Sunday, February 28, 2021

Texas: A Cautionary Tale

                                                                                                   written 21 February 2021

                                                                                               published 28 February 2021



            The crisis in Texas was created by bad governance, rooted in two big lies and a fanatic obsession.  The big lies are that government regulations are always bad and that climate change is a hoax.  The obsession prioritizes short term, lowest bidder profits over every other social value.

            The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) formed in the 1970's to organize power within the state.  Current production is 50% natural gas, 25% wind, 14% coal, with nuclear, solar, and hydro making up the rest, for a total of about 120,000MW.  Summer heat is normally their largest electrical load, so essential down time maintenance is done during the winter, which is also a slack time for wind production.  ERCOT weather forecasters predicted the expected cold weather would require about 67,000MW and figured they would have about 80,000MW capacity available, which should have been adequate.

            Strong polar vortexes are occurring more frequently due to climate change.  The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, destabilizing the jet stream, letting it wander more widely, bringing cold Arctic air further south.  This polar vortex was colder than anticipated, covered more area, and lasted longer.  Electric heat in Texas is generally older and less efficient, so the actual load was greater than anticipated.  

            ERCOT has kept electricity unregulated, which maximizes utility profits, encourages construction of the cheapest generation systems, and keeps the overall system size very lean, with reduced reserve capacity.  Preparing infrastructure for cold is expensive, and in the deregulated Texas market the extra cost was discouraged, so the state was vulnerable and their power systems froze.  

            The gear boxes in a third of the wind turbines locked up.  Stored piles of coal froze into useless boulders.  Gas pipelines and generators froze.  One nuclear plant went off line due to frozen instrumentation.  Consequently, only 40,000MW of generation was available to meet over 70,000MW in demand. 

            Long standing choices by Texas governance made the situation worse.  Texas has always prided itself on independence and self-reliance.  As the national electric grid became formalized in 1935, Texas decided not to join interstate connectivity in order to avoid any Federal regulations.  In other parts of the country, emergency electricity can be imported over grid interconnections, but the intentional isolation of Texas precluded that option.

            The extreme mismatch between supply and demand could have damaged the entire system, requiring months to repair, so the grid was shut down, replaced with rolling black outs, creating a cascading crisis.  After the heat failed, water systems froze, resulting in burst pipes, wide spread property damage, and the loss of overall water pressure, creating problems for hospitals and fire fighters.  Cell towers ran out of backup power, causing communications problems.  Gasoline and food supplies were curtailed, rationed, or depleted.  

            This crisis was not unexpected because a polar vortex had frozen the Texas grid in 1989, and again in 2011.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission did an extensive investigation in 2011, with recommendations for how to harden the grid against cold.  Power is reliably generated in cold climates, so the solutions are simple and known.  Wind turbine gear boxes and critical gas infrastructure have insulation and heaters installed.  Coal piles have antifreeze added.  Water pipes are buried deep or insulated.  Everywhere else in the nation, these would have been requirements to allow interstate commerce.  But since Texas is separate, Republican leadership just ignored the report.

            Rather than deal with reality, Texas governor Abbott declared on Fox news that this crisis was due to failure of wind turbines, which were then referred to as "liberal fashion statements".  Senator Cruz flew his family to Cancun for a break during the worst of the crisis.  One mayor told Texans freezing in their homes that "no one owned them anything".  In the unregulated Texas market, electricity prices spiked 100 fold, profiting more in two days than the normal annual total, so those Texans that were lucky enough to still have power will pay through the nose for it.  This is what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism", where a few profit from the suffering of the many.

            Our changing environment requires investment in power resilience, with costs over and above the immediate needs, in order to ensure an enduring, viable society.  Real governance, at the local, state, and federal levels, understands this.



Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Social Dilemma

                                                                                                   written 14 February 2021

                                                                                               published 21 February 2021



            Part of the sadness of our time is the deep polarization in our country, and the wild disparity in what we believe to be "true".  Our economic system is not working for many in the country, and various ideas are put forth about "who is to blame".  Conspiratorial answers run the gamut from such "proven facts" as the 1949 conviction of five corporations who cooperated to destroy electric interurban rail systems, to the current "insane delusions" of Q-anon and the Q-cumbers (mindless vegetables that end up in a pickle) who believe Trump will save us from the alien lizards who control the blood drinking pedophiles of the Democratic party.

            In between there are a lot of weird and unexplained events in the world.  I personally believe that not all the crop circles are man-made, and find it significant that on 9/11, three buildings in New York fell into their own footprint at free fall velocity, but only two had been hit by planes.

            How is a person to decide what is "real" and what is "fiction"?

            For myself, I talk and listen to people whose opinions I respect and read about an issue in different sources.  But all this external input is balance against an internal sense of what feels "true", based on previous experience and cultural programming.  Of course, this is not fool proof, by any means, but without this internal confirmation process, I could easily follow any mass hysteria.

            The power of the internet has shifted how information is delivered.  The book and newspaper industries are economically stressed, losing readership, with editorial control shrinking into smaller groups of owners.  The situation is worse online, where a few social media organizations control the information people get.  "The Social Dilemma", a recent documentary on the subject, is well worth watching and can be streamed on Netflix.

            In 2003, Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg created Facemash, allowing fellow students to compare pictures of the women on campus, two at a time, determining who was "hotter".  This was so popular it crashed the campus server.  Zuckerberg launched Facebook within a year, leading to massive fame and fortune.  Facemash focused only on looks, without any regard for the deeper qualities that make up a whole human being.  This prioritization of superficiality over substance is at the core of Facebook as well, only the consequences are more damaging, because the platform now has 2.8 billion users.

             Social media such as Facebook are primarily economic enterprises making money selling ads to be displayed while you are viewing various pages.  They claim to be content neutral, and not in the business of censoring content, but like an addiction, the longer they can hold your attention, the more marketable you are to their advertisers.  Their algorithms are designed to keep track of what you have been watching, and provide you more of the same.  As people become more addicted, they are less likely to seek other information sources.  Bad actors have taken advantage of this, resulting in the virulent spread of disinformation, with great social cost.  

            Russian trolls on social media have been identified as agents affecting the last two US presidential elections and the Brexit vote.  Genocide against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar was linked to Facebook disinformation.  When Twitter banned Trump from their platform for repeatedly posting information about election fraud that had already been proven wrong, disinformation on the subject dropped by 75%.  

            This information model, with extreme focus on external input, diminishes critical thinking and internal evaluation, a form of hypnosis, contributing to the rise of delusional group thinking.  It also makes suggestive people vulnerable to group shaming, or simple lack of group acceptance.  Young people in particular show increases in depression and suicide as a result of negative social media responses.  Excessive screen time stunts development of inter-personal skills.

            However, there are serious free speech concerns about requiring social media companies to censor material.  One suggestion is to ban anonymous posting, much like full disclosure in political advertising, and require a verified identity for everyone posting online.  Further, people should treat social media like any other powerfully addictive substance, to use in measured moderation, limiting frequency and duration of indulgence, while recognizing that children are particularly vulnerable.  Another alternative is to drop out of social media completely, and start talking to our neighbors.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Whole Systems Planning

                                                                                                     written 7 February 2021

                                                                                               published 14 February 2021



            One of the serious limitations of traditional capitalism is the "silo effect", where each economic unit is treated as an isolated entity, to turn a profit or die on its own.  The real world is much more cooperative.

            Large corporations have addressed this to some extent by vertical integration, where several stages in a particular industry operate under one corporate umbrella.  This allows a more profitable sector of the process to subsidize an essential, but less profitable sector.  But vertical integration is relatively limited, and can create problems with anti-social monopolistic tendencies.  Furthermore, large social issues can't be addressed by this kind of business model.

            For example, after WW2, Britain had the opportunity to rebuild their entire economy, and instituted a national health system as part of the solution.  At the time, most homes were heated by burning coal, which made sense given the strong British coal industry.  However, the very high health costs from breathing the poisonous air were born entirely by individuals, who had no power to change the fundamental situation.  When the government began funding those costs, they immediately considered ways to reduce them.  Their solution was to pay for the conversion of all the heating systems from coal to something less polluting.  The resulting health care savings more than made up for the one-time upfront conversion cost, let alone that the entire population was healthier.  This is the benefit of whole systems planning.

            Several decades ago, Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, calculated that America would be money ahead to retire every low mileage gas automobile, and give everyone a high mileage car for free.  This one-time expense would save the country money over the long term, as well as reducing dependence on foreign oil, and all the military expenses associated with that geo-political exposure.  Of course, this suggestion was ignored as being too socialist, and threatening to the massive profits of the oil companies.

            Recently, a similar suggestion has been made with regard to electric vehicles.  This time the issue is not the cost of foreign oil, but the crisis of climate change and the real threat of near-term human extinction.  A swift transition away from fossil fueled transportation could be accomplished by recycling every gas and diesel burning vehicle and subsidizing the replacement with a zero-carbon vehicle, either electric or hydrogen fueled.  To make it equitable across the population, the poorest would get the car for free, with the subsidy reducing as the ability to pay increased.  While large, this investment is modest compared to the total collapse of the economy, and should be evaluated.

            But whole system thinking can be applied at a local scale as well.  The Ukiah Unified School District recently installed canopy solar arrays at three of their schools outside the city limits, in PG&E territory.  This makes good sense, given the higher cost of PG&E power, which will continue increasing over time.  These arrays will provide power for decades at a fixed cost less than the current PG&E rates, making them a prudent investment.  However, there is no battery storage included in these systems, so they will be useless in a power emergency.  While the arrays are immediately cost effective, batteries costs are significant, and the school electrical systems would need to be upgraded and changed to allow for emergency operation when the grid is down.  Because the school system has to show a profit for every investment, the community is less resilient in an emergency.

            A whole system investment would apply emergency preparedness funding to augment the innovative investment the school system has already made.  With adequate battery storage, appropriate inverter electronics, and the necessary infrastructure upgrades, these schools could be important assets in an emergency.  With new efficient HVAC upgrades, which is also an asset dealing with Covid, assembly areas could operate as cooling centers, or shelters, in an emergency.  If the cafeteria was powered as well, sheltered people could be feed, and the whole community would be more resilient.

            This kind of investment is outside the limitations of competitive capitalism, but well within the ideals of socialist government, where the goal is not short-term fiscal return, but long-term social endurance.  We already experience the world changing very rapidly, and building resilient systems, before they are needed, is becoming more important each year.  




Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Illusion Of Secrecy

                                                                                                     written 31 January 2021

                                                                                                 published 7 February 2021



            As I have said many times before, the core dysfunction of our time is believing the illusion of separation in the face of unity reality.  One of the manifestations of this illusion in the conceptual realm is the notion of a secret: "something that is kept or meant to be kept unknown or unseen by others".  

            The Newtonian perspective of matter incorporated the flawed prevailing cultural perspective of separation, but it was superseded a century ago by the quantum perspective, which understands the world as fundamentally connected by wave resonance.  While unity reality has always been known by some mystics and indigenous peoples, the widespread social manifestation of that connectivity has become more obvious in the last few decades, with the rise of electronic communication founded on the physics of quantum mechanics.

            The first smartphone, defined as both computer and cell phone, was introduced 25 years ago, and Apple produced the first iPhone only 14 years ago.  Now 1/2 the planet has smartphones and an additional 1/5 have cell phones.  With such informational interconnection, enduring secrecy is increasingly fleeting.

            At the mundane level, Wikileaks showed that the National Security Agency, and all the other three letter agencies, may know everything we communicate on electronic medium.  All the social media platforms keep track of what you are looking at every second so they can make money selling ads.  The 11 virtual assistants, like Google's Now, Amazon's Alexa, or Apple's Siri, are always listening.  The cell phone system keeps track of, and records, the general location of every active cell phone, in order to quickly direct the signal to the proper phone.  Any project that includes more than three people is likely to leak information eventually.  The news is full of hackers breaking into "secure" systems.  This can be motivated by legitimate law enforcement, criminal personal profit, foreign national security interests, or to effect social transformation by the public disclosure of damaging, previously secret, information.

            At the more esoteric level, consciousness and awareness have been shown to be "non-local", operating outside the space/time limitations.  Remote viewing has been demonstrated in people, animals, and even plants.  Reincarnation is believed by a significant portion of the planet, including a quarter of Christians.  Australian aboriginal "dreamtime" is an accessible record of a continuum of past, present, and future, which has allowed them to live in a difficult environment for over 65,000 years.  For those who believe, Santa Claus knows if you have been good or bad, and God knows every thought, emotion, word, or action.  

            A recent example of the failed illusion of secrecy in our digitally connected age is the story of Parler.   According to Wikipedia, this self-proclaimed "free speech" social networking service launched in August 2018, quickly developing a user base of Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, and the far right, posting extremist content, antisemitism, misogyny, and conspiracy theories such as QAnon.  After reports that Parler was used to coordinate the 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol, the site was taken offline on January 10, 2021, when Amazon Web Services canceled its hosting services.  The website's poor security allowed an outside researcher to download roughly 80 terabytes of Parler posts, including more than 1 million videos, including GPS location data, just before Parler went offline.  These people never expected that their secret plotting would be made public, but the data dump was posted online to be used as evidence against those who took part in the insurrection.

            The participants further aided law enforcement by posting their seditious actions on social media, which have already been used as evidence in bringing charges.  One site scoured all the posts, and pulled out and posted 6000 different faces, asking for public help in identifying them all.  

            It is a radical step to abandon the illusion of secrecy.  Secrecy is an attempt to avoid responsibility for, or the consequences of, our actions.  The alternative demands complete responsibility, living our lives committed to the integrity of everything we think, say, and do.  Considering the consequences of our actions, we then choose to move ahead with our choices, willingly accepting the results.  This can lead to increased morality, as spiritual teachers have pointed out for millennium, because recognizing the illusion of secrecy comes from recognizing the unity of reality.  This is the essential understanding behind the Golden Rule.