Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Monday, August 27, 2012

How to promote your invention on the web in a few easy steps

This text describes the pattern I have observed in several cases of scientific hoaxes. The Web has become enormous and people are literally drowning in information. In this chaotic bombardment, sometimes it is hard to separate scams from real science. So, discerning a suspicious pattern may help you to judge. I am not explicitly naming any specific scam here, mainly to avoid giving scammers a resonance they don't deserve. However, if you follow subjects such as free energy, cold fusion, miracle cures, instant-riches financial schemes, and the like, you'll have no problems in linking this text to real life examples.

Step 1. Identify a suitable scientific field. You know that science can do a lot of things but, so far, it has not been able to cure cancer, produce free energy, predict earthquakes, make everyone rich, and things like that. It is here that frustration is building up with the public and it is here that you'll find your chance. You must plan your invention as something that will solve one (or even more than one!) of these great problems.

Step 2. Prepare your invention in such a way that it will look as close as possible to the way the public perceives science. If it is a device, it will have wires and pipes attached. If it is a cure of something, it will be operated by people wearing a white lab coats. If it is software or a financial scheme, it will be embedded in a slick web site. You don't need to be a scientist or an engineer to do that, but if you look like one, it will help a lot. Also, buying a title from a diploma factory may turn out to be a wise investment.

Step 3. Go public on the web, and do that with a bang. That's a step which will cost you some money because you'll have to hire PR professionals to promote your site, your press releases, as well as your person. But it is money well spent. The PR firm will advise you on how to promote your invention on the web using SEO (search engine optimization). They will tell you how to create fake "spontaneous" web sites discussing your invention. They will also tell you that you shouldn't shy away from the most farfetched claims you can think of: cancer cures, rejuvenation, space travel, energy at zero cost; these are just examples. The more outlandish your claims will be, the more likely it is that they will spread.

Step 4. Find your testimonials. Journalists are your primary objective. They are always desperately seeking for news to publish and it takes very little to get them to play to your tune: best of all is to invite them to a demonstration, paying their expenses and offering them dinner. Some of them will remain skeptical, but they will speak of your invention and that's what counts. You may even be able to co-opt university professors and other professionals as testimonials to promote your invention. Many of them are strapped for cash and desperately in search of notoriety. Then, of course, if your invention has something to do with medicine, you'll line up patients extolling the merits of your miracle cure. Here, you'll find that the "placebo effect" works wonders in your favor and it will be easy to find people who will genuinely believe to have been cured by you and who will declare that in public at no cost for you. Finally, if you hint that your invention has been sponsored by the CIA, the FBI or whatever shady agency you can tell of, that will help and it doesn't need to have any factual basis: it is a question of secrecy, you know?

Step 5. Manage the reaction. Now a good number of serious professionals in the field you have chosen, will feel that it is their duty to demonstrate that your invention cannot work and they will endeavor to explain why. They are playing in your hands: journalists and bloggers love controversy and the debate will make the interest in your invention skyrocket. At this point, you'll use the criticism you received as proof that you are the victim of a conspiracy from the powers that be who are attempting to deny to humankind the benefits of your invention. You'll react to all criticism you receive assuming that it is generated by personal hate against you and by the vilest of venal motives and that, of course, justifies your reaction against them. Threats of lawsuits turn out to be very effective in intimidating your critics. But it is cheaper and more effective to use personal insult and threats. Have no fear! What can you lose? Do you really think that university professors will sue you because you said that they are incompetent idiots?

Step 6. Create your group of faithful followers. At this point, your action should have generated so much interest that a group of people sufficiently deluded and desperate will have been turned into true believers. Some of them will be so faithful that they will create web sites, mailing lists, discussion forums and more.  They will be doing for free the job you have been paying professionals to do, so far and that will include the work of insulting and denigrating your critics. Isn't that great?

Step 7. Proceed to reap the monetary benefits of your invention. At this stage,  many of your critics will have been intimidated or simply will have lost interest in the whole story. Now you look like the winner of the debate and you can sell your patent, or maybe you'll sell licenses or maybe you'll have plenty of patients for your miracle cure; whatever. You only have to avoid making any verifiable claim about your invention (you may hint it is because of the need of secrecy) and make sure that it doesn't actually harm people. If you are careful enough, that will make it extremely unlikely that anyone will sue you to get their money back, later on. Besides, nobody wants to let the whole world know that they have been conned by you. 

Step 8. Repeat. Despite the great brouhaha generated by your action of promotion, you'll discover that, if you let some years pass, the public will have completely forgotten about you and your invention. So, you can restart with a different invention or with the same one, just with minor modifications. Go back to step 1.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Let's pray for rain!

The sign says "Let's pray for rain" and is taped to the door of the entrance of the sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso (Our Lady of the Rock), not far from Florence, Italy.

The drought in Italy is so bad that we can only pray for some rain, which doesn't seem to be coming, anyway. As an example of how bad it is, I had never seen figs drying on their branch, but this year it is happening. Look:

More pictures of the drought in the countryside can be found at this link.

Now, why this terrible (I'd say "Biblic") drought? Well, it is an ongoing phenomenon, clearly related to climate change. Look at this image from NOAA (source).

Look at the Mediterranean Region: it is predicted to be the most affected by drought in the whole world. So, what we are seeing today is just a prelude of something much worse that could develop in the coming years and decades.

Now we are reduced to pray for rain and hope that the Good Lord will perform a miracle for us. But we cannot say we hadn't been warned.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The King's Mountain

The southern side of the Mugnone Valley, in Tuscany. The narrow passage that you see between the two hills in the background marks the road to the central plains of Italy, toward Rome. It is here that, in 406 A.D., the Roman Army stopped the invading Goths in a memorable battle that lasted a few days. On Aug 23 of that year,  Radagaisus, King of the Goths, was captured and executed on the hill that today takes the name of MonteReggi ("Mons Regis", the King's Mountain)

If you visit the Mugnone Valley, near the city of Fiesole, in Italy, you'll see a quiet place, mainly inhabited by people who commute everyday to Florence, just a few km away. But you may also note how the hills at the southern side of the valley mark the last natural obstacle for those who follow the road that goes through the Appennino mountains and leads to the central plains of Italy. Those hills have played the role of a line of defense more than once in history. Today, August 23rd, is the anniversary of the final act of the "battle of Faesulae" that raged there for a few days in the year 406 A.D. and that saw the attempt of the Goths to reach Rome stopped by a Roman Army.

In those years, Rome was entering what was to be the last century of the Western Roman Empire. The Roman society was experiencing a new phase of decline and collapse that led, among other things, to the loss of the fortifications that had protected the Empire's territory for centuries. Then, the peoples of the Eastern Regions, whom the Romans called "Barbarians," found that the road to to the Empire's territories was open for them. Entire populations moved onward and, in 406 A.D. the Goths, led by their King, Radagaisus, were marching South with the objective of conquering Rome.

The task of stopping the Goths fell on Flavius Stilicho, magister militum of the armies of the West and himself of Barbarian origin. He was acting on behalf of Emperor Honorius who, in the meantime, did nothing but hiding in Ravenna, protected by the marshes surrounding the city. In Gibbon's words (chapter 30 of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire")

..... such was the feeble and exhausted state of the empire, that it was impossible to restore the fortifications of the Danube, or to prevent, by a vigorous effort, the invasion of the Germans. The hopes of the vigilant minister of Honorius were confined to the defence of Italy. He once more abandoned the provinces, recalled the troops, pressed the new levies, which were rigorously exacted, and pusillanimously eluded; employed the most efficacious means to arrest, or allure, the deserters; and offered the gift of freedom, and of two pieces of gold, to all the slaves who would enlist

We don't have many details on how exactly the battle went, but it seems that the Goths first besieged Florence, then were forced to retreat and finally were trapped in the Mugnone valley; blocked by the fortifications built around the city of Faesulae.  Gibbon tells us (chapter 30) that:

Conscious that he (Stilicho) commanded the last army of the republic, his prudence would not expose it, in the open field, to the headstrong fury of the Germans. The method of surrounding the enemy with strong lines of circumvallation, which he had twice employed against the Gothic king, was repeated on a larger scale, and with more considerable effect.

Surrounded, the Goths had no escape. The Romans and their Hunnic allies had turned the valley into a killing zone. After a few days of battle, they surrendered in great numbers, so many that the slave market is said to have collapsed for a brief period. King Radagaisus himself was captured and beheaded, putting an end forever to his attempt of conquering Rome.

That was not to be the last time that the Romans could defeat an army of invading barbarians. But each victory left Rome a little weaker and closer to the final collapse. The battle of Faesulae was not an exception: it was a great victory that brought nothing but disaster to the Romans. Just two years later, in 408 A.D., almost on the same date when Radagaisus had been executed (Aug 22), Stilicho was betrayed, captured and beheaded in Ravenna at the orders of Emperor Honorius. Being a general is always a dangerous job but, apparently, being a successful general is even more dangerous if you have to deal with a suspicious and tyrannical Emperor. Without Stilicho, the Roman army melted away, leaving Italy defenseless. A couple of years later, in 410 A.D., Rome was to fall to another Gothic King, Alaric. Rome survived this event, but it was another step along the way that would lead the Western Empire to its final demise with the last decades of the 5th century A.D.

Of those remote times, little more than a few lines in history books remain. But, in the Mugnone Valley, you can still find a hill that takes the name of Montereggi, from the Latin "Mons Regis", the King's Mountain. It is the place where, it is said, King Radagaisus was beheaded. We can still walk there and find a small Christian church surrounded by cypress trees. There is also a pile of stones with a sign that says "Ave crux, spes nostra" (Hail, cross, our hope). We have no reason to believe that it was the exact point where the king was beheaded, but surely it is a suggestive place. 

Perhaps another echo of this ancient battle is the old legend that has that in the early times of the city of Florence, a king named "Fiorino" defended the city from the Etruscans of Faesulae and was killed in battle. It is said that the blood of king Fiorino turned red the irises flowering in the fields and that was the origin of the symbol of Florence, the red fleur de lys.

It is just a legend and surely no king with that name ever ruled Florence. But the links with the historical fate of King Radagaisus are evident and the legend might well be a garbled rendition of the ancient battle of Faesulae. After all, many of the defeated Goths must have remained in the area around the valley, either as slaves or fugitives. A little of their blood may well still be with us, today.

Image of Montereggi taken on Aug 22nd 2012, showing also your modest author, Ugo Bardi. More pictures of the city of Fiesole can be found at my blog "Foto di Fiesole"

For more information about the tumultuous 5th century and the characters of the time, you can give a look at my article on Empress Galla Placidia "Chemistry of an Empire"

Friday, August 17, 2012

Post-peak woodwork

The modest me admiring a wooden shack in the village of Valboncione, Italy. I already placed on line a picture of the village and of some of the local dwellers.

Building things by yourself, especially with leftover material, has this air of post-peak self-reliance. But, often, that supposes the existence of industrially made products. When you need wood, for instance, you can get planks or beams from a store or, more in a post-peak style, you use material taken from discarded furniture. But in both cases, the wood you use has been industrially processed.

Suppose, instead, that you live in a remote village in the mountains, a place like  Valboncione, in Italy. Up to not so long ago, clearly, they didn't have access to industrially processed wood. Still, they needed to build shacks and they managed to do that with what they had. The results are remarkable, in a sense, although not exactly the kind of place where you can find shelter from a gust of cold wind!

There are several of these shacks in the village; all built in the same way and none can be older than a few decades - they couldn't possibly have lasted more than that. They way they were made is amazing: look at how all sorts of beams and planks have been joined together. It looks like all the elements in wood were made by hand, one by one.

And look at how the hinges for one of the doors were made:

If this is not post-peak, what is?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Old ladies of the Appennino Mountains

Two old ladies having a relaxed time in the small town of Valboncione, in the Appennino mountains, in Italy. Both are in their 80s and very friendly towards foreigners (like me) visiting their village.

