The Price of Inequality

Recently, the United States has had a glut of school shootings, and you may be wondering what that has to do with the title. I am going to suggest, quite a lot, indirectly. It also illustrates society’s inability to reason. There are continual calls for gun control, and while I agree there is a rather bizarre lack of responsibility in the ability to buy guns in the US, I do not think that is particularly relevant to what has happened. When I was a boy, I had access to a 22 calibre rifle that I used to go rabbit shooting (rabbits are a real pest in Australia and New Zealand because there are no controlling predators) and yes, I went out and shot rabbits, as did some of my friends, but nobody even thought about going out and shooting a person, let alone a bunch of school children. Why not? Because we all were looking forward to joining society, and we had ambitions. Not big ambitions, but we saw our future place. Of course it did not turn out as we envisaged, but it never does.

So, what is different now? My guess is that too many of the younger generation do not see a future they want. In the US, they see the rust belt, they see the jobs have gone to Asia. Of course the more capable ones see a future, but my betting is the shooters are the very disgruntled ones that see themselves heading to the bottom of the heap. They see nothing to live for, so their warped thinking says they should take out some others first.

And here I come to inequality. What can a young person aspire to, if they are of the pessimistic style nature? In many places, house costs have risen hopelessly so as to price out such ownership from the below average income earner, and worse, more and more people are becoming below average. That is because all the wealth has rocketed into the hands of a few. They see the elderly coming to the point where they cannot retire because they cannot afford to. It is all very well to say that the elderly like working. Some do, but many have started a decline in their health and can’t. Too many people spend most of their income balancing a debt problem. Now you may say, that is their fault, and to some extent it is, but what sort of society are we if there is no way out for the tolerably useful?

An added problem is that as the general income declines, and governments seem determined to lower taxes on the rich, who, by and large, pay surprisingly little anyway, then we see a decline in social welfare, like healthcare, pensions, and an increase in education costs. And what is bizarre, and shows that in a democracy you cannot go wrong by assuming the general population is mathematically illiterate, we find the poor voting for a tax cut that will save them the odd few dollars a week only to find their costs for social services have risen astronomically. And a further odd thing about this is that governments tell their people that they are making progress by privatising such social requirements. “The private sector does things more efficiently,” the economists say, without bothering to check whether the private sector is actually doing it for any but the rich. If you don’t believe me, check the US drug prices, and compare them with many other countries with a state-run single buyer system. Of course the private sector is more efficient but that is at making money, its only real objective.

So, what we see are a few who are making money in truly gross amounts by taking from the many. By and large they are not adding anything to society. Since when did credit default swaps increase the general well-being? And this is what the young see. Something needs to be done, but they feel helpless. Except for the unfortunate monster with a gun.

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Predicting the Outcome of Trade Wars

I have written a series of novels that form a sort of “future history”, all of which, of course, were imaginary and in most cases I hope those futures won’t come to pass. I never intended to try to predict any future, because predicting the future is tricky and it seldom complies with our wishes. There are two basic approaches. The first is to be sufficiently general that with any sort of luck, you can say, “Yes, that complies with the prediction.” A classic example was when a king asked the Delphic oracle what would happen if he went to war with a neighbouring king and he got the answer, “A great kingdom will fall.” Overjoyed, the king went to war, overlooking the fact that it could be his kingdom that fell. Oops.

The alternative is to look at what has happened in the past and extrapolate. If you want to know what the weather will be like in two hours time, look out the window. In general, the chances of a dramatic change are not that great. If you look further to the future, the problems get more difficult. I recall in my youth, there was something of a drought in Westland, New Zealand, and since that is rather wet generally, the weather forecast consistently seemed to think that this could not last, so they predicted rain. The drought persisted for 48 days, when finally the weather forecast decided to yield and predict continued fine weather; a front arrived and it rained! The problem for New Zealand then was there were very few data coming from the Tasman sea. Now, with satellites, they can see what is coming, and follow its rate of arrival.

Anyone who has tried to predict sports game results will know how difficult that is. With some sportsmen (and women) form is transient to say the least. Only the bookmakers do well, and of course they don’t care who wins; they lay the odds so that they always make more from the losers than they pay to the winners, or at least they try to. That is why they like to offer “multiple choice” bets in big team games. So why are sports so difficult to predict? The problem involves random variables. Someone is not feeling very well, a key player gets injured, players have mental aberrations, the list goes on.

Anyway, the cause of this particular post is President Trump’s latest proposal to put tariffs on foreign steel and aluminium. This was totally unpredictable, but the question now is, how do you predict the consequences? It is no good extrapolating because there is nothing recent to extrapolate from. It is no good being Delphic, because that does not get anyone anywhere. The problem then is, how will other countries respond? They have two considerations. If they retaliate, you get a trade war and everyone loses. If they do not retaliate, then Trump will be encouraged and keep at it, and again most lose. They could try to persuade him not to, but so far he has not been particularly amenable to receiving advice and changing his mind.

The EU has stated it will impose tariffs on US products, but Trump has threatened to counter those with tariffs on European cars, which are more of a big-ticket item for Germany. I was unaware that the EU was a significant exporter of steel or aluminium to the US. A check on the EU statistics showed that “metals and others” came in at about 4% of trade, and the EU imported a little more from the US than it exported. In my opinion, a better strategy for the EU would be to shut up and see what happened. There are a lot of other countries far more deeply involved, so let them do the fighting. Unfortunately, politicians, when interviewed, feel they have to say something and cannot resist the chance to look important. Much better to “make a stand” and never mind the consequences, which in this case would be severe.

This raises the question, why has the US got such a big trade deficit? The answer from a US professor of economics at first sight seems of low relevance, but on thinking about it I suspect he is in part correct. According to him, a very important cause is the US government deficit. If you think about it, suppose the trade should be at equilibrium if there were no deficits. Now, when you borrow money, if that goes more or less in the same ratio to domestic and imports as before, the imports rise, but the government deficit is not going into exports, or, at present, into infrastructure, which would enhance economic growth. So the balance swings to more imports. There is a second problem. No industrialist likes to expand production or invest more to do it when there are frequent random changes to the rules. Good growth is encouraged by clear government rules that stay the same. Right now there is the threat of chaotic rule changes. All of which raises the question, what next? I don’t think anyone knows, but the worrying thought is that suddenly the world could fall back into trade wars and nobody wins.

Exit Mugabe

I confess to having an interest in “important” people. What is it that makes them get to where they do? I have explored this in a number of my novels, and I have met and talked with a number of important people here, not that New Zealand is very important on the world stage, nevertheless I think I have seen enough to know that I don’t really know the answer. In Mugabe’s case, though, I think there were two major causes that brought him to the top. The first was self-belief and determination, and the second was stubbornness. Once he made up his mind on something, nothing would turn him away. And yet he has finally decided to quit.

He probably had little choice. The army did not want to have to shoot him, but eventually it must have occurred to him that the senior army officers could not back down and live. That is the sort of reality that someone like Mugabe would understand. The fact there were mass demonstrations may have finally got through to him, and now it must be galling that the crowds are cheering his departure. Still, he would know the usual exit for dictators is quite brutal, and there would be a time when the soft options would disappear.

Mugabe’s main positive claim to fame is that he led the Shona resistance to the white government the British colonial administration left as the government in Zimbabwe, or Southern Rhodesia as it was then called. For that he would get much gratitude from the Shona people, which would make him the obvious choice to become Prime Minister of the new government. It seems that at first he was reasonably enlightened, and expanded healthcare and education. Later, he would become President, but by then the signs were deteriorating.

This started when many of those of European descent fled, essentially for economic reasons. By itself, this was no great deal, however the skills they took with them was. It was the highly educated or those with money who could find a life most easily elsewhere. The economy started to contract, but Mugabe was not one to be put off his vision, and this is an unfortunate aspect with many dictators. They think their dream is the only one, and the reality of achieving anything is irrelevant. Means will be found, and they tend to shut their eyes at the consequences.

Worse was to come, because Mugabe now feared all those who had fought for revolution, and worse, there were scores to settle with the Ndebele. The Shona people hate the Ndebele for things that happened in the early 19th century, so then was the chance for revenge. To bolster his position, Mugabe ordered the training of the Fifth Brigade by North Korea, and set them loose on the Ndebele. Estimates are that there were 20,000 killed for no good reason.

Mugabe nominally was a Marxist, but he also realized that he should leave the economy working. Zimbabwe is naturally a rich country, and it was the breadbasket of Africa, and is also rich in minerals. The problem was, whites owned all the resources, so Mugabe set about confiscating them. The land seizures were declared illegal by the Zimbabwe courts, but Mugabe continued with them, declaring the courts irrelevant. Land was for Zimbabweans. It was all very well to put ill educated Shona as farm owners, but they did not know how to farm. Food became in short supply. Inflation soared to 7600%. Apparently, they even issued a banknote for 100 trillion dollars. But no matter how bad things got, Mugabe would not step down and let someone else try.

One of the bad aspects of revolution is that the people who carry out revolution are often not the best for what follows, and the history of revolutions is not a happy one. Not only that, but the leaders seldom if ever encouraged successors. South America was interesting because Jose de San Martin abandoned politics altogether after the successful liberation of the south, while Simon Bolivar did try to manage a major coalition of countries in South America and eventually gave up, leading to somewhat chaotic outcomes. The first Russian revolution was led by “nice” people who really had little idea what was required next, and we all know what Lenin and Stalin did to Russians.

One of the very few successful revolutions was carried out in America. What resulted after the British were ejected was a rather enlightened set of leaders who founded a truly great nation. And it is here that we see a great difference. This may sound awful, but in my opinion the best thing George Washington did as President was to step down after eight years. The reason I say it was the best is that while no doubt he did a number of other good things while President, they were relevant only at the time. His standing down and respecting the constitution, and I rather suspect he would have had the other option, has cemented that forever: no President would ever dare to suggest he was more important to the United States than George Washington, the man who effectively was responsible for it formation.

And here is Mugabe’s great failure: he could not put the country before his own personal wants. This was a tragedy. So what follows? Will Zimbabwe emerge into a bright new era? I am far from convinced prospects look good. The man replacing Mugabe is Emerson Mnangagwa, who was Mugabe’s “enforcer”, and was in charge of carrying out the killing of the 20,000 Ndebele. Not the most promising of starts. Worse, why the coup then? It appears that Mugabe fired Mnangagwa, and Mnangagwa had the generals behind him. You form your own conclusion.

Meanwhile, time for a quick commercial. This Friday, my new ebook, “The Manganese Dilemma” is released on Amazon. Russians, hacking, espionage, fraud, what more could you want over the weekend? Link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B077865V3L

Politics and jail

The news this week is certainly attention grabbing. For my money, I suspect the most interest will fall on the indictment of Paul Manafort. I have read the indictments, and it is clear that while some of them are probably there for lawyer talk, there are two really serious ones. The first is he laundered money, at least $18 million worth, and maybe a lot more, and the second is that money mostly went for his personal benefit and he did not declare it as income. Tax evasion has been a classic way of sending bad guys to prison, an example being one Alphonse Capone.

The most obvious question to answer is, did he do it? If he did, it was not very bright of him to manage the US presidential campaign because politics, being what it is, sends too many people looking for a way to discredit you. Having committed obvious crimes, even if so far nobody has noticed, is an obvious weakness. The most obvious weakness is that Manafort is supposed to have avoided tax, but that also assumes he owned the money, as opposed to acting as an agent for the owner of the money. The indictment names a few properties, and I assume Manafort’s name will be on the property ownership papers as the owner. If so, he will be in trouble. However, he will be less so if he can prove he is merely an agent for the true owner. If he tries that, then he could be effectively admitting guilt to being an agent for a foreigner without registering, which is one of the other indictments. Interestingly, this appears to be being tried in a State court, rather than a Federal court. Does a State court really have jurisdiction over Federal matters? We await further developments.

One of the more interesting indictments is that he acted against the interests of the United States by carrying out contract work for Yanukovich, then President of Ukraine. Since when is it against the interests of the United States Government to carry out work for a democratically elected President of a foreign government that is not a declared enemy of the United States?

The other interesting issue is Catalonia. The Catalan regional parliament has voted to declare independence from Spain, on the basis that 90% of the 43% that voted in a nominally illegal referendum voted for independence. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, declared the vote and the declaration to be illegal, although what that means remains to be seen. The Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, had paused and I thought he might even step away from going ahead with the declaration, but he has elected to declare seccession. Meanwhile, the UK, Germany and France have supported Spanish unity. So, what now? Puigdemont nominally faces up to 30 years in jail, but I doubt that that will be enforced unless something goes really wrong between now and then.

On the other hand, Madrid has apparently arrested a number of senior Ministers of the Catalna government who declared independence, and presumably they will try them in court. Puigdemont is apparently in Brussels, and claims he will not return to Spain until the threat of arrest is removed. Whether that will work is a matter of interest, but from Madrid’s point of view, they may not care. Puigdemont out of the way is probably just as useful to them and they do not want a political martyr.

Suppose the Catalans did secede, what would happen? The main “reason” for independence cited is to preserve the language, and to give a feeling of independence. They also feel that Catalonia pays €10 billion more to Madrid than it gets back in spending. Of course, not counted in that “paid back” are the services Madrid pays for, such as border patrol, customs, international relations, defence, a central bank, the tax service and air traffic control are some of them. As an independent country, it would have to set up these. There is also a sense of selfishness here; why should we send money to the poorer parts of Spain?

However, even in finance, there is a problem. The Catalan regional government owes €77 billion, of which about 2/3 is owed to Madrid. Then, of course, Madrid would expect Catalonia to share its proportion of the Spanish national debt. Further, two thirds of Catalonia’s exports go to the EU, and if Catalonia seceded it would be out of the EU, and would have to go to the back of the queue to get back in. Spain would then have the power of veto. Further, if it gained independence, it would have to leave the euro zone, and again Spain, and friends, could block re-entry. Either way, it would have to set up its own currency in the meantime. Of course countries like San Marino uses the euro without being an EU member with the eorozone’s approval, since they are so small. Nobody knows whether Catilonia would qualify, but Spain could block that. Apparently Kosovo and Montenegro use the euro without the EU’s approval. After all, a bank note is a bank note. However, a problem will arise if they ever need credit. If you use someone else’s currency, you have to earn it. Who knows what will happen?

Science and Sanctions

This may seem an odd title in that most people consider science far away from describing human activities. I am not suggesting the scientific method should govern all of human activities, but I think that a little more attention to its methods would help humanity (and I try to show a little of this in my novels, although I am unsure that most would notice). The first important point, of course, is to clarify what the scientific method is. Contrary to what you may see on TV programs, etc, it is not some super geek sitting down solving impossible mathematical equations. Basically, the scientific method is you form propositions, perhaps manipulate them, then check with reality whether they might be correct. The most important feature here is, check the evidence.

What initiated this post was news that the US House of Representatives has passed a bill that will impose new sanctions on Russia, including (according to reports here) the forbidding of any help with Russia’s oil and gas industry, and President Trump has signed it into law. So, what are the premises behind this?

The first one is that foreign countries will oblige and help carry them out.

The second, presumably, is that Russia will now fall into line and do whatever the sanctions are intended to make it do.

The third is, if Russia cannot export more oil or gas, their prices will rise.

The fourth is, removing Russian hydrocarbons from the international market will lead to further markets for US hydrocarbons. Note the US now has the capacity to be a major exporter, thanks to fracking.

The first two depend on each other, and obviously, seeking evidence of the future is not practical, nevertheless we can look at the history of sanctions. Are there any examples of countries “bending the knee” in response to sanctions when they probably would not have done it anyway? I cannot think of any. Obviously, sanctions are less likely to effective if foreign countries refuse to cooperate, which is why the two are linked. The two most recent examples of sanctions are Iran and North Korea. Both have been imposed for sufficient time, and the question is, how effective are they?

In the case of Iran, one objective is claimed to have been met in that Iran argues it no longer has the capacity to make nuclear weapons, however it also claimed that was never its intention. Everyone seems to delight in arguing whether either of those statements is true, but in my opinion nuclear weapons are a poor strategic objective for Iran. I also believe they are a poor option for North Korea, but seemingly someone has to show Kim that is so. For either of them, what would it gain? Iran has opted (if truthful) to avoid nuclear weapons, but then again, what has it gained from doing so? The sanctions America imposed are still largely there. As for the effectiveness of sanctions, it appears that Iran is doing reasonably well, and a number of countries are buying its oil, including China. So I conclude that sanctions are not particularly effective there.

North Korea does not seem in any immediate hurry to “bend the knee” to the US and while it has suffered the harshest sanctions, apparently over the last few years its exports have increased by at least 40%, mainly to China. President Trump has accused China of not helping, and he is correct, but being correct does not get anyone very far. The obvious question is, why is North Korea chasing after better weapons? The answer is obvious: it is at war with the US and South Korea. The Korean War never ended formally. The sides agreed to a ceasefire, but no permanent treaty was signed, so one of the actions that America could have taken in the last sixty years or so would have been to negotiate a formal peace treaty. You may well say, the US would never launch a preemptive strike against North Korea. You may well be right, but are you that sure? From North Korea’s point of view, the US has launched cruise missile attacks frequently against places it does not like, it has significant military bases in Syria, it invaded Iraq, and so on. You might argue that the US was justified because these countries were not behaving, and you may well be right, but from North Korea’s point of view, it is at war with the US already, so it has decided to do what it can to defend itself. One approach to end this ridiculous position would be to at least offer a treaty.

The third and fourth premises are probably ones the US Congress does not advertise, because they are full of self-interest. Apparently there is enough liquefied natural gas able to be produced to substitute for Russian gas in Europe. So, why don’t they sell it? Competition is a good thing, right? The simplest answer is price and cost. Europe would have to build massive lng handling facilities, and pay a lot more for their gas than for Russian gas. And it is here that these sanctions may run into trouble. The Germans will lose heavily from the loss of Russian gas, in part because their industries are involved in expanding the Russian fields and pipelines, and of course, they would have to pay more for gas, and some equipment would need changing for the different nature of the gas.

So, if we return to the evidence, I think we can conclude that these latest attempts at sanctions are more based on self-interest than anything else. There is no evidence they will achieve anything as far as pushing Russia around goes. It is true, if imposed, they would hurt Russia significantly, but they would also hurt Europe, so will Europe cooperate?

Liquid Fuels from Algae

In the previous post, I discussed biofuels in general. Now I shall get more specific, with one particular source that I have worked on. That is attempting to make liquid fuels from macro and microalgae. I was recently sent the following link:

https://www.fool.com/investing/2017/06/25/exxonmobil-to-climate-change-activists-chew-on-thi.aspx

In this, it was reported that ExxonMobil partnering Synthetic Genomics Inc. have a $600 million collaboration to develop biofuels from microalgae. I think this was sent to make me green with envy, because I was steering the research efforts of a company in New Zealand trying to do the same, except that they had only about $4 million. I rather fancy we had found the way to go with this, albeit with a lot more work to do, but the company foundered when it had to refinance. It could have done this in June 2008, but it put it off until 2009. I think it was in August that Lehmans did a nosedive, and the financial genii of Wall Street managed to find the optimal way to dislocate the world economies without themselves going to jail or, for that matter, becoming poor; it was the lesser souls that paid the price.

The background: microalgae are unique among plants in that they devote most of their photochemical energy into either making protein and lipids, which in more common language are oily fats. If for some reason, such as a shortage of nitrogen, they will swell up and just make lipids, and about 75 – 80% of their mass are comprised of these, and when nitrogen starved, they can reach about 70% lipids before they die of starvation. When nitrogen is plentiful, they try to reproduce as fast as they can, and that is rapid. Algae are the fastest growing plants on the planet. One problem with microalgae: they are very small, and hence difficult to harvest.

So what is ExxonMobil doing? According to this article they have trawled the world looking for samples of microalgae that give high yields of oil. They have tried gene-editing techniques to grow a strain that will double oil production without affecting growth rate, and they grow these in special tubes. To be relevant, they need a lot of tubes. According to the article, if they try open tanks, they need an area about the size of Colorado to supply America’s oil demand, and a corresponding lot of water. So, what is wrong here? In my opinion, just about everything.

First, you want to increase the oil yield? Take the microalgae from the rapidly growing stage and grow them in nitrogen-starved conditions. No need for special genetics. Second, if you are going to grow your microalgae in open tanks (to let in the necessary carbon dioxide and reduce containment costs) you also let in airborne algae. Eventually, they will take over because evolution has made them more competitive than your engineered strain. Third, no need to consider producing all of America’s liquid fuels all at once; electricity will take up some, and in any case, there is no single fix. We need what we can get. Fourth, if you want area, where is the greatest area with sufficient water? Anyone vote for the ocean? It is also possible that microalgae may not be the only option, because if you use the sea, you could try macroalgae, some of which such as Macrocystis pyrifera grow almost as fast, although they do not make significant levels of lipids.

We do not know how ExxonMobil intended to process their algae. What many people advocate is to extract out the lipids and convert them to biodiesel by reacting them with something like sodium methoxide. To stop horrible emulsions while extracting, the microalgae need to be dried, and that uses energy. My approach was to use simple high pressure processing in water, hence no need to dry the algae, from which both a high-octane petrol fraction and a high-cetane diesel fraction could be obtained. Conversion efficiencies are good, but there are many other byproducts, and some of the residue is very tarry.

After asking where the best supply of microalgae could be found, we came up with sewage treatment ponds. No capital requirement for building the ponds, and the microalgae are already there. In the nutrient rich water, they grow like mad, and take up the nutrients that would otherwise be considered pollutants like sponges. The lipid level by simple extraction is depressingly low, but the levels that are bound elsewhere in the algae are higher. There is then the question of costs. The big cost is in harvesting the microalgae, which is why macroalgae would be a better bet in the oceans.

The value of the high pressure processing (an accelerated treatment that mimics how nature made our crude oil in the first place) is now apparent: while the bulk of the material is not necessarily a fuel, the value of the “byproducts” of your fuel process vastly exceeds the value of the fuel. It is far easier to make money while still working on the smaller scale. (The chemical industry is very scale dependent. The cost of making something is such that if you construct a similar processing plant that doubles production, the unit cost of the larger plant is about 60% that of the smaller plant.)

So the approach I favour involves taking mainly algal biomass, including some microalgae from the ocean (and containing that might be a problem) and aiming initially to make most of your money from the chemical outputs. One of the ones I like a lot is a suite of compounds with low antibacterial activity, which should be good for feeding chickens and such, which in turn would remove the breeding ground for antibiotic resistant superbugs. There are plenty of opportunities, but unfortunately, a lot of effort and money required it make it work.

For more information on biofuels, my ebook, Biofuels An Overview is available at Smashwords through July for $0.99. Coupon code NY22C

The Grenfell Fire, and the Logic of Plastics in Cladding

For me, the most depressing recent news was the London fire, in which a high-rise of flats (apartments for Americans) somehow caught fire, and once it did, it spread like crazy. There is a lot of blame to share around for the death toll. Apparently people were told to stay in their flats, but that advice was given by firemen who were unaware that the building had no useful fire doors, or the other usual means of containing and retarding fires. After all, if the building is concrete, and there is no easy way to spread the fire, it should be able to be kept local. So what went wrong? We don’t know about why the interior of the building seemed to burn very nicely, but it seemed that the outside burned furiously. The outside had an aluminium cladding, apparently to make it look more attractive. The aluminium tiles were backed by polyethylene, which is essentially a solid hydrocarbon of structure similar to diesel, but a much larger molecular weight. That burns very well, and if you saw video of it, you would see great globs of fire falling off the building.

We don’t know exactly why the polyethylene was there. Some say heat insulation, others say to give the cladding rigidity. Much has also been made of the fact that for about $3 a tile more, the backing could have been fire resistant. I am not sure what that backing is as the maker’s website does not say, but would guess it is some sort of polyamide or polyurethane with non-flammable filler. These certainly do not catch fire as easily, but there is another catch with some of them: in a fire they do burn, and while not as well, they tend to give off some rather poisonous gases. There is another catch. According to the manufacturer, the fire resistant tiles passed ASTM E 84 tests, which are the standard tests for surface burning characteristics, but so did the polyethylene backed tiles. That sort of lab test does not represent a real fire.

This brought back memories of my past, when I got involved with two structural foams that could be suitable for building cladding. One was a glass foam, originally intended to be made from waste glass. This would make quite a good wall cladding without the aluminium, except possibly on the bottom floor because it does not have very good impact resistance. Thin glass shatters on impact, but it does not burn or corrode. You can also have a wide range of colours. The other is a plastic foam, for which you do not even need fillers to make it fire resistant.

The story of my involvement with that goes back to the late 1970s. In the late 1960s, New Zealand discovered a large offshore natural gas field, and the government took it upon itself to enter a “take or pay” agreement so the field would be developed. It was not clear what their idea was, but presumably electricity generation was one of them. However, when the first energy crisis struck, about 1972 from memory, there was a sort of panic, and after a lot of deliberation they decided to construct a synthetic fuels plant at Motunui, which was to use a process developed by Mobil. I was on a committee to advise on the science, and I advised this was a bad idea because they could not build it for anything like the costs presented to them. As it turned out, my projected cost was out by $200 million, but no site had been chosen, and my estimate was “plus site development”. (In the end, the site development would have been about $130 million, so I was rather pleased with myself.) However, at the committee, I was about 4.5 times greater than the figure they were comfortable with (and note the government was going to pay) so I was never asked to be on such committees again. However, when that process was chosen, I knew that there was one byproduct they would not know what to do with: 1,2,4,5-tetramethylbenzene. The reason: it is a solid, which is not good in petrol for cars. The good news from my point of view was that it could be oxidized to pyromellitic dianhydride, which would be a precursor to stepladder and even ladder polymers, and in particular to polyimide plastics. The bad news was that the top public servants did not want their synfuels project upstaged, and the politicians were unenthused, probably because they were totally out of their depth.

So to get rid of the road blocks, I needed a stunt. As it happened, the fire hazard with plastic foams was to be the subject of a half-hour nationwide TV program, and I was invited to comment as a scientist. I agreed, provided I could have a few minutes for a demonstration of fire resistant foams. That was agreed, so I made myself some polyimide foam. This was rigid, and not much use for furniture, but you can’t really do much development work with one day’s notice. So I turned up, and at the end of the program, which had the dangers of fires, and of the poisonous gases drilled into everyone, I had the cameras turned on me. I put a bit of home-made foam in the palm of my hand and directed a gas torch at it. It glowed a nice yellow-hot under the flames, and I just sat there. Eventually they got bored of watching this, and they turned off the torch, then made the comment, “It still stinks, though.” So, with a bit of acting here, I held the plastic up to my face and sniffed deeply, and made no expression. Since there was no fire, while the plastic was ablating slowly, once the torch was taken away there was no more reaction. Unfortunately, my wife forgot to record this so I can’t actually prove it.

The whole point of this, of course, is it is possible to make very fire resistant foams. Without the type of chemical plant I was proposing, such foams would be expensive, but the question then is, is preventing x number of deaths worth spending a few extra dollars (or in this case, pounds)? In my opinion, there is no real excuse. Yes, the foam I made was rigid, but as building insulation, so what? While science can provide answers to many problems, there is not much point in it if nobody in power takes any notice.