Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fleeing Vesuvius, the US Edition

This hefty tome was published in Europe by Féasta, Ireland's Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability. It contains two articles by me: the first is a text version of the presentation I gave at the Féasta conference in Dublin two summers ago, which you can read right on this blog.

The US edition will be released on April 5, 2011.  You can pre-order yours at a savings of $9.67. All the money will go to support Féasta.
My second article in this volume—Sailing craft for a post-collapse world—is a long piece that I wrote exclusively for this publication. It spells out the transportation options that will still exist once fossil fuels are no longer available, concentrating on sail transport. It pulls together pertinent information that is currently scattered across many academic disciplines, and is also informed by my personal experience as an ocean sailor and live-aboard who does all of his own maintenance.

The full table of contents can be found here. The book can be purchased through Amazon.

Fleeing Vesuvius draws together many of the ideas our members have developed over the years and applies them to a single question—how can we bring the world out of the mess in which it finds itself?
Fleeing Vesuvius confronts this mess squarely, analyzing its many aspects: the looming scarcity of essential resources such as fossil fuels—the lifeblood of the world economy; the financial crisis in Ireland and elsewhere; the collapse of the housing bubble; the urgent need for food security; and the enormous challenge of dealing with climate change.

The solutions it puts forward involve changes to our economy and financial system, but they go much further: this substantial, wide-ranging book also looks at the changes needed in how we think, how we use the land and how we relate to others, particularly those where we live. While it doesn't discount the complexity of the problems we face, Fleeing Vesuvius is practical and fundamentally optimistic. It will arm readers with the confidence and knowledge they need to develop new, workable alternatives to the old-style expanding economy and its supporting systems. It's a book that can be read all the way through or used as a resource to dip in and out of.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Nuclear Meltdowns 101

[Update: The longer this disaster goes on, the more news articles appear confirming my suspicions from the very beginning. As they do, I add links to them below. So far, cooling has failed, and containment has failed. Next, radioactive lava will leak out of what were once the Fukushima nuclear reactors. The new feel-good mantra is "It's not as bad as Chernobyl." But it is already safe to conclude that the world is no longer safe enough (that is, economically, socially or politically stable enough) for nuclear power to exist. So please do the following exercise: take a map, mark every nuclear installation around where you are, draw a 50km radius circle around each, and then start seeing to it that you, your family and your friends are not in any of these circles. Pay attention to prevailing winds and coastal and ocean currents, which should extend your personal nuclear exclusion zone. Take a look around: there is no longer the money or the political power or even the technical expertise to immediately shut down and properly dismantle all of these installations and to store the nuclear waste in a way that will require zero maintenance for the thousands of years it will stay lethal. The best we can do now is evacuate ourselves ahead of time, and hope for the best.]

I am no nuclear expert, and that is probably a good thing. I did do a lot of reading about Chernobyl back when it happened. And now I am, as I was then, and as I am sure many of you are, getting really fed up with incomplete, inaccurate, misleading and generally unsatisfactory explanations that are being offered for what is going on at Fukushima. Either information is not available, or it is a flood of largely irrelevant technical minutia designed to thrill nuclear nerds but bound to bamboozle rather than inform the general reader. And so, for the sake of all the other people who aren't nuclear experts and have no ambition of ever becoming one, here's what I have been able to piece together.

Just hydrogen? Or a chain reaction?
What do they mean when they say “hydrogen explosions”? The hydrogen gas is being vented from inside the reactors and from spent fuel pools that are directly above them. Since it is very hot, it explodes as soon as it mixes with the outside air. It is formed from the rapid oxidation of the zirconium pipes that hold in the pellets of nuclear fuel. At Fukushima, some of the fuel pellets are made with uranium, while others are made with plutonium from reprocessed nuclear weapons. Zirconium is a metal which, like aluminum, instantly forms a thin, protective layer of oxide on contact with air, but doesn't oxidize further—unless it is heated up, that is. The zirconium-clad fuel rods must be kept submerged in water at all times, ocr they do heat up, and then the zirconium cladding oxidizes (burns) very rapidly and disintegrates into a powder. This is already enough information to tell us that a lot of the “fuel rods” at Fukushima are no longer rod-shaped, because the zirconium cladding has disintegrated, and that the fuel pellets must have fallen out and accumulated at the bottoms of the reactor vessels, where they are packed close together and heating up further. How much further they heat up will determine whether they will melt through the bottoms of the reactors. If they do, they would probably melt into the ground below and form a large pancake of hot, molten slag, which will slowly crumble into radioactive dust over many years, as has happened at Chernobyl. There is also a small chance that the fuel pellets will “go critical,” if the mass of them becomes sufficiently compact to restart the nuclear chain reaction; if that happens, the telltale tall brown cloud should be easy to spot from as away as Tokyo. This seems unlikely, but then nobody seems to be able to definitively rule it out either.

What do they mean when they say that they are cooling the reactor with seawater? Seawater is corrosive, and is probably the worst coolant imaginable. Normally, nuclear reactors are cooled with fresh, filtered, deionized water. The crew at Fukushima used seawater because they had no other choice. When the cooling pumps failed because the tsunami caused a blackout, they called in the fire brigade, and the fire engines there apparently use seawater. The reactor cooling systems are plumbed with stainless steel pipes, which degrade rather rapidly on contact with sea water because of the chlorine in it, especially if they are hot (which they are). At Fukushima, “containment” has already become a relative term, since the reactors are vented to the outside air in any case to keep them from bursting, but once these pipes disintegrate (a process that might take a few days to a few weeks) the containment vessels will become riddled with holes, letting in outside air and, if by then there is any zirconium left to burn, possibly causing hydrogen explosions inside the reactors, compromising them further. Their radioactive contents will then be carried to the atmosphere in aerosol form. We will probably know when that happens because the Geiger counters in the area will peg out. Nothing has been said about the destination of the copious amounts of now contaminated seawater that is being pumped through the damaged reactors and spent fuel pools. At Chernobyl, the water that that was used to "cool" the by then nonexistent reactor formed a large radioactive lake which threatened to poison Pripyat river. At Fukushima, we must suspect, all of that contaminated seawater is draining straight back into the Pacific, where tidal currents will carry it up and down the coast, contaminating the entire coastline with long-lived radioactive elements. Which brings us to a very general question:

What is the difference between radiation and radioactivity? This is a basic enough distinction, but, listening to the news coverage, I have observed a great deal of confusion. (Some of it seems intentional, if not malicious: I heard some nuclear expert/twit (a retired Oxford don, I think) on NPR explain how "wadiation" can be "thewapeutic" and never once did he mention "wadioactivity," and it made me quite mad.) Do not use the two terms interchangeably unless you want to sound like you don't know what you are talking about. Radiation, of a non-lethal kind, is what you get from a light bulb, an X-ray machine, at the beach or in a tanning booth. Radioactivity, or radioactive contamination, is what you get when a nuclear bomb or a nuclear power plant explodes, and it stays around and produces radiation for years. Both radiation and radioactivity are invisible and hard to measure, but that's where the similarity ends. Radiation consists of subatomic particles that generally go in straight lines at close to the speed of light. Given enough radiation, initially non-radioactive materials can in turn become radioactive. Radioactivity, on the other hand, is caused by radioactive materials, which decay into other materials, some also radioactive, some stable, plus some radiation, at some rate, either quickly or not so quickly. Uranium and plutonium hang around for many thousands of years. Radioactive substances can be pulverized and carried up into the atmosphere by explosions (not necessarily nuclear ones) in which case they drift with the wind for thousands of kilometers and pollute huge stretches of land and ocean. Exposure to excessive levels of radiation causes radiation poisoning, from which people can fully recover, while the various radioactive elements pollute the environment and are taken up by living organisms in a wide variety of ways, many of them not yet understood by science, poisoning them and causing a wide assortment of cancers and genetic defects. Some may be flushed out, while others become lodged in the lungs or in the bones for the life of the individual, where they remain radioactive, weakening immune systems, causing cancers and birth defects and shortening lifespans. I once spent a few hours at the airport in Minsk, waiting for a flight to Frankfurt with a group of “Chernobyl children” being flown out for treatment. They were quite a sight!

What about these “spent fuel pools” that keep catching on fire? Well that's probably the most insane thing about the nuclear power industry. They haven't figured out what to do with the spent fuel rods, so they store them tightly packed in pools of water directly at the site, or, in the case of Fukushima, since land in Japan is at such a premium, stacked directly on top of the reactor itself. The reactors at Fukushima are quite old, and so their spent fuel pools are packed full. The spent fuel rods, which accumulate over the entire lifetime of the power plant, have to be kept submerged to keep them cool, or the zirconium cladding burns away (causing hydrogen explosions) and the fuel pellets accumulate at the bottom of the pool, burning through it if the fuel is fresh enough (which, in some cases, it might be). The result is the same as with the fuel rods disintegrating inside the reactor itself, except that here there is no containment vessel to keep (at least some of) the radioactive material out of the environment.

Why do we have nuclear energy in the first place? This all sounds completely insane, doesn't it? Well, if it weren't for the nuclear bomb, anyone who proposed building a commercial fission reactor would have been laughed out of the room. But having nuclear bombs (which are by far the scariest things on the planet) makes nuclear fission reactors that much less scary, relatively speaking. And the reason we have nuclear bombs is because the only thing scarier than a nuclear bomb is not having one, since that opens you up the possibility of having one dropped on you by someone who does, such as the USSR (in theory) or the USA (as an historical fact). Compared to nuclear bombs, nuclear reactors seem "peaceful," although this is clearly not the case. Compared to nuclear reactors, nuclear bombs are as safe as houses, because they don't start a chain reaction until somebody pulls the trigger, whereas nuclear reactors maintain a controlled chain reaction during most of their existences. It's like comparing having a gun safely in your possession to heating your house with ammo, in which case, surely enough, accidents will happen.

What do people mean when they say that nuclear power is “safe” when compared to planes, trains and automobiles? What they mean is that the nuclear power industry has so far killed many fewer people per unit time. They have no data on how many people it will kill eventually, although by now they know that, unlike planes, trains and automobiles, which do crash and burn with some regularity, but cause limited damage, nuclear disasters do not have any definable upper bound on their destructive potential. I am pretty sure that there is enough above-ground radioactive material sitting in spent fuel pools and inside reactors to kill just about everyone. It will stay dangerous for over a million years, which is a lot longer than the expected lifetime of the nuclear power industry, or any industry, or any human civilization, or perhaps even the human race. When nuclear experts say that a nuclear reactor is safe, they can only mean that it is safe for the rest of the afternoon; beyond that they can't possibly have any actual data to support their claim. All they can do is extrapolate, given a rosy “everything will always remain under control” scenario, and that is not a valid approach. When they say that nuclear power is safe, what they are really saying is that it is safe given their perfect ability to accurately predict that the indefinite future will remain economically and socially stable, and we already know this to not be the case.

If we give up on nuclear energy, what will replace it? Nothing, probably. Let me try an example: if your lucrative murder-for-hire business suddenly runs afoul of a few silly laws (even though it has so far killed many fewer people than planes, trains or automobiles) that doesn't mean that you should keep killing people until you find another source of income. Same thing with electricity: if it turns out that the way you've been generating it happens to be criminally negligent, then you shut it all down. If you have less electricity, you will use less electricity. If this implies that economic growth is over and that all of your financial institutions are insolvent and your country bankrupt, then—I am sorry, but at this point in time that's not even newsworthy. Don't worry about that; just keep the nuclear accidents to a bare minimum, or you won't have anything else left to worry about.

Nothing Left to Steal

Michael Betancourt is an intellectual: he uses words like semiosis and actually knows exactly what they mean. Speaking on The Keiser Report, he made some interesting points about the pile of digital ephemera that the global financial system, and much of the economy with it, has devolved into. From 20:52 on, Michael has this to say on the current action in the financial markets around the world:
I wouldn't necessarily say "steal" ... I just don't feel that "stealing" is necessarily the right verb for this. It's something else. Stealing [implies] that there is some kind of physical commodity that's being stolen... that the currency is being debased implies that if we didn't do this the currency would be solvent, and the whole problem here is that the currency itself is disconnected from any kind of physical value. It exists as a debt against future production rather than a store of value. And all of this comes down to the immaterial basis that we are now living in. So, yes, in a sense you could say that they are stealing, [but] in another sense you could say that they are not stealing because there is nothing to be stolen... The reality is that this is an unsustainable system, and that the inevitability of its collapse has been there almost from the beginning, because the entire system is based on a currency that is not based on anything—it exists only in relation to other currencies...
On the protesters in Wisconsin and elsewhere:
What makes this even more perverse is that what they are fighting for is the continuation of their entrapment... The powers that are currently acting and that are causing these riots, protests, rebellions... are fighting for their own survival, and the shift that's happening is perverse because we are driving towards a collapse, and it is almost inevitable that we are going to have this collapse again at some point. To a certain extent I think it may have already started with the credit freeze in 2009. The attempt to print our way out of it isn't going to result in hyperinflation necessarily (although there are people who are saying that it will) so much as it will result in a complete revaluation of the system, in which we arrive at some other, new equilibrium. Part of the problem with getting there is that there are forces fighting over who has the largest number of these essentially immaterial objects, this immaterial currency. What will happen is that at some point they will have most of it (and we are moving towards that already, if you look at any of the various numbers on who has the wealth and who doesn't). What will happen when it gets concentrated enough is that the entire system will freeze up like it did in 2009. This is because the equilibrium and the maintenance and the survival of this system depends upon the circulation of these immaterial commodities. As soon as they start getting hoarded, or as soon as people who have them start cashing out and into some sort of physical commodity, both of these can trigger an imminent collapse, not necessarily in the sense of a bank run or a panic, but in the sense that the system can no longer feasibly maintain its own equilibrium... it drives towards ever greater disequilibrium, because that's the ground state for this sort of a situation, where you have vast immaterial production versus limited physical production.
I would tend to agree. The value of financial assets rests on the promise of future industrial production, which will fail to materialize due to shortages of multiple key resources. In the updated edition of Reinventing Collapse (which is scheduled to go to press next week), I try to get at much the same thing as Michael, trying hard to avoid big words like “disequilibrium”:
The extent to which we value money depends on our degree of confidence in the economy. At first, as the economy starts to collapse, we start to hoard money, to make sure that we don’t run out. Then, as the economy continues to wither away, supply disruptions and price spikes cause some of us to suddenly realize that we might not be able to gain access to the things we need for much longer, never mind the cost, and that running out of money is not fatal whereas running out of food, fuel and other supplies certainly can be. And then we start cashing in our paper assets in exchange for physical commodities we think might be more useful. Shortly thereafter everyone realizes that the chips they are holding are not all that valuable any more. It is this realization, more than anything else, that renders the chips instantly worthless. [RC 2.0 p. 54-55]
In recent months I have had many occasions to walk through Boston's financial district and look at all the suit-and-tie-wearing lab rats whose job is to push buttons to try to stimulate the pleasure center of some wealthy person's brain. The vast majority of what they trade is derived from debt secured by future production that will not exist. At what point will their patron's pleasure cross the pain threshold? Will we see the über-wealthy immolating themselves on pyres of their now worthless money, just to escape the anguish of being disencumbered of their phantom possessions? I hope for everyone to survive with their precarious sanity intact, but I can't help but look forward to a Bonfire of the Vanities to put this lengthy episode of breathless financial self-digiting behind us.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

VideoNation: The Lost Interview

Something funny happened on the way to the management offices of The Nation, and Mike Ruppert's interview ended up in a different YouTube account than the other interviews in the series: ontheearthproduction instead of videonation (which is where the rest of the series can still be found). The internet works in mysterious ways. "Get Ruppert off our intertubes!" said The Nation; and so here we are, in an altogether different YouTube account. But let's not dwell on that.

Short summary:
  • It is happening.
  • It will be happening for a while yet.
  • To survive, you need to prepare and cover the basics.
  • Be grateful for all the people (e.g., Mike) who have been sounding the alarm for a while now, long enough for you to (not) get your act together.
  • Also be grateful for all the people who have been preparing, who are (somewhat) prepared, and who are (sometimes) willing to teach you. 
  • Stop hoping that status quo ante-collapsus will somehow be magically restored; that world is gone forever. The planet is finite, and we have reached its limits.
  • "Fracking"—the latest fossil fuel techno-fix, is nothing short of Earth-rape; not only that, but it is a net waste of energy.
  • There is a global generational revolution underway. American baby-boomers with their depleted savings and worthless equity and looted entitlements are out; the rest of the planet, which they have short-changed, is taking over. We are all Egyptians now. 

Bracing stuff, wouldn't you say?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Earth Shakes, Sea Surges, Nukes Blow

[Update: Kennis has contributed this video, which nicely ties together my recent themes of poop and nuclear disaster into a single tidy, child-safe package.]

Have you ever tried to recruit concert pianists? Rather a difficult job, wouldn't you say? Now, suppose you had to tell them right away that concert pianos sometimes explode, and that when they do some part of the audience, there to listen to a bit of Liszt, is burned to death on the spot, while most of the rest suffer a horrible death from radiation poisoning a while later? Oh, and the concert hall then becomes an off-limits radioactive crater, and anyone who was ever your fan would then look forward to bearing children who die of childhood leukemia or any number of birth defects. Lovely!

