The environmental impact of concrete

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A concrete cement mill in operation

What is the most destructive material known to humans? Plutonium? Cyanide? Whatever the hell they put in Marmite? No, it would have to be concrete. The Guardian recently ran a series on the environmental impact of concrete which is worth a read.

Much of the focus on climate change mitigation, or pollution in general, tends to focus on energy production. However, in truth this is merely one of several sources of carbon emissions. Agriculture and land use changes tends to be the next biggest headline at about a quarter of emissions (which is actually arguably larger than it looks given the amounts of fossil fuels used in agriculture both by farm machinery and the production of fertilisers).

After that its the acquisition of raw materials (mining, refining and processing of base metals and minerals). And concrete, as one of the mostly widely used materials in the world, tends to figure quite highly in this category. And at almost every step in its life cycle concrete has an environmental impact.

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As I discussed in a prior post, the world is running out of sand for concrete production. Hence, there’s now a whole series of “sand Mafia’s” emerging in the developing world to steal sand, so the issues with concrete goes way beyond just climate change. Then you have to transport all these ingredients long distances, which consumes a lot of energy (cos they are kind of heavy!).

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Then there’s the process of making concrete, which consumes rather a lot of energy. Making just the cement component consumes 1,700 KJ/kg and, due to chemical reactions, releases releases 750 kg’s of carbon dioxide for every tonne of concrete produced. And given its weight, simply pouring concrete entails yet more energy consumption and carbon emissions. Furthermore, poured concrete undergoes an exothermic reaction, which may require external cooling as it hardens.

And, at the end of the building’s life, when its demolished, you’ve got numerous environmental problems. Notably the disposal of masses of concrete rubble (at one point back during the boom in Ireland they did a survey and found that 4/5’s of all the material entering Irish landfills was builders rubble).

Of course, as an engineer I’d have to point out that there are good reasons why we use concrete. Its cheap, it can be moulded into complex shapes, its durable, easy to maintain and fire proof. Basically you can do your worst to a concrete building and it will still stay standing. Hell, there was even a concrete building close to ground zero at Hiroshima that took the full force of a nuclear blast and survived. And keep in mind, we’ve been using concrete since ancient times. So we need to move beyond the simple “concrete bad” narrative, same way plastics is a bit more of a complex issue than it seems at first glance.

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The glory of the Roman Pantheon, concrete at its best

While concrete can be recycled, its more a form of downcycling. That is too say, you’ll get a lower quality of concrete afterwards, so you can use it for say roads or backfill, but not build a new skyscraper from the stuff. Another alternative is to change the composition of the concrete, using other materials such as fly ash, shredded rubber, waste glass, etc. into the mix. The downside is that this is again downcycling, not recycling and its generally not going to have the same structural properties.

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The concrete recycling process, which isn’t 100% effective

Hence why other more radial measures are being proposed, for example a concrete tax. I’d point out that perhaps the problem here is the short life cycle of many modern buildings. I’ve seen concrete buildings that are maybe only 20 years old getting demolished. Sticking a carbon tax on, with the condition that some significant portion is refunded if the building stays in use for some extended period (e.g. at least a hundred years), or that its design life allows it to last that long, would create an incentive to only use concrete where necessary and make sure those buildings are built to last (as well as a financial incentive to refurbish rather than demolish).

There’s also alternatives to concrete. Wood as a construction material is something I’ve previously discussed. And while there are structural limits and issues with fire safety that need to be addressed (as well as where you source the wood from of course), these aren’t insurmountable. And there’s also the option of steel framed buildings. Now while yes steel, like most metals, is very energy intensive to manufacture, it has one unique advantage over concrete (or wood for that matter) – it can be recycled with 100% material efficiency (i.e. virtually no waste). So encouraging steel framed construction would offer several advantages.

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Wooden skyscrapers have recently been proposed

But as so often is the case with climate change we are confronted with a problem whose dimensions aren’t immediately apparent. And where there is no nice and neat one size fits all solution, just lots of hard choices.

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Ending the anarchy

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Back in the 12th century the UK went through a traumatic period in its history, known as “the Anarchy” where two factions of the ruling Normans fought for control of the country, each supporting rival rulers. In this 18 year period, the many commoners were left to fend for themselves, as the lords fought, brigands ravaged the countryside and “the saints slept”. Well brexit has now driven the UK into another anarchy, as effectively the country does not have a functioning government.

