Book Discount

From August 22 – 28  Jonathon Munros will be discounted to 99c on Amazon in the US and 99p in the UK. The third book in a series, in which the evil Jonathon Munro violates the only reason his evil behaviour has as yet not been punished. He is to be replaced by an android, who learns to behave like the real man. However, Jonathon’s inherent evil has been underestimated, and the android, knowing of Jonathon’s obsession with sex, and knowing that sex is needed for reproduction, decides to start reproducing itself. What could possibly go right? A dystopian hard science fiction novel that, while the third of a series, stands alone as long as you accept the characters have a past, and a problem that makes the Terminator seem modest.

Space Mining

Most readers will have heard that there are a number of proposals to go mine asteroids, or maybe Mars. The implication is that Earth will become short of resources, so we can mine things in space. However, if we mine there for the benefit here, how would we get such resources here, and in what form. If the resources are refined elsewhere, then there is the “simple” cost of getting them here. If we bring them down in a shuttle, we have to get the shuttle back up there, and the cost is huge. If on the other hand, we drop them (and gravity is cheap) we have to stop whatever we send from burning up in the atmosphere, so to control the system we have to build some sort of spacecraft out there to bring them down. Overall, this is unlikely to be profitable. On the other hand if we build structures in space, such as space stations, or on Mars for settlers, then obviously it is very much cheaper to use local resources, if we can refine them there.

So, what are the local resources? The answer is it depends on the history. All the solid elements are expelled in novae (light elements only) or supernovae (all). The very light elements lithium, beryllium and boron are rather rare because they tend to be destroyed in the star before the explosion. The elements vary in relative amounts made, and basically the heavier the element the less is made, and elements with an even number of protons are more common than elements with odd numbers. Iron, and to some extent nickel, are more common than those around them because the nuclei are particularly stable. The most common elements are magnesium, silicon and with iron about 10% less. Sulphur is about half as common, calcium and aluminium are about 6 – 8% as common as silicon, while the metals such as copper and zinc are about 100,000 times less common than aluminium. The message from all that is that unless there is some process that has sorted the various elements, an object in space is likely to have the composition of dust, which are mainly silicates, i.e. rock. There may well be metal sulphides as well, as there is a lot of sulphur there.

So what sorting could there be? The most obvious is that if the body formed close enough to the star during primary accretion, the heat in the accretion disk could be sufficient to melt the element, if it were there as an element. It appears that iron was, because we get iron meteorites and iron-cored meteorites. The accretion disk, of course, was primarily hydrogen, and at the melting point of iron, hydrogen will reduce iron oxides to iron, also making water. So we could expect asteroids to have iron cores? Well, we are sure most members of the asteroid belt do not, and the reason why not is presumably it did not get hot enough to melt iron where they formed. However, since the regolith (fine “soil”) on the Moon has iron dust in it, perhaps there was iron dust where the asteroids formed. However, the problem is what caused them to solidify. If they melted, steam would be created, and that would oxidise iron dust, so the iron then would be as an oxide, or a silicate.

The ores we have on Earth are there due to geochemical processing. For example, in the mantle, water forms a supercritical fluid that dissolves all sorts of things, including silica and gold. When this comes to the surface, it cools and deposits its solids, which is why gold is found in some quartz veins. The big iron oxide deposits we have were formed through carbon dioxide weathering iron-containing silicates (such as olivine and pyroxene) to make ferrous and magnesium solutions in the oceans. When oxygen came along, the ferrous precipitated to form goethite and haematite, which we now mine. All the ore deposits on Earth are there because of geochemical processing.

There will be limited such processing on Mars, and on the Moon. Thus on the Moon, as it cooled some materials crystallised out before others. The last to crystallise on the Moon was what we call KREEP, which stands for potassium, rare earths and phosphate, which is what it largely comprises. There is also anorthite, a calcium aluminosilicate on the Moon. As for Mars, it seems to be mainly basaltic, which means it is mainly iron magnesium silicate. The other elements will be there, of course, mixed up, but how do you get them out? Then there is the problem of chemical compatibility. Suppose you want rare earths? The rare earths are not that rare, actually, and are about as common as copper. But copper occurs in nice separate ores, at least on Earth, but rare earths have chemical properties somewhat similar to aluminium. For every rare earth atom, there are 100,000 aluminium atoms, all behaving similarly, although not exactly the same. So it is far from easy to separate them from the aluminium, then there is the problem of separating them from each other.

There is what I consider a lot of nonsense spoken about asteroids. Thus one was reported to be “mainly diamond”. On close questioning, it had an infrared signature typical of carbon. That would be typically amorphous graphitic carbon, and no, they did not know specifically it was diamond. Another proposal was to mine asteroids for iron. There may well be some with an iron core, and Vesta probably does have such a core, but most do not. I have heard some say there will be lots of platinum there. Define lots, because unless there has been some form of sorting, it will be there proportionately to its dust concentration, and while there is more than in most bits of basalt, there will still be very little. In my opinion, beware of investment opportunities to get rich quickly through space mining.

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.

Are drug prices fair?

Recently in the Huffington Post, Allen Frances wrote a blog asking, “Why are most cancer drugs so expensive and so ineffective?” The link is below for those interested.
(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/allen-frances/why-are-most-cancer-drugs_b_8294392.html?utm_hp_ref=science&ir=Science )
That is most certainly a good question. A summary of his points includes that the pharmaceutical industry is essentially a monopoly, in that only one company will make any given patented product. In the US, it exerts far too much political pressure, and as an example, he claimed Congress denied the Medicare program the right to negotiate drug prices. He claims there is a price monopoly, for even when generic drugs can be made, the pharmaceutical companies buy up the companies. He claims patent lives are extended with phoney variations. But in my mind, even worse, drug companies test their own products, but do not have to release the data for analysis by neutral observers. The companies hype the benefits and minimize disclosure of any risks.

He then cites some data from a Dr Prasad. Some of his findings include, the price of Gleevac rose from $30,000 in 2001 to $70,000 today, despite the fact the cost to make it is $200 (for a year’s course). However, at least Gleevac actually works. According to Dr Prasad, the median improvement in survival for 71 drugs for solid tumours produced in the last decade is 2.1 months. That may well be an overestimate because only 36% of those over 65 yrs old were in the trial, but that age group represents 60% of the patients in the wider community. Another interesting question is, given that many of these drugs have very severe consequences to the patient, is that 2.1 months worth it?

So, how do the companies do? Seemingly, remarkably well, with returns of between 10 – 42%. I saw a recent article that stated one product that had been sold for $20 per prescription had it raised to $1,000. When asked why, a spokesman said they wanted to make more money. Well, yes, I suppose they do. Don’t we all? The products are grossly overpriced, and only too often it appears they don’t really work all that well. There is the argument that research costs a lot. Yes, it does, but despite this, these companies are hugely profitable. In my view, this is simply price gouging, and it shows the ugly side of capitalism. A further interesting question would be, how much tax do they pay on these profits? Given that some large companies pay very little, one suspects the answer is, not much.

Usually, economic theory works on the basis that if there is a bad product, people will not buy it. However, with cancer drugs, that theory goes out the window. The average person has no hope whatsoever of deciding whether the product is any good, and you find out it is not when you die, or come close to it. Earlier this year, my wife died of cancer, so I know the pressure on the relations. Who can tell someone dying that product B is a waste of money, and it will bring penury to the remaining family members? And no, this situation did not arise for me. Claire was diagnosed in November, some simple treatment was provided as a holding measure while various things were done, and proper treatment was to start after Christmas. As it happened, her funeral was on the day scheduled for the start of treatment. Nevertheless, when someone you love is dying, you cannot really think rationally. There is a temptation to grasp at straws, but think what the grasping is like if you hear promising things from the drug companies? The very least we could ask for is a fair and open discussion of the prospects, and the basis for saying that. And we should expect that where there is little to substantiate the claims, at the very least the straw to be grasped should involve only reasonable expenses. Price gouging for performance is, in my view, not justifiable, but price gouging for what may be little better than snake oil is in my view criminal.

Economics and self-interest

A significant part of my science fiction writing involves matters of economics, and one of the things that often annoy me on many discussions of economics, and the positions people take, the advocates do not take themselves out of the picture. In short, their positions tend to be in their own self-interest. Ha! you say, what is so different about me? The simplest answer is that in my novels, I am not advocating the answer, but rather I am pointing out some things that can go wrong. One obvious source of fraud is when there is shortage of accurate information. Fraud thrives when the real situation is difficult to uncover. The most obvious source is obfuscation.

Stock fraud is often accompanied by a plethora of different companies, but deep down, they are essentially the same, and only there to confuse. This situation is difficult to pin down early because there are often good reasons during the start of a venture for a number of companies. During the initial period entrepreneurs may not know where they are going, and may want to plant different assets in different companies to protect themselves, and this is quite legitimate. Another good reason can come from international trading. As an example, I am associated with a company that makes skin gel products. They started out under the name “Sports Essentials Ltd”, but now they are “Nemidon Ltd.” The reason – the first name had been taken by another company in part of the US, so we needed another name for the same organization, and not to sell in the US makes little sense.

When writing a novel, of course, the author tries to accentuate the points he is trying to make. Thus in my Red Gold, which was about the colonization of Mars, a basic problem arose because one of the characters was involved in floating stock relating to new Martian ventures on the Earth stock exchange, and he had the basic problem that he did not have anything that was particularly legitimate. The problem I was showing was the effects of the lack of proper information. On Mars, of course, verification of anything from Earth was very nearly impossible, so the door was open for fraud, and if anything has been shown relating to money, if there is an opportunity for fraud, there will be fraud.

Just recently in Britain, a trader, Tom Hayes, has been convicted of manipulating the Libor (London interbank offered rate, which determines interest rates on interbank lending) so that he could manipulate trades and make quite a bit of money while doing so based on his manipulations. One way the rates can be manipulated comes from the way the Libor is calculated, which involves banks estimating what they would pay to borrow currencies. Because the rates are then calculated and do not involve actual transactions, faulty information alters the rate, and it is alleged that a number of banks conspired to submit false rates, and then take advantage of the result. This type of fraud is simply a consequence of the financial system finding an easy way to operate, and thus giving a limited few a remarkable advantage in transactions. A handful of people in a special position in a bank and operating for themselves could generate the opportunities to make millions. Wherever there is such advantage, people will take it.

Another thing that annoys me is the hypocrisy of the privileged. The following link contains an example:
http://arstechnica.com/science/2015/08/editorial-utilities-love-the-free-market-until-they-dont/
The basic point was that when it suited it, FirstEnergy Corp., an Ohio-based utility, was strong advocate of deregulation and the free market. As it got what it wanted, it made big bets on coal and nuclear, as these were sources of electricity with stable prices. However, since then, in part due to fracking, which it did not foresee, gas prices have plunged. It bet heavily and lost so what does it do now? It wants ratepayers to cover the full costs from some of its biggest generating plants, even if other sources of electricity would be cheaper for consumers. Apparently FirstEnergy has also lobbied strongly to slow the adoption of energy efficiency technology and to stop implementation of renewable energy requirements. In other words, such advocates of the free market want the market to be free while they are raking in the cash, and to have rescue packages imposed on all and sundry when they are not.

This is not a one-off event. Now that President Obama has signaled the requirement for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, we see the coal industry lobbying strongly to overturn this advance. This is an overall problem for governance, and now, confession time, everything I have advocated in my books relating to economics has been the subject of the plot in which every good system I can come up with ends up subverted subverted. And that, I suspect, is the real message from economics: no system will work better than its participants will let it, and where money is involved, letting it work is not a priority for some. Not a pleasant thought.

Geoengineering: to do or not do?

For those interested in science, and in global warming, a recent issue of Nature (vol 516, pp 20 – 21) showed some of the problems relating to geoengineering, which involves taking action to change the climate. Strictly speaking, we are already doing it. By burning fossil fuels we are warming the planet through the additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The question is, can we reverse this warming in a controlled fashion? The argument behind geoengineering is simple: we can either try it or not try it. If we do, we have the potential to create massive new problems; if we do not, sea levels will eventually rise somewhere between 20 – 50 meters, drowning all our coastal cities, destroying a surprising amount of some of the most productive farmland, and altering rainfall distributions quite dramatically. Then, of course, there are more violent storms. So, what are the options?
One is to try to increase the amount of light reflected to space, which can be achieved by forming more clouds. One way to do this is to spray salt water into the air. This has the advantage of being easy to do, and easy to stop doing. It is harder to know the consequences, but we should be able to predict to some extent because volcanic eruptions will do something similar to what is being proposed. Climate scientists, however, complain that this may reduce rainfall in some regions and possibly worsen ozone depletion. Of course they also warn that rainfall will be reduced anyway. Meanwhile, a computer simulation produced results that indicated changes in rainfall consequent to geoengineering “could affect 25 – 65% of the world’s population”. Charming! No comment that the changes could be beneficial. No comment either about the fact that any given model has consistently failed to predict details of weather.
However, from my point of view, the most bizarre outcome came from the proposal to seed the oceans to grow microalgae, which grow very rapidly and take up carbon dioxide in doing so. When the algae die, they should sink to the ocean floor and trap carbon. Trouble was, in some of the few experiments, it seems they did not, possibly because the algae did not die, or possibly because the experimenters did not count it properly. One other outcome might be that they get eaten by fish, thus improving the world’s food supply, and another might be that they give off dimethyl sulphide (and use up quite a bit of solar energy in doing so) which goes to the atmosphere, gets oxidized by absorbing more light, and then forms clouds, which reflects light. Ideal?
As a potential means of fighting climate change, I admit to liking this idea, nevertheless there is a problem, but not what you might think. Or maybe you would. Yep, it is financial embarrassment. Entrepreneurs decided to seed the oceans this way to generate large volumes of carbon credits, which could be sold to those who wanted to burn more coal, a sure way of reducing greenhouse gases! Yeah, right! Anyway, that was headed off by an international treaty, in which this activity was stopped by labeling it “ocean pollution”, and no further experiments have taken place. Talk about useless politicians!
The problem is as I see it that the politicians cannot seem to recognize that a technical problem needs a technical solution. The economists cannot solve this, as shown by that response to an emissions trading scheme noted above. The problem is, changing the prices of forms of energy cannot in themselves generate energy. Conservation may be encouraged, and that is good, but ultimately our lifestyle requires a very high fraction of what we currently use. Worse, there is no point in denying the fact that the planet is warming, and the only solution is to cool it. Cutting emissions is definitely desirable, but it is not enough to retain our previous climate because the gases currently there produce net warming, and this extra warming would continue for at least a hundred years if no further gases were emitted during that time. If we do not want to do something, who pays the price for what happens?

