Phil Scott’s 20-20 Trust 

(This one is about two months overdue. Your Minor Heretic has been busy, alternately cajoling and hammering on large machinery. I’m happy to report that the floggings did increase morale and that the machinery is now running.)

If you’ve been following Vermont political news at all you know that Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott is officially in the race for governor. I listened to an interview with him on Vermont Public Radio back in mid-September. One of the topics was the problem of Scott’s ownership of DuBois Construction, a company that does business with the State of Vermont. As governor this would present a conflict of interest.

Actually, as Lt. Governor it presents a conflict of interest, so there’s another story. For the moment I’ll focus on the potential problem.

Scott explained that he would solve the problem by turning over the operation of the company to a blind trust. This makes no sense at all.

People who hold public office sometimes put their financial holdings in a blind trust. An investment advisor takes over the holdings and buys and sells stocks, bonds, and other assets without informing the public official what is in the portfolio. Thus the official’s self-interest is generalized to a healthy economy. There is no reason for the official to favor one business or business sector over another. At least, that’s the theory.

Let me emphasize before going further that conflict of interest is always judged on appearance. Absent mind reading abilities, nobody can tell whether an official’s actions are influenced by an investment. In this particular case, we might assume that Phil Scott is honorable and still raise objections to an appearance of conflict of interest. The same rules apply to everybody.

That said, the idea that Phil Scott could put a single company into a blind trust goes against basic logic. Despite his absence from day to day operations at Dubois, he would still know that he owns the company. He has stated that he intends to go back to running the business after eventually departing politics. He would have a definite interest in the continued prosperity of the company. Decision makers throughout the state government would also know this. How screamingly obvious. It’s not a blind trust if you know what’s in it.

I don’t know whether to question Scott’s judgment or question his opinion of average voter intelligence. Wherever the non-baked idea of a single-asset “blind” trust came from, he should drop it. Getting back to the present problem, if the governor running a business that contracts with the state government is a conflict of interest, how is the lieutenant governor in the same situation not a conflict of interest? Phil Scott needs to remove Dubois Construction from the business of government contracts.


Pope Francis Dodges the Big Issue 

Your Minor Heretic has been busy wrestling with large mechanical things for a while, but all the feel-good PR about the papal visit has gotten me feeling disgruntled and heretical.

Yes, Papa Frank has been saying the right things about poverty and climate change. Fine, thanks. It’s always fun to see the far right tie themselves in knots when a conservative authority figure breaks ranks. However, His Eminence has failed to address child sexual abuse by the clergy and his church’s historical and present efforts to protect the child rapists in its midst. When a parishioner can’t trust the church to protect children from sexual abuse, really, what use is that church?

The pope even stuck his foot in it by publicly sympathizing with the clergy over their suffering due to the child abuse scandal. Huh? Survivors of priestly abuse were appalled.

I wrote about this back in 2008 and not much has changed since then. One point I covered then was that Catholic canon law required an oath of secrecy from anyone involved in a sexual scandal. Violating that oath “even for a greater good”, such as notifying the police, resulted in excommunication, “latae sententiae, ipso facto.” The Latin means that the person who complains to the police that a priest raped their child would be excommunicated without any process, at the moment of the commission of the act.

I looked up latae sententiae excommunication and there are a number of things that will get you instantly booted from the church. Throwing away a communion wafer is one of them and assaulting the pope is another. Heresy as well, so I’m out. Raping a child is not. To paraphrase a line from the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to excommunicate.”

If Pope Francis wants me (along with many other Americans) to dredge up a few warm and fuzzy feelings for him, he could issue a papal bull declaring any cleric committing an act of sexual abuse to be excommunicate, latae sententiae, ipso facto. If tossing a sanctified cracker in the trash warrants it, raping a child should pass the test for expulsion.


The Myth of Hiroshima 

It is the 70th anniversary of the first and only military use of the atomic bomb. The established story about the U.S. using the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it was necessary to avoid a planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. The U.S. military had encountered fierce resistance and tens of thousands of casualties during the invasion of the island of Okinawa and were anticipating hundreds of thousands while attacking the mainland. As is often the case, the established story is false. Not long after the Japanese surrender, several high ranking military officers went public with their opinions.

