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What my Linux adventure is teaching me about our possible future

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.

I think some of the principles and structures I’m seeing are found in practically every pursuit, agriculture, education, the arts, politics, and commerce. If you are growing some of your own food, you are practicing these principles and creating similar structures. If you are teaching outside existing educational systems, you are likely doing the same. If you are writing, painting, singing, dancing or somehow expressing yourself artistically, you are probably already moving toward the world that the Linux community is pioneering in its own corner. If you created a business not only to have a livelihood, but because you want to change the world, you are almost certainly on the same path.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

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

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.

With solar energy and other renewables expected to grow so much by 2040, how can this be so? The answer is that what the IEA calls non-hydro renewables (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass) will provide 80 percent of the INCREASE in expected global electricity demand. That means that the fossil fuel electricity infrastructure will continue to grow and that existing plants will remain in place rather than be supplanted by renewables.

Of course, for the part of the economy that runs on liquid fuels including transportation and many industrial processes requiring high heat, more renewable electricity doesn’t make much of a dent in fossil fuel use. Even where transportation is being electrified, the growth in internal combustion engine vehicles continues to dwarf those running on electricity…

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

The priest, the engineer and the economist

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.

In fact, most economic growth projections simply forecast a certain expected (higher) level of demand for goods and services and then assume that the physical resources to meet that demand will appear. Which reminds me of a quote I shared over Christmas dinner that comes to us from economist John Kenneth Galbraith:

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.

And, I am reminded of yet another quotation attributed to economist Herbert Stein:

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

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

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.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

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

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.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

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

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.

So, what does this mean for the economy and society as a whole? Normally, such developments, while bad for the industry, would be interpreted as a boon for the rest of society. After all, cheap energy means cheap fuel for consumers and business owners and more money to spend on other things. It also means lower costs for everything we make and buy since all products require energy to produce.…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Ransomware attacks and biodiversity: A possible lesson from nature

Ransomware attacks and biodiversity: A possible lesson from nature

As I read about recent ransomware attacks on hospitals, I was reminded of a seemingly unremarkable event years ago when I was still using a computer with the Windows operating system. I was working with a medical doctor turned medical IT specialist. His preferred operating system—though not that of the hospitals he worked for—was the one on his Apple computer. When he loaded files from a flash drive onto his machine in my presence, I asked why he didn’t check for viruses first. He had a one-word answer: biodiversity.

He was, of course, using the metaphor of biodiversity to refer to the fact that the vast majority of computer viruses and malware targeted Windows systems at that time, something that is still true today. Very few threats targeted the Apple operating system, and because of its design the system was (and is) more resistant to such attacks.

Every student of biology—which naturally includes doctors and health care workers—ought to be aware of the advantages of biodiversity in natural systems. Biodiversity brings resilience to species and to entire ecosystems. Variations in members of a species make it more likely that some will survive to propagate. Variations across species that inhabit an ecosystem make it more likely that the system will survive as a coherent unit when some, but not all of a particular species die out.

Of course, computer networks are not biological systems (unless you include the human operators). But they suffer some of the same obvious vulnerabilities. When you look at the share of operating systems worldwide for all platforms there appears to be at least some diversity with two major systems, Android and Windows vying for first place.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Do you own your own face?

Do you own your own face?

The question of whether you own your own face may not be as clear as you might think. Companies are already buying and selling information worldwide based on facial recognition technology. In January of this year I proposed that the United States adopt a constitutional amendment which would give each person ownership of his or her information including facial likenesses and any other biometric data. Now, some U.S. senators think that those gathering your likeness into their databases should have your permission first to do so.

Those senators are not alone. In September Portland, Oregon passed a sweeping ban on facial recognition technology for both government and businesses. San Francisco, Boston and Oakland have passed bans as well, but only for governmental agencies.

Those supporting such bans have cited racial and gender biases built into the algorithms controlling the technology as a central reason for the ban. Beyond this, a California legislator who led the fight to ban such technology for use in conjunction with police body cameras—including passing recordings through facial recognition software later—found out something even more disturbing. The technology which depends on a variety of algorithms is woefully inaccurate. The legislator and 25 of his colleagues were misidentified as persons listed in a law enforcement database as having criminal records.

That suggests another question: Would it be okay to deploy facial recognition technology everywhere governments and companies would like to if that technology were, say, 99.9 percent accurate?

