solutions to current political dogma 2 – Iceland

Katrin Jacobsdottir, of the Left-Green Movement, Prime Minister of Iceland since December 2017

So there are problems with modern democracy, especially for those governmental systems that have congealed into a two-party race to be top dog for the next election cycle, with each new winning party tending to dismantle the policies of the previous government. There are also major problems of money in politics, especially in those nations, like the US, in which the rich-poor divide is problematic and worsening.

Of course these problems pale into insignificance as we witness the attempt to snuff out democracy altogether in Miyanmar. The democratic world watches this as if helpless, as if the matter shouldn’t be dealt with urgently and internationally. The only country that seems to want to do anything about the situation is China – to lend a hand with the butchery, in order to protect its business interests there. We need to strengthen international forces against those who ride roughshod over human rights in such a flagrant, corrupt and arrogant way.

After that venting of spleen I’ll return to the comfort of our lucky country and those like it. The fact is that these modern democracies and capitalist nations have a dynamism that traditional governing systems, laws and work practices are unable to keep up with, and the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of financial elites is leaving behind a demoralised sector of society, formerly known as the working class. Traditional jobs are gone or transformed, leaving many feeling outcast, bewildered and defeated. But of course many of the young, or young-at-heart, in this sector have ideas and energy to spare, and are seeking a like-minded community.

The examples of participatory democracy and community action that follow have been introduced to me by Jess Scully in her book Glimpses of utopia: real ideas for a fairer world, and I will do my own research to follow up areas of interest and new developments.

  1. Iceland

As a person not well-versed in global finance, I always wondered how a failure of regulation in the US banking system led to a global financial crisis, where national governments felt obliged to bail out banks outside of the USA. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has an explainer on this, citing ‘linkages in the global financial system’, which I kind of guessed. But does the financial system have to be linked up in this way, and what if a particular government refused to bail out their nation’s banks?

The RBA mentions Iceland as one of many countries in which excessive lending, encouraged and facilitated by banks, was happening in the pre-GFC boom years. All of this was a result of lack of foresight (booms are always followed by busts), greed (the loans were sold on to investors as ‘mortgage-backed securities’ (MBS) which became increasingly opaque and complex) and corruption (due to lack of regulation, fraud in the form of overstating borrowers’ income and lying about the safety and value of MBS products). The international linkages included the facts that the housing boom was more or less worldwide, that US banks had an international presence, and that foreign banks were large-scale investors in MBS and other higher-return products.

So it’s likely that the major problem here was and is lack of regulation and independent oversight. I might go into the Australian situation in another post, but the situation of Iceland is unusual because the GFC led to a massive re-evaluation of its political and economic structure.

Iceland’s banks were deregulated in the early 2000s, and in the following years, its banking system went more than a bit crazy, creating paper billionnaires almost overnight. Clearly the dodgy deals were more flagrant than elsewhere, and when the crash came, many bank CEOs and some government officials were tried and jailed. But there was no bail-out. As Gudrun Johnsen, a member of the special commission set up to learn from the collapse, put it, ‘The banks were 10 times the GDP of Iceland; 20 times the state budget. They were too big to bail out’.

What did occur was a change of government, a rewriting of the Icelandic constitution, and an unprecedented period of financial and political reform, set off by the Pots and Pans Revolution. Much of this involved participatory democracy, including online crowdsourcing (in the case of creating a new constitution), the building of an online platform, Better Reykjavik, later rebranded as Better Neighbourhoods, and the encouraging of ideas and systems transcending political duopolies. All of this was quite unusual in Iceland, a nation not given to revolutionary activity, and it has only been partially successful. In 2013 a more conservative government was returned, but the political landscape has been altered, and political sensitivities have heightened. These comments from two analysts after the 2013 elections give a sense of the new situation:

While the grassroots movement that overthrew the government after the crash remains disillusioned and disappointed, its impact should not be under-estimated. One important development in its wake, and an important emerging theme for further research, is a series of experiments with direct democracy and social media. Soon after the crash, a crowd-sourcing company drew upon social media to prepare for a National Meeting (Þjóðfundur) of 1,000 participants for outlining a new constitution. While the end result of this work remains unclear, and much depends on the formal, indirect democracy of the Parliament, it seems safe to say that the public has been sensitized to new avenues for democracy and alerted to potential signs of corruption.

It may not seem like much, but the protests and what followed from them were something of a revelation for Icelanders – apparently the biggest show of public dissatisfaction with its leaders in a thousand years, together with positive, participatory action to improve the political and social situation there, using new technologies and social media. As we all know, social media is very much a double-edged sword, but it is here to stay (until something else comes up), and we can’t really afford to ignore it.

Next I will look at how Taiwan is dealing with its new democratic freedoms.

References

https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Coup/Myanmar-coup-Week-from-Feb.-20-to-March-18-UN-team-urges-whistleblowers-to-report-illegal-orders

https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Coup/Myanmar-crisis-drags-China-into-chaos-after-factories-torched

https://www.rba.gov.au/education/resources/explainers/the-global-financial-crisis.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/business-35485876

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Icelandic_financial_crisis_protests

Jess Scully, Glimpses of utopia: real ideas for a fairer world.

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solutions to current political dogma 1: the problem

the tedium of it all

Back in 2012, Joe Hockey, later to become Australia’s Treasurer, delivered a controversial speech to the conservative think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, in London. The speech, titled ‘the End of the Age of Entitlement’, was delivered as the world was still suffering from the after-effects of the global financial crisis caused by the bail-out of rogue, aka deregulated, financial enterprises such as Lehman Brothers, Citibank and Bear Sterns, whose sub-prime mortgage lending practices had become exposed. The bail-out cost the US government hundreds of billions of dollars and affected financial markets worldwide.

The GFC led the Rudd Labor government in Australia to institute a Keynesian stimulus package which averted a recession, and was praised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz as one of the best-designed of any country (and was attacked relentlessly by the conservative opposition). Other countries chose to, or felt obliged to, follow a similar path, and so many government surpluses became deficits, and those in deficit saw those deficits balloon disturbingly.

Hockey’s speech mentioned the GFC in passing, without commenting on the dodgy banking practices, for which none of the major players were ever held to account. One would think that the term ‘entitlement’ might be applied to these wealthy rogue operators, but Hockey’s target was in fact the welfare system, though the term ‘welfare’ was nowhere mentioned in his speech. It was substituted everywhere by the term ‘entitlements’, a term we would usually associate, naturally enough, with the titled.

Hockey’s argument was that developed economies could no longer afford the generous welfare payments provided by governmental taxes, and that this was proven by increasing deficits in spite of what he would have described as punitive taxation systems in some countries. Unfortunately, Hockey’s speech was short on solutions, at a time of increasing automation and the closing of factories, the casualisation of the workforce and the gig economy, beyond referring to Hong Kong and its apparently supportive and self-sacrificing extended families, as if the developed nations are ever likely to revert to that spread-the-poverty-around model, if it ever really existed (I would recommend reading Rebecca Skloot’s excellent documentary work The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks as an account of the benefits and limitations of extended families in the context of African-American poverty and disadvantage). And of course, Hockey advocates good old hard work which, as well as being its own reward, will inevitably result in a climb up the greasy pole to monetary success. This would have been news to the slaves of the Greeks, Romans and Conquistadors of earlier times, the coal miners and chimney sweeps of Britain and the asbestos factory workers of Australia. Arbeit macht frei indeed.

I could go on about the problems inherent in Hockey’s speech, but I noticed that, in referring to the inevitable right-left swings that democratic elections have devolved into (though these political swings formed the backbone of Livy’s History of Rome, written nearly 2000 years ago), Hockey prefers the terms ‘socialist’ and ‘conservative’, thus, it seems, deliberately emphasising and revelling in the divide. As a person intent on finding solutions, I find this sowing of division unhelpful. The aim here is to recognise problems – of poverty, of energy, of well-being, of health, of the environment we inhabit, and so forth. And I’m not sure if endlessly ‘working’ is the solution, at least in the narrow sense of ‘work’ that Hockey was using.

In fact, considering all these problems we need to solve – and more problems will inevitably arise (life would be pretty boring without problems to solve) – work is not simply a solution, it’s another problem. What constitutes work? Cultivating your garden? Looking after your children? Beautifying your neighbourhood? Attending conferences? Encouraging your students? Having sex with your partner?

All these activities provide value to human social life – and we are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet – in a way that can’t be easily monetised. And it would be silly to do so.

Anyway, all of this is preliminary to looking at solutions to a human world in which so much work is providing entertainment and diversion to our fellow human beings – for what are dining out, attending arts festivals and soccer matches, watching netflix, shopping, searching for extra-terrestrial life, decorating the house, and so forth, but forms of adult play? To which whole industries and technologies are devoted. And I’m not denigrating play – far from it – it marks the difference between life and mere existence. Just ask our dog.

Finally, as a person brought up in a working-class environment (the town of Elizabeth in South Australia, created as a hub around the General Motors Holden factory and ancillary businesses in the late fifties), I experienced life there during the economic downturn of the mid-seventies, when unemployment became a major problem, leading to a palpable sense of demoralisation. Kids like myself, living in the chasm between school and work (of which there was precious little) hung out at shopping centres, smoking and selling dope and trying to act tough. Most of our parents were separated or about to be. The number of dilapidated and derelict homes multiplied almost before our eyes. I got and lost three or four factory jobs, making washing machines, mobile homes and iron tubing. I remember weeping quietly on the six o’clock bus on my way to one of these workplaces. How could I, with a mind the size of a planet, be reduced to this?

At other times, I got dole money, which I recall jumped from $7.50 to $21.50 per week when Whitlam’s labor government came in. Maybe I could use this windfall of filthy lucre to educate myself out of the bind I found myself in? The main point I’m making here is that, as part of a migrant family separated from the extended family 12,000 miles away, with no role models in business, academia or any of the more lucrative professions, and being generally introverted but profoundly anti-authoritarian, I hated ‘working for the man’ but felt I had boundless energy and capacity that I had little idea what to do with. What I lacked was a community of like-minded types. A community of two or three would do.

And that brings me to some of the ideas and practices described in Jess Scully’s Glimpses of utopia. More of that next time.

Reference

Brian Donaghy, Cents and Sensibility, 2014 (see appendix for Joe Hockey’s speech notes)

universal basic income 2: how to finance it





Imagine this highly unlikely scenario. The current conservative Australian government loses the 2022 federal election in a landslide, due to widespread financial corruption, inaction on addressing global warming – brought into relief by another devastating summer in 2020-21- and the rise of a young, charismatic leader of the leftist Labor opposition, who has managed to sell voters on an Aussie version of the Green New Deal, as well an ambitious Basic Income policy.

It’s okay to dream, but we have to get real. How do we make such a policy work?

