an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Useful stuff on extremophiles and their tricks

leave a comment »

A tardigrade or water bear, emblematic creature for extremophile-philes everywhere. Look em up, cause they’re not mentioned in this article

I’ll try to wean myself from the largely thankless task of writing about politics by picking a topic, almost at random, though one that I know will keep me engaged once I get started.

I was reading an article on the geology of the Earth’s crust and upper mantle (aka lithosphere) the other day, which mentioned the possibility of life in the mantle. Little is known for sure about the mantle’s composition and activity, because until recently drilling down to that level has been just a pipe dream, so to speak. The mantle’s distance from the earth’s surface varies considerably from region to region, but the average depth of the crust at its thinnest, ie under the ocean, is about 6 kilometres. In 2011, microscopic nematodes, or roundworms, were found some 4 kilometres below the surface in a gold mine in South Africa. Other single-celled micro-organisms were found in the region, at depths of 5 kms. Since we’ve rarely plumbed such depths, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that life down that far may be commonplace. We already know that life exists under the sea floor, at immense pressures. At the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific, bacteria thrive 11 kilometres below sea level, and some bacteria have been tested in the lab as tolerating 1000 atmospheres of pressure.

Of course, the term extremophile, applied to such life forms, is typically anthropocentric, as they would presumably shuffle off their mortal coils tout de suite when subjected to our torturous environment. Then again…

Extremophiles are of course termed as such when found in conditions that are far from what we would term normal. Such conditions include extremely hot or cold environments, highly acidic or alkaline environments, anaerobic environments, and extreme pressure. They include archaea, the earliest living organisms we know of, some of which have been found to be halophilic (thriving in high salt conditions) or hyperthermophilic (lovers of temps around 80°C).

So how far down can these organisms go? What do they live on? What do they look like and how do they relate to other organisms on the bush of life?

This article from National Geographic online suggests the possibility of an ecosystem existing some eight or nine kilometres below the Mariana Trench. The trench is a subduction zone, a region known to provide pro-life environments of sorts. Analysing such regions requires geological as well as microbiological expertise. A geological process known as serpentinisation provides an ecosystem for methane-consuming microbes. Serpentine is a mineral formed deep in the lithosphere ‘when olivine in the upper mantle reacts with water pushed up from within the subduction zone’, according to the article. Hydrogen and methane are by-products of this reaction, and this serpentinisation process is already known to create microbial habitats at oceanic hydrothermal vents. Furthermore, in recent years, serpentinisation has been found ‘everywhere’, at subduction zones and within mountain ranges, suggesting that methane-supported life may be commonplace, and may even exist elsewhere in the solar system where there is tectonic activity, and an abundance of olivine.

Organisms living at great depths, under great pressure, are called piezophiles. So what is it that permits these bacteria, archaea and other unicellular organisms to thrive – or perhaps only just survive – in such conditions? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, as some, such as xenophyophores, which are found at depth throughout the world’s oceans, are relatively complex creatures that appear to have adapted over time to increased pressure in order to benefit from benthic provender, while others like Halomonas salaria, a proteobacterium, are obligate piezophiles, unable to survive in under 1000 atmospheres. Unsurprisingly the outer membranes of these organisms are necessarily different in structure and composition from your common or garden microbes, but also unsurprisingly, it has proved difficult to analyse the structural features of piezophiles under lab conditions, though it’s clear that regulation of membrane phospholipids is key to maintaining a stable internal environment, which can not only withstand pressure, but also extremes of heat or cold or acidity. Proteins are also modified to maintain function. Although little is yet known about these organisms, the variety of their environments suggest a variety of adaptations independently arrived at. Most are autotrophs, or self-feeders, able to build organic compounds such as proteins through chemosynthesis in the absence of light. Many of them appear able to slow their metabolism and their reproduction rate by many factors.

Researchers are becoming increasingly interested in extremophiles in general, as they’ve widened the possibilities of life in environments hitherto dismissed as unviable – in boiling water or under mountains of ice for example – just as we’ve begun to discover or further explore other planets (and moons) within and beyond our solar system. The field of microbiology has also made great strides in recent decades. Don Cowan, a senior researcher at the University of Pretoria, describes the microbiological ‘revolution’ of the eighties:

In less than a decade, a combination of conceptual, scientific and technical developments all came together. These included the ability to purify total environmental DNA, the development of special marker sequences that can identify different microbial species, and the advent of very fast, very cheap DNA sequencing techniques.

Collectively known as metagenomics, these developments hugely stimulated the field of microbiology. They have done so across diverse areas of science, from biological methods for cleaning up environmental pollution and contamination, to human disease.

Researchers are applying these techniques to the examination and possible exploitation of extremophiles, for example to improve drought or temperature tolerance in plant species, for various pharmaceutical applications and possibly for the development of biofuels, as heat-tolerant enzymes enable plant tissues to be broken down more readily. The range of products and processes that can be improved by tapping into the enzyme production of various types of extremophiles is potentially vast, according to James Coker, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Department of Biotechnology. In a 2016 paper, Coker admits that research in this field is new, but real progress has already been made:

Four success stories are the thermostable DNA polymerases used in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) 17, various enzymes used in the process of making biofuels 18, organisms used in the mining process 19, and carotenoids used in the food and cosmetic industries 20. Other potential applications include making lactose-free milk 1; the production of antibiotics, anticancer, and antifungal drugs 6; and the production of electricity or, more accurately, the leaching of electrons to generate current that can be used or stored 21

That last-mentioned application is of particular interest (as are all the others), as clean electricity production and storage is a high priority issue for some. Extremophile microbial catalysts can be used to drive microbial electrochemical systems (MES), a new TLA which may or may not catch on. Related TLAs include the MFC (microbial fuel cell) and the MEC (microbial electrolysis cell). Without losing myself in too much detail here, the exploitation of these microbes to help drive reactions at the electrodes has a number of useful applications, such as the remediation of waste-water, desalination, biosensing and ‘generating electrical energy from marine sediment microbial fuel cells at low temperatures’ (Dopson et al, 2016). None of this is, as yet, set to revolutionise the clean energy industry, but these are just some of the largely unsung incremental developments that are, in fact, moving us towards more clever and efficient use of previously untapped renewable resources. I was about to use the metaphor ‘at the coalface’ – which would’ve been appropriately inappropriate.

It’s impossible for we dilettantes to keep up with all these discoveries and developments in a detailed way, but we can at least feel the excitement of work being done and advances being collaboratively made, as well as sensing the many obstacles and unforeseen complexities involved in transforming the viability of these amazing life-forms and their products into something viable and possibly life-transforming for the humans who have discovered them and unlocked their secrets. When politics and our inhumanity to others (human and non-human) lets us down, we can still marvel at our relentless drive and ingenuity.


Written by stewart henderson

July 14, 2018 at 8:50 am

on the US political and social system in crisis: 2 – the head of state and the constitution

leave a comment »


Canto: So, as we’ve said, the most substantial difference between the US political system and the Westminster system adopted with slight variations by other English-speaking democracies is the position of Head of State. Here in Australia, as in Canada, New Zealand and Britain, Queen Elizabeth II holds that position, and she’s represented locally, outside Britain, by Governors-General. There are differences in each country, with their state and provincial governments and legislatures, but essentially all of these countries are constitutional monarchies in which the head of state and her representatives have extremely limited powers. The USA by contrast has a Republican government in which power and authority is supposed to rest in the people through their elected representatives.

Jacinta: But as you’ve said, the monarch’s power within the Westminster system has been eroded over time by legislation, and essentially given over to the people through their elected reps.

Canto: Yes, as discussed in a previous post, the liberal political philosophy of John Locke was utilised both in the draughting of legislation limiting the monarch’s power in 1689 (and subsequently), and in the draughting of the US Constitution in 1787. That constitution instituted three separate arms of power, legislative, executive and judicial.

Jacinta: It’s said to be the oldest continually operating constitution in the world, which may be an object of pride, but it may also be an obstacle to reform. Just saying.

Canto: What we’re most interested in here is the executive power, defined largely in Article II of the Constitution. The US President has Constitutional powers regarding the vetoing of Congressional bills and the pardoning of convicted persons. These powers are clearly controversial, never more than in the present situation.

Jacinta: And how do they compare with Prime Ministerial powers under the Westminster system?

Canto: Well you never really hear of them, much. The pardoning power, though, isn’t invested in the Prime Minister, it’s delegated to the member of government most responsible for legal matters, in Australia’s case the Attorney-General, and in England the Lord Chancellor. It’s signed off by the monarch or her representative. It’s rarely used, and never controversially as far as I can tell.

Jacinta: But that seems a definite improvement on the US system, spreading the power load, so to speak. And they don’t trade in politically charged pardons, as that would be political suicide.

Canto: As you might think it would be in the US, but often their President pardons people just as he’s about to leave office, when he can’t be re-elected anyway. And that’s another difference. There’s no time limit on the Prime Minister’s tenure, and his length of time in office is just as often dependent on his party’s shifting allegiance as it is on the electorate. So pardoning, when it happens, would tend to be a more consultative process than in the US. And of course there’s no Westminster equivalent to the US President’s veto powers – another limit to placing power in the hands of one person.

Jacinta: So now to the principal difference between the US system and the Westminster system, the fact that the US President is directly elected, albeit through the Electoral College.

Canto: Yes, and he selects his running mate, the potential Vice President, who goes through no electoral process at all. And then appoints a whole host of executive officers – Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence and so on, and on. This is disastrous when you have a populist but obviously politically naive and ignorant candidate, who unsurprisingly selects an equally moronic running mate. Again, compare the Westminster system, where elections are about parties, so that voters, if they’re informed, consider a number of factors which militate against pure populism. These include the policy of the party, the local member in their electorate, and the leader of their party of choice – a leader who is chosen by her peers on the basis of ability, style, popularity, party loyalty and other factors. You’re much less likely to get a witless outsider as your Prime Minister in such circumstances.

Jacinta: And what about an incompetent or criminal head of state? How do you get rid of him in the USA?

Canto: Well of course under the Westminster system the PM is essentially the captain of the party team, but there’s no problem with the team dumping their captain if they feel he’s letting the side down. This doesn’t have to mean an election, though of course it may lead to popular disaffection with the ruling party – but then again it could lead to a swing in the other direction. But the situation of a dud head of state in the US system is far less clear. The whole nation can apparently be held hostage by a President who refuses to recognise any curb on a power that’s already far greater than that of any other leader of a modern democracy.

Jacinta: Well, the serious problem the US finds itself in is highlighted by the confusion about Presidential power, with many pundits claiming in all seriousness that their President can’t be charged with a crime while in office. The absurdity of such putative immunity should be obvious to any sensible person.

Canto: And the President can’t be removed from office it seems, for example through losing the support of his party.

Jacinta: No, because the structure of government is so different there, with the President surrounding himself with his own personal appointees, who will naturally support him. Of course our PM personally selects his cabinet, but these are all elected representatives, members of the party elected to government. Their allegiance is above all to the team, not just to the captain. So what does the US Constitution actually say about removing a dud Prez?

Canto: Well not surprisingly, Article II also describes the conditions for removal of the President:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. The Constitution also allows for involuntary removal from office…

Jacinta: Wow, so it might be constitutionally possible to get rid of the whole gang in one fell swoop? Conspiracy with Russian (enemy) agents to win an election, doesn’t that sound like treason? But then there’s this shabby-sounding, very un-Westminster process called impeachment, an inherently doubtful political instrument, surely. Isn’t conviction enough?

