Friday, February 27, 2015

How to create an alias to open and edit text documents in Linux

Several years ago, I got in the habit of writing in two documents every morning. A morning page, just like The Artist's Way says and a gratitude list. For awhile there, each morning I would open the file manager in my Ubuntu Linux workstation, navigate to the folder where the documents could be found and opened them, manually.

Then I got smarter and just opened LibreOffice and found the recent documents list and opened them there. But that still required the mouse. I knew there was something better, something easier. I had been playing with the Bash shell and marveled at it's utility. Hey, if you had spent decades on Windows, you would marvel at Bash, too.

I began to consider how to write a script that would open my documents. So I developed something like this in my favorite text editor, vi:


libreoffice -o "/path/to/document/gratitude list.odt" &
libreoffice -o "/path/to/document/Morning Page.odt" &

Every Bash script starts with a shebang and the path to the shell that will be used to interpret the script. That's what line 1 is about. Line 2 is blank. Lines 3 and 4 contain the commands that open the documents I want to write in every morning. So lets break down line 3 and 4 since they are the same, but they point to different documents.

Each line is a command to run LibreOffice, open the document and send the process to the background in the shell. LibreOffice is my productivity suite of choice. It's free, open source, and does everything I need to do to create documents like correspondence and spreadsheets. There is a nice presentation application too, if you're into public speaking with statistics. Oh yeah, it's Microsoft Office compatible, too, so you can share documents with your friends.

LibreOffice can be opened by clicking the icon for it in a menu in Linux or Windows, but it can also run as a command in Linux. There is even a man page for Libreoffice in Bash, just type:

man libreoffice

With the above command, the options at the command line will be revealed. That is how I found the command to open a document:

libreoffice -o &

Then I added the path to the document with an ampersand to send the process to the background. When I run that command, the document opens and I can edit the document, save it, and then close it. When I close the document with ctrl-w, the background process is terminated in the shell, too.

Once I had the script, then I created an alias. The Linux environment has configuration files for everything and Bash is no exception. To create the alias, I added the following line to my .bashrc file:

alias mw='~/path/to/document/'

Then I closed my shell, opened it again and typed alias to get a list of aliases that have been loaded in the shell. In this case, I was looking for 'mw' for "Morning Writing", for me.

I use Gnome 3, the desktop environment for Linux distributions like Ubuntu. It is also known as the Gnome Shell and It's a dream to work with. It's minimalist simplicity and style make it easy for me to navigate to where I want to go. Now with the script and alias in place, from the desktop, I can open my morning documents like so:

Windows key (I know, it's ironic, but it works)
te (for terminal with Bash),
mw (to run the script from the terminal)

No mouse, no hunting around, just seven keystrokes and I'm up and running in a few seconds. You can do this for any document you want, so long as the application you run to open the document has a corresponding command in Bash. Every Linux application has a Bash command line option to run it.

Sure, I could create a functional equivalent in Windows, but it's not as easy as Linux. Why? Word doesn't like being called from the command line, I know, I've tried. I could record a macro, but that is recording the mouse movement. In Linux, I got it done with far less effort than in Windows because Linux doesn't hide the motor from me like Windows does.

This is why I use Linux. Once I found a life with Linux, I got bored with Windows, and I get what I want done with greater ease.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Well, we thought emulsifiers were safe, now we're not so sure

Reuters, among many outlets carried the story about emulsifiers:
"(Reuters) - Common additives in ice cream, margarine, packaged bread and many processed foods may promote the inflammatory bowel diseases ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease as well as a group of obesity-related conditions, scientists said on Wednesday." has more scientific detail based on an article releasesd in the journal, Nature:
"Emulsifiers, which are added to most processed foods to aid texture and extend shelf life, can alter the gut microbiota composition and localization to induce intestinal inflammation that promotes the development of inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome, new research shows."
Hey, the gut bacteria again? Like the artificial sweeteners story? This is just one more warning shot across the bow of the standard American diet. Eat processed foods? Prepare for a life of greater discomfort. Ignore the warning? Prepare for a life in bed or no life at all.

The human body is just not built for all the chemicals we put in our food. But there is a way to avoid them, even if you are tempted to buy them. Here's what I do:

When I eat something, I notice how I feel after I eat it. If I don't like the way that I feel after I eat something, even if I enjoy the flavor, texture or whatever about that food, I avoid eating it or limit consumption of that food to the point where the discomfort goes away. The body is a natural barometer of our environment. If you abuse it, you will feel it, just like if you treat it right, you will feel it, too.

For example, I've tried many different things for breakfast. From cereal with milk, to oatmeal, to burritos to finally, apples. Organic apples. I feel best when eating apples for breakfast. They're cheap compared to McD's and the health care bill that comes with that. I say McD's because on the way to work, while I'm eating apples, I see people lined up in their cars, motors idling, waiting for their Egg McMuffin, hash browns and coffee. I honestly don't know how they live on that. So I'll take my apples, thank you.

I've developed this sensitivity and awareness of food with years of paying attention and experimentation. Anyone can do this. All it takes is a little time and patience.

I guess the follow up question is this: how can the food corporation executives who approve this stuff sleep at night? How can they look themselves in the mirror in the morning and go to work, thinking that this sort of story will just fade away? Do they find themselves amused that they put one over on the FDA before stories like this come out?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The "Deathprint" of energy sources

Seems kind of odd that the one of the most vilified energy sources has the smallest "deathprint" or mortality rate than all of the other sources of power. Can you guess which source of power that is?


Even after Chernobyl and Fukishima, nuclear still has a smaller deathprint than every other power source, even solar. But you wouldn't know it if you followed the histrionic sermons of Dr. Helen Caldicott or the mainstream press. Chernobyl is one of the most thoroughly studied nuclear disasters in history, yet peer reviewed studies of the event put the maximum death toll at 43 people. Total "deathprint" is about 90 people for the entire history of nuclear power. Forbes has put together a nice article and table on the subject of deaths in the energy industry. Here is the table:

Energy Source               Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

Coal – global average           170,000    (50% global electricity)

Coal – China                         280,000   (75% China’s electricity)

Coal – U.S.                              15,000    (44% U.S. electricity)

Oil                                            36,000    (36% of energy, 8% of electricity)

Natural Gas                                4,000    (20% global electricity)

Biofuel/Biomass                       24,000    (21% global energy)

Solar (rooftop)                                440    (< 1% global electricity)

Wind                                               150    (~ 1% global electricity)

Hydro – global average                1,400    (15% global electricity)

Nuclear – global average                   90    (17%  global electricity w/Chern&Fukush)

Everything involving carbon, even biomass, has a very high mortality rate. Yet, given the very low mortality rate of the nuclear industry, nuclear has a much higher regulatory burden and the results show.

Carbon fuel interests have deep pockets and use that money to fend off regulators. We saw that at Deepwater Horizon, the oil rig that caught fire and caused one of the largest oil spills in history, with deaths of at least 11 people.

There is more to the story, though. The environmental damage from carbon is starting to hit closer to home. On a monthly basis, we are seeing headlines of small disasters around the US. Examples include a refinery explosion in Torrance, California that deposited white silica ash over neighbors near the plant. We also learned of a CSX oil train derailing, catching fire and dumping oil into a nearby river. No one died in either accident, but toxins were released into the air.

No one disputes that nuclear accidents have happened, but few will be able to say that nuclear accidents happen as frequently, and do nearly as much environmental damage as carbon fuels do. From coal ash spills to oil spills to natural gas explosions, nuclear energy doesn't even hold a candle to carbon. The reason for this is containment.

In the vast majority of nuclear reactors, there is a very tight regulatory procedure in place. Waste is very dense because the energy density of nuclear energy is very high - nuclear has an energy density 1 million times that of the carbon-hydrogen bond. That means the waste can be stored in a very small volume of space compared to carbon fuels. Carbon fuels are everywhere and as liquids and gases, they are very hard to contain. Unfortunately, the indirect deathprint from all these spills and releases may never be fully known. Months or years after carbon fuel accidents, people will still feel the effects of a refinery blast or oil spill into a river, but who will count from there?

