Tuesday, January 16, 2018

horatio alger, social mobility, and gini indexes

Horatio Alger is famous for the many novels he wrote that conveyed the idea that hard work  and moxie would result in a rags to riches ( or at least middle class) success, that is, a slice of the American Dream. 

Unfortunately, while many Americans believe we are still the land of opportunity, and are exceptional, it is not the case. 


We have become as class stratified as many other countries we think ourselves superior to, and data confirms this.

When  combined with the fact that America has a poor gini index, I see the potential for troubled times ahead. Gini index is a calculation of how evenly, or equitably income is distributed through the population. A zero index mean everyone has exactly the same income, and a one would be all income to one person, and nothing to everyone one else. Obviously, there are no ones, but comparisons and trends still can tell us how GNP is being shared.

Gini index does not tell the whole story, as a nation could be desperately poor, but very equitable about it, for  zero score, but that isn't a situation to strive for. 


You can see the run up in the late 20s and 30s, till speculation and overreach caused the great depression( OK, it was a bit more complicated than that  http://www.ushistory.org/us/48.asp) at which point things remained more equal with help from the New Deal and WW2, but took off again in the 80s. 

That chart shows the evolution of the U.S. gini index over time, but how does the U.S. compare to the rest of the world? Well, it turns out from my brief study, it is complicated. Data from many countries is suspect, or calculated differently, or spotty and out of date, so it's hard to do comparisons. Just generally, from the sites I did find, the U.S. is rather high compared to the developed countries, but I saw several different results. Here is one. 

So what made me look in to this?

I was traveling a while ago, and picked up a Wall Street Journal for the first time in several years. It still is the paper of record for the wealthy and the elite. After I skimmed through the headlines and main section, I found a section headed "Mansion". I thought, weird, some sort of special edition? No, it turns out that this is now the header for the WSJ real estate section. And it's just what you would think, a real estate section focussed on only the very top of the housing market, and the woes of trying to find that perfect mansion.

Most intriguing and maybe telling for what is on the minds of the wealthy, there was an article titled "Luxury for the Apocalypse". It described a large planned community going in in Texas that was comprised of underground condos, with a secure perimeter and many self reliance features. There are similar ones in development in other states as well. 

In the past, and not just here in the U.S., when there is too much inequity in society, revolt, violence, and rebellion can occur. At some point, it doesn't take gini comparisons, or other data crunching, it is in the wind. Sometimes you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  The wealthy are aware of this, even as they continue to work the system. 

So, what's a poor working stiff to do? Pay attention to history, and plan accordingly.

out with the old, in with the new

A while back ( Dec 2016) I posted about the demographics of farmers, and the possibility that we might be seeing the early stages of a resettling of Americas rural areas. The article at the link seems to indicate others are seeing the same thing. 

One point I did not make before, is that in addition to relearning farming with low input, sustainable techniques, many of these new urban to rural migrants were not raised on farms, so have even more to learn and will unfortunately have higher failure rates than if they had started from conventional farming.


On top of that, access to land, capital to buy land, are both hard to get. Even back in the 70s, my dad said that to be a farmer, you had to either be born to a farm family, or marry in to a farm family. 

We haven't reached that point where fossil energy is cost prohibitive and human and animal labor move to the fore yet,  and it may be quite a ways off, but it is inevitable. Once this trend is further along, many more farmers will be needed. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Resource misallocation

Recently read about the new sky scraper being built in Chicago. It will be the third highest structure there, and will be done in a couple of years. And here I thought Chicago was in deep financial trouble, had plenty of available office space, and generally was over the ego driven need to build these phallic monuments. The last big one was topped out in 2009 (A trump tower no less!).

Turns out this one is for very high end condos and a hotel. A Chinese company is making it happen. I guess there are still a lot of millionaires in the Chicago area that would go for a nice view of Lake Michigan. (Or millionaires looking to move some assets out of China and invest in a "stable" location).

And there are also a lot (54!) of other, shorter buildings being built, but still very tall and elaborate.

