tag: Tech

Jun 2017

Open the drivers-side door HAL

Mass adoption of autonomous / self-driving cars will not happen in western society. BOOM! There I said it.

Now, this is just a prediction based on personal opinions about human nature / psychology, culture, law and attitudes. There’s no hard evidence behind it and I’m not pointing to a graph and trying to explain why these particular values mean Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) contravene the basic laws of physics dammit!

This is more about the technology succumbing to a confluence of sociopolitical impediments rather than having one single fatal flaw, or because of some technological impossibility. Also, I’m not for a moment suggesting that limited adoption of AVs won’t happen (it already has). Expect the Planned City in China that only has AVs, or the Palo Alto gated community with a fleet of corporate-sponsored AVs. I could also envision AVs being more widespread in a world without mass personal car ownership… but by that stage we’re no longer talking about the same “western society” that I see through my window every day.

The thing that fascinates me most though… is that we suddenly have a classic philosophical thought experiment (The Trolley Problem) bursting out of the realm of the hypothetical and getting right up in the faces of engineers. As someone who has been both an engineer and a philosopher, this makes me grin.

For those unfamiliar with the Trolley problem; you can go and read all about its history as a thought experiment on wikipedia. I’m going to explain it here though — but specifically in terms of how it relates to AVs.

So I got to imagining the guy working at the lab developing the Morality Chip. I bet they don’t call it that of course… that would really put the willies up Joseph Q. Public. But that’s what it is (yes yes, it’s actually software not “a chip”… but for dramatic purposes and ease of visualisation I’m imagining it as a discrete hard-coded “Morality Core” in every AI-enabled machine… an Asimovian safeguard against hacking). And whoever is working on that thing is spending their days asking some really weird questions… many of which centre on how many pedestrians your life is worth. Oh man, I’d love to be programming that thing. What strange afternoons they must be.

Clearly AVs will be programmed to take some sort of limited evasive action if they detect an imminent collision. And as soon as that evasive action involves more than slamming on the brakes (and even then, there are hypotheticals involving the relative speeds of the cars behind you); as soon as it involves altering direction as an emergency maneuver… we have entered a very weird moral universe.

It’s weird partly because it’s only inhabited by AIs.

OK. Maybe Formula 1 drivers. Maybe. But mostly AIs.

Here’s the scenario… you or I are driving along at a safe 50kph in a 60kph zone. Without warning, the truck in the oncoming lane (which is travelling too fast to begin with) has a tyre failure and suddenly barrels right towards us.

At that moment, you or I react based on a tiny number of urgent bits of information. Raw survival instinct, sheer panic and the most godalmighty injection of adrenalin instruct our arms to jerk the wheel towards whatever seems like the safest direction for us (and our passengers) at that moment.

Perhaps the pedestrian we kill continues to haunt our conscience forever. Perhaps their family hates and blames us. But if so, it’ll be completely irrational. The expectation that any human being has moral agency in that overwhelming fraction of a second; that terrifying moment during which their life has suddenly come under threat; a situation about which they possess incomplete information and literally not enough time to rationally consider options. Whatever emotions may swirl around afterwards, the law would not hold us accountable. And no rational person would.

But that all changes when the decision to swerve into the pedestrian is taken by a processor quick enough to actually weigh up the options. We inject morality into the moment. A situation that was previously just the chaotic outcome of uncontrolled physics and neurochemistry turns into The Trolley Problem. But no longer as a thought-experiment. Now it’s a design decision. And different people… different numbers of people are really going to die based on how our engineers are coping with The Trolley Problem.

The AV doesn’t jerk the wheel and mount the pavement out of sheer panic… it notes the trajectory of the truck, notes its own trajectory and it calculates that killing the pedestrian is the only guaranteed way to prevent a collision. Once it’s made that calculation… what do we — sitting in a quiet lab as the clock slowly ticks towards lunch — what do we tell the car to do?

Add some sauce to the dish… the car is self-aware enough to know how many occupants it has.

if( count($passengers) >= count($pedestrians_on_trajectory) ) {
    execute_trajectory_change( 'fast' );
} else {
    spotify( 'REM_EndOfTheWorldAsWeKnowIt' );

Will we see industry standardisation? Or will Mercedes place a higher value on driver life than BMW? Will that become a selling point? Will we have social oneupmanship, with some looking down their noses at people in non-Pedestrian Parity Approved brands? Will the cycling lobby demand a 1.1x multiplier to compensate for the additional speed above walking pace they are travelling? Strange afternoons.

Ford Motors
Guaranteed to value your life at the Texas legal maximum of 2.3 pedestrians!

With different implementations of the same technology there’s simply no way to know whether AVs from different developers are making the same decisions… whether they place the same relative values on human lives. But unlike that split-second monkey-brain decision we make under the most severe pressure we’re ever likely to encounter; this is very definitely a moral question. Deliberate decisions are being made. Imagine the scandal when they unearth the subfunction…

if( in_array( $passenger_nationality, 'french' ) {
    $num_passengers = $num_passengers - 1;

PS: I’m not suggesting that The Trolley Problem is going to sink AVs. As I say; the problem with this technology is more about — what I perceive as — a large number of different legal, moral, cultural and technological obstacles which are likely to combine to prove insurmountable in practice. This is just one of them. That said, the look on the face of the first guy whose car drives him off a cliff rather than hitting a couple of kids… the look on his face when his car actively prevents his monkey-brain-driven attempts to save himself… if that guy is me, I hope I have the last-minute presence of mind to glance in the mirror and take solace in how funny it all is.

PPS: Needless to say; this is all a very simplified stating of the problem facing the engineers. Once you throw in probability? Oh man, then you enter a world of weirdness. If “Evasive Maneuver 1” has a 40% chance of avoiding impact with the truck but is 70% likely to kill 2 pedestrians, does “Evasive Maneuver 2″ trump it? Despite being 99% certain to kill at least 1 pedestrian it has a 75% chance of avoiding a collision…”

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2014

Bank of Ireland redefine time

Most of us, when we hear the phrase “that will take 24 hours” assume that means one day. The thing “that will take 24 hours” will be done the following day.

Not so the Bank of Ireland. For them, 24 hours seems to equate to “some unspecified time over the next week”. And this isn’t just a case of them being late in a particular instance; this is how the system works. They have redefined 24 hours to mean “some unspecified time over the next week”.

Last Thursday I logged into their online banking system. I clicked the relevant buttons to make a transfer from a deposit account to a current account. This process “should take 24 hours to complete”. So, in a world where bankers aren’t in charge of defining units of time; a world – in other words – where a modicum of sanity prevails; that means the money should be in the current account some time on Friday. Makes sense, right?

Well, it’s Monday afternoon and I’ve just spent 15 minutes on the phone with a nice lady at Bank of Ireland who, through no fault of her own, found herself insisting that 24 hours from Thursday afternoon can actually – under certain circumstances – mean Tuesday morning. It seems that when it comes to time distortion, the Bank of Ireland could teach Doctor Who a thing or two.

Bank of Ireland

Remarkably, during our conversation, she explained that when I make an online transfer between a deposit and a current account, I’m not actually setting the transfer in motion. I’m effectively sending a message to someone in a Bank of Ireland office to do it for me. That’s right, despite the shiny web interface and claim that I’m engaged in an “online transfer”, I might as well be mailing them a letter requesting they carry out the transfer for me.

As I pointed out to the nice lady at the end of the phone, if I’d popped down to my local branch on Thursday afternoon and withdrawn the cash at the counter, then deposited it directly into my current account, the transaction would have taken less than 5 minutes. Instead, thanks to the magic of modern technology, I’ll be lucky if it takes less than 5 days.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Sep 2013

Today I Thunk: Mac Vs Windows

“Today I Thunk”… kind of like “Thought For Today” but with less gravitas.

Mac Vs WindowsScanning through my twitter feed this morning I encountered not one, not two, but three separate tweets insisting (using clever little analogies) that Apple Mac Computers are better than Windows Computers. “My computer is better than yours!” they wailed (I’ve always felt Mac users protest a little too much, to be honest, but that’s another discussion).

Are these people children? Or have they reached adulthood without managing to grasp the notion of personal preference? For the vast majority of people, they are most comfortable using whatever computer they first spent time with. Mac? Windows? It makes no difference.

I can do literally everything (I need to do) on a Windows system that an Apple user could do on their Mac. More than that, years of use have made me comfortable with Windows and not with Macs, so if you were to ask me to do the same thing on a Mac I would take twice as long because I’d be struggling with a system I’m unfamiliar with. But I’m pretty sure I could do anything I need to do on a PC in roughly the same time as someone familiar with Macs could do it on their system.

The need of some people to tell the world how much better their computer is to your computer or my computer is a need rooted in playground insecurity. It’s weird, it’s adolescent and people should really get the hell over it. I use Windows because I’ve used Windows for 20 years now. It is the best system for me. When I hear someone tell me that actually their system is better, I picture that person running up to a concert pianist and insisting that the guitar is a better instrument for making music.

Seriously, that’s how much sense you’re making with this weird computer one-upmanship you’ve got yourself involved in. Put an end to it now and embrace the adult realisation that other people don’t feel exactly the same about everything as you do. Sheesh.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2013

Irish newspapers demand ridicule

Thanks to a tax-regime designed to encourage international investment (some would suggest “exploitation” as a more appropriate word), Ireland has successfully positioned itself as one of the world’s leading locations for high-tech and new media corporations. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter (and many others) have located their European or non-US headquarters in Ireland. The nation has derived some economic benefit from this, primarily with the provision of several thousand well-paid jobs, but less than might be imagined (thanks to that aforementioned policy of low corporate taxation).

Nonetheless, despite the emergence of Ireland as a major internet hub, there are large sections of society who have yet to fully enter the digital age. Most notably of course, our political establishment, but also certain commercial organisations that should really know better (I don’t expect our political establishment to know better because – quite frankly – I don’t have an awful lot of faith in the intellectual ability of most who inhabit it).

Fine Gael: Searching for the Off switchThis ignorance of things digital within the political sphere was wonderfully illustrated on a recent news report on RTÉ news. It concerned the government announcement of an investigation into the abuse of social media (online bullying – or “trolling” as it was mistakenly called). This follows at least three recent suicides in Ireland which have been linked – either directly or indirectly – to online bullying. While those affected by these tragic deaths have my deepest sympathies, I was extremely uneasy when a member of the government appeared on the news to suggest a possible crackdown on online bullying by dictating how social media should be used in Ireland. His announcement that he would personally chair the committee which would recommend new “social media legislation” was accompanied by some stock footage of him at his computer. There he sat, staring at this thing on his desk as though it were an unexploded bomb, tentatively prodding the keyboard with a single finger. And I thought, so this is the guy the Irish government have chosen to set policy in the area of new media… no wonder the place is a fecking disaster area.

But then a few days ago, it emerged that the Irish government is positively ahead of the times when compared to the Irish newspaper industry (sorry for the bad pun, but it was impossible to resist).

All Your Links Are Belong To Us

Simon McGarr is a Dublin-based solicitor. His clients include Women’s Aid, a registered charity dealing with the issue of domestic violence against women. National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) is an organisation which represents pretty much every newspaper in the country (national and regional). Recently, Women’s Aid was mentioned favourably in several newspaper articles (both online and in print). And as you would expect, they posted links to those online articles on their website. As you probably wouldn’t expect, however, they then received a demand from NNI that they pay a fee for each link to a newspaper website. Read Simon McGarr’s blogpost on this issue.

Now, you might think it perfectly reasonable that NNI should protect the right of their members to assert copyright over whatever content they publish. And you’d be correct. Everything I write on this blog is “copyright me (followed by dates)”. Though, as I mention on the About Me page, I’m generally more than happy to be cited in part (or even in full) so long as the citation is credited. Indeed, this is how online discourse tends to work and you’ll find this blog littered with extracts from newspaper articles, blogs and books along with a credit (and a link to the original source if it’s on the web). I know Irish copyright law doesn’t have an explicit “fair use” clause, but frankly I consider “fair use” to be an intellectual principle that transcends national laws and which – were we to lose it – would have an actively damaging effect on society as a whole (as well as pretty much bringing academia to an end).

All the same, I can just about accept the argument that permission should be sought prior to quoting someone else’s work. The argument is wrong, let me point out, and I won’t be bound by it unless you can demonstrate why it’s right… but nor will I think you’re completely insane if you attempt to forward it. However, that’s not the position of the NNI. No, their position is somewhat different. And it is completely insane.

