Martian Fluvial Flows, Placid and Catastrophic


Despite the fact that, apart localized dust surfaces in summer, the surface of Mars has had average temperatures that never exceeded about minus 50 degrees C over its lifetime, it also has had some quite unexpected fluid systems. One of the longest river systems starts in several places at approximately 60 degrees south in the highlands, nominally one of the coldest spots on Mars, and drains into Argyre, thence to the Holden and Ladon Valles, then stops and apparently dropped massive amounts of ice in the Margaritifer Valles, which are at considerably lower altitude and just north of the equator. Why does a river start at one of the coldest places on Mars, and freeze out at one of the warmest? There is evidence of ice having been in the fluid, which means the fluid must have been water. (Water is extremely unusual in that the solid, ice, floats in the liquid.) These fluid systems flowed, although not necessarily continuously, for a period of about 300 million years, then stopped entirely, although there are other regions where fluid flows probably occurred later. To the northeast of Hellas (the deepest impact crater on Mars) the Dao and Harmakhis Valles change from prominent and sharp channels to diminished and muted flows at –5.8 k altitude that resemble terrestrial marine channels beyond river mouths.

So, how did the water melt? For the Dao and Harmakhis, the Hadriaca Patera (volcano) was active at the time, so some volcanic heat was probably available, but that would not apply to the systems starting in the southern highlands.

After a prolonged period in which nothing much happened, there were catastrophic flows that continued for up to 2000 km forming channels up to 200 km wide, which would require flows of approximately 100,000,000 cubic meters/sec. For most of those flows, there is no obvious source of heat. Only ice could provide the volume, but how could so much ice melt with no significant heat source, be held without re-freezing, then be released suddenly and explosively? There is no sign of significant volcanic activity, although minor activity would not be seen. Where would the water come from? Many of the catastrophic flows start from the Margaritifer Chaos, so the source of the water could reasonably be the earlier river flows.

There was plenty of volcanic activity about four billion years ago. Water and gases would be thrown into the atmosphere, and the water would ice/snow out predominantly in the coldest regions. That gets water to the southern highlands, and to the highlands east of Hellas. There may also be geologic deposits of water. The key now is the atmosphere. What was it? Most people say it was carbon dioxide and water, because that is what modern volcanoes on Earth give off, but the mechanism I suggested in my “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” was the gases originally would be reduced, that is mainly methane and ammonia. The methane would provide some sort of greenhouse effect, but ammonia on contact with ice at minus 80 degrees C or above, dissolves in the ice and makes an ammonia/water solution. This, I propose, was the fluid. As the fluid goes north, winds and warmer temperatures would drive off some of the ammonia so oddly enough, as the fluid gets warmer, ice starts to freeze. Ammonia in the air will go and melt more snow. (This is not all that happens, but it should happen.)  Eventually, the ammonia has gone, and the water sinks into the ground where it freezes out into a massive buried ice sheet.

If so, we can now see where the catastrophic flows come from. We have the ice deposits where required. We now require at least fumaroles to be generated underneath the ice. The Margaritifer Chaos is within plausible distance of major volcanism, and of tectonic activity (near the mouth of the Valles Marineris system). Now, let us suppose the gases emerge. Methane immediately forms clathrates with the ice (enters the ice structure and sits there), because of the pressure. The ammonia dissolves ice and forms a small puddle below. This keeps going over time, but as it does, the amount of water increases and the amount of ice decreases. Eventually, there comes a point where there is insufficient ice to hold the methane, and pressure builds up until the whole system ruptures and the mass of fluid pours out. With the pressure gone, the remaining ice clathrates start breaking up explosively. Erosion is caused not only by the fluid, but by exploding ice.

The point then is, is there any evidence for this? The answer is, so far, no. However, if this mechanism is correct, there is more to the story. The methane will be oxidised in the atmosphere to carbon dioxide by solar radiation and water. Ammonia and carbon dioxide will combine and form ammonium carbonate, then urea. So if this is true, we expect to find buried where there had been water, deposits of urea, or whatever it converted to over three billion years. (Very slow chemical reactions are essentially unknown – chemists do not have the patience to do experiments over millions of years, let alone billions!) There is one further possibility. Certain metal ions complex with ammonia to form ammines, which dissolve in water or ammonia fluid. These would sink underground, and if the metal ions were there, so might be the remains of the ammines now. So we have to go to Mars and dig.






An Infestation of Bacteria

One of those things you probably don’t need to know (but I am going to tell you anyway) is that there are more bacterial cells in your gut than there are cells in your body. This may seem weird, but remember much of your body, like water, is not cellular. And, of course, there is more than just one type of bacteria, indeed according to a Naturearticle from last year, there more than one hundred times the number of genes in the gut than there are in the human host. That, of course, gives a lot of scope for studying, er, colonic material. And yes, some people apparently do that, and there are some “interesting outputs”.

With such a range of “starting material” to study, the first step was to break the bacteria into four enterotypes. One of those sets, labeled Bacteroides 2, is associated with inflammation. Thus 75% of those with inflammatory bowel disease have this enterotype, while fewer than 15% of those who do not have the disease harbor it. This enterotype has another problem: if you have this enterotype it suppresses the manufacture of butyric acid, which is argued to preserve the barrier function of the epithelial cells lining the gut. In short, too little butyric acid and you get more inflammation. This suggests a corrective measure: eat butter, various fats, milk, parmesan cheese, and some rather unpleasant sources. The problem is that such foods still do not give enough. As an aside, butyric acid is quite foul smelling, and is a significant component of vomit. This suggests that supplements are unlikely to be chosen.

Gut bacteria can make trimethylamine oxide, which is claimed to accelerate atherosclerosis and lead to adverse cardiovascular outcomes, and the article adds, “including death”. Yes, that could be described as an adverse effect. Apparently a research group made a study on 2000 individuals and sorted out something like 1400 variables. For me that is far too small a number of subjects for that number of variables, but nevertheless they came out with the claim that a higher prevalence of this Bact-2  enterotype led to a higher probability of cardiovascular disease, but also it correlated with a  higher body-mass index and with obesity.  Note that correlation does not imply causation, and excess weight has been correlated with cardiovascular difficulties before. 

But there was more. If we consider only the obese, it was found that those taking statins have a pronounced reduction in this Bact-2 enterophyte, in which case they presumably help build up butyric acid. Statins also inhibit an enzyme on the route for making cholesterol, leading to cells to boost low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which in turn captures more cholesterol, which is supposed to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Statins also have anti-inflammatory action.This leads to a problem that in my opinion confounds medical research. We have an observation from a study in which there were almost as many variables as subjects that in one very small subset statins reduced the level of a gut bacteria group that can be correlated with cardiovascular problems. It seemed particularly effective at doing this in obese patients. Do you notice some rather tenuous links? In this study there were a huge number of variables that were not separated. Could we argue that we have been on the wrong track and something else is the cause of this effect, assuming the effect is real and not an accidental outcome of a small subset? How can we be sure that those taking statins were not better treated or more health conscious? On the other hand, if the effect is real, should not statin consumption, under proper medical prescription, be encouraged? What I hope this shows is how easy it is to find correlations, with the risk you are misleading everybody, which is why there are so many articles on medical issues that seem to contradict other ones. It is not an easy subject to analyse data, but we all have an interest in delaying death and misery.

Living Near Ceres

Some will have heard of Gerard O’Neill’s book, “The High Frontier”. If not, see The idea was to throw material up from the surface of the Moon to make giant cylinders that would get artificial gravity from rotation, and people could live their lives in the interior with energy being obtained in part by solar energy. The concept was partly employed in the TV series “Babylon 5”, but the original concept was to have open farmland as well. Looks like science fiction, you say, and in fairness I have included such a proposition in a science fiction novel I am currently writing, However, I have also read a scientific paper on this topic (arXiv:2011.07487v3) which appears to have been posted on the 14th January, 2021. The concept is to put such a space settlement using material obtained from the asteroid Ceres, and orbiting near Ceres.

The proposal is ambitious, if nothing else. The idea is to build a number of habitats, and to ensure such habitats are not too big but they stay together they are tethered to a megasatellite, which in turn will grow and new settlements are built. The habitats spin in such a way to attain a “gravity” of 1 g, and are attached to their tethers by magnetic bearings that have no physical contact between faces, and hence never wear. A system of travel between habitats proceeds along the tethers. Rockets would be unsustainable because the molecules they throw out to space would be lost forever.

The habitats would have a radius of 1 km, a length of 10 km, and have a population of 56,700, with 2,000 square meters per person, just under 45% of which would be urban. Slightly more scary would be the fact it has to rotate every 1.06 minutes. The total mass per person would be just under 10,000 t, requiring an energy to produce it of 1 MJ/kg, or about 10 GJ.

The design aims to produce an environment for the settlers that has Earth-like radiation shielding, gravity, and atmosphere. It will have day/night on a 24 hr cycle with 130 W/m^2 insolation, similar to southern Germany, and a population density of 500/km^2, similar to the Netherlands. There would be fields, parks, and forests, no adverse weather, no natural disasters and ultimately it could have a greater living area than Earth. It will be long-term sustainable. To achieve that, animals, birds and insects will be present, i.e.  a proper ecosystem. Ultimately it could provide more living area than Earth. As can be seen, that is ambitious. The radiation shielding involves 7600 kg/m^2, of which 20% is water and the rest silicate regolith. The rural spaces have a 1.5 m depth of soil, which is illuminated by the sunlight. The sunlight is collected and delivered from mirrors into light guides. Ceres is 2.77 times as far as Earth from the sun, which means the sunlight is only about 13% as strong as at Earth, so over eight times the mirror collecting are is required for every unit area to be illuminated to get equivalent energy. 

The reason cited for proposing this to be at Ceres is that Ceres has nitrogen. Actually, there are other carbonaceous asteroids, and one that is at least 100 km in size could be suitable. Because Ceres’ gravity is 0.029 times that of Earth, a space elevator could be feasible to bring material cheaply from the dwarf planet, while a settlement 100,000 km from the surface would be expected to have a stable orbit.

In principle, there could be any number of these habitats, all linked together. You could have more people living there than on Earth. Of course there are some issues with the calculation. The tethering of habitats, and of giving the habitats sufficient strength requires about 5% of the total mass in the form of steel. Where does the iron come from? The asteroids have plenty of iron, but the form is important. How will it be refined? If it is on the form of olivine or pyroxene, then with difficulty. Vesta apparently has an iron core, but Vesta is not close, and most of the time, because it has a different orbital period, it is very far away.But the real question is, would you want to live in such a place? How much would you pay for the privilege? The cost of all this was not estimated, but it would be enormous so most people could not afford it. In my opinion, cost alone is sufficient that this idea will not see the light of day.

The Future is Coming

The question then is, what will it be? I have just been reading a book by a number of futurists and it was remarkably timid, with a lot of conditional subjunctives and a bit of wishful thinking. Superficially, we should do better with the clues out there. Or can we? Are there too many unknowns? Is any part of the future impossible to predict with any reliability? Certainly, around here the professionals seem to make predictions on a par with the way I make them, that is, most of them are rubbish. About three years ago, economists were recommending New Zealand invest a lot more in tourism. OK, Covid 19 could be regarded as a Black Swan Event, but as soon as the virus struck, economists were advising that there would be unemployment of at least 11% by now, even with strong government financial support for the flailing industries. Accordingly, the Reserve Bank brought interest rates way down and began a major program of quantitative easing. The latest unemployment figures here are 4.5%, and thanks to floods of low interest money house prices have got out of control. Of course, the Reserve Bank will no doubt claim credit for the low unemployment (in part because anyone who can be of use at house building is employed) and ignore the house prices. So, what next? As usual, I have no idea.

Between 2008 and 2020, it appears the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the People’s Bank of China have been printing $1 trillion per year, and using this to buy government bonds. The governments have pushed the money into society with extremely low interest rates to encourage industries to employ more people and bring new things to market. Do you see this happening? No? So what will happen? Surely, if you keep pumping air into a tyre, eventually something will give. Quantitative easing has currently reached about 30% of various nations annual GDP, that is, 30% more than was needed to run the economies previously, yet they continue with greater enthusiasm. 

So what has happened? The reserve banks buy bonds from commercial banks, who then have managers that have to do something with the money. They lend to the wealthy and more to the rich to buy assets. Thus suppose you have an asset that yields 6% per annum. You use that as collateral to borrow money at 2%, or maybe even at 1% interest and buy another asset yielding 6%. Now you are starting to make more money and since you got rich by doing this sort of thing, you know what you are doing. As long as you make good investments and have fixed interest contracts, you cannot lose, leaving aside a massive disaster, and even then you will be in a better place than most others. The lesser wealthy either buy smaller assets, or stock. The net result is an overall increase in prices of these assets. If the asset is a house, the rent gets raised to accommodate the increased price. Those who sell or do not wish to buy assets put the money into banks or bonds, where it sits out of circulation, thus keeping the working money supply down. The extreme is when huge amounts of money are secreted away in tax havens.

So the poor get poorer because they have to rent, and their income has stayed the same because there is allegedly no inflation. Why is there no inflation? Because asset prices, housing, etc, do not count in most inflation indices. They do not count because it makes the establishment look so much more in control if they ignore these minor problems. Accordingly, the poor have to buy fewer consumables. That is why there is a shortage of productive investment: sales are static or, with this virus, are going down. The poor have less money, they buy less, hence industries do not expand. In fact, industries tend to contract. Last year, our national airline let go a third of its workforce. Quite high-earning people end up chasing much lower-paid jobs. They also suspended the purchase of new aircraft, so that is less income somewhere else. In such times, it is the higher salaried people let go unless they are essential, so we see even more hollowing of the middle class. The future is coming, but it is less clear from the financial point of view what it will hold. All that money effectively doing nothing is both a potential crisis and an enormous opportunity. Anyone who can think of an original way to capture some of that could become seriously rich.

Punish the Short, and Spinach

For the short, I refer, of course, to the short seller. Most, by now will be aware of Gamestop as a company. It makes and sells videogames, and its share price was something like $US19 before a certain hedge fund decided to short it.

First, to understand how a short works. The shorter borrows shares and has to pay some sort of fee to persuade the owner to lend. The shorter then sells the stock, and at a later stage has to repurchase, to return the “borrow”. You can make a lot this way if you handle enough stock, but also lose a lot, and to load it in your favour the short should involve a very large amount of stock. When that floods the market with unattractive stock, the price tumbles because who wants to buy so much? Then, the critical step: many other reef-fish who hold the stock panic and sell. This is needed because if nobody did anything, the price would go back up, and maybe higher when the repurchase was needed. The short works only because it persuades others it is time to sell and take a loss. If it works, shorter rubs hands and gets seriously richer, however when things go wrong, the loss is unlimited because the repurchase is required. 

So, the hedge fund bet big on Gamestop, and expected the soft market to fall, the reef-fish to try to cash out, and the hedgie to make big. Not much risk, because how could such a feeble company’s stock rise in price? Actually, fairly easily, but to understand that, we have to consider a relatively new phenomenon: the low-cost stock-trading platform. Once upon a time stock had to be purchased in packages of so many, and because bits of paper had to change hands, you usually had to find a buyer and seller prepared to trade the same number. If stock were in units of a dollar, not a significant problem, but some stock now come in units that cost a hundred dollars, which would put stock trading in the hands of the rich. But now we no longer deal with bits of paper; it is all handled electronically. That allows the low-cost trader into the scene, where people can even put up $10 and purchase a fraction of a unit share.

Now we see what went wrong, at least for the hedge fund. A huge number of gamers heard about this and plunged in, purchasing stock. This action from so many pumped up the price by factor of 20 in the middle of the short. These guys were not there to make money; they were there to punish the hedge fund for messing with the company that made their favourite games. They could all well afford to lose $10. Now, how much the hedge fund lost depends on how much stock they were betting with. Thus if they thought they would make a large amount of money if the stock price was depressed by a dollar, see what the loss is when you multiply that amount by 380.

There has since been a big commotion, urging the authorities to stop this “market manipulation”. After all you have to protect the rich on Wall Street. If they get it right, they win big; if they get it wrong, “Bail me out!” appears to be the cry, then if they are bailed out they pay themselves big bonuses for being so clever and continue on their previous ways. Perhaps I should add, I have no problem with short selling. It is a bet, BUT there must be the condition that if the bet loses, the loser pays, not someone else. As for market manipulation, where is the manipulation in advice to “buy this now” and give reasons why? What is different from the average financial advice from the big boys? It is quite reasonable, in my opinion, to buy stock in a company that makes a product you like to avoid it being taken over by some pirate company, be broken up and the assets sold off just to make someone a lot of money. If you are prepared to lose money to keep a company alive, what is wrong with that? They protest too much.

There is another problem with the protests by Wall St.: where does the shorter borrow the stock from in the first place? The easiest source is these new platforms. When the ordinary guy buys such stock, it is the platform that actually possesses it, and the platform can make more money lending it out. Without the small platforms it may not be that easy to purchase enough stock to be worth the effort, so these platforms are needed by Wall St. Regulating the small platforms just to favour Wall St will be very messy.Finally, something totally different. I came across an item in a newspaper that started with, “Spinach sends email”. You might guess this is wrong. What happened was it turns out spinach is surprisingly sensitive to certain soil contaminants, including certain nitrogen oxides. What happened was a camera detected the change and sent an electronic alert. But wait, there’s more. One of the proposed uses was that spinach could detect landmines. Yeah, right. I can just see everyone walking over land, digging it over, then planting spinach to see if there is a landmine below. They would probably know when they started walking over the ground while preparing it.

Free Will

You will see many discussions regarding free will. The question is, do you have it, or are we in some giant computer program. The problem is that classical physics is deterministic, and you will often see claims that Newtonian physics demands that the Universe works like some finely tuned machine, following precise laws of motion. And indeed, we can predict quite accurately when eclipses of the sun will occur, and where we should go to view them. The presence of eclipses in the future is determined now. Now let us extrapolate. If planets follow physical laws, and hence their behaviour can be determined, then so do snooker or pool balls, even if we cannot in practice calculate all that will happen on a given break. Let us take this further. Heat is merely random kinetic energy, but is it truly random? It seems that way, but the laws of motion are quite clear: we can calculate exactly what will happen in any collision and it is just in practice the calculations are too complicated to even consider doing it. You bring in chaos theory, but this does nothing for you; the calculations may be utterly impossible to carry out, but they are governed solely by deterministic physics, so ultimately what happens was determined and it is just that we do not know how to calculate it. Electrodynamics and quantum theory are deterministic, even if quantum theory has random probability distributions. Quantum behaviour always follows strict conservation laws and the Schrödinger equation is actually deterministic. If you know ψ and know the change of conditions, you know the new ψ. Further, all chemistry is deterministic. If I go into the lab, take some chemicals and mix them and if necessary heat them according to some procedure, every time I follow exactly the same procedures, I shall end up with the same result.

So far, so good. Every physical effect follows from a physical cause. Therefore, the argument goes, since our brain works on physical and chemical effects and these are deterministic, what our brains do is determined exactly by those conditions. But those conditions were determined by what went before, and those before that, and so on. Extrapolating, everything was predetermined at the time of the big bang! At this point the perceptive may feel that does not seem right, and it is not. Consider nuclear decay. We know that particles, say neutrons, are emitted with a certain probability over an extended period of time. They will be emitted, but we cannot say exactly, or even roughly, when. The nuclei have angular uncertainty, therefore it follows that you cannot know what direction it is emitted because according to the laws of physics that is not determined until it is emitted. You may say, so what? That is trivial. No, the so what is that when you find one exception, you falsify the overall premise that everythingwas determined at the big bang. Which means something else introduced causes. Also, the emitted neutron may now generate new causes that could not be predetermined.

Now we start to see a way out. Every physical effect follows from a physical cause, but where do the causes come from? Consider stretching a wire with ever increasing force; eventually it breaks. It usually breaks at the weakest point, which in principle is predictable, but suppose we have a perfect wire with no point weaker than any other. It must still break, but where? At the instant of breaking some quantum effect, such as molecular vibration, will offer momentarily weaker and stronger spots. One with the greatest weakness will go, but due to the Uncertainty Principle that the given spot is unpredictable.

Take evolution. This proceeds by variation in the nucleic acids, but where in the chain is almost certainly random because each phosphate ester linkage that has to be broken is equivalent, just like the points in the “ideal wire”. Most resultant mutations die out. Some survive, and those that survive long enough to reproduce contribute to an evolutionary change. But again, which survives depends on where it is. Thus a change that provides better heat insulation at the expense of mobility may survive in polar regions, but it offers nothing in the equatorial rain forest. There is nothing that determines where what mutation will arise; it is a random event.Once you cannot determine everything, even in principle, it follows you must accept that not every cause is determined by previous events. Once you accept that, since we have no idea how the mind works, you cannot insist the way my mind works was determined at the time of the big bang. The Universe is mechanical and predictable in terms of properties obeying the conservation laws, but not necessarily anything else. I have free will, and so do you. Use it well.

Ebook Discount

From January 21 – 28, my thriller, The Manganese Dilemma, will be discounted to 99c/99p on Amazon. 

The Russians did it; everyone is convinced of that. But just exactly what did they do? Charles Burrowes, a master hacker, is thrown into a ‘black op’ with the curvaceous Svetlana for company to validate new super stealth technology she has brought to the West. Some believe there is nothing there since their surveillance technology cannot show any evidence of it, but then it is “super stealth” so just maybe . . . Also, Svetlana’s father was shot dead as they made their escape. Can Burrowes provide what the CIA needs before Russian counterintelligence or a local criminal conspiracy blow the whole operation out of the water? The lives of many CIA agents in Russia will depend on how successful he is.

The Non-Green Internet

Did you know that by reading this you are contributing to climate change. Oops! Seriously, it is claimed that by 2025 the internet will use a fifth of the world’s electricity, assuming no massive increase in the use of electric transport. And before you decide to stop reading this to save the climate, apart from the use of your computer, you make no difference whether you read it or not. On the other hand, apparently Bitcoin mining consumes the total electricity consumption of Switzerland, so steady on there. The infrastructure for the internet is always on, and the messages you send make no difference. Sorry but you cannot save the world by not sending that email, and of course had you posted a physical letter, there would have been significant greenhouse gas emissions from getting the letter from your desk to wherever.

People that store their work in the cloud do contribute. A major data centre consumes about 30 GWh per year, and the UK has about 450 data centres. After all, all this rubbish we write and record has to be stored somewhere. That raises the question, how many data centres will have to be built? These centres are where the “cloud” resides, and if everyone is busy filling them up, what happens when it is no longer so easy to build more? How long can we continue recording everything?

How much has to be recorded for posterity? All those pointless Facebook posts that make pointless comments (rude or otherwise) or show a few emoticons. If they were deleted after a few weeks, would anyone notice? The problem then, of course, is, who decides? Notice the recent fuss about Trump not being allowed to tweet. In my opinion, if they had done that to him when he became President he would have been more effective but that is another matter. The problem is, when you appoint a “Great Deleter” you open up so many cans of worms it is not funny. Some of what we store will be of interest historically, perhaps especially Trump’s tweets. Right now photos recovered from long ago fascinate many of us. I know that I recently downloaded a whole lot of photos of the area where my mother grew up, and where, still a long time ago, I drove her back to have a look around. So for me, it was of interest to hear her say what was there, where, and now be able to see it. Quite simply, in two lifetimes everything has changed remarkably, and what was there is no longer, other than in memories, and memories die. Also, storing photos in data centres takes up much less space than storing hard copies. Of the hard copies left, many have been lost, but how much of what is stored digitally will be available in a hundred years?

Much of what is stored digitally may become unreadable. In the scientific community, for example, the Royal Society for Chemistry has noted that computations carried out in the last century often use code that nobody now understands. Some of us have computer files written many years ago, but unless they were updated and converted into new formats they are unreadable other than on an ancient computer. Back to electricity, either we can go into our shell and try to live like the Amish, do something about electricity generation, or be like politicians and make encouraging speeches and hope all gets well. Apparently, Facebook, Apple, Google and others have committed to using 100% renewable electricity (although when is another question) and Microsoft claims that by 2050 it will have removed all the carbon emissions it has ever produced. These are noble aspirations, but so far, according to Greenpeace, only about 20% of the electricity used by the world’s data centres is renewable. Further, the data centres run uniform power consumption over the entire time. Solar is of little use during the night, and wind power fails when the wind is not blowing. If we rely heavily on such renewables, what happens when there are blackouts? And, of course, there is the question of the non-renewable resources used to build the computers in the cloud. So no, I do not think anyone will be reading my blogs in a hundred years. However, we should make more effort to generate electricity more sustainably. Unless we solve the fusion problem, I favour the liquid salt thorium-type reactor.

2021 Underway

Here I am, refreshed with our pleasant summer, starting again another year. I hope I am entertaining, and that you all enjoyed your Christmas period.

In New Zealand, the New Year period tends to be when so many people are away on holiday, the reason being that if you are going away, you get more value for the leave you have to take from your job by adding in the statutory holidays. Accordingly, the news media tends to run on very reduced staff numbers, after all journalists have to have holidays too, not a lot happens locally, and often if something happens offshore it does not matter if it is ignored because it will usually be forgotten when life starts again later.

This year, not so. Two things have happened.  We have to let New Zealanders come home, where they go into managed isolation quarantine. While there is no community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 currently, the managed isolation places are getting almost 20 cases a day, including cases of the new virulent UK strain and the South African strain. These viruses certainly move fast, and it shows that people overseas are not really taking it seriously. So far, it is contained here, but I have this horrible feeling a breakout is almost inevitable. I hope that wherever you, my readers, are, you manage to keep virus-free.

However, the bigger news here was the remarkable scenes at the US Capitol. It seemed to me almost unbelievable that this was happening. Apparently there were many entries on Facebook and other social media sites effectively organizing this and one might have thought that someone like the NSA might have picked up these signs of trouble and arranged for better law enforcement.

In my opinion, this was not, as some seem to assert, a coup, an insurrection, or anything of the sort. It was a bunch of louts behaving really badly and the proper response is to properly enforce the law and prosecute said louts. Of course, the President’s twittering did not exactly help the situation. It is hard to see his strategy there, or even if he had one. Presumably he wanted to keep his political presence alive during the Biden years, to ensure that Biden had the sort of trouble he had, and since the Congress is lost to him, he had to find an alternative. What he chose, in my opinion, resulted in his shooting himself in the foot.

If we think a little more about strategy, what can the Republican Party do right now to get the best from this situation? The Democrats seem determined to make the most of this, and seemingly are determined to impeach Trump for a second time, and hope that enough Republicans will vote in favour in the Senate. Whether they will is debatable, because to do so would give the Democrats huge publicity. That still leaves what to do? As a writer, I have to formulate plots so I wrote the following last Sunday. As can be seen, the Republicans thought differently.

So, my suggested strategy starting last Monday: approach Trump and suggest he resign, thus giving Pence a few days as President. The advantages are:

(a)  For Trump, Pence will pardon him for whatever falls out from his Presidency. This starves the Democrats of political oxygen, Trump gets personal freedom and is able to stand in the primaries again in 2024 if he so wished. That should be enough to persuade Trump to comply. The alternative is the Republicans promise to convict him in the Senate, he will leave in disgrace and he will not run again. He hopefully would comply, but someone with congenital holes in feet may not. 

(b)  For Pence, be President, albeit for no more than a week, and maybe only a couple of days. He goes into history books as the shortest term President, but equally, perhaps the most productive per unit time.

(c)  For the party and for Pence: by getting Trump to resign and pardon him, it starves the Democrats of “political oxygen”. The statement made during the pardon is it is done because it is the only way to start healing the nation. Who can argue with that really? Many won’t like it, but so what? The alternative is continued bitter political fighting at the expense of the nation.

(d) For the Party and the Nation: Pence orders the military to assist with distribution and vaccination. There are apparently difficulties getting people vaccinated because there are not enough people able to do it and the vaccines are not always where they are needed. The military must have available logistics and health workers. This also starves Biden of his first “easy win”.

(e)  To harpoon the Democrats, pardon Assange from extradition. The liberal or progressive parts of the Democrats cannot object and makes the Republicans look good on freedom of speech, which is what they claim they want.Easy, isn’t it? Isn’t it??? My guess, at the time of writing, none of this will happen. More missed opportunities. And (added before posting) about the only thing I got right, I think, was that guess. What will happen now is anybody’s guess, and as you can see, anybody guesses better than me

2020 and all that

Since the year is almost over, I thought I would have a small review of the year, from my point of view. From my perspective, the year started with nice warm weather, and rather remarkable sunsets. Australia had some terrible bushfires. Still, all was well where I live. NZ had some fires as well, although nothing like the Australian ones.

My daughter-in-law is Chinese, and her parents live near the edge of Hunan province, but her father travels to work in a factory in adjacent Hubei province, and in February that got locked down. I am not quite sure what happened exactly, but her father could not return home for nearly a week. That is putting in overtime! When Tian announced that Wuhan would build a thousand-bed hospital in ten days, I did not believe her, but they did, in the middle of a lockdown. The Chinese lockdown was interesting. Soldiers from the PLA would but paper tape over everyone’s doors. If you wanted groceries a soldier would take away the tape, you would go collect them, then the tape would be replaced. Break the tape and be naughty, an automatic six months in a Chinese jail, and you don’t get time off for good behaviour. Good behaviour is required, and avoids the consequences of bad behaviour. If your naughtiness could reasonably, in the eye of the party, have led to someone else getting the virus as a consequence of your behaviour, five years. The Chinese behaved and by all accounts the virus was essentially eliminated and life returned to normal in China in a couple of months, other than the odd outbreak from Chinese returning from somewhere else.

Inevitably, the virus landed in New Zealand, and our government tried a strategy of elimination. It was fascinating in that on day one I was out on the road running alongside the bank that encloses my property to cut back vegetation and make it easier for road users. A pedestrian came down the road and immediately crossed to the other side when he saw me. I live on the side of a hill, and I can look down on the main highway going into Wellington. It was weird: almost no vehicles. How could this be? During the major lockdown, my daughter brought me groceries once a week; she, being a senior physician at Wellington Hospital had a priority time for grocery shopping when all and sundry were not allowed. On a personal level, I had one scary moment when the lockdown was eased off. On the first evening, I went to a scheduled meeting that we all thought would be cancelled, but wasn’t. I was driving down what is normally one of the busiest roads in the valley when a van flew out of a commercial building and shot across the road, presumably being used to empty roads. Fortunately, I still have very good reflexes, and it seems good brakes.

The good news is that while there were the odd example of a leakage, the virus appears to be eliminated here, and sports events, summer festivals, etc are apparently going to proceed as usual. While the tourist/hospitality sector has been in trouble, and probably will continue to be, life in New Zealand has returned to normal.

At a personal level, I was invited to write a chapter on hydrothermal processing of biomass by a major book publishing company. I agreed, and that was settled prior to the virus outbreak. I sent in the chapter, but never heard any more about it. I suppose it gave me something to do over the period. I also finished and started revising my next novel, provisionally called “Spoliation” so please go to to read chapter one.

The election here had the government returned with a record majority, while in the US there was a narrow defeat. What does this all mean? The most critical problems for 2021 will be how to fix the economies and how to deal with the virus. There are vaccines for the virus, but unless the virus is eliminated, it will stay with us, and now it depends on how long the vaccines work. My guess is revaccination will probably need to be frequent unless we do eliminate it, and I can’t see that happening as only too many countries do not see that as an objective. Meanwhile, the virus is mutating. As for the economies, what happens will be critically dependent on what governments and central banks do. We may be cursed with more interesting times.This will be my last post for 2020. Since it is summer here, and Christmas is imminent, I shall be distracted, but I shall return in mid January. In the meantime, I wish you all a very merry Christmas, and a healthy virus-free 2021.

Ebook Discounts

From December 18 until the end of the year, my ebooks at Smashwords will be discounted. The fictional ebooks include”

Puppeteer:  A technothriller where governance is breaking down due to government debt, and where a terrorist attack threatens to kill tens to hundreds of millions of people and destroy billions of dollars worth of infrastructure.

‘Bot War:  A technothriller set about 8 years later, a more concerted series of terrorist attacks made by stolen drones lead to partial governance breaking down.


Troubles. Dystopian, set about 10 years later still, the world is emerging from anarchy, and there is a scramble to control the assets. Some are just plain greedy, some think corporate efficiency should rule, some think the individual should have the right to thrive, some think democracy should prevail as long as they can rig it, while the gun is the final arbiter.

Also discounted is Biofuels, non-fiction, which summarizes to what extent biofuels could be a solution to the carbon-neutrality problem, and not from making alcohol from corn. From my own personal research. Summarises what is and what is not a good idea. Be knowledgeable: