Sunday, January 17, 2021

Paul Feyerabend and the fight over 'truth'

I read philosopher Paul Feyerabend's book Against Method many years ago, and it has shaped my thinking ever since. Feyerabend has been wrongly criticized as anti-science. I would say that he felt that the modern definition of science was too narrow. He described true science as having methodological pluralism. There is no such thing as a unified science, only sciences plural, as French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour has said.

Feyerabend also championed something he called epistemological anarchism. Wikipedia actually gives what I think is a good two-sentence summary:

[T]here are no useful and exception-free methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge. It holds that the idea of the operation of science by fixed, universal rules is unrealistic, pernicious, and detrimental to science itself.

It is worth noting that the word "science" comes from the Latin "scientia." That word does not denote a specific approach to understanding. It means more generally knowledge or skill. When we explore the world in search of competence in our living and being,we ought to be open to many sources of knowledge and many avenues to gain skills.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

What my Linux adventure is teaching me about our possible future

I am a Linux ambassador of sorts. I've been using the Linux computer operating system since 2013. I can still remember the light feeling I had the day I broke free of the Microsoft Windows operating system.

No more constant worries about viruses hijacking or corrupting my computer. No more outlays to pay for each upgrade. No more worries that the next upgrade will be really lousy and buggy and remain so for months or even years. And, above all, no more freezes in the middle of my work and work lost as a result.

Now eight years into my Linux adventure I am wildly satisfied with that choice. That remains the case even though my most recent upgrade did not go as planned and got stretched out over several days. But this latest upgrade has made me think hard about why I stick with Linux and what the Linux way of doing things can tell us about a possible, better future.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Solar now 'cheapest electricity in history': How much will it matter?

The International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based consortium of 30 countries, has told us in its flagship World Energy Outlook 2020 that solar-produced electricity is now the "cheapest electricity in history."  That seems like very good news, that is, until the actual expected impact of that fact is examined more closely.

For those who are concerned about climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric generation, it is certainly good news—but not quite good enough to make a dent in fossil fuel emissions.

Setting aside any concerns about critical materials needed to make the solar revolution reach completion, it may surprise many readers of the "cheapest electricity in history" headline that growth in solar energy will likely NOT lead to a reduction of fossil fuel burning anytime soon. In fact, the IEA's main forecast has natural gas consumption growing by 30 percent through 2040 while oil consumption levels off but does not decline. Coal use does continue to decline as a share of total energy.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The priest, the engineer and the economist

I was exchanging economist jokes over the holiday and heard this one that seemed apropos both to our resource predicament and the seeming abundance of the holiday season:

A priest, an engineer and an economist were stranded together on a desert island. Given their location, fish seemed to be a logical source of food. So, they discussed how to get some. The priest said that the three of them should pray. The engineer said he thought a better approach would be to fashion a net from materials on the island. The priest and the engineer then turned to the economist for his input. With his hand on his chin, the economist thought for a moment and then looked up and said, "Assume a fish."

That joke neatly summarizes the problem with the vast majority of economic thinking today. Much of that thinking rests on something called the Cobb-Douglas function which has three terms:

Total production = Labor input X Capital input

What is so obviously missing, of course, are physical resources. Hence, "assume a fish" illustrates the slight of hand which most economists perform when referring to the physical world.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, December 27.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Mobility is NOT a business: Why the pandemic-induced collapse of mass transit should concern us all

People have always needed to get from here to there whether by foot, by horse, by ship, by train, by car, by bus or by plane. Civilization DEPENDS on the mobility of humans and the produce they cultivate and extract from the earth. Without mobility everything would grind to a halt. Human mobility—like drinkable water, waste disposal, roads, grain storage and buildings (for government, religion, and commerce)—is a prerequisite to human civilization.

Human mobility may be aided by businesses which manufacture vehicles, motorized and not; supply concrete and asphalt for roadways, sidewalks and tarmacs; supply fuel; and build facilities that are part of the mobility infrastructure. But this is all in service to something essential to civilization, something that is the glue of civilization. Airplanes are optional to civilization. They create a certain kind of civilization. But civilization has been around, of course, for a very long time before airplanes arrived.

Governments typically organize transportation systems and then build the necessary infrastructure and purchase the vehicles or license the purchase of vehicles by others. This is how it is done because mobility is NOT optional for civilization.

Mass transit—the kind of transit in deep trouble right now because of the pandemic—is a product of cities' dense accumulations of people. Though we identify mass transit with the modern industrial city, it has been around for as long as cities themselves. Any locale where there has been a rickshaw, livery horse or carriage for hire has mass transit—by which I mean a system of vehicles that is SHARED by unrelated persons.

You can easily find stories today about the deepening financial distress of mass transit systems in New York City and Washington, D.C. In my experience, the Washington Metro, the tri-state light rail system, isn't entirely empty as depicted in the linked story. But it is very far from the packed-to-gills, standing-room-only affair it used to be during rush hour. Ridership is reported to be down 80 percent. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the BART light rail system in down 90 percent.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Critical metals supply: Industry and government just couldn't be that shortsighted, could they?

In 2009 I had an email exchange with a reader in the computer industry in which he contended that the supply of two key metals in the electronics and solar energy industries, gallium and indium, just couldn't be as precarious as I was claiming.

I bring this up because the European Commission put out a white paper earlier this year about the need for a plan to secure adequate supplies of critical metals including gallium and indium. This concern arises, in part, because these metals and several others are central in the manufacture of ubiquitous devices such as cellphones and renewable energy equipment such as solar cells.

In 2009 my reader made the following case which I summarized in a piece I wrote at the time:

He insists that indium simply can't be that scarce because—get this—there is indium in billions of electronic devices including cellphones and computer screens, in fact, in nearly everything that has a flat-screen display associated with it.

This is curious logic. It says that because we are using a resource ubiquitously and at an exponentially increasing rate, it must be plentiful...

I realized later that what this computer professional actually meant was that the corporate and government planners charged with thinking about resource supply issues couldn't possibly have made a colossal blunder which would lead to a catastrophic shortage of key metals in the electronics industry. He presumed, I think, that such an outcome was simply out of the question given the competence and intelligence of the people in his industry.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Low prices batter oil industry (and later the rest of us)

It is a sign of the times that the largest oil company in the world, Saudi Aramco, the state oil company of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, must borrow money to pay its shareholder dividend. I have written about the twice-delayed and often troubled initial public offering of the company previously (here and here).

Now it seems that the cash which the company is generating from operations is far less than the dividend payout—which leaves nothing for new drilling to replace reserves and other capital expenditures needed to keep the company going. Hence, the need to borrow.

All of this is due, in part, to low oil prices. And, the Saudis are not the only ones suffering, of course. U.S. producers, mostly those focused on high-cost shale deposits, continue to head toward bankruptcy or merge with other stronger companies. Another part of the equation is heavy debt. Naive investors kept handing over fresh capital, oblivious to the fact that the shale oil and gas industry as a whole has been free cash flow negative for years. That's okay for a few years, but as a long-run strategy it means a company is simply consuming the capital of its investors.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Nature on the ballot and the 'parliament of things'

There were some obvious and even historic ways in which nature was on the ballot this year in the United States:

  • Orange County, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment to give rights to two rivers to be free from pollution. By a margin of 89 percent, voters approved "the right to sue corporate polluters in court, without having to show they have been personally harmed, as state law requires." The state legislature's preemption of local jurisdiction regarding rights of nature may not be an obstacle if it is ruled unconstitutional in a case currently before the courts.
  • American participation in the Paris Agreement, the climate accord reached by the world's governments in 2015, was also on the ballot indirectly. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement. Trump's opponent, Joe Biden, pledged to have the United States rejoin.
  • Numerous conservation millages, like this one in Washtenaw County, Michigan, were approved by voters for various conservation projects such as tree planting, protecting habitat and assisting efforts to keep surface and groundwater clean.

What we may not realize is that nature is always on the ballot everywhere. But our awareness of that fact is only now bubbling to the surface of political consciousness. Even those who have no wish to accommodate the supposed needs of nature are actually acknowledging those needs by opposing them—usually by saying that human needs are more important.

But therein lies the contradiction in our thinking. For surely we humans are as much a part of nature and everything we attribute to it. As I've written before, one of tenets of the crumbling system of modernism is that humans are in one category and nature is in another. Now the word "nature" has been much abused and misused. So, we need something else. French thinker Bruno Latour has suggested "parliament of things."

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, November 22.