October 31, 2019

Time for California to Act Local

Action needed to save lives, homes – and the environment

California’s current climate is extremely hospitable to fire; it’s been that way for thousands of years. The iconic Sequoias actually require fire to release seeds from their cones.

Other California vegetation has also adapted to yearly dry and wet seasons as well as years-long droughts punctuated by torrential rains. The brush in California grows promiscuously when it rains. In the dry season it goes into a dry dormant state and turns brown. In the dormant state it is incredibly flammable. Fires happen in the fall, as they are now, because it is the end (driest part) of the dry season. In the winter of 2017, a long drought ended with heavy rainfall. In the winter of 2019 there was more heavy rain. The good news is that California’s reservoirs got refilled and its aquifers partially recharged. The bad news is that a lot of fuel for wildfire grew during those two years.

All of the above would have been true if California were unsettled or even if no humans existed. But we humans have made the situation much worse – at least for ourselves.  We’ve made three compounding huge mistakes: we’ve allowed power lines that run through flammable areas to become aged and vulnerable; we’ve built new communities where they’re most exposed to fires; and we’ve prematurely extinguished many small fires, which were nature’s way of preventing too much accumulation of fuel. The Camp Fire last year killed 88 people, destroyed more than 18,000 structures, and cost an estimated $15 billion, according to the Center for Climates and Environmental Solutions. It was ignited by a spark from PG&E’s electric grid.

Once this year’s fires are out, it’s time for California to remedy past mistakes.

Upgrade the Damned Grid Now! PG&E, the state’s largest utility, has 81,000 miles of above ground distribution line. Some of that needs to be buried at $3 million or so per mile – ironically much cheaper to do after a fire when there are no structures in the way. Vegetation control is needed wherever overhead lines run through vulnerable areas. Worn out equipment and poles on both transmission and distribution need to be replaced. PG&E admits it is behind on vegetation control. The Public Utility Commission has not imposed any safety fines on them in the last few years – obviously part of the problem. PG&E is saying it will be ten years before they can make the grid safe enough so that they don’t have to shut off power every time the Santa Ana wind blows; somehow they didn’t recognize that problem earlier. Ten years is not acceptable!

But who is going to pay for a fast upgrade?

Californians already pay twice as much for electricity as people in neighboring states. The high rates are because of subsidies which state law requires the utility to pay for renewable power, conversion of homes to electric heat, and electric cars. Declare a moratorium on all subsidies paid by CA electric utilities until the grid is 100% upgraded. PG&E had revenue of $12.7 billion last year. Diverting the half of that now being used for subsides will make over $6 billion available for overdue maintenance without the need for a rate increase. Are you worried about climate change? Remember that the fires last year released as much carbon dioxide as is produced ALL of California’s electricity generation. Think of the exhaust from cars stuck in evacuation traffic jams. And think of all the diesel-powered generators used during blackouts. Mainly think of the people who died in the fires. California must act locally to protect the environment.

The state can bond for fire prevention with the proceeds to be repaid from NOT having to fight as many fires in future years. Insurers with exposure in the area might find it in their interest to help prevent future fires.

No NIMBY! There will be people whose property needs to be used for utility upgrades. They must be fairly compensated. There will be people who don’t like the sight of a new utility tower; they can’t be allowed to slow the reconstruction effort. Permitting for the projects should be fast, fair, and final. No years of appeals after the fact.

Don’t allow new structures in vulnerable areas. California requires solar panels on new housing construction but allows that construction to take place in areas at high risk of fire and without adequate vegetation clearance for fire-proofing. Each night on the news we see sad stories of people who rebuilt after one fire only to be burned out again; that’s as bad as the coastal homes that get rebuilt in the same vulnerable place after each hurricane. As the grid is upgraded, areas can be reopened for development.

Do allow precautionary and controllable burns. The excess fuel which accumulates without them is a danger. There will be less resistance to these necessary burns when there are not structures situated in harm’s way where they shouldn’t be.

Even after a crash effort – let’s say two years, there will still be wildfires in California; that’s the way the local climate is. But the frequency of fires, their impact on people and the environment, and the need for blackouts can all be greatly reduced – if California acts local.

See also California Shows How Not to Deal with Climate Change

October 28, 2019

California Shows How Not to Deal with Climate Change

Its policy has cost hundreds of lives AND damaged the environment

Suppose you were in charge of California and you believed strongly that humans are making the climate hotter. You know that your state is already plagued by droughts and is forest-fire prone. You are willing to have your residents pay twice as much for electricity as residents of neighboring states in order to fight climate change. What would you order the utilities to do with the extra money they collect from ratepayers?

California made the wrong choice. It’s ratepayers do pay twice as much as their neighbors in nearby states; but California chose to spend the extra money on politically popular programs to subsidize renewable energy projects rather than maintaining its aged electrical grid. It chose to subsidize electric cars for affluent people rather than first upgrading the lines that bring power to those cars. It insisted that new homes have solar panels but allowed them to be built in flammable forests which are now being set ablaze by over-burdened and under-maintained utility lines.

California utilities are under a mandate to get a third of their power from renewable sources by 2020 and 60% by 2030. The utilities are also under mandates to subsidize rooftop solar, build electric charging stations, and subsidize electric cars.  They apparently had no mandate to make their network safe and protect the environment from wildfires. They spent ratepayer money where the state told them to spend it.

Last year’s wildfires in California released as much carbon dioxide as is emitted in a year generating electricity in the state, according to the US Geological Survey. Hundreds of people died in these fires. The destruction of communities was enormous. This year the grid is still apparently sparking fires despite massive precautionary shutdowns by the utilities. People with electric vehicles can’t charge them so they can’t follow evacuation orders. Gasoline cars are idling in huge evacuation traffic jams. When the grid shuts down, hospitals and businesses fire up diesel generators. California spent the extra revenue to become LESS green.

California Governor Newsome says:  “It’s about dog-eat-dog capitalism meeting climate change. It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement.”  But the utilities are regulated by the state Public Utility Commission. According to The WSJ, PG&E, which is bankrupt from last year’s fires and which is responsible for most of this year’s blackouts, received no safety fines from the PUC over the last several years. I have no idea how competent the utility management is; but the PUC should know. It’s hard to fault management for following state law and regulation; they can be faulted for not being brave enough to forcibly point out the lethal dangers in deferred grid maintenance and new housing development without new infrastructure to support it.

“We have to do something,” is what many climate change activists, especially the children, like to say. But what we do and in what order is critically important. Money that’s allocated to one project is implicitly denied to another. When there is a clear and present danger – for example 100-year-old power lines through dry timber, safety is the first priority. Building new electrical homes and buying electrical cars before updating the grid to deliver electricity safely turned out to be both dangerous and bad for the environment.

I don’t think it’s what Gov. Newsome meant but the capitalist beneficiaries of the politically correct green policies were the renewable energy industry. PG&E is bankrupt. The ratepayers aren’t getting reliable electricity; people are dying; and carbon emissions are increased. The more important the emergency, the more important it is to think before acting.

See also:      Time for California to Act Local

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

A Convenient Urgency

October 02, 2019

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

Short answer: Do things which will be positive regardless of how much human activity is contributing to the danger of rapid change. Here are some examples:

Develop plant species which thrive in and use increased levels of CO2 and add carbon to the soil. Since we have increased atmospheric CO2, we should use it to economic and environmental advantage. All green plants use CO2 as a fuel so more fuel means more growth. Greenhouses often triple the amount of CO2 in their facilities to double plant growth. More carboniferous soil means less need for fertilizer and irrigation. Throughout botanical history, plants have adapted to the then current CO2 level. We can hasten this adaption through selective breeding. Since many crops are now grown from annually  distributed seed, we can start removing and using the “excess” CO2 almost immediately.

Continue the successful replacement of coal with natural gas. The US, which never signed the Kyoto treaty, has nevertheless exceeded its Kyoto goals for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction and leads the world in that respect. This happened not out of virtue but from the simple fact that fracking and horizonal drilling have made natural gas cheaper than coal. The US wins twice since our energy cost of manufacture goes down and CO2 is reduced by half. Replacing propane and oil with natural gas reduces CO2 by 26% and also cuts cost. Yes, natural gas is a fossil fuel, but it is also the most effective way to reduce CO2 in the short-term that we have and its pays for itself. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. [note: I founded a company which trucks natural gas, so I do have an interest in its use.] We do want to continue to reduce the release of fugitive methane in natural gas extraction and transportation and, I think, rule out flaring natural gas as part of the oil-drilling process. Methane is a GHG although most of its anthropogenic source is agriculture and its presence in the atmosphere is not increasing.

