Friday, January 15, 2021

The Hydrogen-Based Economy: Is it Enough to Paint Something Blue to Make it Green?

A hopeful image for a hopeful article by Bertrand Piccard. "Blue Hydrogen" seems to be popular, nowadays. But is it enough to paint something blue to make it green? It turns out that "green" hydrogen, assuming it exists, is too expensive for what we need to do now in order to move away from fossil fuels and stabilize Earth's climate.

Hydrogen has come a long way since the time when it was discovered by Henry Cavendish as a component of the water molecule in the 1700s and then given its name of “creator of water” by Henry Lavoisier in 1783. It was later discovered that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and the main component of stars.

Using hydrogen as a fuel is an old idea. It was, again, Cavendish who discovered that it can burn. The idea that hydrogen could be cycled as an energy storage medium is probably as old as the “fuel cell,” developed by William Grove in the early 1800s. In the 1950s and 1960s, the dream of "energy too cheap to meter" associated with nuclear technologies made it possible to think of hydrogen as an energy vector able to carry energy to the points of use, even vehicles, from a limited number of large nuclear plants. The first explicit mention of the concept of “hydrogen economy” was made by John Bockris in 1970. The nuclear promise never materialized, but the concept of the hydrogen economy was later linked to renewable energy. 

The idea of the hydrogen economy gained a lot of traction with the 2002 book by Jeremy Rifkin, titled “The Hydrogen Economy.” Conferences were held, research contracts were awarded, and prototypes were built. Sometimes, we saw lavishly illustrated pamphlets of the hydrogen-based world of the future, often depicted as something reminding the science fiction of the 1950s, except that it was quieter and greener. Then, it waned again when it became clear that the promises of clean prosperity could not be maintained except at stellar prices that no one was willing to pay. Today, we may be seeing a "third wave" of interest in the hydrogen economy. But is it a real possibility, or does it still remain in the domain of dreams?

Today, 50 years after the first mention of the concept of the hydrogen economy, and 20 years after Rifkin’s book, not a single application of the concept of cycling hydrogen as a fuel is present in the world’s economy. The “Hydrogen Car,” the fulcrum of the idea, found a recent incarnation in the form of the Toyota Mirai, but that’s hardly the kind of car that will replace conventional or battery-operated cars. After 6 years after having been introduced in the world market, there are maybe ten thousand Mirais running today in the world against some 10 million electric cars. Not a good performance for something that was touted to change the way people move in the world.

Things are not better for other facets of the hydrogen economy. Of all the prototype buses that would have used hydrogen as fuel, most can be found today in museums or have been scrapped – just a few seems to be still operational. The idea of using hydrogen as a large-scale storage system for the intermittent energy generated by renewable technology is too expensive to make sense. It simply doesn’t exist at present. We lack the network of hydrogen distribution stations envisaged as a necessity: there are maybe a hundred of them in Japan, maybe 30 in California. In the rest of the world, owning a Mirai is not a good idea. And nothing has happened of Rifkin’s grand idea that people would exchange hydrogen with each other using pipelines in the same way as people are exchanging data with each other using fiber optics cables.

In short, the hydrogen economy turned out to be 20 years (or even 50 years) of hype, but nothing that helped us to solve the problems that we face in terms of the desperate need we have to decarbonize the economy. It was at best a naïve idea. The costs and the problems involved were evident to everyone who looked at the matter in some depth.

What went wrong, then? A lot of things. Perhaps the main one was a basic misunderstanding in the way the idea was presented to the public. Free hydrogen is not an energy source; it is an energy carrier. Free hydrogen does not exist on this planet, so to create free hydrogen we must break the hydrogen bond in water molecules. That can be done using a technology carried electrolysis. It works, but it is not very efficient, it will always involve an energy loss that depends on various factors, but that is typically around 30%. So, hydrogen is a fuel, but it doesn’t come for free. You must pay for it and not so little. In practice, all the commercial hydrogen you buy today comes from the decomposition of natural gas, another process of limited efficiency. And that can’t help us much to get rid of fossil fuels since you start with a fossil fuel!

Then, there are lots of problems relative to how to store hydrogen. It is possible but expensive. Conventional steel tanks in which you store gaseous hydrogen suffer from the problem of embrittlement. Hydrogen atoms are so small that they diffuse into the steel making it fragile. You need different materials, typically more expensive ones. But, in any case, high-pressure hydrogen is not a good idea in terms of storage, especially in a vehicle. The tank would be huge, expensive, and dangerous. So, you can use cryogenic liquefied hydrogen that would still require a fuel tank of four times the size of a gasoline tank. In other words, a 30-liter tank of gasoline would be equivalent to a 120-liter tank of hydrogen. And you need to consider the energy needed to compress and liquefy the hydrogen, to say nothing of the unavoidable gradual loss from the tank, and from the danger that it poses. Hydrogen can leak from any container, no matter how well sealed it is. And liquid hydrogen will evaporate at a rate of around 2% per day.

Finally, there is a problem with the opposite side of the cycle, where you turn hydrogen back into water and energy. You can do that by burning hydrogen in a conventional thermal engine, but that’s so inefficient that it would make no sense. Indeed, the idea was, from the beginning, to use “fuel cells” – electrochemical devices that turn fuels into electric power. Fuel cells are normally efficient than thermal engines, but their efficiency is still limited, much lower than that of batteries. And fuel cells are expensive, the standard model that works at room temperature (PEM) need platinum as a catalyst at the electrodes. Platinum is a rare element, not only expensive, but that would be impossible to produce in amounts sufficient to replace even a fraction of the current park of road vehicles.

All that doesn’t mean that there are no niche applications of hydrogen that could be profitably used in the future. Maybe hydrogen could be a good fuel for ships, which have no problems with the need for a large and heavy tank. Or, hydrogen may be used for planes, although it would be impossible to couple with the current generation of planes that would need to be completely redesigned – not a task for the near future. And perhaps hydrogen could be used for large-scale energy storage. But all this is far away from the dreams of a prosperous and non-polluting hydrogen-based economy that were proposed in the early 2000s. 

