I’ve so far written 2 full length novels and a short story in the young adult science fiction genre, the novels need an editor, and the sort story is on this page: Acid Plains – a short story. Short stories and novellas are smaller bites to chew, and an opportunity to try new things, and that’s what I’ve been up to. First I did a horror novella The Face of Khatagh, and then I had an idea for a serial killer novella, which is almost ready. It’s graphic, it’s gritty, and it’s definitely not for kids! I’ve finished a draft and I’m getting some friend feedback on it, once that’s done I’ll make changes and publish it.
Pandemic Writing Update
On New Years Day I messaged a friend that I hoped 2021 was going to be calmer than 2020. Hah! It was, until a bunch of extremists stormed the US Capitol building and 5 people died as a result. Since my last post months ago there have been so many ups and downs, and the pandemic has changed my life substantially. I suspect I got covid early on in March, which was huge fun except the breathing problems and wondering how bad it had to get before I called an ambulance, fortunately it never got there!
Working from home, helping to home school my children, and huge changes in the system of life meant I didn’t write for awhile. I don’t know what people are doing with the palates of canned tomatoes, toilet paper and flour they bought. Maybe they built emergency covid-protection bunkers to hide in, anyway I hope it came in useful because they certainly prevented me from finding them for awhile. Let me give you a hint, if you suspect there’s going to be widespread interruptions in the food supply and utilities like power and gas don’t buy something you need to cook!
One surprising thing about the pandemic was that I found my commute to be a critical part of my creative process, and without it my writing ground to a halt! I’ve been a NYC subway and now a London Underground user for most of my life, and I’ve long since developed the ability to zone out and pretend I’m not part of a human sardine performance art exhibition. It used to be I’d read, but when I started writing I’d spend the time to and from the office thinking about what comes next.
My method was to write an outline, then the scenes, decide the rudiments of what was going to happen, then I’d spend my commute working out the details. What had I just written, what issues it may have introduced, and who was going to do what next and how. I’d look at keeping tension and making sure I was fulfilling the wider story goals. It meant that when I sat down to write I’d know what to put down, and I’d make progress.
Losing my commute meant that all went, I’d sit down after a long day of mixed work and home schooling and have to work things out, which was slow and frustrating. I had to make changes, carve out time to think about the story. I’ve been finding ways to make it work, and things are starting to flow again, which is when I really enjoy it. Please 2021, please please please just chill!
Why biofuels make no sense
There’s been so much hype about biofuels which are a technology that cannot at present make even a dent in our fossil fuel usage and put enormous pressure on both the ecosystem and food prices. It’s time to inject a dose of realism by demonstrating the scale of the issue, so here are some facts and figures all of which are freely available.
The numbers around biofuels are easy to calculate and clearly show that they are not a replacement for fossil fuels. Let’s look at jet fuel in the US to start. Biological Jet fuel comes mostly from oilseeds like Rapeseed (aka Canola), Peanuts, and Soy as well as other plants like palm and coconut. Although palm and coconut have higher yields per acre than oilseeds they cannot be grown in quantity in the US so this example will use Rapeseed which has the highest yield of oil seed crops at 102 gallons per acre. According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics the US uses about 13 billion gallons of jet fuel per year, and at 102 gallons per acre that means we would use about 130,000,000 acres of cropland to supply Jet fuel from biological sources. The US has 406,000,000 acres of cropland so it would take a whopping %31 of all US cropland to supply Jet-fuel needs alone! In 2007 the US used 44 billion gallons of Diesel which uses the same feedstock plants as Jet fuel, so using the same yield figures that would take 431,000,000 acres of cropland to supply, that’s 106% of US cropland.
So in order to supply Jet and Diesel fuels from domestic farming in the US would take %37 more cropland than the US posesses, and that’s before we even touch Gasoline and Avgas use which by the way is 136 billion gallons per year. Since Ethanol only has 80% of the energy density of gasoline we will need to grow enough corn for 170 billion gallons of Ethanol to replace gasoline. Corn yields 390 gallons of Ethanol per acre, so we will need 436,000,000 acres of land to grow enough ethanol to replace gasoline, which is 107% of US cropland.
In other words we would need 2 and a half times more cropland than we actually have to grow enough biomass to replace our transportation fuel use. Even if we turned over every single acre of cropland we have to biofuel production we would only supply 40% of our transportation fuel needs and we wouldn’t have anything to eat!
The ecological concerns of biofuel productions are worth mentioning as well. Indications are that the US is already overfarming available land, and the result is topsoil loss and more critically in many areas water resources are becoming exhausted. This means that in the mid to long term the US will have to farm LESS, not more to be sustainable.
If we push biofuels as a solution to fuel imports we will drive up our food prices dramatically, and also reduce the surplus food that is used to help feed the world’s hungry. As the world’s population continues to grow there will be more and more pressure on farming to keep food on the table, and I for one am not willing to have kids starve so I can have supposedly “green” fuel!
We cannot supply our transportation fuel needs using biofuels as there simply isn’t enough land and fresh water to grow the biomass needed to supply fuel and feed the population, in fact we can’t even make a dent in our fossil fuel use. I’m not anti-biofuels, there should be a place for them in our fuel economy, however we need to do so in such a way that they will not take food from hungry mouths and drive up food prices. Like it or not the reality of the situation is that we will be putting fossil fuels in our airplanes for a good while yet until substantial research and development produces viable green energy solutions. Food first, fuel second!
I’ve just discovered xkcd, it’s like a comic weblog. It’s an eclectic mix of humor, insight, and abstract math (which I don’t really get). so far my favorite is this one:
Entropa! Pissing off a Bulgarian near you
With great fanfare Entropa, a piece of art commissioned by the Czech government to commemorate their stint in the seat of the EU presidency, was unveiled in Brussels and until then it was not discovered that it was a monumental, and hilarious (to me), con. The Czech government commissioned David Cerny to select an artist from each of the 27 European nations to depict their country, then as far as I can tell turned their back on the whole thing. This is a huge mistake when you consider that Cerny is famous for trying to shock people and at the least tries to make everything he does controversial. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, he likes to stick it to the establishment and I think it’s a good thing, however if you are a government wanting a piece that will be politically acceptable and encourage goodwill throughout the world then I can’t think of a more disastrous choice.
I mean, what were they thinking? This is the guy who was arrested for painting the soviet WWII memorial in Prague pink in 1991, who sculpted St. Wenceslas riding a dead horse, and has had his works banned in different parts of Europe for various reasons. Don’t you think you might chose someone else, or at least monitor progress? It’s apparent that the Czech government did nothing of the kind as it would have been apparent to anyone who looked at the official document before the unveiling that something was seriously awry.
I mean, would a Bulgarian who values his/her life have depicted their country as a hole-in-the-floor toilet? Or a Romanian their country as a Dracula amusement park ride? Would any Swedish artist who wanted further employment outside of the food service industry send an Ikea box?
I have one word for the Czech government: OVERSIGHT!
David Cerny is quoted saying that he knew the fraud would be discovered but “wanted to see if Europe could laugh at itself”. Given that the Czech ambassador to Bulgaria has been summoned “for an explanation” I think the answer is no.
Personally, I’m laughing my ass off and I hope it comes to town.
A bus and a coin
John Edgley, aircraft designer and engineer, recently described the UK to me as a “museum culture”, where old technology and culture are prized over the new. Nothing typifies this to me more than the Routemaster bus and the two pence coin. The routemaster (pronounced root-master) is the iconic old bus that you see in so many movies set in Britain. To many both in and out of the UK they are as much the face of London as the red phone box, and attempts to take them out of service have been met from so many quarters that they have been kept on way past their retirement age. The reality is that the very characteristics that make them so prized as a tourist icon make them a lousy bus. Sure they are picturesque but they are loud, cramped, stuffy, you can’t see out downstairs which causes motion sickness, and the open back that you can jump on and off so romantically is also extremely dangerous when your clothes snag and you are unromantically dragged 20 feet until your clothes rip and you promptly get hit by a taxi. Negotiating up the spiral staircase to the top level while the thing is moving guarantees a bashed knee or elbow, and there’s no space up there anyway. Let’s face it, as a piece of public transportation they suck, yet if you try to argue that you’ll have an mob on your hands.
The two-pence coin of Mary Poppins “feed the birds, tuppence a bag” fame is another example of a throwback. Back when one pence could actually buy something having a coin between 1 pence and 5 pence made perfect sense. The US had a 2 cent piece in the mid-late 1800s but discontinued it long ago as there wasn’t much demand. The British 2 pence piece however didn’t come into circulation until 1971! Brought in when the British system changed from the shilling system to the decimal system, so it was outdated from its very inception. They cost far more to produce than their actual value so they cost the taxpayer money and are big and chunky so they take up a disproportionate amount of space for the amount they are worth. Vending machines won’t take them for the most part either. They are a useless drain on the system and should be withdrawn from circulation, and they aren’t even historic, yet people act as if it’s part of the national character.
People in Britain are fairly resistant and distrustful of change, and rather than admit they just don’t like the idea of getting rid of old things they make up all sorts of excuses. I’ve had people give me the lame statement that getting rid of the routemaster and the two pence coin would impact tourism! Britain is a fantastic country steeped in history and culture and rightly has a tremendous draw to tourists, they won’t stop coming because of a bus and a coin. The routemaster and the two-pence coin are both outdated and make life more expensive for both locals and tourists alike, let’s get rid of them.
The cost/benefit of education
Around the western world there’s a critical lack of engineers. Governments are concerned because they see skills shortages effecting local industries and taking business away. Many see lack of interest as the cause of dwindling numbers, but I disagree. The reason that engineering degrees aren’t as popular as management or business degrees aren’t because people are lazy or that they wouldn’t LIKE to be engineers, it’s because the cost/benefit ratio is less favorable than management or business. To become an engineer and get paid a decent, but not high, wage, you need a masters degree. So that’s 8 years of costly university education and when you come out you aren’t making a fortune. A person can go into management or business with just a bachelor’s degree and it doesn’t even have to be in those areas.
Compare engineering to IT. There are few university degrees in IT, anyone I know who has a computer sciences degree who works in IT say that most of the comp sci curriculum is useless and that they learned most on the job. You can get certifications and qualifications by self-study and make as much or more than an engineer with 8 years+ of university and still be doing interesting work. There’s an awful lot of very smart people in IT who would be great engineers, so why aren’t they? Because the costs/benefit breakdown of being an engineer as opposed to being in IT is not favorable. It’s not lack of interest, it’s just not that appealing.
Engineering schools use advanced mathematics as a weeding-out mechanism. Why? Is someone good at calculus going to make a good engineer? Not really, it just shows they’re good at math. Most engineers never use much advanced math once they get out, and even if they do they have to re-learn how to use it so why make it such a huge requirement? Engineers will tell you that they learned most of what they needed to on the job.
If you want more people to become engineers you don’t have to lower the bar, just change the system so that people can become one without spending a fortune in time and money, and then pay them better at the end. That will improve the cost/benefit prospect.