Sunday, October 14, 2018

Seneca almost hits the mark on technological change

I saw a reference to Seneca while reading Let It Shine, a history of solar energy (more on the book later). The reference was intriguing, and here's the full quote:

24. Reason did indeed devise all these things, but it was not right reason. It was man, but not the wise man, that discovered them; just as they invented ships, in which we cross rivers and seas – ships fitted with sails for the purpose of catching the force of the winds, ships with rudders added at the stern in order to turn the vessel's course in one direction or another. The model followed was the fish, which steers itself by its tail, and by its slightest motion on this side or on that bends its swift course. 25. "But," says Posidonius, "the wise man did indeed discover all these things; they were, however, too petty for him to deal with himself and so he entrusted them to his meaner assistants." Not so; these early inventions were thought out by no other class of men than those who have them in charge to-day. We know that certain devices have come to light only within our own memory – such as the use of windows which admit the clear light through transparent tiles,[16] and such as the vaulted baths, with pipes let into their walls for the purpose of diffusing the heat which maintains an even temperature in their lowest as well as in their highest spaces. Why need I mention the marble with which our temples and our private houses are resplendent? Or the rounded and polished masses of stone by means of which we erect colonnades and buildings roomy enough for nations? Or our signs[17] for whole words, which enable us to take down a speech, however rapidly uttered, matching speed of tongue by speed of hand? All this sort of thing has been devised by the lowest grade of slaves. 26. Wisdom's seat is higher; she trains not the hands, but is mistress of our minds.
(Emphasis added - this is a reference to the invention and first use of glass windows.)

Any learned person of the time would have understood that different cultures have different levels of technology, and even that their own culture had simpler technologies in the distant past. Here, Seneca takes that understanding to the next level, that technological change has happened recently. He's so close but doesn't quite get there to realizing that technological change will keep happening. It would have been interesting to see what he or others might have anticipated, two thousand years ago.

He doesn't get there AFAICT because he's not interested in technology but rather in the nature of true wisdom, and in concluding that wisdom does not concern itself with practicalities.

Too bad - if Seneca and others like him had been more concerned with practicalities, maybe Roman technological improvements could've moved faster than they did.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Eli's Thermo Class Is In Session

Lately Eli has been playing Clarissa, explaining all the thermochaff thrown up against the wall by his friends the confused.  First it was the Green Plate Effect showing how the presence of a colder third body decreases the cooling rate of an externally hotter one.  Then Eli pointed out that all of the heat flows between the sun, the surface, the atmosphere and space balance.  These are, Eli hopes useful cites to others.

Now comes the bunny to deal with a related everygreen, but let Ned Nikolov who is well rated as both confused and certain, state the issue


Somehow, Ned missed the latent heat and convection in his diagram, but let us be generous.  Eli can simplify that diagram


showing the flows into and out of the Surface and the Atmosphere.  Solar irradiation is shown in yellow, IR emission to space in green and the flow between the surface and the atmosphere are shown in brown and red.

Since William Nordhaus has won the Economics Nobel today, let's think of an economic model. Eli has a Savings and a Checking account, and each month he deposits $160 into the Savings account and $80 into the Checking.  He also takes out some percentage (40%) of what is in the checking account to pay Ms. Rabett's yarn bill, and puts another 45% of the Checking balance into the Savings account.  To settle things up at the end of the month the Rabett transfers 6% of the Savings account into the Checking account.  The flows of $ are


If we plot the outflow to expenses, and the interchange between the Savings and Checking accounts as a function of time, what happens?



The flows between the Savings and Checking account reach equilibrium in about 12 years as does the monthly outflow.  The numbers are pretty close to those in the energy balance diagram, but not exact because Eli has simplified stuff.  The percentages were adjusted so the equilibrium outflow is $240 but that was just for giggles. Also interesting is that the Savings and Checking accounts both reach equilibrium.  