There are those who would say, “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you don’t have anything to worry about.” There are three problems with this statement. First, there are so many laws—traffic laws, sanitation laws such as laws against spitting in public, seatbelt laws, ordinances about conduct in public places including parks—that all of us are bound to violate some law at some time everyday.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Scavenger or thief: The line will continue to blur

Scavenger or thief: The line will continue to blur

The role of scavenger in nature is to find that which others have discarded or which no longer has life. Vultures are the best-known example of a species that lives off the dead carcasses of other animals. Many insects act as scavengers as well.

Human scavengers go by many names: junk removal—the junk man often reclaims things of value even as we pay him to take them away—recycling companies, and finally, those who out of economic necessity rummage through trash cans and pick out containers redeemable for a deposit that others leave behind.

In the human world, the more desperate the times, the more scavenging people are likely to do and the less stuff there will be to go around. That’s when scavenging may cross the line into theft.

I was struck by a piece on the damage being done to the South African railways as they have been poorly guarded and far less used in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “[P]erpetrators removed windows, lights, seats, water taps, guard rails and the entire roof of the buildings…,” according to the report. Electric cable and track are being looted as well.

The writer does say that theft has gone on for years and accelerated recently due to lack of security. As a result travelers are having to find other ways to get around as the system continues to be degraded.

Unfortunately, I believe what is happening to railways in South Africa is a preview of the not-to-distant future practically everywhere. I do not believe we are done with the current economic downturn. As the economic slump renews itself, more and more people will become desperate for cash with which to buy food and pay for shelter, if they have any. They will lay their hands on anything salable that is accessible and that taking offers minimal chance of arrest or harm.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Why am I feeling so anxious? The end of modernism arrives

Why am I feeling so anxious? The end of modernism arrives

A friend of mine quipped that it is one thing to talk about the end of modernism—as the two of us have been doing for over 25 years—and quite another to live through it. It might seem that such notions are far too abstract to account for the anxiety of our fraught times. But underneath all the disorder we see in our pandemic-plagued economic, social and political lives is the crumbling of key assumptions about what we call modernity, a period of “enlightenment” that has supposedly freed us from the past.

First, let me recount what I regard as four key assumptions of modernism—I’ve written about them before—which are being demolished every day right before our eyes with the help of an invisible virus.

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn’t matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

The next thing I need to remind you is that modernism is as much a religion as any other. In the not-too-distant past, whenever anyone raised questions about its basic tenets—directly or indirectly in one form or another—that person was quickly shushed. If the person persisted, he or she was then shamed. If shaming didn’t work, then that person was shunned or even unceremoniously ejected from the party.

Enter COVID-19.

The very first thing COVID-19 reminded us is that humans and nature are both in the same category, whatever you want to call it. (My favorite living French thinker Bruno Latour proposed the compound term “nature-culture” in his seminal book We Have Never Been Modern.)

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The ‘new normal’ has been postponed (and probably canceled)

The ‘new normal’ has been postponed (and probably canceled)

There remains a hope that once we get past the economic and social effects of the pandemic, all of us will be able to return to something resembling normal life before the pandemic—even if it is a “new normal” marked by heightened vigilance and protection against infectious disease and more work at home for office workers as companies realize they don’t need to maintain as much expensive office space.

But the date for this recovery to a new normal seems to keep getting postponed. The International Air Transport Association now projects a full recovery in international passenger traffic will take until 2024, a year later than the association projected back in April. The hotel industry will get a bit of a jump on the airline industry with a projected recovery by 2023The situation is so bad for restaurants that no one seems to be willing to project a date for anything that might be called a recovery.

Office building owners—who are suffering lower rent collections and lease cancellations—seem lucky in comparison with a recovery expected by the end of 2022.

Retailers of all kinds continue to suffer as closures abound throughout the United States. And, anyone who relies on commuter foot traffic for sales is hurting.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank just signaled that in the wake of such a sluggish economy it will keep short-term interest rates near zero until 2023. One commentator provided a list of hobbies that Fed board members could take up to fill their time between now and then.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Do we have room for a billion Americans?

Do we have room for a billion Americans?

As I was reading Matthew Yglesias’ piece “The Case for Adding 672 Million More Americans,” the Soviet-era designation of Mother Heroine, initiated by Joseph Stalin in 1944, came to mind. Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders gave Mother Heroine medals to mothers who bore and raised 10 or more children. Lesser honors were provided for mothers who bore and raised between five and nine children. There is some mention of additional financial assistance from the state to those with such large families, but I could not find much information on this.

For America’s version of Mother Heroines (and Heroes), Yglesias proposes “not just paid leave but financial assistance, preschool and after-care services, reasonable summer programming, and affordable college for all qualified student”—all in order to encourage larger families (which he claims Americans actually want).

