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The Expansionist
Saturday, July 12, 2008
 
Useless Science, Moronic 'Improvements'. My cat Mirabella had four kittens last week. Two have already died, killed by a severe flea infestation. I had gotten the house almost flea-free over the winter, but when the weather turned warmer, I opened the windows and several cats got out thru holes they ripped in the useless vinyl screens that are put in vinyl windows nowadays or thru surprisingly narrow openings in the part of the window not protected by the useless half-screens that are put into the combination windows that have come into vogue in recent years. You can have a screen at either the top or the bottom of the window, but not both. What idiot came up with that idea?
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We used to have metal mesh in screens that covered the entire window. We could open each window top and bottom and still keep insects out and cats in. But some idiot came up with a 'new, improved' window design that incorporated a half-height screen, rendering the once-recommended opening for maximal heat reduction (open top to let warmer air out, open bottom to let cooler air in) hugely inadvisable. And then they replaced steel screening with vinyl mesh that cats can just rip thru with some adamant clawing and pulling. Shouldn't things get better over time? Why are windows worse in design now than 100 years ago? Because of these serious design defects, my cats got out into weeds filled with fleas, and brought them back into the house.
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How do you kill a houseful of fleas? Basically, you don't, except over months of constant vacuuming and mopping up of eggs and larvae, unless it is possible for you to evacuate the entire house, including pets, even fish from aquariums; cover all fabric surfaces, like livingroom and bedroom furniture, and "bomb" the entire residence with multiple cans of aerosol spray that fills the entire space with poison, then leave it to work, for hours. If you have several cats and noplace to take them, or aquariums full of fish, you can't do that. And cleaning up afterward and getting rid of the smell is a formidable task.
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Flea collars, flea powder, and flea shampoo cannot be used on kittens less than 12 weeks old, because in itself it will kill them. So there is absolutely nothing you can do to save tiny kittens from fleas. This is 2008, yet we don't have a kitten-safe flea shampoo. Our useless science and technology are entirely misdirected, away from things that benefit people and animals to, instead, things that destroy people, animals, and everything else. We have spent trillions of dollars on "defense" that should have gone to eradicating fleas, cockroaches, tsetse flies, mosquitos, parasites, and disease organisms that cause vast devastation around the planet, including our own homes in the heartland of the United States.
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If our science, technology, and governments were all working on doing useful things like causing the extinction of harmful species, developing convenient and extremely inexpensive long-term contraception, eradicating disease, and improving agriculture, maybe we wouldn't need so much "defense", because people would feel safe and secure, and not want to kill each other. But no. Trillions for 'defense', all around this planet, scarcely more than a cent to eliminate the causes of war.
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A report on one of the news channels tonite spoke of international assistance to the United Arab Emirates to develop peaceful nuclear power. Why, the reportress asked, would an oil-rich country need nuclear power? That's the question everyone is asking about Iran's nuclear program, and why Iran's activity is so suspicious, after all. But it's OK when Abu Dhabi does it.
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She answered that altho the UAE's oil reserves are expected to last for more than a century more, ultimately they will run out, and the UAE, like everybody else, must be prepared to replace oil and gas in their economy. The UAE assertedly needs to use a lot of its present fuel consumption just to power desalinization plants to distill potable water from the sea. And nuclear power has the added advantage of not contributing "greenhouse gases" to worsen "global warming". Why doesn't Iran argue all that?
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Perhaps because it's a load of crap.
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You don't spend billions now in preparation for an eventuality 100 years from now, when the technology will likely be completely different, and vastly better, in 100 years to solve the problems of that time, which might in fact not be what we think today they will be.
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Today's base reality — which will not likely change in 100 or 150 years — is that the UAE is in a DESERT, bombarded endlessly, for well over 325 days a year, by sunlite. During much of the year, the sun beats down on the UAE with enormous heat as well as lite, so two different types of solar converter can be used with ease, all employing existing technologies that can provide more power than the UAE could ever use. Solar arrays on an infinitesimal portion of the UAE's surface area would power everything, even electric cars. (And speaking of electric cars, if we can power electric lite-rail cars (latter-day trolleys) and subways within cities, why can't we power private electric cars within cities? Picture a thin superstructure akin to a car radio antenna to connect each car with overhead power lines, or something else to draw power from a "third-rail" kind of power source on the ground, with protections for pedestrians and pets built into the design.)
