The paradox of sustainability

One of the obstacles to sustainability can be human nature. Scientists and engineers have a habit of seeing everything as a numbers game. If we reduce the carbon footprint of something by X amount an apply that across the board that will be good….right? Well sometimes not, sometimes such measures can increase pollution by making it easier and cheaper to consume more. We are not factoring in cause and effect.

For example, back during the 80’s it became a bit of trend to install conservatories in houses, either purpose build or retrofitted to existing homes. One of the arguments for this is that by absorbing solar energy in spring and summer, they can reduce the heating bill for the house as well as providing somewhere to grow plants. Similarly, office buildings can use large glazed facades to cut down on heating and lighting costs. And its worth noting that historically, before we had oil fired central heating and electric lighting, many Victorian era homes would have a conservatory for these very reasons.

However, in order to prevent overheating in the summer (and glare from too much sunlight), its important that such areas have shading devices. And in the winter they can get quite cold, so you’ll need to have a way of isolating them from the rest of the house (Victorian houses would often shut off such areas of the house for the winter). However, many modern buildings didn’t have shading devices (so you’d come in to the office and find all the blinds down and the lights on in the middle of the day) or the buildings were open plan, so any energy savings in heating were cancelled out by more energy devoted to cooling in the summer. And some homeowners took to install radiators in their conservatories, effectively increasing their heating bills.

Different types of shading devices, critical if you are using glazed facades in buildings

Energy efficiency improvements haven’t always produced the level of gains expected. For example, we have the effect of low energy light bulbs. While they have reduced electricity demand, but not by as much as was hoped. Why? Because people are more likely to leave light on. Case in point, its daytime while I’m writing this and I’ve just realised the light’s are on in my kitchen, even thought there’s nobody in there. When I was growing up the instruction was that if you were the last person to bed, you turned off all the lights (and there would be hell to pay if you forgot). Now when I’m back home its that you should turn off most of them.

Similarly improvements in building energy efficiency have led to average indoor air temperatures to increase in cold countries and decrease in hotter countries (I remember having to wear a hat to bed in Singapore because it was so cold inside the bedrooms!). And more fuel efficient cars have run hand in hand in an increasing number of driving miles in some countries (thought not always and these increases might be related to other factors such as new roads encouraging driving, or more cars making it less safe to cycle).

My point is, its important to consider the consequences of any action and look at how it may effect patterns of behaviour. Some of these can be positive, e.g. plastic bag taxes very rapidly led to a reduction in plastic bag use. But that’s not always the case (at the same time in the UK that the plastic bag came in, there was a large increase in trolley or shopping basket thefts!). It also serves to highlight that, while energy efficiency is important, on its own it can’t solve the problems of climate change and sustainability. Only by moving away from fossil fuel altogether can these problems be solved.

With sustainability the devil can often be in the detail. Biofuels for example can lower carbon footprints, but this largely depends on how the plants are grown, processed and then transported. Even a slight change in how they are grown, for example draining bog land to create area for the trees (which results in a big pulse of green house gases) or transporting them long distances, can significantly increase the carbon footprint.

With biofuels there can be quite a wide variation in the carbon footprint, which are often governed by very small changes in production methods

We see a similarly issue with alternatives to plastics. On paper by moving away from fossil fuels this can can lower the carbon footprint. But if you are growing material, how is it grown? Does it require fertilisers? (which come from fossil fuels) or climate control (which might also require energy input from fossil fuels). If its much heavier and bulkier that’s going to make it harder to transport (more fossil fuel’s burned). If its harder to mould into shapes compared to plastic (which can be injection moulded), again more waste. And how is it disposed of? If its not recyclable that’s going to be a problem unless we have a means to collect and incinerate it safely (and that incineration process is also going to produce some emissions).

Its here were life cycle analysis is key. This is a process by which engineers can undertake an accounting exercise to work out the carbon footprint of each step of a product’s life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials, its production phase, transportation to customer, its use phase and its end of life (is it recycled, incinerated, or does it go into landfill).

This data not only allows for good decision making, but also tends to highlight where the main issues are. For example, with a car, the main source of carbon emissions is going to be the usage phase when its driven around for hundreds of thousands of miles. Anything you can do to cut this down is generally going to be a good idea, for example by making the car lighter. Even if this pushes up the carbon footprint of the production phase, this will be off-set by lowering the impact of the usage phase. By contrast, in some consumer products it can be either the material production phase or the end of life phase that has the most dramatic impact. This tells engineers where to focus their efforts next in improving the product.

But again, this can have the problem that engineers are working in isolation and not understanding what’s going on in the real world. The cautionary tale of Jatroba is a good example. This appeared (at least on paper) to be an excellent potential source of biofuels with a low carbon footprint (in some cases negative as it helped to lock away greenhouse gases into the soil). It could grow on non-arable land (thus not taking away land from food production), with little need for fertiliser. However, the yields from Jatroba grown under such conditions were low, leading to it being grown on arable land with fossil fuel based fertilisers used to increase its grown rate (largely negating the supposed benefits).

And the switch from meat to vegetarian foods has created a high demand for such foods as asparagus, avacado’s and coconuts, all of which have quite a high carbon footprint and water demand, at least compared to other vegetarian options. While this doesn’t mean that a vegan diet is worse than a meat based one, it again serves to highlight its a trade off, a least worse option. And the benefits are going to depend a lot on how and where its grown, e.g. out of season fruit in green houses (which is then imported long distance by truck or air) is going to be a lot more carbon intensive than fruit grown in season in a field locally.

The problem with climate change and sustainability is that they are very large and complex problems. If there was some easy silver bullet solution it would have been implemented ages ago. There are solutions, but they require a bit more of a complete understanding of what the problem is and how people are likely to react to the proposed solutions.

The life cycle analysis of any product can become quite complicated

This had led some to suggest the solution is to use smart technology. So for example if a driver has a heavy foot (lots of acceleration and heavy braking) the cars computer could be programmed to recognise this and switch to a more energy efficient driving style (so it won’t allow the car to accelerate as quickly, de-rate the engine, and if a hybrid, try to extract as much energy from the braking phase as possible).

Similarly home appliances could be programmed to de-rate at night to reduce energy consumption. If you dial up the thermostat and your home heating system knows you feeling cold has nothing to do with temperature, but instead its the humidity, so it ignores your request and adjusts the humidity instead.

I’d note that this sort of technology is nothing new, its used in aviation where the planes computer is programmed to fly the plane in as fuel efficient and safe a manner as possible, by interpreting the pilot inputs and not necessarily doing exactly what they ask it to do. If the pilots do something they are not supposed to do (e.g. try to pull off a manoeuvre the computer knows would exceed the aircraft’s envelope) the computer will adopt a more moderate response, or even override the pilots completely.

However, I’m not sure how people would react to this. Some might argue its an affront to their freedom (just look at the anti-vaxx / anti-mask brigade). Already there’s a people who have been hoarding incandescent light bulbs or insist on rolling coal. In short we need to appreciate that human nature is as much a part of the climate and sustainability problem as anything else.

Posted in Biomass, clean energy, climate change, cycling, economics, efficiency, energy, environment, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, Passivhaus, politics, power, renewables, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bitcoin crackdown

Inevitably, a push back against crypto seems to be underway. China is planning to outright ban several crypto currencies, starting with Bitcoin. While the US DoJ, in the wake of the colonial pipeline attack, has started a crackdown against crypto. They have shutdown crypto exchanges and are making efforts to recover funds stolen by hackers and scammers. The FBI & Europol even set up an elaborate sting operation using their own dark web encrypted messaging service. (Can only imagine the google reviews for this service won’t be great…then again I don’t think you get access to google in prison!).

But then we have news that El Salvador wants to make bitcoin legal tender. So what gives? Well firstly I think we need to understand that most crypto currencies, bitcoin in particular, aren’t really currencies as we’d define them. The price volatility and the lengthy time to process transactions (60 minutes to a day or two…long time to wait for a coffee!) means its not really a convenient currency that could ever be used by the majority of people. It would be more accurate to describe them as a sort of digital bearer bond.

Now while yes, you can pay for goods in services with bearer bonds, but generally you don’t, as they likely won’t be accepted and the costs on your end (not to mention the processing time) means its not practical. Similarly, given the issues with crypto, only a few companies are willing to accept payment in crypto and then only really for ideological reasons (as the boss is libertarian bitcoin bug). If more customers actually used crypto as their main means of payment and companies were forced to bare the financial costs of delayed/fraudulent payment & price fluctuations themselves (which would become exponentially worse with more transactions), they’d quickly abandon it. This is pretty much what happened with Musk and Tesla recently. Causing Musk to go from libertarian hero to Bernie Sanders socialist in the eyes of bitcoin bugs (and as if to aid insult to injury a recent bitcoin conference has turned into a covid superspreader event).

The other problem with bearer bonds is that you are going to get more than a few odd looks if you try to use them. While there were some legitimate uses for them, notably as regards investing and money transfers between countries. But an awful lot of the time they are used to launder money or help dodge taxes. And similarly, while yes there is some use of crypto is for legitimate investment purposes. But they have also become increasingly the tool of choice for criminals looking to launder cash, move it overseas or as payment for extortion (bitcoin being used 95% of the time).

So you certainly understand why this crackdown is ongoing. As for El Salvador, well its one of an number of offshore hubs who profit from the more shady aspects of offshore financial activity, crypto being a particular speciality. So you can see why they wants to try and give bitcoin some legitimacy and avoid it being banned completely. Although one should note, they just want to make it legal tender, they are not adopting it as a national currency or anything like that.

Now crypto advocates would say that this shows why banning it will never work. Ya, until being in possession of bitcoins, or accessing a digital wallet, becomes a crime in of itself (similar laws with regard to cash, jewels, bonds or other assets means that if you can’t prove they were acquired legally, they can be confiscated under anti-money laundering legislation and you can be prosecuted as well, just for being in possession of them).

But suppose a country actually tried to use bitcoin as its national currency. What would happen? Probably several months of chaos and then collapse! The government’s ability to borrow, issue bonds, or control its money supply would be effectively impossible. And the rapid and volatile swings in its value would result in all sorts of problems. e.g. you pay the public service in bitcoin, but in between collecting taxes on a Friday and paying them on a Monday the price drops 20% so either you have to cover those costs out of the state coffers or the workers would have to be happy to accept an effective pay cut.

Now libertarians would say, but this is the point. We don’t like central banks (and there will be no public sector employees in the libertarian workers paradise) and we want to stop banks just printing money and borrowing recklessly. While I’d agree governments have gone a bit crazy with the money printers and borrowing over the last few years (you should be saving in the good times for a rainy day). But the pandemic (a rainy day!) shows why this is sometimes necessary.

Without central bank intervention, the response to covid would be very different. No lockdowns to flatten the curve (meaning hospitals get overwhelmed), no furlonging of workers (so mass unemployment, means massive claims for unemployment benefits) and no money to pay for medical PPE or the fast tracking of vaccines. In short you’d be looking at millions of extra deaths and a far more serious level of economic damage.

In fact, somewhat ironically, crypto being backed by a major government would be the last thing libertarians would want to happen. The first thing the US, the EU or China would do, is acquire large amounts of this digital currency, enough to allow them to gain control over it (either individually or collectively via the IMF). And note that when I say “acquire” I don’t mean buy. They’ll just confiscate it off criminals (about half of all bitcoin transactions involve criminal activity). Or pass some law allowing them to cease privately held accounts and set the price for compensation (if the bother paying compensation at all). This is pretty much what happened to US private gold reserves in 1934 and in other countries on various occasions (one of those pesky facts libertarian gold bugs tend to ignore, the gov’mint can just take your gold…and bragging about it online btw makes that alot easier, or they’ll make its sale or transfer illegal/heavily taxed).

The banks would join in and you’d be left with a monetary system even more under the thumb of the regulators, the government and the banks than the current financial system. Which is probably wants going to happen eventually. There are already proposals from various financial institutions to launch their own crypto currencies. Given that these will have the backing of the banks and, eventually governments, they can offer a level of convenience, security and price stability that existing crypto’s cannot.

Bitcoin and other crypto’s might survive for awhile, as a sort of digital gold, but only if they can clean themselves up. Crypto advocates need to accept that this criminal activity is going to result in unwanted attention. They need to start taking measures to contain the problem. You fight the law, the law tends to win.

Posted in budget deficit, crime, cults, economics, environment, future, history, news, politics, scams, sustainability, technology | Tagged , | Leave a comment

More brexit betrayals and the rise of the brexitbots

Brexiters gave many reasons for voting leave, but immigration was certainly the main reason. However, its now quite clear that if you voted leave over immigration you are about to be betrayed by the Tories, much as you were warned would happen.

Firstly there are many myths and falsehoods about immigration, as I’ve discussed before. But the main one is the false belief that British workers are in competition with migrants for a fixed number of jobs. The number of jobs available in a country or region depends on a host of factors. For example, the ease by which businesses can get access to credit, government policy (if there’s lots of big infrastructure projects going on, there will be more jobs) and also the availability of workers (as an employer will prefer to set up where they can more easily hire employees). In short, migrants can help create more jobs than they take. And thus immigration restrictions can act as a pretty significant trade barrier and can actually decrease the total number of jobs available, leaving less for the locals.

To give an example, you are run a fruit farm. You need 100 workers to pick the fruit over the harvest season, but post-brexit restrictions means you can only find 50 British workers. Which means you’re only going to be able to harvest half the amount of fruit, which could mean the cost of paying their salaries plus overheads (e.g. the cost of growing the crops in the first place) won’t be enough to yield a profit. In which case you’re better off sacking the 50 British workers, leaving the fruit to rot and doing something else with the land that’s less labour intensive.

Similarly, in academia some specialist courses in a number of universities are being pulled due to brexit. As without the EU students, its not worth our while running those courses. This is leading to staff being laid off and the choice and options for UK students being reduced (oh and without those EU students, fees will probably have to go up too!).

And we are seeing further examples of this in many parts of the economy. There is a shortage of truck drivers post-brexit, which could lead to some businesses shutting down, higher prices and risks a shortage of food items like chilled meats. Building projects are being put on hold because of supply shortages (due to extra delays at Dover) and a lack of workers (so British builders are losing their jobs because there ain’t enough Polish plumbers).

And as mentioned farmers are struggling to hire enough workers to meet demand. Plus, they can no longer effectively export, which is decimating some parts of the agricultural sector. This could lead to a reduced harvest (leaving the UK more dependant on food imported from Europe) and probably eventually some farms closing, as they won’t be able to compete with foreign competition in places like Australia.

This was the lie that was told to those who voted leave. We’ll turn back the clock to a time when many UK industrial towns had full employment and Britain had an Empire. But that was always a fantasy. It only worked back then because of a lack of automation (industry was still fairly labour intensive, requiring a larger work force), much of the UK industry was state owned (who tended to treat them as a welfare to work scheme), there was little to no overseas competition (as Asia had little industrial output & half the world economy was the other side of the iron curtain), with massive trade barriers and protectionism to defend UK trade.

But that was then and this is now. Imposing such measures now would just render the UK uncompetitive, meaning they’d be lose out to foreign competition. Its not immigrants coming over here and taking your job you need to worry about, but them staying at home and your job simply moving somewhere else. And smugglers will just find a way around any trade barriers anyway. That is after all one of the reasons why such polices were largely done away with in the first place.

And its pretty clear the Tories ain’t going to help, given that they are running around signing trade deals with every Tom, Dick and Harry in the world. Trade deals which often favour the other country at the expense of the Uk. For example, while UK traders have to fill out dozens of forms and go through customs checks, EU lorries entering the UK typically get waved through, as the UK dare not impose more complete checks knowing it would probably lead to empty shelves in supermarkets. Which should not come as a surprise, as trade deals tend to benefit the larger trading block or the country who can just walk away from the table (something the UK can’t really do).

i

Brexit: Rise of the Machines

Furthermore, what is the governments response to businesses complaining about how brexit red tape is hurting their businesses and risking unemployment for workers? Oh, just move to the EU and set up there (i.e. sack all your UK workers and hire foreign workers instead). And when the aforementioned farmers complain about a lack of seasonal workers, what is the government’s response? Oh just switch to using robots to pick fruit instead (British jobs….for robot workers?). Let’s just unpack that one.

Automating a process cost a lot of money and its questionable if any, but the very largest of UK food companies, can afford that (certainly not small farmers). There is also a long learning curve because when robots screw up, they tend to screw up in a big way (e.g. crash, smash, burn down the factory, weld something together they weren’t supposed to do).

But ignoring the obvious practical obstacles, if farmers could switch to robots, they’d aren’t going to simply replace the 50 or so they can’t hire from Europe. No, they’ll sack ALL their UK fruit pickers as well. They will still need some workers yes, but generally these will be people with an education to program the robots (a college or university diploma), which generally most of the sort of people who work in farming will lack (and I’d also further note most college graduates voted remain rather than leave, so this is a move that benefits remain voters at the expense of Tory leave voters).

This is pretty much what happened in Japan, where strict immigration laws combine with automation to eliminated a whole host of working class jobs and entry level jobs. This created a “lost generation of Japanese who haven’t worked for many years (if ever), creating a sort of underclass within society. And as this impacted on tax revenues ( unemployed people claim benefits…and robots don’t pay income tax) it led to the land of the rising sun, becoming the land of the rising debts, a trend we are likely to see replicated in the UK’s finances.

Post-brexit we could see something similar happen in the UK, particularly in those northern brexit voting towns. You see, there’s another thing about immigration. Most migrants tend to head for the larger cities (which voted overwhelmingly remain and where support for the Tories is at its lowest) where there are employment shortages. They tend to shun areas with high unemployment (which tended to vote leave).

Post-brexit these trends will continue to become even sharper. What foreign workers and foreign investment does come in will mostly go to the major cities, which should continue to see some job growth (though just not as strong as it would have been without brexit). While in rural or ex-industrial towns, the job market will collapse. This will lead to further inequality in the UK and more people being driven into poverty. And already poverty in some parts of the UK is already so bad the UN has had to give involved. But, much as they were warned, brexit and immigration controls aren’t going to help these communities. They are going to make an already bad situation even worse.