Nuclear is simply a better alternative to oil on the basis of containment and energy density alone. It's far easier to manage, has a stricter regulatory regime and has fewer accidents by a mile than oil, coal or natural gas. But they don't even get a pass compared to carbon. Perhaps we need to consider nuclear power as a way to displace and finally discard carbon until renewables can catch up. At least then, we can put more focus on preventing accidents rather than cleaning up after them.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Carbon wins again and again in public policy

I saw this meme on Facebook this morning:

As I looked at the picture, I began to wonder how accurate this was. Turns out that it's pretty accurate, but it doesn't give the whole story about per unit costs. While it's true that carbon energy interests receive enormous subsidies, it's important to note that the per unit costs by source is much, much higher for renewables than for carbon fuels. Check out the table below from Politifact:

Solar       $59.60

Wind       $31.33

Biofuel    $10.46

Nuclear    $1.71

Coal         $0.38

Oil/gas     $0.27

Wind and solar subsidies are more than a hundred times greater per unit (in this case, an energy equivalent of a barrel of oil), than coal and gas. But because of the sheer volume of production, carbon energy costs far more in aggregate subsidies than for newer technologies. also has some interesting statistics here, two of which really stood out to me:
A 2011 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 74% of Americans support “eliminating tax credits for the oil and gas industries” in order to “reduce the current federal budget deficit.” (Source: Wall Street Journal,
By contrast, the 2012 United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll found that “almost two-thirds—64 percent—of those surveyed said that Congress should extend federal tax credits that encourage production of alternative-energy sources.” (Source: National Journal,
How is it possible that subsidies for carbon fuels continue despite strong opposition? It's all about the money. Here is one more from Politifact, same page:
In cumulative dollar amounts, over the lifetimes of their respective subsidies, the oil, coal, gas and nuclear industries have received approximately $630 billion in U.S. government subsidies, while wind, solar, biofuels and other renewable sectors have received a total of roughly $50 billion in government investments.  (DBL Investors, 
This is why the Koch Bros can raise $900 billion from their network of billionaires to get the government they want. They're getting huge subsidies for their industries while claiming a sincere desire for a free market as libertarians. If just one family can do that, what does that say about our form of government? That we're ruled by an oligarchy.

This is not just something we have to accept. In order to change it, we have it accept it for now, with a mind and determination to change it. But how do we get true reform of government?

I know, know. I sound like a broken record when I say this, but to get true reform of government, we will need to get money out of politics. There is no other way to change public policy. Once the money is removed as a factor in politics, then political objectives and agendas must stand on their own merits. Here are two SuperPACs working towards the goal of fundamental campaign finance reform to consider:
Friends of Democracy

I am sure there are many more organizations working towards the same goal, it's just that these two stand out from my research. Maybe in 2016, we will finally wise up as a nation and pony up the cash needed to get candidates in office dedicated to campaign finance reform. Both of those sources have unseated Congressmen or rattled the cage enough to get some attention. More positive action could be on the way.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Nuclear and renewable energy might consider an alliance against carbon

While researching another article, I found this:
"Some of the earliest documented instances of opposition to the development of commercial nuclear power in the United States originated from designated representatives of the coal industry. They were the first people to mount sustained opposition to the use of taxpayer money to support the development of nuclear power stations."
That is from Rod Adams and the Atomic Insights blog. That article runs at length describing the beating coal was taking from nuclear power in the 60s and how coal used proxies to hobble nuclear power. As I read that article, it became clear to me that nuclear and renewables had a common enemy: coal. I've never seen any evidence to suggest that the nuclear industry lobbied against renewable energy. But here, it's plain to see that coal did not like the competition it was getting from nuclear.

Coal isn't the only lobby working furiously to ensure that nuclear remains a cottage industry. Mr. Adams believes that coal, oil and gas together have been happy to help the antinuclear crowd with financing and talking points:
"My analysis of the same events includes a wider range of actors, puts some blame on the antinuclear industry, and points to the underlying financial support for all who oppose nuclear energy that is available from the coal, oil and gas establishment, a group for whom the dream of unlimited amounts of clean power is a nightmare of epic proportions."
In a nutshell, the renewable power lobby might just be an unwitting useful tool of the carbon interests, a pawn offered to trip up nuclear power, to delay as long as humanly possible, mainstream discovery of what nuclear power has to offer. Take a look at the chart below:
Notice the incredibly slow rate of progress of renewables and nuclear. Notice also that coal use remains relatively constant for the next 25 years, while natural gas yawns wide into a dominant position edging out coal only slightly. This is the best estimate we have from our own government to project where our energy will come from. This is based on current and projected public policy outcomes. Hear that phrase, "public policy"?

The solution to our energy problems is not a question of technical knowhow. This is a question of political will. Coal, gas and oil will be nearly impossible to displace unless nuclear gets a clear shot at dominance in production in the near term. I've never seen nuclear power interests lobby against solar - OK, maybe I didn't look hard enough, but it would be obvious in my search results if they did. I believe that renewable power and nuclear power are not mutually exclusive nor are they adversaries.

I've also had a chance to watch Pandora's Promise on Netflix. It is well worth the watch even if they don't delve too much into thorium. What is important here is that some environmentalists are waking up to see that they need nuclear to win the fight against coal, oil and gas. Sure, the movie has it's critics. Every movie has critics. But in this case, there is a cogent rebuttal from a practicing nuclear engineer who knows what he's talking about and can separate the hype from reality.

Look at that chart again and see the overwhelming power and force of coal and gas. If renewables ever had an ally, it's nuclear power. Why? Nuclear power can scale like no other energy source on earth because the energy density of nuclear is a million times greater than the carbon-hydrogen bond. Nuclear power can make carbon fuels obsolete with a smaller footprint, in a shorter amount of time than renewables can do it. Nuclear is a great mid-term solution to the energy problem until renewables can get some traction.

In my review of the supposed conflict between nuclear and renewables, both lobbies seem to have missed a common adversary: carbon. Both can often be found fighting each other when they really should be working together. Renewable energy is obviously the best long term solution, but both nuclear and renewables reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

In case anyone wondered, both involve mining. Obviously, nuclear power requires mining, but if we use thorium as the fuel and spent uranium fuel as a source of neutrons to get thorium going, then mining is minimized. Thorium is a by-product of rare-earth mineral mining as well, and rare-earth mineral mining isn't going away anytime soon.

On the other hand, solar and wind advocates seem reluctant to admit that solar power requires mining. Here, the Mining News provides some details about the need for minerals in the solar industry:

"Renewable energy requires metals and minerals The increased production of renewable energy is also driving increased demand for mined metals and minerals. New solar panels require arsenic, bauxite, boron, cadmium, coal, copper, gallium, indium, iron ore, molybdenum, lead, phosphate, selenium, silica, tellurium, and titanium dioxide.[3] Wind turbines use concrete, bauxite, cobalt, copper, iron ore, molybdenum and rare earth elements.[4] The rare earth elements (REE), also known as rare earth metals, are particularly important in wind turbines as they reduce the weight and size needed for magnets in wind turbines.[5] - See more at:"
The long term solution (centuries) is renewables because they will capture energy from the sun, the moon and the core of the earth. Solar, wind, tidal and geothermal energy can do it all. But given the dominance of carbon now, renewables are going to need a lot of help to catch up if that chart is accurate. They need to see nuclear as an ally not an enemy, and vice versa. Together, they can be an effective force against the carbon interests and they have good reason to work together. They are simply not big enough to defeat the carbon interests alone. But working together would combine their power. They are not mutually exclusive. Even nuclear power can recycle spent fuel and nuclear warheads as fuel. They recycle.