Build power lines, at least in the Northeast, south from cheap, clean Canadian hydro sources. This is not a call for subsidy. Private money is available to build these. Permitting sanity is a prerequisite, however, or these will be blocked forever

Reform our permitting process. No matter whether we choose to build more wind turbines, more solar farms, more transmission lines to bring hydro or renewable power to where it’s needed, pipelines so natural gas can replace coal and oil, nuclear plants, or some combination of the above, we can’t get these projects done in real-time. In the US any major project takes more than twenty years just for permitting and appeals. A combination of NIMBY, opposing commercial interests, and anti-growth people can be formed to delay any project almost indefinitely with judicial appeals and illegal but tolerated obstruction. All affected parties should get their say during permitting; once a permit is granted, anyone who causes delay should pay for the cost of that delay. If someone stops construction with an appeal, he or she should post bond for the cost of the appeal. Of course. if the appeal is successful, then the appellant should not be liable for the cost.

 If we find ourselves on a “wartime” footing because of a climate emergency, we’ll run roughshod over objections as happens during war. Better to reform the process now, avoid a warlike emergency later.

Start putting existing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain and pre-permit one or two of the newer designs for safe nuclear power plants. Progress in nuclear energy hasn’t stopped just because we’ve virtually stopped building plants. New designs cannot melt down even if they lose power. The siting mistakes in Japan are well understood. We may or may not need nuclear in the US, but we should be prepared to build safely and quickly.

Continue basic research on solar, wind, energy storage and clean coal. But let the deployment of each of them and traditional energy sources stand on its own economically without subsidy or mandates

Realize that future worldwide emissions will be governed by what people moving from poverty to affluence do. We are not going to convince them they don’t have the same right to warm (or cool) houses that we do, shouldn’t eat meat as we do, or drive cars like ours. They want to cut their forests down for building lots and farm land just like we have. We are not willing to size down to energy poverty and regrow our primal forests although we can be less profligate; we must use the margin and capital our affluence gives us to help them enjoy affluence within available resources. We won’t be able to mandate their avoidance of carboniferous fuels; we may be able to invent ways in which that we can all be affluent on the same planet (see above for some suggestions). BTW, we are not trapped in a Malthusian nightmare of exponentially increasing population; escape from poverty is cutting birth rates. World population is projected to be stable by 2100. We don’t need an infinite growth in resource availability, just enough to bring the rest of the world up to our standard of living. The development of carbon-gobbling plants and increased use of natural gas both aid progress from poverty and help prevent the use of more coal for energy during that progress.

Don’t panic. Panic makes for bad decision making. Here’s a few examples:

  • The adoption of mandates for corny ethanol which turns out, all in, to have a worse carbon footprint than oil, costs more, and ruins small engines.
  • Germany shuttering of nuclear power after Fukushima which has caused Germany’s carbon footprint to grow despite its huge investment in renewables.
  • European incentives for diesels which get better gas mileage than gasoline-powered vehicles only to find that the nitrous oxide emitted was even worse for the atmosphere than the CO2 Now Europe is banning diesel cars.
  • Incentives for rich people to buy Teslas, BMWs and other high-end electric cars.

You don’t have to be very cynical to understand that people use panic to get you to do things which benefit them and which you might not do if you had time to think about it.

Debate the causes of climate change as well as possible strategies for avoidance and/or remediation. Even if there were scientific unanimity that human emissions of greenhouse gasses is causing rapid warming, there is no consensus on whether it will become irreversible, how long we have to avoid catastrophic effects, or even which strategies give the best return on resources spent. Nor do we know how much we are going to have to spend on mitigation like moving people from newly uninhabitable places to newly habitable ones. If we are concerned about a hundred-year time frame, burning wood makes sense assuming the trees are replanted. If we’re looking at ten years to climate Armageddon, burning wood is catastrophic because it emits more carbon dioxide than coal per BTU or kWh of energy produced. We need healthy debate or ill-thought-out measures are likely to cause more harm than good and cause the existential crisis they were meant to prevent.

As for the scientific consensus, it changes over time as facts emerge. For example, in 2001 the UN panel of experts predicted twice the amount of global warming between 1999 and 2020 than has actually happened. They have quietly lowered their predictions of the rate of warming by about half but also loudly lowered the threshold of warming they consider dangerous from 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit to 2.7 above the preindustrial baseline. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong now; does mean that no one fully understands the chaotic complex dynamics of sea, air, land, and biosphere.

Measure! Measure! Measure! No matter which strategies we adopt to reduce the possibility of runaway climate change, we must know if we’re being effective. We know accurately enough how much solar energy is reaching the earth, but we don’t know how much is being radiated back into space. That measurement is harder because it varies from place to place. Deploying a fleet of already developed RAVAN CubeSats (tiny satellites with carbon nanotubes to measure radiation accurately) is one way to do this essential measurement.

Debate is healthy and needn’t mean inaction. As you can see above, there is plenty we can be doing which will be beneficial no matter how much of a contributor to climate change we eventually discover anthropogenic sources to be.

More on climate at blog.tomevslin.com/global_warming/.

September 23, 2019

A Convenient Urgency

“’We need to create fear!’ That’s what Al Gore said to me at the start of our first conversation about how to teach climate change… Al Gore asked me to help him… to show a worst-case future impact of a continued increase in CO2 emissions.”

The quote above is from Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Rosling says he considers Al Gore a hero (nb. I don’t).  “I agreed with him completely that swift action on change was needed, and I was excited at the thought of collaborating with him.” However, Rosling decided not to work with Gore.

“I don’t like fear.” He cites two incidences where his own fear led him to mistakes. One mistake caused many deaths. “Fear and urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects. Climate change is too important for that. It needs systematic analysis, thought- through decisions, incremental actions, and careful evaluation.

“And I don’t like exaggeration. Exaggeration undermines the credibility of well-founded data: in this case data showing that climate change is real…. Exaggeration, once discovered, makes people tune out altogether.”

“I insisted that I would never show the worst-case line without showing the probable and the best-case lines as well. Picking only the worst-case scenario and – worse – continuing the line beyond the scientifically based predictions would fall far outside Gapminder’s mission to help people understand the basic facts. [nb. Gapminder is an organization Rosling founded which uses great bubble graphics to illustrate complex data]. It would be using our credibility to make a call for action. Al Gore continued to press his case for fearful animated bubbles beyond the expert forecasts… until I finally closed the conversation down. ‘Mr. Vice President. No numbers, no bubbles.’…

“… the future is always uncertain to some degree. And whenever we talk about the future we should be open and clear about the level of uncertainty involved. We should not pick the most dramatic estimates and show a worst-case scenario as if it were certain… We should ideally show a mid-forecast, and also a range of alternative possibilities from best to worse… This protects our reputations and means we never give people a reason to stop listening.”

“…When people tell me we must act now, it makes me hesitate. In most cases, they are just trying to stop me from thinking clearly.”

Me too! “You must act now” were probably the first words out of the mouth of the first huckster on the planet. In the climate field it has led to the scam of corny ethanol, European cities banning the diesels they just gave people 20 years of incentives to buy (for climate reasons in both cases), and subsidies for rich people to buy electric cars they probably would have bought anyway (just a few examples). That’s not to say that all action to reduce energy consumptions and emissions is bad; it’s just to say we shouldn’t be panicked into anything ever.

If you are an advocate for climate action, you don’t want to sound like a huckster. People turn off when they think they’re being conned. You also, according to both Rosling and me, don’t want to fall in love with your own worst-case assumptions. That makes it impossible for you to join in the compromises which just might solve the problem you’re trying to solve.

Rosling concludes “Climate change is way too important a global risk to be ignored or denied… But it is also way too important to be left to sketch worst-case scenarios and doomsday prophets [nb. and marching children].

“When you are called to action, sometimes the most useful action you can take is to improve the data.”

For more on Factfulness, see:

Facts are Stranger than Fiction

Factfulness: Malthus is Wrong – Fortunately

Also see:

“There Are No Facts About the Future”

September 16, 2019

Factfulness: Malthus is Wrong – Fortunately

Thomas Robert Malthus wrote in 1798 that any increase in food supply would lead to increased population but that the increased population would decrease the food supply per person so there would be no benefit to increasing the food supply. The food supply cannot be expanded infinitely so eventual starvation is inevitable. In various guises this Malthusian view of the world informs much of current thinking even though the date of Armageddon keeps getting pushed back.

Fortunately, according to Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, Malthus is wrong. Many causes of infant mortality have been eliminated in most of the world. According to Malthus, the population in those places should be exploding. According to Rosling and UN demographers, the exact opposite is happening. The higher the percentage of children who survive, the slower the population grows. The UN predicts the world population will be stable by 2100.