The nuclear power supporters might still be able to recruit some knuckle-draggers to do their bidding, but what good would that do? They might very well detonate the old grand piano just by playing “Chopsticks” or “Three Blind Mice” during their very first recital. Supposing that the grand piano was actually a water-cooled uranium or recycled plutonium-fueled reactor, and that you were a knuckle-dragger, you'd certainly summon a fire engine or two, and ask them to pump seawater into your grand piano, to cool it down. Not that the Japanese had any choice at that point, but, speaking strictly as a lay plumber, I find seawater to be ever so slightly problematic when pumped through an overheated boiler, never mind a nuclear reactor that's about to blow. I think I would rather moonlight as a lay electrician than listen to a nuclear engineer expound on the benefits of seawater in a nuclear reactor. Declare your incompetence forthwith and fade away now, please, thank you!

Paging Mickey Mouse!
Ultimately, the problem is with the people who designed and built these things, not with the people who have to suffer horribly and die when they explode. You see, you have to be a certain sort of person to say “Sure, using a precariously controlled subcritical nuclear pile to boil water to run steam turbines to generate electricity is a great idea!” That sort of person is called a sociopath. Having worked with quite a few of them, I know a thing or two about sociopaths. They are always around to make ridiculous things happen and take credit for them while they can, but when these ridiculous things go horribly wrong, as they inevitably do, they are nowhere to be found. They have this knack for promoting the knuckle-draggers just in time for them to take the fall for what appears to be their own mistakes.

Three years ago I wrote this into the Collapse Party Platform:
I am particularly concerned about all the radioactive and toxic installations, stockpiles and dumps. Future generations are unlikely to be able to control them, especially if global warming puts them underwater. There is enough of this muck sitting around to kill off most of us. There are abandoned mine sites at which, soon after the bulldozers and the excavators stop running, toxic tailings and the contents of settling ponds will flow into and poison the waters of major rivers, making their flood plains and estuaries uninhabitable for many centuries. Many nuclear power plants have been built near coastlines, for access to ocean water for cooling. These will be at risk of inundation due to extreme weather events and rising sea levels caused by global warming. At many nuclear power stations, spent fuel rods are stored in a pool right at the reactor site, because the search for a more permanent storage place has been mired in politics. There are surely better places to store them than next to population centers and bodies of water. Nuclear reservations — sites that have been permanently contaminated in the process of manufacturing nuclear weapons — should be marked with sufficiently large, durable and frightening obelisks to warn off travelers long after all memory of their builders has faded away.
And now I will say it again: Shut it all down. All of it. Now. Please.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fuel For The Year

I don't know if you've noticed, but during the past few months oil prices have ramped up to levels which, as the financial crisis of 2008 had demonstrated, tend to crash the global economy. Even the International Energy Agency has recently picked up on this fact and sounded an alarm. That was before Libya exploded, taking a couple of millions of barrels a day of irreplaceable light sweet crude off the market. That was also before Japan was devastated by a major earthquake and tsunami, damaging oil refineries and nuclear power plants. (Tokyo immediately started asking Moscow to start shipping more oil and coal right away.) Nobody knows how many other disruptions such as these are going to occur this year, but that number is probably greater than zero, and it won't take too many more to cause the global petrochemical supply chain to snap, resulting in high prices, shortages and rationing.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so I decided to pre-purchase all the gasoline we will need for the entire year. I put my two 20-liter jerricans on the dock cart, and wheeled them out of the marina, across the parking lot, down the street, through the pretty little gas-lit park that the Boston Freedom Trail passes through on the way to the Bunker Hill Monument, and to the filling station on the corner. I had to do this trip three times; the first two loads I emptied into the on-board tank, filling it. The remaining load will stay in the jerricans, on deck, shown above.

Sixty liters is a truly astounding amount of energy. At 9.7 kW·h/L, it's almost 600 kW·h. Rowing flat out, I can put out about 70 Watts, and so the energy I got from the gas station is equivalent to me rowing continuously for an entire year, or about five years of me rowing for five hours every day. Not only that, but at around US$1/L it is about the cheapest liquid available—cheaper than milk or bottled water or apple cider, none of which get you very far. Not only that, but this amazing substance is conveniently dispensed around the clock by a computerized machine at a clean, brightly lit facility that is within easy walking distance. It just sounds too good to be true; I don't think it will last.

We don't use gasoline all that much. We have a 10-horsepower outboard that sits in an inboard-outboard well under the transom and behaves much as an inboard engine would without the associated oil in the bilge, the diesel stink, the bother of seasonal commissioning/decomissioning or the expense. We use it to motor out of the marina and, sometimes, partway out of the harbor, and back. We sometimes motor slowly when becalmed, to maintain course and to avoid the unpleasantness of “lying ahull”—where the boat turns sideways to the swell and is rocked by it. And then there is Cape Hatteras, an evil place that, when heading south, is best circumvented by motoring down canals. Even if we sail Abemarle and Pamlico Sounds, we still have to motor down canals from Norfolk, Virginia to reach Abemarle Sound, and then again from Pamlico Sound to Beaufort, North Carolina.

This is why I decided to avoid running into any global geopolitical complications with the petroleum supply and stock up while things are still reasonable. I don't know that this was strictly necessary, but now my mind is at ease because we'll have enough gasoline for at least a year, maybe even two or three if we time the tides better, motor slowly when we do have to motor, and don't waste fuel motoring when we can just bob around until the wind picks up again. During these two years I might weld together a digester and start running the engine on gas produced from driftwood we can pick up along the beach.

