Saturday, March 31, 2007

Steps Towards Self-Sufficiency

I'm feeling fairly happy with myself at the moment, as I just finished planting five new fruit trees in my yard--one apricot, two sweet cherries, and two european prune plums. It wasn't particularly difficult--five plants in the ground with all the extras in a little over two hours work. I have no delusions that these five trees will make me self-sufficient when it comes to food, but they are a start, and they're something that almost anyone in suburbia can do. I should get some fruit in two or three years, as they are all fairly large and hardy bare-root specimens. Eventually they will, hopefully, provide quite a boundy--according to John Jeavons of Ecology Action, one mature semi-dwarf apricot (as I planted) should yield up to 225 pounds of fruit. Each semi-dwarf sweet cherry should yield up to 200 pounds of cherries, and each prune plum up to 100 pounds of plums. That more than a little--it comes to 53,00o calories of apricots + 81,000 calories of plums + 60,000 calories of cherries, for a grand total of 194,000 calories per year. That's 531 calories per day, or about 25% of my caloric needs for years and years. I'm sure that I won't come close to that in the average year, but even at half that, it's not bad for two hours work! Now all I have to do is keep them alive and healthy...

I"m particularly interested in the Apricot variety that I planted--it's a "sweet heart" where the kerel is also supposed to be non-bitter and edible because it doesn't contain the toxins in most apricot kernels. The Hunza, who live in a remote valley in the far north of Pakistan, survive largely on apricots--they eat the fruit fresh and dried all year round, and they grow a unique variety with a similarly edible kernel. They use this kernel in ground form as a high-protein, high-fat flour-equivalent, and they express oil from the kernels to meet their primary fat requirement and as a lamp fuel. It's like the olive of the Karakoram! If nothing else, it's worth the experiment, and is a potentially fascinating way to follow the classic permaculture function fo stacking processes to increase yields--most apricot kernels go to waste...

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Stormy Weather

So many things happening at once today:

Oil is up $2 today, seventh straight day of gains. What will happen in Iran? Tensions are escalating, the situation with the captured British sailors seems to be beyond the control of either Iran or the UK, and the sheer quantity of military forces operating on edge in close proximity in the Persian Gulf makes the probability of an accidental "Gulf of Tonkin" type incident more and more likely by the hour. Not to mention incidents of the non-accidental type. Now it seems that the Nimitz is heading to the gulf to replace one of the two US carriers operating there--there will, of course, be a bit of an overlap, so for a period there will be 3 US carriers in the gulf. Oh, did I forget to mention that the French carrier, the Charles de Gaul, also recently arrived in the Arabian sea? Four carriers in one place almost speaks for itself. I wonder which would better build public support for an attack on Iran, the Nimitz "getting struck by a Sunburn SSM" while trainsiting the Strait of Hormuz, or the de Gaul "hitting a mine" while making the same passage. People keep asking me when and if we're going to attack Iran. I didn't think we'd attack Iraq (booked a vacation that I had to skip, in fact), so maybe I'm overly conservative in these areas as it is, but I'm rapidly coming around to the prospect of an attack on Iran. I still think that we're looking for an incident to build support back home--and the current administration will probably keep ratcheting up the tension until such an incident becomes inevitable. Hey, if it happens before the current troop funding for Iraq expires, then Bush could force the Democrats' hand on war funding, kill the timeline issue entirely, and give McCain a 20 point lead in the '08 presidential race.

But that isn't the only rosy news. The mortgage problems are getting worse. You've heard all about the sub-prime mortgage issue. Now take two minutes and carefully look at this graph:

Scared? If not, look again. That's $ 500 BILLION in sub-prime ARMs set to adjust higher in the next 24 months, and given the recent events, these people will not be able to get new sub-prime loans to refinance to fixed rates. The risk allocation system of Credit-Swap Derivatives did an admirable job of redistributing the first $100 billion in defaults (though only about $10 billion has actually defaulted, the rest are still at some point in the foreclosure process), but will it be able to handle this, or will it bring down the whole house of cards trying? So far only 44 mortgage lenders, including 3 of the top 10, have imploded (see the mortgage lender implode-o-meter) in the sub-prime debacle. How will the economy handle the next wave, which will be between 5 and 50 times as large? The good news is that our brilliant Congress has decided that people already inside the Ponzi scheme of our economy should bail themselves out. Seriously, they're considering a mortgage bail out. I'm sure they won't finance it with obvious taxation, but probably through inflationary debt spending that will have the same effect. Can you afford $1000 to bail out someone else's mortgage? What about the next round?

I'll end on a less negative note: check out John Robb's latest post on The Virtual Caliphate. It's fascinating, chronicles the rise of exactly the kind of state alternative that Robb has talked about before, and that I wrote about in The New Map. If nothing else the greater costs imposed on territorial Nation-States from rising energy prices and mortgage melt-downs will speed up the transition.