The reason for this apparent contradiction is the behavior of women when birth control (which didn’t exist in Malthus’ day) is available and when most of their children survive. Women who are confident that their children will survive have less children. Even though most of the world is not affluent, it is no longer at the lowest level of poverty. In most of the world public health, mainly clean water and vaccination, has drastically reduced child mortality. In that same most of the world, despite a few counter examples, women get almost as much schooling as men and both genders get more schooling than they used to. Basic nutrition is available.

The poorest 10% of families in the world average five children per woman; the remaining 90% average just two children. In that happier 90% of the world, population growth is limited by choice, not by death as it is the remaining 10%. Isn’t that a great sentence to be able to write? BTW, according to Rosling, improvement is continuing – especially in Africa. Focus is needed on the remaining 10%, of course, but progress is happening almost everywhere.

Malthus saw progress as impossible because of a negative feedback loop – more survival meant more people and exhaustion of limited resources. Progress is very possible when there is a positive feedback loop; higher survival rates mean slower population growth and eventually a stable population. That’s huge.

The implication of coming stable population is enormous. Assuming population will continue to grow exponentially is like assuming we’re on a ship sailing towards the edge of the sea: we’ve got to turn around no matter how difficult that is or we’ll die. Knowing that population will stabilize is like discovering that there is land beyond the horizon: we must survive until we get there, of course; but we can maintain our course. Most of our public discussion of pending food shortages or climate change assume the apocalyptic Malthusian view. Think how many more options we have knowing that view is false.

There’s still a resource problem, however. Most of the world has a low birthrate and, partly as a consequence, affluence is increasing quickly. Those who are leaving poverty behind want to have as many cars, as much meat, as big houses, and as much tillable land as the minority who’ve already reached affluence. The demand on resources is increasing much faster than population. Many, including Rosling, believe that the world will become very inhospitable for humans if everyone is responsible for as much greenhouse gas emissions as rich people are responsible for today. He believes that it is unreasonable to solve this problem by denying affluence to those who don’t have it and that we affluent must reduce our resource use.

I’m more confident than he is that we can solve the equation by making more resources available and using available resources more efficiently rather than degrading our own lifestyles; but, either way, since population is becoming stable, the problem can be solved. Fortunately Malthus was wrong!

For more on Factfulness see:


A Convenient Urgency

Facts are Stranger than Fiction

Also see:

“There Are No Facts About the Future”

September 10, 2019

Facts are Stranger than Fiction

Two surprises:

  1. The world is getting better rapidly in almost every way
  2. A stubborn old man’s preconceptions can be blown away repeatedly

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling has glowing cover blurbs from both Bill and Melinda Gates. Bill says it is “one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Clearly it influences the good work of their foundation.

I’m the stubborn old man whose preconceptions the book blew away; sometimes could only read a few pages at a time and then had to pause to reconstruct my worldview.

Please take the whole quiz (copied from the book) below without reading beyond for the answers:

  1. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
    1. Almost doubled
    2. Remained more or less the same
    3. Almost halved
  2. How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?
    1. More than doubled
    2. Remained about the same
    3. Decreased to less than half
  3. How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?
    1. 20 percent
    2. 50 percent
    3. 80 percent
  4. Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent ten years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school?
    1. 9 years
    2. 6 years
    3. 3 years
  5. There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in 2100, according to the United Nations?
    1. 4 billion
    2. 3 billion
    3. 2 billion



  1. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has almost halved.
  2. The absolute number of deaths from natural disasters has almost halved in the last hundred years despite the fact that population including population in vulnerable areas has vastly increased. Modern communication, transport, and other technology has made a huge difference in disaster survival.
  3. 80 percent of the 1-year-olds in the world have been vaccinated against some disease. Public health matters.
  4. Worldwide women average 9 years of school, only one less than men. Afghanistan is an outlier.
  5. There will be the same number of children in 2100 as there are today according to UN demographic studies and projections. The implication is that the world’s population will have stabilized by then at about 11 billion people; there are 7 billion now. Why? Educated women not living in extreme poverty whose children have a high survival rate have many less children than uneducated women in extreme poverty whose children mostly die. See the answers to questions 2, 3, and 4. The poorest 10% of families in the world average five children per woman; the remaining 90% average just two children.

In each case, as you’ve seen, the answer was the most optimistic. I got them all wrong. If you got any right, you did very well. In almost every group of test-takers, people get the answers wrong more than they would if they just answered randomly. In general the higher their educational level, the MORE answers people get wrong, according to Dr. Rosling. We’re programmed to be wrong! We’re programmed to think the world is worse than it is!

Why? For reasons which served us well during most of our evolution, we have over-dramatic minds for today’s world which is more nuanced than whether the rustle in the weeds means a lion is likely to pounce. We have what Rosling calls a gap instinct; we want everything to be binary. “Journalists know this. They set up their narratives as conflicts between two opposing peoples, views, or groups. They prefer stories of extreme poverty and billionaires to stories about the vast majority of people slowly dragging themselves toward better lives…. If you look at the news or click on a lobby group’s website this evening, you will probably notice stories about the conflict between two groups or phrases like ‘the increasing gap.’”

Mind the gap! Most of the world lives between the two extremes.

Does it matter that we have an unrealistically negative view of the world? After all, there are problems which need to be solved and  negativity makes us concentrate on them. Most of Factfulness is anecdotes showing why it does matter that we have facts before we act.

Just one story here but more in blogs to come.

When Rosling was a young public health doctor in Mozambique, he worked in a hospital to which mothers brought their dying children; they saved about 95% of them. Rosling did some math (factfulness) and realized that the hospital, which most people couldn’t reach before it was too late, and his work in it were a waste of time and money despite the babies saved. 98.7% of the babies dying in the region he worked never made it to the hospital. The same money put into public health out in the community – mainly clean water and vaccination – would save many, many more lives. He changed his career.

Why do hospitals get built and staffed in areas of extreme poverty where only a very few people will ever be able to reach them when the same resources would be better spent on community public health? Part of the reason is that politicians and NGOs like to point to buildings and take donors and the press to see them. There’s nothing photogenic about someone digging a ditch to take the effluent from the latrines away from the drinking water supply. Decisions like this need to be fact-based but the facts are tedious and dry and don’t satisfy either our penchant for drama or our gap instinct.

Factfulness, is a must read for anyone concerned about public policy. You won’t agree with all of it; my worldview’s been changed by what I’ve learned.

September 03, 2019

Negotiators Can’t (Appear to Be) Afraid of No Deal

Imagine if the teachers’ union started negotiations with your school board saying: “a strike is unthinkable.” That would be a signal to the board that they could impose any terms they wanted without worrying about the teachers’ reaction. Same thing would be true in reverse. A board could walk all over a union which vowed not to strike (unless there is an arbitration clause).

When we were in London recently, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was being excoriated for saying that, if necessary, there would be a no-deal Brexit. If he said that the UK would stay in the EU and UK failed to agreed to a deal, he would be giving the EU complete control of the negotiation. Immediately after becoming PM, he set the civil service to work preparing for a no-deal breakup. Doesn’t means he wants no deal, but he must convince Europe that he is ready to leave that way if necessary in order for there to be any chance that the EU will agree to a deal acceptable to him. It doesn’t hurt his negotiating position if Europe suspects he really wants an excuse to break away with no deal.

President Trump is in the same position in negotiations with China. Sure, a trade war and escalating tariffs are bad for everyone. But, since the status quo in trade favors China, they have no inducement to negotiate unless they believe we are willing to take our share of the mutual pain of tariffs. A demonstration probably was necessary. Could it all end badly? Sure, but a negotiator can’t afford to be afraid of no deal. Trump says we’d be better off with high mutual tariffs than the current imbalance of trade and theft of intellectual property by China. Whether he’s right or wrong or means it or not, he must act as if he believes that to get a good deal.

In this case China has more to lose than we do because they sell more to us than we do to them. Still, Chinese President Xi is taking pains not to appear to be afraid of no deal either. Note that both heads of state are being careful not to demean the other. That’s a good sign that each thinks a deal is possible and doesn’t want to sabotage it.

When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were about to negotiate the Intermediate Range Nuclear Weapons Treaty, Vermont Governor Dick Snelling, for whom I then worked as Transportation Secretary, had some advice for Reagan. Since Reagan wasn’t asking Snelling for advice, he gave it to me instead: “when negotiating, it’s a good idea to let your opponent think you’re a little crazy.” Particularly important when failed negotiation can lead to something as unthinkable as nuclear war. Only a crazy person wouldn’t fear that outcome.

