Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Passive Solar & Independence

Occasionally I go on a rant about how critical energy independence, energy decentralization and vernacular energy technology are to freedom. Or, how energy centralization creates empire. Every day I hear about how some new technology will save us from oil prices or pollution or whatever. What seems to be continually overlooked is how easily these problems -- and the danger of a solution that increases the centralization of energy production (nuclear...) -- can be solved: PASSIVE SOLAR.

I say this a lot, and I get the impression that the definition isn't really well known. There are those ugly solar photo-voltaic cells (ACTIVE solar) that you can put on your roof, but the energy required to make one (mainly derived from oil) is just about equal to the energy that they will produce over their lifetime, and they require centralized manufacturing and high-technology to produce. No, passive solar is simply the harnessing of the sun's power directly. Ever notice how a room with lots of windows that face the sun gets hot? OK, that's the whole concept... now let's explore how this can be applied effectively, simply, cheaply, etc.

Pretty much everyone can figure out how to heat a home with passive solar. But most people aren't aware at how effective passive solar can be for cooling, cooking, ventilation, waste disposal, etc. Let's take on the most difficult challenge: Cooling a home in Phoenix in the summer with only passive solar. Bill Mollison's "Permaculture: A Designer's Manual" outlines a passive solar cooling system which I have adapted into the graphic below.

For example, while in Phoenix it may never get below 90 at night during some points in the summer, the temperature of the earth at 10' underground is always a nice 55-65 degrees F. A simple solar chimney on your home (roughly, imagine a normal chimney x 50%, with a single-glazed window on the South side and a black-painted vent pipe inside) will heat up and pull air rapidly out of your home. Now, for air intake, lay a "radiator", a network of pipes 10' underground that acts as a heat-exchanger with the thermal mass of the earth. As the solar chimney draws air out, you get nice, cool air blowing in through vents in your floor. 0 energy cost, 0 moving parts, simple technology, and it keeps your (well insulated) home at a comfortable temperature and well ventilated, even in Phoenix in August. Similar technology has been in use in vernacular architecture in the Middle East for thousands of years.

Here's the catch: because it's vernacular technology, and can be easily implemented in a decentralized fashion, there isn't much money to be made off this through a centralized/industrialized economic mode. But it works... this is the very stuff of freedom.

Friday, June 24, 2005

"The Nazis Had Pieces of Flair, Too..."

The US House of Representatives has passed a Constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, and many analysts think that the Senate will also pass the amendment later this Summer.

Jon Stewart may have said it best: "[flag burning] is a dickish, juvenile act... but this almost makes me want to go out and burn one." Or something like that.

While, superficially, this is nothing more than some cheap politics, a diversion from our actual problems, there is a very disconcerting side to the story: the significance attached to the symbols of a nation-state are directly related to its slide into fascism. It's symbol over substance, as I discussed in Love Your Nation-State. Attaching meaning to the symbol itself is only necessary if the substantive freedoms or principles supposedly attached to that symbol are under attack.

As Nietzsche said, we have Symbols "in order not to perish of Truth." See John Zerzan's "The Case Against Art" for a primitivist critique of symbols.

Monday, June 20, 2005

"Refinery Capacity" & Crude Oil Prices

Iran's OPEC minister is saying the exact same thing that we hear from Bush & the Saudis: "The fundamental problems with the conditions of the [crude oil] market are related to refinery capacity".


If refinery capacity is tight (as they claim, and facts seem to support, especially the capacity to refine the necessary grades of crude), then refineries limit orders of crude from the producers (why would they order crude [demand] that they know they can't refine?)--steadying or decreasing demand. If demand is level or dropping, then prices should HOLD or DROP unless supply is also dropping.

If refinery capacity is not tight, then the issue isn't refinery capacity, but rather DEMAND for crude oil. Demand rises, supply remains steady and prices should rise, as we're seeing.

The final possibility is that the price is reflecting the information processing capability of "the market" to identify future problems before they are readily apparent. Refineries take a very long time to build, and there aren't significant refineries under construction at the moment, so this mysterious future market signal is not about refinery capacity. Therefore it is most likely about the future increase in the disparity between supply and demand -- either from a decrease in supply or an ongoing increase in demand.

This is the smokescreen that is being laid all around us: Those in control of oil, and those whose power depends on the continuation of cheap oil cannot let us in on their secret: WE DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH SUPPLY of crude oil. It doesn't matter if supply grows--demand is growing faster. And there are solid indicators that supply will decrease in the near future.

With NYMEX crude closing at a record high on Friday, the real question becomes this: how much longer can prices increase before the general public applies the simple economic logic used above to understand that there is a serious problem, and that their leaders are lying to them??

The proof is in the pudding: NYMEX Crude Futures for December 2009 have risen to $55.55/barrel. OPEC has also increased their target price from "$22-28/barrel" to "$48/barrel". Fat chance. (link to NYMEX chart, free registration required)

The only economic discussion of any actual value at this point is just how fast price will continue to rise as an inelastic demand for petroleum is confronted with insufficient--even decreasing--supplies?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

"Span of Control" and the Inefficiency of Hierarchy

"Span of Control" is one term for the management concept that one person can only effectively control a limited number of subordinates. As a hierarchal organization grows, more and more intermediary layers must be created to keep this span of control within reasonable bounds. Let's explore the (quite obvious) ramifications of this, as a means of better understanding RA Wilson's SNAFU principle: As hierarchy grows, the increasing number of relays that information must cross, and the self-interested distortion of information at each relay ensures the inefficiency of information processing within hierarchy.