The latest nickname for May is LINO, leader in name only. Hard to nail down, but easy to walk over. She sits surrounded by a cabinet of fools, which she is not the leader of. The traditional UK policy of cabinet collective responsibility having been abandoned some time ago. Hell at one point last week the brexit secretary gave the cabinet’s…

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The fall of the Roman Republic: Lessons for the modern world

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I stumbled on this youtube channel, Historia Civilis which, amongst other things, presents the fall of the Roman republic in quite an interesting and entertaining way. Worth a look, if you are a history buff. It occurred to me however, that the downfall of the Roman republic presents several valuable lessons for us in the modern world. As one can see parallels with current events and those leading up to the fall of the republic.

At the heart of the matter were three men, Julius Caesar (who presumably needs no introduction!), Pompey (the veteran general, not the football team) and Crassus (the richest man in Rome and victor over Spartacus). These three men formed the a loose alliance known as the Triumvirate in order to help push their various political agendas through the Roman parliament, the senate.

Key among there demands was money. Pompey and Caesar…

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A comment on mountain safety

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There’s been a string of tragic accidents on the Scottish mountains this winter. Which is a little strange given how there’s actually been very little snow and fairly mild conditions (climate change I suppose, rather that a steady build up it all comes at once and then melts or avalanches off). A few weeks back two highly experienced climbers died on Ben Hope, while Ben Nevis has now seen three accidents with multiple fatalities, notably a fall off the ledge route and just the last few days three were killed in an avalanche in nearby number 5 gully.

Now inevitably the media position is, oh mountaineering, in particular these adrenaline junkies hanging off of cliffs, its really dangerous and should be banned. Well statistically, climbing is still safer than sports such as cycling, field sports, horse riding or water sports. So if you’re going to ban mountaineering, you’d…

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Dodging the bitcoin bear

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The crypto currency bitcoin is in the grip of a long running bear market. From a high of nearly $20,000 back in Dec 2017, its now lost over 80% of its value. Which, when you consider how many bitcoins are in circulation (about 17 million), multiply that by the value of bitcoins at their peak, minus the recent losses, you end up discovering that Bitcoin has wiped out about $270 billion from the world economy. And this is merely part of the estimated $700 billion dumpster fire across all cryptocurrencies over the last year or so.

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Which raises the question, who took the hit? The vast majority of bitcoin transactions are just speculative trading, as well as some actual use by criminals or terrorists. So in all likelihood most of these losses were endured by these parties, including a lot of libertarian bitcoin bugs who just lost a big chunk of their life savings. In short, its tulip mania all over again… but worse, as tulips are actually something useful in the real world. Which is bad news for these individuals, but doesn’t really effect the rest of us in the real world.

However, just prior to the spike in bitcoin prices there had been some rather aggressive buying of bitcoins by hedge funds and the mainstream financial services companies. Which raises the risk that some of those losses are held on the books of those firms. But due to the unregulated nature of bitcoin, its possible the losses aren’t properly being accounted for (one can envisage a trader, who screwed up but doesn’t want to admit it, recording the bitcoins against the price when it was at its high point, which accounting hasn’t picked up on as they don’t understand how volatile bitcoin prices are). So we’ll only find out about it if a firm suddenly runs out of money and collapses into insolvency. Needless to say, if only a small proportion of these losses is held by a single major financial firm, this could easily bring down that company and trigger another financial crisis.

Which hammers home a point made to me recently by someone who works in the money markets. The thing you often hear from the left is that the financial crisis was caused by banks that were too big too fail (and thus according to Bernie, too big to exist). But that’s not the full story. The main reason for the financial crisis wasn’t that the banks were too big, it was that they weren’t properly regulated. Break up the major banks, re-run the financial crisis and the same scenario will unfold, much like the savings and loan scandals of the early 90’s.

And if you think those CDO’s that caused the whole mess are bad, well cryptocurrencies are a heck of a lot worse. They are not only completely unregulated, but easily prone to price manipulation (potentially by foreign powers, terrorist and criminals). In short, if CDO’s were a match, cryptocurrencies are a fuel-air bomb, a weapon of mass economic destruction. We may have dodged the bullet this time, but sooner or later we won’t. That was the lesson that should have been learnt back in 2009. Which raises the question shouldn’t cryptocurrencies be regulated? And if that’s not possible, should they be banned?

