Sunday, February 23, 2020

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, March 1.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The return of resource nationalism

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The fall of the Berlin Wall was to bring about one, integrated world market where goods and services freely traversed borders without the interference of meddling ideologues—where the agricultural, mineral and man-made treasures of one country would be available to anyone, anywhere who was willing to pay for them: oil, gold, diamonds, soybeans, palm oil, wheat, computers, software and myriad other products of the earth and of human endeavor.

It's not working out that way. Not every country completely bought into this idea of an almost frictionless international capitalist order overseen benignly by global organizations created by treaties adhered to by all the world's nations.

Among the most obvious is China. China has started to treat rare earth elements—which are critical to practically everything electronic these days—the way the Atreides family, a ruling family in the Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune, treats "melange," a substance that extends life and increases mental ability and only comes from one planet, one that the Atreides happen to control.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Note to EIA: Major shale operator sending cash elsewhere

John Hess, CEO of Hess Corporation, a large U.S.-based independent oil producer, recently told a Houston audience where he's putting the company's money these days: Offshore drilling.

That should strike those who know of Hess Corporation's heavy involvement in the Bakken shale play (in North Dakota) as a bit strange. Hess says the company will "use cash flow from the Bakken to invest in longer-term offshore investments."

Hess told his audience that "key U.S. shale fields are starting to plateau, calling shale 'important but not the next Saudi Arabia.'" Setting aside whether Hess is actually getting investable cash from the Bakken, the constant refrain from the U.S. oil industry has been precisely that shale plays ARE the next Saudi Arabia.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Code blue: Pandemics and hospital surge capacity in a just-in-time world

We may be about to see the sad fruits of so-called just-in-time (JIT) inventory systems applied to hospitals in the United States and elsewhere. Fourteen years ago I first wrote about the vulnerabilities of such systems across society including health care systems. (Other observers have more recently noted this problem in health care.) If the corona virus spreads rapidly around the world, those hospitals which have adopted such systems will be least able to cope.

Here's why:  JIT systems are designed to minimize inventories in order to free up cash for other useful and profitable purposes. If you no longer have to store large inventories, you don't need to build and maintain substantial rooms and storage areas for that purpose. And, the money actually invested in those inventories, whether for auto parts or for medical supplies, can be deployed elsewhere to make a profit. With JIT, supplies arrive at your door as you need them. The "storage room," if it can be called that, is a delivery truck on its way to your loading dock.

The trouble is, a wave of corona virus victims showing up at hospitals could quickly exhaust lean inventories of medical supplies. And, the supplier providing those supplies may quickly run out as demand surges. After all, a smart supplier will be practicing JIT as well.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Owning your own information: How about a Constitutional Amendment?

Celebrities can sue you if you use their likeness or name for promotional purposes without permission, and normally, you must pay a fee to do so. And, you don't get to use that likeness or name again unless you pay again.

So, why shouldn't the law require companies and governments to get your permission to use your likeness—now called "facial recognition"—when they wish to exploit your identity for profit and/or surveillance purposes? In fact, why not require the government to demonstrate probable cause in front of a judge as to why it needs to gather biometric and other data on you and store it?

One hundred fifty-five years ago the United States abolished the right of one human to own another. The principle is that we own ourselves and no one should be able to take that ownership away. So, I'm asking this: If we own ourselves, does that not imply owning the information we need to maintain that ownership, in other words, to be a free person?

This is no idle question in the age of surveillance capitalism. Everywhere the key to controlling others has become controlling information related to them, and that information now includes your movements, your purchases, your habits (at work and at home), your current whereabouts, and anything and everything you put on the internet about yourself. In addition, anything you choose to monitor using "smart" technology will have the providers of such technology looking over your shoulder as you do.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, January 26.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

'Soylent yellow': Is artificial protein really a solution to food production?

The 1973 dystopian science fiction film "Soylent Green" is set in the year 2022, just one year after a nonfictional Finnish company hopes to begin selling an artificially produced yellow protein-laden flour created by bacteria that the company says will revolutionize food production.

The flour is derived from vats of yellow bacteria whose fermentation process create a yellow protein that when dried looks like flour. That yellow flour contains 50 percent protein, 20 to 25 percent carbohydrates and 5 to 10 percent fat. This basic foodstuff can then presumably be turned into products such as meat substitutes, bread products and filler in myriad foods needing a protein boost.

The entire process takes place indoors and the company claims that it dramatically reduces the amount of water, land and other resources needed to grow or raise the equivalent amount of protein using modern farming techniques.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Iran, energy and war

The American obsession with Iran is about oil and natural gas. If these two resources had been absent, it is hard to imagine such an intense American focus on the country from the time of a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-backed coup of Iran's elected government in 1953 to today. The Foreign Policy magazine piece linked above is based on declassified CIA documents and summarizes the coup this way: "Known as Operation Ajax, the CIA plot was ultimately about oil."

This should come as no surprise. Iran was an oil power back in 1953 and it remains one today. Iran is presumed to have the third largest oil reserves in the world and the second largest natural gas reserves. Even if the numbers cited are somewhat inflated, Iran's reserves are not small, and the country is likely to play a large role in world energy markets for many years to come.

The recent escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran because of the U.S. assassination of a prominent, popular and by all accounts highly effective Iranian general will allow the advocates of war to trot out all manner of excuses for such a war: terrorism, regime change, the credibility of the United States, Iran's nonexistent nuclear weapons, and the United States' geostrategic posture vis-à-vis big power rivals such as Russia and China. (Does anyone really know what the last one means?)

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Epistemological divide: How we live in two different worlds of understanding

Epistemology is the study of how we know things. All of us cycle between two main ways of knowing in our modern culture: 1) the rational, reductionist way and 2) the holistic, relational, intuitive way. By far the most dominant way is the rational, reductionist way and our institutions, scientific, economic, financial and organizational are governed by this way of thinking.

For the reductionist thinker, everything in the universe is made up of parts. If we can understand the parts, we can understand the whole. Depending on the field, the physical world is nothing but atoms and molecules and the social world is nothing but self-maximizing, rational actors. The reductionist view is very powerful and filled with "nothing but" statements. It never occurs to the thoroughgoing reductionist that the idea of "parts" is merely a mental construct.

In our everyday relationships with friends and family, in our nonrational pursuits in music and the arts, in our religious lives, we tend toward the second way of thinking, holistic, relational and intuitive.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Ocean floor mining: What could possibly go wrong?

A recent article on undersea mining in The Atlantic brought back a detailed childhood memory. When I was in fifth grade, my class put on a sort of mini science fair and performance art program for parents. My project focused on the prospect of mining the oceans. I drew a large mural-like color illustration showing a submarine stationed just above the seabed where it hoovered up minerals with large hoses. 

The submarine had wide pipes running from it to the surface where a ship received the nodules of ore gathered by the hoses. During my presentation the classroom was dark, and my mural was illuminated using three small articulating lamps turned on and off by a classmate as I went through the distinct phases of the mining operations in a room meant to mimic the dark and foreboding deep.

It turns out these many years later that my cursory research into ocean mining as a fifth-grader yielded a roughly accurate portrayal of what is about to happen in the oceans starting early in the coming decade. The world's nations may conclude a treaty governing undersea mining through the auspices of the United Nations as early as next year. Once that is concluded, large scale mining of ocean bottoms is expected to begin.