"The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into war. ... The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan." - Adm. Nimitz

"The Japanese were ready to surrender, and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing. … I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon." -Dwight D. Eisenhower

"It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons... My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children." - Admiral William Leahy

(With a hat-tip to Paul Bibeau at Goblinbooks for the quotations. Really, you should go read his stuff. He's brilliant, pointed, and funny.)

Perhaps you suspect these men of merely distancing themselves from an atrocity after the fact. Let me fill in the story from the perspective of a relatively unknown player in this story, one Ladislas Farago, an operative of the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, Special Warfare Branch, also known as Op-16-W. Farago wrote a history of WW2 espionage titled “Burn After Reading.” It is an interesting survey of the operations of various intelligence and counterintelligence operations before and during that war. The last chapter is what interests me now. Titled “The Surrender of Japan”, it chronicles the efforts of Op-16-W to open a path to a negotiated surrender through diplomatic back channels and psychological warfare.

(Farago is better known as a military historian and author. He wrote “Patton: Ordeal and Triumph”, on which the Patton movie was based, and “The Broken Seal”, which was part of the basis of the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” about Pearl Harbor.)

Farago wrote the “Appeal to Japan” that President Harry Truman read on the radio on May 8, 1945, telling the Japanese that 1) Germany was defeated, 2) that Japan would get no relief from attack until it surrendered, and 3) that surrender did not mean extermination or enslavement. The appeal was based on intelligence gathered by Op-16-Z, the signals intelligence branch that worked alongside Op-16-W.

In December 1944 Op-16-W received a report originating from an asset code named “Shark”, a Turkish diplomat in Tokyo. The substance of the report was that the present Premier of Japan would resign in favor of a confidant of Emperor Hirohito, in order that a “peace party” would have the power to negotiate a surrender. Hirohito was only concerned that he would retain his own position as the symbolic and spiritual leader of the nation. With that concern addressed, he would put the entire weight of his authority behind peace negotiations.

On March 19, 1945, Op-16-W proposed a plan of psychological warfare aimed at high level Japanese officials “in order to accelerate and effect the unconditional surrender of Japan without the necessity of an opposed landing on the Japanese main islands.”

In the meantime, Japan was extending feelers through various channels. Jiri Taguchi, an agent who reported directly to Japanese Foreign Minister Togo, went to Berne, Switzerland and requested a secret meeting with the American diplomat Leland Harrison. The approach was dismissed. Hirohito himself approached the Cardinal of Tokyo to ask the Vatican to act as a go between, and this request was forwarded through the American representative to the Vatican to the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. The State Department waffled on this approach due to political considerations about the Vatican. American signals intelligence units picked up and decrypted communications between Togo and an ambassador, Sato, stationed in Moscow. Togo explicitly asked Sato to ask Stalin to be a go-between in surrender negotiations. Stalin rejected this, and the U.S. couldn’t use the intel because it would have revealed our ability to break Japanese diplomatic codes. Nevertheless, U.S. officials knew that Japan was desperate for a negotiated surrender months before the dropping of the atomic bomb.

In the spring of 1945 Op-16-W made propaganda transmissions that assured Japanese officials that unconditional military surrender did not ultimately mean loss of national sovereignty. The emperor’s position would be assured. There followed an odd conversation over the public airwaves and in the press between Japanese propagandists and American ones, with subtly coded references to negotiation. A Japanese government spokesman, Dr. Isamu Inouye, made a broadcast in April 1945 that included: “Japan would be ready to discuss peace terms provided there were certain changes in the unconditional surrender formula.” On July 24 he was more explicit: “Should the United States show any sincerity of putting into practice what she preaches, as for instance in the Atlantic Charter excepting its punitive clause, the Japanese nation, in fact the Japanese military, would automatically, if not willingly, follow in the stopping of the conflict.”

In the latter half of July 1945 the Office of Naval Intelligence had plans for direct meetings with the Japanese. They were flying the recently captured Japanese ambassador to Germany to the Pacific in preparation for secret meetings. They expected the Japanese surrender by September 1st.

Of course, on August 6, 1945, the bomb dropped. There has been much speculation by historians as to why the U.S. government chose that action over a week of negotiations. Some say that Truman, negotiating with the Soviets in Potsdam, saw it as a move to keep the Soviets cautious. Some argue that U.S. politicians had backed themselves into a corner of unconditional surrender and feared that negotiations would make them look weak. There is a thread of opinion that the U.S. military saw atomic weapons as a determinant of future U.S. power and required a real world test.

Whatever the matrix of motivations, the historical record reveals the standard myth as just that. U.S. military decision makers were not faced with a choice between an invasion and a mushroom cloud.

We should remember this when the politicians of our time present us with a military option that they deem inevitable.


What That Flag Means 

Apparently a lot of Americans view the Confederate flag as a symbol of “Southern heritage” rather than racism. Ok, a lot of white Americans. According to recent polls, the population in general is split 42% to 42% on that question. However, 75% of blacks think of it as racist, as opposed to about a third of whites. The disconnect here is not just racial, it’s historical. The meaning of the flag has morphed over the last century and a half from a battle flag of Confederate soldiers, to the flag of the Confederacy, to a rallying point for racist dead-enders and segregationists, to a social symbol (for some) of generalized tribal identity and  rebellion against authority. Call this last one the “Dukes of Hazzard” interpretation. Those dead-enders expended a lot of ink and energy plastering over the realities of slavery and the fight to preserve it, resulting in the soft focus “lost cause” and states’ rights interpretation of the American Civil War.

Still, to most of the African-American population of this country it is the graphic design equivalent of dropping the N-bomb. And isn’t that kind of impolite, no matter what the symbol means in someone’s own mind?

If we really want to know the original meaning, we should ask the people who originally fought under that banner. If we can’t trust the Confederates to understand the purpose of the Confederacy, who can we trust? Luckily for us they wrote about it. Every southern state issued an article of secession. Six of them were short and pro-forma; just declarations that on such a date they were no longer part of the United States. Virginia passed a pro-forma article with a reference to “slave-holding states.” However, four states gave their reasons. In those articles it’s just slave-slavery-slavitty-slave-slave, beginning to end. To wit:

Georgia’s Declaration of Secession: 35 mentions of slavery, starting in the first sentence.

Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession: 7 direct mentions of slavery, starting in the second sentence, plus 4 indirect mentions, including a reference to loss of “property.”

South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession: 18 mentions of slavery, starting in the first sentence.

Texas’s Declaration of Secession: 22 mentions of slavery, starting in the first substantive paragraph.

Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee passed pro-forma articles of secession, without any reference to motivation.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in The Atlantic, has an excellent article that expands upon this, quoting the writings of southern politicians, journalists, and Confederate veterans. It’s slavery all the way down.

Of course, there are people who say that taking the Confederate flag down will dishonor Confederate soldiers. Good. My maternal great-grandfather served in a Virginia regiment during the Civil War. (You read that right – he was in his fifties when my grandmother was born. I’m just a handshake away.) He was wrong. His fight to preserve the institution of slavery was shameful. I haven’t investigated enough to know, but he was probably a slaveholder himself. I do not honor his memory. Our shared genetic material does not soften my view of him. I owe my allegiance to the living and future generations, not to the dead.

Relegating the Confederate flag to museums is just a beginning. Understanding the context of that symbol is the start of unraveling a toxic myth in the popular, anecdotal version of American history. At the moment it’s the very least we can do.


The Tesla Battery (with Units!) 

Friends and clients have been asking me questions about the Tesla Powerwall battery that has been getting so much press coverage lately. Can I power my house on one? Will it solve the renewable energy intermittency problem? Is it the game changer, the utility paradigm destroying techno-juggernaut that will usher in the renewable energy era?


It is a good thing, though. What the Tesla folks have done is to package a Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFPo) battery with a charger, battery management system, and cooling system in a tidy package. They are selling it wholesale at about $350 per kilowatt-hour, which is moderately cheaper than other LiFPo batteries on the market.

Let me stop right there with the term “kilowatt-hour” for a moment. It has been alternately amusing and profoundly frustrating to read news articles that interchangeably use “kilowatts,” “kilowatt-hours,” and the meaningless terms “kilowatts per day” and “watts-per-hour.” A brief tutorial follows. Energy professionals may go get a sandwich; I’ll be done in a few minutes.

