Mar 2008

Dig Yourself!!!

I’m really enjoying the new album from Nick Cave (and somewhat annoyed about failing to get a ticket for the forthcoming Dublin gig). I’m also enjoying his fantastic moustache which features prominently on magazine covers and posters wherever I go. Wandering around town today, the title track came on my mp3-player, and I found myself involuntarily strutting.

I think I may have watched this video one too many times.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video

Mar 2008

Freud 101 — the topography

“The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”. That’s an idea that may well feature prominently in my thesis. I’ve got a self-imposed deadline of April 2nd to finalise the title. Right now I’m essentially researching three different thesis topics, which is fascinating and all, but not too efficient. Mind you, I’ve whittled that down from about six. The most recent to fall by the wayside was the idea of writing on Freud’s notion of compulsive repetition, via an analysis of the films of Takeshi Kitano. Sadly, I realised that despite my familiarity with his films, I’m not nearly familiar enough with Japanese culture to really do justice to the subject (though it’s definitely a paper I’d love to read).

But “the modern free market as a manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”? What the hell does that mean, right? Oh, and what’s the pleasure principle again?

Well, last question first I guess; a few paragraphs on Freud’s second topography wouldn’t go amiss.

The ego and the id

During Freud’s early work, he used a theoretical model of the mind / psyche now known as ‘the first topography’. This divided the psyche into three parts / processes; the conscious, the unconscious and the preconscious. However, he later revised this significantly into the second topography. There are still three parts / processes but now they are the id, the ego, and the super-ego*.

The ego is a conflation of the conscious and the preconscious of the first topography. By and large, it’s that part of the mind that we are aware of (though there are elements of the ego of which we are unconscious, confusingly enough). And it’s more than just awareness; the ego, for most of us, is where we locate our identity.

The id relates, more or less, to the unconscious of the first topography. It’s the part of the human psyche that contains the thoughts and memories of which we are currently unaware (including, though not limited to, those which are the subject of repression). Perhaps more importantly, to psychoanalytic theory at least, the id; the unconscious mind; is also home to a cauldron of desires and drives which motivate us as much as, if not more than, those desires and drives of which we are conscious.

In Freudian theory, the ego and the id are generally in conflict. The id is governed by “the pleasure principle” which is regularly misunderstood as being an instinct to seek out pleasure. In fact, Freud pointed out that the drive behind the pleasure principle is at least as much about the desire to avoid “unpleasure”. It’s what drives us to seek food when we are hungry. The ego, on the other hand, is governed by “the reality principle”. This is, in simple terms, an awareness of the appropriate way to interact with the external world.

So, for example, a hungry person who passes a market-stall containing fresh bread will be driven, by the pleasure principle, to consume it and so escape the hunger. The primary biological / unconscious / id imperative is a simple “eat that bread”. An infant in this position will consequently reach out and grab the bread (Freud believed that the ego, and therefore the reality principle, is acquired through development, while the id is innate). Someone who has developed a relatively normal ego, adequately governed by the reality principle, will — on the other hand — understand that the appropriate behaviour is to first buy the bread and then eat it. This is why, in Freudian terms, the primary tool deployed by the reality principle to keep the pleasure principle in check, is known as “postponement”.

The super-ego

Often seen as the poor cousin in Freud’s topography, the super-ego is usually of less interest to Freudians. Probably because they already have their hands full dealing with the id. All the same, it’s a fascinating part of his work and plays a pretty important role in my mapping of Freud’s topography onto groups rather than individuals. I’ve written before that “the super-ego is where culture lives”. I still believe that to be a true statement (albeit at the poetic end of truth), but it’s a very incomplete picture. I wrote it when discussing culture, not the super-ego.

