August 30, 2012

Mandarins and meltdowns


In the second of the two articles referenced in my post about real estate tomfoolery in central Japan, Spike Japan mentions an absurd but ominous harbinger of much worse things to come.

The 2007 Chuetsu earthquake (magnitude 6.6) caused a minor accident at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, a (non-radioactive) fire in a transformer,

the reaction to which laid bare naked Keystone Coppery on the part of TEPCO: the chief operations manager happened to pass the transformer in his car, noticed the smoke, concluded that the fire wouldn't burn long, and left the task of quelling it to subordinates . . . [who] found that the fire hydrants near the transformer had been knocked out by the earthquake and yielded up no more than a trickle of water. Plant officials tried to notify the local fire brigade by phone, but they had no hotline and couldn't get through; five off-duty firemen were corralled and they finally doused the blaze, two hours after the earthquake.

The meltdown four years later at TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was less the product of such "Keystone Coppery" than it was the result of years of incompetence baked into the bureaucracy by the time the disaster struck.

Because Fukushima Daiichi was based on a General Electric design that has an almost exact twin in the U.S., NHK has done a series of documentaries comparing and contrasting the one with the other. The stark conclusion is that everything that Fukushima Daiichi should have done, the U.S. plant had already done.

To greatly oversimplify, following the earthquake, three failures led to the meltdown: the diesel generators, all located on the ground floor, were wiped out by the tsunami; the backup batteries couldn't be swapped out once they ran low; the passive cooling system didn't have manual overrides.

At Fukushima Daiichi's American counterpart, the generators were long ago placed at staggered elevations; battery backups are available from a "Nuclear Parts 'R' Us" repository ("Any time, anyway you want 'em delivered"); and the passive cooling system has big, hand-cranked valves.

"The first thing we're trained to do in the case of a total power failure," the plant supervisor explained to the NHK reporter, "is climb up there and open those valves."

I'm the last one to praise government a bureaucracy, but the NRC is doing its job. Looking beyond the agency itself, it can do its job because it belongs to a political system tasked with making constitutional principles work in the real world: separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism.

As George Will likes to point out, the overriding objective of constitutional government is not to "get things done." It is to not get things done, to create a constant friction that keeps the Leviathan from steamrolling over individuals and localities.

In many respects, Japan's prefectures are less autonomous now than they were during the Edo period. The mayor of Osaka formed a new political party advocating for "local control," but for now it's only advocacy. Tokyo's mandarins continue to micromanage public works everywhere, down to the placement of telephone poles.

This centralized control is further plagued by the widespread practice of amakudari, according to which retiring regulators "descend from heaven" to serve on the boards of the companies they once regulated. As Wikipedia explains,

Over 50 years ending in 2010, 68 high-level government bureaucrats have taken jobs with electricity suppliers after retirement from their government positions. In 2011, 13 retired government bureaucrats were employed in senior positions in Japan's electric utilities.

Beyond the considerable influence U.S. state governors have on nuclear plant placement (zoning, licensing, and the like), NHK was surprised to find that in the U.S., the local fire department and first responders are trained to deal with nuclear accidents (Hazmat), and have immediate access to the plant.

This is the essence of good and proper governance: those with the most at stake and the most to lose are given the resources to do something about it, not just desperately bend an ear in a distant federal government, but put their own "boots on the ground."

If a bunch of batteries is what it'd take to keep a chunk of their prefecture from being turned into a wasteland, and they had the tools available to do something about it, no one doubts that the governor and mayors of Fukushima would have gotten them there by car, boat, bike, or rickshaw, come hell or high water.

Related posts

Fukushima fallout
Build it and they won't come

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August 27, 2012

Build it and they won't come


During Japan's real estate bubble (that popped more than decade before the bust on this side of the Pacific, again proving that all we learn from history is that nobody learns anything from history), real estate speculators poured millions into one lost cause after another.

Full of faith that dancing Keynesian sugar plum fairies could resurrect any flailing local economy, it was almost as if rat holes were dug so more money could be poured down them. At least the housing bubble in the U.S. resulted in houses getting built that people actually lived in.

Part of the blame can perhaps be traced back to the Joban Hawaiian Center, which opened in 1966 in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. The wild idea of turning a shuttered mining town into a resort destination was wildly successful and inspired a very cute movie, Hula Girls.

The 2011 tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi disasters shut it down for a year, during which time its dancing troupes went on tour. It reopened in February to great fanfare. (In any case, it sure doesn't hurt having a few dozen very attractive hula dancing girls on hand.)

Alas, another tried and true rule of human nature is that exceptions prove the rule that, because they are exceptional, exceptions don't prove anything. Most similarly-inspired swing-for-the-fences attempts since at reviving Japan's withering exurban economies have failed.

Perhaps the craziest rat hole of them all was the Kashiwazaki "Turkish Culture Village." You didn't know that what the world needed was a Turkish Culture Village in the middle of rural Japan? Neither, as it turned out, did the Japanese, who stayed away in droves.

The worst of three bad ideas, the Niigata "Russia Village" and "Gulliver's Kingdom" being the other two (the latter could plausible look good on paper), the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village, as Spike Japan explains in the following beauty of a single sentence paragraph,

was a demented brainchild--perhaps the most demented brainchild, although the competition is brutal--of a man fiercely philoprogenitive of demented brainchildren, Ryutaro Omori (1928-2004), the boss of Niigata Chuo Bank, a second-tier regional bank that had only graduated from mutual savings & loan to orthodox bank status in 1989, a man so tone-deaf to the clanging cymbals of the economic orchestra that he failed to hear that the Bubble had burst and, brimful with all the champagne optimism of which our species is so effortlessly capable, decided in the early 1990s to finance not one, but three theme parks, inspired by his Golden Ring concept, in which he pictured a great golden ring laid across the map of central Honshu and in which the theme parks, running in an arc from Niigata in the northwest to Mount Fuji in the southeast, would sparkle like diamonds on a ring.

Seeing is believing, so I direct you to Spike Japan's two-part illustrated exploration of this economic disaster here and here (and its head-scratching but actual connection to the local nuclear power plant).

And then the next time some well-meaning politician or crony capitalist promises that just a few more billion dollars sucked out of the public purse will "turn this baby around," think back upon these examples.

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August 23, 2012

Havahart


My previous post raises the question of why we had a bunch of live animal traps sitting around the house. Specifically, these were Havahart traps, and I see that the basic design has changed little over the past four decades or so.
Our suburban street in upstate New York abutted several acres of swampy forest, undeveloped because of the high water table. I've always thought it'd be amusing--as a "performance art" sort of thing--to campaign to have the EPA label it a "wetlands."

Then again, I'm old enough to remember when a "wetlands" was a mosquito hazard responsible people filled in and turned into something useful.

Anyway, I thought it'd be cool to "domesticate" the critters scurrying around our little patch of wilderness. It took one frantic squirrel racing through the house to learn that wild animals are not cute and cuddly like in Disney cartoons.

Trap one in a small, enclosed area and it basically wants to rip your face off. Thinking back on it now, I'm a little surprised I didn't lose any digits or catch rabies while on that particular learning curve.

The traps were next employed when some of my brother's white mice escaped. Considering the curious ways many of them croaked, I'm convinced the pet store picked them up cheap from a defunct pharmaceutical project.

Though this wasn't a Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH caper (great book). Somebody left the top off the converted aquarium.

A perfect job for a predatory cat, but Cat #1 couldn't have cared less. It was like asking Hemingway to shoot ducks in a pond. This cat preferred to catch animals in the wild and proudly deposit the gory trophies on the front porch.

Incidentally, Cat #2 couldn't be bothered to even chase wild things. It eventually ended up in the bishop's barn. Our bishop was a true, exurbia-dwelling gentleman farmer who kept a couple of cows and chickens and the like.

The bishop's attitude towards cats was the same as Rudyard Kipling's: "If you don't work you die." Cat #2 sized up the options and recovered its Darwinian instincts pretty darn fast.

After that, the traps came to the rescue of General Electric. Then the squirrels and chipmunks burrowing into my father's vegetable garden were targeted (following Cat #1's demise). I recall the blueberry bushes being a favorite attraction.

They didn't get the liquid nitrogen treatment. Rather, we'd carry them to the other side of the woods and let them go, hoping they didn't have a good sense of direction.

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August 20, 2012

The better mousetrap


Telecommunications and Internet service provider Level 3 Communications says that last year squirrels accounted for seventeen percent of all of their cable damage. Twenty years ago, when my father was working at General Electric's Research and Development Center, the rodent infiltrators met their match. Or did they?

Building the Better Mousetrap
A story of cold logic and sticky solutions

(as told to Eugene Woodbury by Hugh Woodbury, Ph.D.)

Soon after the Electronics Lab moved into the newly constructed KW west wing, unauthorized-entry security breaks reached such unprecedented levels that the occupants of KW wing had no choice but to take matters into their own hands. But as these seasoned scientists set out to rid themselves of the infiltrators, they could not help but be impressed by the audacity and ingenuity of the interlopers, who slipped through security checkpoints, bypassed magnetically locked doors, and set up house keeping in high voltage and radiation zones with carefree abandon.

A biologist might have pointed out that the predominant mammalian life form in the area--before a loud and unruly band of homo sapiens evicted them with several thousand tons of steel and prestressed concrete--was only reclaiming its original habitat. The occupants of KW wing would likely have acknowledged this ecological fact and shared their quarters peaceably had the mice not been doing the reclaiming in file cabinets and desks and leaving unsightly messes behind as they did so.

(How a mouse can get into a locked filed cabinet is still a mystery to all involved.)

Contrary to popular opinion, physicists are actually a tender and loving lot, except when small creatures start eating their floppy diskettes and technical reports.

When I spotted mouse droppings in my desk, I brought in some live animal traps. Three nights in a row I set the traps, and three mornings in a row each trap contained a mouse. Statistically speaking, if for each trap set, there was always going to be one mouse caught, then there must be an infinite number of mice that could be caught. Any finite number divided by infinity is zero, and because a finite number of traps exist in the universe, I realized that any further effort would be pointless.

Jack, our department manager, thought otherwise. The company that invented the artificial diamond could certainly come up with a better mousetrap. But with government contracts to fill there were no research facilities to spare, so he called in professional exterminators. They obligingly came to his office and put down extra wide, extra-sticky, double-sided tape in strategic areas.

Sure enough, the next morning, several unwary mice were stuck fast to the tape. As the morning wore on, however, the exterminators did not return. Moreover, Jack's secretary let it be known that her job description did not include word processing alongside struggling mice stuck to the floorboards. But when someone donned a pair of gloves and tried to attend to the problem, the molecular bonds holding the mouse to the tape proved stronger than the molecular bonds holding the mouse to the mouse. The implications were gristly indeed.

Surrounded by a wealth of brainpower, Jack was open to a more humane solution. I believe it was Ken who suggested that if people could be cryogenically frozen, well, then, so could mus musculus. He fetched a dewer of liquid nitrogen from his lab, dipped in tape and mouse, and instantly froze the rodent to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit, solid as a rock.

But as efficient as double-sided tape was at catching mice and liquid nitrogen was at killing them, Jack wasn't about to spend every morning cutting tape off the floor, finding a dewer with a wide enough neck to admit a medium sized mouse, and then disposing of the frosty results and the contaminated liquid nitrogen. Besides, if the exterminators did come in on time, they'd probably do something indelicate like step on them. Physicists can be squeamish about such things. As with a great many "better" solutions, this one caused more problems than it solved.

So the mice pretty much had the upper hand until I mentioned in my monthly report my discovery of the mouse infinite progression series. Word got around that I had a couple of live animal traps in my office, and I've been lending them out every since.

Now, in General Electric's ultra-modern research facility, small, unwanted rodents are handled the humane way. Several times a week, Electronics Labs personnel carry traps out to the wooded area behind KW wing to release field mice back into the wild, hoping that the mice will soon learn that admittance will continue to be refused until they obtain the proper security clearance.

Related posts

Havahart
"Pathological" and real science

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August 16, 2012

A tax on all their houses


In an effort to battle Japan's Godzilla-sized national debt (230 percent of GDP and rising), Prime Minister Noda of Japan pushed through a doubling of the consumption tax--from five to ten percent--in the face of defections by party loyalists and a no-confidence vote.

Noda acted against his own and his party's self-interests to accomplish something easily demagogued and highly unpopular but absolutely necessary. And just as importantly, given the options before him, he used his political capital to raise taxes the right way.

Japan's consumption tax is a national sales tax, not a VAT. It's a tax on every citizen who consumes. So is a VAT (so are all corporate income taxes), but the VAT (and corporate incomes taxes) are a lot sneakier about it.

The VAT has got to be the worst tax in the world, if for no other reason than its name: Value Added Tax. The last thing any government wants to do is tax "added value." A sane government wants to create more added value throughout the supply chain, not discourage it.

To quote Wikipedia:

From the perspective of the buyer, [the VAT] is a tax on the purchase price. From that of the seller, it is a tax only on the value added to a product, material, or service, from an accounting point of view, by this stage of its manufacture or distribution. The manufacturer remits to the government the difference between these two amounts, and retains the rest for themselves to offset the taxes they had previously paid on the inputs.

If you've already said, "Huh? What?" that's the biggest problem with the VAT (and most tax regimes): their sheer complexity.

Rent-seekers and politicians prefer laws opaque to the average person. They can then shower freebies on the voters (that the voters ultimately pay for) while squirming through the loopholes without anybody figuring out what they're up to until they've raked in the dough.

This is the problem with OWS types wanting to tax the "fat cats." I doubt any of them could complete a 1040 long form by hand, let alone examine the books of the locally-owned grocer on the corner and be able to tell whether or not it's paying its "fair share."

And they think a thousand more such laws will ensure that Bank of America will? Or will a thousand more laws ensure that the "fat cats" can squeeze out competitors who can't afford to hire entire law firms to assure compliance?

If you're interested in financial "fairness," then start by making the tax code simple enough that you can understand it. I don't mean the cute slogans and oh-so-earnest demonstrations. I mean the real-world implementation of the tax laws. The fine print.

The IRS itself admits that

The costs of complying with the individual and corporate income tax requirements in 2006 amounted to $193 billion. If tax compliance were an industry, it would be one of the largest in the United States. The current tax code is 3.7 million words long, having tripled in length since 1975.

Politicians who peddle Rube Goldberg schemes in the name of "fairness" will always deliver the former and never the latter.

A sales tax, by contrast, is easy. It's obvious. Look at the receipt. That's what you paid. It's also simple to exempt "good" stuff like food. Yes, exempting stuff will lead to rent-seeking too, but at least it'll be obvious what is and what isn't on the list.

And there's no way a politician can get away with populist drivel about sticking it to someone else.

In terms of idealistic solutions, I'd prefer a flat tax solution (including treating all income streams the same and paying all government obligations out of general revenue). But as long as we're pondering impossibilities, it wouldn't kill me if these guys got their way either.

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August 13, 2012

Profits and payloads


The International Space Station is finally being put to practical use. NASA's Commercial Crew Program has awarded contracts to Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, and Boeing to develop commercial systems to ferry astronauts to low Earth orbit.

The only thing to go to in low Earth orbit is the ISS (other than the Hubble servicing missions, which actually did have great scientific value).

NASA should have headed in this direction a decade ago. But as Jim Muncy quips, "Democrats don't think that capitalism works within the atmosphere, and Republicans apparently don't think it works above it." Well, better late than never.

Because the commercial route is the only sensible way to go for manned spaceflight.

If you tune into NASA TV before and during an unmanned space mission, you'll see scientists and engineers talking about what the program is supposed to accomplish, how it will get done, and how success will be measured in clear, empirical terms.

I've never seen anything like that with the ISS, other than billion-dollar Show & Tell sessions with elementary school classes. Forget science. The State Department should take over the ISS, as it seems a decent way to foster international relations.

Though the very healthy vig Russia now takes for doing the "fostering" was a big motivation in getting the private sector back into the game. And who knows what the Russians will do once those millions stop flowing? I recommend inviting the Chinese.

So we return to my original point.

Newt Gingrich was the most cogent of the goofball Republican candidates, but his "Man on the Moon" flights of fancy were just plain nuts. He couldn't even come up with a lame scientific reason for going there, like building a big radio telescope.

The same goes for Mars.

To people who rhapsodize about "colonizing Mars," I recommend they colonize Antarctica first, as it's a billion times more friendly to human habitation. Or to get the full experience, camp out near one of the old uranium mines around Moab, Utah.

Minus the vegetation, Moab does kind of look like Mars.

Mars doesn't have a molten core and no magnetic field. The solar wind strips away the atmosphere and cosmic rays bombard the surface. You'd have to live underground to shield yourself from the radiation. How is that better than looking at an HD screen?

The worst place on Earth beats anywhere else in the solar system by light years.

If "discovering life" is the goal, Robert Park is exactly correct. You can't put human beings into any environment where you hope to find life without irrevocably contaminating it. Land a man on Mars and we will indeed colonize it--with E. coli.

About 100 trillion bacteria live in and on every healthy human being.

Unlike the science done by robots like Curiosity, NASA's role in human space exploration has come and gone. The same way trappers and traders "opened" the American West after Lewis & Clark, it's time for capitalism to again go where no man has gone before.

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August 09, 2012

Emperor Kumazawa



The Southern Court did achieve a political victory of sorts five hundred years after the events described in Serpent of Time. After not mattering at all to anybody for centuries, early in the 20th century, the question of succession dating back to the era of the Northern and Southern Courts almost toppled the ruling Japanese government.

The controversy was created by Meiji ideologues faced with a challenge to the "official history" that the emperor was the product of direct, unbroken line that disappeared into the mists of history. This official history had itself only been invented in the mid-19th century as a means of delegitimizing the Tokugawa shogunate.

After much heated debate, the reign of the Southern Court from Go-Daigo to Go-Kameyama was accepted as legitimate, making the Northern Court of the time the pretenders.

Then during the American Occupation, a man named Hiromichi Kumazawa (along with several others) came forward with apparently authentic genealogies that "proved" he was a rightful descendant of the Southern Court. He made a splash in the media but the powers that be ignored him and he faded back into obscurity.

And thus does what was once a matter of life and death turn into trivia. Kumazawa was also a Buddhist priest. He surely understood the effervescent nature of such claims to worldly glory.

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August 06, 2012

Kitchen Car


NHK's "Kitchen Car" (Kicchin ga Hashiru) is the gastronomical version of "Tsurube's Salute to Families."

Each week, the host (Taiyo Sugiura) teams up with a guest chef and they trundle off to some quaint part of Japan in a kitchen-on-wheels. There they visit the local farms and fisheries, sample the flora and fauna, and collect the ingredient to cook up a banquet for the townspeople.

It's a cute and creative show, though one that inadvertently shines a light on a far darker reality.

You can't help but be struck by how awfully convenient it is to have so many tiny truck farms scattered across the countryside. I'm sure that's in large part due to work of the advance team. But what you see on screen isn't too far from the reality.

Unfortunately, all this "localvore" goodness is killing Japan's economy.

The revolutionary land reform measures enacted in 1947 during the American Occupation successfully turned hundreds of thousands of tenant farmers into land owners and small businessmen (and anti-communist conservatives).

Half a century later, the political power bought with decades of increasingly generous government subsidies (far exceeding those in the U.S.) have kept politicians of all stripes from touching that third rail and changing laws that encourage monstrous inefficiencies across the board.

Aurelia George Mulgan (professor of politics at the University of New South Wales) sums up the downward spiral that has resulted.

Keeping small-scale farms in production blocks the scale expansion of farming by discouraging the transfer of agricultural land to full-time professional farmers. It thus traps the sector in a cycle of low productivity, low profitability, and subsidy dependence.

The Japanese consumer not only pays the taxes that go to these absurdly rich subsidies, but also forks out more than twice the world market prices for staples such as rice. All to support many "farmers" who would barely qualify as backyard gardeners in the U.S.

Mulgan concludes, "The direst prediction is that if the current situation continues, there will probably be no farmers left in Japan after ten years and [home-grown] food production will stop."

This pretty much sums up my bad news/good news view on the world economic meltdown. The same way municipalities in California can't adopt reasonable budgets until they plumb run out of money, Japan won't adopt reasonable farming policies until it plumb runs out of farmers.

The good news is that the way things are going, it's going to happen sooner than later and we won't have to wait long.

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August 02, 2012

Goodnight, sweet princess


Kala Sarpa again borrows from Shakespeare: "Or you would let flights of angels sing thee across the Sanzu River?" My sister Kate suggested the line. It comes from Hamlet: Act 5, Scene 2.

Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

The Sanzu River (三途の川), meaning the "River of Three Crossings," is the Buddhist equivalent of the River Styx. Another parallel is the popular expression, "You can't take it with you." If you stuff your pocket with too much money, you're likely to drown in the Sanzu River.

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