Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Real Cost of Solar and Wind Power Still Falling

Last year XCel Energy put out a request for bids on new electric power generation in Colorado, and their summary of the bids was recently released. This is actual bids from power generation firms, not some analyst's projections, all to be online by 2023. In total XCel received 350 bids, so there is a lot of interest in building these plants.

The cost of electricity from existing coal plants in the US is around $40 per MWH. The average bids received by XCel for renewable power were as follows:

  Wind:                                          $18.10/MWH
  Wind plus Battery Storage:    $21.00/MWH
  Solar:                                          $29.50/MWH
  Solar plus Battery Storage:     $36.00/MWH
  Wind/Solar/Battery Storage:  $30.60/MWH

These numbers are significantly lower than bids from just two years ago. It's the added battery storage numbers that are key, because to use a lot of renewable power you need either fossil fuel back-up or lots of storage. The bid sheet doesn't say how much storage these bids include, but at any rate you can now build some substantial amount of battery back-up into a new solar/wind system and still end up with a lower price than you get from an already up-and-running coal plant. This makes it seem that the price of battery storage is falling fast, and that power generation companies are betting that this will continue.

One reason that power generation firms are interested in the solar/wind + battery storage formula is that they can charge a higher price for the more reliable power than they could for straight solar or wind, so there's a case of market incentives aligning with what the people clearly need.

Incidentally the amount of coal burned in the US fell by 2% last year, despite Trump and rising demand for electricity; these analysts calculated that if Kentucky replaced all their coal-fired plants with a combination of natural gas and wind, the average electricity bill would fall by 10%, even including the cost of building all the new plants.

How Much of the Opioid Epidemic is Caused by Economic Hard Times?

Not very much, according to these academics:
The United States is in the midst of a fatal drug epidemic. This study uses data from the Multiple Cause of Death Files to examine the extent to which increases in county-level drug mortality rates from 1999-2015 are due to “deaths of despair”, measured here by deterioration in medium-run economic conditions, or if they instead are more likely to reflect changes in the “drug environment” in ways that present differential risks to population subgroups. A primary finding is that counties experiencing relative economic decline did experience higher growth in drug mortality than those with more robust growth, but the relationship is weak and mostly explained by confounding factors. In the preferred estimates, changes in economic conditions account for less than one-tenth of the rise in drug and opioid-involved mortality rates.
What they find instead is that the biggest factor influencing drug use in any community is the availability and cost of drugs.

This is just one study, but I would not be surprised if it is right. But not because I think the epidemic has nothing to do with “despair.” As we know, in our wealthy world economic troubles manifest largely in psychological terms, that is, a rise in the unemployment rate from 5% to 9% can make a lot more than 4% of the people miserable. So a whole community's sense that times are bad and the future is bleak might not show up very clearly in the raw economic numbers.

Take the paradigmatic case of the coal country in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. These are poor areas, but they have always been poor. It's just that the industries they did have -- coal mining, manufacturing -- are rapidly declining. This makes their “medium-run economic conditions” only a little worse than they were, but it has a huge impact on the overall mood of those places. They are depressed and distressed, even if their median income is much higher than what we would consider a boom town in Nigeria or even Mexico.

Of course opiates are a big problem even in wealthy areas, which gets me to what “deaths of despair” would actually mean. I agree that the main cause of the epidemic is not economic hard times but the huge increase in the supply of the drugs. But why did people want them? Why was there, in economic terms, a huge unmet demand for opiates that changes in how doctors treat pain went a long way toward filling?

I don't think people take these drugs for fun. They take them because they are unhappy, stressed, and in pain. They are self-medicating conditions we could call anxious depression, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, or other such medical-sounding terms, but which I would be equally happy to call despair. I don't mean to say that many drug users don't have physical problems, from bad backs to chemical imbalances in their brains; I just think that when drug use runs rampant through whole communities, a broader understanding of the cause is called for.

If it is true that the main cause of the current opioid epidemic is increased supply, that makes the essential question very clear: why do people need drugs in the first place? And, is there anything we could do to make their lives better – less stressful, less painful, less depressing?