Ok, we have AC, DC, amps, volts, watts, kilowatts, and kilowatt-hours (which is abbreviated kWh or kWhr). First, the garden hose analogy:

You’ve got a garden hose with a stream of water flowing out of it, filling a bucket. One factor is the rate of flow, or gallons per minute going through the hose. If you want to get right down to the miniature scale, it’s the number of water molecules per second that are passing a point in the hose. Another factor is the pressure pushing the water. The higher the pressure the more flow you get through a given hose. Then there is the bucket, filled with some volume of water.

Amps are like the flow. An amp is defined as some huge number of electrons passing a point in a wire in one second. Volts are like the pressure. Voltage is the force pushing the electrons through a wire. More voltage means more electrons per second in a given wire. One watt is one amp of flow being pushed by one volt of electrical pressure. Ten watts could be one amp pushed by ten volts or ten amps pushed by one volt, or any combination of amps and volts that multiply to equal ten. A kilowatt is one thousand watts (10 amps x 100 volts or 100 amps x 10 volts, or 20 amps at 50 volts, etc.). If you keep that thousand watts flowing for one hour you have delivered one kilowatt-hour. That’s like the water stored in the bucket, or the energy stored in the battery. Amps, volts, and watts are instantaneous measurements, units of power. Kilowatt-hours are created, delivered, stored, or used over time. They are units of energy.

For a more practical example, let’s say you have a toaster. You turn it over and look at the label, which says “115 Volts, 8.7 Amps.” By happy coincidence, these two numbers multiply to (almost exactly) 1,000 watts, or one kilowatt. Many of your closest friends come over for breakfast and they want toast. You keep the toaster going constantly for one hour. You have used one kilowatt-hour.

That toaster, however, uses AC (alternating current) electricity. Batteries and solar panels produce DC power, not AC. DC (direct current) electricity is like that water in the hose. All the electrons in the wire are continuously flowing in one direction, like those water molecules. With AC electricity those electrons are changing direction 60 times a second, back and forth. That’s because the voltage (electrical pressure) is changing direction 60 times per second. Remember that hum that came out of old fluorescent tube lights? That’s it.

To make AC out of DC you need a box full of electronics called an inverter. I’ll skip over the details here and just say “DC in, AC out.” Some inverters get their DC electricity from batteries, generally at 12, 24, or 48 volts. Others get their DC electricity directly from solar panels, generally at 250 to 500 volts.

Here is the first problem with the Tesla battery. It puts out DC electricity at 350 to 450 volts. There are only two inverter manufacturers, Fronius and Solar Edge, that have inverters that will take high voltage DC from batteries, and Solar Edge hasn’t released theirs on the market yet. That’s a serious limitation; the immature market for high voltage input battery-based inverters.

The second problem is capacity. There are two Tesla battery models, one with 7.5 kWh and one with 10 kWh. Your average American home uses over 20 kWh per day, so a single Tesla battery isn’t going to offer many hours of backup. They can be plugged together to make a larger battery bank, but the “power your home for $3,500” hype is just that.

The third problem is instantaneous power. A Tesla battery maxes out at 2,000 watts. That’s roughly equal to what you can get out of one standard wall outlet. If an air conditioner and a refrigerator come on at the same time the battery will shut itself down. Again, you can parallel multiple batteries, but you have to parallel multiple checkbooks to pay for this.

A more techie problem is that battery based inverters stay under 50 volts DC for a reason. The National Electrical Code gets a lot more stringent about wire and conduit, fuse protection and enclosures when battery banks go over 50 volts. The added safeguards add expense.

On the subject of expense, after paying $3,500 for a Tesla battery you will have to pay that again for an inverter, electrical hardware and an electrician to make it work. That is, if you can find anyone willing and trained to work with a 350 volt battery bank.

My verdict is: A missed opportunity. The battery needs more integration into a product that delivers AC power. Tesla could have partnered with Fronius or Solar Edge to build the inverter and AC interface into that sleek box. Then any electrician could easily hang the unit on the wall and connect it into a household electrical system. With all the capital and engineering prowess at its disposal I am mystified as to why Tesla didn’t.

I guess the energy revolution has been delayed.

(Elon Musk, if you are reading this, I am willing to consult on product design for any old floor model electric roadster you happen to have sitting around.)