They told me that they live there year-round but that, in winter, the whole village has only 4 inhabitants! When I asked them if they have Internet in the village, they said that they had heard of it, but that they had no idea of what it was. They seem to be perfectly prepared for the post-peak world!

Here are a couple of pictures from the Web, just to give you some idea of what kind of place Valboncione is

above: from scmlink.it

Above from http://www.capresemichelangelo.net/storia/

You can find pictures of other old ladies of the Appennino on Cassandra's legacy at this link.  

Very nice pictures and stories of travels in Italy in August can be found in the blog "Italian Slow Walks" by "SantaTatiana"

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

46 bats in the bat box

When my friend Filippo told me that he had 46 bats in his bat box; I didn't want to believe it. Well, I went there and I counted them as they came out of the box. Unbelievable, but true. I couldn't arrive to 46, but surely there are more than 40 bats in there. 
It is a great satisfaction, because that bat box I made with my hands and wood from discarded furniture.
Above, you can see one of the bats, as well as the bat box on the right. It has been difficult to take a picture; the little beasts move fast and they appear only in near darkness. But I managed to catch one. You can see it enlarged below. It is a real bat!

So, despite pollution, degradation and urbanization, the ecosystem still manages to regain its spaces when there is a chance. 

This post is translated and adapted from my blog "Images of Fiesole"

The future on the back of a paper mat

Photo courtesy of Pietro Cambi.

A glass of wine and the back of a paper mat with the schemes of a circuit for a new BMS (battery management system). A few days ago, in Italy, a small group of people met in a restaurant to discuss how to develop new technologies for renewables and electric mobility. There is still hope of a transition to a sustainable world.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The planet burns and nobody gives a damn

Above, you see the results of a search by Google Trends of the term "Global Warming". You get the same results if you seek for "climate change" or similar terms. The recent heat wave in the US, thr melting of ice in Greenland, the loss of Arctic ice; nothing seems to have stirred the interest of the public in the climate issue.

On the contrary, if you search "Trends" for such terms as "drought", you see very well the recent spike in interest. Look at this

So, people perceive that something is wrong, but they just can't connect the dots. I guess that one day, in the future, someone will wonder about the reasons of such a massive failure of our civilization to understand what was happening.

(via "Resistance is Futile")

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Learned helplessness: how to miss your chance.

The story of the experiment that gave rise to the concept of learned helplessness is well known. It was made by the American Psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s. A dog was subjected to a series of electric shocks, to the point that it wouldn't even try any more to escape, even though he could have done so simply jumping over a small barrier. That seems to describe our situation: we have a way out of the problems of global warming and fossil fuel depletion. It is called "renewable energy. But we can't manage to move in that direction - it is a case of learned helplessness. In the following post, Stuart Staniford tries to explain that this way out really exists.


Climate Change Action is Not Hopeless

by Stuart Staniford - Early Warning, Aug 3, 2012 

It's easy to feel hopeless about climate change.  The weather gets crazier with each passing decade and in the meantime it seems like society is hardly doing anything at remotely the relevant scale.  Americans refuse to conserve very much, and the Chinese and Indians are burning coal at an ever more rapid pace.

One way to picture the seeming hopelessness of the situation is to plot total global energy consumption against solar and wind capacity (the two leading truly sustainable energy sources).  That looks like this:

That looks terrible right?  Those two lines at the bottom are negligibly different from zero on the scale of our total energy consumption - that blue line, which continues to head inexorably upward after the briefest of interruptions for the great recession.

But that isn't the full picture.

What it conceals is that the growth rates are completely different.  Over the last ten years of data (all from BP by the way), the average growth rate in primary energy consumption is 2.7%.  Meanwhile, the wind energy grew at 25% and the solar energy grew at 44%.  And this makes all the difference!  Those are incredibly high growth rates and mean that the awe-inspiring power of exponential growth is on our side.

To illustrate in a somewhat cartoonish fashion*, let's look at what happens if we just extrapolate out those same growth rates to 2040:

We spend the next decade with the graph still looking pretty bad, but then the power of exponential growth starts to really show, particularly in the solar line, and we see that the renewables would get to the scale of the entire planet's energy use sometime in the ballpark of 2030.