All this is – or should be – known. Already in 2004, Joe Romm published a book titled “The Hydrogen Hype” directly conceived as a rebuttal of Rifkin’s 2002 book. Indeed, by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the hydrogen economy seemed to be a dead duck. The collapse of the oil prices of 2009 and the advent of the apparently limitless “shale oil” in the US had convinced everyone that there were no problems with the oil supply for the near- and medium-term future. The idea of the hydrogen economy didn’t really die but went dormant, disappearing from the horizon of the energy events.

But, today, the situation has changed again. Depletion is making the extraction of fossil fuels more and more expensive. At the same time, we see the pressing need of decarbonizing the economy before it is too late to avoid a disastrous climate change. The fossil fuel industry is under heavy stress and the former miracle of shale oil is turning to be a canard. These are the probable reasons for the evident return of the hydrogen idea that we are witnessing today. It is not because new technologies made possible things that were not possible 20 years ago. It is, mostly a last attempt of the oil industry to propose a pie in the sky to retard the unavoidable demise of the polluting and unsustainable fossil fuels. The fossil lobby hopes that hydrogen will provide a niche for their products, counting on the fact that hydrogen – if we want it in large amounts – will have to come from fossil fuels for a long time. 

In short, hydrogen is not a good idea for the world of today. We need first to build up a real renewable infrastructure to produce energy. Only after that's accomplished, we could think of the luxury of using hydrogen to power cars and planes. For the time being, limited numbers of battery-powered vehicles, the concept of “smart grid,” and higher efficiency in every field, are the best way to go. We must move in that direction as soon as possible, without waiting for a pie in the sky that might never be within our reach.


Monday, January 11, 2021

The Great Reset: The Western Path to Dekulakization


One of the Soviet propaganda posters promoting the collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s. On the lower right, you can see a small man opposing the line of the marching peasants, He is recognizable as a "Kulak," one of the local independent farmers who were dispossessed and partly exterminated to leave space for collectivized farms, considered more efficient. There exist several similarities between the fall of the Kulaki and the current "Great Reset" that sees the destruction of a number of economic activities, such as retail commerce, seen as inefficient in comparison to modern electronic commerce.


In the 1930s, the Soviet Union carried out the "dekulakization" (раскулачивание) of Ukraine. It was the term given to the removal of the relatively wealthy, independent farmers ("kulaki"), to be replaced by collective farms. Their properties were confiscated, many of them were relocated to remote regions, and some were exterminated. We don't know the exact numbers, but surely we are in the range of a few million people. The transition to collectivized farms may have been one of the causes of the great Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s, known as the "Holodomor," 

The reasons for the dekulakization are several. In part, they were related to the belief that large-scale, centrally planned enterprises were the most efficient way to organize production. Then, the Kulaki were seen as a potential enemy for the Soviet Government, while the region they occupied was a strategic asset in terms of food production in an age when famines were an effective war weapon

But these considerations are not enough to explain why the Kulaki were so ruthlessly destroyed in just a few years. It was, rather, just a simple power game: the Soviet Government aimed at controlling all the means of production of the state. It couldn't tolerate that an important section of the economy, food production in Ukraine, was independently managed. And so it intervened with all the might it could muster.

The most interesting part of this story is how the removal/extermination was an early example of a successful propaganda-based demonization campaign. The Kulaki were consistently portrayed as inefficient and unreliable "enemies of the people." Once it was established that an independent farmer was an enemy of the people, then any attempt to defend the Kulaki would automatically turn defenders into enemies of the people. So, the Kulaki were completely overwhelmed, unable to organize any kind of collective resistance. The best they could do was some degree of passive resistance, for instance by hiding food rather than delivering it to the Soviet authorities. Of course, propaganda exploited that to reinforce the message that they were, indeed, enemies of the people. This is the way propaganda works.

At this point, I guess you understand the point I am making: the similarity of the current situation with the dekulakization of nearly a century ago. Also this time, an entire sector of the economy (actually more than one) is being crushed to leave space for different economic entities, believed to be more efficient with providing the same services: mainly the "new economy" of the Silicon Valley companies. This shift is sometimes called "The Great Reset." An appropriate name that could also be applied to the dekulakization. 

The first victim of the Great Reset has been retail commerce. Mom and pop shops everywhere are the modern Kulaki, replaced by the onward marching militias of virtual commerce under the Amazon banner. But also franchises and shopping malls have been badly hit. It is impressive how nobody in the field dared to oppose the destruction of the source of their livelihood -- they were overwhelmed by propaganda, just like the Kulaki. 

Other victims are waiting for the axe: Universities and schools are going to be defunded, obsolete against the onrush of e-learning. Public transport has become nearly useless with the triumph of virtual work and the fear of boarding a crowded bus: it will be replaced by the smart cars and using AI software. Mass tourism and mass air travel are already relics of the past, resources that can be saved and used for other purposes. And the pervasive control of everyone is advancing: now just as at the time of the Soviet Union, those who control the message control everything. In comparison with Soviet times, the modern propaganda effort is similar. Most propaganda is based on demonizing someone and, today, those opposing the Great Reset are labeled as "deniers" (the equivalent of the "enemies of the people" of Soviet times). 

All that doesn't mean that the Great Reset was planned in advance, nor that the virus was manufactured on purpose. It simply means that the various actors in the economic arena saw how they could gain an advantage by acting in a certain way, and they did. These large organizations do not really plan in advance, they have no "brain," but -- like amoebas -- they move in the direction of the food they need. And they act on the principle that says, "never let a good crisis go wasted."

Of course, the Silicon Valley Companies of our times are not the same thing as the Soviet Government of the 1930s. But there are similarities. Those companies that dominate the management of information on the Web operate very much Soviet-style: they are large, pyramidal organizations, often dominated by a charismatic leader (Zuckerberg, Gates, Bezos, etc.). In terms of size and planning style, they are not different from the People's Commissariat for Agriculture (Народный комиссариат земледелия) (Narkomzem), established in 1917, the entity that carried out the dekulakization. And they reason mainly in terms of power balance: they don't like and they don't tolerate competition. 

