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Monday, September 4, 2017

Getting into orbit

Disclaimer:  I  ain't no rocked scientist.

But it seems foolish the way were are getting into orbit.  I understand why Elon Musk is going this rout.  He wants technology that is capable of landing on Mars using it's rockets. Returning rockets to earth this way is a good test ground for eventually landing on mars.  But for others, who are sending payloads into orbit, it seems pretty costly and inefficient.

Very likely I am wrong.  My calculus is rudimentary and I base the following on simple (high school) physics a touch of Skunk Works philosophy*

*The Skunk works  buys everything it can off the shelf and only innovate those parts of a system needed for the particular function it wants to achieve.  They are consistently within budget and deadlines.

Why Calculus?  If you want to calculate how far you have gone in a car traveling at a constant velocity you just multiply velocity times time.  For instance, traveling at 50km per hour for two hours, you travel 100km.  Sending a rocket into space gets a tad more complicated.

You have a slightly decreasing gravity as you go into near earth orbit, a rapidly decreasing fuel and oxidizer load as you burn off fuel, a decreasing air resistance as you get higher  but an increasing air resistance as your speed increases.  Calculus allows you to combine  these and other constantly varying factors to ultimately work out, for instance, how much fuel you need to get a given payload into orbit.

While we are talking about complications, there are certain restrictions you have to observe.  You can't accelerate too fast or you may damage your payload (people and instruments).  You also must not achieve too great a speed too soon.  If you do, you will burn up the outer skin of the rocket.  The Black bird, for instance, cruising at an altitude of  85,000ft (16 miles)  at Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound) has it's outer skin heat up to about 300degrees C.  The only reason it survives is that it's skin is made of Titanium rather than an alloy of Aluminum.

This introduces another problem into the mix.  Sometimes it is useful to go to the extreme limit of a problem to get an instinctive feel for it.  For a rocket to get into space it needs it's energy to overcome a number of factors.  It must provide enough thrust to equal the weight of the rocket.  More is needed to accelerate the rocket.  For every kg of rocket weight it lifts by a meter, a kgm of energy is needed (9.8 joules).  More still is needed to overcome air friction.

Lets go to the extreme case and take a rocket that provides just enough thrust to hold it in position.    It is not gaining altitude.  It is expending energy to no useful purpose and the amount of energy equals the rate of energy being expended multiplied by the time it remains stationary.  From this you can see that the faster it accelerates, the less total energy it will need just to support it's weight.  The less energy that is wasted just supporting it's weight, the more energy goes into acceleration.  However the above restraints limit how fast it can accelerate.  All this means it needs more fuel.  Remember this analogy.  It will become important a little further along.

Most rocket ships use an oxidizer, often oxygen itself and a fuel which is often Hydrogen.  Already we are courting disaster.  You either have to hold these gases at very high pressure to have enough on board to do the job or at very cold temperatures so that they liquefy.  In both cases you need very special tanks that weigh a lot compared to the sort of tank that you have in your car for gasoline or diesel fuel.  The high pressures or extremely cold temperatures also cause problems.  If we could get rid of this sort of fuel and oxidizer we would be far better off.

So what is the solution.  Take the first stage of your rocket and strap on four, off the shelf, 747 turbo-fan engines.  The PW4000 develops just under 45metric tons of force.  So four of these = just under 180 tons.  Lets call it 150 tons to be conservative. Perhaps better still, use blackbird engines which can work at very high altitudes. You are now using the air as an oxidizer just as all jet planes do and your fuel is the relatively benign jet fuel (very similar to kerosene or diesel fuel).  look at the range of these aircraft.  Just on the fuel in their wing tanks, a 747 can fly a third of the way around the globe at around 30,000ft.  Pretty impressive, no?

On second thought, there might be a third type of engine that I am not familiar with that would be better than either of these two.  The regular 747 engine is designed to work best at around 30,000ft and the Black bird engine to work at super sonic speeds.  What we need is an engine that will work at subsonic speeds at very high altitudes.

Whatever engine you decide on, suppose that you don't have enough thrust now to send your rocket straight up.  Lets strap on a pair of wings and take off from a runway.  The shallower the angle of take off, the greater the load for a given amount of thrust.

Why the wings.  Not only do they allow you to lift payloads far greater than the thrust of the engines but also with far less fuel.  Once again an example is useful to get a feel for the problem.  Picture a 747 at cruising altitude neither gaining or loosing altitude.  The thrust it needs and hence the rate of fuel use is far less that if it turned its nose upward and just hung there on its engines.  With or without wings, you still have to lift x kgs up to y meters but the wings, to a large extent support the weight of the payload without needing this huge extra thrust just to support the weight.

