Sunday, May 17, 2015

Kondratiev Goes Surfing

"Excursions from the comfort of the normal to the uncertainty of the new typically happen brutally and violently."

  We read recently in a Southern California newspaper that climate change may wreck the shape and direction of waves that make for some of the world's best surfing beaches. We wondered if it might have a similar effect on Kondratiev cycles.

Our species now has to focus on three overarching tasks:
  • switching away from fossil energy and onto renewables;
  • degrowing industrial dependencies and shedding our profligate ways in a very resource-constrained new environment; and
  • mending the damage we've done by undertaking massive works of ecological restoration – returning us to a garden planet and restoring Gaia to her full health.

Among collapsologists, the surfing analogy works at several levels. Instead of passively observing tsunami-size Kondratiev and Elliott waves pound civilization to rubble, we can get out and ride those waves. We are not destroying anything to have our fun. Its renewable energy. We are degrowing our footprint, which is growing hope in inverse proportion. Surfing hits our dopamine receptors. With newfound friends, in ecovillages and organic farming collectives, this big wave surfing can be a lot of fun.

"Surfing is a very experiential or 'now' activity," a surfer recently told the San Jose Mercury News.  "When waves die in one spot and pick up in another, you move to that spot." This is the phenomenon Kevin Kelly described as "scenius," observing that throughout history certain geographical areas attract creative human energies, often passing into and out of their heyday with unexpected suddenness. As Benoit Mandelbrot says, "Wave prediction is a very uncertain business."

Most demographic moves of populations around the planet are reactive. Typically people are fleeing political, social and environmental crises, not rushing somewhere to find a nexus of like-minded individuals. Witness the nomadic invasion of Europe. Many of these waves of refugees reflect, in the mirror, a desperate and very brutal grab of Western countries for control of dwindling oil. Tent cities of refugees extend from Jordan across to North Africa. As they seep into the old stone cities of Europe, they raise their tents under bridges or bargain with farmers to camp in exchange for work. Soon enough, climate refugees will follow. They will be looking for places to escape the heat.

Excursions from the comfort of the normal to the uncertainty of the new typically happen brutally and violently. A rare event  invasion, terror bombing, freak storm – forces a lurch for equilibrium.

In these movements there is an asymmetrical agency issue, which is the problem that those who make decisions bringing about such horrendous consequences suffer disproportionately less because they have insulated themselves from the downside. Think of how well endowed a Senator's health care plan is in comparison to the average citizen's. There is also the issue of asymmetrical informational opacity, in which not only the decisions themselves and how they are made, but the qualitative value of the information predicating them is kept secret from outside scrutiny.

Take for example the book tour of discredited New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Miller, we may recall, was Dick Cheney's handmaiden for stovepiped and fabricated intel on Iraqi WMD,  and her planted NYT stories went on to be cited by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Dubya as proof that the rape of Iraq was justified to prevent more 9-11s "in the shape of a mushroom cloud." Interviewers with the attention span of an Alzheimer's patient now toss softballs at Miller, letting her rewrite history to her advantage, in much the same way Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Dubya are given a pass on the Middle East and thus Jeb Bush is taken seriously as a presidential candidate for 2016. This is asymmetrical informational opacity.

For those causing the problems there are no consequences. There is only a large upside for them and the greater downside is confined to distant and powerless victims. The same can be applied to the average US citizen, who bears ultimate responsibility for silently assenting to the outrage in unleashing high-tech weaponry on pastoral societies like Vietnam, Grenada, Afghanistan or Yemen for the sake of cheap fuel for their Hummers and retirement communities with golf courses. Many USAnians, goaded by asymmetrical and captive information diets, are more than willing to wreak havoc on a third of the world, mindless of consequences.

Of course there are no consequence-free zones, ultimately. Refugees are only the first wave of consequence for Fortress America. Asymmetrical warfare, as the pentagon has so aptly called it, invariably returns from the powerless to be directed at the would-be insulated. Wield asymmetric technologies at your peril.

In the near term, when large, national or transnational companies abuse, everybody except the culprit ends up paying the cost. Between 2000 and 2010, the US stock market lost two trillion dollars for investors but made scores of new billionaires among the top fund managers. Or take nuclear energy (please!), whereby the bulk of the costs – cancers, expensive cleanups, diverted weaponry  are foisted off on future generations while the current generation of electric ratepayers enjoys all the benefits of "cheap" electricity.

But this asymmetry is a function of scale. Opacity is seldom possible at local scale, and feedback is quick. In a less isolated system, such as a city mayor's office, abuse by authority is more likely to be kept in check by the proximity of the victims and the likelihood their voices will be heard when the next election rolls around. A small retailer who sells a product that harms one of his customers is likely to destroy his business. Retribution is quick.

Degrowing industrial dependencies and shedding profligate ways in our resource-constrained new world returns the scale of practical work from global to local and cuts straight through opacity and insularity.

Surfing is not a team sport requiring large stadiums. It is performed by semi-autonomous actors observing the patterns of nature and blending with them. Done well, it accomplishes nothing, and a great deal. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Inside the Musk Cocoon: Teslarian Tomorrows

"You can either sell or you can drill, but you can't do both."


Timing Matters.

If you are a prudent designer of your own future, you are already taking steps to get out of the way of the ear-shattering whoosh when the greatest economic bubble in history bursts the limits of “extend and pretend.”

Nonetheless, how and when you prepare for that historic shift matters. If, like Ted Kaczynski, you hole up in a cabin in the Montana mountains and stop telling people where to find you, you are a very committed prepper. You may miss some of the circus extravaganzas that always attend peaks in civilization (like the Classic Maya theater state).

If, as time passes without any collapse and you become worried about your stranded investment in the downslide, perhaps, like Kaczynski, you will be tempted to bend your talents towards speeding its demise.

You wouldn't want to run up all your credit cards – and those you can quickly acquire – to their limit in anticipation of the crash of the banking system only to discover that it didn't happen that fast, and moreover, your country has recently reinstituted debtors' prisons.

