an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Trump – still watching the slo-mo train wreck

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Jacinta: Well haha, you made a prediction to me last December that Trump would be out on his highly intelligent arse by the end of this year – how’s that going?

Canto: Well after making that prediction I’ve embarked on a bit of a journey re US politics and the presidential system in particular, and as you know, what I’ve discovered has shocked me to the core. So, yes, he probably won’t be out by year’s end, but he obviously should have been, well before this. Basically, as I see it, the sensible folks of the US, the adults, are paralysed in the face of a crooked, incompetent, solipsistic pre-teen brat being elected, with less than half the votes, to the most powerful position in the most economically and militarily powerful nation on Earth. They just haven’t got the political system, the checks and balances, to deal with him, in spite of their constant braying about being ‘the world’s greatest democracy’. Still, as a number of US pundits have pointed out, he’ll be much closer to his end when this month comes to an end. And I find it all very engaging, in a morbid kind of way.

Jacinta: Well, yes, we’ve referred to it for some time as a slo-mo train wreck, and it looks like some of the more visible damage might be witnessed in the next few weeks.  

Canto: Follow the money. Which takes us to Russia. We’ve long known that Trump was saved from his bankruptcies and financial incompetence by Deutsche Bank, the Russian money-laundering bank, that he’s very secretive about those finances, and his tax returns haven’t been prised from him…

Jacinta: But the Mueller team have subpoenaed Deutsche Bank, haven’t they? Specifically for Trump’s business finances? I mean, why else?

Canto: I’ve long said that the Mueller team have such a feast of incriminating info on Trump and Russia that even the world’s greatest glutton couldn’t consume it. And there’s plenty of murky stuff available to the public, as reported in The Moscow Project, for example, and in presentations by MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow, among others. 

Jacinta: The word ‘kompromat’ comes up a lot – compromising information or indebtedness, used to exert leverage over powerful individuals or business entities. Though I’m sure Russia-Putin never dreamed they would one day have such leverage over a US President. 

Canto: Well that’s the thing. They did dream about it, and what’s more worked to make it happen. Remember that Trump didn’t win the popular vote, he won the electoral college. And remember that the Russians interfered with that election. I haven’t looked into this in detail, but the claim made, for example, by the historian and commentator Niall Ferguson, that Russian interference in the 2016 election was negligible as to results, that claim is bullshit, I suspect. They targeted ‘purple states’, theirs was a value-for-money operation, very sophisticated. I recall reading the speaking indictment on the hacking, and noting the mention of ‘known and unknown individuals’ on the American side of that hacking. So Mueller knew then about some American conspirators, and probably knows more now. Trump goes on about ‘no collusion’, but there clearly was a conspiracy, to win the election with Russian assistance in return for removal of sanctions and god knows what else.

Jacinta: Kompromat indeed. Certainly seems to explain Trump’s behaviour re Russia-Putin from before the election to now. What’s amusing is that he’s not only parroted ‘no conclusion’ endlessly, he’s also repeated the ‘no deals with Russia’ mantra ad nauseam. Pretty dumb, because it soon becomes clear that when he repeats things like that, he’s lying. 

Canto: Dumb but hey, he’s never been jailed or had to pay much of a price for his misdeeds. But let’s focus on Russia itself – or Russia-Putin as you call it (I like that combo). As you know the country is run, or rather fleeced, by a bunch of billionaire oligarchs who are Putin’s puppets, and if they don’t do his bidding they’re fleeced in turn by Putin and either jailed or forced into exile, or worse. Trump enters this network of fiends as the archetypal bumbling braggadocio. These guys love to sneer at Americans, no doubt seeing them as amateur scammers and thugs compared to themselves. And Trump is the ultimate incompetent amateur, as if created for their cynical purposes. Now, as is well known, Trump has filed for bankruptcy six times, from 1991 to 2009. It’s called Chapter 11 bankruptcy and it’s designed to enable restructuring, so Trump says he uses the system to his benefit, but of course little of what he says is true or even makes sense…

Jacinta: But surely it’s true that he hasn’t suffered much from his bankruptcies. 

Canto: That’s true, and there are obviously major flaws in US corporate law that allow him to get out from under while others apparently foot the bill. But what’s interesting is that, as American banks saw him more and more as an unstable businessman, they turned off the tap. One bank that didn’t, however, was Deutsche Bank – the Russian money-laundering bank. Not only that, Trump was increasingly interested in business relations with Russians, probably due to their lax standards. Trump Tower Toronto was largely funded through VEB, a Russian state-owned bank once chaired by Putin himself, and Russian investments into Trump real estate in the US are too numerous to list. And that takes us to more recent events. Trump and his enablers were trying to build a tower in Moscow in the run-up to the campaign. Clearly this was of interest to Russia-Putin, so again the VEB was heavily involved. Imagine if candidate Trump, who already shared many of Russia-Putin’s anti-democratic proclivities, could be installed as President,  in return for financial assistance, which would be tied to the lifting of US sanctions on Russia, and other sweetheart deals. What a coup that would be.

Jacinta: Yes, and all that is pretty well established, I mean in the public realm. But what about the law? Which laws have been broken? We both agree that impeachment stinks, so how exactly is the law going to deal with Trump and co?

Canto: Well, let’s leave aside the probable case that the Mueller team won’t have Trump arrested, due to the vast powers they’ve given their President. Let’s imagine it’s a more sensible system in which the head of state is as immediately accountable for his crimes as any other citizen. I’m not an expert on US law of course, but as often mentioned, Cohen has pled guilty to two felony offences, campaign finance violations, and has stated – obviously correctly – that they were directed by Trump. The FBI, or whoever, already knew that as they have all of Cohen’s paperwork, emails, texts, mountains of the stuff. So that’s two dead certain offences. 

Jacinta: Cohen is trying for what we know Flynn will likely get – no prison time. How does that affect Trump?