Indeed, because parts of it are conscious and parts unconscious, the Freudian super-ego can be a little hard to pin down. Rycroft writes that the super-ego is that part of the psyche “where self-observation, self-criticism and other reflective activities develop” (guilt is a big weapon in the arsenal of the super-ego). Meanwhile, according to the bible, “Super-ego is the product of an internalisation of, and identification with, parent and parental authority, including prohibitions and values associated with that authority. Insofar as parental authority reflects the broader social context, the super-ego can be seen as the indirect product of the internalisation of society’s demands and values”.

I’m aware that the super-ego sounds a bit like the reality principle. But they are quite distinct, one being a regulatory function of the ego based upon both an awareness of the immediate environment and circumstances as well as an understanding of consequences and appropriate behaviour. The super-ego is — in part — where that “appropriate behaviour” is stored within our psyche. The reality principle is guided both by the ego and the super-ego with the goal of modifying the pleasure principle so that it doesn’t get us into trouble.

Applying this to groups

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there are problems with trying to scale up Freud’s topography as a tool to analyse groups, organisations or cultures. But at the same time, there can be merit in doing so. Gregory Bateson is my main guide in this territory, and he has explained why this approach is both legitimate and useful. In Morale and National Character (1942), Bateson demonstrates that the relationships between sub-groups within larger groups are subject to analysis, contrast and comparison so that something we could rightfully consider “national character” begins to emerge. It’s worth pointing out that this analysis can be applied not merely to nations, but to any large group that adheres to a specific set of cultural norms.

For the sake of clarity, allow me to pause and provide examples of what I mean by “the relationships between sub-groups within larger groups”. Bateson’s essay is comparing the national character of Germany and England and does so by examining the culturally determined relationships that exist between (for example) men and women, parents and children, upper-class and lower-class, and so on. The essay is not an exhaustive case-study, and is largely about promoting the (at the time heretical) idea that western cultures and civilisations are just as open to anthropological and psycho- analysis as are the “primitive” cultures of Bali and Papua New Guinea where he did revolutionary work. Along the way, however, he convincingly demonstrates how pronounced character traits can emerge within large groups of people due to specific commonalities in their individual development, which are themselves culturally determined by, and specific to, those groups.

So when Bateson’s work is read in the context of Hostadter and Dennett’s theories about “mind” emerging from organised complexity, and even Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, it doesn’t seem illegitimate to suggest that large groups can indeed by “psychoanalysed” (to use the term in it’s most broad sense) despite the apparent lack of an identifiable “psyche”.

The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle

So let’s return to the original theme, and answer the first of those questions: “The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”… what the hell does that mean?

Well, a part of my hypothesis is the idea that there now exists a global civilisation that transcends national borders** but which can be defined largely by American cultural and economic influence. I’m not suggesting that this civilisation originated in America, merely that those cultural norms which have historically been embraced and promoted by American society, help define it. And thanks to US (and US-influenced) mass-media as well as global movements like feminism, the equal rights initiatives and multiculturalism, we have entered a period where the developmental experiences of American, Irish, British, German, Greek or Australian individuals are becoming far less distinct, opening the way for a collective analysis.

As part of that analysis, it is my suggestion that… you guessed it… the modern free market is a manifestation of our collective pleasure principle. It represents the demands (quite literally) of the collective. When those demands are repugnant or unreasonable then the market gets modified and restricted by laws (the passing of such laws being an example of our collective reality principle at work).

To take an unambiguous example, upon which I suspect we can all agree that a level of market intervention is required; much to our dismay, there exists a demand for — and market in — child pornography. Leaving aside the abstractions of “simulated child pornography” (as clearly there is a demand specifically for the non-simulated variety), we have passed laws making the sale or possession of such material illegal. This is noteworthy, because we have done so despite already having laws that outlaw its production. As a culture, we have understood that the market for this material is in itself problematic. We work, therefore, not merely at outlawing supply but also at attempting to curtail demand.

The basic analogy

An individual who allows their behaviour to be guided by an unregulated pleasure principle is likely to be both destructive to himself and his immediate environment (along with anyone who shares that environment with them). It is clear that we, as a civilisation, are capable of regulating our demands of the world. We possess the tools to do so. I would suggest, however, that we are guilty of significantly under-using those tools, and that the almost-unregulated demand for natural resources is resulting in behaviour both destructive to ourselves and to our immediate environment.

* It’s an interesting historical note that Freud did not use those words, and they are in our common lexicon thanks to his translators. In the original German, the id, ego and super-ego are the es, ich and über-ich, or literally, the it, I and over-I. It was his translators who decided to latinise them.

** This isn’t to suggest that individual nations do not still retain a national character, though I believe that an increasing homogenity is making them less prominent.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2008

Carbon dioxide emissions per barrel of crude

Thanks to a disastrous decision to rely upon data published by BP, I royally cocked up a calculation involving their Miller Field carbon capture project (see previous post). However, that calculation was preceeded by — in my view — a more important one; an estimate of the amount of atmospheric CO2 emitted by a single barrel of crude oil. Thanks to the kerfuffle surrounding the error in scaling (an error, let me again stress, based upon some bad data from BP), the original calculation is being rather obscured.

CO2 emissions

1 litre: 2.331kg of CO2
1 US gallon: 8.824kg of CO2

1 litre: 2.772kg of CO2
1 US gallon: 10.493kg of CO2

Crude oil:
1 barrel: 317kg of CO2 (min.)

1 tonne of CO2 is:

429 litres / 113.33 gal of petrol*
360.75 litres / 95.3 gal of diesel
3.15 barrels of crude oil

* less than 8 fills of an average-sized car with a 55 litre tank

In the (probably vain) hope of rescuing it from that obscurity, and due in no small part to a comment on the previous entry which suggests to me that it’s still a useful piece of information, I’ve decided to reproduce it here in isolation. I invite comment and correction, as always.

How much carbon per barrel?

First up, it’s important to realise that crude oil is (almost) never used directly. Instead it’s refined into a wide range of products, most of which we burn in various engines, but some of which never get converted into CO2 (lubricant oils, plastics, asphalt, etc.). Different grades of crude oil will produce significantly different amounts of each. So a barrel of light / sweet crude might produce lots of petrol and kerosene but only a small amount of asphalt (as a very simple example). But a barrel of heavy / sour crude would produce more asphalt (still less than the amount of petrol produced, but more in comparison with the sweeter oil). This means that, ironically, less of the heavier and more sulphuric stuff, although it’s called sour (and sometimes “dirty”) oil tends to end up as atmospheric CO2 (we coat our roads with it instead).

So while we could, no doubt, work out a figure for the CO2 emitted by burning a given barrel of crude oil, it would be very much a red-herring. To get any meaningful figure for CO2 per barrel we’re going to need to do our calculations on the products of crude oil.

It makes sense to perform this calculation on oil that is of average quality (i.e. not some kind of heavy sulphuric sludge or tar-sand) to make it more generally useful. So taking Riegel’s Handbook of Industrial Chemistry as our guide, we know that the average barrel (~159 litres) of crude oil to pass through U.S. refineries in 1995* yielded the following products:

1. Gasoline: 44.1% (70.12 litres)
2. Distillate fuel oil: 20.8% (33.07 litres)
3. Kerosene-type jet fuel: 9.3% (14.79 litres)
4. Residual fuel oil: 5.2% (8.27 litres)**

Percentage values from Riegel’s Handbook of Industrial Chemistry, 2003 edition (Page 515, Fig. 15.6). Litre values based upon conversion rate of 159 litres per barrel.

All of the other products*** of refined crude have sufficient alternative uses to make it possible (even if not entirely probable) that they will not end up as atmospheric CO2. Of the four grades of fuel listed above, however, it’s fair to say all of it is destined to be burnt. It’s worth noting, therefore, that our final result will represent a minimum CO2 per barrel.

