Electricity and the Wellington storm

Sometimes, little things are sent to try us, and last Thursday evening, we lost electricity, and it stayed lost for 49 hrs. Of course, some people had it a lot worse, and they will have lost it for over a week. The reason: a storm. The wind speed hit 200 kilometers per hour for about 12 hours, or 120 miles per hour, and it was cold. It then dropped wind speed to a more normal storm, but continued with even more intense driving rain. I saw trees with a diameter of over two meters blown over, and what happened next depended on where they landed. The bottom of the South Island got over a meter of snow; we only got driving rain, but we got it somewhat faster. Some of the reasons for widespread power losses were fairly obvious, such as trees being blown over, and sometimes snapping power posts. Other reasons were somewhat bizarre, the most frequent bizarre reason being trampolines lifted up and smashing into lines. We had only mild problems compared with some who had roofs lifted off, or trees smashing into houses. One problem for me was vegetation clogging our spouting, which led to a garage inundation, and the second was we have to pump our water into a header tank. I left it for a while and slept off the worst of the storm, but then I still had to get up on the roof with winds now (guess) a mere 120 kph and worse driving rain to, paradoxically, fill the header tank with water, and get the worst of the vegetation out of the spouting. If nothing else, I tested my wet weather gear.

 What it also did was to remind me exactly how dependent we have become on electricity. Our house uses only electricity to cook, to heat, to pump water, and of course, for entertainment and to connect with the outside world. No electricity, no blog! Of course one could cook as one does camping, but cooking outside in that wind and rain was somehow unattractive. Fortunately, we keep plenty of food that can be eaten cold, in case of earthquake damage.

 The storm did more damage. The rail line connecting the Hutt Valley (where I live) and Wellington runs along the harbour, and the waves managed to erode out sections of the rocks underneath the rail lines. In some places, the rail lines were crossing an area, supported only by air. The net result now is that commuter trains cannot operate, and the road system is hopelessly overloaded. The South coast was hit by 15 meter high waves, which threw rocks almost as big as small cars over the coastal road, tearing up footpaths, roads, etc, and smashing a lot of property.

So, what did I learn? Mostly, how connected I am with the rest of the world. It is only when there is no internet that you get to realize how much it has influenced your life. It also meant I had to stop writing. Perhaps that was not the worst thing in the world, because that forced me to think. (Somehow, I found thinking by candlelight more productive than usual. I have no idea why.) So, what will come from that? It gave me time to reflect on the two books I am currently in a copy edit stage. Hopefully, this will lead to improvements.


Democracy and governance

One of the subthemes in the futuristic novels I am writing is, how should we be governed? Most readers of this blog will think the answer is obvious: democracy. Think about this for a minute, and ask, is this true, and how do you know? My answer is that democracy is too cumbersome. Trying to get everybody to even consider an issue is hopeless in our modern life, and even if you can get them to think about it, the thoughts tend to be very superficial. So, what we tend to do is to give everybody a vote, but they have to spend it on a politician. We do not have democracy; we have a republic, and the United States constitution in particular is based on the Roman republic. What happened then was that the eligible citizens were all given a “stone” and they went to a selected spot and cast it. The United States President is elected in a similar way to the Roman Consul, the electoral college representing the role of the great families. Most other “democracies” work in a similar way. This is more efficient at decision-making, but it has its problems.

Recently, the death of Margaret Thatcher illustrated what I consider to be much of what is wrong with our political system. You may not agree with her policies, but why not disagree while she was alive? Perhaps because there was nothing the public could do to change them? In an election you get one vote, so one issue predominates. It is not democratic to have no means of deciding separable issues, but merely more efficient.

I think it is a fair assessment that when she came to power, Britain was sick. The manufacturing industries were simply non-competitive. There were several reasons for this. One was the overall debt incurred by Britain in fighting Hitler. This debt totally wrecked Britain’s economy, and Britain would have been better to have stayed out of the war, or to have made peace after Dunkirk. The world, of course, would have been a much worse place, but the fact remains, Britain never really recovered from that war. The second problem was that British industry did not reinvest, but rather it ran its factories into the ground, and did not value what it had. A long time ago, I owned a Datsun 1600, which was quite an advanced car for its time, and one day, while driving in the Australian country, I had trouble with a hose. I limped into this small country town with one garage, which nominally was an Austin/Morris agency, so I stopped. Could he do something to get me to …  No problem, he had the part. Austin had sold its designs to Datsun, and persisted with a much inferior design, but the Austin hoses exactly fitted the Datsun. So Japan has a car industry and Britain does not. The final piece of bad news for Britain prior to Thatcher was the Union movement. Nobody would do anything that was not on their formal job description, which meant that industries were hopelessly overstaffed. Margaret Thatcher excised the cancer. The trouble was, she excised far too much. She closed the coal industry, almost overnight, and industry simply collapsed, unable to compete with German and Japanese industry. I consider this was a triumph of political dogma over logic

Thatcher became extremely unpopular, until the Falklands. Whether she was completely rational there is a matter of opinion, but she decided to retake them. In my opinion, all other things being equal, Britain should have failed. What happened is that Thatcher risked many lives as she staked her reputation, and the question is, was what she did a rational assessment of the situation, a moral stand, or was it a throw of the dice to rescue an otherwise impossible political position? Whatever it was, it worked, and her reputation reached unparalleled heights.

So what we saw was that prior to Thatcher, Britain was sliding into a depressed inefficient state, thanks to politicians who refused to take hard decisions. Thatcher went to the opposite extreme: there was no shortage of hard decisions, but how many of them were right? What we need is a government that makes the right decisions. The problem is, how to get such a government?


The compact city

One of the discussions going on now in New Zealand is what a future city should look like. One of the major reasons for this is that planners have decided that they should restrict urban sprawl, and to do this they have withheld planning permission to open up new land. That is all very well, but they have not facilitated any alternative, and hence all that has happened is that house prices have actually soared, especially in Auckland where, for some reason, immigrants come and do not proceed further. The problem with the compact city is that even if you decide you need it, you need land to build whatever the extra people are going to live in. The inner city tends to be already built on. 

Why does it matter what our cities evolve into? While it is possible, and necessary, to have biofuels, it is most likely that they cannot produce enough to replace oil. I have sent quite a lot of my professional working time involved with this issue, and with one possible exception, it is physically impossible to find enough biomass to power future usage assuming we continue with present trends. People talk about hydrogen to replace oil. In my opinion, that would be a mistake. Hydrogen is one of the hardest gases to store, since it leaks given the slightest plausible excuse. Once it has leaked, it has a very large range of mixtures with air that are explosive. It is reasonably easy to ignite, and as was part of my ebook Puppeteer, a terrorist could do serious damage. The gas is just too dangerous. There have been proposals to store the hydrogen chemically and slowly release it. An example would be compounds based on ammonia/borane, but the problem then is, where to find the energy to make the compounds, and how to teach the general public how to handle the chemicals safely.

The other alternative is to cut down drastically the amount of fuel consumed. In my most recent futuristic novel Dreams Defiled, one of the major protagonists must deal with this problem and comes up with the scheme: arrange it so that wherever possible, everyone walks or cycles to work. How can that be arranged? Simply by dispersing work into small island communities, and have everyone who works at a site live nearby. The argument to sell this scheme was, why spend two hours going each way to and fro work? If everyone lived close to work and had the ability to purchase groceries close by, fuel consumption would drop dramatically, and now I think biofuels could make up the rest. The problem then is, how to persuade people to move, and how to provide something suitably attractive for them so they are happy to move. One of my thoughts is that when planners set out to redesign a city and ask people to live in a different type of house/apartment, the planners should be the first to move. That way, at least the housing is far more likely to be livable.

Radiation: a space travel hazard?

Space travel is, not unnaturally a key part of much science fiction, but a recent article in the journal Science raised an important issue: radiation. Based on data from Curiosity, travelling to and from Mars employing the same type of trajectory as Curiosity (a standard orbital transfer trajectory) a person going there and back would receive approximately 660 millisieverts of radiation. For comparison the average person gets just under 4 millisieverts per annum, although a CT scan can give you 8. Space agencies limit astronauts to 1000 millisieverts during their entire career. There appear to be two views to this. The first is radiation is probably still the least of an astronaut’s worries. The second it, radiation could get worse than this.

There are two sorts of radiation that are relevant: protons expelled from the sun, which may be in great blobs of plasma, and cosmic rays, from the rest of the universe (and probably originating in supernovae). On earth, we are protected from the sun’s emissions by the earth’s magnetic field, which diverts charged particles, but on an average space ship, there will be no such protection, nor will there be such protection on the surface of Mars. There is less you can do about cosmic rays because they have so much energy. So what can be done to protect the intrepid space traveller?

The first step is obvious: get there faster. Think of crossing the Atlantic. Curiosity was about the slowest you could travel and still get there, and could be compared with crossing the Atlantic in a Viking longboat. Jet planes make what was then a highly risky and very prolonged trip rather ordinary now. Curiosity took so long because chemical propulsion does not provide enough power, so the first step is to devise better propulsion systems. The second step is to provide the astronauts with protection against such radiation, which should include shielding at a minimum. Once at Mars, the atmosphere will provide some shielding, because while the pressure is low, there is still a fairly thick layer, and of course, while inside a building, or even in a suit, there is protection. A massive solar flare would go through a simple wall or a suit, but such flares are detectable and the astronaut should get a couple of days warning. On Mars, getting underground provides any amount of shielding.

Several science fiction books have a lead-shielded zone in their space ship to protect themselves. Actually, plenty of water would do a fairly good job, and of course you have to take plenty of water anyway. Design features help, and do we want to take a huge mass of lead for no other purpose? In my novel, Red Gold, the setting of which involved the colonization of Mars, I proposed two fusion-powered ships, the fusion units to provide electricity and energy for materials production once there. The ships were each about twenty million tonne mass fully laden so they were not small, but they had to be about that big to carry enough stuff required to make a settlement work and give two hundred settlers a reasonable lifestyle. The mass provided some shielding, but the large disks also had large magnetic fields. How much good that would do is debatable. However, I also proposed a massive space station at the Mars sun L1 position, which is the nul gravitational point between Mars and the sun, and that was intended to generate a massive magnetic field powered by solar energy and superconductors. The concept was if charged particles were even given a small nudge, from that distance they would miss Mars. Finally, I had my key settlement underground. I suppose one can debate the effectiveness of these schemes, but I think that if we are going to colonize Mars we have to consider radiation, and I think part of the point of fiction is to alert readers to some of the relevant issues. Meanwhile, I gather there is a Dutch reality TV program intending to send a very limited number of people on a one-way trip to Mars. Read what I think is a dead minimum that should be taken, and see if you would want to be part of that TV show.