Who would have predicted that global Ponzi civilization had enough staying power not only to survive the hurricane-force gust of the subprime-home-mortgage financial deflation in 2008 but to stretch that same derivatives balloon to many times its impossible size in the ensuing 6 years? What is this thing made of?

As Richard Heinberg points out in his latest book, Afterburn, the current fracking bonanza and its effect on gas prices was predicted in the late 1990s by Peak Oil gurus Campbell and Laherrere. Does the tapping of the Bakkan Shale mean "Saudi America" oil wealth for the next century, climate be damned? Hardly.

Uncorking shale gas drill technology – something that has been known about for half a century  merely demonstrates two key premises: (1) energy addicted industrial nations will seek ways to replace rapidly depleting reserves of fossil energy at any price and (2) replacements will no longer be low hanging fruit unless we are speaking of palm berry ethanol. Mostly, they will be deep ocean, Arctic, fracked shale, and other exotic substitutes at much lower energy density and return on investment and much quicker depletion rates. These substitutes will temporarily depress the price so much it may even fall below production cost, bankrupting producers and curtailing further exploration. "There is no Goldilocks zone," Heinberg says, meaning there is no price point at which it is possible to drill and also sell. You can either sell or you can drill, but you can't do both.

Enter Silicon Valley, home of exuberant optimism, and its Demigod Wunderkind, Elon Musk. For readers living in a Montana cabin and downloading this by ham modem, Musk is the South African lad who dropped out of a PhD track at Stanford (high density capacitors) to start Zip2, a proto-Facebook, in 1995. It sold to Compaq in 1999 for $307 million (hmmm, whatever happened to...). 

Musk, 27, put his profits into another idea that we know today as PayPal. That sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Musk, 30, then put $100 million into SpaceX, whose stated purpose was to colonize Mars with at least a million people over the next century, and then $70 million into Tesla, the electric sports car. Both are now bleeding about $100 million per quarter.

In 2006, he spent $10 million to launch SolarCity, whose goal it was to revolutionize energy production by creating a large, distributed utility that would install solar panel systems on millions of people’s homes. That idea is succeeding nicely, although SCTY is still bleeding red ink.

Musk is profiled by Tim Urban, who had lunch with him earlier this year.

This guy has a lot on his mind across a lot of topics. In this one lunch alone, we covered electric cars, climate change, artificial intelligence, the Fermi Paradox, consciousness, reusable rockets, colonizing Mars, creating an atmosphere on Mars, voting on Mars, genetic programming, his kids, population decline, physics vs. engineering, Edison vs. Tesla, solar power, a carbon tax, the definition of a company, warping spacetime and how this isn’t actually something you can do, nanobots in your bloodstream and how this isn’t actually something you can do, Galileo, Shakespeare, the American forefathers, Henry Ford, Isaac Newton, satellites, and ice ages.

I talked to him for a while about genetic reprogramming. He doesn’t buy the efficacy of typical anti-aging technology efforts, because he believes humans have general expiration dates, and no one fix can help that. He explained: “The whole system is collapsing. You don’t see someone who’s 90 years old and it’s like, they can run super fast but their eyesight is bad. The whole system is shutting down. In order to change that in a serious way, you need to reprogram the genetics or replace every cell in the body.” Now with anyone else—literally anyone else—I would shrug and agree, since he made a good point. But this was Elon Musk, and Elon Musk fixes shit for humanity. So what did I do?

Me: Well…but isn’t this important enough to try? Is this something you’d ever turn your attention to?

Elon: The thing is that all the geneticists have agreed not to reprogram human DNA. So you have to fight not a technical battle but a moral battle.

Me: You’re fighting a lot of battles. You could set up your own thing. The geneticists who are interested—you bring them here. You create a laboratory, and you could change everything.

Elon: You know, I call it the Hitler Problem. Hitler was all about creating the Übermensch and genetic purity, and it’s like—how do you avoid the Hitler Problem? I don’t know.

Me: I think there’s a way. You’ve said before about Henry Ford that he always just found a way around any obstacle, and you do the same thing, you always find a way. And I just think that that’s as important and ambitious a mission as your other things, and I think it’s worth fighting for a way, somehow, around moral issues, around other things.

Elon: I mean I do think there’s…in order to fundamentally solve a lot of these issues, we are going to have to reprogram our DNA. That’s the only way to do it.

Me: And deep down, DNA is just a physical material.

Elon: [Nods, then pauses as he looks over my shoulder in a daze] It’s software.


I think I’ve successfully planted the seed. If Musk takes on human genetics 15 years from now and we all end up living to 250 because of it, you all owe me a drink.

Last week Musk, 43, announced that he had inked deals with Panasonic, the Japanese giant tech company, to produce a revolutionary new battery that would dramatically cut the cost of energy storage for renewables. Tesla aims to begin delivering units by this summer from its California car factory and later shift production to a $5 billion Panasonic plant under construction near Reno, Nevada. When the Gigafactory starts production next year, Tesla cells will deliver 12% higher energy density.

Tesla's “power wall” batteries — ranging from a $3,000 7-kWh wall-mounted unit to $25,000 for the 100-kWh unit  represent a significant price drop. Utilities such as Duke and ConEd have installed large battery systems next to wind farms. Nationwide, 62 megawatts of batteries and other energy-storage devices were installed in 2014 at 180 sites, up 40% from the previous year.

In California, state rebates cover 60% of the price of the battery. In the US, batteries that are connected to solar panels are eligible for federal tax credits equal to 30% of the price of the battery.

The battery developed by Musk is not new science. Lithium is the highest energy density element for the anode side of a storage battery. Exxon scientists proposed the idea of using it in batteries in the 1970s, and Sony produced the first commercial Lithium Ion battery in 1991.

What has changed is the quality. The early Sony batteries were lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2). Packaged in polymer battery packs, there were problems with runaway overheating and outgassing which Sony discovered only after one of their cellphones caught fire near its user's ear. Tesla had a similar experience with its Model S roadster in 2013.

In 1996 the anion du jour was lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO). Besides being flame resistant, LFP lacked carcinogenicity because it contained no radioactive cobalt. Unfortunately, it was 60% less energy dense. In 2002 performance was boosted by doping LFP with aluminum, niobium and zirconium. In 2013, the standard went to vanadium alloy, which is what you will find in the Tesla and Chevrolet Volt. LFP batteries today have 4 to 5 times longer cycle lifetimes, 8 to 10 times higher discharge power and 30 to 50% less weight than predecessors. Li batteries are enjoying their own Moore's Law.

Musk has been pushing incremental improvements along multiple lines:

Similar to lithium oxides, LiMPO4 may be synthesized by the following methods: 1. solid-phase synthesis, 2. emulsion drying, 3. sol-gel process 4. solution coprecipitation, 5. vapor phase deposition, 6. electrochemical synthesis, 7. electron beam irradiation, 8. microwave process 9. hydrothermal synthesis, 10. ultrasonic pyrolysis, 11. spray pyrolysis, etc. Different processes have different results. For example, in the emulsion drying process, the emulsifier is first mixed with kerosene. Next, the solutions of lithium salts and iron salts are added to this mixture. This process produces carbon particles of nano sizes. Hydrothermal synthesis produces LiMPO4 with good crystallinity. Conductive carbon is obtained by adding polyethylene glycol to the solution followed by thermal processing. Vapor phase deposition produces a thin film LiMPO4. Another type of synthesization is flame spray pyrolysis in which the FePO4 is mixed with Lithium carbonate and glucose and charged with electrolytes. The mixture is then injected inside a flame and goes through a process of filtering to collect the synthesized LiFePO4 at the end.

He describes the evolution in a July 2014 Tesla Conference Call formerly found on YouTube (at 25:23 to 27:37):

25:23 Journalist: On the Gigafactory, is the chemistry going to be the same battery chemistry that you're currently using or is that part of the discussions that are going on with Panasonic?
25:34 Elon Musk: There are improvements to the chemistry, as well as improvements to the geometry of the cell. So we would expect to see an energy density improvement and of course a significant cost improvement. JB, do you want to add anything? 

25:53 JB Straubel: Yeah, that's right. The cathode and anode materials themselves are next generation. We're seeing improvements in the maybe 10% to 15% range on the chemistry itself.
26:09 Elon Musk:Yeah, in terms of energy density.
26:09 JB Straubel: Energy density. And then we're also customizing the cell shape and size to further improve the cost efficiency of the cell and our packaging efficiency.
26:22 Elon Musk: Right. We've done a lot of modeling trying to figure out what's the optimal cell size. And it's really not much. It's not a lot different from where we are right now but we're sort of in the roughly 10% more diameter, maybe 10% more height. But then the cubic function effectively ends up being just from a geometry standpoint probably a third more energy for the cell or maybe 30%. And then the actual energy density per unit mass increases.
27:09 JB Straubel: Yeah. Fundamentally the chemistry of what's inside is what really defines the cost position. It's often debated what shape and size, but at this point we're developing basically what we feel is the optimum shape and size for the best cost efficiency for an automotive cell.
27:25 Elon Musk:Yeah.
27:28 Journalist: The chemical formula will be the same, it's just shaped differently or…? 

27:32 Elon Musk: No.

27:32 JB Straubel:No.
27:35 Journalist: Is it a different formula?

27:37 Elon Musk: Yeah.

The first thing those of us outside the fog of Silicon Valley ask when we hear about things like a technology breakthrough is, is it safe for the planet, does it deplete non-renewables, and can it scale? Silicon can scale, because it is just sand. The ocean makes more every day. Neodymium, the rare earth at the center of lasers, wind generators and electric car motors, is, despite its periodic table location, not rare. In China it's a fertilizer.

Lithium, on the other hand, is more constrained. About 70 percent of the world’s lithium comes from brine (salt lakes); the remainder is derived from hard rock. The low hanging fruit has already been picked. Research institutes are now developing technology to draw lithium from seawater, with exactly the same as the desperation seen in the hunt for for new uranium.

It takes 750 tons of brine, the base of lithium, and 24 months of preparation to get one ton of pure lithium to alloy. Lithium can also be recycled an unlimited number of times, but it takes 20 tons of spent Li-ion batteries to recover one ton of commercial-grade lithium.

In 2009, total demand for lithium reached almost 92,000 metric tons, of which batteries consumed 26 percent. Musk's announcement, coupled with Telsa's policy of open patents, could push demand up considerably. Should you be looking into lithium futures? At the time of this writing, there are no other materials that can replace lithium with comparable energy density, nor are there battery systems in development that offer the same or better performance as lithium-ion.

The failure to find a Goldilocks zone may eventually come to lithium the same way it came to fracking.

Moreover, graphite, the anode material, could also be in short supply. A large EV battery uses about 25kg (55lb) of anode material. The process to make anode-grade graphite with 99.99 percent purity is expensive and produces much waste. Recycling is difficult and expensive. As we have written here before, biochar substitutes for graphite have been proven effective, at far lower cost, but they lack comparable energy density.  If space is at a premium, as it is in a Tesla Roadster, a biochar anode is not an option. In a home system, it might be.

Musk has hedged his bets. Space X has plans to mine asteroids, and depending on how the surveys of the red planet go (and Peak Debt) we could see Space X lithium mines out there. The million Martian residents need gainful employment, after all, and what better thing to be doing than to power the Tesla Roadsters of Silicon Valley billionaires?

But then, timing is everything. Whether you invest in Panasonic, Solar City and Tesla or a cabin in Montana might be a good indication of how long you think Musk's fantasy has to run its course. In the meantime, everyone stands to gain by cheaper, more powerful batteries.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Language and Fire

"As homo entered into settlements and tribal societies around 200,000 years ago, our brain growth stopped. Since the last ice age, the average size of the human brain compared to our body has shrunk by 3 or 4 percent"

Language and fire. Darwin considered these the two most significant human distinctions.

As winter passes into spring, we are making biochar from bamboo again. Amended with locally adapted beneficial microbes, it will be our principal soil amendment for the summer and fall gardens. We thin the groves before the annual shoots emerge, taking out the old and dead culms and making more room for new growth. We trim the culms and cut them to one meter lengths. The trimmings are used to build chinampas in our wetlands (from the Nahuatl word meaning "squares of cane") and later we heap dredgings and manures on those islands to help form new soil and produce food islands in the cool aquatic microclimate. The remaining canes feed our kiln.

We build the fire in a wok-shaped earthen pit until it spins a torroidal flame front. By continuously adding bamboo we keep the flame high over the pile, watching secondary ignitions of the gases. We allow no oxygen to penetrate down to the lower zones of the pile where we are making charcoal. The 40-degree slope on the sides of the pit provides the precise fluid dynamic. As the cellulose gives up its volatile elements, they escape as gases, leaving behind a hard, crystalline matrix of carbon: biochar. The biochar will be crushed, mineralized, charged with hungry microbes from our compost piles, and sent to gardens and orchards to perform its thousand-year-long ecological restoration work. We heal our damaged atmosphere, deserts and oceans by giving safe and durable shelter to the microbial soil food web.

Every animal on earth has to budget the energy its draws from food. A human allocates roughly one-fifth of acquired calories to its brain, regardless of whether that brain is doing anything useful or just sleeping. The increase in hominid brain size, beginning around 2 million years ago, had to be paid for with added calories either taken in (with a paleo diet) or diverted from some other function in the body.

One way we found to acquire more calories was with fire. Cooked food, like fermented food, is predigested, or broken into simpler protein chains. For the same amount of calories ingested, a body gets 30 to 80 percent more energy from cooked foods than from raw. As raw foodies know, today that usually shows up as food stored around the belly. But as our ancestors switched to cooked food, with their more vigorous lifestyle, they acquired bigger brains by shrinking their guts. Barrel-shaped apes perambulating on four limbs morphed into narrow-waisted Homo sapiens that ran down game on two. 

Charred bone and primitive stone tools in a cave in South Africa confirm the use of fire for cooking one million years ago. Still, most scientists believe fire was mastered much earlier, around the time of Homo erectus, roughly 1.8 million years ago. 

The evolution of multicellular animals from single celled amoebae depended on cells being able to sense and cooperate with other cells. They did this by generating an electrical potential across membranes, by pumping out ions. We now know this function in both plants and animals is often carried out by symbiots – tiny, semiautonomous parts of our microbiome. Many of the components needed to transmit electrical signals, and to release and detect chemical signals, are found in single-celled organisms known as choanoflagellates. Our partnership with choanoflagellates extends back around 850 million years.

By 360 million years ago, our reptilian ancestors crawled up onto land, eventually birthing our first mammalian ancestors, about 200 million years ago. These creatures already had extra layers of neural tissue on the surface of the brain. Some of these neocortices were quite large. There were flying reptiles that had both large brains and brain-to-mass ratios larger than ours today.

After the dinosaurs went extinct from sudden climate change 65 million years ago, our primate ancestors took to the trees. Good eyesight helped us catch insects and birds, which led to an expansion of the visual part of our neocortex and better hand-eye coordination. Perhaps that was one of things that attracted us to fire, gave us cooked food, and sent more calories up to our crania. Besides increasing in size, our brains developed more input and output points, synaptic nodes modulated by other sympathetic microbes in our microbiome.

All of which equipped us with an extraordinary ability to integrate and process information and perform deliberative reasoning. We began to identify and search for overarching patterns. We took a step away from our animal ancestors and looked beyond the physical objects in front of our eyes. Among other manipulations of our physical world, we mastered fire.

As homo entered into settlements and tribal societies around 200,000 years ago, our brain stopped growing. Since the last ice age, the average size of the human brain compared to our body has shrunk by 3 or 4 percent. Some think our brain's wiring is more efficient now than it was in the past, but that is far from proven.
More likely this shrinkage marks a gradual decline in our mental abilities. David Geary at the University of Missouri-Columbia theorizes that once complex societies developed, the less able could survive on the backs of their smarter peers, whereas in the past, they would have died  or at least failed to procreate. We also know that the more intelligent people are, the fewer children they tend to have. That would gradually augur a decline of about 0.8 IQ points per generation in wealthy societies, which may also be occurring. It certainly would help explain why most US politicians today cannot fathom the philosophical debates of  Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams and Franklin about the limits to state power. These were men who lacked Google but more than made up for it by reading the classics in original Latin, French or Greek. 

Today it takes 10 calories of fossil energy to produce one calorie of food. We are rapidly losing that fossil energy supply and that suggests we can anticipate a significant drop in available food supply unless we radically change how we acquire food.

We could, for instance, harness the wonders of fire to make biochar, rejuvenate soil fertility with our microscopic allies, and build healthy inner ecologies to make ourselves, and our planet, better prepared for the ever-changing future. Whether we shall, with our diminished brain capacity, remains to be seen.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Yellowcake Blues

"Without Russian weapons uranium to downblend, and even with a continuing supply from Uranium One’s holdings in Wyoming, Khazakstan and Canada underwritten by the Clinton Foundation, the United States will be faced with a stark choice."

  In a post for Peak Prosperity on Friday, Chris Martenson observed:

In the past ten years police in the UK have been involved in 23 total police shooting fatalities.  In the US in 2013 alone there were a minimum of 458 'justifiable homicides' by firearms, committed by US police.  I say 'a minimum' because the FBI statistics are woefully incomplete because there is no mandate that police forces report their killings to the FBI so the database is certainly inaccurate on the low side…. Adjusting for population, US police officers are killing citizens at roughly 40 times the rate of UK police.
* * *

[T]he recent cases of police brutality are simply a symptom of a much larger problem. Society in the US is breaking down, civility has been lost, and the country is rapidly becoming uncivilized.

