an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

is there life on Mars? – encore

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Don’t worry Davey, we’ll find out

The recent announcement about a large lake of water beneath the ice near the south pole of Mars has naturally engendered great excitement among those desperate to find life ‘elsewhere’, and with good reason. Mars, our closest planet, has long been a haven of hope for this sort of thing, but it has also engendered the ‘too good to be true’ response. It’s almost been seen as a lazy conjecture, as if we should expect to work really hard, and over unimaginably long distances, to find this precious and surely extremely rare stuff called life. But in recent decades we’ve managed to discover life surviving and even thriving under the most extreme circumstances in odd nooks and crannies of our own planet, which has widened our view of life’s diversity and tenacity. And the fact that we’ve been discovering new life on our own planet, is a testament to our developing skills and technology in the search for life – because, of course, the life we’re discovering isn’t new at all, what’s new is our technology and our deeper awareness of life’s range and possibilities.

And what we know about life on Earth is all about water. We’re full of the stuff, as are the plants and animals around us, and we now know that our ancestors emerged from the stuff, and we’ve never stopped being dependent on it. So it’s not surprising that the question about life on Mars is also all about water.

In previous centuries it was much speculated that water lay on the surface of Mars, in what appeared to be canals or waterways of some kind. Nowadays what we’ve learned about the atmosphere at Mars’ surface – low temperature and pressure – has rendered the possibility of liquid water increasingly unlikely. However, water below the surface is another matter. Lake Vostok, four kilometres below the surface in Eastern Antarctica, is just the largest of a number of subsurface lakes – at least 400 found under that continent – and they support thousands of living species.

So for some time there’s been a search for subsurface water on Mars. A radar instrument called MARSIS, orbiting the planet on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, and purpose-built to search for underground water, has been sending out radio waves which are reflective to liquid water but not to ice or rock. A particularly reflective patch near the south pole appears to reveal a layer of water about 1.5 kilometres below the surface. However, MARSIS is limited in the data it can provide. The depth of the water, and what other material is mixed in with it, are not known – though we know that it’s about 20 kilometres across, and the the Italian research team that has published the findings estimates the water to be at least a metre deep, indicating a genuine lake rather than meltwater. It’s expected that the water will contain salts, which lower the freezing point of water, as would pressure from the material above the lake.

There are still many unknowns here, but the various Mars rovers and orbiters are building evidence, for example that Mars was once warmer and wetter, and that even now liquid water can still be found at periods on the surface. What we haven’t found so far is evidence of life. So how can we get this evidence? First, we need to look for life ‘as we know it’, carbon-based life, because that’s very likely the kind of life we’ll find on our nearest neighbour, and because we have no way of knowing how to look for completely alien life.

Mars’ Curiosity rover has already found organic molecules, specifically methane, which may or may not be produced by biological activity beneath the surface. The rover has been sampling the atmosphere and has found methane at varying levels as the seasons have changed. However, it’s generally believed that the thin atmosphere at Mars’ surface would be insufficient to deflect life-harming radiation. The discovery of a specific and more or less substantial body of water below the surface, perhaps sufficiently protected from radiation, provides a target for future researchers to aim at.

The next step would be to obtain samples from the lake, which is easier said than done. It would require some sort of robotic drill to be sent out there and operated remotely, a task beyond current capabilities. Meanwhile, a Chinese probe is set to be flown to Mars in 2020. It will have radar instrumentation similar to MARSIS, but operating at a slightly different frequency. It may confirm the MARSIS findings or discover other underground bodies of water, further piquing our interest in the very real possibility of life on the red planet.

Is it an underground lake? We can’t be entirely sure.



Written by stewart henderson

August 11, 2018 at 10:38 pm

the Vietnam War – liberation, ideology, patriotism

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a heartfelt cliché from the land of the free

I’ve been watching the Burns and Novick documentary on the Vietnam War, having just viewed episode 6 of the 10-part series and of course it’s very powerful, you feel stunned, crushed, angry, ashamed, disgusted. There are few positive feelings. I have in the past called the ‘Great War’ of 1914-18 the Stupid War, from which we surely learned much, but this was yet another war whose only value was what we learned from it about how to avoid war. That seems to be the only real value of war, from which such unimaginable suffering comes. People speak of ‘collateral damage’ in war, but often, at the end of it, as in the Thirty Years’ War, the Great War, and I would argue the Vietnam War, collateral damage is all there is.