The difference is that the Narkomzem was part of the state, whereas the Silicon Valley companies are not. They do control large swats of the American government but, on the whole, they are best seen as feudal lords. You can call them "Web Barons."

The current situation looks not unlike when King John of England signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, forced to do so by England's Barons. Right now, the US government seems to be overwhelmed by the Barons of the Web, not unlike King John of England was. At least, when you hear that Twitter can cancel the account of the President of the United States, then you understand who is the boss

And here we stand: we are seeing a classic situation in history: a central government being challenged by feudal lords. It is typical of when a state starts its downward path toward collapse, it is what's happening with the Western Empire. So, what's going to happen, now? Can history serve as a guide for us?

History, we know, always rhymes, but never repeats itself. In the 1930s, the Kulaki were destroyed by superior powers and that was the end of the story. Today, the situation is much more fluid. 

For one thing, there is not a single, monolithic entity involved. We have several Barons who temporarily found a common goal, but which are potentially in conflict with each other. Then, the US government is not so weak yet. It still controls (and is controlled by) the military, and that's the crucial element that may change many things. 

It is not clear what the military think of the current situation. Probably they don't have special objections about the elimination of retail commerce and other obsolete economic activities. But they also understand who is paying them: they get their money not from the Web Barons, but from the Government. And they may decide to do something to avoid going the same way as mom and pop shops. A few tanks in front of the Capitol Building would send a much clearer message to the Web Barons than that conveyed by a half-naked, horned shaman. 

If the government is backed by a credible military force, then it would be possible to reduce the power of the monopolies of the Web: Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and the others could be nationalized and/or broken down into less powerful entities. On the other hand, nothing prevents the Web Barons from building up their own military forces. Fluid situation, indeed. 

The only sure thing is that the decline of the West is ongoing. There is little that can be done about that.

After publishing this post, I discovered that the same concept had been developed by another Cassandra, on the "The Cassandra Times" blog. That post came before mine, and it has therefore the honor of being the first having noted that the modern small business owners are the equivalent of the Kulaks of Soviet times.

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Deification of Emperor Trump: Following Caligula's Path

Jake Angeli, high priest of the growing cult of Emperor Donald Trump, dressed as the horned God Cernunnos. The deification of Emperor Trump in Washington, yesterday, didn't go so well, but we are moving along a path that the Romans already followed during the decline of their empire, including the deification of emperors, starting with Caligula. So, comparing Roman history to our current conditions may tell us something about the future.

I already speculated on what kind of Roman Emperor Donald Trump could have been and I concluded that he might have been the equivalent of Hadrian. The comparison turned out to be not very appropriate. Clearly, Trump was no Hadrian (a successful emperor, by all means). But, after four years, and after the recent events in Washington, I think Trump may be seen as a reasonably good equivalent of Caligula, or Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who also reigned for 4 years, from 37 to 41 AD.

Caligula was the prototypical mad emperor -- you probably heard that he nominated his horse consul. And he was not just mad, he was said to be a cruel, homicidal psychopath, and a sexual pervert to boot. In addition, he tried to present himself as a living god and pretended to be worshipped. He even claimed to have waged a war against the Sea God Poseidon, and having won it!

But, really, we know little about Caligula's reign, and most of it from people who had plenty of reasons to slander his memory, including our old friend Lucius Annaeus Seneca (he of the "Seneca Effect") who was a contemporary of Caligula and who seriously risked being executed by him. The Romans knew and practiced the same rules of propaganda we use today. And one typical way to slander an emperor was to accuse him to be a sexual pervert.

But it really doesn't matter so much if Caligula really was so bad as we are told he was. The point is that there is a certain logic in his actions. In Rome, just as in almost every ancient empire in history, Emperors were far from being warmongers. And that was for perfectly good reasons: imagine you are the emperor: you are the richest person in the world, you can have everything you want, you may order people to do whatever you want to do, and if they refuse you can have them killed. You can even force people to worship you like a God and many will do that without any need of forcing them. Then, why should you risk all that for the mere pleasure of slaughtering a bunch of bad-smelling barbarians?  

That put emperors in a quandary: their power was based on military might, but the soldiers needed to be paid. And in order to pay them, military adventures needed to be undertaken. But military adventures, then as now, are risky and you never know who will win a war unless you fight it. This problem was the reason why many Roman emperors didn't end their careers in their death bed. Either they were reckless and then defeated, or too prudent, and they were killed by their own troops. The latter was the destiny of Caligula, who refused to engage in the invasion of Britannia. No invasion meant no booty and no bonus for the troops. And the troops were not happy. In the end, Caligula was killed by officers of the Praetorian Guard, a military corps that was supposed to protect him.

At this point, I think you can see how Trump's rule can be seen as similar to that of Caligula. Of course, Trump never made senator a horse, but he surely had stormy relations with the US congress -- as you saw in the recent events in Washington. As for considering himself a God, well, Trump may not have gone as far as Caligula, but surely he tended to aggrandize himself more than a little! The apparition of Trump's follower, Jake Angeli, dressed as the horned God Cernunnos,  even gave a certain theological meaning to the occupation of the Capitol building in 2021.

The main point in the similarity, then, is that both Caligula and Trump did their best to avoid major wars and succeeded, at least in part. Trump had to compromise with the military, providing huge financing for the military apparatus. We don't know if Caligula did the same, but his fake campaign against Britannia may have been an attempt to appease the military without risking a real invasion. Whatever the case, Caligula was eliminated and replaced with an older and more pliant Emperor, Claudius. 

Something similar occurred with Donald Trump, replaced by an older and more pliant emperor because he clearly showed that he did not plan any major military campaigns. Unlike Caligula, and luckily for him, Trump was not physically eliminated (so far). But the trend is clear: The Washingtonian Emperors are desperately trying to acquire more and more powers in order to try to control an increasingly divided society. "Deification" - turning the leader into a God - may be a good strategy in this sense and it is likely that we'll see more and more US presidents using it in the future 


This being how things stand, can we use the Trump-Caligula analogy to conceive future scenarios? The future is always difficult to predict, but it is also a lot of fun to try. So, let's tell first the story of the Roman Empire after the death of Caligula, then we'll see to create a narrative for the modern Global Empire after the removal of Donald Trump. 

Caligula's successor, Claudius, was a relatively weak emperor who couldn't oppose the military adventure in Britannia, and that nearly brought the Roman Empire to its doom. Initially, the invasion was successful but, later on, the Romans seriously risked losing everything when Queen Boudicca led a revolt against them in 60 AD, nearly succeeding in throwing back the invaders into the sea. Eventually, the Romans managed to quell the revolt, but it was a close call.

The problem was not so much Britannia, but the fact that the Empire had seriously overstretched itself. While Boudicca's warriors scoured Britain, torturing and killing Roman citizens, on the opposite side of the Empire, in Palestine, a revolt was brewing. It exploded with tremendous fury in 66 AD and, this time, the Romans failed to quell it immediately. After the fall of Jerusalem to the rebels, it took nearly eight years of hard fighting to reestablish the Roman domain in the region. During this period, the survival of the Empire itself was at serious risk. 

We may imagine that if the Romans hadn't needed to garrison Britain, they could have had more resources to defeat the Jewish insurrection. As it was, instead, the effort of having to control two unruly regions at the same time and at the two opposite extremes of the Roman dominion led to financial problems and to turmoil all over the Empire. in 68 AD, Emperor Nero lost control of his generals and was forced to kill himself. For a year, four different generals fought each other for the imperial throne. Eventually, Vespasian, a general who had fought both in Britain and in Palestine, restored order in 69 AD, but the situation remained difficult. One indication of the financial problems of the time is that in modern Romance languages, urinals are named after Vespasian, probably because for the first time he placed a tax on their use. 

In time, the Roman state managed to recover a certain balance and the deep state scored a major victory when they placed a career soldier at the top, Trajan (53-117). Trajan may have seen himself as the successor of Alexander the Great and he maintained his promise to expand the Empire. In 101 AD, he engaged in a successful military campaign against Dacia (more or less modern Romania). Then, in 113 AD he embarked in an ambitious campaign destined to get rid once for all of the competitor Parthian Empire, in the East. It was nothing less than an attempt of world domination. By taking control of Central Eurasia, the Roman Empire would have been able to dominate the whole continent. That was the dream, at least, but dreams tend to evaporate fast when confronted with reality.

At the beginning, Trajan obtained some major victories, but he was not Alexander the Great. The Romans conquered the region that we call Iraq today, but further advances were simply unthinkable. They had overstretched their domains to an extremely dangerous level. In order to finance his campaigns, Trajan had devaluated the Roman currency and a new civil war could have shattered the Empire. Fortunately for the Romans, Trajan died before he could truly wreck the Empire's finances. His successor, Hadrian, stopped the wars of conquest and reorganized the Empire within militarily sustainable borders. Of course, the Roman empire was doomed anyway, but at least Hadrian avoided that it would collapse already during the 2nd century AD: 


Now, let's start from these ancient events to create a scenario for our times. Joe Biden is clearly no Trajan, but he has something in common with the weak and old Claudius. As such, Biden may fail to stop the US military from engaging the Empire in one or more risky military adventures, for instance attacking Syria, or maybe even Iran. 

The military strength of the US is so large that it is hard to think a relatively minor campaigns could be unsuccessful, but they would seriously weaken the Empire and generate internal frictions. The attack on the Capitol building already gave us a taste of what the results could look like. 

After Biden will be gone, it may be possible to see the Global Empire in the hands an aggressive military leader. Such a leader might decide to do what Trajan did. She might engage in an all-out effort to destroy the rival empire, the Chinese Empire, just as Trajan tried to destroy the Parthian Empire. (why did I say "she"? You know that!). That would mean global domination for the Western Empire.

Could a warlike Empress succeed? Unlikely. Just like Trajan nearly wrecked the Roman finances in his attempt, our Empress may well wreck the Western economy -- or the whole world's economy --  forever, with the additional result of wrecking the whole ecosystem as well. But history seems to reason in its own terms that was unavoidable from the beginning. For one thing, in our times things seem to happen much faster than in Roman times and the fall of Washington to a Barbarian army doesn't seem to be so unthinkable as it was just a few days ago. 


Monday, January 4, 2021

Back to the Classroom: The Best Teachers are the Students Themselves

During my whole professional life, I always enjoyed teaching. It was part of my life, part of what I am, part of the way I relate with the world. I made mistakes, at times made a fool of myself, sometimes I was ashamed of how poor a teacher I was. But I always did my best. And I think my students, some of them at least, appreciated my effort. And most of them enjoyed being students, just as I did when I was their age. Still today, some of my best friends are people I met when I was in my first year of college.
I don't know how it was possible, but a few months of folly have been enough to turn universities into jails, the students as prisoners, and teachers as prison guards. And teaching was transformed into an odious chore. A senseless ritual performed in front of a computer screen, the students reduced to small 2-D squares, as real as the characters of a videogame. 
On the media, everywhere the students were insulted, humiliated, insulted, told over and over that they are little more than walking bags full of viruses, plague-spreaders, irresponsible, vicious, self-centered individuals unable to restrain their instincts and harming their elders because of that.
This is truly a disaster. Going to school is one of the few remaining chances that the young have to socialize and become functional adults. Chuck Pezeshki said it very well in his latest post on his blog
"If we’re to start understanding why the enforced collapse of socialization matters to all students, we’re going to have to come to terms with what we actually do in schools. The answer is not “we smart adults tell students a bunch of stuff, they soak it all in, and they’re far better off for it.” I’ve been teaching (and winning awards) my whole career for teaching, which is really only a modest part of a relatively modest career. The reality is that students learn mostly from each other. And the lessons they learn, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, are mostly about how to relate and listen to each other. We sprinkle the lessons of the venue on top of all of this, of course. But the biggest hunk of everything they learn involves themselves, and their interactions."
Here is an excerpt of Chuck's post, but do read all of it. It is an optimistic and inspiring post. Despite the disaster, we must go on and keep teaching and learning.