Canto: Badly. I love it that Trump is lambasting Cohen for doing the right thing, and praising Manafort and Stone for doing the wrong thing. Now all Manafort can hope for is a pardon, from a surely doomed President. 

Jacinta: So if Trump pardons Manafort and then he goes down on multiple charges – financial misdealings, conspiracy and obstruction of justice – what then?

Canto: The pardon shouldn’t be allowed to stand, and that’s another test for the US judicial system.

Jacinta: So should we try to find out the precise laws that have likely been broken? 

Canto: That may be a difficult, or at least a painstaking task. There are lawsuits pending against him however. For example there are a couple of suits against him for violating the emoluments clause of the US constitution, one by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and one filed jointly by the Attorneys-General of the District of Columbia and the State of Maryland. This will be the first time the emoluments clause has been tested in court. The D C and Maryland suit was filed back in June 2017 but there has been action on it recently, with subpoenas issued just a few days ago for Trump’s financial records relating to his D C hotel. So that’s one to watch on the sidelines. But generally there will be laws relating to money laundering, conspiring with foreign entities to interfere in an election, and obstruction of justice, that will likely apply to Trump. The obstruction of justice matter, which no doubt includes lying to the FBI (but perhaps not lying about the FBI!) is unfortunately a bit vague. In any case, we just need to stop hyperventilating – or I do – and watch it all play out. I’d love to see Trump in jail, but the other side of me knows he can’t help himself, he is what he is. The real problem, as I’ve always said, isn’t really Trump but the American political system, most particularly the Presidential system. I want to see if they try to fix it, post-Trump. 


Written by stewart henderson

December 6, 2018 at 10:24 pm

on luck, and improving environments

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Trump wasn’t born here, and neither was I

I’m in the process of reading Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology and biology at Stanford University, who has tried in his book to summarise, via the research literature, the seconds, then minutes, then hours, then days, then lifetimes and more, that precede any particular piece of behaviour. It’s a dense but fascinating book, which aligns with, and provides mountains of evidence for, my view that we’re far less in control of ourselves than we think.

It seems we think this because of what might be called conscious awareness of our behaviours and our decisions. This consciousness is something we sometimes mistake for control. It’s interesting that we consider it obvious that we have no control over the size of our nose or the colour of our eyes, but we have more or less complete control of our temper, appetites, desires and ambitions. 

 Humanistically speaking, this understanding about very limited control needs to have massive implications for our understanding of others. We don’t get to choose our parents, our native country or the immediate environment that most profoundly affects our early life and much of our subsequent behaviour. The flow of hormones and neurotransmitters and their regulation via genetic and epigenetic factors proceed daily, hourly, moment by moment, and all we’re aware of, essentially, is outcomes. 

A lot of people, I note, are very uncomfortable about this kind of talk. For example, many of us want to treat each other as ‘equal before the law’. But is one person ever ‘equal’ with another? We know – it’s obvious – that we’re all different. That’s how we distinguish people, by their smiles, their voices, their fingerprints, their DNA. So how can we be different and equal at the same time? Or, to turn things around, how can a legal system operate if everyone is treated as different, unique, a special case?

Well, in a sense, we already do this, with respect to the law. No two bank robberies, or rapes, or murders are the same, and the judiciary must be highly attuned to the differences when applying punishments. Nowadays, and increasingly, the mental state of the offender – particularly at the time of the offence, if that can be ascertained – is considered when sentencing.  And this is surely a good thing. 

The question here is, considering the exponential growth of our neurophysiological knowledge in the 21st century, and its bearing on our understanding of every kind of negative or positive behaviour we engage in, how can we harness that knowledge to improve outcomes and move from a punitive approach to bad behaviours to something more constructive?

Of course, it’s one thing to identify the release or suppression of glucocorticoids, for example, and its effect on person x’s cognitive faculties, it’s entirely another thing to effect a remedy. And to what effect? To make everyone docile, ‘happy’ and law-abiding? To have another go at eugenics, this time involving far more than just genes? 

One of the points constantly hammered home in Sapolsky’s book is the effect of environment on everything that goes on inside us, so that, for example, genes aren’t quite as determinative as we once thought. Here are some key points from his chapter on genes (with apologies about unexplained terms such as epigenetic, transcription and transposons):

a. Genes are not autonomous agents commanding biological events.

b. Instead genes are regulated by the environment, with environment consisting of everything from events inside the cell to the universe.

c. Much of your DNA turns environmental influences into gene transcription, rather than coding for genes themselves; moreover, evolution is heavily about changing regulation of gene transcription, rather than genes themselves.

d. Epigenetics can allow environmental effects to be lifelong, or even multigenerational.

e. And thanks to transposons, neurons contain a mosaic of different genomes. 

And genes are only one component of the array of forces that influence or control our behaviour. We know, or course, about how Phineas Gage-type accidents and brain tumours can alter behaviour, but many other effects on the brain can alter our behaviour without us and others knowing too much about it. These include stress, malnutrition, and long-term cultural and religious influences which permanently affect our attitudes to, for example, women, other species and the food we eat. Domestic violence, drug use, political affiliations, educational outcomes and sexual affinities are all more inter-generational than we’re generally prepared to admit. 

The first thing we need to do is be aware of all this in our judgment of others, and even of ourselves. There’s just so much luck involved in being who we are. We could’ve been more or less ‘good-looking’ than we are -according to the standards of the culture around us – and this would’ve affected the way we’ve been treated throughout our whole lives. We could’ve been born richer or poorer, with more or less dysfunctional parents, taller or shorter, more or less mentally agile, more or less immune to the pathogens that surround us. On and on and on we could go, even to an extreme degree. We could’ve been born in Algeria, Argentina or Azerbaijan. We could’ve been born in 1912, 1412 or 512, or 150,000 years ago. We could’ve been born a mongoose, a mouse or a mosquito. It’s all luck, whether good or bad is up to us to decide, but probably not worth speculating about as we have no choice but to make the best of what we are.