This extends within and across all of the most important institutions. Congress is known to work for corporations first and foremost. Democracy itself is bought and sold by the highest bidders. The Federal Reserve protects big banks from the costs of their misdeeds and enriches the already stupidly rich as a side benefit.

DEA agents are caught in Columbia having sex parties with underage girls and drugs, and the worst punishment handed out is a 10-day suspension without pay.  Nobody is even fired, let alone jailed.  

"Crime, once exposed, has no refuge but in audacity".
~ Tacitus, Annals, Book XI Ch. 26

The FBI has just admitted that they had been consistently (and certainly knowingly) overstating forensic lab analysis in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95% of cases over a period of several decades.  The cases included 32 that resulted in death sentences.  Many people were wrongly convicted, but nobody from the FBI will face any charges and many of the states involved have (so far) decided they won’t be looking into any of the cases to right the wrongs.  The wrongful convictions will stand, an injustice that is incompatible with the concept of being civilized.

The Department of Justice has utterly failed to hold any banks or bankers criminally responsible for any acts despite levying a few billions in fines for crimes that probably netted the banks tens of billions in profits.  For some, crime does pay.

I could go on, but why bother? The pattern is easy enough to see.

The US has lost its way. Fairness, justice, and knowing right from wrong seem to all be lost concepts and the trend has only gotten worse over the past several years.  Without moral bearings, what’s left?

Last week in this space we remarked how Congress has been pursuing the Russian cable news network, RT-America, calling it a propaganda tool because it takes a distinctly different view towards world affairs and US foreign policy than does the US State Department. Three days ago The New York Times ran a front page story that Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Jo Becker and Times reporter Mike McIntire borrowed heavily from former Hoover Center scholar and Government Accountability Institute President Peter Schweizer's new bombshell book, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Made Bill and Hillary Rich. Schweizer is a three-time New York Times bestselling author.

The story exposes how the Clinton Foundation pedaled the influence of former President Bill Clinton and would-be-President Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, to wrest control of more than 20% of the world's uranium fuel supplies for Russian oligarchs in exchange for $250 million or more in donations.

As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation. … Those contributions were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors.

In our view, while this is consistent with the corruption at the top from which every sector of US society takes its queues about moral behavior (viewing torture and wars of aggression as okay in popular television shows and movies, training domestic police as if they were occupying armies, and allowing a tenth of the population to abscond with nearly all the wealth, tax-free, while beggaring college students, medically needy, veterans, single moms and homeless people), the Times buried the lead.

Interred deep in the story we read:

The national security issue at stake in the Uranium One deal was not primarily about nuclear weapons proliferation; the United States and Russia had for years cooperated on that front, with Russia sending enriched fuel from decommissioned warheads to be used in American nuclear power plants in return for raw uranium.  
Instead, it concerned American dependence on foreign uranium sources. While the United States gets one-fifth of its electrical power from nuclear plants, it produces only around 20 percent of the uranium it needs, and most plants have only 18 to 36 months of reserves, according to Marin Katusa, author of The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped From America’s Grasp. 
“The Russians are easily winning the uranium war, and nobody’s talking about it,” said Mr. Katusa, who explores the implications of the Uranium One deal in his book. “It’s not just a domestic issue but a foreign policy issue, too.”

The 440 operating nuclear reactors in the world require the equivalent of about 68000 tons of natural uranium ore every year. Yet, over the past 20 years, no more than 40–50000 tons of new uranium ore have been produced annually and that number is rapidly declining. We are now decades past peak and uranium cannot be fracked (despite attempts to do so, using injected hydrochloric acid, under sacred land in the Black Hills).

So how are we keeping US power plants running? Simple. By beating swords into plowshares.
The USA and Russia together have 6267 on-the-books (March 2015) nuclear warheads. Using a rough estimate that each nuclear warhead contains about 100 kg of fissionable U235 enriched to about 95%, one finds an equivalent of about 10 tons of natural uranium in each warhead, or 62000 tons all together (a 3-year supply for US reactors). Since the New START treaty was inked on April 8, 2010, both sides have been under legal obligation to reduce their operational stockpiles to 1500. As of this writing, Russia has cut theirs down to 2987 and the US stands at 3280. At the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the total was more than 65,000 — some 25,000 in the US and 40,000 in the Former Soviet Union.

Russia has been selling its decommissioned warheads to the US. Recycling weapons-grade uranium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel means downblending enrichment from 95% to 3–4% U235 content, which is proceeding apace at Oak Ridge. This is a huge waste of energy at the margin, making the fuel absurdly expensive, but that cost is picked up by taxpayers, not electric ratepayers, so it goes unnoticed, particularly in nuke industry PR claims about cheap power.

Russia has been decommissioning warheads faster than the United States (in fact, the US has slowed decommissioning its warheads and now reconditions them using fresh tritium illegally produced in TVA power reactors, before sending the reconditioned warheads back into "service."

Every year, the USA has been importing about 10000 tons of natural uranium equivalent nuclear fuel from decommissioned Russian warheads (about 1000 warheads-worth, but that has now slowed). Russia's sales of used weapons uranium, the gift of good relations with Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama's ability to push START through Senate ratification, has been the only thing that allows the US nuclear power program to continue to operate, since, as The Times pointed out, the US produces "only around 20 percent of the uranium it needs" and the global market grows steadily tighter. 

Indeed, if Iran goes forward with its nuclear program, as envisioned by the Kerry deal, one wonders where the fuel for that program will come from. China’s plan to build hundreds of reactors? Fuggettaboudit.

Thirty years ago, the USA produced about 16000 tons of uranium ore annually; today, production has declined to less than 2000 tons (of much lower grade ore), whereas its power plants require about 20000 tons. France, now 80% nuclear and seeing the shortfall looming, is rapidly denuclearizing. The bombastic US, which can't seem to tie its own shoelaces if foreign policy is involved, continues to impose sanctions on Russia, blaming it for the NATO false flag neo-Nazi skinhead chaos of Ukraine and US false flag downing of a Dutch airliner. Should Putin ever decide he has had enough, ending uranium exports would provide a quick coup de
grâce to one-fifth of the United States' electric supply.