Canto: Well, of course impeachment and the rules around it have become hot topics in recent times. We know for example that impeachment doesn’t necessarily mean removal from office, so again the ability of the US Head of State to worm his way out of almost every attempt to remove him remains a serious problem, and a pretty egregious failure of the system. But yes, impeachment is a chimeric blend of legal and political judgement/justice. In most democracies, or at least many, being charged with a crime would be sufficient for removal from office. But the reason, it seems, that this is such a problem in the US is that the head of the state’s ‘executive’ staff are appointed by him, unelected, and therefore none of them really have a mandate from the people to govern.

Jacinta: Well, despite all the problems, the US is headed for almost certain impeachment in this case…

Canto: Well, hopefully the Mueller charges will be comprehensive and wide-ranging, leaving little room for doubt among the majority. Currently, just about everything hangs on the Mueller findings, and we haven’t heard too much from the enquiry recently.

Jacinta: One problem seems to be that that new avenues for enquiry keep opening up almost on a daily basis. It’s like they’re sitting at a table covered in dishes of rich food, and the waiters keep coming out with new dishes before they’ve properly digested what they’ve got. At some point they might just shut the doors and say ‘stop, we’re full up and we’re hurting!’

Canto: But another problem is that the Head of State may choose not to resign after being impeached, claiming that everybody’s being treasonous except himself. What then?

Jacinta: Well we seem to be constantly entering new territory – because nobody has sufficiently considered the prospect of a demagogic but completely lawless head of state. What the USA needs to face, once this crisis is over – and it’s surely set to worsen over the next year or so – is that their system needs a drastic overhaul, with power being more distributed, less concentrated in one individual. That’s the screamingly obvious lesson that virtually no American pundits seem to have learned – so prevalent is the jingoistic disease over there. And currently it’s almost impossible to change their beloved constitution.

Canto: Yes I think we need to look more closely at their constitution and their future. Changing the constitution requires passing an amendment through both houses of Congress with a two thirds majority. But so many changes are needed, regarding Presidential powers (for example the appointment of White House officials and their staff), regarding the financial affairs of the head of state, regarding prosecution of the head of state, regarding the conducting of elections for the head of state. It’s really hard to know where to start, but they have to make their system more flexible, so that the adults can take over when absolutely necessary. I’m happy to stick with my prediction that the present incumbent will be out of office by year’s end, but I’m far less sanguine about it being a non-violent transition. And who will be the replacement? For the rest of the world it’s an embarrassment (and for some, merely a joke), but for the USA it’s a tragedy. Hopefully, though, some vital, if humiliating, lessons will be learned.


Written by stewart henderson

July 8, 2018 at 9:57 pm

Posted in head of state

Tagged with , , ,

on the US political & social system in crisis: 1 – the illusory national superiority effect and limits on democracy

leave a comment »

an interesting partial insight from the days before modern democracies – and emanating from my philosophical homeland

Canto: So we’ve sort of promised not to talk so much about Trump, but let’s admit it, we’re still watching with a fair degree of obsession this slow-motion train wreck which might only get uglier and more damaging as the months roll on…

Jacinta: Well, let’s try to take a wider view, and consider how the USA got to this pass, which means examining its whole political/social system, since so many of its own pundits, IMHO, are infected by the strange disease known as American jingoism, and are expressing dismay about how the ‘world’s greatest democracy’, ‘the leader of the free world’, and the ‘model that the world looks to’, etc, should have come to this.

Canto: So they’re not fit to judge their own system?

Jacinta: Well, we have solid psychological evidence that individuals, for good reason, take a slightly rosier-than-true view about how attractive they are, how competent they are in various fields of endeavour, how generous they are, and so forth – it’s called the illusory superiority effect – and it doesn’t seem to me unreasonable that a lot of people, probably a majority, take a similar view of their nation. So it’s generally a better idea, for nations as well as for people, to listen to what others say about them, or simply to observe or monitor their actual behaviour, and make comparative and quantitative analyses.

Canto: There’s also another effect we’ve talked about, which should have a name, but doesn’t. ‘Might is right’ comes close, but doesn’t quite capture it methinks. It’s that sense felt throughout history by every powerful state – that their military-industrial power confers moral authority and a sort of natural leadership, as in ‘the world’s police officer’.

Jacinta: Absolutely, there should be a name for that fallacy, and there probably is, but in this discussion I want us to focus entirely on the USA’s domestic policies and its political system as it effects its own people.

Canto: So that’s where the OECD’s ‘Better Life Index’ (BLI) comes in.

Jacinta: Yes, I’ve talked about quantitative analysis, and I want to find as much quantitative analysis as we can to compare the best countries on the globe in terms of a variety of parameters. I’m hoping to find more than just the BLI figures, because as with the best science we need different teams to conduct studies that might confirm or disconfirm, using different methodologies, so that we can get a deeper and more complex picture.

Canto: But of course the BLI is itself quite complex. It analyses nations in terms of 11 different ‘dimensions’ – housing, jobs, income, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. The intention is to tweak these dimensions and add new ones if necessary over time. For instance there used to be a dimension called ‘governance’, which would’ve been useful for examining the USA as it currently stands, but that has been changed to ‘civic engagement’, which is more individual-focused.

Jacinta: Yes, and we may go into a little more detail about those dimensions, and into the OECD’s methodology, a bit later, but for now let’s look at results. The first BLI was produced in 2011, and it sought to measure quality of life in 35 Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and 6 ‘partner countries’ – though only 38 countries are presented in the latest BLI ratings for some reason. It’s been regularly seeking to expand its membership. The latest BLI is from 2017 and In those ratings, Australia, where we are, is ranked third, behind Norway and Denmark. Last year, Australia was ranked second, and the year before that, first, so something’s going wrong.

Canto: I believe it’s in the dimensions of education and environment that we’re slipping up.

Jacinta: Meanwhile, the USA ranks eighth, moving up from ninth the previous year. Other western countries ahead of it, besides Norway, Denmark and Australia, are Sweden,Canada, Switzerland and Iceland.

Canto: So the USA isn’t doing badly at all, it just can’t call itself the best in the world, according to these criteria. So let’s look at individual dimensions, such as civic engagement, since we want to look at America’s political system.

Jacinta: Well that dimension is supposed to look at citizens’ involvement in democracy, so they’re sort of assuming that all these countries are democratic. The USA comes off well here, in third place, though I’m rather surprised to find that Australia is solidly in top spot in this field. Where the USA fares worst is in community (23rd), in work-life balance (30th, but Australia comes in at 31st) and safety (22nd, but Australia comes 26th!).

Canto: Interesting – the safety dimension looks at assault and murder rates, so for all the school shooting tragedies and gun violence and the attendant publicity, the USA is safer, overall than Australia. That seems incredible. Maybe we should look more carefully at this methodology. Where do they get their stats from?

Jacinta: That would take time to look into. But just taking this on face value, it provides a corrective to many assumptions, positive or negative, we make about the USA. Essentially though, I just just wanted to use the BLI to point out that the rhetoric about the USA as the greatest democracy – or simply the greatest nation –  should be taken with a heap of salt. And of course there are other surveys of ‘best countries’, such as the US News Best Countries survey, which currently ranks the USA in eighth position (the same as the BLI), behind Switzerland, Canada, Germany,  the UK, Japan, Sweden and Australia (a completely different grouping from the BLI – Norway doesn’t even get a mention). This is supposedly based on a ‘variety of metrics’ which it would be impossible to assess here.

Canto: And also, as you’ve mentioned, it’s not just about democracy. One thing I’ve noticed about the liberal pundits on CNN and MSNBC. They’re always talking about the free press and an independent judiciary as pillars of democracy, under threat from the current bullshitter in their china shop. An independent fourth estate and judiciary are pillars all right but not of democracy. In fact they’re bulwarks against the ever-present threat of democracy and the demagogues that take advantage of that flawed but best-of-a-bad-lot political system. That’s to say, they’re part of what Popper termed an ‘open society’ – and a thoroughly elitist part. This is the point that needs constantly to be made – democracy is dodgy as, but no better political system has ever been invented. However, we don’t practice anything like pure democracy, even setting aside the meritocratic institutions like the judiciary and the fourth estate, which hedge it around. Under the westminster system – used by every English-speaking democracy apart from the US – we have a parliament with more power than the US Congress, a judiciary which is generally more independent than that in the US, and a purely titular head of state instead of the all-too-powerful one sanctioned by the US system. There are no veto powers or pardoning powers to speak of, and nobody within that system ever imagines that they’re above the law in any sense whatever. We don’t have impeachment, which seems to me a disastrous political tool, and we tend to eschew the high-falutin term ‘indictment’, we prefer to just charge people with criminal activity – a far more levelling circumstance.

Jacinta: And it also isn’t a pure democracy in that we don’t just vote for anyone in the Westminster system. We vote for parties, with the occasional independent, who of course will never be able to form a government but might be able to curb some government policy. And the parties select candidates based on merit, more or less. Candidates are vetted, to some degree, even if it’s sometimes a bit ad hoc. Again, something of a meritocracy, an element of elitism.

Canto: And I should also mention, since we’re science advocates, that another thoroughly elitist component of an open, civilised society is an independent and flourishing science and technology sector. Climate science, for example, should be as free from politics as it’s possible to make it, and there certainly should be nothing democratic about it. If we based our science on popular vote, civilisation would never have taken off.

Jacinta: Okay, so we’ve laid some of the foundation for our critique of the US political and social system, next we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of why the US is currently in the confrontational mess that it’s in and what might be done, if anything to fix the problem. We’ll bring to the issues all the ambition and arrogance we can muster. It should be fun.

Written by stewart henderson

July 2, 2018 at 11:13 am

giving nuclear energy a chance, please

leave a comment »

Compared with nuclear power, natural gas kills 38 times as many people per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, biomass 63 times as many, petroleum 243 times as many and coal 387 times as many – perhaps a million deaths a year.

Steven Pinker, ‘The Environment’,  Chapter 10 of Enlightenment now. 

an unfortunate slow-down

I’ve written about nuclear energy before, here and here. It comes to mind again due to my reading of Pinker’s new book, so I’ve decided to venture into the field again, despite not having improved my paltry readership over the years.

Clearly the spectre of radiation hangs over the nuclear industry, and many green polemicists have done their best to darken that spectre, but if facts count for what I wish they would count for, Australia could solve all its considerable energy woes with a few nuclear power plants.

Take the case of France, a nation with almost three times our population. Thanks largely to its nuclear power program, which was boosted after the seventies oil crisis in order to deliver national energy security, it’s the world’s largest net exporter of electricity, because once the plants are built and paid for, electricity generation is cheap. In fact, some 17% of this electricity comes from recycled nuclear fuel. It currently earns 3 billion euros annually from exported electricity, and that’s not factoring in its exports from reactor technology and fuel products and services.

Australia has far more land than France, and given its small population, it would stand to gain substantially from exporting nuclear-derived electricity to the world, after finally putting an end to its frankly ridiculous domestic energy woes. I recognise though, that such a far-reaching project is beyond the imaginations, let alone the negotiating skills of today’s adversarial pollies. We need more entrepreneurs and non-partisan public intellectuals to get behind such projects, accompanied by realistic schemes and hard data.

There’s also the problem of winning over the public. The facts on nuclear energy should speak for themselves, but the largely human tragedies of Fukushima and Chernobyl, together with the perceived and perhaps actual connection between nuclear energy and weapons, and also the general fear of radiation and its relation to storage, leakage and accidents, have created polarised outlooks that impede progress in the field. This is well illustrated by a three-part set of videos on the subject, including an intro and two others, ‘nuclear energy is awesome’ and ‘nuclear energy is terrible’, suggesting that its authors have found little common ground.

As the negative part of the videos points out, weapons technology has been developed in five countries – India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and North Korea – through reactor technology. As the current debate over Iran illustrates, it’s hard to distinguish between nuclear energy technology and covert weapons technology. There’s also the waste problem. Radioactive and toxic chemical materials such as plutonium remain a problem for tens of thousands of years. A stable and remote underground environment, such as exists right here in South Australia’s north, would be one of the safest bets for burial, but beware of apoplectic rage when anyone suggests such an idea, even though, as one of the world’s largest exporters of uranium, we’re deeply involved in the industry and would likely get plenty of help from nations grateful for our raw material.

Of course, there have been accidents.

To put the nuclear energy scare in perspective, it’s worth noting that if you mention the word Tohoku outside of Japan you’re likely to get little back but an unknowing shrug. Mention Fukushima and you’ll likely get a more animated response. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami killed approximately 16,000, with over 6,000 injured and 2,500 still missing. Almost 250,000 were left homeless. The Fukushima meltdowns resulting from this disaster killed nobody – though there are ongoing tests regarding radiation and cancer incidence, which suggest that increased risks are small.

I’ve written in one of my earlier posts about the obvious inappropriateness of building nuclear plants in earthquake-prone areas, and about the boys’ club mentality of Japan’s nuclear oversight system, but what about the accident itself and the associated radiation spill? As the most recent serious nuclear incident, and therefore the most relevant to the future of a developing industry, it’s worth taking a close look at it.

The Fukushima facility, one of the world’s largest, was made up of six boiling water reactors, of which three were in use at the time of the earthquake. The oldest of these was built in 1967, the other two in the early seventies. The seawall protecting the plant was ten metres high. The largest tsunami wave to hit the plant was 13 metres (a 2008 in-house study suggesting that the plant was unprotected from waves above 10.2 metres was dismissed, as purveying ‘unrealistic’ concerns). There were failures of the emergency cooling system, including piping and valve problems that hadn’t been monitored sufficiently. A number of hydrogen-air explosions occurred in the days after the tsunami, further damaging the plant. Clearly, there were maintenance problems in the lead-up to the failure, communication problems during the crisis, and a general culture of complacency throughout, deadly to such high-risk geographical locations. However, none of this should necessarily act as a complete brake on the industry. The lessons to learn would seem to be obvious. More openness, more active monitoring, sensible placement of nuclear plants, and ongoing research towards improved and safer facilities.

As far as I can see, there’s much more to be said about the positives of nuclear energy. In spite of the recent massive pause, or reversal, in our reliance on it, nuclear is by a huge distance the safest – and greenest – form of energy in terms of lives lost, health problems and any other indicator we can think of. There is plenty of data to back this up, but it involves far more than workplace safety. The damage from global carbon emissions is, of course difficult to calculate and the subject of endless debate, but there’s no doubt that nuclear has the smallest carbon footprint of any current energy technology. More importantly, it’s the only non-fossil fuel technology capable of providing reliable electricity on a global scale, at a time when the battle against global warming is very far from being won. The Trump debacle won’t last of course, but there is a greater threat from increased industrialisation in China, India, and the developing countries of the world – though any casting of blame would be unfair term considering the carbon being pumped out by the fully industrialised west.

The critics of nuclear point to the past, and to the radiation hazards of storage. They’re not interested in acknowledging modern developments which have made nuclear power increasingly safe and cheap, due to streamlining and standardisation of design, the plausibility of cheaper thorium reactors, and a host of innovations that have led to gen-III and gen-IV systems waiting to be brought online. Sadly, we may have to wait a while to see them. France, Germany, Japan and the USA are reducing their reliance on nuclear, and turning back to dirty energy, due only to its largely undeserved public reputation. It’s likely we’ll have to wait until the climate crisis deepens before we return to seeing the sense of nuclear energy. It will be interesting to see just how long it takes.

Written by stewart henderson

June 27, 2018 at 8:48 pm

Kissinger – just a few thoughts

leave a comment »

Once you’ve been to Cambodia you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murdering scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you’ll never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milosevic. While Henry continues to nibble nori rolls and remaki at A-list parties, Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.

Anthony Bourdain


Kissinger, Rockefeller and Ford in the seventies

Jacinta: The above quote from the late traveller and food junkie has slightly revived my interest in a controversial figure. What do you know about Henry Kissinger?

Canto: Former Secretary of State, is that so, under Nixon? Reviled and revered, known for, or accused of engaging in realpolitik to the detriment of nations seen rightly or wrongly as hostile to the USA, his adopted country, and contrary to the human rights of too many individuals. He was German-born, right?

Jacinta: Yes – I once read a slim bio of him, written in the seventies when he was still in power, under Ford I think. It focussed particularly on the Cambodian bombing, but it wasn’t very damning, as I recall. I think because he’s such a polarising figure I’d like to explore his behaviour in more detail if I can. Two items have decided me to explore him again – the above remarks and something I read recently about his role in the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975. My immediate impression of him is of someone I wouldn’t like – too close to the powerful world-as-chessboard types, with an apparent unconcern for the powerless. I doubt if he’s ever holidayed in Cambodia.

Canto: Well I’m getting up to speed by reading his Wikipedia article. He was a German-Jew who fled from Nazi persecution with his family in the late thirties. He turned 95 a couple of weeks ago. He seems to have been a very smart chappie, destined for impressive things…

Jacinta: Ambitious, certainly. He was pushing for Republican political influence from the late fifties, after a stellar academic career, and he certainly experienced it under the Nixon and Ford administrations. Realpolitik is generally associated with pragmatism, but with consideration of practical gain, first and foremost, for the side engaging in it. That’s to say, instead of seeing China or Russia as an ideological enemy that should be cut, how about engaging with them to our advantage.

Canto: Friends with benefits?