I will rely on the ideas and calculations of finance journalist and author of A basic income for Australia, Brian Donaghy, for the following. First, based on the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) campaign of March 2020 which advocated a rise in what’s now called Jobseeker to $755.70 per fortnight (of course, the Covid19 pandemic has caused the current government to raise the previous payment, with obvious reluctance, to a figure which is still well below the ACOSS recommendation), together with an increased rent assistance payment of $158 per fortnight, the Basic Income payment should be set at $913.70 per fortnight, for every adult. Children would be given a percentage, depending on age. The total cost of such a package would be about $526 billion per annum. Alternatively, the payment could be set at the aged pension rate, plus supplements – $944 fortnightly – totalling about $544 billion per annum. The OECD takes the poverty line to be about $1000 per fortnight, and Australia’s minimum wage for the 2019-20 year was around $1481 per fortnight.

So, how do we find, let’s say, $544 billion dollars a year to finance this scheme? According to Donaghy’s costings, savings on welfare payments and administration would bring the figure down to about $415 billion. Next, Donaghy looks at ‘individual tax offsets and deductions’, which he claims the government should scrap. I can’t pretend to understand this, but scrapping these perks would, he claims, bring the basic income cost down to $377 billion.

All of this should simplify the tax system, making tax evasion and avoidance more difficult, and increasing revenue to the ATO, though putting a dollar amount on this might be difficult. However, tax avoidance task-forces have been in operation for some years and have collected billions of dollars. Their job would be made easier by a a more simplified system.

Another factor which would increase tax revenue by a hard-to-calculate amount would be the increased spending power created by the basic income. Remember, its universality would provide lower and middle income earners with the opportunity to spend more on dining out, home improvements, internal tourism and the like. Australia’s corporate profits would increase, according to economic modelling, enough to bring the cost of the UBI down to about $282 billion, though Donaghy has chosen to be more conservative, lowering the cost to around $320 billion.

The UBI goes to everyone, so that for many taxpayers it would be additional income at the top marginal rate. Without going into detail, this would bring in further tax revenue, totalling almost $81.7 billion, and bringing the cost of the UBI down to somewhere around $240 billion – with nobody suffering since that extra tax would only be a percentage of the extra income provided to the wealthy.

One could go on tweaking the system and working out theoretical savings, such as a restructuring of the government subsidies paid to particular industries, often described as business or corporate welfare. Australia’s Productivity Commission estimated that government ‘budgetary assistance’ to corporations totalled approximately $12 billion in 2018-19. Arguments as to whether such assistance constitutes sound government investment will run the gamut, and will of course depend on how much potential each corporation has – prediction about the future being particularly tricky. However, as Donaghy points out, modern companies have become increasingly technocratic and international, tending to shed rather than increase workers, and if they need hands-on work, may be able to source it from developing countries with cheap labour rates. Government handouts end up mostly if not entirely at the top end of town. Our federal government apparently subsidises the fossil fuel industry to to the tune of $12 billion annually, always using the ‘jobs jobs jobs’ mantra, but these industries are shedding jobs and are not major employers.

Other ways of tweaking the system include taxing multinational tech companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook – always risky, as they tend to respond with ‘big money muscle’, threatening to limit services. the Goods and Services Tax can also be looked at. Many European nations impose a higher GST on luxury items. Even raising the basic rate by one percent will bring in an extra $7 billion. Since the UBI would lead to greater spending, much of the money raised would be recirculated through the system.

Again I should emphasise that this is a very rough guide, largely based on Brian Donaghy’s rough guide to funding a UBI. However, I’m not optimistic enough to believe that anything like a UBI will operate in Australia in the near future. Meanwhile, with the current jobs crisis and shutdowns caused by the pandemic, the Australian government is operating with an online compliance system for jobseekers which is near-criminal in its stress-inducing incomprehensibility, and touting an increase in jobseeker payments, which, as mentioned, will keep these payments far below any reasonably projected UBI. The current government’s support of those most damaged by the pandemic – for example, those, like myself, who work in the international student sector – has been as minimal as it feels it can get away with. Of course the current government has essentially prided itself on its ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ lack of innovation, so we clearly need to look elsewhere. The 2022 election is one source of hope, but there are other options besides a UBI (and of course there also many options within UBI). In her recent (2020) book, Glimpses of Utopia , Jess Scully, arts entrepreneur, curator and Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, has promoted the idea of Universal Basic Services as a less ‘libertarian’ and more community-oriented approach to reducing disadvantage and improving inclusivity. I’ll explore this concept further next time.

References

Brian Donaghy, A basic income for Australia, 2020

Jess Scully, Glimpses of utopia, 2020

universal basic income: an introduction

The idea of a universal basic income (UBI) has been floating around for some decades, but the noises have grown louder in recent years, it seems to me, as industry and agriculture have become increasingly mechanised, at least in the developed world. This means, I’d suppose, that those with the capital to harness the technology for profitable ventures would be more able to concentrate the wealth in their hands (and in the hands of venture capitalists who back them) while the less advantaged who’ve previously relied on working for a living are left at a loss, in more ways than one.

Right now I know very little about UBI. How would it be funded, is it applied nation by nation, are there different projected plans available, has it ever been tried anywhere, what are the upsides and downsides, who’s advocating it? And so on. There are probably more questions than answers at the moment, but considering the huge gaps occurring between the rich and the poor in developed countries, and the rise of homelessness often going hand in hand with rises in GDP, this kind of apparently simplified safety net is surely at least worth a look.

First, without doing any research, I assume that ‘universal’ really means ‘national’ or ‘state’ – we’re not going to get this organised on a global scale. The second assumption is that such payments would have to come out of the taxation system, as I can’t think of any alternative. This would seem to add up to quite a bill, depending on the amount allocated on a per capita basis. There would also be offsets, such as the elimination of much welfare bureaucracy, which would perhaps throw more people out of work. There are also arguments as to whether this would amount to ‘sit down money’, or would incentivise people to be more active in business and creative fields. 

So do we have any evidence about costs and benefits? Has this approach been trialled anywhere? Well interestingly, a small-scale 3-year trial is being carried out in Fife, Scotland, very close to where I was born in Dundee. Reporting from June 2020 has it that the trial, involving only 17,000 Scots, involves a one year preparation period and an estimated minimum cost of £186m, so it will be a while before we see any results, if indeed the plan goes ahead. There are plenty of naysayers of course.

A more comprehensive test is already under way in Spain, where some 850,000 households have been supported with a ‘guaranteed minimum income’ by the leftist government since June 2020, at an estimated cost of 3 billion euros annually. This isn’t strictly a trial – the government plans to maintain the system indefinitely (meaning probably until a right-wing government takes over), but of course they’ll be monitoring it in terms of reducing poverty and boosting employment, health and other indices.

The current pandemic, unsurprisingly, has brought the UBI and it variants to the forefront once more, but it has been mooted, and tried to varying degrees, in the past. Brian Donaghy, in his booklet on basic income, gives a brief overview of these small-scale trials, in Canada, Switzerland, Finland, Namibia, Kenya and the USA. Unfortunately some of them were torpedoed by political opponents before much meaningful data could be gleaned, but one of the most interesting findings they had in common was an increased sense of good health and well-being felt by recipients. 

The fact is that, over recent decades, the term ‘welfare’ has developed distinctly negative connotations. Making the income truly ‘universal’ within a whole nation or state, rather than targeting those below a certain income level, as is the case in the Spanish trial, is really the only way to remove the idea of ‘welfare’ from these payments. 

Now, in order to understand the financial and taxation implications of a UBI, I need to undertake a steep learning journey. I may also go into some personal revelations to make it clear why these kinds of payments are of particular interest to me. 

So, having read Brian Donaghy’s booklet, A basic income for Australia, I have more questions than answers. Donaghy also makes it clear that convincing politicians of the justice of such a system will be an uphill battle, especially in dual party-style democratic countries, when both sides of the political fence are more dedicated to opposing each other than to working together, which would be essential for such a system to work. 

Despite the naysayers, the UBI and its variants refuses to die, in fact it’s finding more interest now than ever before. In spite of this, it hasn’t really been given a full trial anywhere, and the public as well as politicians are very divided on the subject.

But I need to dive in on how it might work in Australia, relying on Donaghy’s booklet.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistic figures for 2018, average annual full-time adult earnings were fractionally under $90,000 gross – an eye-watering figure to me. Donaghy sets the UBI, for calculation’s sake, at about $24,500 annually – which is approximately that of the current aged pension, and associated supplements. So this income rises to $114,500, with the extra – the UBI (which every adult gets) – being tax free. 

But here’s where Donaghy – who’s an experienced finance journalist – leaves me behind: 

The UBI replaces the existing tax-free allowances but there are no longer individual tax allowances or rebates. 

As a perennially poor person I’ve generally paid too little in tax to worry about such things. So what is a tax-free allowance? My guess is that it includes Jobseeker, AUSTUDY, the aged pension, and such payments as carer’s and disability allowances. His remark about individual allowances covers particular payments that are distinct from these general payments. 

Donaghy then goes into tax rates, which I’ve never had to think about. What I can glean is that we have sliding tax rates, like every other country. According to the Australian Tax Office (ATO) our tax rates for the 2020-21 financial year are: no tax on annual income $18,200 or under; 19% for every dollar over $18,200 up to $45,000 (that’s 19% of $26,800 = $5092). That strikes me as a pretty reasonable tax rate for relatively low income earners. The rate from $45,000 to a whopping $120,000 is 32.5%, which also strikes me as low, though I’m pretty sure that those in this tax bracket, especially at the higher end, are howling about it. The rate goes up to 37% for earnings from $120,000 to $180,000, and then jumps to 45% for each dollar over $180,000.

Donaghy suggests that the Basic Income payment will be at the tax-free threshold, which at the current tax-free rate would be $700 fortnightly – a bit low as the tax free threshold has been lowered recently. I would expect such a payment to be around $900/fortnightly, which would mean, for simplicity’s sake, raising the threshold again. Not difficult, as governments tinker with the threshold regularly.

So, how to massage the tax system to support some kind of Basic Income? I’ll write about that next time.

References

Brian Donaghy, A basic income for Australia, 2020

on dating techniques – not what you think

C-14 dating of a New Zealand Moa – the original pic is interactive

I’m currently reading a Christmas present book, Ancient bones: unearthing the astonishing new story of how we became human , by the German palaeontologist and palaeoclimatologist Madelaine Böhme, co-written with Rudiger Braun and Florian Breier. I’ve become very taken with it, as it’s seriously challenging a hypothesis/theory I thought was now well established, namely the ‘Out of Africa’ hypothesis. But what would I know?

I hope to write about all that elsewhere, but here, in keeping with this blog’s raison d’être, I want to focus on a couple of dating techniques for ancient fossils that have been developed in recent decades, as solutions to the problem of providing the fullest picture of the planet’s living past and its evolution. Böhme’s book gives a brief overview of some of these technologies, and I want to see if I can fully understand them.

I note that the term ‘quaternary geochronology’, which I’ve just discovered, covers dating techniques for the quaternary period – the last 2.6 million years – though Ancient Bones is dealing with proto-humans going back as far as our links with bonobos and chimps, some 7 million years ago. That’s into the late neogene period, geologically speaking.

radiocarbon

First, the most well-known, carbon-14 or radiocarbon dating. Carbon-14 is a rare, weakly radioactive isotope of carbon, first discovered in 1940, containing 8 neutrons instead of the usual 6 (carbon-13, a stable isotope, is much more common, making up 1% of all carbon). Carbon-14 is unstable and decays at a steady rate, hence its value as a tool in archaeology and geology. Böhme et al give a nice account of its use in dating:

Living plants regularly absorb C-14 out of the carbon dioxide in the air when they photosynthesise, and they incorporate it, along with C-12, into their tissues. The relationship between C-14 and C-12 in plants and in the animals that eat them therefore remains constant. After an organism dies, however, a kind of atomic clock begins to run. Because only the amount of C-14 present in the tissues at the time of death remains and no new C-14 is added, the portion of C-14 in the tissues declines at a constant rate through radioactive decay. This process is completely uniform, and it is therefore easy to translate it into time and use it to calculate the age of things.

Ancient Bones, p154

I quoted this at length, as it’s a great explanation for novices. The limitation to this dating technique, though, is the relative rapidity of C-14 decay. It has a half-life of about 5,730 years, meaning that the amount of the C-14 isotope in samples reduces by half in that time. So it is only useful for dating items less than about 50,000 years old.

Radiometric dating, using the decay rates of uranium and thorium, can date fossils and rocks back to half a million years, and other radiometric measurements (uranium-lead and potassium-argon) can take us back further still, but this depends on whether rocks contain the required elements.

magnetostratigraphy

This is a fascinating technique which examines the orientation of magnetic particles in rocks. The Earth’s magnetic field (or geomagnetic field) – which interacts with and protects us from solar wind particles – is always shifting its orientation, and every so often, over millions of years, completely reverses itself (reversal of polarity). So different strata in rock formations can be dated in terms of these magnetic reversals. These are called magnetozones. Currently, our magnetic north pole is oriented roughly with our geographic North Pole, which is described as normal polarity as opposed to reverse polarity.

However, different rock types are more or less metallic in composition, and their structure varies. The best types of sediments for this kind of dating have fine-grained metallic elements that are more likely to orient with the ambient magnetic field at deposition.

The technique is particularly useful for gathering information about rates of sediment accumulation. Changes in magnetic orientations have been plotted on a Global Metallic Polarity Time Scale (GMPTS) and this can be plotted against the depth of sediment for a particular period of orientation, known as a chron (intervals of less than 200,000 years are called sub-chrons).

There are of course other dating methods, including relative dating based on reliably dated fossil samples, and new ‘absolute dating’ techniques are being developed all the time, including, for example, thermoluminescence, electron spin resonance and electron paramagnetic resonance for dating fossil teeth. But I’ll need to learn a lot more about them.

References

Madelaine Böhme, Rudiger Braun & Florian Breier, Ancient bones: unearthing the astonishing new story of how we became human, 2020

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/magnetostratigraphy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetostratigraphy

https://www.spectroscopyeurope.com/component/content/article/3328-dating-fossil-teeth-by-electron-paramagnetic-resonance-how-is-that-possible

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/1040618289900104

https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/image_maps/37-c-14-carbon-dating-process

more on vaccines

nice image showing the storage requirements of the two vaccines soon to be available in Australia – filched from the ABC

While I’m on vaccines, the Oxford vaccine is another. A friend sent me a link to an article in The Independent, a UK newspaper, headed ‘Oxford scientists preparing to design new versions of Covid vaccine in response to variants’. Variants are cropping up around the world at the moment, the UK variant (called B117) being followed by a South African and Brazilian variant. That’s unlikely to be the last of them. However the three leading lights re covid19 vaccines, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, all say they’ve got B117 covered, and presumably are confident about other variants. Of course the key is whether adjusted vaccines can be produced rapidly in sufficient quantities.

However, there are other issues. The possible proliferation of variants raises the question of whether we can successfully vaccinate our way out of this pandemic. The South African variant (501Y.V2) is particularly concerning, as some patients’ antibodies, after treatment, are not recognising it. It isn’t yet clear how significant this development is.

So while we await developments, I want to look at the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine (ChAdOx1) in a bit more detail. A few basic facts. It has been developed from a chimpanzee adenovirus, a type of DNA virus that causes relatively mild symptoms in chimps (we know of over 60 adenovirus types, many of which cause cold and flu-like symptoms in humans). It’s the vaccine of choice of the British government, unsurprisingly, and some 100 million doses have been ordered so far. It’s also cheaper (at $3 to $4US a dose) and easier to store than the two other major vaccines, which makes it the best option for poorer nations. AstraZeneca has promised to always sell the vaccine at cost to those nations.

The adenovirus has been altered to include genetic material from SARS-CoV2, so as to evoke an effective antibody and T-cell response to that virus – which has presumably been tested in clinical trials. The vaccine is described as up to 90% effective, depending on dosage, a lower percentage than the other two more expensive vaccines I’ve mentioned. Other vaccines, including Russia’s Sputnik-V and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, have been developed from adenoviruses. Oxford researchers have found, unexpectedly, that giving a half-dose, followed weeks later by a full dose, improved efficacy by up to 90%, compared to 62% for two full doses. The reason for this result remains a mystery – further research required. It should be noted that vaccines with 60-70% efficacy are generally regarded as successful.

As I write, I’ve heard that Australia’s medical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has approved the Pfizer vaccine for use here. Ten million doses will be rolled out in late February, after batch testing by the TGA. Why did they approve this version first? That will require further investigation, but I suspect that the greater flexibility of this new mRNA technology – all they need is the genetic sequence of a new SARS-CoV2 variant to create a vaccine to cover it – might have been a deciding factor.

However, it may well be that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which should be approved soon, and which has been put on order, will be the most widely available, due to ease of storage and a cheaper price tag. Australia is able to manufacture this vaccine locally, so that supply shouldn’t be a problem.

Other issues – which authorities are not so willing to discuss given the need to protect high-risk individuals at the outset – are the vaccination of children, and how to deal with vaccine reluctance, or hesitancy, the new buzz-terms for anti-vaxxers. This leads to the issue of herd immunity, which I’ll discuss in my next post.

References

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/covid-oxford-vaccine-uk-variant-doses-b1790026.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/av/explainers-55044811

https://www.ft.com/content/49d4a7ff-a20c-4ac2-84f7-d9dbab1d431f

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-01-25/pfizer-vaccine-approved-australia-but-is-it-the-one-you-will-get/13088856

a brief look at mRNA biotech

from ScienceDirect: The mechanisms of different nucleic acid vaccines, including DNA vaccines, mRNA vaccines.

So it’s been three years since I’ve written on this blog, and I feel it’s time to revive it, and explore human optimism, innovation and all that positive stuff. I plan to revisit some of the innovations and pathways I’ve looked at before, to update my knowledge and check on progress, as well as checking out new developments to expand my range and keep my brain from atrophying.

So I’ll start with vaccination. The ongoing pandemic, that we here in Australia have largely dodged, has brought about an unprecedented response from virologists, completely upending the standard lag time between identifying the pathogen and having a vaccine, in fact more than one, produced in such numbers as to induce herd immunity and bring the situation more or less under control.

Not long after SARS-CoV2 was identified, drug and biotech companies began a billion-dollars race to create a big name for themselves. Two of them, Pfizer, in collaboration with German biotech company BioNTech, and Moderna, have gained the most publicity, not only for being front-runners, but for having based their vaccine on messenger RNA (mRNA).

A November 10 article from STAT+ and the Boston Globe has helped me understand the significance. The idea, once the genetic sequence of the virus is known, is to create a synthetic variant of mRNA which could then make proteins (antibodies) which would inactivate the virus.

This is the role of mRNA in all our cells. It’s translated into proteins by means of our ribosomes, and these proteins are then dispatched to perform an endless variety of roles throughout our body, including as antibodies to prevent infections, and enzymes to repair tissues. The potential of synthesising mRNA for specific purposes – to fight disease and build immunity, for example – was recognised decades ago, but every attempt to inject synthetic mRNA met with failure, as the body’s immune system recognised a chemical intruder and mounted a vigorous response. However, this problem was eventually overcome, at least partially (this is still experimental and developing technology), by swapping out one of the four nucleosides that make up every strand of mRNA for a modified version. The hybrid mRNA is able to act within cells without invoking a killing immune response. The referenced article tells the story of how this development took some years to be recognised within the biotech community, in spite of a number of published papers. It’s a human story of egos and squabbles over priority, unsurprisingly, but I just want to focus on current implications. When the technology became known in the USA, it was first mooted as a way to reprogram somatic cells into embryonic stem cells. But soon, researchers noted the vast possibilities of a technology that could induce protein production in the body for a whole host of purposes – perhaps only limited by the innumerable roles proteins naturally perform in the body.

The technology, however, still faces many hurdles, mostly related to immune responses. In recent times it has limited its focus to vaccines, and this meant that it was ideally placed to tackle the current covid-19 pandemic. Clearly we have to wait awhile for a final verdict on the two mRNA vaccines now being produced and administered around the world, but, generally, so far, so good. I’m sure there will be more to write about re synthesised mRNA technology in the future.

References

The article below, mentioned in my piece, provides a more comprehensive, and fascinating, behind-the-scenes view of some of the people involved in this technology.

the battery, Snowy Hydro and other stuff

Let’s get back to batteries, clean energy and Australia. Here’s a bit of interesting news to smack our clean-energy-fearing Feds with – you know, Freudenberg, Morrison and co. The Tesla Big Battery successfully installed at the beginning of summer, and lampooned by the Feds, turns out to be doing a far better job than expected, and not just here in South Australia. Giles Parkinson reported on it in Renew Economy on December 19:

The Tesla big battery is having a big impact on Australia’s electricity market, far beyond the South Australia grid where it was expected to time shift a small amount of wind energy and provide network services and emergency back-up in case of a major problem.

Last Thursday, one of the biggest coal units in Australia, Loy Yang A 3, tripped without warning at 1.59am, with the sudden loss of 560MW and causing a slump in frequency on the network.

What happened next has stunned electricity industry insiders and given food for thought over the near to medium term future of the grid, such was the rapid response of the Tesla big battery to an event that happened nearly 1,000km away.

The Loy Yang brown coal fired power station is in south eastern Victoria, so why did South Australia’s pride and joy respond to a problem in our dirty-coal neighbouring state? It surely wouldn’t have been contracted to, or would it? Parkinson also speculates about this. Apparently, when a power station trips, there’s always another unit contracted to provide back-up, officially called FCAS (frequency control and ancillary services). In Loy Yang’s case it’s a coal generator in Gladstone, Queensland. This generator did respond to the problem, within seconds, but the Tesla BB beat it to the punch, responding within milliseconds. That’s an important point; the Tesla BB didn’t avert a blackout, it simply proved its worth, without being asked. And it has been doing so regularly since early December. It seems the Tesla BB has cornered the market for fast frequency control. Don’t hold your breath for the Feds to acknowledge this, but they will have taken note, unless they’re completely stupid. They’ll be finding some way to play it (or downplay it) politically.

As Parkinson notes in another article, the energy industry has been slow to respond, in terms of regulation and accommodation, to the deployment of battery systems and their rapid charge-discharge features. Currently, providing FCAS is financially rewarded, which may have to do with costs involved but the cost/reward relationship appears to be out of kilter. In any case, battery response is much more cost-effective and threatens the antiquated reward system. The AEMC is planning to review frequency control frameworks, but it’ll no doubt be a slow process.

This is an incredibly complex area, combining new, barely-understood (by me) technologies of generation and storage, and the transformation of long-standing energy economies, with a host of vested interests, subsidies and forward plans, but I intend to struggle towards enlightenment, as far as I can.

Neoen’s Hornsdale Wind Farm

Regardless of regulation and grid problems, renewable energy projects keep on popping up, or at least popping into my consciousness through my desultory reading (NY resolution: inform myself much more on what’s going on, here and elsewhere, in clean energy). For example, the Murra Warra wind farm’s first stage will have an output of 226MW,  which has already been sold to a consortium of Australian corporations including Telstra and ANZ. The farm is near Horsham in western Victoria, and will finally have a capacity of up to 429MW, making it one of the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere. And of course there are many other projects underway. Back in August, the Renewable Energy Index, a monthly account of the renewable energy sector, was launched. Its first publication, by Green Energy Markets, was a benchmark report for 2016-7, all very glossy and positive. The latest publication, the November index, shows that rooftop solar installations for that month broke the monthly record set in June 2012 when subsidies were twice to three times what they are today. The publication’s headline is that the 2020 RET will be exceeded and that there are ‘enough renewable energy projects now under development to deliver half of Australia’s electricity by 2030’. The Clean Energy Council, the peak body for Australian dean energy businesses, also produces an annual report, so it will be interesting to compare its 2017 version with the Renewable Energy Index.

Hydro is in fact the biggest clean energy provider, with 42.3% of the nation’s renewable energy according to the 2016 Clean Energy Australia Report. Wind, however, is the fastest growing provider. This brings me to a topic I’ve so far avoided: The $4 billion Snowy Hydro 2 scheme.

Here’s what I’m garnering from various experts. It’s a storage scheme and that’s all to the good. As a major project it will have a long lead time, and that’s not so good, especially considering the fast growing and relatively unpredictable future for energy storage. As a storage system it will be a peak load provider, so can’t be compared to the Hazelwood dirty coal station, which is a 24/7 base load supplier. There’s a lot of misinformation from the Feds about the benefits, eg to South Australia, which won’t benefit and doesn’t need it, it’s sorting its own problems very nicely thanks. There’s a question about using water as an electricity supplier, due to water shortages, climate change and the real possibility of more droughts in the future. There are also environmental considerations – the development is located in Kosciuszko National Park. There’s some doubt too about the 2000MW figure being touted by the Feds, an increase of 50% to the existing scheme. However, many of these experts, mostly academics, favour the scheme as a boost to renewable energy investment which should be applied along with the other renewables to transform the market. In saying this, most experts agree that there’s been a singular lack of leadership and common-sense consensus on dealing with this process of transformation. It has been left mostly to the states and private enterprise to provide the initiative.

 

the tides – a massive potential resource?

A floating tidal turbine, Orkney islands, as seen on Fully Charged

A recent episode of Fully Charged, the Brit video series on the sources and harnessing of clean energy, took us again to the very windy Orkney Isles at the top of Scotland to have a look at some experimental work being done on generating energy from tidal forces. When you think of it, it seems a no-brainer to harness the energy of the tides. They’re regular, predictable, unceasing, and in some places surely very powerful. Yet I’ve never heard of them being used on an industrial scale.

Of course, I’m still new to this business, so the learning curve continues steep. Tide mills have been used historically here and there, possibly even since Roman times, and tidal barrages have been operating since the sixties, the first and for a long time the largest being the La Rance plant, off the coast of Brittany, generating 240 MW. A slightly bigger one has recently been built in Korea (254 MW).

But tidal barrages – not what they’re testing in the Orkneys – come with serious environmental impact issues. They’re about building a barrage across a bay or estuary with a decent tidal flow. The barrage acts as a kind of adjustable dam, with sluice gates that open and close, and additional pumping when necessary. Turbines generate energy from pressure and height differentials, as in a hydro-electric dam. Research on the environmental impact of these constructions, which can often be major civil engineering projects, has revealed mixed results. Short-term impacts are often devastating, but over time one type of diversity has been replaced by another.

Anyway, what’s happening in the Orkneys is something entirely different. The islanders, the Scottish government and the EU are collaborating through an organisation called EMEC, the European Marine Energy Centre, to test tidal power in the region. They appear to be inviting innovators and technicians to test their projects there. A company called ScotRenewables, for example, has developed low-maintenance floating tidal turbines with retractable legs, one of which is currently being tested in the offshore waters. They’re designed to turn with the ebb and flood tides to maximise their power generation. It’s a 2 MW system, which of course could be duplicated many times over in the fashion of wind turbines, to generate hundreds if not thousands of megawatts. The beauty of the system is its reliability – as the tidal flow can be reliably predicted at least eighteen years into the future, according to the ScotRenewables CEO. This should provide a sense of stability and confidence to downstream suppliers. Also, floating turbines could easily be removed if they’re causing damage, or if they require maintenance. Clearly, the effect on the tidal system would be minimal compared to an estuarine barrage, though there are obvious dangers to marine life getting too close to turbines. The testing of these turbines is coming to an end and they’ve been highly successful so far, though they already have an improved turbine design in the wings, which can be maintained either in situ or in dock. The design can also be scaled down, or up, to suit various sites and conditions.

rotors are on retractable legs, to protect from storms, etc

Other quite different turbine types are being tested in the region, with a lot of government and public support, but I got the slight impression that commercial support for this kind of technology is somewhat lacking. In the Fully Charged video on this subject (to which I owe most of this info), Robert Llewelyn asked the EMEC marketing manager whether she thought tidal or wave energy had the greatest future potential (she opted for wave). My ears pricked up, as wave energy is another newie for me. Duh. Another post, I suppose.

As mentioned though in this video, a lot of the developments in this tidal technology have come from shipbuilding technology, from offshore oil and gas technology, and from maritime technology more generally, as well as modern wind turbine technology, further impressing on me that skills are transferable and that the cheap clean energy revolution won’t be the economic/employment disaster that the fossil fuel dinosaurs predict. It’s a great time for innovation, insight and foresight, and I can only hope that more government and business people in Australia, where I seem to be stuck, can get on board.

fixed underwater tidal turbine being tested off the Orkney Islands

stand-alone solar: an off-grid solution for Australia’s remote regions (plus a bit of a rant)

(reblogged from the new ussr illustrated)

According to this article, Australia is leading the world in per capita uptake of rooftop solar, though currently South Australia is lagging behind, in spite of a lot of clean energy action from our government. The Clean Energy Regulator has recently released figures showing that 23% of Australians have installed rooftop solar in the last ten years, and this take-up is set to continue in spite of the notable lack of encouragement from the feds. South Australia is still making plenty of waves re clean energy, though, as it is continually lowering its record for minimum grid demand, through the use of solar PV. The record set a couple of days ago, interestingly on Sunday afternoon rather than in the middle of the night, was 587MW, almost 200MW less than the previous record set only a week or so before. Clearly this trend is set to continue.

It’s hard for me to get my head around what’s happening re disruptive technologies, microgrids, stand-alone solar, EVs, battery research and the like, not to mention the horribly complex economics around these developments, but the sense of excitement brought about by comprehensive change makes me ever-willing to try. Only this morning I heard a story of six farming households described as being ‘on the fringe of Western Australia’s power network’ who’ve successfully trialled stand-alone solar panels (powered by lithium-ion batteries) on their properties, after years of outages and ‘voltage spikes’*. The panels – and this is the fascinating part – were offered free by Western Power (WA’s government-owned energy utility), who were looking for a cheaper alternative to the cost of replacing ageing infrastructure. The high costs of connecting remote farms to the grid make off-grid power systems a viable alternative, which raises issues about that viability elsewhere given the decreasing costs of solar PV, which can maintain electricity during power outages, as one Ravensthorpe family, part of the trial, discovered in January this year. The region, 500 kilometres south of Perth, experienced heavy rain and flooding which caused power failures, but the solar systems were unaffected. All in all, the trial has ‘exceeded expectations’, according to this ABC report.

All this has exciting implications for the future, but there are immediate problems. Though Western Power would like to sign off on the trial as an overwhelming success, and to apply this solution to other communities in the area (3,000 potential sites have been pinpointed), current regulation prevents this, as it only allows Western Power to distribute energy, not to generate it, as its solar installations are judged as doing. Another instance of regulations not keeping up with changing circumstances and solutions. Western Power has no alternative but to extend the trial period until the legislation catches up (assuming it does). But it would surely be a mistake not to change the law asap:

“You’d be talking about a saving of about $300 million in terms of current cost of investment and cost of ongoing maintenance of distribution line against the cost of the stand-alone power system,” Mr Chalkley [Western Power CEO] said.

Just as a side issue, it’s interesting that our PM Malcolm Turnbull, whose government seems on the whole to be avoiding any mention of clean energy these days, has had solar panels on his harbourside mansion in Point Piper, Sydney, for years. He now has an upgraded 14 kW rooftop solar array and a 14kWh battery storage system installed there, and, according to a recent interview he did on radio 3AW, he doesn’t draw any electricity from the grid, in spite of using a lot of electricity for security as Prime Minister. Solar PV plus battery, I’m learning, equals a distributed solar system. The chief of AEMO (the Australian Energy Market Operator), Audrey Zibelman, recently stated that distributed rooftop solar is on its way to making up 30 to 40% of our energy generation mix, and that it could be used as a resource to replace baseload, as currently provided by coal and gas stations (I shall write about baseload power issues, for my own instruction, in the near future).

Of course Turnbull isn’t exactly spruiking the benefits of renewable energy, having struck a Faustian bargain with his conservative colleagues in order to maintain his prestigious position as PM. We can only hope for a change of government to have any hope of a national approach to the inevitable energy transition, and even then it’ll be a hard road to hoe. Meanwhile, Tony Abbott, Turnbull’s arch-conservative bête noir, continues to represent the dark side. How did this imbecilic creature ever get to be our Prime Minister? Has he ever shown any signs of scientific literacy? Again I would urge extreme vetting of all candidates for political office, here and elsewhere, based on a stringent scientific literacy test. Imagine the political shite that would be flushed down the drain with that one. Abbott, you’ll notice, always talks of climate change and renewable energy in religious terms, as a modern religion. That’s because religion is his principal obsession. He can’t talk about it in scientific terms, because he doesn’t know any. Unfortunately, these politicians are rarely challenged by journalists, and are often free to choose friendly journalists who never challenge their laughable remarks. It’s a bit of a fucked-up system.

Meanwhile the ‘green religionists’, such as the Chinese and Indian governments, and the German and Scandinavian governments, and Elon Musk and those who invest in his companies, and the researchers and scientists who continue to improve solar PV, wind turbine and battery technology, including flow batteries, supercapacitors and so much more, are improving their developments and disrupting traditional ways of providing energy, and will continue to do so, in spite of name-calling from the fringes (to whom they’re largely deaf, due to the huge level of support from their supporters). It really is an exciting time not to be a dinosaur.