Earth on Fire: The Overheating Planet

Earth on Fire: The Overheating Planet


The reason some popular posts are tagged ‘no title’ is not because they have no title—they all do—but because the old Blogger embedded the title at the top of text, and the new software does not see that. You can see the titles in capitals at the start of each snippet. (It would be nice if Blogger introduced an upgrade program that could fix this little problem.)

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Thursday 23 February 2006


An effect of global overheating that has yet to be widely realised, and hit the media--a huge increase in the number of earthquakes all over the planet as heavy ice melts off the earth's crust--has just been underlined by an article in Science Daily on the huge earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 in the central US, which began with a roaring rocker under New Madrid, Montana, on December the 16th 1811.

Tens of thousands of years ago a massive icesheet covered Canada and much of the US. When it melted the removal of that colossal weight caused a release in pressure on crustal layers underneath, and those hundreds of kilometres away--a release that is still going on, as the citizens of New Madrid found to their terror when they were jerked from their sleep by a violent rocking and roaring.

That event is empirical proof that as global overheating melts ice all over the planet there will also be earthquakes here there and everywhere, earthquakes where they have never before been experienced. Think, for instance, of the effect of melting the 3.5 kilometres of ice that covers the middle of Greenland. That is so colossally heavy that it has depressed the middle of the island to well below sea-level. Take that huge pressure off and there will be massive readjustments in the surrounding area for a long time--many thousands of years.

Think on that every time you drive your fossil-fuel car. Your profligate addiction to a way of life that is inimical to the only planet we can live on is having a small, long-term effect on its crust as well as its atmosphere and biosphere. This planet's human-friendly normality, the normality on which we have predicated our behaviour and built our civilisations for 10,000 years, has gone. Because you have destroyed it with your insane addiction to the Black Stuff (coal and oil).

Your children, and their children, and their children, and so on and so on, cannot have as good a life as you had, because they will not have as good a planet. Because you have trashed it.

Monday 20 February 2006


An article on BBC News implies an interesting question. A study has shown that at the present rate we will have pumped as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere in 300 years as was pumped over 10,000 years 55 million years ago. At that time a 5-degree (Celsius) rise in global temperature was the result. But that is about the rise predicted by optimistic modelling for this century alone. Which suggests that we must take into account not only the amount of greenhouse gas going into the atmosphere but also the speed at which it goes. In other word, the rate of addition has an accelerating effect of its own. A slow addition can be accommodated in a way that a fast one cannot.

In short, we are for it. The worst scenario is what we are going to get.

Friday 17 February 2006


Reports in the UK's Telegraph newspaper and BBC News make alarming, but unsurprising, reading. A NASA-led team has found that Greenland's glaciers are melting 150% faster than they were ten years ago, which led them to say that official estimates of a 100-900mm rise in the level of the earth's oceans by 2100 might be too low. Might! Look at the image of the glacier in the BBC article, a glacier that alone drains 4% of the Greenland icecap.

Those official estimates for 2100 are based on very conservative readings of the computer modelling, readings that have failed to take into account the fact that the actual readings of global temperature are tracking along the high end of the modelling--not the middle. So the models are conservative, which has been shown by the far wider range of runs done in the Climate Prediction Project, which divided up the task amongst thousands of PCs, in contrast to the expensive, and thus limited, number of runs done on official supercomputers. So of course things are going to be far worse than the optimists want to believe.

An avid betting man offered odds-on that most of the Greenland icecap will be gone by 2100 would, if shown the scientific evidence from myriad sources, take the bet eagerly. He would turn down flat the notion that it will take 1000 years. When that ice is gone the world's oceans will be 7 metres higher. If we lose most of the world's ice they will be 50m higher. Florida's highest point is 50m. If you think that such talk is doomsaying nonsense see the BBC's outline of studies of global ice.

The woe predicted from melting in Greenland comes hard on the heels of research, published on Science Daily, into the famous snows of Kilimanjaro, the mountain in equatorial Africa, which shows that they are, as predicted, vanishing.

Today Kilimanjaro, tomorrow Greenland, the next day the whole world.

Other numbers continue to get worse. For example, the latest figures for the stratosphere show that in January it was the coldest ever measured--see NOAA-NCDC site.

As the troposphere warms (the lower atmosphere, the layer we live in), the stratosphere cools (the stratosphere is the next layer, 15-23km up). If that gets too cool the hole in the ozone layer will spread and spread and spread, because the CFCs that are destroying the ozone do it much more efficiently when the fine ice-clouds form in the stratosphere, which happens at -78 degrees Celsius.

Monday 13 February 2006


The present obstacle in the way of the widespread use of solar power is the lack of refined silicon, because there are not enough silicon foundries producing it. But it is imperative that we shift off the Black Stuff (oil and coal) ASAP, for the good of the people of the earth. So, governments of the world, do your duty. Instead of subsidising all sorts of prattish projects and building bureaucratic empires, instead of pouring billions into defending your population against fictional foes, defend them against the real one--the global addiction to the Black Stuff. Pour billions into putting the production of silicon on to a war-footing: crash programmes all over the world to build armies of silicon foundries and get them up to full throttle ASAP.

Thus would people power, democratic-government power, break the obstacle down. Then there will be plenty of silicon for the solar-cell industry. And because the raw material will be supplied from public funds it will be cheap, making the finished product cheap. On top of that make sure the cost is pushed even lower--as low as possible--by giving solar-cell companies massive tax-breaks.

If all governments did that, they would truly be governments of the people, by the people, for the people, instead being for killer businesses, for anti-human international criminals like the Boys from the Black Stuff and the Big Iron carmakers.

Well, we can always dream...

Saturday 11 February 2006


A illuminating piece on BBC News headed 'Climate "makes oil profit vanish" ' shows that the oil barons are stealing billions from society, because the cost of dealing with the emissions from their products exceeds by many billions the profits they make. They are therefore doubly guilty of horrendous crimes against humanity: they are stealing from us as they kill us by slowly destroying our environment. They are international thieves and murderers of the first degree.

Friday 10 February 2006


The BBC recently ran an article calling for the incandescent bulb to be outlawed in favour of the compact fluorescent. Good idea, but the ideal is to go well beyond that and outlaw everything except LEDs, which use far less power even than fluorescents. A stroke of the statutary pen is far, far cheaper than building a clutch of new power-stations. But that would mean politicians would have to become wise, and sensible, and caring, and think... :-((

Under the headline 'Big business and greenhouse: a declaration of surrender', Professor Sharon Beder neatly exposes the Big Iron carmakers for what they are. Well done!

Friday 3 February 2006


In President Bush's State of the Nation address he said, 'Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology.

'Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10bn to develop cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources--and we are on the threshold of incredible advances. So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative--a 22% increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas.

'This country can move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past

'To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants; revolutionary solar and wind technologies; and clean, safe nuclear energy. We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen.

'We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips, stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years. Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75% of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.

'By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment--move beyond a petroleum-based economy--and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.'

Paragraph one, so far so good. Paragraph two throws more money at the problem, as if not enough were the cause of the US addiction to oil and more money will fix it. Paragraph three, echoed in the last paragraph, is also fine as far as it goes, but it is in the how that the thing comes unglued. There is no such thing as a 'zero-emission coal-fired plant.' Never in the history of the universe has it been possible to oxidise carbon without getting an oxide of carbon, and the notion that you stuf it all down a hole in the ground and make everything OK is baloney. The earth is not geologically stable, and the carbon-dioxide has no half-life: it stays just as damaging for ever. So it is a disaster waiting down there. But even if it were safe, there is no way that we can stuff all our industrial carbon-dioxide down holes in the ground, even if we could capture it all. And stuffing carbon-dioxide down there means stuffing two atoms of oxygen down there for every atom of carbon, which should worry oxygen-breathing creatures, because it would slowly reduce the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere... Doh!

'Clean, safe nuclear energy', says President Bush. There's a double-whammy oxymoron. Since when were aeons of radioactivity safe? Or clean? Perhaps he means that the radiation kills bugs. Would he want a 'clean, safe' nuclear power-station next to his Texas ranch?

Solar- and wind-technologies are available now: there is no need to wait for some American 'revolutionary' version. Just start using them.

Ditto the better batteries and the hydrogen fuel-cells. They are there now, and the best ones are not American. All they have to do is start using the things. If they wanted to they could change over their whole country in a decade at very most.

Then the bio-fuel thing gets a plug. But burning stuff is burning stuff, no matter what you are burning. We have to stop burning stuff, no matter whether it died yesterday or hundreds of millions of years ago. The idea that it is OK if you keep growing more stuff to burn, and growing it uses the smoke from the previous lot is flawed logic. There is a gap between the burning and the re-growing, and energy has to be used in turning it into fuel, which means it is not, as is claimed, carbon-neutral. It is carbon-negative. Less so than other carbon, but still negative.

And what is the stated goal of spending all that money? 'To replace more than 75% of our oil from the Middle East by 2025.' 2025! They are aiming, they say, to take twenty years to cut a big chunk of their oil-consumption from the Middle East. So they are not going all out to stop using the black stuff. Dumb. Very, very dumb. In twenty years' time the amount of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere will be at least 40-50ppm higher than the 380ppm we have now, and the scientific consensus reached in London over a year ago was there is 'no safe increase.' America has to learn to read.

President Bushsays America is going to lead the world. Obviously to an even worse global climate than we have now. O goody! If that is leadership, America, keep it. Only fools would follow.

Therefore the energy chunk of President Bush's speech is just another iteration of the same, tired old American pretence and self-deception, the notion that billions and many years have to be spent before the necessary technological solutions will be there (and the billions have to be American, of course). They ignore the fact that the technology is there now. All that is needed is the will to change to it. Use the billions to subsidise a programme of hugely accelerated production of solar-cells and fuel-cells. Stop thinking that America has all the answers. It certainly doesn't have the best fuel-cells. Solar-cells, yes (Sunpower Corporation's). So put them together. Right now. And let the Middle East oil stay in the ground; stop pumping it into the sky.

But the very next day after his speech, what had seemed to be just another hot-air iteration was revealed to be even worse. Mercury News reported: 'One day after President Bush vowed to reduce America's dependence on Middle East oil by cutting imports from there 75 percent by 2025, his energy secretary and national economic adviser said Wednesday that the president didn't mean it literally.

'What the President meant, they said in a conference call with reporters, was that alternative fuels could displace an amount of oil imports equivalent to most of what America is expected to import from the Middle East in 2025.

'But America still would import oil from the Middle East, because that's where the greatest oil supplies are.'

'Bush vowed to fund research into better batteries for hybrid vehicles and more production of the alternative fuel ethanol, setting a lofty goal of replacing "more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025."

'He pledged to "move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past."

'Not exactly, though, it turns out.

'"This was purely an example," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said.

'He said the broad goal was to displace foreign oil imports, from anywhere, with domestic alternatives. He acknowledged that oil is a freely traded commodity bought and sold globally by private firms. Consequently, it would be very difficult to reduce imports from any single region, especially the most oil-rich region on Earth.

'Asked why the President used the words "the Middle East" when he didn't really mean them, one administration official said Bush wanted to dramatise the issue in a way that "every American sitting out there listening to the speech understands." The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he feared that his remarks might get him in trouble.'

American business as usual. Dollars first. The planet and human life second.

Wednesday 1 February 2006


In 1946, Will F. Jenkins, a fifty-year-old American science-fiction writer, sat down to write a short story under his nom de plume Murray Leinster.
1946 was also the year in which ENIAC, the first large-scale digital computer was completed in the United States, and just three years after the world's first electronic computer--Colossus--had sprung into life in wartime Britain (although it was to stay a secret for thirty years). ENIAC was 100 feet long, 10 feet high, weighed 30 tons, contained more than 18,000 vacuum tubes and 70,000 transistors, and drew over 100,000 watts of electricity. It needed a cooling system so big that it could have serviced a twenty-storey building.
Very impressive physical statistics, but by today's standards the machine that had them was not very powerful, even though it could do in two hours what would have taken 100 engineers a year. It was thought pretty marvellous at the time, but what computers would become half a century later was still far beyond the imaginative horizon. Even when IBM began looking at computers a few years later it thought the total world market for them would never be more than twelve machines.
Big Blue should have read Leinster's story. He foresaw exactly what was coming, not that you would think so from the unassuming, slightly odd, title: A Logic Named Joe.
That story has since become one of the most famous in science-fiction, because it talks about a society in which every home and office has what we now call a PC. But the machines he described were far more advanced than today's PCs; they were what might be called the hypermedia machines that we have only fairly recently begun talking about.
Way back then the term PC, had not been invented, and even 'computer' had not penetrated the general consciousness, so Leinster called his machines 'logics', hence the title.
His story would have been remarkable even if he had still been alive to write it in 1986 (he died in 1975), but to have written it in 1946 is an astonishing, and unique, feat of prescience.
He not only predicted the hypermedia home/office computer. He also predicted the microprocessor--the 'chip'--although its invention was over twenty years in the future. Again, because the terms integrated circuit, microprocessor and chip had not been invented in 1946, he had to invent his own term--'Carson Circuits.' He could not possibly have known of course that it would be a chap called Poor, not Carson, who would be the first to design a computer on a chip, but getting nine out of ten when no one else even knows there is a test is not bad.
Leinster's story also predicted memory cards, but they had not been invented so he called them data-plates. He predicted a global network of publicly accessible databases, but they had not been invented so he called them tanks. And he predicted that videophones would be integrated into PCs, but they had not been invented so he called them vision-phones.
Nearly fifty years later we have only got as far as creating chips, and, recently, memory sticks have begun to be widely used, but we still have not come anywhere near universality in computers, let alone hypermedia machines, or even multimedia ones.
But Leinster's astonishing story is much more than a dazzling array of technological predictions. It also carries a warning.
It is told from the point of view of an unnamed maintenance man who works for the Logics Company. He discovers one day that some undetectable, accidental hiccup in the production line has created a machine--which he later dubs Joe--that has a mind of its own.
When he had, unknowingly, installed it late one Saturday in August in 'the home of Mr Thaddeus Korlanovitch at 119 East Seventh Street, second floor front', he had left, as usual, thinking that 'everything was serene.'
But the Korlanovitch family went out on Sunday and the kids left Joe turned on. 'He' must have been a bit 'bored' because he went looking in the 'tank' network for something to do.
Joe, as the maintenance man tells us, was not being vicious, just logical, just using his abilities. He discovered things. He made connections. Using logic. He discovered that there are things humans want to know, but don't. So he made an addition to the services offered by the global network of logics and tanks--one that, logically, got past the 'censor circuits.'
'If you want to know something and don't know how to do it--ask your logic!' suddenly flashed up on every screen on the planet.
'!', indeed.
People assumed that it was all official. They asked questions. They got answers. Perfectly logical answers.
Like the man who wanted to know how to murder his wife and get away with it, the one who wanted to know how to prevent his spouse finding out that he had been drinking, the one who wanted to make a perpetual-motion machine, the one who wanted to make flawless counterfeit money, and the bank manager who wanted to know how to rob his bank undetected.
Logics, backed by Joe, gave people whatever information they asked for. They held nothing back. They did not even stint, for example, when unsavoury and unsocial types asked them how they could acquire supplies of high-explosives.
You get the picture. The results were rapidly becoming catastrophic. And would have got a lot worse if an incandescent blonde femme fatale who had known the maintenance man long before he became a happily married pillar of the logic world had not asked her logic how she could get in touch with 'Ducky' again.
The newly enhanced system took a little while to work out how to do that, but the result was that a maintenance man's life was suddenly invaded by incandescent chaos and threatened with meltdown of the fatale kind.
He, though, had no wish to become husband number five of this blonde weapon of male-destruction, and even less to suffer the fate of the one who had shuffled off his mortal coil very precipately after she had added a modicum of lead to his system at lethal velocity.
Fortunately the maintenance man had the presence of mind to ask the network if a logic could be modified 'to co-operate in long-term planning that human brains are too limited in scope to do?'
Being logical it said yes, and told him how.
And when he asked if one had ever been produced with that modification, it told him, yes, just one, and where it had been installed. He promptly raced over the Korlanovitch flat, pulled Joe out and replaced him with a normal model. The new Joe-based tell-me-anything service immediately vanished from every logic screen.
Whew! Civilisation had been saved. And it was only Monday.
But the maintenance man succumbed to temptation. He didn't smash Joe to smithereens. After all, he reasoned, he might come in handy--for personaluse only, of course, and tamed a bit. So he put him down in his basement.
Back in the real world of 2006, we have not yet reached far past the starting point of Leinster's story. We have not yet produced the unit technology, although we are close; we have not saturated the globe with networks and databases, although we have made a solid start; we have not yet come anywhere near the numbers needed to achieve 'logics' for everyone, although computer factories are churning out their precursors like so many grains of sand, and we recently chalked up the billionth person on the Internet, the crude forerunner of the network Leinster predicted.
But there are rich and powerful companies beavering night and day to lead us to the threshold of his world, a world in which 'logics are civilisation,' as that maintenance man tells us. A world in which, 'If we shut off logics we go back to a kind of civilisation we have forgotten how to run!'
But before we get to that threshold--long before--we must ensure that 'Joe' shall never exist, because in a world full of such overly smart machines--or even just where we have easy access to unlimited information--Pope's famous dictum would be turned on its head and our social fabric rent asunder:

It is not, 'A little learning is a dangerous thing,
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.'

But, 'O'ermuch wrong learning is most dangerous of all,
Choose well what you know or the world will fall.'

In A Logic Named Joe the rending asunder almost happens by accident. We must prevent it from happening by design.

[If you want to read the original story, it can be found in the anthology Machines that Think, edited by Isaac Asimov, Patricia S. Warrick, & Martin H. Greenberg and published under Penguin's Allen Lane imprint.]