From "The Empathy Guru"

A New Year's Prayer for our Children

Jan 1, 2021


Over and over, we’ve attempted to pin this pandemic on those we disagree with politically. I’ve written about this here. It’s just nuts, and these things have to stop. Or we’re going to end up in a civil war. And that will kill far more young people than COVID ever could.

Where we are missing the boat regarding COVID is the damage that the pandemic has done through destruction of relational growth that really fuels how young minds are formed. Primary- and secondary school-age kids get this from going to school, and there is no real risk, despite the histrionic anecdotes pushed by the media, for school children. Yes, there is a smattering of extremely tragic cases that are part of the pandemic. One of the curiously sociopathic angles discussing COVID is the risk to football players for some version of myocarditis as an after-effect of the pandemic — as if the well-established dangers of smacking each other’s skulls together weren’t enough. There can be no better juxtaposition of how we perceive risk, however. One is a reason to lock down/up our children indefinitely. The latter is merely a continuation of “how we do things around here.” The various lockdowns have been done ostensibly to save the old, though, once again, it’s not clear that any of this anti-socialization has helped them either. In fact — probably not.

When it comes to college-age kids, living in a university community, I hear the constant berating from the elders about irresponsible college kids are, because they continue to socialize. And it’s wild to me that voices of control have been recruited from the student population themselves. I’m not going to name names, because I still have hopes that these young people, though adults, will grow out of the need to please their elders and represent their natural constituencies. There is really functionally no risk to college kids as well. And schools that have opened (I live next to the University of Idaho) have managed to even control spread, as much as it can be contained, than schools that have gone online. Which would, not surprisingly, jibe with the overall statistics — that not much we’ve done, plus or minus, really matters.

If we’re to start understanding why the enforced collapse of socialization matters to all students, we’re going to have to come to terms with what we actually do in schools. The answer is not “we smart adults tell students a bunch of stuff, they soak it all in, and they’re far better off for it.” I’ve been teaching (and winning awards) my whole career for teaching, which is really only a modest part of a relatively modest career. The reality is that students learn mostly from each other. And the lessons they learn, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, are mostly about how to relate and listen to each other. We sprinkle the lessons of the venue on top of all of this, of course. But the biggest hunk of everything they learn involves themselves, and their interactions.

My tagline, since I started my empathy project, has been “as we relate, so we think.” The meaning of this is not simply “if you relate nice, then you think nice.” The stakes are far higher. The DeepOS lesson of all this is that relating to different people, across varying ages, social statuses, and racial/ethnic variations, creates the conditions in the brain for other complex, more discipline-specific information to get slotted. Without that interaction, though, the brains of young people, while not exactly being frozen, do not thrive. And being that all people, in all walks of life, are spread out on a probability distribution for pretty much any issue/concept you can think of, we will decrease a certain percentage of the population’s intellectual and developmental abilities in ways we cannot predict yet. If you say you care about disadvantaged populations in the U.S. this should deeply concern you. Those will be the students whose starting line is moved back once again. My advantaged students, and their parents, can and will find ways around this, and I absolutely do not begrudge them.

But in a time of already-extreme separation between opportunities for rich and poor, those without resources, juggling even furnished iPods in mediocre online classrooms, will be even more screwed. Don’t fool yourself. And they also will not have the more evolved social environments that well-off parents are already creating for their children. Mores the pity.

Just so folks know, I’ll be back in the classroom myself in 18 days, running students through my curricular vehicle, the Industrial Design Clinic. I’m one of the few that’s made that choice. It was not forced on me by my administration. And, no, I haven’t had the vaccine. And yes — when I’m told my number’s up, I’ll get in line, but not before. I already know there are people that need it worse than me. There’s a reason I have 2400 hours of sick leave accumulated through my career– it’s not because I’m unhealthy.

I’m doing it because, even though it will be a difficult classroom environment, it will give my students to get to know their best teachers — each other. We’ll be in masks, we’ll be wiping down tabletops, all things of indeterminate efficacy, but part of whatever set of rules we are told to follow. But we’ll do it together. And I’m looking forward to a great year.


Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Ghosts of 2020. And the Ghosts of 2021



The devil scene from Walt Disney's 1940 "Fantasia" movie. A fitting representation of the nightmare that 2020 has been. 

This clip is especially fitting because you may notice how the devil doesn't really do anything bad during the whole scene. He summons ghosts and demons, they scream, they fly, they dance, but they don't touch anything, don't harm anyone. Evil is a characteristic of our mind: we create evil and we suffer its consequences because we believe in our own creation.

Perhaps we could hear bells dispelling evil in 2021, as it happens in the movie at 5:40? Maybe, but it is also possible that we'll create even worse ghosts than anything seen in 2020. Whatever the case, as always, we'll remain dominated by the ghost that we ourselves create.




Monday, December 28, 2020

A New Year's Tale: And the Years of His Life Were 900



A story from the old Soviet Union, written by the Russian writer Vladimir Dudintsev, still teaching us things today. And here is a written version from a 2013 post.

Some 50 years ago, I received as a Christmas present a book titled "Russian Science Fiction." All the stories in that book made a deep impression on me, but there was one that has remained in my mind more than the others; a curious story titled "A New Year's Tale".

I was, maybe, 12 at that time and, of course, I couldn't understand everything of that story and I didn't pay attention to the name of the author. But, as time went by, I didn't forget it; rather, it became entrenched in my mind, progressively acquiring more meaning and more importance. I reread it not long ago, and it came back to my mind during a recent trip to Russia. So, let me tell you this story as I remember it.

"A New Year's Tale" tells of one year of life of the protagonist, a researcher in a scientific laboratory somewhere in the Soviet Union. Dudintsev manages to tell the story without ever giving specific details about anything: no place names, no names of the characters, not even of the protagonist. It is a feat of literary virtuosity; it gives the story an atmosphere of a fairy tale but, at the same time, it is very, very specific.