Posted in budget deficit, economics, history, news, technology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Debunking right wing myths: Ancient aliens

I once caught a programme called “ancient aliens” on the History channel (given that they seems to show nothing but pawn stars and sensationalist nonsense, I’m not sure why its called “History” anymore). Anyway, I thought it was a hoot (I’m laughing at you, not with you), but I was unaware until recently that this wasn’t merely a couple of episodes, that they presumably show on the 1st of April, but that there’s actually been 16 seasons of this rubbish! Thus I was completely unaware than anyone, other than a few tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy wackos…..or Musk…..took this seriously.

Ancient Aliens is some of the most noxious sludge in television’s bottomless chum bucket. Actual experts are brought in to deliver sound bites that are twisted and taken out of context while fanatics are given free reign. Fiction is presented as fact, and real scientific research is so grossly misrepresented that I can only conclude that the program is actively lying to viewers….” Brian Switek, Smithsonian

The basic punchline of “ancient aliens” is to simply connect aliens to every event that has ever happened in human history. Who built the pyramids? Ancient aliens! The Nasca lines? Ancient aliens! Great wall of China? Ancient aliens! The great flood? Ancient aliens! The Bronze age collapse? Ancient aliens. Rinse and repeat.

Well needless to say this falls into the category of “not even wrong”. How do we know the pyramids were build by the ancient Egyptians? Well the short summary would be: because they are in Egypt, they are shaped like a pyramid and they are made of stone.

Given the building technology available at that time this was pretty much the only way to build something that tall. The problem with any building is that the taller you go, the more weight presses down on the foundations and the bricks towards the bottom have to carry a heavier load. Eventually either the building starts to subside and sink (essentially being pushed into the ground by its own weight), or the blocks at the bottom start to crack and fail. So you angle the structure, such that each layer of blocks occupies a smaller area than the next, reducing the load on the blocks at the base and spreading out the weight of the building over a larger area.

Or in other words, you end up with a pyramid. And accounts from the time, evidence from numerous archaeological digs and modern day experiments corroborate historians theories of how the pyramids were built. The AA brigade, chose to ignore all of this evidence in favour of contrived and biased studies that set out to provide the answer they want. Not unlikely climate change deniers or young earth creationists.

So we are being asked to believe that these ancient aliens, despite having the advanced technology to get to the earth, would choose to use an extremely slow, inefficient and expensive means of pyramid construction. And this has to be contrasted with what can be built using modern building techniques (nevermind those available to ET). It is theoretically possible, using existing concrete and steel to building structures several km’s tall, although there are practical reasons why you probably won’t want too (e.g. most of the structure’s interior will just be stairs, lift shafts and service risers).

Imagine the conversation at ET’s Egyptian HQ. We can build a massive 4 km tall pyramid out of something cheap like concrete & steel, which we can throw up in a few years….or we can build a piddly little stone one which will be a fraction of the height, take decades to build and cost many times more. Seriously, you think they’d choose the latter option?

Furthermore different pyramids build before the great pyramid show signs of a learning curve. So we go from the step pyramid of Djoser (one of the oldest surviving pyramids), to the so-called bent pyramid (which was built at too steep and angle, resulting in a change in construction plans half way through building process), before the first of the great pyramids at Giza was raised.

Of course when pushed, the ancient aliens brigade will say, ya but you see the aliens were trying to cover their tracks. Why? There are uncontacted tribes here on earth, the occupants of North Sentinel Island being a good example, and while we are trying to avoid interference, its not like we are going out of our way to hide from them. They have witnessed large steel hulled ships passing by the Island (or even crashing into their Island), seen helicopters hovering overhead, etc.

Aliens would be no different, not least because they’d know the impossibility of actually hiding in this universe. We already have the technology to pick up any alien radio traffic from nearby star systems and can determine the orbits of nearby planets. Within a few decades we’ll be able to study the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets. So its basically impossible to hide, short of building an entire Dyson sphere around your solar system (and even that’s not guaranteed to work, as it would have a gravitational effect that would be observable, plus a heat signature which would show up in infrared).

But why did the practice of pyramid building change after the great pyramids? For the same reason such practices changed anywhere else in the world – times changed. Egyptian civilisation lasted for the best part of 4000 years. The date of Cleopatra’s death is closer to the present day, than it is to the completion of the pyramids at Giza. Egypt went through periods of collapse, when ancient knowledge was lost, or where afterwards the culture was very different (and building a massive pyramid as a rulers tomb was considered excessive and impractical).

But what about all these other pyramids build around the world? the Maya, Aztec’s, Angkor Wat. Well firstly these were built many thousands of years apart. Secondly, they faced the same engineering challenges the Egyptians faced. And, given that the laws of physics hadn’t changed, its no surprise they came up with a similar solution. And thirdly, these are very different structures with only a passing resemblance to one another (e.g. the Mayan pyramids tend to be smaller and more steeply build using smaller but more precisely cut stones).

Also why is it that we ascribe ancient aliens to having built the pyramids, but don’t question that the Romans built the Colosseum, or question that the ancient Greeks built the pantheon? There is a certain element of cultural racism at play here, which seeks to undermine the achievements of ancient peoples. Its like trying to claim NASA didn’t go to the moon, they hitched a ride from a passing Vogon. Or that D-day never happened, its all just fake news.

If you want to destroy a civilisation you erase the truth about its past. And that is effectively what this whole “ancient aliens” madness is doing. Its unscientific nonsense that promotes many racist and dangerous ideas. While undermining the achievements of past civilisations and their people.

Posted in cults, Global warming denial, history, technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Musk delusion

I’ve critiqued a number of Musk’s projects before, but I think we need to be a bit more direct. Quite simply is Musk entirely the full shilling? Is he the real life Tony Stark the fan boys seem to think, or a modern day Howard Hughes? Because if its the latter his bizarre behaviour will only get worse and worse until things come to a head. Which could have rather serious consequences.

Now I know the response from Musk fan boys. Oh they said he’d never get electric cars to work, or never be able to safely land and re-use a rocket, but look what happened. Well two things A) no they didn’t. And B) he actually didn’t do any of these things.

Tesla was founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning in 2003, with Musk not taking an active role in the company until 2005. The first car designed (which Musk had little to no actual input into) was heavily based off of the Tzero roadster from the late 1990’s. And Musk couldn’t have invented the electric car, because they have existed since the 19th century.

Furthermore, I’d argue if you were to pick an iconic car in the history of electric vehicles, I won’t pick any Tesla’s. Instead I’d pick the AMC Amitron from the late 1960’s, which included all the major elements of the modern electric vehicle, battery, motor controller, motors, etc., as well as the first use of a lithium Ion battery. Or perhaps the first generation Toyota Prius. While a hybrid car, it was the first attempt to mass produce a vehicle with an electric powertrain and thus many production bottle necks were solved, opening the way up for fully electric vehicles to follow.

As for vertical landing rockets, how do you think the Apollo crews landed on the moon? And the DC-X programme of the 1990’s successfully demonstrated reusablity of 1st stages. Hyperloop too, wasn’t Musk’s idea, it come from a concept proposed by Robert Goodard back in the 1900’s. Which itself is based off of Brunel’s 19th century concept of an atmospheric railway.

So perhaps the problem here is how his fans seem to invent things that he’s supposedly done, while ignoring the many promises he’s made but not kept. For example, the original proposed Falcon rocket was supposed to be fully reusable (i.e. both upper and lower stages) and yet still cost a fraction of what Falcon 9 flights now cost. He promised Tesla’s would be capable of self driving, which they are not (and led to at least one fatal accident). He promised hospitals thousands of ventilators, which never showed up.

Perhaps the most recent example of Musk’s failure to deliver, as well as the willingness of his fans and the media to gloss over this reality, a good example being the recently launched Las Vegas loop. This isn’t so much a public transport system, but an anti-public transport system.

Musk promised it would carry 4400 a hour, using autonomous pods going at 155 mph. Instead, he delivered a pair of single lane tunnels with conventional Tesla’s in them (requiring some 60 drivers at peak times) capable of only going 35 mph and only delivering about 1000/hour. And at a cost of $55 million, this is an insanely expensive cost, for what is essentially a glorified Disney ride to get people from the convention centre to their cars (can’t they just walk?).

You know what else you could buy for $55 million? An entire fleet of buses! Even for a fraction of this cost you could have put in a guided bus lane. The whole point of public transport is to encourage people to leave their cars at home. Because, counter intuitively, more roads and better infrastructure for cars, means more cars and more jams, plus more expensive infrastructure for the local government to pay for (which means higher taxes). By contrast if you can ferry people directly from this convention centre to their hotel (via a bus), or the airport (or other prominent landmarks) they won’t need a car at all.

So instead Musk has created a system that burns public money, leaving less to spend on genuine public transport projects (and as a car maker, he has a strong financial incentive to encourage more driving and car ownership) and saddle government’s with expensive infrastructure to maintain in perpetuity. Its less public transport and more a bourgeoisie loop, so the well heeled jet set types don’t have to rub shoulders with the tourists and plebs.