Yglesias thinks we need to increase our population so that we will be able to compete with 1.4 billion Chinese. Whether you think competing with the Chinese is important or not, there is a problem with the hidden metaphor that Yglesias is using throughout his piece. He is imagining that the United States of America is like the family room in your home. Normally, you might have two or three members in the room at once, watching television, reading, or munching on snacks. But actually, you could fit 10 or maybe even 15 people in the room comfortably if you rearrange the furniture.

So, Yglesias thinks if we, so to speak, rearrange America’s furniture a bit—build more housing near major metropolitan areas, provide more assistance to families, encourage more legal immigration—we can reach 1 billion in population. “America should aspire to be the greatest nation on earth,” he tells us.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

North Dakota blues: The legacy of fracking

North Dakota blues: The legacy of fracking

When oil drillers descended on North Dakota en masse a decade ago, state officials and residents generally welcomed them with open arms. A new form of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for short, would allow an estimated 3 to 4 billion barrels of so-called shale oil to be extracted from the Bakken Formation, some 2 miles below the surface.

The boom that ensued has now turned to bust as oil prices sagged in 2019 and then went into free fall with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The financial fragility of the industry had long been hidden by the willingness of investors to hand over money to drillers in hopes of getting in on the next big energy play. Months before the coronavirus appeared, one former oil CEO calculated that the shale oil and gas industry has destroyed 80 percent of the capital entrusted to it since 2008. Not long after that the capital markets were almost entirely closed to the industry as investor sentiment finally shifted in the wake of financial realities.

The collapse of oil demand in 2020 due to a huge contraction in the world economy associated with the pandemic has increased the pace of bankruptcies. Oil output has also collapsed as the number of new wells needed to keep total production from these short-lived wells from shrinking has declined dramatically as well. Operating rotary rigs in North Dakota plummeted from an average of 48 in August 2019 to just 11 this month.

Oil production in the state has dropped from an all-time high of 1.46 million barrels per day in October 2019 to 850,000 as of June, the latest month for which figures are available. Even one of the most ardent oil industry promoters of shale oil and gas development said earlier this year that North Dakota’s most productive days are over. CEO John Hess of the eponymous Hess Corporation is taking cash flow from his wells in North Dakota and investing it elsewhere.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Is the pandemic causing an exodus from big cities?

Is the pandemic causing an exodus from big cities?

Thomas Homer-Dixon, the Canadian student of complex systems and author of The Upside of Down, wrote in his 2006 book that “September 11 and Katrina won’t be the last time we walk out of our cities.”

Today, many big-city dwellers appear to be seeking refuge in less crowded towns and rural landscapes. The wealthy, at least, are seeking “bugout” homes away from major cities as places to ride out the pandemic, the economic downturn and the civil unrest that are gripping the world. Beyond news reports, I’ve heard from friends that homes are being snapped up in eastern Washington state and New York’s Hudson Valley by coastal city dwellers looking for a refuge in turbulent times.

It’s not just residents who are leaving. The New York Times reports that retail restaurant and merchandise chains are exiting Manhattan because it is “unsustainable.” New York City no longer teams with tourists, and its office towers are largely empty. That makes for empty streets with few customers for the city’s many retail establishments. This story is being repeated in other major cities including AtlantaChicagoDenverHoustonLos AngelesSeattle, and St. Louis.

In an op-ed appearing in The Globe and Mail, Homer-Dixon explained the underlying structural problems that have opened our global society to increasing risk:

The relatively new science of complex systems shows that such tipping events are made more likely by the unprecedented connectivity in the networks that humanity has laid down in a dense web across Earth’s surface – air traffic, financial, energy, manufacturing, food distribution, shipping and communication networks, to name just a few.

This science also shows that until we manage this connectivity better – which could mean, among other changes, reducing our international travel, simplifying global supply chains and bringing some production processes closer to home – we’re likely to experience more frequent tipping events of ever-higher destructive force.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Wireless charging: A colossal waste of energy

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.

That’s because, in addition to the wastefulness of wireless charging, wireless technologies require 10 times more energy than wired technology to transfer each unit of data and voice and do so at much slower rates than fiber optic cable. It’s no wonder then that wireless companies do NOT use wireless signals to transfer data and voice throughout their systems. Instead, they run fiber optic cables right up to the antennas that service your phone because those cables have much greater capacity and speed and much lower energy usage. (In the interests of keeping energy usage down, maybe we should consider returning to wired connections as much as possible. But that is a story for another time.)

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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