It took me time before I could understand the hints that Dudintsev gives all over the text, but after many trips to Russia, everything fell in place. It is curious how Dudintsev managed to catch so well the atmosphere of a research lab in the Soviet Union; he was not a scientific researcher. But that's what makes a great storyteller, after all: understanding what one is describing - and feeling something for it.

The story starts with a debate - rather, a quarrel - that the protagonist has with someone termed "a provincial academic" (we are not told his name). This provincial academic should be nothing more than a nuisance, but the protagonist can't avoid engaging in the debate. He understands that he is losing time, that he should be doing something more useful, more important. But he just can't sit down and do his job.

While the protagonist is entangled in this useless quarrel, the chief of the laboratory (again, we are not told his name) dabbles in archeology and one day he tells his coworkers of some work of his somewhere in the Caucasus, where they found an ancient tomb. There was an owl engraved on the tombstone and an inscription that they could decipher. It says "...and the years of his life were 900...."

Now, what could that mean? Could the man buried there have lived 900 years? No, of course not. But then, what does the inscription mean? Well, someone says, that must mean that this man spent his life so well and so fully that it was like his years had been 900.

The discussion goes on. What does it mean to live such a full life? The researchers try to find an answer but, at some moment, they hear the voice of someone who usually keeps silent at these reunions. We are told that he is from far away, not Russian, that is. We can imagine that this man doesn't have a Russian name, but we are not told names. So, he is an outsider and he comes with a completely different viewpoint; he is "the foreign scientist" even though in the old Soviet Union, theoretically, there was no such distinction. "You see, comrades," he says, "it is very simple. To live a full life, you must always choose the greatest satisfactions, the highest joys you can find."

At this point, we hear the voice of the political commissioner of the lab. Apparently, there was usually someone in the scientific academies in the Soviet Union who was in charge of making sure that Soviet Scientists would not fall into doing decadent capitalist science. So, he stands up and he tells the foreign scientist, "Well, comrade, don't you think one should also work for the people or something like that?" And the foreign scientist answers, "You are so backward, comrade. Don't you understand? The greatest satisfaction, the highest joy one can have in life is exactly that: working for the people!"

After that the discussion is over, the protagonist of the story reflects on the words of the foreign scientist and he resolves to start doing something serious in his life. He decides to start doing experiments, advance his theory. We are not told exactly what he is doing, but we understand that he is working on something important; research that has to do with capturing and storing solar light. And he manages to work on that for some time. Then, his colleagues bring to him another paper written by his provincial antagonist. So, he feels he has to answer that, and then the provincial academician writes a response.... and the protagonist finds himself entangled again into this argument.

Things are back to the silly normalcy of before, but then something happens. The protagonist finds that he is being stalked. Someone, or something, is following him all the time. When he sees it in full he discovers that it is an owl. A giant owl, almost as big as a man, looking at him. He thinks it is a hallucination, which of course it must be. But he keeps seeing this owl over and over.

So, the protagonist goes to see a doctor and he tells him of the owl. The doctor pales. After a thorough physical examination, the doctor tells him: "you have one year to live, more or less." We are not told of what specific sickness the protagonist suffers. He asks, "but why the owl?" And the doctor answers, "we are studying that. You are not the only one. The owl is a symptom." Then, the doctor looks at the protagonist straight in his eyes and he says, "I can tell you something. Those who see the owl, have a chance to be saved."

In the meantime, there had been a long discussion between the protagonist and the foreign scientist, the one who had so well silenced the political commissioner. So, the foreign scientist had told to the protagonist his story, obliquely, yes, but clearly understandable. His fellow countrymen had not liked the idea that he had left the country to become a scientist. They are described as gangsters and criminals, but we have a feeling that there was something more at stake than just petty crimes. This man had made a choice and that had meant to make a clean break from his country and his culture; it had meant to accept the new Soviet Communist society. Now, he was spending his time in this new world trying to get his "greatest satisfactions and highest joys" by working for the people. And, because of that, his former countrymen had condemned him to death. So, he had changed his name and his identity, and he had even surgically changed his face to become unrecognizable. But he knew that "they" were looking for him and they would find him at some moment.

So, the destiny of the protagonist and of the foreign scientist are somehow parallel, they both have a limited time. After having seen the doctor, the protagonist understands the situation and he rushes to search for the foreign scientist. They can work together, they can join forces, in this way, maybe they can....  but in horror, he discovers that the foreign scientist has been killed. 

In panic, the protagonist desperately looks for the notes he had collected over the years. But the cleaning lady tells him that she had used them to start the fire in the stove. She had no idea that they could have been important. The protagonist feels like he is walking in a nightmare. Just one year and he has lost his notes. He starts from scratch.... his great discovery.... how can he do? Yet, he decides to try.

He becomes absorbed in his work. He works harder and harder. Staying in the lab night and day and, when he goes home, he keeps working. His colleagues note the change; they are surprised that he doesn't react anymore to the attacks of the provincial academician, but he doesn't care (which is, by the way, a good lesson on how to handle our modern Internet flames). He still sees the owl; always bigger and coming closer to him, the owl has become something of a familiar creature, almost a friend.

Then, someone appears. It is a woman, described as having "well-formed shoulders" (of course, we are not told her name!). The protagonist recognizes her. It is not the first time he has seen her. He remembers having seen her with the now dead foreign Scientist.

The protagonist has no time for a love story. He has to work. He tries to ignore the woman but he is also attracted to her. He can concede her just a few words. Ten minutes, maybe. So they talk and the woman tells him. "It is you, I recognize you! You can't fool me!" The protagonist remembers something that the foreign scientist had told him; that he had his face surgically changed to escape from his enemies. Now, this woman thinks that the protagonist is really her former lover, who changed again face and appearance and didn't tell that not even to her.