Scottish secession? A failure of governance?

In the previous post, I discussed the issue of secession, admittedly, because it was a blog post and not a book, in a very oversimplified way, but the question remains, why join, or why secede? First, union. Groups unite because together they are stronger than when separate. Historically, strength was important to save the citizens from being exploited, or even pillaged. The US is now so strong militarily that probably nobody can defeat it, but that would not be the case if it comprised fifty squabbling separate countries. Similarly, the fact that the US has such a strong economy means that it alone of all countries can print the world’s reserve currency. However, to form a union, the various disparate groups have to give up things. Why secede? My guess is, at least one of the various groups feels it has been discriminated against. Thus in Iraq, the main problem is probably not religion, but rather the corruption of the various leaders who use religion to support their positions and suppress others. We see that at present in Iraq where the US set up a “democracy”, and al-Maliki set about suppressing the Sunnis. But shortly, Scotland will vote on secession. What could have led to that? The question is important because it shines some light on the nature of governance. Points to note are that the Scots have not been deliberately treated differently from any other citizens in the UK, which in turn has been quite reasonably governed. There has been no selective discrimination, and no clearly bad governance or corruption. So why? 

My guess is the ignition point came from Margaret Thatcher. Her ultra right wing policies caused the end of heavy industry in the UK, which in turn was largely in Scotland. The problem was not restricted to Scotland, as the Welsh coal industry shutdown, and the English automotive industry was effectively ended, but the damage to Glasgow was probably far greater than anywhere else. So, why did Thatcher do that? It most certainly was not just to deal to Labour party constituencies. The problem was that the industries in Britain had become very inefficient, and could not stand on their own two feet.

There were various villains. First, the cost of labour was not competitive with the cost in places such as Korea. The options for Clyde shipbuilding, for example, were to pay workers on Korean levels (that was not going to happen), sell their ships for higher prices (how?), or they had to make them more efficiently. The German automotive industry faced the same challenges, and it succeeded by accepting it would have to sell cars at a higher price, but they would make them better. The key was to give value. Many British industries did not follow this strategy, which required intense investment in R&D, and in modernizing their factories. Management failed Britain, and management is also part of governance.

The Unions were also part of governance, and were part of the problem. To protect employment, they demanded over-manning. The classic example involved changing a light bulb. It has been stated that an electrical worker had to change the bulb, a rigger had to hold the ladder, and there had to be someone from stores to bring the new bulb. This in turn has given rise to a range of jokes. One of the more biting examples is:

How many theoretical physicists are required to change a light bulb?

Answer: Two. One to hold the bulb, and one to rotate the Universe.

The joke has nothing to do with light bulbs, or employment.

Another problem is that union requires sharing, and agitators leap on the advantages of not sharing, when there are such advantages. Thus if Scotland secedes, Scotland will get the oil money. That will make some Scottish politicians salivate. There will be a price, and whether the voters hear about such prices is another matter. I have no idea what the Scottish voters will decide, but it raises the issue that as the size of a union grows, what matters most? Economic efficiency or fairness? What should be done to promote what you choose? Any thoughts?