Jacinta: The problem is that the other side will be looking for benefits too and will be justifiably mistrustful after years of being treated as a sworn enemy. Another issue with realpolitik, as engaged by powerful countries, is that, due to the fallacy fallen into by all powerful states since the beginning of civilisation, that economic and military power equates to moral superiority, ‘insignificant’ countries tend to be swept off the chessboard more or less with impunity. That’s why, in examining Kissinger, I’m more interested in his dealings with Cambodia, East Timor, Pakistan and Cyprus than with China or Russia.

Canto: So let’s deal with a couple of those countries.

Jacinta: Okay, on Cambodia, I recently heard the conservative historian Niall Ferguson on Sam Harris’ podcast downplaying the bombing and invasion of Cambodia because, well the war in the region was hardly Kissinger’s doing and anyway there was evidence of Cambodia’s aiding and abetting the Viet Cong. My feeling on hearing this was that inheriting a war isn’t necessarily a reason for continuing to prosecute it, indeed to escalate it. Also, it’s my instinct in these matters to take the side of the underdog. The USA seems perennially to be in the grip of anti-communist hysteria – or at least its conservative administrations do. Perhaps less so in recent times…

Canto: They called Obamacare a socialist takeover of sorts didn’t they?

Jacinta: With the benefit of hindsight, admittedly, it now seems obvious that the people of Vietnam and Cambodia suffered disproportionately, to put it mildly, for the USA’s anti-communist paranoia, but what really gets me about Kissinger’s ‘Operation Menu’, as it was called, was its secrecy – because they strongly doubted that the massive bombing campaign would be acceptable domestically – and the whooping delight they felt about its ‘success’. This Cambodian bombing operation (not the first, but by far the most devastating) began on March 18 1969, involved massive ordinance, but it’s impossible to know how many Cambodian lives were lost. The US military has never shown any interest in counting the non-American victims of its wars and invasions. Of course the bombing campaign cannot be ultimately seen as ‘successful’, whatever that may mean in the circumstances, because the USA eventually abandoned the war as a lost cause. The devastation to Cambodia itself arguably led to the rise of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Of course the whole scenario is foggy, but Kissinger certainly felt no doubt about the ‘morality’ of his decisions. I just scratch my head about such people.

Canto: It’s worth looking at counterfactuals isn’t it? What would’ve happened if Kissinger had been a different person and had successfully argued for a withdrawal from the whole region in 1969?

Jacinta: Saying, okay, it’s up to the Vietnamese to decide what sort of government they want. Who knows? I’m certainly not sufficiently conversant with the forces and players of that time – the Chinese government, the local leaders and warlords, the sentiment of the people – to provide any kind of answer to that. I presume that a regime would’ve taken over that was nominally communist, and perhaps a puppet of China, but let’s not pretend that any of these regimes are communist in any real sense. Not that communism would be a good thing. Presumably it would’ve been a dictatorship, but then most nations in these regions have been dictatorships, or absolute monarchies, which amounts to the same thing….

Canto: The point is, it’s hard to see why the USA was ever so worried about the region, so worried as to interfere so massively and so devastatingly with it. So what about East Timor?

Jacinta: Well, to your point, it may be hard to see why powerful countries interfere with countries that are far distant, often in more than one respect, but the fact is that they do and always have done. Another rule of thumb. Powerful countries always feel entitled to have the widest spheres of influence. It’s self-interest, pure and simple. It makes little difference what their internal politics are. That’s why we need to strengthen global ties, to have a global police force enforcing global laws, rather than a global police officer who refuses to accede to international law, as is usually the case with powerful countries, viz the USA, China, the former USSR, etc. Now you might wonder why Kissinger was ever involved in such an ‘insignificant’ territory as East Timor….

Canto: Some background – East Timor was invaded by Indonesia on December 7 1975 in order to overthrow a popular local government. The Indonesian military’s activities both before and for 25 years after this event resulted in at least 100,000 deaths, by the most conservative estimates. Descriptions of the mass slaughter during the first days of the invasion, collected in this Wikipedia article, make for harrowing reading. The suppression and the killings were further enabled, according to John Taylor’s book East Timor: the price of freedom, by the acquisition of powerful weaponry from the USA and Israel (who get virtually all their weapons from the US) and other countries, including Australia. Always remember that Indonesia at this time was under the control of Suharto, one of the greatest mass-murderers of the second half of the twentieth century….

Jacinta: Okay, now the date of December 7 is significant, because on December 6 Kissinger and Gerald Ford met with Suharto and clearly accepted his decision to invade. Realpolitik again – after the fall of Saigon the USA felt the need to develop other alliances in the region, with Indonesia first on the list. From documents released in 2001, Kissinger’s concerns were clear – he didn’t want it to be known that US weaponry was used almost exclusively in the invasion. Having said this, the weaponry, much of it specially designed for counter-insurgency ops – that’s to say, for campaigns such as those in East Timor, and not for Indonesia’s defence needs – continued to be funnelled to Indonesia under the Carter administration, and in subsequent administrations.

Canto: So – any preliminary conclusions on Kissinger, bearing in mind Anthony Bourdain’s critique?

Jacinta: Yes, certainly Kissinger isn’t a person I’d be interested in spending any time with. His own memoirs and accounts of events are typically self-serving, and appear to display little in the way of humanity, but he’s a typical product of the zero sum game nationalism that blights so much diplomacy and makes so many victims of those born in ‘pawn’ nations or proto-nations on the chessboard of realpolitik. Kissinger was no Suharto or Mao Zedong, but nor does he seem to be a person whose views on international relations are worthy of much respect. In fact, reading about his activities in supporting right-wing oppression on the world stage makes me quite disheartened if not disgusted – we can surely do better than this. We need to.


Written by stewart henderson

June 23, 2018 at 11:25 am

the second law of thermodynamics – some preliminary thoughts

leave a comment »

the essential battle – to be more effectively productive than consumptive

Early on in his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker makes much of the second law of thermodynamics, aka the law of entropy, as something way more than an ordinary law of physics, citing others who’ve claimed the same thing, including Arthur Eddington, C P Snow and Peter Atkins. Soaring rhetoric about pinnacles and ‘without which nought’ tend to be employed, tempting dilettantes come moi to wonder, if it’s so effing over-arching why is it only the second law?