Just like the Green Plate Effect, this is not a mystery, simply the result of counting.  The inflow cannot be compared to the flow between the two accounts (reservoir) which is what the Ned's of the world try to do

Conservation of dollars only requires that the flow into the two accounts (reservoirs) be the same as the flow out when a steady state is established.  Until then the flow out is lower, but in the case of the earth that happened millions of years ago.

Just when I thought I was out, I pull myself back in




Longtime readers may remember that I (Brian speaking here), realizing what great reputations politicians had, decided to become one myself, and was elected to the board running the water agency for Silicon Valley for four years. I wasn't re-elected, moved to Belmont in the neighboring San Mateo County and went on to other things.

Until recently. My councilmember said there was an open seat on Mid-Peninsula Water District, the public water agency providing retail-level water supply in Belmont and some adjoining areas. It's a much smaller agency serving 30,000 people instead of 2 million, so I think I can do it while continuing my main work at Greenbelt Alliance.

So, unfortunately in lieu of more blogging that's what I'm spending some of my time on for the campaign this fall and hopefully afterwards - we'll see how it goes! I hope to emphasize some of the same water conservation issues I worked on at Santa Clara Valley Water District, issues that overlap directly with responding to climate change.

And if you happen to live in Belmont or know someone that does, check out my Facebook page for the campaign, or more objectively the League of Women Voters website comparing the candidates.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The abortion law/environmental law connection

Much craziness over Kavanaugh. Separate from the recent controversy is his opinion on upholding settled precedent, wherein he pretends that Roe v. Wade and abortion rights are not under threat if he's seated. For those who don't know all the details, conservative but not-superconservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who Kavanaugh would replace, provided the crucial fifth vote for Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which essentially reaffirmed/reinterpreted Roe v. Wade.

Judges, including Supreme Court justices, are supposed to rarely overturn precedent. Kavanaugh pretends there's a chance he won't overturn abortion rights.

We do know about his (and Gorsuch's) contempt for crucial aspects of environmental law, most importantly the Chevron Doctrine, which lets adminstrative technical experts interpret ambiguous statutory language instead of judges, like the language found in the Clean Air Act that forms the legal basis for regulating greenhouse gas emission.

Their approach of gradually neutering Chevron is a model for how they could limit abortion rights.

And one other thing - I've dug for the transcript of Kavanaugh's testimony two weeks ago and can't find complete transcripts, but I recall listening to him talk about how much better it would be for judges to interpret ambiguous statutory language than administrative experts. So the other thing is this - if the judiciary is politicized now, it's nothing compared to how politicized it will be with this power grab to control ambiguity. Kavanaugh will further send the judiciary down a poisoned well.

There is a partial solution, one that has bipartisan support - term limits for the Supreme Court to lower the stakes involved. The bipartisan support could make this constitutional amendment happen, if presidential nominees felt serious about it. I'd also add to that term limits for appellate judges, and a Senate 55-vote supermajority appointment requirement for presidential appointments in the second half of a presidential four-year term. I'd take what I could get.

And after 2020, if Dems control the White House and Congress, take back the Garland seat that Republicans stole, which would be done by adding two more seats to the Supreme Court.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

While Eli's Away, the Arctic's That Way


Hi Gang,

Eli is out on the flatlands and yes he has been neglecting his duties, but there are a couple of interesting things this year in the Arctic.  For one thing although the melt is not as large as in some other years, it is continuing quite late in the season


For another, the Northern Sea Route is wide open, with container ships making the transit and, very strangely, the Northwest Passage opened up late in September after being jammed all summer.  Even the main channel threatened to open up


That's September 15.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Mongolia: land of Priuses and coal





The headline is the answer to where we spent our summer vacation: two weeks in Mongolia, finishing with a week in South Korea.

Lots that could be said. Maybe the most blog-relevant though was the astounding number of Priuses (my favored plural form) we saw in the country, I'd guess they're almost half of the medium-sized and smaller cars on the road, virtually all of them second-hard cars from Japan with retrofitted frames to accept larger wheels for off-roading. Mongolia makes California look Prius-unfriendly.

By contrast to the Priuses, here's a view of air quality in the capital city:

This was in summertime a little over a week ago and our eyes stung within minutes; in winter the air quality is one of the worst in the world, for a city of 1.5 million people. Beijing had better air quality when we flew through there in transit. Most power (80%) comes from the pictured coal power plants. Even worse, the ger (yurt) districts ringing the capital are heated by individual coal stoves, or by wood and trash fuel.

We asked two elderly people in different parts of the country, a woman and a man, about what had changed the most in their lifetime, and both volunteered that it was the climate. Spring is always the dry and dusty season, but in the last 20 years it's been dryer for longer periods. Rains didn't start this year until July, and then came as floods. A country of pastoralists faces huge problems for climate.

With 3 million people, Mongolia doesn't contribute much to climate change, and it's on a good trend with the Priuses. I'd say most of the gers also sported PV solar panels like the one in the first pic; they've replaced generators for limited power needs.

Our guide says motorcycles have only recently replaced trucks as a way to herd animals around. One suggestion then would be the electric motorcycles now coming available could be used along with additional PV panels (and presumably an additional charging battery) to get the nomadic one-third or so of the country off the use of fossil fuels.

By contrast to the rural gers, the village buildings almost never had solar panels, so the fiscal incentives to hook up to coal-powered electricity must be heavily subsidized. I understand the need to do that in the capital, but in the villages it could be changed.

Our guide was shocked when I told him that in the US, wind power is cheaper than coal. He guessed that powerful people in government own the coal mines and have locked in the power contracts. It was windy every place we went to in southwest Mongolia, and there's more where that came from:


Mongolia's first priority has to be to fix air quality in the capital. The gers are picturesque but have to be replaced with housing connected to sewer and modern indoor heating. Soon they need to make use of this real wind power potential and limit coal. They should also just do everything possible to reduce incentives for people to move there, including decentralizing government functions.

Some other thoughts from the trip:

  • Mongolians prefer the term "Ulan Bataar" over "Ulan Bator" for their capital, and "Chingis Khan" over "Genghis Khan".
  • In a rare piece of good news, we saw lots of black-tailed gazelles, and our guide said there are a lot more of them due to new hunting regulations. Governmental rules in Mongolia are not just scraps of paper.
  • The over-simplified Mongolian viewpoint is that China was and remains a colonial oppressor, while Russia was the liberator (although they recognize some oppression there too). America has a good rep, maybe as a slight bit of counterbalance to the two giants on either side of Mongolia
  • AFAICT, Putin hasn't done anything potentially menacing in Mongolia like he has in many other former client states. Maybe there's no longstanding historical interest to move him, and Mongolia could theoretically rebalance towards China. It's interesting that Mongolia survives as a democratic country surrounded by dictatorships, albeit a somewhat corrupt dictatorship.
  • I'm somewhat - not completely but somewhat - cynical about indigenous peoples' cultural attachment to their environment resulting in better environmental protections, but it might actually make a difference in Mongolia. We'll see.
  • I have no big insights into South Korea, other than the sense that South Koreans (like Americans) don't have a great reputation as tourists, but they were incredibly nice to us visitors in their home country.

UPDATE: per the comments, that SUV is Toyota hybrid SUV, but not a Prius SUV. I added a few more grainy pictures of Priuses, but they were everywhere.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

One of Life's Little Delingpole Lights or Nature Bites Last


James Delingpole is out there shaking the cup for himself, setting up a gofundme to pay for treatment for chronic lyme disease and a bad overbite.

Delingpole is a Brit, and the Brits have a National Health Service so why is Delingpole out there with the begging bowl.  Well, it turns out that the right wing climate change denying rags, and Delingpole is an a number one denier of climate change, don't pay so well, and the National Health Service won't.  Why, well chronic lyme is one of those things that you can start a bar fight about at a medical convention.  The quacks don't believe in it and the people who believe they are suffering from it don't believe the quacks.

Flimsin is not very understanding, perhaps understandably
but Eli is laughing his head off.  Why the bunnies ask, enjoyment at the discomfort of others is not becoming they say to Eli.  Well, some not Eli to be sure, might be enjoying Delingpole brought low, but Eli he knows some stuff.

Like lyme disease is carried by a tick.  If you have ever been walking through the north woods, you inspect yourself and your loved ones inch by inch for those buggers if they have dug in because of lyme. Done correctly that can be. . . enjoyable.  Lyme is getting a lot worse.  Indeed the EPA tracks the incidence of lyme. on  a page with the title "Climate Change Indicators: Lyme Disease".  Turns out that the ticks can't survive cold winters, and if the winters are warmer there are more ticks.

James Delingpole has been laid low by climate change.  Nature bites last

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Heat Has No Hair


Among physicists and chemists, well at least the theoretical side of the latter it is well known that electrons have no hair by which is meant that a bunny can't tell one electron from another.  This has serious consequences in quantum mechanics because in a multi-electron system you have to allow for each electron to be anywhere any electron is and it gets quite complicated.  True, when an atom is ionized you can trace the electron as it is expelled from the atom, but you can't say WHICH electron it was.  Same for electron capture.  You could identify an atom before it is captured, but once it was captured you can not identify it from any of the others in the atomic system.

The same thing is true of heat.  Heat in an object, perhaps better thermal energy, is random motion of atoms and molecules, translation, vibration, whatever.  You can say where heat entering an object came from (say radiation from the sun), but  if there is more than one source (trivial case).
once it is randomized and in the object you can't say where it came from.

Which brings Eli to the evergreen claim of those who deny the greenhouse effect, that radiation is not important compared to convection. 


We can summarize the data in the figure above adding that ~40 W/m2 go directly from the surface to space as IR radiation of the 398 W/m2 leaving the surface.  In and out in the table below means into and out the surface the atmosphere and space respectively.  In is taken as a positive addition to the heat content and negative a decrease. All numbers are fluxes in W/m2 


The total amount of thermal energy leaving the surface is ~502 W/m2 with 398 of them coming from radiation and 104 from a combination of evaporation and sensible heat.  Just in passing note that the variability in the latter is much higher when integrated over the globe.

In addition to 161 W/m2 from the sun absorbed at the surface the surface is warmed by 342 W/m2 of IR radiation from the atmosphere.  At this point a whole lot of people say, hmm, 104 W/m2 from sensible heat and evaporation, e.g. convection, is bigger than the net 398 - 342 = 56 W/m2 from radiation, so radiation is not such an important process in cooling the surface, more properly removing thermal energy from the surface.  A lot of the more, shall Eli say, sky dragonny, or numerically impaired go so far as to say radiation is not important, even though on their own terms it accounts for about a third of the heat leak.

However, that is not the important point.  The important point is to realize that surface IR radiation absorbed in the atmosphere is rapidly (10 μs) thermalized and converted into random motion of the molecules in the atmosphere, just as is latent heat from condensation of water vapor and from sensible heat.  Very little, less than a part per million, is directly radiated back to the surface and we can neglect that.

The 342 W/m2 of back radiation is OBSERVED, so this ain't a model or a theory, where does it come from?  It comes from ALL of the sources pushing heat into the atmosphere, from the convective and radiative heat transfer from the surface.

That being the case the source of the IR backradiation must be allocated by proportion to the amount transferred from the surface.  Let's do that as is shown in the second and third lines of the table below


The bunnies can refer to the first table above and read out the amount of flux absorbed in the atmosphere from each source.  The next and last line is the proportional flux which warms the atmosphere.  By inspection IR radiation from the surface is much larger than the other three, indeed it is about twice as big as the sum of them.

As far as emission to space, 29% directly from reflection from the atmosphere and surface, 12 % directly from thermal IR emission of the surface and 59% comes from IR emission from the atmosphere.