A Remarkable Coincidence 


Let no one else's work evade your eyes,

Remember why the good lord made your eyes,

So don't shade your eyes,

But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize -

Only be sure always to call it please 'research'.”

From the song Lobachevsky by Tom Lehrer


A friend of mine emailed me a link to a short video from the Rachel Maddow Show. He had just read my previous piece on the debt crisis, entitled “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.” Several days after I posted, Maddow and Co. had created a little skit about the debt crisis using an obscure metaphor from the days of whaling: the so-called “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.”

I have to admit that they took the metaphor somewhere I did not, focusing on the axe available to cut the line between the boat and the whale. It’s all about the judgment of the captain and the crew. I focused on the whale as a combination of the wounded insurance industry and the wounded conservative worldview.

Still, a remarkable coincidence.


Nantucket Sleigh Ride 

Back in the days when whale oil filled the lamps of Americans, men went out in ships to hunt the leviathan. From those ships they set out in small boats to harpoon their quarry, which sometimes did not go quietly into that good night. A dying whale might expend its last strength in a burst of speed, taking the men in the small boat on what was known as a Nantucket Sleigh Ride.

We are in such a position now, as a nation, experiencing this partial, strategically minimized government shutdown. I say strategically minimized because the air traffic controllers and the border patrol are still on the job. A real, complete shutdown wouldn’t last a day. The metaphorical whale in question is not the government itself. It is partly the health insurance industry and partly the whole corpus of thought that identifies government as “the problem.”

It’s not surprising that the health insurance industry and its minions in congress would want to cause chaos and exert anarchic leverage on the day that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) opens its doors. Despite the fact that we are being funneled into the toothy maw of the industry itself, the rules of mastication and digestion have been significantly altered. Insurance companies must pay out at least 80% of premiums for actual medical care. Compare that to pre-ACA payout rates as low as 50%. Insurance companies can no longer cherry pick their customers for health. Their offerings have to be standardized, which reduces their ability to bamboozle, hornswoggle, or to put it less picturesquely, cheat their customers. And so on. It changes their position from one of near monopsony (monopoly of the few) to a regulated monopsony.

Aside from the obvious financial benefits to us and deficits to them, it opens a conceptual door. That is that health care works better with more government intervention. It is but a short step from that to some kind of national health care plan, eliminating the need for private health insurance entirely. We could emulate our Canadian and European friends, cutting our expenses in half and improving our outcomes. No profit in that.

That open conceptual door leads to another, namely that government is good. A corollary of this is that bad government is not a result of some inherent flaw in the very concept of government, but a result of corrupt private influence. There is a cadre of politicians, journalists, pundits, and political activists who have made lucrative careers out of bashing the very concept of an active government. A passive and cooperative government is an appealing prospect for their corporate sponsors.

A successful implementation of the ACA is a major harpoon into the corporate blubber. Hence the panicked thrashing about.

The corporate forces have missed something, though. They sponsored and promoted a group of magically thinking ideologues called the Tea Party. The Tea Partiers exhibit a worldview that can be contained in a Dixie-cup; xenophobic, selfish, short-sighted, unscientific, and misinformed. These anti-government fundamentalists have faithfully pounded away at our government’s ability to raise money and provide services. Therein lies the problem for their corporate sponsors. Corporations are creatures of law. They are created by government fiat, protected by government courts and law enforcement, and subsidized by government. They rely on government services, governmentally administered markets, and government contracts. When the anti-government ideologues get their way, the corporate world starts falling apart. Freedom from regulation is only pleasant when those around you are still constrained.

It’s blowback, much the same as what our government got from backing the Afghani mujihadeen. Once you train them and equip them they don’t stop when they have finished off your enemies. The investment/business wing of the GOP is realizing that the crazy wing, doing the bidding of the health insurance industry, won’t stop blowing things up when they are supposed to. It’s a little late for that realization.

The thing that the corporate elite can’t and won’t allow themselves to realize is that they need an effective, active government as much as ordinary people do. They need someone to save them from themselves. That fundamental contradiction is being brought to the forefront of politics, and that is one jagged and rusty harpoon.

Hang on tight!


Shooting an Elephant

A famous essay that happens to be about President Obama and his proposal to bomb Syria.

Shooting an Elephant

By George Orwell

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it? I did not know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was happening and I got on to a pony and started out. I took my rifle, an old 44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought the noise might be useful in terrorem. Various Burmans stopped me on the way and told me about the elephant's doings. It was not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one which had gone "must." It had been chained up, as tame elephants always are when their attack of "must" is due, but on the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out in pursuit, but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours' journey away, and in the morning the elephant had suddenly reappeared in the town. The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it. It had already destroyed somebody's bamboo hut, killed a cow and raided some fruit-stalls and devoured the stock; also it had met the municipal rubbish van and, when the driver jumped out and took to his heels, had turned the van over and inflicted violences upon it.

The Burmese sub-inspector and some Indian constables were waiting for me in the quarter where the elephant had been seen. It was a very poor quarter, a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palmleaf, winding all over a steep hillside. I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains. We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone and, as usual, failed to get any definite information. That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes. Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant. I had almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack of lies, when we heard yells a little distance away. There was a loud, scandalized cry of "Go away, child! Go away this instant!" and an old woman with a switch in her hand came round the corner of a hut, violently shooing away a crowd of naked children. Some more women followed, clicking their tongues and exclaiming; evidently there was something that the children ought not to have seen. I rounded the hut and saw a man's dead body sprawling in the mud. He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth. This was the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony. (Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.) The friction of the great beast's foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit. As soon as I saw the dead man I sent an orderly to a friend's house nearby to borrow an elephant rifle. I had already sent back the pony, not wanting it to go mad with fright and throw me if it smelt the elephant.

The orderly came back in a few minutes with a rifle and five cartridges, and meanwhile some Burmans had arrived and told us that the elephant was in the paddy fields below, only a few hundred yards away. As I started forward practically the whole population of the quarter flocked out of the houses and followed me. They had seen the rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to shoot the elephant. They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meat. It made me vaguely uneasy. I had no intention of shooting the elephant – I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary – and it is always unnerving to have a crowd following you. I marched down the hill, looking and feeling a fool, with the rifle over my shoulder and an ever-growing army of people jostling at my heels. At the bottom, when you got away from the huts, there was a metalled road and beyond that a miry waste of paddy fields a thousand yards across, not yet ploughed but soggy from the first rains and dotted with coarse grass. The elephant was standing eight yards from the road, his left side towards us. He took not the slightest notice of the crowd's approach. He was tearing up bunches of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing them into his mouth.

I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of "must" was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.

But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.) Besides, there was the beast's owner to be considered. Alive, the elephant was worth at least a hundred pounds; dead, he would only be worth the value of his tusks, five pounds, possibly. But I had got to act quickly. I turned to some experienced-looking Burmans who had been there when we arrived, and asked them how the elephant had been behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of you if you left him alone, but he might charge if you went too close to him.

It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to within, say, twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior. If he charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe to leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would sink at every step. If the elephant charged and I missed him, I should have about as much chance as a toad under a steam-roller. But even then I was not thinking particularly of my own skin, only of the watchful yellow faces behind. For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn't be frightened in front of "natives"; and so, in general, he isn't frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.

There was only one alternative. I shoved the cartridges into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim. The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats. They were going to have their bit of fun after all. The rifle was a beautiful German thing with cross-hair sights. I did not then know that in shooting an elephant one would shoot to cut an imaginary bar running from ear-hole to ear-hole. I ought, therefore, as the elephant was sideways on, to have aimed straight at his ear-hole, actually I aimed several inches in front of this, thinking the brain would be further forward.

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick – one never does when a shot goes home – but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time – it might have been five seconds, I dare say – he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.

