Monday, April 30, 2012

Asteroid Mines: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If you happened to be in the Seattle Museum of Flight last Tuesday, Apr. 24, you might have been able to squeeze into a news conference called by an outfit terming itself Planetary Resources, Inc.  Planetary Resources’ main distinction so far is that it has a lot of resources of the monetary kind.  Backers reportedly include Google CEO Larry Page, who is in possession of some $16 billion personally.  What Planetary Resources’s co-founder Peter Diamandis wants to do is to mine asteroids within a decade, that is, by 2022 or so.  Already they are planning to launch small orbital telescopes, modern versions of the old mining engineer’s surveying transits, that they will use to search for likely prospects for a visit.  But as in earth-bound mining, you are never completely sure what you have got until you go there and start digging.

The idea of mining extraterrestrial objects is not new.  One writer at traced the idea back to an 1898 short story endorsed by none other than Thomas Edison, whose single most costly failed project involved a Canadian iron-mine venture in 1902.  In 1944, Isaac Asimov used an asteroid mine of the future as a setting for one of his speculative pieces about whether robots could become sophisticated enough to foment rebellion.  But Diamandis and company are not fiction:  they have serious money and serious plans, and while I’m sure science fiction enthusiasms are in their backgrounds, their main motivation is to make more of what they have a lot of already, namely, money.  But they want to make it in a cool way.

There are actually two aspects to their plans. One is to use asteroids as a resource for the thing that currently makes space flight so expensive in the first place, namely, the fuel.  When you have to pack everything you need on a trip and can’t count on finding any gas stations, it severely limits your options as to what else you can take along.  But several researchers have shown that if it was possible to establish fueling stations in space, it would make the logistics and economics of space travel much friendlier than they are now.  So once you’re in space, never mind gold or platinum or anything like that:  fuel is the most precious resource.  And the idea of erecting a solar-powered hydrogen plant on an asteroid and making hydrogen from water (ideally) or rocks (in a pinch) would satisfy that need.  From a technical engineering standpoint, this aspect of the Planetary Resources plans makes a lot of sense.

What about the rest of it, namely, mining asteroids for profit by extracting rare materials such as platinum and so on?  I would urge Diamandis, Page and company to do a little reading in the history of 16th-century Spain.  It was Spain more than any other country which did on a small scale what Planetary Resources is trying to do on a large scale:  namely, exploited newly discovered mineral wealth on a near-monopoly basis for quite a while, from 1492 right up to the 1800s.  The worst aspect of Spanish colonization of the Americas was their barbarous treatment of the native Americans, who were forced into slavery and furnished most of the labor involved in operating the gold mines that gave rise to the wealth that produced Spain’s Golden Age of culture.  Fortunately, no asteroid appears to have even non-sentient life on it, so that particular problem will not arise.

Of course, if you import too much of a given scarce resource, its price can fall to the point where it’s not worth fooling with anymore.  But I am sure that the Planetary Resources people will look to the example of the DeBeers diamond monopoly as to how to control their prospective monopoly to extract the most value from it.  They are too smart to let greed get the best of them and flood the platinum market with tons of the stuff all at once.  But smart people have been outsmarted by markets before.

All the same, even if the technical hurdles are overcome, I anticipate that some legal and governmental issues may arise.  Somebody, somewhere, is going to want to tax all of this new economic activity.  Unless the U. S. manages to impose jurisdiction on an asteroid, there will be no way that the U. S. government can claim that the operation is domestic and subject to corporate tax.  This may be another attraction for the company:  asteroid mining is the ultimate offshore site.  Nobody has given a lot of thought to how all this will be dealt with from a legal and governmental angle.  And the current tight coupling between corporations and the U. S. government probably ensures that whatever regulations are imposed will generally be favorable to the corporations.

There are huge risks involved in this enterprise, even though the entire operation is supposed to use non-manned flight only.  If anybody can afford it, though, it is the backers of Planetary Resources, who together have multiple billions of dollars to spend.  And it may take every cent before they even get back a few grams of valuable stuff.  Mining has always been a business for gamblers, and space mining is no exception.  At the worst, even if it fails, it will furnish a lot of employment for heretofore unemployed aerospace engineers who can get to work on something that might actually make money.  And if it all works out, it could be the first step in the transformation of space travel from an exotic, rare, super-costly thing engaged in only by governments to something closer to what international flying is like today:  still sophisticated and relatively costly, but open to anyone with the money to pay for it.  And as I say about so many things I consider in this blog, time will tell.

Sources:  The Apr. 24 news conference was covered by many media outlets.  I referred to an article in USA Today at  A good overview of space mining in science fiction appeared at  My attempts to access the Planetary Resources Inc. website at were unsuccessful.  I hope their rockets work better than their website. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ethanol in Gasoline: Unintended Consequences

Since 2007, virtually all gasoline sold in the U. S. has contained 10% ethanol, which is about as much as you can put in most cars without having to do a major redesign of the fuel system.  The reason is a federal law called the Energy Independence and Security Act (ERISA), which until last year also subsidized ethanol production to the tune of 45 cents a gallon and imposed a steep tariff on imported ethanol.  Why was this done?  As is often the case with politically-influenced actions, there were advertised reasons and not-so-advertised reasons.  And now that five years have passed, an economist at Texas A&M University has taken a good hard look at the effects of the ERISA mandate, and it is a lesson in unintended consequences.

The advertised reasons for the law were clear.  As the U. S. imports more oil, we become more dependent on the unstable geopolitical situations that prevail where much of imported oil is produced, our trade imbalance grows, and we make a bad situation worse, generally speaking.  The pipe dream of many environmentalists is to convert the entire energy economy to renewable sources:  wind, solar, and biofuels.  At the time, ERISA was passed, ethanol was the only biofuel that had any reasonable chance of making it into the nation’s gas tanks in a reasonable time frame.  While corn was the only practical biofuel feedstock in 2007, it was hoped that cellulose and other waste products could be turned into ethanol in the future.  So far, this hope has not been realized.

People have been making ethanol (grain alcohol) from corn ever since the first moonshiner ran his first still.  It is a fairly straightforward and cheap process, so even without the federal subsidy, so-called “E10” gas (90% gasoline, 10% ethanol) is cheaper than straight 100% stuff.  But instead of simply allowing refiners to mix in up to 10% ethanol if the market and production environment made it favorable, the law mandated a steep ramp-up to full sales of nothing but E10 in a very short time.  So on the surface, we would move that much closer to energy independence with this law.  Well and good.

The not-so-advertised reasons for the law have to do with the strength of the agricultural lobby.  The E10 mandate was a tremendous windfall for everybody who grows corn.  While some ethanol from corn was being used voluntarily as a fuel additive before 2007, the mandate caused this use to skyrocket.  By 2011, according to the Mosbacher Institute report by economist James Griffin, 37% of the entire U. S. corn crop went toward ethanol production.  And corn prices soared from $2.50 per bushel up to as high as $7.50.

If the only people hurt were U. S. food consumers (not everybody drives a car, but everybody eats), it would be bad enough.  But the U. S. grows and sells more corn than any other nation, and much of it is exported to poorer countries, where it is a staple in many diets.  While the rise in corn prices was not solely responsible for the worldwide inflation in food costs that led to food riots in many nations in recent years, the timing is suspicious, and there is no question that the ERISA law led to hardships for many poor people around the world who were now even less able to afford to eat.

Another argument in favor of the ERISA law had to do with global warming.  If you burn gasoline, that directly adds the carbon in the gasoline to the air.  On the other hand, growing corn actually absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, so at first glance you’d think adding ethanol would lower every driver’s carbon footprint.  But a closer analysis that includes all the mechanical energy (fuel-powered) to grow corn and make ethanol reduces ethanol’s edge to only about 20% less carbon emitted per gallon than gasoline.  So that benefit isn’t all it was advertised to be either.

Unintended consequences show up all the time in considering engineering ethics, and the ERISA mandate has plenty.  The parties who appear to have benefited are:  growers of corn and producers of corn-based ethanol (a lot), the U. S. driving public (a little), and the U. S. overall, from the viewpoint of slightly improved energy security.  The losers include refiners (who have had to fool with the mandate and change their processes), anybody who buys corn (U. S. food consumers, U. S. livestock growers, and millions of foreign food consumers, many of whom are poor), and the U. S. public in the sense that they have had to pay the 45-cent-a-gallon subsidy through the U. S. treasury.  Quite a mixed bag, to say the least.

The ERISA experience has shown that mandates of this kind always have unintended consequences, whether or not they are anticipated.  Whether the unintended consequences outweigh the intended benefits often cannot be decided until the mandate has been in place and people have had time to deal with its effects.  It appears to me that we could do without the mandate now that there’s a lot of production capacity in place.  I don’t think corn prices would collapse, and ethanol use in fuels might fluctuate around a reasonable value that would strike a better balance between the advantaged groups and the disadvantaged groups.  But it’s very hard to displace such legislation once it’s in place, so we may have ERISA with us for many years to come.


Sources:  All statistics cited are from economist James Griffin’s report “U. S. Ethanol Policy:  The Unintended Consequences” available at

Monday, April 16, 2012

New Twist to Tornado Warnings

Tornadoes have been in the news a lot lately, both because this season has produced a good many of them, and because the National Weather Service is trying out a new type of tornado warning to people who are in immediate danger. When a tornado’s radar signature is detected, people in Kansas and Missouri will now read and hear warnings that include phrases like “catastrophic,” “extremely dangerous,” “mass devastation,” and “high-end, life-threatening event.” These warnings may have played a role in the fact that while a storm system spawned about 100 tornadoes in Kansas alone last Saturday, no one was reported killed. However, five people died in Oklahoma tornadoes on the same day.

There was a time when even mentioning the word “tornado” in a weather forecast could cost a weatherman his job. Until the late 1940s, tornadoes were regarded as more or less arbitrary acts of God that no one could predict, let alone give responsible warnings about. Consequently, the policy of the U. S. Weather Bureau (as it was known back then) was to not mention tornadoes at all, for fear of causing undue panic in the population.

However, during World War II the military developed its own staff of forecasters, and after the war kept many of them on duty for predicting weather for special purposes, such as predicting weather near military airbases such as Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, where a tornado struck in March of 1948. Five days later, on Mar. 25, weather conditions were so similar to the ones that produced the earlier tornado that Maj. Ernest Fawbush and Capt. Robert Miller issued the nation’s first “official” tornado forecast, warning airbase personnel to make the planes secure and take other precautions. And sure enough, another tornado hit, but this time with minimal damage, owing to the precautions taken in response to the warning.

After that, military forecasters felt free to predict tornadoes if conditions warranted, but for some years afterward, the civilian Weather Bureau maintained its prohibition on tornado forecasts. This split gave rise to an informal “rumor mill” network around military bases when tornadoes were likely and military forecasters predicted them. When a tornado forecast came through military channels, military personnel would call their friends and relatives in the surrounding area and let them know to watch out. Eventually, because of the increasing availability of weather radars to track the storms and better understanding of the atmospheric conditions producing them, the Weather Bureau allowed mention of tornadoes in forecasts, in the form of watches and warnings. A tornado watch simply means conditions are favorable for their formation, while a warning means a tornado has been sighted and immediate precautions are required for people in its path.

We don’t often think of all the technology that is needed to provide up-to-the-minute warnings of tornadoes, but there’s a lot involved. Besides the conventional weather instrumentation on the ground, there are weather satellites that provide huge amounts of detailed data on large-scale movements of weather systems. Supplement that with both the National Weather Service’s radars and private radars operated by media outlets, most of which are modern Doppler units that can measure wind speed and direction within a storm. Couple those sources of information with the Internet, wireless phones, PDAs, iPhones, people watching live weather-radar feeds on their computers, and so on, and you have a lot of technology in the service of letting people know a tornado is coming.

As time has passed and the National Weather Service has gotten more confident in its predictions, people are getting perhaps a little complacent about tornado warnings, which may explain the experiment to hype the verbiage in the warnings. Of course, it’s not really possible to “hype” a tornado: death and destruction are death and destruction, after all. But tornado warnings are to be taken seriously, and the latest change seems to be paying off in the reduced number of fatalities. One death is still too many, and there are some people who are simply caught by a tornado in the wrong place at the wrong time. But for anyone in a fairly sturdy structure, heading for an interior closet or bathroom and covering up can mean the difference between life and death.

Growing up in Texas, I was familiar with the idea of tornadoes both from stories I heard from my relatives of twisters they’d seen or heard about in Dallas and Waco, and from radar images of tornadoes tracked by an early weather radar our local NBC outlet, WBAP-TV, maintained as long ago as the early 1960s. It was my privilege once to tour the studios around that time, and what I wanted to see most was the weather radar. I was disappointed to find that the actual screen was a little bitty thing only about four inches in diameter. It was an old World War II surplus set that the station had adapted for weather service. But it did its job until more sophisticated commercial units came along.

For anyone who watches the Weather Channel or bombs around on YouTube, tornadoes are no longer unfamiliar and almost mystically malevolent objects. We have seen dozens of videos made by storm-chasers with more curiosity than prudence, and can be as familiar as anybody can be of a phenomenon that you haven’t actually encountered in person. Still, a tornado on the ground is something you don’t want to mess with, and I for one am glad we have all the advanced machinery at our disposal to keep an eye on the sky for the next twister.

Sources: The online New York Times carried an article about the new verbiage in tornado warnings on Apr. 15, 2012 at The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a nice history of early tornado forecasting, including the Tinker Air Base story, at For a more in-depth look at tornado forecasting in the U. S., see historian Marlene Bradford’s book Scanning the Skies: A History of Tornado Forecasting (Norman, OK: Oklahoma Univ. Press, 2001).

Monday, April 09, 2012

If Odysseus Had Remembered His GPS

On a long road trip the other day, I listened to part of a set of CD recordings of Homer’s Odyssey. If you’ve never read it in a good translation, you’re missing something that is not only fundamental to the Western literary canon, but is also a rollicking good story. It’s about Odysseus, a hero on the Greek side of the Trojan war, and how he manages to get home, in 12,000 lines. Along the way he’s helped by the goddess Athena, tripped up and tormented by the sea god Poseidon, and runs into monsters, treacherous enemies, shipwrecks, and a gang of layabouts all hoping to marry his wife Penelope after Odysseus is declared dead.

As I was listening to all these fanciful goings-on, I began to think of how many god-like abilities that Homer describes are now things that engineering has brought to pass in the 2800 years or so since he wrote the poem. Take flying, for example. Athena could do it; she flies back and forth to Olympus (which was kind of the country club of the gods) enough times to get a free frequent-flyer trip anywhere in the world. And seeing at a distance: the gods watched Odysseus and his friends and enemies like they were characters in a soap opera. We’ve got these things covered with airplanes and television, at a minimum, not to mention the Internet.

Lots of dramatic tension in the poem is created by the fact that for much of the time, Odysseus is held captive on a small island by Calypso, a minor goddess who is smitten with him and wants to make him immortal. He will have no part of this, however, and spends his days on the seashore, pining for Penelope and home. No one comes to rescue him because he landed there after all his shipmates died in a shipwreck, and nobody but Calypso and a few gods and goddesses know where he is—and they’re not telling the mortals. Here’s where an emergency beacon, or at least a decent cellphone, would have come in handy. And if he’d had along a GPS, he might never have had the shipwreck in the first place.

While we already enjoy the use of a good many things that only gods had back then, one nut we haven’t cracked yet is immortality, which the gods possessed and were able to hand out more or less at will. Immortality is the stated ambition of a loose-knit group of scientists, engineers, and their companion enthusiasts known as transhumanists, who believe it is humanity’s fate to transcend ordinary biology and wind up as software in a virtual-reality environment that is indistinguishable from Olympus, as far as I can tell. There really wasn’t much that the gods couldn’t do, and the same will be true of our transhuman descendants, if the transhumanists get their wishes.

Anyone familiar with Greek mythology knows that despite all the advantages of being a god, the lives of Zeus and his immortal friends and relations were plagued with the same kinds of botherations that trouble ordinary mortals: jealousy, revenge, discouragement, and anger. This is because the Greek gods were really just people writ large, with very human failings and shortcomings. It took a long time for the inexpressible perfection of the God of monotheism (e. g. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to make any headway into the Western consciousness.

Most transhumanists don’t seem to recognize any gods, Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise. Instead, they promise us that we will become just like the gods of Olympus: basically able to do anything we want. While their spokespeople have worked out in great detail a lot of roadmaps that describe how the technology needs to develop to get us there, I have never heard any of them discuss in comparable detail the problem that Homer knew backwards and forwards: once you get a bunch of gods together, how do you make sure they will get along? Another nonbeliever, Jean-Paul Sartre, famously said that “hell is other people.” And unless the transhumanists contemplate setting each of us up in our own private Olympus where the only other beings we interact with are automaton-like slaves (which sounds pretty dull), I fail to see how, even with every privilege enjoyed by the Olympians of Homer’s imagination, the proposed society of immortal transhumans is going to be one whit better than Homer’s Olympus. Even gods had to solve the problem of getting through a boring Wednesday afternoon.

So as I contemplate the wonders that technological optimists promise us in terms of indefinitely long lives, freedom from disease and death, and so on, and how this will make life permanently wonderful and trouble-free for everyone, I can’t help but wonder whether Homer would listen to them and simply laugh. Even if some day we accumulate enough cyborgean accessories to be physically unrecognizable as humans, the essential nature of humanity will still be there. And that tendency to do the wrong thing while knowing the right thing will get us into just as much trouble as it does now, if not more.

As far as I know, belief in the Greek gods is not a live option for much of anyone nowadays. But faith in the monotheistic God is, to my mind, the only worldview that makes sense of the way the world is. As long as the transhumanists ignore the God factor, I think their dreams of an ideal transhuman future will remain just that: dreams. And dreams without nearly as good a story line as the Odyssey, incidentally.

Sources: I referred to the Wikipedia articles on “hecatomb” and “Odyssey.” One of the more recent and substantial books with a transhumanist theme is Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near (Viking, 2005).

Monday, April 02, 2012

Wombs with a View: The Impact of Ultrasonic Imaging on Abortion

When the U. S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalizing abortion, ultrasonic imaging of the human body was still largely in its early research stages. Unborn babies were neither seen nor heard, and the knowledge of the average citizen about embryology and what went on in a mother’s womb before birth was hazy at best. That was one reason why the phrase “terminating a pregnancy” as a euphemism for abortion gained currency, and why many organizations, religious and otherwise, were slow to mount opposition to legalized abortion.

Others such as Planned Parenthood welcomed the ruling with open arms. The philosophy that says women own their bodies and all products thereof, and are free to do with them whatever they like, leads to the conclusion that eliminating an inconvenient truth such as a pregnancy by means of abortion is one tool in an array of technological controls that include contraception methods of all kinds.

Fast-forward to 2008 or so. A woman named Abby Johnson received the employee-of-the-year award from her employer, which happened to be Planned Parenthood. Abby had had two abortions herself, and regarded them as a woman’s right. Abortions were a necessary part of empowerment that incidentally paid her well and allowed her to rise to a management position in the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas.

One day a physician arrived from Austin with an ultrasound machine, the type used to view the wombs of pregnant women. He wanted to show how using the machine could lead to improvements in the efficiency of certain kinds of abortions, and that day Abby happened to be the person holding the ultrasound probe on the patient’s abdomen while the doctor did what he was there to do. Abby thought she was inured to the “products of conception” that had to be sorted out after each abortion, to make sure no arms or legs were left inside, before they were disposed of along with the other medical waste. But there was something different in watching the baby jump away from the doctor’s instrument as it got closer and closer, and the baby was cornered in one end of what should be the safest place in the world. Another minute, and it was all over. But Abby’s journey out of the world of abortions had just begun.

Abby Johnson is now a vocal and unstoppable witness for the pro-life cause. Last week she was in San Marcos, and I was privileged to hear her speak about her experience. I also met two college-age women who were also converted to the pro-life cause by seeing graphic images of what abortion is really like. One of them, Sarah Ryan, notes that six states (including Texas) have passed laws that require abortion clinics to show each prospective client a sonogram of the baby in her womb before performing the procedure. The technology to do this is now relatively inexpensive, and it is almost routine for prospective parents to put a sonogram of their pre-newborn on the refrigerator before his or her official arrival. Seeing is believing, and after watching the beating heart and baby-like movements of the living child within her own body, it will be admittedly harder for women to go through with what Planned Parenthood clinics around the country are set up to do for her.

Like many advances in medical technology, obstetric ultrasonic imaging was the work of dozens or hundreds of doctors, scientists, and engineers. But probably the most influential paper showing that it was not a pipe dream but a realistic technology was published in 1958 by Dr. Ian Donald, a Scottish physician with experience in World War II radar. His images of a pregnant woman’s womb obtained with safe and non-invasive ultrasound technology set off a storm of interest, which issued later in the development of commercial systems in the early 1960s and eventually the highly portable and economical devices that many obstetricians use today. It is significant that Dr. Donald raised his famous voice in protest over the 1967 Abortion Act legalizing abortion in the United Kingdom. Over forty years later, the descendants of his primitive ultrasound machine are still at work convincing women of the true significance of the mass of tissue inside their pregnant bodies.

The truth about abortion is now plain to see, thanks to technologies such as ultrasound and other modern imaging techniques. I find it intriguing that one of the most powerful things that can happen to a woman to change her to a pro-life supporter is to witness images of the graphic horror of abortion. Such scenes are not for everybody, and such pictures can be used wrongly to abuse women who are already tormented by the anxiety of what to do about an unplanned pregnancy. But I think it might be a good idea for every woman of child-bearing age at least to see a live ultrasound image of a baby in the womb of a real mother, before she herself faces the kind of choice that can lead to abortion. And if laws requiring abortion clinics to show sonograms to their clients are passed in more states, we can look forward to more babies surviving to become adults who—who knows?—may invent things just as wonderful as Dr. Donald’s ultrasound machine. It is a price of abortion that we seldom stop to think about.

Sources: Abby Johnson’s book about her experiences is titled Unplanned (Tyndale, 2010). Sarah Ryan’s article “It’s Not a Sprint, It’s a Marathon” on state laws restricting abortion appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Human Life Review (p. 124). I referred to articles on the history of obstetrical ultrasonic imaging at the websites and