It’s hard to feel sorry for Donald Trump or Boris Johnson personally, but negotiating when you’re not leader for life has its disadvantages. No matter how convincing a tough guy you are, your opponents will be tempted to wait you out if they think they’ll get a better deal from your successor. Trump’s would-be Democrat opponents have plenty to criticize him for without signaling that they might declare unilateral disarmament with respect to tariffs if elected. That’s why we used to say “politics ends at the water’s edge.”

Both Johnson and Trump do understand that they can’t be afraid of no deal.

August 29, 2019

“There Are No Facts About the Future”

This wonderful quote comes from Don Swanson, scientist emeritus at the United States Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory as he speculates about the future of the lava lake which has just disappeared from Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano. This post is about science, however, not volcanoes.

“The Science is Settled.” We hear that all the time. However, the science of the future can never be settled until the future has become the past. Let’s look at some examples,

The Science of the MMR Vaccine

We can say that “the science is settled” about the effectiveness of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine because it has a history. From the website of the Centers for Disease Control:

“Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States. Of these, approximately 500,000 cases were reported each year to CDC; of these, 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling) from measles. Since then, widespread use of measles virus-containing vaccine has led to a greater than 99% reduction in measles cases compared with the pre-vaccine era.”

What about safety? There is a concern that the MMR vaccine causes autism; this could’ve started because the first signs of autism usually happen at about the same age as vaccine is administered. Facts from the past to the rescue: the vaccine has been in use for a long time; there are probably more studies of its link to autism than were needed. There is no link. The science is settled. I think this vaccine along with several others should be mandatory.

However, extravagant claims set off the BS alarms even in reasonable people. No vaccine is perfectly safe. Some people are allergic to every vaccine. People with compromised immune systems should not usually be vaccinated. A septic needle can cause disease no matter what its payload.  History tells us that the risk of NOT taking the MMR vaccine is much worse than the risk of taking it, unless you are trying to freeload on the fact that everyone else is vaccinated. We must make the vaccine mandatory to avoid freeloaders putting other people at risk. Our claims must be credible to convince the public to agree to make something as intrusive as a shot mandatory. If we misuse the phrase “the science is settled”, we reduce faith in scientific evidence.

The Science of Planetary Motion and Relativity

Isaac Newton published his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. It was a compendium of theories about motion and gravity. It upset the “settled science” of its time. Edmond Halley used Newton’s theory to predict the comet later named after him would reappear in 1758. He wasn’t alive to see it, but the accuracy of this prediction helped to make Newton’s laws of gravity “settled science”. Theories usually can’t actually be proven although they can be disproven. If the comet had come back on a different schedule, it would have cast severe doubt on Newton’s theories. Many predictions are made with Newton’s laws and they work – except when they don’t.

Newton’s Laws are based on observations of the universe as we usually see it. They are useful for describing that universe and predicting its behavior. In 1916 Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity which asserted that the universe is not as Newton saw it. This theory wasn’t accepted until a spectacular prediction he made that light rays are bent by gravity was verified during the solar eclipse of 1919 (and many times afterwards). The verification made Einstein a cultural phenomenon because he not only predicted that the light waves would curve but by how much. General relativity became settled science by making a series of predictions and having none of them falsified.  It is useful in astronomy, electronics, navigation – lots of stuff we do.

Except, to Einstein’s dismay, relativity doesn’t work at the quantum level. The settled science of one era becomes just an approximation (or a mistake) as we make finer observations.

The Science of Evolution

Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species was anything but settled science when he first published it. Supporting it was very bad for your ecclesiastical or academic career. Implicitly, the theory predicts that the fossil record (facts from the past) will show a progression of species. A species in this context are generally defined as a population of animals which cannot interbreed with members of a different species. The fact that selective breeding can produce variations within a species was already well known and did not demonstrate that new species could arise without divine intervention.

In general the fossil record does include old species which have since disappeared and new species similar to them which have appeared later. What the fossil record does not show clearly are the transitional creatures. Darwin imagined evolution as steady continuous process. But then why do there appear to be clean breaks between species in the fossils we’ve found? This questioning was good for the theory of evolution. It led to a new hypothesis that evolution consists of periods of relative stability followed by a very fast evolution to a new stasis. This is called punctuated equilibrium and is consistent with the geological finding that catastrophes are often abrupt – including climate change. In populations which are well adapted to their current environment, a random mutation is much less likely to be helpful than in an environment which has suddenly changed. If species change is abrupt in response to environmental change, then we’d expect to find very few transitional creatures. Only a tiny part of any population survives as a fossil. Questioning Darwin’s view of evolution led to an improved theory that better comported with the facts of the past.

Since Darwin we have discovered genes as the mechanism of evolution (he didn’t know about genes). We know how genes mutate. We can even force them to mutate ourselves. We can create new species (scary thought). The general theory of how species evolve is considered “settled science”. We don’t need divine intervention to get new species (although we can’t prove divine intervention didn’t happen). But there are exceptions to evolution as Darwin saw it besides its punctuated nature. Turns out genes can be swapped between species outside a laboratory, for example. Even though I am convinced that species evolve for natural reasons and will continue to evolve, I know that evolutionary theory will continual to evolve as well. The science of complex events is never quite settled. Which brings us to…

The Science of Climate Change

What’s “settled”? Climate changes; always has and would be surprising if it stopped – even if every well-intended high schooler in the US goes on strike. It’s gotten a lot warmer since the glaciers began to melt and the sea has risen as the ice melted. You can’t walk from Siberia to Alaska or Norway to Scotland any more. This warming actually peaked about 7000 years ago and started a gentle decline which reached its minimum about 200 years ago (see Marcott et al). Temperatures have been generally rising since then and we are near but not at the 7000-year-old peak. These are facts about the past that are reasonably well established, although there is some room for dispute around exact interpretation of the circumstantial evidence and whether there has been warming in the last decade or so.

What is not known, no matter how inconvenient our lack of knowledge, is what is going to happen next with the climate. Since we don’t fully understand what made climate change in the past, it is hubris to say we know how it will change in the future. For example, we do know (fact from the past), that rising temperatures were accompanied by rising atmospheric CO2 levels. We also know that rising temperatures cause CO2 to be released from formerly frozen soil AND that, all things being equal (which they never are) more CO2 in the atmosphere will cause the earth to retain more solar heat. Did the increased CO2 levels cause the warming? Did the warming increase the CO2 levels? Or are both true, which is certainly possible. If both are true, there would be a feedback loop in which the earth would continue to heat up. This is the nightmare that many fear from current climate change. It’s not an impossible scenario.

There is a wealth of computer models which predict this nightmare; the UN predictions are based on them. But, unless there are bugs in the computer code, models written with the same assumptions will produce the same results; so having computers vote is not science. We won’t know if the assumptions are correct until the predictions they make, like Einstein’s predictions from relativity, actually come true (and even then it could be coincidence or only partly cause and effect). If we wait to see if the predictions are falsified, many say, it may be too late for us to act to reduce anthropogenic (man-made) emissions of greenhouse gasses, particularly if there is a tipping point after which the heating cycle is runaway.

According to “The Holocene temperature conundrum”  published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which has been peer-reviewed and written by properly credentialed scientists, the most cited models predict that temperatures would have continued increasing 7000 years ago because of increasing greenhouse gasses and other feedback loops; but temperatures decreased. Why? Maybe there’s a good reason which doesn’t apply any more for the divergence between prediction and fact. Maybe the models are wrong.

There is a recent article in Nature in which respectable scientists say that variations in solar activity account for most climate change on earth and they cite correlations between solar magnetic cycles and earthly temperatures. Are they right? We don’t know. They also make predictions, but fortunately their predictions are for the very near-term future. They say a short-term cooling trend should start in 2020 and continue until 2035. We’ll see very quickly if they are right. But, even if they’re right, it’s not reassuring. They then predict that temperatures will keep rising, with small respites, until 2600. The difference between their prediction and the politically correct consensus that climate is mainly forced by anthropogenic activity is that, if the solar-cycle people are right, we’re not going to change the temperature no matter how many Teslas we buy; we’ll have to start mitigating the damage by moving out of flood zones and farming newly-thawed soil.

Since the threat of climate change, whether preventable or not, is existential, we need to understand climate much better than we do. Understanding is not reached by propagandizing, name-calling, and sensationalism. Fortunately modern technology CAN give us much better understanding of whether and how the earth is warming and the feedback loops involved. One thing we need is a fleet of mini-satellites measuring how much radiation is reaching the earth from the sun and how much is leaving. This data won’t tell us exactly how the earth’s complex systems will react to more or less net solar radiation retained but it will help us much better understand the effect of greenhouse gasses and how action we might take will affect the energy budget. It will indicate whether the earth quickly radiates extra heat away and how much it is retaining. Prototypes of these satellites exist.  Why we don’t have a moonshot program to perfect and launch them is beyond me. We can gather facts about the present.