Of course the counter to that is, are fiat currencies any better? A fiat currency’s value is largely dependant on the assumption the government knows what its doing. And I think you could count on one hand the number of people in the UK who’d currently agree with that one. Just look at “Calamity” Chris failing” Grayling’s greatest hits. This one minister has in the space of a few years blown £500 million of tax payer’s money just through pure incompetence, yet he’s still in his job. Oh and the latest from brexit, who has the government given the contract to ensure the delivery of vital medical supplies in the event of no deal?the same firm which led to KFC’s running out of chicken last year.

And I’d argue a fatal flaw in our current financial system is how it handles debts. If government’s simply printing money whenever they feels like it isn’t bad enough, its when banks start doing this too. As this German documentary discusses the world has accumulated a massive amount of debt due to the long period of low interest rates. Now while this has benefited all of us, its benefited the rich the most. The trouble is, its not sustainable. Debts have to be paid off eventually.

Interest rates will have to rise at some point and the fear is it will spark another financial crisis when they do. And a lot of that debt is arguably the creation of speculative wealth. Wealth that might be wiped out by, well another financial crisis (or has already been wiped out by the bitcoin bubble), a no deal brexit, a protracted trade war, an actual war, peak oil, a major climate catastrophe, etc. In short, the whole world economy could be following the same economic model as Greece and Italy. Its just going to take a bit longer before the wheels fall off.

So all in all I’d argue the lesson here isn’t that cryptocurrencies are bad, its that any unregulated system will be exploited by those out for a quick buck (or criminals) until it finally collapses. The only difference between bitcoin and the wider economy, is the pool of money available was smaller, so it took less time to implode. But unless we reign in the excesses of the global financial system we could well find the same things happens to the global economy.

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Brexit: How a country lost its mind

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I know I keep banging on about brexit, but the thing is it will directly impact people in the UK and beyond (the joke goes an Englishman, an Irishman, a Welshman, a Scot and an Ulsterman go into a bar, the Englishman decides to leave and all the rest have to as well) for decades to come, a reality a lot of people are very slow to wake up too.

For example, just this week the Irish government broke the glass on its emergency contingency plans for a no-deal brexit. They did this because they (and the EU) are responsible grown ups and, unlike May, they know they can’t simply wait and hide under their desk until the 28th of March, hoping a unicorn rides to their rescue.

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Buried amongst the many provisions of this bill is a clause which means all UK driving license holders cannot drive in Ireland

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News roundup: Sustainability edition

First solar, now the Tories go after biomass

Be careful what you wish for, the Tories might try to implement it and then make a pigs breakfast of everything. For quite sometime, the UK has fallen behind in terms of tackling air pollution, particularly in its urban areas. Yes levels are dropping, but not nearly fast enough. According to the World health organisation 40 of the UK’s cities have high air pollution levels that exceeds the minimum level they recommend.

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So the government has announced new anti air pollution measures to tackle this problem. However the trouble is that the proposed laws are somewhat vague and badly worded. To the point where they could potentially ban wood burning stoves and boilers. For quite sometime now, must UK urban areas have been “smokeless zones” meaning that open hearth fires are essentially illegal in those areas (of course some still do have them). Biomass boilers are still allowed, as they can burn the fuel at a sufficiently high temperature and in an oxygen rich atmosphere to eliminate pollutants. And farms often still use open hearth fires and wood burning stoves, as they are outside smokeless zones. And in any event, a wood burning stove is an excellent way of killing two birds with the one stone, providing renewable heat for the property while disposing of wood waste on the farm.

However, such is the vague language of this bill, plus the fact that it targets the fuel rather than how and where it is burned, green groups worry it could amount to a defacto ban on biomass energy in the UK. And the irony is that the new legislation makes no mention of cars and says very little about industry. Yes, you can drive your gas guzzling old diesel banger out of the chemical plant you work in go fill up at a petrol station forecourt. But its only when you get to your house in the wilds of Scotland and turn on your clean burning wood stove that you’ll be breaking the law (assuming you can buy fuel for it, as that’s what will be banned).

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Cars, Industry and power plants are the main sources of air pollution in the UK

Of course, I should probably mention that the environment secretary in the UK right now just happens to be a certain brexiteer by the name of Michael “we’ve had enough of experts” Gove. This is the problem with brexit, its consuming all attention, allowing incompetent screw up’s like him (or Failing Grayling) to stay in their jobs, largely because no media scrutiny is being given to what they are up too.

Trump digs toxic water

An interesting piece here from the BBC about the enormous levels of unchecked pollution resulting in America from coal mining by the controversial method known as mountain top removal. Many residents (and farmers) are finding their water supplies contaminated with mine tailings, leached with stuff like arsenic, iron or sulphur, to the point where their water tap water has turned orange. Of course with Trump in the white house and the EPA essentially rendered toothless, nothing is being done and residents are torn between taking legal action themselves to protect their health and running the risk of earning the ire of their MAGA hat wearing neighbours.

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Make America….orange again?

The thing that strikes me about this is it reminds me of the sort of stuff that used to go on behind the iron curtain back during the cold war. The soviets took the view that they were implementing the will of the soviet people in creating a socialist workers paradise and a little bit of pollution here and there was a price worth paying to achieve those aims.

This led to some of the most awful acts of environmental destruction in world history, most notably the many accidents at Mayak and the Kyshtym disaster (resulting in some of the most polluted and irradiated places on the planet), Dzerzhinsk (the most polluted city on earth) and of course the destruction of the Aral sea. Anyone who spoke out was assumed to be an enemy of the people and in the pay of a foreign power (which was somewhat ironic in Eastern European countries, given how the leadership were, like Trump, stooges of the Kremlin).

Well now we have the same thing in America. Trump, the dear leader is inflatable. Any who question his wisdom, or the advice of his politburo (Fox news), is clearly an enemy of the people. If your children have leukaemia that’s clearly because they weren’t patriotic enough to resist the cancer. And its their parents fault too for not praying hard enough, or contributing enough to their pastors private jet fund.

Solar energy revolution in Puerto Rico

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In more positive news, Puerto Rico has seen the explosive growth of solar energy on the Island. Abandoned by the Trump administration, the Puerto Ricans have started to build a new energy grid on the Island. Specifically one that is more storm resistant. And the solution that has begun to emerge has been a series of micro grids, with solar power backed up by energy storage.

This is not to say its been all plain sailing. Residents have been left with the options of either backing up their micro grids off the main Island grid (which has never been the most reliable source of power, even before the hurricane). Or installing their own batteries. Unfortunately, getting batteries large enough to tide them over during cloudy days is expensive (and its not exactly a wealthy country). And getting these battery/solar micro grids to work in tandem with the Island’s grid (allowing the export or import of power) has proven problematic. Largely because the company behind the grid is basically a Turkey being asked to vote for Christmas. And in their defence, its not entirely their fault. Legislation from the US says that in order to get emergency funding, the grid has to be re-built exactly the way it was before the outage.

Even so, this solar powered reconstruction has drawn in experts from around the world who see the opportunity to field test near market solutions they’ve been working on for years (notably new battery technologies and using machine learning computers to better regulate microgrids). And some of these projects have worked out rather well, suggesting they’ll be entering commercial service in the near future (and not just in Puerto Rico).

So while the Island has a long way to go before its fully independent of fossil fuels, its a start. Key emergency services are now more robust and storm resistant. Access to solar power has helped even out energy costs (by eliminating the need to buy fossil fuels at times when it is expensive). It also means that by neglecting Puerto Rico, Trump has inadvertently let the solar genie out of the bottle.

I’ve long argued that if we were to build an electric grid from scratch today, we won’t do it the same way. There would be a stronger focus on micro grids, renewables would probably dominate, with fossil fuels (or nuclear) largely relegated to a supporting role. That seems to be what’s emerging from Puerto Rico, which should hopefully have the Koch brothers waking up in a cold sweat.

The dark side of plastic recycling

Sky News isn’t terribly well known for good investigative journalism. Which should hardly come as a surprise given that the Murdoch’s were in charge until recently. However, now under new management, they seem to be doing a better job. And they’ve recently released a pretty good piece regarding the dark world of plastic recycling……or perhaps that should be lack thereof any recycling.

