Published on 26 Feb 2015
The Industrial Revolution transformed and shaped our modern world as we know it. Why did the fundamental changes of the Industrial Revolution begin in Great Britain? In our first episode about the era of Industrial Revolution, Brett explains how the agricultural revolution, a few inventions in the textile industry, the steam machine, improving means of transport and an overall changing society created a solid basis for the coming changes of the late 18th century.
March 12, 2017
July 26, 2015
In Popular Science, Sarah Fecht dangles the tantalizing prospect that we may be over-estimating the costs of colonizing the Moon by a huge margin:
Only 12 people have walked on the moon, and we haven’t been back since 1972. But a new NASA-commission study has found that we can now afford to set up a permanent base on the moon, by mining for lunar resources and partnering with private companies.
Returning humans to the moon could cost 90 percent less than expected, bringing estimated costs down from $100 billion to $10 billion. That’s something that NASA could afford on its current deep space human spaceflight budget.
“A factor of ten reduction in cost changes everything,” said Mark Hopkins, executive committee chair of the National Space Society, in a press release.
The study, released today, was conducted by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation — two non-profit organizations that advocate building human settlements beyond Earth — and it was reviewed by an independent team of former NASA executives, astronauts, and space policy experts.
To dramatically reduce costs, NASA would have to take advantage of private and international partnerships — perhaps one of which would be the European Space Agency, whose director recently announced that he wants to build a town on the moon. The new estimates also assume that Boeing and SpaceX, NASA’s commercial crew partners, will be involved and competing for contracts. SpaceX famously spent just $443 million developing its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule, where NASA would have spent $4 billion. The authors of the new report are hoping that 89 percent discount will extend beyond low Earth orbit as well.
Similar to SpaceX’s goals of creating a reusable rocket, the plan also relies on the development of reusable spacecraft and lunar landers to reduce costs.
Plus, mining fuel from the lunar surface could make going back to the moon economically viable. Data from the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) suggest that water ice may be plentiful on the moon, especially near the poles. That’s important because water can be broken down into hydrogen propellant for rockets (and, conveniently, oxygen for humans to breathe).
March 19, 2015
Frank Furedi points out six ways that Britain’s political scene has changed as a result of the year-long miners’ strike:
To defeat the National Union of Miners, UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government had to use almost every available resource, including the mass mobilisation of the police. The Miners’ Strike became the defining event of British politics in the 1980s. And in retrospect, it’s clear that it was the last class-focused dispute of its kind.
Over the past three decades, the political climate, culture and institutions that served as the background for the Miners’ Strike have fundamentally altered. Here are six things that changed enormously in the wake of that industrial conflict.
1) The defeat of the Miners’ Strike signalled the end of the era of militant trade unions
2) The demise of the British labour movement was paralleled by the decline of the left
The Labour Party has survived the post-1985 tumult, yes, but only by reinventing itself as the party of the middle-class, public-sector professional. Thanks to the vagaries of the electoral system, Labour can still have MPs in many of its traditional working-class seats. The decline of labourism also coincided with the implosion of the Stalinist communist movement and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
3) Paradoxically, the demise of the left has not benefited the right
Thatcherism, which was very much the dominant force during the Miners’ Strike, has lost its authority. Today’s so-called Conservatives regard Thatcher as an embarrassment and self-consciously distance themselves from her legacy. So defensive is the right today that it continually protests that it is no longer a ‘toxic brand’.
October 7, 2013
If you haven’t heard of CSEC before, you’re certainly not alone. The signals intelligence service known as Communications Security Establishment Canada has been eager not to be in the public eye, but allegations are being made that CSEC has been spying on the Brazilian government’s mining and energy ministry:
The impact for Canada of these revelations could be equally grave: they come at a time when Brazil has become a top destination for Canadian exports, when a stream of delegations from the oil and gas industries are making pilgrimages to Rio de Janeiro to try to get a piece of the booming offshore oil industry, and when the Canadian government is eager to burnish ties with Brasilia. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird visited Brazil in August, and spoke repeatedly about the country as a critical partner for Canadian business.
While CSEC’s role in conducting economic espionage has been alluded to before, how it does this job has not. The significance of the documents obtained by Globo in Brazil is that they speak to how “metadata” analysis by CSEC can be used to exploit a rival country’s computer systems.
The CSEC-labeled slides about the “Olympia” program describe the “Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy” as a “new target to develop” despite “limited access/target knowledge.”
The presentation goes on to map out how an individual’s smartphone — “target’s handset” — can be discerned by analysis, including by cross-referencing the smartphone’s Sim card with the network telephone number assigned to it and also to the handset’s unique number (IMEI).
The “top secret” presentation also refers to attacks on email servers.
“I have identified MX [email] servers which have been targeted to passive collection by the Intel analysts,” one slide says, without explaining who the speaker is.
August 3, 2013
Tim Harford talks about an obscure 19th century prognosticator and the implications of one of his predictions:
Despite Keynes’s admiration, Jevons might now be forgotten, save for one famous prediction and one intriguing argument. The famous prediction — that the UK’s economic prosperity was at risk because the country would run out of viable reserves of coal — was contained in The Coal Question (1865), a book that made Jevons a celebrated pundit at the age of 29. The coal industry did fall into decline. Production peaked exactly a century ago, when there were 1.1 million coal miners — four times as many as when Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979. Whether this had much to do with the fall of the Empire is a fascinating question.
Jevons remains notable in some circles for an argument he made in The Coal Question, rebutting critics who claimed that a coal shortage was no problem because steam engines would become dramatically more efficient. Jevons replied: “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” This idea became known as the Jevons paradox: that energy efficiency does not reduce energy consumption. When light was hugely expensive, a person might read by the fickle flame of a single candle; now it’s so cheap we flood our cities with it. Double glazing could mean lower heating bills but in practice it means warmer houses.
So was Jevons right? That’s a hotly contested topic. On a microeconomic level, he was not: a 50 per cent increase in the energy efficiency of a device will lead to increased use, but rarely to the doubling in usage that would be necessary for Jevons to be correct. Aha, reply Jevons’s defenders: even if a fuel-sipping car does not induce me to drive much further, I may still spend my cash savings on some other energy-guzzling device. True. But energy is a small enough part of the economy — about 6 to 10 per cent — that the actual cash savings available to spend elsewhere will usually be modest.
July 5, 2013
A short video of Kirk Sorensen taking us through the benefits of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, a revolutionary liquid reactor that runs not on uranium, but thorium. These work and have been built before. Search for either LFTRs or Molten Salt Reactors (MSR).
The main downsides/negatives to this technology, politics, corrosion and being scared of nuclear radiation. Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors were created 50 years ago by an American chap named Alvin Weinberg, but the American Government realised you can’t weaponise the by-products and so they weren’t interested.
Another point, yes it WAS corrosive, but these tests of this reactor were 50 years ago, our technology has definitely improved since then so a leap to create this reactor shouldn’t be too hard.
And nuclear fear is extremely common in the average person, rather irrational though it may be. More people have died from fossil fuels and even hydroelectric power than nuclear power. I added this video for a project regarding Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, watch and enjoy.
No, it would not collapse the economy… just like the use of uranium reactors didn’t… neither did coal… This is because you wouldn’t have an instant transition from coal… oil… everything else to thorium. We could not do that. Simply due to the engineering. Give it 50 years we might be using thorium instead of coal/oil (too late in terms of global warming, but that’s another debate completely), but we certainly won’t destroy the earths economy. Duh.
And yes he said we’d never run out. Not strictly true… bloody skeptics … LFTRs can harness 3.5 million Kwh per Kg of thorium! 70 times greater than uranium, 10,000 greater than oil… and there is over 2.6 million tonnes of it on earth… Anyone with a calculator, or a brain, will understand that is a lot of energy!!
H/T to Rob Fisher for the link.
June 12, 2013
David Akin in the Toronto Sun:
The Canadian government announced new measures Tuesday that will force oil, gas, and mining companies to publicly disclose every penny they pay to any government at home or around the world.
The move is seen as an anti-corruption measure and one that many activists groups that work in the developing world, such as Oxfam, have been demanding for years, particularly since Canada is home to a majority of the world’s mining companies.
The European Union and the United States have already moved towards mandatory reporting requirements for their mining companies.
There have been cases in some developing countries where multinationals pay a host government substantial sums for the rights to oil, gas or minerals, but the local population complains that they do not know how much their governments are getting and, as a result, cannot demand their governments spend some of that wealth on them.
It’s not just in developing countries, either, as some First Nations activists have complained that they can’t get information on what their band councils receive in various resource development deals here in Canada. Of course, some (many?) deals get done with a bit of bribery to sweeten the attraction, but not every country will have (or enforce) rules like this.
April 8, 2013
Megan McArdle explains the temper of the late 1970s in Britain:
To understand the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, you need to understand Britain’s “Winter of Discontent,” in which striking public-sector workers nearly paralyzed the nation. Actually, you have to go back a bit further, to the inflations of the 1970s. Americans remember the “stagflation” of the 1970s as bad, but in Britain it was even worse — the inflation rate peaked in 1975 at over 25 percent.
Governments on both sides of the pond decided that the solution to inflation was to simply declare, by fiat, that prices would not rise so much. In America we got Nixon’s wage and price controls. In Britain, they got the government’s 1978 vow to hold public-sector wage increases to 5 percent — at a time when inflation was running to double digits.
The public-sector workers, as you might imagine, did not like that. And in Britain, the public-sector workers had immense power. Trash piled up in the streets. The truck drivers who ferried goods all over Britain went on strike — and the ones who didn’t, like oil tanker drivers, began feeding their destinations to “flying pickets” — mobile groups of strikers who would go from location to location, blockading them so that workers couldn’t get in and goods couldn’t get out. The BBC called them the “shock troops of industrial action” and that’s an accurate picture; effectively mobilized, flying pickets can grind the wheels of industry to a halt. Which is what they did in the winter of 1978-79.
In Liverpool, the gravediggers went out, leaving bodies unburied for weeks. By the end of January, half the hospitals in Britain were taking only emergency cases. Full of righteous fury, the unions flexed every muscle, demonstrating all the tremendous power that they had amassed by law and custom in the years since the Second World War. Unfortunately, they were pummeling the Labour Party, which had given them most of those powers. And the public, which was also suffering through high inflation and anemic GDP growth, had had enough. They elected Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative grocer’s daughter without roots in the working-class power structure of the labor movement, or the elite power structure of Britain’s famously rigid class system. She systematically went about dismantling the two main sources that gave labor the power to essentially shut down the United Kingdom: lenient strike laws and state ownership of key industrial sectors.
[. . .]
Her detractors should remember that as terrible as it was for the miners when the pits were closed, these mining operations were not sustainable — nor was it even desireable that they be sustained so that further generations could invest their lives in failing coal seams. The work was dreadful. The coal was too dirty for the environment, or the delicate pink tissue of the miners’ lungs. And even if Britain had wanted to keep mining the filthy stuff, it was getting too expensive to dig it out. The mines were playing out, not because Margaret Thatcher was mean, but because the cradle of the Industrial Revolution had burned through much of her coal.
In short, Margaret Thatcher destroyed an industrial system which had yes, provided workers with a secure livelihood, but yes, also done so at an unnacceptable cost. These two things are the same legacy. They cannot be parted.
Her achievement was not inevitable. But looking back at the Winter of Discontent, I’d argue that it was necessary. The alternate future for a United Kingdom where the labor unions hung on was another decade or two of failing state firms and economic decline. By the early 1980s, the UK’s per-capita GDP was lower than that of Italy. You can maybe argue that there was some alternative Social Democratic future, Sweden-style, or perhaps the discovery of an alternative path to capitalism. But it’s hard to look at the convulsions of 1970s Britain and argue that this was a happier past that the nation should pine after. And I find it hard to argue that Britain’s economy could have been modernized without taking on the unions; their veto power made even such obvious steps as shutting down failing mines effectively impossible.
As I wrote a few years back:
My family left Britain in 1967, which was a good time to go: the economy was still in post-war recovery, but opportunities abroad were still open to British workers. My first visit back was in [mid-winter] 1979, which was a terrible shock to my system. I’d left, as a child, before the strikes-every-day era began, and my memories of the place were still golden-hued and happy. Going back to grey, dismal, cold, smelly, strike-bound Britain left me with a case of depression that lasted a long time. It didn’t help that the occasion of the visit was to attend my grandfather’s funeral: it was rather like the land itself had died and the only remaining activity was a form of national decomposition.
December 23, 2012
If you’re a big gold fan, you might want to look at the CombiBar, which is a gold wafer that can easily be broken down into one-gram portions:
Private investors in Switzerland, Austria and Germany are lining up to buy gold bars the size of a credit card that can easily be broken into one gram pieces and used as payment in an emergency.
Now Swiss refinery Valcambi, a unit of U.S. mining giant Newmont, wants to bring its “CombiBar” to market in the United States and build up its sales presence India — the world’s largest consumer of gold where the precious metal has long served as a parallel currency.
Investors worried that inflation and financial market turmoil will wipe out the value of their cash have poured money into gold over the past decade. Prices have gained almost 500 percent since 2001 compared to a 12 percent increase in MSCI’s world equity index.
[. . .]
The CombiBar is particularly popular among grandparents who want to give their grandchildren a strip of gold rather than a coin, said Andreas Habluetzel head of the Swiss business of Degussa, a gold trading company.
Other customers buy gold for security reasons.
“Demand is rising every week,” Habluetzel said. “Particularly in Germany, people buying gold fear that the euro will break apart or that banks will run into problems.”
H/T to Tyler Cowen for the link.
December 7, 2012
The most recent outbreak of the-sky-is-falling, we’re-at-peak-whatever panic mongering is debunked by Vaclav Smil:
Jeremy Grantham, a well-known presence in the financial world, recently published a World View column in the journal Nature in which he concludes that, “simply, we are running out” of almost all commodities whose consumption sustains modern civilization. There is nothing new about such claims, and since the emergence of a vocal global peak oil movement during the late 1990s, many other minerals have been added to the endangered list. Indeed, there is now a book called Peak Everything. What makes Grantham’s column – published under the alarmist headline “Be Persuasive. Be Brave. Be Arrested (If Necessary)” – worth noticing, and deconstructing, is that he puts his claims in terms more suitable for tabloids than for one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific weekly magazines.
His direst example is “the impending shortage of two fertilizers: phosphorus (phosphate) and potassium (potash). These two elements cannot be made, cannot be substituted, are necessary to grow all life forms, and are mined and depleted. It’s a scary set of statements…. What happens when these fertilizers run out is a question I can’t get satisfactorily answered and, believe me, I have tried.” Well, he could have tried just a bit harder: an Internet search would have led him, in mere seconds, to “World Phosphate Rock Reserves and Resources,” a study published in 2010 by the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
This detailed assessment of the world’s phosphate reserves (that are the part of a wider category of resources that is recoverable with existing techniques and at acceptable cost) concluded that they are adequate to produce fertilizer for the next 300 to 400 years. As with all mineral resource appraisals (be they of crude oil or rare earths), the study’s conclusions can be criticized and questioned, and the statement by the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative is perhaps the best document of that kind. But even the most conservative interpretation of IFDC’s assessment shows that phosphates have a reserve/production ratio well in excess of 100 years, higher than that of many other critical mineral resources.
November 24, 2012
Writing in The Register, Tim Worstall brings his evil economist gaze to the SF fan’s irrational belief that asteroid mining is the way of the future:
Isn’t it exciting that Planetary Resources is going to jet off and mine the asteroids? This is every teenage sci-fi geek’s dream, that everything we imbibed from Verne through Heinlein to Pournelle is going to come true!
But there’s always someone, isn’t there, someone like me, ready to spoil the party. The bit that I cannot get my head around is the economics of it: specifically, the economics of the mining itself.
In terms of the basic processing of what they want to do I can’t see a problem at all, just as all those authors those years ago could see how it could be done.
Asteroids come in several flavours, and the two we’re interested in here are the ice ones and the nickel iron ones. The icy rocks, with a few solar panels and that very bright 24/7 sunshine up there, can provide water. That’s the first thing we need in abundance if we’re going to get any number of people up off the planet for any appreciable amount of time. And we’d really rather not be sending the stuff up out of the Earth’s gravity well for them.
It’s also true that those nickel iron asteroids are likely to be rich in platinum-group metals (PGMs). They too can be refined with a bit of electricity, and they’re sufficiently valuable (say, for platinum, $60m a tonne, just as a number to use among friends) that we might be able to finance everything we’re trying to do by doing so.
All terribly exciting, all very space cadet, enough to bring tears to the eyes of anyone who ever learnt how to use a slide rule and, as the man said, once you’re in orbit you’re not halfway to the Moon, you’re halfway to anywhere.
Except I’m not sure that the numbers quite stack up here. I’m sure that the engineering is possible, I’m certain that it’s all worth doing and most certainly believe that we want to get up there and start playing around with other parts of the cosmos over and above Gaia. But, but…
April 25, 2012
In his Forbes column, Tim Worstall spins a tale that is worthy of Dr. Evil or other movie bad guy multi-billionaires:
We’ve now had the announcement of the business plans of Planetary Resources. Enough to excite everyone who read Heinlein or Jerry Pournelle as a teenager. But the big problem is how might they actually turn a proft? To which the answer is manipulation of the futures markets.
[. . .]
So, imagine that they have reached one of the nickel iron asteroids, it is high in the platinum group metals, they can mine it and they can deliver those pgms to Earth. The moment everyone knows that there is some hundreds of tonnes of these metals on the way down the price will collapse. The answer? Sell the metals in advance, through the futures markets. Get today’s price for delivery in the future.
In fact, sell many more futures than the amount of metal which is to be delivered: go short. As an example, say platinum is $2,000 an ounce (not far off the real price, $62 million a tonne). Planetary Resources is going to deliver 100 tonnes. But instead of selling $6 billion’s worth of platinum for delivery in three months, sell 10 times as much: $60 billion’s worth*. When that 100 tonnes splashes down, in fact when the market knows that the 100 tonnes is likely to splash down, then the market price will fall. Substantially but for illustration we’ll say to $200 an ounce.
The company then delivers that 100 tonnes for which it is paid the $6 billion agreed on those futures deliveries. It still owes the market another 900 tonnes but it can now cover its short at $200 an ounce having sold the futures at $2,000 an ounce. Use the $6 billion that’s going to be incoming to do so and what do we have at the end?
The company has $60 billion incoming from having sold futures. It has delivered 100 tonnes at $6 billion and covered the short for that $6 billion. Net profit $54 billion minus the cost of the space program. Which is pretty good really.
But it gets better … and more Bond-villainous.