And this is something of a theme for Musk. After all his proposed use of Starship, as a point to point transport mechanism amounts to saying that the rich should be allowed to burn vast amounts of fuel, just so they can save a few hours in transit. Well, if Starship was a vaguely sane suggestion that is. In truth, it would take almost as long to get its passengers point to point as a conventional airliner (once you factor in the time taken to get passengers out to the launch pad, suit them up, put on their astronaut diapers (yes, how do you think astronauts meet the calls of nature in a space suit), strap everyone in, fuel the rocket, etc.). And that’s assuming you’d be given permission to fly, given the many likely health and safety, environmental and noise related concerns.

u

In fact let’s talk about starship. It is a terrible design. I’m not going to waste time going over the many issues, in part because I’ve done so already, but also there are others who have done a far better job. But in summary, even if it worked, its a one trick pony….and that trick is the potential for down cargo (which its far from proving it can do) not going to Mars.

Even so, Musk has managed to blow up a dozen or so test prototypes with not a lot to show for it. He’s now in a dispute with the FAA and environmental groups over the mess he’s making, adding to the thousand or so active legal cases he’s currently fighting, largely because of his inability to keep his big mouth shut and not say dumb things online.

Which raises the question, what is the point of starship? Well my guess is, its to keep Musk distracted, so that the real engineers can get on with the job of running Tesla and SpaceX. Along with the Boring company, its a sort of executive play pen where they can leave their boss baby to putter in his sandbox and not bother them….or go on a rage firing spree.

But NASA just awarded SpaceX the contract to build the Lunar lander? Ya and if one was cynical it would be that the Biden administration, whose never really committed to space flight, knows they don’t have the funds or the political capital to blow hundreds of billions repeating Apollo. But they equally don’t want to be identified as the assassins who killed off manned lunar/Mars missions. They need a fall guy…which is where Musk comes in!

SpaceX happens to have facilities in key states that will matter in 2024 (most notably Texas, which might be a swing state by then). So, given that Congress sees NASA as a jobs programme, they sling a few billion his way. If he succeeds, well then great. If he crashes and burns, well aw shucks we tried our best, I mean we even got Elon Musk to design the hardware, how can we be to blame.

And this is what worries me about Musk and his fans. Sooner or later his luck is going to run out. Environments such as space, or public transport do not suffer fools. Likely we’ll end up with some tragic accident, or a massive overspend on a government project and he gets to spend the rest of his life going form congressional committee to committee and court house to court house.

And his fans need to understand they are not doing him, or whatever cause they believe, in any favours. If and when he crashes and burns, its not going to encourage more investment in space, instead the opposite is more likely (it will be an excuse for opponents of manned spaceflight to pull the plug). A major failure of his public transport or electric car initiatives will be used as an excuse to cancel both in favour of the fossil fuel lobby.

Someone needs to tell him to either set smaller more deliverable goals. Or maybe just take a back seat and let someone else take over.

Posted in aviation, cars, cults, environment, flying car, future, news, politics, robot car, space, sustainability, technology, transport | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Debunking rightwing myths: Qanon

One of the problems with politics these days is how it has become way too tribal. And while it is a problem with those on the left (just look at how Corbyn supporters seem determined to stick it to Starmer, even if it helps the Tories), but it is a much more serious problem for those on the political right. So much so, that many on the right now live in a fantasy bubble of self delusion.

So I think its important to debunk some of these right wing myths, in particular the more dangerous ones. And I’m going to start with Qanon, which is now more of a cargo cult, if not a fully fledged religion (ironically, many of its supporters claim to be Christians…they might need to re-read the bible…starting with the 1st commandment….something about the dangers of false gods and profits prophets).

Anyway, Qanon supporters believe that an individual posting on the internet was some sort of anonymous high level source in the Trump administration, who was leaving clues about how Hilary and all the democrats were about to be rounded up by Trump and it proven they and the elites are part of some big weird conspiracy that involves…well really take your pick! Whatever you want to accuse them of, Qanon says they are guilty of it. But mostly in revolves around child abduction for their blood or sex trafficking.

Straight away, one has to point to the obvious similarities between this Qanon conspiracy and anti-Semitic conspiracies, such as the protocols of Zion and the Blood libel, that were levelled at Jews over many centuries (which eventually led to the holocaust). I mean literally take out the word “Hilary” or “elites” and stick in the word “Jew” and its pretty much the same thing, with a few modern updates.

It also has to be pointed out that modern neo-nazi’s often talk in code, or use coded gestures and symbols. So for example “inner city youths” means, well the N word. Three fingers together means KKK, an ok symbol means much the same. And the term “globalist” or “elites” generally means “Jew”. So at its heart Qanon represents the very worse form of racism and bigotry. And before anyone says, oh but I believe in Qanon but I also support Israel. You can still be a racist/anti-Semitic and support Israel (or be critical of Israeli foreign policy and not a racist). And there also such a thing as internalised racism, so even being Jewish doesn’t give you a free pass.

This can’t be co-incidental. Well not unless those supporting Qanon are going to admit to being completely boneheaded and ignorant. I mean you can vaguely understand how such ridiculous rumours might spread in less enlightened times (a lot of people back then couldn’t even read and knew little about things like medicine or the wider world), but not today.

For example, this business of child abductions. I don’t know about you, but its been my experience that parents seem more than a little attached to their kids. They go missing, the parents tend to make a big deal about it. And the reaction from the media is to lose their sh*t if a kid so much as goes missing for a few minutes. The cops will throw up road blocks and start organising house to house searches. You seriously think anybody could get away with pulling off thousands of these without anyone noticing?

As for this blood libel business, again with the benefits of modern science we know this is just crazy. The blood of children is not some magic elixir (do right wingers actually believe that? Cos I’m pretty sure that’s grounds to call child services and take their kids into care). I don’t know a lot about medicine but I do know enough to develop a healthy paranoia about blood, as its a very potent disease vector (this is why blood donations & transfusions are carefully regulated and incidentally one of those rules is that you can’t give blood if you are under 16). And we’re not just talking about a dose of covid here, we’re talking about some pretty nasty diseases or adverse medical reactions. Some of which there is no real cure for. So I very much doubt anyone would be doing this.

But of course accusing your opponents of child related crimes is the stickiest of mud to sling at them. In times gone by politicians would intervene if false allegations were slung at their opponents (recall how John McCain defended Obama against all the crazy birther crap being slung at him). Now republicans will not only stand by while baseless allegations of child abuse and murder are slung at their opponents. But they’ll actively fuel the fire. That is how low they have sunk too. Which I would argue should instantly disqualify them from anything to do with government.

But circling back for a minute, where did these Qanon rumours start off? Well it started off in the form of so-called “Q drops” on a site called 8chan (a site for internet trolls who were too racist for 4chan). Of course this of itself looks dodgy. I mean why not go to a major newspaper or wikileaks? Probably because they are going to demand hard evidence rather than cryptic clues.

If real journalists are presented with a large data drop, such as the recent Panama papers for example, they will want to verify those documents (to make sure they aren’t simply an elaborate forgery) by going over them with a fine toothed comb. They will check if they are credible and in some way verifiable. For example via information already in the public domain, or through a verifiable source who can corroborate the evidence. Now contrast that with the lazy unsubstantiated rumours coming from 8chan, put up there by god knows who (we’ll get to that), with nothing of substance that can be independently verified. And lazy research that consists of a few heavily biased internet searches.

Where and how you acquire your information from is as important as the information itself. For example imagine you heard that aliens have landed on the White house lawn. Would you believe it? Suppose if you heard it from an official white house source? Or a reputable news source? How about if you heard it from the Daily Mail? (who would likely claim the aliens are only here to claim benefits). Or how about some tinfoil hat wearing nutter at speakers corner? Qanon fails any sort of verification or credibility checks by some margin.

So what is the history behind Q? Well back in the early phases of the 2016 election there were a number of democrat and independent voters who amused themselves by putting together ridiculously outlandish stories as a way to bait a reaction out of republicans, or for commercial reasons (to generate click bait allowing them to harvest people’s personal details). Unfortunately, some right wingers didn’t get the joke, perhaps proving Poe’s law. Which, if you enough about the psychology of the right wing brain, does makes sense (right wingers tend to see things in the form of black and white choices, plus they are more heavily motivated by fear than facts). This led to incidents such as Pizzagate.

Inevitably some of those shilling for trump, including Cambridge Analytica (or pro-Trump Russian trolls), saw an opportunity they could take advantage of. If you were a pro-gun libertarian (but perhaps wary of trump due to his lose talk about running up massive deficits), they’d make sure you’re facebook feed would be clogged with fake news about how Hilary was going to take your guns the day after the election. If you were with the Bernie or bust brigade, they’d feed you stories about how the DNC were stitching up Bernie (hoping that while you won’t vote Trump, you might vote for a 3rd party).

So there’s a good chance Q is either some left winger with a terrible sense of humour, who is currently laughing his/her ass off at all these nutters. Or its probably some far right propagandist looking to radicalise republicans to suit their own agenda. In fact, one name that keeps popping up, just happens to be a moderator on 8chan, the very site where the whole thing started.

And if this sounds far fetched, well the thing is, this has happened before. Back in the 1970’s a bunch of counter-culture hippies, as part of an effort to undermine the US government (why? Nam…. and probably too much LSD!), decided to start spreading a conspiracy theory that said the US government was secretly controlled by a group called the Illuminati, who were hell bent on world domination on behalf of the world elites. They called it “operation mindf*ck” and it was largely successful, as many millions came to believe it.

But here’s the thing, those behind this conspiracy have confirmed it was a hoax, yet you’ll still find websites devoted to this conspiracy to this day (and of course Qanon includes elements of the Illuminati hoax). In fact, you may wonder who were the Illuminati? Well they were a Bavarian 18th century Freethinkers club (imagine a bunch of Germans in Tracht discussing philosophy while smoking outrageously large pipes) This was a deliberate safety valve, as they knew that if any serious journalist went digging, they quickly realise it had to be a hoax, as this group no longer exists. And they’d be the last people on earth you’d suspect of being part of a giant nefarious conspiracy. Yet, millions did fall for it and many Q supporters still fall for it. Such is the power of myth.

Of course the irony is that there are government conspiracies and lies we should be worried about. The UK government for example is openly gaslighting the public about both Covid and brexit, even thought this risks reigniting the troubles in northern Ireland. And they’ve succeeded in turning the UK into a Chumacracy. In the US as well, its a known fact that politicians, both sides of the aisle, are very close to big business. And, somewhat ironically, several leading republicans and prominent Q supporters have been caught up in child sex trafficking cases. But rather than be worried about these actual conspiracies, no right wingers prefer to obsess about a fake one.

Which brings me back to the question, are Q supporters really this stupid or really that racist? Well its a bit of both. I suspect most know deep down, its all lies (not that they’ll ever admit that!). But its a convenient lie to hide an inconvenient truth (much like climate change denial). The truth being that they’ve been conned their whole lives by those they held up as heroes. And their ego just can’t take that hit. Its similar to the reaction you get from those who get scammed (which is why such thing’s as sucker lists exist, as the scammers know that someone who fell for one con, will likely fall for another one). So this is sort of a coping mechanism to masking this reality, as well as giving them a way to focus their rage on their opponents. Its completely tribal.

And those on the far right recognise Q as an important step towards fascism. For fascism to work you have to have someone to blame for all of your problems (that’s sort of the whole point of fascism, blame all of your problems on some convenient scapegoat). You also have to believe the nation is in dire straits, facing a real (or more often) imaginary enemy. After all, how else can you justify the confiscation of private property, ending democracy and mass murder (which is always going to be the outcome with fascism). That btw is the real plan Q supporters are being asked to stick too.

Which is why I’d argue this is not just some harmless conspiracy theory. A number of anti-terrorism experts have pointed to similarities between how Qanon has radicalised its followers and how Islamic extremist groups radicalise supporters into becoming terrorists (and btw some of those anti-Semitic lies mentioned earlier are used as part of that indoctrination process, I won’t be the least be surprised if they are now also using Qanon material as well). Far more terrorist attacks have been carried out in the US recently by rightwing groups (or Q terrorists) than have been carried out by Islamists or anyone else for that matter.

So Qanon is literally a sign of creeping fascism. Regardless of what its supporters say, its claims are baseless and indefensible. Its racism and radicalisation at its very worse. It has been linked to several terrorist attacks. And ironically, its giving right wing elites cover to engage in the very things they accuse those on the left of. We’d do well not to ignore it.

Posted in crime, cults, defence, Global warming denial, history, news, scams | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Internet gangs of the 2020’s

I did a post a couple of months back about contrepreneurs & fake gurus selling doggy courses or get-rich-quick schemes (which of course are just scams intended to rob you blind). But if anything, I barely scratched the surface. There are now literally hundreds of these post-truth grifters selling “courses” (even thought you can just join a MOOC, many of which are free and give you an actual qualification from a university)…likely because about the only useful thing you learn on these fake courses, is how to scam people out of their money!

And these are just one of a long list of scams being perpetrated online. Cybercrime has proliferated massively over the last year or so. With so many people in lockdown and a decline in paper money it seems criminals have now moved increasingly online. To the point where we are witnessing a full on crime wave. Online scammers are to the 2020’s what the mafia were to Chicago in the 1920’s.

Praying on the vulnerable

An insidious feature of these scammers is how they pray on the vulnerable, often targeting older people (on the assumption that they may lack the IT knowledge to spot a scam) or the recently unemployed, divorced or anybody down on their luck. Case in point Jim Browning, a NI based hackvist has documented scammers targeting someone with depression (whom the scammers knew had been scammed before). Or, another occasion, a blind woman. And in many cases the victims find themselves swindled out of thousands of pounds (sometimes their entire life savings).

More recently Jim Browning teamed up with Mark Rober (a former NASA engineer and inventor of the glitter bomb) to catch these scammers in action. During this investigation, they observed money mules working in the US on behalf of Indian based scammers to collect packages of cash worth tens of thousands of pounds (yes they managed to scam people into basically posting them their life savings). This is the scale of the operations we are talking about here.

A history lesson

One thing to realise is that a lot of these scams aren’t necessarily anything new, many are old fashioned hustler tricks that have been used since at least the roaring twenties, if not the middle ages (e.g. the pig in a poke scam, aka a fake goods or sale scam, has existed since the 16th century).

The only difference is that in times gone by, the scammers had limited means to distribute their scam. Generally limited to those they could physically meet (think of the old fashioned snake oil salesman at a county fair). Or later on, those they could contact via print media, then with late night infomercials. But now, thanks to the internet, you can fire off hundreds of millions of phishing lines or internet ads in a few clicks, vastly multiplying the potential reach of these scams.

Buzzword bingo

Of course in of itself this also creates a line of weakness, as it means that many of these scams follow a series of predictable patterns, which can be easily spotted. For example making unrealistic promises of high returns (if this was legitimately possible, why isn’t everyone else doing it and why is the scammer advertising this, allowing rivals to get in on the act and saturate the market). Or using high pressure sales tactics (as they want you to pay up before you’ve had a chance to think it through). Or appealing to people’s emotions (e.g. fake charity scams, which will offer to pay for medical treatment overseas…when in reality its just a variation on the Nigerian prince scam).

Sometimes the best way to stay safe is simply to watch out for certain buzzwords or terms, e.g. “legal loophole”, “sack your boss”, “passive income”, “xyz hates this trick”, “xyz has been ripping of customers for years”, “did you know that xyz, so if you give me your money”….you’ll never see it again! And of course be very suspicious of the word “free”.

I think you get the message. Hell, I didn’t realise the extent to which these scams have proliferated because some years ago I programmed my email to just automatically mark as spam any emails with certain known buzzwords or phrases scammers use. So just being aware of these scammy buzzwords (or if you know someone who is potentially vulnerable, making them aware of it) can be a good way of staying safe.

Scamazon prime

A common scammer tactic is form of catfishing, where the scammer will pretend to be someone reputable, e.g. your ISP, Microsoft or Amazon and claim to be contacting you about some security issue, a refund or a problem with your payment. And, needless to say, the punchline is they want you to login into your account so they can steal your bank details or get you to send them money.

Its actually gotten so bad, my advice is that if you get any email or phone calls purporting to be from Amazon (or Google, Microsoft or any other major tech firm), I’d just assume its a scam, even if you actually have an Amazon account and are awaiting a delivery. Don’t click on the links in any email, no matter how legit they look, go to your account via the normal channels and login normally (using two-step authentication) and you should be able to verify what’s going on. And don’t call back a missed call, it will likely be to a premium rate number scam.

Case in point, there’s the Amazon prime scam doing the rounds, which takes advantage of Amazon’s unwillingness to let people cancel an Amazon prime subscription they accidentally signed up for. This is another of those tech support scams covered by Jim Browning.

Certainly one could argue that its hard for the authorities to keep up, including Amazon’s own security team. But in this case, their sales tactics for Amazon Prime have had catastrophic consequences for many victims of this scam, something Amazon need to own up too.

Get poor quick schemes

And this is why I’d argue these scams can be quite dangerous. For example Amazon has been trying to promote the sales of its own shares recently, as it seeks to exploit the pandemic and grow its market share. Of course, this doesn’t mean investing in Amazon is a good idea. Like any investment its a risk. Amazon pays dividends to shareholders about as much as it pays tax, other firms such as ebay are starting to catchup, and if Amazon have to issue more shares as the expand the share price will fall. But either way, Amazon’s success is being exploited by scammers.

For example, I’ve seen ads encouraging investment in Amazon promising returns in the order of several thousand percent. This has nothing to do with Amazon and the promised rate of return exceeds the actual performance of Amazon stock by some order of magnitude. Based on the experience of those who’ve fallen for it this appears to be a classic boiler room scam. The promoters behind it seem to be based out of Cyprus and it mirrors a similar scheme from a few years ago, which was shut down by the FTC.

But of course, like all scams, you can see how it prays on the unwary. They are trying to exploit FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out. Most people will know Amazon is a very successful company, out of which many have gotten rich, notably Bezo’s….and his ex-wife. So an advert pops up and says sign up now and for just $250 we’ll make you rich, well, like I said, its easy to see how people can be fooled.

The lesson here is don’t trust something just because you saw an advert for it. After all internet searches and advertising can be manipulated. So much so that a sure fire way of spotting a scam is simply putting “is xyz a scam” into Google and if you only get positive reviews and see nothing negative, then its a scam (no product or service is that good that nobody will whinge about something, so this shows someone has gone to great lengths to scrub the internet of any genuine criticism).

Don’t take things at face value. If it looks to good to be true, then it probably is. Also make sure the story checks out and do some due diligence. E.g, someone says they are based in the US and they are actually based somewhere else, why are they lying about that? Probably because they’ve got something to hide.

Also why are they selling to you in the first place? Think about it, if its such a good deal why pitch it to dozens of amateurs online when a billionaire can cut you a cheque right there and then? Well because rich people, and their staff, will go over any business proposal with a fine toothed comb and it won’t take them long to spot a scam.

Case in point, the Brit method, that was doing the rounds a few years ago (or the Canuck method if you are in Canada, or the Aussie method in Australia and so on). This was another investment scam revolving around binary trading (now illegal, in part due to this scam). Again, as with all the others, it exploited people’s ignorance and greed.

My point is, if things don’t check out, or you get the slightest whiff of dishonesty (or nothing but cult like enthusiasm), don’t just walk away, run away, then report it. And frankly I’d sooner take financial advice from my neighbours cat than take it from some random stranger on the internet.

Crypto scams

My view on crypto is that they will take off eventually. But only after the major banks, governments and/or tech companies have decided to support one. However, they likely to be only interested in a type of crypto currency where they can exert some form of regulation and control. Which pretty much rules out most existing crypto. Some might well survive (for a time) as a form of digital gold, but most are basically digital tulips.

So with that in mind, crypto is by definition, a high risk investment. Yes some early adopters did make a lot of money, but equally that also means you can lose a lot of money. So I would urge caution. Not least because there have been attempts to scam people using the promises of crypto riches.

This includes pump and dump schemes using crypto currencies, people being defrauded out of their money (thinking they were buying bitcoins), or digital wallets being broken into and straight up stolen. And some of these cases have involved the likes of John McAfee and Elon Musk.

And that’s before we even bring up fake crypto currencies such as BitConnect or Onecoin, which turned out to be little more than ponzi schemes. Again, these seek to exploit a combination of people’s ignorance about crypto as well as FOMO. Don’t fall for it.

Wingnut welfare

Another type of scam to be wary of are attempts to exploit people’s politics. For example the we build the wall fiasco, which diverted money from Trump supporters into the pockets of the foundation’s organisers. Or how the NRA have been embezzling donations for many decades, often using donors cash to fund the extravagant lifestyle of NRA board members, or republican politicians.

And we can see similar things with televangelists of the prosperity gospel, who literally brag about their private jets (ya I remember that bit from the Bible when Jesus got his supporters to put themselves into poverty to buy him a golden chariot so he could go to the temple in Jerusalem and congratulate the money lenders on the excellent job they were doing).

But others on the right want a piece of this action. Farage has been shilling on behalf of various half baked and doggy investment schemes (while humping the union jack and using many of the same conspiracy buzzwords mentioned earlier). Trump too has been accused of openly swindling his supporters money, using underhand tactics.

While this is more of a problem for the political right, its not like the left is immune to it. Recall how the Teamster union’s under Jimmy Hoffa ended up being controlled by the mob, who used that control to swindle supporters out of some of their pension contributions. Then there was the fake UK charity Kids Company that was closed down a few years back.

The lesson is, any badly run organisation, no matter its political goals, will be exploited by the greedy and the corrupt. Donate your money to more competently run organisations.

McMafia

the fact we now have evidence of criminal gangs, in different parts of the world, working together does raise the possibility of McMafia involvement in these scams. For those unfamiliar with the term, McMafia refers to how modern organised crime functions. Rather than operating in one geographical area, with a hierarchical structure (boss, underboss, caporegime’s, etc.), instead they now operate as more of a sort of lose international franchise (kind of like McDonalds, hence the name) of different gangs who will specialise in a particular type of crime.

So for example, we have these fraudsters in India running the phone and internet scams. Sitting behind them is likely another gang who acts as enforcers (in case any of the staff get cute), provide protection from robbery by rival gangs and arranging kickbacks and bribes to public officials, who allow them to operate. Another gang in the US organises the money mules who likely pass on the cash to someone else (for a cut of course).

This next group will either launder the money, or divert it towards other criminal gangs around the world, who will use it to fund crimes like prostitution, drug smuggling, people trafficking, etc, kicking back a cut to the all parties. I’d note that it is a common tactic for criminals to use rackets that yield ready cash (such as loansharking, illegal gambling, extortion, robberies or grifting) to then fund more profitable but cash intensive operations (such as drug smuggling, gun running, people trafficking, etc.).

Now I bring this up because there are some who see internet scams as a victimless crime. This is particularly a problem in India, where some see it as just rich westerners getting fleeced (revenge for colonialism). Well, the victims of these scams (who are mostly pensioners, the unemployed or blue collar workers, not the rich) would disagree. It can really be traumatic.

Secondly, its likely the proceeds from these frauds are being used to fund other criminal activities, which btw can include terrorism. In fact previous terrorist attacks in India have been traced back to similar McMafia operations, where the enforcers happened to be terrorists, which is a not unusual setup (here in Ireland there’s a similar dynamic with loyalists and republican paramilitary groups,providing protection in exchange for a piece of the action).

Just last month, while arresting an individual on money laundering charges related to BEC frauds, the FBI pointed to a link between cybercriminals and north Korea. And this not the first time north Korea has been implicated in cybercrime.

The crackdown

Finally, I will end with some positives, the authorities are starting to catch up with these criminals. Now that the thief in chief is out of office, a number of prominent scammers in the US are starting to get arrested, as well as a Teranos wannabe whose now on the run. Any fraudulent phone calls I’ve had recently were flagged up as fraud. So it looks like the law is starting to catch up.

But its a game of Whack-A-Mole for the authorities. As soon as they’ve shut down one outfit and gotten the word out to the public, the scammers have moved on to something new. Really the only solution is all of us to be cautious online, look out for one another and trying to stay safe.

And perhaps we need to re-discover the value of experts, as after all, alot of what these scammers are selling is the expertise many in the post-truth era have chosen to reject.

Posted in Amazon, Amazon 250 scam, crime, history, news, politics, scams | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pyongyang on the Thames

I came across a documentary from French TV about the North Korean “Ghost Fleet” of fishing vessels. Large fleets of North Korean fishing boats have been raiding the fishing grounds of neighbouring countries, most notably making intrusions into Russian waters, overfishing and using banned techniques such a drift netting. Which is causing all sorts of environmental problems. And as many of these fishing boats aren’t terribly seaworthy, there is believed to be a fairly high death toll from ships sinking, or their engines failing and ending up adrift and becalmed until the crews starve.

Anyway, it was interesting to watch Russians and Chinese fishermen complaining about how they have to follow all of these complex rules, yet the North Korean don’t. They seem to be allowed to do whatever the hell they like. Now why does that sound familiar? Because that’s what the brexiters want. They see brexit as their chance to get Singapore on the Thames. However, in reality what they are actually pitching for is Pyongyang on the Thames, where the UK becomes a Pariah state, who routinely breaks international law and gets by through a combination of criminality, intense propaganda and brainwashing (even now in UK schools, as if control of the media wasn’t good enough) as well as constant threats if they don’t get their way.

Consider that in the last week the UK government has broken international law twice, unilaterally reneging on parts of the EU trade deal, before the EU’s even had a chance to ratify it. And meanwhile many Tory MP’s and cheer leaders are urging for even stronger action, such as fighting a trade war with the EU, or banning EU made bottled water, or forcing people in the UK to eat more shellfish (I’d love to see these brexiters try that outside a Glasgow takeaway on a Saturday night, they’ll likely just get stabbed with a plastic fork).

Up in Northern Ireland the DUP are trying to undo the trade deal (which in December they’d been praising) by any means necessary, including simply not building the infrastructure to enforce it (so basically they campaigned for brexit, the results of which they are refusing to implement). They’ve also begun to use threatening language, including calling for “Guerilla warfare” against the EU, clearly a dog whistle to their terrorist allies. Which was received loud and clear, as shortly afterwards several loyalist terrorist groups announced their break with the Good Friday agreement.

And, as regards corruption and criminal behaviour, we have the health secretary being found to have acted unlawfully in the award of PPE contracts during the pandemic to his chums (of course he’s not going to resign, don’t be silly!). The prime minster setting up a charity slush fund to redecorate his flat and using taxpayers money to pay for fake news articles (adverts masquerading as real news) to sell brexit as a success.

Consider for a minute if anyone else behaved the way the brexiters behave. Imagine if a Muslim stood up and talked about launching Guerrilla warfare. How many seconds before they’d be arrested? Consider how the Tories were calling for Nicola Sturgeon’s head for the last few weeks, while ignoring the far greater scandals from within their own party. If labour had won the election and they heard Corbyn was going to use taxpayers money to fool Daily Mail or Telegraph into reading articles promoting his socialist policies, how would they have reacted? Likely by rolling around on the ground and chewing the carpet, then calling for him to be arrested for misuse of state funds. There is one rule for brexiters and another one for everyone else.

I recall a conversation I once had with someone who worked for the Brazilian government (under the previous left wing administration) who bemoaned the fact that any time the country implemented any sort of left wing policy, stronger environmental protections, raising taxes for the wealthy, better labour laws, the credit rating agencies in the west would cut the country’s credit rating. Yet whenever the right wing parties did something, such as lowering taxes for the wealthy or selling off state industries to the private sector, the credit ratings would be raised (even when the measures were clearly going to lead to higher levels of borrowing and a higher risk of default for investors).

So we now have the situation where the UK has essentially imposed sanctions on itself and its led by politicians who are deliberately trying to sabotage the UK economy, yet the UK’s credit ratings aren’t being cut. Again, one rule for one group and another for everyone else.

Of course there is a difference between North Korea and the UK. North Korea survives on the basis of the CFC gambit. Or Crippled (anyone attacking North Korea will be stuck with the bill for rebuilding a crippled country from scratch), Fearsome (as they have a vast arsenal of conventional, as well as nuclear, biological and chemical weapons) and Crazy (while they would be all but guaranteed to loose any war they are just about crazy enough to use this arsenal as an act of national suicide). In short, its better for its neighbours to treat North Korea with kid gloves….because Kim Jung un’s gloves are likely made from real kids!

In short, CFC works for North Korea because they are an impoverished nation whose leadership have nothing to lose by self isolation. Its a little different with the UK. The EU’s likely response will be targeted sanctions and tariffs. These will be used to cause maximum pain to the the UK and Tory politicians in particular, while minimising the harm to the EU. So likely measures could include heavy tariffs on fish or agricultural products, or a financial transaction tax on UK/EU trades (which would hit Tory voters and donors hard).

And while some cosmetic tabloid friendly retaliation from the UK might happen, the UK can’t really do much, given how dependant it is on things like food, medicines, electricity and energy supplies from the EU. In fact customs checks they should currently be undertaking, which they delayed till July (illegally), might be watered down even further due to fears of possible food shortages (so they wanted brexit so they can shut the border…but now they don’t want to shut the border WTF!).

The GFA is underwritten by the US. They will take a very dim view of any effort to undermine it. Measures they could take could involve, joining in with EU’s sanctions, ruling out any trade deals (or making it plain to other countries that they should drop their trade deals with the UK if they want to remain friends with Washington) or boycotting of international events (such as the upcoming G8 meeting).

Its also not clear how they will react to any resumption of violence. There were some Americans back in the troubles who argued for a more robust American stance (e.g. refusing to sell miltary hardware to the UK until it negotiated with the Irish), or an American led UN peace keeping force in NI (the unionist wake up one morning to find US Marines standing on every street corner). So its kind of up in the air what happens next, particularly if its seen as the UK provoking a unionist bombing campaign in the Republic.

So the brexiters are in for something of a rude awakening. And its clear they still don’t know what brexit means. And even if they do, they are plugging their ears. They want a fantasy brexit, where they still have all the benefits of EU membership, but (much as North Korea pretends they won the Korean war) they get to pretend they’ve also gotten their Empire 2.0.

Posted in crime, cults, economics, environment, EU, Global warming denial, history, Japan, news, politics, sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Boris burrow part II – the Boris bend, or more than likely the Boris bluff

So you if you thought Boris Johnson’s proposal for a train tunnel between Scotland and NI (aka the Boris Burrow) was crazy, well it would seem they are doubling down. Now they want not one, but 4 tunnels connecting the UK mainland with NI and the Isle of Man.

The longest of these would run from near Liverpool to the northern part of the Isle of Man, a distance of +130 km’s (that’s double the likely distance of a Scotland to NI route and over 2 and a half times longer than the world’s current longest tunnel). Straight away, this tells me that nobody who knows the slightest thing about engineering could be involved in this project.

Generally with tunnels the longer you want to build them, or the deeper under water you want to go, the harder it gets. You have to be able to maintain a water tight seal to resist the hydrostatic pressure of the water above. You need to have the right kind of rock to drill through (the channel tunnel was only able to be built because there was a layer of rock through which a water tight tunnel could be easily drilled through). The tunnel needs to be maintained at a suitable slope such that trains can easily ascend and descend. And you need to be able to circulate air into the tunnel and pump any water out. And the further you are from shore and the deeper you go the harder this pumping process gets.

Quite simply put, even with an unlimited budget and an unlimited amount of time (again it took decades to build much smaller tunnels) it might be impossible to build such a tunnel. Not least because a lot will depend on the geology of the Irish sea. I don’t know, maybe Boris thinks the fictional Island of Sodor from Thomas the Tank engine is real and he can just build the line across it.

As a quick aside, you may ask, why does it have to be a rail tunnel? Well because a road tunnel will need to be much bigger (to accommodate several lanes of traffic), you’ll have to supply air, not just for the people, but also the vehicle engines and pump out exhaust gases (trains can run on electricity). And to be blunt, trains are driven by professional drivers who are less likely to have an accident. As rescuing people from such a deep and remote location under the sea is going to be difficult at the best of times.

Anyway, the fat controller Boris big idea is to have a big roundabout tunnel under the Isle of Man linking everything together. Of course what he’s actually going to need is a series of vast marshalling yards. Go to google earth and look up the town of Ventimiglia in Italy (see below), you’ll notice the entire north end of the town of just 50,000 is dominated by a vast area of railway marshalling yards covering the entire north end of the town, of which only a small fraction is currently in use (with an even larger set of marshalling yards a few km’s to the North west). Why? Well because its on the Italian/French border. And before the EU’s single market came along every train passing between the two countries had to stop. All the passengers had to be offloaded and stamped out of one country and stamped into the other and customs inspections plus checks had to be undertaken.

Similarly, as NI is now a separate customs area to the UK, you’d have to stop and check every single train passing through. Quite apart from the break of gauge issues I mentioned before (as the UK uses standard gauge while the Ireland uses broad gauge). And, as the Isle of Man is also a separate customs area to the other two, you’d have to have a separate area to check goods and people in and out of the Isle of Man. Oh and speaking of breaks of gauge, the Isle of Man’s railway network is mostly narrow gauge. So you’re now linking together 3 incompatible railway systems.

For some strange reason there’s another tunnel leading to Scotland. And why would someone use this tunnel to get to Scotland when there’s a perfectly good road (the M6) and railway line running along side it that goes directly to the central belt? Furthermore, in the timescales for construction of this tunnel, Scotland might get independence. So you’d then need another large marshalling yard to check good into and out of Scotland. You’re going to be digging up half the Isle of Man and covering it with railway yards!

So why is such a crazy proposal being pursued? Well not because they actually plan on building anything (no doubt some Tory consultant will get a contract to waste a few million to prove the viability of the project). No, as always, Boris Johnson’s goal is to control the narrative. With the help of his media allies he aims to gaslight the public with propaganda and lies.

For example, the UK is on top for vaccinations you have likely been told. Well firstly that is largely down to the NHS (which the Tories want to sell off) not anything the government’s done. The only contribution to the vaccine made by the Tories was to try and insist on putting a union jack on the labels. Secondly, no, the UK is pretty high up the list but not on top, as the UK government is only issuing a single dose (then counting that as someone has been vaccinated) while most most other countries say you have to have the 2 doses within 4 weeks to count. And inevitably this means the UK is now slipping behind other countries.

Similarly we have the situation in NI where the DUP, aka the old testament with weekly bin collections, campaigned for brexit and are now upset with the consequences. Arlene Foster (who always seems to look like someone whose just swallowed a bee), back in December was touting the benefits of NI staying in the single market. Now they (with a little help from Kate Hoey, aka the Corbyn ally who pretends to be a labour supporter when she’s really a UKIP 5th columnist) are launching legal action, trying to have the NI protocol scrapped, even thought they know this would lead to a hard border with the rest of Ireland and likely a break down of the GFA.

Like the Tories, the DUP’s entire political position is based on lies and fantasy. They believe that they can have all the benefits of staying in the EU, without suffering any of the consequences of leaving, while ignoring the impossible trinity of brexit (CCP Grey has a good video on this here). And far from being worried about destroying the GFA, that’s their ultimate fantasy. They never wanted it in the first place and signed up to it only halfheartedly (Ian Paisley was famously known as Dr No for his tendency to say no, no, never… then maybe).

This was the problem with the GFA. The treaty was mostly negotiated by the moderates (John Hume of the SDLP and David Trimble of the UUP), with SF and the DUP (the political fronts for the terrorists) only supporting it because they’d have gotten frozen out of the political process if they hadn’t (and then likely all gotten arrested and sent to some US supermax prison). It should have been a condition of the Irish, British and the US that anyone who’d be previously involved in terrorism should stay out of politics (which still applies to quite a number of the front bench in SF and the DUP to this day).

Unfortunately, they naively assumed that the SDLP & UUP would take power…which ignores how elections work, how tribal the two communities are in NI and how populists can win by making outlandish promises they never keep. Consequently SF and the DUP have pretty much run NI into the ground, using Stormont as means to settle petty scores against one another while engaging in various money burning parties as they squander public money. NI receives far more tax payers money per head of population than any region of the UK, yet its GDP (per capita) is 80% that of the UK average and less than half that of the Irish republic.

And the situation in NI should serve as a warning for how the Tories policy, of basically running the country as a Chumacracy, could have serious long term consequences. The point is that this tunnel project shows that all the Tories have are their lies and empty promises. The UK has become a country where brexit is now the state the religion, ignorance is considered an asset and the truth is seen by the government as a threat.

Posted in aviation, cults, economics, environment, EU, history, news, politics, technology, transport | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Texas tantrums and anti-wind strawmen

Recently there’s been some blackouts in Texas caused by unseasonably cold weather. In fact its the sort of extreme weather we’d be expecting due to climate change (which doesn’t just lead to hotter weather, it can also cause shifts in weather patterns leading to more extremes of weather, such as more intense rainfall, hurricanes and yes snow storms). And predictably Republicans in Texas were showing the sort of leadership we’d expect of them, either by fleeing to Mexico (just as well we didn’t build that wall then!), or by blaming wind energy for the crisis.

While it is true that yes some wind turbines stopped working during the cold, or were forced offline due to the failure of power lines connecting them to the grid (as neither were weatherised for cold conditions, as state legislation doesn’t require it). But they were not alone, indeed far more fossil fuel and nuclear capacity was lost due to the storm than wind energy (again due to a lack of legislation requiring proper weatherization).

And this is not exactly the first time a grid failure has occurred due to cold weather. There was the infamous ice-storms of 1988 in Canada which nearly caused complete power loss to several cities due to power-line failures. Indeed the lack of connection between Texas and the rest of the nation (something we have to blame on Texas politicians) is a much more plausible explanation for these blackouts. In fact federal authorities warned Texas state officials of the potential dangers ten years ago. So I’m afraid this one’s on them.

Part of the problem here is the tendency for opponents of wind energy to cherry pick. They will ignore situations where the failure of conventional power sources led to a black out, focusing instead on any situation where renewables can be blamed. For example on the night of 28th of October, 2013, the UK was hit by a large storm. This (as seen in the graph below) let to a brief drop in the output of some of the UK’s wind farms (some were forced to turn off for a few hours due to the high winds, although this was partially cancelled out by others operating at peak output in the high winds). As this was predicable event (the grid operators would have had access to weather forecasts a few days in advance) it could be dealt with, as other sources of power were on standby and picked up the slack.

Of course this isn’t what the media reported, focusing on how one small wind turbine in the kW range was blown down in the storm. And they almost completely ignored the more serious fact that Dungeness nuclear power station also went off line due to flooding. As nuclear power stations need to draw power from the grid to operate (run pumps, cooling systems, control systems and computers) they therefore have to shut down in the event of a loss of onsite power, or even the risk of it (yes there are backup generators, but you really don’t want to tempt fate by over relying on them).

So this left the grid with a massive hole pretty much straight away. This was filled using a combination of pump storage and hydroelectricity. And while wind energy was back to normal pretty quickly, Dungeness was down for over week.So a story which should have read “renewables help save country from massive black outs caused by nuclear power plant failure” instead we got “wind energy doesn’t work because of wind”. So we have to acknowledge there is more than a little bias in the media, particularly certain right wing outlets, against renewables. Which may have something to do with financial connections to big oil or simple ideological reasons (we’ll get to that).

Certainly yes a policy of wind, wind and yet more wind isn’t going to work, but nobody, other than opponents of wind energy, is actually making an argument for this. So either they are completely ignorant of how electrical grids work, or they are posing a deliberate strawman argument. Solar tends to make a nice fit (and Texas does get quite a bit of sunshine) as whenever its not windy, it tends to be sunny. Solar is also a distributed form of energy, so less reliant on power lines to distribute power to customers.

As noted in the examples above hydroelectricity is often used for load balancing, as it can be turned on and off as necessary and used to store energy for emergencies (particularly when it comes to pumped hydro). Biomass too can do load balancing and it can also work on the large scale. Two-thirds of the UK’s Drax power station’s 3.9 GW output (the largest power plant in the UK) is now fed by biomass, with it planned to eventually go over completely to biomass. While there is a big question mark over the carbon footprint of this fuel, as its sourced from the US, but this won’t be a problem in Texas. Not least because of all those cattle ranches in Texas, which would be an obvious source of manure and thus methane.

Another straw man is that you will need vast amounts of energy storage in the form of batteries to back up a renewable heavy grid. Some will even try to claim we’ll need 7-14 days supply. Okay, and where is the storage facility providing 7-14 days backup for all of the nuclear plants? After all, as we’ve just mentioned, they can be knocked offline for weeks by flooding or high winds. Surely that means we can’t rely on nuclear either?

And while there are stockpiles of fossil fuels in that range, the worse case scenario supply interruption would be repeat of the 1970’s oil crisis (which saw supplies disrupted for several months). So arguably you’d need the best part of a year’s supply in storage as a back up for fossil fuels. Do we have such stockpiles? My point is you are imposing requirements on a low carbon grid that exceed those of the existing grid. It seems that power cuts are only a problem when they can be blamed on renewables.

Certainly you would need some storage for renewables, but not nearly as much as many think. Assuming you have a fairly diverse grid, drawing power from a variety of different sources, the potential storage levels needed are a lot smaller. The exact amount of storage needed would depend a lot on your load profile (heavy industry, or mostly residential), your mix of renewables (a good mix of renewables or a heavy dependancy on one particular type), interconnections (can you get power in an emergency from your neighbours?) and ultimately your budget (you can have a super reliable grid than costs a lot to maintain, or one with lower costs where you have to cope with the odd brown out).

Recent advances in technology do mean large scale energy storage using batteries is now possible. Although I’d argue in favour of using smart grids. In a future with lots of electric cars you could offer car owners the option to charge their cars using cheaper off peak power and then sell power back to the grid (say 10-20% of the battery) during peak demand (topping up again during off peak hours).

Think about it, if you had 3.8 million cars (10% of the UK’s current vehicle fleet) each with an average 50 kWh battery, 10% of all of those batteries is 19 GWh’s, or about two thirds of the UK’s current entire energy storage capacity of 30GWh. In a crisis, such as the one in Texas, (when people aren’t going to be travelling long distance, hence you’ll have more cars connected and can do a deeper discharge and still leave enough for the owner to make a few supply runs to the store) you could up this to 30% of the fleet and say 33% of each car’s battery capacity, yielding 188 GWh’s, over 6 times the UK’s current electricity storage capacity. And better still, like the solar panels, this would be distributed power (the sort you need in an ice storm).

Other options for long term storage would be pumped hydro. While the capital costs for this can be high (essentially there is a price floor for such a facility), but they do scale up and there is essentially no upper limit to how large they can be built. Hence if you ever did need that 7-14 days of supply, this is how you’d do it.

Hydrogen stored in underground caverns is another option. In fact a facility in the US has been storing 2500 tons of Hydrogen (about 84 GWh’s worth) regularly since the 1980’s. An even larger facility was recently commissioned in 2017 in Texas (of all places!). I bring up hydrogen, in part because it shows how ignorant republicans are about what’s going on in their own state (maybe you should focus on fixing the power grid rather than banging on about the usual right wing talking points). But also because hydrogen tends to be a nice fit with heat demand, as burning it for heat is 2-3 times more energy efficient that using it for electricity production (due the difference in efficiency between a boiler and a power plant). And I’m kind of guessing that what Texans want right now is heat. In fact, the bulk of most of Europe and North America’s energy demand is in the form of heat.

Of course getting all of this to work together is perhaps the problem. A future low carbon grid is kind of a bit like an orchestra. Its only going to work with a conductor. This means there needs to be some legislation from government, notably to make sure the infrastructure that is built is fit for purpose and that customers don’t get ripped off. This doesn’t mean handing everything over to the government, in fact it assumes the private sector will do most of the heavy lifting and innovation (and be rewarded in return).

But naturally, this is the problem with right wingers as they are ideologically opposed to big governmentother than the bit that provides generous defence contracts, public highways, police, the largest prison population in the world and subsides to big oil. Some of them think an orchestra can work without a conductor. Others prefer their fossil fuel drum solo. And still others are in the pocket of the sort of conductor from whiplash (renewables aren’t quite their tempo), who want to retain their right to abuse their customers and protect their monopoly.

But either way, blaming renewables for power cuts makes no sense. If the republicans in Texas are looking for someone to blame for this crisis, they need only look in a mirror. This mess is entirely one of their own making. Had they focused the same effort on their policies as they are now focusing on PR maybe this crisis could have been avoided.

Posted in Biomass, cars, CHP, clean energy, climate change, defence, economics, efficiency, energy, environment, EU, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, history, housing, news, nuclear, Passivhaus, politics, power, renewables, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment