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?

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Oil prices and the coming financial 'Ice Age'

Albert Edwards turned bearish on stocks back in 1996—well, not exactly bearish, but cautious. He recommended to clients that they overweight long-term, high-quality bonds and therefore underweight stocks in their portfolios. It turns out that clients who followed his advice fared not quite as well as those 100 percent invested in stocks but also took far less risk. Edwards believes that events that are currently unfolding will actually vindicate his approach.

Although Edwards never mentions energy as central to his thinking, I believe that energy and oil, in particular, are related to his views. I'll develop this later, but first more on Edwards.

Edwards is a long-time financial strategist for the French investment bank and financial services giant Société Générale. He has an investment thesis that arose from the experience of Japan in the 1980s. He calls it the "Ice Age" thesis. It amounts to this: Gigantic debts that built up during Japan's boom in the 1980s led to exceptionally sluggish economic growth after the Japanese stock market bust and finally to deflation and ultra-low interest rates.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Taking a holiday break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week to enjoy the holiday. I expect to post again on Sunday, September 8.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Trump and Greenland: America keeps looking for the next frontier

President Donald Trump's announcement that he was looking into buying Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark, was treated with derision by Danish politicians, Twitter users around the world (the idea was announced on the president's Twitter account), and by television comedians.

It turns out that the United States has tried to buy Greenland twice before. The U.S. State Department asked about a possible sale in 1867, and President Harry Truman made an offer after World War II. From a historical perspective Trump's impulse to expand American territory seems entirely consistent with the American story.

By the time historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his seminal essay entitled The Significance of the Frontier in American History in 1893, the American frontier had ceased to exist.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Plastic, plastic everywhere

When we discard a plastic bag, an electronic device encased in plastic, a plastic pen emptied of its ink or any of the myriad plastic objects which populate our lives, we usually say we are throwing the object "away." By that we mean into a trash or recycling bin and from there to a landfill or recycling facility.

I put "away" in quotes because if there were ever any piece of evidence to convince us that there is no "away" in the sense described above, it is the discovery of tiny particles of plastic in the Arctic ice, deep oceans and high mountains.

These so-called microplastics are so ubiquitous now that they are believed to be floating in the air practically everywhere. Some tiny plastic bits have been seen the lungs of cancer patients who have died. Humans not only breathe them in, but also supposedly eat 50,000 of these particles every year.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The wheels come off shale oil

A flurry of coverage about the gloom and outright calamity in the shale oil business appeared last week. Low prices continue to dog the industry. But so does lack of investor interest in financing loss-making operations for yet another season. Plunging stock prices portend more bankruptcies if circumstances don't change.

I received considerable pushback last January when I asked whether U.S. shale oil had entered a death spiral. The almost constant refrain of the cheerleaders for the shale oil industry has been that increasing production demonstrates there is something wrong with my analysis and that of others who have been skeptical of the industry's claims.

We skeptics have certainly been wrong about how long the boom could go on. We could not fathom why investors kept funneling capital into businesses that were consistently consuming it with no hope of ever providing a long-term return.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

What happened to individual empowerment in the internet age?

Apple Computer's 1984 Superbowl commercial—one of the most iconic television commercials ever made—announced two things: the introduction of the Macintosh computer and that this computer could in some fashion allow each of us to escape a future of tyranny and social control prophesied in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984.

The computer age and the coming of the internet have certainly moved more power into the hands of the individual, giving him and her access to social and professional connections around the world, information on every conceivable topic, and awareness of events in real-time or near real-time across the globe. The possibilities of the combined computational power of the modern computer and the connectivity of those computers across the globe are still being explored and expanded every day.

So, how is individual empowerment faring? Not so well. It turns out that practically every device, piece of software and internet platform not only holds the promise of enhancing the individual's power but also can be weaponized to undermine it.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

A little bit means a lot: Why minute toxins in the environment matter

It used to be a mantra in environmental circles that "the solution to pollution is dilution." That simply isn't tenable anymore, and it probably never was. The reasons are many:

  • We now know that many compounds are biologically active at extremely low levels.
  • We know that chemicals, radiation, and biological agents can and do act synergistically to magnify their effects on humans, animals and plants.
  • We know that chemicals that were thought to degrade quickly in the environment such as glyphosate may persist for long periods.
  • Most people now understand that the industries producing chemical and radiation hazards have spent huge sums to propagandize the public and intimidate and control scientists in order to convince us that the industry's products and the pollution associated with them are not harmful.
  • Furthermore, in many cases, the dangers have been known from the beginning and been covered up.

A little history regarding leaded gasoline, chlorofluorocarbons, bisphenol A, and wireless radiation will highlight these conclusions.

Let us start with leaded gasoline which was invented in the early 1920s to increase the performance of gasoline engines—essentially to get rid of the "knocking" noise which also indicates inefficient combustion.

Sunday, July 21, 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, July 28.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Why ocean acidification could make some geoengineering schemes irrelevant

The idea of runaway ocean acidification has now joined the idea of runaway global warming as a threat so large that it stands almost co-equal in its danger.

Part of the problem with ocean acidification is that geoengineering schemes for lowering Earth's temperature by reducing the sunlight that reaches the Earth's surface won't affect ocean acidification. And recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that there is a tipping point in acidification beyond which the process becomes self-reinforcing and could lead to a mass extinction.

The idea of runaway global warming has been around for a while. In its original form it was speculation about whether the Earth could enter an unstoppable process that appears to have occurred on Venus billions of years ago and boiled its oceans away—leaving a planet so hot that surface temperatures today are high enough to melt lead.