And now the really cheerful part: thanks to all of these global petrochemical difficulties, there will be few, if any, large obnoxious motor boats on the water this season, just as there weren't in 2008, and the few that remain will move very slowly, to conserve fuel—too slowly to produce large annoying wakes. And that is certainly something to look forward to.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Everyone Poops Debunked

Humanity moves forward through the progress of ideas. The more dynamic societies are those that are willing to adopt good new ideas and to test and discard faulty ideas, old or new. Stagnant societies are those that refuse to question old ideas and refuse to consider new ones, be it through entrenched conservatism, or a deficit of intellectual development, or some other developmental issue.

The United States was once a dynamic land, full of new ideas which were widely emulated around the world, but now it has become stagnant and mired in conservatism and internal contradiction, unable to discard faulty ideas or to embrace new ones, while other countries race ahead. National dialogue in the US has become not so much about ideas as about a mysterious substance called bunk: a deliberate sort of nonsense produced for the sake of public posturing. This profusion of bunk in turn attracts much effort to the cause of debunking it. However, unlike the bunk (or, more accurately bunkum) of yesteryear, which could be made to disappear when debunked, this new variety of American bunk only grows stronger and more rampant.

To better understand this magical ability of our contemporary bunk to withstand debunking, I decided to do an experiment. I deliberately chose what should be a very hard target: the little chidren's book by Tarō Gomi Everyone Poops. It tries to set the minds of the little anal retentive prats at ease by showing them that everybody but everybody poops: elephants make gigantic poops, mice little ones, little boys slightly smaller than grown men. Debunking such a powerful conjecture is a tall order, you might think. Not so! It turns out that, like beauty, bunk is in the eye of the beholder, and that it is possible to debunk anything (or fail trying; it doesn't matter which it is because the results are all but indistinguishable).

So what is this mysterious mental substance, bunk? It seems to me that bunk can be defined as pretense of knowledge. In turn, knowledge, for purposes of defining bunk, is a set of ideas (facts, theories, views) held in common. This is not to say that they are common knowledge. In fact, they might be virtually unknown outside of a select group of specialists, but in theory anyone who is sufficiently well-schooled, talented, diligent and has a library card could gain that same understanding given unlimited time and effort.

Human progress has to a large extent been mental progress. We have progressed from widespread reliance on mystification, where we ascribed great magic powers to ethereal, unobservable entities, and postulated a great many “facts” about the world which could be neither proved nor disproved. Now we require that our facts have a basis in observable, measurable reality, that our hypotheses be testable by experiment, and that our conclusions about causality be based on evidence (even if it is the iffy statistical evidence that is considered acceptable in medicine, economics and the social sciences). Say what you will about progress in politics or economics (or lack thereof) but humanity's progress in acquiring ever more powerful and detailed knowledge has been nothing short of astounding. This is especially apparent in the sciences, but even in the humanities it is possible to point to profound new insights. Many things are still unknown to us—we still don't know why aspirin works, and are continually astonished by the behavior of melting glaciers—but overall the realm of what is rationally understood expands continually.

Let us try to be slightly more rigorous in defining common knowledge. In terms of epistemic logic, given some piece of knowledge S, one could have private knowledge: KAS expresses that A knows S. (K is called the knowledge operator.) Now A walks up to B, and asks him whether he knows S. There are just two possibilities: either B knows S (KBS) or he doesn't (~KBS). If he doesn't, then A imparts S to B, and the realm of common knowledge expands: KAS and KBS. Not only that, but A knows that B knows S (KAKBS) and vice versa (KBKAS). Plus, each knows that the other knows that he knows, giving us KAKBKAS and KBKAKBS. There are situations in life when knowing whether someone knows that you know is strategically important, and it is even possible to think of a situation in which your knowledge of whether someone knows whether you know that he knows is somehow pregnant with the possibility of hilarious shenanigans, but under less contrived circumstances it all short-circuits to common knowledge: KA,BS.

In order for the above scenario to lead to common knowledge, at the outset our B must know that he doesn't know S: KB~KBS. There are just two valid states of B's mind: either he knows that he knows S (KBKBS), or he knows that he doesn't (KB~KBS). If B doesn't know what he knows (~KBKBx) or if he doesn't know that he doesn't know (~KB~KBx) then B must be a mentally challenged individual who is incapable of participating in common knowledge. But B can still remain socially acceptable provided he humbly accepts his ignorance and agrees to defer to A's superior knowledge of S: KBKAS. Thus the realm of common knowledge may have many adjuncts: people who are aware of the existence of a certain domain without actually knowing it, or even pretending to. This is typically how we relate to all kinds of specialists, from brain surgeons to auto mechanics to financial advisors.

I italicized the word “imparts” two paragraphs ago because it is important: common knowledge presupposes that the piece of knowledge is communicated accurately and entirely. But suppose that a mentally defective B receives, through some accident, a damaged copy of S (which we will call S'). Perhaps a word got substituted, such as “flat” for “round” in the statement “The Earth is round.” Or perhaps S' came to include a string of gibberish: “...because the Bible says that blah blah blah etc.” Now B thinks that he knows S, but in fact he knows S' (KBS'). Epistemically speaking, B now inhabits an alternate universe in which S=S'. Our epistemically savvy and knowledgeable friend A realizes this (KA~KBS, KAKBS') but, being tactful, all he can do is cough politely and look for somebody else to talk to, while B goes off and tells other mental defectives all about S', blithely calling it S, which, by the way, he just discussed with an expert. You see what a travesty this is?

This is the general mechanism by which a piece of knowledge S generates its faulty, incomplete, mangled copy S' within the public imagination. If S is the statement “Humans and other primates share a common genetic ancestor” then S' might be a piece of bunk such as “You are descended from a monkey!” Often the very next move is to generate a piece of counter-bunk ~S' —something like “No, we were pooped out by a Giant Pixie near the end of a seven-day Poopathon!” And now we have two pieces of bunk—S' and ~S', both of which require debunking.