The NNI is asserting that hyperlinks are themselves covered by copyright. That is; if I simply link to an article online without prior permission (like this) I have breached the copyright of the site being linked to (in this case The Irish Times). The NNI suggests that I now owe The Irish Times €300 (their cost for between 1 and 5 links). Although I have linked to more than five Irish Times articles during the lifetime of this blog, so I actually owe quite a bit more (€1,350 for between 26 and 50 links). And that’s an annual fee, let me point out, for a licence to link to those articles.

The Daily NewsNow, the NNI very graciously inform us that they are prepared to waive this licence fee if the links are “for personal use”. But that doesn’t alter their claim that they are legally entitled to such payment, and doesn’t prevent them from withdrawing the waiver on a whim should they choose to do so. They are effectively saying to bloggers and users of other social media platforms that they may, at their discretion and on a date of their choosing, take legal action to recoup money from anyone who has ever linked to one of their articles.

Foot shooting and rampant extortion

Not only is this patently absurd, not only does it completely violate the spirit of the web, but it displays a quite stunning self-destructive tendency. Most online newspapers generate income from advertising. Therefore, it is entirely in their interest to maximise traffic to their site. If a website is republishing entire articles, then I understand the NNI and individual newspapers may lose traffic and as a result lose money. So it is understandable that they should seek to prevent this happening. However, by asserting that the simple act of linking to a newspaper article potentially places a person under threat of future legal action, they provide a massive disincentive to link to them. Given that those links are generating traffic, and therefore revenue, for newspapers; the NNI appears to be insisting that the online community act to reduce the revenue of their members, under threat of legal action and/or a hefty fee.

And no, their claim that they voluntarily waive the fee for personal websites is not as reassuring as they clearly think, as it still suggests that some future change in policy could land bloggers in their debt. Part of me wants to remove all links to Irish newspapers from this blog and begin actively campaigning that other bloggers and users of social media do the same. Get a big enough snowball rolling and I suspect the online community could significantly reduce traffic to newspaper websites. However, such a link boycott would also mean engaging the NNI on their own terms rather than dismissing their claim as the absurd nonsense it actually represents.

Personally I can’t exactly afford a protracted court case, but I would love the NNI to demand payment from this blog for the many links I have made to Irish newspapers. Because – as I pointed out at the start of this article – they clearly don’t have a robust understanding of how the web works. If they did, they would realise their position – if taken seriously – effectively means that the majority of, if not all, Irish newspapers are engaged in extortion.

“How so?” you ask. Well, it’s pretty simple really. Like almost every online newspaper on the planet, Irish newspapers place social media buttons on each of their articles. They actively invite you to click these buttons. However, not a single one of them includes a legal disclaimer to the effect that clicking on these buttons creates a copyright-protected link for which the reader may be charged a substantial fee. Even if that fee is waived, the NNI is insisting that a person clicking the “Facebook Like” button on an article in the Irish Times has placed themselves in debt to the newspaper and it is only the discretion of the NNI that prevents this debt being recouped.

I’m no lawyer, and perhaps “extortion” is not the correct legal term, but I’m pretty certain that tricking someone into debt by inviting them to perform an action without first telling them it incurs a charge, is probably illegal (yes, even in Ireland, where we seem to have made a national sport out of tricking the populace into paying large amounts of money to private corporations).

It seems to me that the NNI really hasn’t the faintest idea what it’s doing and is running the risk of damaging the very industry it seeks to protect. It is providing us with a significant incentive to stop linking to Irish newspapers – actively driving down traffic and revenue for their members – while at the same time is stating a legal position which appears to place their own members very much on the wrong side of the law.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jun 2012

The ethics of music downloads

I’ve just read a couple of articles which got me thinking about the ethics of downloading (this one by Emily White attempting to justify her massive music collection – none of which she paid for; and this one by David Lowery in response). It’s a subject I’ve thought about quite a lot over the years… I remember the first incarnation of Napster, and prior to that I can even recall swapping rare tracks person-to-person across the IRC network. So I was there right at the start of digital downloads. Before that, I put together plenty of mix-CDs for friends. I remember, for example, sometime in the 90s putting together a David Byrne compilation CD complete with a fairly lengthy companion ‘zine containing lyrics, facts about the songs and personal observations. It was a proper labour of love. And back even before that, I vividly recall spending hours making the perfect mix-tape… an often lengthy process for the music-obsessed.

And it’s fair to say that over the years I received my share of such mix tapes and CDs. They were an important part of my life. Sharing music with friends was hugely significant to me. Notably however, my circle of friends all had very large record (and later, CD) collections. I can’t speak for others, but in my case music probably represented my single largest financial outlay. Even back in the days when I was working in industry and earning a fair chunk of change, I was probably spending more on music than on rent, or food, or any other single thing.

Home Taping Never Killed MusicIn that respect, the sharing of music that I and my friends engaged in was – in a very real sense – promoting the spending of money on music. When my friend P gave me that C90 of Talking Heads songs back in the mid-80s, there’s no sense in which David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz or Jerry Harrison lost out. Since that day I have bought the band’s entire catalogue three times (first on vinyl, then on CD, then on the digitally remastered CDs). I’ve also bought everything Byrne has released as a solo artist (including all the mail-order only stuff); I’ve bought the Tom Tom Club records; I’ve bought tickets to see Byrne perform live on every European tour he’s done since the early 1990s; I’ve bought a t-shirt at almost all of those gigs; I’ve bought his books; I’ve bought his DVDs.

And all of that was triggered by that first technically-illegal mix-tape. “Home Taping Is Killing Music” indeed!

In fact when I first started downloading music through IRC or Napster or Limewire, it was only to get hold of tracks that couldn’t be purchased from the artist. A live bootleg of David Byrne performing Sympathy for The Devil… an unreleased studio out-take from Bowie’s Low… an early Legendary Pink Dots track from an out-of-print EP only available on long-deleted cassette… a The The b-side that was impossible to track down in physical form (and believe me, I searched… I was one of those slightly mad looking blokes in long black coats who would attend record fairs). Whatever you may feel about the ethics of downloading music for free, in those cases I just don’t see the problem. I’d already bought most (if not all) of the recorded output of those artists – including that 10″ version of ‘The Beat(en) Generation’ in the cardboard box with the postcards and badge. I’d rush down to my local record store on the day of release, in the hope of getting my hands on the red vinyl pressing of a Siouxsie and The Banshees single I would buy on standard black vinyl anyway. Hell I even used to scour those endless lists in small-print in Record Collector magazine and excitedly write a £30 cheque for a Japanese import of an album I already owned because it had a different sleeve and an extra track.

Sad. Sad. Sad.

So yes, when music began to appear for free on the internet I didn’t have a huge ethical issue with grabbing that live bootleg, or this rare b-side. It wasn’t that I felt the artist or record company owed me anything for my years of devotion and financial outlay… I just didn’t think they’d begrudge me (of all people!) the opportunity to get hold of those rare tracks.

Then however, things started to change. Broadband replaced dial-up and suddenly it was possible to grab entire albums for free. Today, a person can type “The Beatles” into a torrent search and download the entire back catalogue in a matter of minutes. And yes, I admit, there was a short period of time when I too found myself caught up in this madness. I’d already paid for about half of Bob Marley’s albums, why not just grab the other half? What could it hurt? And then… well I really like that one track off that one album by that bloke… let’s download his entire recorded output.

And then I thought… hang on a minute. What the hell am I doing? I still don’t see anything wrong with finding that rare deleted single and grabbing it if it’s not available on iTunes – though that’s an increasingly rare occurrence with so much stuff being available from legitimate online stores these days. And I still don’t think sending a compilation CD – or even a copy of some especially great new album – to a friend is a bad thing. It doesn’t happen that often any more, but when it does I honestly see it as an important form of promotion for the artist(s) in question… just like that Talking Heads C90 back in the day. Where possible I try to purchase directly from the artist’s website rather than iTunes of course (no need to give a cut to Apple if you can give it all to the artist) and I still like to browse the few remaining record shops and buy something physical – throwback that I am.

But the notion of downloading entire back catalogues is just wrong. There’s no sense in which that can possibly help the artist. They will never receive any compensation from you for whatever they’ve added to your life. And enough people are doing it now that it’s having a genuinely negative effect on the prospect of many artists. I’m not going to quote numbers or statistics, but I suggest you read David Lowery’s excellent article to set yourself straight if you’re one of those people who believe mass downloading is having no impact on artists.

But Illegal Downloading Still MightBesides, I want to pay for the good stuff because it means the artist is more likely to make more of it. No, I don’t want to pay for the bad stuff… but I don’t even want to listen to that, so why download it? There’s a case to be made for “try before you buy”… just like the long-lamented listening posts in record shops (or even better, the local record store where you knew the guy behind the counter and he’d gladly play whatever record you wanted to hear over the speaker system). But YouTube fulfils that function these days – perhaps to the annoyance of some artists – but there you have it. Want to know whether the new Kate Bush record is a return to form… listen to a couple of tracks on YouTube and then buy the record from her website if you like them (album available as a high bitrate lossless download, or as a lovely crafted package if you’re old-school). There’s no actual need to download the entire album for free just to check it out. If you don’t think you’d like it, then why do that anyway? And if you do think it will enrich your life, doesn’t the artist deserve to be able to make a living?

So yes, I did go through a brief phase of mass downloading. And I’m not proud of it. But ultimately I realised my actions were fundamentally unethical (and in my defence, I’d already paid my dues as far as music-purchasing was concerned, so maybe I can be forgiven my temporary lapse). More worrying though is not my generation – many of whom I suspect could tell very similar stories to mine – no, it’s the new generation of music-lovers who never experienced the genuine joy of buying that slice of wonderfully packaged vinyl and rushing home to be delighted by it. Even the CD didn’t kill that experience (though it was never quite as good). But the digital download? It just doesn’t feel like an “artefact” (because let’s face it, it’s not). As such, it’s difficult to place as much value on it. If limitless quantities of the finest champagne was available in every home on tap, for free, how long before it seemed vaguely worthless?

And that’s what’s happening to music. Even hardcore music fans of the current generation can’t help but hold the art-form in considerably lower esteem than those of us who had no option but to buy it. And who got something physical – something we could feel and pore over – in return for our money. The loss of that tactile experience is, I believe, directly related to the loss of value that seems to have beset the musical output of even the greatest artists. I know I sound terribly old-fashioned when I say that, but I do think it’s true. And no, I don’t know how to solve the problem. But I do feel it is a problem, and it’s one that needs to be solved if we want our artists to continue creating great music.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2012

One hidden sign of an energy crisis (tar sands)

TransportIn my previous post (Against High Speed Rail) I questioned the wisdom of investing in a High Speed Rail (HSR) system in a world facing an impending energy crisis. Ultimately, if we wish to maintain a society in which travel is relatively easy and affordable, then we need to be investing in the most energy-efficient transport infrastructure available. And while HSR is more efficient than private cars or air travel, it is less efficient than conventional rail or coach travel (and significantly less efficient in the case of coaches).

In the comments to my post, both John B and Ryan disagreed with my position. Knowing them from their web writing over the years, they are both intelligent and fair-minded people. I believe they accept the logic of my argument (broadly speaking) but disagree with the initial premise; that we face a serious energy crisis; which of course rather undercuts the whole thing. Indeed, Ryan says quite clearly:

I really don’t see too many signs of this energy crisis arriving any time soon. With the massive quantities of tar sands, shale gas, arctic oil etc which suddenly look economically viable […]

It’s this specific statement I wish to address right now. You can read my response to the rest of Ryan’s comment beneath the previous post (here). Also, I should be clear that while Ryan posted the comment to my blog, he is essentially putting forward a widely held view. So my response is not necessarily directed at him personally but is intended to counter that mainstream position… that the decline in conventional crude oil can be offset by a rise in non-conventional oil production (or other energy sources). It’s a position that cuts right to the heart of peak oil theory and one where the technical issues are not widely understood.

Let me start by suggesting that if someone doesn’t “see too many signs of this energy crisis arriving any time soon”, it may be because they’re not actually looking for the signs. I have been looking for them and I can confidently say that they are there. Quick survey: raise your hand if you have read any feasibility study carried out into the exploitation of tar sands and their ability to mitigate a decline in conventional crude oil? I’m fairly confident that you don’t have your hand raised, dear reader, though perhaps I’m doing you an injustice?