Financial Forensics

I have a new article on The Oil Drum this morning:

Financial Intelligence: How Arbitrage Forensics Provide Insight into Saudi Knowledge

I think it adds yet one more piece of analytical evidence that Saudi Arabia knows--thanks to their access to their internal data--that their oil production has peaked...

Monday, March 26, 2007

Is Secrecy Dying?

An interesting new article in Wired Magazine suggests that transparency is the new king and secrecy is dying. I agree that there are too many secrets, and wrote about the potential for "radical transparency" in everything from military operations to business back in 2004. The problem, as usual, is power, and the Wired article highlights this issue by ignoring it: transparency is good and secrecy is dying as long as it's profitable, and not before. There is a high cost to early adopters of radical transparency, and the failure to view this game as an infinitely iterated game will most likely prevent any adoption of radical transparency in most cases.

I'll go out on a limb and suggest that radical transparency ALWAYS makes sense IF you're the good guy. The quanum leap in radical transparency will not come until the public at large realize the corrollary to that rule: if you're not radically transparent, you're the bad guy.

This is so obvious as to be almost invisible.

Tony Snow: "'s a reasonable and extraordinary effort on our part to help Congress do its job [by insisting that officials testify without a record and not under oath]"

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Suburban Solar Retrofit

It was a wonderful, spring-like day in Denver yesterday...75 degrees, sunny, the perfect excuse to sit on the back patio. With a diurnal temperature swing of 38 degrees at night, 75 in the day, heating and cooling my house seemed like distant concerns. Still, sitting out in the sun makes for a fine environment to brainstorm: How to best retrofit our nation's huge investment in suburbia?

I don't feel too hypocritical about my house. It isn't the straw-bale/adobe hybrid, passive-solar driven, food-forest enveloped home that I eventually hope to have, but it isn't exactly a McMansion either. It's 2300 square feet (while that may not seem small to most people, many of my neighbors come in at well over 6000 square feet of semi-custom goodness), and while it is in suburbia, it's very close to a light-rail station. I have a relatively efficient, natural-gas powered forced-air heater, and a high-efficiency air conditioner, but no matter how much they may have "efficiency" on the label, they are a problem. My utility bills are not exactly cheap in peak heating or cooling months (though quite affordable compared to the average around here). What to do?

The primary energy demands of my home--like most suburban homes--are for heating, cooling, and hot water, in that order. How can I retrofit my house to 1) save me money, 2) make me immune to future energy supply disruptions or price spikes, and 3) provide a positive example? Today I'll look at some solar options that I'm considering.

As people who read this blog regularly know, I'm not a fan of solar photovoltaics--I think they provide a very poor energy return on energy invested, and are only economical for the consumer when highly subsidized by tax incentives. Tax subsidy only helps some people at the expense of many--it does not make PV a solution for the masses.

Solar hot water, however, is a very promising means of capturing solar energy. Solar hot water systems can provide 75% of my year-round water heating energy for an initial investment of about $3000 (Colorado is an excellent solar location due to our high number of sunny days, especially in winter). Without considerint tax credits, that investment pays itself off in a little under 8 years with my rate of useage, and at today's energy costs. That's a winner.

But the water-heating component of my energy useage is far less than my home heating. How well can solar hot water meet that need as well? It is quite conventional to use solar hot water for in-floor radiant heating or with conventional radiators--but this is not a perfect solution. It can provide much of the day-time heating needs (when the sun is shining), but does nothing to address the more significant night-time heating needs. What is needed to effectively retrofit a standard suburban home with solar-hot-water space heating is to integrate thermal mass into the equation. As far as I know, this really isn't being done at all. Rather than pumping very hot water through radiators or sub-floor tubing, solar hot water can heat high thermal-mass water walls inside the house. This is a better solution for two reasons: 1) solar hot water has difficulty reaching high temperatures necessary for standard radiators during the dead of winter, even in Colorado, but it can still provide sufficient BTUs to raise the temperature of a thousand gallons of water (in several thermal-mass banks) from 60 to 80 degrees F, and 2) the high-termal mass of that volume of water will slowly dissipate heat for hours, providing radiative heating throughout the night. Isolated-gain solar-hot water heating is one of the most efficient ways to capture solar energy--the only remaining issue for applying this energy to heating is to correctly design a thermal mass based system...

Thermal mass can have its drawbacks, however. Increasing the mass inside my house will have the effect of requiring more energy to cool in the summer. The thermal mass can be exposed to cool night breezes when it cools enough to open my windows, but it will still have the effect of slowing the overall cooling effect of that breeze. So, some solution must be developed that makes the same thermal mass that is so useful in winter into an asset in summer as well. One solution is simply to drain the water in the thermal mass when it is no longer needed for heating (and turn off the associated plumbing loop). This eliminates the problem, but doesn't leverage the existing investment in plumbing and mass banks work to help with summer-time cooling. Instead, it should be possible to use the same winter-time system as a radiative cooler. In the winter, water (or an anti-freeze solution in closed-loop systems) is pumped through the solar collector during the day when the sun is shining, but turns off at night to avoid bleeding heat from the hot water storage. It should be possible to use the same solar collector that gains heat during the day in winter to dissipate heat at night in the summer. Sky-facing night radiators can rapidly lose heat, nearing freezing temperatures even in the tropics. The fundamental design of a solar collector and a sky-facing night radiator are quite similar--it should be possible, perhaps with minor alterations, to utilize the same system for both tasks. If this works, then in summer the thermal mass water banks can be cycled through these sky-facing night radiators after the sun goes down, and help to actively cool the house--by sunrise the next morning there could be a thousand gallons of 40 degree F water radiating cool for the remainder of the day.

While the trifecta of using a single solar-water system to heat water, heat my house, and cool my house is quite exciting, the concepts require a little more work. If anyone has heard of people using solar hot water space heating, or sky-facing night-radiators, please let me know in the comments. In addition, any other thoughts on retrofitting suburbia are welcome--hopefully this will become a bit of a series as I explore and implement various strategies.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Nigeria: Firestorm

I have a new article up on The Oil Drum, about fundamental changes in the nature of the insurgency in Nigeria and its effect on energy supplies. Take a look, and if you're feeling generous hit the Digg or Reddit buttons...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Blue Force Intel

While I’m awaiting publication of an article that I wrote on the escalating violence in Nigeria (due out on, probably tomorrow), I’ll vent for a moment about an intelligence-related problem that I’ve continually run up against—as recently as yesterday.

The problem is collecting intelligence on our own forces—“Blue Force Intel.”

It’s a symptom of the deeper sickness of secrecy within our military. Open source warfare—the kind of thing increasingly practiced by outfits like al-Qa’ida—has far less of an issue with this. But the United States tends to guard information according to the classic method: the security of a secret is inversely proportionate to the square of the number of people who know it. Put otherwise, the US government doesn’t tell the US government what it is doing, and especially not what it is planning to do.

My most memorable experience with this occurred during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As chief of intelligence for a squadron of electronic jamming aircraft (EC-130H Compass Call), I planned offensive and defensive components of our missions. Offensive components included jamming enemy communications infrastructure in the locations that most aided our advancing ground forces. This, naturally, required high-resolution understanding of what our ground forces were presently doing, and would be doing in the next day or two. Defensive components included avoiding those areas where our aircraft would be most vulnerable to surface-to-air fire. This, naturally, required high-resolution understanding of what our ground forces were presently doing (what areas they had cleared, what areas they had simply bypassed), and what they would be doing in the next day or two. Naturally, it was virtually impossible to get any of this information direct from the horse’s mouth.

Sure, at some central operations center (actually only a few miles from my tent, but on an entirely different base that required driving a half hour through downtown Doha) there were people representing the exact units that I needed information on, but they didn’t know what precisely their own units were doing any more than our own representatives knew what we were planning—it was a simple issue of information processing burden I hierarchy. We had enough time to plan our own missions, or communicate all the fine details of those missions to our representatives, but not both.

So, it turned out that the most effective way to get the information that we needed was to engage in our own, unsanctioned intelligence collection on our own forces. This may seem wasteful, but it involved significantly less information processing burden in a hierarchy the size of the US military than actually asking our army units where they are now and where they plan to be tomorrow. Plus, they wouldn’t tell us anyway. Sure, we were on the same side, but specific operational details of the kind we needed are on a “need to know basis,” and no matter how much we explained that we need to know to protect *you*, we still didn’t have the right kind of “need to know.” So we would debrief our own flight crews on their observations about our own units locations, we would deduce our own military plans from information that we could access about locations for our own satellite collections, UAV flight paths, etc., and we would scour the secure internet looking for ways to access other units mission planning files. It worked out OK.

Which reminds me about my favorite part of the TV show “24”: the utter fantasy of how easily and fluidly they access information and electronic systems that magically tell them what they need to know. Trust me, it doesn’t work like that.

Fast forward to the present. I’m still dealing with the same issues when I work with domestic infrastructure security matters. Consider the following scenario: assume for the moment that there is a possibility that we will attack Iran. Then assume that, after we attack Iran, Iran will retaliate by attacking inside the US. Now assume that you’re tasked with protecting against that retaliatory attack. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if, and when, we are going to attack Iran. Hah! It appears that I don’t have the need to know these things. So, I resort to the same old tricks, and go to work using our own intelligence infrastructure to collect intelligence on ourselves.

Another example of the idiocy of hierarchy…

Monday, March 05, 2007

Why the Free Market Fails Consumers in Sustainable Energy Innovation

Let’s start off with an assumption: humanity must rapidly replace our reliance on non-renewable energy sources with truly sustainable alternatives. The conventional wisdom—at least that advanced by corporate “Main-Stream Media”—is that free markets are the best source of innovation. Now a question: is free-market innovation the best way to develop viable, sustainable energy alternatives?

The free market will ignore solutions that can’t turn a profit. Any firm that fails to follow this simple maxim won’t be in business for long. The corollary to this maxim is that the free market will ignore any solution that cannot be controlled, either through property interests (enforceable intellectual property, monopoly licenses, etc.) or because economies of scale demand centralized operation. This means that free market innovation is structurally incompatible with a huge portion of the universe of possible energy solutions.

Free markets love non-renewable energy sources because they are readily controlled. In countries where mineral rights are privately owned (only the US and Canada), these resources can be controlled via property rights. In the rest of the world, they can be controlled equally easily through exclusive contracts with governments. But renewable energy presents a serious control challenge to the free market’s need to profit.

When confronted with this challenge, the free market attempts to adapt its usual tool, property, to the problem. Take ethanol and other biofuels, for example. This attempted solution to our energy problems can be controlled both through real property (ownership of the farm land that produces the raw materials) and through intellectual property (proprietary distilling processes, patented microbes that convert things to sugars, etc.). Never mind that biofuels provide a suspiciously poor energy return on investment and often require government subsidies, slave labor, or fossil fuel inputs, or that they don’t address more fundamental problems like the world’s ongoing growth in energy demand, topsoil depletion, or competition between food and energy. They can make money. Is this the best that free-market innovation can provide?

What about solar? The free market is investing huge resources into innovation in this field. Virtually all of it, however, is being invested in proprietary technology for photovoltaics. In other words, property, which can be controlled to produce a profit. Never mind that, while photovoltaics are a great way to produce electricity, they are a very poor way to produce energy (see my discussion on this point). Why does the free market almost entirely ignore the potentially rich conceptual space of passive solar design? Precisely because the obvious value in this area—that of refining and implementing vernacular technologies—cannot be effectively controlled through existing intellectual property mechanisms. If it can’t be controlled to produce a profit, then free market innovation is blind to its potential. Never mind that, in my opinion, passive solar design is the single most promising way to meet our future energy needs?

What about conservation? No very sexy, I know, but certainly an effective way to reduce our energy demand. The problem, again, is that the free market has a difficult time profiting off of it. Sure, the free market can innovate something to sell you that will help you conserve, but the actual act of conservation kills profits. I’m not talking about increased efficiency of our energy use (which, as classical economics tells us, lowers cost and frees up the consumer to expend the money saved in consumption elsewhere, thereby increasing the total standard of living—at least when measured as a function of consumption). No, I’m talking about actual conservation—just plain using less. This is anathema to free market economics. The idea that we could use less energy in total, and then invest the savings in non-economic goods such as leisure time or security-through-self-sufficiency, is highly problematic because it causes a cumulative decrease in GDP (leisure time doesn’t count as a “product”!). Imagine: “Here’s my business plan… I’m not going to sell anything, and when all is said and done, people will us less. We’ll get rich!” Sure, the free-market can provide the service of helping people conserve, but that’s a bit like a virus that kills its host before it can reproduce…

So, if free market innovation fails in the entire sphere of vernacular-design-based solution, and can’t even contemplate conservation-based solutions, then is it really the pinnacle of sustainable energy innovation? There is only one guaranteed result of relying on the free market to solve our energy problems in a world where production from fossil supplies is peaking: its solutions will never free us from energy dependency or energy scarcity. The free market will never produce a solution to this problem where consumers aren’t dependent on firms for the product they purchase, because to do so would fail to produce a profit. Similarly, the free market will never have the economic motivation to make energy cheaper (over the long-term)—it would be, by definition, irrational economic behavior to produce energy so cheaply that the total value of the world market for energy goes down.

If that’s what you’re looking for—depending on someone else for energy that is always getting more expensive—then the free market is your innovation engine of choice. If, however, you’d prefer secure and inexpensive energy, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Conservation and vernacular-design-based solutions are a good place to start… just don't expect to find much support for this argument, or ideas for conservation or vernacular-design-based solutions, in Main-Stream Media outlets. They have a profit motive, too, and if they can't sell your viewership to others who want to sell you a profit-orriented product, then the story is of no value.