Now, the litre values are no good to us by themselves. Each of the fuels has a different specific gravity (a different weight per litre), and it’s the weight of carbon we’re looking for, not the volume. Once we’ve multiplied the volume of each fuel by the relevant specific gravity we’ll have a rough “kilogram per barrel” number for each fuel. So:

1. Gasoline: 70.12 litres x 0.74 = 51.89kg
2. Distillate fuel oil: 33.07 litres x 0.88 = 29.10kg
3. Kerosene-type jet fuel: 14.79 litres x 0.82 = 12.13kg
4. Residual fuel oil: 8.27 litres x 0.92 = 7.61kg****

Overall, this suggests that the average barrel of crude refined in the United States in 1995 yielded a shade over 100kg of liquid fuels (that’s an uncannily round number… 100.73kg to be exact). Now, we know that a carbon-based fuel will emit 3.15 times its own weight in CO2 when burnt.

When fuel oil is burned, it is converted to carbon dioxide and water vapour. Combustion of one kilogram of fuel oil yields 3.15 kilograms of carbon dioxide gas. Carbon dioxide emissions are therefore 3.15 times the mass of fuel burned.

Calculating the Environmental Impact of Aviation Emissions, Oxford University Study (PDF file)

This may seem anti-intuitive at first glance, but it’s a result of each atom of carbon reacting with two atoms of oxygen to produce CO2. The “extra” weight is being drawn from the air (hence why a fuel fire will die out if deprived of oxygen).

Using the 3.15 multiplier, we see that the combined liquid fuels from an average barrel of crude oil will produce a minimum of 317kg of CO2 when consumed.

* I don’t have more recent numbers, but there’s no reason to assume 1995 wasn’t a representative year.

** 1: automobile grade fuel. 2: includes home heating oil and transportation diesel. 4: industrial grade fuel oils; used in ships and oil-burning power plants.

*** Still gas, coke, asphalt, road oil, petrochemical feed stocks, lubricants, etc.

**** Specific gravities taken from this list. The value of 0.92 is an educated guess for what is a mixture of heavy oils with a range of specific gravities. I will gladly accept correction if someone can point me towards a more accurate number.

74 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2008

Oil Companies and Climate Change Redux

A while ago I received an email from a friend asking whether or not I had a number for the amount of CO2 emitted by a barrel of oil. I searched for a while but couldn’t turn up anything definitive. So, given I know a little bit about the subject, I decided to work it out myself. The calculations can be found here: Oil Companies and Climate Change. After a few conversions, it turns out that the amount of CO2 produced by the liquid fuel products of an average barrel of crude oil is 317kg.

That’s simple enough and is pretty uncontroversial, I believe. The calculations themselves are not difficult, and anyone who paid attention in high-school chemistry should be more than capable of them. The only thing that made my calculations in any way noteworthy is the fact that I appear to be the first person to have published them in an easily accessible (via google) place. Nothing more.

I then took that 317kg (which was the primary goal of my work, as it’s a useful reference figure) and applied it to a specific real-world project. In this case, the Peterhead / Miller Field carbon capture scheme proposed by BP. According to the BP press release:

Injecting the carbon dioxide into the Miller Field reservoir more than three kilometers under the seabed could extend the life of the field by about 20 years and enable additional production of about 40 million barrels of oil that are not currently recoverable.

And in the following paragraph:

The project would also permanently store 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of removing 300,000 cars from the roads.

Based upon these figures, provided by BP, it is clear that the 40 million barrels of oil will generate (multiply by 317kg) approximately 12.68 million tonnes of CO2. Which clearly dwarfs the 1.3 million tonnes that BP claims will be stored.

My calculations were cited by George Monbiot in a recent Guardian article, as a demonstration that the claims being made for carbon capture are somewhat dubious.

