Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Corny Schemes

The cover of Time Magazine shows an ear of corn sheathed with dollar bills instead of leaves. See: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1725975-1,00.html

Some seem to be finally willing to write about, what some of us engineers and scientists have been saying, since ethanol biofuels were first proposed. It won't save anything. It will cause inflation and world famine. It will increase the carbon in the atmosphere. Now the bandwagon may be impossible to stop or the ethanol financial bubble will burst. The cover of Time may be an early warning. Hopefully that's the case. Reverberations from the collapse may not be too drastic. There are big bucks and big egos invested in this concept that will fight to preserve this bad idea. Fortunately, President Bush has hopped on the ethanol bandwagon, thereby making it a fair target for the media.

The philosophical question is why does this happen? We know that individuals make bad decisions because of bad information, bad models, bad motivation, bad execution, etc. One would imagine that a large group of people could somehow average out their defects and come up with fewer failed decisions. It doesn't seem to work that way. Why?

As you know, I prefer anecdotal evidence over statistical evidence. I believe most of all (not exclusively) what I personally experience. I testified once before the Hawaii Senate Committee on something or other. I testified that the Senate needed to do a better job finding disinterested parties to make recommendations concerning technical proposals before it. Most proposers were only interested in funding dollars not actual progress on solving a problem. I cited ocean thermal conversion and hydrogen energy as examples of a waste of time and tax payer money and gave my reasons. The senator from the Big Island angrily cut me off with some nonsense about "we would never have half the progress that we have in this world if people listened to nay-saying scientists and engineers." I found out later from a friend in the senate that the Big Island resort owners who the senator represents, were benefiting from the world hydrogen conference held each year in Kona.

That's a long way of saying that I think we make bad decisions in part. because of corruption and because people just don't want to hear that something won't solve their problem. Nobody likes nay-sayers and thereby short circuit the critical judgment capacity of human beings that normally (?) saves us from walking off cliffs. With respect -Joel
[09 April 2008 - Edited by Ira to add image and make link clickable]


Ira Glickstein said...

Joel, Thanks for initiating a new topic, the key philosophical question being: [Q1] why do large groups of people not "average out their defects and come up with fewer failed decisions"?

You also open up the question [Q2] of renewable vs fossil fuels, which, while not strictly speaking philosophical, is a valid topic for this Blog.

With respect to Q1, I think, over extended periods of time, large groups do make decisions that tend to optimize biological species. It may be that our particular species will come out the loser in the short run, but I definitely agree with Dawkins who in his God Delusion writes: "on Earth we are dealing with a generalized process for optimizing biological species, a process that works all over the planet, on all continents and islands, and at all times".

One problem with your call for "disinterested parties to make recommendations concerning technical proposals" for government is that, by definition, anyone with sufficiently deep scientific and technological knowledge in a given area is almost certain to be on one side or the other and therefore not disinterested!

You like anecdotal evidence. Well, remember those distinguished physics professors who claimed human flight was impossible? How about the undoubted IBM computer experts who thought the total market for digital computers was a dozen, tops? They were wrong! As you travel on a commercial aircraft with your laptop you must realize the only way to prove something right or wrong is to try to do it.

As you know, I assume worldwide fuel use will inevitably increase due to China and India and other countries adopting something like capitalism and raising living standards. Even if we in the US could cut our fuel use by 50%, others will more than swamp out our saved CO2 emissions. CO2 will inevitably increase unless we have a major genetic engineering disaster and/or nuclear war that kills 50% of the world population.

I read your linked Time Magazine story and agree it is tragic that deforestation, for the sake of creating agricultural land, is the cause of some 20% of carbon emissions. Why not process that forest waste into biofuel rather than burn it? I hope, as biofuel research proceeds, it will turn out to be less expensive to convert all bio-based waste to usable fuel.

Biofuel is renewable to the extent it converts sunlight energy into transportable fuel. Right now we are converting sugar and corn, but switchgrass may be much more efficient and the ultimate goal should be to convert all agricultural, forest, food, and sanitary waste to biofuel. We should also embrace solar power generation and, of course nuclear (though the latter is not renewable).

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Thanks for the reply, Ira. My point is not one of fossil fuels versus renewable fuels so much as the importance of scientific rather than political or mob evaluation of new ideas. The concept of renewable biofuels has been around for many years. A Jewish chemical engineering professor of my acquaintance told me about how when the Nazis were moving him and some others late in the war, they were on a biofuel bus. They had to stop during the trip to chop wood for the converter to produce more flammable gas for the engine. We're just not where we need to be from a scientific or engineering point of view. We have been funding applied research in this area with very little progress during the past thiry years that I know of. We've identified the problems, but we don't yet have the solutions. If government wants to dump lots of money directly into engineering research, fine. Good or bad, the consequences are limited. What I oppose is government regulation based on vague dreams.

