Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Save Us, O Great Perpetual Motion Machine

With energy getting more expensive it is not surprising that someone is trying to patent a perpetual motion machine. The company is Ireland-based Steorn. This is how they describe their technology:
Steorn’s technology produces free, clean and constant energy. This provides a significant range of benefits, from the convenience of never having to refuel your car or recharge your mobile phone, to a genuine solution to the need for zero emission energy production. It also provides a secure supply of energy, since the components of the technology are readily available.

The technology is in a constant state of development. The company has focused for the past three years on increasing power output and the development of test systems that allow detailed analysis to be performed.

Steorn’s technology appears to violate the ‘Principle of the Conservation of Energy’, considered by many to be the most fundamental principle in our current understanding of the universe. This principle is stated simply as ‘energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change form’.

Steorn is making three claims for its technology:

The technology has a coefficient of performance greater than 100%.
The operation of the technology (i.e. the creation of energy) is not derived from the degradation of its component parts.
There is no identifiable environmental source of the energy (as might be witnessed by a cooling of ambient air temperature).
The sum of these claims is that our technology creates free energy.

Well, if you are going to defy the laws of Isaac Newton, you'd better have your shit straight. If you are cagey and making big promises and seeking investors, people will get annoyed.

Newton's laws are not eternal, Einstein showed that. And Einstein's theories are not the end either, as quantum mechanics and string theory show us virtual worlds beyond our imagining. But as for the way we live, and the way the “real” world works, I mean down here on earth anyway, where such things as money and food and clothing make a difference in our lives, then Newton still rules. Newton may not explain love and death and the afterlife, but for such issues as how to get to work on time, Newton is still king.

Mankind's problems in this age, on the cusp of catastrophic change, as our huge energy sources fail us one after another, will mainly be the scourges of war, famine and disease. Pretending that Newton was wrong, with such nutty ideas as corn-based bio-diesel, or hoping for perpetual motion machine solutions, can only be a fantasy. Newton showed us how the world worked 400 years ago, but we still haven't come to grips with the reality he showed us. At least we should be glad that it is simple, logical and fair. And when the shit hits the fan, we'll probably remember that exponential growth does not proceed indefinitely. Newton probably would have said “DUH”!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Sticking Up For Conspiracy Theorists

My bother sent me this link: Professors of Paranoia?

This article, by John Gravois, staff reporter for The Chronicle Of Higher Education, won't remain online without subscription for long, but I linked anyway. It is a philosophical debunking of conspiracy theorists, basically painting them as tinfoil-hat nutjobs. This quote sums up the author's primary objections to conspiracy theories:

"One of the most common intuitive problems people have with conspiracy theories is that they require positing such complicated webs of secret actions. If the twin towers fell in a carefully orchestrated demolition shortly after being hit by planes, who set the charges? Who did the planning? And how could hundreds, if not thousands of people complicit in the murder of their own countrymen keep quiet? Usually, Occam's razor intervenes."

I simply approach 9/11 conspiracies from an opposite direction. Broad theories about what happened are not needed. But glaring holes in official explanations still need to be exposed. Not all these conspiracy theories have equal merit. The evidence that explosions brought down the twin towers seems weaker than the evidence that a cruise missile hit the pentagon. This particular theory is at least worth debating. Watch Loose Change for some highly disturbing evidence.

However, I also disagree with the above quote. I think "complicated webs of secret actions" are not so uncommon among business tycoons and governments. How did Hilter rise to power? Certainly complicated webs of secret actions (combined with demagoguery) were his method. All would-be authoritarians, in nations in every continent, are forever conspiring. The CIA, Kissenger and Pinochet conspired to take over Chile. And they did, commiting unspeakable evil in the process. For decades afterward, if you said the CIA was involved, people would think you were a nut. As for the legions who would be required to keep their mouths shut, they can be made to do only the smallest part of the plan, and so are not party to the conspiracy as a whole. If the CIA really wanted to blow up the WTC, I don't think they would find it so hard to train (and silence) a demolition team. The information that the WTC's bomb sniffing dogs were removed weeks before 911, and a number of unidentified construction crews were seen in the building is unsettling to say the least. Everything can be rationalized, and people can be made to believe that the evil deed they do is necessary and right. If Bin Laden is capable of conspiracy, then certainly Dick Cheney is also. Ambitious and ruthless men conspire.

Not to say a neoconservative led cabal did have anything to do with 9/11. I don't know. The truth is hard to find. And perhaps even harder to stomach. I am just saying don't stifle debate. I don't see the value in all the character assassinations of conspiracy theorists. Same for peak theorists. What's the point? Harper's published a particularly silly article on peak oil (not online), interviewing mainly survivalists, ridiculing their views, with minimal explanation. If the theory is stupid, don't write about it. If the theory is intriguing but flawed, expose it. Whether the theorist is eccentric is irrelevant.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

gold stocks or gold coins?

I can't understand all the excitement and belief in gold and silver mining stocks. Of course the theory is that mining stocks will rise faster than the price of gold. In economic hard times, gold mining stocks are supposed to be one of the few market sectors that prosper. Gold writers say the XAU and HUI (gold mining stock indexes) have to lead the spot price of gold.

I just don't agree. There are good reasons why the price of gold might rise, but gold mines might not be able to profit from that rise. It is all about cost. The costs of mining gold are all going up, and they could easily outrun the price of gold itself. Mining costs consist mainly of:
  • energy
  • raw materials, such as steel
  • highly skilled and specialized labor
  • specialized and expensive equipment
  • capital

    Costs for all these items are rising fast. The price of base metals has been outpacing gold in recent years. Costs of capital (interest rates) are rising. Remote mining locations, usually in undeveloped nations, also increases costs for the mine. The skilled labor has to be brought onto the location, and housed and fed. The steel and equipment have to be imported and transported. Energy supply has to be secure (note that before the age of fossil fuels the energy source was usually slave labor).

    A final risk to mining operations is the risk of nationalization, or psudo-nationalization. A nation hosting foreign mines on its territory might not want that operation to shut down, especially if it employs lots of local labor, or trains workers in skilled positions. But they might decide to tax the operation so that little (if any) profit leave the country.

    And what would happen if, in a time of rising precious metal prices, gold mines have to shut down because they can't make a profit? The result would be a decrease in the supply of gold - thus driving prices higher. Of course not all gold mines will find it hard to profit. Some mines are more profitable than others. But the costs and risks are variable and uncertain. I'm not going to try to pick a winning gold stock. If you can pick em, or trust some gold stock guru to find them for you, maybe you'll be happy. Or not. I'd stick with shiny round coins, its so much simpler.