I got up. The Burmans were already racing past me across the mud. It was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open – I could see far down into caverns of pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing did not weaken. Finally I fired my two remaining shots into the spot where I thought his heart must be. The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further. I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast Lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock.

In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die. Burmans were bringing dash and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.


Carnot, and Limits 

There’s a type of question I get a lot in my line of business. “What’s the latest development in solar panels?” “Is the price going to drop a lot more?” “Are the solar panels out now going to be obsolete in a few years?” “Is there some big development in panel efficiency right around the corner?”

There are a lot of questions like this in the energy business in general. People watch computer technology advance in step with Moore’s law, with everything getting smaller, faster, and more whiz-bang by the month. I see an expectation out there that energy technology could, and should, do the same. It’s a large and complex question, and I’ll take a whack at it from various angles in no particular order.

I’ll start with a general thesis, as efficiently expressed by a friend of mine who has long experience with electric vehicles. He and another soccer dad were on the sidelines discussing the problems of transportation, energy, pollution, and the like. The other dad summed up by saying “They’ll think of something.” My friend responded, “I am they, and we won’t.”

Let’s think of energy in terms of conventional automobiles. At highway speeds, most of the energy required by a car is used to push air out of the way. The two factors in this are the frontal area of the car (the shadow cast by a light lined up directly in front of it) and the Cd, or coefficient of drag. This is the factor of how the shape of the car, with all its curves and projections, slips through the air.  A beer can travelling sideways has a Cd of about 1. Your average modern sedan has a Cd of about 0.35, a pickup about 0.45, and a Toyota Prius about 0.26. The GM EV-1 managed 0.195. Below that, you get into solar race cars that look like space ships.

If you design a car with two people sitting side by side in a reasonably upright position there is a certain bare minimum frontal area necessary.  In other words, no matter how slick you make the car, there’s some minimum amount of energy that it will take to make it go 65 mph on the highway. Add rolling resistance, acceleration, and hill climbing; beating 80 miles per gallon is a serious challenge.

With wind turbines there is a factor called the Betz Limit. No wind turbine can get 100% of the energy out of the wind. If it did, then the air coming out the back of the turbine would come to a dead stop, and no new air could come in the front. Albert Betz figured out that the theoretical maximum energy extraction would be 59%. Modern wind turbines get around 75% of that. It really isn’t going to get much better.

Standard commercial photovoltaic modules tend to have efficiencies in the teens to about 20%. This compares well with the 33.7% Shockley-Quiesser limit, the theoretical maximum for a single layer silicon cell. Every so often you might read about some laboratory reaching an efficiency of around 40%, but this is with an expensive multiple layer cell under sunlight concentrated by lenses or mirrors.

Batteries are getting better bit by bit, but are still much less energy dense than fossil fuels. Part of the problem is just the nature of the physics involved – electrochemical electron transfer versus combustion. What it really gets down to is that every molecule in a can of gasoline is potential energy, while in a battery much of the material involved is a base on which the energy transfer takes place. That base is generally a flat plate that has to be mechanically strong and conductive to electricity, meaning metal, meaning heavy.  Another problem is thermal. As we try to pass more energy through a smaller object, the inefficiency of the process will heat up that object. The battery packs in modern electric cars tend to have cooling systems.

An economic problem with battery development is the old adage that you can’t make a baby in one month, even with nine women on the job. Battery developers can’t know the lifespan of a battery until they test a battery for its entire lifespan. In fact, they don’t know until they have run it through its lifespan in a number of different ways. Investors don’t like delay and uncertainty, and battery development is full of that.

And then there is Carnot. In the early 19th century Nicolas Carnot figured out that the maximum efficiency of an engine that turns heat into motion was defined by the operating temperature of the engine compared to its environment. That is, the hotter the fuel burns and the colder the surrounding temperature, the more efficient the engine. We can’t do much about the environmental temperature except by moving to Antarctica, but we can burn the fuel hotter. Except that then we have to create exotic materials that won’t melt. There’s a limit to that, both physical and economic, and to the ultimate combustion temperature of readily available fuels.