The Attention we Give to Mass Killers

Study shows that the average mass killer gets $75 million worth of media attention.

The obvious lesson would be that people do it to get famous and we could reduce the problem by ignoring them, but I'm not sure that's true; has anybody read enough about these monsters to find out what part a desire to be famous played in their schemes? And even that result would be ambivalent, like, Timothy McVeigh wanted to make a huge media splash, but that was because he was hoping to touch off a revolution.

Plus, given Americans obsession with such events, I doubt even the most determined, anti-Constitutional censorship would have much effect.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Bird-Catcher's Cup

A figure who may be Dionysus dances against a background of vines, along with birds, a grasshopper, and a snake. Ionian black-figure cup that goes by the name of the Coupe à l'oiseleur (”Birdcatcher’s Cup”). Ca. 550 BCE. Now in the Louvre.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Tunnels under the Berlin Wall

Wonderful article in the Times by Christopher Schuetze and Palko Karasz about the old tunnels under the Berlin Wall:
About 75 tunnels were built under the wall during its three-decade existence, many of them around Bernauer Strasse. Residential buildings nearby provided handy shelter for digging and for entering the passages.

One escape that received widespread attention was filmed by NBC in 1962. The network provided money for an effort by students in West Berlin to connect two cellars on either side of the wall. The resulting documentary, called “The Tunnel,” related the escape of 29 men, women and children, and it raised questions about the journalistic ethics involved.

In the autumn of 1964, 57 people from the East escaped through a tunnel that started in a disused courtyard bathroom [shown above]. But this escape marked a turning point. An East German border guard was killed in a gunfight between the security forces and those helping the escape on the Western side. The 21-year-old guard, Egon Schultz, became a hero in the East after his death, leading many in the West to question the wisdom of promoting such crossings.
The story focuses on the archaeological discovery of a tunnel dug for a failed crossing attempt in 1962. After the Wall fell Germans seemed determined to erase every trace of its existence, but these days there is some interest in commemorating the Wall and preserving bits of it, perhaps including this tunnel.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Moving the Vatican Obelisk, 1585

In 1585, the "Vatican obelisk" was moved 275 feet (83 m) to the square in front of Saint Peter's Basilica. Architect Domenico Fontana designed a wooden tower that would be constructed around the obelisk, connected to a system of ropes and pulleys. The move, including construction of the tower, took 13 months. Seventy-two horses and more than 900 men worked on the project.


This obelisk was brought to Rome from Egypt in AD 37 by emperor Caligula. It is 85 feet tall (25.5 m) and weighs 330 tons. The Romans stole so many Egyptian obelisks that there are more in Rome (13) than in Egypt. Nobody knows how the ancient Romans or Egyptians moved and erected these huge monuments, but Fontana's drawings show one way it could be done with pre-modern technology. This illustration is from the Getty.


Searching around I found more images from this same document.


Including these that show how forty capstans placed around the square were used to control the ropes.

Albert Saverys, The River Lys in Winter



Three paintings with the same title by Belgain painter Albert Saverys (1886-1964). The one at top is from 1950.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Tonight's Fortune

You may attend a party where strange customs prevail.

The Berthouville Treasure

The Berthouville Treasure was plowed up in a French field in 1830 and now resides in the Bibliothèque nationale. Three years ago it travelled to the Getty in Los Angeles to be conserved, and this resulted in a bunch of articles and posts from which I have gleaned these images.

Unlike the other Roman silver treasures I have featured here, the trésor de Berthouville was not hidden from invading barbarians as the late empire collapsed; it dates to around 200 CE.

There was plenty of trouble in the empire that could have led to its being hidden; but since order was eventually restored in Gaul, why wasn't the treasure dug up again? Several of the pieces have text scratched on them indicating that they were gifts to the god Mercury, and not all from the same person. Thus the idea that this collection was a temple treasury. Again, though, why would it have been left in the ground? There are actually three such hoards known from Gaul and Britain, although this is the largest and most valuable.

Archaeology showed that the find was near a complex of small temples and shrines. So maybe this was buried as a community's gift to the gods.

