Friday, October 21, 2016

We Are All Doomed!

Americans line up, spend time and money, waiting for the football game, the rock concert or the blockbuster movie to begin, glued to their smartphones that they bought at Walmart with a credit card, using Facebook that is supported by advertising to gripe to their friends about how big business and the rich are ruining their lives; and they don’t see any connection.  No, all these rich people, most of whom got us to freely give them our money by providing goods and services and entertainment that we value, should now be forced by the government through taxes to give it back to us in the form of government services.  That’s what we have been manipulated into believing is the definition of fair and just.

Many Americans hear in church on Sunday that “suffering” is being beaten and nailed to a cross to die in the hot sun.  They wake up Monday thinking suffering is having a minor backache, and take the pills promising fast, all-day relief.  They show no sense of proportion.  They go on to ignore the fact that their achy body could stem from being overweight and out of shape, and that exercise might be a better long-term solution.  But being too busy is a good excuse to skip the exercise and healthy eating.  They also don’t see the connection between how they deal with their physical health and their financial problems.

Americans are never at a loss for things to protest or be offended by.  If you try to tell them to get a grip or man up (which is, in itself, offensive) you are accused of being an intolerant hater.  But toleration in the extreme is the same as enabling, and objecting to something out of a sincere desire to lead someone away from destructive behavior is not hateful.  When a pharmacy chain refuses to sell cigarettes, no one accuses them of hating smokers.  Having some things you don’t approve of and don’t condone used to be called having standards, now it's called lacking compassion.

And when nothing seems to be going right we turn to the government to fix it.  But as of this writing the presidential election is winding down to a race between what the majority of Americans agree are the poorest candidates in recent memory.  They are overwhelmingly seen as untrustworthy, while offering no positions and no vision. They are too busy accusing and insulting each other, mixing politics with comedy on late-night TV where hosts amuse us by messing up Trump’s hair or taking Clinton’s pulse.  Leaders are supposed to be people we can look up to and admire, people with virtue, who are more interested in the good of the country than their egos and job security.  When the Note 7 smartphone had battery problems, Samsung president admitted that it did not meet “the standard of excellence that you expect and deserve.”  Should we demand a similar apology from the Republican and Democrat National Committees?

No.  We have gotten exactly the kind of candidates we deserve!  They are appealing to the very sense of victimhood we seem to thrive on.  They will fight for us – assuming we can’t or won’t take care of ourselves, assuming that the odds are so stacked against us that only they can bail us out.

When I began writing these short essays almost five and a half years ago, my intention was to gather examples of how our behavior leads to the very consequences the media continues to brand as crises and epidemics.  Now, more than 560 posts later, I am far from running out of examples.  I don’t spend a lot of time searching for weird or exceptional examples.  These are from mainstream news sources and usually national advertising.  Common behaviors are taking America in the wrong direction and the trend continues.  For the past 20 years we see the same mistakes, the same advertising lures and come-ons, the same political appeals, the same handwringing in Washington and on the news.

I feel like the prophet Jeremiah, who was thrown into a well for telling people what they didn’t want to hear.  Unfortunately the truth is that behavior has consequences.  Behavior is not improving.  People are not learning from their mistakes and changing behavior, instead blaming predictable consequences on circumstances, government, political opponents, structural disadvantages, time crunch and distractions, bosses and teachers and authorities in general, big business and Wall Street.

When touring this country in the Nineteenth Century, Tocqueville was amazed by the success of the American experiment.  He later wrote, “Liberty cannot be established without morality.”  He often expressed morality as mores or habits of the heart, in other words right behavior.  As our values and behavior deteriorate, our liberty slips away, the experiment fails and we are all doomed.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Green Energy

When I saw the CBS story:  “Most Americans are willing to pay a little more each month to fight global warming - but only a tiny bit, according to a new poll,” I thought it was time to do some investigation.  The story went on to say that if the electric bill went up by $1 a month, 57 percent of Americans would support it.  A $10 a month increase got only 39 percent support.  “At $20 a month, the public is more than 2-to-1 against it. And only 1-in-5 would support $50 a month.” Last time I looked the cost of wind and solar was very much higher than fossil fuel generated electricity – two to three times, in some cases.  On a nationwide average bill of about $110, we are talking about much more than $12 a year, closer to $50 a month or more.

But my research surprised me.  I found that over the past few years the cost of electricity renewable sources has become more competitive and continues to drop.  (See the chart showing the wholesale costs per kilowatt-hour and not necessarily the price on your bill.  The next column shows projected “leveraged cost,” different units but comparable within the same column across options.)  More government restrictions on coal and subsidies for wind and solar farms, bring the relative cost of renewables down, but do it in part by bringing fossil-fuel costs up, which will affect bills by more than a dollar a month.  How much more is still unknown.

Power Plant Type
9.5 - 15
Natural Gas
7 - 14
7 -20
Solar PV
Solar Thermal

In any case in August President Obama said:  “We'll take steps to meet the goal we set with Canada and Mexico to achieve 50 percent clean power across North America by 2025.”  This brings up another interesting point, variability.  Wind and solar are not available at all times, calm nights for example.  They are not always consistent and you can’t easily turn them on and off, or store electricity produced today until tomorrow.

There was an Economist article about three years ago addressing this problem in Germany, a leader in renewable energy.  The wholesale price of electricity actually goes negative on bright and windy days because of the unusually high supply, which threatens to overload the grid due to their inability to quickly and efficiently adjust their coal, gas and nuclear plants.  In places where utilities are required to buy solar- and wind-generated electricity first and where those systems provide a high percentage of the generating capacity (40%+), utilities can lose profits, money for future investment in delivery systems.  That may seem like a minor problem until the next hurricane or snow storm when we lose power longer due to that lack of investment in lines, and fewer crews available to make repairs.

This chart shows the degree of that variability for wind turbines in Germany in 2013.  Solar variability is similar, and the peaks may occur at the same or different times.  Their total need is around 52,000 MW, which is twice as high as the highest wind peaks.  All this demand must be consistently met by filling the gaps with power from the back-up sources like coal and gas that can be controlled by the people running power plants, not by the whims of nature.

As mentioned earlier, one way to solve this problem would be to store renewable energy for later use.  This could be done with traditional battery systems or some other mechanism, like a huge very low-friction disk powered by a motor to store it as kinetic energy until needed.  Nothing is yet available at the scale needed.

This was an interesting investigation.  Despite favorable cost movements, much more work needs to be done to implement a practical large-scale conversion to renewable energy.  To fall in love with a 50% number, when we already know 40% causes such problems in parts of Germany, while at the same time making it more difficult for the more reliable, traditional sources to operate, is a bit na├»ve at best and possibly dangerous.*

*The dangers of tinkering with an electrical system that we are so dependent on in our modern world move beyond the inconvenience of the lights going off.  We depend on electricity for heating, food preservation and the smooth operation of hospitals, emergency rooms and other emergency services.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Goat Milk for Baby

I saw the news on TV that a popular infant formula was being recalled.  Several websites followed up:  “Sammy's Milk baby food has been recalled due to the possibility that bacteria may be present in the formula. Graceleigh, Inc. recalled the baby food over the bacteria Cronobacter. The bacteria can cause severe and sometimes fatal blood infections or meningitis in infants.”

Normally I would not take notice, but they showed a picture of the container and I was struck by all the “magic” words on the label. My impression was that they were trying to lure well-intentioned mothers into buying this brand as a noble and loving act, demanding only the best for their baby, while probably overspending for minimal benefits.  Some research was in order.

The first trigger word on the label was non-GMO:  What does that mean?  A retired farmer and third-year graduate student in molecular and cellular biology at Dartmouth College has a lot to say about it in this Forbes article.  “Today, U.S. dairy farms need only 8.5 million cows to produce more than twice as much milk as dairy farms did in 1940 with 26 million cows. Crops developed through genetic engineering have played a role in that progress. Contrary to the claims of those whose ideology opposes scientific progress, the consumption of plants developed by genetic engineering have no negative effect on milk quality or safety.”  He later concludes, “the claim that ‘GMOs are in your milk’ is false – there are no plant genes of any kind in any milk, just some fragments of DNA.”

Next is the guarantee of it being gluten-free.  Is there usually gluten in milk?  “Other than the gluten-containing grains, all other unprocessed, whole foods are gluten-free. According to, milk is one of these gluten-free, whole foods. Non-fat, low-fat, whole milk and cream are gluten-free, as long as they're unflavored, plain, white milk.”

So far they don’t really have to do anything special to make the first two claims.

Next on the top banner is a comment about Omega Ratio, but a healthy omega ratio is still a matter of debate.  I doubt one in a hundred new mothers even knows what it is, but it sure sounds healthy and reassuring!

Below the brand it says “pediatrician recommended,” but it doesn’t say how many and endorsements are not evidence.  I do remember this fact from my entry here back in July:  “According to this article in The Pediatric Journal, “there are no data supporting the presumed health benefits” of a gluten-free diet.  “Gluten-free packaged foods frequently contain a greater density of fat and sugar than their gluten-containing counterparts, which can lead to problems for children such as obesity and new-onset insulin resistance.”

“Furthermore, a gluten-free diet for children can delay a real diagnosis of celiac disease, which has been linked to anemia, osteoporosis, diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease and intestinal cancers.”  But since milk doesn’t ordinarily contain gluten, it’s a moot point – except that, again, mothers should be wary of, rather than drawn to such a label.

Below that it says “DHA & prebiotic blend for brain, eye and immune system development."  It’s hard to find information on this that is not advertising, but one reference describes a study showing DHA supporting immune systems in healthy children, not necessarily development.  WebMD tells us that DHA, an Omega-3 fatty acid is “thought to be important to the development of infants, particularly as regards their eyes and brain. DHA may improve vision and some cognitive functions in infants and toddlers” [emphasis added].  None of this is as definitive as the label makes it sound.

Finally, comes the cost of all these goodies.  The details on Sammy’s website promise 20 servings per container for $29.95.  Let’s call it $1.50 per serving.  Similar formula in my local grocery store, which is also gluten-free and non-GMO and contains DHA, sells in packages 80% larger for about half the price.  That’s about 40 cents per serving for substantially the same thing.

So you can pay about four times as much for the luxury brand that touts itself as supposedly the very healthiest option and feel good about doing the loving, caring thing, but at a cost of more than a dollar a feeding.

I have absolutely no experience with baby formula, but when I see the obvious come-on words, trigger words, for that or any other product, I immediately get suspicious.  It would be smart for more people to do so.  Marketers of all goods are not interested in educating us, just selling us their product.  And the easier it is to play on emotions of pride, guilt or anxiety, the more they can get away with.  In the battle to protect ourselves against such manipulation, critical thinking is key.

By the way, the FDA also mentions that the recalled baby food “may also not provide a sufficient level of iron.”