Sunday, December 05, 2021

Technology that "empowers the individual" can threaten all of us

Whenever I hear about a new technology that "empowers the individual," I know that one thing is likely to be true about it:  It will soon (if not already) be turned to negative and harmful ends. And yet, we as a society keep falling for the line that somehow every new technology will give us more control over our lives and make us somehow happier, more connected, safer and more powerful (but only in a good way).

It's true that practically any technology can be turned toward harmful ends; we haven't banned knives because they are used both to cut food and kill people. But it is the scale of damage that can be done by an individual that is changing.

Newspaper columnist Molly Ivins used to joke that she was not anti-gun, but pro-knife. In a 1993 column she wrote:

In the first place, you have catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. We'd turn into a whole nation of great runners. Plus, knives don't ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives.

Ivins was getting at the increased scale of damage that can be done by, say, automatic weapons versus a knife.

Guns have been around for centuries and have been made more lethal over time. But their lethality may someday soon seem quaint given the future of "empowerment" that awaits us.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Critical minerals problem: Supply chain issues come to the fore

It seems that all of a sudden there is talk of mineral shortages and two metals which are thought to be plentiful in the Earth's crust, nickel and zinc, have been added to the list of minerals now deemed critical to the United States, a list recently updated by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Partly, the concern is that the United States is not producing enough of its own nickel and zinc to rest easy over the availability of these metals on world markets. Nickel's new status stems in part from its emerging role in electric vehicle batteries. There is only one operating U.S. nickel mine. The situation with zinc is less concerning since there are 14 mines and three smelters.

There has long been concern about Rare Earth Elements (REEs) crucial to the computer and renewable energy infrastructure. Part of the concern is China's domination of the production of these minerals. Chinese mines supplied 55 percent of all REEs mined worldwide in 2020 and its REE refineries produced 85 percent of all refined products.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, November 28.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Another extraordinary delusion: Mining helium from the Moon

Asia Times tells us that there is a "secret mining war" taking place in space over helium-3, a version of helium which is surprisingly abundant on the Moon. Helium-3 is an isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. The far more prevalent arrangement is helium-4, two protons and two neutrons.

(For those only vaguely familiar with the periodic table, helium is an element which therefore cannot be manufactured from other other elements and must be harvested from nature.*)

The fascination with helium-3 is as a fuel for fusion reactors. This fuel, it turns out, would produce absolutely no radioactive waste—unlike hydrogen-fueled fusion reactors which produce pesky neutrons that bombard components of the reactor and render them radioactive.

So, let's get this straight. There is supposedly a "secret mining war" between China, the United States and possibly Russia over potential resources on the Moon, resources that might provide very clean fuel for fusion reactors of which there are zero of the commercial variety. And, the number of commercial fusion reactors is likely to stay at zero until at least mid-century. And, there is no assurance that the type of reactor that could use helium-3—which would require much higher temperatures than the hydrogen-fueled ones being contemplated now—will be commercially available any time soon after mid-century.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

'Health should not be political,' but like everything else it is

Football fans will wonder how it is that I had no idea who Aaron Rodgers was before the controversy involving his vaccine status erupted in the media last week. (The quick response is that I do not follow professional sports at all unless they spill over into the main news headlines.) For the edification of others like me, Rodgers is a professional football player who is quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. He chose not to get a COVID vaccine for reasons he detailed in this interview. He recently tested positive for COVID.

I am not interested here in commenting on the wisdom of his choice. Rather, I found a particular statement in the interview of special significance. Rodgers opined, "Health should not be political." The entirety of the interview tells me that he means specifically partisan politics. But it is easy to equate partisan politics with politics in general which by my definition is a very broad category of human endeavor that impinges on practically our every waking hour. By politics I mean the institutions and processes by which we collectively decide two things: 1) who gets what by when and 2) where personal autonomy stops and the needs of the community take precedence. That definition makes even private family life political.

Americans somehow believe they can take politics out of their daily lives, that they can set up a society in which we all just respectfully leave each other alone to pursue our own best interests so long as we don't hurt others. There are two problems with that thinking. First, as a colleague once explained, nobody likes to be bossed around; but there are plenty of people who want to boss others around. Second, it is a practical impossibility for us humans to "leave each other alone to pursue our own best interests so long as we don't hurt others." It turns out we need clear rules for how we relate to one another, either by custom or by law, in order to accomplish this. It's also equally clear that if those rules don't limit what the bossy among us can do, those bossy types will run roughshod over everyone else's autonomy.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

'Your grocery stores are like museums': Then and now

About 15 years ago I helped to host a group of Russian entrepreneurs during one stop on their tour of the United States, a tour sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. As we hosts accompanied our visitors, we naturally fell into conversation with them. One of them noted a contrast with Russian life that stuck with me because it was offered in terms that were so unexpectedly strange. He said that compared to Russian grocery stores, "your grocery stores are like museums."

Just as fish don't notice they are swimming in water, we Americans are prone to think of our spacious (by world standards) grocery stores with their carefully arranged and brimming shelves; colorful produce sections; fulsome meat counters; and well-stocked frozen dessert cases—all festooned with artfully crafted point-of-purchase displays—as merely utilitarian platforms for obtaining our daily provisions.

Fast forward to today and we find that some grocery stores are unexpectedly moving even closer to the museum model, but not in the good way my Russian acquaintance had in mind. We are, of course, not surprised to see pretty pictures in museums rather than the objects those images depict. Now, in some of grocery stores in Great Britain, pretty pictures are being used to cover over gaps in the produce and dry goods sections.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, October 31.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Chokepoint democracy: Workers capitalize on global system weak spots

In his book Carbon Democracy Timothy Mitchell attempts to explain the rising and falling political power of the working class in terms of the evolution of the world's energy system. The first fossil fuel, coal, required hoards of men (and it was almost exclusively men) to bring it to the surface, get it to market, and bring it to its final users.

Since coal was the largest fossil fuel energy source for human societies from the early days of the Industrial Revolution until the 1950s and its extraction employed a large number of workers who over time unionized, strikes among coal workers severely impacted energy supplies. Those strikes riveted the attention of the authorities and the public as the health and economic well-being of society was at stake.

The rise of oil as the world's dominate energy source changed all that. Oil required many fewer workers to bring it out of the ground and distribute it. Oil production utilizes pumps and pipelines instead of people to move fuel. The decline of the power of coal miners followed in the wake of oil's rise. Oil did not similarly empower workers because so much of the system to extract and refine it runs automatically and can often be overseen temporarily by a few management personnel in the event of a strike or work stoppage.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, October 17.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Things do not have to run out for their scarcity to become destabilizing

Economic cornucopians who believe "innovation" and "substitution" will solve every constraint on the resources needed for modern civilization use a clever piece of misdirection to deflect the arguments of those concerned about limits. These cornucopians say that the claim by the limits crowd that we will "run out" of resources we need to maintain the smooth functioning of our complex industrial society is nonsense.

But that statement is a straw man designed to avoid the real issue, an issue which we see in abundance all around us today, namely: Things do not have to run out for their scarcity to become destabilizing. This is a key argument among those concerned about limits and the effects of those limits on the stable functioning of modern society.

We have not run out of fossil fuels but shortages are creating widespread problems in China and Europe. We are not running out of water in the world, but there is not enough of it in the right place to supply all the needs of those living in the American Southwest. That lack of water is leading to a reduction in geothermal power generation as well. And, drought in California is reducing the amount hydroelectric generation by a third so far this year.