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UK plastic waste has been turning up all over the place, in this case Brazil

The report shows how much of the plastic waste collected in the UK is finding its way around the world only its not getting recycled, often ending up being dumped in landfills. Why this happens boils down to how the UK’s waste management policy creates perverse incentives to export plastic waste rather than sort it and recycle it in the UK.

Companies are paid by the ton for the amount of plastic they process. But mixed recycling waste will often contain a lot of plastic that can’t be recycled, or other material (because people don’t fill their recycling bins properly or don’t clean plastic before hand). This can mean that up to half of it gets rejected. However, this also means that if, rather than carefully sorting through the waste and recycling what you can, you instead bung it all in a shipping container and shift it off to China, you can make double the money for a significantly lower cost. And this is what’s been happening.

China, aware of this problem, are starting to crack down and are refusing to take plastic waste anymore. And can you blame them. However this is having some unfortunate side effects. Firstly there are businessmen in China (who were interviewed for this programme) who actually want to import in UK plastic waste so they can recycle it and then sell it on to manufacturers. Least we forget, China makes lots of plastic components these days. What isn’t made from recycled plastic will be instead made from fossil fuels. But obviously if they open a container from the UK and rather than well sorted plastic its a massive pile of crap, well their isn’t a lot they can do.

And secondly, the consequence of China’s policy has been for this waste to get diverted to other countries, such as Thailand, south America or Eastern Europe, where it lies in a steaming pile until it probably eventually ends up in landfill.

What all this highlights is a point I made some time ago about the need for reversible logistics. Until you attach a cost to packaging, along with a financial pay-off when it is actually verified to have been recycled (or safely disposed of), it won’t happen and companies have no incentive to reduce plastic packaging, nor do the public have an incentive to learn how to recycle properly.

I also had a go a while ago at Sweden and its policy of incineration. Which often means that some plastics do get incinerated rather than recycled. However, lets be fair to the Swedes. Even at its worst this policy at least deals with the problem within Sweden, while the UK’s policy just fudges the issue and attempts to hide the problem.

School houses rocked by climate protests

Throughout the world, there’s been a growing viral movement of school children walking out of classes to protest about climate change. Now I admire their spirit, and it is worrying how ten year old’s seem to understand climate science better than our politicians, but equally they are kind of showing their age. Do they honestly think our current generation of politicians are going to care about a bunch of angry tree huggers below the voting age?

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But perhaps that is the point politicians are missing. This is the next generation of voters. For some time now, I’ve been arguing that the current crop of politicians are cutting themselves off at the knees. By pandering to baby boomers (aka the worst generation) just because the represent such a strong voting demographic (for now!), they are neglecting millennial’s, Generation-Z’s and…..well whatever we’re going to call the next generation. Because these are the people who will decide future elections and referendums.

And as a lecturer, who sends a lot of time with this age group, if I were a republican (or Tory), I’d be afraid, very afraid. Because you might want to get used to the idea that a few years from now you’ll not be able to get a majority, even it countries run by the grossly unfair FPTP (and the logical thing for any left leaning government to do in future is get rid of this and bring in proportional representation).

And of course, this is why Trump declaring an emergency so he can get is border wall is kind of risky. Given that there is almost no evidence to back up Trump’s claims, yet there is plenty of evidence supporting urgent action on climate change (or the need for a single payer health care system). So theoretically, a future millennial president could just declare a national emergency (quoting the “Trump rule”) and push through whatever policy she liked.

So my advice to those currently in power would be, heed this warning and take action while you still can. Else rather than the more free market friendly solutions, you might find its the more oppressive and anti-business solutions that get adopted. Largely because by delaying action on climate change, we won’t have time to adopt the more capitalist friendly options.

In Putin’s Russia polar bears invade you

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Bob the polar bear searches in vain for a glacier mint to stand on

A story of the week that made headlines was the sudden invasion” of polar bears on the Island of Novaya Zemlya in the Russian Arctic. Now while yes polar bears are certainly big and scary, this might be blown out of all portion by the Russian news media (which is prone to Fox like tendencies). The residents of Churchill in Canada have long had to deal with polar bears and they’ve even managed to turn it into something of a cottage industry, taking tourists out to see the polar bears.

And across large parts of North America there are grizzly bears wandering around. And people have just had to adapt to this fact (I recall camping in bear country and I was advised by the park Ranger to empty my bag of everything that might have a scent and put it in a bear box for the night, else I might have a nightime visitor).