However, in a response to Monbiot’s piece (via Tim Worstall) comes this:

In 2005 BP proposed to build a new gas-fired power station at Peterhead, capture the carbon dioxide produced and use it for enhanced oil recovery in the Miller field below the North Sea; this innovative project could have been up and running in 2009. Monbiot is wrong to suggest that the plan would have led to more carbon emissions than savings: between 1.8m and 2m tonnes of carbon dioxide would be injected each year over 20 years, producing an additional 40m-60m barrels of oil. Taking the higher numbers, 40m tonnes of carbon dioxide remains underground, while burning the oil produces approximately 20m tonnes; twice as much carbon dioxide is stored than emitted.

The abandonment of the Miller scheme due to lack of government support means a loss of $6bn in oil revenues and a missed opportunity to take a lead in reducing carbon emissions.

Professor Martin Blunt
Department of earth science and engineering,
Imperial College London

The important piece to note here is: “between 1.8m and 2m tonnes of carbon dioxide would be injected each year over 20 years”. While this doesn’t affect my “carbon-per-barrel” number, if true, then clearly it radically alters the figures for the BP project under discussion.

I’ve spent the morning on the phone to various people in BP (you would not believe how difficult it is to track down someone who knows what they’re talking about, let alone someone who has even heard of the project in question) and was eventually informed that contrary to the statement in their press release, the 1.3 million tonnes is indeed a per annum figure (they don’t know where the 1.8 to 2 million figure came from, but they do claim 1.3 million per annum).

This — if true — invalidates my claim that the project would produce far more CO2 than is captured. Worse, far worse, it undercuts Mr. Monbiot’s article and I feel completely sick about that. In my defence, I was carrying out my calculations based upon figures published by BP, and I’m not sure I should have expected them to grossly underestimate the amount of CO2 being captured by their own scheme. But all the same, I’m afraid I must apologise to all concerned, particularly George Monbiot. There’s few things worse than being responsible for errors in someone else’s work. Really makes you feel like crap.

16 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2008

Me and Maggie Thatcher

The news came across the wires. Thatcher’s been admitted to hospital, they said. Tests, they said. And I wondered if the old woman was going to die this time. Would this week be the one filled with headlines about her death? And what would those headlines read?

Certainly there’ll be the tributes. Lots and lots of tributes. And many of them will be coming from those who should know better. Or, at least, did know better. There’ll be hagiographies a-plenty and the long-compiled documentaries will finally get their airing.

But there’ll also be those unwilling to hide behind the worn shield of speaking no ill of the dead. Such a strange taboo. As though history were not already littered with the inglorious and often ill-spoke-of dead. No, some will refuse to remain mute. To allow the moment merely to pass in bitter remembrance, but respectful silence.

Because she has earned contempt. Not respect. And to allow the inevitable revisionist airbrushing to get underway without objection, without an attempt to provide balance. Some sense of reality. Now that would be a real crime.

I was reading a messageboard. Somebody had posted the news of Thatcher’s hospitalisation. It was soon followed by the brief observation, “best news I’ve heard all day”. Someone else responded, “Can you think of a better PM in your lifetime…?” And it appears, as divisive as she was in power, she remains so today.

I didn’t experience Thatcher’s rule in the same way as many. I wasn’t living in Sheffield in the 1980s. Or Derry. Or Glasgow. Or North Wales. Or serving on the General Belgrano. In fact, when I arrived in England in the late 1980s, it was as someone in a position of privilege. That was thanks to the policies of decades of American presidents who aggressively promoted the interests of their transnational corporations, rather than anything Thatcher had done, but nonetheless I was never at the sharp end of her policies. Because of this, I don’t have that gut-level sense of jubilation at the thought of her death that some of the people I know possess.

All the same, even as a teenager I was aware both of how fortunate I was to be such an obvious beneficiary of capitalism, and also of how fundamentally unjust the entire system is. Some of my formative years were spent viewing “the developing world” from behind the windows of Hilton Hotels. If you’re one of those embarrassingly sensitive youngsters, that’s the kind of experience that poses lots of troubling questions.

