locals switched to the new varieties, abandoning their traditional varieties.
   h) the loss of small farms to large land owners as the peasants borrowed to buy fertilizer etc., got into debt and defaulted on their loans.
   i) an increase in population of about 700,000,000 mouths that are only with us because of this most recent green revolution.

We really have got to the point of diminishing returns. Every advance in agriculture production makes us poorer and poorer. It makes us poorer by:

*decreasing the availability of food, fuel, fiber, clean water and clean air that we obtain gratis from nature as more land is put into agriculture for profit.
*decreasing the ability of nature to process our wastes safely
*decreasing the variety of foods available to us as areas which once grew fruit and vegetables are given over to the more profitable growing of grain crops for cash.
*reducing the space we have to live in as we are crowded by more and more people.
* facilitating diseases of crowding that we would otherwise not have had and increasing the possibility that a pandemic will be much more severe.
* pushing us closer to a disastrous collapse in our Gia support system as we test the theory of sudden climate change with gay abandon.

There is talk now of the need for a second (actually more like the 100th) green revolution, this one based on splicing new genes into varieties of grain. This will probably work and will further increase production. As has happened since agriculture began, population will increase until the new advances in production are used up. In the mean time all those extra people will further degrade the natural environment that we depend on for our existence.

If you want to see the other likely consequences, go back and read what resulted from the 60's green revolution.

Note: It has been reported that a number of genetically changed plants caused organ failure when fed to rats.

Extra agricultural production only pushes us closer to the brink. The last thing you want when you are standing at the edge of a cliff is a great leap forward.

As was mentioned above, since the 60's it has been noted that when a country achieves a certain level of prosperity, birth rate falls. This is a modern phenomenon. It didn't happen anywhere in Europe before the last century. Britain's birth rate remained high all through the industrial revolution with well off Brits having as many children as their poorer cousins. Think back to your grandfather and great grandfather's family. How many children did each of your ancestors have as far back as you can trace. The difference, as previously mentioned,  in the 'modern era' is contraception.

Contraception has been available at least from Roman times, but it only became truly effective when it was modernized and put into the hands of women. Both the pill and the effective IUD (as opposed to previous less than adequate models) only became practical from about 1960 onward and they have had a huge effect in countries where they are affordable either because the economic level of the population makes them so or because the government has subsidized them.  In both cases, birth rate has fallen precipitously. Ignoring immigration, which is another story, most European countries have decreasing populations. What a success - and they are fighting against it tooth and nail. That is also another story.

I lived in South Africa for 15 years, much of the time in the homeland of Gazankulu.  Despite an educational level of around grade 2 amongst many of the women, they would come into the clinic for their 3month jab to keep them from getting pregnant.  There is a vast difference between not having a formal education and being stupid.  These women were clever and fully realized the advantages of having less children.  Their men were not so smart.  They would have beaten the women if they knew what was happening.

We must learn to live in our respective countries with a stable and then a reducing population. This , of course will result in a population in which the age distribution curve is heavily skewed toward older people. We have to work out ways to live and live well in such a society. For far too long we have been living in a pyramid scheme in which each generation had to be larger than the previous one. 

This was necessary so that there were enough young people to fill the more menial jobs before they rose up to higher levels.  It was also necessary in order to have enough working people to provide the pensions of the retired. This, quite frankly, is a stupid system.  The pension contributions of the working public should go into buying up the means of production.  Pensions are then paid  from the dividends from these companies and even from selling the shares to presently working people.  The elderly become a boon rather than a drain on the economy as they spend their pensions.  

Our system can't go on.  We must stop importing so-called cheap labor to fill the positions of the children we are not having. In the long term, cheap labor is very expensive.

Note that people are now worried about robots taking over our jobs.  Surly these two phenomenon fit together beautifully.  We have less jobs available and less young people to fill the positions.  The critical factor is taxing fairly the companies who are producing their goods by automation instead of by people.  Too many large corporations now get away with paying little if any tax.  This tax money then goes to the unemployed, whether young or pensioners.  The companies should also face up to reality.  If people have no money they can't buy the goods they produce by automation.  It is in their interests to have money in the pockets of the people.


Pyramid schemes collapse and the mini collapse we are going through at present (2008ff) is nothing compared to what is to come if we keep increasing agricultural production rather than concentrating on reducing population. If we continue this way, we will soon have an answer to the question of who is correct regarding sudden climate change. If the climate change sceptics are wrong, we may very soon achieve the lovelock number.


* Starvation killed an estimated 50m Chinese over the 19th century, 20m Indians in the latter half, 1m Irish between 1845 and 1852, 1/3 of the population of Ethiopia from 1888 and 1892 and 3m in Bengal in 1943. Imagine the effect of the failure of the wheat and rice crop for just one year due to sudden climate change or even from a mega volcano one spring. (link)

** If you double your population or your GDP, you pretty well double your use of water, wood and minerals, double your production of pollution and garbage and double the area of land you cover in buildings.  You continue to eat into unoccupied land, you eliminate all the benefits unoccupied land brings to the human population for free. Below is a table of how long it takes to double all of the above as a function of yearly GDP growth rate. You can calculate it for yourself with a high-school calculator if you put in (for 3% growth rate, for instance) log 2/log1.03.  The '2' is a doubling time, 1.03 is the interest (growth rate).

Annual growth and number of year to double the economy

1%
70 years

2% 35 years
3% 23 years
4% 18 years
5% 14 years

How many countries in the world do you know that can find twice the water, wood, minerals and produce twice the pollution and garbage and still have any quality of life.  The only two I  can think of off hand are Canada and New Zealand.  We don't want to live like this.
Link

Monday, May 8, 2017

Greening the desert

If you could set up a whole bunch of desalination plants, you could pump the water on to a desert somewhere and over time it would green and you would establish a fresh water aquifer.  It wouldn't work.  No one is going to go to that expense for some future nice-to-have ecological result.  No, you need a way of doing it, that in the mean time generates revenue.  Fortunately such a way exists already.

Some time ago I wrote a blog on Sea Water Greenhouses.  You can see it here.

Image result for image sea water greenhouse
Sea water greenhouse can be at any scale.  Note the solar panels powering the pumps and fan.


To recap briefly, you set up a tunnel house with it's long axis parallel to the prevailing wind.  Note that sea water greenhouses will only work if the humidity is low.  You close the upwind end of the tunnel house with a screen made of some wettable material such as excelsior or some types of cardboard such that the wind can blow through this end of the greenhouse.  The downwind end of the Greenhouse has a Solar powered DC fan sucking the air out of the greenhouse and a condenser to condense the moisture out of the air stream.  You dribble your sea water down the screen at the upwind end and collect it in a trough.  You will find it is amazingly cold.  You pipe this water to the condenser at the downwind end in a lagged (insulated) pipe and it will condense out fresh water from the air passing the condenser.  You collect and use this fresh water to irrigate your plants.  You pipe the sea water back to the upwind area and dribble it down the excelsior screen again. Somewhere in this return system is a bleed off that you can adjust so that the water never gets too salty.  This brine is piped back to the sea.

There are many ways to run the agricultural side of such a green house but here I am talking about an open system in which the plants grow in soil on to which you drip the fresh water.  You don't use a closed hydroponic system. The reason is simple.  You want the excess water to flow into the soil and over time create a fresh water, water-table. All by themselves, plants will start to grow around the farm where none grew before.  As more and more of these salt water greenhouses are set up, more and more fresh water will flow into the ground.  You can plant trees and you are on your way to transforming the desert.

The key is in having a farming enterprise that is profitable.

Of course, you may have some other source of water.  There may be, for instance, a salt water aquifer you can tap far from the sea.  No problem and perhaps an extra opportunity.  Not all such aquifers are simply condensed sea water.  They may have valuable minerals in them.  For instance some brines are rich in Lithium, some in Borax.  Whatever the composition of your sub surface salt water, you can let the overflow brine go into lined ponds to evaporate and precipitate out whatever salts are in the water. In the mean time the lighter fresh water going into the soil from your tunnel houses will float over top of the salty aquifer just as occurs in coral atoll islands. The salty aquifer will be sucked down over time as you utilize it and be replaced with fresh water.

Incidentally, this will work as a remediation system in areas where salination has ruined the soil.  Often there is salty sub surface water which can be used and replaced by the fresh water your tunnel houses produce.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Communism and Capitalism

There ain't nothing wrong with either Communism or Capitalism and people that harp on about them are either ignorant or are trying to misdirect your attention from the real problems with both systems.

America uses Communism as their boogy man and communist countries do the same with Capitalism.  Strange in the case of America since her favorite ally is Israel.     Israel is the only country I know of that has had actual Communism.  Their communes are called Kibbutzim (plural of Kibbutz) and were truly communistic organizations.  They provide a good case study of real communism.

Kibbutsim were not the  type of  commune we are more familiar with, with a charismatic religious leader such as with the many communes that self destruct.  With the religious sort of commune, the charismatic leader takes a leaf out of the book of many countries and uses the fear of 'others' to hold his commune together.  Look how America does this with the fear of communism and now her new boogy man, Terrorism.  In the communes we are more familiar with, people get more and more paranoid, often collect weapons and build walls around their commune.  Besides, the charismatic leader, before long, feels that every attractive female in the group should be his 'hand maiden' and this sows discontent. Some of these communes go so far as to commit suicide to bring on the apocalypses.

No, the Israeli Kibutz is run on democratic principles.  In the Kibutz are  a number of different enterprises.  Often they have fish ponds, a dairy, cotton fields, greenhouses for cut flowers and usually a factory producing, say, socks or plastic items.  The leaders of these enterprises are chosen from the group according to their ability and typically hold that position for 3 years.  Then they rotate to another sector in the kibutz, or go to university,or spend some years in the army or are voted to be the lea-son to the general kibutz movement.  One of their members is often chosen to be the head of the Kibutz (also, typically for 3 years).  So what keeps them motivated.

They all get exactly the same allowance to buy things in the Kibutz store, all wear the same clothes, all live in the same standard of accommodation
 and so forth.  Hard to believe, coming from our western societies where money is the measure of all things but they are motivated by their position in the community.  Someone who runs the dairy farm and runs it well is looked up to by all the member of the commune and  this, plus the satisfaction of doing a good job that helps his fellow members makes him always strive to do his job well.

I must mention here that the classic Kibutz system has broken down in Israel but for reasons that have nothing to do with the above.  That might be the subject of a future blog.

Two lessons we should take from the Kibbutz.  One it is democratic and two it recognizes the rule of law.  Everyone has a say at the regular meetings where the policy of the Kibutz is hammered out and no one is above the law. Kibbutzim are fair and equitable and transparent.   They also seem to work best in societies of up to about 250 individuals.  When they get too big, the effect of everyone knowing everyone else tends to weaken.  Incidentally, Kibbutzim are socialistic or if you like communistic inside but capitalistic in their relation with each other, the rest of Israel and the outside world.

So what is wrong with what we call communism.  We associate Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin with communism.  You may not realize it but when Communism began, Americans were flocking to join communist and socialist organizations and unions in America.  Workers were being treated even worse then than today and this was their way of joining together to get a fair deal.  The bosses hated this and went to extremes to stop these movements*.  No way did they want to pay a fair wage for a fair days work.  Then in Russia, Stalin co-opted the movement.

* They used hired goons, then the national guard and in some cases the army.

When the abuses Stalin perpetuated on his own people became known, people left communist organizations almost as fast as they had joined.  His abuses had nothing to do with Communism as such.  He was a ruthless dictator who stifled any spark of Democracy and the rule of law and abused his own people.  To give him credit where a small amount of credit is due, he had to prepare his country to withstand the aggression of Germany and in a new democracy without established mechanisms, he might well,  not have succeeded.

So what is wrong with Capitalism.  Nothing at all.  The problem is not with Capitalism as such but with the destruction of democracy by the leaders who want power and the uneven application of the rule of law. Being a Capitalist or a Communist has nothing to do with democracy or the rule of law.  You can have democracy and the rule of law in both system or no democracy and disdain of the rule of law in both systems.

Look at yourself as a citizen of a so called democracy.  What are you not allowed to do.  You can't steal, obtain financial benefit by false pretenses.  You can't throw your pollution or garbage on your neighbors land or your commons.  You can't bear false witness.  You can't cause the death of other by omission or commission and so forth.  This is all as it should be..... but the law is not applied equally.

Large companies and rich individuals get away with all of these and it takes a huge effort to bring them to justice.  It happens but it is notable in its rarity when a case succeeds against a big corporation or a rich person who is abusing his position.  Corporations and the rich can afford high power lawyers who can find  loop holes in the law to get them out of trouble when an ordinary citizen would be sent to jail for the same crime.

Look at the recent election in America.  America has the finest founding document, (The Constitution), in the world.  The core of this document is that the government is by and for the people.  Chuck out all the rest and leave only this phrase and it would still be the finest founding document in the world.  Look what happened in the DNC (the Democratic National Convention - the body that chooses who their candidate will be in the presidential election).  Debbie Wasserman Shultz in cahoots with Hillary did everything they could to make Hillary the candidate and succeeded despite the fact that Bernie was clearly the peoples choice.  (remember that part about for and by the people).  Then Obama, who is a constitutional lawyer and who swore to uphold the Constitution, came out for Hillary (by and for???).  Then Warren followed suit.  These people only pay lip service to the Constitution, the top law document of the United States.  I doubt if they even understand the concept.

They remind me of some of my religious friends.  They extol the bible but only follow the parts that fit with their world view or even more cynically, the parts that give them some sort of advantage. Actually, it is lucky, to some extent, that they do pick and choose.   Imagine what trouble you would be in if you followed the bible literally and started to stone your neighbor as he cut the lawn on Sunday.  On that line, I find it amazing that the religions right is at the forefront of mining, logging fishing, drilling in parks and in short exploiting nature to the n'th degree with no regard for sustainability while the atheistic left wants to preserve our world in some sort of reasonable shape for their descendants.  Go figure.

Anyway back to the topic.  The problem is not with Communism or Capitalism or any other ism you care to site.  The problem is whether the rule of law is applied equally and fairly and whether or not you have a democracy which is truly by and for the people.  Both can exist in any ism or be absent.  In America Democracy and the rule of law are disappearing at a rapid rate if they ever even actually existed.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Bottled Water

We are in the middle of a bit of a stramash in New Zealand regarding bottled water.  Some folks are all a twitter (jealous?) of companies which are bottling this natural resource and selling it overseas.  I sort of see where the nay-sayers are coming from.  Bottling water is a license to print money.  What the complainers want to do is to put a price per liter on the water these companies use but this is the thin edge of the wedge.  If you charge these folks, why not other users such as industries and agriculture for their water use.  This would be a complete can of worms for an agricultural export country such as New Zealand.

Just to put things in perspective, New Zealand is not a desert.  We have some dryish places like the East Coast of South Island where I live but even here we have above 500mm per year. The West coast of South Island, is quite literally a temperate rain forest.

 

So let's first look at how much water  various industries use.  For bottled water each bottled liter uses 1.39liters of water, for soda, 2.02, for beer 4, for wine 4.74 and for hard liquor, 34.55 liters.  Note that this is only for the processing.  It doesn't include, for instance, the water needed to grow grapes or hops or the water to produce the bottles .  The table below gives some of the agricultural figures.

Typical values for the volume of water required to produce common foodstuffs

Click heading to sort table. Download this data
Foodstuff
Quantity
Water consumption, litres
Chocolate 1 kg 17,196
Beef 1 kg 15,415
Sheep Meat 1 kg 10,412
Pork 1 kg 5,988
Butter 1 kg 5,553
Chicken meat 1 kg 4,325
Cheese 1 kg 3,178
Olives 1 kg 3,025
Rice 1 kg 2,497
Cotton 1 @ 250g 2,495
Pasta (dry) 1 kg 1,849
Bread 1 kg 1,608
Pizza 1 unit 1,239
Apple 1 kg 822