Skyscrapers are very complex structures, use huge amounts of materials, and are very dependent on a fully functioning economy, stable utility costs, and paying tenants. There have been a few articles in the past pointing out how the ultra high sky scraper craze has taken off and given the host countries some sort of ego boost.

China alone built 84 skyscrapers in 2016!!

And it appears that here is a weird correlation between skyscraper frenzy and imminent economic collapse:
if this correlation holds, then rough times are ahead.

Regardless if economic collapse follows, skyscrapers are, I would argue, a vast resource misallocation. While they improve city density, density is not an automatic good thing. A downtown that is too vertical can be sterile and uninviting, and large buildings can mean lots more long distance commuters.  Instead of walkable cities or neighborhoods, we get harried train riders.

I have no expertise in city planning, but from a purely resilience viewpoint, skyscrapers seem vulnerable and brittle in response to changed conditions. Makes you wonder why mayors, city councils, zoning and permitting departments encourage them. A single story building, or even one that is walkable can be designed to be habitable without power, but not skyscrapers. They do not function without large amounts of electricity.

It's one thing to tear down a three story building or a big box store that has become obsolete, but tearing down a scraper that no one wants would be a formidable task, and a real waste of resources.

Where should a city, or a country be investing in infrastructure, housing stock, utilities, and so on? A look in to the future is needed, and a frank assessment of the available funds to do any chosen plans.

With the remaining "cheap" energy and resources left to us, I would argue that we as a minimum stop building infrastructure that is highly grid dependent and can't be repurposed. The wider question is, what should we be building, or not building?

Here are a few principles I will throw out, which COULD be used as a checklist to wisely build, but won't be. They assume vastly less energy and materials available in the coming decades to continue building like we have up to now.

The majority of transportation infrastructure spending should be shifted to rail and mass transit, instead of adding new roads. NO NEW ROADS.

Any existing transportation infrastructure should be repaired and modified so that it either is very cheap to maintain (gravel roads) or built like the Romans, with a design life in centuries. Obviously, only a few main arteries would justify the later approach. There are already a lot of  rural local government units choosing to transition paved roads to gravel because of tight budgets. This trend will increase.

Overall, transportation infrastructure will need to transition ( over ~50 years?)  to facilitate local transport, with minimal regional or national traffic assumed.

Any new housing infrastructure should be built with nears zero energy needs, like the passive haus movement out of Germany.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive_house

All existing housing should be evaluated to be either recycled at the end of its useful life, or upgraded to as near to passive house standards as possible.

All new structures should be designed to beyond LEED certification, such that they have very low life cycle environmental impact. This can be done either through completely renewable materials and simple construction, or very long life span design, measured in centuries. and designed to be easily maintained.

Yeah, these pie in the sky goals are not politically or culturally viable here in the states, but the funny thing is, as we continue to transition to a low energy society, ( fossil EROEI continues to decline) at some point we will be stuck with the built infrastructure we have.

Here is an example of resource allocation I have chosen. This apple grinder and press will last for decades if stored and taken care of properly, and needs no electricity, no further fossil fuels than were used to create it, and just needs friendly neighbors to come help during harvest time.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

nothing goes to waste: black walnut edition

I did a post back in Feb 2016 on black walnuts, but have a couple new observations to share. Last year we had zero nuts because of bad timing on a late hard frost in our area.

This fall is a very heavy nut crop in the woods around here. Some years there are very few, so one had best gather while the gathering is good. We don't have commercial nut orchards, but plenty of "wild" black walnut and shagbark hickory trees to forage from.

I've been gathering, processing, and storing, noting at the same time that most nuts go unharvested. It was this way in the suburbs, where they are often considered a nuisance, but even here in the country there isn't much competition when nut gathering.

The black walnut has a thick, green husk around it while growing, and when nuts first drop from trees, the husk is often still firm and hard to remove. Most people who are aware of black walnuts at all say to dump them in the driveway and run over them with the car, but that seems like a real pain to me. After a while on the ground, the husk starts darkening, even all the way to black, and gets soft and mushy. I found that by just waiting till this happens, the husk comes off very easily, if messily.

What one finds, though, is that the black slimy mess is almost always crawling with some sort of maggots. Looks kind of gross the first time you see them.

Turns out that there is a single fly species, the walnut husk fly, that competes its life cycle by eating on the slowly rotting husk. Now, I find this to be a real convenient collaboration, as the maggots eat and soften the husk, without damaging the nut, and makes my husking operation much easier.

This husk, which the tree expended energy to produce, is now feeding another species, which as far as I can tell, affords the walnut tree no reciprocal benefit. No waste here, nature has found an energy resource and filled the niche. I think the husk, which contains a fair bit of juglone, may act as insect protection, which the husk fly has evolved to resist.

And in yet another commentary on the perverse industrial ag approach to things, nut producers in the west of the U.S. consider this a big problem, to be dealt with by using pesticides to kill the flies. Why? They are concerned about the cosmetic appearance of the shells, which will be darkened by the rotting husks. Some sources I read voiced concern that the dark juice will actually soak in and stain the nut meats themselves, but I have never seen this.

Unshelled walnuts store very well, the nuts themselves are a good source of fats and calories, and are free for the harvesting, so those of you where they grow, what's keeping you from gathering some yourselves?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

optimal foraging theory

I was reading a bit about optimal foraging theory in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimal_foraging_theory

Basically, the theory describes how organisms utilize strategies to optimize their energy return on the effort to find food. The same concept as EROEI, which those who follow peak oil and civilizational prospects think about a lot.

It's really just common sense that those individuals that have behavior patterns that get the best bang for the buck will reproduce better, and thus there will be a genetic drive toward pattens that optimize energy used in gathering more energy.

But it gets more complicated when you consider the competition between other species in the same or similar ecological niches, and the fact that there is more than one way to get good energy return. One might opt for a high energy effort, high energy return approach, or a low energy expenditure, low return approach. Some strategies are good for short term advantage, some are conservative, but win over the long haul. And there are many other strategies that might end up playing out as a group or a set area, as long as the net return is optimized.

So it occurred to me that really, that's all us humans are doing, following a well trod path as any successful species would. The studies that have been done all look at bugs, or birds, or fish, but wouldn't it be interesting for the theorists to look in the mirror. Physics and biochemistry underlay it all. In our daily lives, in our societal organization and in our exploitation of resources, we are really doing no more than a gazelle or a mole would do.

But- We have the special ability to pass on behaviors to others through our complex communication , both to contemporaries and future humans, so improved species wide energy return improves in hours, days or years, instead of countless generations. To top things off, once we began leveraging our tool making ability to harness fossil sun energy, well, we blew the doors off any predictions on how our niche in the ecosystem might have played out.

So what does this portend for our future? How will this inherent property of humans and all organisms affect how the end of fossil fuels plays out in the coming century? Is our species locked in to hard wired behavior patterns, where the "survival of the fittest" approach wins out, or will a different pattern, like symbiosis, or cooperative collaboration win out? Will we play the long game, and start repairing the frayed web of life, maximizing the local carrying capacity for us and all species, or will we play the short game, and join the yeast in the petri dish as another example of fast and short population growth and decline?

The world is a big place, and nature has many parallel experiments going on at all times, so we might see both, and many variations of each. I plant trees.

For a lighter end to this entry, here are some photos of a recent effort to harvest energy, utilizing tools and learned behavior. We and our neighbors took advantage of a good apple year, as both domestic trees and feral trees with passable taste are bearing heavy this year. Since we do very little in annual management of the trees, our return should be pretty high.

The new apple grinder and press, ready for action.

From our best tree- No chemicals, no worms, no apple scab or fire blight- it was a good year, and unreal production. We had about 15 buckets full from this one tree. ( And countless falls that the chickens took care of) The later ripening varieties will get their turn in a month or so.
I'll do another post soon, showing the press in action, as well as bottling the cider I have fermenting now.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

pushing electrons

The photovoltaic phenomenon is described as photons knocking electrons out of their valence orbital and creating a net charge in a semiconductor. There are holes, and dopants, and depletion zones, but I don't pretend to understand the nitty gritty physics of it. Sure is a handy property of semiconductors.

Lots of physics research, material science, high tech fabrication techniques, and government encouragement went in to the solar panels we installed this summer.

The key here, is that once the PV cells and panels are built, they keep generating electricity from sunlight for a really long time. Big payment up front, then "free" power for years.

I know that the federal tax credit for installing residential renewable energy is phasing out over the next few years, so decided to make our move now.

We are now producing our sun driven electricity, to the tune of 4.9 kW nameplate capacity. So far, our peak output was 4.4 kW, but don't know what has to align to get the full capacity. For the year, this is prime solar weather, as the winter and spring are more cloudy.

We decided on ground mount, as we have plenty of unobstructed southern facing land, and I'd just as soon not mess with the roof unless that was a much better option. I also had initially planned to design and build the rack myself. ( maybe another blog entry on how that went down).

Here I am, driving a Bobcat skid steer for the first time, with the 24" (600mm ) dia. auger for drilling the holes for the concrete piers. I am still a terrible operator, but did not kill the guys who came to help. It helped that they were both nimble and quick on their feet.

Here are the rack columns in the concrete forms, braced and ready for the  pour. The holes are six feet deep. This rack is not going anywhere.

The design for the rack required huge piers, totaling 2.5 cubic yards ( 1.9 cubic meters) of concrete between the three of them. I looked at renting a mixer and doing it by hand, but the cost was not that much higher to order the truck, and WAY less labor.

Had to dig the trench from the array to the inverter in the barn by hand. No fun in the heavy clay mixed with large rocks. Code requires top of conduit to be 18" (450mm) below ground.

Here is the finished array, soaking up the sunshine. The panels themselves are super easy to install ( as long as the rack was put up level, straight, and plumb!), and the cabling is all premade with simple plug ends. This particular design is a single string, 350VDC output with optimizers at each panel.

Pulling the home runs, terminating, tying in to the power panel were done by an electrician. I might have been able to figure it out, but he was way quicker than I would have been, and one of the grants we are going for requires a master electrician to sign off on it.

If we decide to go off grid, we will need to spend for the batteries, as well as the charge controller and a different inverter. We are a ways off from that, as we would need to reduce our load, and really do some self reflection on how much lifestyle change we would be comfortable with.

Monday, July 3, 2017

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio..........


This concept came to my attention the other day, and got me to thinking how it applies to our present society.

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is difficult to transfer through written or spoken methods. Some examples are throwing a ball, playing an instrument, recognizing someone's face, or kneading dough. Many, but not all examples of tacit knowledge involve physical activities or modes of expression.

Since I have recently been trying to learn to identify edible plants, and to identify trees by their bark, I  find that words just can't cut it sometimes, and when it comes to eating a foraged plant, I darn sure want to walk the woods a few times with a pro until I finally see the essential differentiators of the plant, even if I find it hard to put in to words.

In the past, tradesmen, craftsmen, artisans took on apprentices, and over time, their knowledge was transferred, but was very difficult to codify.

In our ( at least in modern western countries) economies and social networks, things have become very written and oral and much less face to face or involve mind body coordination. Petabytes of information scurry around the world, as humans communicate and conduct commerce, but what is this doing, what has it done to our psychological makeup?

How does it affect our ability to empathize, to have a grounded feel for what might be true? The subtleties that abound in perfecting any new skill help one realize that sometimes the truth is too hard to capture on paper, and that maybe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies?

Are our brains being stretched to the limits by so much of one kind of learning , but much less of another? Why are those skills that involve kinesthetic intelligence or hands on craft abilities less prestigious or remunerated in our society?

The future I see is one where tacit knowledge transfer will regain prominence and will supplant the current mode of explicit knowledge transfer. In fact, further, the types of skills that are considered tacit knowledge will become much more important as muscle power and local economies slowly replace our fossil fuel driven economy.

Our education system has for a long time been losing its way, and not preparing our young for the real world they will have to navigate and earn a living in. Many are sensing that now, but how will the transition happen?