Some people dismiss this as “liberal guilt”. But that’s bullshit. I’m Irish Catholic. What I don’t know about guilt isn’t worth knowing. It wasn’t guilt. Not for me anyway. No it was, rather, a sense of despair. I believed — as I still believe — that the human race has both the talent and the resources to ensure that millions of us don’t have to live in a condition of extreme poverty on the very edge of starvation. Yet we allow it to happen. More than that, we’ve built a global economic system that positively encourages it. Requires it, even. The collective will to help others simply did not exist within us. And the more I thought about that, the more angry I became.

But angry at who? Well first I was angry at God. For making me believe we were made in His image and then providing clear proof that we weren’t. Genuine religious faith is a terrible thing to lose, let me tell you. Then I got angry at my Dad. How dare he be so successful? How dare he try to elevate himself and his family above the suffering I so despised? And see, that didn’t make much sense either. Then I got really angry at myself. Much to my surprise, that didn’t do much good. And all the while I’ve been especially angry with The System. With The Man. Even when The Man was me.

And Thatcher, you see, is one of the many faces of that system. A personification of the injustices of the human race. She openly embraces that darkness in the human heart that condemns us to live out our worst aspects. My despair. My complicity. Even the futility of my opposition. All are contained within Maggie Thatcher. While her death won’t change any of that, it will at least represent that possibility. And for a few moments, I will enjoy that much.

Goose Green (Taking tea with pinochet) by Christy Moore

8 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2008

Official: people = consumers

It’s a busy night for coded government announcements. This time it’s the British Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, who has revealed much with her choice of language. We all know by now that late-capitalism has reduced us all, in theory, to mere consumers; units of potential economic exploitation. But when our own governments begin to see us, treat us, and overtly describe us in those terms then perhaps it’s time to man the barricades.

The story in this case is the rather predictable news that the British government is back-tracking on ID-cards (via Garry). This was inevitable, and I predicted as much the day I heard the project announced. The logistics of the proposed system meant that any due-diligence will have highlighted the near-impossibility of rendering it secure, or even of getting it to work properly. And the cost was always going to be prohibitive given the sheer pointlessness of the scheme. After all, if ID-cards were truly a necessary weapon in the fight against terrorism, any British Home Secretary who announced that “by 2015, 90% of foreign nationals will have identity cards” would be immediately fired from the position (and possibly charged with treason for leaving the nation dangerously unprotected. That’s surely aiding and abetting terrorism, even if only through rampant incompetence).

But of course, everyone knows the real reason for the scheme was to allow the government to build a central database containing detailed information on as many people as possible. Or “consumers” as they’re now known.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said students would also be encouraged to get identity cards from 2010, as part of plans to let “consumer demand” drive take-up.

Firstly, I’m dubious about the notion that there’s any real “demand” for the things. Are British students really clamouring to be fingerprinted by the government? But it’s the phrase “consumer demand” that really caught my attention. Unless you are deliberately going out of your way to mangle the English language, there’s no way you could describe ID-cards as being “consumed” by those who are issued them. So the phrase “consumer demand” is being used in the sense of “being demanded by consumers”.

Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive to the language of politicians these days, but it sounds sinister as hell to my ears, and gives a clear indication of the belief-system behind it.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2008

Official: terrorism = Islamic terrorism

As you may have read, a small bomb exploded in New York’s Times Square early this morning. It went off in an army recruitment centre, but thankfully nobody was present at the time and there are no reports of any injuries. There seems little doubt that the bomb was planted there and detonated deliberately (i.e. there’s no suggestion that the building contained any US military hardware that may have malfunctioned and exploded).

And yet…

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the bombing did not appear to be an act of terrorism but the investigation was in its early stages.

I was under the impression that anonymously planting bombs in public / government buildings and then setting them off, would automatically come under the heading of “terrorism” (even if it was being done by some lone — white christian — nutter with a grudge against the government). Perhaps I’m missing something here, but the only way I can interpret the White House statement is by assuming the authorities have reason to believe that the bomber was not an Islamist extremist, and therefore not a terrorist.

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