Monthly Archives: December 2015


Alternative Energy Alternatives

So you want to be green, or at least greener, when it comes to your electricity use. There are a welter of options available. Here in Arkansas we are not blessed with sufficient wind resources to make homeowner wind very cost effective, so going green means solar photovoltaic systems (solar PV) are the best game going. But with this restriction there are still several different approaches to decarbonize your electricity.

In remote areas without grid connections, the only reasonable green electricity is with a solar PV system and batteries. The batteries are necessary not only to tide you over for when the sun doesn’t shine but also to stabilize the power to your home or cabin. Imagine on an otherwise sunny day a solar array is providing nicely for the home, but a cloud passes over. This would temporarily reduce the current, possibly to the point of damaging electronics, Hence batteries are essential. Just how many batteries needed is a function of how long will the sun not keep up with demand. On occasion in this area we can go for a week or two without much sun due to rain and clouds. The point is that this is the most expensive option due to the costs associated with the batteries.

Much more practical are so called “grid tied” solar arrays which essentially use the electrical grid as a battery. If you buy electricity from Entergy, SWEPCO, or AVEC for example, and you add solar panels to your home, the power company is your battery. When the sun shines your meter will slow down or actually run backwards sending power to the grid. At night or on rainy or cloudy days power is drawn back from the grid. Because Arkansas is a net metering state, when producing you are paid the same price as when you buy. Depending on how many panels you have you can replace some or all of your electrical needs. Currently costs are such that the payback period is about half the rated lifetime of the panels. You will recoup your initial investment in about a dozen years, and the panels will continue to produce for at least that many years to come.

All homes don’t have access to the southern sky on their property due to shading from trees or the terrain. That said you can still participate via community solar farms. The first community solar farm has begun near Little Rock. A developer is constructing a solar farm tied to Entergy’s grid. Any Entergy customer can basically buy a piece of the solar production. The buyer has their own meter which is aggregated with their home meter, just as if the solar panels were on their roof. Entergy deducts any power costs produced by the solar panels from the power costs at the home. The cost for this approach is somewhat higher as because of the costs for site development and land acquisition.

Yet one more option exists to green up your electricity. The green power costs for the aforementioned approaches all require some significant start up costs. Another alternative is to buy “green tickets” or participate in the purchase of Renewable Energy Credits. There are companies that will for a nominal charge on top of your actual electric bill, buy green energy. The additional charge is used to buy power from green sources and send that electricity to the grid, which offsets electricity from fossil fueled sources. Basically you are subsidizing clean energy. You don’t own any equipment but your dollars go to green the environment.

Torture Doesn’t Work

If all it took to stop ISIS was enough bombing or troops on the ground, then we should be in command, but we are are battling an asymmetric war. The enemy is smaller and weaker but fighting in a way that is difficult for superpowers to address. They have a considerable grasp of social media to attract adherents, they are absolutely free of any respect for the “rules of engagement” such as the Geneva Convention, and distribute their form of terrorism world wide.
So what is our next president to do?

It appears that many of the republican candidates are ready to follow the enemy’s lead into an unethical, immoral, even illegal battle plan. Basically many of the republican candidates are ready to become exactly what we are trying to stamp out. Consider the issue of torture.

Donald Trump has commented “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would – in a heartbeat, and I would approve more than that.”

Ben Carson has suggested that not employing torture is equivalent to “fighting a politically correct war.”

Marko Rubio said “ I do not support telegraphing to the enemy what interrogation techniques we will or won’t use.” He doesn’t want to deny “future commanders in chief and intelligence officials important tools for protecting the American people and the U.S. homeland.”

Jeb Bush feels that the torture techniques employed by his brother were effective in producing intelligence, even though an Senate Intelligence Committee report said that the techniques previously employed were more brutal than previously described, and ineffective at producing any useful intelligence. He suggested there may be occasions when brutal interrogations are called for to keep the country safe.

The real question is does torture really work? The short answer is most likely no. In spite of a history of many, many years of use the only evidence of efficacy is anecdotal, and frequently that is wrong. The scientific community has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information. Before we undertake what is obviously unethical and even illegal activity in the name of national defense, the burden of proof ought to be on those who wish to torture.

The only real argument for torture is inevitably the “ticking time bomb” scenario. Suspects are being held that know the whereabouts of a bomb which if exploded will kill lots and lots of people – you pick a number. Torture till they talk and stop the bombing. But there are so many assumption here as to be preposterous. How do you know there is a bomb? How do you know the suspects you torture are actually knowledgeable? How do know that they won’t just say what they think you want to hear to avoid more pain?

What little science which has been applied in considering torture is negative. Human memory is not all that accurate and it gets even worse under stress. Even without stress, people are poor eye witnesses as just one example. People may not have any useful information and no amount of pain can create it.

Lastly there is evidence that lasting harm comes to those who do the torturing. It is not good for the human psyche to purposely inflict pain on others. Torture has not been shown to be effective, it is harmful to both the torturer and the tortured, it sullies our image as a moral leader in the world, and ultimately makes us less safe.

Homeopaths Without Borders

Homeopaths without borders

There are a number of international organizations with the title “ … without borders,” most notably Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières.) It is a humanitarian organization, founded in Paris France in 1971. This Nobel laureate organization has been sending doctors and their staffs around the world to provide health care where none is available. They go to treat extremely dangerous diseases such a Ebola and in extremely dangerous places such as active war zones.

Contrast that with Homeopaths Without Borders, who describe themselves as a humanitarian organization who travel to treat a relatively innocuous disease with sham treatments. Understanding just how preposterous Homeopathy is requires a little background. Before the time of modern medicine, treatments and drugs frequently were more dangerous than the illness itself. As just one example of many, George Washington died from bleeding to death – on purpose. He wasn’t supposed to die but he was being bled as a cure for what ailed him. You take out the bad blood and you get better, right?

Homeopathy was created by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796 (Washington died in 1799.) This medical modality was based on his idea of the law of similars. Substances that cause symptoms in “normal doses” can cure those same symptoms when given in infinitesimally small doses. One “drug” in the homeopathic pharmacopoeia is Nux vomica. A normal dose will make your stomach hurt (and then kill you) as this stuff is strychnine. A tiny dose however is supposed to be a cure for stomach aches.

A classic example of a homeopathic treatment is Oscillococcinum. This flu remedy is made from the liver of a duck. It is ground, dissolved in water, and then that water is diluted with ten times as much water. Take this water and dilute it ten fold. Do this 400 times.

For all practical purposes there is nothing left of the original preparation, only water. The water can be used directly or is added to chalk and evaporated. There is absolutely no chemical or biological reason that these treatments would have any effect at all.

Because there is nothing in these remedies, they can do no direct harm. Before modern medicine this alone could be beneficial to replace the use of dangerous things like blood letting. In this day and age however the substitution of magical thinking for real, efficacious treatments is not only unethical, but also dangerous.

Homeopaths Without Borders is currently working in Haiti to “treat” a disease known as Chikungunya, a viral infection spread by mosquitoes. The symptoms of infection are mild and flu-like with a moderate fever. Many of those infected have no symptoms at all. The condition usually resolves itself in a matter of days. Homeopaths treat this disease with another extremely diluted nostrum. The homeopathic treatment does nothing good, bad, or otherwise and the disease resolves itself.

One may ask what’s the harm? The harm is that unsuspecting individuals see that a disease exists, a treatment is employed and the disease goes away. The conclusion is homeopathy works. It doesn’t. One may in the future be led to the idea that substitution of cheap homeopathic treatments can replace more expensive drugs that actually do have an effect. They can’t.

Homeopathy falls in the realm of what some call alternative medicine. Why alternative medicine? Because it it worked it would be called medicine.

Private Sector must be the Answer

In Al Gore’s award winning movie “An Inconvenient Truth” he used the old saw to depict a real problem with global warming. If you put a frog in hot water it will immediately jump out. Put a frog in cold water but very slowly warm it up and the frog will stay until it is too late and be boiled alive.

That is a nice analogy for the dilemma we face with with global warming. The process is slow. Another analogy would be to call it glacially slow, but glaciers are moving, and melting, at a fairly rapid pace these days. Humans and a number of animals evolved to react to rapidly occurring threats – the snap of a twig in the brush, the glint of light from an eye, and we are ready to fight or flee.

Global warming is a decades to centuries change that threatens us now, and many just don’t see the threat, a threat not to us individually, but to our future. Some are so insensitive to the risk that even if they believe it to be true, won’t react because it doesn’t matter to them personally. If the majority of us hold this opinion, we are doomed as a species.

Some governments are beginning to react with policies that favor carbon free energy strategies, but the steps are often small and can be more costly than simple business as usual burning of fossil fuels. Hey, it’s on face value cheaper and we know how it works.

On a more hopeful note is the fact that technology got us into this problem, but technology and the private sector, hold the potential to get us out. Obviously we need to stop burning fossil fuels, especially coal and oil. Natural Gas, essentially methane, is does not produce as much pollution as the others, but ultimately its use must be curtailed also.

There two ways to replace the fossil fuels, use less through efficiency and replace energy production with non-carbon sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. Of the three, wind is the most developed. We currently get about 4 % of our electric energy production from wind, entirely land based. The potential for off shore wind, especially on the east coast affords considerable potential but currently is more expensive to exploit than wind resources in the midwest. Currently the cost of wind generated power is as cheap as that from a modern coal fired plant. And the costs continue to decline, the opposite of the cost for producing power from coal.

Solar Photovoltaic systems (solar panels) are sprouting up everywhere, especially since the price has dropped by half in just the last few years. Not only are homeowners adding panels to their roofs but utility scale systems are being installed. Entergy recently announced that they intend to build a 500 acre solar farm near Stuttgart. For perspective, a square mile covers 640 acres.

Until the intermittent energy sources of wind and solar penetrate to about 30% of total production, no additional back up power is needed. Essentially there is enough existing reserve power to keep the lights on after dark when the wind isn’t blowing. Beyond that, battery backup will be needed. Development and deployment of utility scale battery production will surely follow the demand.

Execution, Arkansas Style

The first death sentences in Arkansas occurred during the revolutionary war. Several soldiers were convicted of colluding with the British to kill Americans at Arkansas Post. The convicted were executed by firing squad at New Orleans. Death sentences and executions have come and gone, and methods changed but state sanctioned murder continues to this day.

From territorial times up to 1914 executions were carried out by hanging – hanged by the neck until dead. The intent was for the execution to be rapid. When the prisoner is “dropped” the rope is intended to sever the cervical vertebra which would make death essentially instantaneous. If the spine is not snapped death occurs slowly by strangulation, accompanied by fits and jerks before suffocation is complete.

To ensure more rapid execution, use of the electric chair was instituted in 1914. From this time to 1990 executions were conducted by strapping the convicted into a wooden chair, placing electrically conducting straps on the legs and skull cap over the head. A current of about 1500 volts at 10 amps for 30 seconds is sufficient to kill most but some have survived for as long as 30 minutes, causing smoke to emanate from the mouth and electrical contact points.

Seeking evermore efficient or cost effective or humane methods, the State of Arkansas has turned to lethal injection, using several lethal recipes over the years. Initially executions were conducted with a single drug, Sodium Pentothal. This a so called rapid acting barbiturate. Similar drugs in lower oral doses have been used as sleeping pills since the 1930s. For an execution, a large dose is injected into a vein resulting in its rapid distribution throughout the body. Sedation, and cessation of breathing and heart beat ensues.

Currently the legislature determines the drug cocktail for executions. A three drug mixture is used. The first drug administered is a mild sedative called Midazolam. This is the same drug which failed to do its job in a botched execution in Oklahoma last year. The convicted was apparently not sedated and cried out and writhed in pain for some time before dying.

Next in the cocktail is Vecuronium Bromide. This drug has a similar mechanism of action and in fact is modeled after Curare. This is the stuff of the poison darts used in Central and South America. It works by weakening or paralyzing skeletal muscles without any anesthetic effect. This drug alone is lethal but would take several minutes for death to occur after the breathing stops.

The coup de grace is accomplished with Potassium Chloride. Large intravenous doses of this agent stops the heart by interfering with nerve conduction. Interestingly KCl is used as a salt substitute for those who need to reduce the use of table salt, Sodium Chloride.

None of this addresses the why or more correctly the “should?” Should we execute murderers? Are executions conducted in the spirit of old Testament revenge? Must people die for justice? The innocence Project has exonerated over 300 wrongly convicted, some of those on death row. Considering the fallibility of jury trials, wouldn’t life in prison, with a chance of exoneration if new evidence comes to light be the more humane action?