Over the years I’ve taught English to many Vietnamese people. Years ago I taught in a Vietnamese Community Centre, and my students were all middle-aged and elderly. They would no doubt have had many war stories to tell. In more recent times I’ve taught Vietnamese teenagers wearing brand labels and exchanging Facebook pics of their restaurant and nightclub adventures. For them the war is two generations away, or more. Further away in fact than WW2 was from me when I was a teenager. Time heals, as people die off.

Of course Burns and Novick provide many perspectives as they move through the years, as well as highlighting historical events and characters I knew little about, such as the Tet Offensive, the South Vietnames leaders Thieu and Ky, and North Vietnam’s Le Duan and his side-lining of Ho Chi Minh. But it’s the perspectives of those on the battlefields, wittingly or unwittingly, that hit home most.

When I was young, Vietnam was a major issue for Australians. My older brother was suspended from high school for participating in a Vietnam moratorium march in 1970. I was fourteen at the time and had no idea what ‘moratorium’ meant, except that the marchers were protesting the war. I also knew that my brother, three years older, was in danger of being conscripted and that I might face the same danger one day, which naturally brought up the Country Joe McDonald question ‘what are we fighting for’? Why were Australians fighting Vietnamese people in their own country, killing and being killed there? The unconvincing answer from government was that we were fighting communism, and that we were there to support our allies, the USA. This raises further obvious questions, such as that, even if communism was odious, it was even more odious, surely, to go to faraway countries and kill their inhabitants for believing in it. The Vietnamese, whatever their beliefs about government, were surely not a threat to the USA – that was, to me, the obvious response to all this, even as an adolescent.

Of course, the situation was more complex than this, I came to realise, but it didn’t really change the principles involved. At about this time, 1970, I happened to stumble upon a Reader’s Digest in the house, from around ’67. It featured an article whose title I still vividly recall – ‘Why not call China’s bluff in Asia?’ Written by a retired US general, it argued that the enemy wasn’t Vietnam so much as China, the root of all communist evil. China was acting with impunity due to American weakness. The USA would never win in Vietnam unless it struck at the heart of the problem – China’s support and enabling of communism throughout Asia and elsewhere. The general’s answer was to show them who had the real power – by striking several major Chinese cities with nuclear bombs.

Killing people was wrong, so I’d heard, but apparently communism was even more wrong, so the ethics were on this general’s side. Of course I was disgusted – viscerally so. These were apparently the kind of people who ran the military. Then again, if people are trained to kill, it’s tough not to allow them the opportunity… and they’re only Chinese after all.

I must make an admission here. I don’t have a nationalistic cell in my body. I’ve just never felt it, not even slightly. Okay, sure I support Australia in soccer and other sports, just as I support local teams against interstaters, insomuch as I follow sport. But I’ve never in my life waved a flag or sung a national anthem. When I first heard the Song of Australia being sung at school assembly, as the national flag was hoisted, I noted that the words extolled the wonders of Australia, and presumed that other anthems extolled the virtues of Guatemala, or Lesotho, or Finland, and I could have been born in any of those countries or any other. It all seemed a bit naff to me. Maybe the fact that I was born elsewhere – in Scotland – made me less likely to embrace the new country, but then ‘God Save the Queen’ – could anything be more naff than that little ditty?

So the idea of my possibly being forced to fight in a foreign war just because I’d landed up in a country whose rather vague ANZUS obligations supposedly entailed an Australian presence there seemed bizarre. I couldn’t look at it from a nationalist perspective (had I known the term at the time I would’ve called myself a humanist), which freed me up to look at it from a more broadly ethical one. From what I gathered and am still gathering, the US intervention in Vietnam, which began with Eisenhower and even before, with US military assistance to French colonial rule in Indo-China, was fueled first by the essentially racist assumption that South-East Asians weren’t sufficiently civilized to govern their own regions, and then by the ‘better dead than red’ ideology that caused so much internal dissension in the US in the fifties. The idea, still bruited today, that the ‘rise of communism’ was a direct threat to the USA seemed far-fetched even then.  The Vietnamese, it seemed obvious, had been fighting off the French because, as foreigners, they had little interest in the locals and were bent on exploitation. Naturally, they would have looked at the Americans in the same way. I certainly had little faith in communism at a time when Mao and the Russian leadership seemed to be vying for ‘most repressive and brutal dictator’ awards, but I didn’t see that as a threat to the west, and I also had some faith that a fundamentally unnatural political system, based on a clearly spurious ideology, would die of its internal contradictions – as has been seen by the collapse of the USSR and the transformation of China into a capitalist oligarchy.

So it seemed to me at the time that the Vietnamese, whatever their political views, aspirations and allegiances, were above all bent on fighting off foreigners. They were seeking autonomy. The problem was that foreigners – the Americans and their allies, as well as the Chinese and the Soviets – were all seeking to influence that autonomy to their own national and ideological benefit. Of course, the Vietnamese themselves were ideologically divided (as is every single nation-state on this planet), but the foreign actors, and their military hardware, gave those divisions a deadly force, leading to Vietnamese people killing Vietnamese people in massive numbers, aided and abetted by their foreign supporters.

War, of course, brutalises people, and some more than others. That’s where the nationalism-humanism divide is most important. That’s why, in watching the Vietnam War series, I’m most moved by those moments when patriotic bombast is set aside and respect and admiration for the courage and resolution of the Vietnamese enemy is expressed. It’s a respect, in the field, that’s never echoed, even in private, by the American leaders back in Washington. So often, patriotic fervour gets in the way of clear thinking. I was watching the last moments of the sixth episode of the series, when Hal Kushner, a doctor and POW in Vietnam, was speaking in a heartfelt way of his experience there: ‘we understood that despite different backgrounds’, he said, ‘different socioeconomic backgrounds, different races, different religions, that we were… Americans.’ I actually thought, before he uttered that last word, that he was going to make a statement about humanism, the humanity of all parties, at last saying something in stark contrast to his patriotic pronouncements up to that point. But no, he wasn’t about to include the Vietnamese, the enemy. Of course, Kushner had had a bad time in Vietnam, to say the least. He’d been captured and tortured, he’d seen many of his comrades killed… I could certainly understand his attitude to the Vietnamese who did these things, but I could also understand the rage of the Vietnamese, equally patriotic no doubt, when they saw this horde of fucking foreigners coming over with their massive weaponry and arrogance and fucking up their country, destroying their land for years, bombing the fuck out of village after village without discrimination, killing countless babies and kids and young and old folk, male and female, all to prevent the Vietnamese from installing a government of their own choosing just in case it wasn’t sufficiently in keeping with the will of the US government. If patriotism blinds you to this unutterable inhumanity, than it’s clearly a sick patriotism.

I look forward to watching the rest of the series. I wonder who’ll win.

Written by stewart henderson

August 5, 2018 at 8:41 pm

bronchiectasis once more – resistance, viruses, treatment

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Having fallen ill again, for the first time really in a few years, with debilitating dry coughing, breathing problems and fatigue, and having had no great relief from a first course of broad-spectrum antibiotics, I think it’s a good time to review the condition I suffer from – bronchiectasis.

I’ve tried to put it in the back of mind and have been mostly successful, except now and then to marvel that it hasn’t come roaring back for a year, then two years, then three years. Still, I’ve never quite gotten rid of a niggling cough, and every time I have a sneezing fit my mind turns, however briefly to what might finally await me…

Bronchiectasis literally means ‘widened or widening airways’. The airways leading to the lungs have become permanently distended and develop ‘cul de sacs’ in which bacteria gather as in a stagnant backwater. The increased bacterial load means that those with the condition are easier prey for bacterial and viral pathogens. The causes of this condition are various, including genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis, or a general immunodeficiency. In my case it was most likely an early childhood infection, the cause in about a third of all adult cases. The sad thing is that with each new flare-up the damage to the airways is increased, the condition worsens, and there’s no cure, but it can be contained through specific exercises designed to clear the airways, postural drainage and other techniques. Above all (he adonishes himself) always get regular flu and pneumococcal jabs. I was diagnosed with this condition about four and a half years ago, but I think I’ve been suffering from it for much longer. Like many stupid men I’ve tended not to go to the doctor till I’m at death’s door. I’ve improved a little in that area in recent years, but not enough.

The recent flare-up has been traced to a relatively common virus, called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). My doctor sent me for a virology swab after my second visit. On my first visit I presented with my severe cough, and I explained my bronchiectasis, which he knew something about as I’d had my records transferred to him from a previous establishment. Although I expressed concern about antibiotics, having experienced what I presumed to be resistance to erythromycin previously, I was prescribed a broad-spectrum antibiotic called roxithromycin GH. Desperately wanting to get rid of this debilitating and spirit-weakening cough, I got the set of ten tablets – a five-day dose – together with a repeat dosage. I’m currently two tablets away from finishing the repeat. It was also recommended that I get a bottle of Bisolvon®, which ‘thins, loosens, clears mucus from the chest’ and ‘helps clear stubborn chest congestion’.

This first consultation was on a Friday. I was contracted for a two-day work week at Eynesbury College starting the following Thursday, and I really wanted to be fit by then. However, by Monday-Tuesday I was worried. The antibiotics, I felt, had been initially successful but then my condition seemed to deteriorate. On Wednesday I had my second consultation. I explained my amateur theory that the antibiotics had an immediate impact, but then the resistant strain of the bacteria continued to multiply, took over the territory of the non-resistants, and the illness came sweeping back. Classic evolution, in a sense: from random variation the environment of my body selects the stronger, resistant strain. The doctor agreed, or said he did, but pointed out that the problem was that my infection was probably viral rather than bacterial. In my enthusiasm for my own cleverness I hadn’t thought of this. And this probably explained the ineffectiveness of the erithromycin in the past. Maybe I’m not resistant at all.

So I was sent to the nearest Clinical Labs testing centre for a swab. I was also advised to continue with the antibiotics. The swab is applied by means of a long needle-like instrument wrapped in something like cotton wool at one end. This material is soaked in a virus-detecting solution and inserted fairly deeply into the nasal cavity. I visited the testing centre more or less immediately after the consultation, and received word the next day that the results were out. On Friday, I think, I attended my third consultation and was given the read-out. Ten viruses tested for were presented, including influenza A and B, and types 1 to 4 paraainfluenza, all undetected. The other undetected viruses were adenovirus, rhinovirus and metapneumovirus. RSV, an RNA virus (as are most viruses), was the only one detected.

So, progress has been made, and I was prescribed one more medication, a Turbuhaler® called Symbicort®, often used for symptomatic treatment of asthma. Instructions are to inhale two doses a day of the oral powder, which consists of budesonide and eformoterol fumarate dihydrate. There are 120 doses in my inhaler.

Budesonide is a corticosteroid, commonly used in this inhaled form for long-term treatment or management of asthma and COPD. It’s been around for a while, having been patented in 1973, and in commercial use as an asthma medication since 1981. It’s also on the WHO list of essential medicines. According to Wikipedia, ‘common side effects with the inhaled form include respiratory infections, cough, and headaches’, and at the moment I have a headache, and have suffered from severe coughing fits.  I’m also producing quite a lot of mostly clear mucus, through the nose. I’ve attributed these symptoms to the virus, not the medication, but who knows?

Eformoterol is a more recent addition to the arsenal of anti-asthma type medications. This 1997 article in Australian Prescriber describes it as ‘a long-acting beta2 adrenoceptor agonist’ – a type of beta-blocker. Here’s some further interesting info from this site:

After inhalation of eformoterol powder, bronchodilatation begins within 3 minutes. This effect lasts for 12 hours with a peak effect within two hours of inhalation. These properties make eformoterol suitable for twice daily inhalation in patients who require regular, long-term treatment of reversible airways obstruction. It is not recommended for use in acute asthma. Patients should have a short-acting agonist, such as salbutamol, available to help deal with acute attacks.