Ultimately, it comes down to fundamental campaign finance reform. Nuclear and renewables are not going to make much headway unless we deal with the money in politics. Look again at that chart above. That chart is a reflection of public policy and as long as big money influences politics, well, carbon has the money and they are going to make the rules until we remove the influence of money in politics.

It can be done, but it will take time. Here are two resources to consider:
Friends of Democracy

Friday, February 20, 2015

What is the priority for an oligarchy? Surveillance.

If you read tech news, you might have heard how the NSA and the GCHQ have been compromising the firmware of computers and phones. First the hard drives. Everyone who has a desktop or laptop computer has a hard drive. The hard drive has a tiny computer inside called a disk controller. The disk controller accepts and interprets commands for data access, read and write, from the CPU of the computer. The US and UK governments have learned how to compromise the software in that disk controller and make it servile to their commands.

How was this done? We don't know exactly how, as disk drive manufacturers deny complicity with the government. But we do know that it can be reverse engineered just for the purpose of surveillance.

The second piece is the SIM card. Everyone has one in their phone. They are used to identify the phone and to provide encryption keys to keep the communications from the phone safe. Now we learn that the NSA and GCHQ have stolen billions of encryption keys just for the purpose of compromising security on the phones.

What has been done is astonishing in scope and breathless in chutzpah. All in the name of what!?! The War On Terror. You can read many accounts of the story with all the gory details with a few pointed searches, but I've found one that covers both at TechDirt.

Since most of the accounts that I've seen so far cover the details so well, I want to cover an angle on the story that hasn't really been brought up. Why?

For more than a decade, we've been told that all this surveillance is necessary in order to maintain the safety of the people. The mindset is that if the security agencies save just one life, every compromise they have made is justified. But the reality is that the war on terror is a war on privacy and that war has but one purpose and it's not to maintain the safety of the state. We have that even without all the surveillance.

Don't forget that security agencies aren't the only ones with the means to compromise hardware security. Eventually, their exact methods will be leaked to the really bad guys, the people who want your credit card numbers and social security numbers. Security compromise is a double-edged sword.

We live in a country where the middle class has near-zero influence on public policy. Anyone below also has zero influence on public policy. Therefore, the people who do have the influence on public policy are giving the orders for this level of surveillance. We're probably speaking too broadly when we say the 1%, but lets keep the discussion simple and start there.

Warren Buffet, one of the richest men on earth, has this to say:
"Actually, there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won. We’re the ones that have gotten our tax rates reduced dramatically."
I suggest that class warfare extends to surveillance. It's already been proven that America is an oligarchy where the only people who have influence on public policy are the 1%. They're writing the checks and I'm not talking about taxes. I'm talking campaign contributions.

Look at it another way. When more than 5 million people lose their homes and the people who get bailed out are the bankers, do you think that the bankers might even be a bit worried? When hedge fund managers make out like bandits by moving aluminum from warehouse to warehouse, adding incremental costs to aluminum for everyone else, and they get caught, do they worry about it? Probably not if government has got their back. How about the LIBOR scandal, a scam that cost consumers and government at all levels more than $10 billion? That's a really great way to manipulate interest rates for profit, at least until you're caught. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan? That cost us more than $1 trillion, with many millions lost to reconstruction of Iraq and contractor scams.

If hedge fund managers are so scared that they're planning to jet to New Zealand when the uprising starts, then surveillance of the scope and magnitude perpetrated by the NSA and GCHQ makes perfect sense. If you're a billionaire, getting access to that data is not a problem.

The surveillance state is not about the war on terror, it's a war on the middle class with one central purpose: give the 1% the means to monitor everyone else so that they can bail when they need to, or apply force when its still possible to do it.

If we live in a constitutional republic, there is simply no justification for security agencies breaking into hardware to gather *everything* we have on disk or phone. But someone at the top has found a justification in their own mind to get this done and do it quietly before anyone can stop them. The scale of the compromise is so massive, that we can easily conclude that *everyone else* is an enemy of the state from the perspective of the top 1%.

But we don't have to accept this as our future. We can make changes. We can restore our democracy. How?

By insisting on fundamental reform of campaign finance laws. Hey, if 500,000 Walmart employees can get a raise all at once, we can make changes in campaign finance laws that provide the incentives required for our elected representatives to listen to the rest of us. There are two organizations that are well known and working hard to reform campaign finance:
The Friends of Democracy

Get involved, make a donation to the SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs. Join the Friends of Democracy to support candidates who are serious about campaign finance reform. This is how we get started with returning the government to the people, you know, everyone else. This is the best place to start effective reform of the government. There are no better options short of revolution.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

It's a tie between nuclear and renewables

I've been thinking about that chart I mentioned yesterday. Here it is:

That chart is from the US Energy Administration, and it depicts projections of electricity generation in the US by source. I find it interesting that every source of energy in the chart is projected to decrease by 2040, except for natural gas. It seems that we're sitting on a massive pile of it so it's going to be cheap compared to other sources.

It's hard to say if this is based entirely on policy projections or the reality that it just takes a lot of time to build out renewable infrastructure that is going to replace carbon. The projection is that carbon will be the source of 67% of our energy, even by 2040.

The takeaway from this is that if we're going to cut carbon, we're going to need political willpower to do it. A ton of it. Now.

So what do we get instead? A Congress obsessed with a single oil pipeline that goes straight from Canada to a port in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

5000 terawatts

Today, I'm thinking about power. A lot of power. It is estimated that worldwide, we use 16 terawatts (TW) a day. The United states alone produces 4TW, or 25% of world production. By 2040, the US is projected to produce about 5TW of electricity. You can see the chart here.

World wide energy demand is estimated to reach 5000TW by 2300, assuming a 2% increase in demand every year. This is something I learned from the New Scientist magazine online. It's a very interesting projection and assumes that many more people in the world will seek the American lifestyle.

I know what it's like to have gadgets, TVs, cars and to fly in an airplane. It's all expensive and takes time to manage. The consumer lifestyle is not all that it's cracked up to be. Washers and dryers, computers, electronics for everyone, and all of the online services. YoutTube, Netflix, Google, Facebook and on and on. There is only so much one can consume until the consumer flops into bed from exhaustion. The only real joy in the world is other people, and none of this so-called prosperity is even worth having unless you can share it with someone.

What kind of a world will be using 5000TW of power every second? Aren't we supposed to be getting more efficient? Well, there are going to be a lot more people by then. Or maybe not. Noam Chomsky pointed in one of his books that every dominant species in history has seen 100,000 years of dominance and that we are near the end of our 100,000 years.

If the 1967 movie classic, "2001: A Space Odyssey" can portray Pam Am (defunct since 1991) as a standard carrier for space travel, then at least we can hope that we might be wrong in our power projections for the future. But then again, anyone alive in the 1950's would have a hard time believing that we're using and producing 16TW today.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The zeal of Helen Caldicott and her followers

Just the other day, I was called a "zealot" by an anti-nuclear activist named Cecalli Helper. Not only that, she took the trouble to turn one of my tweets into a joke to mock me in my debate with her about the merits of the thorium molten salt reactor. When I called her on it, she turned and blocked me from viewing her tweets or communicating with her.

So I did some research and found, just through an incognito session with Chrome, that she likes to tweet the message from Helen Caldicott. As I mentioned in a previous post, Caldicott seems to have trouble with certain facts about the nuclear industry and from what I can tell, she is not very responsive to a reasonable line of questioning.

Take this example here, with what appears to be a debate between George Monbiot and Helen Caldicott. Here we have a man who is openly questioning the assumptions made by Caldicott and from his wording and line of reasoning, posted reassuringly enough, in the Guardian, and he has an open mind and is willing to consider new information. At the end of the article, I would expect to see some updates to see if Caldicott even bothered to respond. She does not.

Zealots have a hard time responding to facts that contravene their opinions. I know that I have taken zealous views in the past myself, so when I see one, I know what they look like. But on the issue of thorium molten salt reactors, I'm willing to yield.