The images are the usual classical stuff: scenes from the Trojan War and the life of Hercules, bits of myth, Bacchic rituals.

Here is Omphale, reclining on Hercules' lion skin.

Interesting statue of Mercury.

Nine of the vessels are a set from a single workshop, all with Bacchic images, and all seem to be part on one donation from a certain Q. Domitius Tutus.

There are 93 pieces in the hoard, including some small appliques; the total weight is about 25 kg, or 60 pounds. Buried silver can easily decay to dust in just a century, so I find it amazing that so much survives from the ancient world.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The 21-Story Icicle Tower

Last week in Chicago the sprinkler on the top floor of this building failed, sending a cascade of water down the fire escape. Where it froze into this.

Photographer Andrew Hickey stopped by and took these pictures. More at This is Colossal.

Rock Crystal Dish in the Form of a Temple


From Carthage, 3rd to 5th century CE. Now in the Met.

Sue Yourself

The latest from New York:
Seeking to position himself as a national leader against climate change, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday announced a two-pronged attack against the fossil-fuel industry, including a vow that city pension funds would divest about $5 billion from companies involved in the fossil fuel business.

The mayor also announced a lawsuit against five major oil companies, seeking to collect billions of dollars in damages to pay for city efforts to cope with the effects of climate change.

“This city is standing up and saying, ‘We’re going to take our own actions to protect our own people,’” the mayor said, wearing a green necktie and sitting in front of large green sign that said “NYC: Leading the Fight Against Climate Change.” He added, “We’re not waiting.”
I hate, have always hated, continue to hate this habit of blaming oil companies for our environmental problems. If you don't like what oil companies do, stop using their product. Get an electric car and an electric lawnmower and a solar panel array. Do something. But sitting back and fulminating against companies who just sell what people want to buy is nothing at all.

The reason we have massive CO2 emissions is not that the oil companies are evil. It is because all of us love driving cars and flying in planes and turning on the air conditioning. What, exactly, could the leaders of the oils companies do about our emissions even if they decided they wanted to? Invest in solar power? They're already doing that. Stop us from driving our cars? If they tried that, we would put them in jail.

If there were a massive verdict against the oil companies, what would the effect be? They would pass the cost onto their consumers, so the net effect (if any) would be to increase fuel costs. If that is your aim, why not just raise the tax? It's a much simpler, more elegant, and more efficient. But I suppose it doesn't serve the purpose of finding Bad People to blame, and punishing them.

Much of the wrath directed against the oil companies these days is about the climate change debate. Some of the oil companies have indeed funded studies by climate change skeptics. I don't care. First, it is an interesting fact that there are scientific climate change skeptics, despite the efforts of the alarmist faction to get them banned from publishing and so on. Second, I think question of belief is not very important here. By and large, European governments are on board with the threat of CO2 emissions and committed to reductions. But their emissions are not falling meaningfully faster than they are in the U.S. This is just a very hard problem, and the solutions have to be technological. Those solutions – other than nuclear power and hydroelectric dams, which most environmentalists oppose – are only now becoming available. As they do, our emissions will fall.

Suing the oil companies is a dumb sideshow.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Giovanni Gasparro

Contemporary Italian artist and devout Catholic, born 1983. His degree is in art history rather than studio, for a thesis on Van Dyck in Rome. It shows. Above, Amoris Laetitia (the joy of love), John the Baptist warning of the adultery of Herod Antipas.




Details.

St. Nicolas of Bari, 2016, detail.

Gasparro has executed a couple of large religious commissions, in particular for the rededication of Aquila Cathedral, damaged in the terrible earthquake of 2009. This work, The Vision of St. John of Patmos, was part of that commission. I find these paintings 1) a little clumsy, and 2) redolent of that sort of highly emotional Catholicism that makes me think, I'm too Nordic for this.

Detail of something. Certainly is interesting to see a prominent contemporary artist working in this vein. Alas, I have read that the habit of painting extra hands and heads, which Gasparro does a lot of, is a sign of mental illness. I haven't been able to find out much about him, but I worry.

Halitrephes maasi





Spectacular jellyfish filmed by the E/V Nautilus at a depth of 4,000 feet off Baja California. Video here.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Forty-Five, or Jacobites and Madmen

John Petite, The Jacobites of 1745, 1873

In the realm of human behavior that needs explaining, I offer you the case of Lord George Murray. On September 3, 1745, Lord George wrote to his brother, the Duke of Atholl, to declare his intention of joining Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion, despite having accepted lucrative positions from the government:
I never did say to any person in Life that I would not ingage in the cause I always in my heart thought just and right, as well as for the Interest, Good, and Liberty of my country . . . though what I do may and will be reccon'd desperate . . .  and may very probably end in my utter ruin. My Life, my Fortune, my expectations, the Happyness of my wife and children, are all at stake, and the chances are against me, yet a principle of (what seems to me) Honour, and my Duty to King and Country, outweighs every thing.
Murray was not hungry, or desperate, or oppressed; indeed he had pretty much everything his century could offer. Yet he threw it all away to follow a prince who had never before set foot in Britain.

There is a famous Gaelic song about these events, Mo Ghile Mear, "My Gallant Darling", written around 1750 by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill; Sting's version isn't on Youtube but you can hear Mary Black's here. The first stanza, spoken by a sort of goddess who represents the Irish people, translates as:
Once I was a maiden fair
Now it’s widow’s weeds I wear
My husband lies not in the grave
But far from me he ploughs the waves
I have a wonderful book about the folklore of the Island of Skye, and mixed in with all the water horses and selkies are dozens of items about Bonnie Prince Charlie, who passed through the island when he was fleeing after his defeat and seems to have been sheltered by every other family on the island. People treasure these memories and have passed them on for generations.

I've just finished reading a quite good book about the Forty-Five, as Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion is generally known, and what lingers in my mind is a puzzle. What is all this about? What explains the enduring appeal of this half-wit royal adventurer and his doomed rebellion, brushed away in an hour at Culloden Moor by a single division of the government's army? Why so many songs about these rebels, and none about the men who in defeating them saved Parliamentary rule and paved the way for British democracy?

This is going to be a long essay, because there is a lot here to unpack.

There is, first of all, the weird human fascination with royal blood. Many Jacobites touched on this in their personal justifications: as far as they were concerned, the 1688 rebellion was a crime and the Stuarts remained the real kings of Britain. Here is Dr. Archibald Cameron to his wife, from the prison where he awaited execution, 8 June 1753:
I thank kind Providence I had the happiness to be early educated in the principles of Christian loyalty, which as I grew in years inspired me with an utter abhorrence of rebellion and usurpation, tho’ ever so successful. And when I arrived at man's estate I had the testimony both of religion and reason to confirm me in the truth of my first principles. Thus my attachment to the ROYAL FAMILY is more the result of examination and conviction than of prepossession and prejudice. And as I am now, so was I then, ready to seal my loyalty with my blood. As soon, therefore, as the royal youth had set up the king his father's standard, I immediately, as in duty bound, repaired to it. . . .
I could go on, but I think you all know what I mean. And I have to say that of all the political principles ever articulated by humankind, none makes less sense to me than the divine right of kings. What possible difference could it make to me who your father was? or your great-great-grandfather? If you go back far enough, all kings are descended from usurpers or conquerors; why is being descended from a grasping thug more noble than being one? You expect me to do what you say because your great-grandfather killed somebody else's great grandfather and took his crown? Really? James II was overthrown in 1688 because he sought to limit the powers of Parliament and impose French-style absolutism on Britain, besides promoting Catholicism in a way that offended many of his mostly Protestant subjects. When his subjects got sick of him, they tossed him out and brought in a king more to their liking. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Yet to millions of humans, past and present, loyalty to the true king has been one of the deepest moral touchstones, something more to be treasured that marriage or family or friendship, second only to devotion to God.