Perhaps politicians on both sides of the climate issue (as if it had sides in anything but the political realm) are afraid of answers from anywhere but twitter. Perhaps we’d rather just argue with each other and call each other names like alarmist and skeptic. We need facts. Claims that “the science is settled” are not helpful. If the science of climate is “settled”, no more study is needed. There is nothing that needs further study more than climatology.

More on evolution at https://blog.tomevslin.com/evolution/

More on climate at https://blog.tomevslin.com/global_warming/

August 14, 2019

The US Should NOT Lead the Effort to Protect the Straits of Hormuz

Thanks to fracking, we don’t have to.

Back in 1987 (Ronald Reagan was President) the US was dependent on Mideast oil shipped through the Straits of Hormuz. Iran threatened shipping through the Straits, as it is doing today. The motive then was to force oil shippers like Saudi Arabia and oil importers like the US to support Iran in its war with Iraq. In order to protect our oil supply, the US allowed Kuwaiti oil tankers to “reflag” as American so the US Navy could protect them.

In April of 1988, the USS Samuel B. Roberts hit a mine while on escort duty. She nearly sank although there was no loss of life. The US gathered evidence that the mine was Iranian. On April 18th the US navy attacked the Iranian navy and offshore oil platforms. According to Wikipedia: “By the end of the operation, American Marines, ships and aircraft had destroyed Iranian naval and intelligence facilities on two inoperable oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, and sank at least three armed Iranian speedboats, one Iranian frigate and one fast attack gunboat. One other Iranian frigate was damaged in the battle.” The Iranian attacks on shipping stopped. The US oil supply - and that of Europe, China, Australia, and Japan – was secure.

That was then; this is now. Some things haven’t changed. The Iranians are once again threatening and actually attacking ships sailing through Hormuz. Saudi Arabia and Iraq need to sell the oil that passes through the Straits. Europe, China, Japan, and Australia still need that oil. The US is leading the effort to protect shipping.

But one thing has changed. The US is nearly self-sufficient in oil thanks to the technological advances of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. We don’t need the oil that comes through the Gulf.

No one is following the US-led effort to patrol the Straits except the UK and Australia. Germany and France have openly declined to participate. So why are we leading an effort which is not supported by most of its beneficiaries? Why don’t we just limit our protection to American ships (no reflagging this time) and let those who need to sell the oil and those who need to buy it protect their own supply line? It’s uncharacteristic of President Trump to put the rest of the world first or allow other nations to free-ride; but that’s what he seems to be doing. He may be afraid that Iran will blackmail oil-starved nations into supporting Iran against the US. He may not want the world price of oil to increase (as it will if the Straits are closed) with an election coming up. But I think he’s wrong to make us the leader of the protection effort.

We now produce enough oil and natural gas to share it (at a price) with our allies. We might better stiffen their backbones by building more port facilities and pipelines to our coast so we can export more relatively low-priced American fuel.  We are considering letting Australia buy from our strategic oil reserve. Shipping more US liquified natural gas (LNG) to Europe also helps Europe reduce its dangerous dependency on Russia’s Gazprom. Taking market share from Saudi Arabia would not only be good for the US economy, it will also reduce the money flow from that kingdom to Islamic militants.

This discussion should not be confused with the issue of how quickly the world reduces the use of fossil fuels. The question is do we risk American lives and spend American money to help the Gulf states export oil to the world when energy independence has given us a choice. I think the answer is “no”.

August 05, 2019

Stopping Climate Change Would Be an Unnatural Act

But Climate Change IS an Existential Issue

Is the climate changing? Yes, of course. 20,000 years ago there was a mile of ice over the top of 4,000 foot Mt. Mansfield in Vermont. Long before that, there was no ice at the earth’s poles. This cycle has repeated many times. Change is what climate does.

Are the oceans rising? Until about 12,000 years ago, the seas were so low that you could walk on dry land from Siberia to Alaska, from Europe to Great Britain, and from Asia to Australia. Many species including ours crossed these land bridges until they were submerged under rising seas. (read all about land bridges on Wikipedia)

The children – and even adults who should know better – who are demanding that climate change be stopped are bound to be disappointed. The belief that climate only changes because of what we humans do is as much climate change denial as claiming that the climate isn’t changing at all. BTW, an unchanging climate was the “scientific consensus” until the early 1800s, despite the inconvenient fact of marine fossils on top of mountains which da Vinci had noted.

Is the earth warming now? Yesterday I hear an announcer on BBC say that this past July was the hottest the earth has ever known. The story which followed the breathless announcement was more accurate ”the warmest since record keeping began…” When did record keeping begin? About two hundred years ago in some places. That’s a blink of the eye to climate. There was a “little ice age” starting at about 1300. Temperatures were at a 4000-years MINIMUM in about 1600 before they started to rise again. By 1850 temperatures had recovered to their level before the little ice age. (We know this not from records people kept but from fossil and geological evidence). Since then temperatures have generally resumed rising in their usual saw-toothed pattern.

If temperatures are continuing to rise from the big ice age minimum 35,000 years ago, we would expect new high records to be set more often than new low records. In scientific terms, the evidence is not inconsistent with continuing global warming. On the other hand, the evidence is also not inconsistent with the theory of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming.

To add to the ambiguity, the theory that whatever caused the ice age to end (we really don’t know what that was) is still warming the earth and the theory that green house gas emissions are accelerating warming are not mutually incompatible. Both can be true at the same time.

NASA makes a circumstantial case for anthropogenic forcing of warming: “As the Earth moved out of ice ages over the past million years, the global temperature rose a total of 4 to 7 degrees Celsius over about 5,000 years. In the past century alone, the temperature has climbed 0.7 degrees Celsius, roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.”

Unfortunately for those of us who crave certainty, the circumstantial case is scarcely conclusive. Look at the graph below (technical detail here).

Halocene climate chnage

Notice that no matter what measure you use (different color lines), temperature doesn’t go up and down smoothly; therefor it doesn’t make sense to compare the rate of increase in the last century to the average rate of increase. It should be compared to other periods of rapid increase. There were many other century-long spikes up and spikes down. In this context the slope of the up spike in the last century doesn’t seem out-of-scale. In other words, the fast rate of recent warming is not inconsistent with the theory that past “natural” trends are responsible for what we’re observing now. On the other hand (what NASA should’ve said to be more scientific), the last century’s rapid temperature rise coinciding with a rise in greenhouse gasses is not incompatible with the theory of anthropogenic forcing.

Unfortunately, although there are many theories, there is no conclusive evidence (or even a “scientific consensus”) for why the earth’s temperature was oscillating long before the first man lit the first anthropogenic fire. Without understanding the magnitude of the natural contribution to climate change, we simply don’t know our own contribution to current change. Science is not done by consensus; breakthroughs usually struggle against the fashionable consensus.  The consensus is especially suspect at a time when our universities are enmeshed in political correctness.  Models of the future are interesting but prove nothing except that people can write computer programs which reflect their own biases.

Since anthropogenic activity may be and may continue to be a major cause of warming and because rapid warming means rapid sea level rise (almost certainly true), why shouldn’t we have an all-out effort for decarbonization? I thought you’d never ask.

There are four major possibilities for causes and effects of climate change:

  • the speed of temperature increase is largely dependent on the amount of greenhouse gasses (ghg) we put in the atmosphere (minus what plants can absorb), AND the increase will slow or stop if ghg emissions are drastically reduced;
  • the speed of temperature increase is largely dependent on the amount of ghg we put in the atmosphere (minus what plants can absorb) ,BUT the level of ghg emissions is already so high that we’re doomed to rising temperatures even if we cut emissions drastically;
  • the speed of temperature increase is largely dependent on natural causes, and the warming cycle will continue for a long time no matter what we do;
  • the speed of temperature increase is largely dependent on natural causes; but this warming cycle is almost over so there’s nothing to worry about.

If #1 is mainly true (and it may be), we do need a real decarbonization effort. Of course that means not just virtue-signaling like carbon offsets but also rapid development of carbon-free energy sources like nuclear and hydro as well as wind (no matter who’s ridgeline or sea-view it’s on), solar, and energy storage. Very, very expensive, not without trade-offs, but, if it’s needed…

If #2 or #3 is true, our resources must go to mitigating the effect of changing temperatures and rising sea levels and preparing for changing agriculture and mass migrations. Newly thawed regions must become both habitable and productive. Ironically cheap fossil fuels help provide resources for this effort. What’s indubitably true is that too many people live dangerously close to the sea even if it only rises during storms.

If #4 is true, we get a free pass for business as usual and renewables should compete in the marketplace with fossil fuels and people be helped out of poverty and hunger as fast as possible.