For example, during that debate, I learned from Cecalli Helper that "base load", although a real term with real numbers, is slowly being made obsolete by new technologies that make it possible to deal with variations in power output from wind and solar power. New technology, mostly computers, software and sensors, make it possible to adjust power output so that the grid doesn't get fried with a surge of wind. I was not arguing against wind and solar, as I believe they are valuable sources of energy, I just don't believe that they are going to be able to satisfy our power needs into the future alone. Perhaps not in the near future, but as the technology matures, we may actually be able to harness enough energy to make every other technology obsolete.

I also learned that there is an effective limit to how much energy we can produce and use without heating up the atmosphere. Every technology that uses electricity generates waste heat. That heat goes into the atmosphere, warming it. Some have estimated that by 2300, we will be using 5000TW of power a day, a number that dwarfs our current use of 16TW today. If we use 5000TW a day, then we will warm the atmosphere by 3 degrees C with waste heat alone. That might not seem like much, but in planetary terms, we're going to see a lot less snow.

This assumes that we can capture even a tiny slice of the 172,000TW that falls on the earth from the sun. When discussing solar power, I asked Ms. Helper, what are the implications of diverting 20% of the energy from the sun to solar power? At that point, she turned my tweet into joke and share it with her friends. Even the Tesla Channel was retweeting some of her tweets to give the impression that I never answered any of her questions. I'm a big fan of Tesla, but even if I might feel alienated by their actions, I still admire their products.

At that point I called her on it and then she blocked me. I never did get an apology, but at least I'm now clear that Ms. Helper doesn't mind enjoying herself at someone else's expense in a debate, just to win that debate. Perhaps she has received some of the same treatment by other people who have mocked her, so she could not resist dishing it out on someone else. [For those who read the previous version of this post, I did find the tweets that I thought were missing. Not sure why they're there now when I thought they were gone.]

It is worth noting that in any debate, once you go down the path of mockery, you deviate from the goal of dispensing with opinions by providing verified facts. I've spent some time on stage and have performed standup comedy. I understand the power of humor, so I avoid the path of mockery because I understand that when people laugh in a debate about a serious subject, they get emotional and then thinking goes out the window. Then they use the laughter to dismiss the object of the joke.

So Ms. Helper thinks that I never answered her questions and blocked me as a sort of punishment. For someone who is so quick to block and disengage, I find the text of her profile on Twitter rather ironic:
"Took Cecalli 2 MIT : Agriculture/Forestry Winner. Nomad and Avid Nuclear & Climate News Messenger for humanity. Sometimes Suspended w/Out Cause."
Hmmm. "Sometimes suspended w/out Cause." So when people block her, that's bad. But if she blocks someone, that's OK? I've seen that some of her tweets suggest that she will block someone who doesn't answer questions. So if we don't meet her demands, then BAM!, we're out. Well, I guess that's one way to win a debate. I do receive notifications her retweeting tweets that mention me, but I don't mind if she follows me or can see my tweets. I prefer to keep communications open.

I also note with interest that Caldicott isn't the only one not responding to critics. I did some searching and found a review of Pandora's Promise, a documentary discussing the benefits of the thorium molten salt reactor. I haven't seen the movie yet, but plan to watch it now that I see that it's on Netflix. I'm still a big fan of thorium for many reasons, which I've explained before on this blog.

I read the article and read the comments on the article. Scientists featured in the movie who found the review and questioned the author, were not worth much of a response by the author of the article. When pressed for justification for some of his comments, the author parried with a request for more information. When presented with contravening evidence, others responded for him. Some with a smidge of vitriol. But Mr. Lyman seemed noticeably absent. To wit:
"I think it would be great if the author of this article would oblige the reader and participate in discussing the article in this space."
So, even though anti-nuclear agitation has cost consumers billions of dollars in added expense, some anti-nuclear activists do not feel compelled to answer questions or respond to contrary factual information when presented. Better to dismiss the opponent, mock him or write him off as someone who won't change his mind.

In every debate I've read on the subject of thorium molten salt reactors, and even nuclear energy in general, the pro-nuclear side has been very thorough in responding to their opponents in the debate. But the anti-nuclear side seems reluctant to carry through the debate when presented with factual evidence to the contrary of their theories and ideas. A zero tolerance position, an extreme position, can be difficult to support.

I believe that the diversity and expression of human opinion is essential to our survival. But I also believe that if you have an opinion, be ready to back it up with facts.

I would also like to make a distinction. A zealot is someone who is not just a believer, a zealot has conviction, a sense that what he believes is true despite any contrary information. I see this with religion quite often, but I also see it with people who profess themselves to be activists. This trait might be necessary to carry on with the crusade in every sense of the word.

While I find that the evidence for the use of thorium molten salt reactors compelling, and I promote their use, I am willing to consider the possibility that renewables might catch up and meet the demand now serviced by carbon. I simply have faith that thorium can carry the day yet, I'm open to new information.

Even if renewables like solar and wind capture 90% of the energy market, a theoretical possibility, there will still be a need and use for thorium molten salt reactors (MSR). The MSR can burn nuclear waste, provide valuable isotopes for medical and industrial uses, and provide power where solar and wind can't meet the prevailing needs.

The question is time. Can renewables beat nuclear? Sure, if agitators work hard to limit the access of nuclear power to the market. Thorium power is not a theoretical possibility. The technology is here, and it works else why would anyone like Martingale, Inc., tell us that we'll have a working 250Mw prototype in four years? Why would Alvin Weinberg, inventor of the uranium light water reactor and the molten salt reactor, tell 3 administrations (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon), that molten salt reactors are the way to go?

I take the position that every option option should be considered to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Nuclear power is and will remain one of those options until it effectively ruled out by a renewable option. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening anytime soon, neither does the EPA.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The thorium bill that Orrin wrote

By chance, I found a bill written by my senator, Orrin Hatch. For once, I have found something that I agree with him on. It's a simple bill really, with one primary directive to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: write the chapter of regulations pertaining to the use of thorium fuel cycle power plants. Here's the official summary:
Thorium Energy Security Act of 2010 - Amends the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to direct the Secretary of Energy to establish, and provide funds to, an office for the regulation of thorium fuel cycle nuclear power generation within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and an office of thorium-based fuel cycle research within the Department of Energy.
Directs the NRC Chairman to: (1) establish standards for the manufacture, testing, use, and management of spent thorium-based nuclear fuel; and (2) promulgate regulations for facilities and materials used in thorium-based fuel cycle nuclear power generation.
Directs the Secretary to implement demonstration projects for thorium-based nuclear power generation.
Directs the Secretary to report to Congress recommendations for: (1) strengthening international partnerships to advance nuclear nonproliferation through the design and deployment of thorium fuel cycle nuclear power generation; and (2) providing incentives to nuclear reactor operators to use proliferation-resistant, low-waste thorium fuels in lieu of other fuels.
Hmm. Someone has noticed that compared to electronics innovation, we're still stuck in the 1950s when it comes to nuclear power. Imagine being stuck with vacuum tubes for computing. Most of us would not have computers like we have today. But the NRC, through their regulation, or lack thereof, has ensured that we don't have modern molten salt reactors today. Instead, they want us all to be afraid of the same reactors we've been using since the 1960s.

Even the AP1000, the latest generation of reactors from Westinghouse is still based on the dangerous and inefficient light water reactors built in the 1950s. Guess what? The guy who invented the light water reactor, Alvin Weinberg, had been telling every administration from Kennedy to Nixon, that we should be using thorium molten salt reactors for civilian energy generation, not the uranium light water reactors. But energy producers, more focused on profits from inefficiency, went with the light water reactor for all the extra money needed for mining, refinement and support. Hey, they make fuel for bombs, too. That's cool, right?