However, what this incident does serve to show is the consequences of climate change. One of those consequences is that climate zones are moving and that includes the wild life in them. Which means things like polar bears, or great white sharks, or African killer bees, or malaria carrying mosquitoes, showing up in places we previously didn’t expect to see them. But of course, if we believe the climate change deniers, this isn’t happening. Here’s a thought, why don’t we send a few dozen climate change deniers to Russia, to deal with the polar bears? At the very least they’ll give the bears a good meal!

Hyperloop, good FM, bad AM

I came across this interesting take on Musk’s latest initiative, the Boring company, as a solution to congestion in cities. As our vlogger points out, we need to understand the difference between what sci-fi authors term AM v’s FM. That is Actual Machines versus F*cking magic. Or to put it more diplomatically, hard sci-fi v’s space opera.

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A number of Musk’s recent proposals, be it the Boring company, Hyperloop, or using rockets as a means of public transport look cool and sexy in the FM world, but they are just crazy in the AM world. Which is a bit of a problem given that its the AM world that we live in. His idea of drilling tunnels under cities to reduce congestion therefore falls foul of the problem that he’s essentially copying “the tunnel (an idea hundreds of years old), coming up with his own public transport system, which ignores all of the key elements of how public transport systems work.

Even if we ignore the massive costs (tunnelling under an urban area is insanely expensive and it gets worse the deeper you go) and technical obstacles to his proposals (such as the lifts he proposes, leaving massive deadly drops all over a city) all he’d succeed in doing is moving the congestion to the entry rams for his tunnels. In essence his pitch is that public transport would be so much better if everyone sat in their two ton cars and we moved them around in tunnels, rather than getting them to leave the car behind and take a subway to work.

Which is actually the point those who work in the AM world often make. They’ve long recognised that adding more roads doesn’t reduce congestion, as it simply encourages people to drive more and pretty soon your new 8 lane motor way is bumper to bumper at rush hour, just like the 4 lane road it replaced. Which is why the focus is on better public transport and getting people to leave their cars at home, or not be relying on cars in the first place.

And this AM and FM divide applies to lots of things, from the water woo and hydrogen woo devices I mentioned some time ago, or LFTR’s/Thorium, or solar roadways. All of these things sound like great ideas, because those proposing them don’t live in the real world. They are FM solutions to AM problems. The alternatives look kind of clunky and expensive because they are actual machines (rather than photoshopped images) that really exist, with actual customers who tend to get kind of upset (and sue) when they don’t get what they ordered on time and in budget.

Germ denial

As we all know, the world has gone increasingly anti-science and in a big way. Ironic statements that the likes of me or others make are starting to come true. For example “next thing you know you’ll be saying the world is flat “ or “if intelligent design is true, then explain the existence of germs? Do you know how many of them you kill every time you wash your hands, but somehow you are pro-life”.

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The thing is, republicans don’t get the joke, hence we now have actual flat earthers and germ deniers (who deny the existence of germs). Anti science knows no logical limit, because we are dealing with people who aren’t very logical.

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Now you may well think this is all very funny, but its not. Consider this story from a cancer specialist telling how one of her patients swapped chemotherapy for essential oils, most likely as a result of some hokey pokey anti-vac woo they found online and some slick sales tactics from a MLM. Science, particular when it comes to medicine is kind of important. Life and death level important. Ignore it and people will die.

Its a miracle….or not!

Finally, an interesting piece from the vlogger and journalist Peter Hatfield, aka Potholer54 regarding the supposed miracle of how Jesuit priests survived the Hiroshima bomb. According to the catholic church these 8 priests survived the bombing, even thought they were only a short distance from ground zero, thanks to the fact they were praying the rosary, and the wisdom of Fatima (or something!).

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Well as Hatfield shows, when you pick the story apart (he managed to dig up early accounts and records on the incident from the 1940’s onwards), separating fact from fiction (e.g. there were actually only 4 of them, they were much further away that suggested (and in a reinforced building), nor were they praying the rosary and no they did not escape injury) it starts to fall apart.

Of course the only difference between this “miracle” and those in the bible, is that because this one took place in the 20th century, we can consult historical records and debunk these claims. While if it occurred in a previous era (such as all of those miracles in the bible) we won’t be able to do so.

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