Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Mars obsession: Are two planets better than one to ensure human survival?

One of the rationales suggested for going to Mars is that given all the vagaries of the universe, human culture would have a better chance of surviving far into the future if humans settled on two (or more) planets. In the abstract, this statement seems axiomatic.

Before accepting this proposal, however, it might be worthwhile to ask where else we might use resources devoted to establishing a permanent human colony on Mars. First, let's examine the logic behind the "two planets" idea.

The logic is simple. If humans have established cultures on two planets, the separation between the planets will generally keep a major catastrophe including an extinction event on Earth—say, a highly lethal pandemic or the eruption of several supervolcanoes—from affecting the other planet. In the case of Mars the separation at its closest is about 34 million miles. At its farthest, the separation is 250 million miles. It is this isolation which offers protection.

So, the question arises then whether something approximating this isolation might be achieved right here on Earth. The answer is that it has already been tried, and it works. The isolation of peoples across the globe was a longstanding fact in prehistory and even in historical times until relatively recently.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Avocado interrupted: Why having enough isn't always enough

The news that the Biden administration shut down imports of avocados from Mexico in response to threats made against U.S. safety inspectors had restaurants and consumers contemplating both higher prices and possibly no avocados at all sporadically.

By the end of the week, Mexico and the United States had resolved the situation to the delight of avocado lovers in the United States and elsewhere. But, the incident illustrates why having enough of something doesn't always translate into ready availability. One incident involving threats to inspectors brought an entire supply line to a halt.

Avocados, of course, have a limited shelf life and so must move quickly from field to consumer. It doesn't make sense to stockpile avocados as they will simply ripen and then rot if unused. And yet, the supply lines for most other things—including ones that have a long shelf life such as computer chips—have become increasingly fragile as manufacturers and retailers have practiced what is known as just-in-time (JIT) delivery. JIT means arranging delivery of what one needs just in time to use it, say, in an assembly process or to restock shelves. Essentially, it eliminates or at least dramatically reduces inventories.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, February 20.

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Increased U.S. natural gas exports = higher U.S. prices: Who knew?

Few people noticed when energy reporters wrote in early January that the United States had become the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Now, a group of U.S. senators has noticed and say those exports may be driving up heating and electricity costs for their constituents. In a letter to the secretary of energy, they are asking the secretary "to conduct a review of LNG exports and their impact on domestic prices and the public interest, and develop a plan to ensure natural gas remains affordable for American households."

Who knew that exporting natural gas from American gas fields would raise natural gas prices at home? Well, the natural gas industry certainly knew. In the last decade, the industry was smarting under persistent low prices as it continually overproduced gas into a flooded domestic market.

It pushed for and succeeded in relaxing rules for exports in general and for expedited approvals of new export cargoes and facilities. The U.S. Department of Energy still has de facto control over most natural gas exports. But policy in the last five years has been to assist and encourage expansion of those exports.