So where have we got to so far.

Basically we have a stripped down 747, possibly with a modified wing for lift at high altitude and suitable high altitude engines.  So how much weight have we eliminated.  A 747 can carry 660 passengers in a one class configuration and very conservatively, each passenger weights 100kg.  That is 75kg per person plus 25kg of baggage.  As I said, this is very conservative.  The load carried is therefore 66000kg or 66 tons and we haven't even considered the freight they carry independent of their passengers and all the fittings inside the fuselage needed to accommodate their passengers.  I don't know how much this would amount to all told but it is considerable.  Probably around 100 tons for passengers, freight and all the fittings the passengers require.

So how do we carry the second stage (the first rocket stage) up to high altitude to be launched.  We have three choices.  We can sling the rocket under the plane, carry it on top the way they did with the shuttle when transporting it back to be refitted after it landed or we can carry it inside the fuselage.  The two outside options probably require some reinforcing for the contact points.  The inside option necessitates a bomb bay or an opening ceiling such as the Shuttle had.  As odd as it seems, carrying the rocket on top might be the easiest option.

So how do we launch.  The mother ship flies toward the equator where the maximum earth rotation boost will be obtained (about 1000mph) gaining altitude as it goes.  When at maximum altitude it turns to face East so that it is traveling in the direction of the earth's rotation.  It puts on full power and does a vomit comet maneuver.  That is to say it pulls up into a parabolic curve at zero gravity or even a slight negative gravity.  At or before the peak, the second stage (first rocket stage) detaches and fires it's rockets.  The mother ship veers out of the way of it's rocket blast.

At this altitude we have lifted the weight of the second stage up, say 100,000ft, gone through by far the greatest part of the atmosphere and given the second stage a speed of, say 1500 mile per hour.  We might be able to get away with some of those off the shelf solid state rockets and further eliminate the problematic hydrogen and oxygen.  Initially, a couple of small canard nose wings might be sufficient to maintain direction.  In the vacuum of space those little nose rockets would maintain direction.  We need to achieve about 18,000 mph.  The solid state rocket shells might then be cut loose or alternatively, they could be configured on the ground to be a useful component for the construction of a space station.

The converted 747 flies (mostly glides) back to base.  It can have another rocket attached be refueled and be back at the launch point  in a few hours.  We could probably launch 4 or 5 rockets each day this way from a single mother ship.

Electric VW combi, bulli, mini-van

VW is finally going to give us the electric combi.  Fantastic, but they must keep the faith.

The original combi was iconic for a number of reasons.

* It was simple compared to other vans.
* It was easy to work on - easily repaired
* It was affordable
* It didn't change its styling from year to year.

It should be not only possible but really easy to produce an electric combi that excels in all of these.  Styling is simple.  Simply don't change it.  This is a vital factor in making a car become iconic.  It also allows better pricing.

Electrics by their nature are far simpler that petrol cars.  Make very very sure that everything that might have to be done on the car is very simple to do.  The engine should be removable by undoing 6 nuts and sliding in a new or reconditioned one.  Batteries should be exceedingly simple to replace (for instance when new technology results in an even better battery.  CV joints should be doable by a modestly competent home mechanic and so forth.

And don't put in everything that bumps and squeaks.  We are not looking for luxury in the combi.  Just a good ride in an affordable vehicle which has great range and is inexpensive to maintain.

If your engineers simply can't resist a challenge than get them to work on to a way to clad the whole roof with solar cells such that they all give their full power despite not being co-linear or when parked under the dappled shade of a tree.

No one expects to be able to drive only on solar.  That is unrealistic but what a nice bonus and a way to get you out of trouble if you have ignored the charge of your battery.  It happens.

Keep the faith and you will sweep the market.   Such a car is not for everyone but many of us want to have a smaller footprint.  Many of us want a car that we are proud to drive.

And for #@%^& sake, don't make it self driving.  We like to drive.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Restoring our soils

This is a book review of David R. Montgomery's book, Growing a Revolution; Bringing our soils back.  I highly recommend the original.  Besides being a real eye opener, it's a good read.

Items in italics are my responsibility.  Not to blame Prof Mongomery if there are any mistrakes.

If you prefer, here is the author talking about the book on Youtube

Prof. Montgomery has traveled the world and documented the work of farmers far and wide who are using these techniques with amazing results.  Even more amazing is that when there is one of these farms right beside another which uses "conventional methods" and the difference in production is blindingly obvious  even at a casual glance, these so called conventional farmers who are using large inputs of agricultural chemicals, very often  stick with their methods.  Prof Montomery suggests why this is.

In his book you won't find reports of great research done by the agricultural departments of universities.  No university can afford to do the research that has led to these methods.  As the world becomes more and more of a corporatocracy, and multinationals find ever more inventive ways to avoid taxes, government funds have dried up and the only source of funding remaining is from these same tax avoiding companies.

No company is going to fund research that leads to less  of their products being used.  In fact, if a universities agricultural department is being funded by, for example, a producer of Phosphate, they will think twice before even having an independently funded research project on site that will show that you can reduce or dispense (for a time) with more additions of phosphate.

This type of farming mentioned in the book, leads to  a greatly reduced use of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and fuel. Note I said reduced, not eliminated.

What is reported in Growing a Revolution is the work of many farmers around the world, usually with no connection with each other.  These farmers would qualify, by any definition, as true scientists, trying things and recording their results and trying again.  There are variations on a theme but all have converged on the same basic realizations.  It has taken many of these farmers decades to come to these methodologies.  Mr Mongomery's book is an attempt to smooth the way for other farmers so they don't have to go through the same lengthly process.

What then does Mr Montgomery claim that this sort of farming achieves.  Actually, I should rephrase that.  What has he observed that farmers around the world are achieving with these methods.  And notice the emphasis on methods in the plural.  While each method shows some positive results, these methods only really revolutionize a farm when used together.

Results of this 'new'  type of farming

#  Reduced  inputs including diesel, chemical fertilizers pesticides and herbicides resulting in greater profits even if yields only match "conventional*" farming.  In fact, yields more often than not, rapidly (in a few years), exceed those of chemical farming.  Profit equals production minus inputs.

* We now think of farming with chemical inputs as conventional since we are used to seeing this type of farming but it is actually a very new way of farming. When we get on to methods, you will see that many of the methods are very old school but modified by recent insights into the biology of soils. So called conventional farming necessitates large amounts of fossil fuel (in addition to the fuel to run the tractor).  Reducing these inputs has to be a good thing from a number of points of view.

#  Increased infiltration of water into the soil and the  corollary, reduced or eliminated  surface run off, thus stopping the export of our soils into the ocean. The other corollary of more infiltration, especially with reduced evaporation is less dependence on irrigation and in the case of dry land farming (without irrigation) the difference between a crop and no crop.

#Greatly reduced export off of  soil into the streams if there is a "weather bomb" and runoff does occur.

# Elimination of wind erosion

#  Greater drought resistance since rain has infiltrated and soils are always protected by a cover crop and/or mulch, which decreases evaporation.

#  Greater flood resistance for the whole catchment since the soils can take up much more water without sending it straight down into the nearest water way.  If a whole catchment of farmers adopted these methods, flood peaks down stream would greatly decrease and with it, a decrease in damage to downstream property since once the water is underground, it flows much more slowly toward the sea. Not only are peak  flows  reduced but low water flows are increased as this water slowly percolates back into the river systems.

#  Holding nutrients in the soil in a form which is accessible to the next crop rather than exporting them to the nearest stream via the ground water. Streams flow clear again and if adopted widely, dead zones at the mouth of rivers would be a thing of the past. As a result, aquatic life in the streams recovers and salmon and trout prosper.

#  Greatly decreased or eliminated weed problems despite no-till agriculture.

#  It is believed here in New Zealand that on well drained soils, when a cow urinates, it goes right through the soil into the water table and hence into nearby streams. Organic material is a sponge which will soak up liquid, whether water or urine.  If the organic material increases, not only at the surface but also at deeper and deeper levels of the soil, so much the better.  The following methods increase organic material throughout the soil, shallow and deep.

So what are the methods David has observed creating this revolution.


You may have noticed that I have called this a new way of farming.  Often it is not new methods but the adaptation of methods which were used before the advent of chemical inputs but  with a modern twist in light of modern knowledge. These farmers use chemical fertilizer where necessary.  This is not a religion but a pragmatic approach to farming.

Crop rotation
Sound familiar??  .  No surprises here except he has observed farmers who are using a better way of crop rotation.  If you only plant wheat, this is the worst case scenario.  If you rotate wheat and, a legume in alternate years, this is better.  If you adopt a three way rotation of, say wheat, corn, soy beans, better still but the best system is to rotate as many different crops as is practical and in random time patterns.  This type of rotation confound the pests.  For instance use wheat barley and oats as your grain crops interspersed with soya, corn and peas.

Many pests are crop specific.  Planting the same crop in the ground year after year allows them to build up in the soil.  Even alternating crops in a two crop system will cause the pests to adapt to this simple system.  You develop a nematode, for instance, that can hold out for a year until the favored crop is returned to the field. A more random schedule of rotation and longer times between the same crop is very hard on crop pests. 

Cover crops
As soon as the summer crop is harvested, a cover crop is sown.  In locations where there are harsh winters, this crop will be killed by the frost.  In warmer climes, it is rolled into the soil before it sets seeds*.  The frost killed cover crop is rolled into the ground in the spring in the same pass in which the cash crop is planted into this bed of mulch. The best candidate for a cover crop is a mix of 8 or more different species including:

   * The most effective roller he has seen has projecting steel flat bar in a chevron or diamond pattern.  It chops up and pushes the cover crop into the ground.  It all can be done with one pass of the tractor as the cover crop is rolled into the ground and the next cash crop sowed right into the mulch layer created. The cash crop comes up and shades the soil and any weeds that remain. As the years go by, weeds become less and less of a problem.
Plants in the cover crop include:

# a deep rooter to scavenge nutrients from down deep and to provide a root system that as it decomposes, leaves passage ways for water and air to reach deeper levels.  This decomposing organic material will also hold water better than pure mineral soil, making it available to future crops.  If cows are grazed on the fields, there may be a problem with their large urine output.  If it goes down into the soil into the ground water it can flow to the nearest stream.  With lots of organic matter, both shallow and deep, the decomposers are much more able to grab on to this source of Nitrogen*.

* We had a major kerfuffle here in New Zealand about indoor farms.  As usual the greenies went off half cocked and dismissed them out of hand.  I don't say that indoor farms are always good for animals.  Some can be really horrific.  The devil is in the detail.  One advantage of wholly or partial indoor farms is that you have complete control of the waste products that can then be applied to the soil when and in what quantities are most effective and hence less wasteful.

# a shallow rooter to provide a root network holding the surface soil together and a source of organic carbon and nutrients as it slowly decomposes.

# a nitrogen fixer to add nitrogen to the soil

# a nitrogen user (as virtually all plants are).  They scavenge the left over nitrogen to be released gradually next season as they decompose.

# a tuber (radish for instance) which as it decomposes leaves large tunnels in the soil for water to percolate down into the soil.  The decomposing radishes feed the soil life and adds structure to the soil.  Many tubers have very deep roots as well.

A common function of all these cover crops  is that exude high energy materials from their roots into the soil.  These feed the saprophytes.  Saprophytes not only give structure to the soil but  are able to mobilize nutrients that are not available to plant roots and convert them into a form that the plants can use (notably P).  The exudates also feed the microbiome which are in turn consumed by earth worms.  The worms themselves are a link in mineralizing* nutrients into a form that can be used by plants.  In addition, they make burrows which also increases water infiltration and allow oxygen** to reach the roots of the plants.

Green plants don't use organic matter.  It must be broken down into a soluble, mineralized form that dissolves in the soil water.  Plant scientists call this process mineralization.

** Very few plants transfer oxygen from their leaves to their roots.  Most need air around their roots to survive.  Worms also provide this service.  Incidentally, if you dig in soil that has been regularly plowed for years, you will be hard pressed to find any earth worms.

No Till
David observes that the plow back into antiquity has probably been the main cause of the destruction of soils, very visible in areas where the Greeks and the Romans held sway.  More recently it destroyed the soils of the great plains in America.  We mustn't be too hard on the plow, though.  It may be part of the reason that we haven't already headed into a new glacial period due to the huge amount of carbon that was released from the soil into the air*.  Now we have found another way of keeping atmospheric carbon up and can afford to adopt methods that return the carbon to the soil.  We are in danger of going too far the other way and putting far too much carbon into the air for our own good.
*See the fantastic book by William F. Ruddiman, Plows, Plagues and Petroleum

No plowing is done.  At most a very shallow groove is made in the soil to plant the seeds and if fertilization is done, it is placed in small doses near the seeds, not broad casted over the whole field.  Farmers who are adopting these methods are finding that much less or sometimes, no chemical nutrients are needed.

Phosphorous, for instance, in their fields is mobilized from the locked up P in the soil by saprophytes and Nitrogen is scavenged by the cover crops and held in a slow release form for the next cash crop. It is also supplied by the nitrogen fixer in the cover crop.

 This doesn't mean that no chemical fertilizers are ever used but they are used as needed.  If, for instance, your soil was found to be deficient in, say, cobalt, clearly you would apply a  cobalt fertilizer to provide for your plants and/or animals.  This is not organic farming or so called 'conventional' farming.  It is conservation farming.  It is not a religion but a true science in which you do what works.

Clearly, if you are continually removing crops from your land, you will need at some point an input of the removed elements.  There is nothing wrong with using chemical fertilizers but you don't want your phosphorous to be continually locked up by the soil in a form that the plants can not get at.  You also don't want your nutrients to seep down below the root zone and be washed into the nearby stream.   Nitrogen can be provided from the air by a nitrogen fixer.  Your input of chemical fertilizer is hugely reduced and is applied only as it is needed.

Often, in soils where super phosphate has been used over the years, the soil has a huge reserve of Phosphate but it is all locked up.

The above are the three main methods, namely no till, cover crops and random crop rotation.  In addition there are two more where appropriate.

Again not a new system but an old system with a new twist. It is used by some of these farmers. Both stubble and cover crops can be grazed and turned into manure and urine which is very good for the soil.  If grazing is used, no roller is needed.  Some of the material is trampled into the surface of the soil which also provides food to feed the microbiome.  The system, though, that seems most successful is to graze very hard, very infrequently.  Cows, for instance are put on a paddock at a density that finishes all the fodder in in one day and then not grazed again for a year.  This system may have been inspired by a TED talk by Allan Savory on his work in Africa.  This TED talk is a revelation in itself.

No farm can afford to break the farm into 365 small paddocks with fences but mobile electric fences work very well to allow cattle access to a limited area and exclude them from both the as-yet-to-be-grazed area or the already-grazed area.  One uses a front and a back electric fence.

Terra Preta 
In warm areas with soil above about 25 degrees C, humus which holds nutrients and gives structure to the soil, breaks down and goes into the atmosphere unless taken up rapidly by, say, an overlying jungle.  When a tropical jungle is cleared, at most a couple of crops can be grown before the soil is exhausted and the farmer than resorts to chemicals which  finish the damage.

It has been observed, though, that there are exceptionally good soils in some tropical areas, often along major rivers.  These are areas where the locals have incorporated char into the soil from partially burnt bones and plant material.  Char has a three functions.  It has no nutritive value to the plants what so ever but it does provide nitches  where the microbiome can live*.

* The organisms in the micro-fauna of a soil often live in colonies attached to a substrate.  They are not free living like, for instance, phytoplankton in the oceans.  Charcoal provides ideal surfaces and hidy-holes for such organisms and lasts for centuries in the soil.
If you raise chickens you may be familiar with something similar.  If you have a lot of chickens in a yard, before long they will have eaten every bit of green that they find at all palatable.  So you set up a bunch of cages and plant their favorite green inside.  They can only get to the outside leaves so as the plant grows, the chickens crop off the outside but the plant itself is protected and continues to provide greens for the chickens.  Charcoal is very porous and in the soil serves a similar function.

Charcoal, though, has another function.  It can adsorb nutrients on its surface when they are available and release them when in low concentrations in the soil.  Char with respect to nutrients is a little like the haemoglobin in our blood with respect to Oxygen.  In both cases the substance in question is taken up easily when available and released when not.

Char is probably not a practical option in commercial farming until  and unless we start producing it in large quantities at a feasible price.  One good thing, though about char is that it lasts for a very very long time in the soil.  In a home garden, it is very practical.  All you need to produce char is a 45gal drum.


Carbon credits

If the government is playing fair with farmers, the farmer should be able to receive a nice carbon credit for switching to this type of farming.  What is first needed is a survey of your farm to determine what is the carbon content of your soil before you change your methods.  You can do this yourself at home if you have a reasonably sensitive balance.  If I remember my chemistry, the procedure is as follows.

You take a sample of soil, preferably with a corer or a post hole digger that goes down to mineral soil.  You note the depth to which you took the sample.

Thoroughly mix the soil and take an appropriate size sample.

You treat the soil with an acid such as HCl or H2SO4 (battery acid).  This converts carbonates to Chlorides or Sulphates.  Otherwise, when you heat the soil later, the carbonates convert to oxides and it looks as if you have more organic matter than is actually in the soil.

You dry your sub sample to constant weight at just over 100 degrees C.  ie, you dry it, weigh it, and dry it again.  If the weight remains the same, you go to the next step.  If not, dry again until two subsequent weights are the same.

Put your sample in a porcelain type container that has been dried to constant weight and heat it in the oven to about 500 degrees C.  You can start in a closed container but finish with the container open.  You can get appropriate containers from any chemical supply shop.

Burn to constant weight.  The difference between the start and the finish is the amount of dry organic matter in your soil. Very close to half of this is carbon You can then calculate the amount of carbon in the upper level of soil down to the depth you cored.  You can also work out the percentage in your soil.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Self driving cars

Are we really sure that we want self driving cars.  In fact, are we sure we want a car that is even connected to the Internet.  There are some pretty strong arguments against both self driving cars and against cars which are connected to the Internet (done so that software updates can automatically be fed into the car computer).

Just recently there have been some pretty serious hacks.  The NHS (National Heath service of the UK) was taken down and here in New Zealand we just had a program on our National Radio about the hacking of electrical power line companies.  You would have thought that if there were systems with the very best of protection, it would be these.  Perhaps they did have excellent protection but were hacked anyway.

Imagine the chaos if we had even 10% of our cars connected to the Internet when someone managed to hack the system.

Then there is the secret services of the United States and the so called 5 Eyes.  In America it is illegal for these institutions to spy on American citizens but they do it anyway.  The  hover up every phone call and e-mail from America and from the rest of the world.  Even having a car which is connected to the internet, never mind self driving, gives these institutions yet another window into the private life of all of us.  And don't give me the argument that if you are not doing anything wrong you have nothing to fear.  That argument is so discredited that it doesn't even justify wasting a paragraph explaining the  fallacy.

Suppose, for the sake of the argument I want a new software program for the electric car I am driving and my car is not on the internet.  No problem.  I will go to my home computer, download the upgrade on to a flash drive, take it to my car and plug it in to the flash drive socket provided.  Besides, I may want to wait a year to let the early adapters test it out before installing it.  The computer world if rife with new computer programs being full of glitches.

Suppose I need navigation.  I will simply take my cell phone and put it on the Velcro patch on the dash board.
As for self driving, let me ink out a scenario for you.
You have a daughter - the apple of your eye.  You insisted that she learn to drive on a gear shift car since you are a little old fashion and value the old skills.  However since she got her license, she has never driven.  You gave her a self driving car for her birthday and she loves it. (no wonder) Today she is off to a show in the next town with her boyfriend.  ETA 30 minutes.  What do you think she is doing for that half hour.  

She is snogging in the back seat with her boyfriend going at highway speed  when some sort of computer glitch or hack demands that she take the wheel and manage the brakes and accelerator.  It would be chaotic enough if she was sitting in the drivers seat with her hands off the wheel.  You fill in the rest.

Add to this the ability the secret services will have to send a car into oncoming traffic, over a cliff or into a tree.  You think I am exaggerating.  Look at the drone programs exposed by Manning.  They took shots at a suspected terrorist while he was surrounded by civilians.  Secret services are amoral and we don't need to give them more tools to do what they want.  What's that you say?  They don't operate on their home soil.  Give me a break!!!

And one further point.  With self driving cars and trucks, we put yet another tranche of workers out of work.  These are folks that will never be engineers, scientists or lawyers and we need work for them as well.  Economists seem to always ignore one basic fact of the economy.  The most important factor is the rate that wealth circulates through the economy, not the amount of dollars available.  Work through the implications (already demonstrated) of putting more people out of work.

It simply leads to wealth being more and more  concentrated in the hands of the very few uber rich and less circulating in the economy.  We are rapidly getting to the point that less and less people will be able to buy the products produced in the factories.  One good effect of this is that it cuts into inflation.  That may help to explain our present situation (2017). 

I have a strong feeling that an electric car manufacturer who advertises that his cars are not self driving and have no connection to the Internet would have a strong selling point.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The folly of GM crops

I'm not going to go into various esoteric subjects such as the chance of human created genes jumping to other unrelated species or the chance of wiping out whole species which we consider pests but who's function in their ecology we don't fully understand (possible with CRISPR).  This blog looks at the folly of past agricultural advances and the harm they have caused and hence the folly of increasing food production even more.

Despite the propaganda of the large companies promoting GM crops, their aim is not to relieve human suffering and provide food for the starving masses. (surprise surprise)  It turns out that we already are producing enough food to feed everyone in the world quite adequately.  Their aim is to accumulate more of the wealth of the world to themselves and is just one more manifestation of the growing wealth inequality that we see everywhere.

 As they accumulate more of the world's wealth, the very people they say they are working for become poorer and less able to afford to feed themselves. So what are the down sides of producing more food.

Malthus, the much maligned, stated that populations increases exponentially; ie 1,2,4,8,16 ......, while food production increases arithmetically; ie 1,2,3,4,5 ...... In reality, populations such as humans which lack predators are limited by starvation. A possibly more useful way of stating the principle, with apologies to Parkinson is that Population expands to use up any advance in food production*.

Richard Dawkins on P391 of his excellent book The Greatest Show on Earth stated it succinctly and I quote.  "If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."  One would hope that humans who, at least individually, show a modicum of foresight might learn to show collective foresight.

Malthus didn't count on various technical advances we would make in food production ever since we left the hunter gatherer life style but was completely correct. Each increase in food production has been used up by population increase. The recent, much vaunted green revolution which started around the 1960's was the latest of such jumps in food production and gave India and some other countries, a few decades without starvation. A recent estimate is that there are now 700m more people on earth due to this latest green revolution.Link
So with a few delays, Malthus has proven to be completely correct.

What he didn't know is how our knowledge of contraception would advance. It has often been observed that when populations reach a fairly high level of economic well being, birth rate falls. Everyone is mystified by this and explains that women are delaying having babies as they pursue a career; people are not having any children so that they can enjoy the fruits of their labor and so forth. 

No argument there but how do you think they are avoiding having children. Abstinence??? I don't think so!! Abstinence went out of fashion more than half a century ago. One of the reasons for not having children (not often stated) is so you can enjoy non-abstinence uninterrupted. The simple fact of the matter is that with a certain level of economic development, contraception becomes affordable. 

The proof of this is a number of countries which have made contraception affordable before they achieved a western level of development. They did it by subsidizing contraception and lo and behold their birth rate fell. Of course, with birth rate under control, per capita economic development is much more likely. There are less mouths to eat up  advances in productivity.

While we are at it, lets look at the most recent  green revolutions that began in the 60's. The Yield of a number of grain crops was greatly increased. Some reports say production was tripled. This production was achieved by careful selective breeding but the new varieties only fulfilled their potential with irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides and  insecticides. Despite being free of starvation for a number of decades. the change was not an unmitigated success. Part of the dark side has been:

   a) mining of the water table to provide water for the new, highly productive varieties, lowering it disastrously, notably in China and India,
   b) accessing deeper layers of water which are contaminated with arsenic, notably in Bangladesh and parts of India,
   c) Pesticide pollution of aquifers, which along with arsenic contamination has led to a greatly increased incidence of cancer, especially in Bangladesh and parts of India
   d) salination of soils, rendering them unfit for agriculture.
   e) more land in production pushing nature and her free provision of food, fuel, fiber, medicine waste disposal and clean water further into a corner*.

*(you would have thought that land would have been taken out of production due to higher yields.- go figure)

   f) production of greatly increased grain yield but with less vitamins and minerals per kg of grain than in traditional varieties resulting in nutrient malnutrition,
   g) huge loss of a genetic diversity as locals switched to the new varieties, abandoning their traditional varieties.
   h) the loss of small farms to large land owners as the peasants borrowed to buy fertilizer etc., got into debt and defaulted on their loans.
   i) an increase in population of about 700,000,000 mouths that are only with us because of this most recent green revolution.

We really have got to the point of diminishing returns. Every advance in agriculture production makes us poorer and poorer. It makes us poorer by:

*decreasing the availability of food, fuel, fiber, clean water and clean air that we obtain gratis from nature as more land is put into agriculture for profit.
*decreasing the ability of nature to process our wastes safely
*decreasing the variety of foods available to us as areas which once grew fruit and vegetables are given over to the more profitable growing of grain crops for cash.
*reducing the space we have to live in as we are crowded by more and more people.
* facilitating diseases of crowding that we would otherwise not have had and increasing the possibility that a pandemic will be much more severe.
* pushing us closer to a disastrous collapse in our Gia support system as we test the theory of sudden climate change with gay abandon.

There is talk now of the need for a second (actually more like the 100th) green revolution, this one based on splicing new genes into varieties of grain. This will probably work and will further increase production. As has happened since agriculture began, population will increase until the new advances in production are used up. In the mean time all those extra people will further degrade the natural environment that we depend on for our existence.

If you want to see the other likely consequences, go back and read what resulted from the 60's green revolution.

Note: It has been reported that a number of genetically changed plants caused organ failure when fed to rats.

Extra agricultural production only pushes us closer to the brink. The last thing you want when you are standing at the edge of a cliff is a great leap forward.

As was mentioned above, since the 60's it has been noted that when a country achieves a certain level of prosperity, birth rate falls. This is a modern phenomenon. It didn't happen anywhere in Europe before the last century. Britain's birth rate remained high all through the industrial revolution with well off Brits having as many children as their poorer cousins. Think back to your grandfather and great grandfather's family. How many children did each of your ancestors have as far back as you can trace. The difference, as previously mentioned,  in the 'modern era' is contraception.

Contraception has been available at least from Roman times, but it only became truly effective when it was modernized and put into the hands of women. Both the pill and the effective IUD (as opposed to previous less than adequate models) only became practical from about 1960 onward and they have had a huge effect in countries where they are affordable either because the economic level of the population makes them so or because the government has subsidized them.  In both cases, birth rate has fallen precipitously. Ignoring immigration, which is another story, most European countries have decreasing populations. What a success - and they are fighting against it tooth and nail. That is also another story.

I lived in South Africa for 15 years, much of the time in the homeland of Gazankulu.  Despite an educational level of around grade 2 amongst many of the women, they would come into the clinic for their 3month jab to keep them from getting pregnant.  There is a vast difference between not having a formal education and being stupid.  These women were clever and fully realized the advantages of having less children.  Their men were not so smart.  They would have beaten the women if they knew what was happening.

We must learn to live in our respective countries with a stable and then a reducing population. This , of course will result in a population in which the age distribution curve is heavily skewed toward older people. We have to work out ways to live and live well in such a society. For far too long we have been living in a pyramid scheme in which each generation had to be larger than the previous one. 

This was necessary so that there were enough young people to fill the more menial jobs before they rose up to higher levels.  It was also necessary in order to have enough working people to provide the pensions of the retired. This, quite frankly, is a stupid system.  The pension contributions of the working public should go into buying up the means of production.  Pensions are then paid  from the dividends from these companies and even from selling the shares to presently working people.  The elderly become a boon rather than a drain on the economy as they spend their pensions.  

Our system can't go on.  We must stop importing so-called cheap labor to fill the positions of the children we are not having. In the long term, cheap labor is very expensive.

Note that people are now worried about robots taking over our jobs.  Surly these two phenomenon fit together beautifully.  We have less jobs available and less young people to fill the positions.  The critical factor is taxing fairly the companies who are producing their goods by automation instead of by people.  Too many large corporations now get away with paying little if any tax.  This tax money then goes to the unemployed, whether young or pensioners.  The companies should also face up to reality.  If people have no money they can't buy the goods they produce by automation.  It is in their interests to have money in the pockets of the people.

Pyramid schemes collapse and the mini collapse we are going through at present (2008ff) is nothing compared to what is to come if we keep increasing agricultural production rather than concentrating on reducing population. If we continue this way, we will soon have an answer to the question of who is correct regarding sudden climate change. If the climate change sceptics are wrong, we may very soon achieve the lovelock number.

* Starvation killed an estimated 50m Chinese over the 19th century, 20m Indians in the latter half, 1m Irish between 1845 and 1852, 1/3 of the population of Ethiopia from 1888 and 1892 and 3m in Bengal in 1943. Imagine the effect of the failure of the wheat and rice crop for just one year due to sudden climate change or even from a mega volcano one spring. (link)

** If you double your population or your GDP, you pretty well double your use of water, wood and minerals, double your production of pollution and garbage and double the area of land you cover in buildings.  You continue to eat into unoccupied land, you eliminate all the benefits unoccupied land brings to the human population for free. Below is a table of how long it takes to double all of the above as a function of yearly GDP growth rate. You can calculate it for yourself with a high-school calculator if you put in (for 3% growth rate, for instance) log 2/log1.03.  The '2' is a doubling time, 1.03 is the interest (growth rate).

Annual growth and number of year to double the economy

70 years

2% 35 years
3% 23 years
4% 18 years
5% 14 years

How many countries in the world do you know that can find twice the water, wood, minerals and produce twice the pollution and garbage and still have any quality of life.  The only two I  can think of off hand are Canada and New Zealand.  We don't want to live like this.