Sunday, November 17, 2019

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, November 24. Regular readers will note that I've had to take more breaks from posting this fall than I have in a very long time. This is due to an exceptional consulting and writing workload.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Air-conditioning the outside—really

Qatar is both a country and a peninsula which juts out about 100 miles into the Persian Gulf. It is precisely this geography which makes it both one of the hottest and muggiest places on Earth. The average daily high in mid-summer is 108 degrees F (42 degrees C).

With temperatures now exceeding those averages on a regular basis and nighttime temperatures hovering in the 90s in summer, Qatar has begun working on making the outside cooler.

It had to come. As climate change continues to move temperatures up worldwide, those places that were already hot are getting hotter—and unlivable.

Workers on a U.S. military base in Qatar must now follow strict rest regimens so as not to endanger their well-being on hot days. The Washington Post reports:

The U.S. Air Force calls very hot days “black flag days” and limits exposure of troops stationed at al-Udeid Air Base. Personnel conducting patrols or aircraft maintenance work for 20 minutes, then rest for 40 minutes and drink two bottles of water an hour. People doing heavy work in the fire department or aircraft repair may work for only 10 minutes at a time, followed by 50 minutes of rest, according to a spokesman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

The biggest obstacle to progress is our idea of progress

Those who oppose change, even in a single category of life, are often labeled as enemies of "progress." In the modern era "progress" has become a catch-all word to describe every technological change by the proponents of that change. Thinking people will agree that not all change is progress. But it is striking how infrequently most people actually oppose technological change when it comes.

Often the technological change is billed as a "solution" to a problem created by a previous technological change that was billed as "progress." The proliferation of air filtering technology comes to mind. I am not opposing air filtering technology, only pointing out that it is not a step forward but rather at most a step sideways to make up for another supposed step forward.

It is logical to assume that making progress toward one's destination is a good thing. After all, if we have a goal, doing things which allow us to reach that goal seems positive. But this does not touch on the question of whether the goal itself will amount to progress once we get there.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The troubled Saudi Aramco IPO: It's what you can't see that counts

It's what you can't see—the oil beneath the Arabian sands—that potential investors in Saudi Aramco's on-again, off-again initial public offering (IPO) ought to focus on. The truth about the remaining oil resources beneath the Saudi desert continues to be a state secret. I'll elaborate on this after a little background to set the context.

Recently, Saudi Aramco, the state-owned Saudi oil company, delayed its planned IPO again. For those who missed the previous time, plans for the IPO first came to light in 2016 as part of Saudi Arabia's 2030 Vision, essentially a plan to diversify the country's economy away from heavy dependence on oil. The feverish attention the proposed IPO produced abated when the world's largest company unexpectedly withdrew it in 2018. The financial firms advising the government were let go as the government looked for other ways to raise money for its 2030 Vision plans.

And yet, the IPO idea remained a possibility and was later revived. The problem has been that both times the IPO looked like it was about to happen, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia got cold feet, worried that it might not get the $100 billion it wants for 5 percent of the company.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

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, October 27.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

California wildfires, electricity shutoffs and our troubled energy future

Most of the news surrounding the electricity shutoffs in California—done to avert the ignition of additional wildfires by aging electrical infrastructure—has focused on two things: climate change and the greedy, incompetent management of Pacific Gas & Electric.

Missing in this discussion is the broad neglect of the complex infrastructure of the United States and possibly other wealthy nations. The American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) most recent "Infrastructure Report Card" gave the United States an overall grade of D+. (Those readers unfamiliar with the American system for grading schoolwork should note that "E" is a failing grade.)

While some will point out that the ASCE's assessment is self-interested—civil engineers will, of course, benefit from an uptick in infrastructure spending—the organization hasn't always been this negative about American infrastructure. The 1988 report card wasn't flattering, but it wasn't nearly as dire as the most recent one.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

'Factfulness' may calm you down, but won't change our ecocidal trajectory

Here and there people have been referring to author Hans Rosling's idea of "factfulness" as an antidote to gloomy thinking about the trajectory of the human enterprise. Rosling writes:

[T]he vast majority of the world’s population live somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated. Perhaps not on every single measure, or every single year, but step by step, year by year, the world is improving. In the past two centuries, life expectancy has more than doubled. Although the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.

"Factfulness," it seems, relies on nothing more than drawing attention to a narrow set of facts. Yes, we have made tremendous progress for humans taken alone. The problem with such assessments is that they leave out how that progress was purchased. While Rosling does not deny climate change, profligate resource consumption or toxic pollution, he does not see that they are the pillars upon which the so-called "progress" we've achieved rests and not mere side-effects.

I agree with Rosling that the daily flow of news does not provide an accurate picture of our true trajectory. While the media may overplay the negative news about human well-being or at least give the wrong impression, it vastly underplays the damage that human dominance has inflicted on the biosphere. And, it reliably ignores the relationship between continual growth in consumption and population and that damage.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Oops! Gene editing not as precise as advertised

Sometimes a headline gives you practically the entire story. Take this one: "Gene-Editing Unintentionally Adds Bovine DNA, Goat DNA, and Bacterial DNA, Mouse Researchers Find." The writer details how this happens, of course. And, there is an important subtext. The problem is chalked up by scientists and regulators to incompetence on the part of the company doing alterations to create cattle without horns.

But the real news is this according the author: "[F]oreign DNA from surprising sources can routinely find its way into the genome of edited animals. This genetic material is not DNA that was put there on purpose, but rather, is a contaminant of standard editing procedures." [My emphasis.]

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (remember records?), as Garrett Hardin, the author of the first law of ecology, reminds us, "we can never merely do one thing." Why is this truism so hard to accept, so hard that I feel compelled to refer to it in consecutive posts? The simple answer is that as long as there is profit in ignoring it and as long as it is possible to pass the bad consequences on to others, people will act as if Hardin's first law was never spoken.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

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, September 29.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Genetically engineered honeybees: Not the dumbest idea ever, but close to it

In the wake of widespread declines in bee populations, farmers and beekeepers are wondering who exactly is going to pollinate that third of the world's food crops which require pollination. The declines have been attributed to pesticides, parasites and climate change.

In Europe one response has been to phase out a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The phase-out has coincided with a revival of bee populations. But pesticides are clearly not the only factor affecting bee health.

Another response has been to consider building a better bee. Enter the geneticists. Why not genetically engineer honeybees to resist those things which are undermining their health?