And then there is our fascination with the doomed gesture, the forlorn hope, the men who fight and die because that is what they feel called on to do: the 300 Spartans, the Saxons at Maldon – courage must be harder, our hearts bolder, our minds keener, as our numbers dwindle – the Forty-Seven Ronin, the defenders of the Alamo, the Irish rebels of 1916. Mostly we bend to fate, but sometimes instead people choose to defy it. Instead of surrendering to that which is, they go down fighting against it, and something about that touches us deeply. As Gimli puts it in the movie version of The Return of the King:
Small chance of success — certainty of death — what are we waiting for?
It's a joke, but it sums up one piece of the hero's creed: where the danger is greatest, there is the greatest chance for eternal glory. It impresses me that although the actual Spartan warriors at Thermopylae were sent with a strategic mission, to delay the Persians until the Greeks could fortify the Isthmus of Corinth, the movie version casts all that aside and makes their stand a completely pointless gesture of courage. That is, to some, more noble and more pure.

Some Jacobites had been raised on stories of earlier rebellions – 1689, 1708, 1715, 1719. When they joined Bonnie Prince Charlie, they stepped out of ordinary life and into story. This is another way of explaining the heroic impulse; to live as characters in a legend, not as mortal humans, thinking not of today but of how we will be remembered in a century.

But I think a deeper level of explanation is needed.

Many people feel keenly the sordid, messy, compromising ordinariness of life. Shouldn't there be more to existence than a struggle to survive, or to get ahead; than squabbles with relatives we love but can't get along with; than a string of insults from strangers and dismissals from superiors; than churches full of hypocrites; than sadness and loss and regret? There is in all of us a longing to break free from earthbound life and soar. I see this longing all around me: in fantasies of the apocalypse, in the hope of lottery riches, in the dream of a perfect love that transforms, in the unchained rage of killers.

I see this longing among British Jacobites. They were not united by any particular social or economic grievance, or any single vision of life after the Stuarts had been restored. Some were Catholics, but others were Protestants who assumed the new Stuart king would convert to Protestantism, as Henry IV had converted to Catholicism to become King of France. Some wanted to undo the Act of Union that ended Scottish independence, while others wanted greater and closer union. Some wanted to give up the colonies, others to expand them. What united them was a dream of a different world. Especially among the writers and poets – John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott – Jacobism was part of a disaffection with the existing order of things. They felt a loathing for the money-grubbing, power-grubbing, self-promoting culture of getting ahead and stomping on whoever got in the way, and they associated this order with scheming Whig politicians and their fat Hanoverian kings. They wanted something else, and the King Over the Water provided a focus for these dreams.

Charles Edward Stuart by Allan Ramsay, 1745

Some people are especially put off by the sordid ordinariness of political life. Shouldn't a people's leader be something more than the most talented vote grubber, the most skillful pledger of false promises? Why should getting the most votes matter more than being the best man? There is, it has to be said, a dearth of purity and high-mindedness in democratic politics. Personally I think that is true of all politics, but anyway democracy is just not that inspiring to many people. They want something pure and true, and the one example that comes up most often is to give their loyalty to someone they believe in. In this loyalty they see something noble and clean that transcends mere political intrigue. Combine this with faith in divine kingship, and politics is transformed, in imagination anyway, from something material and grubby into something sanctified. There is a recurring literary image to describe such people and such times: a falling away, a casting off, a shedding of clothes and even skin, leaving behind something noble and pure. As Yeats wrote of a different rebellion:
You that Mitchel's prayer have heard
`Send war in our time, O Lord!'
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace
I see all these longings in the followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Dissatisfied with the increasingly commercial, increasingly impersonal, increasingly technical world around them, dissatisfied with politics as trading votes for preferment, they sought to cut through all of it with a pure act of sacrifice. In loyalty and courage they sought redemption from the world of compromise and care.

So there is my explanation. It has many parts as, I think, all explanations of human behavior should. There was boredom, restlessness, longing for adventure. There was the fascination of the hero's path, blazing through life on the way to a fiery end that might be long remembered. There was the dissatisfaction of the everyday and the longing to soar above it; there was the longing for pure and noble feeling. There was the desire to shed the skin of an ordinary, compromised, muddled life and to stand for a moment revealed as pure spirit, strong in decision, certain in action, powerful in faith.

What was completing missing from Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion, if you ask me, was any kind of politics that made sense. The Jacobites had not a single idea about how to make Britain a better place for the people who lived there. Charles did not proclaim a single policy; he did not question anything about the government he sought to overthrow except the hereditary right of its king to lead it. It is not just modern cynics who find the whole thing ridiculous, but many at the time. The reaction of people who did not feel the attraction of the Stuart cause was generally not anger but eye-rolling. You want what? The savage brutality meted out by the royal army after their victory was motivated by bafflement; if the clansmen were so far beyond reason that they would sacrifice themselves on such mad adventures, then they had to be eliminated for civilization to proceed.

Yet in the Britain of 2018 the people care not a fig for the government's victory, which is seen as oppressive in Scotland and forgotten elsewhere. No, it is Bonnie Prince Charlie and his quixotic rebellion that seized and still holds our imagination.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I think about this and similar incidents all the time, and they make me wonder about the politics of my own time. My sort of politics is based on rational self-interest plus empathy. I support governments that defend the rights of the people and do their best to care for them and help them get along. I support democracy because although it is sordid and petty and corrupt, it does people the honor of allowing them to choose their own leaders. None of which is legend; none of which is heroic story; none of which inspires the kind of irrational fervor that Bonnie Prince Charlie did.

We rational liberals are often mystified by human behavior. The enthusiasm of millions for dictators like Mussolini or Saddam Hussein leaves us scratching our heads. We don't understand why poor people vote for conservatives who have promised to cut health spending. We can't imagine why people vote without even bothering to find out what positions their candidate holds. But we should not be surprised by any of these things. We humans are irrational, in love with stories, devoted to phantoms. We live only half our lives in the material world. The rest we spend in the Dreamtime, with gods and heroes. If you expect your fellow humans to live sensibly, you are making a grievous error. When you catch yourself in this mistake, think about Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Highlanders: fools, who marched dreaming to the field of their destiny and charged dreaming at the guns that killed them, remembered forever for their folly.

St. John's Cathedral, 's-Hertogenbosch

St. John's Cathedral at 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands is one of the last great churches of the first Gothic era. It was built between 1370 and 1529. It began as a parish church, so 's-Hertogenbosch must have been one of those late medieval towns that was rich and prominent but still had not bishop.

In 1629 the town was conquered by Dutch Protestants who banned Catholic worship and turned this into a Reformed church. Fortunately they seem to have left the building pretty much alone.

Then in 1810 Napoleon came to visit and received a delegation of citizens who pointed out to him that since most of the townspeople were Catholics, this great edifice was mostly unused and falling into disrepair. Napoleon, who was at that time trying to make nice with the Pope, agreed and transferred the building back to the Catholic church. He also promised the people a bishop, and the Pope dutifully created one. So this huge church finally became a Cathedral, thanks to Napoleon, one of Europe's great unbelievers.

The glory of the building is the sculpture, more than 600 figures. Even the tops of the buttresses are lined with sculptures.

Famous image of the "pea man," a figure from Dutch folklore.

Entrance. And here we start to get into major questions of authenticity. Dutch wikipedia tells us that the cathedral was under restoration "almost continuously" from 1858 to 1985. Among other things the restorers had to completed disassemble this entrance to remove iron locking pins that had rusted and swollen, cracking the stone. No cracks are visible in contemporary images, so I suppose the cracked stones were replaced.


And what about the sculptures? They look so pristine that I wondered if some had been carved in the 19th century.

But it seems that most of them are original designs, at least, and those that were replaced were copies made in Portland stone; the originals are in a nearby museum, should you be curious. I have no problem with this; I have never really understood why we need to leave up gargoyles that have melted under acid rainfall to the point of being unrecognizable.



And I'm glad to know that these reflect late medieval sensibility.

There are actually some new figures on the cathedral as well, but they are obviously different in appearance.

So anyway here is a great marvel of the late Gothic that I never even heard of until this week. How wonderful that there are so many great monuments of the past to discover and explore.