That death may come anyway, as the START treaty goals approach. Without Russian weapons uranium to downblend, and even with a continuing supply from Uranium One’s holdings in Wyoming, Khazakstan and Canada underwritten by the Clinton Foundation, the United States will be faced with a stark choice – eliminate its own nuclear weapons triad or close its power reactors. That choice, ironically, may fall to the next President Clinton, should she withstand the firestorm whipped up by the Times and its beltway echo chamber.

Realistically, it is difficult to blame Hillary Clinton since she is merely following the new rules of the game. The Koch Brothers have announced plans to bestow a 1-billion-dollar campaign war chest on the man they will select to be the next Republican presidential candidate. Only the Clintons are capable of raising the kind of cash to turn the race for the next Presidency into a serious contest. The people's choice is between money from two brothers willing to sacrifice the planet to climate change in order to deregulate their coal and oil interests and a handful of Russian oligarchs willing to dig up all the remaining uranium and poison the planet that way. Or USAnians could make the Quixotic dismount of voting for a Bernie Sanders or a Ran Paul.

Without any moral compass to guide her, who can say which way Hillary Clinton may go to save her nuclear donors' investment in atomic power? One thing’s for certain — she will not ask Israel to pony up any of its secret warheads to make fuel. Instead, if we have to hazard a guess, whomever the next President is, the can will be kicked down the road until, one by one, nukes start shutting down and the lights go out on Broadway.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bend a Knee and Live

"Since 1950 the USA has attacked more than 50 countries. It has bombed 30. It has made more than 50 assassination attempts and succeeded in more than 20 regime changes. The behavioral metaprogram: Be afraid. Be very afraid. Be grateful we have brave men and women in uniform to protect us."

The glare of broadcast lights were exactly what Chairman Foghorn Leghorn, R-CA, had most wanted.  With the solemnity of a hanging judge, he leaned forward and read his prepared remarks.

"Boy, I say, boy, you know Russia has deployed an information army inside television. I say an information army. Some doing the Kremlin’s bidding are given explicit guidelines to obscure the truth by spreading conspiracies that Dick Cheney or the CIA is responsible for everything from 9/11 and anthrax to the downing of Malaysia flight MH17 over Ukraine. Others, like that Larry King fella, are simply paid more than we can pay them, for demonizing the West."

He handed the ball off to to his counterpart in the minority party, Tweety J. Bird, D-OA, who stuffed the ball into his mouth and echoed the words of the distinguished Chairman.

Then the first show trial witness, a "Russian Expert" from a right wing think tank, leaned in and set the context:

"This is not merely an ‘information war’, in other words, but a ‘war on information.' If the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate."

The Chairman opined, "Boy, I say, Boy, you are about to exceed the limit of my medications. But you are right. Their rational arguments are about as sharp as a bowling ball. About as sharp as a bag of wet mice, I'd say."

The second witness, from the Heritage Foundation, told the committee:

"Russian propaganda is corrosive to the image of the United States and to our values. Or as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland described it before this committee on March 4th, “the Kremlin's pervasive propaganda campaign, where is [sic] truth is no obstacle.”

"And Russian propaganda is being spread aggressively around the world as we have not seen it since Soviet days. This is not just in Central Asia, and Eastern and Central Europe, but even here in the West. The daily content and commentary from RT and others is often polished and slickly-produced. And it's not like old-fashioned propaganda, aimed solely at making Putin and Russia look good. It's a new kind of propaganda, aimed at sowing doubt about anything having to do with the U.S. and the West, and in a number of countries, unsophisticated audiences are eating it up.

"The unfortunate fact is that the United States government became complacent in the battle for “hearts and minds” in Russia and its neighboring countries after the end of the Cold War. For Instance, the administration’s budget request for 2016 is $751,436 million [$751 billion] for U.S. International Broadcasting. Reportedly, RT has a budget alone of $400 million for its Washington bureau."

The statements lambasting RT [a rebranding of "Russia Today"] from Hillary Clinton and John Kerry are a matter of public record. There were no witnesses called from RT or its viewers and admirers.

We admit to being among those admirers. In that vast desert of content that is television medium, RT offers a fresh perspective. Last week, we loved seeing Richard Heinberg on BoomBust and Steve Keen on the Keiser Report.

For comparison's sake we watched the Friday morning news line up for all the official US propaganda channels, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, and ABC. They all seemed to be saying the same thing, using the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the conviction of the Boston Marathon bomber, the death of a Saddam Hussein confidant, or some other pretext to paint a gloomy picture of Orwellian internal and external threats. The behavioral metaprogram: "Be afraid. Be very afraid. Be grateful we have brave men and women in uniform to protect us. Just do what the authorities tell you and all will be well. Move along, nothing to see here."

No mention is made that one of our glorious, laureled veterans kills him or herself every 22 minutes.

Former reporter Liz Wahl, who resigned RT on camera with a newsy flair, told Congress that she quit because the network was spinning the news to match their political viewpoint.

How odd that is for journalism. See this 748th edition of the Keiser Report for a discussion of Wikileaks revelations of "State sponsorship" of the news from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and other US television consortia.
"In the ensuing media blitz, Wahl gave interviews to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, and ABC’s Barbara Walters, among others. Stories about her resignation appeared in news outlets around the world. The New York Daily News credited her with breaking through “the Iron Curtain.” She wrote a feature for Politico entitled “I Was Putin’s Pawn.”

At that same moment, across the continent former RT reporter Abby Martin was sitting in a radio studio telling podcaster Joe Rogan that she had not been controlled or manipulated and that what had attracted her to work at RT was that they were the only ones sending crews to cover Occupy.