Unfortunately my airways problems aren’t reversible, though particular obstructions and their causes may be treated effectively.

So what I have in my little Turbuhaler is a combo of a corticosteroid and a long-acting betaagonist (i.e. a bronchodilator). According to Wikipedia ‘combinations of inhaled steroids and long-acting bronchodilators are becoming more widespread’.

It doesn’t seem as if there’s much I can do but wait for my condition to slowly improve. It’s been nine days since my first consultation, and I’ll be revisiting my doctor in a day or two. Mucus still flows freely and the distinctive, whistling wheeze I developed about a week ago is still present (I’ve never experienced this before). Physical exertion quickly makes me exhausted, but I’m hoping I can soon be sufficiently recovered to consider specific exercises to improve my condition and support me against further setbacks. Don’t want to end up slowly drowning in my own phlegm.

Written by stewart henderson

July 30, 2018 at 3:13 pm

the real story of American exceptionalism

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Sorry, God, I haven’t read your book but I’m sure you agree, haha

Canto: So while listening to the commentariat buzzing about the latest Trumpian debacle (you can take your pick), I’ve noticed the term ‘American exceptionalism’ being tossed about, whether in jest or earnest I’m not sure. What do you think it means?

Jacinta: Well we’ve already highlighted American jingoism, which is an across-the-spectrum problem, though more common among those who haven’t travelled much. It worries me more when I hear it from pundits who should know better, because people who think they’re exceptional tend not to be too self-critical. And Americans need to be more critical than ever, of their political system, which has brought them to this pass.

Canto: Yes, we’ve talked about this before but I recall a pundit saying, a few months ago, that America’s founding as a nation was in response to a tyrant – whom he named as the British monarch, George III – so why were they apparently descending into a tyranny now? But this wasn’t quite the story was it?

Jacinta: That’s right. The Brits had executed one of their monarchs a century and a half before the formation of the American state, precisely for being overly intransigent and tyrannical. Then a half-century later they threw out another one for similar reasons. George III was a constitutional monarch, and it was parliament that was making decisions about the American colony. Of course Britain wasn’t a fully representative democracy at the time, but then neither was the new American state – only 6% of the population was allowed to vote in their first Presidential election. It has taken centuries for western countries, including the US, to arrive at full adult suffrage. There are no exceptions in this.

Canto: There’s an article here by a presumably American professor of international relations at Harvard which punctures the American exceptionalism myth, and it says much that we already know, that powerful nations, regardless of their internal politics, are always keen to maintain and expand their sphere of power and influence, and that tends to be the basis of their foreign policy. That explains Britain’s behaviour in the ‘new world’ as much as it explains US behaviour in the Philippines and the Pacific, and in Vietnam and Iraq. The US has been expansionist since the get-go, and it shouldn’t take that much self-critical analysis to understand why so many regions of the world despise the very term “American’. This doesn’t make Americans exceptionally bad, but we should surely have reached a point in our progressive development to realise that foreign lives matter as much as those of our own nation.

Jacinta: Yet again and again, amongst even the liberal commentariat, we get comments like ‘leader of the free world’, ‘the checks and balances that make us stand apart from other nations’, ‘the nation that others look to’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and other thought-free shibboleths. And now more than ever, as their nation has been brought down through allowing a clearly unqualified and inadequate boy-king to become their head of state, with powers far beyond his capacities, Americans need to take a good hard look at themselves and their political system rather than simply moaning about the boy-king and hoping that the system can withstand him. A better system would have dealt with him long before he ever got to this position.

Canto: But really, can you prove this? Can you give examples?

Jacinta: Well no system is perfect but let’s look at the recent meeting of Trump and Putin. Of course it would be silly to compare Australia with the USA in this regard – Putin would have no interest in a meeting with our PM – but any country under the Westminster system – say the UK – would have much the same checks and balances. And this is the thing – a Prime Minister under that system would see her role in very different terms, generally, from the President under the US system. She is first and foremost the leader of her party in Parliament, and is present in Parliament every day that it sits, leading the arguments and being informed, whether she likes it or not, of the dissension and divisions within her own party as well as the contrary views of the opposition. So a meeting with a major and adversarial head of state would inevitably be a matter thrashed out in Parliament, with the PM taking part in the debate. And of course, being closeted together in Parliament House with the Foreign Minister and other relevant ministers is a very different situation for the national leader than being completely separated from Congress and surrounded by mostly hand-picked underlings who are simply paid to do her (or I should now say, his) bidding. A recipe for disaster, if not dictatorship. Not to mention, as I already have elsewhere, the host of privileges and responsibilities vested in the ‘commander-in-chief’ and accorded to no other national leader in a democratic country. The fact that this sort of system is seen, by far too many Americans, as a shining example to all nations is surely proof that the US is exceptional only in its jingoism and its hubris.

Canto: Well that’s pretty strong stuff, and I’m not sure I entirely agree with you, and I’m not sure you answered my question. What’s to prevent a Trump-like figure becoming Prime Minister of Australia?

Jacinta:  I thought I’d explained. Our national elections are not fought out between Mr Conservative and Ms Liberal, one or other to be head of state. They’re fought on a mixture of local and national interests, essentially in the manner of the US mid-terms. We’re voting, essentially, for the party we want in power, as well as a local member we like (for those few who keenly follow politics) and we give due consideration to the leader of that party, always knowing that if that leader underperforms or is found to be corrupt or whatever, there are other elected representatives that can replace him, as quite often happens…

Canto: But even in Australia a situation could occur that a, shall we say unconventional, but very popular figure emerges, with a populist false-promises agenda that appeals to the masses (in a manner largely incomprehensible, if not reprehensible, to the elites), so the party – and surely it would be the Right – might batten on to her as its principle means of gaining and holding onto power – a Faustian bargain and all that – and vote her into the PM position…

Jacinta: Well everything’s possible in the worst of all possible worlds, but it’s far more unlikely. When Trump first started his bid, his candidacy was hugely unpopular within the Republican Party, so he took his message, such as it was, to the people. That’s to say, he worked out as he went along what his people lapped up most voraciously and he fed it to them. As many pundits over there are saying, he’s transformed most of the Republican party, and even more of the voters, into his lapdogs and willing enablers – ‘the party of Lincoln!’ as the Republican never-Trumpers moan. There’s really no opportunity for that to happen within the Westminster system. We have elections between two established parties, in the main, and they often have two established leaders, who owe their positions to party discipline. They’re not in a position to go rogue like Trump has done. And if one of the parties has a shiny new leader she’ll be more likely to toe the party line because she’s not yet established and because she knows the election is about far more than just her. We don’t have any simple person v person elections, except in small by-elections, and hopefully never will.

Canto: Well, I think you’re right, but it’s notable that, in all the noise from the free press from over there, there’s precious little soul-searching about the political system that has permitted someone so obviously inappropriate to hold an office that gives him so much power. Everyone knows that great power should come with great responsibility. Every sensible person in the USA is raging about Trump’s irresponsibility, but virtually nobody is raging about a political system that enables someone of his type to gain this enormous power without sufficient checking, and nobody seems to have anticipated how he could find means, in his blustering way, to extend a power that is already massive to an almost ridiculous degree.

Jacinta: So yes, that’s the real exceptionalism. The US bangs on about being the greatest democracy, but democracy by itself isn’t enough. Most people who vote – no matter what country they’re in – know precious little about how their government works, about foreign relations and trade, about history, about developments in science and technology, even about systems that protect their own welfare, so they’re susceptible to false-promising demagogues, especially if they feel they’re struggling more than they should. Concerns about democracy and demagoguery have been voiced loudly since the days of Plato and Aristotle. The US seems to have been exceptionally deaf about them. The bulwarks against demagoguery are not, as pundits keeps saying, institutions of democracy, they’re institutions of an open society. The free press is a meritocracy, owing its duty to the facts and the evidence, not to ‘the people’. The same goes for the judiciary, which owe its duty to the law and its judicious interpretation according to precedent and the given facts and evidence. The science and technology sector should be at arm’s length from the government, owing its credibility to the independent interpretation of data and confirmation of hypotheses, always subject to peer review. Now, to some extent, I’m talking about an ideal here – I’m sure no government is perfectly open in this way. But Trump has, in his blunderingly self-serving style, corrupted the free press and the judiciary in the minds of ‘his’ people, turned his nation’s formidable foes into his nation’s friends and vice versa, and made America a kind of monstrous laughing-stock worldwide. And there’s another problem – he will not give up his Presidency. He will not. And it will certainly get worse. So that’s a problem for their country’s responsible adults to deal with. I wish them well.

Written by stewart henderson

July 21, 2018 at 9:46 am

the ACCC, coal, renewables, arguments, and the future

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Well as I watch my readership reduce to almost zero in its usual ups and downs I wonder whether to write just for myself or to attract a readership, so I’ll just go ahead and write, but I was amused to listen to Senator Matt Canavan, our Minister for Resources and a member of the Nationals, responding to the ACCC’s recommendations for bringing energy prices down. At one point he remarked ‘who cares where we get our fuel from?’, and compared the different fuel varieties to different types of ice-cream in a sweet shop. Presumably he was referring to encouraging an energy mix, but for someone who presumably knows something about resources, since he holds that portfolio (though that’s hardly ever proof of expertise in government), it struck me as bizarre. Who cares where we get our fuel from or what type it is? The Chinese government cares, for one. It has worked hard in recent years to combat pollution in Beijing, largely  in response to adverse publicity. China’s capital, ranked as the fifth most polluted city in China in 2011, has since dropped out of the top twenty, largely due to the adoption of cleaner, greener energy and technology. Unfortunately, many other cities in China’s highly populated and industrialised north-western region still suffer from an environment which has reduced life expectancy there by some 5.5 years, according to a joint study by Chinese and American university teams in 2013. This sadly suggests that the Chinese government appears to be more concerned with its international image than with protecting its own citizens from hazardous emissions. On the bright side, Beijing’s improvement indicates what can be done to improve environments when governments and industry get their act together.

Just as oils aint oils, fuels aren’t just fuels. Remember kerosene? I remember huddling over a kerosene heater in the seventies, along with student housemates. But in other parts, kero isn’t a past-tense energy source. In many of the poorest countries, particularly in Africa, it’s used for lighting, even though it’s toxic, causes frequent burns and fires, and produces inferior light. It has proved difficult to wean consumers from kerosene in these countries, even though there are potentially cheaper options available. There’s an interesting article about the problems and possible solutions here.

But really, since energy generation (i.e. using x,y, or z as fuel) is the number one cause of air pollution and global warming emissions, it’s not like comparing caramel praline with black raspberry crunch. Coal is of course the worst in terms of emissions. As of 2016, some 44% of US electricity comes from coal, but it accounts for 80% of that country’s power plant carbon emissions. Australia has great reserves of coal, but it exports much of it to China and, more recently, South-East Asia. In fact Australia has experienced a recent boom in coal exports, earning a record $56.5 billion in 2017. Unsurprisingly many conservative pollies are clamouring for more coal mines and more local use of the resource as a solution to our seemingly ever-rising energy costs. Maybe we too can pull out of the Paris Agreement? Of course, our massive coal exports do tend to undermine that agreement, while the government can congratulate itself on keeping domestic use within more or less acceptable limits (see graph above). Currently, we’re the largest coal exporter and the third largest exporter of carbon pollution in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. But of course it’s not our fault that other countries want to pollute with our resources, is it? We just take the money and keep our country clean (as do Norway, Denmark and Indonesia).