Huge diesel engines can approach 50% efficiency, but most automobile engines operate down around 15%. Your average automotive engine is really a rather efficient furnace that happens to make a driveshaft rotate in its spare time. We’re stuck with that.

The physical world is hard. I get the impression that many futurists have been seduced by the ease of the virtual world. No, programming is not easy, but it doesn’t run up against physical constraints in the manner of combustion chemistry or aerodynamics. That’s why I don’t expect some breathtaking energy breakthrough that will conveniently make our problems go away.

We do have a lot of technologies that will help us towards a sustainable energy future, but they are trumped by habit, law, and vernacular design. We’re used to apparently cheap energy and behave as if it is actually cheap and endless. We’ve structured our lives around these false assumptions. Our laws governing transportation, subsidies, zoning, building codes, and foreign policy are based on these false assumptions. The past and present design of our buildings, transportation infrastructure, and electrical infrastructure are guided by these habits, laws, and assumptions. It will be a long, difficult fight against our emotional investment in obsolete ideas.

So no, with energy there will be no great leap forward. (Where have I heard that phrase before?) We have to accept incremental technological progress and equally incremental social progress. It will take more psychological skill than technical knowledge. Much of that psychological effort will be overcoming the propaganda of those who are making immense quantities of money from the status quo. It would be nice to think that some genius will come up with the great invention that will save the world. In reality it will be each of us out there, face to face, changing opinions, one person at a time.


An Open Letter to Harry Reid

The Honorable Harry Reid

United States Senate

522 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, D.C. 20510-2803


Dear Senator Reid,

Nice job negotiating with John McCain and getting an up-or-down 51%-to-win vote on those nominees. You made Mitch McConnell look like a clumsy political dinosaur. Not difficult, was it?

Now nuke the filibuster in its entirety. Till it glows. No loopholes. It’s not the law, it’s just something someone in the Senate thought up back in the 19th century. You know the history. The Senate had a rule that any senator could talk as long as he wanted on an issue. Eventually people figured out that this was comically impractical and created a cloture rule, where 2/3 of the Senate could stop debate. Then it became 3/5 in 1975. It could become 51% in 2013. There’s nothing sacred about it. And face it, sucker punching McConnell would be justice mixed with joy itself.

Oh, right, the hallowed traditions of the Senate. Collegiality, dignity of the institution and all that. Shall I give you a window on the thinking of people who aren’t in the Senate, the other 300 million minus one-hundred of us? We don’t give a ding-dong-damn about the hallowed traditions of the Senate. What little collegiality you now enjoy does not concern us.

As for the dignity of the institution, well, if wearing clown suits and Groucho glasses would get some movement out of you, then make it so. Big toed shoes all round.

You are giving us all the impression that you guys can store your worldview in a Dixie cup. It’s all about your daily experience, your wealthy donors, and those unpleasant people from K Street who tell you how to vote. Maintaining the illusion that you are more than a bunch of carefully selected butlers for the billionaire class is more important than getting something accomplished for us. Hint: That’s why colonoscopies poll better than Congress. (Also root canals, lice, and Genghis Khan)

Here’s a joke that cracked us up back when I was about twelve. This guy dies and goes to hell. A demon tells him he wasn’t so bad, so he can choose his own punishment. The demon leads him past all these rooms with people being tormented. Some are boiling, some are burning, some are freezing. Then he looks into a room where people are standing around up to their knees in dog shit, drinking coffee. He thinks, “Well, I guess I’ll get used to the smell after a while.” He grabs a cup of joe and wades in. After about five minutes another demon comes to the door and yells, “Coffee break’s over! Back on your heads.”

Ok, Harry, so the Senate will be an unpleasant place to work if you end the filibuster. So sorry, but you chose your room. Coffee break’s over.

Very Sincerely Yours,

The Minor Heretic