Friday, April 25, 2008

Ambient Power

Eco-zealots always whine that if only so-called "renewable" sources of energy had gotten as much research & development money as nuclear then they would have become just as profitable.

Well first of all, we're really talking about ambient energy since nuclear is just as renewable as anything powered by the Sun. The Uranium and Thorium our planet inherited from supernovas during its formation is only going to disappear through radioactive decay. And that won't be for many billions of years.

Second of all, nuclear power became profitable within a decade of its invention. Meanwhile, it's been more than 140 years since photovoltaics have been invented, and more than four decades since NASA has been funding their R&D, and what do we have? Bupkis. What does that tell you?

People seem to think that engineering can do anything, achieve anything. That it's just a question of waving your magic fairy wand and pouring enough money into it. Well it's not. And it's really very, very simple why it isn't. It goes like this:

  1. solar power is a DIFFUSE form of power
  2. this means that you need a MACHINE to concentrate solar power
  3. in our physical universe, a machine must be made of MATTER
  4. matter COSTS MONEY

Add it all up and what do you get? Solar power will always be more expensive than nuclear power. Always. Now and for all time.

The only reason hydro doesn't suffer the same fate is because we can use pre-existing mountains and ravines as the collectors. Once dam-builders have to pay for mountains, and this will happen when we start dismantling the Earth for a Dyson sphere, then hydro power will no longer be profitable.

Ambient forms of energy are inherently inferior and no amount of chanting by arch-druids and channeling the power of Gaia is going to change physics.

Oh Nos, Wage Inflashun !!

There's been some worrying about wage inflation happening in odd places like Oklahoma. Let's straighten it out.

Wage inflation is good, asset inflation is bad. Wage inflation benefits workers at the expense of non-workers while asset inflation benefits property owners at the expense of the poor.

Of course, to the Fed, pundits and right-wing economists, who are all shills to the overclasses, it's the reverse. This is why a housing bubble is not considered price inflation, but wage inflation is the work of Satan and must be combatted forthwith. Forsooth!

What's Been Going On

Contrary to popular opinion, any recent price inflation is not a direct function of the asset inflation that's been going on. It's rather a minor side-effect of the means by which it was achieved. Using lots of easy and unregulated credit for asset owners.

Other means of inflating assets exist which would have no effect on overall prices. One is increasing competition for assets, say by moving to a double-income family model which restricts free time and mobility (of commutes) thus artificially narrowing options for workers.

Another is decreasing density which decreases the total number of possible homes within the commuter's habitable area. This is just decreasing supply of homes by squandering very scarce land to build them on. It also contradicts the claims of suburbia advocates who say they are providing affordable homes.

Yet another means of inflating assets is to re-price the assets out of the hands of the locals by, for example, opening up assets to ownership by rich foreigners. Needless to say, sharpening wealth disparities helps this process along.

What Hasn't Been Going On

A final way to cause asset inflation is restrictions on their formation, say if there is a timber or brick shortage for housing. Squandering land would be a special case of this. About the only asset inflation which a sane economy should ever worry about is that caused by resource shortages.

There is a good way of dealing with resource shortages, it's to slow down the economy by scaling back legal working hours. This spreads the pain uniformly instead of concentrating it among borrowers (ie, everyone but the smart rich) as is done by hiking interest rates.

But this is irrelevant because it is the only cause of asset inflation we are NOT seeing, except for land squandering. So basically, all the current causes of asset inflation are the product of an insane society with an insane economic and financial system.

It's Been Going On For Decades

So I hope you see what's been happening. For decades there has been asset inflation without price inflation. Due to the political class being shills to the rich. Recently this asset inflation has been put into overdrive by madmen willing to endure price inflation. What's important to note is that it would take decades of wage inflation to redress the social balance and see a modicum of justice.

Oh yeah, and when someone like Milton Friedman says something astonishingly idiotic like "Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon." what he's really saying is that he doesn't give a damn about the allocation of wealth between rich and poor. Which he wouldn't, being a right-wing shill.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How To Think About EROEI

Some eco-zealots claim the nuclear industry has an EROEI of 10 or 2 or even negative. Ha!

The right way to think about EROEI is to invert it. 1/EROEI is, more or less, the proportion of your industrial economy which must be devoted to producing energy. This assumes the energy industry is no more energy-intensive than other sectors of industry. A not-unreasonable assumption.

So if you have an EROEI of 10 then 1/10th or 10% of your industrial economy must be devoted to producing the energy for the rest of the industrial economy. If you have an EROEI of 30 then this falls to 1/30th or 3%, for a 7 percentage point difference.

Given that booms to recessions happen on a change of just a few percentage points in production, 7 pps of energy overhead matters a hell of a lot. Actually, even pushing up the EROEI to 90 reduces the overhead to 1% which improves the industrial economy. Pushing the EROEI beyond 90 can't improve the industrial economy significantly and that would explain why it isn't done.

Having said all that, you have to ask yourself whether or not you would have noticed if 1/10th of ALL industry everywhere (steelmaking, concrete kilns, road building, automotive, aerospace, shipbuilding, even television manufacturing) was devoted to just producing energy.

You have to ask yourself whether an EROEI of just 10 for a vital component of the energy sector (and nearly ALL of the energy sector of France) passes any kind of sanity checks.

And if you still want to know, nuclear power has an EROEI of 90.

Why Nuclear Plants Shouldn't Be Made Safer

By Carolus Obscurus in response to a (poor) article on nuclear's EROEI.

In spite of theoretical safety concerns, in practise in the West nuclear power has been several orders of magnitude safer than coal, which has killed plenty of people.

In fact, nuclear plants are so safe that their safety may have been counterproductive --- it can argued that for every life saved in improving the safety of nuclear plants several lives have been lost in constructing those super-safe plants. Can't present a graph here but obviously at some stage the rising fatal accident rate associated with increased investments in constructing safe buildings will intersect with the declining fatal accident rate resulting from the added safety.

Not easy to explain to the general public, though. The individual deaths of 100 construction workers employed in building nuclear plants is not headline news. But if a sparrow falls within a radius of ten miles of an operating nuclear power station Greenpeace and co. will start turning on the waterworks ....

Sparrows near Three Mile Island at leukemia risk, Greenpeace claims

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Right-libertarians, aka Propertarians, aka Market Fundamentalists, aka Satanists

Or, There Is No Such Thing As "Anarcho"-Capitalism

"Anarcho"-capitalists believe that property rights should trump human rights. They believe that human beings have no rights at all and that property, THINGS, have all the rights. They have no conception nor any desire for justice. They are also fixated on inanimate objects rather than human beings. And they fetishize the ownership relation, believing that all things should be owned / anthropomorphized. They are mentally ill and they are extremely repellent.

In "anarcho"-capitalist philosophy, a person is a thing to be owned. They will cheerfully admit this except they will give you a song and dance about how people should own themselves. The only problem is that ownership is distinguished from possession precisely in that you can sell, lease and destroy an owned thing. So a person who owns their body (as opposed to possessing it as their human right) is by definition capable of selling it. So "anarcho"-capitalists literally believe in slavery.

This should not be any kind of surprise to you since the "freedom to contract" (ie, absolute bindable contracts) is literally nothing more than the ability to enslave your future self to the word of your present self. You could contract yourself out for a billion years of labour as the scientologists do. Or you could enter into a contract you later find despicable because your values were fundamentally altered in the meantime. The propertarians care not because they have successfully enslaved you and they expect you to be obedient.

In fact, the logical extension of the freedom to contract is that you can abduct and kidnap someone, rape and torture them until they break, and then have them "freely" sign a contract which retroactively legitimizes what you did to them by declaring themselves to be your slave. After all, physics does not recognize a difference between future and past, so why should contracts? If you can enslave your future selves, then why not be allowed to enslave your past selves?

Propertarians love slavery. Their "freedom of property" is enslaving all humanity to objects, things. Their freedom of contract is nothing but outright slavery. And even their "owning yourself" is just their attempt to hide their love of slavery in plain sight.

"Anarcho"-capitalists, right-libertarians, market fundamentalists and satanists ARE SLAVERS.

And if you are not repelled by them then there is something deeply wrong with you.

Oh and I call them Satanists because the Satanic Bible was in fact inspired by Ayn Rand. And because it's really all the same thing, right-libertarianism being about the legalisms of egotistical shitbags while satanism is the rituals of egotistical shitbags.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Universal Principles, or Why Chemistry Is An Inferior Body Of Knowledge

Qualities of a Body of Knowledge

What are some relevant qualities by which we may judge the quality of a body of knowledge? We can start with the ratios of rules to facts and of facts to phenomena. We'll go on with the universality of principles, the extent of knowledge, and the simplicity & organizing power of concepts. So when we look at chemistry, what do we see?

In chemistry, there are too many rules for the facts we know. There are too many facts for the phenomena we know. Rules are so far from universal that they can never be called principles - as proved by the fact you can't name a single one that belongs entirely to chemistry. Knowledge of phenomena is very limited. And all concepts are ad hoc, baroque and with limited power.

Principles of Chemistry

But what about "Ka x Kb = Kw" and "all endothermic reactions speed up with increasing temperature"?

The problem with those principles is that they are very far from universal. Although chemicals can be acids or bases, most of them are neither. How exactly is it meaningful to talk about the pH of Uranium Oxide? Or steel? And as for reactions, the problem there is that chemical reactions consume themselves and so they have a nasty tendency of being intermittent. We're not talking then about something that persists but rather something that flickers to life and then winks out. Most chemicals are not in the middle of a reaction!

Concepts of Chemistry

What exactly are the fundamental concepts of chemistry anyways? The chemical bond is one. Unfortunately, talking about the universal laws of bonding would just be a repetition of quantum electrodynamics and electrostatic attraction.

Valence shell electron theory is a staple of chemistry. It explains the periodicity of Mendeleev's table. But Mendeleev's table itself explains nothing further. It only talks about how some chemicals are similar to other chemicals, not why they are the way they are in the first place.

Chemistry doesn't explain why there's two electrons to an orbital (physics does that) and it doesn't explain the shapes or numbers of orbitals (physics sortof does that). Hell, it's not even possible to account for the colour of gold without dragging general relativity into the mix!

Actually, if anything has any claim to being a fundamental concept of chemistry, it's orbitals. That's because orbitals are critical in chemistry yet they are far too complex to compute using physics. They're an emergent property.

Pity the orbitals don't really matter in the far reaches of chemistry. Certainly, everything is made out of them, but it doesn't seem to matter. Probably because when it comes down to it, there's only a few of them that matter at all.

Let's compare with physics.

A Brief Look At Physics

Absolutely everything in the physical universe is made out of energy. For something to even exist, it has to be made out of energy.

Do you know why photons can only travel at the speed of light? It's because if they didn't then there would be a reference frame in which they are at rest. And since their rest mass is zero, this would mean they have absolutely no energy. Thus there would be a reference frame in which a photon does not exist and another in which it does exist. And that's absurd.

Literally, Physical Existence = Energy.

Space then is a near-universal. Everything exists in space except for space itself. Space may or may not be a property that emerged from superstrings.

Information is another near-universal. Everything that exists save possibly space itself holds information in order to exist. The laws of thermodynamics are laws about information. 'entropy' can be defined as 'information we don't care about' thus neatly demonstrating why it has no role in the fundamental laws of physics. Information is a conserved quantity which follows specific laws.

From these concepts alone, it is possible to formulate a theorem about the maximum possible rate of computation in a volume of space at any non-zero temperature. Any attempt to compute more would require more energy, which would increase the energy density past the point a black hole would form which would disconnect you from the heat sink and destroy your ability to compute anything. That is a pretty fantastic thing when you think about it.

And Back To Chemistry

Chemistry has nothing like it. There are a few different orbitals and there are a few types of bonds ... but there seem to be too few types of bond to matter and the different orbitals hardly matter. So no universal laws and no universal theorems. I'm not sure why chemistry is so fragmented but it's a shame.

And that's why chemistry is an inferior body of knowledge.