What we do have is consciousness or awareness of what we are. And with that consciousness we can speculate, as we as a species always have, on how to make the best of ourselves, given that we’re the most socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and for that reason the most successful, measured by population, spread across the globe, and what we’ve done for ourselves in terms of social evolution – our science, our technology, our laws and our politics.  

That’s where humanism comes in, for me. Since we know that ‘there but for the randomness of luck go I’, it surely follows that we should sympathise with those whose luck hasn’t been as lucky as our own, and strive to improve the lot of those less fortunate. Safe havens, educational opportunities, decent wages, human rights, clean environments, social networks – we know what’s required for people to thrive. Yet we focus, I think, too much on punishment. We punish people for trying to improve their family’s situation – or to avoid obliteration – by seeking refuge in safer, richer, healthier places. We punish them for seeking solace in drugs because their circumstances are too overwhelming to deal with. We punish them for momentary and one-off lapses of concentration that have had dire consequences. Of course it has always been thus, and I think we’re improving, though very unevenly across the globe. And the best way to improve is by more knowing. And more understanding of the consequences of that knowledge. 

Currently, it seems to me, we’re punishing people too much for doing what impoverished, damaged, desperate people do to survive. It’s understandable, perhaps, in our increasingly individualist world. How dare someone bother me for handouts. It’s not my fault that x has fucked up his life. Bring back capital punishment for paedophiles. People smugglers are the lowest form of human life. Etc etc – mostly from people who don’t have a clue what it’s like to be those people. Because their life is so different, through no fault, or cause, of their own. 

So to me the message is clear. Out lives would be better if others’ lives were better – if we could give others the opportunities, the health, the security and the smarts that we have, and if we could have all of those advantages that they have. I suppose that’s kind of impossible, but it’s better than blaming and punishing, and feeling superior. We’re not, we’re just lucky. Ot not. 

  

Written by stewart henderson

December 4, 2018 at 2:22 pm

reflections on base load, dispatchable energy and SA’s current situation

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just to restate the point that SA’s power outages are due to transmission/distribution lines being damaged, nothing to do with renewable energy

Canto: So now we’re going to explore base load. What I think it means is reliable, always available energy, usually from fossil fuel generators (coal oil gas), always on tap, to underpin all this soi-disant experimental energy from solar (but what about cloudy days, not to mention darkness, which is absence of light, which is waves of energy isn’t it?) and wind (which is obviously variable, from calm days to days so stormy that they might uproot wind turbines and send them flying into space, chopping up birds in the process).

Jacinta: Well we can’t think about base load without thinking about grids. Our favourite Wikipedia describes it as ‘the minimal level of demand on an electrical grid over a span of time’. So the idea is that you always need to cover that base, or you’ll be in trouble. And an electrical grid is a provision of electrical service to a particular community, be it a suburb, a city or a state. 

Canto: Right, I think, and what I like about Wikipedia is the way it sticks it to the back-facing thinkers, for whom base load always means provision from traditional providers (coal oil gas). 

Jacinta: Yes, let’s rub it in by quoting Wikipedia on this. 

When the cheapest power was from large coal and nuclear plants which could not be turned up or down quickly, they were used to generate baseload, since it is constant, and they were called “baseload plants.” Large standby reserves were needed in case of sudden failure of one of these large plants. Unvarying power plants are no longer always the cheapest way to meet baseload. The grid now includes many wind turbines which have such low marginal costs that they can bid lower prices than coal or nuclear, so they can provide some of the baseload when the wind blows. Using wind turbines in areas with varying wind conditions, and supplementing them with solar in the day time, dispatchable generation and storage, handles the intermittency of individual wind sources.

Canto: So the times are a-changing with respect to costs and supply, especially as costs to the environment of fossil fuel supplies are at last being factored in, at least in some parts of the world. But let’s keep trying to clarify terms. What about dispatchable generation, and how does it relate to base load?

Jacinta: Well, intermittent power sources, such as wind and solar, are not dispatchable – unless there’s a way to store that energy. Some renewable energy sources, such as geothermal and biomass, are dispatchable, but they don’t figure too much in the mix at present. The key is in the word – these sources are able to be dispatched on demand, and have adjustable output which can be regulated in one way or another. But some sources are easier, and cheaper, to switch on and off than others. It’s much about timing; older generation coal-fired plants can take many hours to ‘fire up’, so their dispatchability, especially in times of crisis, is questionable. Hydroelectric and gas plants can respond much more quickly, and batteries, as we’ve seen, can respond in microseconds in times of crisis, providing a short-term fix until other sources come on stream. Of course, this takes us into the field of storage, which is a whole other can of – what’s the opposite of worms?

Canto: So this question of base load, this covering of ‘minimal’ but presumably essential level of demand, can be a problem for a national grid, but you can break that grid up presumably, going ‘off grid’, which I’m guessing means going off the national grid and either being totally independent as a household or creating a micro-grid consisting of some small community…

Jacinta: Yes and this would be the kind of ‘disruptive economy’ that causes nightmares for some governments, especially conservative ones, not to mention energy providers and retailers. But leaving aside micro-grids for now, this issue of dispatchability can be dealt with in a flexible way without relying on fossil fuels. Energy storage has proven value, perhaps especially with smaller grids or micro-grids, for example in maintaining flow for a particular enterprise. On the larger scale, I suppose the Snowy 2 hydro project will be a big boon? 

Canto: 2000 megawatts of energy generation and 175 hours of storage says the online ‘brochure’. But the Renew Economy folks, who always talk about ‘so-called’ base load, are skeptical. They point to the enormous cost of the project, which could escalate, due, among other things, to the difficulties of tunnelling through rock of uncertain quality. They feel that government reports have over-hyped the project and significantly downplayed the value of alternatives, such as battery electric storage systems, which are modular and flexible rather than this massive one-off project which may be rendered irrelevant once completed. 

Jacinta: So let’s relate this to the South Australian situation. We’re part of the national grid, or the National Energy Market (NEM), which covers SA and the eastern states. This includes generators, transformers (converting low voltage to high voltage for transport, and then converting back to low voltage for distribution), long distance transmission lines and shorter distance distribution lines. So that’s wholesale stuff, and it’s a market because different companies are involved in producing and maintaining the system – the grid, if you like.

Canto: I’ve heard it’s the world’s largest grid, in terms of area covered.

Jacinta: I don’t think so, but it depends on what metric you use. Anyway, it’s pretty big. South Australia has been criticised by the federal government for somehow harming the market with its renewables push. Also, it was claimed at least a year ago that SA had the highest electricity prices in the world. This may have been an exaggeration, but why are costs so high here? There are green levies on our bill, but I think they’re optional. Also, the electricity system was privatised in the late 90s, so the government has lost control of pricing. High-voltage transmission lines are owned by ElectraNet, part-owned by the Chinese government. The lower voltage distribution lines are operated by SA Power Networks, majority-owned by a Hong Kong company, and then there are the various private retailers. It’s hard to work out, amongst all this, why prices are so high here, but the closure of the Northern coal-fired power station in Port Augusta, which was relatively low cost and stable, meant a greater reliance on more expensive gas. Wind and solar have greater penetration into the SA network than elsewhere, but there’s still the intermittency problem. Various projects currently in the pipeline will hopefully provide more stability in the future, including a somewhat controversial interconnector between SA and NSW. Then there’s the retail side of things. Some retailers are also wholesalers. For instance AGL supplies 48% of the state’s retail customers and controls 42% of generation capacity. All in all, there’s a lack of competition, with only three companies competing for the retail market, which is a problem for pricing. At the same time, if competitors can be lured into the market, rather than being discouraged by monopoly behaviour, the high current prices should act as an incentive. 

Canto: Are you suggesting that retailers are profiteering from our high prices?

Jacinta: I don’t know about that, but before the Tesla battery came online the major gas generators – who are also retailers – were using their monopoly power to engage in price gouging at times of scarcity, to a degree that was truly incredible – more so in that it was entirely legal according to the ACCC and other market regulators. The whole sorry story is told here . So I’m hoping that’s now behind us, though I’m sure the executives of these companies will have earned fat bonuses for exploiting the situation while they could. 

Canto: So prices to consumers in SA have peaked and are now going down?

Jacinta: Well the National Energy Market has suffered increased costs for the past couple of years, mainly due to the increased wholesale price of gas, on which SA is heavily reliant. It’s hard to get reliable current data on this online, but as of April this year the east coast gas prices were on their way down, but these prices fluctuate for all sorts of reasons. Of course the gas lobby contends that increased supply – more gas exploration etc – will solve the problem, while others want to go in the opposite direction and cut gas out of the South Australian market as much as possible. That’s unlikely to happen though, in the foreseeable, so we’re likely to be hostage to fluctuating gas prices, and a fair degree of monopoly pricing, for some time to come. 


Written by stewart henderson

November 26, 2018 at 11:37 am

Our clean energy ups and downs

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So in the light of the federal government’s most recent abandonment of an energy policy, it’s about time for a more positive update – perhaps – on what’s happening in the field of clean energy around Australia. 

I should start by plugging the Renew Economy blog/website, the best source for info on what’s happening round the country, both technology-wise and politically. Giles Parkinson has recently reported there on an important change of tack from the conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) vis-a-vis fossil fuels. The IEA has long been a big promoter of coal but last year it shocked its conservative backers by admitting that the coal boom was over and that the future was with renewables. The IEA has just published its annual World Energy Outlook, which recognises that coal production will have to be substantially reduced if we are to meet Paris targets. It notes that PV solar costs have dropped to the point that it’s the cheapest energy option in most countries, with wind power also becoming much cheaper and more viable. China, while still a massive consumer of fossil fuels, is leading the way in rapidly reducing that consumption.

Meanwhile, in Australia… Another report, this time from the G20, reviews the climate action performance of member nations. Called the Brown to Green report, its 2018 version rates Australia’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) targets as ‘insufficient’. That’s to say, they’re disappointingly unambitious and would be likely to worsen the situation if other nations followed. To quote from the report:

The 2018 CAT assessment confirms that Australia’s emissions are set to far exceed its NDC target for 2030 under current policies.

With no guidance or serious interest from our federal government, none of this is surprising, but there are projects completed and underway that give hope for a turnaround, and of course the conservatives are set to lose power in the upcoming federal election. Not that I’ve heard anything much about Labor’s renewable energy plans. 

As reported previously, and elsewhere, South Australia’s Tesla battery, mocked by fossil fuel dinosaurs Scott Morrison and Matt Kanavan, has exceeded all expectations, due to its ability to respond super-rapidly to system breakdowns, and Tesla’s success at Hornsdale has led to more projects here for the California-based company. Victoria’s Bulgana Green Power Hub, a project designed by Neoen Australia, will feature a 20MW/34MWh lithium-iron Tesla battery and a 194MW wind farm about 15ks east of Stawell in west-central Victoria. It should be complete by the end of 2019. The NSW government’s energy network operator Transgrid is purchasing Tesla Powerpack systems to be installed in a number of locations to smooth out variable solar generation and to facilitate growth of solar infrastructure. Small-scale Powerpack systems are already operating in Melbourne and Rockhampton. 

There will be another Tesla battery (25MW/34MWh) in SA soon, at the Lake Bonney wind farm. Interestingly though, the renewables developer Infigen Energy, which will build the battery, is concerned about future batteries investment in Australia because ‘the rules of the market do not yet favour battery storage, and battery storage costs need to fall further’.

In any case, state governments and private companies are forging ahead with clean energy projects in spite of federal indifference and inadequate legislation. One market, though, which seems to be stalled in Australia is the EV market.

And after a quick bit of research, I’d say I’ve understated the issue. According to Behyad Jafari, chief executive of Australia’s Electric Vehicle Council, the global average for electric vehicle purchases is about 2% of all car sales, with Norway leading the way at 20%. Australia’s uptake is at 0.2%, about the lowest in the western world, though surveys have shown that Australians are excited and intrigued by EVs. A large Roy Morgan survey recently found that half those surveyed were interested in buying an EV or a hybrid. So clearly there are barriers to investing in an EV here. Apparently the biggest barrier is the lack of a decent recharging network, according to research, with actual  vehicle cost coming a distant second. With no government action either on infrastructure or on import taxes and charges for EVs, it’s hard to see a big uptick in EVs in the near future.

However, some are optimistic, at least for the long term. Bloomberg New Energy Finance has predicted that Australia will start really getting on board with EVs by 2025. Its analysis of Australia is part of its global forecasting. It predicts that ‘by 2040, some 40 per cent of all vehicles on the road in Australia will have a plug, and 60 per cent of new car sales will be electric’. Only twenty-odd years to wait – nice if you’re young. Again, pressure needs to be applied to what should be an incoming Labor government in the next few months to support the EV industry as well as other clean energy schemes. 

And how about here in South Australia, with the conservatives winning the state election in March 2018? Fortunately, the plans and developments of the previous government are unlikely to be jettisoned because they’re clearly having a positive effect and are popular here. South Australia has been regularly targeted by federal conservatives as a crazy outlier of sorts for its focus on renewables, but the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has predicted that SA will be sourcing 100% of its energy from renewables by 2025. The scenario here is complex, and I may need to do a few posts to get my head around the issues and the technology, but briefly, SA currently gets around half of its energy from natural gas, and a third to a half from wind. The percentages vary on a daily basis. Solar also produces an increasing share – both rooftop and larger scale commercial solar. Over time, it’s expected that commercial or utility solar will play a much larger role, and gas turbines will be phased out. Utility storage will also be an increasing part of the mix from around 2025. 

I’ll try to get a handle on what’s going on in South Australia in a future post, because at the moment terms such as ‘synchronous generation’, ‘dispatchable capacity’, ‘grid level services’ and even ‘base load’ are giving me the screaming heeby-geebies. And once I familiarise myself with these terms I should be able to apply them elsewhere. I do get the impression though that base load, which has much to do with reliable on-tap energy (because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow) is a term much beloved by fossil fuel heavyweights and derided, at least to a degree, by the renewable energy crowd. So I think I’ll focus first on that in my next post, especially with regard to the new battery storage technology.  

Written by stewart henderson

November 20, 2018 at 6:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

the amazing physiology of hummingbirds

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The smallest bird on our planet is the bee hummingbird, of Cuba. The average adult weight ranges between 2 and 2.5 grams, with females being slightly larger than males. There are other tiny hummingbirds, including the bumblebee, from Mexico, and the calliope, of Canada and the US. Basically the adults of all these birds weigh little more than a couple of paper clips. Yet, as Jim Robbins reports in The wonder of birds, these featherlight birds are incredibly robust. Calliopes fly from the northern US down to Mexico every winter, often through powerful head-winds and raindrops as big as their ‘eads. They fly back north in spring, early arrivals, living on insects (their principal source of nutrients) until the flowers start blooming (providing nectar, their principal source of energy). It’s an annual journey of nearly 3000 kms.

adult male bee hummingbird

It takes heart to undertake such a journey, and hummingbirds have plenty. The hummingbird heart is the largest of any known animal relative to its size, and its rate has been measured to reach over 1200 beats per minute (in the blue-throated hummingbird). There are some 350 species of hummingbird, all living in the Americas. 

But it’s not just their long-distance flights that astonish, it’s their everyday manoeuvres. They can fly upside-down, change speed and direction smartly, and hover for long periods, even in strong winds, while collecting sweet nectar in vast quantities – as much as 12 times their body weight daily. Their wing-beat speed, which can reach 100 beats per second, is about ten times that of a pigeon, and they have the largest pectorals for their size of any bird. Birds’ pectorals, which power their flight, are always proportionally massive, taking up some 80% of their weight, but hummingbirds are clearly built for flight more than any other, which allows them to remain in the air more or less constantly. ‘It’s their default setting’, says Bret Tobalske of the University of Montana, who studies the mechanics of flight in birds, bats and insects. Tobalske has studied their flight using ultra high-speed cameras and atomised olive  oil illuminated by lasers, so that the revealed air-flow around their wings can help in understanding the mechanical processes involved. He’s also used wind tunnel experiments to investigate how well the birds can withstand wind forces. In a 20mph headwind, they simply increase their wingbeat rate, and can remain hovering for up to an hour and a half. 

calliope hummingbird

Hummingbirds are very trainable and human-friendly, especially if you reward them with sugar water, their favourite energy hit, though the more food is laid on for them the less they’ll visit and pollinate flowers. Their beaks and long tongues are adapted to extracting nectar. The tongues themselves are an extraordinary adaptation. They’re forked at the tip, and when retracted they coil up inside their tiny heads like a garden hose. For years it was thought that the nectar was drawn out of the flowers by capillary action, like a blotter soaks up ink (showing my age), but Margaret Rubega of the University of Connecticut quickly recognised this was a crock, on first hearing of the hypothesis in the 1980s. Capillary action is a slow process, especially with more viscous liquids, but hummingbirds stick their tongues into flowers at a rate of up to 16 times a second. How their tongue works has been revealed by slow-motion photography, another example of technological advances leading to advances in knowledge – though the ingenuity of Rubega and her colleague Alejandro Rico-Guevara in working out the process played a large part. Ed Yong provides a good account here, and the more detailed original paper is also online. The hummingbird’s tongue appears to be a unique evolutionary invention, a bespoke tongue, so to speak. At its tip, where it forks, it curls up at the edges, creating two tubes. Here’s how it works, from Yong:

As the bird sticks its tongue out, it uses its beak to compress the two tubes at the tip, squeezing them flat. They momentarily stay compressed because the residual nectar inside them glues them in place. But when the tongue hits nectar, the liquid around it overwhelms whatever’s already inside. The tubes spring back to their original shape and nectar rushes into them.

The two tubes also separate from each other, giving the tongue a forked, snakelike appearance. And they unfurl, exposing a row of flaps along their long edges. It’s as if the entire tongue blooms open, like the very flowers from which it drinks.

When the bird retracts its tongue, all of these changes reverse. The tubes roll back up as their flaps curl inward, trapping nectar in the process. And because the flaps at the very tip are shorter than those further back, they curl into a shape that’s similar to an ice-cream cone; this seals the nectar in. The tongue is what Rubega calls a nectar trap. It opens up as it immerses, and closes on its way out, physically grabbing a mouthful in the process.

As Rubega and Rico-Guevara suggest in their abstract, such a unique fluid-trapping mechanism may well have biomimetic applications. As the researchers have shown, the tongue mechanism works even after the bird has died, showing that it’s in some sense independent of the bird itself, and requires none of the bird’s energy. 

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to find that hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of any creature (excluding insects). Apart from their record heart rate, they take around 250 breaths a minute, even resting – which they rarely do. Their oxygen intake (per gram of muscle) during flight is ten times higher than that of the most elite human athletes, and they get almost all of their energy for this hyperactive life through ingested sugars – compared to a maximum of 30% for humans. They can utilise sugars for flight within 35 minutes of consumption, which requires a very rapid oxidation rate. Though it isn’t precisely known how this rapid oxidation occurs, it does explain how they can maintain flight while feeding – they’re essentially refuelling while in flight. This raises questions, though, about long-haul flights, for example across the Gulf of Mexico – a distance of 800 kms. It appears they’re able to store fat as a fuel reserve, like other migratory birds, thus almost doubling their weight before the big journey. 

Hummingbird songs and calls are highly varied, and some are even ultrasonic – at a frequency above that of human hearing. These may be used to disturb the flight patterns of small edible insects. Most interestingly, neurological and genetic expression studies suggest that they are capable of vocal learning, something rare among birds as well as mammals. Research in this area is something I hope to explore more fully in future posts – it involves brain design, development and epigenetic factors. 

blue-throated hummingbird, a larger species – only the male has the blue throat

A few other interesting points in closing. Hummingbirds do rest at night, and when there’s no available food – they can enter a state something like hibernation, when their metabolism slows almost to a full stop. They can lose about 10% of their body weight during these states. It’s also notable that they have surprisingly long life-spans for such hyperactive creatures.  Average life-spans have been difficult to measure, but individuals of different species have been known to live for eleven or twelve years at least. 

My growing interest in birds and other creatures, especially with regard to intelligence, has inevitably led me to the load of videos available online, displaying all sorts of amazing traits, as well as profound human-animal relations. There are too many to recommend, but I would strongly suggest to any reader that they sample some of them. Watching them is somehow uplifting, and inspires a sense of hope. Life is nothing if not ingenious, even if accidentally. 

References

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/11/hummingbird-tongues/546992/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hummingbird

http://www.pnas.org/content/108/23/9356

Written by stewart henderson

November 15, 2018 at 10:09 am

the USA’s presidential crisis – what will they learn from it?

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it really is this crazy

The USA has a tragic problem on its hands, of its own making. It now has, as its President, a career criminal, a narcissistic demagogue, a flim flam man who’ll stop at nothing to remain in power. Within a few days, though, his power will be curtailed and, I strongly suspect, and certainly hope, US law enforcement authorities will be rounding up some of his accomplices and generally turning up the heat. Everything about Trump tells me he would be prepared to destroy as much of the country’s political edifice as he possibly can, rather than go quietly.

But it’s the political edifice itself that’s allowed Trump, who isn’t a Republican, or a Democrat, or a politician or a businessman, to take over the ship of state and steer it on a bumpy ride to nowhere. This could never have happened under the Westminster system, which pertains in Britain and Australia, two countries of which I happen to be a citizen. 

The flaws in the US Presidential system have been unwittingly exposed by Trump, and this may be the one true gift he will have bestowed on his people, just as the horrors of the great European wars of last century left the one bright legacy of over seventy years of peace in Western Europe. 

So what are these problems? Well there’s one general problem of democracy, which is shared by all democratic countries, and that’s the fact that not everyone eligible to vote is sufficiently informed or detached to use their vote to the best advantage of themselves or the nation as a whole. Many are massively influenced by what is called ‘identity politics’, because they identify with a particular sub-culture, be it ethnic, religious, job-related, or special-interest-related in a host of ways. Many simply don’t understand much about politics and are easily swayed by political promises or the promises made by those around them on behalf of politicians. The intellectual elites, the cognoscenti, have no more weight to their vote than the more or less completely clueless. 

This problem is exacerbated in the USA by the fact that, every four years, they’re asked to cast a vote essentially for one person over another. In the run-up to that vote there’s massive fund-raising and lobbying, hype (short for hyperbole), overblown promising, and circus-like razzmatazz and bells and whistles. 

The one-against-one competition is, it seems, typically American, where the ‘great man’ who saves the world by single-handedly defeating all enemies is a staple of Hollywood blockbusters. In contrast, elections in the Westminster system are more like a blend of the American mid-term and presidential elections, but with much more of the mid-term than the presidential. People essentially vote for parties – a major party of the left and of the right, together with smaller independent parties and independent members. The two major parties and the smaller parties all have leaders, of course, and they’re elected by the rest of the elected MPs of their parties. They’re the ‘captains of the team’, and they work with them in parliament. The Prime Minister, the leader of the party elected to power in general elections, is thus in a very different position from the US President, who resides in and works from the White House, surrounded by staff and officials who are appointed by himself (though more or less vetted by others) without necessarily having been elected by the public to any office of any kind in the past. These include some very influential positions indeed – the 15 members of the Presidential Cabinet including Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Attorney-General and Chief of Staff. The President thus heads the ‘executive branch’ of government, which is entirely separate from parliament, or congress.

Under the Westminster system there’s no such separation. The Prime Minister does get to select his cabinet, but they’re all appointed from within parliament, and all of them work within the House, or the Senate. So the PM is literally ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, and often has to defend his or her ministers and policies in the teeth of opposition sitting across the aisle. This creates much more of a team spirit, and if the PM ‘goes rogue’, as Trump clearly has, his party can organise a no-confidence motion to oust him. Such an event obviously has major repurcussions for the nation, but they are clearly nowhere near as disastrous as the ousting of an American President. Though, arguably, the difficulties involved in ousting the President are even more disastrous. 

In watching and learning about the US political system over the past year or so, I’ve been totally astonished at the power granted to the President, and with that power comes a sense of Presidential immunity, due to his ‘indispensability’. This is virtually a recipe for demagoguery and dictatorship. The current President has clearly utilised powers that previous Presidents quite probably didn’t know they had, because they grew up within the usual ethical guidelines of the vast majority of people, regardless of background. Trump has no such guidelines, and so has sacked appointed officials without replacing them, has used pardoning powers – and will continue to do so unless ousted – without restraint, and has issued executive orders in a manipulative and detrimental fashion. He has monetised the Presidency, obstructed justice by declaring war on the FBI and justice department officials, viciously and relentlessly attacked the fourth estate, and spread myriad falsehoods with impunity.

All of this has created a kind of internal paralysis in the US, while making the country and its President both a laughing stock and a cause for grave concern worldwide. Meanwhile the success of demagoguery and ‘power’ over ethics has had its echoes in elections in Austria, Sweden and Brazil. But the USA’s political problems are unique. The two principal problems are – How do you rid yourself of a rogue president? and, How do you present this from ever happening again?

Many concerned Americans are looking to the process of impeachment as the solution. I’m writing this on the day (in Australia) of the mid-term elections, November 6, though the USA is some 11-12 hours behind us in central Australia. It seems likely that the Democrats will take control of the House and possibly the Senate, though I wouldn’t bet on it – I usually get these things wrong. But impeachment is a political process and therefore highly partisan in a nation that has become partisan perhaps to the point of extreme violence. Impeachment doesn’t exist in the Westminster system, because there is clearly no need for it.

For a Prime Minister, under the Westminster system, to ‘successfully’ go rogue, as the US President has, he would have to carry the whole of his party with him, or a substantial majority, as the party system and party loyalty are deeply entrenched in the polity. A no-confidence motion in the Prime Minister can be put up at any time during parliamentary sessions, either from within the PM’s party or from the opposition benches. It’s easier for the President to become a ‘one-man band’ because he’s entirely cut off from congress. I don’t know if Trump has ever entered congress. There seems no reason for him to do so. This complete disconnection from what is is supposedly his own party and government is, I think, disastrous. 

The massive power of the President – veto powers, pardoning powers, executive orders, and apparent, if limited, immunity from prosecution – is no small problem for a country that is the most economically and militarily powerful in the world.  Rachel Maddow of NBC has highlighted the problem of prosecuting the President. If he is charged and placed in custody or let out on bail, does he still have presidential authority? If not, who does? This would not be a problem under the Westminster system – the Deputy PM would step up, as s/he does when the PM is overseas. And if the matter were serious enough, that deputy, or another senior cabinet minister, would take over the PM’s role permanently. And there would be no hesitancy, under that system, to arrest and detain. Why should there be? The law should treat all offenders in precisely the same way.

In the US there seems to be a lot of confusion on these matters. Many consider the President ‘too important’ to be charged with a crime while in office. This is truly ridiculous. If you have allowed one person to be so important within your political system as to be above the law, for even a second, then your political system sucks, to put it mildly. 

Another bizarre anomaly of the US system is this ‘hanging back’ by the federal authorities, in terms of subpoenas and indictments, during pre-election periods. This, it seems to me, is an interference, by a kind of stealth, of the judiciary by the political sphere. Where did this ridiculous idea come from? It seems abundantly clear to me that when investigating potential felonies of any kind, the political background should play no part whatsoever. Once investigators have ‘all their ducks in a row’, as Americans like to say, that’s when prosecutions should begin. I’ve no idea right now what will happen to Trump after these elections, but he has already been clearly implicated in campaign finance violations via his criminal fixer, so prosecutions should have occurred already. To not institute criminal proceedings when everything is set to do so, because of some election or other – that constitutes political interference. Am I missing something here?  

Assuming that Trump is indicted after these elections (though what I’ve heard is that the Mueller will only issue a report to congress, even if it includes indictable offences, which makes my head spin with its unutterable stupidity and dereliction of duty), is it likely that Trump will give himself up to authorities? Trump is a career criminal who has never spent any time in jail, though his tax crimes and various scams should have seen him incarcerated for much of his adult life. It’s hard to know what he’ll do when cornered, but I can’t imagine him giving himself up to authorities. The real crisis is about to hit the fan, so to speak. It will get very very bumpy over the next few months, no matter what the election result. 

The other major question is – what will Americans learn from the Trump disaster? Will they reform their political system? With their jingoistic pride, I don’t hold out too much hope. My guess is that there will be some reform around the edges – the emoluments clause might be ‘promoted’ to something more than a mere clause, for example – but their beloved but outdated Constitution will remain largely untouched, and they’ll still keep their POTUS in splendid isolation, a law unto himself and a potential threat to their nation and the outside world. But then, as some dipshit has often said, we’ll have to wait and see. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2018 at 8:52 pm

bird smarts and theory of mind

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human brain compared to that of a zebra finch, I think

I like birds a lot – how could you not? I particularly like their brains, which considering their ‘beautiful plumage’, their grace in flight, their songs, their treatment of mates and offspring and their dinosaur history, is quite a big call. Not that I’ve ever seen or examined a bird’s brain, but I’ve seen and heard of  some gobsmacking behaviour from some species, so I thought I might check out what’s known about their grey-white matter.

As with so many research fields, there’s been a surge in research into bird brains, and I’ve not heard the term bird-brain used as an insult in recent times. Still, when we think of bird intelligence, we tend to anthropomorphise, to compare them with us – do they play, do they use language or tools, do they recognise us individually, can they solve the same sorts of problems we can? That’s understandable enough, but in studying bird brains we should be just as thoughtful about the differences as the similarities.

The birds that have stood out for us so far are corvids – ravens, crows, jays and magpies, though many parrots such as the sadly endangered kea of New Zealand have also caught researchers’ attention. So how do these small-brained creatures manage to do the things that so impress us? Well for a start it may be more a matter of numbers than actual size (and it should be noted that birds have the largest brain to body ratio of any creature). Some research published in July 2016, which received a lot of media attention, found that bird brains pack neurons more densely than other animals. It was previously thought that neuron density didn’t vary much between species, but it’s now becoming clear this isn’t so, and actual brain size isn’t such a reliable guide to intelligence. But bird brains are really small compared to those of primates, so there must surely be other differences besides density.

But the 2016 research, which featured a revolutionary method for sampling brain tissue and making neuron counts, found that, in fact, a parrot brain contained as many neurons as some mid-sized primates. However, it’s also true that a bird’s brain is structurally different. Unsurprisingly, in the past, bird brains were thought of as primitive, and were classified as such, probably because they’re far removed from us on the evolutionary bush. Anthropomorphism again – understandably we used to feel that the only really intelligent creatures apart from us were those most closely related to us, but in recent decades we’ve learned that cetaceans, octopuses, elephants and birds, none of which are close to us  evolutionarily, are highly intelligent creatures. And they’re not all mammals, and in the case of the octopus, not even vertebrates. This is quite exciting for our understanding of intelligent life forms – they can have a multitude of ‘brain plans’.

The first important bird brain anatomist was the 19th century German naturalist Ludwig Edinger, whose work was so influential that it provided the orthodox view until a few decades ago. Noting the very different structure of the bird brain, Edinger understandably assumed they couldn’t be as smart as mammals, and being one of the first to name brain structures in birds, he assigned names such as paleostriatum, suggesting a very basic region involving instinctual and motor activity. Basically, he assumed birds lacked a neocortex altogether. However, we now know that the bird brain evolved from the pallium rather than the striatum, and in 2005 it was agreed that an overhaul of bird brain nomenclature was required. All part of our more informed and respectful approach to these wondrous creatures.

National Geographic, in combination with other interested organisations, has declared 2018 the Year of the Bird, and has some fascinating pieces on bird behaviour on its website. That’s where I learned that, according to one researcher, birds’ brains are more distributed ‘like a pizza’, whereas the mammalian brain is more layered. However, the wiring that underlies long-term memory in birds (and they clearly have impressive long-term memory) and decision-making is similar to that in mammals. 

Here are just a few of the extraordinary behaviours discovered. Green-rumped parrotlets of South America use calls as names for their chicks. Male palm cockatoos of New Guinea court females not only with calls but by drumming on hollow trees with twigs and seedpods – arguably a form of music. Goffin’s cockatoos, from Indonesia, make and use tools in captivity even though they’ve never been seen to do so in the wild. They’re also expert at opening locks. The National Geographic video ‘Beak and Brain: genius birds down under’ compares the kea of New Zealand’s South Island to the New Caledonian crow as problems solvers tasked with overcoming a variety of obstacles to obtain their favourite treats. It makes for riveting viewing. Other videos online show crows creating hooks on sticks and using them to pull food out of holes. 

Another video, involving experiments with jackdaws by Princess Auguste of Bavaria (really), a behavioural scientist, shows that these birds are much influenced by the gaze of humans, and can be directed to act simply by the gaze of a human they have bonded with. They also appear to know when they’re not being watched, and can act more boldly in such circumstances. All of this raises obvious questions, voiced by Auguste in the video. How do jackdaws think? How is it similar to the way we think? Do they recognise intentions? Do they have a theory of mind?

This theory of mind issue comes up with a lot of birds, and other animals. It refers to whether and to what extent a creature has the ability to attribute any or all of the variety of possible mental states to itself and/or others. The question of an avian theory of mind was explored in a study entitled ‘ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors’. In describing their experiment, the authors highlight what they see – or what skeptics see – as a problem with much experimental work that tests for theory of mind in other species. This is the question – as I understand it – of whether the bird or animal actually ‘sees’ or reads what conspecifics are thinking, or is simply following particular observable cues. It was a complex experiment involving caching (hiding a store of food for later consumption, a common raven behaviour), peepholes that were either open or closed, and inference (by the researchers) from observed behaviour to either ‘minimal’ or ‘full-blown’ Theory of Mind. As a dilettante I found much of the discussion and analysis beyond me, but I found these remarks interesting:

In conclusion, the current experiment, together with the other recent studies on chimpanzees11,12, provides strong evidence against the skeptical hypothesis that the social cognition of nonhuman animals is limited to behaviour-reading. Peephole designs can allow researchers to overcome the confound of gaze cues, but further experimental work is needed to determine the specific limits of ravens and other animals—including humans—on such tasks.

In my general reading on these matters I’ve definitely found something like a rift between the skeptics on the behaviour of higher primates, dolphins and other ‘smart’ creatures, and those who have pushed, sometimes naively, other-life smarts with regard to ‘language’, memory and emotional intelligence. What I think needs to be kept clearly in mind is that in examining intelligence, or brain power or whatever, human intelligence may be only one of a possible infinity of gold standards. Is Theory of Mind itself an anthropomorphic concept, or one that lends itself too easily to anthropomorphic thinking? 

Meanwhile, experimentation and investigation of the neurological underpinnings of bird behaviour will continue, and I’ll be watching for the results. Just about to embark on Jim Robbins’ book The wonder of birds, and I hope to learn more especially about bird neurology in the future, and how it relates to birdsong. That’s a whole other issue.

Written by stewart henderson

November 2, 2018 at 9:40 am