So to look at the situation now and say that it's hopeless is like looking at an acorn growing its first handful of leaves and declaring that the little sapling is hopeless and that this will never amount to an oak tree.

An ecotechnic world - one in which we drive around in electric cars, and heat our houses and offices with heat pumps, and fly around on biofuels, and power the whole thing from the sun and the wind, is doable.  But it's in its infancy.  It's the acorn, not the tree already.

And that being the case, the most important thing by far is that we shelter that acorn: keep it watered, shade it if the sun gets too strong, give it steady doses of fertilizer.  It's the growth rates in solar and wind energy that are the critical things to watch.  As long as those are high, the situation is not hopeless, regardless of how much coal use is growing.

Now, of course, I'm not saying that the red and green curves in the graph above are how things will go quantitatively.  No question there will be some slowing in the later stages.  The need to integrate renewables and electricity-using technology into all aspects of life is bound to slow things down toward the end.  Ditto the need to integrate renewables planet-wide to cope with their intermittency.

So maybe it takes us to mid-century to get to a near carbon-neutral society.  The point is that it's not hopeless.  As the weather gets worse - the droughts, the storms, the melting ice - the denialists will look sillier and sillier and the pressure for action will rise.  And as it does, the solutions will increasingly be in place.  So don't be discouraged if electric car sales are tiny right now, or solar power is a very small fraction of total energy use.  This is a long game.

Also worth noting is that it's in a couple of decades, as the alternatives truly start to reach scale, that it will be the time to really focus on closing down all the coal mines and shutting in the oil wells.  That will be the time for hefty carbon taxes and punitive cap-and-trade regulations.

Right now, the focus should be on protecting and growing the ecotechnic acorn.

* Wonky footnote - yes, I know I'm comparing renewable capacity to energy use without accounting for the capacity factor.  But it's also true that electricity is much more useful than primary fossil fuel energy - for example it can be utilized with 3X higher efficiency in a motor, or power a heat pump with a coefficient of performance of 3X or 5X.  So let's just call it a wash for the purposes of a quick illustration of the general idea.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mitt Romney: peak oiler?

I was surprised to read what Cory Suter in "Polycimic" reports about Mitt Romney's 2010 book "No Apology; The Case for American Greatness. " In the book Romney  speaks about Peak Oil, cites Matt Simmons's book "Twilight in the desert" and says that, "whether the peak is already past or will be reached within a few years, world oil supply will decline at some point." And then he doesn't say that the solution is just drilling more. He says that using less oil and in finding alternatives for it are just as important as solutions.

Did any other presidential candidate with serious chances to win ever say something like that? I haven't checked the whole history of the US elections, but I can tell you that once I asked personally to Al Gore (after his unsuccessful run for president) what he knew about Peak Oil and he seemed to me less knowledgeable than Mitt Romney appears to be in his book.

On the other hand, regarding Mitt Romney there is always the joke that says (h/t "Jules Burn"):

A conservative, a moderate, and a liberal walk into a bar. The bartender says "Hi Mitt!"

At least, you can say that the guy is flexible. Anyway, here are the paragraphs about peak oil reported by Cory Suter from Romney's book (note that  I can't check the original book, but this information seems to be reliable).

 “Our own policies interfere with free-market mechanisms.  We subsidize domestic oil and gas production with generous tax breaks, penalize sugar-based ethanol from Brazil, and block investment in nuclear energy.  Our navy assumes the prime responsibility for securing the oil routes from the Middle East, effectively subsidizing its cost.  Thus, we don’t pay the full cost of Middle East oil, either at the oil-company level or at the pump.” (232)

“Market economists also identify a number of externalities – real costs that aren’t captured in the price of fuel – the most frequently cited of which are the health-care costs of pollution and the climate costs of greenhouse gases.  There is a further externality: potentially leaving the next generation in the lurch by using so much oil and energy ourselves – domestic and imported – that our children face severe oil shortages, prohibitively expensive fuel, a crippled economy, and dominion of energy by Russia and other oil-rich states.  No matter how you price it, oil is expensive to use; we should be encouraging our citizens to use less of it, our scientists to find alternatives for it, and our producers to find more of it here at home.”