The reason I ask is because that’s the sort of place where “signs of this energy crisis” can be found. They tend not to show up in the mainstream media (on the rare occasions they do, they’re well-disguised) and even when they appear in market signals they are dismissed with inaccurate explanations because they fail to fit an existing narrative. But I want to avoid media and market analysis in this post as much as possible, and concentrate on the technical details, so I’ll just say that if you’re not reading the technical literature on the subject (like almost everyone on the planet) then it’s no surprise you don’t see the signs.

Conventional Vs. Non-conventional oil

Before I get into the details of tar sands (which I will take as my basic case study, but a very similar post could be made about shale gas, while Arctic oil has problems of its own), let me say a few words about the difference between conventional oil and non-conventional. Because it’s pretty important to get your head around it if you want to understand why it is that although the “massive quantities of tar sands” may exist, they are not quite what they seem.

Over the past hundred years or so humanity has consumed a lot of oil. At a rough estimate, about 1.5 trillion barrels of the stuff. That’s a huge quantity make no mistake. And of that, the vast majority has been what we call “conventional” oil. Unfortunately that’s a bit of a slippery term as it’s used both as a classification of oil, and also to describe the source of the oil. So, in the first instance conventional oil is a combination of crude oil and condensates which can be fed directly into conventional oil refineries to produce petrol, diesel, jet fuel, etc. Generally this stuff is sourced from shallow water (less than 180m) and land-based wells.

Unconventional oil is stuff that cannot be fed directly into conventional refineries and requires pre-processing of some kind. So we’re talking about tar sands, shales, gas-to-liquid products and coal-to-liquid products.

Complicating matters a bit, however, is the fact that the term “unconventional” is sometimes applied to oils that are sourced in deep water wells and Arctic regions despite the fact they can often be fed directly into conventional refineries. The thinking behind this classification is that both deep water and Arctic wells involve levels of expense (both financially and in energy expenditure) that place them closer to unconventional sources from both an economic and energy-return perspective than they are to – for example – crude oil from a Saudi land-based well.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that deep water oil is sometimes chemically different to shallow water oil due to the additional pressures involved. Therefore, to simplify matters it is normal to classify deep water and Arctic oil as unconventional along with tar sands, etc. Whether you agree or disagree with that classification isn’t really important so long as we clearly define our terms up front so everyone’s speaking the same language.

Peak oil (We are here)And it’s important because when we talk about peak oil, we are talking about an initial peak in conventional oil production followed by a subsequent peak in overall production. This detail almost never makes it into the occasional peak oil stories that appear in the mainstream media because… well, because the mainstream media has a pathological aversion to covering anything of importance in enough depth to actually explain the issue properly. The assumption is that the public is basically a bit thick and possesses the attention span of a gnat. And given the reading habits of the public and the way they vote… that may not be an entirely unjust assumption. But I digress.

If you read the more scholarly of the peak oil theorists (such as Dr. Colin Campbell of ASPO) you’ll find they tend to suggest that we can expect a peak in overall oil production between 10 and 15 years after a peak in conventional oil production. And given we now believe the peak of conventional oil was in 2006 or thereabouts (the International Energy Agency suggests it was 2009, but their optimism is renowned) we should prepare ourselves for the peak in conventional plus unconventional*. The reason for the lag of course, is because unconventional sources – such as tar sands, gas-to-liquids and biofuels are indeed coming on stream to meet a rise in demand that can no longer be met by conventional oil.

“But why”, you may ask, “can unconventional sources not continue to rise in line with a decline in conventional production? And why does conventional production need to decline right now anyway?”. After all, don’t peak oilers admit that we still have as much conventional oil underground as we’ve used in the past 100 years? Well, that’s true. A peak in conventional oil production means we probably still have about 1.5 trillion barrels of the stuff accessible to us. And when you add that to the new unconventional sources just coming on-stream now (those “massive quantities of tar sands” for example) it seems absurd to suggest that we’ve reached one peak and are nearing the next. And yes, it does seem absurd. That is, unless you know something about petroleum geology and the engineering challenges surrounding the pre-processing of unconventional oil sources. Most people don’t. Through a quirk of fate, I know a little.

Massive quantities of tar sands

Let’s take tar sands as an example. Ryan uses the phrase “massive quantities of tar sands […] which suddenly look economically viable”. Now, it’s worth pointing out that strictly speaking I dispute the notion that they are economically viable, though they can be made look that way (in the same way as sub-prime mortgages looked economically viable for a while) but I’m going to ignore that in this post. For the sake of discussion, let’s concede that they are indeed “economically viable” (i.e. some people might make a profit out of their exploitation, which – when all is said and done – is what that phrase means). It’s neither here nor there really, because they suffer from two huge flaws which makes them completely inadequate for filling the gap left by diminishing conventional oil production.

You see, despite having only extracted half the conventional oil from the ground, we cannot produce the remaining half at a rate of our choosing. As much as some economists might like to dispute this fact, oil production capacity is not exclusively determined by market demand. A drop in demand will certainly see a drop in production. But a rise in demand is not necessarily followed by a rise in production. Historically speaking that has been the case; and economics – of course – is essentially the mapping of past behaviour onto the future, so it’s no surprise economists believe rising demand will lead to rising production (for years the IEA merely relabelled demand forecasts as production forecasts!) However, when circumstances change within the physical systems upon which the economic system is based, then the historical model no longer applies and economics as a discipline gets blind-sided. This also explains why the markets are so bad at relaying the signs of the looming crisis… on the rare occasions those signs manifest, they get relabelled as something else.

But the physical systems have changed, and this has not been incorporated into the models used by economists, and by extension, those used by policy-makers. The geology of oil fields combined with the physics of fluid dynamics place certain limitations upon how fast we can pump the stuff. And crucially, once we have extracted roughly half the oil from a given field, the rate at which the rest can be extracted begins to steadily drop. This is simply down to internal field pressure. And while this pressure can be increased to an extent by pumping gas into the field, it should be noted that, with very few exceptions, Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) techniques** are already being used in every major oil field where they might be helpful, and have been for the past couple of decades at least.

Interestingly (and perhaps worryingly) while EOR can sometimes increase the amount of oil recoverable from a field, it also succeeds in recovering the stuff faster. So once half the oil has been extracted from a field without EOR, it might see a 2% per annum decline due to a drop in pressure. But for fields that make intensive use of EOR (i.e. almost all of them) that decline could be as much as 6% per annum post-peak (it varies from field to field). This is not a trivial point when it comes to the question of how far unconventional sources can make up for a drop in conventional.

So that’s one half of the picture… sometime between 2006 and 2009 (depending on whose figures you accept) we reached a peak in conventional oil production. That global peak may one day be represented as a 3 year plateau, or a 5 year plateau, or something like that… by definition the height and length of the peak can only be accurately described in retrospect. What we do know, however, is that during this peak in conventional oil production, unconventional sources are having great difficulty meeting additional demand. As a result, oil prices are rising once again.

Of course, oil price is determined by myriad factors of which production levels is but one. However, it is my contention that the situation in Iran – as one example of what’s being blamed for the price volatility – is, in part at least, an example of the “relabelling” I mentioned. In November 2011 OPEC increased output marginally – mostly down to Libya’s production coming back up to speed – but still managed to squeeze out less than a million additional barrels per day despite a huge effort and despite rising demand – the world is currently consuming about 90 million barrels per day (mb/d). And we know that this increase failed to meet demand because global industry stock (strategic reserves of already-produced oil) declined steeply in October and November.

So why are unconventional oil sources not ramping up to meet increased demand?

The two fatal flaws in tar sands

Pollution from tar sands production

Image courtesy of National Geographic

Let’s assume we don’t give a damn about the environmental consequences of our resource consumption. We do, of course, because the species that destroys its environment destroys itself. But for a moment let’s forget the fact that tar sands have been (accurately) described as the most environmentally damaging source of oil known to man. This photograph is of one of the numerous “tailing ponds” springing up in the Alberta region of Canada as they exploit their massive reserves. These lakes of effluent are growing rapidly and nobody seems very sure what to do with them (best not to do an Image Search for “tar sands” if images of ecological madness freak you out).

But for now, although we don’t care about that, it might be worth bearing environmental consequences in the back of our minds as we compare the processes of producing a barrel of oil from Canadian tar sands to the process of producing a barrel of Saudi crude oil.

In the case of the Saudi oil, we drill a hole into the ground above the oil field. The internal field pressure then pushes the oil up to the surface where we catch it and send it to refineries. After a while the pressure drops a little and we expend energy to pump gas into the field and keep the oil flowing. Ultimately we get far more energy from the oil gushing out of the ground than we consume during the drilling and refining processes. If it weren’t for the crap produced when we burn the stuff, it’d be free energy near as dammit.

With tar sands, the first part of the extraction process generally consists of chopping down a forest. After that’s been done, we begin the extraction not by drilling, but by mining. It takes approximately two tons of tar sand to produce every one barrel of oil. And in order to access the two tons of tar sand, we must first excavate roughly two tons of soil and peat. We then need to heat three to six barrels of water (this heat tends to be generated by burning natural gas) which is passed through the tar sand to remove the bitumen. That polluted water is what makes up the growing tailing ponds. Three to six times the volume of the oil produced.

So I’m sure you can see the fatal flaws, right?

Firstly, the mining and pre-processing of the tar sands cannot be done at anything like the rate that conventional oil gushes from the ground. According to one peer-reviewed feasibility study (A Crash Program Scenario for the Canadian Oil Sands Industry) from Uppsala University,

Unfortunately, while the theoretical future oil supply from the oil sands is huge, the potential ability for the Canadian oil sands industry to meet expectations of bridging a future oil supply gap is not based on reality. Even if a Canadian crash program were immediately implemented it may only barely offset the combined declining conventional crude oil production in Canada and the North Sea. The more long-term oil sands production scenario outlined in this report, does not even manage to compensate for the decline by 2030. […]

The study goes on to point out that the IEA (who are nothing if not optimistic about future projections) forecast that the drop in global conventional oil production means unconventional sources will need to make up a shortfall of 37 mb/d by 2030, and that

Canada has by far the largest unconventional oil reserves. By 2030, in a very optimistic scenario, Canada may produce 5 mb/d. Venezuela may perhaps achieve a production of 6 mb/d. Who will be the producers of the remaining 26 mb/d? It is obvious that the forecast presented by the IEA has no basis in reality.

Graph showing impact of Canadian tar sands production on global peak oil

Likely impact of Canadian tar sands (in red) on global oil peak.
Image courtesy of ASPO.

As if that weren’t enough, it’s worth mentioning that the ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) for tar sands currently tends to be between 1.5 and 4 (industry forecasts suggest it might rise as high as 7 when the process is running at maximum efficiency). That’s as compared with between 30 and 100 for conventional crude. So even taking a best-case tar sand versus a worst case crude, the net energy content of a barrel right now is between 7 and 8 times less. And even if industry forecasts are correct, that number won’t dip much below five.

And then there’s the second fatal flaw with tar sands. Exactly where is all the fresh water and natural gas required to process the stuff going to come from? These are not superabundant resources. Not any more at least. And a significant acceleration of tar sands production will have a very serious impact on Canadian water tables and gas supply. When Uppsala University describe Canadian tar sand production as reaching 5 mb/d as being “very optimistic”, they are being very generous. Alberta’s natural gas production has already peaked. So in order to ramp up production of tar sands – even by a little bit more than the current 1.5 mb/d – Canada will have to export less gas to the United States. And this presents serious economic and legal problems given the terms of NAFTA and the long-term contracts into which Canada has entered.

And natural gas supply may not even be the major constraint. Currently (at 1.5 mb/d) the Canadian tar sands industry is draining in the region of 50 billion gallons of water from the Athabasca River every year. That accounts for about 10% of the total water consumed by the North American oil industry. From a water perspective it is staggeringly inefficient, and is roughly 30% of the water that environmental surveys suggest is available for use and for which they are licensed to use. So there are very good reasons to suggest that Canada’s tar sands production can never rise above 4.5 mb/d and is likely to remain significantly below that level.

So don’t believe the mainstream media hype about the “massive quantities of tar sands” and their role in making up for losses elsewhere. It doesn’t matter if there are 1.7 trillion barrels of the stuff in central Canada. The fact is that due to well-understood if under-publicised physical constraints, it seems extremely unlikely those sands will ever be capable of providing more than about 4% of current demand (and a far smaller proportion of forecast demand). And given how much hope is being invested in those sands to mitigate our looming oil shortage, I would suggest, that’s a pretty clear sign “of this energy crisis arriving soon”.

* My reading, incidentally, is that non-geological factors will ensure the overall peak happens a little earlier than 10-15 years after the conventional peak. For about 12 years I’ve been calling the overall peak at 2015 (plus/minus 5 years) and in principle I stick to that. But I’m now suggesting that estimate can be refined a little and believe we can say it’ll be plus 3 /minus 4 years. Sometime between this year and 2018.

** Gas injection is just one of a variety of EOR techniques.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2012

Against High Speed Rail

Over in the UK the government has just thrown their weight behind a High Speed Rail (HSR) project to connect London and Birmingham. The project is backed not only by the Tory government (including their sycophantic whipping-boys the Liberal Democrats) but also by the opposition Labour Party. Indeed, with the exception of a few rebellious members of the main parties (mostly from constituencies through which the new rail line will run, but who don’t get any obvious benefits because trains won’t actually stop there) along with parties on the fringe, this HSR project has universal political support.

High Speed Rail (HS2)This contrasts with the striking lack of support from people living in those aforementioned constituencies which will be negatively impacted (some in reality, some perhaps just in perception) by the scheme. Homes will be torn down, the countryside will be cut through (despite parts of the route going underground, there will still be plenty of trees felled and habitats destroyed – 160 important wildlife sites according to unnamed “wildlife groups” in the BBC report) and idyllic rural villages will find their peace and quiet periodically shattered by the thunderous whoosh of a high speed train passing through.

The government, as has become de rigeur with these kinds of project, held a “public consultation” on the matter. These public consultations are one of the most annoying developments in modern political theatre. Basically the government of the day makes a decision, asks the people affected by the decision to agree with it – in the hope of sharing the responsibility if something goes wrong – and then completely ignores the results of the consultation if it turns out that people don’t agree with the decision. It’s the sort of craven and cowardly strategy that shouldn’t surprise anyone, given how craven and cowardly our political classes have become, but still manages to frustrate and annoy because of the magnanimous manner in which these consultations are generally announced. “Why yes, we will let you little people have your say on this matter… just don’t expect us to actually listen.”

In the case of the London to Birmingham HSR project (known as ‘HS2’; ‘HS1’ being the Channel Tunnel link) almost 90% of the 55,000 responses to the public consultation objected to it. Whether you agree with the project or not, this surely demonstrates that the actual consultation was a waste of time and money carried out in the vain hope it would provide positive PR. It makes no sense whatsoever for there to be a legal requirement to hold a public consultation unless there is also a legal requirement to actually listen to the results.

Of course, just because a majority of people along the route of a rail line object to it, does not itself make the project A Bad Thing. The concerns of those directly affected by any infrastructure project must be factored into the decision making process. But they should not – necessarily – over-ride all other factors. Major projects like HS2 have an impact far beyond the route itself. They provide economic benefits that radiate out from the project for quite a distance. And they may offer environmental benefits should the trains reduce the use of more damaging transportation. So it may often be the case – as with wind farms, for instance – that the objections of local residents must unfortunately be over-ruled in the knowledge that the wider benefits to society outweigh those objections. The impact on local residents should be minimised as far as is practical, and compensation should be offered where necessary.

The Question

So the question becomes: Does HS2 provide sufficient benefits to outweigh the negative impact on those directly affected and upon the countryside through which the line will run? Over on twitter, John Band made his position pretty clear when he wrote: “I think HS2 has now officially joined bendy buses on my List Of Transport Things Where It’s Fair To Assume An Opponent Is A Dick.” Now, I like John. Even if he is calling me a dick.

Because, frankly, I think the HS2 project is a ridiculous and damaging waste of resources.

Don’t get me wrong, investing UK£33 billion (almost €40 billion) in rail infrastructure is a bloody marvellous idea [UPDATE: As John points out in the comments, the 33bn covers the entire HSR network rather than just the London-Birmingham line, though this doesn’t affect my basic position]. It’s exactly the kind of thing that governments should be doing right now (and it’s a crying shame that our government here in Ireland is pouring money into zombie banks; money that could be upgrading our public transport network… or building hospitals… or employing teachers… hell, spend the billions on beer and pies if you must, it would still be a better use of the cash than pouring it into Anglo-Irish Bank). But investing money in the rail network is not necessarily synonymous with spending a massive lump-sum on a vanity project.

And that’s what it is. A vanity project. Railways are a great idea. High Speed Rail is a terrible one. A recent US study (High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S.*) of the carbon emissions of various modes of transport suggests that travelling on HSR produces 20% more emissions than going by conventional rail, and almost double that of coaches. And that’s without factoring in the environmental costs of the actual infrastructure (which are high thanks to the large amounts of concrete and steel used).

And it’s not as if it’s providing a massive time saving either. HS2 won’t be teleportation. It’ll be more expensive than conventional rail and will reduce journey times by a shade over 40%. So the average saving between London and Birmingham will be roughly half an hour. Are the Tories really spending a fortune to cut up the countryside, screw up the lives of local residents and increase the cost of train travel, all to save a half hour? With WiFi available on UK intercity trains these days, it’s not like it even needs to be a half-hour “away from the office” for a lot of people.

Yes, from an emissions standpoint HSR beats cars and planes – by a considerable margin it should be said – but it’s really not in competition with them. Most people who make the journey by car are unlikely to switch to train without a major incentive. That incentive is on the way, of course, in the form of peak oil. But because HSR carries far less passengers than conventional rail, it makes much more sense to absorb any large switch from car to train using conventional rail [UPDATE: In the comments John points out that this is not the case… which invalidates one of my objections to HSR, though I still think that conventional rail – albeit on an upgraded system with a few billion invested in it – is far better than HSR in the face of Climate Change and resource depletion. So I still say that British rail investment should be going into upgrading the current rail network… increase platform lengths, buy some extra carriages and develop a new signalling system].

In fact, it makes even more sense to absorb the migration from private car into a new, integrated coach network. You want to travel from London to Birmingham? Simple. Build a large new coach station in Brent Cross, North London (i.e. within sight of the M1 on-ramp). Link it directly to the tube either via the Northern Line or the Jubilee Line (it would require a new branch of no more than a few hundred metres in either case). Then dedicate an entire lane of the M1 to express-coach traffic only. This will reduce journey times for coaches while providing an additional incentive for drivers to ditch their cars.

Yes, yes, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the motoring lobby will hate the idea… but frankly they will become increasingly irrelevant as oil price rises start to make private car use a luxury – long before HS2 is due to start running in 2026. Motorways will be half-empty by that stage anyway. No, an integrated coach network may not as sexy as HSR, but it makes a damn sight more sense environmentally, is a fraction of the cost to set up, makes use of existing infrastructure that will soon be significantly under-employed and will cost far less for the end user.

So… by objecting to HS2 I’m objecting to a massive infrastructure project that will damage the environment, will cost a lot more than it needs to, will be a dreadfully inefficient use of resources, will inconvenience more people than is necessary and will be more expensive to the end-user than the alternatives. If that makes me “a dick”, then so be it. Better that than flush money down the toilet and screw up the planet because I like shiny things that go fast. Which I do, but I’m not so idiotic as to want to base public policy on that fact.

* Although the study is titled High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S., they actually looked at a variety of projects around the world and based their calculations on the emissions produced by the Danish IC-3 system, which they felt were representative of HSR as a whole.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2011

On This Deity: 7th April 1969

New piece up at On This Deity

7th April 1969: The Birth of the Internet.

Protest movements and pressure groups have found the net to be a powerful organisational tool. Indeed, the recent and ongoing revolutions in North Africa were coordinated – in part at least – through social media websites. Wikileaks, for all its many faults, has shaken the political establishment around the world. Research in almost any field you care to mention has been aided by the collaborative space provided by the net. And just as hatred breeds freely in cyberspace, so there are wonderful stories of hope, love and solidarity emerging from the electronic ether facilitated by encounters between like-minded people who would otherwise never have met.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Dec 2010

Back on Facebook (for my sins)

I know, I know.

I swore I’d never use the bloody thing again. And none of my past objections have suddenly become invalid. But a couple of things have arisen lately that forced me to reconsider my participation in the CIA’s big social media experiment.

Firstly… pretty much everyone I know has succumbed. Now, I’ve never been massively affected by peer-pressure, and it’s not the fact of their participation that has changed my mind. Rather it’s that I live in a different country to almost all my friends, and facebook has become the de facto medium of communication for many in my old social circle. Simply by excluding myself from facebook, I’ve ended up severing ties.

Secondly… and this is the straw that broke the camel’s back, not a reason in itself to join… as someone who presently earns a (meagre) living as a freelance web developer (WordPress customisation a speciality), facebook has become too big to ignore. Two clients in the past month have asked me how to integrate their websites with their facebook accounts, and all I’ve been able to do until now is shrug my ignorance. I have very little idea of what goes on behind that blue and white login screen, so can’t really advise anyone on how best to use the site.

So yes, I’ve reactivated my old account. But don’t take that as an endorsement of the sinister system… consider me ‘press ganged’.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Apr 2010

UK Digital Economy Bill

Last night the British parliament enacted a thoroughly regressive piece of legislation. Called The Digital Economy Bill (DEBill), it is ostensibly designed to — amongst other things — prevent internet file-sharing. In fact, what it actually does is allow large corporations to legally victimise individuals based on nothing more than suspicion. Once again the representatives of the people have sold them out to appease the power of private capital.

And people say the coming election actually matters? Fact is, who ever gets into government, it’s Big Business who stays in power.

According to DEBill, corporations are permitted to monitor the nation’s internet connections and demand that anyone suspected of filesharing be disconnected. Yes, warning letters must be sent out first, but the fact remains that there is no actual burden of proof involved. If your IP address is spoofed, or WiFi network hacked, or computer compromised by a custom trojan*, say goodbye to your net connection. If your 14 year old kid continues to download music without your knowledge, say goodbye to your net connection. If you share your own home movies or music with others and can’t prove that it’s your material (in this case there is a burden of proof… but it’s on you; you must take the issue to court at your own cost), say goodbye to your net connection.

And this has happened in a climate where the Minister for Digital Britain, Stephen Timms, claims that “[b]roadband is no longer considered a luxury — it has become an essential service delivering social, commercial and economic benefits”. A climate where Gordon Brown insists that “the internet is as vital as water and gas” (hyperbole certainly, but he said it, not the anti-DEBill camp).

So Britain now has a Labour-driven law designed to allow corporations to legally withdraw essential services from individuals on the basis of suspicion of wrongdoing.

But of course it wasn’t just Labour who passed the law. It pretty much had all-party support. The tories were firmly behind it. And while the Liberal Democrats claimed to oppose it, they couldn’t be bothered to show up for the vote, let alone the debate. This is supposed to be the liberal party, the one that in theory would be most opposed to this kind of corporate power grab, and yet less than a third of their MPs were present in parliament to speak or vote against it. While Nick Clegg and his liberal democrats jet around Britain talking like they’re an alternative to the two large parties, their actions tell a somewhat different story.

Creativity is The Enemy

Politicians are constantly lamenting the perceived public apathy with politics. Young people, they say, are disconnected from the political process. But here we have a bill that’s arguably of particular interest to young people and yet anyone tuning in to watch the proceedings last night would have seen a handful of disinterested and ill-informed MPs in a half-empty room acquiescing to the wishes of big business. If even the professional politicians can’t be arsed to attend a vote on important legislation, is it any wonder nobody else is interested in the bloody process?

UPDATE: It appears that the office of Stephen Timms, Minister for Digital Britain, is under the impression that IP (as in IP address) stands for “Intellectual Property”. I just don’t know what to say about that. Am I the only one who believes that perhaps MPs should actually understand the laws they are passing? That part of their job should be to research things before they legislate on them? Rather than merely being rubber-stamps to the whims of capital? Perhaps that’s why so few MPs showed up to vote… they were too ignorant to grasp the importance of the bill and too damn lazy to do anything about that fact. (via antonvowl on twitter)

* how long before such trojans are maliciously let loose in the wild by script kiddies… carrying a silent payload of a stripped down torrent client and instructions to download the album or movie of the moment?

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion