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Robots Need Power

I’m seeing a lot of articles predicting a future determined by Robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI). I grew up watching animated cartoons and live action shows featuring both metal robots and human-looking androids. Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy featured a robot intended to replace the inventor’s dead son, and in The Living Doll, Julie Newmar played Rhoda the Robot for laughs and sex appeal. Since this was fiction, both robots had lots of unexpected personality, and we related to them as sympathetic characters. But at the same time, children’s TV shows often used robots as villains because a hero could destroy scads of them without coming off as a callous killer, or running afoul of the TV codes against violence.

I later read Asimov’s stories about robots programmed to obey three embedded laws to ensure human superiority. In other science fiction stories, robots were often a threat, often superior to, and sometimes hostile to humans. Think of the giant robot, Gort, in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

And now we are being warned that robots are going to take away our jobs. We are also being warned that computer systems using AI are going to manage our lives. I’ve been skeptical of both of these ideas, but there is no doubt that each is happening in the short term, though in limited ways. Robots are used in manufacturing, in check out lines and may even drive us around in cars. AI seems poised to permeate internet marketing and inventory operations, even to monitor our every shopping whim.

But unlike Commander Data, these systems require electricity. Right now we create most electricity by burning fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas, and some by splitting atoms in nuclear power plants. We generate a negligible amount of power with wind and solar, but not enough for industrial robots or AI server farms.

And there’s the rub. Almost everything we do to generate power creates more of the greenhouse gases that drive man-made climate change. Are the oligarchs going to cut back on electricity to combat climate change? Not willingly, I suspect.

To make up for dwindling conventional oil reserves, we have increasingly turned to the mining of tar sands, hydraulic fracturing , and ‘clean’ coal. Hanford, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have damaged any public feeling that reactors are safe, but more importantly, less famous reactors around the US have frightened away investors by being persistently unprofitable.

Yet, a smattering of recent OpEd pieces advise the US to retool and try again with nukes. A Yale Environment 360 article reframes the well-known nuclear disasters as acceptable risks compared to those associated with extracting or mining fossil fuels. Wired Magazine predicts that Next Gen nuclear designs – many using molten salt – will be inherently safer than the ones that failed so famously.

I’m not happy about it, but given the dismal reports from the oil markets, I do expect that the US will turn to nuclear power again in the near future.

 

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The Angry Blue Planet

My weekend morning ritual has been to watch reruns of Men Into Space (1959) at 7:30 AM on Comet TV. Although I was completely unaware of the show until a few years ago, I’m sure I would have loved it as a boy. Essentially the show presented space exploration as a serious military project with very little tolerance for any speculative elements and roughly zero dissenting social commentary. The technical aspects seemed real enough for the time, though the space suits are obviously not pressurized. The show revolved around Air Force Colonel Edward McCauley, who was Ward Cleaver in a uniform – an authoritarian, by-the-book officer that always turned out to be right about everything. When not traveling into space, the Colonel and his subordinate officers enjoyed cookouts with their wives and girlfriends, who were extraordinarily attractive despite wearing pointy bras and way too much makeup. On two occasions women astronauts made it into space, but the writers couldn’t let us forget just how different they were from men.

I watched The Angry Red Planet again last weekend, a well-meaning scifi flick also from 1959. My siblings and I watched this flick in the 1960s, and thought it exciting then. As an adult it is harder to ignore the flaws, but even though it relies on stock sets and characters that wouldn’t last a day under Col. McCauley, the special effects weren’t bad for the time, and the plot was straightforward. Basically, four Terrans travel to and land on Mars, where they are beset by bizarre local flora and fauna and are finally told to stay away by advanced inhabitants. Even with a doctoral degree, Iris Ryan didn’t fare much better than the women on Men Into Space. Colonel Tom could hardly stop hitting on “Irish” throughout the mission. Warrant Officer Sam is a fairly goofy sort who is in love with his ray gun, and Professor Gettell is one of those 60s scientists that apparently doesn’t specialize because he knows everything.

I also watched a recent apocalyptic scifi short called Rakka, starring Sigourney Weaver, which is available on youtube, and runs about twenty minutes. Rakka is set in 2020, and opens with narration by Weaver:

We were once mankind. We were humanity. And now, we’re no more than pests, vermin. They came here to exterminate us. They took our history and culture. They covered our landmarks in dying humanity. … They killed us in waves when they first arrived. They built these megastructures that spew methane. They’ve sewn their crops, snuffing out our plant life. Raising the global temperature, causing our cities to flood. They waged war on Earth. They set fire to our forests. It’s already hard to breathe, impossible to breathe if you are close to the stacks. … They hack into our psyche, into our minds, paralyzing us, taking control of our cerebrum and limbic systems, rendering us as slaves.

It occurred to me that much of this could have been a speech given by any of various indigenous peoples about more advanced conquerors. It could also be a speech about what the well-to-do are doing to the Earth right now.

 

Tranzit.ro has just posted two hour video of two short lectures and a panel discussion called Europe: Economic Crisis and Political Alternatives. I gather the lecture series took place at or near Petru Maior University in Romania.

As you watch the video, from left to right sitting at two flimsy tables are the moderator: Alex Cistelecan (Petru Maior University, CriticAtac)

Michael Roberts, a Marxist economist living in London, author of The Great Recession (2009) and The Long Depression (2016).

Mark Blyth, economics professor at Brown University and fellow at The Watson Institute, author of Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the 20th Century (2002) and Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (2015).

On your far right is another moderator: Cornel Ban of Boston University, author of How Global Neoliberalism Goes Local (2016).

The sound quality is uneven, and photographer spends a fair amount of time scanning the crowd instead of the screen, which is hard to see. But some Romanian girls are quite attractive.

Where is Europe going and what can be done about its economic malaise? The final instalment of our series of lectures ‘Culture and Politics of Crisis’ focuses on the current European political and economic deadlock. As such, it sets the stage for a dialogue between two of the most important political economists of our time: Mark Blyth and Michael Roberts. For Roberts, the European crisis is diagnosed from a Marxist perspective. For Blyth, the analysis is infused by heterodox Keynesian views. Consequently, the two scholars diverge both in terms of situating the main cause of crisis and the main solution to it: for Roberts the emphasis falls on the general fall of the rate of profit affecting capital in our time, with anti-capitalism as the solution. For Blyth the crisis is caused by a lack of demand and investment and the way out is a different kind of capitalism. Between these diverging diagnostics and challenging solutions affecting the global and continental predicament, the fate of the East of Europe will also come in the spotlight: what are the limits of the semi-peripheral condition of this region and what remedies does it permit – Lexit, national sovereignty, regionalism à la Visegrad? Is a reformed, more social and egalitarian EU possible? Or, if not, how – or even why? – should we stop its nationalist disintegration?

Your Evil Lawn

The other day, my wife saw our three cats in a circle staring at something in the yard. She and my stepson found that a rabbit doe – the one that seems to enjoy outrunning our cats – had just laid a litter of bunnies in a hole. The doe apparently finds a fenced yard with three big cats safer than the rest of the neighborhood. So my stepson puts a big bowl over the hole during the day, and takes it off at night. But we’ve told him: No more pets.

I grew up watching real and television Dads mow and weed their pristine lawns. In a dose of reality, I was once hit in the chest by a twisted old nail thrown from my Dad’s real gasoline-powered lawnmower. We later moved to an old farm, and he treated almost all seven acres like a big lawn, buying a small tractor to mow it, but hardly growing anything. Later I mowed, trimmed and weeded my own tiny lawns partly out of habit, and partly because the neighbors look at you disparagingly if you don’t. My latest lawn is a comparative disgrace because the soil is bumpy, full of shale, and often in shade.

Influenced by HGTV, my wife once suggested hardscapes would be a lot less work. Since we didn’t live in a desert, I preferred the green growing lawn, but now I am reading that aristocratic lawns are bad news. Healthy Land Ethic, which I found through various ScienceBlogs posts, recommends we go back to native prairie species:

Why prairies matter and lawns don’t

Prairies – those critically endangered and complex ecosystems understood by few and misunderstood and destroyed by millions of people.

Lawns – those myopically obsessive (and evil) urban, suburban, and increasingly rural monoculture eyesores that displace native ecosystems at a rate between 5,000 and 385,000 acres per day* in favor of sterile, chemically-filled, artificial environments bloated with a tremendous European influence that provide no benefits over the long term; no food, no clean water, no wildlife habitat, and no foundation for preserving our once rich natural heritage. And there’s the unbearable ubiquitousness of mowing associated with such a useless cultural practice, which creates a ridiculous amount of noise pollution, air and water pollution, and a bustling busyness that destroys many peaceful Saturday mornings. The American lawn is the epitome of unsustainability.

In my defense, I did use a push mower, and later an electric mower. And I never laid down all the lye and chemicals that my Dad once used. In the Tyee, though, a discussion of potlatch turns to a practical consideration:

Why Science Is Like One Big Potlatch

High-class Coast Salish families inherited rights to abundant salmon runs, and they consolidated wealth by marrying other elites. Heh goos — “head men” in the Tla’amin language — made decisions on when and how to fish, and their status was legitimized through the public ceremonies of the potlatch, when they gave away their wealth. The lower-class Coast Salish had little social mobility. Status, for the most part, was inherited and changes in the social hierarchy were rare. The lower class had a lot of incentive to cooperate with the wealthy. Soon after potlatches were outlawed in 1885, the chief of the Kwakwaka’wakw — ancestors of the tribes belonging to the Laich-Kwil-Tach Treaty Society — told anthropologist Franz Boas: “It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbours. It is a good law.”

Potlatches not only distributed wealth — a finite natural resource — they also distributed knowledge, which is not finite unless it gets lost. That’s always a danger, especially if it’s not written down. Washington is teary when she talks about knowledge disappearing. The Coast Salish way of living was hard won and will not easily be retrieved. “My Granny used to say something that I never quite understood until I got older,” Washington says. “She would look at expensive homes with manicured lawns and say, in our language, ‘Oh those poor people, they have no medicines or food in their yard. How are they going to feed themselves and take care of themselves if anything happens?'”

 

Chernobyl after thirty years

Thirty years ago, the staff running a test on reactor #4 at the Lenin Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, USSR were reading unexpectedly high radiation levels. They debated stopping the test, but decided to keep going to find the limits. When the temperature readings climbed too high as well, they tried to shut the reactor down by inserting carbon rods.

There was, however, a design flaw, known by upper levels in the government, but not by the staff doing the testing. Inserting those rods somehow increased the reaction, increasing the heat. Containment water became steam, the roof of the reactor blew off and some ten tons of radioactive uranium became airborne, and was carried southeast, contaminating a large swath of Europe.

McClatchy has a very good article, Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years, in which they actually mention other nuclear accidents:

What they figured out was the worst nuclear-energy disaster in human history, far worse than the explosion at Kyshtym nuclear complex in 1957 in what was then the Soviet Union, which released 70 tons of radioactive material into the air, or the 1957 fire at the Windscale Nuclear Reactor in northwestern England, which forced a ban on milk sales for a month, or the Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania on March 29, 1979, where a cooling malfunction led to a partial meltdown.

There are also persistent leaks threatening groundwater at Hanford in the US, and the ongoing Fukushima disaster in Japan.

CNN tries to consign the radiation problems to history, offering more upbeat articles about Chernobyl. In Meet the New Face of Chernobyl they focus on fetching young Yulia, who lives in a nearby community, Slavutych, and was chronicled over three years by Swiss photographer Neils Ackermann:

Ackermann isn’t interested in making you sit through another telling of that tragic tale about the firefighters who couldn’t put out the flames in 1986, or the technicians who failed to stop the poisonous radioactive particles from escaping the facility and raining down on nearby residents.

Instead, he wants to introduce you to Yulia.

“She’s intense, like an energy bomb,” Ackermann said, describing the 23-year-old woman he met in 2012. At the time, Yulia was kissing a man in a park in the center of Slavutych, a town near Chernobyl built for disaster evacuees.

Yulia was born three years after the disaster. Ackermann once asked her what she thought about its consequences. “She was looking at me like it was a really stupid question,” he recalled. “Because now, the scale of health consequences resulting from radioactivity in Slavutych are much more limited than what we may think about in the West.” Slavutych residents who work in Chernobyl are protected by strict control systems. The town’s attitude about radioactivity is much more realistic and pragmatic than it would be elsewhere. One young man showed Ackermann the tomb of his best friend in a cemetery and said more people in town die because of drugs and alcohol than radioactivity.

In another article, CNN emphasizes the precautions taken as Ukraine builds a new arched structure over the decrepit sarcophagus that was built quickly after the explosion. This New Safe Confinement structure is supposed to last at least one hundred years, but the buried mass will be a threat for at least three thousand years, so I wonder who will build the next thirty structures?

Clean Burst of D

Just after Thanksgiving I needed laundry detergent. I usually get the Seventh Generation in the recyclable cardboard container, but I didn’t see it at the Shoppers supermarket. They did have Arm and Hammer, but unfortunately I grabbed a plastic container with a blue cap instead of the clear cap my wife uses at our house. Clear cap is their fragrance-free Essentials. Blue cap turned out to be their Clean Burst product.

On Skype my wife told me to take it back, but I figured I’d just pay more attention the next time. Bad move. Within a few weeks I noticed a musty smell throughout the apartment. I had recently cleaned out moldy dryer lint, and at first I thought there was a new growth somewhere, but it was actually the perfume from the Clean Burst. The stuff is pervasive. On a holiday visit, as soon as I walked in the door at our house both my wife and stepson complained about the smell surrounding me. He is immune-compromised and very sensitive to perfumes and chemicals wafting into our yard from neighboring dryer vents. She washed my clothing repeatedly – rinsing with vinegar – and got some of the smell out.

But Clean Burst was also irritating to my skin. When I wore freshly-laundered clothing, I felt wisps of something across my face and hands. Later I felt pinpricks as if something was breaking out of, or into, my skin. Environmental Working Group (EWG) gives Clean Burst a D rating with moderate concerns for cancer, respiratory effects and skin irritation. The Arm and Hammer Essentials perfume-free version my wife uses gets a C rating, but thought it had no awful smell, I still felt some irritation from the clothing she laundered.

Though I never had a reaction to it, EWG also gives the Seventh Generation liquid detergent I used before a D rating – though for different concerns. EWG’s top ratings go to products I haven’t used, but will certainly try.

Master of the Middle

In, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, the local laird has a problem – who to support in the final Jacobite rebellion of Charles Edward Stuart against the Hanovers. The Durie family is sympathetic to Bonnie Prince Charlie, but rather than risk aligning themselves entirely with the losing side, one son supports the status quo while the other goes off to join the insurgency. The plan was that no matter who wins, a Durie would keep the land and title. Stevenson’s plot gets a lot more complicated, though, as things often do.

In the climate change debate, a lot of people have picked a side, and are fightly fiercely in the media (and courts) to convince others of the cause. The climate, of course, is changing more obviously every month, but deniers are fighting a rearguard action. Like the Duries, many in the media are trying play to both sides. I have read claims that most mainstream media meteorologists accept climate change, but you’d never know that from watching the weather on television. I’m guessing most station managers expect only decreased ratings if they so much as mention climate change on air.

Recently Pope Francis, the public face of the Catholic Church, issued an encyclical called Laudatum Si, (Praise Be To You) subtitled On the Care For Our Common Home, which recognizes climate change as a threat, and calls on the world to stop destroying the environment. Predictably, environmentalists have hailed Laudatum Si, and, also predictably, deniers have suggested the pope should stay out of science and politics. At the New York Times DotEarth blog, Andrew Revkin takes a cautionary tone, warning us, Beware Casting Pope Francis as a Caped Crusader, where he applauds the pontiff:

The greatest value in the pope’s decision to press on climate policy and environmental care, to my mind, lies in the reminder that, while science matters enormously in identifying the risks from an unabated buildup of greenhouse gases, the choices we make are shaped more by values and appropriately should involve every sector of society.

… but also quietly undercuts the message:

… “It’s important not to conclude that moral arguments for action on global warming, even conveyed by a pope, are a world-changing breakthrough. The reason is that the climate issue doesn’t exist in a moral vacuum. A powerful moral argument can also be built around the right of poorer countries to get out of poverty using fossil fuels. That argument bolsters Prime Minister Modi’s commitment to double coal production by 2020, for example, even as India also (at a much, much smaller scale) expands solar capacity and nuclear power.”

I’m excited to see such an influential and thoughtful figure pressing the case for action, and acknowledging the need for dialogue.

But Francis remains a man, not a Superman.

Dot Earth was moved from News to Opinion several years ago, and the Times dropped a lot of other ‘green’ blogs in 2013, so Revkin is politically smart to be cautious. But Greg Laden, who I follow on Science Blogs, has called him out for playing to the middle:

But then I look at Dot Earth, and I see two things. First is Andy Revkin’s tendency to occupy that space between serious concern about climate change and acceptance of consensus science on one hand, and questioning of the reality and importance of climate change, on the other. In other words, Andy likes to write, often, in the space between what deniers call “warmists” and what warmists call “deniers.”

And now there’s a lot of finger-pointing on both blogs.

IMO, it isn’t just DotEarth, it is the entire mainstream media, many so-called environmental groups and even people like me that accept climate change, but are trying not to alienate our spouses and bosses while slowly making a transition to a more sustainable existence. Just how long the climate lets us live in the middle is hard to predict.

Wasting Water in the West

In, Killing The Colorado, ProPublica looks at manmade projects as a culprit in the current drought. In the Explore the River section of the series of articles, each dam, each power generating station is shown to lose vast vast amounts of water to evaporation and seepage.

In the first article, Holy Crop, farmers feel compelled to grow thirsty cotton to benefit from, and survive on, government subsidies:

The water shortages that have brought California, Arizona and other Western states to the edge of an environmental cliff have been attributed to a historic climate event — a dry spell that experts worry could be the worst in 1,000 years. But an examination by ProPublica shows that the scarcity of water is as much a man-made crisis as a natural one, the result of decades of missteps and misapprehensions by governments and businesses as they have faced surging demand driven by a booming population.

Even in the face of a drought, the current laws actually encourage wasting water:

… He knows his fields could thrive with much smaller amounts of water — he’s seen them do so in dry years — but the property owners he works for have the legal right to take a large supply, and he applies the water generously. … Ketterhagen feels he has little choice. A vestige of 139-year-old water law pushes ranchers to use as much water as they possibly can, even during a drought. “Use it or lose it” clauses, as they are known, are common in state laws throughout the Colorado River basin and give the farmers, ranchers and governments holding water rights a powerful incentive to use more water than they need. Under the provisions of these measures, people who use less water than they are legally entitled to risk seeing their allotment slashed.

And moving that water takes a toll on the climate:

The power generated enables a modern wonder. It drives a set of pumps 325 miles down the Colorado River that heave trillions of gallons of water out of the river and send it shooting over mountains and through canals. That water — lifted 3,000 vertical feet and carried 336 miles — has enabled the cities of Phoenix and Tucson to rapidly expand. This achievement in moving water, however, is gained at an enormous cost. Every hour the Navajo’s generators spin, the plant spews more climate-warming gases into the atmosphere than almost any other facility in the United States. Alone, it accounts for 29 percent of Arizona’s emissions from energy generation. The Navajo station’s infernos gobble 15 tons of coal each minute, 24 hours each day, every day.