Now that we have both the house and the senate controlled by Republicans, we have a great opportunity for bipartisanship action with President Obama. Both parties can work with the president to get the regulations for thorium written so that thorium can finally be licensed as fuel for a reactor in the United States. Yes, that's right. We aren't using thorium as a fuel because the NRC has refused to write regulations for such use, meanwhile the rest of the world is passing us by. That's real cute, guys.

So what do you say, Mr. Hatch? Will you reintroduce the Thorium Energy Security Act of 2010 as the Thorium Energy Security Act of 2015? Will your colleagues be brave enough to vote for it against entrenched carbon energy interests like the Koch Bros? Will you be willing to inform everyone in Congress, with your bill on the floor, that one ton of thorium can replace 31 billion barrels of oil or 5 billion tons of coal? How about that for a peace dividend, Orrin? Are you interested?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

One small step to Iran

Two stories in the news have got my attention this morning. First The Raw Story has this from Georgia:
According to the lawsuit, teacher Kaytrene Bright and Cel Thompson forced the children of anonymous plaintiffs Jane and John Doe to join their classmates in prayer or leave the classroom.
“Encouraging the Doe children to pray, or isolating and punishing the Doe children for electing not to pray, violates the deeply and sincerely held moral convictions of the Doe children and therefore their First Amendment rights,” the complaint reads.
What exactly did these teachers do? They forced the kids to bow their heads and pray in public school and when they did not, the kids were teased by the other kids and punished by the teacher. The teacher used her "mean voice" to send the kids out of the classroom when they were finally permitted to leave during prayers by the principal of the school. Now the school is facing a lawsuit from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization dedicated to enforcing the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution.

Then there is this from USA Today:
Back in 2003, Roy Moore was known as the Ten Commandments chief justice. Now, he's fighting over gay marriage.
Roy Moore is at it again.
Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, doesn't seem to believe that judicial orders, including those issued by the Supreme Court of the United States, should be followed if he disagrees with them.
What we see above are two examples where Christians are seeking to reimage this country as a Christian nation when it that is clearly not so. The Founding Fathers were very explicit about their intentions when they wrote the Bill of Rights:
Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Notice that this is Amendment 1, and the very first clause prohibits the establishment of a government sponsored religion. Religious persecution was uppermost on their minds considering that they came from a nation-state that established a certain form of Christianity and that they disagreed with the King of England's ideas on how to practice religion.

In writing the First Amendment, they sought to protect their posterity from the same tyranny. Yet, as we have seen, there are Christians in this nation today, who would prefer to forget that bit of history.

Consider the prayer that kids were forced to recite in the classroom in Swaisnborough, Georgia:
“God our Father, we give thanks, for our many blessings. Amen.”
Now imagine the outrage if that prayer went like this:
"Oh Allah! Bless the food You have provided us and save us from the punishment of the hellfire. In the name of Allah."
If that were to happen, someone would be calling the police to save their kids from religious tyranny and the teacher would be arrested and probably beaten by the police for good measure. What's more is that in that classroom, the kids were ostracized for not conforming. The teachers were so persistent that eventually, they wore one of the children down to the point of praying with the others.

This is not how Christianity (or any other religion) should be promoted, but apparently, some in the South believe that this is proper. The behavior in the South smacks of the behavior in Iran and other deeply Muslim countries with government sponsored religion. One look at Iran's abysmal human rights record will tell us where we're going if Christians should ever find the power to declare the United States to be a Christian nation. According to the Jerusalem Post:
"Despite the election last year of Iran’s reform-minded president Hassan Rouhani, there has been no Persian thaw for Iran’s struggling religious minorities. Wide-scale repression of religious freedom continues with utter impunity during Rouhani’s tenure."
Religious repression includes economic and political repression, like harsher penalties in the courts. The article goes on further:
The ongoing crackdown on religious freedom is an outgrowth of Iran’s strict fundamentalist form of Shi’ite Islam. Dr. Shaheed’s report said,“As of 3 January 2014, at least 307 members of religious minorities were in detention, of whom 136 were Baha’is, 90 Sunni Muslims, 50 Christians, 19 Dervish Muslims (four Dervish human rights lawyers were also reportedly detained), four were Yarasan, two were Zoroastrians, and six were from other groups.” 
If you think that the treatment of children in that Georgia classroom was bad, just wait until those righteous Christian children grow up to run the government. Atheists, Buddhists, and Muslims for sure, will have cause for concern if the US becomes a Christian nation. Notice that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Georgia school were identified as "Doe" seeking anonymity. Why? They are obviously worried about abuse from supremely righteous Christians who aren't afraid to perpetrate violence in the name of their Lord.

Such threats are why the Founding Fathers declared that there shall be no state sponsored religion. The purpose of the First Amendment isn't just to protect the rest of us who may or may not be religious. It is to protect the freedom of all of us to practice religion as a matter of preference or not to practice it at all. It is to protect all of us from the kind of persecution that some Christians hope to avoid by making this country a Christian nation. That is the point of the First Amendment.

Then, with religion out of the way, our government is free to focus on policy matters that we can all agree upon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ghostwriters in politics

Municipal Broadband Networks has some details a story about how Comcast is ghostwriting letters for elected officials to send to the FCC in support of it's proposed merger with Time-Warner. Several sources are covering the story, as Municipal Broadband Networks learned of it from the Verge with their own exclusive story.

The idea is pretty simple. You're a large corporation with a compelling interest as an ISP to get this merger through. So you write letters for your favorite elected representatives to send to the FCC in support of the merger, on your own letterhead, signed by your pen. But you didn't actually write the letter now, did you, Senator?

That is some amazing chutzpah considering that dummies like Comcast and Centurylink also write legislation just for their own crony interests. Now that they've been caught at it, how will they respond? Will they change their tune and stop doing that? I don't think they will ever stop until their corporations are dissolved and we can move on to something more entertaining, like community broadband.

I'm sure that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Powerful entrenched interests are always happy to make their views known anonymously, through an ally like a politician. From energy to finance, these interests will never cease to use proxies to get the message out for fear of castigation.

So here's what I don't understand. Comcast firmly believes in their message. Why do they need proxies to help them? They have enough power and money. What else could they possibly need from government? More power and money.

Is that it? Is that the ultimate wish? How about providing better service to your customers instead of changing the names of your customers in your billing records? It's not nice to change the name of one of your customers to "Super Bitch". It's also not nice to write legislation that makes it much harder for communities to build their own broadband networks when you fail to play fair.

To listen to executives from our ISPs wax eloquent about the free market is to miss the point entirely about why they are asking for sweetheart deals from the government. But this is what happens when public infrastructure is owned by private corporations. What they have is never enough. Why build capacity when you can seek rents and take profits? Why offer good customer service when you can seek to further entrench your monopoly?

Because they have nothing better to do. That's why.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Bernie's Infrastructure Plan

I may have been pretty busy the last few weeks, but it hasn't been lost on me that Bernie Sanders has a new infrastructure bill. The Rebuild America Act is a proposal to spend $1 trillion rebuilding our infrastructure, from roads, to aqueducts, to our ports. What is intriguing is that he has plausible estimates that rebuilding our roads would be cheaper than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He estimates that by the time the last veteran receives medical care at home, the wars will have cost us $3 trillion.

Here is summary of the bill:

Rebuild America Act - Expresses the sense of the Senate that Congress should:

  • create jobs and support businesses while improving the nation's global competitiveness by modernizing and strengthening our national infrastructure;
  • invest resources in transportation corridors that promote commerce and reduce congestion;
  • update and enhance the U.S. network of rail, dams, and ports;
  • develop innovative financing mechanisms for infrastructure to leverage federal funds with private sector partners;
  • invest in critical infrastructure to reduce energy waste and bolster investment in clean energy jobs and industries;
  • invest in clean energy technologies that help free the United States from its dependence on oil;
  • eliminate wasteful tax subsidies that promote pollution and fail to reduce our reliance on foreign oil;
  • spur innovation by facilitating the development of new cutting-edge broadband internet technology and improving internet access for all Americans;
  • modernize, renovate, and repair elementary and secondary school buildings in order to support improved educational outcomes;
  • invest in the nation's crumbling water infrastructure to protect public health and reduce pollution;
  • upgrade and repair the nation's system of flood protection infrastructure to protect public safety; and
  • invest in U.S. infrastructure to address vulnerabilities to natural disasters and the impacts of extreme weather.

Oh yeah, check that out. Schools are infrastructure, too. I like that. Without educated kids and adults, it's pretty hard for us as a nation, to make informed decisions about our collective fate.

Bernie's proposal would do something else: it will create 13 million jobs, tightening up the labor market and helping to raise wages for everyone else. We are in a huge hole when it comes to the labor market as we still have lost millions of jobs from the meltdown. This bill would help to fill that hole.

I live in a Red State, the state of Utah. But I see construction everywhere. Every major road has something going on so hardly a day goes by that I don't go through a cone zone. I see the guys working on the street, digging big holes, laying foundation, fixing stuff and making it right. That costs money, I know, but you know what? Those guys are going to spend their money, and soon. Every street crew I see means work for me, too. Yes, I work for a large multinational corporation, but they service Utah, too.

There is another effect to consider: when we build things, we have to solve problems. We learn how to innovate here, at home again. Such a bill would revitalize the nation with construction projects and make our roads and bridges safe again and it would teach us problem solving skills that will be forgotten if we don't use them. This is a five year plan that will yield enormous dividends.

But I can hear the deficit hawks again, telling us that we don't have the money to do it. Duh! When you cut taxes to a historical low, what do you expect? When cars become very efficient, you have to raise the gas tax to finance all that construction. We are spending a tiny fraction of GDP on our infrastructure. Europe spends twice what we spend on roads. China spends 4 times what we spend. We have bridges in Downtown LA that are crying out for rebuild as they are more than 50 years old. I know, I've seen the overpasses for 4th, 5th and 6th street.

Who is the biggest user of infrastructure? The people who own the most wealth. The top 20% own 93% of the wealth in this country. They have the means, they can pay the bill. The rest of us are working while they're getting roles on "The Real Housewives of New Jersey". They own stocks, and they own hedge funds that run high frequency trading programs on very fast servers, right next to the trading floor of Wall Street.

The funding solution? A 0.1% tax on Wall Street trading, a financial transactions tax. Many other industrialized nation have one, but we don't. Why? Because it is believed by some, that such a tax would reduce liquidity in the market. To put it differently, such a tax would reduce the margins realized by the traders, and they would trade less. That might drive the price of stock down. But it also would create pressure to hold stocks because the owner believes in company, nothing more. Do we want to encourage speculation or discourage it? Such a tax would discourage speculation and encourage investing for the right reasons.

There is lots of support for such a tax, too. Many well known financial leaders such as Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group, and Sheila Bair, former Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation all agree that a financial transaction tax on stock trading would create the right incentives to invest rather than speculate.

This a match made in heaven. Rebuild our roads and bridges and finance the work with a tax on speculation on Wall Street. There is no good reason not to do it. There is something in this for everyone.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Sympathy for the celebrity who breaks the law

I happen to have a few people in my family who love to read about celebrities. You know, People Magazine, Us Magazine and the like. It's all entertainment and if I find mention of a star that I happen to like, I might be curious myself. So yesterday, I took notice in Us Magazine as it was laying on a table in my house. The cover story on December 15, 2014? "Teresa's Last Christmas".

One of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Teresa Guidice and her husband Joe, are both going to prison, one at a time to ensure that there is at least one parent at home for their kids. Teresa will do 15 months. Joe, 41 months. What did they do? They lied about their means and income on a loan application. Then they lied about their growing income to the IRS. Here are a couple living large in the top 1% and they have to lie and cheat to get there and stay there.

How anyone can find sympathy for their predicament is beyond me, much less writing article after article about them with huge dollops of sympathy for them. Yes, they have kids and yes they are celebrities, but as Time magazine notes in their article, it's not readily apparent where all of their income sources rest.

When they get out of prison, they will still have plenty of money. They will still be able enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. And they might even cash in on a book should they choose to write one, about their experience in prison.

Time Magazine also notes that the Giudices aren't the only stars in legal trouble. The Guidices are probably just the tip of the iceberg. Given recent cuts to the budget at the IRS, although there have been a few headliners going to jail, there are many more that won't be caught because the resources aren't there. Attorneys cost money, even for the IRS.

Hey, but that's cool if you're a Tea Party Republican in Congress. More money for your campaigns, right? If the IRS shuts down, that's OK, even if millions of middle class citizens have to wait to get their refunds. At least we can all rest assured that the minority of the wealthy who need to lie and cheat to get their money can keep it without worry of going to prison.

If the IRS is underfunded or shuts down, we're going to look a lot like Greece if we're not careful. But at least we'll have something to watch on TV.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Carbon, the atom and slavery

I had an opportunity to watch this video concerning the activist Helen Caldicott, a woman completely consumed with the goal of turning off every nuclear power plant and destroying every nuclear bomb. It was two hours well spent. The video easily debunked every statement that Caldicott ever made about nuclear power and shows that she has no visible grasp on the facts.

But there were a couple of other things that really caught my eye. First is this statistic: the light water uranium reactors we run today consume only 6% of the fuel. Then what is left of the fuel becomes "waste" and that has to be stored someplace where the radiation is shielded for better than 200,000 years. That means that 94% of the fuel is wasted after many months of mining, enrichment and processing.

As I write this, I'm reminded of a story my dad once told me, as a mockery of China. He told a story of a man who visited China to see their jobs program. They were still figuring out what to have people do, so some of them were using shovels to carry dirt from one pile to another and back again. The visitor suggested that, "if you want to create jobs that way, give them spoons instead of shovels."

That is how I see the nuclear industry now. It is as if almost by choice, the nuclear industry has picked the most plausibly inefficient way to build and run power plants and there is an entire industry built up around this inefficiency. Much of that is subsidized by you and me, through tax dollars, and most of us have no say in it.

Here is the other thing that caught my eye, well, my ear:
"Every time mankind learned to access a new source of energy, it has led to profound societal implications. Human beings have had slaves for thousands and thousands of years, and when we learned how to make carbon our slave instead of other human beings, we started to learn how to be civilized people. Thorium has a million times the energy density of the carbon-hydrogen bond. What could that mean for human civilization? Because we're not going to run out of this stuff. We will never run out. It is simply too common." 
That's what Kirk Sorensen says in the video. Sorensen was working at NASA when he discovered literature about a working thorium nuclear reactor. After years of research, he founded Flibe, a company dedicated to commercializing thorium as a source of nuclear power. He knows the physics behind it and he's not the only one who does, and Flibe is not the only US company with the same goal.

I've considered what is possible when we develop a plentiful power source that is cheaper than coal and that will not be exhausted at any time in the foreseeable future. Mankind will be able to build machines for any purpose to do anything so long as there is a power source for it.Thorium is the power source for anything. You can hold your personal lifetime supply of power in the palm of your hand with thorium - don't worry, it won't hurt you.

Here are just a few things that come to mind:

  • We can use that energy to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere to create the same liquid fuels we use in our vehicles, until they can be replaced with electric vehicles. Then when we're all driving electric cars, we can still draw CO2 out of the atmosphere to make other useful compounds until we get back down to below 300ppm like we had before the industrial revolution.
  • We can use that energy to split water to create hydrogen fuel and add that oxygen back to the atmosphere so we can breathe.
  • We can use that energy to desalinate water so that there is a fresh water supply wherever you need it or want it.
  • We can use thorium power plants to burn all the nuclear waste and the nuclear warheads we have built. All of them.
  • We can create a universal recycler - melt down anything into elements, extract the elements and reuse them for something else. Sure beats mining.
  • We can use thorium power as a bridge until we get to nuclear fusion.
This is a reactor that is so safe, so compact, and so versatile, that it could be placed anywhere work needs to be done. With better locations, transmission power losses due to resistance in power lines is reduced to a minimum. These reactors have passive safety, so accidents and terrorism are moot. They generate 1% of the waste as well as valuable isotopes for medical and industrial uses.

Competition in this market is brewing, too. Unfortunately, other countries will have them before we do. Why? The Department of Energy refuses to write regulations that permit the use of thorium as fuel. In 2010, Orrin Hatch wrote a bill to require the DOE to write those regulations, but that bill died in committee, killed by Democrats terrified of going soft on nuclear.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, so what follows is probably at best, speculation. but I believe that the following is very much worth considering.

Over the years, I've read articles that suggested that the wealthiest among us, the super rich, learned some important lessons from the 60s and 70s. What they learned is that it's not a good idea to have a healthy middle class. Why not? A healthy middle class will have the money and the time to protest when the government fails to honor the will of the people.

Giving people a cheap, plentiful and clean source of energy is exactly the wrong thing to do. Oh, we can have solar. But that's not as consistent as a nuclear power plant. We can have wind, but it's not always windy. Every study that's ever been done shows that we need something to carry base load and that's either carbon or nuclear. When Germany killed their nuclear power plants, they ran coal plants to provide the base load they need - that's in the video, too.

Given the enormous economic and ecological costs associated with carbon, carbon is preferred. It keeps the rest of us busy while the super wealthy make their plans for their getaways with steady income derived from carbon industries.

Thorium promises to be cheaper than coal. The technology is proven. But I have the sense that the super wealthy would prefer not to have it around because that would eliminate major distractions and give the middle class the helping hand they need (instead of the middle finger they're getting now). You know, distractions like climate change, war and terrorism in the middle east and the price of gas. If the super wealthy had wanted it here in the United States, the regulations would have been in place by now, and we'd have running thorium power plants already.

The super wealthy pretty much own public policy. They can make Congress do it's bidding. If they really wanted it, they could have it, but they don't so we don't. Perhaps what they prefer is to keep the rest of us as slaves.

Friday, February 06, 2015

The scientific consensus on GMO food safety - that never was

I was doing some research on an article concerning the Non-GMO Project and noticed something interesting. I had found a Wikipedia article on the organization and noticed a curious statement about it:
Part of its mission is to "educate consumers and the food industry to help build awareness about GMOs and their impact on our health"[5] and the project provides a document on their website called, “GMO Myths and Truths,” which they describe as "an evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops."[6] However, there is broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food.[7][8][9][10][11][12] (emphasis mine)
It's important to understand that all Wikipedia articles are written by volunteers. Wikipedia is an amazing project of immense depth and scope. Anyone who wants to contribute, can. So when I saw that last sentence in the excerpt, I had to put the question to Google. Is there really a scientific consensus on the safety of GMO foods?

According to the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, the answer is NO. That organization provides a rather comprehensive list of factors to consider in the assessment of GMO safety. From the methods of production, effects on livestock living on a diet of GMO grains to the effects of such crops on the ecosystem, there are countless variables to consider, the vast majority of which are shown to have negative outcomes as a result of the production and consumption of GMO food.

In debates I've had with various opponents on the subject who prefer to promote the idea that GMOs are safe, I've often heard or read them say with complete confidence, that GMOs are safe and that labeling should not be a legal requirement to produce and sell such food. They rest their statement on their belief that there is a consensus on GMO food safety. They also worry that if the food is labeled, who would buy it? But given the lack of consensus and the lack of studies by entities that have no horse in the race, I fail to see any scientific support for GMO food production.

More than 300 scientists from all over the world have signed that document and I'm sure there are many more who would agree with the statement that there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMO foods. So if American governments are not going to force food producers to label the food, we can go the other way and look for organizations that voluntarily adopt rules and regulations that ensure that the food in the box or on the produce shelf is not genetically modified.

The question of labeling is not just a question of scientific consensus. The question runs deeper to the politics behind the food. Do I want to support an industry player who prefers to sell food by deception and omission? Or do I want to support a food grower who respects my right to know what's in my food?

The scientific consensus on the safety of GMO foods is not there to support it, yet major food manufacturers like Pepsico, Tyson, General Mills and Kellog would very much like us to support their adventure with farm subsidies. Meanwhile, the rest of us are paying for the health care costs associated with the food since no long term studies have been done.

American conservatives are quick to call for cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, citing the need for personal responsibility. If, as some conservatives say, we should have an ownership society with personal responsibility and strict liability, then that liability should extend to our food manufacturers. The best way to assure that liability for injuries from GMO food is enforced is to label it and provide a means of tracking the food from farm to package.

But I don't see any conservatives calling for the labeling of GMO foods. Do you? Oh, wait. I forgot. Most conservative Congressmen and women are not scientists and are not impressed with scientists or science.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Belated software review: Beyond Compare

Years ago, I was in a job where I was faced with duplicate files, on multiple PCs around the office, in addition to the files on the file server. This just would not do. The organization was, well, not very organized in this respect. I needed a way to free up space and put everything in a place where it would be backed up.

I tried using Windows Explorer to do it. Windows Explorer is what you see when you open "My Computer" and look at the contents. It's what you see when you open "My Documents" and see the contents there. It's a simple window interface to your file system so that you can manage your files.

Comparing folders with Windows Explorer is slow and cumbersome. It takes time to scan the timestamps on files and folders. It takes time for humans to compare the contents and remove what isn't needed. It's not that easy to find duplicates.

So I did some searching around. I had used Directory Opus before when was I still on the Amiga and figured there was something out there for Windows. So I looked around for file browsers and found Beyond Compare by Scooter Software, tested the trial version, bought a license (for work and home) and never looked back. Beyond Compare provides a 2 or 3 pane interface for comparing files by date, size or whatever you like. See the screenshot below:

With this program, I can compare files at a glance between directories. I can sort them by date, size or name. When I want to merge folders, I don't have to worry about overwriting files - Beyond Compare will not overwrite a file that is newer than the source file. In other words, when syncing two directories, it will check each file pair and if the destination file is newer than the source file, the file will not be copied. If the source file is newer than the destination file of the same name, the file is copied to overwrite the older file. If the file does not exist at the destination, the file is copied.

I've used this program to eliminate more than 60 GB of duplicate files in a previous job. This would have been a tedious expedition to perform by hand, easily lasting days to complete. I say expedition because there is no real safety net when copying or merging in Windows Explorer. Beyond Compare made very light and interesting work of sorting through all of those files.

I see that Directory Opus is still out there. But they only make a version for Windows. Beyond Compare runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. If desired, you can get a multiplatform license that allows you to run the program on all three. It's a per seat license so as long as you're using it on one computer at a time, you're in the clear.

Now I use it at work to manage files I collect in the course of my job. I have to store them on my computer at work and then back them up to a network folder. Beyond Compare makes it easy for me to compare the local and network folder, sync them up and delete what I don't need to keep so that my local drive doesn't fill up. When I start work for the day, I start Beyond Compare and let it scan all the folders while I start up everything else. Then at the end of the day, I sync up again and delete what I don't need on my local drive.

Note that Beyond Compare can be scripted to perform a sync via Windows Task Scheduler, too. I have used this function and found it to be very useful. This feature allows you to take any comparison session and run it as a script. Beyond Compare scripting is simple and intuitive. If you find that you need to automate folder syncs, this is the tool to use.

Beyond Compare doesn't just compare folders, it can also be used to compare text files. I used to manage configuration files for a document distribution system in another job. These files were large and can be confusing to navigate. Sometimes, I made an error and that caused the distribution system to fail. Then I would have to put the old configuration file back where it was until I could figure out what went wrong.