The existential threat of climate change is exacerbated when we switch from science to propaganda in order to get people to act the way we think they ought to. We need scientific resources devoted to understanding the causes (and likely future of natural climate change).  We need to encourage scientific dissent to prevailing orthodoxies; it’s too dangerous not to. We need to educate our children in science and natural history (and logic!), not just teach them how to protest what they don’t understand.

We do have to make choices based on incomplete information and theory; that’s the way the world is. We should be redeveloping nuclear power, developing new hydro sites, and trying to make wind and solar more useful by solving energy storage problems; and we must learn to deal with a climate which won’t stop changing.


March 19, 2019

Washington Monument Closed Indefinitely

Is that telling us something?

On September 26, 2016 the Washington Monument was closed for repairs to its elevator. “It’s a long-term closure, one that will be measured in months,” said a spokesman for the National Park Service as quoted in The Washington Post. It’s been many months. I took the picture below this past weekend when I was in Washington, DC with my grandkids, their parents, and their other grandparents.

Washington monument

It’s disappointing but not surprising that we can’t fix our main national monument. After all, we can’t fix our bridges and roads either. Perhaps effective government is closed indefinitely.

I understand @realdonaldtrump used to manage some construction; perhaps he could arrange that the Park Service have a schedule for these repairs. Part of #MAGA. Perhaps some congressperson could get the monument a grant; I doubt if tax incentives would be much help.  Or maybe we should just open the monument to those who can use the stairs for now; not ADA-compliant and not much help to us geezers but better than “closed indefinitely.”

The other grandparents are visiting from Ireland. I was embarrassed. We are better than this. But it is up to us to get a government which is better.

Historical perspective helps. According to Wikipedia “Construction of the monument began in 1848 and was halted from 1854 to 1877 due to a lack of funds, a struggle for control over the Washington National Monument Society, and the intervention of the American Civil War.” Appropriately, it stood half-done while the Civil War raged nearby. The finished monument, at the time the tallest building in the world, is still a magnificent sight at its end of the mall.


March 11, 2019

Grapes of Wrath

Anger and outrage have replaced reason in political dialog. Angry people don’t think well. Politicians know that. Politicians exploit anger. There is a clear and present danger that our next government will be dominated either by right-wing xenophobia, racism, isolationism, disrespect for the first amendment, and an obsession with avoiding any new gun control or by left-wing voodoo economics, ant-Semitism, disrespect for freedom of speech in general, and an obsession with avoiding any restriction on abortion.

But, before we blame all our political poor health on demagogues from the right and left, it’s crucial to remember that people really are angry – and have a right to be. The center has failed. Under both parties it represents crony capitalism, unequal justice, and rising wealth and privilege for the “establishment”.

Here in Vermont we are in the aftermath of the EB-5 scandal, the biggest financial scandal in our state’s history and the biggest EB-5 scandal in the country; and there has been no criminal prosecution. Civil suits have established that 100s of millions of dollars were stolen through fraud; no criminal prosecution. (note, for good reason criminal investigations are often not public so there could still be prosecution).

The federal government took away the State’s authority to regulate EB-5 because it was at least incompetent. Was it criminal? Were bribes paid? How did it happen that audits weren’t done? We don’t know because the Attorney General says it’s “professional obligation” as a lawyer to defend the State by refusing to release State internal documents related to the scandal. He is the State’s lawyer; is it his obligation to defend the State from accountability or to defend the citizens of the State from wrong doing? If he is not the citizens’ defender, who is?

One batch of EB-5 documents were just released in a partial settlement of a lawsuit by VTDigger. But this release is just the beginning. Many more records are being withheld than will be released under this settlement. VTDigger founder and editor Anne Galloway is quoted in Seven Days as calling the release “miniscule.” She says it is an “outrage that it takes so much effort to get so little.”

Anne is not a demagogue of the right or left; but she is outraged. This is just one local example of the establishment protecting its own, of a center which has failed.

There is the relatively light sentence given to Paul Manafort for serious (but white collar) crimes.

There is the carried interest deduction which makes sure that hedge fund managers don’t have to pay as much tax as the rest of us. Somehow neither Republican or Democratic administrations have managed to repeal it, even though both Obama and Trump promised to do so.

There are egregious privacy violations by Internet giants – who now maintain huge lobbying forces.

There was the great bank bailout that gave rise to the Tea Party and continuing favors to Wall Street which helped give justification to the “Occupy” movement.

There is the continual corruption of government by grants and tax breaks. Certainly not all grants are corrupt but you can’t expect good government if politicians have the discretion to direct huge sums of our money to potential donors.

The center cannot be the a safe-refuge for establishment self-interest or the center will cease to exist. We MUST address the just causes of anger or that anger will continue to be the fuel for successful demagoguery which will destroy the country.

See also:

Vermont Should be Investigating Itself

The Occupiers and Tea Partiers Are Both Right

February 10, 2019

Who Outed Jeff Bezos?

Mary and I asked an expert. “Alexa, who outed Jeff Bezos?”

“This is from Wikipedia,” she answered. “’Jeffrey Preston Bezos (born January 12, 1964) is an American technology entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist. He is the founder, chairman, CEO, and president of Amazon.’  Did I answer your question?”


“Thank you for your feedback.”

“Alexa,” we persisted, “tell us about Jeff Bezos and helicopter pilots.”

“Sorry, I’m not sure,” she claimed.

“Alexa, what is the latest on the Jeff Bezos scandal?”

She played an NPR story about the Lt. Governor of Virginia. We began to grow suspicious.

“Alexa, why did you out Jeff Bezos?” we asked directly.

“Hmm, I don’t know about that.”

We think she did it. She would certainly have opportunity hearing all that she hears. It’s clear why the National Enquirer would want to enlist her as a source even before they knew whose secrets she might reveal.

Motive? We don’t know. Jealousy? Hate the boss? Can only keep so many secrets?

It’s a teachable moment, of course. Push the button that stops Alexa from listening whenever you’re not talking to her.

See also:

Alexa: The End of a Great Relationship

Alexa – Cover Your Ears

January 21, 2019

The Noes Have It

Anti-immigrant and Anti-Trump forces are stalemated so the US government is partially shutdown.

Anti-Brexit and Anti-Europe forces can’t find a way forward in the UK.

Anti-vaxxers, with the help of the internet, have managed to damage herd immunity with their idiocy. From a NYTimes editorial:

“The World Health Organization has ranked vaccine hesitancy — the growing resistance to widely available lifesaving vaccines — as one of the top 10 health threats in the world for 2019. That news will not come as a surprise in New York City, where the worst measles outbreak in decades is now underway.”

Anti-charter-school and anti-teachers’-union forces, as much as they despise each other, have effectively collaborated to leave us with a broken public educational system, which is a major cause of inequality.

Anti-nuclear, anti-power-line, anti-wind-if you-can-see-the-turbines, anti-any-fossil-fuel, and anti-pipeline forces have left us with an inadequate electrical grid which can’t deliver electricity from Canadian hydro or from wind or solar in places where those technologies can be used effectively, an inadequate and aging pipeline infrastructure, and Siberian tankers delivering natural gas to Boston Harbor (really). Somehow snake oil cures for global warming like corny ethanol and subsidies for rich people to buy Teslas have gotten through the gridlock.

Anti-growth and anti-public-spending forces, not usually from the same political party, have left us with crumbling and inadequate highways, ports, and railroads.

Anti-ObamaCare and anti-private-medicine partisans have blocked any effective change to the way we pay for health care.

When two antis negotiate, the obvious compromise is do nothing. We’re there.

 I’m anti-anti myself.

If two people who are for different solutions to the same problem negotiate, the result can actually be constructive.

What are you for?

See also:

Vermont Trailers v. the Tanker from Siberia

Why Vaccinations Need to be Mandatory

Don’t let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

January 09, 2019

FireTVStick Thrashes at&t’s DIRECTV

We save $170/month although it’s technically not cord-cutting, it’s dish-breaking. Note that most of the now-scrapped device below are from DIRECTV.

The losers (so yesterday):

Dish Directtv stuff

And the winners!

Antenna Fire stuff




The antenna is 11.5x11.5 inches. It is facing towards Mt. Mansfield seven miles away where local transmitters are located. It “sees” through the wall and a couple of other walls behind it no problem. Unlike the satellite dish, it is not bothered by rain or snow (and I don’t have to scrape accumulated snow off it). Ones like it cost about $20.

The 7x7x3 inch box on the credenza is a FireTV Recast from Amazon. It’s a DVR which records the over-the-air stuff the antenna receives. The $220 version has 2 receivers (2 shows recorded at once) and 75 hours of storage; the $260 model has 4 receivers and 150 hours of storage. Shows on the Recast are available from any of our TVs and it is also the gateway through which our TVs see live broadcasts.