The very first thing that you should do when debunking something is to state matter-of-factly that something is bunk; i.e., “Everybody Poops is bunk.” This is to indicate that you are not looking for a debate on the issue. You are not going to engage in a Socratic dialogue to discover the truth, or to create a new synthesis from a thesis and an antithesis through the application of Hegelian dialectic. Instead, you are looking for a hostile co-dependent relationship with somebody who wants to perpetually uphold the diametrically opposed piece of bunk: “Of course everybody poops, don't be ridiculous!” Such co-dependent relationships are to be found everywhere in the US, but perhaps the prime example is the Republicans and the Democrats, who are always looking for a new piece of bunk about which they could profitably disagree. Somehow we have managed to generate the expectation that where there is bunk there must be anti-bunk, and that they should be served up as “alternative viewpoints” rather than as diametrically opposed ways to exclude a common truth. And so, whenever a climate scientist appears on television and tries to explain global warming to the masses (being forced to dumb down the science, to make it fit for television, until it becomes bunk) there must also appear a climate anti-scientist and serve up some climate anti-bunk: “It's been a cold, snowy winter; therefore, the climate science is wrong.”

The next phase of a debunking onslaught is to declare your targeted piece of bunk “completely wrong” based on a bona fide counterexample. It turns out that evidence can be gathered to contradict any theory. Such evidence may accumulate over time, and eventually give rise to a new theory which either replaces or extends the previous theory, but mostly it's just a minor annoyance. Now, “everybody poops” is a conjecture based on the rather shallow theory that everybody eats, and since what goes in must come out, everybody poops. So, what about the male of the moth detailed in Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex by Olivia Judson? This moth lays its eggs in the ears of bats. When the eggs hatch, there is one male and several females. The male incestuously mates with his sisters, who then fly away to find bats of their own, while the male stays behind and dies. Most interestingly, the male is born without mouth parts, and therefore cannot eat. To paraphrase St. Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If a moth will not eat, he shall not poop.” So much for the brave conjecture.

The next phase of a debunking onslaught is an ad hominem attack. What sort of an expert would be qualified to discuss this subject? A “poopologist,” perhaps? One immediately wonders whether the Poopology Department, where this supposed luminary learned his art, was the recipient of any public funding, funding that should perhaps have been better spent on a few widows and orphans or a teeny-tiny counterterrorism campaign. And one cannot help but wonder what his fraternity brothers called him; “the poopmeister,” perhaps? Our poopmeister must have known about the bat moth; why did he withhold such crucial anti-everybody-pooping evidence? Why should we listen to such a person? And so on and so forth.

You might think that my choice of debunking target is frivolous and without merit, but I believe that it fits right in with both the substance and the level of contemporary American public discourse. You may be blissfully unaware of this, but I regret to inform you that there is in certain dimly lit corners of the US a war going on: a war on masturbation. During the last congressional elections one Christine O'Donnell won the Republican nomination for Senator from Delaware. O'Donnell is notorious for her anti-masturbation campaign. Declaring masturbation to be a sin is a good way to warp the minds of the post-pubescent, so that they might grow into the sorts of sexually repressed adults who are fit to serve at the head of the Department of Defense or on the US Supreme Court; but what about the pre-pubescent? Why not go after other bodily functions? Gluttony is already a sin (a mortal one); let us declare defecation a sin as well and go after the anally retentive pre-pubescents? Are you pro-poop or anti-poop? Let's open up the phone lines! Or not.

With the nation's public discourse dominated by dueling bits of bunk, I suggest that you limit your public pronouncements to nonsensical utterances such as “Herp-derp-derp!” And if you feel like picking a side, then order a side of bacon, because it is tasty. It might clog your arteries, but at least it won't clog your mind with bunk.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Empire Strikes Out

Ramon Tikaram in Gaddafi: A Living Myth
[Update, March 18. The UN Security Council finally passed a resolution to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, with Russia and China abstaining, too late for it to matter. Libya, as a UN member, promptly agreed to enforce it without any foreign help. Libya has undergone political fission, and now there is West Libya with the solid green flag, and East Libya with the stripey one. The Bengazi separatists have been granted their wish: their own internationally recognized state, plus all the sand they can eat. Elsewhere, revolutionary fervor has been tempered somewhat. The US and the EU saved face. Russia and China will get the contracts to rebuilt Libya. Gaddafi and his Jamahiriyyah remain.]

[Auf Deutsch. (Cached) Vielen Dank, Lukas!] 

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya... now, children, one of these things is not like the others. That's right, Libya wasn't, and to a considerable extent still isn't, run by a dictator who happens to be a Western stooge. Say what you want about him, Muammar Gaddafi is a phenomenon. Compared to his inimitable, flamboyant persona, Tunisia's unimpressive Zia El Abidine ben Ali and Egypt's viciously thick Hosni Mubarak are ciphers. Yes they are all dictators, but look at the region and ask yourself: Who isn't? Even the Roman Senate used to elect a dictator in times of trouble; when isn't it a time of trouble in this region?

Gaddafi eschews the notions of the nation state, of Arab nationalism, and of electoral democracy. He forbids political parties. He is tribal; he espouses Islamic socialism, and his idea of democracy is one where tribal elders bring requests and grievances to him, and he gets to dispense largesse and pass judgment. He fancies himself a sort of king: a “king of kings.” He likes all kinds of African tribes, not just Arab ones; he is all about African unity in the face of Western oppression. He probably wouldn't mind ruling them all. He is, unarguably, green.

Hiding in front of the flag?
While Western leaders were surprised by the Tunisian revolt, and weren't at all sure about the Egyptian one (only eventually settling on the idea that Mubarak must go), they absolutely knew from the outset that leaving Gaddafi in power would take the political and economic disaster that this revolutionary trend already portends and raise it to the Nth power. Gaddafi had to go, and so vague noises were made about automatic support for any sort of disrespect the tribes that are not completely aligned with him could muster. They seem to have miscalculated rather badly, and now we are witnessing a series of embarrassing vignettes such as the instantaneous leaking of Obama's “super-secret” request to the Saudis to help Libyan rebels, or the recent British diplomatic “mission” which invaded with weapons and explosives and was apprehended by the rebels, who are no doubt starting to feel that this particular revolutionary exercise is not going too well for them. It was a mistake to treat Libya as a country, where protesters have rights. Libya is special. You have to go very far back in history to find something similar. Perhaps Carthage, which came quite close to sacking Rome and redirecting the flow of world history, is something of a North African analogy.

Zia swears to stay in office forever
Gaddafi's niche in the pantheon of national leaders who dared oppose the US—where he stands alongside Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong Il and Mahmud Ahmadinejad—is enough to warrant his removal and conversion of Libya into a NATO-bombed defunct narco-state like Kosovo or Afghanistan, but on top of that his brand of political philosophy, which he termed jamāhīriyyah (translated as “state of the masses”) might actually stand a chance in many collapsing nation states beyond Libya. The revolutions now spreading around the world are essentially bread riots: the disastrous harvests due to heat waves and floods around the world, caused by the accelerating onset of global warming, have caused food prices to spike. It is rather unusual for democracy (of the legalistic Western kind) to succeed where stomachs are empty. One normally expects a beer putsch or two, a Kristallnacht and perhaps a Reichstag on fire. Gaddafi's socialist islamic tribalism may succeed as more and more nation states turn into failed states, as national borders dissolve, and inter-ethnic conflicts and makeshift allegiances erase all the nice straight lines so carefully drawn on maps by colonizing Westerners. For all these reasons, Gaddafi must be deposed. The question is, can the West still rise to the occasion, or is it too internally conflicted, senile and broke? A little bit of time will tell.

I don't think we are talking about an extended period of time. Just this slight Libyan kerfuffle has pushed oil prices over the threshold which the International Energy Agency has recently defined as the threshold beyond which Western economies crumble, which is when oil expenditure consumes over 5% of GDP. (The original idea, by the way, belongs to François Cellier, who used it to explain the financial crisis of 2008. The wheels of international agencies grind slowly.) This crumbling process will redirect all remaining energies (physical as well as mental) inward, to prevent or contain internal revolt, with precious little to spare for Libya or any other foreign adventure. For a little while yet we will get to watch the world burn on a variety of fashionably small electronic devices. But sooner than you might think the tweets and the video feeds will cease and the screen will go dark, as it already has in Libya. After that you'd have to go there yourself to find out what's happening. Yes, unimaginable horrors are afoot, and you can't do a damned thing about them. You might do better for yourself and your family by taking advice from Voltaire's Candide, and just cultivate your own garden. I am not a religious man, but I do sometimes like quoting the gospel (or in this case, two gospels—Matthew 8:22 and Luke 9:60): “...let the dead bury their own dead.”

Monday, March 07, 2011

Small Boat Ocean Voyaging for the Accident-Prone

The world is full of stories of success, mostly because successful people like to tell of their victories rather than expound on their defeats. This is self-serving of them and a loss to the rest of us, because we only learn from mistakes. The best kind are small, non-fatal mistakes; these are also the most common. Disastrous, fatal errors are rarely the first ones to be made, because it usually takes a compounding of errors to give rise to a fatal situation. And so here is a little object study of a series of small errors, the problems they caused, and the solutions they necessitated.

Giving credit where credit is due, let me say right at the outset that the problems I will examine here are not entirely of my own making: they were rather carefully set up for me by the person from whom we bought our boat. I do fault myself for my (initial) inexperience, my misplaced trust (I trusted that he knew what he was doing) and my inability to draw a conclusion and act on it (that the person in question was a dangerous incompetent and that everything on the boat that he had touched should be carefully examined, and, in some cases, cast overboard forthwith and replaced).

I have a plethora of examples to choose from, but, for the sake of keeping the story short and focused, I will zero in on just one problem: autohelm mounting. Autopilots (and other self-steering devices such as windvanes) are essential for people who make ocean passages single-handed or without much crew. My crew is my wife; if we were to steer by hand, we'd each have to steer for 12 hours out of every 24 (which we've done on occasion and did not enjoy). Needless to say, our tillerpilot is a favorite piece of equipment: with it, life is easy; without it, life is hard.

Our boat uses a Simrad Autohelm TP32, which is an amazing piece of equipment. Along with the GPS and the VHF radio, these are the only pieces of marine electronics on our boat, and are carefully chosen for being cheap, reliable, and indispensable. The boat came with a TP22 (TP32's smaller cousin) pre-installed by the boat's previous owner, which is where this story begins.

Simrad TP32 (highly recommended)

Tillerpilots are complicated on the inside (incorporating a fluxgate compass, a servo motor and a microcontroller) but simple on the outside. Clip them to a socket mounted in the cockpit and a pin mounted on the tiller, push the “Auto” button, and the boat will go in a straight line, for days. There are just three steps to the installation: mount the socket, mount the pin, and hook it up to 12 Volts. Now, what happens when one buys a boat where someone has screwed up all three? Answer: amazing adventure beyond your wildest dreams!

* * *

Having launched Hogfish, our boat, in Boston, our first voyage was north to Maine. The passage to Portland was uneventful. The wind was steady and the autohelm performed admirably. On July 27, 2007 we left Portland around 13:30 and headed across Casco Bay and up the coast. Around 17:30 the wind picked up considerably and I took in a reef. Around 18:00 I made a note in the log:

“18:00: Autohelm busted. Bracket farigued. No more autohelm.”

The broken bracket was a puny aluminum alloy stamping. It broke in half as I watched in dismay.

Pin bracket (not serviceable)

“18:16: Worked out a beam reach with tiller lashed.”

In the intervening 15 minutes, I put away the now useless tillerpilot and worked out a combination of sail trim and rudder angle to keep the boat sailing along without being actively steered. Now, Hogfish is a very good little boat that does something only some particularly well-designed boats do: it self-steers. That is, on most points of sail (anything from beam reach to close on the wind) it does not have to be steered at all to follow a course. It hunts around a bit, and sometimes a big wave or a big gust will knock it off course, but mostly it takes care of itself.

By 23:15 it was blowing half a gale in the direction of some jagged rocks, which I knew to be lurking ominously on the horizon. I logged: “At this point, need to avoid land... New course 124°M to avoid Manana Island.” I pointed the boat at the open ocean and played with the tiller lashings and sail trim to keep it on course. By midnight I was mostly napping in the cockpit. Every 7 minutes a periodic big wave would wake me up, and I would scan the dark horizon and adjust sail trim and tiller. By 3:21, based on dead reckoning, we were close-reaching safely south of Monhegan Island. Around 5:00 the wind died. I fired up the GPS and took a reading: 43°43.97'/69°09.35' which put us ESE of Monhegan and nowhere near any dirt or rocks.

I measured the drift: 1 kt to 50°M—a reasonable direction back toward mainland with sea room on all sides. Since the wind was dead, “heaving to” was not an option. The remaining option was “lying ahull,” so I took down the sails, turned on the anchor light, let the sea do what it will and and went to sleep for real. I had to sleep on the settee in the cabin, stiff-arming the centerboard trunk to avoid rollng off, because my wife and the cat took up all of the V-berth, spread out as far as possible, to avoid getting rolled over by the big 7-minute waves. The cat seemed particularly well-anchored to the bedspread, with her paws outstretched and her claws out.

By dawn we had only drifted a few miles. It was windless and foggy. We motored to the tiny and picturesque Isle Au Haut and by 16:00 were at a “rented” mooring (the rent being a $20 stuffed into a Coke bottle attached to the mooring buoy) in the island's snug and picture-perfect anchorage.

The next day I built a new bracket out of scrap using hand tools on board, and on the 29th we sailed on, to Blue Hill Bay.

Replacement pin bracket (worked fine, eventually)

* * *

This repair stood us in good stead for quite a while, until the fateful morning of October 27, 2007, when the pin rocked loose while we were sailing down Long Island Sound at night, toward New York City. I hand-steered the rest of the way, a good 6 hours of hard work avoiding getting spun around by big following seas that congregated at the narrow end of the Sound. While at 79th Street Marina I was able to fix the problem by stacking up some washers (which are rusted in the photo above because the hardware store on Broadway did not stock stainless steel hardware). But after that the pin, at least, held through all kinds of weather.

* * *

All was well with our autohelm hardware until July 10th of 2008, when we were approaching Beaufort, North Carolina, having cast off at St. Augustine, Florida on the 6th. Approaching Cape Hatteras (an evil spot from a sailing point of view if there ever was one) we were caught up in one of the outer arms of Hurricane Bertha, which whipped up gale force winds and 10-12 foot seas. In these conditions, the socket in the autohelm base worked loose and started rocking. I took all of this in and made a change of plan: we were going to make it to Beaufort Inlet running under bare poles and then get a tow through the inlet. This plan worked well enough, except for one thing: after the tow boat captain passed me the towing line and I tied it to the Samson post in the bow of the boat, a huge breaking wave swept through and tumbled the towing line under the boat, looping it around the rudder, so that when the tow boat captain throttled up, he put enough force on the rudder to snap our autopilot in half. Since he was a BoatUS captain, and I carried BoatUS insurance, BoatUS paid for a replacement autopilot, giving me a chance to upgrade to a TP32 from a TP22, so all was well. (While installing the TP32, I couldn't help but notice that the TP22 was wired up with the dinkiest of wires rather than the recommended 12-gauge, and this explained its sometimes erratic performance.)

As an aside, sailing in a hurricane is probably not everyone's cup of tea. Frankly, I don't care for it very much myself. It is unsettling to look up at your mast and see water directly behind it, and it is strange to look at the horizon and see an ant's eye view of a broccoli patch. Also, I don't much like it when the wind is strong enough to pick up a neat coil of heavy dock line right off the deck and string it out into the sea, or when, while clambering around the deck in a harness, I have to pinch my nose shut and breathe through pursed lips because otherwise the wind is strong enough to explode my lungs. At some point we declared the cabin unsafe because of all the loose cutlery flying around down there and boarded it off, and my wife sat in the cockpit with me, holding the cat wrapped in a towel. We were all relatively calm and self-assured, but after it was all over and we were safely tied up at Beaufort Docks, the cat gave me the weirdest look I ever got from a cat; a look that said something like “What in the wild world of sports was all that about?” Enough said; sailing through a hurricane is not a recommended procedure as far as I am concerned.

While at Beaufort Docks I drilled a new hole for the autohelm socket and epoxied it it in place. 

Socket base (with socket relocated)
In the process, I discovered two things: first, the original socket position was misaligned, causing the autohelm to “hunt around” to compensate for being rotated left while trying to turn right and vice versa, indicating that whosoever installed it was geometrically challenged. Secondly, what looked like a solid piece of wood used to mount the socket turned out to be masonite, which is an environmentally friendly product invented by one Mr. Mason and made by pressing together wood chips without any sort of glue. (The autohelm manufacturer's instructions specified hardwood.) I compensated for the weakness of this material by oversizing the hole and slathering it with epoxy. It held for as long as it had to.

While hauled out for repairs in East Boston during the winter of 2009-2010 I finally had a chance to address the problem of autohelm mounting once and for all. The base now consists of two pieces of oak lag-bolted and glued together, mounted to the cockpit seat using through-bolts. 

The final version (no issues at all)
The pin is now pounded into a carved piece of oak that is secured to the tiller by a U-bolt bolted through the rudder to a backing plate. 

The final version (no issues at all)

 All of the above are coated with epoxy and painted with two-part polyurethane primer, and a couple of coats of two-part polyurethane paint. I suspect that this combination will outlast many things, including me and the boat.