I oppose the "Field of Dreams" approach to development. Mandate it and it will come. The idea that government should require 10% or 20% ethanol NOW when we are nowhere near where we need to be, from the point of view of the chemistry, virtually guarantees unforeseen negative consequences.

In my experience it isn't true that one cannot find disinterested evaluators. They are plentiful. The trouble is that evaluators are selected based upon the answer that the program head wants. There's a big difference between evaluating fundamentals and evaluating a practical system. Too often proposals are accepted that fail on the fundamentals.

With little respect for government -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Sorry to have delayed answering your last comment Joel but I had a bunch of Research Papers to grade.

Let me agree with you that we need "...scientific rather than political or mob evaluation of new ideas..." But even scientists have agendas.

Many scientists are (IMHO) rightly concerned about two undeniable truths: a) an unprecedented rise in CO2 levels and b) simultaneous global warming. So focussed are they on reducing CO2 footprints that they "look the other way" or even deny that there is misinformation in Al Gore's movie.

Just this month I told a friend who wrote technical reports about global warming for a federal agency that the ice core data (which figured prominently in the Gore movie) showed that global temperature increased some 800 years BEFORE CO2. The temperature DECREASED for thousands of years while CO2 remained at very high levels, and then CO2 decreased. She denied the truth of my statement! She is convinced the "tipping point" of global warming will come in ten years and plans to move soon to higher ground further north!

In a week or so I plan to post a new topic using the same ice core data Gore used to prove the direction of causation, at least for past warming periods, is not what he claims it is.

My point is that, although some of us are disinterested and informed (like me :^) most people, even those with technical and scientific educations, are either interested and informed or disinterested and misinformed!

Those who are in the first category will (at least in public) ignore or minimize the information that conflicts with their agendas, while those in the second category tend to "go with the flow".

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

It doesn't seem that one can trust environmentalist emergencies. There's always a panic about something, and never enough time for careful consideration. We had to rush into regulating the size of a flush in a flush toilet to conserve water. In fact we're not saving any significant amount , because people often have to flush twice.

Twenty five years ago or so, when living in France, I noticed that my clothes were whiter and brighter. I did a little checking and recalled that they had removed phosphates from detergents in the US, because of concerns about algae blooms in lakes. European detergents still use phosphates, so they did a better job. Contrary to what many Americans suppose, Europe is not as environmentally conscious as the US. They are finally getting around to studying the problem. Hopefully they do a better job. The absence of phosphates actually causes us to use more water and electricity, because it takes more effort to clean the clothes. Here's a fairly recent abstract indicating the state of the situation in Europe.

University of Cambridge - Faculty of Economics and Politics
Journal of Business Chemistry, Vol. 3, No. 2, May 2006

Sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) is an important ingredient of many detergents. The use of STPP has been associated with the environmental problem of "eutrophication", the increase of nutrient levels in water, which can lead to the formation of large masses of algae or blooms which are unsightly, cause slow moving water to be turbid, and may be toxic. This paper considers policies to reduce the use of STPP in detergents and assesses their success in reducing eutrophication together with the impact on the phosphate industry. The extent of eutrophication has been reduced, but there is still an ecological problem in many areas. Policy directed specifically at detergent phosphates has now been effectively made redundant by the EU requirement to install tertiary treatment plant. While the phosphate industry has experienced a considerable reduction in demand and has consequently contracted, it can be expected to stabilise. Policy on phosphorus will continue to evolve, from the current emphasis on implementing the EU Directive on Urban Waste Water Treatment to dealing with the consequences of this – sludge – and addressing the other main source of phosphorus – agriculture.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joel,

I would like to share with you a comment my friend, Zoran, from San Francisco emailed me on “Corny Schemes”. This is what he said,

1) In the April 8 post, "Corny Schemes", in the second paragraph, the author asks: "The philosophical question is why does this happen? We know that individuals make bad decisions because of bad information, bad models, bad motivation, bad execution, etc. One would imagine that a large group of people could somehow average out their defects and come up with fewer failed decisions. It doesn't seem to work that way. Why?"

An important part of answering this question is "the erosion of the commons". When a common resource is used, the tendency is for it to be over-utilized, even when everyone can see it eroding away. It is similar to what happens when a group of people split a dinner check evenly. Sure, I'll have another glass of wine, and I might as well get the lobster since that guy ordered the filet mignon, etc. When a large group of people "average out their defects", they end up with the lowest common denominator.

With respect as always, Deardra