System justification and politics

After his thought-provoking podcast discussion with David Roberts, I will need to read John Jost’s two books on how our psychological needs for stability and respected position in the social order drive us to defend the status quo political, legal, and economic order as natural and just, regardless of our personal position in that social order’s specific distribution of burdens and benefits: Why social change is so excruciatingly difficult

Satellite to satellite espionage and warfare

One inescapable but confounding element of trying to understand politics, international relations, and history up to the present day is that we don’t have access to what governments are doing in secret. We will need to re-write the history of these times decades from now, if circumstances and freedom of information laws permit historians to learn about the skullduggery of this era.

One potentially important example is happening now in space. Satellites have become crucial to everything from time synchronization for high precision activities to navigation and communication. They also can’t really be hidden. Perhaps there are satellites with optical stealth that are hardly or never visible, but even top secret spy satellites of the conventional design can have their orbits determined by civilians with stopwatches and binoculars.

That is why we know that Russia, among others, has been experimenting with satellites that approach others and can potentially disrupt or destroy them, or monitor their activity. An article on China’s program includes the intriguing phrasing: “non-cooperative robotic rendezvous” between spacecraft. Russia’s Cosmos 2542 is known to have approached USA 245: an American spy satellite believed to be one of the largest things in space.

One can only speculate on how such capabilities are influencing world politics and the unfolding of events.

Arithmetic of power and plutonium

The first pile at Hanford generated 250 million watts—250 megawatts or MW—of thermal power and produced each year about a hundred kilograms of plutonium. A rule of thumb is that a megawatt of fission heat in a natural uranium reactor accompanies the production of about a gram of plutonium-239 per day. About six kilograms were sufficient to make a bomb.

Garwin, Richard L. and Charpak, Georges. Megawatts and Megatons: The Future of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons. University of Chicago Press, 2002. p. 33

Renewable energy has drawbacks and environmental consequences

Renewable energy sources — wind, wave, solar, and the like — are generally the preferred energy sources of environmentalists. At the same time, there is no way to produce energy without some sort of environmental impact, and the more people you need energy for the greater the impact will be.

Some examples of environmental impacts from renewable energy:

Nonetheless, unintended side effects of renewable energy sometimes lead environmentalists to oppose it. In my view, they are missing how every energy source will have drawbacks and the question is how they relate to the drawbacks from alternatives, chiefly fossil fuels. Environmentalists can be too easily inclined to become perpetual and reflexive critics, always emphasizing the problems with any course of action and effectively acting as a blockage to any action.


Renewable energy options:

Environmentalist / NIMBY opposition to renewable projects:

Energy storage:

Transmission and grid interlinkage:

Demand shaping:

Politics of renewables:

Open thread: long COVID

Researchers at Canada’s Western University have used an MRI technique to identify the physiological nature of long COVID:

What we saw on the MRI was that the transition of the oxygen into the red blood cells was depressed in these symptomatic patients who had had COVID-19, compared to healthy volunteers.

The topic is important both at the individual and societal level. For individuals, the potential severity of getting COVID is much worse given that a debilitating long-term condition can arise from it. For society, the presence and extent of long COVID mean that the total costs of the pandemic can still rise by a great deal.

20 million saved by COVID vaccines

It is being reported today that a study at Imperial College London “modelled the spread of the disease in 185 countries and territories between December 2020 and December 2021, [and] found that without Covid vaccines 31.4 million people would have died, and that 19.8 million of these deaths were avoided.”

That is a staggering, historical achievement. At the same time, it reminds me of how bad people are at basing their beliefs on evidence. If we could effectively update our beliefs based on empirical information, people around the world would be celebrating this achievement and hosting parades for vaccine scientists. As things are, I have to wonder if with the political lessons taken from this pandemic we would even make such an effort in the future. Quite possibly through political polarization and the linkage of beliefs about medical facts with personal identity and ideology the world at large has become more fragile rather than more resilient through this experience.

Language use by non-human animals

I came across an interesting video debunking the idea that Koko the gorilla actually used sign language:

I don’t have the expertise to fully evaluate this on my own, but it accords with the theory which I have heard that it is more plausible that Koko was trained to respond to prompts from trainers than that she expressed her own thoughts and used language in any kind of sophisticated way.

Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating question whether inter-species communication will ever be possible with non-human beings who do seem to use sophisticated communication, such as whales, dolphins, and great apes. The question of whether they are capable is different from the question of whether we know how to help them do it. Maybe one day we will find techniques that allow them to express what they say to each other in a form that people can understand.

P.S. A great recent episode of the Ologies podcast discusses acoustic ecology.


I watched the four-part Netflix series on the Three Mile Island disaster and found it to be well crafted and emotionally poignant, though only OK as an educational resource on the partial meltdown.

My technical complaint is that they explain almost nothing about why the accident happened and exactly what took place while it was going on. There is a lot of interesting material on how complex systems have interactions which cannot be foreseen, as well as user interface issues in the control room, which would have helped viewers better understand.

In terms of storytelling, my objection is with how the filmmakers basically set up two kinds of interview subjects: forthright and emotional local residents who suffered, and a few wicked representatives of the industry. They quote dismissive claims about culpability and the accident’s severity from the insiders, while uncritically quoting residents on how an unchecked disaster would have destroyed Pensyllvania or the East Coast. To me this all felt like too much handholding about who to believe, coupled with insufficient reference to credible outside accounts.

I wouldn’t especially recommend the series to either people who know a lot about nuclear energy or those who know fairly little. The former are likely to be annoyed at how anecdote-driven the whole thing is, while the latter may be given a false sense of confidence about the correctness of the view expressed. Unlike the remarkable 2019 series on the Chernobyl accident, this is one that can be safely missed.

For better explanations on TMI, I would suggest Nickolas Means’s talk (which also contains some fascinating discussion about what human error means in the context of major industrial accidents and how to investigate them after the fact) or this Inviting Disaster episode from The History Channel.

Guterres on additional fossil fuel production and stranded assets

United Nations secretary general’s remarks on the ongoing release of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report are remarkable for their directness and candour:

“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres during the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) news conference on Monday. “But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”

“Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said at the report’s release Monday. “Such investments will soon be stranded assets, a blot on the landscape, and a blight on investment portfolios.”

Canada’s government, despite taking more action on the issue than its predecessors, remains firmly on the side of the production-increasing radicals. In part that is from how emission statistics treat the GHGs from fuels we export as someone else’s responsibility, along with the GHGs embodied in what we import. Avoiding climatic catastrophe requires an end to such numerical evasions and a firm commitment to fossil fuel abolition, with production falling by a significant percentage every year until the world no longer runs on coal, oil, and gas.

You can blame the government for their inadequacy, but at some level that becomes like blaming corporations for emissions rather than the consumers of their products. By continuing to select governments that misrepresent what the consequences of their climate change plans will be while dodging the question of ending production, Canadians are ensuring that they will be lied to. When both the Liberals and Conservatives promise that climatic stability and a growing fossil fuel sector can be compatible, they perpetuate the cycle where we sacrifice the welfare of all future generations and non-human nature for the sake of our short-term comfort and the temporary perpetuation of unsustainable ways of life.