So the first law of T is about conservation of energy, the third is about the impossibility of dropping to absolute zero. Maybe it’s just prosaically about chronology?

Maybe. The first law, first made specific by Rudolf Clausius in 1850 but much refined since, essentially states that in a closed system the internal energy is equal to the amount of heat applied minus the work done on the system’s external environment. Basically, you can’t get more out of the system than you put into it. The second law also involves many contributors, including Sadi Carnot in 1824, and Clausius again in 1850. Pinker attributes its largely up-to-date statistical iteration to the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, whose work on the law dates to the 1860s and 70s. The third law, which also employs the concept of entropy, wasn’t formulated until the early twentieth century, firstly by the chemist Walter Nernst. So maybe it’s a chronological thing, but it certainly seems uncertain.

Anyway, the mystery attached to its title is just the start for the second law. It’s been formulated in multiple ways by scientists and popularisers. It’s mystical, hard-nosed, ineluctable, basic, obvious, magnificent and, according to Eddington, supreme. Entropy can be applied usefully to everything, from the universe to a cup of coffee and its consumer. The first point to always keep in mind – and for me that’s not easy – is that, left to itself, any system, such as those just mentioned, drifts inexorably from low to high entropy. To put it more succinctly, beds don’t make themselves. This obvious point may seem depressing, and often is, but it opens up the intriguing possibility that, if not left to itself, a bed can be made in many mysterious and inspiring ways. Energy into the system, systematically directed, creates art and science, life and intelligence, natural and synthetic. Natural selection from random variation, as we have so intelligently discovered, provides just such a system, through solar energy complexly distributed.

Of course, before we get too excited, there are problems. Although solar energy is the ultimate ‘without which nought’ of our systematic existence, or at least the emergence of it, we human energumens tamper with and lay waste to a great deal of other complex systems, including what we so euphemistically term ‘livestock’, in order to order ourselves in increasingly ordered, soi-disant civilised ways. From farming to fracking, from radioactive atolls to space debris, we leave many a wreck behind, and it’s still and may always be an open question whether we end up drowning in our own crap, species-wise. Animals are born exploiters, as Pinker writes, and maybe we should celebrate the fact that we’re better at it than other animals. Certainly we need to acknowledge it, with due deference and responsibility, while trying to temper the reckless excitement with which we often set out to do things – though they may be our best moments.

The point is that the principal human battle, the main game, is the battle against the inexorability of entropy, and that is why globalism, for as long as this globe alone is our home,  and humanism, as long as we see, as Darwin so clearly did, that our existence is due to, and dependent on, the evolutionary bush of living organisms on this planet, must be our highest priorities. William Faulkner famously expressed an expectation that humanity would prevail, but there’s nothing inevitable about it, and far from it, given the energy that needs to be constantly supplied to keep the consequences of the second law at bay. Perhaps the analogy of bacteria in a petri dish is just a little oversimplified – for a start, the nutrients in our particular petri dish have increased rather than diminished, thanks largely to human ingenuity. As a result, though the human population has increased seven-fold over the past 200 years, our per capita caloric intake has also increased. But of course there’s no guarantee that this will continue – and far from it.

One of the problems is being too smart for our own good, always arguably. In the early fifties, the Pacific, and Micronesia’s Marshall Islands in particular, was the scene of unprecedented damage and contamination as the USA tried to improve and perfect its new thermonuclear weaponry there. Not much concern was shown, of course, for the locals, not to mention the undersea life, at a time when the spectacular effects of the atom bombs on Japan had created both a global panic and a thrill about super-weaponry. The nuclear fusion weapons tested in that period dwarfed the Hiroshima bomb by many factors in terms of power and radioactive effects, and there was much misinformation even among experts about the extent of those effects. We were playing not just with fire, but with the most powerful and transformational energies in the universe, within a scant few decades of having discovered them. And today the USA, due to various accidents of history, has a nuclear arsenal of unfathomable destructive power, and a political system sorely in need of overhaul. With galloping developments in advanced AI, UAV technology and cyber hacking, it would be ridiculous to project complacent human triumphalism even a decade into the future, never mind into the era of terraforming other worlds.

Einstein famously said, at the dawn of the nuclear era, ‘everything has changed except our way of thinking’. Of course, ways of thinking are the most difficult things to change, and yet we have managed it to some extent. Even in the sixties, hawks in the US and other administration were talking up nuclear strikes, but apart from the buffoonish Trump and his counterpart Kim of North Korea – people we’re sadly obliged to take seriously – such talk is now largely redundant. After the horrors of two global conflicts, and through the growing realisation of our own destructive power, we’ve forced ourselves to think more globally and co-operatively. There’s actually no serious alternative. Having already radically altered the eco-system that has defied entropy for a blink of astronomical time, we’ll need all our co-operative energy to maintain the miracle that we’ve so recently learned so much about.


Written by stewart henderson

June 10, 2018 at 11:33 am

zero sum game nationalism, Chinese style

leave a comment »

Jacinta: So we’ve been hearing about Russia’s, or Putin’s, obsession with wrecking democratic processes in the USA, Europe and elsewhere – not to mention in Russia itself – but what about Russia’s much more economically smart neighbour, China? We know it’s bent on interference, but for what reason, and to what degree?

Canto: Well this conversation’s based on something we heard this morning, about China having interfered, or tried to, in the last few federal elections, and the consequent problem of foreign donations and investments, and ‘pay for play’ generally.

Jacinta: Yes there’s been a top secret report into foreign interference generally, which is unfortunately ‘classified’, but some of it’s being leaked apparently, and there’s an article about it here. The report names China as the most concerning nation.

Canto: Quelle surprise. And it gets murky fairly quickly, with former NSW Premier and federal Foreign Minister Bob Carr, clearly a Chinese government apologist, trying to undermine John Garnaut, the principal author of the secret report. He recently described Garnaut as one of ”the leaders of the recent anti-China panic in the Australian media”.

Jacinta: Right – why should we panic about the most populous and economically dynamic nation on the planet, a massive human rights abusing dictatorship, interfering with all of our election processes down to the council level, with increasing frequency and sophistication? Surely they’re just doing it for our benefit?

Canto: Garnaut’s ASIO enquiry examined China’s infiltration of Australian political parties, media and academia, and it probed the activities of Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire Chinese businessman who created a ‘think tank’ (always a term to raise the skeptical antennae) called the Australian China Relations Institute (ACRI), headed by Carr. Huang also runs a lobbying organisation for the Chinese Communist Party. Garnaut provided testimony to the US Congress a couple of months ago about China’s considerable activities in interfering with Australian elections. Meanwhile Carr is talking up how friendly to us the Chinese dictatorship is, and questioning Garnaut’s right to advise the government on these matters. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in the facts about interference – which admittedly, we’re all in the dark about, in terms of details. Anyway, ACRI appears to be little more than a lobbying group.

Jacinta: I worry about academic interference, as I work in a field that’s become ever more dependent on full-fee Chinese students. What’s most clear about Chinese students – pace those from Hong Kong – is their general ignorance of and indifference to a political system that allows them no voice and provides them with minimal and distorted info. So I try to open their minds a little, but I get nervous – I’ve heard of spies in the ranks, reporting back to the Beijing bully-boys. And fear of ‘insulting’ the dictatorship, biting the hand that feeds us, will surely be hampering university administrators as well. The worry is that the universities profiting from all this Chinese money will become advocates of a softly softly approach and turning a blind eye to political influence.

Canto: But so far we haven’t addressed the question of what China hopes to gain through interference. Clive Hamilton – no doubt one of Carr’s ‘panic merchants’ –  had much trouble publishing his book Silent Invasion, simply for fear of a Beijing backlash. Two major publishers backed out – were they leaned on? The book raises questions about Carr and Andrew Robb and their dealings with billionaire businessmen..

Jacinta: But look, I do wonder about Silent Invasion‘s subtitle, ‘how China is turning Australia into a puppet state’. Doesn’t that sound a teensy bit panicky?

Canto: Granted, but there are disturbing things happening on Australian soil – which we shouldn’t panic about, but we should act upon. And we should be aware that China is not our friend, as is generally the case with small countries when big countries come sniffing around them. Look at the Philippines way back in the day, when they got some US assistance in their fight for independence from Spain. Once the natives had gained their independence the poor buggers then had to fight off the US, which was only interested in gaining control. Rule of thumb for small countries – don’t trust the overtures of the friendly giants in your neighbourhood, because for the time being, until we grow out of this infantile stage of humanity, nationalism is largely a zero sum game.

Jacinta: There was a small demonstration by a group of Tibetans in Canberra some years ago, at the time of the Beijing Olympics torch relay. They were set upon by Chinese thugs, apparently in what appears to have been an organised attack. Wonder what organisation was behind it. On that occasion, thousands of Chinese students were apparently bussed into Canberra, to celebrate their Chinese-ness. Rumour has it that they were bribed with job offers in China. That probably happens in China itself – fealty to the dictatorship is doubtless a pre-requisite for getting on in business there.

Canto: And the Chinese government recently issued a warning to students due to attacks on them by Australians, though it looks to have been an over-reaction, and probably politically motivated.

Jacinta: I’m sure there have been such racist attacks, we’re just as racist as other countries of course, but the Chinese government would love to have something to criticise us for. Our government’s announcement of tougher espionage laws was met by the usual claims from China of bias and a cold war mentality.

Canto: Those laws were announced precisely as a result of evidence of Chinese interference, and the reasons for the interference are the usual nationalistic ones – to get Australia to allow more Chinese investment, to have a more sympathetic attitude to China’s expansionism in the region, to support China’s domestic assimilation policies and the like. So there are the usual self-interested big nation issues, but there’s also the drive to get Australia, and other nations, to wholly accept its oligarchic and dictatorial closed society with its associated human rights abuses as legitimate, or at least of no concern to other nations.

Jacinta: The Sydney Morning Herald has a maddeningly undated 3-part online article, ‘China’s Operation Australia’, written by a team of top journalists, which highlights ASIO’s concerns about influence peddling and the monitoring of Chinese dissidents inside Australia. Chinese media have been particularly targeted, with some once-independent Chinese news outlets succumbing to the pressure of the Chinese oligarchy. ASIO believes it to be the largest foreign interference campaign ever carried out in Australia.

Canto: Yes and two of the biggest operatives in this campaign are the aforementioned Huang Xiangmo, and Chau Chak Wing. They’re both billionaires, and Chau is an Australian citizen, so changes to the law about political donations from foreigners wouldn’t affect him, though he appears to be in cahoots with the oligarchy. However it appears to be Huang who’s most suspect, though it’s not entirely clear why. He’s a dynamic business type from humble origins who appears to be genuinely philanthropic as well being a hustler for influence. His keenness to become an Australian citizen suggests he’s not entirely wedded to the Chinese political system, while other activities suggest otherwise. And here’s where I start to question, or put into perspective, the ASIO concern. If there’s influence peddling here, it’s not like the rabid Russian, Putin-directed attempts to subvert democracy in the USA and Europe. It’s definitely an attempt to influence policy toward China, and we need to be aware of that. Rules against foreign donations will help, monitoring is always required, and illegal activities should be exposed, but we need to be realistic about the zero sum game that every nation, including Australia, plays, while trying to whittle away at that ultimately self-defeating game in the name of global concerns, including human rights, which are, and always should be, a global issue.

Jacinta: All the same we need to hold our nerve against big bullying countries, and call them out on the international stage if need be.

Written by stewart henderson

June 3, 2018 at 1:13 pm