Beyond Compare makes it easy to do a line by line comparison of two files so that I can find the changes and check for errors. When comparing files, it highlights the changes in red and also provides an overview of the entire file so you can easily zero in on what changed without having to visually scan each line. With Beyond Compare, I was able to find a single missing semicolon in a file hundreds of lines long by comparing the new file to the old file. That would have been very difficult to do by eye to meet the deadline I was facing.

Now normally, I would not be singing the praises of proprietary software like Beyond Compare. But I have looked long and hard over the years for a better product or program for Windows or Linux and found them wanting. Yes, there are open source solutions, but none of them are Beyond Compare.

If you are faced with the task of consolidating files in your organization, Beyond Compare can do the job and make short work of it. If you are a programmer, you will find that the text comparison functions of Beyond Compare can reduce eye strain when you're looking for changes in your files or searching for that one error that makes you lose sleep at night. For myself, I have peace of mind knowing that I will never overwrite a newer file when I merge folders, thanks to Beyond Compare.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Local Authority: what a novel concept at the FCC

The Chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, is recommending approval of two petitions to allow Chattanooga and Wilson to expand their network services beyond their original service area. Both of these cities offer municipal broadband services that are wildly popular among their customers and constituents. Each service wants to expand but cannot. Why?

Because incumbent carriers like Time-Warner and Verizon, became upset to learn that government can offer a superior service at a lower cost than "private enterprise" can. So they lobbied for laws that would prevent this scourge from getting out of hand and they won. For a limited time.

The petitions have a simple request: use the FCC's power to remove state laws that prevent communities from building their own networks as barriers to better service. I'm sure lawsuits will fly and Congress, at the urging of their masters (respondeat superior, right?), will try and find some way to defund this effort. But if the petitions are approved, the cat will be out of the bag and few in the corner of the incumbent carriers will have any power to stop it immediately.

Unfortunately, the FCC has much less enthusiasm about such barriers in other states, characterizing many of the laws in 21 states that have erected such laws as "reasonable". Nevertheless, if those petitions are approved, it will make headlines and will call attention to the problem.

Perhaps then, our incumbent carriers will realize that they are here to serve the people. Not the other way around.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Ayn Rand and a fight over a sandwich

I used to be a fan of Ayn Rand. I read Atlas Shrugged. I think I read something else from Rand, too. I was a big fan of the Orange Country Register (eschewing the LA Times), and sent letters to the editor there that eventually got published. I joined the libertarian party. I hung out with libertarian friends. But I never really understood what I was doing to myself or my friends and family as I ventured deeper into isolation and obscurity.

I can remember how my dad used to talk up his fantasy about two men in a pit fighting over a sandwich. He wasn't explicit about it, but I could see the implication that in his scenario, the men would fight to the death over a sandwich. He believed that life is about competition, nothing more. The strongest shall survive. The weak will die early and young, or they will get what is left over. He never once suggested that the men might share the sandwich and climb out together.

I grew into a man believing that there was nothing more. I was born blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. I believed that everyone had it better than me because of that. So I did not believe in a God, for how could any god let that happen to someone? I looked at all the violence in the world and thought the same thing.

As I grew older, I got a taste of spirituality, not from a religion, but from a way of life. I read the Age of Reason by Tom Paine. I enjoyed reading how he found God everywhere, but in a book called the Bible. He asked the question, why would God put his word in a book written by men who are prone to error when he could put his word all around us, in the universe?

I read The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, where I learned that faith is distinct from belief. Belief holds something to be true despite any new information. Faith reserves judgment in anticipation that new information is always around the corner. Belief clings where faith lets go.

So I feel a certain sense of enlightenment when I read this story about Ayn Rand in The Raw Story. The gist? Ayn Rand, the mother of libertarianism, idolized William Hickman, a brutal serial killer who rose to fame in 1927 for his murder of Marion Parker. Rand idolized him not for his murder, but for his complete inability to "feel another person". Rand's "Superman" was a man completely incapable of empathy. If that is the foundation of libertarianism, I can safely say that I'm not a libertarian.

For someone who claims to be an objectivist such as Rand, I find it rather interesting that throughout her life she completely missed the growing mountain of scientific evidence to show that humans are social creatures by design. She seems unable to comprehend that our ability to cooperate is the foundation for our ability to survive. It is why we're here, families must cooperate to live, just as nations do. Note also, that Rand collected social security in her old age.

Rand admired Hickman for being a "man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.” Yet, every day, Rand experienced life among human beings. She received services from others. She received attention and favors from others. People gave her things freely, and she accepted whatever she received, even though she detested altruism. She is right, though, there is no such thing as pure altruism, because people always benefit from doing the right thing. But that is no reason to toss altruism.

I think it's important to note that more than a few politicians follow Ayn Rand. Paul Ryan is a great example. I find it ironic then, that Ryan claimed once that Rand was the reason he got into public service. In fact, I just don't think it's possible to reconcile the objectivist philosophy and a life in politics, for to do so, you must reject compassion. I guess Ryan realized that, too, for he admitted in 2012 that he rejected Rand's philosophy just in time for the midterms, but that didn't help him anyway.

This is where those Tea Party conservatives are coming from in Congress. They seem to honestly believe that competition comes before cooperation. Hey, it's great to already be in Congress having been blessed by so much cooperation to get elected and then claim that everyone else is out of luck, that from now on, it's dog eat dog.

If  you're a progressive, this is what you need to know to fight the opponent, or to even find some common ground. Shining a light on the twisted reasoning of an extreme philosophy will help to bring some members of Congress back to the center, perhaps even a little left of center. For who wants to be seen as a libertarian without empathy or compassion for others?

Monday, February 02, 2015

How to clear a lien for a first time home buyer grant

I once had a nice little house in West Valley City but the neighborhood was in decline, so my wife and I decided to move. I bought that house with help from the city in the form of a first time home buyer grant of $5,000. The deal is this: if you get the grant, you promise to live in the house for 5 years. After 5 years, the lien is lifted and we're both OK.

About 4 months after that 5 years were up, we decided to move to another part of the same city. We had everything lined up for financing, but every time the title company looked at our house, they saw the lien. It showed up as a second mortgage for $5,000. Without the lien, we have the down payment, with the lien, we needed more money. So, while I'm working on closing the deal for both houses, I had to wait until the city released the lien. Or so it would seem.

I looked through the contract and found that a clause in the contract prohibited refinancing. I needed that $5k to clear the down payment and I began to worry that I should have reviewed the contract again before refinancing the loan on the house. In talking with the city by phone, I learned that refinancing wasn't any concern for the city, they were more concerned with me living in the city and staying in the same house for the term of the agreement.

So if you did take a first time home buyer grant, be sure to check the terms of the contract just in case refinancing violates the agreement. You might actually be able to get a waiver like I did with the city, I happened to get a verbal waiver. You may want your waiver in writing.

I thought for sure that I would have to wait another month or however long it took to get the lien released. But it turned out that with good communication skills, and knowing how to describe the problem, I was able to close the deals and get moved.

First, I worked with the city to get them to verify that I had met the terms of the grant. I affirmed to them in writing that I had been in the house for 5 years and that I had satisfied the terms of the grant. I called them and talked to them by phone to see if I could get a letter from the city affirming that they would eventually release the lien and that it would just be a matter of time while they worked through that with their legal department. I talked to the title company to see if that would be acceptable and they agreed. So I proceeded to work with the city on this point.

In a few days I got the letter. Then I sent that to the title company clearing the title for the house I wanted to sell and the house I wanted to buy. Within a few more days, I got a settlement statement showing the balance that I needed from the sale of my house to put a down payment on the purchase of my new home.

The bottom line is this: no matter what city you're living in, if you have taken a grant for first time homebuying assistance, and you've satisfied the terms of the grant agreement, you should make sure that the lien on the house is lifted as soon as possible after the terms of the agreement are met. This way, when you're ready to move, that work is done, making the sale of the home easier.