The US Federal Government's National Incident Management System (NIMS) is based upon the Incident Control System (ICS) methodology developed by wildfire fighters to create a standard for command and control systems (hierarchy) as government agencies respond to incidents. NIMS and ICS both state that the maximum desirable span of control is 5, meaning that one supervisor should control no more than 5 subordinates. The US Military follows a similar formula: one commander controls three subordinate units, as well as a staff function, which results in a span of control of roughly 5. This military formula is virtually identical around the world--a time-tested formula for maximum span of control. The military formula, however, is more revealing, for while it uses a 5:1 span of control, the operational span of control is only 3:1 (that is, the number of subordinate units that actually carry out the fundamental mission of the organization). The remaining two (roughly) staff positions under each commander are actually information processing assistants necessary to make even the 3:1 span of control effective. Without getting in to two much details, those staff positions are normally broken down to an executive officer, who is in turn responsible for the commander's administrative staff, and a deputy commander, who is in turn responsible for the commander's non-administrative staff (Intelligence, Logistics, Human Resources, etc.). As a result of the executive officer and deputy commander concept, the non-operational tail actually extends down two layers from each "operational" commander at the higher levels.

Let's flesh out this formula for a moment, and see what happens. I've used military (US Air Force) terminology for the organizational levels:

2-Layer organization (1 information relay): 1 Element leader : 5 subordinates (3 operational)
50% of a 2-layer organization is directly involved in the "operational execution" of the organization's mission--in otherwords, they are the actual tip of the spear.*

*In the simple case of rifle-infantry, there is more tip and less tail. We actually see exactly the opposite in the case of more complex functions: For example, the support tail required to put a single F-16 and Pilot in play can become almost humorously large.

3-Layer organization (2 information relays): 1 Flight Leader: 3 Element leaders (+ staff): 9 "front-line" operational personnel (out of 21 total personnel).
43% of a 3-layer organization is at the "tip" of the spear.

4-Layer organization (3 information relays): 1 Squadron Commander : 3 Flight Leaders (+ two-tiered staff) : 9 Element Leaders (+ staff) : 27 "front-line" operational personnel (out of 106 total personnel)
25% of a 4-layer organization is at the "tip" of the spear.

5-Layer organization (4 information relays): 1 Group Commander: 3 Squadron Commanders (+ two-tiered staff): 9 Flight Leader (+ two-tiered staff) : 27 Element leaders (+ staff) : 81 "front-line" operational personnel (out of 331 total personnel)
24% of a 5-layer organization is at the "tip" of the spear.

6-Layer ("Wing"): 243 "operational" personnel of 1006 total personnel = 24%

In reality, the number of staff tiers keeps increasing (for example, I've never seen an Air Force "wing" with only 12 wing-staff personnel, as the two-tiered staff formula would suggest). Wilson's SNAFU principle would suggest that as the number of layers (and hence relays) increases, the number of personnel involved in information processing functions will keep increasing beyond the 76% suggested in the 6-layer organization above. In reality, this does in fact happen, as at each higher level there are additional staff functions that must be added (e.g. at the Flight level, the staff doesn't include medical, but at the Wing level it may include an entire hospital). Additionally, the degree of autonomy is increased from the Group to Wing level, as necessitated by the sheer impossibility of maintaining effective communications through 5 hierarchal relays.

Question: How can the efficiency gains through task specialization be accurately quantified, so that the efficiency gains (specialization) and losses (information processing burden) of hierarchy can be accurately compared, both internally, and between hierarchal and non-hierarchal structures?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

A Few Weeks Leave

So I've just returned from a few weeks on the other side of the planet, completely removed from all access to news and media coverage. It was quite refreshing. But on my return, I was struck by the interesting perspective that a few weeks leave gives--I think it helps to identify those events that have some potential for long term significance. I picked up the June 4-5 copy of the International Herald Tribune:

It seems we now know who Deep Throat is. Yawn.

Oil is back to $55/barrel. So much for theories of a short term spike (and today the IEA released a report on how demand is exceeding supply from non-surface sources...)

Far more interesting--in my opinion--is that both France and the Netherlands voted a resounding "no" to their referendums on the EU constitution. The Herald Tribune writer even went so far as to suggest that this was the most interesting time in European politics since May of '68. I have a difficult time evaluating the truth of that statement, but just the fact that it was made is pretty striking.

Other than that, travel is always enlightening. I stumbled across a Slow Food festival on accident, and found a place quite reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's Pala from "Island" (my photo below). In fact, this is the second picture of Panarea that has found its way into my Blog, the first from an essay on "Vernacular Zen". I'll be writing more about these last few items shortly...

Does Pala actually exist? Panarea (at least in May) is pretty close...