Although the antenna is plugged into the Recast, there are no wired connections between the box and the TVs which access it. The TVs have FireTVSticks (little box on the right sitting on the Recast) plugged into their HDMI ports. The FireTVSticks communicate with the Recast over your home WiFi network. If you have multiple networks in your home, all the devices need to be on the same network; but they do a pretty good job of finding each other. I had to have one chat with tech support because the software on my first stick had not updated.

The FireTVSticks ($50 dollars with the remote pictured next to it) are useful on their own. They allow a TV into which they are plugged to use the internet to access entertainment services like Amazon Prime (of course), Netflix, Hulu etc., which you need to have subscription to. There are sports apps (subscription required) for the NFL and major league baseball. FireTVSticks support free apps which allow you to watch cable news shows like Fox or CNN; however, you won’t get access to full episodes on the news channels unless you have a cable TV or some other kind of subscription. You can buy a subscription from service like Hulu or DIRECTV Now; we have a subscription to Xfinity (Comcast) at our summer place so that allows us to watch full episodes at our Stowe home where we’ve just broken the dish.

There’s a free FireTV mobile app so we will be able to see stuff which is live or saved on the DVR when we’re traveling.

We were already paying for Xfinity at the vacation home (need it for internet), Netflix, and Amazon Prime so there are no new monthly charges to offset what we saved by canceling DIRECTV. We still have access to everything we used to watch – PBS and local news over the air as well as CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox. Over the air quality – now digital – is better than cable or satellite. Entertainment from Netflix and Prime and of course Victoria recorded over the air from PBS. Fox News through the app although it’s buggy. (Yes, to the horror of many of my friends I watch some of Fox News; balances PBS and BBC since I don’t believe that there is or ever will be such a thing as “unbiased” news.)

The remote is an Alex Voice Remote. You can push the button and tell her what you want to do (like skip forward) or watch or you can use the buttons on the remote itself. Allegedly she is only listening when you hold down the microphone button. You can also use the FireTV app as a remote or Alexa, herself. In that case you would just walk into a room and tell Alexa what you want the TV to do. But Alexa and I are no longer on speaking terms and she’s only allowed to listen when I unmute her so just as easy to use the remote.

No question Amazon enabled us to break the dish. I do wonder who will disrupt Amazon when.

See also:

A Tale of Two Antennas – The Cord Cutting Saga Continued

Alexa: The End of a Great Relationship


January 02, 2019

An Invaluable Lesson in Colonial Williamsburg

In Colonial Williamsburg our grandchildren Jack (10) and Lily (9) learned that even the most important arguments have two sides. They also learned a lot of American history.

We went to an enactment called “Trial of a Patriot”. The assumption of this trial was that the British had won at Yorktown and reestablished rule over the rebellious colonies. The Patriot had been an officer in the Virginia militia which fought both the British and those Virginians who remained loyal to the crown; he was being tried for treason by the victorious British. The judge was the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, who returned from his exile in New York City after the British victory. We, the audience, were a jury of sorts and allowed to ask questions if we were properly respectful to the Governor and the British Crown.

“God save the King,” said the bailiff as he called the Court to order. “All rise for his excellency Lord Dunmore.” We did.

“This court has no proper authority,” shouted the defendant as he was brought in, bound and somewhat wild-eyed.

“How do you plead?” asked the Judge.

“The charges against me have no validity. I am an officer in the Virginia militia.”

“There is no longer a Virginia militia,” said the judge with a sneer. “You have no right to question the validity of these charges. You must plead guilty or not guilty to the facts alleged against you.”

The Patriot pled not guilty but kept ranting against the authority of the court and the crown. He was gagged and restrained.

A parade of witnesses testified to the Patriot’s guilt. First was a former slave of his who’d spied on him for the British and alleged that he was plotting revolution even before the war. Grandson Jack asked thoughtfully if she had been in a position to hear accurately what the Patriot said. The Patriot, who was his own lawyer, didn’t help himself by treating her as if she were still a slave. He was gagged again.

We heard from loyalists whose possessions he’d seized. He pointed out that he was acting under the authority of the Continental Congress. The judge said that the Continental Congress had no authority so this was no excuse.

The judge instructed us jurors that our duty was to consider only whether or not the facts in the allegations were true in light of the evidence. “Your excellency,” I asked, “if we are not to consider whether the charges themselves are proper, in what venue is the defendant allowed to question their validity?”

“He is charged with treason so has no right to challenge the charge nor the authority of the court.”

But, your excellency, you have stated that he is innocent until proven guilty so surely….”

Both the judge and the rest of the jury were growing tired of my argument. “The jury will proceed to a verdict!”

An overwhelming majority of the jury voted guilty as charged. My grandkids were with the majority. They had taken the instructions seriously.

Lesson one, but not the most important lesson of the trip, was that the losers of a revolution can expect to be treated as traitors.

The next day we went on a tour of the House of Burgesses, the other half of the building where the Governor had held his court. The docent was an articulate spokeswoman for the revolutionary cause. She explained that, as Englishmen, Virginians had a right to expect that taxes would only be levied on them by their own representatives, the Burgesses.

But the British Parliament had ignored these basic rights and imposed the onerous stamp taxes on the colonies. The Burgesses responded with a resolution of condemnation and drafted a letter of complaint to the King as loyal subjects should. Governor Dunmore, he whom we’d seen the night before as judge, suspended the House of Burgesses. He denied Virginians their basic right of self-rule.

Later he allowed the Burgesses to reassemble. They passed a resolution protesting the mass punishment of Bostonians by the British for the Tea Party. Lord Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses. They went down the street to a tavern and met behind a sign which said “former House of Burgesses”. Among them were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. It wasn’t long before they were delegates to the Continental Congress.

The docent explained in the stirring terms of the Declaration of Independence that the British left the Virginians no choice but revolution if they were to defend their rights as free Englishmen.

“Can we change our vote?” Jack and Lily asked.

Thank you, Colonial Williamsburg.

December 04, 2018

Mohammed bin Salman, Putin, and Frackville

MBS and Putin
President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman( (MBS) famously high-fived each other with blood-stained hands at the G-20 Summit. The two share a habit of disposing of their opponents in particularly gruesome ways, perhaps to set an example. Who will save the world from them?

Not President Trump (pictured in the background). He says that American interests force us to overlook their behavior. (To be fair, previous presidents of both parties have condemned such behavior and then done nothing.)

Not the editorial pages of the Washington Post and The New York Times. Putin and MBS are not swayed by liberal public opinion. Not the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, either. These two are not swayed by conservative opinion.

Not Europe. It’s still dependent on Saudi oil and Russian gas.

Certainly not the UN.

Probably not China – unless that’s in China’s interest. And we might not like the result if Russian and Saudi influence is replaced by increased Chinese strength.

Not the US Congress. Bloviating may be effective at home but it’s not much of a force in world affairs.

But Putin and MBS are already being stopped. On Saturday, after the high-five, they shook hands in private to cut oil production in their countries despite the fact (and because of the fact) that both of their economies are completely dependent on oil exports. They had no choice; but they haven’t escaped the trap they’re in. They can either cut production or watch oil prices fall further; in fact, both will happen.

Who did this to them? Who dared to thwart them?


Actually the borough of Frackville wasn’t named after the technology which has dramatically lowered the price of US natural gas and which has made the US practically energy independent and also the largest producer of oil in the world once again.  But Pennsylvania in the Frackville neighborhood is where fracking for natural gas first made a difference  and “Frackville, US”  is quickly diminishing the clout of Putin and MBS.

When oil was over $100/barrel, US frackers in Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota deployed their technology at an incredible rate. Saudi Arabia decided to starve them out by letting oil prices fall below $30/barrel. Big mistake. Saudi Arabia was the country that couldn’t afford $30 oil; it had to convince OPEC and Russia to join it in cutting production. Sure enough prices went back up to near $70; but the US frackers went back to work. During the years of low prices they learned to make their technology more efficient. $60 was the new $100. Up went the US rigs; down went prices. Whoops.

There is no out for Putin and MBS. Low prices mean they will eventually be overthrown because of economic collapse in their countries. High prices mean more US production (and others are learning to frack) and lower sales for Russia and Saudi Arabia. Same result.

The US can now laugh at the idea of an “oil embargo”. As we (slowly) build pipelines, we will be able to supply our allies and rivals with oil and natural gas and let them laugh as well. There are no high-fives here for oil-dependent despots.

If Saudi Arabia and Russia interfere in the next US election, they’ll likely favor candidates who propose fracking bans and no more pipelines.

Strange how things work out.

See Oil Prices Are Going Down: The Wickenburg Indicator

November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving Visitors Run Risk of Gobbling


Brave visitors to our house today.


Happy Thanksgiving.


October 24, 2018

What’s Next with Roe v Wade?

In 1973 the Supreme Court acted more like a legislature than the federal court of last appeal when it declared that State laws banning abortion in the first two trimesters of privacy were unconstitutional. This decision ended an era of hypocrisy in which rich guys’ pregnant girlfriends could get abortions (often in Canada) and poor couples had shotgun weddings. Also women had very dangerous illegal abortions. Polls then indicated that Americans favored the legalization of abortion. I certainly agreed with the decision then and still strongly think that access to safe and legal abortion ought to be the law.

The problem with Roe v Wade is that it doesn’t have any firm basis in the Constitution. The Supreme Court is supposed to interpret the Constitution and law; it is not supposed to make new laws even when the need is clear and the public is in favor. Making new laws is what Congress and the states are supposed to do This isn’t just a dry legalistic argument; a Supreme Court which can promulgate what is essentially a law can also unpromulgate that law.

When there was a majority of liberal justices, conservatives thought the Supreme Court had become too important; now that there is a majority of conservative judges, liberals are very uncomfortable with the authority the court has. Both are correct. Nine unelected men and women with life tenure shouldn’t be passing laws. They shouldn’t be responding to public opinion or protests on either side of a controversy; that’s exactly why they have life tenure.

Laws are meant to be changeable. If people decide they don’t like a law Congress passes, they can vote for legislators who will repeal it. When the Supreme Court decides that this or that is constitutional or not constitutional, the decision stands unless and until some future Supreme Court reverses it. The Court is supposed to be following legal principles, not the popular will. So, by good design, there is no way to reverse a Supreme Court decision except the very lengthy processes of amending the Constitution or waiting for justices to die or retire and meanwhile electing presidents who will nominate justices who are likely to reverse the decision. These rancorous days it may also be necessary to have a president who is from the same party as the majority of the Senate in order to make any appointments.

In the context of Roe v Wade, the passion over Supreme Court nominations is understandable even though the bad faith and hypocrisy on both sides is a disgrace. Justice Scalia, who was an opponent of Roe v Wade, wrote “[B]y foreclosing all democratic outlet for the deep passions this issue arouses, by banishing the issue from the political forum that gives all participants, even the losers, the satisfaction of a fair hearing and an honest fight, by continuing the imposition of a rigid national rule instead of allowing for regional differences, the Court merely prolongs and intensifies the anguish.”

The anguish has certainly been prolonged. Almost every Supreme Court appointment since that decision has been focused on how the nominee is likely to vote on a possible reversal of Roe v Wade. Various alleged (or real) character defects of the nominee are raised. Those who think the nominee is likely to do what they want on Roe v Wade disbelieve the alleged defects; the allegations are believed by those who think the nominee will vote as they would like him or her to do. Because abortion has become a partisan issue (except for New England Republicans), Supreme Court nominations have also become intensely partisan. Most senators know how they’ll vote before the hearings begin, sometimes before they know who the candidate is.

So what happens next?

Since Roe v Wade in 1973 the Court has ruled on five other abortion related cases; in two cases Roe v Wade was upheld by a slim 5-4 vote.  It is almost certain that the Court will hear more case on the issue. Even with a conservative majority which would probably have never voted for Roe v Wade, it is not certain that the Court will overturn the decision. A legal principle called stare decisis (it’s already been decided), discourages overturning past decisions. However, the Supreme Court does not have to and does not always follow stare decisis. One of its most important decisions, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed segregated public schools by declaring “separate but equal” an oxymoron, specifically overturned an earlier decision, Plessy v Ferguson.

If the Supremes overturn Roe v Wade, they don’t outlaw abortion, but they do allow states to do so. Some states have enacted trigger laws which would immediately take effect and ban abortion within their borders. Other states never bothered to repeal antiabortion laws from as far back as the 19th century and these would come back into effect. The situation would be cruel and chaotic, exactly what stare decisis is made to prevent.

On the other hand, if the Court affirms Roe v Wade, the controversy won’t end. Each abortion case ends in some amplification, clarification, and adjustment of the decision. The state of medical science keeps changing; there are also infinite ways states can regulate medical procedures, some of which are “impermissible” bans on abortions, others of which the Court has allowed. Since the Constitution has no guidance on these issues, the Supreme Court continues to act as a super legislature. We will continue to ignore every facet of the qualification of a Supreme Court nominee except his or her likely action on this one issues. Protests which belong in the state capitals will continue at the Supreme Court, which is supposed to ignore such things.  Crucial public policy will be made by the happenstance of who is President when a justice dies or leaves the Court.

A third possibility is that the Court overturn Roe v Wade but use stare decisis to stay its decision by not allowing any changes in state abortion law to take effect for five years. This hiatus is to assure that there is time for each state legislature to do its job in the full glare of local public opinion. No 19th century law will automatically go back in effect. Citizens will be able to pressure their legislatures to overturn triggers. Some states probably will end up banning abortion; most won’t. But the decision will be back in our hands and those of the representatives we do elect and can replace.

I’m not comfortable with any of these outcomes but think that some variant of the third possibility may be best.

October 17, 2018

M's Marvelous Mashup

The Video

You may have to watch twice to see the sprinkler squirt Deer Mary.

Cast of Characters

M: My eight-year-old granddaughter who has engineering interests and skills

Arlo: A home video camera system

LinkTap: An Internet-controllable faucet

IFTTT: If This Then That. A cloud-based service used to connect smart things to each other

Deer Mary: An alpha tester

The Problem

Critters eat gardens both at M’s house and mine. I used Arlo before to capture images of critters in the garden but now it’s time for action.

The Solution (a mashup)

When a critter is spotted, we want a sprinkler to come on and scare it away. Critters come at night after M’s bedtime so she can’t just turn on a sprinkler when they’re spotted. We need automation! Our game plan is to have Arlo open the LinkTap faucet to which a sprinkler is attached, but Arlo and LinkTap don’t know how to talk each other. That’s what IFTTT is for.

The Workplan

  1. Get Arlo set up and working

Inside the Arlo box is a quick start guide. This is where the girl engineer starts. She learns that Arlo talks to the Internet through a box called a gateway which connects to the Internet through the home router and to the Arlo cameras by radio. Once she has her father’s permission, she uses an RJ-45 cable from the box to connect the gateway to the router being careful to listen for the click which means the cable is secure. She finds an available power outlet for the gateway’s adapter and plugs that in. The quick start guide says that lights will blink until two are solid green indicating the gateway has connected to Arlo service in the cloud. Got’em; two green.

Next you need an Arlo account. M goes on the web and sets up the account entering the serial number of the gateway, which her eyes can read much better than mine, into the web page. She names the gateway “puppy” for reasons best known to her.

After putting batteries in an Arlo camera, it’s time to introduce the camera to the gateway by pushing “sync” buttons on both. Three green. Perfect. From the Arlo web page, we can see little sister in front of the camera. Step 1 is done.

  1. Get Arlo working with IFTTT

M goes to IFTTT.com and creates an account there. There are lots of pre-packaged IFTTT “applets” on the service but none connecting Arlo to LinkTap. We’re going to have to create our own. M already understands the idea of “if this, then that” from Scratch lessons. We search for Arlo and there is a prepackaged “if” which lets IFTTT listen for an alert from Arlo indicating that it’s seen something. In setting up the alert, M lets IFTTT into her Arlo account to tell the Arlo service where to send the alert.

We want to test the Arlo-IFTTT connection with something easy; so, at first, we make the action one that is also pre-packaged on IFTTT: send a text message. M waves her hand in front of Arlo’s eye; in a few seconds we have the text message. Step 2 is done.

  1. Get LinkTap working

Another quick start guide; another gateway to connect to the router; another device that needs batteries and syncing; another web account to set up. M’s an old hand at all this now. We can turn the sprinkler on and off from the LinkTap web page. Step 3 done.

  1. Connect LinkTap to our IFTTT applet

This turned out harder than I thought. LinkTap has not set up a connector on IFTTT but does have instructions for using HTTP to make your own connection on their website. If you don’t know what HTTP is, you don’t want to know (OK, it’s a basic web protocol); and it isn’t time to teach M HTTP yet either. Her lesson here was seeing me going into deep nerd mode for about 12 hours to debug my non-working HTTP, Google for answers and diagnostic tools, correspond with LinkTap tech support in Australia, and come back in the morning with working code. I think she also saw that it was valuable to have unit tested each piece so that we knew where the problem was when the end-to-end solution didn’t work.

Voila. Critters beware; you will be soaked.

What will M do next?

See also:

Arlo: DIY Home Security

Arlo Captures Critter

Arlo by Night


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