Sunday, August 09, 2020

Wireless charging: A colossal waste of energy

It turns out the cellphone industry believes its customers just can't be bothered with setting their phones in charging cradles or worse yet, actually plugging a charging cord into a phone. Users can now simply place a phone on top of a wireless charging pad to get their phones topped up.

For the privilege of being extra lazy these users of wireless charging expend up to 47 percent more energy to charge their phones, something that if widely adopted would require dozens of new power plants across the globe to accommodate.

Everything wireless seems like magic, and it is essentially sold as magic. It's also sold as freedom, freedom from those pesky cords that limit where you can use your electronic devices. But the freedom is illusory. We are simply shackling ourselves ever more tightly to an addictive device that is contributing to an unsustainable fossil fueled way of life which is bound to crumble dramatically if we do not alter course.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Evictions, tenants and the fragility of a "correlated" world

As eviction moratoriums around the United States come to an end, it is expected that landlords will begin evicting nonpaying tenants en masse. Eviction by itself is an unremarkable phenomenon in America. Some 900,000 per year have been occurring routinely in the last several years affecting about 2.3 million people annually.

The scale this time is different. No one knows exactly how things will play out in the United States (or elsewhere for that matter). But, barring new moratoriums on eviction one estimate suggests 23 million people will be subject to eviction by the end of September, more than 10 times the number for an entire year.

Where all those households would go is a puzzling question as the limited space in facilities for the homeless could never hold them. And, given the continuing coronavirus pandemic, those facilities that are observing proper social distancing have had to limit their capacity.

Perhaps the U.S. Congress will come to its senses and pass aid for renters just as it has done for businesses. I am doubtful about such prospects.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Climate and architecture

Someone once quipped that nowadays the purpose of architecture schools is to graduate tortured geniuses who design one-of-a-kind buildings which have no relationship to their surroundings. There is a lot to analyze in that observation, but I am going to focus on "no relationship to their surroundings."

Prior to the invention of air-conditioning, architects had to figure out ways to keep people cool and ventilated through design rather than through the action of refrigerants and compressors. I can remember walking into an upscale late 19th century home with an open tower just off the foyer, a foyer connected by large openings to the rest of the house. To stay cool, the residents would simply open the windows. The hot air would flow upward into the tower and rush out the open windows at the top, thus pulling air in through the ground floor windows. This created a constant internal breeze in the heat of the summer.

Other methods of beating the heat included:

  1. Single-room-width homes which promoted cross-ventilation when owners opened windows on each side.
  2. Wraparound porches which shield the interior from the sun and allow open windows even during rainstorms.
  3. Tall ceilings that allow hot air to rise above the people in the room.
  4. Sleeping porches for outside sleeping, sometimes screened in. (My boyhood home had one of these just off my parents' second-floor bedroom.)
  5. Transom windows which allow circulation between rooms when the doors are closed (popular in apartment houses and hotels).

Sunday, July 19, 2020

If you can't stand the heat...get off of the planet!

As I sit in 90-degree heat typical of Washington, D.C. in midsummer and a so-called "heat dome" hovers over much of the United States, I am reading the following:

At 11 or 12 degrees [Fahrenheit] of [global] warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat. Things almost certainly won’t get that hot this century, though models of unabated emissions do bring us that far eventually.

That implies one of two things: A lot of migration or a lot fewer people. This second thought is suggested in the observation above, but few people want to come out and say it: What we are doing to the climate, to the air, to the water and to the soil, and thus to ourselves, on our current trajectory implies a dramatic decline in human population as multiple crises converge and our ability to cope with them dwindles.

As it turns out, the number of 90-degree days in Washington's summers has been on a steady rise. And even though the record for the longest streak of days with temperatures reaching above 90 wasn't broken this time—only 20 days in a row instead of 21—those 90-degree days are coming sooner in the season, and there are more of them.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Cracks in the supply chain: Is metastable turning into unstable?