The protagonist tries to deny that he is the former lover of the woman but, curiously, he doesn't succeed, not even to himself. In a way, he becomes the other, acting like him in his complete immersion in his work. The protagonist discovers that the foreign scientist had assembled a complete laboratory at home, much better than the lab at the academy. So he moves there, with the woman with the well-formed shoulders (and the owl comes, too, perching on a branch just outside the window). Then, the protagonist even discovers that the foreign scientist was secretly copying his notes and he gave them to the woman, who has kept them for him. With these notes, he can gain months of work. Maybe he can make it in one year, maybe.....

The last part of the story goes on at a feverish pace. The protagonist becomes sicker and sicker; to the point that he has to stay in bed and it is the woman with the well-formed shoulders who takes up the work in the lab. And the owl perches on the bed head. But they manage to get some important results and that's enough to catch the attention of the lab boss. He orders everyone in the lab to come there and help the protagonist (and the woman with the well-formed shoulders) to move on with the experiments.

In the final scene, the year has ended and we see the protagonist in bed, dying. But his colleagues show him the results of the experiment: something so bright, so beautiful, unbelievably bright and beautiful. We are not told exactly what it is, anyway it is a way to catch sunlight in a compact form: a new form of energy, a new understanding of the working of the sun - we don't know, but it is something fantastic. Even the owl looks at that thing, curious. The protagonist hears the sound of bells from the window. A new year is starting. We are not told whether he lives or not, but in any case, it is a new beginning and, whatever it happens, they'll tell of him that the years of his life had been 900.

And here we are. You see, it is a magic story. It keeps your attention; you want to know if the protagonist lives or not and you want to know if he manages to make his great discovery. But it is also the story of the life and of the mind of scientists that I think is not easy to find in novels or short stories. It is curious that Dudintsev did so well because, as I said, he wasn't a scientist, he was a novelist. But he managed to catch so incredibly well the life of a scientist - of a scientist working in the Soviet Union, yes, but not just that. Dudintsev's portrait of science and scientists goes beyond the quirks of the old Soviet world.

Yes, in Soviet science there were things that look strange for us, such as having a political commissioner in the lab to watch what scientists are doing. But that's just a minor feature and today in the West we have plenty of different -- and heavier  -- constraints on what we do that don't involve a dumb political commissioner. The point is that scientists often work as if their life were to last just one year; at least during the productive time of their life; when they are trying to compress each year as if it were to be 900 years long. It is their lot: the search for the discovery, being so deeply absorbed in their work, being remote from everyone else; obsessed with owls that they alone can see.

And yet, Dudintsev's story is so universal that it goes beyond the peculiar mind of scientists. It is the story of all men, all over the world, of what we do and how we spend our life. And the key of the story is the woman with the well-formed shoulders. She recognizes her former lover in the protagonist, or she feigns to recognize him. It is him or it is not him - we are not told, but it doesn't matter. What matter is her devotion to her man. It is so touching: you perceive true love in this attitude. In the end, that's the key to the whole story: whatever we do in life, we do it for those we love.

Some of us are scientists, some aren't. But it is not a piece of bad advice to live your life as if you wanted each year to be 900 years long. And every new year is a new beginning.


Friday, December 25, 2020

2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church


Christmas of 1914: soldiers from opposite sides met in a friendly manner across the front line. For a short time, the Christian message of love managed to overcome the message of hate that came from national governments. It was just a brief moment for a good deed that surely didn't go unpunished. But it was highlighting a deep contradiction that was prefiguring the final collapse of the church, but that would take another century or so. It is coming now. 


Sometimes, life is like watching the long needle of an old mechanical watch. No matter how carefully you look at it, it doesn't seem to move -- time is frozen. Then, you look at something else, and when your glance is back to the watch, the needle has moved. Time has passed, and that moment will never come back. 

Sometimes, you have the same sensation with history. For a long time, everything seems to be frozen and nothing changes then, suddenly, everything has changed and the world is a different one. It has happened in this 2020 that, suddenly, changed everything, and the world of one year ago will never come back.

I already noted how some institutions have been shattered at their foundations by the COVID crisis of 2020. One was the university, destroyed by the sudden discovery that it is an expensive machine that produces nothing useful for the state. Another illustrious victim is starting to crumble: it is the Church. Primarily, the Catholic Church in its claims of universality, but all Christian Churches have been affected by a crisis that left them stunned, suddenly realizing that they had nothing to say and nothing to do about a disaster that seemed to affect everybody. 

The collapse of the university and of the Church is all the more remarkable considering how old they are. The University has about one thousand years of history in Europe, more if we consider the Islamic world. The Christian Church is even older than that. Yet, nothing is eternal in human history. Everything moves, changes, crumbles, disappears, is reborn, and disappears again. It is true for empires, and also for institutions that seem to be stronger even than empires: churches, temples, religions, and ideologies. Even the Gods die and are reborn, it is one of their characteristics. 

And so, look at the Christian Church in Europe. It was born as the reaction to a state, the Roman one, that was crumbling, starting around the 3rd century AD. The Roman state was based on military might, but that was too expensive for the new times. Gradually, the Church replaced the Roman state, mirroring the older institutions in new forms, more compatible with an age when the available resources didn't allow the kind of military power that had been the rule in earlier times. The Church delegated force to local warlords while governing on the basis of prestige and on a shared set of beliefs and rituals. As all human constructions, the system was far from being perfect, but it generated an age of relative peace and the end of the worst flaws of the older Roman world: the slavery of millions, the oppression of women, the emphasis on military power, the inequality of the few versus the many, the cruelty of the arena games. 

The reign of the Christian Church lasted for several centuries, nearly a millennium. Then, the giant wheel of history made one of its turns. The printing press appeared in the 15th century, the brainchild of a man named Gutenberg who probably never imagined what he was creating: nation-states, new creatures that had never existed before. Their organization was not anymore based on money, as in the Roman state. And not even on a shared religion and a sacred language (Latin), as it was the case for the Christian Church. Nation-states were based on their national language: an invention of the printing press that created bonds among the people who could understand each other. It was a re-edition of the old Greek concept of the barbarophonoi, those who speak bar-bar, the barbarians. But the new barbarians were not anymore the inhabitants of remote lands, bad-smelling and dressed in animal skins. They were your neighbors who happened to live just on the other side of an imaginary line called "national border." Those same neighbors whom the Church had been telling you to love as yourself, but whom now the state instructed you to hate and despise.

And so there started a conflict that's lasting to this day. As for many features of history, things move slowly, but surely. First, there came the great convulsions of the age we call "Renaissance." It truly started with a bang, the extermination of hundreds of thousands of European women, accused of being witches. Not only the nation-states succeeded in enlisting the Church top help in the task, but with the so-called "enlightenment," we saw one of the greatest successes of propaganda in history. The Church was accused of a mass extermination that had instead been performed by the state. Even people's perception was modified: in their memory, the age of witch-hunting was pushed back to the Middle Ages, turned by propaganda into a "dark age" of superstition and violence. But the Church was not a woman-killing machine. It was the state who wanted more cannon fodder for its armies and so it needed to enslave women and turn them into child-bearing machines. But the force of propaganda is enormous, it is one of the wheels that push history forward. 

The witch-hunting age, mostly the 16th and 17th centuries, was one of the factors that shattered the unity of the Christian Church. Then, there came the reformation, and then the age of colonization when, again, the states managed another master stroke of propaganda. They were able to convince everyone that it had been the Church pushing for enslaving and exterminating non-European people.

Then, there came the 20th century and the age of the world wars where, again, the Church found no role and nothing to say on an event that was shattering its very foundations of a universal institution. I wrote an entire book on how people's faith was affected by this tremendous contradiction: Christians were fighting each other all over Europe and, on both sides of the front line, Christian priests were blessing young men to go killing other young men on the other side (you see, in the figure, an Italian military chaplain blessing Italian soldiers before going to battle). 

The Church barely survived this tremendous blow, but more were to come. Once, a Japanese friend of mine told me something like "I always found it weird how every week Europeans get together in churches to eat God." A flash of how strange some things appear when seen from another viewpoint. But this Japanese man was right: eating God is one of the elements of the Church rituals. A Church is like a state in many ways: it has rituals just like the state does. The state has military parades, the church has religious processions. The state enlists young men as soldiers, the Church enlists them as choirboys. The state vaccinates children, the Church baptizes them. The state taxes people, the Church asks them for alms. And much more. The Church may ask you to eat the body of the son of God who sacrificed himself for his love for humankind, just like the state may ask you to send your son to die on some remote mountains to show his love for that section of humankind that you call the "nation."

You may see all this as a symmetric battle, but the two sides are not equivalent in power. As I said, the Church had started as an alternative to the crumbling Roman state, but it was to be expected that the wheel would turn around. The State is now much more powerful than the Church and the sermons of the priest had no way to compete with the state news services. It was all going to happen and it happened. 

It is curious that such an old and resilient institution was demolished by such a humble creature as a virus labeled SARS-Covid2. But that was how it happened. Faced with the virus threat, the Church found nothing to say, nothing to object, nothing to propose. It meekly submitted to the superior power of the state. 

So, in Italy, this Christmas the state ruled that the traditional midnight mass was to be held at 8 pm. Of course, it is hard to believe that a virus could infect people at midnight but not at 8 pm. One could also say that, while nobody can say at what time Jesus Christ was born (probably not even on the day we call "Christmas"), it was the job of the Church and not of the state to decide on this point. But the Church was totally silent and it bowed down to the state. It had already bowed down on many other things. The images of Italian police stopping the celebration of a mass during the lockdown of March was seen by everybody and condemned by almost nobody. On visiting a church, you would find someone at the entrance pointing a laser gun at your forehead. You saw the benches with places crossed with red tape. Instead of holy water fountains, you would find bottles with disinfecting solutions. People hiding their faces in front of God just like Adam had been hiding from God in the Garden of Eden.  And, finally, the final insult was the virtual mass, with the priest turned into a 2D image confined in a little square on a screen, virtually blessing virtual believers. 

It was a sacrilege, it was the desecration of a place that, so far, had managed to resist, at least in part, the state's power. And it was, basically, the end of an age. Anything you believe in must be eventually be kept alive by practice. Practice is based on rituals, the Christian church has been existed for so many centuries because among other things, as my Japanese friend said, people would collect every week to eat God together. It may have been silly from a Far-Eastern viewpoint, but it was a ritual. And all rituals are collective -- they have them also in the Far East, even though they don't eat their Gods in the form of wafers. 

Without the rituals, or with the rituals compressed on a screen, the structure ceases to exist. It is just like the university: it is no more a university when teachers and students are reduced to 2-dimensional creatures inhabiting a small square of a screen. Without the ritual of classroom teaching, the university cannot exist. Without the ritual of the meetings of people whom we call the "congregation" and that in earlier times was called the "ecclesia," the Church is mute, the faith is gone, the faithful are disbanded, the holy places are desecrated.  And that's what's happening and everything that happens happens because it had to happen.

And now? History will keep going in circles as it has always done. The new state-sponsored rituals to fight the pandemic are triumphant, but there will be new cycles. The Gutenberg machine is being replaced by the much more powerful Google machine and we don't know what effects that will have on the entities that dominate the world, nowadays. Will the triumphant nation-states will see their doom, soon? We cannot say. We can only say that the great wheel of history is turning. It will keep turning.



Note added after publication

An interesting article appeared on the "Tablet Magazine" on how the members of the Jewish Satmar community of New York decided to defy the COVID regulations and held a funeral celebration for one of their members.
This story matches very well my considerations in this post on how most religions worldwide are unable to provide an independent answer to the COVID issue and are being squeezed out of the debate, and perhaps out of existence.
In the article, the author bends over backwards to justify the position of the Satmar Jews. Right now, the idea that there is something more important than fighting the Covid epidemic looks incomprehensible, monstrous, even straight evil, to the great majority in the West. 
Yet, I believe that the Satmar understand very well that if they are to survive as a religious community they have to uphold the belief that God is more important than a virus. Actually that God is more important than anything else. And they are acting consistently. Something that the Christian Church, and the Catholic Church in particular, is not doing at al




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)