So considering our dubious status in terms of global emissions (but, as many experts point out, it’s a little arrogant to expect developing and transitioning countries like China, our biggest coal customer, to rapidly abandon a fuel that the developed world has used for so long, thereby gaining ascendancy), it’s interesting to note that AGL, Australia’s largest owner of coal fired power stations and biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, is continuing its push away from coal in spite of government pressure. Of course the government itself is divided on this, with Turnbull and Frydenberg largely at odds with the Nationals on the question of transition, but looking into the future, it seems inevitable that demand for coal will decline – the only question is the rate of that decline, which of course depends on how quickly other nations move away from coal. All of those nations have signed the Paris Agreement. Already, coal ports such as Newcastle, and Australia’s mining regions, are looking to diversify, and energy experts are debating the pursuance of a coal tax to support the industry as it transitions.

But Canavan and the Nationals are having none of this. They point to the above-mentioned boom and a currently accelerating demand, though Canavan is realistic enough to admit that future forecasts are reliably unreliable. Much will depend on cost declines and advancing technology in renewables, as well as various political scenarios.

Naturally the renewable energy sector is looking critically at what one of its experts calls the ‘series of scattershot proposals’ by the ACCC on reducing our electricity costs. The ACCC’s recommendation that the small-scale renewable energy scheme (SRES), a subsidy which mainly applies to rooftop solar, should be wound down, is seen as unfair if not counter-productive by the sector. The SRES is already slated to be wound down by 2030, and its earlier abolition (by 2021, according to ACCC recommendations) would mainly affect low-income and rental householders. There’s currently a new boom in rooftop solar, with rising energy costs being the main cause. So penalising future adopters of rooftop solar seems an odd way to reduce the problems they’re adopting solar to avoid. As to the possibility of new gas- or coal-fired power plants, a dream of the Nationals and renegade ultra-conservative Tony Abbott, that’s unlikely, considering changing public attitudes and the reasonable likelihood of a change of federal government by next year. The good thing about the ACCC’s analysis is that the behaviour of retailers, and the phenomenon of price gouging, have finally been criticised, and the idea of states writing down the value of their networks has been floated. Consumers shouldn’t have to bear the burden of extra energy infrastructure and errors in predicting future energy demand.

There have been many interesting responses to the report, to say the least. Danny Price, a leading analyst of the national energy market over three decades, regards the report as overly political in that it shies away from criticising the lack of a much-needed bipartisan approach to energy policy. Confusion and ideological squabbling over carbon pricing – the disastrous scrapping by the Abbott government of a carefully formulated carbon tax being the low point – has been a disincentive to major investment, and banks here are refusing to finance new coal-fired power stations, which would only be built via massive government subsidies. Consequently we’ve seen an upsurge in interest in renewables from consumers and business, which also reflects worldwide growth, with major oil companies like BP joining the fray.

Of course the problem of reliable back-up power remains, and analyst Ian Verrender has criticised the ACCC report for omitting his best solution – gas. Gas turbines are more flexible than coal generators as well as producing fewer emissions. Australia is a major exporter of gas, but our companies have been providing little for domestic consumption, a situation which was only partly remedied by recent federal intervention. Yet the Nationals are more interested in coal than gas, in spite of its many problems, and its inefficiencies in providing precise back-up supply. Gas, hydro and batteries are far more efficient in this respect.

A recent study by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has also backed renewables (though apparently the current federal government isn’t listening). It has released its Integrated Systems Plan, reported on here by Giles Parkinson:

Based on its “neutral” scenario, which comprises existing federal and state government policies, the lowest cost replacement [for retiring coal-fired suppliers] will be solar (28GW), wind (10.5GW) and storage (17GW and 90GWh). Just 500MW of flexible gas plant will be needed, and no new coal. It says this portfolio in total can produce 90TWh (net) of energy per annum, more than offsetting the energy lost from retiring coal fired generation.

AEMO has also highlighted the need for new transmission infrastructure, as transformative and disruptive energy developments continue around the country. The need for forward planning should be obvious and governments – especially the federal government – ignore this at their peril. A change of federal government may be the answer, but only if the incoming government has a thorough-going plan to integrate and manage this clear and obvious national move away from fossil fuels. Such plans are already being drawn up – we just need the will, and some bipartisan support, to implement them.





Written by stewart henderson

July 17, 2018 at 5:01 pm

Posted in ACCC, gas

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Useful stuff on extremophiles and their tricks

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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

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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

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