You who are reading this sentence are metastable systems. So, is the biosphere, and so is all of human society. A metastable system is one that remains stable so long as the inputs necessary to maintain its stability are available.

For humans this includes food (energy) and water. For the biosphere the key element is the energy input from the Sun. For human society, which is a subset of the biosphere, the Sun is also the key energy input. Much of the energy used by humans is stored in the form of wood, coal, natural gas and oil which all ultimately come from living organisms dependent on the Sun for energy.

Hydropower is also a product of the Sun which drives the water cycle on Earth and therefore allows hydroelectric dams to be filled. Wind and solar energy are, of course, products of the Sun as well. The energy harvested by humans gets expressed in manufacturing and transportation in machines. It gets expressed in human labor, but also in the thought, planning, and communications needed to make things happen.

What we are witnessing as a result of this pandemic is a widespread challenge to metastable systems upon which our societies depend. The most obvious are those related to hospitals and health care products. We often read in the news that hospitals are near "the breaking point" as if the hospital walls will burst when too many patients crowd into the building.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Our conversation with a coronavirus

We have all been flummoxed by the way in which the coronavirus called COVID-19 has behaved as if it has agency in the world. We say it "moves," "adapts," "evades," and "tricks us." We attribute an intelligence to it. We marvel at its ability to manifest itself in so many ways. And everywhere we read COVID-19 is an enemy, an invader, and a killer, one that uses stealth to spread itself. We must defeat it, wipe it out, and eradicate it.

Many places on the internet we are implored to understand COVID-19 in order to stay safe—but only until such time as we vanquish this foe of humankind with a vaccine.

It occurs to very few people that we might be in a conversation with this coronavirus which is transmitting information to us by its actions and responding to our actions with its own reactions.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The financialization of the end of the world

For those who are fans of cartoons from The New Yorker magazine and consistent readers of this blog, you might be able to guess my two favorite cartoons. In the first one, a man in a coat and tie stands at a podium and tells his unseen audience the following: "And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit."

In the second, a man in a tattered suit sits cross-legged near a campfire with three children listening to him intently as he says this: "Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders."

Now, in the you-can't-make-this-stuff-up category, financial writer Paul Farrell used the caption from the first cartoon in a 2015 piece for MarketWatch entitled: "Your No. 1 end-of-the-world investing strategy." The subheading is: "How to pick stocks for the near term when long-term trends say collapse is near." The subhead actually seems like it might be another caption from a New Yorker cartoon (or possibly one from The Onion). Why exactly would you invest in stocks—as opposed to seeds of food crops and sturdy garden implements—"when long-term trends say collapse is near"? But I'll put that down to bad headline writing.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Insanity? Markets continue disconnect from economy and society

It's hard to ignore the protests on the streets of the world's cities of late. Those protests are coming from a populace who knows that the system they live under long ago stopped benefiting them. While the focus has been the senseless killing by police of an African-American man—all of which was caught on video—there are many other grievances: legalized financial theft by the one percent from the rest of us comes to mind, something that has resulted in growing and egregious inequality across the world.

It's also hard to overestimate the hardship visited on the world's people as many have been deprived of income and daily life by up to three months of pandemic-inspired stay-at-home orders and retail shutdowns. As I mentioned in my previous piece, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta does a frequently updated estimate of U.S. GDP which as of this writing is minus 53.8 percent for the second quarter. (That's annualized and seasonally adjusted.) The estimate for the current quarter started at minus 12.1 percent and has been dropping like a stone with each new piece of information. For comparison, U.S. GDP during the 2008-2009 financial crises shrank by only 4.2 percent.

And yet, the world's stock markets are behaving as if the protests and the deprivation are inconsequential. After crashing in March in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, major stock market indices are at or near all-time highs. For example, the S&P 500 Index was last around its Friday closing price on February 24, before the coronavirus pandemic market panic. How can this be explained?