Monday, May 30, 2011

A Summary of My Philosophy of Life: How Best to Expand Life?

It's easy to read one of my posts (like my rant earlier today on Germany's decision to close nuclear power plants) and to miss the underlying reasoning behind a particular line of argument. So, I'd like to summarize as briefly as possible my philosophy on life because it comes across in the posts here and there, but it's impossible for me to repeat my philosophy of life in each post.

From my understanding of non-equilibrium thermodynamics, the meaning of life is to expand life and to consume exergy (i.e. available work.) Examples of exergy are sunlight, fossil fuels, temperature gradients in the Earth, the wind, and materials that are capable of nuclear fusion/fission. We should be consuming as much exergy as we can, but we should be consuming the exergy in such a way that we can consume even more exergy in the future, i.e. we should be choosing those technologies/fuels with the largest estimated rate of return on work invested.  Life propagates itself through the consumption of exergy. Life consumes exergy to build structures inside of cells (such as mitochondria) that allow it to consume more exergy, some of which goes back into building more cells and more mitochondria, and some of which goes into looking for more exergy. What's true for bacteria is true for us, and true for our economy. For example, power plants require work (force times distance) to build in order to generate work (i.e. electricity), which can be used to build more power plants, and so on and so on.

The Absurdity of Germany's Decision to Close Existing Nuclear Power Plants

Germany decided today to close all of their nuclear reactors by 2022 (going back to an earlier decision made by the Socialist & Green parties.) While it might be hard to convince millions of people in Germany that they need to think twice about banning nuclear power, I'm hoping that I can communicate globally with as many people as possible to explain that banning already built nuclear power plants is a really bad idea. Were we all to decide to stop using existing nuclear power plants, the likely outcome would be some combination of stagnation and recession. Instead, I would like to live on a planet in which life and intelligence is growing. I don't want my kids growing up in a stagnant society that thinks they have already reached the top of mountain. We have so much left to accomplish, so much more to build, and so many more planets to populate. We need growth of life here on Earth and elsewhere. Nuclear power is a great way to help achieve our societal goals. France has shown us that nuclear power in the right hands is a wonderful thing.

I would understand if Germany were to temporarily shut down power plants that were unsafe. But this closing down of power plants seems completely idiotic because the power plants are safe, already build, compact, and don't produce any emissions of acid or greenhouse gases. Before March, nuclear power made up 23% of the electricity being generated in Germany. Germany produces roughly 600 Tera-Watt hours of electricity per year, so this means that roughly 135 TWh of electricity were produced in Germany in 2009. (The last year of data in BP's Statistical Review of Energy. A must read for anybody and everybody.) This is a not-insignificant amount of electricity. It's more than the amount of electricity produced in either Norway or Sweden. What would happen if Norway or Sweden were to decide to completely shut down their economies?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Inflation! Much!

I sat in total disbelief this weekend when I read in the newspaper how much prices have changed for food and fuel in one year. I obviously notice the small daily price changes at the gas station, but it's a little different to see the total change in one year.
And yet the Federal Reserve has the gall to tell us that they were worried about deflation, and had to enact Quantitative Easing 2.0.   Sure, there are major items that are dropping in price, such as homes and iPods. But I love the guts of the man who reminded Ben Bernanke that you can't eat an iPod.
So, I found the following website that confirms the data I saw in the newspaper regarding inflation.

Here's a list of some of the major commodities and how much they have changed in one year. It's completely absurd that the Federal Reserve could be printing money right now. Luckily, they've decided to stop printing money after QE2.0 is finished.  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The 'Essence of Technology' and Addressing Anti-Technological Philosophies

“Inquiry that does not achieve coordination of behavior is not inquiry but simply wordplay.” R. Rorty

This post could be titled "Understanding that the 'Cable Guy' isn't our buddy: Why technology is not controllable, but being okay with that." (Just watched Cable Guy again and noticed the theme of the 'Inability to Control Technology.')

This post examines the following questions:  is there an essence to technology which causes and stems from our seeing nature as something to control or as something to manipulate? Is technology something that controls us or do we control technology? Is there anyway to separate ourselves from our technologies?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

More thoughts on the Enron scandal and Post Modern Philosophy

In a previous post (Meaning of the Enron Collapse), I commented on how there was a fundamental disconnect between Enron's goals and society's goals.

In this short post, I want to leave some open questions to ponder, and then discuss a post I found today on Enron and post-modern philosophy.

When is “gaming the system” beneficial to the overall economy?

When is “gaming the system” harmful to the overall economy?

When is “greed” good? And when is it bad?

Is an asset-lite business the only way to achieve the highest rate of return on investment?

I really started thinking about these questions while reading a blog (Master Resource) that deals with questions about energy, economics & occasionally philosophy. One of their posts is about the idea: was Enron the first postmodern company?

Monday, May 9, 2011

On the Protestant Work Ethic and Capitalism

"In a universal history of culture the central problem for us is not…the development of capitalistic activity as such, differing in different cultures only in form…it is rather the origin of this sober bourgeois capitalism with its rational organization of free labor” (Protestant Ethic, 23-24).

The goal of this post is to examine Max Weber's conclusion that the main origin of this "sober bourgeois capitalism with its rational organization of free labor" is the Protestant Work Ethic. In doing so, I hope to also address the following questions: what is the driving force for most people in our post-modern, mixed socialist-capitalist societies? Are we living in a society with the remnants of the Protestant Work Ethic, but without the underlying spiritual force to meaningfully sustains it? While this topic might appear to be quite removed from Energy Technology or Physics, it's a worthwhile topic because I believe that there's no point in arguing over what type of electricity power plants to build or what type of cars to drive until we come to some shared agreement in our society about the goal of life.

It appears to me that we are living in fractured society without an overarching, shared philosophical belief system. And while I don't believe that it's a good thing for us to share the same exact philosophy on life, I think that our society is particularly fractured in the sense that many of our philosophies of life aren't even remotely related to each other, and are often quite contradictory. For example, here's a quick list of the dominant philosophies of life that I see around me:

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Do Not Return to a Gold or Silver Backed Currency

As I mentioned earlier this week, I suspect that in the future our currency will be tied to something of real measurable value:  electricity.

I'm writing this post because the Wall Street Journal had a series of op-ed articles last week about returning to a gold or silver standard. The goal of this post is to debunk the idea that we should return to a currency backed by gold or silver. (Interestingly, the price of gold and silver has plummeted since May 3rd after silver started dropping in Asian market, but note that the goal of this post is not to speculate on the direction that gold or silver prices should go.)

I think that the idea of investing in gold or silver just for the sake on investing in gold or silver is silly. It's like investing in something that can guarantee you no rate of return on investment. How is investing in gold or silver any different than investing in sand?

Well, you might say, gold and silver are worth more per ounce than sand because it's easier to store it and there's a limit supply of gold and silver compared with sand. But why do gold and silver have more value than sand? The reason is that gold and silver have three main uses: 1) as catalysts for various chemical reactions; 2) as electrical wires due to their high electrical conductivity; and 3) as jewelry because they are shiny and hard to oxidize (But I should note that I've bought some purposely-oxidized silver jewelry as gifts before and it looks better than normal silver.)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Questions & Answers about an Electricity-Backed Currency

This Q&A session is an immediate follow up from the previous post. I wanted to put this in a separate article rather than attach it at the end of the last one so that it didn't get lost in the post on How to implement an electricity backed currency. In this Q&A discussion, I often reference Method#1, Method#2 and Method#3 from the earlier post today.

So now, I'd like to cover a few of the questions and critiques I've received since first writing about an electricity-backed currency (back in Nov 2010), and present my responses to these questions and critiques.

How to Implement an Electricity Backed Currency

The Wall Street Journal has had a lot of editorials recently on gold or silver backed currencies, so I thought that I'd revisit the topic of Electricity backed currency from a prior post (which happens to be the most viewed of the posts I've written.) So, it must be a hot topic (unlike a post at roughly the same time on the Source of exergy in the early universe.)

As I mentioned in the prior post, I think that we should ground our currency with something that has value. The only thing that I can think of that has true, measurable value is electricity.

There are a couple of different ways in which an electricity-backed currency could be implemented:

Method#1:  The Easiest Method
Every couple of months, the Federal Reserve takes a look at the average price of electricity paid by all customers (industrial, commercial and residential) in the US, and then shifts their monetary policy in order to keep the average price of electricity a constant at the average price of electricity at time that the US decided to switch to a electricity-backed currency. The Federal Reserve could do this by some combination of: 1) Printing or Removing Dollars (depending on whether the prices were dropping or increasing);  2) Increasing or Decreasing the borrow costs (depending on whether the electricity prices were increasing or decreasing); or 3) Increasing or Decreasing the percentage of bank deposits that must be held in cash (depending on whether the electricity prices were increasing or decreasing).

This method is very similar to the process we have today, except for the fact that we would be forcing the Federal Reserve to maintain a 0% inflation rate on the average price of electricity. This is the easiest method, and could be implemented today! However, in this case, your money is not convertible into electricity because there is nobody guaranteeing to sell you electricity for a certain amount of your dollars.