Construction, Greed, and Regulations

In my previous post, I used the production of drugs as a reason why a government is required for optimal outcomes. Of course, this also requires efficiency and purpose from the government, and admittedly performance is not always very good. That does not mean that governments should be abandoned and everything left to the private sector. No. What it means is the governments need to be booted into efficiency. In this post I shall address construction, and here the performance of government has often been patchy, but invariably the worst outcomes have arisen when minimalist governments were in place. Leave it to the private sector has produced the effects of greed.

The first example comes from ancient Rome. Romans were great constructors, and two of the examples included the provision of sewers and aqueducts. Both of these are for the public good, but neither can easily be made profitable for anyone else to provide them, or at least they could not in ancient Rome, nor in most modern countries. One of the advantages of the Roman government making them was also that they were made well. In terms of sewers, the Cloaca Maxima, built in the fourth century BC and upgraded by Augustus apparently still drains the Forum Romanum and some nearby area. The Romans built to last. The aqueduct that went around the side of Vesuvius survived a pyroclastic blast, and served all of its targeted cities but those that were buried until late in the fifth century, when maintenance was abandoned with predictable results. (The two main ones that were not served were Herculaneum and Pompeii.) I suppose there is an argument that had there been shoddy construction, we would not know about it, but most certainly there was none on the major projects. Why not? One reason may well have been that if you tried to cheat the state in ancient Rome, the penalties tended to be somewhat more severe than we dish out to our worst criminals. One option was to be sold to provide entertainment, and most miscreants would not provide it a second time.

Move forward to Tudor times in England. Ever wondered what caused the Great Fire of London? We don’t really know, but we have a very good idea what caused a number of lesser fires that caused wipe-outs of significant parts of towns. It was caused by the then recent invention of the chimney, and any reasonably well-off Tudor person would have one in his house – or maybe two, one at each end. Chimneys had to be made of brick, with substantial heat barriers, etc, but a few unscrupulous builders found that they could make a lot more money if they built the middle part of the chimney with wood. It was much faster to build, and as long as the owners did not let the chimney soot up, it probably did not matter. The problem was when it did soot up and was not properly swept; now the wood burnt rather nicely, and since the wood connected to the rest of the house, so did the house.

Fast forward to New Zealand. Up until the start of the 1980s, the country had strong building regulations, but by the mid 1980s, there was a bout of deregulation. The market always knew best, said the politicians. My view is the politicians were just plain lazy and could not be bothered doing any more than they absolutely had to. Anyway, there was a building boom, with houses, apartment blocks, and some larger building complexes. Many of the larger ones have not survived in their original form, and one, in Christchurch had short lateral steel reinforcing, so that when the earthquake came along, the flexing of walls in different directions meant there was insufficient length to bridge the gap, and the building pancaked. That was real saving – a few inches of steel missing per girder saved a few dollars and killed many of those trapped in it, thanks to slack governance. In Auckland, there were designs that would never have passed the previous building codes, and that used “new better value materials”. Ten years later, the buildings were found to be horribly leaky and rot and corrosion meant that effectively they were the next best thing to worthless. To make a few extra dollars for the builders and building materials suppliers, many of whom then wound up their companies so the owners had no legal resort, the purchasers easily lost a few hundred thousand dollars each. Here, the innocent lose, because when you buy a house, how many of you really know what the interior of it looks like.

Then, recently, in Taiwan an earthquake flattened a building. The concrete walls apparently had empty oil cans in the walls to save concrete. Concrete has tremendous compressive strength, so as long as the walls etc stayed vertical, there was no problem, as normally such walls have an enormous surplus strength. Unfortunately, concrete has a very poor flexural strength; it either moves as a block or it breaks. In an earthquake, the lateral forces and the cans meant that there was insufficient strength for it to move as a block.

My question is, why should citizens die because someone wants to make a few dollars and cannot be bothered to explain what the risks of using it are? The only organization strong enough to stop this is a government. It is needed, and “I can spend my money better than it can,” is just another form of stupidity or greed.

A Role for Government

What with a an election in the USA at the end of the year, and the possibility of Bernie Sanders, described by some as a rabid socialist (although in parts of Europe he would probably be regarded as right of centre) we see a lot on the web from people who seem to say government is the problem, and basically they could spend their money much more efficiently than the government. No comment about what on. This raises the question, what should a government do? The classic minimalist response is to organize defence and to maintain and defend the value of the currency. Ever since Imperial Rome, the latter responsibility has withered, and debasing the currency has continued ever since. Now Central Banks seem to want to maintain a controlled inflation, so that long term government debts become easier to pay.

However, currency is for some other time. The question really is, do you want to reward uncontrolled greed, or do you think society should provide some sort of fairness? I personally think society should be organized to give all its young a fair chance at making the best of their lives and also to make up for the rough cast of the dice for some. I do not believe that private enterprise cares sufficiently for the common good. A couple of medical examples follow.

I suspect most of my readers have never heard of Sumatriptan. Do not feel bad about this; neither had I until I read Wednesday morning’s newspaper. Apparently there is a health problem called “cluster headaches” which for a very few people cause excruciating pain, and the only reliable way of relieving these is an injection of an appropriate dose of Sumitriptan. The relevance of this to the issue of governance is that Sumitriptan recently came out of patent protection and the pharmaceutical company that made it stopped making it and handed over (for unknown financial benefit) the formulae, etc, to a generic drugs manufacturer in India. The problem is, nobody thought to work out what would happen during the transition. You do not learn to make a drug overnight, and the pharmaceutical company probably decided it did not want unsold product on its books. The net result is there is a period of a few months during which world supplies have effectively dried up, and none will be available for a few weeks or months. So we have a period of unnecessary torture for those who drew the short straw of life and suffered this condition. Much better to maximize shareholder profit than make a little too much drug and let a few who depend on it have a normal life.

Have you ever heard of colistin? Again, probably not. This, according to “Chemistry World”, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, is the most common antibiotic of last resort, and it has now discovered bacteria resistant to it. What this means is that unless we discover further antibiotics of significantly different chemical structure, we are going to have surgery revert to 19th century failure rates. You may protest that surgery has advanced well since then, and it has, but equally we have many more procedures that are much longer and much more difficult. What has gone wrong is that with the search for profit, antibiotics, which were an exceptional discovery that saved countless lives have also been grossly misused. There was probably not much that could have been done to prevent the silly from not completing courses, but nevertheless if usage was better controlled and with the large choice available, we probably could have got through, particularly if the special ones were reserved for special cases. The idea of having antibiotics in stock feed to accelerate growth was just silly, and greed and convenience got in the road of thinking, including thinking about what happens next. When antibiotics persisted into animal effluent, there was a spread of increasingly dilute antibiotics, at just the low concentration needed for local bacteria to have to develop immunity to it. On top of that, the use of various antibiotics in some parts of the world as prophylactics was just plain irresponsible.

But, you say, science will find more. Maybe, but who will find more? The major pharmaceutical companies probably will not, other than by accident, because it makes no financial sense to look for them. That may seem a strange comment, but think. Suppose it searches, and spends millions of dollars, and then maybe hundreds of millions of dollars getting the drug through the clinical trials and approval processes. What happens next is it does not sell very well. Why not? Because it then becomes the drug of last resort, to be used only under the most extreme circumstances. And this is where the issue of the commons is so important. Society as a whole needs a drug the bacteria have not seen often enough to develop resistance, but that means it has not been used very much. The pharmaceutical company needs massive sales to recover its costs and make a profit.

The public has to make a choice. Either it needs to take responsibility and pay to develop such drugs that are in the public interest, or it has to hope that a major company behaves out of the goodness of its heart. What do you choose?

A relativistic cat paradox.

When travelling near the speed of light, time goes more slowly, by a factor of γ, where

γ = 1/√(1 – v2/c2)

Here, c is the velocity of light, which is constant for all observers, while v is the velocity. The problem with the velocity is that it depends on the frame of reference used, which in turn depends on the motion of the observer, and according to Einstein, there is no preferred frame of reference. That means any frame of reference is as good as another, and apparently Einstein illustrated the principle of relativity once by remarking at the end of a train journey, “Ha, the Zurich railway station is approaching, and will soon stop outside the train.”

Consider this problem. I have a friend Fred and a five-year old cat Horatio, and these two have agreed to participate in a thought experiment to test Einstein’s argument that there is no preferred frame of reference. Horatio is put into a cat friendly space ship (SS1), I put myself into SS2, and the two ships travel as close as possible to light speed in the direction of Epsilon eridani, leaving observer Fred behind. The ships loop around the back of Epsilon eridani, then head back to Earth, landing where we took off. Fred and I open the hatch to SS1, and the question then is, what do we see? Before opening the hatch, we can use the time dilation equation to make our prediction, but we get different answers.

From Fred’s point of view, the two space ships have been in flight for twenty-two years, say, but they sustain the relativistic time dilation effect because v ≈ c, and time should almost stop. Accordingly, following Einstein’s equations, Horatio will leap out, a little older than when he entered SS1. However, from my point of view, once underway, I look out the window of SS2, and see SS1 stationary beside me, and Epsilon eridani hurtling towards me at just under the speed of light. However it does not reach me for a bit under 11 years, and the same thing happens on the way back, except Earth is now hurtling towards me at almost light speed instead of receding. Accordingly, Horatio should have experienced a bit under 22 years of travel, but since cats do not live longer than about 18 years, and given his first five years were over before he started, I expect to see a long dead residue of Horatio.

Two adjacent observers must see the same thing. What do they see when they open the hatch of SS1, and why?

The paradox goes away if there is a preferred frame of reference, and the velocity both use in the equation is the velocity with respect to that frame of reference. Note that one can argue that there is a preferred frame of reference in the cosmic microwave background, and motion of our solar system relative to that has been found to be approximately 390km/sec. (Smoot et al., 1977 Phys. Rev. Lett. 39: 898).

Crowdfunding a new venture

Recently, I saw a question posted on the web that was effectively, how do you attract venture capital? One way is crowd funding, and since a venture of mine, Nemidon Ltd, is taking this route starting yesterday, I thought I would depart from my usual posts and discuss this. (This post was originally scheduled for last week, but the pitch apparently had website difficulties, and hence a delay ensued.)

First, how did it get started? I operated a small research company that had a significant seaweed project, and Margaret Holloway (Now the CEO of Nemidon Ltd) approached me and asked could I make a seaweed-based massage gel for athletes. I was offered six attempts. I made best guesses for five, and the sixth was something to make up the sixth. I had a bag of stuff that was a disaster for its intended use and would have been thrown out, except I tend to keep all sorts of oddities, “just in case”. This stuff had the advantage as a raw material that it would more or less do what was required when made into a gel, but had the disadvantage it had to be made, as opposed to being directly available on the market. Needless to say, the clients greatly preferred this one! First moral of invention: a disaster for one application may be highly desirable somewhere else.

The next lesson in venture development was annoying. After optimizing the material to make a better massage gel, it did not really take off, despite having some genuine “big name” support. What this gel did was when rubbed in, it left the skin fresh and well toned, and athletes that used it liked it. But it cost more, and those doing the massage preferred something like olive oil. They had used oils before, and they were in no hurry to change, and what the athlete felt was irrelevant, especially since oil was cheaper. What the ultimate client wanted was irrelevant; what the gatekeeper thought was critical. Nevertheless, a variant of it was found to be an exceptional moisturizing agent, and a number of other products were developed.

The next lesson seemed to be, if things looked good, something bad was just around the corner, but things grew, somewhat slowly, and major fund-raising or floating was scheduled. Then came Lehmans, etc, hence my scathing view of some of Wall Street that may have snuck through in previous posts. Anyway, while the venture continued, somewhat more slowly than it should have, it is now time to move forwards, hence the entry into crowd funding.

What should a venture have to attract funding? The first thing is something that is expected to sell into a large market, and something that differentiates itself from the competition, for there is always competition. It also has to work. Nemidon has a small number of such products. The moisturizer has been shown in University trials to be beneficial, and it works in a different way. Most moisturizers simply block water, and anything else, coming out of the skin; this one maintains a vapour pressure of water above the skin that happens to be appropriate. The polysaccharide is interesting that it easily dries to a certain level, and then it becomes very difficult to make it drier. To get it really dry, it needs about an hour at 180 degrees Centigrade, and if a person is at that temperature, they have much bigger problems than skin hydration. Accordingly, the polysaccharide regulates the moisture, and allows excess to pass out.

Another important point about skin moisturization is why you want it? Splashing water on the skin from time to time does nothing! The reason is that the flexibility of the skin arises from water plasticizing the protein. That is a slow process that involves slow diffusion to an equilibrium concentration followed by hydrogen bond formation, which is why the maintenance of a vapour pressure is so important. If you merely block water escaping, you may end up at the wrong side of the equilibrium.

Enough of the technical stuff. Once we got to the crowd funding stage I had to do a small video presentation. Here is another problem: they want the technical guy to do this, but, as I found, marketers do not want technical explanations from the technical guy. I had thought about this and came up with a demonstration of the need to plasticize as opposed to wet. My tools, partly inspired by Richard Feynman’s demonstration of the Challenger disaster, was a glass of water. However, that was not to be, so I had to make effectively an unprepared presentation, and I felt it showed. If you are interested in this, and you want to see me looking awkward, it is to

What was my proposed demonstration? I had two pieces of oven-dried seaweed in a plastic bag. Take out one and try to bend it. It is so brittle it will crack up. Take the other and put it into water. In a few minutes, it absorbs the water and is quite flexible and leathery. That is the water plasticizing it, and shows why plastering, hence moisturizing, is important. That the water goes in like that from solution is because of the ionic content, mainly sodium, that is absent from skin. Then, I intended to show another piece that had been left lying around rather than being sealed in a plastic bag; it too was flexible, showing that seaweed polysaccharides can absorb water from the atmosphere.

Whether the funds come will be interesting. The delay was annoying because we had promoted it for last week, and when it did not turn up, we must have lost momentum. Still, we shall have to wait and see.

A couple of other matters. On Thursday 11 Pacific time my Miranda’s Demons ( ) goes on a Kindle countdown starting at 99c. Next Monday I shall make a special post of interest mainly to scientists: another cat paradox. I challenge anyone who thinks they understand physics to resolve it. (There are resolutions, but they are uncomfortable.)

Greenhouse warming – a refusal by some to analyse the science.

One thing that has annoyed me recently is the efforts of the so-called climate change skeptics. One of the rules of science is, nature is always right. You may have the most wonderful theory, but if nature disagrees, you are wrong. Evidence is key. The problem then is, the evidence has to be correctly interpreted and consistent with known physics.

An example that has annoyed me is the continued assertions that the temperatures have not risen significantly since 1990, and they produce graphs of temperatures taken at some place to prove their point. So, what is wrong with that? Well, for one thing, NASA has produced considerable evidence that temperatures have risen across the planet. Ha, the skeptics say, you have your figures, we have ours, so at worst it is unproven. The argument seems to be, our figures are no worse than yours. So, what is the problem here?

Actually, it is not really selected data. They are probably correct that their data is no worse. Their measurements may even be more accurate. The problem is that temperature is not the relevant measurement, but rather power flows are. If power in exceeds power out, since energy is conserved, something is heating. Prolonged measurements over the oceans during a period that is alleged to have had stable temperatures have shown (Lyman et al., 2010. Nature 465:334-337.) that between 1993 and 2008 there was an increase in the heat power delivered to the oceans of 0.64 w.m-2. A fifteen year period has to be sufficient to exclude random weather fluctuations during a “bad year”. The oceans were picked on because they are free of a number of other variables.

So, why were some temperatures not rising? There is more than one reason. One is that as you pump more heat into the atmosphere, there is more energy available, and that means that winds are stronger. In turn, that means better mixing of the air. Thus where I live has had some record cold temperatures, the reason being that stronger storms, etc, have transported more air from the Antarctic, and that is decidedly colder than the air normally about here. Of course, by moving colder air from the Antarctic, warmer air has gone in to replace it, and the Antarctic is warming. If it were only the air, that would not be a problem, in fact it might even be good because it would take more moisture over the Antarctic and deposit more snow, which works against sea-level rising, but unfortunately that is not the issue. Extra heat going into the oceans gets to work on the polar ice shelves, which melts them. There is another reason: as you melt ice, heat is absorbed but there is no temperature increase. You don’t believe me? Get a thermometer and put an ice/water mix on an element and heat. The thermometer will stay at 0 oC until the ice has gone, as long as the mixing is good. Melting ice absorbs heat, and unfortunately, the melting of polar ice is to some extent ameliorating the temperature increase.

Another claim that annoyed me was the observation that the upper troposphere was cooling, and this allegedly showed there was no global warming. That is just plain wrong. In the greenhouse mechanism, infrared radiation from the ground is absorbed by CO2. At this point, there is no change of temperature in the gas. The CO2 has become vibrationally excited, but that is all. Now, one of two things can happen. It can re-emit radiation in any direction, or it can collide with another gas molecule, in which case the vibrational energy may be converted to kinetic energy shared between the two molecules, and this does lead to heat. (Most of the atmospheric heat is actually from convection or water vapour condensation). However, the same works in reverse: collisions of molecules can excite vibrational states. If the new gas molecules can emit infrared, they have that option, but isolated oxygen and nitrogen cannot by themselves. Therefore, extra CO2 at the top of the troposphere actually cools it by radiating more heat to space, derived from collisions with other gas molecules, and that lowers the temperature of that part of the atmosphere. So, why does the planet warm? The extra CO2 at the bottom radiates energy back to Earth, and that excites the radiators there, and these radiate back to the atmosphere, but at the same rate they did before. The problem is, before they took heat from the environment and radiated it, thus cooling. Now that cooling is slowed because they are taking their energy in part from returning infrared radiation from the CO2 in the atmosphere. Thus the CO2 acts more like a blanket cast over the planet; technically it does not heat the planet, but it slows its cooling, which is the same effect.

What annoys me is that some seem to think that observing what the physics predicts is somehow evidence that the physics is wrong! Bizarre! You cannot prove a proposition is wrong by citing evidence required by the proposition.

The problem here is obvious: an urge to say what is convenient overcomes the need to do the proper thinking and properly analyze the evidence. Unfortunately, this urge will have some serious consequences.

I apologize to those who expected a post yesterday. I had an alternative post, an announcement, but unfortunately what I intended to announce did not happen!