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Heck, solar arrays on rooftops and sun-facing sides of buildings in desert cities could at once reduce the amount of heat that reaches the buildings and power the air-conditioners needed to make life tolerable.
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A Wall Street Journal blog pointed out less than two months ago that Abu Dhabi is doing massive work on thin-film solar power. So why would it need nuclear power? It's absurd, and suspicious. Nuclear power produces deadly toxic wastes that need to be kept buried for generations, if not millennia. Solar power is utterly clean. Nuclear wastes can be used by terrorists for "dirty bombs". Terrorists can't use solar power's wastes, because solar power produces no wastes. There is no conceivable justification for the United Arab Emirates to be developing nuclear power. None. So why is it doing it, and why isn't the international community alarmed?
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Here in the United States, even in areas cold for months at a time, a simple, complete rethinking of the basic premises behind current energy patterns could produce a drastic restructuring.
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The UAE is a country of superfluous wealth. For all practical purposes, money is not a problem. It can afford the enormous expense of nuclear power plants, or of creating vast desert arrays of solar collectors or lining all its rooftops with solar panels. In fact, Abu Dhabi is building a $350 million solar-power plant and an entire new "carbon-neutral" municipality, Masdar City, which is planned to have 50,000 people using no fossil fuel.
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Let us think about what we (the United States), an extremely rich country, could do if money were not an issue. Once you take money out of the equation, all kinds of things become possible. So let us, for this purpose, take money out of the equation and think of energy druthers.
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Moving Energy, Long and Short Distances. This planet, not just Abu Dhabi, is awash in energy, in amounts far greater than human beings could ever use. Most of it comes from 93 million miles away, in the form of sunlite. The problem is that the distribution of that energy is uneven across the face of the planet and across the calendar. Nature/physics moves some of it around from where there's too much to where there's too little, in the form of ocean currents and air currents (more commonly called "winds"). The Gulf Stream is the most famous of ocean currents because without it, much of Northern Europe would be almost uninhabitable for being too cold. London is at the about the same latitude (51°32' N) as Labrador City, Canada (52°57').
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In like fashion, people move energy around too. The most obvious long-distance movement of energy is the transport of oil from oil-producing countries or regions to oil-consuming countries and regions even within oil-producing countries, which regions do not themselves produce oil. There is also long-distance shipping of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), a fuel that many ports are wary of permitting because of its hugely explosive potential. The managers of major ports can easily visualize a latter-day Halifax explosion. (By the way, why are oil refineries still flaring off 'waste' gas? Can't that be captured and used in energy production, if not for distant use, then at least within the refinery, as to fuel a generator to run the lites?)
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We also move electric power over long distances by means of dedicated high-voltage lines and interconnected local power grids that form massive national or even transnational grids. The power that comes out of any given wall outlet may come from hundreds or even, arguably, thousands of miles away.
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With any transport of energy, there is some loss, either of the particular energy in motion, as due to resistance within wires or a drop in voltage over distance, or in the net amount of energy moved given that an oil tanker, for instance, needs to be powered by some energy source simply to move from point A to point B.
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The more local the energy source, the less potential loss. Multiply that energy saving by hundreds of millions of homes, offices, stores, schools, hospitals, and other large consumers of energy, across the Nation and across the First World, if not even the entire world, and it surely amounts to an enormous figure.
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Local Energy Sources. Solar power includes wind, wave, and hydroelectric power.
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The basic reason large volumes of air move is that differential heating in one part of the atmosphere as against another produces different densities (air pressures), and air flows from places of high pressure to other places, of lower pressure. That is solar power.
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Wave power is primarily the result of winds, which means waves are also a form of solar power.
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Hydroelectricity derives from rainfall at a higher ground level that produces runoff that moves, by gravity, to a lower level past turbines. The water gets to that higher altitude by evaporation, by the sun. So hydroelectric power is also solar power. Altho major hydroelectric power plants may be distant from major cities (some of New York City's power comes from the James Bay area of Quebec), minor plants can be very close in. The City of Paterson, in the most crowded part, North Jersey, of the most densely populated State in the Union, New Jersey, employs hydro power at the Great Falls of the Passaic River, without destroying the scenic beauty of the site.

Biofuels are also solar power stored in biomass. Whether it be wood burned in stoves for heating, or waste wood and paper used in electric generating stations; or corn or switchgrass converted into ethanol; or corn and other plant oils used to power diesel engines, all biofuels are solar power. Petroleum, coal, and peat are all biofuels, albeit of ancient provenance. Complaints that the production of biofuels requires a high input of energy are rendered nonsense if the energy to power the conversion is simple, locally produced solar power, in any of its forms. You don't have to burn fossil fuels to create biofuels at all.

The sun is not the only astronomical source of energy. The moon's gravity produces tides, and tides contain energy that can be harnessed for human use. The Earth produces internal heat that, in a few places, comes close enuf to the surface to be used by people for heating as such and for the production of electricity. Indeed, there are many places in the world where geothermal energy is not particularly close to the surface, but temporary drilling can produce a permanent heat source.
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There is so much energy from natural sources that do not require complex chemical processes to break down and reconfigure one thing into another, that it is little less than astonishing that we have to date preferred to derive much of our energy from chemical conversions. Sometimes the conversion is as simple as burning wood in a fireplace or Franklin stove for heat or paraffin in candles for lite. Sometimes it's as complicated as refining crude oil into gasoline and jet fuel. Even worse, extracting oil from some sources (shale, oil sands) is itself complicated and energy-intensive, as is mining coal (which is also, in tunnel mines, extremely dangerous to workers' lives and health).

Given how complicated, energy-intensive, and capital-intensive our present major sources of energy are, why have we not seen that we're doing everything wrong?
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It should not have taken an oil-price spike or concerns about pollution / "greenhouse gases" to get us to look at energy from Square One, but let us indeed take advantage of this opportunity, the first in our lifetime, to reexamine all our assumptions.

Energy policy, like charity, should begin at home. Let's look at our houses and grounds to see how much energy we can derive from them, without going hundreds or thousands of miles afar. The typical house in the temperate zone differs little in essence from the most primitive hut or tent built by our prehistoric ancestors, as regards energy usage. Permanent houses are in fact less flexible than the structures of nomads. In the temperate zone, we have to build houses for the worst weather, be it cold or hot, not the best. In cold weather, we have to close the house up to keep in heat. When warm weather comes around, we can open windows. When outdoor temperatures get higher, we can use fans to move air around to maintain comfort. But when it gets really hot outside, modern people have to close the house up again, against the heat, and turn on air conditioning. Let's think about that, all of it.
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Are our houses built of the right substances? Why are windows and, in lesser measure, doors, the only features of the ordinary house adaptable to changes in weather? Why do we have shingles that do not collect heat in the winter but do collect it in summer? Can't we make our buildings of more useful and energy-dynamic materials?
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Hidden Subsidies, Open Subsidy. All the costs of extracting, refining, and transporting the major forms of energy are tax-deductible business expenses to energy corporations. Government taxes only profits (if those). Why aren't all the costs of buying, installing, and maintaining solar collectors, electric-generation windmills, and other energy-generating technologies for an individual house, school, etc., not equally tax-deductible? Think of it: every sun-facing surface — roof and sides of every house, office building, store, school, barn, etc., lined in solar collectors; every yard or rooftop in windy areas host to wind turbines; and every cent paid by the property-owner, tax deductible. That's "energy independence", right there — independence from the multinational, transnational, universally-disloyal energy companies not least.
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Here are some other surfaces we could use, very, very locally. We could cover roadways in translucent/semi-transparent solar panels that take only some of the energy, perhaps some of the wavelengths, and let others pass, as to use what is now, for energy-producing purposes, waste space, for energy generation, without placing cars in unending visual tunnels. Or we might cover waste space with a grid of strip solar panels alternating with open air to let lite and air thru, in a pattern that would not induce road hypnosis. We could cover with solar panels, solid or strip, like venetian blinds when partway open, sidewalks, tops of parking decks, roofs of all structures, blank areas of sun-facing walls of all structures, plus playgrounds, basketball courts, tennis courts, parking lots (which could reduce if not entirely eliminate the problem of roasting temperatures inside parked cars, as even to save the lives of some kids left by stupid parents in parked cars).
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This is just the barest beginning of the kind of rethinking we need to do about the forms that new approaches to energy might take. We could, of course, create huge wind farms in North Dakota and along the shores of the Great Lakes, or vast solar arrays in the deserts of Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico to power cities hundreds of miles distant. But why bother with all the transmission towers we might have to build if we can just generate much of our power literally in our backyard? And when I say "literally", I never mean "figuratively". So here, I mean literally in our backyard, my personal yard (or front yard, or the roof of my house).
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Perhaps efficient solar collectors or windmills on the typical-sized garage roof could provide electricity enuf to charge an electric car's battery, if not overnite (direct solar power won't work overnite, of course, but wind, secondhand solar, might), then during the day. (I don't have a garage. The prior owners of my property had one many years ago, but it fell into disrepair and was demolished.) Electric cars stored in large parking structures during the workday could be recharged by solar panels on the roof and every sunward surface, horizontal or vertical, of the garage and adjoining roadways.
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Solar and wind power can create, locally, the hydrogen to power cars, buses, and trucks, thru electrolysis. We wouldn't need to send out fleets of hydrogen tanker trucks to hydrogen refueling stations (with all the potential of catastrophic explosions if such trucks become involved in accidents, akin to the risks of LNG, as above). We could turn water into hydrogen and oxygen with the power of solar panels or windmills in our own neighborhood. The hydrogen could be used as fuel, the oxygen, pumped into tanks for hospitals or let loose to enrich the air and oxidize into harmlessness various pollutants, like carbon monoxide. And when that locally produced hydrogen is burned to power a car, the waste product is pure water!
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In temperate climates with lots of cloudy weather, much less of this could be done, which might still mean that much of it could be done, except that solar collectors would have to cover larger local areas. In desert areas, much more energy could be produced from smaller areas, and the surplus could be fed into a local, regional, or national power grid.
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The Long and the Short of It. In short, think short distance. The closer to where we use energy we can produce that energy, the better. And the less conversion we need to do, the more net energy we reap. In many cases, we can use solar collectors on the exterior of our house (or school, factory, office building, whatever), even in cold weather, to heat the interior either directly or by using electricity generated on the surfaces of the building to power heating equipment, or at least lites. In cooler weather, incandescent lites could be used to reduce the heating needed from other energy sources.
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Even owners of small lots in wet areas with long growing seasons might be able to grow some types of fast-growing trees, switchgrass, and other plants to provide enuf wood and other biomass to feed an efficient fireplace for a month, if not the entire winter. The ash could be used as fertilizer for the next year's crop.
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City tree services could use the deadwood they trim from street and park trees to heat government offices or public housing. Composting plants in localities or consolidated county-wide operations might produce enuf waste gas to power a small gas-fired generation station. Maybe it would heat only 10% of city or county office space. Same with solar, wind, wave, and other locally produced energy sources. But you put enuf of these little sources together, and you make a huge difference.
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But that would make sense. So we won't do it, any more than we will find a way to save kittens from lethal flea infestations, or tropical countries from diseases carried by airborne insects or waterborne microbes and parasites, by finding a way to make noxious species go extinct. No, we'll restrict mass extinction to harmless or even beautiful species, and let the fleas, tsetse flies, mosquitos, tapeworms, heartworms, and other killers of people and animals live on and on forever. Or will we?
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(The current U.S. military death toll in Iraq, according to the website "Iraq Coalition Casualties", is 4,118 — for Israel.)



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