“Many analysts predict that the world’s production of oil will peak in the next ten to twenty years, but oil expert Matt Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, presents a compelling case that Middle Eastern oil production may have already reached its peak.  Simmons bases his contention on his investigation into the highly secretive matter of the level of reserves in the Saudi oil fields. But whether the peak is already past or will be reached within a few years, world oil supply will decline at some point, and no one predicts a corresponding decline in demand. If we want America to remain strong and wish to ensure that future generations have secure and prosperous lives, we must consider our current energy policies in the light of how these policies will affect our grandchildren.” (233)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A grand plan to save Italy from collapse

Sorry for this Italy-centered post, but I though that my consideration on the decline of the political debate here might be interesting also for non-Italian readers. (image source).

Yesterday, Mr. Angelino Alfano, leader of the "People of Freedom" (PdL) party, publicly presented a plan aimed at saving Italy from economic collapse. When he spoke, I was driving along the highway and by chance my radio was tuned on a channel that aired the presentation. I had nothing else to do, so I listened to the whole thing. And I was horrified.

Let me explain. This note is not supposed to be against a specific politician or against a specific party. Mr. Alfano is the successor of Mr. Berlusconi as leader of PdL and to him I recognize the ability of speaking in a series of vaguely intelligible sentences. That's already a notch above a good number of his colleagues. What horrified me is that what he said could have been said by any politician, left or right, conservative or liberal anywhere in the world. And that explains why we are in trouble.

So, what is that Mr. Alfano and his advisors concocted to save Italy from collapse? Well, as far as I understood, the State's properties (parks, buildings, land, hospitals, etc.) should be transformed into a sort of giant fund and investors would be allowed to buy shares. That would bring money into the empty state coffers and save Italy from financial collapse (*).

I can think of a zillion reasons why the scheme wouldn't work, but you can see by yourself that, basically, it is just a game of smoke and mirrors. The state properties would not be sold, but not retained either. They would "float" in a no-man's land and that would, somehow, generate a giant cash transfer that would miraculously save Italy from collapse.

But it was not the improbable nature of the plan that bothered me. Yesterday, as I was listening to Mr. Alfano speaking, I was expecting that there would be at least something more than a discussion on how to balance the books.  I mean, political parties used to be concerned about people's future. They weren't supposed to be concerned only with shifting money from one place to the other. But I was disappointed. "Restarting growth" was the only concern for the future expressed in the speech.

Now, think about that. How is it possible that the leader of the largest national party shows no interest in what exactly we should do to avoid falling again into the kind of troubles we are in? I mean, if we are collapsing, there has to be a reason why. Italy has been a reasonably prosperous for about half a century after the second world war, can't you even vaguely think that there has to be a reason if everything is falling apart today? Can't you conceive that the way out may not be fiddling with the account books, but to take into account that the world, out there, has changed? There are problems with resources, with energy, with pollution and with all sorts of global changes, climate change is just one. Can't you think that the old "solutions" (i.e. growth) may have become problems?

But no way. No mention of resources, of energy, pollution, all the rest. As I said, I am not singling out here Mr. Alfano as a bad politician. It is not his fault. Simply, the political debate has evolved in such a way that most people are living day-by-day, mainly trying to survive. The political debate has declined to a point in which there is no interest in the causes of the problems, no interest in long term solutions, no attention to anything except to the the hope that some politician will pull the rabbit out of the hat. A game of smoke and mirrors.

* To understand Mr. Alfano's plan, imagine you have to pay a mortgage on your home and you don't have enough money. You could sell your car but, instead, you think of a clever scheme. You declare that your car is a public asset and you ask your neighbors to to buy shares of it. In this way, you can still drive your car and pay your mortgage. There is just one small problem: now you have to pay dividends to your neighbors and and that may cost you more than the mortgage!