Today they are among the very few US news organizations with camera crews on the ground in Doniesk and Gaza, interviewing protestors last week in front of WalMarts, speaking with homeless people in Jeb Bush's Florida, and decoding the financial meltdown in Greece and what it means for the euro.

RT's Lee Camp, a stand-up Bay Area comedian Abby Martin recruited to replace her (she did not like living in Washington), takes no prisoners when criticizing the US government and its media culture. Like Martin, Camp brings in rising comics and artists to underscore RT's theme ‑ we are nobody's patsy. Friday's show linked the familiar face on the twenty dollar bill to the Trail of Tears.

Another point raised in that RT show, which we watched to help us prepare this essay, was that the reason the United States left the World Court in 1986 was because the Court ruled it to be a state sponsor of terrorism. It is why the US refuses to join the World Criminal Court that prosecutes war crimes.

This is not disinformation. Just in the past few years the US backed the "popular" uprising in Egypt and Ukraine and attempted unpopular coups in Venezuela and Ecuador. It destroyed the governments of Iraq, Syria and Libya and has overwhelmed Jordan with refugees. Its surrogate Saudi Arabia is, as you read this, bombing refugee camps and residential districts in Yemen with US-supplied war planes and AWACs, precipitating a human rights disaster.

Since 1950 the USA has attacked more than 50 countries. It has bombed 30. It has made more than 50 assassination attempts and succeeded in more than 20 regime changes.

The US ranks 46th in freedom of the press, just below Romania ‑ one notch above Haiti and 2 notches above Niger.

That, we suppose, is what makes the USA special. If you agree, bend a knee. Putin is wrong. This country is exceptional.

On April 7th we lost one of the great iconoclastic voices of our time, Stan Freberg. Here, in a short tribute, is a radio clip of Freberg, as Ben Franklin, reluctant to sign Thomas Jefferson's petition to the King: FranklinFreberg.mp3


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Mercury Madness

"Sadly, many people with mercury toxicity consult physicians who fail to identify the real cause of their illness and suffering."

  How does one explain the utter insanity of world governments, especially the United States, England, Australia, Japan, and China? Each in their own way seem irreversibly bent on destroying the habitability of Earth as rapidly as possible, generally out of willingness to accept an insane economic logic that places soul-crushing cubicle jobs, fossil fuel extraction and weapons manufacture not just on a par with, but above, real indicators of wealth -- such as soil fertility, water reserves, climate, biodiversity and health.

Surely there are plenty of advisers that tell world leaders that what has been defined as security is nothing remotely resembling real security and that what they seem determined to pursue will take us all over the cliff's edge and plunge first civilization and then humanity into extinction.

Why the confusion?

In 1983, Jerome Nriagu, a geochemist, wrote a book linking lead poisoning to the decline of the Roman empire. He described a syrup called defrutum or sapa, made and kept in lead pots, that was used to sweeten wine and food. He described drinking and bathing water carried in lead pipes and lead used for makeup and jewelry. He calculated the level of lead that wealthy Romans consumed and linked the findings to levels of the metal found in preserved bones. A 2014 follow-up study concluded that Roman tap water had 100 times the lead of nearby natural sources.

Lead is toxic to many organs and tissues, including the brain, heart, bones and kidneys. Symptoms include confusion, headaches, and irritability. Does this explain the fall of the Roman Empire? Probably not entirely, but brain poisoning may have contributed.

Since Nriagu's book, precautions have been taken to remove lead pipes from old water systems and to ban lead additives from paints and gasoline, but lead is not alone in posing these kinds of threats. We live in a soup of manufactured chemicals, few of which have been studied for their long-term public health consequences, especially in combinations. 

Recently, while in Belize, we happened to watch a film documentary on the life of Weston A.V. Price, an early 20th century dentist known primarily for his theories on the relationship between nutrition, dental health, and physical health. Price concluded nearly a century ago that aspects of a modern Western diet (particularly flour, sugar, and modern processed vegetable fats) lead to nutritional deficiencies that are a cause of many health problems.

Price is best known today for lending his name to the Weston A. Price Foundation, co-founded in 1999 by Sally Fallon and nutritionist Mary G. Enig to disseminate this vein of research and a libertarian agenda of promoting farm sales of raw milk and discouraging soy and corn processed foods. Little is mentioned of Price's campaign to ban the use of mercury in dentistry.

If you were to Google "mercury dental amalgam" as we recently did, among the top results would be a link to an official looking website for the National Council Against Health Fraud
(119 Foster Street, Bldg. R, 2nd Floor, Peabody, MA 01960 and its oft-read "Position Paper on Amalgam Fillings."

"The National Council Against Health Fraud believes that amalgam fillings are safe, that anti-amalgam activities endanger public welfare, and that so-called “mercury-free dentistry” is substandard practice."

To Consumers

• There is no logical reason to worry about the safety of amalgam fillings.
• Anyone told that a urine mercury level produced after taking DMPS represents a toxic state is being misled.
• Avoid health professionals who advise you that amalgam fillings cause disease or should be removed as a “preventive measure.”
• Report any such advice to the practitioner’s state licensing board.

To Dental Organizations
• Issue clear and forceful guidelines indicating that unnecessary amalgam removal is unethical and unprofessional and that the diagnosis of mercury toxicity is outside the proper scope of dentistry.
• Issue a position statement about dubious mercury testing

To Dental Licensing Boards

• Practice standards should be based solely on scientifically gathered objective evidence.
• Classify as unprofessional conduct any advice that amalgam fillings are dangerous and therefore should be avoided or removed.
• Ban the use of hair analysis and chelating agents by dentists.
• Ban any advertising of “mercury-free dentistry” which falsely implies that amalgam fillings are dangerous and should therefore be avoided or removed.

Further investigation reveals NCAHF is an astroturf outfit often at odds with Weston Price, and also fond of attacking the chiropractic profession and anyone associated with herbal, holistic or traditional approaches to healing.

Consumer Advocate Tim Bolen writes:

The NCAHF is operating out of a cardboard box in the back room of Bobbie Baratz's Braintree, MA hair removal salon, and has so little money, that Baratz begged members for cash, offering a picture of me (Tim Bolen) as an incentive for contribution.

Court documents show that Baratz and Barrett had set up this case (against chiropracters) to generate  "expert witness" fees for themselves.  Baratz is the current President of the NCAHF.  Barrett is a failed MD who operates the dubious website out of his basement in Allentown. PA.

Turning to actual science, we see that the subject of mercury poisoning from dental fillings (most commonly referred to as "silver fillings") is a very well-researched area, and the results are unsettling. 

Silver-mercury amalgam has been used as a filling material for 160 years and has enjoyed the reputation of being an inexpensive, long lasting solution to tooth decay, although the average life span of a silver-mercury amalgam filling is only around five years.

Amalgam literally means mixed with mercury and in the dental sense that is true. Powdered metals and metal compounds consisting of silver, copper, tin and zinc are mixed with about an equal weight of liquid mercury. Three different types of chemical reactions take place within this mixture and the resultant silver-mercury amalgam will set at room temperature and, most importantly, within a few minutes.

Up until recently, it was felt that the mercury stayed within the filling. Now it is known that mercury leaches out every minute of the day. Over the first two years after placement, amalgams release about 34 micrograms of mercury per square centimeter of filling exposed, per day.

A study by Richardson, et al, published in Science of The Total Environment revealed:

Dental amalgam is 50% metallic mercury (Hg) by weight and Hg vapour continuously evolves from in-place dental amalgam, causing increased Hg content with increasing amalgam load in urine, faeces, exhaled breath, saliva, blood, and various organs and tissues including the kidney, pituitary gland, liver, and brain. The Hg content also increases with maternal amalgam load in amniotic fluid, placenta, cord blood, meconium, various foetal tissues including liver, kidney and brain, in colostrum and breast milk. Based on 2001 to 2004 population statistics, 181.1 million Americans carry a grand total of 1.46 billion restored teeth. Children as young as 26 months were recorded as having restored teeth. Past dental practice and recently available data indicate that the majority of these restorations are composed of dental amalgam. Employing recent US population-based statistics on body weight and the frequency of dentally restored tooth surfaces, and recent research on the incremental increase in urinary Hg concentration per amalgam-filled tooth surface, estimates of Hg exposure from amalgam fillings were determined for 5 age groups of the US population. Three specific exposure scenarios were considered, each scenario incrementally reducing the number of tooth surfaces assumed to be restored with amalgam. Based on the least conservative of the scenarios evaluated, it was estimated that some 67.2 million Americans would exceed the Hg dose associated with the reference exposure level (REL) of 0.3 μg/m(3) established by the US Environmental Protection Agency; and 122.3 million Americans would exceed the dose associated with the REL of 0.03 μg/m(3) established by the California Environmental Protection Agency. Exposure estimates are consistent with previous estimates presented by Health Canada in 1995, and amount to 0.2 to 0.4 μg/day per amalgam-filled tooth surface, or 0.5 to 1 μg/day/amalgam-filled tooth, depending on age and other factors.

Chewing foods increases the emissions, dramatically. Every time you chew, mercury vapor is released and quickly finds its way into your bloodstream, where it causes oxidative processes in your tissues. Hot liquids, like coffee, increase the release by thousands of percent, but only for 10 or 15 minutes. Abrasion from chewing gum increases the release of mercury by 150 times.

Dr. Joseph Mercola, a fellow at the American College of Nutrition and member of the International Academy Biological Dentistry and Medicine, explains how mercury affects the body:
"Oxidation is one of the main reasons you develop disease, as well as the primary reason you age. Oxidation in your body leads to inflammation, including inflammation of the lining of your blood vessels. When this occurs, your LDL levels increase as your body attempts to "patch" those damaged vessel walls with cholesterol. LDL is a carrier of cholesterol. This is why people with mercury toxicity have damaged blood vessels, and elevated cholesterol and LDL levels.

"However, oxidation and toxicity can lead to much more than just elevated lipid levels. Mercury in your body can result in a variety of serious neurological, immunological, and endocrinological problems. Mercury not only fuels the flames of inflammation, it also hampers your body's ability to detoxify itself, which makes you even sicker. Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and other neurological diseases have been linked to mercury exposure. Research shows that traces of mercury can cause the type of nerve damage you usually see in Alzheimer's disease.

"Science is now telling us that mercury may very well be a significant factor underlying much chronic disease, and one about which the majority of physicians are completely unaware. It doesn't take much mercury to cause significant stresses in your body.

"Sadly, many people with mercury toxicity consult physicians who fail to identify the real cause of their illness and suffering. They are given bottle after bottle of pills, which merely mask some of the symptoms (at best) and create new imbalances within their bodies, without ever addressing the underlying cause of the problem. Not surprisingly, they fail to get better."

Mercury seen from NASA’s Messenger
spacecraft. Several times a year,
the planet appears to move
backward in the sky, though
it’s just an optical illusion:
Mercury in retrograde.
Half of all dentists in North America have broken away from the pack and stopped using amalgam, but the other half still resist, and will even try to dissuade you if you ask to have your fillings removed. They really don't understand that what they're doing is harmful. They don't question whether the training they worked so hard to get is wrong, and harming their patients.

In their 2014 study, published in journal PNAS, the scientists who studied lead residues in Roman water systems found eerie links in historic concentrations that corresponded to major events in Rome’s history, such as the Gothic Wars in 535CE, Byzantine repairs to Roman aqueducts, and the ninth century Arab sack of Rome. They concluded:

"The Pb [lead] isotope record shows that the discontinuities in the pollution of the Tiber by lead are intimately entwined with the major issues affecting Late Antique Rome and its water distribution system."

Are USAnian empire hawks crazier than their Roman counterparts, or is it just their teeth talking?
mercury dental filling
<img src="" alt="mercury dental filling" border="0" style="max-width:100%; min-width:300px; margin: 0 auto 20px auto; 




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